Uncharted Eastern Faoigren, 1158
Shadows stretched long beneath the twisting fingers of the trees, where no paths had yet been hewn from god-years’ undergrowth and fallen leaves. Shrouded in the shade, from earthen caves, tucked down beneath old roots and fallen logs, the wild things watched. Their eyes shone like garnets from the dark; their talons scratched cruel warnings in the bark. “They can smell you if you come afraid--and they can hear your breath, so hold it,” Big Brig told his young apprentice. The feyhunters walked uncharted ways and climbed uncharted trees, and they bore witness to the wicked savage nature of the forest, charged as they were to make the going safe for all their kin. Two they were, and ten, The Goddess’ lucky number.
“Take the watch from here, ee,” Big Brig said. “I’ll go round and get to diggin’. You look down and make sure nothin’ comes astirrin’.” The red-crested master slapped Kim on the shoulder and nodded to the crossbow slung on his back. “Anything do, you pierce it down, too. You got it?”
Kim nodded. Tonight would be his duty and his test. The other hunters had gone to rest in the hammocks set up in the blessed branches of a tree on the path they’d cleared already. Big Brig wanted to keep moving, but the other brothers were bone-weary--all but Kim, so it was Brig’s gold-feathered apprentice he brought with him, and told to climb the branches of an old black oak, its trunk the color of bonfire smoke. Kim stepped up close to the tree and sunk his talons into handholds made by glass-hard growths, and let its rich old scents fill up his nose. The wood was firm beneath his talons and the climbing easy, and when he came to a branch from which he could watch his master work and guard his flanks and rear, he perched and made a call that fey might hear and think was just a night-lark’s serenade. Heavy dark made other folk afraid, but it set Kim aflame. He was alive there in the forest, on alert, listening to wood-sounds and his master digging in the dirt.
Big Brig stood nearly four foot tall, a height to be envied, from which he took his name. His red feathers were covered in mottled cloth tonight, in the drapes feyhunters wore while they worked, while they forged ahead of the clan camped in a clearing they had made behind them. But while he worked, the master let his hood fall to his shoulders, so that his crest of crimson stood out like a stain of blood against the foliage. This was a risk, the others told him, but he waved them off and said it kept him vigilant. If a feybeast wished to find him, it would, with all the noise of his path clearing, but this way he would hear it long before it fell upon him. And there was Kim perched on the lookout, sure to see any attackers that dared disturb his master’s work.
Not two days prior, the Lakeskipper company had shot and caught a creature strange and ugly, its gnarled face the hue and texture of the old roots betwixt which it hid. It was stealing from their stores, and tried to bite Gallyhoparinni’s fingers when he reached into the cart for speckleberry bread. Big Brig was quick on the draw, though, and had an arrow through its chest mid-leap. It made a thud where it fell, like a clod of dirt, and its smell soon wafted over them, at once earthy and sharp, like rancid mushrooms. Gal guffawed and lifted it up by its ankle, so that its black blood dripped down its chest and chin, over its cheeks and bat-wing ears and onto the ground at his feet. “Well, look-ee, I’ll be. Shot ‘im good, ye done!” he said in shock, grateful to still have his fingers.
After that, they examined its teeth and found them sharp and hard and pointed enough for arrow tips, so Kim held back the creature’s lips while Gal plucked them, one by one. Then, when that was done, they gave the teeth in a pouch to Ret Fletcher, who said he’d see them carved and fixed when they returned to camp.
“Ought to name it, lads,” Ret said. “That’s ill luck to slay a creature and not know its name. What does it look like to ye?”
“A potato,” said Gal, and all the feyhunters laughed.
A smirk tugged at the corner of Kim’s beaklips while he remembered that. In the end, they called it a Stinkchild and burned its ugly grubby body to ash because it smelled so bad that even Big Brig complained about losing his appetite. Kim hefted his bow and laid low on the bough, scanning through the leaves for any movement other than his master clearing out their path. When Brig’s clearing went wide enough for a cart to pass, he pressed forward and Kim crept out on the tree limb after him, keeping his red crest in sight. On they went into the night, shaping the way the caravan would come behind them.
It was late in the eve, and the moon rose high. Kim could see it through the leaves, beaming down its silver slivers over the feywood. None could grace the ground, thick as the forest grew, but a few did pierce the canopy, and in these the hunter basked. They called him from his task and into memory, back to a time when love and laughter came more freely, and a grey-feathered girl named Nori wove daisies into circlets where she sat on the lip of a fruit cart, singing an old song.
In a swamp in the forest
By a quaint wee glen
Lived a lovely lass
All alone in the fen
Oh, she stole all the hearts
Of the brave young men
Who went into the woods
And warn’t seen again
“Where did ye learn that,” young Kim had asked her.
“Well, they sing it over east, where the frontier meets the water. I had it from a tanner’s daughter.” It was a sad song, but Kim smiled. The Lakeskippers camped outside of Westmeath, for the human king wished no clan to come inside his city walls. Min, Kim’s sister, said that was foul of him, but Kim minded little, for the plains beneath the whitestone bulwark grew fair green, and folk aplenty came outside to trade both goods and stories. He recalled how the breeze blew dandelion down into the air, and how the song went on:
If you ask a bonnie bride
Why she sleeps alone
She will tell you the tale
Of The Maiden’s Moan
How a howl to the moon
And a cry on the wind
Woke a Madness fierce
In the brave young men
How they sang sweet songs
At the old treeline
How they gnashed their teeth
‘Neath the swaying pine
How they pledged their hearts
To Her each in turn
How they vanished, all
By The Maiden Fern
“Bara says it’s ill luck to sing of the fey.” Kim hopped up beside her on the wagon, and hugged his knees to his chest.
“Bara says, Bara says.” Nori tossed her head. “Bara brays like a mule,” she whispered, and Kim smiled again. The human chick-a-dees were clamoring for daisies with Nori still a-weaving, so he took four Dagon apples and a plum from the cart, and juggled fruit to keep them laughing while she worked.
When the moon grew high, they danced around a bonfire. Bara tripped over her skirts, and though Nori rushed to help her, he caught the smirk she shot him through the throng. The nights stretched warm and long over the summer West, and Kim remembered Nori in her patterned dress, and how she swished her scarves and sang in the firelight. Her eyes were bright with revelry, her voice full and sweet. She pranced light on her feet, and called him over.
But that wasn’t it.
“Sound it! KIM, SOUND IT!”
That wasn’t it at all.
He came to in the fall, with the tree limbs swaying in the breeze like flailing arms, and darkness pressing in. At Big Brig’s call, he fumbled for the whistle hung round his neck--but lost his hold on his perch in his panic. He scarcely caught himself, and the crossbow he carried slipped from his talons and fell down, down, down through stirring foliage while he dangled from the branch. One final call rang through the night: “AIYEEEEEEE.” Kim’s feathers stood on end. He clung to the black oak while his eyes searched wildly the forest floor over. The darkness went so deep that he could only see a hulking shadow, a glint of garnet, and a crest of crimson like a stain of blood against the underbrush. These things were a blur; then they were gone, and the echoes of Big Brig’s cry hung heavy in the night. Kim found his whistle, clamped it in his beak, and blew.
The Lakeskippers marched nowhere for three days after Big Brig’s disappearance. They mourned him in the camp clearing he helped to make, and all the feyhunters wore Crowns of Sorrow tied with baubles from Brig’s own collection. Kim’s felt heavy on his head.
Tauringabing, or Taury, sang a prayer to The Provider, to thank her for the time she allowed them to have Old Briggy in their lives. Min offered up her song to Gelda while Gallyhoparinni strummed the lute he bought in Bisolk. The clan gathered hands and formed a circle round the spot where Big Brig’s body might have lain--if they had found it. The singing and the weeping took all day, and already by the time the stewmakers began to boil up the honor feast, the first bauble had fallen from Kim’s crown. He sat on the lip of a cart and stared it down, the garnet brooch. He never heard a soul approach.
“I’m so sorry, Kim. I am,” said Nori as she took him in her arms.Her feathers smelled like summer.