Hollace walked under tree boughs that were long and thick, clasped and gnarled together overhead like archways as she followed the path of the wood. The barks of the trees were black, and everything else was verdant with moss and plant growth. It was not yet day break, but through the dense of the wood she could hardly make out the difference in the stale air. The trees were too close, and every brush of a leaf or branch on her person caused her to feel damp and cold.
The night had been short, and she had only taken a short rest in the shadows, off the path and under trees, with the grace of the moon’s silver peeking through. She would have preferred to stay off the path at all times, but her short legs could not carry her far into the wood, the rows between the trees too harrowing without the proper supplies and protection. For three days and two nights she had wandered the Ihapka wood, aware of its wild and unrest nature, and powerless to it. It was not a place she would have entered likely, not alone and while knowing of the intent of the wood. Every breeze stirred up in the air breathed a warning to her, and the tugging of twigs on her hair was like the pull of many large fingers. She could not get out, even if the wood was demanding it of her.
The rainy period had ceased, but the dry spell would not last long. Ihapka wood was under a constant cloud during the wet season, drenching everything in a flood of cold water that would soften the soil and make the canopy grow heavy. Hollace had lived through eleven rainy seasons. In her heart she knew she was too young to be on her own, with no real chance of surviving for more than a few days in Ihapka. Nothing short of the Thirteen Divine could save her, and she was out of practice with her prayers that the village elder had taught her when she was still small. That didn’t stop her from murmuring to them in the night.
She had not yet bloomed and bled; a child lost without her mother’s guidance. When the Cuhrs had come to her village, her mother had sent her into Ihapka to flee, promising her she would soon follow behind. Hollace had scaled just beyond the borders of the wood for a day—in secret and safety—and through the shouting and the wailing of her people she began to understand no one was coming. She had shed her sorrows, and had looked her last upon that tragedy two days ago. There would be no more tears for them.
Revenge was a comforting thought, and it was a favorable friend in her mourning when she had no arms to embrace her. The Cuhr army served the Landress family from Castle Downs; individual men formed together in a troupe fighting for the cause of others with real power. Hollace knew they represented order and obedience for their masters, and that one day her village would become that order for them to follow, but when the time had come, she hated them all the same. It was all she had left to give.
Her stomach tightened with pang of hunger, enough to stop her in her tracks to collect her breath. She bent forward at the waist, the sweet smell of the wood being inhaled through her nose as she gasped quietly about her pain. Though unpleasant, she could ignore her hunger, but she could not outlast the suffering of no water. She longed for the wet to return, if only to catch the clean droplets that would fall from the leaves. Any pool and stream she had come across had held the brack water, the likes of which she could not stomach.
She gazed up to the sky between the crowded canopy with a twisted frown, uttering a cuss for the faint streak of sunlight beaming through the foliage. Where were the dark clouds weighted with water? Her thirst was either causing her to grow delirious, or had sharpened her senses, because she thought she heard the sound of trees breaking. It was not the first time her ears had picked up on the thunderous rumble, of not just branches snapping, but also trees giving way to become deadfall. Something large had picked up her trail, and it was not the sound of the many footsteps of Cuhrs. They would not have bothered to cross through the unforgiving wood. It frightened her, whatever it was, and with good reason. She had backtracked yesterday, and had come across the most unsettling sight of a trail that had been blazed through with force. Moss had been scraped off of rocks, boulders overturned, and trees still young around the bark had been torn from the ground. Through the viscous mud she had not been able to make out footprints or anything that could have been disguised as such. Unless it had been the power of a gale, Hollace could think of nothing else so mighty, but the presence of the Divine.
“I’m sorry for cussing, mama,” she said aloud, asking for pardon for her wicked slip of the tongue. Her mother would continue to live on if she upheld her values, and Hollace had been raised a polite vagrant.
The further south she went, the steeper the wood became, and the trees were growing taller and wider until the sun was nearly blotted out, leaving the wood cast in a hazy blue mist. The black barks were sturdy and thick, and much of the remaining wooden boardwalk was still high in the treetop from when the builders had come through the wood long ago to build the Fortress at Almaverma. If Hollace could climb up to one of the constructed perches, it would give her a better vantage point, and a flatter surface to walk on than the uneven path. Tripping on roots and stones had sapped the strength out of her knees, and had shredded the cloth of her brown frock to be threadbare.
She strode towards the nearest trunk and mounted a mossy boulder to hoist herself up towards one of the branches. Her arms immediately began to burn with weakness as she struggled to pull herself upward, fighting for purchase on the tough bark. Kicking her feet, she was able to sweep herself off the boulder and up to a sturdy branch that could balance her weight, though it was awkward to fit into a comfortable position without feeling like she would teeter off the side. From growing up a child of manual labor to fend in her village, she had developed calluses on the palms of her hands, stopping splinters from penetrating the skin. Her grubby hands were meant to climb, and for not much else with the short, brown nails and chubby fingers.
Hollace managed her way slowly up the tree, her leather sandals slipping occasionally on the branches, and it sent her heart into a flutter each time. She got stuck once or twice, when the next branch would be too far away for her to reach, causing her to re-evaluate her next move. It was an arduous process, but it came with the merit of focusing her mind. She had not thought about the destruction of the trail behind her again, and the crashing and thrashing had ceased to a calm silence.
When she made it to the platform of the treetop walkway, she had used up all of the energy that she had left stored, and the last breath in her lungs was expelled with a heavy sigh. The air wasn’t as close up top, and there was a cool chill when the breeze hit her. It was difficult not to smile from her accomplishment, though she was still without food and water. The thought of that brought her back to an unsettling reality. Turning her head to the left, she could see she had been correct about the view from the boardwalk. She could see much of the wood from there, and a fall would certainly kill her from the height. Treading lightly on her feet wouldn’t be a difficult thing to do if her motivation was certain death.
She got back on her feet, and started forward with easy steps. The walkway was only braced to the trees by nails that had long since experienced rust, and most of the boards were weak from age and rot. The perches moaned under her weight, and after each step she took she was anticipating for one of the boards to snap in two from the pressure.
“Oh my, oh my,” Hollace chanted over and over to herself. Although she had no clear direction of where she was going, she knew what she was looking for. When the builders had come through the wood to build the Almaverma Fortress, most of the worker sheds in the trees were left erected, and with them some of the supplies still inside. Old tools would mostly serve as relics for the wood, but for Hollace they could aid in her survival. She figured all she needed was a hammer, something sharp for cutting, and anything that could help her start a fire.
She took her time walking on the treetop walkway, letting the day grow older as the clouds thickened in the sky. The smell of rain and dust was strong, and her hair had developed into a yellow mane from the moisture in the air. The rain was coming again, and only just in time. Her tongue felt like dry sand, and it was difficult to swallow without anything wet sliding down her throat.
Some luck had come at last though, as she rounded the corner of the boardwalk wrapped around the tree trunk to find one of the abandoned work sheds. She sprinted with glee, a smile on her face with no one there to witness its mirth. It seemed strange to be happy over so small a thing, after all, it was only three walls and a roof with no door attached. The hut was suspended by rope over a branch, vines now tangled on the walls outside after being left so long in the wood. A good portion of the roof had long since caved in, making it a poor shelter from the rain unless Hollace could find something to repair the damage. Still, it looks as good a home as any place to her, and she strode up along the branch that led inside the shed, like a pathway.
Hollace peered inside to make certain nothing else had made home inside, particularly anything threatening. The Ihapka wood was home to many creatures, some more foul than others, and she didn’t want a run in with something she couldn’t hope to fend off. It was mostly barren inside the hut however, and her mind was quickly put at ease as she stepped inside. What hopes she had of finding an abundance of tools was dashed quickly. Nothing else covered the walls but fresh cobwebs and plant growth, and the shelf was empty of anything that might have once been stocked by the builders. The only thing left behind was sticking straight up on the wooden table in the back corner; a brown hilt of a small knife with the blade embedded into the grain. Hollace drew it out with ease because the wood in the table had swelled and split from years of moisture. The once serrated blade was now dulled orange from rust, and she could slide it over the skin of her palm without making a scratch. As she looked over the useless thing in her hand, she felt compelled to throw it back down to the floor of the wood with as much good it would serve her. Unless she could find a whetstone, all she was holding onto was a strip of metal.
She fell to the floor of the shed, not making a sound. Why did her mother leave her this way? There was little chance she would last more than a few days in the wood now, and she spitefully wished she had stayed in the village during the Cuhr’s invasion if it meant a shorter death. This time was too long, and she could only think of the suffering. She needed her mother, and the people of her village. What was she but a lost child without them?
Before she could utter a despondent sigh, she was heated by a warm wind crawling up her side. It was brief but moist, causing her neck to feel slick as her hair stuck to her skin. It was so sudden that she wondered where it had come from, and another spurt hit her before she could turn her head around to the door. The mysterious something that had blazed the destructive trail had found her.
Hollace crawled her way up to her feet with a start, in sheer disbelief at what she was seeing before her. Large grey eyes, dark like the mountains of Eastlocke, were staring back at her on a giant face. The snout was long, and rounded at the end, too wide to fit its girth through the threshold of the shed. As the nostrils flared opened, another gust of warmth washed over her, breath of the great green wyrm. She could not see the rest of the body because of the massive head blocking the doorway, but she suspected the rest was covered in the same mossy green hide.
She cowered against the back wall of the hut as the wyrm continued to push its muzzle forward, even as the wood began to creak and groan in protest. It was going to devour her whole, and she only hoped to slide down the gullet without being torn to pieces by those jagged teeth first. A tear slipped down the curve of her cheek, and she began to cry. Her sobs were guttural, as if she had swallowed a mouthful of gravel, and her body shook with tremors from her head down to her toes. She was wasting the last reserves of water in her body on tears, and the sharp pain of that was felt behind her eyes.
But the air in the hut suddenly turned cold, and the darkness from the beast’s shadow had lifted. When Hollace opened her eyes, she caught sight of its thick tail trailing away into the wood, crawling quickly as if she had startled the creature. She didn’t understand. It had her cornered, after stalking her for days and nights. That was a great effort to put forth, only to yield after catching her.
Her intentions were skewed, and she chose to follow the bizarre occurrence by chasing after her predator. The dull knife was still clutched firmly in her hand, a nervous sweat coating around the hilt from her palm. The danger had fled from her, and she started to pursue it with no real purpose except innocent curiosity. I’m stupid with madness, she said to herself. The splintery boards vibrated beneath her pounding feet as she ran the treetop after the wyrm.
“Wait, don’t go,” called Hollace with an urgency that was colored in loneliness.
The wyrm continued to climb along the mighty tree trunks with the advantage of its sharp claws, and she could see from its front legs to its back that it was wingless. Not a Wyvern then, but a Lyndwyrm, an ancient crawling beast without fire. There were few of them left alive because of the poaching done for their bones and beautiful colored skins, most of which were procured by more prosperous families, like the Landresses’. She knew little else of a Lyndwyrm’s strength, except to avoid the teeth and claws.
“Why did you follow me?” said Hollace.
She let out a shriek when the tail swung back, nearly striking her across the chest. The powerful gust still managed to knock her down on her bottom, and the knife dropped from her hand in a clatter on the walkway. Her fall caused the wyrm to stop, its entire body wrapped around the perimeter of the tree trunk with its claws dug in deep to keep its body above in the treetop. The gaze of the grey eyes was searching, and a grumbling sound reverberated from the wyrm’s throat.
Hollace sat up steadily while rubbing the back of her head where it had smacked against the boards. “That hurt, you know?” She scolded with a scowl.
The wyrm hissed back, opening its broad mouth so wide, Hollace was sure she could count all of the sharp teeth. Its forked tongue licked around wildly, and she caught a trace of foul breath that smelt like death and decay. She flinched back as a large glob of saliva slipped off the tongue and rained down on the leaves.
“Close your mouth, that smells horrible,” said Hollace, reaching for the knife as she stood up to face the creature. It tried to slink away as she took a step closer, perhaps offended by her tone of voice, but she quickly shook her head to show she meant no harm. “Wait, I just wanted to talk. My mama used to tell me all wyrms are clever, and that they can understand speech if a visitor of the wood chooses to listen.”
That simply could have been a story meant for the ears of children, and she might have been talking to a volatile predator at the moment, but Hollace was hopeful. She longed to talk to anyone that wasn’t herself, and a Lyndwyrm was just as good company as any. It still continued to move away from her reach as she tried to lay a hand on the tough hide with her hand.
“Can you understand me? Do you have a name?”
Its lids blinked about, and the thick lips of its mouth never moved. “I am Trenton.”
“Oh?” His voice had been clear to her, but she did not know where it had come from. “I’m Hollace.”
“How?” she asked, her brow furrowing.
“Your mother said your name when your village was raided.”
He had seen all of that? She wondered if he had been afraid of the Cuhrs as well, hiding away in the wood so to not be caught for poaching. It was difficult to fathom a creature his size had to flee from anything. The white curled spikes on his head were as sharp as any blade, and his hide was as sturdy as granite. Though he boasted no wings, there were small shrubs, moss, and flat top mushrooms growing along the ridge of his back, as if he was a part of the wood.
“You’ve been sleeping for a long time, huh?” She asked, taking a step closer until she could see the groves in his thick skin. “Do you have a mother?”
“No,” said Trenton, tersely.
Hollace wondered if she had been poached. His brusque answer certainly alluded to that being the situation, but she could only assume. “I thought you were going to eat me.”
“I don’t eat mongrels.”
“Hey!” She said, outraged. “You don’t have to say such a thing. I’m quite happy with what I am; in fact it’s better this way, really. I didn’t realize wyrms were so picky about their food though.”
“I never said it had anything to do with your blood. I just prefer to eat the unjust, and you’re but a child.” He readjusted his position on the tree, maneuvering with his claws so he could face her directly. “You aren’t looking to be my meal, are you Hollace?”
“No,” She said with a blush. “But I thought you’d be too hungry to care. Why did you run away?”
“Trenton doesn’t run!” He barked, the harshness of his voice making her jump in fright. Something on his giant face softened with regret, and his tongue flicked out between his lips, as if he was nervous. “You cried.”
“Yeah, so what if I did?” She immediately felt defensive of her actions, and for them being his reason. He was treating her like a fragile vermillion bleeder.
“You do not need to wield indignation, I have seen you Hollace. You are a lost child in my wood, and you have nothing in the world.” He rested his massive head down before her on the boardwalk, balancing his chin carefully so the entire structure wouldn’t burst under the weight. “I am guarding you, and I will continue to until you send me away.”
“Why do you want to help me?” She whispered.
“Because I am alone.”
The knife slipped from her hand, and she heard the distinctive sound of it bouncing off of branches as it fell back to the earth. She had little use for a rusted blade and cracked handle anyway. Her sights were set on the creature before her, a need deep inside to want to trust him. “You promise you won’t eat me?”
“On my honor, as the last wyrm in Ihapka, and first of my name.”
“No need to get fancy,” She said, her nose crinkling as she grinned. The last wyrm in Ihapka; He really was alone. “Can you take me to get food and water?”
“Yes, it will rain soon.” He sniffed the air loudly, as if smelling the impending storm. “And I know what food there is for you to eat.”
“I wish you had come earlier.”
“I could have, but the grief was still upon you, and I would not have broken that spell from you. A girl must weep for her mother.”
She scratched at her arm where there was no itch. His respect was strange, and she had known a handful more of discourteous villagers in her time. Were all wyrms this thoughtful or only Trenton? She might never know, considering there were so few left in the world. He started to climb forward on the tree, and she hurried to follow, forgetting her silly thoughts for another time.
“Climb on to my tail,” He instructed. “You’re too slow to keep up with me on those twigs.”
She frowned at his referral of her legs as twigs, but obeyed his command by heaving herself up onto the end of his tail. He curled it upwards behind her back so she could rest easy without having to worry about falling backwards. Still, she felt every step he took, and she wobbled around from the impact, digging her hands into his hide on either side of her to keep from slipping.
“Couldn’t I sit on your shoulders? I think I would feel safer.”
“I am no mule,” He snorted. “Don’t worry tiny mongrel, I won’t let you fall.”
“I don’t know about that,” Hollace muttered to herself.
She let out a yelp when he lifted his tail up in the air, her body jumping up for a moment before landing back down against the curve of his tail. His laugh was booming, powdery spores shooting off his back from the shaking movement, and his head twisted back and forth as he started his descent down the trees. Hollace glowered for a moment, but it dissolved into a small smile, eventually following with short giggles. He was childish, but so was she, and he had the proper makings of a great traveling companion. Hollace had learned long ago to not be so picky, not with her lot in life. The Thirteen Divine must have been listening before, because her prayer was answered. She was no longer alone.