Wraith of the Forest
To Henry Musket, the night air tasted like the ribs of a lamb. Yes, this may seem an odd and nonsensical correlation. To anyone who didn’t know Henry Musket, such an opening sentence is likely hard to sink into, unrelatable. It would most probably take a healthy chunk of time to confidently comprehend exactly what it means to say that, to this man, the meat of a lamb carried the same flavor as the Lowland, into which he bounded from an alcove in the cliffside, deep underneath a canopy of mist that separated the forest from the city.
Or maybe, suffice it to say that Henry Musket was hungry. Maybe the reason that lamb was on his mind was not only that he loved lamb, but that at that very moment a rack of lamb ribs sat in his cold box, in his home. Fresh from the Mire farm that morning. Perhaps the simple meaning is that he’d rather be at home, turning his ribs over a fire pit instead of dashing across naked grey tree branches, lightly shuddering the trunks as he went deftly along. Perhaps Henry remembered the days when his own volition compelled him out of the city and into the wilderness, rather than the will of a council who cared not when he was and when he was not hungry.
He hopped over a pond, and he knew he did because the surface of the water bounced the gleam of the moon briefly up into his eyes, momentarily covering his goggles in a sheen of light. That would be Griggum’s Brewpot. Right, he knew where he was. Already far from home.
He decided that the night air did in fact taste like the ribs of a lamb, because at least he could decide that. Or, at least he could decide to pretend to decide that. Really no one, not even the most powerful of the lost mages, could decide what the air tasted like. Least not as far as he knew, and he did know a lot. And the point was moot anyway, because a scarf was wrapped over his nose and mouth, so to tell the truth he didn’t actually taste anything but scarf.
He felt a light burn in his left jacket pocket. This was because in his left jacket pocket was a pixie gecko named Pill, and Pill was his guide. A pixie gecko could be trained to sense a great many things, things that were alive and things that were not. But they had to be trained properly, otherwise they could burn like coal next to any plant in the city when they were meant to track something specific like rockroot or ginseng. And there are of course many plants in the city, so that’s liable to downright kill your pixie gecko.
But Pill was well trained. Henry knew this was true, because he had trained her. She was warm now, but only just. He slowed his going, then eyed a thick branch and landed lightly on it, nimble as a fourty-year old man who vaguely resembled something like a fox, or maybe some kind of rodent in the way that he moved. He belonged to the Falconry, but in no way did he resemble a falcon, which was the metaphorical intent of the title.
He softly patted his jacket pocket and said, “Which way, Pilly?” Well, really he said something more like “Wth Whh, Pm,” because of the scarf. He’d been going almost due West, directly away from the city, which was fantastic in itself. Pill emitted only a cat’s paw of warmth through his undershirt. He unbuttoned the flap over the pocket and cupped the gecko in his right hand. She curled into his palm as he looked down on her, glowing a soft orange in her belly. He nodded, and set her down by his feet on the thick branch. “Which way?” She sat still for a moment as if considering, and then began scurrying away up the bark. He nodded again. “Alright then.” He stepped to follow and scoop her up, but then she leapt suddenly to the next branch on the left, and his heart skipped as he watched the little orange dot fly through the night. He grabbed at the air, knowing she was too far to catch. She caught the other branch, and then stilled again, pointing her nose out Northwest. He took a breath. “I hate when you do that.” Pill, if you asked her, was also a falcon. He hopped over, dropped her back into the pocket, and . . .
Something brushed his left ankle. He looked down, it was a strap on his right boot, hanging limply off. Stupid thing, the buckled needed repairing. He stooped and re-latched the strap, knowing full well that it would be undone by the time he finished moving again. Which was unfortunate, because enchanted tree-hopping boots were much less useful if they slipped off your foot, and very hard to come by. He’d never hear the end of it from the other Falcons if he lost a boot. Especially Norris.
Ugh, Norris. He leapt back out into the night.
This time he moved a bit more slowly, lingering his steps a bit longer on each branch so that Pill had more space to concentrate as they came closer and closer to their target. He adjusted his trajectory slightly to the North or West to gauge the difference in her signal. Warmer and warmer she grew. More and more precise his path became.
And then, there it was.
Well, no, that’s dramatic. They weren’t there yet, but they sure were close. He stopped again. “Alright, alright,” he said. “Any more and you’ll ruin my shirt.” He felt the outside of his pocket and found the lump that was her small body, then rubbed two fingers along her back. At once the concentrated burn dissipated. He sighed and said, “Time to go down and find her.” One more sniff of lamb, and he dropped to the ground.
Leaves lazily scattered away from him as his enchanted boots hit the ground, absorbing the brunt of the impact. He slung the rifle off his back and took note of its weight, though he knew he’d loaded it. It never hurt to be sure. He twitched his knee to one side and the guidelight buckled to the front of his thigh flicked on, casting a large, soft blue spot of light out in front of him, washing trees in its hue and throwing deep shadows behind them. He looked to his left, then to his right, and the spot followed wherever his eyes pointed. Yes, enchantments were useful.
He didn’t need Pill’s help to find Yagga, not this close. He’d met the wraith long before he was a true Falcon, back when he was just an ass with some stolen hopper boots and a general disregard for the warnings and regulations about the lands west of the city. She was near, that he just simply knew, almost like the feel of a bloodbug just as it sticks its needly little nose into your skin. But talking with Yagga the wraith was usually worse than being bitten by a bloodbug, because instead of an irritating little bump it usually left him feeling off-kilter, unbalanced, like his ears were turned upside down or his big toes were switched with each other. Something like that, if he had to say.
He stepped slowly along, keeping note of the color of the trees ahead of him. He heard nothing. There would be no animals near Yagga that she didn’t permit, and her permission was typically hard to wrestle up.
There, in the center of the cool blue spot. A white tree. Hard to tell the difference, almost, amid the grey trees surrounding. Unless you knew what you were looking for. He approached and laid a gloved hand on it, then pulled the scarf down below his chin. “Yagga, It’s Henry,” he called. “Don’t empty my soul, please. I’ve just come to . . . talk.” Yagga couldn’t do anything like empty a human soul, and he knew that, but it irritated her when he said things like that and he wanted to get her out in the open as soon as possible so he could be done with this. He was so hungry.
He turned around the tree and searched for more of its kind, keeping the rifle stock planted firmly in his shoulder and the barrel stretched out before him. Another white tree, about thirty meters ahead. “Yagga, please.” He laid a hand on this tree as well. “There, two trees,” he called to the emptiness around him. “I’ve touched two of your trees. I know you know I’m here.” Nothing. What a bitch, honestly.
She’d rather not be bothered just as much as he’d rather not bother her; he was well aware of that, but he had to do irritating things like this from time to time, and she was well aware of that. “Yagga!” Perhaps he could be more patient, but she’d made him wait like this for so, so long at times in the past. Because she knew he had to wait and she was, well, a bit of a bitch, honestly.
But he dearly hoped this wasn’t one of those times. Because he had a damn rack of lamb ribs at home and he was just, so, –
He twisted and raised the rifle barrel to her face. Her voice was like organ pipes.
“Starving,” he said. “It doesn’t impress me when you do that.”
She was a tall, lanky thing, with a slender torso that was only about a fourth as long as her skeletal thin legs and arms. Her tailbone stuck out a good half-foot between her legs, and at the other end was her round head, sunk deep into which were two large, dark eyes. She had a button nose, which could be called cute on perhaps anything else, and underneath that was a large plate of bone that grew out over lower jaw so that you couldn’t see her wide, gnarled mouth. And all along her body were small, white, blue-tipped feathers. She stooped over his gun and looked him in the eyes. He didn’t bother keeping the barrel trained on her head.
“You’re irritable tonight,” she said. “Why are you pointing that at me? You no longer trust me?”
Henry took a few steps back, because he didn’t know a person he’d like to get that close to, let alone a wraith of the forest. “They don’t trust you, Yagga.” They. The council. Why had they sent him out here again? He decided there was no point in telling her that no, he didn’t exactly trust her either. Since it occurred to him, she probably knew anyway.
“Well,” said Yagga, squatting down so that they were at eye level, “I resent that.” He said nothing, just kept the rifle pointed lazily forward and watched her look him up and down. When her eyes returned to his, she said, “How have I lost their trust?”
That was a trick question. Because both of them knew that she specifically hadn’t done a thing to upset the council, and they also knew that they hadn’t trusted her in the first place.
“I’m told not to go into detail with you,” he said. “Things have happened.”
“Things,” she said, and he knew she was smiling with those ugly teeth he couldn’t see, “happen.”
“Please don’t do that,” he groaned. “Please don’t do the cryptic old-spirit-of-the-woods thing.”
“But I am an old spirit of the woods.”
“. . . Yagga.”
“What? Am I supposed to tell you something more specific? I ate old farmer Maggot’s dog!” She brought her hands up to what would’ve been her cheeks, if she’d had them. A gesture she must’ve learned from humans, somehow.
“Old farmer Maggot is not a person.” Exhausting, grating old wraith.
“Then, I did not eat his dog. What do you want from me?”
He lowered the gun, finally. “They won’t trust anything you say. I have to see.”
Yagga twisted and began to crawl around the tree. “They won’t trust what I say.” Her head appeared on the other side of the trunk. “But they’ll trust what you say. Just tell them you saw whatever you needed to see.”
“I’m not a good liar.” That, and he didn’t trust her anyway.
She dropped her head. “How sweet.” She pushed herself up onto her feet and walked, in her swaying way, away, gesturing for him to follow. “Your bootstrap is undone.”
He looked down. So it was. He rolled his eyes, latched it again, and followed the wraith. She led him past tree after tree after tree, over a small crick, down a long slope where they headed toward a ravine. More and more white trees appeared. Yagga said nothing as they went, and that was fine with him.
He looked up at the sky above the trees. He was far enough out for the mist that hugged the cliffside to have dissipated and he could actually see the stars. They shone on a deep blue. Just past midnight. He was making good time, as usual.
He returned his eyes to Yagga. She moved like a strand of seaweed underwater. Or at least he thought she might. Though the city was on a coast, he was not fond of the idea of the ocean. He could race across the trees of an ancient forbidden forest, but he could not swim among whatever salt-breathing behemoths were blanketed under the rolling surface of the sea. He couldn’t swim at all, for that matter. Man did not belong in water, he thought. And so he’d never seen seaweed. But he lived in a coastal city, so he’d heard a great many things about the ocean, and he was confident that seaweed was every bit as unsettling as Yagga.
She wrapped her long fingers around trees as she went, and he noticed that every one was now that ghostly alabaster. The thin strands of wiry hair that fell from the back of her head licked her sharp shoulders as her entire spine twisted one way and another with each long step. He almost had to trot to keep up with her.
Her home didn’t reveal itself until they were almost upon it. One moment showed only the empty ravine. Here another small flow of water ribboned softly along, tallgrass sprouting up at its edges. And in the next moment, suddenly there was a grand dome of white bramble, almost resembling a beaver’s home but on a massive scale. It was formed by a large circle of trees all bent inward toward each other, twined and twisting together. And so here lived Yagga. For now, at least. She was always moving among the forest.
She stepped into the stream, which bent just around the dome, and turned to Henry. “First, an agreement.” Yes, the same agreement they’d made countless times before. Tedious, but he couldn’t begrudge her for this one. “You will tell your council nothing but what you find worth telling.” She stood at her full length, spindly arms listing lazily at her sides like the webs of a spider. “My home is not for your kind to know.” He nodded, because he wouldn’t want some imp bursting into his house and recounting every detail to its circle of meddlers either.
“You have my word, Yagga.” Not that his word in itself meant much out here, but a wraith knew when a man was lying.
She tilted her head to one side for a moment, which meant she was making absolutely sure, and then held an open hand out to the dome and said, “have your look.” The bramble shifted and slithered, creating an opening the size of a human doorway.
He swung the gun back over his shoulder and gave Pill a pat. “Let me know if I’m about to touch something I shouldn’t, please.” Then he nodded thanks to Yagga, made his way down the hill and past her, and entered.
Inside, the light was a warm yellow, and he looked up to see large sprouts of petals growing across the top of the dome, in their centers iridescent amber orbs connected by short stocks. In the spaces between the branches that formed the walls he could see a crystalline translucence, an ethereal membrane that would keep out most anything. He knew how unique he was, being within the wraith’s home.
The yellow light spilled onto many things in the large den, the first that he saw being an assortment of hanging animal carcasses. A few rabbits, a boar, two deer. She was a good hunter. They hung from large barbs all grown out of some kind of wide, black root she’d somehow summoned up from the ground. There were many empty barbs, awaiting kills. The boar’s belly, he noticed, was gashed open and wet blood ran down it’s neck and dripped from its tusks. She must’ve been in the middle of something when he came upon her.
The rest of the den was a scatter of what the common man would dub junk. Weapons, clothing, dishes, tools. Lost treasures she’d collected from travelers in the forest. To the far right was a large oak table – who knows how she obtained that – covered on one half with parchments, and on the other with shoes. He looked to his boot to check the strap once more. It was in its place, for now.
Just on his right, he noticed, was some kind of display. That was new; she must’ve been getting creative. It was a sprawling lattice of thin vines, onto which she’d hung a number of smaller finds. Pins, badges, crests, wayward things that were probably important to some people. Among the more interesting items were a rose, intricately woven from silver wire with bright little jewel stones set in the middle, a branding iron made entirely of bronze – probably some family’s prized heirloom; it was bent into LV at the end – and, oh, a mask of the Mastiffs.
“Mmm,” he said to Pill, “she should not have that.” Where the Falcons were the city’s scouts, the Mastiffs were it’s “protectors,” though they hardly came down from the cliff. He wondered how the mask had found its way here as he ran his eyes over the sculpted jowls, pulled back to reveal a set of threatening ceramic fangs. He snorted and turned away.
At the far end of the den stood, on a sturdy iron base, a tall, empty frame. The mirror. The most fabled possession of any wraith. He couldn’t possibly return with a report that excluded it. It had no glass because, as he knew, the reflection only appeared when Yagga wished it to. It had many purposes. Cautiously he approached it, arms crossed but shoulders tensed for action. Not that action was likely, but once a panther had leapt at him through that mirror. A joke of Yagga’s, back when they were still establishing boundaries.
He came up to it, stepping over this iron shield and that leather horse harness. Then he stood still, ran his eyes along the mirror’s olive-green frame. Leaves, birds, and figures of women were etched in ornate designs. At the top, a great owl sculpted from quartz sat perched in a nest of carved leaves. He nodded hello to it.
Just beyond the mirror was a short round end table, on top of which sat a glass eyeball and a small crossbow. “Ah,” he said, recognizing the latter, because it had once been his. He didn’t suppose he’d get anywhere asking Yagga if he could have it back for the hundredth time.
And beyond that, the body of a dead man. “Ah,” he said.
“Mm,” said Yagga, and he started slightly, left hand instinctively flexing toward the one-handed shotgun on his hip. How long had she been in there with him? He didn’t turn to her when he spoke, but instead only gestured to the dead man.
“You don’t expect me to know that,” said Yagga as she slunk around the mirror and into his vision. She squatted and hung her head over the man on the ground. He was clothed only in undercovers, meaning Yagga had already stripped him for her collection.
There was no hair on his head save for a shortly cropped beard. His left shoulder bore a tattoo of what looked like fire, which didn’t mean much because many were tattooed in the city, including Henry. And, he was missing a leg. Where his left leg should’ve been was the tattered remains of a woolen underpant, crusted in dried blood. That must’ve been how he’d died.
He didn’t bother asking if Yagga had killed the man, because he knew she’d say she hadn’t, and that was probably the truth. She didn’t hunt travelers, though many other things did.
“What did he have on him?” He moved his eyes from the missing leg to the wraith, though her face was covered behind the fall of her hair. “Anything I should know about?”
“Only that.” She side-stepped over the body, and cast a finger toward the end table. Obviously she didn’t mean the crossbow, so he looked to the glass eye. He made to step through the mirror frame, thought better, stepped around it, and picked the eye up. “You can’t have that,” said Yagga.
He rolled the thing around on his palm, poked at it with his other hand. “I don’t want it,” he said, because he felt like he should. Gently, he replaced it on the end table next to his crossbow. He looked back to the dead man’s face. “He have both his eyes?”
Yagga nodded, another gesture she must’ve learned from watching humans. “For now.” Right, because she’d probably spoon them out and use them for some cantrip or ward.
Hm, a dead man in the wraith’s den. He chewed the inside of his cheek, considering whether this was worth relaying to the council. It wasn’t what they’d sent him looking for, but they’d surely want to know about it, only because they didn’t understand that finding Yagga with a corpse meant as much as finding a stray dog with a human bone. Disturbing, perhaps, but not altogether alarming. Sure, the man’s family would probably want his body returned, but nearly no one who died beyond the cliff made their way back for goodbyes. Frankly, it wasn’t worth the hassle. Still . . . well, he could decide on the run back.
He breathed a heavy breath, remembering the smell of lamb. “Well, wraith of the forest, I think that’s me satisfied. I’ll –”
And then, burning.
No, BURNING. Suddenly Pill was white hot. “Aachh!” He clutched his chest. The gecko had never burned like this before, was not supposed to burn like this. The pain was sharp, blinding, like a sword was taken straight from a forge’s fire and thrust into his skin. Yagga screeched, but he could not focus on her words. He staggered back, tripped on something, fell. The dead man, he’d landed straight atop the dead man. Pill’s heat softened, probably because she was unconscious. She shouldn’t have been that hot. Something, something horrible spooked her. Shit, shit, shit. He tried to scramble up, and then he saw. The mirror.
The space in the frame was no longer empty. Even though he was behind it, something like glass stretched from corner to corner, but it was dark, casting only a little of the yellow light off of its surface. And it didn’t reflect anything. Instead, it shone a figure, a silhouette of something. No, someone. Someone small, not quite human like. He tried to scramble up, and found he couldn’t move.
The figure in the mirror was still for a moment, and then it began to move one of its hands, waving it around quickly, like it was drawing something in the air. Pain, this time on his left shoulder. Not so bad as the burning, but not good, considering that it was happening. This was a thinner sting, as if someone was repeatedly sticking him with a needle. Yes, like he was being tattooed. He could do nothing, realized he could hear nothing. He could only watch this impish thing in the mirror.
And then it was over. In a clap, sound returned to him. The sheen in the mirror vanished and it was empty again. He felt control return to his body, felt blood surge through his veins. He sat up in the dirt.
In the dirt?
Where was the dead man’s body? He quickly pushed to his feet and looked at the ground where the body had just been. Empty. What . . .
“Go.” Yagga. He spun to her. His head ached. “Go,” she said again. “Go from this place, now.”
“Yagga . . .” His head ached.
“You have been marked,” said the wraith.
Marked. “By what?”
“I cannot answer that now, Henry.” Why did she sound like that? Nothing frightened Yagga the wraith. “Now, I need to move. You need to go home, quickly.” His shoulder itched, and his chest stung.
“Yagga,” he began again, but he could see he’d get no more answers from her. She spread her arms wide like wings, and suddenly all the branches that made the dome began to move. Like serpents, they twisted toward her from the top, curling around and down her arms and covering her completely in seconds. He watched them writhe over her, and then they began digging into the ground, slithering and burrowing away, taking her with them. Here and there they lashed out like tentacles, snatching up all of the wraith’s items. The boar carcass yanked violently over his head, spattering him in blood. It was pulled in and consumed by the bramble whirlwind. He rolled onto the ground and covered his face, shielding himself from the storm of branches. And when it stopped, he looked up and found that it was all gone.
“Well, shit.” He stood slowly, rubbed his shoulder, then moved his hand to the lump in his jacket pocket. The pain was still hot, and he winced. “You alright, Pilly?” She wasn’t, he knew. She’d tried to warn him of . . . whatever that was. Not only that – for her to sear him that way, she must have been terrified. He wanted desperately to pull her out and check her. But not here. Yagga said that he should get home quickly, and he’d never agreed with her more. Whatever had just happened, whatever marked meant, he had no desire to be outside the protection of the city anymore.
He checked his bootstrap, and he ran.