Fiona slept poorly. Nights damp chill crept through her cloak; premonitions and nightmares chased through her dreams.
Dark faded to gray, just light enough to tell a black thread from a white. Fiona lay very still, with her eyes closed, listening. What had awakened her? There was something something indefinable that she felt, as much as heard. Where were the normal whispers and scurries of the woods? It was too quiet. She wondered if Cormac felt it, too or maybe fyr derrigs werent subject to such apprehensions.
Curled leaves sneaked over the edge of her soft brown deerskin cloak. A dry leaf tickled her chin, then another one. She lay on her side, her brown wool backpack against her stomach. She arched her back slightly to feel the curved wood of her bow against her. The quiver, she knew, lay beside it; and she could feel the hard sheath of her longknife against her side.
Fiona opened her eyes. There was daylight enough that she could see the cliff-backed clearing through the papery leaves and gray hobblebush stems of her hidden bed. The clearing was empty.
Premonition of danger flowed from the oval blue-black granite stone hung around her neck. It took all her will to continue to lie there without moving. Her anxiety heightened. Why did it feel so wrong around her?
Fiona held her breath and concentrated on listening. Yes. There were voices. Far away, faint, atonal sounds drifted through the trees,rising and falling with the light morning breeze. Who, or what, could be this far into the forest so early in the day? She shrunk into herself and closed her eyes tightly, as if to be invisible. The sounds rose and fell. Are they getting nearer? She strained to hear. Yes. Theyre getting louder. She could feel her heart pounding.
The voices seemed to stop. Maybe they turned another way. She lay quietly in her bed of dry leaves.
Then, the crackling of branches on the forest floor. Footsteps. They grew louder heavy footsteps, jarring the earth. They were close. Please, let them pass by. Fiona grasped her stone tightly, pressing it against her breast.
The footsteps thumped into the cliff-backed clearing.
"Ho, Callum! Theres something here!"
Fiona stopped breathing.
"Eh, just a deer bed." A harsh, gutteral voice spat out the words.
"Is not! Its too small for a deer. Look at it. Look how the leaves are piled. Deer dont pile leaves. Even youre smart enough to know that."
Cormacs bed. Where is he? Did he take fright and disappear? Did he wander off somewhere early to look for water? Fionas hand slowly slid down to the haft of her longknife.
The two voices snapped and snarled at each other. The cramps in Fionas legs got tighter. Her feet felt like ice, as if all the circulation had been cut off at her bent and aching knees.
Something crashed to the ground near her, followed by another thud. Fiona's heart leaped.
"Heavy! Snakes, Im hungry. Why didnt you grab some food from that merchants trunks?"
"Me, grab food? Why didnt you grab some food for yourself? Im not your hind."
"Youre stupid as one, smashing out of the woods like that. Scarin those horses could have cost us the raid. Then you let the merchant get away. If Id got my hands on him, hed a-knowed he met a woodwose."
Woodwose! Oh, my Erthe gods! Fiona tightened her grip on her longknife.
"Big talk," the first voice snorted.
There were footsteps and the sound of something being dragged. "Time to look the loot over before we go to King Hafgan. Were at least two days from the track. No one will follow now." The voice paused. "No really good stuff, I suppose, like magic swords or lamps. Hard to see in the dark. Might be a little golden tidbit that could be just right for Troon and Callum, though, eh? It will only be a couple of days out of our way to..."
"Troon! Shush! Trees have ears."
A long pause followed, punctuated by the rustle of leaves and clatter of pebbles as the woodwose crept around, searching and sniffing.
"I dont see anything but trees and dead leaves, and " whispered Troon loudly.
He was interrupted by the clanking, tinkling sound of metal being dumped on the ground. Callum had yielded to the lure of his pack of loot. Distracted, Troon gave up the search also. He tromped over to his hempen bag sitting humped against the scraggly gray trunk of an oak, and emptied its contents on the ground, too.
Squatted on the ground, they were great hulking figures in the early morning grayness. Troon bent over his treasure. He was close enough that Fiona could see - and smell- him through the leaves piled over her. She saw a grotesque caricature of a man, barrel-chested, with broad, hunched shoulders, a big belly, and long, knobby, arms and legs. Troon pushed his greasy hair out of his eyes, and began to finger a gold cup on his pile of booty.
"Let me see that!" demanded Callum, snatching the cup.
"Its mine!" snarled Troon, grabbing the cup back. In retaliation, Troon began tossing through Callums pile of loot. Callum shoved Troon aside and began rummaging through Troons pile. Soon all the plunder was a mixed heap on the ground.
Dry leaves tickled Fionas chin again. She tried not to sneeze.
"Lets hide half of the gold stuff in our cave," said Callum, "and take the rest of it to Hafgan."
"Think hell believe thats all the gold we got out of the raid?" Troon picked a gleaming candlestick out of the pile and fondled it longingly.
Behind Callum were craggy, mossy boulders tumbled at the foot of the seamed granite wall. Troon crouched across the small clearing from Callum, fingering and caressing the golden pieces.
Callum looked up, paused in his sifting through the treasure, and began to consider, in his slow way, the mound of leaves in the thicket next to Troon.
Fiona could see him looking at her. She began to sweat.
Minutes passed. Callum continued to stare at Fionas hiding place. Suddenly he bounded up, strode over to the bushes, bent the hobblebush scrogs aside with a sweeping stroke of one hand, and kicked the pile of leaves.
Leaves flew. Fiona tumbled into view. Pain shot up her arm. She struggled to get to her feet. Callum leaned down, seized her by her clothes, snatched her into the air, and threw her on the ground in front of Troon. Troon dropped the silver flask he was holding, grabbed Fiona, and pinned her arms. Stunned by crashing into the ground and another shock of pain that seared her arm as Troon seized her, Fiona was too dazed to react to Troons grip.
Callum went back to the pile of leaves in the thicket. He smashed the slender stems of the hobblebush and kicked through the dry leaves. Then he fell to his knees and raked them with his hands, all the while muttering and swearing to himself. Troon stood up, dragging Fiona up with him, tightly trapped in his encircling arms, and stolidly watched Callum.
Realization of what was going on came to Fiona in a rush. Her pack! Her journal was in it! Pain turned to anger. She struggled against the woodwose arms and kicked his legs with her heels. Troon merely tightened his grip, hurting her ribs and cutting off her breath.
Callum jumped to his feet, wheeled around, stamped up to Troon and Fiona, and thrust his huge face into Fionas. Brown wens with little hairs stuck out from his nose. The rancid smell from his tangled beard gagged her.
"Whered you hide your weapons?"
Fiona had felt the hard line of the longknife case press into her side as she lay in the leaves. She remembered stashing the bow and quiver behind her. Callum hadnt found them!
"I dont know where they are."
Troon tightened his grip. Callum seized a handful of Fionas weskit and yanked her towards him. He jerked her head and shoulders back and forth at each word.
"Tell me! Where are your weapons?"
Fiona struggled for breath.
"Weapons!" snorted Troon. "This poormouse wouldnt have iron. Get her food. I want food!"
"Food! Give your food," demanded Callum.
He yanked Fiona forward by her weskit again, so hard that Troon tightened his grip even more. Fiona gasped. Her head was spinning. She was sure she was going to throw up.
"Maybe we should just skin her out for supper," said Troon.
Callum spied the braided leather lanyard around Fionas neck. He dropped the handful of weskit, grabbed the lanyard, pulled it out from under her tunic, and exposed the carven blue-black stone that hung from it. He seized the stone and gave it a sharp pull upwards. The lanyard stretched, and then disappeared, stone and all. Callum stared at his empty hand.
Fiona was as surprised as he was.
With an angry thrust, he wrapped his filthy , wart-studded fingers around her throat. "Whatd you do with it?" He tightened his grip.
But Troon, who hadnt noticed the disappearing stone, it happened so fast, was tired of the game and wanted to get back to the gold.
"We gotta either kill her or tie her up and take her along. Maybe King Hafgan would want her for amusement," he said.
"Whered that stone go?" Callum let go of Fionas throat, slid his hand down to the front of her tunic, seized it, and pulled her up to his pig-like eyes again.
"Where did that stone go? Bring it back!" he shouted into her face.
"Magic," said Troon. "Maybe shes got magic."
Callum stopped shouting and looked at Fiona speculatively.
"Hafgan would like that if we brought something magic," continued Troon.
"A magic mouse. A female magic mouse. Yeah, Hafgan would like that." mused Collum, still gripping the front of Fionas tunic.
"So tie her up and take her along to the cave." said Troon.
"Naw. Too much trouble. Tie her up and hide her here, and we can come by on our way home and pick her up."
Troon snorted. "I aint walking all the way back here for this mouse. I say we take her along."
"And I aint carrying no bag of loot and her," retorted Callum.
"So then kill er!"
Troon, disgusted, threw Fiona to the ground, turned his back on Callum, and headed back towards the treasure. Fiona sucked in a breath of air. Callum, fearful that Troon would steal some of his loot, kicked Fiona out of his way and ran a couple of steps after Troon. Then, remembering that Fiona might be valuable as a gift for his king, he turned back, seized her as she was getting to her feet, and punched her in the jaw. She crumpled.
He dragged her over to the tumbledown boulders, and there he wedged her between two great rocks, cramming her down sideways by sheer force. With effort, he piled a heavy flattish stone on top of the two rocks that held her.
Callum ran back to the heap of plunder. Troll voices rose and fell as they argued over their hoard.
The pain of being jammed between the rocks brought Fiona out of her muzziness. She opened her eyes and saw nothing but rock. Callum must be gone. She couldn't smell him any more. She tested her body parts to find out what might move. Her left arm was wedged across the front of her breast; her head was painfully twisted and lying on her right shoulder. Her legs she wasnt sure about. They felt as if they were straight out. She couldnt move them. Her right arm, though, was free. She sighed. Good. Its a start.
She worked at freeing her left arm. First she tried to pull it up with her right hand, but it was caught under a slight lip in the rock face. Gwyan! That hurts! So then she concentrated on pushing it down. The pain from having been kicked and hauled, and now in her arm as she forced it against the grainy granite face, kept her focused on what she wanted to do.
Suck in the ribs, push down the arm. Do it, woman. Tears and sweat ran down her face. Gradually the arm shifted, then slipped down into the space between the rocks. She could feel the ground. Her elbow rested on it; her arm extended along sharp pebbles. When the arm came free, her body was no longer wedged, and the weight hung on her head and neck. Using friction, she pulled up on the rock with her right hand and thrust against the ground with her left. That got her torso up and the weight off her neck. The shift in position loosened her legs.
Fiona paused to gather energy, then pushed and pulled herself, bit by small bit, from between the entrapping rocks. Pebbles rattled when she fell free. She froze. There was no response from the woodwose. She crawled sideways behind the boulders, keeping low enough to be out of sight. Cold sweat ran into her eyes. Her stomach was in a knot.
She edged past the last rock, and ran in a crouch up the hillside at the edge of the rock wall. Where to go? Where to hide? She clutched at a rough tree trunk to keep from slipping down the hillside, and looked up.
Of course. Climb to the high, thinner branches of a tree where a heavy woodwose cant go!
The maple tree Fiona clutched had lower branches too far off the ground for her to reach. She looked around herself wildly. On a nearby oak she could see a limb low enough to grab from the uphill side. She crawled up to the oak, listened for signs of pursuit, then stood up and jumped. She caught the limb, swung her leg up on the branch, and scrambled up the tree. Fear numbed the pain in her arm and ribs.
She worked her way up as high as she dared to trust the branches to her weight, and sat down on a limb with her back to the trunk of the tree. She took a deep breath. Made it! Around her the Greenwald was a maze of branches and early-spring bright green leaves. The ground had disappeared below. Safe!
Elation soon gave way to exhaustion; and Fiona began to worry about falling off her leafy perch. She felt weak from the beating. All the aches returned tenfold. Gwyan, it hurts to breathe. Wheres Cormac?
She was cold. My cloak is gone! No wonder Im cold. I had it on last night She shifted to a more secure position. Everythings gone. Cant think of it now.
Fiona wrapped her legs tightly around the tree branch, and very carefully wriggled out of her over-tunic. The lanyard and her carved blue-black stone were back around her neck. She picked up the stone and gazed at it in surprise, then dropped it. Got to get safe, first. Getting her long knit wool socks off was more difficult. She held each boot in her teeth, clutched the tree trunk with her good arm while she worked off each sock, and replaced the soft leather boot on her bare foot.
Wrapping her legs again around the tree branch to hold her, she tied a sock to each tunic sleeve, making a length of fabric. She passed this length around the tree trunk, and tied it across herself. Now she was securely fastened to the tree, with the knit socks knotted together at her waist. She leaned back against the tree trunk, exhausted.
Where is Cormac? Will he come back? Maybe he was frightened clear back to the land of his tribe. Fiona even sort of smiled to herself at the thought.
Cormac had appeared one morning as she cooked porridge over a campfire, and announced that he was a fyr derrig and that he had "chosen" her. She still had not quite figured out what being "chosen" entailed; but Cormac, just three feet tall, wearing an old-fashioned brown skirted coat with a short hooded shoulder cloak over it, had accompanied her on her journey ever since until now, that is.
Morning twilight gave way to pale sun, which filtered between the leaves and played on the branch in front of Fiona, warming and relaxing her.
I wonder if its true that woodwose never leave the forest. She leaned her head against the tree trunk, and drifted off to sleep.
Awakening was a long, slow, climb up from a coma-like unconsciousness. Fiona fluttered her eyelids, then floated back into a stupor several times until she finally opened her eyes and focused on the world. It hadnt changed much. She was still surrounded by undulating green leaves, but the sun was much higher. She must have slept over an hour. She had slipped down in her makeshift harness, and the socks were cutting into her bruised ribs. That hurt. In fact, she hurt all over. She pulled herself upright gingerly into a sitting position again.
Then she looked down, looked around herself, and finally said aloud, "Well, I guess I cant spend my life in an oak tree."
After a long, carefully orchestrated process, she succeeded in removing her safety harness, and tied the tunic and socks around her waist, tucking in the loose ends. She didnt have the energy to try to put them back on again while balancing on a tree branch. Then she slowly and painfully climbed down the tree, listening for the sound of voices as she went. Several times she made false moves, then had to re-climb and find another route.
Finally she got down to the lower branches, where she paused often and listened. Her stone lay quiet on her breast. She didnt hear voices, but she did hear the little woodland sounds again; rustles in the last falls dry leaves, the twitter of a squirrel.
She dropped to the ground, went into a crouch, and froze. There were no unusual sounds. She sneaked by a roundabout route to below the rock wall, and climbed a small beech to look down on the clearing. It was empty.
Fiona gave a sigh, clambered down the tree, and crept to the hobblebush thicket where she had slept the night before. Carefully and quietly, she knelt down and sorted through the dry, colorless, leaves. There was truly nothing there: no pack, no bow, no arrows, no longknife. She sat back on her heels. Snakes, what bad fate. Now what do I do?
Fiona stood up and trudged back to the foot of the oak she had climbed to escape. She felt safer there. She lowered herself carefully to the ground, and tried to think and plan. It was chilly and damp in the shade, and she wished again for her cloak. She closed her eyes to think better.
She could survive off the land; she could replace the weapons; but her journal, all her work, how would she replace it? Water was the first priority, food could come later. In her black stone, she had means of making fire, which was good; but fire might attract woodwose, which was bad. As long as she stayed near climbing trees, she had an escape route. But her journal
A slight sound interrupted her thoughts. She started and opened her eyes. There, sitting cross-legged in front of her on the grass, comfy as if he were having morning tea, was Cormac, the fyr derrig. He said nothing, just nodded a greeting at her.
Relief at the return of a companion was quickly replaced by anger at his complacency and lack of compassion, not to mention his desertion.
Fiona stared at the fyr derrig for a minute, then said, "Well, where were you when all the fun was going on? You did realize, of course, that we were visited by some rather nasty woodwose this morning?"
"I saw them. I left."
"I noticed that. I couldnt leave, and I have the bruises to prove it. I thought fyr derrigs were supposed to protect folk."
"From bad fate, if we can, but not from woodwose. I have my limits. Woodwose exceed them."
"You could have disappeared and reappeared, played tricks on them, done something to distract them from pounding on me, I should think." Fiona shifted petulantly, and winced.
Cormac went on, "I provide protection in my own way. I could not stop the woodwose from what they did. However, I can provide protection against the extended results of an unfortunate encounter, such as, in your case, cold, hunger, thirst, and loss of assets."
He waved his hand theatrically, and Fionas bow, quiver and wool pack appeared on the ground in front of her. Bredai, her longknife, snugged itself against her waist. As a final touch, her deerskin cloak softly draped itself over her shoulders. Fiona, dumbfounded, reached out and touched her possessions. They were real.
She looked at Cormac, questions in her eyes.
"When I left," he said, " I took a few things with me that I felt thieves might have an extraordinary interest in. The cloak was an afterthought, and I barely got it away before they saw it."
Fiona looked from the pile of her goods to Cormac and back again several times. "I dont know what to say. Youve practically given me back my life. Thank you, seems hardly adequate, but thank you."
Cormac smiled and inclined his head. "Glad to be of service."
Fiona thought a few minutes, running her hand up and down Bredais rough leather sheath as she did.
"Where did you go?"
"Off into the woods."
That seemed to be all Cormac was willing to say on the subject at this point. That nettled Fiona again.
"You certainly have strong magical powers," she said, "but if you really are a fyr derrig, like you claim, where is your red coat? Fyr derrigs are said to wear red coats. All Ive ever seen you in is that brown one."
Cormac drew himself up proudly, slowly unbuttoned the tarnished brass buttons of the old-fashioned brown coat, and pulled it open with both hands to reveal a bright red coat underneath, resplendent with bigger and brassier buttons.
"Its not practical to wear my good coat while tramping through the woods," he said. "I might tear it or get it dirty. So I keep it covered up."
"All right. Actually,its magnificent!"
Cormac rebuttoned the brown coat as dramatically as he had unbuttoned it, and readjusted the large leather haversack he carried by a strap slung over his shoulder and across his chest. Then he stood up, dragged up Fionas pack, and hung it over his own shoulders.
"Ill carry this for a while. You get the bow and stuff. Wed better be moving before those woodwose decide to wander back here and we have to do this all over again," he said.
He turned and began threading his way through the trees. Fionas pack hung down to his ankles, but didnt seem to bother him at all. At the thought of woodwose, Fiona snatched up her bow and quiver and hurried after the fyr derrig.
Fiona hoped they were going in a southeasterly direction. It was hard to get a good fix on the sun from under the thick canopy of leaves. Somewhere to the southeast lay the city-kingdom of Almwech. Even if they didnt get to the city, once near it there would be activity at the fringe of the forest; farms, cottages, and maybe even a village. At any of these they might be able to get salt and other badly needed supplies.
The great oaks spread their fresh green leaves in a fluttering roof overhead. Birch, beech, and maples crowded in between, and occasional pine and spruce pushed their spires above the canopy to seize the sunlight, their dark green needles almost black in the shade of the forest floor. The Greenwald was a friendly forest, despite the woodwose.
Progress was slow. Fiona tried to work out her aches as she walked, but the bruised ribs made breathing difficult. She also stopped every now and again to look under a promising oak, brushing the leaves aside with her foot, searching for morel mushrooms to enliven their supper of dried rabbit meat. When she found one, Cormac leaned over to pick it, then handed it to her. She carefully brushed the mushroom off and put it in her cloak pocket, so as not to crush it.
As they walked, Fiona watched her pack bouncing up and down with Cormacs pace in front of her. Her journal, scraps of linen cloth and odd-sized papers tied between two sheets of birch bark, was safe again. It held her writings of a lifetime. Round, childish scrawls gave way to mature script and detailed drawings as the journal grew. Grotesque animals, twining vines, complex knot patterns, and cryptic runes decorated many of the pages.
Some were copied from an ancient standing stone near Fionas home in Birnham-Wood. It was a mossy old stone pillar, stained and streaked with age. Parts of the carvings were half worn off. She had befriended the stele as a lonely child, tracing the carvings on it with her fingers and making up fantasies of handsome kings and queens and scary mystic creatures.
The shapes of some of the carvings on the stele were similar to designs on the stone she had worn around her neck since birth. Her parents could only tell her that the stick-like engravings were words runes; perhaps names of the gods, perhaps prophecies or incantations. They thought that the interlaced designs around the runes may have had magical significance in the distant past.
Fiona grew up. She learned the skills of a forest ranger, and worked with her parents patrolling the paths and byways of Birnham-Wood. She decided, after a time, that being a ranger would not suit her for her lifes work.
Then she apprenticed herself to an herbalist at a commune for three years. Old parchments treasured by the herbalist, lists and orders for compounding medicines, were decorated with faded illuminations and runic symbols. Fiona carefully copied these runes and intricate designs illuminating the medical formulae into her journal. But after three years, she returned to her forest home. To be a practicing herbalist required a lifelong commitment, which she was not prepared to make.
So she returned to her parents cottage and to patrolling the forest. But the carvings on her talisman stone were always on her mind. She wanted to read the runes, to unlock the symbolism of the complex interlaced designs, to know the meaning of her stone. She could not learn these things patrolling the forest ways or in an herbalists stillroom.
On the festival of Feill-Deorc, the shortest day of the year, Fiona stood at the window gazing at the snow twirling past the foresters cottage. Drifting like the snow, Ive just been drifting. Her mother moved softly around the room behind Fiona, lighting holiday beeswax candles to drive away the darkness and bring back the sunlight.
Fiona continued to watch the snowfall. I have to go from here. Its my decision to make, and I need to make it. To seek knowledge is what I really want to do. I will search for carvings and writings to study. The mage will teach me symbols and ancient languages. Ill teach myself. Fiona wrapped her hand around her blue-black talisman stone. Ill learn the meaning of this stone. The snow grew heavier, like a white veil drawn over the window. I can do this. I will do this. Its time past time. She turned away from the obscure window, into the candlelight. I will do this.
She left home a month later, when winter loosened its grip on the land. Bredai, her bow, her journals, herbs, and food were all she took with her when she set off through Birnham-Wood and into dark-canopied Greenwald.
The first three months of her search for knowledge were disappointing. She found only one small round stone with a rune roughly scratched on it, which she copied dutifully into her journal. But then, you cant expect too much at the beginning of a journey that could take a lifetime.