Issue Ten | July 2006
A Forest Wending
by Brad Johnson
It was just after noon when she set out to find the mad priestess of Dilinála. All morning had been spent saying goodbyes to her clan folk. The most tearful farewells were with her sisters who both feared her leaving and envied her the journey.
Turquoise-colored güdru cloth decorated the entire Blue Shadow clanhouse in her honor. Even the neighboring Sapphire Bird clan had come out and lined the path as she left the small village. The aftereffects of the previous night’s celebration could still be seen in their eyes, but they nonetheless loudly praised her departure with the playing of their wonderful music.
She reached the forest’s edge just before nightfall. There, she set up camp near the moss covered Shrine of Makórsa. The small ligneous structure had been built within the intertwining roots of the gapúl tree that stood tall overhead and had since become fused into the living tissue of the plant. She opened her pack and took out the wooden offering and placed it into the shrine as her dlántukoi had instructed. After she spoke the prayers she had learned from the clan elders she studied the detailed carving of the dlél fruit gift.
During her short lifetime, several foolhardy Salarvyáni merchants had risked crossing the border to come to her village to buy these realistic art pieces. She wondered if they also used the figures as sacrifices.
As she unrolled her bed she tried to remember that the local hunters had cleared this section of the Kerúnan Forest of the most dangerous beasts. Still, she felt spooked every time that an unfamiliar noise reached her from the darkness. She calmed herself by concentrating on her reasons for being here. The last several years had been rough on her. No one openly blamed her for the poor crops and the well drying up, but they had noticed that all of these occurrences were somehow connected to the girl with the straw brown hair. Her birth had preceded a long drought. Her naming ceremony had been halted when the boy that she had been promised to died in a freak accident. Even this declaration of aridáni status at the small temple of Dilinála had been postponed due to an ill-timed early menstrual flow. Perhaps this ceremony would provide more insight into why her clan was so afflicted.
She had resisted the call for many years. Even when the visiting Avánthe priest from Jaikalór had read her dire future, she still resisted. He had written her name on the holy pavestones beside the small village temple and as the water slowly evaporated he had seen a mighty power coming to claim her. He became quite apoplectic and began screaming about heretical acts and a cleansing of the land. His attendants had to restrain him and take him back to the city in a chlén cart.
Looking back at that incident, she was suddenly bemused. His outburst had started her thinking that there was a force outside of her control that was leading her somewhere. She just needed to find a way through the darkness to find the answer.
As the day began to cool the insects came out to attack her and enjoy a rare feast of human blood. Glancing around at the ground she notice a line of the purple drí ants found in this area. She reached down and gathered a handful of them, crushed their plump bodies and smeared the juices on her body. A daily application would be enough to repel most of these parasites. No one had taught her this when she was young; she simply knew what to do in such instances. This strangeness kept many people away from her, even in her own clan. That meant that she spent most of her time alone to learn such little secrets for herself. Initially she had tried to explain such discoveries to her elders, but because their fear they had ignored her as they would a bothersome hmá.
She was tired when she finally reached the remote shrine on the borders of the cleared pasture. Beyond the crude stone structure were the great woods. She took off her pack and began to settle in for the night. During her final devotionals, as Tuléng was setting, she noticed a pool of dark blue shade that seemed to flow from the growing shadows under one tree to the next. It constantly moved just outside of her direct vision, never coming into focus and always staying beyond the shrine’s boundaries.
“Surely, this was not one of the Handmaiden’s servants.” she thought. Suddenly she felt a great fear building up within her bowels. She reached down to grasp the small bronze dagger at her side. Then just as quickly the shade disappeared. And with it the daytime sounds of the forest ceased, and those of the darkness began.
There was nothing more that she could do. Fires were forbidden at the shrine, so she prepared herself for a restless sleep and prayed to the power of this place to protect her. Still, she held onto the knife for comfort.
Dawn was heralded by impatient birds high up in the trees. Their raucous noise served to warn the night dwellers to retreat to their hiding places. The creatures of the day began to awaken and to begin their routine of finding their morning repast. A small troop of dark furred kité snuffled around the shrine trying to decide if the sleeping figure would make an easy meal for their young back in the warren. After a few moments they sensed a wrongness about the place and set off sinuously on their six short legs deeper into the woods.
She woke as the diffuse light reached down through the branches to where she lay. She sat up and began to rub the sleep from her eyes and as the dreams swept from her mind she surveyed her resting place in the morning glow. Surprisingly, her sleep had been quite restful.
Rising to her feet she noticed a subtle change in the forest noises around her. The animals had changed from their constant territorial challenges and mating calls to something less strident, perhaps even welcoming. She looked out into the lessening gloom of the forest and reflecting from the sun behind her back she saw a figure coming towards her. The fearful visage of the approaching snake headed woman was enough to cause panic. Just before the fainting culminated into darkness the ophidian creature reached out towards her falling body.
Her second awaking of the day found her in a clearing deeper into the woods. Nothing looked familiar from her prone position. The logical part of her mind connected the relationship between the grey-haired woman squatting in front of her and the reptilian mask lying on the ground. The terror began to subside and she slowly looked up into the eyes of the crone.
“Get up, child. You waste precious time for training just lying there.” The old one said.
A surge of inner strength brought her to a kneeling position. She now recognized this elder as wearing the raiment of a priestess of Dilinála that served the Aspect of Eshátl ‘The Champion’ who represents the woman as defender and champion. A rarely noticed Aspect in the temple friezes she was nonetheless there depicted as a nude woman with the head of a snake. A fearsome and cruel Aspect she was not much worshipped in the peaceful village of farmers.
“Mistress, how may I serve you of the seeking of the spirit?” She reverently inquired.
“Identify this tree behind me.” She ordered.
“That is an ngósh.”
“And its importance?” she continued.
“All I know is that it is associated with the temples of Ksárul and Thúmis.”
“And what do you know of Lord Ksárul?”
“That he is one of the Tlokíriqaluyal and a great enemy to our Lady Avánthe.”
“Tlá,” the old woman reprimanded, “All is not as simple as what those half-witted visiting priestesses from the city would have you believe.” She came closer and took the girl’s hand, held it palm up and began to examine its lines. “Have you seen anything, unusual in the forest?”
She remembered back to the scare she had last night. “Yes, just before sunset I saw a blue shadow that seemed to move on its own as if it was avoiding me.”
Unfazed, the old woman was now tracing a form on the girl’s palm. “You are perceptive. Have you seen this mark on your hand before?”
“I see nothing, learned one.”
“Perhaps this will help.” The crone reached into a pouch that hung off of her belt and pulled out a small bag. She poured some of the dusty contents onto the girl’s hand and asked, “Do you see the mark now?”
The girl brought her hand closer to her face to see if there was any change. She peered closely and saw only the layer of powder. Suddenly, the priestess exhaled and blew the dust into the girl’s eyes. She doubled over, fell to the ground and began to choke and rub her stinging eyes. The pain soon passed and she looked up at her tormentor expecting even more punishment. Instead she was asked, “What do you see now?”
Where the powder had been she could clearly see the shape of an animal. “What sort of creature is this?” she pleaded.
“It is a vúr, a large leather-winged night flyer. Anything less and I would have to send you back to village with only a few scraps of herbal lore for your clan. But, it appears that you are worthy of more tests.”
The girl continued to stare at this frightening beast that now seemed all too visible. The old woman held up her hand and asked, “What do see in my palm?”
She now realized that she had a new sight that allowed her to perceive a many-limbed, segmented serpent in the priestess’ wrinkled skin of her outstretched hand. She recognized the animal. One of her cousins had been bitten by one some years ago while they were in the forest gathering berries. His death had been swift and painful. “It is a chnáu.” She replied.
“Yes, fierce beasts to mark those with fierce destinies.” The priestess noted to the confused girl at her feet.
“Get up! You have much more to see before this day is through.”
Throughout the morning they walked deeper into the forest. For all of her age the priestess was graceful amongst the threatening briars and branches. Not one touched her bronzed, naked body. The same could not be said for her young follower. Soon her clothes had been shredded by the undergrowth and before long had to be abandoned except for a small purse of keepsakes. Surprisingly, the lack of clothes produced fewer scratches as she quickly learned to avoid the plants.
Soon the pair came upon a great tree in a clearing. It had a hideous trunk the color and texture of dead flesh and its purple, meaty looking leaves only added to its menacing presence. No trees existed around it in a wide circle as if they had been warned of sudden demise if they grew too near. Even the ground beneath the tree’s canopy was barren and had the appearance of the freshly turned earth of graves. Its roots were putrid tentacles burrowing into the earth and when the wind shifted the distinct aroma of decay was overpowering.
With a curt “Follow in my footsteps”, the priestess walked across the dark soil without a care and placed her hand upon the cadaverous bole. Too tired and shocked to question the demand, the young girl placed here feet in the exact indentations that the priestess had made in the loamy dirt. Halfway across, she noticed that the ground was animated with the movements of small, moist blood-red flatworms boring in and out of the muck. As terror and nausea were about to completely take hold of her senses she reached the side of the priestess and suddenly they were no longer under the arboreal horror, but inside a stone room with sunlight glimmering through the broken mortar joints. Bits and pieces of a broken frieze on a nearby collapsed wall depicted a parade of brown and purple cloaked priests with skulls as heads.
“Don’t look so frightened, child” she said with little compassion, “you have been taught that the paths of Avánthe and Durritlámish often cross paths during the annual cycle of growth and decay of the fields. It is the same in the forest. Only out here, growth and decay are much more demanding forces and you must learn to understand and respect both.”
After passing through the web-covered entrance of the ancient building it became clear to the girl that the forest surrounding them was not the same that they were in just moments before. She did not know how far that they had traveled, but the different types of trees in the area were evidence that it had been quite some distance. Her questioning glances to the old woman were ignored and they set out again.
Gradually the trees thinned, the land grew bare, and they climbed onto a hillock to a small temple. Blue-walled and solitary, the haven stood like a sentry at the summit, looking out over the vast Layódu Swamp. Below, they could see countless monumental statues of fantastic creatures rising from the moss-covered mounds as if trying to escape their marshy prison. Their cruel, frozen toad-like visages peered out at them with sightless stone eyes. The weight of the silent, gathered army was overwhelming, like visitations from the ancient demons hemselves.