Clayton Emery

Whispering woods


An explosion like thunder made Gull look up.

The sky was clear, blue and deep. The sun was high and spring-warm. The Mist Moon, a dull white, was a fingernail paring over the western trees.

There was something else in the sky too. All Gull had ever seen aloft were moons, clouds, and birds, yet now…

A big lumpy ball like an inflated bladder drifted in the blue.

The woodcutter stepped away from the tree into a spot he'd cleared that morning. He hopped up on the stump to see better. He and his team were no more than half a league deep in the Whispering Woods. Whatever that… flying thing… was, it was close to his village. Above it.

'What in the name of Chatzuk…'

His mules snuffled uneasily. Gull shushed them and strained to hear.

The round bladder-thing was encircled with ropes, and from them hung a basket full of tiny scruffy figures, all arms and pointed heads, all jabbering. They struggled with something, making the basket sway jerkily. They were hurling things.

At his village?

There came another thunderclap, louder than the first. The stump under Gull's feet jumped, then trembled.

His mules nickered. Flossy, with her gentle disposition, minced in her leather hobble, seeking shelter under a chestnut tree. Knothead, stubborn even for a mule, lowered his head to chew through his hobble. Gull hopped down and yanked on his ear. The mule snapped at him with yellow teeth.

'Not now, Knothead!' he griped. 'I need help, not hindrances!' Tugging at the mules' collars, he started to lash them together so they couldn't wander. But something made him stop: a premonition that he wouldn't return soon.

Like most muleteers, he talked to his animals as if they understood, for often they did. 'Stay here, you two. I need see what's happening. And where's Greensleeves… Ah!'

His sister had wandered off, as usual, but the explosions had brought her scurrying back from the depths of the forest.

Greensleeves was built the opposite of her brother- small, so scrawny you could count the bones in her hands and arms. Yet she was obviously related, for her eyes were green, her chestnut hair wavy and untidy, her cheekbones wide and mouth narrow, her skin walnut-dark from a lifetime outdoors though she was just sixteen and not full-grown. She wore a faded linen smock dyed green with lichens, and a tattered shawl peppered with sticks and leaves. She wore no hat, and never anything on her feet, even in winter snows. As always, her hands were dirty, her wrists stained green from rooting in the soil and plucking at grasses. Her mother had named her Greensleeves for those stains.

Not that it mattered what her name was, for the girl barely knew it or anything else.

Frightened as a squirrel by the noise, she ran to her brother and grasped his brown hand. She gabbled in her animal tongue, chattering like a squirrel, chitter-ing like a badger, spilling incomprehensible questions as she wrung his fingers.

Gull spoke to her the same as to his mules. 'Stay here, Greenie. I'm going'-he couldn't say 'home' lest she feel deserted-'to see about something. To see a man. Stay here. I'll be back soon.' She still looked worried, and he wondered how much she understood. He pried her fingers off his hand.

His mind aswim with questions-What was happening to the village?-Gull slung his quiver and bow-case over his shoulder. He carried them for hunting, but now he might have to drive off those little… creatures in the sky. He looped his mulewhip around his belt, then hefted his big double-bitted woodcutting axe. 'Best be prepared, though I don't know what for.'

He turned to find Greensleeves close behind him. Maybe packing his weapons scared her. 'Stay, I tell you!'

He wanted to run but forced himself to walk, stretching his legs for the mile and a half trek to the forest's edge. He couldn't run more than a hundred feet anyway. Three years ago an elm tree had jumped off the stump: elm was a man-hating tree that let go without a warning crack. It had crushed his right knee. All winter had passed before he could walk again, with a permanent limp. His knee ached in damp weather, too, so he could predict storms.

It didn't ache now, despite the thunder. What could it mean?

Nor was a limp his only wound in a lifetime of wrestling trees. An oak had pinched off the last three fingers of his left hand. Though he was barely twenty years old, his legs and arms were scarred from branches and his own misguided axe cuts, but they were huge and brawny too, for what the forest had taken away it had replaced elsewhere. Because he was forever tearing through brush and chopping branches, Gull wore no cloth, but only leather, kilt and tunic. Even his long chestnut hair was drawn back with a rawhide thong. He wore clogs of hickory he'd carved himself, good protection for his toes, though they clumped mournfully on wood or stone floors.

Life in the forest had hardened Gull in other ways, though he scarcely knew it. Working alone, cutting and felling and solving problems the day long, he'd developed his own way of doing things, and was apt to ignore advice or compliments. In fact, the village wags said, working with mules had made him muleheaded. And as for keeping company with a simpleton, it was hard to tell which was which.

Now Gull veered down a brushy deer trail that would take him to the meadows sooner. And keep him hidden. All this strangeness meant trouble.

They'd been expecting it.

One moon ago, the villagers of White Ridge had tumbled out of bed to a ferocious warbling hiss. Dashing outdoors, everyone had seen the streak of yellow-white fire burn the night. Then a crash to the faraway northwest had shaken the ground, and flames had lit the horizon. A distant reach of forest had burned for days, a column of smoke blackening the sun. Finally late winter rains had doused the inferno and the smoke stopped.

Folks had not spoken of the event and had silenced the children's queries-everyone recognized an omen, a portent of disaster. And day by day, people cast glances over their shoulders, waiting for it to arrive.

Today was the day. Two thunderbolts close together, a weird floating bladder of jibbering rascals. What…

Gull whirled at a slithering behind him. A snake…

No, his sister.

Greensleeves clutched her ratty shawl and chirruped like a raccoon, a question full of fear.

'Damn it!' her brother snapped, for the noise had startled him. 'I told you to stay!'

The simpleton bobbed her head, flinched as if he'd struck her. Tears ran down her cheeks and wet her lips.

'Oh, very well. Come along. But quick, now!' Gull never could resist her crying. But half the time he couldn't guess what she wanted.

Gull brought Greensleeves to the woods each day to keep her from the village. Between her uprooting gardens, shielding animals from harm and work, poking in the bread ovens, filching babies from their cradles, and otherwise being a pest, everyone agreed the woods were best for her. There she was happy, could poke and pry and play with animals to her heart's content while Gull watched over her-as best he could. By unspoken agreement, and the brawn of the brother's arms, no man in the valley would molest her, and strangers were rare, but sometimes Greensleeves would be gone for hours, and Gull worried. Otherwise, he found his sister no trouble, welcomed her company as he would a dog's.

Yet, that the two prospered in the Whispering Woods was another sign of queer natures. No one else in White

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