(Originally published in Kinships issue 2, 2001)
Shira Lightfoot sat on the balls of her feet on a slight rise of the plain. The late red light of the sun on her left hid much of the detail of her face and body under shades of red and black shadow. A group of children from Brindledown who had gathered to watch her, drifted off in boredom, then regathered, stared at Shira’s bow, which lay across her thighs. She had driven the steel capped butt of her spear into the ground. This was also a source of interest for them. The children whispered to each other excitedly, speculating on the fate of her companion.
For her part, Shira ignored the children as she was lost in her own thoughts and staring at the small forest, no more that a day’s hike along either axis, opposite her. Dhom had entered the wood when the sun was at its zenith. After hearing the villagers’ stories he had decided that the ‘ghosts’ were likely just a pack of territorial wolves. Bandits could have been an option, but neither Dhom nor his niece could see why. There were no big trade roads for days around the area. The nearest town was three days to the west. Besides, she thought, the villagers would have seen any outlaws as they came to steal or buy food and other necessities.
Wolves were pretty standard fare in the line of work she and her uncle did. But Dhom must have sensed there could be more to the village legend. Haraha, the village elder, had told them that there were stands of trees like this one all over this part of the world. He had said that many were even larger than this one. Haraha then explained that no one entered these woods anymore. They claimed that the ghosts and ruins of a civilization that had died long before the League of Carthe and the independent city-states had begun expanding east. It was said that those who entered the wood by day and did not return by the evening meal were as good as lost forever.
Dhom, who usually kept her close to continue teaching her their trade, had told her, “Shira, I agree it is probably wolves. Just in case, give me until morning. If I’m not back, find out what you can. You can decide what to do from there.” Then he had clasped her forearm and she his. Their eyes met, doing with a look what other families would do with hugs and kissed foreheads or cheeks. The two hunters had not done that for years. They felt there was an image of professionality they had to maintain.
When the sun finally sank below the horizon, Shira shivered and relaced her leather vest against the swift chill of night. She slung her bow, wrenched her boar spear out of the ground, and walked slowly back to Brindledown. Dhom was not back, but Shira felt that he was still alive out there. Uncle and niece had grown so close since her father had died and her Elven mother had left that they just—knew—such things. Even so, a shiver of doubt worked its way up her spine.
Shira did her best to sleep, after all she would need all her energy to find Dhom. Instead she tossed and turned restlessly and Sleep refused to visit her. As the moon began its slow descent toward the west the huntress gave up. She rose, rehung her dagger at her belt, shrugged into her vest and cloak and walked out into the village. Aimlessly Shira drifted through the night around the clustered homes of Brindledown. Her own village was off to the northwest and Darrow, the town that spawned and helped sustain the villages, was further west. A small place deep inside Shira wished to be back in Atwater in the small two room home she shared with her uncle. She smiled at the memory of the two of them sitting in front of the fire telling each other stories or playing drukish, a betting game Dhom had learned in the city-state of Archin when he had served in the army long ago.
Lost in her thoughts, Shira did not see or hear the figure that walked toward her until it was almost on top of her. Sheer instinct made her leap back and she had drawn her blade before she was even sure what was happening. The flash of moonlight on her polished steel stopped the figure’s advance. In a harsh dry voice it croaked, “Shira?”
Her knife disappeared and Shira slipped under his arm with a muffled cry, “Dhom! Are you all right? What was in there?” Then she noticed something else, “What happened to your bow and spear?”
Dhom only shook his head and groaned, “Doesn’t matter. Must leave. Must go now. Must leave.”
Shira’s mind raced. She had never seen her uncle like this before. Something was wrong. “Sure, Dhom. In the morning. Did you get what was out there? What was it?”
Her uncle only murmured, “Must leave. Must go now.”
The half-Elven huntress helped her uncle to the room they had been sharing. It was really the home of one of the men who had disappeared recently, but Shira refused to think of that because it was a bad omen. She got Dhom to lie down and sat over him for the rest of the night. All of her senses screamed that something completely unnatural was going on in Brindledown, but there was nothing she could do yet. Shira kept herself from hitting something only so as not to disturb Dhom’s much needed sleep. An hour before dawn began to climb over the horizon Shira’s consciousness finally slipped away and her chin drooped to her chest.
Falling into sleep, Shira began to dream. In her dream she was back in her youth. Her father, Prol, was out in the field. Tyrie, her mother was out back tending to the garden. And Shira’s older sister Kryse was keeping track of Shira and her other younger siblings. Then Darkel Forest opened up and screaming creatures spewed forth from it. Shira shuddered and woke with a start just as her parents dying cries began to reach her ears. Looking out the window of the small hut she saw the first tendrils of dawn creeping over the horizon. She tugged her rough wool blanket tighter around her shoulders. A small tear wound its lonely way down her cheek.
When dawn came in full a short time later it found Shira composed and studying her uncle’s recumbent form. After a few moments she rose with a sigh and walked to the door of the small home. Dhom’s injuries had been minor scratches and bruises, not the sort of wounds Shira expected from wolves or other predators. She stared out the door toward the small forest. There was something out there that had managed to scare Dhom although it apparently could not seriously harm him. After all the problems and creatures that she and Dhom had dealt with for the local villages, Shira had never seen him act in anyway except calm and collected. His current state reeked of sorcery.
Shira turned to reenter the hovel and came face to face with her uncle. He was staring at the wood as well, seeming oblivious to her presence. She paused and took in his features. There was more grey at his temples than she remembered and more wrinkles around his eyes and mouth.
He was getting old.
Shira shook away the thought and placed her hand gently on her uncle’s shoulder. She felt the still firm muscles underneath his shirt and was reassured. Dhom came to with a start, “I believe the villagers. Nothing we can do, Shira. We should leave now.”
His niece, whom he had raised as a daughter, could not believe her ears. Gently, but firmly, she slid past him and said, “No, Dhom. We have accepted payment and given our word. We cannot go back on our word. You taught me that.” She rummaged in Dhom’s pack and withdrew an ornate wooden box.
Sitting on one bed, Shira opened the box to reveal their one treasure. Inside, protected by a velvet lining, lay a single arrow. The shaft was smooth dark maple terminating in a bronze head. The tool had been in the Lightfoot family for generations. It was said that four hairs of a unicorn’s mane were embedded in the shaft and that the fletching was phoenix feathers. Her grandfather had said the arrow was unbreakable and fully immune to the effects of fire. Shira had her doubts, but she had to admit that it was beautiful and that she had never seen it fail, even against the most powerful sorcerers and unnatural beasts that had come into the area. Which, admittedly, was not saying much.
Dhom came back in and saw what she was doing. He closed the box. “We’re leaving for home, Shira.” His tone of voice negated discussion or argument.
With her confusion shifting to unbridled anger, Shira jumped up, “No! You can leave if you want, but I will stay!” She threw open the box, snatched her bow and the family arrow, and swept out of the house before Dhom fully realized what had happened or moved.
Shira heard her uncle following after her through the tiny village. She felt him stop by the last building and stare after her. But she refused to turn back and look. It would probably be more than she could bear. Seeing her uncle afraid of whatever was out there was just too close to the loss of her parents for Shira to deal with right now. Besides, she thought, there was still Dhom’s gear in the woods. She should at least recover any bit of that which might be useful or salvageable.
Staring straight ahead with single-minded purpose, Shira headed for the small forest.
She drove her spear point first into the ground a few strides from the wood. It would be added weight and cumbersome among the dense trees, unless she met bears or boars, she knew. Shira continued forward with her bow ready and an arrow set to fly.
As the huntress approached the low underbrush along the forest’s edge she began to feel the eeriness the local villagers had spoken of. It was a nagging, back of the mind thing, like someone coming up and poking her lightly in the arm repeatedly. Shira brushed the feeling off as little more than the effect of the villagers’ fear on her thoughts. She pressed on into the wood searching the ground and branches for signs of any creature, natural or otherwise. All she could detect were the usual small rodents and birds, and the path of broken twigs and leaves that must have been Dhom’s escape route.
Moving deeper into the forest, Shira slowly realized that the formerly nagging feeling of eeriness was steadily growing. The deeper she went into the wood the stronger the mental poking became. A few hundred steps further and Shira felt the first bit of doubt worrying at her mind.
Perhaps Dhom had been right, she thought, perhaps we should have left.
The huntress shook off the feeling with difficulty. She had to find out what was in the wood. Her duty to the villagers demanded it, as did her stronger duty to her uncle. Shira pressed on, following minuscule spoor that her uncle had left on his way in. She broke out in a light sweat that had nothing to do with the heat.
A short time later, when Shira paused for a swallow of tepid water, she felt the urge to flee pressing down upon her mind, almost as a physical weight. For a score of heartbeats she was tempted to throw down the skin and run back to her uncle. At the thought of Dhom, Shira’s resolve strengthened. She capped and stowed the skin of water. The huntress felt in her bones that she must be getting close to the prey Dhom had found.
There, she heard it. A large rustling in the brush near a stand of birch off to her left.
Shira dropped behind a log as the sound came again.
From the noise she guessed it was larger than a bear. When the sound came again Shira paused and considered.
Maybe twice the size of the largest grizzly she had ever seen. But it was all wrong. Something that big should be visible through the sparse vegetation.
She studied the trees carefully, looking for any sign of the beast while remaining under cover. Shira noted that the trees she had first assumed to be birches seemed too flexible in the light breeze. Then there were the wide, flat, fork-like leaves, unlike any she had seen before. And some had bright orange flowers on their younger branches.
The noise of the beast came again, bringing Shira back to her task. There was something odd about the sound this time though. This time it was accompanied by a feeling of fear in her mind.
Slowly, before she ran, Shira came to realize that the sense of fear and apprehension did not come from within her. It came from somewhere else.
The beast? Could it see or sense her? If so, why could she not see it?
The feeling of apprehension came to her again, this time with an image before her eyes. Shira found she could not describe what she was seeing in her head. It was a mix of swirling colors, a sense of small animals, perhaps even a clear grove on a breezy spring day, but that was the best she felt she could do. All she knew for sure was that it was a very peaceful image.
Then the animal noises stopped. Hope and fear mingled and flooded the huntress’ mind along with another image, one of the trees in the nearby grove. Shira shook her head once quickly. She was familiar enough with illusions, from her previous experiences, to realize that was what the beast must have been. But she was not yet ready to accept what the images seemed to be trying to tell her.
Thinking reasoning plant-life was impossible beyond the instincts she had seen in some carnivorous ones. At least, so she thought.
Tentatively, Shira tried to exude good feelings. She tried to transmit her excitement and wariness. She set down her bow and concentrated her entire being on remaining calm and focusing on peaceful, harmless thoughts.
She was rewarded with the scent of a spring breeze and a feeling of almost rapturous ease radiating from the grove.
The huntress shook off the reverie with a start. This was crazy, she thought. Not to mention impossible.
Shira grabbed her bow and set off at a jog back toward Brindledown. There she would get Dhom, if he had remained, and leave. The villagers’ money would be repaid. And she would never speak of this event to anyone ever again. Shira knew that anyone would consider her story ludicrous. And they would be right, she reminded herself as she left the forest.