The sun passed over the sky, ushering in a raft of exhausted expeditioneers, Eynnic guards, and Colmillo chaperones. With drooping eyes and wavering smiles they babbled amongst themselves in triumph. The star! The Star! It was beautiful! It was found at the bottom of the sea in a nest of glass spires. Along the way, although exhausted, their bowmen and their fire masters loosed flares into the sky. Sparks of red and yellow followed them the whole of the way back to the beach.
Dusk came to the shore, the Colmillo people were boisterous and ready to receive the returning heroes. For mad rowdy dances they built a grand bonfire and brought meats to cook. A celebration was to be had, for these expeditioners and the moon smiling upon their young oracle. Her face was painted in bright reds and blues. Her parents, assumingly, boasted with pride. A deer from the woods was slaughtered, fish and crustaceans alike were set beside the flame.
Expeditioneers shared their rations likewise set down upon a long bolt of thatched grass that unfurled down the beach, with billows of steam which raised up to the heavens. It all was welcoming to anyone who wished to join,
Clemnilshala, at behest of Rigmol, shared a ration of sweet cookies that she truthfully forgot were still in her possession. The girl smiled from ear to ear at the stale gift. Her smile only widened as she was lifted on to Rigmol’s back for a cantering ride about the beach. He bucked his head and reared upward in dance of distorted flames. People tied bells, charms, and even small sachets of money to his antlers. All the while he sang songs that only Clemnilshala could understand, to the Colmillo he simply bugled and chuckled, his voice a strained bleating and braying that echoed throughout the woods.
The expeditioneers bragged of their finding the star and passed around broken chunks of matter, still as sopping wet as the sea from which they were plucked, to anyone who wasn’t dancing. To Vulac, whose face softened with time as they considered the cracks and breaks in their piece. To Lavia who held it up to her ear, to Samythiel whose smile warmed while he watched her smile, though he was mid dance with a Colmillo child who stood taller than he. He did not keep the object in his grasp for long, even if it resembled the shape of the horn that she may have been missing. It curved around his hand, like a shepherd’s bugle. The world instead became a silence while he held it, the beating of heather drummed and the clapping of hands all fell away. All the while he focused his gaze on the lady who taught the tall children to dance. Clemnilshala stamped and clapped between hoofbeats. Howling much like she did weeks ago. Only weeks.
He dropped it to his feet at the sound of a breath in his ear, a wheeze, that was numb to the hairs on the back of his neck. The ghost of the woods, no elemental voice. He jumped to the side as it clattered on the rocks. He rubbed his ears and waved away the snapping spiderweb threads which allowed sound to return to him.
“Wshh” said the woods.
Lavia took her piece to Elat, showing it to him with a soft little light in her hands. Bumping the shoulder of Clemnilshala as she passed. Clemnilshala cocked her head at Samythiel and left the children to play with Rigmol. He mewled about wanting to pierce his ears, while the guest of honor brushed his mane. Clemnilshala promised to help him in his quest when she returned, provided he behaved around the kids and didn’t break any toes. He made no vows. She took a waterskin full of sweet, syrupy, alcohol and set herself down on the ground next to Samythiel, offering it to him. Muttering about the party while he took his turn to look into the dark of the woods.
“Ahhhh” she sighed with fervent crackling of her joints while she relaxed. “If I’d known tha I’d be doin’ this, I might’ve brought me horse hair”
She simply hummed, turning her arms around and showing where she placed leather and string belts of flowing decorations. White and brown in color, so she said. She offered her waterskin, Samythiel took a long drink and wrinkled his nose at how bitter the taste was.
“Reckon I’d like tae see that, when we’re out of the woods.” He managed, giving a long breath through the mouth and tracing an invisible line into the sky amongst the bright stars. Where had the clouds disappeared to. Neither one mentioned the forge or the water bucket. Nor the sore spots in their stomachs concerning the matter.
“Y’know, what if we went tae go look fer the wild thing of these woods? We can ask ‘im what’s makin everything so wrong.” Her tail wrapped around his ankle with a gentle squeeze. It took more concentration to pull it away, it wasn’t exactly a controllable portion of the body. She breathed an apology.
She shook her head. “Nothin’, but iffin Rigs says its safe would ye like tae go huntin the wild things with me?”
Samythiel gulped a breath, the sides of his mouth dragged outward and made his mustache a blonde caterpillar. With furrowed eyebrows he stood and agreed to go with. She seemed overjoyed to hunt the thing that kept the wobbly balance of this place, taking his hand and racing along to grab her bow with a newly fixed shield whose pristine dark iron was as flawless as a new cooking pan. Her arm strained as she tossed it over her shoulder.
“Ye doon’t think that the string’s gonna break?”
“Nae, et’s enchanted bow line. Scabbed it off a bandit years ago, also makes a good tent string.” She smiled and brought Samythiel from place to place, nearly dragging his feet, no doubt she put scuffs and scrapes on his boots. Lastly a visit with Rigmol and Magga who was in the middle of braiding feathers of unknown origin into his beard and behind his ears. Holding them in place with chips of money bent around into a loop. Clemnilshala’s smile softened at this.
“Oh that’s how it is” she paused “Think it’s safe fer me an’ him tae go lookin fer the wild thing of this wood?”
“Of course I’m nae gonna go causin’ trouble fer the shiftlings.”
The stag lowered his head, she took ahold of his antler and gave him a shake, bunting her forehead down.
“excellent, I’ll whistle iffin I need something. Hopefully them feathers will improve yer hearing ye old fart”
She gave a playful wink to Magga. “He thinks ye smell nice and wants ye tae scratch his neck and feed ‘im mushrooms”
The stag uttered a sound between a groan and a growl, sending Clemnilshala and Samythiel off into the woods, only one of whom was laughing. What sort of irreverence for her companion was this?
Why was it so unpleasurable?
Lanternlight revealed the way through the underbrush amid the berries and the twigs. The detritus on the floor, the home to the mushrooms and the frogs and small bugs, amplified their steps as they walked together in silence. The forest’s lack of elemental created invisible fingers of numbness that combed through Samythiel’s hair just behind his ears. He stole glances up at her, she moved strangely, her bow was a yoke, over which she rested her arms and hung her wrists. Her head was turned upward, gazing up at the sky, until every so often she would look down at him and move her mouth as though she was speaking. The only sound was wheezing of the weak breeze and crackling of the ground beneath them.
Other than this there were only the echoes of his shaded thoughts that followed just over their shoulders. As a boy he was always advised that the most dangerous spirits existed outside the window thatches at night. Where moonlight hid them and one could only see the aftermath of their mad parades. What mad aparade was this however? That the corporeal and very mortal Samythiel was led into? Wild Things? How silly. What exactly would she do upon catching and dispatching said Wild Thing? Hunt down whatever takes its place? Was she really speaking or was she moving her mouth as a practical joke?
That was until he spoke up, a shout in the middle of the night that, for a short time, removed the cotton from his ears. The crickets sang, followed by thumping and rustling about in the trees. Clemnilshala hissed and shoved him to the ground. She dropped to her knees, with a soosh, threw one corner of her cloak over her shoulder while with the other arm she pulled him into the cavity that was her hunched over body.
“Sh!” She lowered her head to his shoulder. O! her heart thumped so hard, he could feel it through the soles of his boots. After flipping her hood over her head, hiding all but her good horn in fur, did she speak.
“Take off yer shoes. We’re in the domain of the Wild Thing” was her whisper. Thumping grew louder. “Somethin’s wrong. Could be dangerous.”
Samythiel didn’t move. Her fingers tightened around his opposite shoulder while his legs went to sleep. Her head lowered, making herself as small as possible, even going so far as to squeeze her face into his beard. The ancestral spirits of the forest floor offered no guidance. Yet still his body was petrified, like a stone on the side of the path they’d made.
“I can carry the burden of yer shoes iffin ye’d like.” She muttered further. “Just remove ‘em”
A greater snapping of branches, the ground rumbled with deafening thumps, it began to pass. With haste Samythiel untied his boots. Clemnilshala meekly slowed his movements, holding a hand up.
“Shh.” Her arm slid along his back so that she could wrap her fingers around his heel and ankle. “He’s here. He’s not right. He’s sick”
How gentle her pull on his first boot, then the second, setting them to one side. She got closer to him again, hiding amid the tree. Her breath was laden with the scent of meat and liquor, it dusted the tendrils of hair around her ears across his cheek. As soft as a fine goat hair paintbrush sold in a darkened bazaar.
Samythiel peeped open his eye as a faint glow came through the woods with the sounds of snapping sticks and thumping feet. Its steps were slow, ceasing and starting again, as though it thought about every move it made. Whispy ribbons of faded brilliance showed themselves to him. A shroud over a shambling thing as great as the trees, lowered a long broad growth as a head and wove between these oldened trees until it’s faint light had faded. Bringing with it the sounds of the woods and her breath. All that remained was the low thumping of his heart beating in his chest and a calling.
A calling from deeper in the woods.
Clemnilshala, upon rising from that spot, sniffed at the air. Searching for what this part of the world had snuffed out. They walked on, following the scent of decay, in the direction of the headless being of light. Following a path through the thickets.
She stopped in her tracks once more, dropping the shielded long bow she called her own. Sick moonlight laid itself over the tortured carcass of a felled stag the size of a house. A discarded marionette, tangled in its own strings, had more dignity upon the splintered and broken stage of the woods.
She stepped over her bow, taking with her the sounds of night in the woods, the only thing that Samythiel had left to hear. Everything was reduced to dull vibrations that tickled his whiskers as she began to speak. The elements, the ancestors, held his ears closed. What she was saying was lost to the trees.
She fell to her knees, putting her hands on the sides of her head, and doubled over. The air shook and rattled with her words. Her fingers combed through her hair with one hand. The other helped her crawl forward coming to the dead thing’s eye, prying it open. Its caprine gaze look at nothing with scratches and cuts all over its surface yet there was no sign of attack on its face.
Its knee was bent under its torso, the other stretched out front in a cruel bow to whatever had broken its body and left it rotting. Clemnilshala continued to crawl with her head low, her jaw drooped open, shaking the air with the voice only the trees could hear. Samythiel approached, he laid his hand on her shoulder. She slouched forward where the whole of her body trembled. She looked through him, up at the quiet moon, its light bathed her tears in silver. Her mouth moved but only the air shifted with whichever words she dried out. Protesting the death of the Wild Thing. Demanding its name, to give it a proper grave. Or so he hoped that was what she was saying.
The spirit of the forest, the one who wheezed, uttered a name to Samythiel, a welcome return. “Yüavmir”
“Yüavmir” he repeated. “Lass, his name was Yüavmir” He heard his own voice. His chest rattled.
“Why doon’t ye lay him tae rest, so his place can be taken.”
“You do not understand” Came another voice, one which did not wheeze with every breath, taking the place of what her quivering lips motioned. “You do not understand. He is dead. He should have already been replaced. When the Wild Things die their body is taken by the ground, if not taken by the peoples. And his spirit should have awakened in a new animal here. By morning his body should have disappeared. But he…he is decaying as a normal beast. This place has no wild thing, boy.”
“This place is _____” she mouthed and threw her head back, unleashing a sound, a cry, into the night. The only thing inside these woods he would hear of her true voice ever again.
“This place is dead” Wheezed the original voice of the woods.
“This place is mine” said the other thing.