The Listening Forest

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Essa never did what was expected. Her birth had been predicted by all of the wise women for the chill turn of autumn under the boar’s ride across the night sky. She had come instead during the short hot nights of the trickster bird constellation, and she hadn’t made a sound when everyone knows that summer babes squall like a stormy sea.

When the other girls sat weaving seaweed into dolls Essa carved herself a spear. It was taken from her, but when the men of her village returned from a hunt, she found herself with offers of trade if she’d be willing to make more. She said she would, if she could come along on the next hunt.

By the time the other girls, now young women, began to giggle at the boys who were also taking steps toward manhood, Essa was the village’s finest hunter. Her stealth was the stuff of fire tales. They said she thought like the wolves. She had a cunning sense for strategy and a feel for the movements of the forest that could only be described as instinct. Always it was the injured, old or weak that she targeted, leaving the herds strong. Their forests thrived with health and a time of prosperity settled over what had been a humble fishing village at the edge of a deep wood.

One day several men on horseback galloped in from the trade road. They wore banners across their chests that signified the king in his distant palace. They tossed an enormous buck to the ground before the village elder’s feet when he came forward to welcome them.

“A greeting from your king,” said the man who seemed to lead.

Once, the villagers would have been impressed by such a large offering, but a chill of unease spread among those present. They recognized the buck. He was the leader of a large herd of deer, and they had come to refer to him as Old King, a name of endearment that Essa had started. No one had meant it as any slight on their actual king. None of them had any concept of the man, other than he represented the bannered parties to whom they gave seasonal goods without receiving anything in trade. Old King had protected his herd against wolves and bears, and even their own hunters, for years. He was mighty, fierce and well respected.

“He’s king enough for me,” Essa had said on many occasions, and she was generally met with nods.

“Come, we must celebrate!” the king’s man said, sliding from his saddle with a frown at the villagers’ silence. “A feast!” he announced, “to hear the good news we bring from King Myrinan!”

Slowly, several old women moved forward and began working on Old King.

When Essa returned that evening the three rabbits on her belt were nearly an afterthought. Something had been wrong in the forest today and she couldn’t place what it was. None of the animals were behaving correctly. The wolves had become overly bold and the bear she called Scruffer had considered taking her on, even with the other hunters making clumsy noises close by. She was preoccupied by these thoughts when she saw Osson, one of the gray haired elders, rushing to meet the hunting party before they reached the main lodge.

Flavors of cooking venison had greeted them from a long way off, which also had her puzzled. They had plenty of meat in the village but venison wasn’t among their supplies at the moment. That had been Essa’s aim this morning, actually, but Old King’s herd was nowhere to be found. Essa had noticed that Apple Doe was limping recently and it didn’t look like it was healing. If the wolves hadn’t gotten her already Essa planned to.

“It is the king’s men,” Osson explained in a hushed voice. “They brought us Old King to feast upon while we hear an announcement from King Myrinan’s own mouth.” He looked pleadingly at Essa.

Essa understood instantly. “You wish for me to say nothing,” she said.

Osson wrung his hands. It was plain on his face that he thought that an impossibility.

“Fine,” Essa shrugged, lifting the rabbits from her belt and dropping them into Osson’s twirling hands.

“I mean it Essa,” Osson called, following Essa as she strode toward the well.

Essa gazed at him calmly while she had a drink and washed her face and hands; too calmly for anyone’s liking. Without another word Essa opened the door to the great lodge and stepped inside. The other hunters hastily unloaded their kills into Osson’s arms and rushed through their washing in their hurry to get inside and keep Essa from doing whatever surprising and likely terrible thing it was that she had planned for the king’s men. When they burst in the door, though, they found a feast of merriment. Or, so it seemed.

The villagers smiled with their mouths but not their eyes. Their best brews had been brought out and the kings’ men laughed loudly in their seats of honor. Great heaping plates laden with more food than the village could eat or keep covered the tables, mostly untouched. The longer they looked, the more they felt that everything about the scene was wrong. Worst of all was Essa, sitting quietly among the giggling girls. She was even going so far as to smile, though it seemed that she had learned that skill, too, from the wolves.

“Ah, yes, these must be the men back from the hunt!” a large man at the head table said, rising to his feet. “Welcome! You have arrived just in time. Great King Myrinan sent us to announce that he is ready to consider taking a bride. All of the maidens of the land are to be escorted to his palace to enjoy a royal ball at the round belly of Minoi’s moon.”

The musicians faltered. The girls surrounding Essa expressed reactions ranging from elation to tears. Essa rose to her feet.

“We will be honored to attend,” she said, surprising everyone who knew her. “The way to the palace goes through the Old Forest, does it not? I’ve heard frightening tales of tattooed tree folk and worse. Will we be escorted by brave men like you?”

The large man beamed. “The tree folk won’t give us any trouble little lady,” he assured.

The large man was called Arbruen. He was the first to disappear on their journey toward the palace. The other men were Moror, Robtri, Hezek and Pins, and they disappeared in that order. Deep in the Old Forest, a week after setting out, the frightened girls gathered around Essa.

“I’m scared,” said one, while the next wailed, “we’re all on our own!”

“Keep your voices down,” Essa said, pulling a bow and a quiver from the pack still strapped to Pins’ horse. “We’re being watched.”

Beyond a few whimpers the girls complied, sinking down together with hands clutched and wide eyes staring. Essa stepped into the shadows of the wood and joined its eerie silence. A few minutes later she strolled back into view, the bow slung casually over her shoulder.

“Who thinks we should turn around and go home?” she asked.

Most of the girls nodded but one stood, her fists clenched. Her name was Ausavel and she was agreed to be the prettiest among them.

“I was invited to the king’s ball!” she protested. “Not to arrive is a treason!”

“Our protectors are gone,” Essa said mildly, removing Pins’ pack from his horse. “Surely the king wouldn’t expect a handful of girls to survive the Old Forest unescorted. I think the prudent thing to do is to go home.”

Ausavel stomped her foot. “Essa, we all know you did something to those men. And you know this forest better than anyone!”

Something flashed across Essa’s gaze for just a moment that made Ausavel forget what she’d been about to say. It wasn’t what she had expected. Not guilt or defiance. Not even acceptance. It had been a strange cross between amusement and commiseration.

“None of that is true,” Essa said quietly, giving Pins’ horse a pat on the rump. The horse snorted and disappeared into the trees.

“What did you do that for?” Ausavel shouted. “That horse could have carried one of us the rest of the way!”

Essa shouldered Pins’ pack. She took a few steps in the opposite direction to Pins’ horse and paused.

“I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that you think it was me,” she said, “but I did nothing to those men. The fates that befell them were brought on by their own judgment, and their inability to listen to what the forest was trying to tell them. Arbruen thought to hunt a boar half the size of his horse, for glory. The boar won. Moror failed to hear the warnings of a hive of Fist Wasps, so named because of their size. Robtri was so busy boasting about his prowess traversing the forest that he failed to hear the signs that we were being followed for the last two days by the tree folk, who took a disliking to him, as well as Pins and Hezek.”

“And you know this because you suddenly know how to find the most illusive and mythical people in the world I suppose,” Ausavel snapped. “Please. Stories of the tree folk are told to get children not to go into the woods at night.”

Essa shook her head. “It’s about listening Ausavel. In this forest, listening is how you stay alive. People make up great stories about me because they don’t understand what I do, but it’s simple. I only listen. Forests have heartbeats and breathing patterns. They have good days and bad. If you pay attention it isn’t difficult at all to understand. I’m trying to help you to understand right now, in fact,” she said meaningfully.

A girl named Berra came to stand with Essa.

“All I know is that she’s encouraged us to listen a few times now,” she said when the other girls stared at her in disbelief. “I’m listening, and all  hear is Essa trying to keep us safe. I’m ready to go back home.”

One by one the other girls came to Berra’s side until only Ausavel, Gibby and Milaps remained apart. Essa nodded and pulled a smaller pack from one of the several she carried. She tossed it to Ausavel’s feet.

“I truly hope you find your way,” she said, and she walked into the shadows of the forest with the other girls on her heels.

Gibby picked up the pack but Ausavel snatched it from her and opened it. Inside she found a bone knife, dried meats and twigs. She emptied the contents onto the ground.

“She leaves us alone in the Old Forest with a pouch full of twigs and bones,” she scoffed.

“No,” a voice said from the shadows above her head. “She left you in the Old Forest with all of the gifts you needed to make it to the other side. A bag filled with nourishment, dry tinder and a quality weapon.”

Ausavel only then noticed the intricate carvings on the handle of the bone knife at her feet.

“Most valuable of all,” the voice continued, “was her warning to listen. The tree folk aren’t known for looking kindly on those who don’t belong in their forest.”

The forest listened then to the sound of running feet.

A week later, when the daughters of the humble fishing village emerged again from the Old Forest, Ausavel was noticeably responsive to Essa’s directions. All of the girls were. Many times the elders tried to discover how their time at the king’s ball had gone but found all of the girls vague and illusive on the subject, Ausavel most of all. They claimed it had been a lovely time, but that the king had not chosen any of them to wed, a sadness that each expressed without actual melancholy. As it turned out in the years to come, King Myrinan was not a good man, and had Essa been around, there were many times when each of those girls wished they could thank her for what she had spared them. Essa though, in keeping with her nature, surprised them all by taking to the sea. She returned a few times in the first year with wild tales and friends with foreign accents, but at some point she stopped turning up. Generations later she would have been among the many forgotten except for one gray haired woman sitting before her grandchildren.

“Gather close my darlings,” she said, “Grandma Ausavel has an important story for you. It’s about a great woman. Her name was Essa, and let me tell you, Essa never did what was expected.”

Written by W. C. McClure. This may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. This is a work of fiction. None of the characters or events depicted are meant to represent anyone or anything this side of dreams. Comments are welcome!  Also, please help support this indie author by telling your friends about the excellent short story blog at
http://www.farsideofdreams.com and buying W. C. McClure’s books at http://www.wcmcclure.com. Thanks for reading!