It’s new and shiny! How extraordinary!
~ Tattle’s Blunt Adventures
The Great Dividing Forest
Light filtered into the clearing in dancing sunspots.
Birds chirped, their melodies entwining harmoniously, and the old forest was alive with small creatures.
The fire died a natural death during the night. Near it a man and a woman lay feet to feet. Their limbs were twisted as if something dropped them from on high, but they appeared unscathed. They were in complete contrast, he tall and dark, and she small and fair.
Kylan stirred to open eyes on a beautiful new day. The forest smell was wholesome and fresh and he drew the fresh air deep into his lungs.
An instant later he hurtled up as recollection of the night’s events crowded in. He revolved on his feet, seeking danger, furious that his heart was traitorous. It beat like a drum roll at a fireside bards’ fest, only without identifiable rhythm. Gradually he relaxed; the birds were too happy.
“Jess? Are you there, girl?” he called out, but only forest sounds greeted him. No Jess.
He blinked back tears, feeling as if part of him was cut away. Thank you, my angel. I will never forget you.
Only then did he see a pair of hiking boots, and attached to them a whole person, a young woman. He found no fitting explanation.
He rubbed at his eyes, thinking he was hallucinating, and realized his reading of potential danger was skewed if it took him this long to notice the glaringly obvious stranger beside his fire pit.
Taranis, did something else happen after I lost it?
The woman stirred and saw him staring at her and scrambled up, eyes wildly piercing the surrounding undergrowth.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
She seemed normal enough, even concerned, her violet eyes wide and innocent. How? No one came into the Forest.
“Who are you?” he asked, not in the mood to trust. “How did you get here?”
She folded her arms across her chest. “I’ll forgive you in advance for your rude behaviour. Under the circumstances it’s understandable, but you do it again and I aim to wallop you one, you hear?” She glared at him and Kylan’s tension eased. “I’m not here to do you ill, really. I heard you last night and thought you needed help. I heard that creature. I saw funny flame and, I’m ashamed to admit this, I think I fainted or something … some help I was, sorry. My name is Kisha of the Tan.”
She planted her feet squarely, daring him to contradict her. He watched her a moment longer before he laughed in relief. His voice was deep, his laughter musical. Here was a man clearly in love with life.
“Forgive my terrible manners, Kisha - I’m Kylan.” He paused, but she did not react other than to nod in acknowledgement. “And, hey, I think I fainted too, so don’t feel bad.” He frowned then in utter confusion. “I can’t remember what happened after I jumped over the fire … there was a voice in my …” He stopped, and paled. His mother’s voice sounded in his mind, telling him to remember the words. “Did you see what happened?”
Kisha snapped her fingers. “We didn’t faint; we collapsed, because you shouted!”
Remember the words. “I shouted something?”
“What’s wrong? It probably saved our lives.”
“Saved our lives?” Kylan repeated. “What do you mean?”
Kisha bit her bottom lip. She clearly sensed something was wrong. “You don’t remember?” When he shook his head, she went on, “Well, I can’t pronounce the Ancient Tongue as well as you obviously can, but it was a protection …”
“Excuse me? Ancient Tongue?” His eyes narrowed.
“Ancient Tongue, mister. Why does that bother you?”
“Let us assume I did.” Kylan said it softly and carefully. “How can you know I spoke it, when no one has spoken it since long before Drasso?”
“Don’t do that with your eyes! I’m not the enemy! I know no one speaks it anymore! And you know what, you shouted, not me.” Kisha paused, and drew a breath. “Whatever. I’m parched. I was about to make tea last night when I heard a dog …” Her eyes grew round. “Oh dear, your dog?”
Kylan shook his head.
Kylan nodded and started collecting kindling. She saw poor Jess and thus it was real, and it hurt.
Kisha watched him for a moment and darted to the bushes to drag her pack forth. While he got the fire going, she readied the makings of tea.
He watched her in silence, stoked the fire, blew on it, and all the while what she said went around in his mind. Then, as the embers collected steadily, he asked, “How do you know it was the Ancient Tongue?”
Kisha ceased rummaging in her pack.
Kylan looked up from his handiwork with the fire. A queasy feeling settled into his stomach.
“I don’t understand, Kylan; we all know the Ancient Tongue.” He gave a dark frown and she rushed on. “Are you serious? We grow up with it, read it, write it, but we’re unsure how to pronounce it, so we don’t speak it. How can you not know?”
“There’s no written record of the language.”
Kisha was flabbergasted. “No written …? Of course there is! The Oracles!”
Kylan shook his head.
“You don’t know the Oracles?” Kisha gasped. “The ten volumes gifted to us after the war with Drasso? Man, where did you grow up?”
“I was about to ask you the same. Our learned have searched for Ancient lore for generations, and you say there are ten volumes! Do you have an idea what a treasure that is? Why do you keep it hidden; is that not selfish?”
“How dare you!”
He raised his hands. “I don’t mean to insult, but it does seem bizarre that on the one hand written record is absent and on the other you claim to have ten volumes.”
“Not me personally.”
“But you know it, read it, and write it. You recognized it last night when I have no clue what I said or even that I said anything at all.” He paused. “Kisha of the Tan? Tan? Is that the name of your village, and if it is, I’ve never heard of it.”
Kisha stared at him as he stared at her. “Crikey, it’s as if we’re from different worlds.”
His head jerked. Something was about to change forever, something akin to total revolution.
“Tan is the name of my clan. Our village has no name; we don’t name them for we are known by our Bellwether’s clan ancestry. My father was the Tan Bellwether …” She looked away from his intense gaze, found her pot and filled it with water. All the while he watched her. She put the pot to boil and met his gaze again, bravado rather than courage flowing through her.
He said, “There are no more clans. That tradition was abandoned when too few remained after Drasso, and you’re right; it’s as if we are from different worlds.” Kylan paused before asking, “From which direction did you enter the Forest?” Then something occurred to him. “Aaru above, you don’t live in the Forest, do you?”
Kisha shook her head and her hair flapped about her face. She reached over to throw her herbal concoction into the warming water. “The clans live among hills and farm the flat areas.”
“There are no clans,” Kylan stated.
Kisha took a deep breath. “The clan system was never abandoned … in the north.”
Kylan rocked back on his heels. She really was a striking woman and her words more so. He assimilated what she attempted to tell him and understood. Why were they not calling each other liars? Was it because of Infinity, a legend a second before her arrival, real in the aftermath? That was an evil; was this not good? He believed there had to be balance in everything; he saw it in nature all the time.
He was taught no one lived beyond the Great Dividing Forest; beyond the huge band of trees lay only wasteland. Drasso’s legacy.
Nobody had crossed the divide for a long time and rumour had it those that did a long way back never returned. Generally people no longer even entered the fringes.
He did. He was a master of herb lore and found his herbs growing in abundance among the trees. He found rare varieties in tiny niches throughout the forest. Ten years ago, as a young apprentice, he desperately needed herbs for relieving advanced swollen joints, and entered the Forest. He found his herb with minimal effort; he also discovered a haven.
An unspoiled, giant garden filled with colour, life and peace. It was a sylvan paradise that spoke directly to the well within.
He returned with his herb and recounted to folk what he discovered, but they thought he was too exuberant in testing his plants on himself; eventually he ceased talking about it. As he grew older, the Great Dividing Forest evolved into a sanctuary from a narrow world. He spent more time in the Forest now than out.
The point - if tradition was incorrect about the Forest, was it also likely misinformed as to what lay beyond? To the north? Ages had passed.
“Where did you enter the Forest?” Kylan asked again.
She rose to orient herself and after a moment’s thought pointed northwest. She lowered her gaze to his. “And you, Kylan, where did you enter?”
Despite his progressive attitude, he was shocked. Not afraid, not angry, merely stunned to find much overturned in a brief time.
He drew breath and rose as well. Keeping his gaze locked to hers, he pointed in the general direction signifying southeast.
They stared at each other a long time, arms gradually falling to their sides.
Over Kisha’s tea, and breakfast of quail eggs and unleavened cakes, and after she helped him bathe the scratches on his neck, Kisha and Kylan proceeded to tell each other of a way of life neither had deemed probable.
Haltingly at first and with much wonder, they spoke honestly and openly, then with ever-greater confidence as both became more acquainted with the saga.
Drasso’s continuing legacy was a continent divided by the one region that remained relatively untouched by the battles - the Great Dividing Forest. Valaris was a water world - one continent and thousands of unexplored, uninhabited islands, the rest being ocean in every direction. Thus, when one described the continent as divided, one actually meant a world was separated and its people also, most effectively as Kisha and Kylan came to understand.
Both north and south regarded the Forest as a barrier against the other side, and - due to annihilation in proximity to the band of trees - both sides spread the word of the wastelands, never seeing beyond to a different reality. Awed and overcome by the undeniable destruction, survivors regarded the trees as a blessing, a natural border to guard against encroachment of poisons left behind when the war ended, but time passed, and the Forest itself became forbidden.
Such is the nature of man.
More survived in the north, and it was soon obvious to Kylan, when Kisha spoke of the north, she meant only the central peninsula, the one called the Meth. It was a mountainous region that aided in hiding from Drasso and when it was safe the clan system of the past simply continued.
Fewer survived Drasso in the south, the vast plains a great disadvantage, but it meant more available land after, and the population grew swiftly. The clan system was abandoned; folk flourished as individuals. Old family names disappeared and new ones were invented.
Only the Gosa Desert in the far south remained uninhabited.
“There are nineteen clans,” Kisha explained after initial incredulity wore away. “The Tan, San, Mye and Kinna are the oldest and largest. Every few generations a family will break away to start a new clan and it’s encouraged to aid genetics.”
“Why did you venture this way?”
“My father died …” She rushed on before Kylan could ask. “I felt I was meant for something else, so I left. I entered the trees by accident, or so I thought. I’ve been having strange dreams, almost like a beckoning. As if I have to be somewhere specific and be there soon. Am I making sense?”
Kylan set her at ease. “I have had dreams, too, the last couple of nights. Actually, they were more like mind games. Jess would wake me before I got scared or hurt. I think she sensed it, dream or not. She had this gift - stupid, I know, but the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced she had something special.”
He paused to clear his throat, eyelids flickering. “My dreams are more like … I don’t know, about recognition? Like I’ll know something to be true when it happens for real? It’s not the Forest. This is a good place and events like last night would be an intrusion, not caused by evil lurking amid the trees. It brought us together; crikey, in real terms it brought north and south together, and that is great … right?”
Kisha frowned. “I would think so, but you know how superstitious people are.”
“There’s a lot of that around at the moment,” Kylan muttered. “Folk talk about evil eyes and bad signs …” His voice petered out. “Maybe they’re right. There have been odd happenings, including this, last night and our dreams. Wells have gone dry, cattle drop dead for no apparent reason, people fight among themselves like there’s new aggression in our genes, and weather patterns are mixed up. Farinwood is an outpost not far from the Divide, a cheerful town with generous folk, but now dark clouds and mists hang over the old buildings and countryside and folk have become surly and strange. The children especially are downright scary.”
“What are you saying?” Kisha whispered.
“Maybe we’re meant to meet and maybe we’re headed to the same place you feel beckoning? I believe there are dark forces at work, and I’m really not a superstitious person - you saw her last night. We’re a divided world - the two of us now know how thoroughly - but it holds in everyday thought, and dark forces feed on division and strife. Taranis, they seduce the children first. I came to the Forest to think and now wonder if I wasn’t pushed here.”
“And you think you will know when it happens,” Kisha murmured, understanding his earlier comments.
“Like we’re to play a part in saving ourselves from these dark forces,” she unravelled aloud. “By the way, the clans say darak forces - the fallen.”
“Doesn’t matter how you say it, but now that you put it that way … and what can we do?”
Kisha shrugged. “There are signs in the north also, but we thought it the weather.”
“Something’s a-foot,” Kylan mused. “I only hope it’s not like Drasso again. Infinity, according to legend, was his mother and she might have a vendetta against Valaris.”
Well into the morning they talked, and grew comfortable with each other. Apart from speculating on the nature of the signs, they wanted detail of each other’s ways; legends, daily tasks, astronomy, schooling, class distinctions, talents, weather, entertainment and much more. In a few hours they closed the gap between two alienated races as no politician could ever achieve via negotiation.
“What, in Aaru’s name, is a Bellwether?” Kylan asked at one point, causing Kisha to giggle. A Bellwether, she explained, was a leader, a headman. “Ah, like our mayors,” Kylan murmured.
Around the time their stomachs said it was time to eat again, with the sun riding the heavens directly above, they discussed in greater detail the night before, both comfortable enough to admit fears and sadness.
Now that he understood her familiarity with the Ancient Tongue, Kylan asked what it was he inadvertently said. A protection spell, she said.
“Sorcery is outlawed!” Kylan shouted. “I would be flogged!”
Kisha bit at her lip. “We don’t hold with sorcery either … but we certainly wouldn’t flog people. That’s barbaric.”
“Right, which is why nobody delves into the art,” Kylan said, and studied his hands. “A spell of protection? How could I know such a trick?”
“From what you’ve told me it must be something your mother taught you.”
“I barely remember her. Does that mean she was a sorceress? I heard her voice clearly, I remembered it well - no, I’ll never believe that.”
Kisha laid a comforting hand on Kylan’s bare forearm. It was the first time they touched, and they glanced at each other in some confusion. She removed her hand, and looked down.
“I think your mother loved you very much. That’s why she taught you something to protect you.”
He was uncomfortable and changed the subject. “You say you’re beckoned to a place. Do you know to where?”
“I see a well in a clearing and follow my feet.”
“The Well of Crystal Sound. According to legend Taranis bathed there before going on to battle with Drasso.”
“And Drasso died,” Kisha whispered. “And now Infinity is back.”