Roots Ever Deeper Part 6: Grafting Pains

Charcoal scraped over the loose sheets of bark in front of him, blackened fingertips tracing the lines of tally marks and labels to the quiet rhythm of the rain outside. A quiet harrumph of displeasure is followed shortly after by the rumbles of “hmm” and “ahh”, as the line is quickly struck out and re-tallied based on the half-scribbled note slid into the ledger’s margins. Why did people wait to submit their plans for spring so late in the winter, when there was little time left for reconciling the records against the stores?

Sighing, Etienne took the opportunity to stand and stretch, adding blackened fingerprints to similar marks on his shirt as he twisted to and fro, seeking the subtle pop of joints and ligaments sliding back into proper place after too much time stooped over the desk. Spring was on its way sooner than expected, and that was the problem. Short winter meant flush storehouses and happy townsfolk, but less time for the soil to renew itself and feed the endless maze of root and vine that fed the land. They could clear away the deadwood, crop the bent and broken limbs to allow for healthy growth, but was the food there to fuel it? And that was before this mess with the wizard and his curse, sapping the lifeblood of the forest for his own purposes…

His gaze turned to the storm outside, seeing the rivulets of runoff worm their way back to the river. Everything was connected here, hung in a delicate balance overseen by the spirits and managed by the efforts of man and beast. How will things change, when the Mists finally fail, when the Standing People no longer have the strength to talk to the people and are left as deaf and dumb as the lion statue the townsfolk worship around? Tears well in his eyes at the thought, quickly brushed away with a careless hand leaving streaks beneath his eyes.

Realizing what he had done, tears quickly changed to mirth, quiet laughter bubbling forth as he sought out the basin to clean the coal from face and hands. Enough maudlin thoughts, he confirmed to himself, reaching for soap and cloth. We should be looking forward to spring, and the return of the sun. The town was growing ever closer together, the Circle grew in strength as Patrons were selected and blessings granted, and the near impossible had occurred in Grandfather Oak agreeing that their changes were for the best.

As thoughts shifted to Oak, a still-damp hand paused to reach for the scar over his heart, still pink and fresh even all these months later. Yes, perhaps now is the time to finally have that chat, now that the winter winds were giving way to the season of change…

Roots Ever Deeper Part 5: From a Lowly Acorn

Sap and blood mingled together in small rivulets under the careful edge of his knife before he wound a clean cloth around his left hand to staunch the flow. Now that Willow-bark’s Pact had faded, he had expected his exploratory cuts to hurt, and the lack of pain was equally a relief and of concern. Soon, the linen hid the worst of it, leaving only the rough edges exposed like spider’s legs growing down each finger, tiny sprigs of gathering moss like the first fuzz on a baby’s head. Tests had shown that there was no loss of dexterity or feeling from the flesh on spindly fingers, but the bark wrapping around the palm, backhand, and wrist itself only passed on heat, cold, or pressure, and would split apart at the first touch of a blade. So much for the hope that it would at least act like the armor it appeared at first glance to be.

Still, what was done was done, and there was no sense in tears or rage. A hand was a small price to pay for Marinette’s life, and he would do it again even knowing the cost. He worried more about the mark his act had left on her breast: was it merely a scar, a memento of her brush with death, or was it a sign of the curse taking hold on her as well? Yet another question for Grandfather Oak come next market, after the fall harvests were complete and winter stores laid down.

Etienne sighed, then began a series of breathing exercises drilled into him since childhood. After a minute, he opened his eyes, now freed of all the stress and fear their journey into the Thicket had accrued: the nightmare’s cold touch spiking through his heart; the sickening snap as Hugo’s leg was shattered by the thorned grasp of the shades hounding his desperate rescue of Marinette; the weeping sobs of Lunette joining with Rowan’s keening of relief into a song of pathos that brought tears to his eyes at the mere memory; all were breathed out into the world, no longer held within to fester and bring doubt, like a blight scarring healthy wood to uselessness.

His gaze drifted away from the canopy overhead and to the small mound he sat beside, clustered at the base of Oak’s roots. Rowan was back among them, freed from the Thicket, but bound to have scars from their journey and the long task of warding off the Devourer before that. Would it be better to let them sleep, to recover themselves and emerge on their own time, or to accept the help they offered in payment of the debt of their salvation, and potentially cripple their recovery? Only time would tell, but that was the one thing the town was swiftly running out of. Reports on the encounters with the anacrusis beast said that it was only growing stronger and more dangerous, a sure sign of the rising strength of its master. Soon, the townsfolk would have to risk direct conflict with the beast and its horde of slaves and abominations, or else they risked destruction of all they held dear.

The silence of the grove gave him little reassurance. The soft rumbles of the ancestors within their wooden slumber was lost in the slow cadence of the beating of his heart, and his eyes grew heavy. Sleep then, and recover his strength. There would be plenty of challenges come the next day.

Pulling his cloak around his shoulders and tipping the brim of his hat to shade his face, Etienne soon stilled into sleep, shaded by the mighty arms of the great oak tree at his back, the soft breath of leaves meeting with his own snores as the heavens turned overhead.

Roots Ever Deeper Part 4: A Dirge for Youth

You often don’t recognize the normal sounds of life until they are disrupted. They fade into the background, forming a symphony that scores your highs and lows, your successes and triumphs: The ringing of bells to tell the passage of time. The calls of kith and kin going about their daily business. The grinding buzz of crafting tools, steady beats of axes, and the soft scraping of hunters dressing their latest kills. All dance in time to the pumping bellows of the breath and the swinging of limbs directed to their tasks, but beneath it all, the steady dance of the heart, softly moving humors along their way to maintain the balance of life.

You never realize how important something is until it’s gone.

You can never truly understand the meaning of silence until you rest like a tree, your arms outstretched to the morning sun, the rays soaking through your flesh and filling you with light. The thoughts and passions that drive creatures seem insignificant compared to the songs of birds, the dance of winds, the slow seeping coolness of rich, dark soil full of moisture and tiny seeds of life below…

It is a gift; one unasked for and unearned.

It is a curse; forced by a greater power and paid for in blood.

It is a duty; taken up with zeal so that others may yet grow stronger and the balance be restored.

They say that the songs of a Maiden are pure and full of the joy of discovering youth, while the voice of a Mother is silent, yet full of the memory of song. I think this deceptive, as Mothers can still sing, if merely following the rhythm of a different drum. Lost is the fire and passion of Spring, the yearning desire to Know and Name, instead given over to the steady determination of Summer, where tasks *must* be done lest disaster come.

Gone is the birdsong, sweet in the morn, and remains the hunting cry, sudden and shrill.

You don’t know what you have until it’s gone.

Roots Ever Deeper Part 3: A Feast for Fools

[Recommended listening:]

Rain poured down from the roiling mass of thunderheads, bouncing and tumbling off of leaves and branches alike, seeking their new home in thirsty soil and sodden clothing, weighing down wool and linen to cling to flesh. It was all the same to Etienne. The dirt, the roots of the great trees, his pale skin shivering beneath the weeping skies, all were numb before the haze in his mind, locking him into a state of reliving the night before as a series of images; no sound, no touch, merely light and shadow, red and hungry. If someone were to come across him in this state, only the slight steam of his breath would reveal he yet lived.

‘Why do I try so hard, when we can’t even agree on something as simple as upholding a promise?’

‘When have they sacrificed anything for this town, this place sacred to us all? We give, and give, and always bow to their sensibilities, and for what? More loss? More pieces of ourselves torn away?’

His hat, long since sodden, gave up the fight against gravity and slipped off with a squelch of wool and bark meeting at force, sending the small planter dangerously close to tipping over and losing its precious cargo. The sight snapped him from his thoughts, lunging to save the seedlings, and successful at the cost of a face of mud and loam. The scent of rich earth dragged him back to this time, this place, letting the shades of the past evening finally lose their grip and retreat back into memory.

In their place came tears. Of sorrow. Of rage. Of helplessness and frustration and a thousand things and none, all mingling with and becoming lost in the steady rain that refused to quit, determined to accomplish its goal of returning life to the land after such a harsh winter.

Above it all, a distant cry of a hawk, the voice somehow overlaid with the feeling of [Hunger/Hunt/Prey] as it carried across the forest. It seemed his friend was awake, and starving. A sudden snort of laughter at the thought was cut off by a surge of mud meeting sinus, leaving him sputtering and fighting to clear his face of the invader, before turning face to sky, allowing the cool drops to wash away his tears.

Maybe he had convinced them, maybe he had not, and would soon be an oath-breaker. There was nothing more he could do but to *be*, and hope it would be enough. What was the old saying again? Ah yes: “Faire flèche de tout bois.”

“Make your arrows from any wood, my children, as each is as precious as the last, and you never know which will feed you and which will feed the forest.”

Roots Ever Deeper Part 2: A Gift of the Moon

“If you keep digging like that, you’re going to ruin my good hatchet, fils.”

The quiet voice on the wind disturbed his prayers, scattering thoughts like cattails in the hand of a curious child. He swallowed hard, eyes locked on the bloody tangle of roots and soil before him, before restarting his entreaty to Willow for her peaceful guidance through the Thorns for Simon.

‘Grand-mère, veuillez guider cette pauvre créature vers son repos. Il a parcouru nos chemins et a accepté votre bénédiction. Menez-le à travers les Épines sans blessures, qu’il puisse retourner sans ombre dans le cycle du monde.’

The moon shone brightly all around, the specks of heart’s-blood on his hands glowing softly in contrast to the white criss-cross of scars on his flesh. The words tumbled from his lips were paired with puffs of steam, the night air cutting into lungs with every breath. It wasn’t enough to block out the gentle touch of a hand on his shoulder, her words in his ears.

“You did as you were told, beb. You listened to your Mère, and got what dat poor boy needed. Don’ you waste tears dat it wasn’t what you wanted.”

Prayer complete, he rose to his feet, shrugging off the (imagined?) hand on his shoulder, and reaching for a cloth to clean both flesh and steel. “Why do you always have to talk now, hahn? Why not when I actually need your advice?” His words were harsh, darkened with traces of grief and pain. “I know dis was the best outcome, short of him being free to join the Circle, but since when are we dat lucky, no? Was it when de Kruzemore showed up, carried on paths of tiny legs? Or was it when our *lord* was taken and replaced by his useless son, arrogant as any youth? No, MawMaw, we not dat lucky anymore, an’ it looking to be gettin’ worse.”

Task complete, he placed the hatchet back on his belt before turning to stare at the moon, high in the night sky but seemingly close enough to touch, perfectly outlined by the tips of the trees of the grove. “All dose stories o’ yours, of Arbor and his adventures? How he protected the forest and guided the woodcutters to the best groves and taught the secrets of the undergrowth? His mighty staff ensuring good footing through de worst o’ de bayou?”

He spat on the ground, flecks of blood amidst the saliva. “Lies. All o’ dem.” He turned to face the willow tree, its branches softly tossing in the night’s breeze. “He’s a spirits-damned Lion, and now I don’ know *what* to believe.” A small tear formed at the edge of one eye, before being ruthlessly scrubbed away by a scarred back of one hand. “But I’m a good boy, an’ I know my duty. The Hungry One is wakin’, and we need the Pact to be strong. I’ll do my part, but know this: I will never forget. We’ll grow, and move on, but dis only goes to prove you right, your favorite saying an’ all.”

“When dealin’ wit de People an’ de Court, know dis: you always get what you need, but rarely what you want. Live well, work hard, and only lean on gifts when all else fails. Everything has a cost, an’ you might not be the one to pay, cher.”

Roots Ever Deeper Part 1: A Change Among the Wind

“Don’ worry about dat wind none, fils.” his father’s low voice murmured, when the latest storm blew through camp and set the lanterns creaking in their dance, the canvas of wagons and tents snapping to the rhythm. The groans and pops made him burrow ever deeper into warm, protective arms. “It’ll blow t’rough by morn’n, and da woods will still be here, guarding an’ growing as ever.” Warm brown eyes winked down at their smaller mirror-image, a small grin growing beneath a bushy mustache as more creaks lead to shivers in his small form.

“You wan’ to know deir secret? How dey give no mind to storm an’ sun alike?” His small head gave a timid nod, eyes locked on the light reflected in his father’s spectacles, the wick’s flame dancing like fireflies. The thought of summer; of the sun and being away from the storm threw all notions of fear aside for precious moments, before being cast aside as the wind howled anew. His father chuckled, his emotions had obviously been all over his face despite his attempts to be brave.

“Strong roots, fils. Down, down t’rough dirt an’ loam; past water an’ darkness to heart of de eart’ herself.” He could almost picture it, the lines of strong wood spreading like the nets they used on the river, ever deeper into the world below them. “Course, it’s not jus’ de one tree dat makes it work, hahn? De roots, dey reach out to each other, tied together like holdin’ hands in de Circle. Dat’s what makes dem strong, fils.” His father’s voice started to fade, as the his eyes drifted closed, fear losing the battle to gentle voices and soothing warmth…

Étienne startled awake, hat dropping into his lap from the sudden jerk of his head. Reaching for it with one hand, he felt the bark of the great oak behind him with the other, its rough rasp familiar and anchoring him in the *here* and *now.* Part of him ached to return to his dream, to that time of protective strength and certainty, but the rest of him knew that escape into the past wasn’t the point of his meditations today. He had gone into the Wild alone for a reason, to search for the answer to Grandfather’s challenge last market, and hints as to the best path forward for them all as a community.

“Roots hahn?” he muttered, standing and brushing off his trousers before gathering his things and preparing to return to camp and prep the evening meal, already counting out ingredients in his mind’s eye. “If that’s the sign we need, to stand together and be heard all the same, then who am I to doubt?”

His eyes turned to the oak once more, patting the bark gently before turning and leaving the grove for home. “Merci, père. You always knew what to say when I needed it most.”