BEYOND THE FOREST RIVER
Owel could not remember exactly when he had crossed into the Greater Forest. It was not long after the destruction of Dunchideock he was sure, for though his memories of that time were clouded by grief, he knew he had not lingered when he could find no trace of Ainé or her child. He knew he had fled from the slade directly westwards, endeavouring to reach the Forest River and cross to its far shore as quickly as possible.
And, though he had previously been told that it was not yet time, he had crossed then without hindrance. Into Hals Ethay Endow, the Greater Forest, the heart of the fastland.
Years had passed since. Good years: reasonable, at least. When he had wandered in the seemingly endless forest. He did still cry sometimes – in doubt as much as grief – remembering the past, unsure of the future, and not always able to simply accept the present.
It was a lonely time, though, for very few people lived in that lowland forest; but in his travels he did meet occasional wandering tribes with whom he would stay as long as suited both of them. In almost all instances he would eventually ask about the Forest King and his city by the lake, high on the Horseshoe Plateau – some had never heard of them, some knew only tales such as Owel had heard from the old sprite Lasith in that cove now so far to the east, and a few acknowledged that in theory they were the Forest King’s subjects, but felt his rule in his high, faraway hall was of little or no matter to them.
That they know so little seems strange to me: these tales are great tales, which once heard I could never forget. Even (I think) any details … any salient details. I guess they have their own concerns and tales, of which I learnt a few.
Throughout all of this, his uncertainty, his companion-joined and solo walking, Owel had continued to travel in a broadly westerly direction, though often veering somewhat to the south, vaguely looking to find the Horseshoe Plateau. The fugitive – both from Earth and Dunchideock – still sometimes heard a voice calling Qhé! Qhé! … and not just in the throb of his head, but on the winds, in the rustle of the leaves, and out of the mouths of squirrels and deer.
There would also be long voiceless periods, sometimes of many moons, which he alternatively welcomed and feared. For at times, due to his other, dark-eyed companion, the one who forever seemed to perch on his left shoulder, he would start to worry he had been deserted, left to wander lost among the trees till he succumbed to the weather, cold, hunger and despair. These were, perhaps, an unreasonable set of thoughts given his improved woodcraft – at least as far as the first three were concerned: there was plenty to eat, by hunting at least, even in the winter when he usually settled and built a secure shelter for a few moons to see out the worst of the weather. He would camp in relative comfort, making shelters of boughs and skins after his canvas started to decay, and sparking fires when his matches ran out. As he was now a considerable way south of Dunchideock it was never too bad. If anything the summers were worse, with their humidity and thunderous downpours.
But as regards the last of his concerns, the despair, it seemed to him that there was a persistent and repetitious cycle of abandonment that nagged him, and which caused him to speak sternly to himself in a number of disparate voices to try and forestall or minimise the damage, seeking answers, till exhaustion or numbness prevailed. A few days rest would usually sort this, at least so he was able to continue to survive, though sometimes his left-shoulder angel cast too long a shadow and he was unable to move for much longer – even finding hunting difficult.
The lowland country through which he made his slow way was not always the same, though superficially it could appear so. He perceived much of this due to the huge number of different species of trees: there were all those he knew from home, plus many others he had not seen or heard of before, of all sizes, many immense, liking different conditions. The landscape beneath them changed too: there were slopes and dells, occasional ravines, hills, glades and meadows, rivers and lakes – often overrun with midges that found him irresistible.
The waterways proved to be invaluable, for they enabled much of Owel’s travel to be by simple raft along and across them. Even when he was travelling upstream, it was more relaxing than taxing, for the rivers’ flows were gentle – it was, after all, essentially a wide, flat land, with that one, central exception.
I’ve been wandering into the heart of this fabulous Greater Forest, from where the voice that calls me seems to (I believe does) originate; yet I’m in no hurry. Within these woodlands I can appreciate the long, slow and fundamental cycle of time: there is no need to rush headlong to destruction as many people seem to advocate. I’ll get there. Yet, as I’m now penetrating deep into the Greater Forest, I’m beginning to ponder whether I need to consider a more specific source.
These thoughts coincided with a time when he did not hear that voice for nearly a year; so he settled by a small lake and perfected his fishing techniques. When the calling resumed it seemed to come from almost due north. It had always previously seemed to call him from the west, perhaps a touch to the north or south, and Owel had grown accustomed to thinking of any haven as lying in a westerly direction. But he still trusted it, and altered his course accordingly.
Soon thereafter he began to see glimpses of heights through the trees. There were no clearings of any size in that part of the forest, and he usually only saw the heights peeking through the boughs when cresting a low rise. Yet slowly they came closer, more glades started to appear, and he began to climb steadily; and at last he could discern clearly what he did not doubt was both the land of the habitation of the Forest King and the source of the calling voice.
Owel had come now to the southern slopes of the Horseshoe Plateau – called Albin Nhue by those who lived there – that lay within a huge curve of mountains, the sharp and jagged peaks of Al Oast En Mror, which Lasith had described. They were tall beyond anything Owel potential ravages of the north. Great swathes of mountain pines, various larches, and high firs clad their lower slopes.
It was a long climb, even up the relatively gentle southern approach to Albin Nhue, but Owel was fit, and he came to the beautiful and varied land of the plateau in steady time. Afterwards, he was sure that he must have been seen, but guessed he was not perceived as a threat: surely the Water Watchers would have been alerted when first he entered Hals Ethay Endow, and they must have some method for tracking him thereafter. There could not only be an outer defence. So he must have been noticed, but allowed to pass. A fine portent for the society he would find there, hopefully?
When at last he stumbled into a camp on a beach by a large expanse of water called Lake Dri-Aloe – he later found out that many of the people of the plateau fared about throughout the summer – he initially cursed himself for his carelessness, perhaps appearing rude, but he need not have worried, for the welcome of the people there was as generous and spontaneous as any he had found in the lowlands; his guard quickly fell away.
That it did was much to his surprise, for it was a long time since he had last spent time with others. He remained taciturn, though, for a while longer, not so much because he had become unused to speaking, but because it was a long time since anyone else had replied. And he wanted to learn, could not think of sound questions, and did not want to appear too much of an idiot.
Drink was offered; food was being prepared.
“What is your name? What would you like us to call you?”
“I think Qhé would be the most appropriate.”
“Then that is what we will call you: Qhey. Ni-Qhey, we‘d say if we were being formal. There are various prefixes, but for you I think Ni- is best suited: suggesting mystery in your past.”
“That feels all right. Thank you.”
“No need to thank us – not for formalising your name. For the food and drink, yes; for the name, no.”
“Then for the food and drink, thank you.”
It all grew more relaxed. The leaf-baked fish was soon ready, and thereafter the party lingered far towards the dawn in their slow hedonism, lying and sitting by the fire till someone suggested they run into the water to kick the knee-tickling surf and howl in laughter at the moon. They finally settled to sleep, and remained asleep far past the dawn, unperturbed by the daystar’s rising.