Voice in the Forest – Preview


 THE ADVENT OF SPRING

 

Ainé welcomed the sunshine. It was the earliest that spring to impart any real warmth, and in it she felt alert for the first time since autumn’s early flurries. It was not as though much snow fell – though what did lingered – but the hibernal skies were usually grey and, under them, in the dark of the forest, she felt she was waiting an inordinately long time for spring’s rejuvenation.

Where Ainé dwelt now was much further from the ocean than the shore of Lake Almer in the land of the five lakes where she had been brought up and, though it was further south, the winters were longer and sharper; for some weeks now her body had been yearning for a spring it considered late in arriving. Ainé and her husband, Aengus, had been in the forest for only three years and she was not yet accustomed to the different march of the seasons.

But spring had now arrived, brief and fresh and bright. Yet though it breathed new life into Ainé, Aengus seemed unaffected; this was often the case with him and the wider, natural world, though not with his immediate surroundings. Here he could take great care, being preoccupied with consolidating his position and building his capital of Dunchideock and what he considered to be his Realm of Morchard. Ainé herself had been brought up to call all the forest simply the Myrcewald, a name Aengus still sometimes slipped into using. Both the Myrcewald and Aengus’s self-bestowed title, Fugleman, had a different etymology from the other names Aengus had decided on, yet he seemed only to see the inconsistency with the forest’s name, pulling others up about their usage. He even, occasionally, made a joke to cover his own embarrassment when he slipped into using it, at least when speaking to Ainé, though this did stop.

Aengus seemed to have a passion for re-naming people and things: everyone who came to them in the forest was given a new name by him. Even his wife had been re-named: Ainé was not her birth-name, though Aengus had called her by it since they had first met by the lakeshore. It was with a little guilt that she remembered her earlier given name now – she had not thought of it for some while. Perhaps she should make more effort to keep remembering it from now on, for no one else knew it and she did not want to forget entirely who she had been.

But there was a second reason, beyond the weather’s improvement, to explain why Ainé felt so much more invigorated this morning: with the progression of spring new arrivals could be expected. Every year it was the same. With the drying of the thaw new faces found their way to their sheltered dell. No one ever made the journey in winter. Although she had not yet found any with whom she felt particularly empathy, Ainé started each season optimistically.

It was not as though she was used to having close peers around – she had been isolated as a child and Aengus considered himself the boss – but at times she felt it would be pleasant to have someone with whom she could talk without worrying about their displeasure or embarrassment. And Aengus did not want to discuss the subjects she did: gardening, cooking other than on a spit, or about bringing some philosophy and culture to their dwelling. She loved Aengus and she knew he loved her, but to him plants were food for the animals he would catch, have roasted and eat, and his cultural considerations seemed only to concern his power. She had at last confided to herself that her husband was not the most sensitive of men, but would never have even begun to dream of telling him. He was as he was and she loved him unconditionally.

There were otherwise only two servants with whom she really conversed at all, most seemingly too preoccupied with their small lives to interest her: Tuedar, taciturn, always looking at her from the top of his eyes, but unstained by the veneer of bravado many others exhibited; and Melior, the unassuming wise-woman, who scared Ainé a little, her presence enough for Ainé to start to question her certainties.

*

Dunchideock itself was a triangular slade a few dozen miles from the Myrcewald’s eaves – or so Ainé thought, for she found distances in the forest hard to judge. Each of its sides was about a mile long, with the floor of the dell sloping gently down towards its south-western edge. There its side consisted of a gentle rise, only about twenty feet high at its highest, whereas at the other edges the slopes were much steeper and increasingly higher, growing till they became cliffs as the sides converged at the dell’s north-easternmost point.

Three streams fell down the slopes, joining three to two to one till the combined waters carved out a small defile at the lowest point in the dell’s south-western side. Along this lower course ran the huddled tents, shelters and barracks of the camp of Aengus’s subjects, erected on one of two raised platforms. The other one was in the north-east of the dell; there arose Aengus’s dwelling, stubborn and incongruous.

Most of the trees had been felled in Dunchideock, creating a despoiled grove; but this was not true for the land beyond. The topography there was gently rolling, with few strong features, but close to the dell were two ridges: one ran broadly east-west from the westernmost point of the dell; the other, less steep and with more breaks in it, ran almost due south from near the eastern end of the first ridge. There was a rough gap between the meeting of the ridges and the dell’s cliffs.

There was no central authority over even the settled areas of the Myrcewald. Lords and tribes vied constantly with each other, their areas of influence overlapping and supplementing one another over the years. This persistent jockeying for prominence gave rise to numerous petty – and some not-so-petty – persecutions.

Then those who were threatened, displaced, or sought easy gains in the unsettled lands, pushed deeper into the forest. This had become progressively more common as the lords along the eaves had begun their large-scale exploitation and wealth-seeking of more recent years. The increasing populations across the waters in Parasalaya, the Kingdom of Nineveh, and Seouleato were steadily growing more devouring.

The movement of people was further and faster in some places than in others: from the rebellion in northern Nineveh, of course, but also from areas within the Myrcewald. For instance, some miles south-east of Dunchideock there was one lord who was aggressively seeking to expand his domain, with the backing of some merchants from Parasalaya. This caused destabilisation over a much wider area than he controlled, causing especial persecution of the people who had been there the longest, and who were therefore often viewed as the most primitive. From them came Tuedar.

*

Over the first couple of moons that spring a few dozen people made their way to Dunchideock – less than in previous years. Before there had been more men than women, usually arriving in small parties, but this spring there were over twenty adult females, some with partners or children in tow, and a few with both. Aengus particularly welcomed the families, feeling perhaps that they gave more credibility to his claim that Morchard was indeed a realm in itself and not just a site for the displaced and unwanted to settle. Ainé never did find out why the number of men was significantly down, scarcely beyond single figures, though her husband postulated that it was due to more men being captured to fell the trees required for Parasalaya and Nineveh.

There were two among the newcomers who caught Ainé’s eye. They were found alone, which was unusual, and seemed less harried than normal.

They were different in kind. One was tall and dark. His hair was shiny black and his eyes drowned beneath bushy brows that generally hid any emotions or thoughts that may have flickered there. A generous moustache played across his face, which was excessively smooth, and his age was hard to guess.

The other – who came half-a-moon earlier – was smaller, both shorter and more taut, with dry brown hair in need of a trim, an already mighty beard, and hazel eyes that seemed more elderly even than his balding pate and laughter-lined countenance suggested. Although his eyes were tight and he seldom smiled, his face seemed relaxed. He appeared unconcerned by the press of trees.

The Fugleman gave them the names Covac and Owel, the latter being, by pure accident, the name bestowed at birth on the fourth child of Edmund and Grizel – though he still sometimes thought of himself as Qhé. When captured he had given a false name, even though he was unsure what he had to hide.

He had been wandering in the forest, lost, for some time before the patrol found him. He was startled at first, and afraid, but the patrol welcomed him and assured him they could take him to a place of safety. Yet that first fear never quite left him.

It had been almost dusk by the time they reached the dell. Owel was fed and given a place to sleep and, in the morning, he was taken before someone called Roc, who seemed to be a low-ranking commander. He also tried to be pleasant, chatting apparently freely, but Owel could not quite trust him: his face was hard and, though he queried away, he completely lacked warmth.

Owel had started by telling how he had become lost in the forest, and the work he had done with timber, seasoned and green, and how he enjoyed the freedom he found in the Myrcewald, when not lost, and that he was looking forward to this continuing in the dell; but Roc’s coldness meant he soon stopped talking about himself. Then he was asked if he had any items helpful to the common good. He said he had his hatchet – taken but soon returned when he started work; his knife – common enough; but he did not mention his compass, his sleeping bag or his camping gear. He was probably right in thinking they would be confiscated, for the common good.

But they were not. Indeed, neither his person nor his pack was searched.