14 Enero 2012

Greenwood to Weirwood

Hylls's egg-shaped little boat rocked unsteadily on the waves. All around him, wind-whipped waters sought to toss him off course. All of ten years, Hylls had been paddling since he was six and no son of Lake Town drowned in the relatively calm waters of their lake. Three days ago, the River Running had been swollen by rain and the water around them climbed up their long poles. While his elder brothers Horas and Haryl helped their father tie little skippers securely to their docks or ride the large flat-bottomed scows back and forth to North bank, Hylls had not even been allowed to ferry women and girls East on his little punt. His mother warned that the wind howled, the water was treacherous.

He summoned his mother's scowling face before him. Her anxious face and the shrill, half-shouted warnings from their kitchen gave him courage. I am no longer a little boy hiding behind his mother's skirts. On the dawn of the fourth day since a ragged storm, Hylls set out poling towards West bank and Greenwood's looming shadows and tangled boughs to prove his mother wrong.

"I'm old enough to Collect from the forest." Hylls reasoned. "And I know just as well as Horas or Haryl to keep to the elf path." His mother always said that. Hylls could have sworn and thrown filthy words to the shallows where his mother might never dig them out. If he knew any.

"I know, Mam, I know." Hylls muttered under his breath, arms straining at the pole. Lusty winds came down from the north breaking upon the Lonely Mountain to tear up the waters of the deep lake. His little punt rocked unsteadily. "Almost there." His arms ached as he pulled forward, the pain sweet in his limbs after three days of waiting by the window. Hylls had sneaked a peek at his mother's cupboards. When she woke, he would be back with an armful of mushrooms, unripe underbrush apples, lemon leaves, thyme, and wood fire if he could find any.

When he banked upon the stony shore, dawn had only begun to spread a gray light over the lake. Black and dark loomed Greenwood, impenetrable, protected by its shadows.

Hylls tightened the leather belt that held his small dagger. In one of the leather pouches buttoned shut, a rough sack in which he could carry the wood fire. Up the shore, he dragged the punt and upturned it, the pole underneath. He would be back, soon.

The trees lining the bank were scrawny things, bent and thin between boulders smoothed by the current and the wind. The larger trees began a few hundred meters beyond the banks. Once, Hylls accompanied his father and ten other grown men on a Collection. They took a rutted, narrow road north from where he banked. When the woods began and the shadows hid among the boughs, the Elf Road stretched forward. Only two men abreast could walk the road but his father squeezed Hylls between him and Jyk, a family friend.

On his own, Hylls found the rutted track and followed it, humming a tune. He liked the dawn and the breeze that smoothed his hair back. Soon, he found the Elf Track. Turning farther west, he followed it forward. In the time of peace, the Greenwood flourished with birdsong. Overhead, he heard a pair of cawing ravens, twittering birds. Once, a hare scurried across his path. Unafraid, it sniffed the air, taking a step towards him, before leaping off into the trees. Behind him, the pink and blue hues of dawn crept over the sky but within, the forest kept its silence, rustling sleepily. Beside the track, the trees had been kept at bay by the Lake Town foresters, the overreaching branches struck down. Hylls looked up at the sky, finally clear after three days of rain.

Farther on, he spotted an isolated grove of underbrush apples a few meters south of the Elf Track. Some of the frailer trees had suffered in the rains, the apples already rotting on the forest floor, but enough wore bright green, the hard fruit his mother used to bake pies. Carefully picking through the roots, Hallys left the Elf Track, turning back every few meters to make sure it was within sight.

The sack bulged with green apples when he finished. He took two dozen, muttering a prayer of thanks after plucking each from the sullen branches. Making his way back, he spotted a large, mossy tree, upturned, roots in the air. Upon its bark, a colony of fat mushrooms sprouted. Hylls ran towards it. He heard the thump of apples in the sack, his heavy panting, and his footfalls on the earth. He collected seven handfuls of mushrooms. He tied them with a length of cord and produced a small sack from his pouch. Now, heavily laden, he turned back towards the underbrush apple grove to find a wall of tall, slender trees. The grove had vanished.

Hylls didn't drop his sack of apples and mushrooms. Instead, he looked forward and found a clearing before him. Tall lemon grass grew thick on the ground. Unthinking and trying to calm his panic, he walked forward. Hylls collected a bundle of lemon grass, enough for three months' worth of tea for his father. Trying to keep from crying, Hylls straightened up. He felt tall. Greenwood is playing a game with me, he thought. He took a deep, calming breath, and looked back. Closer than he remembered, the apple grove loomed near. Hylls bolted. Leaping over roots and stones, he flew to the grove, but when he turned towards the Elf Track, he saw only an ancient tree with a staring red face.

It looked like a large, old crone. The sight of it chilled Hylls to the bone and he found himself weeping. All around him, the Greenwood seemed to grow denser. He found himself walking forward towards its red leaves, the mouth red with sap, the boughs tall and strong, blocking out the sun. Weeping, Hylls stopped in front of it. It had a laughing mouth and large eyes that bore him down and broke him. Hylls collapsed to his knees and wept.

"Mother! Mother! Mother!" He cried. He cried until shadows lengthened and sleep took him, his head pillowed on his sack of underbrush apples, the lemongrass sweet and scratchy in his arms.

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