by Martin Karsten / @apeot1980
Jesse woke to the sound of claws scratching over the roof and was immediately aware of a whole tapestry of sounds filling the little hut that was home: Roots burrowing through the floorboards, branches slapping against the Karstwalls of the hut, and Mother and Father whispering in tight, anxious voices. Angela’s name fell. Mother cried. Father drew into himself as if he had to protect himself from remembering his dead daughter.
Jessie missed Angela, too, but listening to the Eyrewood scratching and growing and clawing its way inside the hut overwrote the dull aching pain of aged grief with the bright colors of fright. There was nothing to do, nowhere to go. The forest was coming for them.
A click was heard. A shingle moved. A snout, dribbling slaver, pressed against the hole,
dislodged another shingle. It snifed. It grinned a wet grin.
“Get up, lookout!” it barked.
Jessie went from sleep to standing at attention with the speed of practice. Thomas, the troop leader, actually had to take a step back to avoid a collision. His beard twitched in what might have been approval, but before the tip stopped quivering with the echo, what was seen of his face was already frowning again. “The sun will come up soon, lookout! We must be on our way if we are to rescue those boys and not just bury them! Your comrades are almost ready to march!”
Jesse looked around. Thomas was exaggerating for effect: Most of the other boys were still rubbing sleep from their eyes, some were even still waiting their turn to be woken. Still: The horizon was brightening: It was time they were on their way.
Ten minutes later the troop marched, breaking their fast on berries and nuts found on the way, each pick accompanied by the lookout in question identifying and describing the food in question to Thomas’ satisfaction. Otherwise you didn’t eat.
They found the tracks they were looking for when the first morning light made it through the leaves. As soon as Thomas saw them and every Lookout had earned or confirmed his tracker badge, the hunt was on. Thomas set a very challenging pace. For a man almost as wide as he was tall, he was a miracle of speed and grace and the lookouts struggled to keep up. That he was drilling them on what they knew about their mission did not make it easier on them.
“What do we know about the brothers Woodsinger, Alain?”
“They were Lookouts like us!” piped up Alain.
“Why did they go into the deep wood, Gregoir?”
“To get a phoenix feather for their ailing mother!” rumbled Gregoir, who had been a lookout longer than all the other troop members.
“Why would a phoenix feather help their mother, Turvin?”
“Ah… because it heals all wounds, cures all ills and revives the newly dead!” Turvin, never
fully master of his own memory, had sweat on his brow.
“And why, my little lads, is that a stupid idea, eh?” barked Thomas, and his heightened volume hinted that he was approaching the crux of the whole debacle.
“Because… phoenices are dangerous?” hazarded Alain.
“So? They lose feathers all the time. Often enough that Alain over there has one stuck in his cap!” Alain blushed furiously. He was constantly embarrassed about the wealth of his parents, but still couldn’t say no to the occasional perk. It was a good question, though.
Jesse, who had been quietly wandering down very dark memory paths, answered with a flat, emotionless voice: “Because the feather has to be plucked from a living phoenix and if it is used afterwards, the phoenix dies. It is the life force of the phoenix that gives the feather its power, and if it is used, that life force is taken. That is why no phoenix will ever allow a feather to be stolen from it while it is living.”
Thomas fixed his beady blue eyes onto Jesse. “That’s right, my lad. And how will a phoenix fight?”
“Their claws are sharp!”
“Their beak is deadly!”
“Their plumage burns with heat most dreadf’lly!”
This time the answers came quick. Phoenixes were one of more interesting animals to study for the Lore of the Woods badge.
“And why then, my lads, are we trying to reach the Woodsinger brothers before a phoenix makes a meal out of them!”
All four young voices spoke up as one: “Because they are of the village, and their cause is just,and our vow bids us protect them!”
“That’s it, my lads! And step lively, they have quite a lead on us.”
Night again brought sleep, and dreams. With distant terror Jesse recognized this particular one as an old dream, a terrible dream. The whole family is on the road. Father, who remembers his Tracker badge from when he was a Lookout, Mother, who fears the worst, and Jesse, because Mother would not allow the family to be split up, ever again. Angela had been gone a night and half a day, but now that Father had found her tracks again, all would be well. Jesse clearly remembered thinking that just before they came to the glade.
There was brook murmuring through the clearing, and there, almost bending over it, was a thicket of black roses. The brambles grew so thick and lush that Jesse did not see Angela suspended in the center of it until they were almost at the brook and her pale, marred face shone down on them in the moonlight.
The vines grew through her, from her. Her cheeks and forehead showed deep furrows drawn in blackened blood where she had scratched herself to the bone. The roses grew thick and lush around her, and it was almost as if the flowers were trying to cover up her wounds, as if to giver her back her dignity. Her smile, conserved in death, was exhausted and sad. And on her brow sat a crown of the largest black roses Jesse had ever seen. The dew on them shone with crystal brilliance. It ran down her face, gradually washing away the blood and the hurt.
The roses were mourning her.
Father turned to stone. Mother broke, and all she could do was bite down on her hand until she too spilled her blood, to keep from waking the forest with her screams. Jesse was stunned. Tears came later, tears enough to drown the world, but there, in that glade, all feelings were stunned into flight.
Yes, tears came later. Tears, and screams. Tears and screams that kept Father from hunting for a phoenix feather. Screams so loud that they ripped Jesse from slumber even seven years later.
Yet still, none of the others woke. Only Thomas was awake, sitting by the small, smokeless fire, his gaze fixed on Jesse. A gloved hand missing the small finger beckoned the lookout closer.
Now they will come, thought Jesse. The questions. But all Thomas did was hand over a small flagon.
“Just a tiny sip, mind,” rumbled the troop leader, “this stuff is not meant for boys.” It burned going down, but it took the terror away, and warmed body and mind even while forcing the shakes on mouth and tongue.
Now the questions will come.
But Thomas just sat across from Jesse, nothing but calm in his eyes. And, somehow, the
silence picked at Jesse’s secrets, pulled at them, until one of them came loose.
“My sister. She… she was a Daughter,” Jesse whispered, resolutely staring in the fire, “The
wood called her away one day, and we went to find her, Father, Mother and me. When we did…” Jesse swallowed hard to keep the tears from falling, “she had died. She did not survive her Becoming.”
“I heard that can happen. If the girls fight their nature too much, it overwhelms them. That is why the other Daughters usually watch over the new ones for a while,” said Thomas, then fell silent again.
After a while he offered his flagon for a second swig. “It’s a hard land we live in, Jesse,” the
troop leader whispered, “and the scars it inflicts run deep. I’m so sorry for your sister.” The
wood around them sang his night song, beautiful, merciless, and eternal.
So they sat for a while, until the mad butterfly let loose in Jesse’s mind went away. Sleep
There were no dreams this time.
They found the brothers Woodsinger the next day. The phoenix had found them first, though.
The giant bird stood over the torn and broken body of one brother, the other was madly
scrambling up a giant oak. The troop went into action like a well oiled machine. The four
lookouts surrounded the beast, knives drawn. It was soaking wet and thus without fire, but the claws and beaks were just as lethal wet as bone dry, and it screeched with a terrible fury.
The lookouts were well trained: One does not send first years against a phoenix. Whenever it launched itself against one lookout, another darted forward and cut whatever he could reach.
Soon the glade was filled with the hiss of cooling phoenix blood.
Now it was Jesse’s turn: Lunge, cut, jump back. If only the wood weren’t so oppressive. If only the hood would not be so scratchy all of a sudden. Lunge, cut, jump back. Scratching. No time to pull it down. Lunge, cut, jump. Gods, it really itches.
Meanwhile, Thomas dragged the second brother away from the fight. The man was bleeding heavily from a claw wound on his thigh and needed to be bandaged right away or he would bleed out. The troop leader looked back to his lads: They seemed to be doing ok for now, and if he didn’t do anything, both brothers Woodsinger would be dead soon.
Meanwhile, the fight was dying down. The phoenix was tiring. It was no longer lunging at
them, instead it withdrew, frantically trying to keep all four of the lookouts in its view. They stopped attacking then, kept their distance, waited for the word of Thomas. Phoenixes belonged to the wood and were exceedingly rare, and not to be slain lightly.
Jesse kept careful watch of the beast. It might be beaten, but a cornered and desperate
animal is the most dangerous animal. And suddenly, their eyes met.
And the world fell away.
Jessica, to her troop mates known as Jesse, drowned in brilliantly green eyes, and a flood of emotion broke all the dams of her mind. The phoenix had children! She saw the small clutch, safely tucked away in cliff, felt the world-filling joy of the bird as, after a thousand years of existing, she was finally a mother, something she would never be again no matter how long she lived. She felt the almost unbearable elation when the two eggs hatched and her new fledglings woke the forest with their first screams.
Then Jessica tumbled down the bottomless fear and terror of her when, just minutes ago, she returned from the hunt and found her nest gone and no trace of her children to be seen. She was set aflame by the fury of the mother when she spotted the thieves just as they were dunking her children into the river. Jessica descended on them incandescent with rage, then plunged into the river with her when the thieves just let the fledglings drop into the water and fled. She rescued her children, awash with relief, not caring that the river took her fire, then set after the thieves.
The connection broke. Jessica found herself standing between her troop mates and the
phoenix, facing them. They were all looking at her, eyes wide, slackjawed. Even Thomas
seemed lost for words.
The wood was not lost for words, though. Deep in her mind, with a thousand voices, from the deep rumbling of creaking trees, to the almost unhearable sound the wings of a kolibri make, the wood sang its judgment. “A man may win life from a phoenix if he faces his quarry head on. But hunting the young is an unworthy, despicable deed. Meet out the justice deserved, my daughter, and then come to me and be who you are.”
Jessica’s hood fell away. A crown of poppy flowers upon her raven hair proclaimed her
Unsurprisingly, Thomas was the first to actually say anything. “Who are you? Really, I mean.”
“My name is Jessica. I ran away from home when the forest came to claim me.” Jessica could feel the phoenix behind her shift uneasily. She reached for it and stroked the magnificent plumage to calm it down, and never even realized that she did not use her hands to do so.
“I had no place else to go, and no-one would take a strange girl in in these times, so I
disguised myself and joined the lookouts.”
“And why did you…”
An angry scream interrupted Thomas, and all eyes turned to the surviving Woodsinger brother who rushed onto the clearing, a raised sword in his hands and murder in his eyes. It was Jessica who reacted first. Her knife was out of her sheath in a flash, and it caught the sword with practised ease. Steel on steel rang out across the clearing.
The next second there was crimson flash and suddenly the whole front of the Woodsinger man was awash with blood. As the man toppled over, shock contorting his face and already empty eyes, Jessica’s world filled with heat, the hiss of boiling water and the acrid stench of fire as the phoenix ignited.
Breathing became unbearable, and as the darkness behind her eyelights claimed Jessica, the last thing she saw was the bird take flight, her goal achieved.
When she came to, Thomas’ face greeted her. They were alone in the clearing.
“Where are the others?” she asked.
“I sent them back. They will return the brothers Woodsinger to their family, and they will do what must be done. What is spoken here will not concern them. They only concern you and me, even though you’re no longer a lookout and I am no longer your teacher.”
Jessica nodded glumly. This was expected, if not welcome, news.
“At least now I know why you were able to pull the wool over all of our eyes for three years”
Thomas gestured towards her crown of flowers.
“I never meant to.” Jessica carefully explored these new parts of her with her hands.
“That’s why it worked. Those are poppy, Jessica. Remember what their seeds do? You will be a mistress of minds and illusion one day, my dear.”
“I don’t want to be,” Jessica said sullenly.
“Well, that’s your choice, although gifts like that can come in handy, and you won’t want to deny your nature forever, I imagine. It’s what killed your sister, after all. But,” and regret stole over the face of the old man like a thief in the night, “you can’t come back with me. You can’t be a lookout any more.”
“Why?” Jessica fought down tears with a steely determination she didn’t know she had.
“You broke your oath, Jessica. You swore to protect the village from the forest, but you helped the forest claim the life of a villager!”
“They were trying to steal the life of her children!” Jessica exploded, “Still the one could have kept his life if he hadn’t tried to murder her when she was hurt and weak! He had no right!”
“I understand, Jessica, and I might even have some sympathy for your point of view. But it doesn’t matter. You broke your oath. You are a lookout no more. And there might be an even higher price to pay.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t quite know myself. Whispers, rumors. They might not even be true. Listen girl,
whatever else you are, you are a Daughter of the Eyrewood. They are your family now, and you should try to join them.”
Jessica nodded dejectedly.
“I want you to know, you were a good lookout. I am proud to have taught you.” Thomas rose with a sigh. “And now I must go, catch up with the troop. Be well, Jessica, Daughter of the Forest and mistress of mind and illusion. My best wishes are with you.”
Three days later Jessica watched the two phoenix fledglings take their first flight. The sight of the mother soaring above the treetops like a second sun, and her two children tumbling after her like two apprentice stars raised Jessica’s spirits to the heavens. She watched them until their golden glow vanished in the haze of the midday sun, and then returned to the path she had chosen. She was aware of shapes moving in the distance, of a noose of a kind drawing ever closer around her. An old rhyme she must have heard somewhere ran through her mind again and again.
“Oathbreaker, Bondsbreaker, run and hide!
The Thornwatch is on your trail tonight!
Oathbreaker, Bondsbreaker, won’t get far!
What they once were is what you are!
Oathbreaker, Bondsbreaker, stand and see!
What they are now is what you’ll be!”
There was little she could do. She had made her choices and now she would face the price. When she thought about those three suns soaring over the wood, she was convinced it had been worth it.
Night was falling over the Eyrewood.