Ariion Kathleen Brindley

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by August Hunt

Book One

What is between good and evil is the only good.

The Doomsday Book of Ashroud

There are men who can feel through the bark of trees, who
can think as a root, hear as a leaf, see as a flower or fruit.
These men we call Woodsenders, because it is said they send
their souls into wood, but they call themselves the Treeshadows,
for a reason that is not known to us. It is not well to disturb
a Woodsender, if one should chance to be found, but they are
helpful enough when there is need of them.


      Taul the shepherd rose as quietly as he could, drew his hunting knife from its scabbard. Squinting, he tried to determine exactly where the glow was coming from. No good. It seemed to fill the woods about him. He turned and looked behind himself. Darker there. So whatever it was - fernfolk or other - it was someplace out in front of him. Taul crept forward to investigate, trying not to trip on roots and knock his head on branches. Though he tried desperately not to make any noise, unnoticed twigs snapped beneath his boot soles. He grimaced and paused momentarily to listen to every tell tale sound. The glow neither dimmed nor brightened and held its position. Taul continued cautiously in its direction, his knife held forward prepared to strike.
      He did not have far to go. The man - if such he was - stood naked and absolutely still in the center of a small clearing. Once he had been tall and robust, but now he was bent with age like a tree that had seen too many winters heavy with snow. His long white beard was interwoven with moss and lichen, his bald head laced with the fine white lines of scars in the shapes of leafy, flowering vines whose tendrils arched over his bushy eyebrows. His eyes were closed in concentration or trance. But none of this struck Taul as particularly unusual at the time, for the moon-like glow that he was witnessing emanated from the old man's skin. Taul, who was not accustomed to fear, shrank back from entering the clearing.
      Then the old man opened his eyes.
      "Young man from the village of Kraunstahl, step forth." The voice was soft as sheepskin, and as coarse as sand.
      Taul obeyed the old man's command. The idea of refusing that command - why, it simply never occurred to him. Did the old man have some kind of power over him? No. There was something else, another voice within him - or another will. Could the old man send his thoughts into the minds of others? No, the shepherd was sure that the voice did not belong to the old man. Then whose was it? Should he be afraid of it? Somehow he knew that this other voice or will would not harm him, would instead guide and protect him. It was insistent, yet soothing. Where had it come from? He remembered hearing it only once before, back when he stood on the threshold of the great forest, striving to conquer his fear. Then it had said: The forest will not be dark if you hold light in your soul. It will not harm you if you leave behind the axe and fire in your soul. Break your promise and a forest of a different kind will come upon you, one you will never find your way out of. You must trust what destiny has brought you.
      Before he knew it, he had not only advanced into the clearing but was standing directly in front of the glowing old man. Those parts of himself which were beyond thought had not failed him: the hunting knife was still in his hand.
      The old man looked at the knife, then into Taul's face. Taul was startled to notice that the green of his irises was surrounded not by white, but by brown.
      "You would use your knife on me, then?" asked the old man.
      It was a question, but it was also another command. Taul found himself lifting his knife. Why did he not feel horror at what he was about to do? The voice that was not his own told him to attack with the blade, reassured him that all would be well. There is no evil in the action, crooned the voice. The being before you is in no danger. Taul's knife, in a hand that was his own yet not his own, came down hard on the shoulder of the old man.
      The iron did not bite. To Taul it seemed as if the weapon had struck against the bark of a tree.
      The old man smiled. His teeth were grey like stones.
      "Tough as ironwood, I am. You might as well put that thing away."
      Yes, lulled the voice, you are done with the weapon. Taul put the hunting knife back in its scabbard.
      "Now," said the old man, "we do not need all this light."
      Taul watched as the old man again closed his strange eyes. The glow coming from his skin began to dim, went out. Soon there was only the pale white skin, somehow still visible in the gloom. Taul realized with more surprise that day had come.
      The old man, his eyes still closed, spoke again, more to himself than to Taul.
      "And now we must be going."
      But they did not go anywhere, at least not right away. Taul wondered at this. Why did not the old man move? Why did he remain standing here? The young man looked down at the old man's bare feet. What he saw astonished him more than anything he had yet observed. For the veins in the old man's feet had become roots and these roots had penetrated the forest floor. The old man was literally rooted in place. As Taul watched, these roots slowly retracted, became veins again. When the roots had all been reabsorbed, the old man turned without a word and left the clearing. Taul followed him, although he did not know why. The other will within him simply wanted it so.
      Just outside of the clearing the old man stopped briefly to don a hooded robe woven from bark fibers. A beat-up ironwood staff leaning against a tree was taken up in his bony hand. Then he continued into the Fergunt, following a path that seemed to suddenly open before him and just as suddenly close behind Taul. They had not traveled far when Taul began to hear birds - the first that he had heard since entering the darkwood. Soon sunlight was penetrating to their level and there were vines covered with white flowers, like those portrayed in scars on the old man's head. Small animals scurried and scuffled through the undergrowth and twice Taul heard the muted cough of what had to be the legendary mistcat, a creature said to to live, hunt, kill and devour its victims in their dreams. The forest that had before been a place of dark decay and death to Taul was now a place of bright growth and life.
      It was only when they paused to drink at a pool of delicious cold water that Taul remembered why he was in the Fergunt. All the questions he had had when he first came upon the old man had been forgotten, cast aside like a handful of seeds. It was not the time then to ask, explained the voice. But like the old man's feet, these seeds had found fertile ground, had sprouted, sending down roots and lifting new shoots and leaves into the sun. There were many plants now, many questions.
      "You are a Woodsender." Taul was certain of at least this much. He did not need the voice to tell him.
      "I am a Treeshadow, yes," gently corrected the old man.
      So this is who I have come looking for, thought the shepherd. Will he turn me into a toadstool?
      Taul had been in the Fergunt for so long he had come to believe he would still be here when the Eternal Candle of Medan burned down. The trees he had passed beneath had cut out practically all light. Preternatural gloom like a palpable mist had made breathing difficult. The smell of rot and fungi had been sickening in its intensity. Occasionally he had heard water, but either its whereabouts could not be discovered or it was unsuitable for drinking. No birds had flitted from banch to branch. At this time of year the forest should have been hot, especially with no air moving through it, but instead there had been a deceptive coolness, a coolness that had seeped gradually into his body and had chilled his bones. The cloak he had wrapped about his tall, slender frame was of little use. Two days ago a search of his leather food-bag proved fruitless; he was out of food. Taul had decided that he did not like the Fergunt.
      Certainly, the forest at the time did not like him. He bore more bruises and scratches than he cared to count; every root and branch and thorn had sought him out and inflicted its share of punishment. Ghostly insects had stung him, sucked his blood, then deftly evaded the slap of his hand. Once he forsook the usual trails, the going had become so rough that by the end of each day he had grown too tired to worry about what animals - or skin-leapers - may come upon him in his sleep, and so had simply collapsed and curled up with his back to a log. He had thought more about what his mother had told him, when she tried dissuading him from entering the forest: madness often comes before death in the Fergunt.
      "Would it be proper to ask your name?" Taul almost used the word "safe" instead of proper when addressing the old man, checked himself.
      "It would not be safe, but then you were not sent here because you are a safe person. I am known to the forest as Moonskin. You have seen why."
      Taul nodded.
      "And you are?" asked the old man.
      Taul looked at him in some surprise.
      "You don t know?"
      The old man laughed, the sound of falling leaves, a trickling stream.
      "The forest knows where you entered it and that is all. It knows that you were sent here and did not come on your own accord. And it knows what followed you."
      Alarm surged up in Taul's breast, almost choking him. He swallowed it, controlled it, wondered why something he did not know about should bother him so. There must be a very good reason why this news had brought ice to his soul. Was this something his other voice or will had knowledge of? If so, why was the information being withheld from him?
      "What followed me?"
      The old man looked in his eyes for several seconds before answering.
      "You have not given me your name."
      "Taul. Taul Stormclan of Kraunstahl."
      "Ah, Stormclan," muttered the old man, as if this were significant.
      "So what followed me?"
      The old man ignored his question.
      "There was a storm over the forest a week ago. It came to your village, did it not?"
      "Yes. Did whatever is following me-"
      "What did the storm bring to you?"
      Taul hesitated a moment before telling the old man.
      "A dying man."
      "Did this dying man have a name?"
      "I suppose he did."
      "But he did not tell you?"
      "Hmm. He made you promise to find a Treeshadow."
      "How did you know?"
      "You are here. Why else would a human enter the Fergunt?"
      Taul studied the old man. He could trust this Moonskin, certainly, but there was still something unsettling about the Woodsender. Something that was not good or evil. Something inbetween, something outside the realm of the human experience of opposites. Something uncaring, detached, neutral. Something that would sacrifice anything in order to remain that way.
      "What else did the dying man tell you?"
      Taul spoke deliberately, striving to get the message exactly right. He had repeated the dying man's words over and over to himself, making sure he had them memorized. He had been made to rehearse the line in front of the village Olderwise Council - the very Council that had decided he must fulfill his promise. What was it Olderwise Afworca had intoned? A broken promise is a weapon turned against oneself. We will, as always, obey the Law of the Promise.
      "'The Soulrender has returned and the Keep of Ashroud has fallen.'"
      If Taul had expected some reaction from the Woodsender, he was sorely disappointed. Moonskin merely stirred the waters of the pool with the butt of his staff. He remained silent for what seemed a long season. Taul looked away from the Woodsender, listened to a tree frog croaking. Funny how you could never tell where the frog was simply by its song, he thought.
      The Woodsender sat up straight, groaned slightly as he stretched his back.
      "So. This dying man told you I would know what to do."
      "That's right."
      The old man nodded, pulled the butt of his staff from the pool. Wherever the tree frog was, it stopped singing.
      "The forest told me you were coming. I am sorry I did not come to meet you."
      "Why didn't you?" asked Taul, suddenly indignant. "It would have saved me a lot of... unpleasantness."
      "Had I not joined my roots with those of the forest, I could not have kept away from you that which follows."
      "Are you finally going to tell me what that is?"
      "Do you really, truly want to know?"
      The way the old man said it, Taul was not sure he did. Yet did not the Proverbs of Hantgrast say that fear was the price paid for knowledge? Now where did that memory come from? Where had he ever heard of these Hantgrast proverbs? The other voice again!
      "Yes. I want to know."
      "Very well. What follows you is a Balgern."
      Even though he did not know what a Balgern was - the dying man had mentioned Balgerns, but had not seen fit to describe them, perhaps assuming Taul knew what they were - the very name brought a chill to his soul. This time he shivered. The other voice was acquainted with Balgerns. Why would it not tell him about them?
      "A Balgern is a servant of the Soulrender?" guessed Taul.
      "Why would one be sent after me? Because of what the dying man told me?"
      "Tell me, Taul Stormclan. Did the dying man breathe his last breath into your face?"
      Taul heard again that final, prolonged exhalation, felt the weight of the body as it sagged into lifelesness.
      "Yes, he did... I-I was holding him in my arms. Why?"
      "Did it not occur to you that there may have been a reason why a man carried by the storm would come to you, a member of Stormclan?"
      Taul shook his head, puzzled. He had not thought of that.
      "You thought it coincidence, then."
      "I had not thought it otherwise."
      "The dying man sought you out. He chose you. That is why the Balgern follows."
      Again at the mention of the Balgern Taul shuddered. He saw that the Woodsender had noticed, felt ashamed. But Moonskin showed no indication that he would judge the young man.
      " W-what is the Balgern?"
      "That which follows you," answered the old man, enigmatically.
      "I mean, what is it like, what does it do?"
      "It is like a Balgern and, in this case, it follows."
      Taul stood up in exasperation.
      "Alright. I'll rephrase my question. Then maybe I'll get a straight answer."
      The Woodsender did not seem to be annoyed by this accusation. If anything, he was amused, although Taul could not tell this.
      "What does a Balgern look like - and don't tell me it looks like a Balgern -"
      "It does."
      Taul cursed, flung up his hands, sat down hard by the pool. In its waters he could barely discern the reflection of his sharp yet rugged features, his long, dishevelled brown hair. For a moment he imagined he saw the face of the dying man superimposed on his own, the light draining from his pleading eyes. Moonskin began inspecting his ironwood staff. When next the Woodsender spoke, it was as if he were alone.
      "Look at this staff. Beat up, weather-worn, it has a crack down the middle here. A worm's in the top-notch and I dare say there may be some rot close to the heart by this knot. It really doesn't look like much. An old man's walking stick, grown just as feeble as the old man himself. People wouldn't give it a second glance if I left it propped up in a corner of some village inn. Oh, a child may take it for play, perhaps to use as a club in fighting imaginary bhujans, or pretend it was a horse to be ridden. But when they were tired of their play they would toss it aside as they would any useless stick."
      At this point Moonskin aimed the top-notch of his staff at the pool, uttered a sound like a fish jumping for a fly. In a blink of an eye the pool was gone. Taul jumped up and back, awestruck. The old man pointed his staff behind him and the pool reappeared where Taul was standing. He suddenly found himself knee-deep in the cold water.
      "But it has its uses," stated the old man. "And it can fight real bhujans as well."
      Taul stepped from the pool, took off his boots and emptied them.
      "You're saying that the Balgern is like your staff." Very good, whispered the voice.
      "To someone using only their outer eye - which is all most people can use - the Balgern wrapped in its hin or body is just a man, and not a particularly impressive or conspicuous man. It can fit in anywhere and not draw attention to itself. It seems without notable gifts or value. But those who can see with their inner eye - and it is probable that the man who came to you in the storm has given you this ability, among others - the true nature of the Balgern becomes visible."
      "And that true nature is?"
      "The Balgern is a void that sucks all goodness into itself, leaving only evil behind.
     It is a dark, bottomless well, more an inescapable place than a thing. Only the goodness of Ashroud is said to have escaped from there."
      Taul was silent for a moment. Thoughts became like the roiling darkness of the storm that had struck his village. Words escaped from his mouth in a flood that could not be damned or channelled away.
      "Why is it after me? What does being chosen mean? Chosen for what? By whom? What exactly are the Doomstones, anyway? What do they have to do with us?"
      To forestall further questions, Moonskin held up his hand.
      "All of these things will be made clear to you soon enough." The Woodsender rose slowly to his feet. "For now, we must leave the forest."
      Taul stared with disbelief at the Woodsender. His mouth fell open.
      "But... you're a Wood - I mean, a Treeshadow. You can t leave here. You'll... you'll die.
      The old man chuckled sadly, a squirrel scampering up a tree trunk.
      "How little you know of me, Taul Stormclan of Kraunstahl. Do you not know why we call ourselves Treeshadows?"
      Taul shook his head. The voice would not help him with this, either.
      "It is because it is in the shadows of the trees that our souls reside. Mine will reside here no matter where my body goes."
      "But if your soul is not in your body-"
      "Then I must be dead? No. Another soul will takes its place."
      "Whose?" Then, when the old man look piercingly at him, defensively: "Oh, no, you're not taking my soul. I won't let you have it."
      The old man smiled with his grey teeth, leaned on his staff.
      "Don't worry, Taul Stormclan. It is not your soul I am after. There is another, far from here, in the land of Straelthurn. It is that one I will have. You will take me to it." Taul intended to remonstrate, then closed his mouth. He could tell from the manner in which the Woodsender was looking at him that he had no choice. He had no choice because - no matter what it meant - he had indeed been chosen. I chose you, said the voice. I am going. You need to go, too. I will not compell you to go. It is not in me to compell anyone. I will only tell you that you need to go. If you do not go, then I will not be. And I MUST be.
      Resigned to his fate, Taul sighed.
      "And where is this Straelthurn?"


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