Nzarel: The Horned Forest
Published on / 8 Chapter(s) / 4 Review(s)
My 2007 NaNoWriMo novel! ^___^ (which means there will be mistakes) Chase is a woman who has found her home and her nature in a place that Outsiders are working to destroy. Jame is a young man who has to choose between what he has known his entire life, and the bonds of blood. Shameless promotion moment: If you want to know more about NaNo, go to www.nanowrimo.org (Am I allowed to do this? ^___^)
Nzarel: The Horned Forest
Chapter ~ 1~ (6117)
The world can be a strange thing. Sometimes, what would seem to be the safest and most secure of places unexpectedly becomes one of the cruelest. Even stranger, the corners of the world wrought with danger can often be little less than a refuge. These little havens in life, tucked away as they are, would never occur to anyone as a place to hide until they are backed in to one, or else stumble on something in their path and accidentally fall in to it. But then, there they are, safe and sound in the strangest of places.
The Naticar Nzera was one such place. The stories were true, the kinds of beasts and ghouls that hid behind the leaves at night time as the trees hung heavy with dripping fog, and that you could lose your way forever in the labyrinth of loam and bark and branch. Many foolish travelers had never found their way home after delving too far in to the tangle. Sometimes they did, stark raving mad. Sometimes it was from lack of food or good water, but mostly it was from fear. The woods were not a friendly place to those on the outside edges, and there was a lot of them to be lost in.
It was a place of danger and seclusion, and the sane and civilized never built their hearths too far deep. But for a few, this was the very reason it became an asylum. They became as much a part of the Nzera as the wolves and bears which kept the rest of the cruel, safe, sane world away. They belonged to the forest, as the forest belonged to them, and they had no fear of becoming separated from their home, because the trees themselves were their home. So long as they were near, it was impossible to become lost. For they are, as their title implies, forest people.
* * * * * * * * *
Chase stooped to the ground, squinting at the rocky soil as she ran a hand lightly over the paw prints. The tracks zigzagged through the undergrowth in the jaunty, indecisive way of rabbits. They were hard to follow, as she had to pause every few moments to find them again, since they could change direction, seemingly randomly, at any given time.
Her wild hair was pulled back with a sinewy thong, keeping the tight dark curls away from her eyes as she knelt up and down, up and down. Her eyes were golden darts, zipping around her in an instinctual effort to remain aware of her surroundings. Even on a hunt, she knew enough of the world around her to realize that it was a wonderful day, another in a wonderfully temperate summer, and be able to enjoy it.
The sun struck through the trees, illuminating everything in a warm green - and - gold dappling. It was warm enough for Chase’s tastes, without being stifling hot, and a light breeze kept up in the canopy above, giving the backdrop a melody of rustling leaves. The air was buzzing with cicadas and the steamy smell of late summer.
Chase paused with one foot an inch above the ground as a berry bush rustled, a grey – brown blur darting underneath it. She lowered her foot silently, and pulled her bow from around her shoulders, where she’d left it strung after finding the fresh tracks. Her right hand undid the clasp to her quiver, flipping it open and securing a slender arrow. She slid it out and nocked it against the string. Then, with a mental image of the animal cowering in terror of her presence beneath the brush, she pulled the stout short bow taut, aimed, and loosed the arrow in to the bush.
A squeal came from within, splitting the air and making even the rustling seem to stop, and then it was quiet and still. She leapt forward, thrusting a gloved hand in to the hedge until her fingers closed on the blue and black fletching of her arrow. She pulled gently, sliding the rabbit from under the bush. Mercifully, she had struck it in the chest, and it had died easily. The arrowhead was not barbed and easy to retract, and she held it in her left hand as she did her best to close the creature’s eyes.
“Thank you for allowing your life to be taken so that mine will be spared,” she whispered in homage as she did so, repeating the old prayer she had been taught. Then, holding the carcass by the hind paws in one hand and the bloodied arrow in the other, she went to find a stream clearing to clean the thing. Compared to her silent stalking a moment before, she was now crashing through the brush, letting her feet take their natural pace with no regard to whether or not the whole wood around her could hear her.
She walked around idly for a while, taking her time in finding a proper clearing, even once she had found a swiftly-moving creek. She roved the banks, watching minnows dart through the algae at the bottom of the clear current, delighting in their nervous, flighty movements, safe from her reach.
As the ground became rockier and more uneven, the water tumbled over large, slick stones, forming rivulets and sheer curtains of waterfall. Chase found a suitable place to stop not even ten paces from a point where the ground dropped abruptly several feet, and the stream fell in to a pool with a great deal of gurgling and chuckling. She smiled at the sound as sat cross-legged on a flat, bare rock reaching from the bank out in to the stream. It sounded like a child’s laughing, bright and gay with all of the playfulness and carefree nature of the world at its peak of innocence. With a dreamy grin on her face, she spread her game in front of her and started with washing the drying blood from the end of her arrow so that she could reuse it. Perhaps to an animal, the smell of blood would always be there, but she was a predator anyways; the smell of blood was always on her, as was fitting for her place in the world.
As morbid as it might have once seemed when she was an Outsider, cleaning a kill was a deeply calming thing. The skinning on its own was simple and required a deft hand with a knife, which came naturally to her, and besides was almost completely mechanical, hardly varying from one beast to the next.
She washed the pelt in the river, dipping it in and out of the current as though she were doing her laundry. Then she leaned over, tilting almost completely on to her side as she reached for several fist-sized rocks in her proximity. The fur was pinned down, stretched a little, then weighted on its other corners until it dried and she could properly tan it for use later on.
Dividing the meat was, frankly, a messy business, and one of the chief reasons she was willing to carry a kill around for hours until she found a body of water. She pulled a broader knife from her belt and began with cutting away the limbs. The thing resembled less and less a living animal and she felt herself relax.
She sat there for a long time, taking her sweet time in making piles of meat, innards, and parts even she would gladly sacrifice as bait. Each piece was rinsed surface – deep and patted with salt from a packet in her carrier. Then each piece was wrapped in large, soaked leaves, then a piece of oiled cloth, and stacked and wrapped once more with burlap.
Her leather and canvas bag she carried over one shoulder or the other and strapped around her waist and against her back. Besides her bow, quiver, or belt, it carried everything she needed, each item tucked away in its own pocket, pouch, or flap where it wouldn’t shift and wouldn’t disorganize itself. She carried her meat, her cloth bits, her string and rope, pieces of fur or horn she could use, pieces of wood as big as her palm slowly taking shape in to different forms, even carefully whittled needles made from bone tucked securely in to a padded pouch with a hook closure. The seams had frayed and come apart at least ten times each and each time the hole was patched or sewn over again, or reinforced with stiff leather, even wood.
Like just about everything of hers, it was handmade, hand worn, and hand-repaired with all the care of a seamstress. The carrier was rough and secondhand, but tough. It fit and served her well, adapted like all things to fit her life and its necessities.
She had left one piece of shoulder unwrapped, and she picked it up in one of the large leaves so she wouldn’t have to leave it behind as she went off to find firewood, and risk it being snatched up by a hungry scavenger. She strung on to one of her fish hooks, so she could carry it around, hanging form her belt and let her hands remain free.
Like a lean cat, she unfolded herself from her rock in a single, supple motion. Then, with the same abandon she had had after catching her rabbit, she trotted off in to the forest, making all kinds of noise and not caring a whit about it.
* * *
She sat an hour later with a bone in her hand, leaning on her carrier as though it were a pillow and sprawled out on a rocky outcrop a hop across the stream from where she’d skinned her dinner. She picked idly at the bone with teeth just a little crooked, peeling off every bit of meat and sinew from the narrow bones, savoring the taste of grease and fresh-cooked game. She stared off in to the sky, lazily bringing the bone up to her mouth as she gazed at the slowly darkening sky.
The shafts of light coming towards the ground were growing long and few, and her bare hands, calloused though they were, felt the air cool a tad as the world grew further in to shadow. Tilting her head back, she started singing, a rough hearty song in a flat alto voice like an old drunkard.
The sky is low, it’s comin’ down
And so’s the lot of fancy words.
The rim is naught but a velvet crown
For simple songs as plain as birds’
A mutt’s as good as any hound
No pearl’s so great as the moon
All can find a velvet crown
And all are kings that sings the tune;
Chase paused a moment to strip a piece of something tasty from her meal, then rolled on to her side to stare in to the fire.
Velvet crown so far away
Circling the end of day
Jewel’d stars winking away
Everyman’s a king
Nightingale’s a chorus sweet
Sweep you off your poorman’s feet
A velvet crown we’ll all someday meet
For everyman’s a king
She tossed another stick in to the fire, smiling ruefully. It was a song from her childhood, a poorly written song whose lyrics were fit for the poor audiences of a tavern, but the melody was at once lively and sweet. Redge sure had had a way with songs, if he wasn’t so great a master of words. Chase bit her lip as the name came to mind, and reached immediately in to her bag, pulling out a few pages of parchment, carefully folded in to eighths.
The corners were frayed, evidence of multiple opening and creasing. It was a faded yellow, even though she kept it away in a secret place in her carrier where it was protected by an oilcloth and a thin lining of feather down she’d sewn especially for it. There were a few stains, which she looked upon regretfully. She wiped her fingers earnestly on her breeches, and then delicately unfolded the three small scrolls, each only as long as her small foot.
The words were done in a large, loose hand bordering on the careless, and some of the letters were nearly indistinguishable, but she knew the hand and the writing nearly by heart. She held it away from the fire, glad for the sunlight still left in the late afternoon, and read the papers slowly; savoring them on her tongue as she silently mouthed each word.
Firelight reflected in her wet eyes and made them blaze red and yellow. Chase scanned the words again, then hugged them to her breast as tight as she dared without crushing them, then slowly folded them again so they would fit neatly back in to their pouch. She stared blankly at the fire for a bit, and sang the chorus of “Everyman’s a king” once more, to get it out of her system.
She only ever allowed herself a tiny bit of self-pity at a time. It was foolishness to block it completely from one’s system, particularly if this one was of an emotional type, which she had never been ashamed to say, she was nothing if not. Those times had been more than ten years ago, and while that should have made the whole event more painless, it only made her mourn her slipping memory. Remembering was good, even in all of its pathetic and nostalgic sorrow, but she only allowed a few moments at a time. Wallowing was far worse than forgetting and would accomplish far less.
So after folding away the papers, Chase changed tunes. It was an old dance song she had learned at an even younger age, which she belted out with cracking abandon, substituting nonsense syllables for the words that had slowly but surely slipped from her mind. She set to reaching up in to a willow tree and weaving a nest for the night, singing as she went and tapping a boot on the grass.
She was singing so loudly that she almost didn’t hear the faint crack in the distance. Instinctively, she shut up and ducked low behind the willow’s wide trunk. An awkward silence hung in the air where her voice had just been, and she realized a moment after hiding that it was foolish to do so; anyone for a league might have heard her singing, and she’d left her fire going on the rocks. Pretending she wasn’t there was useless, but habit kept her hidden, regardless.
Her body remained tight and coiled, until a human walked silently in to the open space, a roguish grin on her face. She glanced around for a moment with her hands on her hips, then plopped down unceremoniously beside the fire, acting as though she were simply enjoying her view of the river.
“I know you’re around here somewhere, Chase,” she called out without looking around. Her voice was rough, and it cracked like she hadn’t used it for a while. “I heard you singing that ballad of yours and thought I’d come to visit.” Chase relaxed, and straightened up, taking two steps to sit besides the girl.
She guessed her to be about eighteen, though as scrawny as she was, she could have simply been tall for her age. Her hair was sandy blonde and cut short and uneven alongside her head. Her buckskin clothing didn’t cover much, and the exposed skin was tanned with dark freckles. Like her, a bow and quiver were strapped over her back, but what she carried was limited to leather pouches hanging from her waist. She couldn’t help but afford a quick inward laugh- the girl was as close to the Outsiders’ view of them as she had ever seen.
“It’s good to see you again, Kisa.” Chase’s voice was filled with warmth. “Though it’s only been half a year. You can’t have tried to stake a territory already.”
Kisa regarded her with her big, brown eyes. “So what if I have?”
Surprised, Chase met her gaze, leaning her head to the side as though trying to figure something out. “You really have? Aren’t you a little young?”
“The world is not like you, Chase,” she snorted.
“Of course it’s not.”
“I don’t mean like that, and you know it. Even the Nzarel are not all like you.” Chase didn’t answer, so she went on. “Wandering around aimlessly is sure to have its perks, but it’s not entirely practical. It’s simpler to make a life out of a span you know well.”
Chase thought for a moment. “I ask again; aren’t you a little young to be doing that?”
“What does that have to do with it?”
“It has to do with the fact that there’s much to see in the Nzera, and you’re all but giving up on seeing it, when your life has just barely begun.”
Kisa’s eyes bored in to her intensely. “Forgive me for being a cynic, but the Nzera is only that. A forest. There’s only so much to see before the trees just all start to look the same. A claim’s the best thing a person can get.”
“That’s really what you think? That an area this big obviously must all be covered with the woodland the Outsiders see on the edges?”
Kisa laughed, long and hard, though Chase didn’t see the humor. “Oh, you are a fool, aren’t you?” She leaned back on to her elbows, shaking her head with mirth. “You believe those old stories. I’d have thought age would bring wisdom, but it’s done you no favor, that’s for sure.” She picked up the bare rabbit bone, turning it in the air to look at it. “I don’t suppose you have any more of these to share?”
“Certainly. First you’ll have to tell me what about those accounts makes them so unreliable that the likes of you just laugh at them.”
Denied of food, Kisa scowled in disappointment. “Fine. It’s as simple as this. Only a handful of people have claimed to see these things in the Center. Well, Nzarel have looked there. There’s nothing but more trees. Perhaps a little older, but nothing more interesting.” She cracked the bone open to suck at the marrow for a moment, then turned to Chase. “These ‘accounts’ of yours are nothing but the dreams of madmen. So I’ll make myself comfortable for a while, and move with the seasons, but I won’t wander unnecessarily. I’d suggest doing the same.”
“You sound like an Outsider right now,” Chase snorted. “You know that, right?”
Kisa’s amiable attitude dissolved, leaving only a harsh exterior. “If anyone is like an Outsider right now, it’s you. You’re the one who goes in to towns and gets nice and cozy with the other Outsiders. You were even singing their songs, way out here. Don’t act so innocent. You are less Nzarel than the rest of us.”
Chase pulled back as though she’d been struck. She didn’t know how to respond to an insult like that. So she stared stupidly, the muscles in her pointy jaw working back and forth as Kisa sucked hungrily at the bones.
After a moment of tense silence, Kisa seemed to catch on to the impact of her words, and with her chin high, she stood, dropping the pieces of bone on the stone at her feet. “I’ll find my own game. There’s still light enough.”
Chase snapped out of her hurt reverie with a brisk shake of her head, sending black ringlets flying around her head. “No, no. Don’t be thick. I’ll share my fire tonight.” The girl looked at her suspiciously, but then flopped down again with a shrug of her shoulders.
“Whatever you say.” She seemed to forget about her slip of words instantly, and Chase tried to do the same, but they rung in her ears like a murmured hum, just out of range of understanding. Firmly ignoring it, she pulled out one of the haunches from her carrier and set to cooking it, while Kisa continued on the innards of the leftover bone, satisfied.
* * * * * * * * *
“Another round, my dears. We can’t let these brave souls go thirsty!” Lord Arcados slapped one heavy hand on the table as he waved the other in the air. A plump serving maid came with a whopping pitcher of mead in both hands, giving the men a broad, toothy smile.
“I hope you’re not planning to make these lads pay for all the drink you’re forcing down their throats,” she laughed, giving a conspicuous wink. “You may actually have to pay them up front.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it, my dear. Wouldn’t dream of it.” He held his mug up to be refilled first, letting his eyes hover a little below the girl’s chin. By the time two serving maids had managed to fill the mugs of every man at the long tavern table, he had downed his in one mighty swig, just about soaking his mustache. He brought it down on the table with a hearty thunk, rattling the dishes and arousing some general laughter around the room.
Jame sat nearer the other end of the table, drinking his mead with a quiet smile on his face. His clothes were simple and practical, a tan tunic and green vest, with dark breeches and walking boots, a dark brown cloak over all. Dark hair fell down over his brows, thick and wavy. Hazel eyes roved slowly over the group, framed by straight, thick brows.
A large fireplace burned at his end of the table, and torches and candles set all around the room kept it well lit and cheery. It also smelled of bread and ale, but he could hardly blame that on the firelight. They were in a low class tavern that Arcados had reserved for himself for the night. “For the privacy,” he had explained to them, though one look at the serving maid’s gave a hint at the real reason they were all gathered in this particular hole.
When he’d heard of this job, he’d leapt at the chance, as low-paying as it was. It was supposed to be a special assignment, dangerous and near reckless, with all the perils and adventures a man could wish for. If it stood up to its promises, completing this job would send his reputation nearly in to legend. After this, he’d be able to charge whatever he wished, disregarding completely the rates a man his age could normally get. It was the chance of a lifetime.
So far, Arcados had spent a lot of time explaining that they were all “dear brave souls” to be doing this, and enticed them with hints at how large the reward would be. Mostly, he’d been drinking like a fish and ordering drinks for the lot of them. Judging from his ample girth, Jame could have said this was only due to a love of drink and drunkenness, but a part of him was hoping it was more. Maybe he was aiming to get the rest of them drunk as well, because such a job would never be taken on by a sober man. Truly, that just made it all the more enticing. If only the pig would get on with it.
“Ah, my dear brave souls,” Arcados cried out in a deep, loud voice. Jame could have made a fortune betting on his saying that. “Would you all like to know what task I would set out before you all?” Jame joined his voice to the roar of assent. “I’ve let you all know how thrilling it is, but now you will decide for yourselves.” He paused for dramatic effect, and the whole room leaned subtly towards him, waiting. He sat up straight, a sober look on his face for what could be the first time that night.
“Lads, anyone who takes this job will be asked to go to the Horned Forest herself.” Prudently, he gave the men a moment to let it sink in. Murmuring set up around the room, some shocked, some afraid, a few awaiting explanation, and a few, like Jame, filled with excitement. A burly man beside him, twice his size with short, grizzled hair, leaned over, nudging his massive elbow against his arm.
“Now here’s a job, eh boy?” His voice was deep and raspy.
“Aye, that’s the truth,” he grinned. “Wonder what he’s got planned for us in a place like that.”
“Now, haven’t ya heard of the madmen around there, goin’ after people on the border around there? Likely he’ll want us to do somethin’ about it.”
Jame had heard in fact, but he hadn’t thought that Arcados, whose estates were mostly miles from the border, would want to do anything about the problem. He tried asking the grizzly man about it, but the noise at the table had escalated.
Before they got in to an uproar, Arcados held up both hands, regaining their attention. “Now, lads, I’m sure you know what’s been happening around the Horned. The attacks have become more frequent. They have become more violent. It’s all some of those villagers can do to defend their homes and maintain their sanity, always threatened with attack by the barbarians.” The oration surprised Jame. Out of a drunken man, it was actually quite impressive. He found some respect for the glutted man.
“There have been efforts by some to guard the villages. Watch the border for them, whatnot.” Here is was, then. “But it hasn’t worked. People still die, and some of the savages have managed to sneak around these patrols. What else can be done then? The king has tried sending his troops in, but the numbers they’ve taken out, compared with the threat still present, is minimal. So what else can be done?”
The other men looked around, confused. It wasn’t as though they would be expected to come up with a solution. Jame looked in to the bottom of his mug, thinking. “We send mercenaries in.” All eyes turned towards him in surprise. He kept his head down, speaking evenly to hide his battling nervousness and elation from his voice. “In small teams, if not on their own. They won’t be as easy to track or avoid as a full troop of armed soldiers. A man alone can sneak up on a target, ambush it, without losing the element of surprise.” He looked up to see Lord Arcados beaming solemnly at him from behind his mustache.
“Exactly right, lad. That’s your job. Go in teams of two or three in to the Horned Forest, and hunt down those mad savages. Pick them off one by one. Sacrifice brute strength for stealth, the one thing they’ve always managed to have over us in their element.”
“Why exactly do we have to go in to their element, though?” The speaker this time was a thin, broad - shouldered man with thin red hair and the look of a true fighter with a fair bit of money in his coffer. “You really expect us to go in there at all?” It seemed to Jame that he was more interested in seeing what Arcados’s reply would be than having his fears eased. But some nervous looks were shooting around the room. The lord didn’t answer the man directly, but instead addressed the whole party.
“The Horned Forest is by no means a friendly place. It’s hostile and wild, completely untamed and feral. But the worst thing you will ever encounter in it is simply the stories that farmers and other simple folk tell each other to scare each other and their children in to staying away. That’s all fine and good for them, but you lot are men of action!” The tension began easing away from them, and nods of assent met the words. “You’re not going to be stopped by campfire stories, are you? Ghosts? Bears three times as big as regular beasts? Honestly, what a load of rubbish. To think it could intimidate you all! You are strong men, not water legged women. The most dangerous thing in those trees are the people who are attacking villages in fits of insanity.
“But they have no power over you, only experience in the woods. But they can’t hide in there. They can only run, and we will still catch them! We will annihilate their menacing presence in this world. Bring the border to peace once and for all, and, should we do our job well enough, we can let civilization come to rule The Horned Forest, as man will come to rule the world!”
He was met with thunderous applause, mugs coming down on the table and heavy feet beating the floor as throaty cheers went up around the room. Even the serving maids were clapping heartily, their trays set aside on an unused table. Jame was ready to get his pack and set off immediately.
He turned around as a broad hand rested on his shoulder. “Easy there, lad,” the grizzly man winked at him. “I see that wanderlust burnin’ in your eyes. We’ll all get there soon enough. For now, stay and enjoy the free drink.” He motioned with his chin towards Arcados who was wearing a proud grin on his pudgy face.
“Girl! Bring more mead. Another round for all you brave souls.” Jame exchanged glanced with the grizzly man, and they both set up laughing. He held his mug up to be filled, intoxicated by the feeling of reverie and excitement circulating the entire room. While he tilted his mug back with the sound of cheering and deep laughter around him, he felt good enough to want to apologize to the building itself for ever thinking of it as a dirty old hole of a place.
* * * * * * * * *
Night had fallen a long time ago, but Chase was still awake. Her gaze shifted from content focus on a piece of wood in her hand, and meditative reverie in a far-off place somewhere within the fire.
Kisa had fallen asleep not too long after eating, which had only taken a few minutes after it had come off of the spit. Likely she still had grease on her fingers. She was curled up on her side on the bare rock, arms folded neatly underneath her head. Chase shivered, looking at her. She never wore much in the means of clothes. In the summer, she didn’t even bother with a cloak, though she knew her to have a fur one in the winter. She just went around with as little as possible in the way of materials to weigh her down or heat her up. Even if that meant dealing with pre-dawn chilliness and dew.
Kisa always made her laugh a little on the inside. She sure seemed tough and unfazed by anything, certainly including the elements. But she was still just a kid, with so much to learn about everything it made her laugh. Nearly every inch of her skin left bare was covered with hairline scars ranging from near invisible white lines to fresh scratches, from brushing up against undergrowth and twigs- all because she was too stubborn to handle a little heat.
It didn’t hurt that Chase enjoyed the heat, preferring it greatly to cold. But still, the girl was stubborn and willful, to the point where she was unwilling to learn from anything but repetitions of her own stupid mistakes. She had been silly to take her earlier remark seriously. She was Nzarel, as much as anyone.
And so what if she crossed the border every now and then? She was a grown woman. She could do whatever she liked, without someone 5 years her junior telling her otherwise. She had her reasons. She liked to trade for some things she simply couldn’t make on her own, fish hooks, for instance. She liked to learn about the world beyond the Nzera’s edges. She would be denser than Kisa to think that it didn’t affect her life, and not in such small ways. After all, Kisa was the one who thought she was better off sticking with one relatively small area of territory to call her own. She really did think she was older than she really was—
You’re defending yourself against her? Chase put her whittling down, staring incredulously at nothing. You really are dense, girl! How exactly did she become important enough to defend yourself? Furious with herself, she put the knife back against the wood, hollowing out the space between the creature’s ears. Sometimes she surprised even her own seasoned self.
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