Hey everybody, I’ve been staying busy by doing a lot of creative writing, and while I know that just breaks your hearts that i haven’t been giving you the attention you deserve, I’ve brought the fruits of my labor to share with you as a peace offering. This here story is set in the same world as my fantasy book series (Ancient Conflict) that I have been writing on for years, and it is my first attempt at writing fantasy short fiction. Hope you enjoy!
Jaban watched the smoke from the small fire curl and flow like the currents of the Iemere River, up the small stone chimney where it streams into the night spring air, still crest by a wintry chill. But warmth filled their little hut, and thatch kept out the drafts and the final winter tide.
“The plagues have been devastating to the herd , my love.”
Jaban shivered, “I know,” he growled.
“Growl all you wish, but not at me.” His wife slipped around in front of him and eased down to his side. Kaellen was robed in the softest dark-brown wool, a match for her luxurious fur, and a counterpoint to the sharpness of her eyes. He turned aside and his gaze trailed along her short snout, and the soft curve of her nose. His arms encircled her waist from where he sat and he sighed, returning his gaze to her’s. The strength of her will drew him to her in the first place, and as he looked into her unflinching eyes, he knew they would draw him anywhere.
“Tomorrow,” He said. “Tomorrow I will go.”
Her eyes softened then, the hard lines around her eyes smoothed and relaxed like water over earth. “Do not be so hard, my love,” she said. “The hunt is the way of our ancestors.”
“And we left it for fields and pastures; sheep, goats and peace.”
“There is a peace in the hunt.”
Jaban’s forehead drew down, his eyes hidden in himself, “There is also peace in death.”
Kaellen growled sharply and twisted his nose. His lips pulled back in pain, and surprise.
“Stop drawing up the well,” she barked, “You are doing this so our family will survive.” His hand brushed over the bulge of her belly as she spoke, and he felt his throat thicken. “I’m not asking you to chase down the deer with your teeth and claws, or drink the blood and gore as from a vineyard,” she said. “You are an excellent shot with the bow.”
“My bow is brittle and cracking,” he mumbled.
“Then make a new one. We aren’t even much more than half a day’s travel from the nearest wood.”
His ears drooped into the long shaggy hair over his head, “There aren’t many good trees in that wood for bow staves.” It was true, but still they both knew he was making excuses now.
Kaellen folded her arms before her and watched him.
“Very well. I said tomorrow, didn’t I? I’ll be to the wood and back with the makings of a bow before nightfall. Will that suffice?”
She gave a wolfish grin and licked his ear, “It will, at that. Now come to bed.”
“I will shortly. Just give me a moment to think.”
She sighed into his neck fur, “Very well. But I will not find you here tomorrow morning.”
“No, my love.”
“Goodnight, my dearest.” She slid off of him then, trailing her fingers along his shoulders as she left to their bedroom.
The fire fell slowly, the red and gold glint of its light playing on the surface of Jaban’s eyes as he stared into the embers. His thoughts turned over his unborn son and his wife, and the dying herds that were their world. He glanced up to the Shakan stick above the fireplace. Perfectly straight and balanced, its hardened and smoothed shaft glowed in the light of the last embers. The names of his forefathers and mothers carved in an intricate spiral down its haft. It’s arrow-sharp points at both ends almost invisible in the dark, even to his sharp eyes. It had been six generations since the Shakan stick had been used as anything more than a decoration; a symbol for ceremony. Tales of the hunts and battles of his ancestors were last told by his grandfather, before he died. His father was no storyteller. Neither was he.
The red of the embers receded out of sight beneath the ash into little pools, further buried in earth before Jaban stood and turned to bed.
The next morning a stranger approached their small home. He was a human, dressed in dark brown wanderer’s clothes that seemed black in the shadows of his cloak. He had a weathered face and deep sunken eyes over a grin that spoke of knowledge well hidden.
“Hello, good herdsmen!” He called out, “May I trouble you for a bite to eat and a brief rest for my weary feet?”
“Bring him in, but be sure to find out if he is safe first,” Kaellen said.
“Find out if he’s safe?” Jaban asked. “If he isn’t safe, then not being hospitable would be worse than offering him help. I will watch him, but the secrets of strangers are their own. He can keep them.”
So Jaban welcomed the man into their home. The man scrapped his boots at the door and entered with a friendly nod. “Thank you, kind folk. That aren’t many who let strangers into their house in these harsh times on the plains.”
“We are happy to help,” insisted Kaellen, “Please join us for breakfast.”
“Again, thank you.”
They directed him towards a seat at their dinner table, and as they left him, Jaban could feel a swirl and pull of silence; as if there were undercurrents in the air that whispered and murmured of mysteries. An urge washed over him to ask the man where he was from, where he was going, what was his name, but he fought it down and followed his wife to their small kitchen.
Kaellen and Jaban worked together over the breakfast, as was their morning custom, until they brought plates piled high with breads, eggs and the produce of the land. Warm goats milk and smoked meat from the last of the herd they could spare for the table. A few small apples from the tree outside. A simple meal, but a generous meal; one they both knew they could not truly afford.
The food disappeared quickly, leaving only warms smells as memory, and It was not long before the man wiped his chin with the cloth and sighed, “That is quite possibly the best meal I have ever had. You are remarkable hosts.”
“It is our pleasure, stranger,” said Kaellen, “feel free to come by our home again on your return journey.”
“Ah no,” said the man, “Where I have been, I never return. I am a wanderer through and through. And now I must be off, again.” He rose from the table and dusted the last crumbs from his shirt.
Jaban showed him to the door but the man beckoned him to come outside and speak with him for a moment. Jaban followed, and they walked a small distance from the house.
“You do not ask my intent. You do not ask my name, my path or my destination,” said the man. “You are a most interesting people.”
“We are what we are,” replied Jaban.
“Aren’t we all,” chuckled the stranger. “And you, Jaban of the Harn Clan of the Shaunea, an ancient people. A spiritual people of respect and simple honor.”
Jaban stopped. “You seem to know a great deal.”
“Haha!” the man laughed, “even when you are shaken you respect the secrets of others. Truly there is none like you. Yes, I know many things.”
“Including my name,” said Jaban.
The man smiled his smile, “I will leave you and your family in peace. But first, in exchange for the respect you show secrets, a gift; a portion of my knowledge,” he drew a breath, “Let me tell you of secrets.”
He held forth his hand, “A secret is the unknown. What do I hold in my hand? You cannot tell, for you cannot hear it, smell it, taste it or see it, but it is there. So long as I hold my fingers closed, it will remain so. It is gold. No, it is coral of the sea. Hardly, it is the wool of the beasts of the far winters. I hold the third eye of the Jen. No, it is the smoke of the Black Mountain. I hold the salvation of worlds.
But you do not know, for it is a secret. A secret is magic. Powerful magic. It gives value to the valueless, it makes the undesired desirable, and the weak are given strength. There is nothing more dangerous than a secret,” He paused, then opened his hand. Rich dark earth spilled from his palm, and flowed upon the ground like water from a sieve as he spoke, “A secret revealed is nothing more than soil. It is the ground on which we stand, and the source of our sustenance, but how can one desire the earth beneath you feet? And yet…” He dug his fingers into the earth still spilling from his hand and pulled out a diamond. “…even secrets exposed to light can hold further secrets within.” He opened his mouth and threw the jewel back like a small piece of fruit and swallowed it. “Curiosity is the lover of Secret, but she can never have him, for if she would, he would cease to be of value to her. You are not of her, but you hold no secrets in your heart; you are not one of mine.
“Beware the danger of secrets.” He reached into his cloak and pulled out a round rock-like egg. “Men who hold secrets are the eggs of the Thur lizard. They are hard as rock, unpliable and hide their delicacies within.” He removed a stone from his cloak, “But secrets can be broken.” He took the stone and smashed it hard into the egg. The force of the blow crushed it, sending chips and golden flecks flying.
The man stared into Jaban’s amazed eyes, “Look and know…” He held out the hand clutching the stone and unfurled his fingers where the stone lay shattered on his palm. “…the danger of secrets. See you well.”
With a turn, the man disappeared into the air, leaving only the fresh dirt at Jaban’s feet to speak of his presence.
Jaban returned to his home and prepared for his journey to the wood. He hurried, for he had already lost needed hours of the day if he were to return by nightfall. He tried to keep his mind from the strange words the man had said, but they tumbled through his mind like pebbles in a stream.
“You are distracted, my dear,” said his Kaellen, “What is the matter.”
“It is nothing, my love,” replied Jaban.
Kaellen watched him carefully and worried.
When the last bag was packed, he shod himself at the door and stood. Pulling the last bag over his shoulder Jaban turned to Kaelen, “Are you certain that you will be able to handle the flocks today?”
“There are not enough sheep and goats left to give me trouble. Besides,” she grinned and rubbed her growing stomach, “I’ll have some company.”
With a soft kiss and the touch of noses, Jaban said his farewell and left.
The land was a rolling wave; hills rose, crested and flowed down again into pools of thick green grass and flowers secreted away from unfriendly winds. These grassy waves flowed across the entire landscape and beneath Jaban’s feet until they came crashing to the shore of the Iemere River where they lapped at the smooth waters.
Jaban followed the river northward as the sun crawled the sky.
The sight of the wood came as he crested the last hill before the short plains of Holl and the farther Jinen Forest. The wood was large, dark and deep. No mere scattering of trees, but a thick holding of trunks, leaves and brush that filled this side of the plain for several miles. Jaban set camp at the base of the hill by the river, eating a quick meal before striding amongst the trees.
The making of the bow was well know to Jaban, who had been taught by his father’s father, a master of the craft. Thoughts of his old bow flit through his mind, and the many awards the bow and his sharp eyes had won at festivals and celebrations in town. Never had it been used on the hunt. It hadn’t been needed. It was against his traditions. But even tradition bends knee to necessity.
His eyes searched the trees carefully. Some trees might make simple bows for simple uses, but these he did not know. He searched for the wood he knew, the Western Yew, and though it was uncommon in these lands it was the finest wood to use for a bow. He passed pine trees, fir trees, larch trees. He wandered deep and broad. He found a grandfatherly yew, larger around than Jaban’s shoulders and over four times as tall, but he passed it, for though the Shaunea race are strong he was but one, desiring to make one lone bow, and he would not destroy the pride of so mighty a tree for so little, nor would he be strong enough to haul such a tree home by himself.
His search took much of the day, for there was much ground to cover, but as the sun descended towards the horizon, and the light through the trees became deeper yellow, speaking of the orange and purple display to come, Jaban heard a soft whistle on the wind, warbling and dancing like no bird he had ever heard. It hopped, twirled an jigged in his ears and he followed it. The sound grew till he recognized it for the music of a pipe.
Like a curtain pulled aside for the sunlight, the trees opened into a tiny clearing. It was no more than fifteen forwards round, and near the edge, on the far side stood the perfect yew tree. It was very young, only about twenty feet tall with branches stretching high and wide.
Laying beneath those branches, blowing a merry tune on a pan-pipe was a human youth clad in clothes of leafy greens and browns. He wore a green cap with yew berries in its brim over a smiling friendly face.
The man lay his pipes on his chest, “Ho there, traveler!” he greeted, “It s a fine afternoon to be traveling so deep into these woods, is it not?”
“Yes, I suppose it is,” Jaban said. “But I cannot stay long. If you could please move, I must be about my business.”
The man’s eyes darted to the the ax Jaban wore and the smile in his eyes faded, though the one on his face did not. “Business,” he repeated. “Well, good traveler, you will have to excuse me as I do not find myself inclined much to be moving today.”
Jaban frowned, “I don’t mean to trouble you, but I will not leave without that tree.”
“Well,” said the man, “If you must stay, then feel free to linger and listen to my pipes for so however long you please.” He put the pipes back to his lips and began to play.
Jaban stared at the man and rubbed his hair and ears back with his hands in frustration, “Will you please move? I must finish here and be away before nightfall.”
The man continued to play, but his eyes watched Jaban carefully.
Jaban breathed heavily and drew his ax from its loop. He made to go around to the far side of the tree, thinking that if he began chopping it down the man would move. But as he neared the far side of the tree the little man leaped up and ran to stand between the limbs and Jaban’s ax, all the while playing his tune.
Jaban kept walking, once again to go to another side of the tree, but the man followed, stepping between him and the tree all the way. Jaban turned suddenly and ran around in the other direction, but the man was swift and beat him there. So Jaban turned suddenly again but the man was there. He faked a return and then ran again, but the man kept with him at every move, his tune growing more frantic and warbling. The man’s eyes were wide and his face sweat, but Jaban saw determination writ in every line of his face.
Jaban felt like a child, playing silly running games around this tree. He clenched his teeth in anger and felt his nose warm with embarrassment, “What is this tree to you? Why won’t you let me to it?”
“It is what it is,” replied the man.
“And it is what?”
“Shade. A place to lay down beneath welcoming branches.”
“Look around you, man,” growled Jaban, “You are in a forest, are you not? There are thousands of other trees from which to find shade, but this is the only tree I have found for my bow.”
“This tree makes for me better shade than it would you for your bow,” He shrugged and went back to playing his pipes.
Jaban walked away a few steps and paced back and forth, glancing from his ax to the tree to the man while growling and breathing heavily. Finally he walked up to a nearby pine and took a great chop at it with a yell, then yanked it back out and slung it in its loop.
“There must be another yew tree in this forest,” He said harshly before striding away from the clearing. The music of the pipes chasing him all the way.
Jaban searched until the light was just barely enough to see his way out of the forest before heading back. Through all his searching he found no other yew trees that would work to his purpose. In anger he settled in to his camp, ate a simple dinner and fell asleep on his pallet. His last thoughts were of his wife and home, and regret that he couldn’t be there before nightfall.
The next day he returned, hopeful that the man had left, but before he reached the clearing he heard again the sounds of the pan-pipes. The man was playing the same merry tune Jaban remembered from the day before while swaying slowly with his eyes closed.
Jaban took a breath and called out, “Ho there!”
The man’s eyes opened. “Hello again, traveler. Not yet done with your business, I see.”
“I have to feed my family,” said Jaban. “I will not be able to if I do not complete my business.”
“That is a shame,” said the man who then returned to playing his pipes.
Jaban snarled and strode forward, “Have you no heart, man?”
The man paused playing briefly, “No.”
“What is it worth to you, this tree? I am not a rich man. In many ways I am a poor man, but I am capable. Is there anything I could do in exchange for letting me at this tree?”
The man closed his eyes and continued playing.
“There must be some price. Anything. Ask any task of me anything and I will see if I can accomplish it.”
The man ignored him.
Jaban’s shoulders fell and he left the wood. He thought of his home and his quiet herds and pastures. It did not take long to pack up camp. He had not wanted to make the bow in the first place.
It took him until the late afternoon before he reached his home. Kaellen had just brought in their few sheep after a brief day in the pastures, and she was not pleased to find him without a tree. After he explained what had happened she was not satisfied.
“There must be some way to remove the man.”
“My love, I tried. He would not listen to reason, and he would not hear my appeals for our livelihood.”
She leaned in close, “His reasons do not matter. Yours do. He may not care for our family, but you do.” She placed his hand on her stomach and he could feel the slightest of kicks, the life of his soon-born babe. “Think of us, go back and do what you must.”
Jaban hid from the sun’s greeting the next morning, and only Kaellen’s glares were enough to pry his from the bedsheets. He packed slowly, and savored his breakfast till there was nothing left to savor in it. As he left the house with leaden footsteps he looked back to his wife, who watched him from the doorway, leaning against it with one raise arm. Worry creased the features of her face, and he saw her holding her swollen belly, their child, with her other hand. He straightened, readjusted his pack, took a deep breath and strode away, determination in his steps.
He arrived at the wood again in the early afternoon, and it was not long before he had camp set at the base of the hill. Foregoing lunch, he slipped the ax haft through its loop, surveyed the camp once more and then turned into to the wood.
He knew the way well enough, but as he neared he felt the heaviness in his feet return, and the determination he had begun with slipping away. He was nearly within sight of the clearing when he slowed to a halt. The birds twittered overhead as he stood there for many moments, thinking to himself and trying to shore up the will he would need, but nothing came. The thought came to him that perhaps he had not searched the woods long enough. Surely there were other good yew trees. He had just missed them. With that thought he turned from the clearing and set to searching the forest.
The second time through was as unfruitful as the first. Jaban searched haphazardly with little care for where he went except that it was not toward the clearing. By the time the sun began its decent he had given up his search in the southern half of the wood, and resolved to look in the farther north. There he saw many strange trees, none of which were of the good yew he searched for. There were twisted yew, not straight enough for a bow, there were grand old yew, too wide and heavy, and there were young yew, saplings only, and then he was on the far side of the forest, looking out across the Holl Plains to the far distant expanse that was the Jinen forests, a green and blue mat stretched across the horizon’s edge. To his left the sun leaned down, arms outstretched to pull the sheets of earth over its head for sleep.
He walked back to camp quickly, knowing that his time spent wandering the trees would mean walking through half the wood in twilight and darkness. With some surprise he emerged into the clearing on the far side, standing not far away from the man and his tree.
“Ho traveler!” greeted the green clad human youth. “A fine evening for a walk in the wood.”
Jaban stared at him.
“Care to stay and listen for a while? I was just about to play my pipes in farewell to the sun and in greeting to the stars.”
Jaban cleared his throat, for it had gone dry, “No I will not, I must get back to my camp before nightfall.”
“That is a shame, traveler. I always appreciate good listeners when I play.”
“Then why don’t you play in a city? Or perhaps a village? Even traveling farm to farm for a night’s rest would provide you more ears than this.”
“What better audience than the earth, the sky and all between?” The man smiled “And these trees could not follow me to the city; I will not leave them without the serenade of my pipes.” He then began to play a sweet farewell to the sun.
Jaban left before the greeting of the night sky. It would greet him soon enough, and he meant to be nearer his camp before then.
Jaban woke to the feel of rain on the wind, and the smell of it in the air. One of the southern rainstorms was coming on fast, and he could just make out distant clouds of gray and blue. It took him little time to take down his camp and set up again on a small rise beneath the trees several hundred forwards into the wood. He did not bother to set the fire, instead eating a small selection of uncooked vegetables and dried fruit with a sliver of smoked goat meat. Just before the first drizzles began he pulled up the flap to his tent and slipped inside, thankful for the oiled rainslip he had brought to cover the tent.
Even under the trees the wind picked up till it howled and rain poured down through the limbs and leaves to swamp the landscape. Jaban listened long to the twisting whipping trees and the occasional distant crack of limbs in compliment to the crash and boom of the thunder and lightning that briefly would light through the roof of his tent.
Even on this little hill it wold not take long for the water to find its way inside. Rainstorms have a way of breaking through the defenses of any tent, no matter how well made, and Jaban new that no one is a fool who respects the danger of storms.
And with that thought, Jaban’s eyes widened and a grin took over his face. He scrambled to take his oiled cloak from inside the pack and wrapped himself with it before untying the flap of his tent and stepping through.
All was a deep blue chaos. The trees above bent over to him as if protecting him like a child from the heavy blows of the sky father. The rain fell through their limbs like tears and abused him hard. Even with his cloak it wasn’t long before his face and legs were soaked. He kept the ax at his side, well hidden under the fabric.
It took him some time to find his way through the wildness of the wood, so unrecognizable in the wet darkness. After a goodly time he emerged into the clearing. It was covered with thick pools and streams of water, and the dancing splashes of a multitude of raindrops, making the ground seems alive and pulsing. He could just make out through the curtains the yew tree at the far side.
As he approached his heart dropped into his boots as he heard a song coming from beneath the branches of the tree:
After many days of dry,
And no loving from the sky,
The gift of clouds, oh rain, sweet rain to me
Sweet rain to me, sweet rain to me,
Father sky, the gift of clouds,
Sweet rain to me, sweet rain to me
Our lips were parched as bone,
Our thirst was sharp and honed,
And our leaves were as cracked as the dirt.
As the dirt, as the dirt,
As the dirt, father sky,
And our leaves were as cracked as the dirt.
Sweet rain to me, sweet rain to me,
Father sky, the gift of clouds,
Sweet rain to me, sweet rain to me
Oh, I gave up hope for life,
And with desperation rife,
Sky hear my pleas! Oh rain, sweet rain to me!
Sweet rain to me, sweet rain to me,
Father sky, the gift of clouds,
Sweet rain to me, sweet rain to me
After many days of dry,
And no loving from the sky,
The gift of clouds, oh rain, sweet rain to me
Jaban listened until the man began the song again then left. He strode alone through the trees, which swayed from the sky to the earth and back as desperate men catching water to spread over a fire too large. Jaban felt he was being drowned in it.
It took longer to find his tent again, for his thoughts were far away. He hoped the storms had not bothered his wife overmuch. He crawled into his tent and lay down fully clothed, fully wet. Sleep did not come easily that night.
The next morning, Jaban woke up cold and damp with a pulsing pain between his ears. The bright sunlight streaming through the trees did not quell his growing anger, and his breaths swelled in time with the ache in his head. It built all morning as he moved his camp back to his spot on the hill, and spiked as the wet wood spoiled his hopes for a warm breakfast. The ground was finally beginning to firm and the sun passed its zenith when Jaban grabbed his ax and strode heavily into the wood.
As he walked his legs swung faster, his arms pumping at his sides as if to beat his way through the trees. He was a sharp contrast to the grateful calm of the land around him. The dancing beams of sunlight dappled his fur, and birds sang softly on tree limbs above, with glistening drops clinging to the underside leaves. He did not see anything but the blood framing the path before him until he stood in the too familiar clearing.
“Ho traveler!” called the man cheerfully, “Is this not a fine day?”
Jaban snarled. Some part of him that still had sense caused him to throw his ax aside before hurling himself at the small green clad youth. The smile dropped from the human’s face and he set his feet firmly. Jaban smiled viciously that the human thought he could match the strength of a Shaunea, but when Jaban grabbed the man to throw him he could not. It was as if the man was rooted to the ground. His eyes widened in shock as the human easily broke his hold, grabbed him by his shirt and waist, and threw him back the way he had come.
Jaban rolled to his feet easily and he trembled in anger. Breaths came through his teeth as heat from the mouth of a furnace. He launched himself at the man again, this time throwing fists and kicks. The man swayed back and forth in no manner that Jaban had ever seen, pushing aside blow after blow. Those that did land left his hands in pain as if he had been throwing his fists at the ground. The man’s lips pulled back and he reached out again, grabbing Jaban’s shirt and waist before throwing him backward. He tumbled to the muddy ground in a heap.
“Do not come at me again, or I will do you harm.”
Jaban slowly pulled himself to his feet, “You do not understand. I need that tree. I have to provide for my family.”
“You must find another way.”
“What use could you possibly have for that tree that could out weigh my responsibilities for my unborn child and wife?”
The man’s face softened, “An unborn child you say.”
“Yes.” Jaban said, his face a mask of anger and pain.
The man was quiet for a moment before saying, “I am sorry. I cannot.” He sat down by his tree and picked up his pipes. “Go home and be with your family. You will find another way.”
“There is no other way,” growled Jaban.
The man’s face flashed to a frown. “If your mind is set so, then perhaps there isn’t,” he replied as sharp as a knife, “And then you will have to kill me to take this tree.” With that, he began playing his pipes. It was a hard defiant song, with little joy and a touch of black melancholy.
Jaban picked up his ax, and tried to brush the mud from his clothes in vain before he stumbled away from the clearing. He headed straight forward, away from the music until he could hear it no more, and there he took his ax and buried it in the side of a great pine. He struck and he struck, cleaving his way through the thick bark and meat of the tree until it fell with an earth rumbling crash at his feet.
He collapsed to his knees, placed his arms on the trunk his head in his arms and wept. He had never tried to do anything so violent to anyone. He had near enough wished the man dead. He wondered what could have possessed him. What had happened to the peaceful shepherd?
He knelt there for hours, trying to heal his heart’s new wound with tears.
When he returned to his camp it was with a renewed determination not to resort to violence. The man was the source of his troubles, of that he was of no doubt. But he would not stoop to attacking him so again.
Jaban woke up on the sixth day angry. He sat in his camp thinking, and stirred his fire with a long stick. Plans and schemes tumbled through his mind as logs in a river, but nothing came to him. What could possible lead the man to move from the tree if violence was out of the question, and even the rain did nothing? Jaban’s eyes were distant and weary as he stared into the flames.
“Not even the elements could move him.” he thought.
The heat from the flames warmed the fur on his hands, legs and face till it was almost painful. The embers danced into the sky in the reflection of his eyes, and one lone ember leaped away from the lazy column of smoke and ash to strike Jaban on the tip of his snout.
He yelped in pain and surprise and jerked backward from the fire, his hands slapping at his face to remove the ember. When he was sure it was gone and brushed away, an idea formed in his mind; it was the image of a fire. He grinned. Perhaps where one elements failed, another would not.
Though it had been more than a full day since the the rainstorm, dry wood, leaves and sticks had still been difficult to find, even more so for the right kinds of wood to produce the amount of smoke he needed. It had taken Jaban most of the morning to collect enough for four large piles, spread widely over a hundred yards from the tree. It took all of the early afternoon to put up rocks and earth around them so they wouldn’t grow out of control. He was far enough away that the piper could not see or hear him, but close enough for the plan to work.
It took many tries, but slowly each pile was consumed by flame until four roaring pits belched out thick smoke of white and gray. The wind favored Jaban. It flowed between the tree trunks, swaying limbs, twirling leaves and funneling the massive clouds of smoke to the west, toward the piper and his tree.
Jaban watched and waited from a distance, tending the fires. Only a steady stream of smoke could push the man from his tree. Surely the man would run when he knew that the smoke was not going away.
Jaban kept the fires going for one hour. Two hours. Finally, only a brief span was left before the close of the day, and Jaban knew that if it had worked, now would be the time. So he pushed over the mounds of dirt onto his fires, careful of spreading the embers. When he was done he gathered his axe and his rope and dashed to the little clearing and the tree.
When he pushed past limb and brush, he was astonished to see the piper at the foot of the tree, arms and legs wrapped around its trunk with his eyes closed, and still. Jaban bent down to the little man and looked for the signs of life. His heart beat slow and his short breath rattled like sticks over a washboard. The piper had stayed with his tree and been left unconscious by the smoke.
Jaban grit his teeth and pushed back his hair and ears with his hands. Some small smoke still hung in the air, and the little man would need clean air to live. With soft hands and hard eyes, Jaban lifted the man from the foot of the tree and draped him over his shoulder.
It took Jaban some time to make his way back to his camp, where he lay the man on his pallet. He was struck that, under the smell of the smoke, the man did not smell human, but rather like leaves, earth, and the heart of the woods. Again Jaban checked for the signs of life. Though he was still ashen of skin, the heart beat a touch stronger, his breathing clearer, and the man’s eyelids wavered like the wings of a moth. It would not be long before he woke.
Jaban’s eyes sharpened and his nostrils widened. A smile revealed his teeth. The man was no longer at his tree. He looked to the sky. The sun was still up. There was still time.
He grabbed his ax and his rope and ran back into the wood. It was darker now as the sun reached out to strike the earth’s horizon. Shadows lengthened, and the corners and caverns of the trees yawned wide and black. Bars of light and shade flashed across Jaban’s face as he ran, and yellow sky fire danced where the leaves let it pass. His breathed rapidly, his pulse pounded, stretching the skin tight over his veins.
He leaped fallen trees, pushed past broken branches, and thrust through the shards of the brush. With a final tear he was in the small clearing, the tree in front of him, twilight on his left. He pulled his ax from its loop and moved forward, planting both feet wide, both hands on the haft.
The tree swayed from him, as if it were to escape, arms reaching for the last of the sunlight. Jaban placed the blade of the axe at the yew tree’s trunk and readied himself. The piper could be waking any moment. He drew back and swung forward, and with a wrenching jolt the head buried itself deep under the bark.
Jaban’s ears twitched. He felt he might have heard a far cry on the winds. The piper could be awake. He must hurry.
He wrenched the blade free and swung again, and again and again. Each swing bit deep into the tree’s flesh. Its skin split and its bones cracked. Jaban felt the splatter of chips and driblets of sap pepper his fur, and he was surprised at how much juice was in the tree. Over and over he swung and chopped and hacked till the tree fell to the ground with a crash.
Jaban looked around, but the man had not yet arrived, and the sun was still with him, if barely. He quickly chopped through the branched that struck out from the side and strapped them to the trunk of the tree with his rope. Then, with glad eyes and strong hands, he draped his end of the rope over his shoulder.
As he marched through the deepening darkness, the tree dragged behind him, limbs splayed and leaves trailing like hair on the ground. Jaban pushed aside the drooping limbs of the forest, and the huddled clumps of brush. The last sliver of the sun remained in the east, and the sky was dripping deep orange and red, their light glistening in the sap still stuck to his fur. He marched till he reached the edge of his camp, but when he did he slowed and stopped. His fingers slipped from the rope on his shoulder, and his arms dropped to his sides.
The piper lay just outside the camp where he had been crawling toward the forest, the ground around him soaked in his blood. Deep gashes marked him over, as if a madman had gone to him with an ax. The blood trailed back into the camp, where gore spatters marked every pot, pan, tool and the tent. The sleeping pallet was deep, wet crimson. Jaban was surprised at how much blood had been in the man. It was a strange think to think, but his mind was too numb otherwise.
Jaban walked to the corpse unsteadily and fell to his knees in front of it. The piper’s severed right arm lay stretched out toward him, fingers open and pleading, begging for mercy.
A hand settled on Jaban’s shoulder. Jaban gasped and fell to the side, scrambling away. Above him stood the stranger, dressed in the simple dark browns of a wanderer, which all nearly disappeared to black in the fading light . He knew the man’s eyes and his knowing smile.
“You!” Jaban rasped, his throat dry and cracked. “Did you do this?”
“Irony from the tongue of a fool,” replied the man. “You tell me. Who killed this poor man?”
Jaban looked into the stranger’s eyes and his smile and saw deep sadness. Even regret. But guilt was not there.
“I…” Jaban said, “I do not know.”
“Come,” said the stranger, “you do not have any secrets. Not even from yourself. You are not a liar, so tell me, who killed this man?”
Jaban stared at the corpse, “That’s impossible. How could I possibly…?”
“I told you,” said the stranger, “secrets are dangerous things.”
“He did not want me to cut down his tree…”
“He was a nymph. One of the wood folk,” replied the man, “The tree was him and he the tree. It was his secret, and with his death it is now mine to give to you.”
“Then why did he not tell me?” Jaban asked. “I would have found a different tree. Anything, but I would not have…” He trailed off.
The man’s smile faded for the first time since Jaban had seen him. “He wished to gain the favor of Secret, his god. So he thought if he could keep a secret till the day he died, the deepest secret he could keep…” The man stared at the corpse for a long moment and murmured to himself, “He never knew that he already had my favor.”
“You…” Jaban licked his teeth, “…are the god of secrets. You are his god.”
The stranger looked up into his eyes, and Jaban saw shadows and shades, swirling curtains and descending sheets, closed chests, locked doors and pressed lips, and in that moment they all pulled away, and Jaban knew.
Secret slowly walked toward the piper.
“But why?” Jaban asked, his lips thin and gray, “Why would you let him die instead of telling him. You are Secret, not the god of death.”
Secret paused over the body of the piper, “He received what he desired at his end.” He said softly, “Secret. For the greatest secret of all the worlds is death.” Secret seemed larger as he picked up the torn pieces of the man and cradled them in his arms. “And now I must be away.” He turned and strode toward the forest.
“You’re just…” Jaban’s voice cracked, “I mean you’ve…. What am I going to…?”
Secret turned from the darkness of the forest and gave Jaban a long sad look. “There is nothing I can tell you to comfort you. But I will give you one thing. A secret between you and me, that must never be shared.” Secret gazed into Jaban’s eyes as he spoke, and Jaban knew that he would never be able to speak word of this to anyone, even till death.
“I am not a god,” he said.
Jaban was confused, “How is that possible? You are the master of secrets.”
“And does your ax, and its mastery over bark and bone and sap and scarlet, make you the god of such things? Listen well. A god is to be worshiped for what It is. A secret… a secret is many things. A whisper in a crowd. The other side of the tree. It is the unopened chest and the bottom of the sea. It is black and it is golden. It is magic. It is power. Above all, it is danger and desire. But worshiped? Never and no a hundred times not. Remember this, and tell no man, woman or creature.” Secret took a deep, shaken breath, “Keep you well my gift.” Then with a hush, Secret disappeared into the darkness of the forest, which holds its mysteries tight.
Jaban was left alone, the dead tree behind him. Twilight danced its last dance at the edge of the horizon, until night took it away.
The next morning Jaban buried the tree and burned his camp till there was nothing left, and then he buried the ash and the misshapen pots and pans. He went home, sold his house and his flocks and moved his family to Khanel, on the coast, where he worked on the docks and raised his sons. His wife begged him for an explanation, but he never gave one.
Jaban kept the the secret of the piper, and the god who was not, until his dying day.