THERE IS NOTHING OUTSIDE THE FOREST

PART 1

We, The People, live in the forest; and there is nothing outside the forest.

We hunt the deer, the boar, the rabbit and the auroch. The Orc hunt us.

That is our life; and there is nothing outside the forest.

Last night I dreamed that there was life outside the forest.

I am Charlotte, daughter of Mary and Torson. My mother hunted the auroch in the moonlight as a child, and my grandfather fell beside Freyyson at the Battle of The Oaks.

That is what I am.

That, and that I dreamed of life outside of the forest.

But there is nothing outside the forest, all of The People know that. There is The Forest and life: the Orc and death. And there is glory. That is all.

I must go for a long walk.

The tiny pools of dappled green light which could filter through the trees woke me at dawn. I left early and silently, so as not to wake my sisters or mother. I took only my axe, knives, rope and traveling cloak, for that is all that we need. I climbed down the rope from our nest to the leaf covered ground.

The forest is beautiful in the dawn… or at least it is in the places where the Orc have not been. All above is green and gold, all below is gold and red. The air is cool. The sun’s burning heat and the storm’s wrath do not meet us here.

We, The People love the trees.

We know the Oak is brother to our kings, and the Hawthorn is sister to our princesses. The Ash fights beside us. The Willow weeps with us. The Pine stands firm beside us.

The Orc hate the trees as the trees hate the Orc.

The trees grow, the Orc destroy, and we struggle to live.

That is our nature.

Knowing not which way to go, I followed the river next to our nest, for it is wise to stay close to water when traveling far.

An auroch and her calves drank from the river. The auroch was not startled or enraged by my presence. I drank beside her calves, watching the young beasts lap the water as I cupped it in my hands. The auroch know that we only hunt them in the summer, and it was autumn. The auroch is a mighty and noble beast. They are our brothers.

When I was refreshed, I walked on, to the Sleep Trees that mark the limits of my family’s land. From an Oak tree we hang the bones of our ancestors, so that the trees know that this is our family’s land. On a Yew tree we hang the skulls of the bull auroch, as an offering to the trees. As a child, I feared the Sleep Trees; I did not like to see the bones, and hated the smell of fresh offerings, and most of all I despaired to see the birds picking out their meat. Now I am a woman who has seen 19 winters, and the Sleep Trees inspire me with pride- as they should.

I passed between these two trees which are the gate to the free land in the forest, and I continued to follow the river. Soon I would need to eat, so I was watchful for rabbit or deer.

The rabbit and deer are our sisters, and it is sad that we must kill them, but all things must eat.

The People learn to throw a flint knife as soon as we are old enough to hold one. When I saw a fawn drinking at the opposite bank of the river I was able to take her before she knew I was there. I swam across the river and finished her with my axe. I cut off a leg and skinned it for my breakfast, the rest I would carry with me- except for the head, which is left so the spirit of the deer can find a new body. I cleaned my blades and tied the young deer’s body across my back. I ate the leg as I walked. The meat was good, she was a beautiful fawn, and I hope she has better luck in her next body.

Unlike the Orc, we do not burn our food with fire. Fire is wasteful and dirty, and the tree’s hate it, so we use it only when we must.

I walked until late in the afternoon, then I saw a terrible thing. Ahead of me there was smoke from a dead fire, and trees had been slaughtered. An Orc camp. I hid behind the nearest tree and sniffed the air. The Orc smell foul, like smoke and dung and dead things all together, but worse in a way there are not words for. The Orc smell was faint. I could hear nothing but wind and birds. The Orc are loud things, and birds cannot stand them, so I knew it was safe.

It is sad to see the things Orc do. Whole trees killed, some burnt, some wasted. Whole animals thrown on the fire, heads destroyed and only legs eaten. There was an aurochs calf lying half butchered on a stone slab. Blood lay in pools and was splashed about. The Orc kill anything at any time.

Suddenly, I felt that someone was watching me. I turned around and looked and listened carefully. I detected no threat. We are never alone in the forest, I knew that, and maybe the Orc mess was making me edgy.

I could not stand the smell so I walked on, but soon I froze, for I thought I saw a sleeping Orc. It lay behind a bush a few paces ahead.

They are taller than we are, and very wide and strong like an aurochs bull. Their skin is deathly white, like a dead body that has lost too much blood. Their teeth are huge and sharp like a boar’s tusks. They have no hair, and their eyes are yellow like fire.

Ugly. Ugly and fearsome.

A knife was already in my right hand and my axe in my left. I needed to kill it quickly, because if it woke it would soon overpower me.

Then I saw the flies about its eyes and mouth. It was dead. I moved around the bush and inspected it. There were cuts on its arms and gut. It had been slain.

The Orc are proud and brutal, they often kill each other for sport, or in petty disputes.

I walked until it was dark, then I found a tall Yew tree to climb up. I ate more deer, then lay across the branches, wrapped in my cloak and ready for sleep. Only then did I feel alone. I had done a strange thing. My family would be looking for me. Maybe I would walk alone in the forest forever…

I needed to sleep, so I did.

The next morning I woke with a disturbing sensation that that I did not understand. It was like I was hunted. I lay still and listened. Nothing but the birds, insects and wind in the trees. I sniffed the air. No scent but the sweet, damp smell of the Yew tree. Slowly, I sat up, unwrapped my traveling cloak, and looked around. Nothing. Yet still I felt… watched.

I decided it was because it was the first time I had ever woken alone. My family have a good nest, a solid platform of wood and rope high in the bows of an Oak tree, and I missed it. I missed the warmth of my sisters and mother beside me. I hoped they were not sad or afraid because of me.

I was doing a strange and lonely thing… but I had to know if there was an end to the forest- if there was anything outside of the forest.

I walked beside the river for three more days. The forest never changed, just trees and shadows and leaves, but the river grew wider and stronger. The current flowed the same way as I walked, and the current seemed to get faster with every stride. One the first day I swam sometimes, and I could swim fast with the current, but soon I became too cold. On the second day the river was so strong that I was afraid to swim in it, and went only to the bank to drink and wash. Sometimes I was hungry, but then I would catch a rabbit. Sometimes I was lonely, sometimes excited about my journey, sometimes lost in the beauty and scale of the forest.

But always I felt watched… hunted, but never could I detect my hunter. One time, on the second night, I was afraid of the Orc. We are nothing but food to the Orc, and if they saw me before I saw them, I would be meat. But the Orc are not a quiet or patient creature. If they were hunting me I would have heard them, or I would have been eaten.

I did not enjoy the nights. The forest is so very dark. When we are young we often climb very high in the trees, and when we climb very high at night we see strange lights in the sky. There are tiny white lights that seem so far away, and we call them Stars, and a big silver light that changes shape. We call that moving, changing light the Moon. Some say that it is the daughter of the Sun, but I think it is a vast flower that grows and blooms and closes… forever. But the point is that these lights do not reach us in the forest, so it is totally dark. Totally black. Darker than when you close your eyes in the day time. No shapes, no shadows, only black.

I missed The People, and did not like to be alone in the blackness.

The forest is dangerous, so people should not be alone.

On the fourth day that distant feeling of being hunted changed greatly. It became a knowing of being hunted.

In the morning I was stalking a rabbit. I was almost close enough to throw a knife, when the rabbit suddenly ran. It had not heard me. It had smelt Orc. I smelt it too, and climbed up the nearest tree.

I had barely made it up onto the lowest bows of a large Chestnut tree, when I heard some of them, roaring to each other in their incomprehensible language. The sound, and the stench, grew closer. I climbed to 10 paces above the ground, hid as best I could, and had my weapons ready.

There were three of the Orc- scouts, no doubt. I could see them coming towards me.

I hoped they would pass by.

But they did not.

One of them sniffed the air, then hit its fellows to get their attention. They bellowed at each other for a few moments, then headed directly for my tree. They circled my tree, sniffing and growling like wolves, then they saw me.

I threw my first knife, hitting an Orc in the guts, and enraging it. It ran towards my tree and made a frenzied attempt to climb, but a knife in its head sent it down again.

The other two advanced more carefully. One had a spear and a knife, the other an axe. One threw its spear at me, and missed, causing its fellow to roar and strike it across the face. They growled at each other for a moment, then got back to hunting.

The Orc with the axe began climbing the tree. I threw my last knife, but the Orc was fast and aware, and blocked it with its arm, getting only a cut.

I had only my axe, and was ready to fight and die.

When it was close, the Orc slashed up at me with its axe. I squatted on my branch, steadying myself with one hand and blocking the axe with my own. The Orc was too far away for me to hit. All I could do was defend. The Orcs knew this then, and roared with victory, or hunger, or joy, I could not know.

Then I heard the crashing of many feet coming towards us. The sound was like distant thunder in a terrible storm when the sky breaks in many places.

I thought some vast army of Orc were coming to eat me.

The Orc in the tree was too busy trying to cut my legs to care, but the Orc on the ground bellowed madly.

Then I saw it. Not an army, but a bull aurochs charging at full speed. The bull of the aurochs are rare, and I had never seen one so big, or traveling so fast.

The Orc on the ground ran, but the aurochs was upon it in a moment, smashing the Orc beneath its hooves like eggs under a hammer.

Then I saw the impossible- there was a man riding the bull aurochs. Sat at the bull’s neck, holding its long, red hair in one hand and a knife in the other.

The man shouted at the bull and it slowed its charge to a trot, turned, and came to the tree. The man threw up his knife and hit the Orc in the back. It made a terrible roar.

In the Orc’s moment of weakness I acted. I swung from my branch, holding the branch in one hand and axe in the other, and kicked the Orc in the face with both feet. It fell down to the lowest branches. I dropped on it, landing heavily on its chest. Still it fought, reaching for me with its huge, clawed hands.

It stopped when I put my axe in its head.

‘Who and what are you,’ I asked him as soon as I had caught my breath.

He looked at me as if seeing me for the first time. I saw that he was male and not Orc, but apart from that I knew not what he was.

We, The People, are tall and thin, closer to the deer than the aurochs. Our skin is the colour of dried leaves in the sunlight, our hair white or yellow, our eyes green, purple or black. This man was the tallest, thinnest, darkest male, with the whitest hair and blackest eyes that I had ever seen.

We do not ride the aurochs, and we do not, normally, travel alone in the free lands of the forest.

‘Tomm Gim the Rider,’ he said, in my language.

‘You are of The People?’

He laughed, without joy.

‘I am a Ranger,’ he said.

‘What?’

‘It is like a scout, but we travel alone and far. We are rare, and you would not meet us unless you need us. And you? Why are you here?’

‘Charlotte, daughter of Mary. I am walking.’

‘Where to? The nearest family nest is ten thousand paces from here.’

‘I am working until the end of the forest.’

He looked thoughtful, then dismounted his bull.

‘Have you eaten yet?’ he asked.

‘No yet.’

‘Come down from your tree. I have boar meat, it is still fresh.’

‘How can you ride the aurochs?’ I asked as I climbed around the Orc and down.

‘It is easy.’

‘It is not easy. How?’

‘I found him when he was a calf. The Orc killed his mother. I raised him. When he was strong enough, I rode him… I am his father, he follows me.’

He passed me some meat and we ate in silence.

‘No one rides auroch,’ I said when my hunger was over.

‘I do.’

‘The bull is very dangerous.’

‘True.’

I looked at him carefully. He was very strange.

‘Where are you really going?’ he asked.

‘To the end of the forest.’

‘There is nothing outside the forest.’

‘If you can ride a bull, I can go out of the forest.’

He looked at me silently. I did not like his silence. People ought to say what they think.

‘Why are you a lone scout? A ranger?’ I was curious about him.

‘I was born a ranger.’

‘How?’ I did not like the way he talked without saying anything. ‘Are your family rangers?

‘My family are dead. All but me. A ranger found me, alone in the forest when I was very young. That is how people become rangers.’

I did not know what to say.

‘I will go with you,’ he stated.

‘What.’

‘I will go with you, and see if there is an end to the forest.’

‘No… I mean, why?’

‘Now I want to know. Do you want to go alone.’

I thought about this for a moment, ‘No.’

‘Let’s go.’

He strode to his bull, it bowed its head and he held one of its horns. It swung its head up so he could climb onto its neck.

‘Join me,’ he said.

‘No.’

‘Why?’

‘If we were made to ride, we would not have feet.’

He laughed. He never sounded happy when he laughed.

We travelled together, following the ever growing river. His bull walked, but still it was hard to keep up with its massive legs.

When it grew dark I was hungry.

‘Wait here,’ I told him,’ I am going hunting.’

He nodded, and patted the bull. It lay down and he jumped off.

I stalked the forest until total darkness, then I caught a rabbit coming from her home. I walked back, wondering how he could hunt in the company of that bull, silence would be impossible. I was very hungry, but I wanted to share the rabbit with him, so I did not skin it. I remember thinking that he must be very bored and hunger after sitting on his bull for so long.

When I found him, he was eating some fat bird that I did not know the smell of.

‘What is that?’ I asked.

‘Meat.’

‘What meat?

‘Duck.’

‘What is duck?’

‘Ah… You would not know them. The duck are a swimming bird, they live only where water gives them room to fly and swim. Here, where the river is wide, and at the Great Lake.’

‘How can a bird swim? … And what is a great lake?’

‘You will see.’

I was angry with him. I ate my rabbit, and did not speak again.

When I climbed a tree to sleep, he did not climb a tree. Before I slept, through the darkness, I saw him lie on his bull, like a baby on its mother in the nest.

In those days I did not know what sort of animal he was.

For three more days we walked. Each day the river grew wider, and we left its banks only to hunt.

‘We will never get to the end of the world at this speed,’ he said, on the afternoon of the third day.

He called to his bull and patted its side, and it began to trot. I had to run to keep up. It was not easy. We, The People, are made to walk and climb. We can run fast or far if we need to, but we do not like it. I did not want to be left behind, or to show weakness, so I ran, even when my legs and breath were fire.

When he stopped at sunset I jumped into the river to drink and be cold.

‘Tired?’ he asked.

‘No, just hot and thirsty.’

‘Good. Try to catch some fish when you are in there. I am going to look for duck.’

He jumped off the bull and walked up and down river. The bull came down to the river bank next to me and drank. I looked into its huge, black eyes. It ignored me. It was three times my height, and maybe ten times my weight. I felt I was nothing to it, not even food.

When it stopped drinking it looked at me, and took a step closer. Its head was in reach of me, and I could feel its hot breath on my face. I must admit that I was afraid. We cannot trust a bull aurochs, the bull aurochs fight for fun, like the Stag Deer and the Orc. It moved slowly closer. I stood still as it opened its mouth, a mouth big enough to eat my head in one bite. Then it licked my face with its huge, rough, wet tongue. Then it nuzzled me gently, its head again my body, carefully keeping it horns away.

I had seen aurochs do this in their herds, and I knew the bull was my brother then.

I don’t like eating fish, and I was too tired to hunt, so I sat on the bank of the river with my feet in the water. The aurochs lay down beside me.

The next day I wanted to ride the aurochs, so after Tomm had climbed on its neck, I climbed up its side. I held its long hair and pulled my way up, like climbing vines, until I was sat on its shoulder with my legs over the side.

Tomm turned and looked at me. He smiled a thin smile.

‘Hold on,’ he said, then patted his bull on the head and called for it to trot.

I had to grab the bull’s hair in both hand to stay on it. Its shoulder moved up and down as it trotted. It was difficult to balance, and soon became painful. It was impossible to continue that way, so I was forced to move. I swung myself forward and sat beside Tomm on the neck, my legs around his legs and my hands holding the bull’s hair.

He said nothing.

At midday we saw a boar and gave chase. I wanted to throw my knives, but I needed both hands to hold on as the bull charged. Tomm did not need to hold on, but he did not throw a knife. We gaining on the boar, but I did not know how we were to kill it.

Then I saw.

The bull came behind the boar, lowered its head, and butted it. The boar flew like a leaf in the wind. The bull slowed and trotted to where the boar lay. The boar was dying, it rolled in the leaves and roared terribly.

I jumped from the bull, and finished the boar with my axe.

It had been a mighty boar. I had hunted boar in the past; it took ten people a day to kill one, and sometimes the boar killed one of us. The boar are strong brothers and we respect them. I did not like to see the boar die too easily, but we needed to eat.

I cut off its huge head and held it high.

‘You were a mighty boar,’ I told it. ‘Have better luck in your next body, and try to keep away from bulls.’

Our bull grazed on leaves, grass and plants as we butchered and ate the boar.

After eating and resting, we climbed on the bull again, and it walked on. Not towards to river, but deeper into the forest.

‘The wrong way.’ I said.

‘No. The right way to The Great Shaman.’

‘What is a Shaman?’

‘You will see. If we are going to the end of the world, we need to talk to The Great Shaman.’

‘Why do you call it the end of the world? We are looking for outside the forest.’

‘The forest is the world.’

I heard distant drums.

The sound of drums grew ever louder, and the land rose in a way that I did not understand. It was like the bank of a river, but far longer, when I looked ahead I could see that the trees were higher than me, and when I looked back the trees were lower. On we rode, and it became difficult. We had to get off the bull and lead it carefully around huge rocks and up the strange land. I felt like a spider climbing a tree.

Once I fell, for it was so hard to balance on such uneven land. I could not hide my shame, for I had lived my life hunting among the trees and had not lost balance since I was a baby.

‘You have never walked up a mountain before,’ he said.

I shuck my head. I did not know what a mountain was, but I guessed I would see.

The sun set, and still we climbed.

Soon I saw the light of a huge fire above us. It cast a wild light and the shadows of many trees. I thought the Orc could have made the fire, so I held my weapons ready, but Tomm showed no alarm.

I looked around me and saw that I stood between two Sleep Trees. I was entering some People’s land. Looking closer, the Sleep Trees were wrong, for both Yew and Oak had human bones, and there were skulls of deer, boar, rabbit and bird. I did not like these Shaman People.

As we climbed further I saw a thing sat by the fire, beating a massive drum. The thing was the shape of a tall, thin man, but it had horns like a stag and was covered in fur.

‘The Shaman,’ Tomm said. ‘We must wait for him to finish.’

I did not know why he had taken me to see this thing. He sat down a few paces from the thing and waited. The bull walked off the graze.

Suddenly it screamed like a dying deer, stopped drumming and fell down. Tomm was not surprised, so I did not move.

The thing rolled around for a moment, and then sat up.

‘I hate coming back down,’ the thing said in a deep, dry voice.

‘Great Shaman!’ Tomm greeted it.

‘What?!’ it demanded. “I have been running with the deer herd all day, I am hungry and tired, what do you want?’

‘It is I, Tomm Rider, and I have boar meat for you.’

The thing stood and took a step closer, it looked at us carefully.

‘Tomm, my boy! Good! You have boar, that is good… and a girl, that is interesting. Come, sit and eat.’

We did so. I inspected the thing as they cut up the meat. It was an old man, the oldest I had ever seen. He wore tree branches tied up in his hair to look like horns. Most People wear only animal skin trousers, and cloaks when it is cold, but the old man wore skin and fur everywhere apart from his face, hands and feet. He had trousers of deer fur, and wore boar skin on his chest and back, and rabbit skin on his arms. He had a belt of rabbit bones and wolf’s teeth around his waist, and bird bones around his neck. I did not understand.

Tomm and the Shaman talked about mundane things as they ate. The weather, the movement of the great aurochs herds, and the quality of the meat.

Suddenly the Shaman turned to me.

‘You are the one who dreamed of life outside of the forest,’ he said.

‘How do you know,’ I replied.

‘I am Shaman, I live in dreams just as you live in this land of tree and meat. I know of dreams.’

‘Then what do you think? Is my dream real?’

‘All dreams are real… in their way…’

‘But do you think there is land outside the forest? Will I find it?’

‘I have marched for many moons with the aurochs herds… I have climbed the Great Mountains with the giant black bear… I have hunted with the wolf in the wildest valleys… I have dug beneath the earth with the fox and seen the vast roots of tree… I have flown with the eagle across the Great Lake… But I have never seen anything outside the forest.’

‘Then there is nothing outside the forest?’

‘No… I did not say that, only that I have not seen it yet, or dreamed of it… I cannot know. Maybe I will dream it tomorrow… who knows?!’

‘Do you think I can find it?’ I don’t know why I cared so much for this strange old man’s opinion.

‘If you dreamed it, it is real somewhere, so maybe you can find it.’

‘That is good enough for me,’ Tomm said.

I agreed. Soon after we slept.

In the morning we could not find the Great Shaman, I guess he was flying with the duck, or with the Great Bear on the Great mountain by the Great Lake where the Great Herds go.. or something.

Its seemed that there were many Great things in this part of the forest. Nothing is big enough to be called Great where I lived. There were very big trees, but I have never heard of any being called a great tree.

I had been told that I was on a mountain, and it seemed that mountain means ‘land higher than a tree and easy to fall’, so I thought the Great Mountain must be very hard to climb, and very big. I hoped I would not fall off.

The Great Shaman was not very big. Maybe he got bigger when he was with the giant bear… he must, or they would eat him.

We went back down the mountain, going slowly because brother Aurochs and I are not good at walking on mountain, and we did not want to fall. When the mountain stopped, I rode the bull and we travelled fast.

We reached the river before sunset and rode along it. It had grown even stronger. When darkness fell, we stopped to eat and rest.

‘Tomorrow’ I asked, ‘are you going to start calling the river, The Great River?’

‘You learn fast.’

For ten days we travelled down the Great River. It became over 300 paces wide, but it flowed more gently, so I could swim in it when I bathed.

Those days passed peacefully. Looking back, I remember it was being a glad time in my life. Tomm did not annoy me so much in those days.

I had never loved a man before. I think I was falling in love with him at that time. I liked the way he treated his bull, in some ways they were like family, and the huge beast seemed to respect him. I started to like the strange way he talked, and how he was so often silent. I understood that it was because he was normally alone. His life was not happy. I liked the way he seemed to always know exactly what he was doing. I really liked the way he believed in my dream of life outside of the forest. Maybe I loved him.

Now I cannot know.

Then I thought I had reached the end of the forest.

I saw something that I had never seen before- no trees ahead of me.

The river joined a huge pool of water. Truly huge, too big to swim, maybe 20,000 paces across. Beyond it, the land rose to the height of 200 trees. The top of the land was pointed and white. It must have been the Great Mountain.

Above the land and water was the sky. I did not know it was so big. I could see the sun. It hurt my eyes, but it was beautiful.

For the first time in my life, I saw a lot of blue instead of a lot of green.

‘Look!’ I shouted.

‘The Great Lake,’ Tomm did not share my excitement.

I looked closer. There were trees all around the lake, and all over the mountain.

We still had far to go.

PART 2

At first, I found the Great Lake beautiful. The huge open space, the flocks of ducks, the strange fish, the cool wind, the way the water changed its colour from rock grey to a bright blue that I had never seen before. Most of all, I liked the way that it reflected the moon and stars at night.

But I did not like the sky above the Great Lake. I was too big, and at midday the sun was too bright. It hurt my eyes.

That sky was like a massive burden above me, that ought to fall at any moment, and I dared not look at it.

On the lake bank I felt exposed… like a rabbit that smells a fox and is far from home…

We walked on the lake bank, Tomm called it The Great Lake Shore, for many days. It was too big.

On the first night there, I slept alone in a tree while Tomm slept on his bull on the shore.

It was lonely, and I did not feel safe knowing that there was so much open space near by. If the Orc came from the trees, where would I hide?

On the second night I lay in the tree, holding my axe against my chest with both hands for comfort. It did not help. It was too lonely.

I climbed silently down and came up to Tomm and his bull. Without waking them, I climbed and curled up next to him. The bull’s belly was warm and it was good to know Tomm was so close.

When I woke in the dawn I found that I was holding him. He smiled, and said nothing.

We kept walking.

After noon on the fourth day at the Great Lake, we rounded a corner on the shore and reached the mouth of a big river. The Great Mountain loomed above us.

It cast a shadow over both land and water.

I had never seen anything so high, or dreamed of anything so huge.

Pines grew atop it, everywhere but the very top, which was covered with snow. I did not know snow could exist so early in the year.

There was a strange thing at the river mouth. A rock, cut square with writing carved in it.

We, the People rarely write the runes. Sometimes we mark a Sleep Tree or place signs to warn of danger. But we all know how to cut and read the runes.

These runes were different. We cut smoothly into wood, but these were carved- straight and jagged- into rock.

There seemed to be three words,

“NO FEY HERE.”

The word “Fey” had no meaning to me, maybe I had misread the strange runes.

“Where now, Tomm?” I asked.

“It was your dream,” he replied.

I wanted to escape from the open water, and I hoped that- from the great height of the mountain- I might be able to see an end to the forest.

It was a bad idea. Unlike a tree, the further you climb up a mountain, the colder you get. The first night on the mountain was cold. I could hear the bear, and wondered if the Great Shaman was with us. The second night, despite having Tomm in my arms, was the coldest I had ever been. It was too cold, and still the mountain towered above us.

We walked back down, away from the ice and snow, to the river, then through the valley under the Great Mountain.

To something worse…

First, I thought they were Sleep trees. A long line of sleep trees all across the valley. They were not. There were all kinds of trees, with all kinds of bones thrown in them. The bones and skulls of thousands. Across the ground also the bones of The People were cast. Many bones broken and many skulls smashed, and the bones of the Orc lay amongst them. Weapons too, and parts of weapons. Hundreds of skulls, too, were piled up in mounds, the hollow eyes staring down at me.

I held Tomm and wept. I had never seen such horror.

Perhaps Tomm had. He was silent. His cold eyes were dry and his gaze was far away.

There was a carved rock too, on the path by the river bank. Its runes read-

“FEY DIE HERE.”

I began to understand the meaning of the word ‘Fey’.

Then the Orc came.

We heard them first, smashing through the trees. Then we smelt them. Then they were upon us.

Tomm and I threw our knives at the leading Orc. One to the belly, one to the head.

Our bull charged on the narrow path, hammering two Orc with his horns.

Then they were around us. They knew then to avoid the bull’s horns and mighty rear hooves. They came from the sides, stabbing up at us with knives and spears. Hacking towards our legs and the bull we rode with axes.

I smashed one Orc skull with my axe as it reached up to stab me.

Next, the bull was hurt and went mad. Thrashing with his hooves and butting and goring. Leaping in circles, frantic to kill Orc. He spun and kicked and roared in pain and rage… and all we could do was hold on.

In a moment it was over.

The Orc fled into the forest, or jumped into the river and were washed away.

Our bull calmed, and we caught our breath.

My legs and arms were cut, but not bad. But Tomm’s left leg was cut to the bone, and the bulls flank was cut badly.

“Wait here!” I shouted.

I leapt from the bull, into the forest, and searched for the leaves that heal.

There are many leaves, herbs and flowers in the forest. Some are nourishing, some healing, some deadly, some do nothing. Such is life.

When I returned the bull was lying down, and Tomm was sat against his belly. There was too much blood.

First I stuffed their wounds with the purple herb, then sealed their wounds with leaves, then gave them seeds of the sky flower for the pain.

After that, I washed my cuts in the river, then I hunted.

I hoped we could travel the next dawn, and I really hoped the Orc would not return.

We were lucky. We all survived that night, and were able to travel the next day… slowly.

Now, after all that happened, I think it is always lucky to survive a night.

With my help, Tomm climbed atop our wounded bull, and I walked along beside him. At every twist in that narrow valley, we feared an ambush from the Orc.

The Orc are predictably, they will always try to kill us.

Limping, as the wounded animals that we were, we left the shadow of the mountain. The river narrowed, and the trees grew thicker. The Great Lake and mountains were long gone. It was as though I was still close to my family nest, and -again- it was as though there could be nothing outside the forest.

The next day we came across a filthy and stinking camp of the Orc. They were long gone, the Orc stench remained.

With our brave brother bull wounded, I feared the Orc greatly, almost as much as if I were alone.

Past the dirty Orc camp, we found many dead trees.

Not slashed, maimed, and burn- in the Orc way- but cut down at the base. The small branches had been cut or burnt away, and the trunks and bows had been dragged elsewhere.

I could not understand this slaughter. The Orc are always burning, but why kill all the tree and take away the trunk.

First we found a murdered Ash. Then five butchered Pines. Then patches where dozens of trees lay dead together.

It was as bad as the skull piles. I held Tomm close to me, I felt so tired. We had travelled so far and seen so much badness.

I felt Tomm’s hot tears on my forehead and held him closer.

There were few animals amongst the dead trees. Few insect, few birds. It became hard to hunt.

The next day brought more slaughtered trees. Slain oaks, ash and pine. But no more Orc camps.

No animals too, until we came across a wounded boar. He staggered towards us in a grim clearing, bleeding from his strong left shoulder.

We ate him.

Then we respectfully placed his head atop an oak sapling which had been spared.

Tomm was recovering well, but I feared for the health of our brother aurochs.

The following dawn, I woke cold and damp, curled up beside big brother auroch, with Tomm in my arms.

I wish now that I had never let him go.

The rest of that day was filled with terror.

The details are blurred and faded now.

It was the day we… I lost… it is too sad to say.

One moment we were walking, the next, falling.

My arms flailed out and caught the ground.

Desperately, I held the leafy earth, my feet kicking at the emptiness of the pit that had opened.

There were cries of pain.

Shocked, I pulled myself up and looked down at horror and blood.

My brother was murdered… my loyal brother the aurochs lay impaled on cruel spikes, thrashing, bleeding, dying.

Tomm too, lay impaled through his arms and legs. He stared up at me, his eyes wild with pain.

“Run,” he yelled.

The Orc were coming. Maybe I obeyed Tomm. Maybe my instinct compelled me to run like a frightened rabbit.

In blind panic, I climbed up a tree and hid… Looking down, I saw the orc inspecting their trap. Silent tears ran down my cheeks and I knew I was watching Tomm’s last moments.

How is it that we must be born in pain, live in chaos and fall again into darkness so easily.

As I watched them kill him, I asked myself, is there anything more to life than this?

When the Orc had finished with him, I scurried down from my hiding place and cut off Tomm’s head.

It had to be done. I cut off the head of the man I might have loved because that how we show kindred with the dead. I placed Tomm’s head atop a yew, and hoped dearly to see him again in his next life.

I walked on. There was nothing left to do but to walk on- to something outside of all this.

It was a slow walk, and intolerably lonely. Constantly dodging Orc and Orc camps.

Often there were marker stones beside rivers and the tallest trees.

‘FEY DIE HERE.’

They read, or…

‘NO FEY.’

‘NO WELCOME FOR FEY.’

‘FREY- FLEE OR DIE.’

I suspected that I understood the word Fey by then, but still I walked on. What did I have to lose?

There was another great river, to wide and fast to cross. Looking for a ford, I found something else.

Something new.

A path made of stone, in the air! Maybe a home for a river creature… but so clearly built to cross the river.

Stealthily, I crept closer. It was made of stone, cut into blocks. It was shaped like a crescent moon, lying with its points touching the earth.

The People do not build such things. The Orc, surely, could not.

It both amazed and shocked me, yet still I walked across it.

Days passed like dreams and nights like nightmares.

Then eventually came hope.

The height and density of the trees dropped. Young samplings, herbs and flowers replaced ancient and giant trees. Rabbits, ox and birds replaced deer and boar.

Then I saw The Sky.

Not simply a sky, not the specs of light that appear above the forest, or the great sky above the Great Lake…

An overwhelmingly vast, endless Sky… and a blinding light.

Burying my eyes in my palms, I fell to my knees.

Blinded, I crawled back to the shade of a young yew tree. From there I could look across to where the forest ended and a limitless expanse of golden grass lay.

Shielding my eyes under my hand, I gazed up at an infinite blue canopy.

Then I saw the children. Children of the People, but with subtle differences. They were fully dressed, for a start, maybe to protect them from the sun, and their hair was cut short. Their faces wore an intense pride, like a stag deer, or an ancient woman introducing her many descendants

Until they saw me….

Then they screamed and ran.

Soon after the fighting men came, led by an old woman.

They were dressed in metal, like the Orc use for their blades. Foot to neck in metal, like creatures from a nightmare- they shone like the moon. Bright hats towered over faces that were too proud. The men held massive spears and the old lady bore a mace.

‘Stand down,’ the woman commanded her men in an accent which I could barely understand. ‘Only one of them.’

She took a pace towards me. I stood to greet her, totally overawed.

I had found something outside the forest. An open, golden land and a strange branch of the People.

‘You have wandered too far, beast.’ she said to me with utter disdain.

I looked at her, trying to show respect, but utter confused and still dazed by the light.

‘Monsters are unwelcome here…’ she continued,’ how did you get past our guards?’

I laughed, hysterically… what was this about?

‘Grandmother, you think I am Orc?’ I asked.

‘No, Beast, I know what you are!’

‘Fey?’

‘Yes. Worse than the Orcs. Orcs can be tamed, taught, controlled. They are our watch dogs. We breed them and train them to guard us.’

‘Guard you against what?’

‘Against you! To guard us against your barbarian people… You savages who live in trees full of skulls. Who eat raw flesh from every animal you see. Who live in darkness and worship death! Fey!’

It was time to go home. There was nothing outside the forest for me.

I had, at least, seen and known Great things.

THE END

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