Here’s the first chapter of a project bubbling in the background. No publisher planned yet. No idea when I might get to it. But I have the whole story in my head. If you like it, spread the word – I might be encouraged to finish it sooner rather than later – and leave any comments below.
IN THE WOODS, A FOREST
“A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.” ~ Oscar Wilde
The dead never leave us.
When you sleep, they whisper in your dreams. Sometimes they will chastise, or they will lie, for they like nothing more than to show their power over those still lost in the fog of life. And sometimes, if the need is great enough, they will come with warnings. This is a Truth, as Yagzid’s father had told him when he was a boy, and which he had passed on to his own children.
The hut was cold and his breath steamed. Yagzid eased himself up from the clean straw of his bed, inhaling the fruity tang of horse dung. A few embers still glowed in the hearth. His dream lingered. When he closed his eyes again, he could see the figure looming out of the shadows, half-ivory, half-sable, and though the face was unclear, Yagzid could feel the fierceness of the gaze. There had been a voice, like bones tumbling upon ice. A message delivered in urgent tone, but the language was strange and indecipherable.
His joints ached from the chill as he hauled himself to his feet, pulling on his hide breeches, and his furs and his leather hat. He clapped his hands to warm himself and then slipped on his shoes and stepped out into the morning. The sky was silver. He winced as the north wind cut right through him. Beyond the village, the flat steppes slumbered under hard ice.
He trudged over frozen whorls of mud to his neighbour’s hut. Hoppal was a sour man. He liked his drink too much and he scorned friend and enemy alike. But Yagzid knew the squat man still mourned his wife, and missed his sons who had followed the great river into the west, and so he forgave him. In the enclosure, Hoppal tended to the horses, muttering to himself as he tossed handfuls of fresh hay. The steeds roamed around him like wilful children, stamping their hooves and snorting white clouds.
“No snow today,” Yagzid said, pretending to scrutinise the sky.
“Fool. Those clouds are filled with snow,” Hoppal replied.
“There will only be a little, though.”
“It will come so hard your roof will bow and likely break. If you do not have enough meat stored, you will starve. Do not come asking me for scraps.”
Yagzid nodded. He watched the horses for a long moment, remembering his father teaching him to ride when he was barely old enough to walk. He missed the comfort of those days. “I had a dream last night.”
Hoppal continued to throw out hay as if he had not heard.
“A man, stepping out of the shadows. Bigger than a man. A giant, perhaps. And when he looked at me, I thought that I might die,” Yagzid continued.
The other man came to a halt, rigid, and then he slowly turned and glowered. “I had that same dream. As did Baina, and Yeinis…” He looked across the trails of grey smoke rising from the morning fires. “Every man here. And no doubt every woman and child too, if you asked them.”
Yagzid furrowed his brow. A dream shared by all? He felt a queasy apprehension. “What does this mean?”
Hoppal hunched his shoulders and returned to feeding the horses. He did not want to be troubled by such thoughts. Yet Yagzid knew he would not be free of the dream’s spell until he had answers. He trudged back among the thatched huts and found Baina hacking at a carcass with his best knife. From there he visited Yeinis cutting the black peat for the fires, and then he wandered to the longhouse where the women had gathered around Monas who had her blood-week.
Everywhere the tale was the same. A dream of dread, and a warning.
As the grey clouds gathered overhead, Yagzid took his bow and hunted grouse. He mended the enclosure fence and broke the ice on the horses’ water troughs. Nothing distracted him. He could feel the suffocating blanket of his worries press down. When he found himself repeatedly peering across the white wastes towards the horizon, he made his way back to the hut where he found his wife hovering over the stew for the night’s meal.
“You must eat without me tonight,” he said. He thought about making up some story – a bolted horse, perhaps – but he could not bring himself to lie to her. “I go into the woods.”
A shadow crossed her face, but she nodded and he felt thankful that she did not question him. “Come back to me,” she murmured, she prayed.
Pulling on his thickest furs, he strode out north, bowing his head into the wind. He’d only walked this path once before, but few walked it more than once. The answers they found at the end were usually enough for a lifetime.
After a while, the snow began to fall. Hoppal had been right after all. Eddies of flakes whisked around, and the world began to close in. Soon, a band of charcoal smudged the white landscape ahead. A tangled wall of stark trees loomed out of the flurries. Deep shadows nestled beyond. The wood brooded at the back of the village’s collective mind, always, home of food, deer, rabbit, grouse, home of enemies, the packs of wolves who roamed out to the edge of the settlement in the heart of winter. And haunted too, so the old women said. Peer among the trees at twilight and you would see black-eyed faces staring back. The wood and dreams, then, were one and the same. A half-world somewhere between life and death.
Pushing his troubling thoughts to one side, Yagzid picked his way over snaking roots along the narrow path into the trees. Light faded. The boom of the wind in his ears ebbed. A stillness descended, punctured only by the crunch of his feet. The path was well-marked and he knew better than to stray from it. He smelled damp wood, and occasionally a hint of smoke. Not far now, he reassured himself.
Yet as the path plunged past outcropping rock and frozen streams glinting with hoar-frost, his nostrils wrinkled at a familiar odour. His thoughts flew back to Baina and the hut where the cattle were drained from a cut at the throat before they were prepared for the pot.
His brow furrowed as he peered through the trees. Stepping over the trunk of a lightning-blasted fir, he looked across a clearing to his left. Bodies, what remained of them, were strewn across the frozen ground. Yagzid’s throat narrowed and he croaked a prayer. Glistening organs laid bare to the bitter air. Skulls split, chests ragged, limbs twisted and torn. He counted four dead, a hunting party perhaps. One face was turned towards him, eyes rolled back to white. Unfamiliar. Not from the village, then. That gave him some meagre comfort.
Through gritted teeth, Yagzid sucked in a deep, calming breath, and as he did he realised the remains steamed in the cold. Fresh. His eyes darted all around. Would that he had brought something hard and sharp to defend himself.
The crack of a breaking branch retorted. He whirled and squinted through the flurries. Another crash ahead. Now his heart began to thunder. The magnitude of the sounds shaped an image of something huge and powerful. Yagzid retreated a few steps along the path, but he was afraid to show his back to whatever stalked around him. Instead he became as rigid as the hard earth, and he hoped that whatever hunted would not catch his scent.
Snorts reverberated, drawing nearer. After a moment, a bear crashed into the clearing. If the beast reared up on its hind legs, it would be half his height again, and it was as broad as a cart. The fur was dark brown, shading into black in the thin light, the snout still sticky with the blood of its victims. Grunts rumbled deep in its throat, like a saw tearing through wood. Yagzid had killed a bear once. He remembered how the blood bubbled up when he drove the spear through its heart. But it had taken eight of them from the village to bring it down, and Divash had lost his arm.
That huge head moved slowly from side to side, surveying the clearing, searching, perhaps, for the source of the spoor it smelled on the breeze. And then it turned its full attention towards him. Yagzid jolted. The black eyes burned with a fierce intelligence of a kind he had never seen in any other animal.
“Step off the path so I can see you clearly,” it said.
Yagzid felt all the warmth drain from him.
“Step closer,” it growled.
A voice in the back of his head told him that if he did as the bear commanded he would never see his wife again. “What thing are you?” he croaked. In silence, the bear levelled its searching gaze for a long moment. Yagzid felt insects crawling inside his head. “What are you?” he whispered once more.
“You should not have come here, Yagzid.”
He trembled at the sound of his name rumbling from the bear’s throat. He imagined predatory eyes watching him every night from the deep dark, evil circling his life while he went about his business oblivious. “Why have you come here?”
“Step forward and I will tell you.”
Yet the demon-bear did not attack, even though he was defenceless. This puzzled him for a moment, until he realised that he had been asked to leave the path three times. “I will remain here,” he replied with as much confidence as he could muster.
The beast growled. It swiped at one of the bodies with its huge paw, spattering blood across the snow. “Your father despises the man you have become.”
Yagzid flinched. His father had been lost in the crashing white water of the great river during the spring floods, five years gone. His body had never been found. With one long, black claw, the beast toyed with a pale string of entrails , as it toyed now with him. Demons lied, every man knew that. But still he saw his father’s face and felt a deep despair gnaw at his heart.
The bear seemed to tire of him. It flicked the entrails to one side and looked around the clearing one more time before heaving its bulk away. As it reached the tree-line, it half-turned and once again fixed its unearthly, unblinking gaze upon him. “This world has slumbered long, but soon it will wake. Cold, it will be then, Yagzid. Too cold for the likes of you.”
The bear lurched away with a rolling gait. As it moved among the stark trees, a strange thing happened. Yagzid saw the sparse woods ahead appear to open in upon themselves, as if they were a scene painted upon a barn door. Beyond lay a lush forest, dense and shimmering in a summery glow. Shafts of sunlight punched through the verdant canopy. Once the bear had pushed its way into the undergrowth, that place closed off and the wintry woods reappeared.
Yagzid gaped. As he blinked away his tears of fear, he saw that the snow had stopped falling and the drifts now reached above his ankles. Surely only moments had passed, not the hour or more it would have taken for the white folds to reach that depth? He shook his head to clear his lurching thoughts, muttered a prayer of thanks for his survival, and then hurried along the frozen path in case the thing changed its mind.
The day grew colder. Yagzid could see the turfed roof of the house as he neared the heart of the woods. It was barely discernible from its surroundings, yellowing grass poking through a mound of snow perched atop low walls of mud bricks and timber the colour of iron. Gnarled trees and banks of bramble pressed tight against it. A thin trail of grey smoke rose up into the tree-tops.
Yagzid slowed his step, torn between his apprehension of what lay ahead and his fear of what was at his back. When he had steadied himself, he edged along the moss-stained, cracked flagstones of the path and hammered on the door. All was silent. After a moment, he shivered as he heard a heavy tread approach the entrance. When the door swung open, a blast of warm, smoky air swept out, tinged with the aromas of strange spices and old dust. Yagzid took a step back. A figure almost as large as the bear loomed in the doorway. His long hair and beard were the colour of slate, and streaked with silver. His skin was darker than Yagzid’s and some had suggested he had come from the hot lands far to the south. His eyes were almond-shaped. His hands looked like they could crush a man’s skull between them. Furs and leather swathed him, despite the warmth of his home. Naram Sin had not aged a day since the last time Yagzid had visited, ten years gone. He remembered his father, and his grandfather swearing to this fact over their honey beer. “Naram Sin is one with the rocks of the earth,” his grandfather had slurred before coughing up a mouthful of phlegm and spitting it into the fire.
“Naram Sin,” Yagzid said, bowing his head.
“Why have you come here once more?” There was a lilting tone to his voice that belied his fierce appearance.
“I am afraid.”
“All men are afraid. That is the nature of men. You fear for yourself?”
“For my wife, my children, my village, the world.”
Naram Sin nodded as if this were the only correct answer. He stepped to one side. Yagzid edged in, his eyes wide. Even with the door open, the interior was gloomy, as if the light refused to enter. A log crackled in the hearth, and the flames sent shadows leaping. Circles and spirals and eyes and symbols that seemed to be some unfamiliar language had been etched in charcoal on the walls and floor. The skulls of small birds and woodland creatures hung on leather thongs from the high rafters. They made a chinking music as they stirred in the breeze.
Naram Sin slammed the door and Yagzid jumped. There was something too final about that noise. His neighbours in the village said some who visited this place for answers never returned home. Naram Sin would look into their hearts and judge them, and if they were not deemed worthy he would take their heads with his axe and bury their remains in shallow graves in the wood, a feast for the rats.
“Speak,” Naram Sin demanded. Restless, he prowled around the hut.
Yagzid felt unsettled by the constant movement, but he clasped his hands in front of him and tried not to stammer. He told of his dream and his fear that it was a warning from the dead. When he said this vision had been shared by all in the village, Naram Sin came to a sudden halt. Yagzid shuddered as eyes grown cold fixed upon him. “This warning,” the other man enquired, “what was said?”
Yagzid shook his head. “It was in some foreign tongue, I am sure. But whatever was said, I was filled with dread as if a part of me did know the meaning of those words.”
Silence fell across the hut for a long moment and then Naram Sin moved his lips. Yagzid heard a sound that could have come from anywhere. Though it was not loud, his ears rang and his head spun. He reeled back a step.
“Was that what you heard?” the other man asked.
“I…I cannot be sure. But I think it was.”
The other man bowed his head for a moment. Shadows flooded across his features.
“What does this dream mean?”
“It was not a dream,” Naram Sin muttered. He glanced towards a large chest near the hearth, his gaze lingering as if he was weighing a response.
“There is more.” In a halting tone, Yagzid described the scene of slaughter and his encounter with the thing that had pretended to be a bear. “And then…and then…” he continued, his words tumbling out with gathering speed, “a forest, a summer forest, appeared in the winter woods as if from nowhere, and the bear went into it, and…” His voice grew hushed. “…the forest was gone.” Yagzid lowered his eyes for fear the other man might think him mad. “Did I truly see this?”
Naram Sin smiled, a tight and unsettling expression with no hint of humour. “There are many ways of seeing the world, Yagzid. We take the information we are given and construct our view accordingly. Are we right to do so? Sometimes. But there is always more information.”
“What do these things mean?”
“They mean, young Yagzid…” He said young, though Yagzid had seen forty summers and had started to feel the cold in his bones. “…exactly what the bear told you. The world is waking from its long slumber.”
“That is not a good thing?”
“No. That is not a good thing.” Naram Sin tugged at his beard in deep thought for a long moment, and then his shoulders slumped and he heaved a deep sigh. He strode to the chest by the hearth and flicked open the lid. He drew out an axe and weighed it on the open palms of the hands, nodding as if greeting an old friend. Ancient, it seemed, the blade notched, the haft bound with worn leather straps.
Yagzid threw himself backwards. He stumbled over a stool and crashed on to his back. “Do not take my head with your axe!” he cried.
Naram Sin examined his weapon, his brow furrowed. “An axe. Is that what you see?” He looked back, grinning, not without kindness. “I will not take your head, Yagzid.”
“Not this day, at least.”
As Yagzid hauled himself to his feet, Naram Sin stripped off his furs. He found a leather harness in the same chest, strapped it on and slipped the axe on to his back. Once his furs were on, there was no sign that he carried a weapon. He plucked up a sack and moved steadily around the hut, throwing things into it.
“Now, I must venture out into the world.” His voice was heavy.
Yagzid gaped. As long as anyone in his village remembered, Naram Sin had never left the woods. His father and his father’s father and his father’s father’s father had all said the same. He felt troubled, as if the very rhythm of nature had been disrupted.
* * * * * * * * * *
Naram Sin set Yagzid back on the way to the village with strict instructions not to stray from the path, for it was in truth a Songline and he was safe as long as he walked it. And then the bear-like man forged north, out of the woods, with his head bowed into the wind. The sun was setting and soon frost glistened in his beard. He marched across the frozen steppes until he came to a long bank of snow stretching in both directions as far as the eye could see. Lurching up the incline, he left deep foot-holes behind him, the only marks upon the world he had made in many a year. He crested the summit and skidded down the other bank until he came to the wide west road. As he watched the fat, red sun slip towards the horizon, he waited, feeling the bitter chill grow around him.
Eventually, he heard what sounded like the roar of a great beast in the east. He looked towards the sound, feeling a brief sting of regret for what he was leaving behind. Lights blazed in the growing gloom. The blare of an air-horn tore through the stillness. The eighteen-wheeler rumbled towards him from the direction of the Palvodar oil refinery on its way into the west.
Naram Sin stepped out into the road and held up his hand.