Of Field, of Wood & Hedgerow
Part I: Met the Winter, Met the Ways
Things come and go, things change. Nothing changes more than anything else, but we cling to our illusions and we get by.
I’ve been wanting to spread about some more universal (Keléstial) lore, if only to prove, once and for all, that no, it’s not just about rolling dice and fetching pizza. It’s at least as much about the stories and I need to get some of them out there (and maybe quickly).
If you think this is not so much a piece of Hârnic Lore, then think again. Perhaps I’ll collect them all up later, maybe not so much, but here’s a start in any case. Please comment (the ‘out there’ part is for you) please offer contributions if you have them; we’ll do the tying up, the clever ordering, and the bundling together, we’ll dress them in bright bows and colourful segues. There is no reason to limit the ‘series’. I’m passing a new law… it’s all about the lore.
Edêr stirred up some Sheôri with his malice. They let out a great mass of clouds filled with rain and jealousy to reclaim their lost demesnes upon the land. The great wind came from the West. The Grey Slayer sent forth his Elkýri; they rode down the long winds and teased the clouds with their lips, their arms, their breasts and thighs, easing and drawing out the painful moisture. It fell almost at once. To high, thin craggy sharpness, deeper than the deep dales. It was the kind of winter that few recall.
The beasts in their lairs, the tribesmen in their deep warrens, huddled about their well-stocked fires, the hunters and the trappers long in on the fringes, some with their eyes wide at the familiar newness of it all.
The scattered elders settled in, amidst their kin as if to wait forever. Their bones telling them what their hearts might scarce believe. They reached about with hands and smiles to reassure, to entreat patience through blood and proximity, to bind hearth and family, to fasten up the loose and drifted and invoke the blood.
There were a few out and about, here and there, not quite beyond the need for it, but pushing at the obligation. One they called the wise woman, she liked that name, although she thought it plain. All women were wise, at least they were by her age. Long before, really, but by then they learned the look of the thing, the art, the feel. Young folk are not for listening to exactly, you got more out of that pot by just looking and remembering. She had gotten quite good at remembering. The listening was to look sympathetic her own self. It was much more about thinking and remembering. Years back, I remember something like this.
They called her the wise woman and that never bothered her, although she doubted it meant what they thought it meant. She did not mind hedge witch either. True enough, she was as likely to say ‘My Hedges need tending’ as ‘goodbye’ when she had finally listened enough and was ready to do some walking.
Grandma was the same kind of thing to her. Every ma is pretty grand you know? She would ask, but the youngsters never seemed quite sure what she meant, and that seemed fine too. More time to think, more time to ‘listen’ and remember. Hedges are good and hedges are useful, she would say, and she kept her two big lads on a long lead for the actual work. The folk agreed. Hedges were good and they were important, as important as the goats and the seed, and the crops.
She had a pair of dogs that kept her close. She was theirs and they understood the deal. The long deal, the wordless bargain that went back before the first contracts or the first professions. The one between dogs and men, and especially wise women, the one that could never end except in betrayal, and could not have started without the most sacred promise. The one that said I will guard you and keep you, and make you good and honest and honourable, and I will live in your shadow; I will do all you ask and bind you to your promises. They were not exactly trained dogs, but they could understand a hint and knew what needed doing. ‘They keep me in line’, the hedge witch said, ‘and hedges is all about lines.’
The snow hardly ever stops the wind blowing. As if the wind gets the last word. There might be some great snow plan with snow crisp and even over the whole world like glass, but the wind says no. Let’s have more here and there, and get it off that tree. Then someone comes along with feet and marks it all up, and some badger forgets his nuts and needs to go out for a refill. The snow gives its all, but it does not have quite enough sticking power, except maybe in the high cirques where it can barely get a few toes settled in for a season. This is why when it snows, all you can hear is sighing, or that’s all you can hear if you listen.
She knew the trails, she knew the lines, and the dogs kept her on them. They didn’t look all that happy about it, but they knew the work.
Out here, there were few hedges, but there were plenty of woods that might have been hedges if they had the mind.
When she stepped between the rows, it was hard to tell. Someone else might have seen a great white serpent on either side, sighing, maybe creaking a little, but the witch heard the snow, she heard paws keeping everything where it should most be, and she heard her own bones. Not that there was a difference, she thought, between the creaking of snow and her bones. Much the same thing, really.
She found a nice spot by a copse. She had made fires here before, not just winter fires. Summer fires too; here was a good spot for a fire. To remind the air about warmth. It took a hard winter or a weird summer to ever make it dry in these parts.
The fire she built now was not about dry. The air remembered. Snow did that, maybe the Elkýri helped. The air was crisp. It could not forget about being dry. The night was not that dark either, but she felt like some yellow and orange amidst the white and palest blue. A good moon, a good reflection, crisp air and a warm hue dancing in a hearth. ‘Hearth Witch’ was another name she didn’t mind. She found her ring of stones, banged a few sticks together and got a fire going. If it looked like magic to the dogs, it was the kind they were used to, and they settled down to watch.
She liked to tell herself stories. That is what she said. Sometimes she let others listen, but they rarely came out the same as they started, the heroes never seemed to accomplish anything heroic and people tended to forget what they were about. Them as heard the stories wondered if they needed some other name than ‘story’; they wondered if someone was a bit ‘off’ about what made a good story, but they only wondered that sort of thing when they could not hear the stories. While they were actually going on, they felt lifted up into a cloud of mumbles and vague memories where there was something firm and brawny underfoot, something that always seemed to feel like home, something that felt like where great grandma must have lived.
This was not a story like one of those. Now she just seemed to be humming to herself, and kicking snow off the earth to let it breathe in some smoke and ashes. Almost like she was talking a little life into it, as you might to rub a maiden’s arm when she fainted, or for that matter, if she took too long, as you might slap her face a bit for good measure. Of the earth, she had the measure. Now the dogs were nodding, but whether this was fatigue after long labours or familiar agreement, none of them wondered.
The man came quiet out of the forest. It could not have been the quiet that kept the dogs still. Certainly, the high one glanced at the hedge witch, but no alarm seemed called for. Hint taken, she put her head in her paws and waited for something more engaging.
The man walked slowly up to the fire. His gait was odd, as if he was trying to avoid leaving anything like footprints. Not that he left the maiden white unmarked, but somehow the odd furrows and holes he shuffled into existence seemed to lack any destiny, and at his passing, they could not very easily be taken as of a newer vintage.
He must have been wearing more than one coat. One must have been red once, his pants and boots, and his amorphous windings still carried the memory at least of ermine, or some poorer cousin. His pulled-down hat had clearly been red, but in a time that seemed too long ago to matter. Over the all his cloak was probably green or russet, but the fire made it warm. He carried a large black sack. It seemed to be full to bursting, but to not weigh much either, as if the man was a collector of feathers or pinecones.
She nodded at the remains of a low wall at a right angle to her own perch and watched him as he sat down. His beard was mostly white like his hair, both were long and dry like the air and harboured the same kinds of shadow. His floppy hat pulled down over one ear; there might have once been some embroidered point to the thing, but now it was more a thinking cap and what it wanted to think about was getting pretty old.
The old man put one foot by the fire and rubbed it back and forth until the snow got out of the way and his boot was on bare ground. Then he stopped to listen to the sighing of the wind and the hissing of the fire. A short line of eyes lingered along the tree line, but no one paid them any mind; there did not seem that much mind to go around, not much to spare. The dogs knew the work and how to read a hint and they were half-lidded at best.
The man smiled at nothing in particular, and then pulled a bag from his voluminous folds and handed it to the hedge witch. She looked inside and found a few small pine cones and a moist gnarled root. A broad smile spread slowly from her eyes, and she handed the man a few acorns. There was no sense of a trade, perhaps just the feel of a link in a long chain.
“A story,” he mused out loud, scratched his beard and smiled “What might be best?”
Part II: The Language of Wolves
One could see from the gold of her eyes that the spirit of Jârlak moved there. Like the fingers of the soul, like petals in the wind, it moved. It set her paws upon the snowfall, upon paths, it stood her whiskers in the air, ran attentive bristles down her spine and tuned her, tuned her to the sighing, to the small sounds, to the unrelenting songs. It let her see the difference between permanence and the other thing, between moonlight and the light of the moon. These were things that those unmoved, unfilled by that matchless shade, could hope to see.
This is never passion, this insubstantial ghost. Wolves save their passions for particular times. They hold it in their heart and hang it from trees and fences. They spray it, acrid in the intoxicating wind, and light it upon the aspect of fleeting prey, but most of all they hold it near like collars and lockets about their necks, like silver chains, in, worn and devastated reliquaries beneath the leaves and cones, under snow, resting a long rest on good earth, amidst humid, bent roots. It abides, as a put up wine, as a seed in the dry earth, as only passion may.
The wolves ruled the woods, and they were not fond of men.
It wasn’t that they bore them any particular malice; the wolves would have liked nothing more than to live in quiet and mutual ignorance with the village; but the men of the village, and worse, the ones who passed among them as strangers, with their wire and their blades and their ropes, seemed always keen on intruding, and mussing up the careful footpad trails through the wood, and on making great scars with their stakes and their traps.
It was the traps that the wolves resented most. When the villagers came among the wolves, they came with long sharpened sticks and great lengths of looping cord, and soft-soled shoes, and their heads covered in tree-coloured hoods, and paced silently through the forest in twos and threes, pausing and looking about and sniffing the air as a wolf might do; as the dogs, who led them, did, making themselves part enough of the woods that the wolves could respect them. They came fewer and with greater care, and with greater fear, and the wolves could respect that, too. They knew to walk in care of Jârlak who watched the woods, and they knew their place, and that when they could catch the loping game that fled them and the wolves with equal accustomed terror, that they need be grateful, and pay their tributes to the wolf-god in little handfuls of dried fruits, and careful, again, for deer and rabbits and foxes could only replenish so quickly, and they were cautious.
The men with the traps were different. The wolves did not know where they came from – though to be fair, the knowledge of the wolves extended only so far as was needed, to the edge of the woods and a little beyond, and they knew, as one, as wolves knew things, that the trap-men came from further away than wolfish wisdom reached.
The wolves only knew that the trap-men cared little for the woods, or for the rules, or for the meaning when they took dozens more rabbits or foxes or deer than they were due.
Frankly the wolves tended to think men a little stupid – the village-men were possessed of the cheerful, mostly harmless sort of foolishness one expects of puppies: all meaning and tromping and young. Men were young, and the wolves understood that. The wolves, like many creatures, were in the habit of considering them a necessary nuisance, because the men did, after all, sometimes let sheep and goats wander too near the edge of the wood, near enough to cross the line that made them wolf business, and a well-grown sheep could feed a dozen wolves for a moon or more, at least until the meat spoiled. Village men never killed the wolves unless they felt threatened, and for the most part the wolves were perfectly content to stay within the cool, comforting half-dim world of the woods. It was there they belonged, after all.
The trap-men were of a different foolishness than the village men: more careless and colourless. They came with sharp corners and heavy boots and flashing eyes, and littered the forest with their cast-offs, clinking metal and jagged-edged stakes. They came and stayed for days at a time, and crossed the forest in long lines, like a great net sweeping through the trees. They came and went away with sacks and carts of game, and cut the skins from things with great knives and cold smiles and hung them from trees as they ate dried meat around their campfires, the smell of fresh kills bleeding into the air, and then sending baffling volleys of hard stones into the underbrush when the wolves came to investigate this very blatant invitation. The trap-men were a mystery, but not one the wolves were keen on solving. Rather they were a problem, one which the wolves were not willing, after several seasons of thin living and abuse from the villagers uncaring of their desperation, that the wolves were no longer willing to tolerate.
The wolves were watching, that year, as the smell of men on the edge of the woods doubled, then tripled, though that wasn’t saying much; there were many more wolves than men and always had been, so that wasn’t saying much. But there were more than was usual, and the wolves went slowly along the borders, waiting for the inevitable. It came at the first half-moon, and this time the trap-men came in greater numbers, walking in a half-dozen pairs and carrying great frames on their backs holding jingling traps. That gave the wolves pause; the men came in nearly equal numbers to their fighters, and they carried many more traps than they had ever brought before.
They were coming for the wolves.
They had killed wolves before, but only in passing, as if as an afterthought. The traps they left in the forest they hid, and sometimes left them when they deserted the forest after they’d hunted their fill, left them to catch the unsuspecting paw in sharp, unmoving teeth and leave one dying for days until finally the blood ran out or starvation finally won out. The traps were the wolves main reason for hating the trap-men, rather than merely pitying them like the villagers; they said about the trap-men that they were uncaring of the rules of the forest, that what they did they did without interest in the results. That they killed not for meat or for warmth, as the villagers sometimes did, but for some other, empty reason that the wolves did not fully understand.
The dogs did not understand it either, which the wolves knew because sometimes, seasons back, the wolves had arranged with their cousins which paths the men could walk safely, which warrens were unclaimed. The dogs did not understand the trap-men either, only told the wolves that the villagers gave them shelter sometimes for the same incomprehensible human reason; something to do with shining bits of metal in which the dogs had little interest except that they seemed to be connected, somehow, with the spare shanks of mutton or plates of stew which were the men’s side of their arrangement with the dogs. The wolves and the dogs understood one another, but they had little in common. The wolves were solitary to their own species; the dogs made partners and children of men, teaching them and gentling them and guarding their homes and their puppies for warmth and food. The attraction baffled the wolves, but did not inconvenience them, and so held little interest.
So when the trap-men came that evening, under the fire-coloured light of sunset, in two long lines, they were watched and followed by soft-padding sentries, tails low and brushing along the ground, noses twitching with curiosity and caution. The wolves watched the trap-men spread out through the forest and make camp, lighting tinder and bringing it to roaring under big logs they dragged out of the bushes and stacked up between their bedrolls. They talked in loud, laughing voices, the tones wolves hated, because they tripped along lines of humour and meaning foreign to wolfish thought. But they could see the lines of their faces, and their hands arranging their stores of metal teeth on lengths of metal chain, and how they ate with speed and purpose, tearing off great hunks of dried meat and chewing quickly, and tied back folds of the skins men wore outside their own skins, with the same motions wolves used when grooming. Killing their smells. Smoothing their coats. They were going hunting.
As the moon rose, the men doused their fires and rose and gathered their many things, and set out through the trees in pairs, one man carrying the collection of traps and the other holding some strange device the wolves did not know – but by the way he carried it, tugging on strings and metal catches, they took it for a weapon and agreed, among themselves, that the man holding the danger should be taken down first, if the need arose.
The wolves knew, from many years of watching men and their strange, sound-filled speech, that men were puzzled by wolfish words. They liked to think themselves knowing, because their kind had deals with dogs, but the speech of dogs had changed, over the uncountable years, to half-mimic the speech of men, in gestures and tones and faces. This had been necessary, their cousins told them, because the language of men was so childish and lacking in nuance, and they had had to train them for so long, and so they had had to find some way to teach them. In this way, the dogs understood men better than the wolves did, but the wolves privately thought that they understood better the things that truly mattered.
In any case, the trap-men brought no dogs with them. The wolves thought this hopeful, because it meant that they could plan wolfishly, and count on the men’s fear of wolfishness.
The wolves had a plan, but one the men would never understand.
As the trap-men went carefully through the woods, crouching here and there to lay their metal teeth along the ground, they were watched, and each man had two four-footed shadows. It seemed not to occur to the trap-men that the absence of the usual night-sounds of creeping and galloping and loping and skittering feet was strange; these trap-men were not hunters, though they thought themselves to be hunting. They did not realise that the strange silence of the wood, the space filled only by leaves and branches moving against one another and the tramping of their own boots over the carpet of needles and the clinking as they set their traps, was something to be feared, as every little creature better aware of wolfish notions and of their intentions, now hiding deep in their dens and caves and hollows, could not help but know.
The wolves watched, with many dozens of deep brown eyes, as the trap-men pushed little pins between the grasping metal teeth, and heaped them over with handfuls of discarded leaves as if the wolves would not see them; they could know that fallen leaves, untouched by any creature but the wind, had a smell that could not be mistaken. They could not know that only running, heedless creatures, intent on some other goal, could fail to notice the mismatched look of the hidden traps.
The trap-men did not understand the wolves, and they never would.
As the traps were left, and the trap-men carried on to lay the next one, questing muzzles came carefully out of the bushes, noses twitching, paws placing carefully before them on the ground. The trap-men could not possibly have comprehended the intensity of the wolfish minds and wolfish stares being set upon the task of brushing leaves carefully aside, and taking in, in every visible detail, the looped end of the metal pin gleaming in the dappled moonlight.
They would certainly never have suspected the silent signals being sent across the forest, throughout the whole of the wolfish assembly; ear-turns and whisker-twitches, head-tilts and shoulder-hunches, and finally, a long, echoing howl that sounded through the long silence like the ring of Death’s own bell.
The trap-men froze, as one, and looked at one another, as the howl was answered, once, twice, and then uncountably, until the whole wood was filled only with the sound of the cries of wolves that the trap-men had wondered after all the evening long. The great, rising noise shivered along their skins, and focused suddenly by some drive that habitually resides at the very back of the mind, the trap-men turned towards the distant lights of the village, and in terror touched by madness, fled for their lives.
Down in the village, at the sound of the howl, doors swung shut and dogs stood to attention, and the village men nodded in what they thought was a knowing way, and the dogs looked at each other in a way that was.
Two mornings later, when a few canny villagers went looking for some sign of the trappers who owed them lodging money, they were puzzled - and less bothered than they might have been – to find a hundred sprung and empty traps scattered through the woods, some slung over the branches of trees, and to the surprise of the dogs, but the delight of the men, the packs and clothes and boots of the trappers scattered along the game-trails, undamaged and untouched. Only the dogs saw the one white wolf, eyes dark gold and wise, padding among the grey ones watching them from the trees as they always did, waiting to see how the men would behave at this strange happening.
Fortunately the villagers, being generally practical and reasonably selfish, looked at one another and shrugged, and collected what valuables they could find, and gathered up the traps and buried them – for the villagers had little use for such contrivances - and took a last glance along the trails, but could find no sign of the trappers. This worried them a little; but the trappers were not very pleasant, or polite, and in any case paid less than they really should have for room and board, and so the villagers carried their substitute payment back towards the village with perplexed expressions and murmured to one another about the strangeness of the woods this morning, but didn’t think on it long after they had sold the trappers’ things to other travellers and pocketed the coin.
From then on, few trappers paused long in the village, and even fewer went on through the woods at the edge of it. The hunters that came in the leadership of dogs hardly paused at all; for the dogs would stop, and sniff the air, and meet the gaze of the wolf standing sentry at the edge of the trees, and after a moment, would bow its head in doggish assent, and then turn and nudge his man insistently on, along the road.
It was a good and comfortable arrangement, and it served them. Dogs and wolves were cousins, after all, of the same blood, but they had their own kingdoms. Dogs had long been and would always be the wiser rulers of men.
The wolves ruled the woods.
N. Robin Crossby