As I have just announced in my other blog, Trees Are Not Lollipops, I am planning to publish "Treespeaker" to Kindle in the very near future. So for those of you who are interested, here's a preview -
by Katie W Stewart
The worried face of the moon, high in the branches of the great oak, mirrored the apprehension in Jakan’s mind. He shuddered and pulled his deerskin cloak closer about his shoulders. It made no difference. The cold he felt had nothing to do with the night air.
Ahead of him, a column of men, women and children trod their way up the moonlit path in solemn silence. The only sound came from their soft shoes amongst the leaves and the scuffling of small animals hurrying away to hide in the darkness. A thin mist settled on the ground, swirling in the torchlight, and the scent of damp earth wafted on the breeze.
Gritting his teeth, Jakan tried to centre his mind on the ritual to come. At the front of the procession, frail Kattanbek, Chief Elder of the Fifth Tribe of Arrakesh, swayed in a sedan chair. Beyond him, further up the hill, three fires burned in the glade in front of Padhag Klen, promising the villagers warmth and light as they attended the SpringSpeak.
Jakan fixed his gaze on the sedan chair and sighed to himself. He had little doubt that this would be the last Speak for Kattanbek. The old man’s poor, tired soul would not last another season. Who would succeed him? It was a question that had plagued Jakan for many months now. Amongst all the Elders, there was no one he could discern who had the strength, determination or leadership that had characterised Kattan. The tribe had run smoothly under his care, without ill will or strife. Jakan could not imagine anyone else managing affairs so well. He hoped that tonight Arrakesh would name a successor, for he alone could know the true heart of his people.
As the procession entered the glade, the sedan was set upon flat ground between two of the big fires. Jakan pushed back the hood of his cloak to rest on his shoulders and stood beside the Chief Elder. The other villagers edged around the fires and faced Padhag Klen, The Tree, a huge, dark shadow in the firelight. The moon peeked between the still-bare branches, lending a silver glow to one side of the gnarled trunk.
With everyone settled, Kattan signalled that he wanted to stand. Jakan eased him forward and around to face the people. The old man managed a weak smile at Jakan then, with difficulty, raised his grey head to speak.
“People of the Fifth Tribe of Arrakesh,” he said, his face ashen, his voice shaky and thin, “we’ve survived another winter without hunger, for which we must all give thanks.”
There were mumblings of “Arrakesh be praised,” and Kattan waited for them to stop before continuing. “Indeed, Arrakesh be praised and thanks, also, to all of you for your hard work and dedication in preparing for the winter. Though we’ve just endured one of the coldest winters in living memory, as Arrakesh foretold, our storehouses are still partly stocked and the woodpile is not fully depleted. You can all be proud.”
There was a polite applause. At the front of the group, Kattan’s wife stood, her hands clasped in front of her, sadness glowing in her brown eyes. She knows, too, thought Jakan as he helped the Chief Elder to sit once more. Then, with a respectful nod, he turned on his heel and strode towards Padhag Klen.
He climbed over the thick roots at the base of The Tree and made his way into a hollow between two huge roots that rose to two feet above the ground. There, he swung around to face the people. Focusing his mind on his role as Treespeaker, he raised his arms above his head and spoke, his rich, deep voice echoing against the trees on the far side of the glade.
“We seek the Will of Arrakesh.”
As one, the people replied, “We seek the insight of Arrakesh.”
“We will do the Will of Arrakesh.”
“By moon’s silver water and sun’s golden fire, we will do as he wills. He is our strength and we his.”
Jakan gave a solemn nod. He lowered his arms and faced The Tree. Already his heart thudded in anticipation. Making an effort to show more calmness than he felt, he reached out his hands and placed them on the trunk. Then, putting his head back a little, he shut his eyes and waited. Not a sound came from the people around him, nor from the forest. Everyone and everything awaited the knowledge, the will of Arrakesh.
Forcing himself to take slow breaths, Jakan concentrated on the silence, waiting for the voice in his mind to tell him of the coming season. Arrakesh did not reside here in The Tree as many believed. As Treespeaker, Jakan could pick up a fresh fallen leaf and know the weather for the next day or turn a stone and know which animal had passed near it in the last hour. It was an intuitive knowledge from Arrakesh that he could not explain. Here at Padhag Klen though, the voice of Arrakesh came stronger. To the people, it was a focal point on which to centre belief. It held them together, reminding them of who they were.
Jakan had taken over this ritual as Treespeaker from his own father when he was sixteen years old. Over time he had learned to completely relax, to let the soft murmuring and gentle images wash over him, without trying to understand them. When it was all over, he found that he understood without thinking.
Tonight, though, he approached the ritual with unusual apprehension. He felt an uneasiness that he couldn’t explain. There was no clear premonition in his mind. Yet he felt afraid for the people of Arrakesh. He had tried to tell himself that it was his preoccupation with the problem of leadership that bothered him, but no matter how much he had subdued his thoughts, the niggling fear persisted.
He could hear the thumping of his own heart and fought to calm himself, to let the images start. He sank further and further into himself until at last he found the soft, quiet centre he sought.
The images came, fuzzy at first, as if he were seeing them through a mist. He fought against the mist and it began to clear. His throat constricted in fear. He saw the village of his people. Darkness had fallen, but the whole village was aglow with fire. Every building burned, flames like ravenous wolves rising amongst the trees. He could feel the raging heat on his skin; hear the crackling of flaming timber. Then he became aware of the sounds. Not the usual soft murmuring of Arrakesh, but screams and wails so loud he reeled mentally away.
He resisted the urge to try to understand and the image faded. In its place he saw Padhag Klen. It stood in the sunlight, black and spectre-like. Its branches were bare, though the rest of the forest wore its summer greenery. As he watched, two of the branches reached out to him like huge hands held out in supplication. He watched in horror as the trunk of the tree split and bright red liquid poured from its centre onto the earth below. The liquid flowed away into the forest. Everything it touched turned black and withered away to dust.
On impulse, Jakan closed his eyes tighter, clutching so hard at the tree that the rough bark grazed his hands. Behind him, he heard the uneasy shuffling and murmuring of the villagers. He could do nothing to reassure them. Arrakesh held him.
The image of Padhag Klen faded once more and Jakan found himself in a forest meadow. It was summer and deer filled the meadow. They appeared unaware of his presence, but stood chewing at the long, green grass. Jakan relaxed. This was more like the usual visions. Suddenly he cringed. A dark shadow, like a cloud passing over the sun, crept across the meadow. As the deer were overshadowed, they disappeared as if an invisible hand had wiped them from the scene. The lush grass turned brown and shrivelled away, leaving nothing but a patch of barren earth.
A noise like wind came from above him. Jakan looked up and cowered away from the ferocious talons of a gigantic black hawk. It turned one huge yellow eye on him and screeched as it veered away and flew off into the distance.
Please, Arrakesh, I can’t bear any more.
Arrakesh had more to show. The image faded and another took its place. Now Jakan sat in his own home. It was evening and he and his family had settled for dinner. Jalena smiled as she handed their son, Dovan, a bowl of roasted yams. Jakan couldn’t relax. He knew that something was going to happen. The shaking of his body had become uncontrollable and he rested his head on the trunk of Padhag Klen for support.
The image turned to chaos. The house disappeared into blackness and the huge talons of the hawk descended. With a mind-rending scream, it scooped up both Jalena and Dovan and reared away. At that moment, Jakan became aware of another scream, his own, as the bird disappeared, dropping his son with a sickening thud to the ground and taking his wife with it into the night.
Jakan reeled as his mind plummeted into a circling darkness, surrounded by the most horrendous noise he had ever heard. An imploring, mournful cry seemed to shatter every fibre of his body and carried him away into the emptiness.
He clutched his bloodied hands to his head and collapsed amongst the roots of Padhag Klen.