Sunday 3/7/11

Jakan stumbled through the forest, paying little attention to his surroundings. His body ached and his mind screamed for rest. He resisted the urge to swing around and run back. How could he leave his people now, knowing what that man could do?
The moon had risen early, so he made his way with relative ease, but the further he moved from the village, the thicker the undergrowth grew. Brambles and vines clawed at his legs and threatened to trip him at every step. At the same time, his thoughts became more and more confused.
He longed to curl up on the forest floor and sleep, but the night was cold and his tunic offered little protection. At last, he stopped running and flopped onto a log. He had moved with no conscious regard to where he went, so he studied the dark forest now, trying to get some idea of his location. Before tonight, this would have been simple. A handful of dirt would have told him the name of the place, who it belonged to and even who had passed that way in the last hour. That was his skill as Treespeaker. Now the blank space in his mind told him nothing except that he was lost, in every sense of the word.
A black shadow in a nearby tree startled him from his lethargy. The moon glowed above the treeline and silver light shimmered on black wings. When Jakan saw the bird’s eyes, glinting in the moonlight, he caught his breath. The hawk stared back at him for a few moments. Then its shrill whistle pierced the air. Clutching at his chest, Jakan fell from the log onto the thick bed of autumn leaves on the forest floor, writhing in pain. Abruptly, the pain stopped. The hawk rose in slow motion from its perch, swooped low over his head and vanished into the night. It had delivered its warning.
Jakan struggled to his feet, his breathing ragged. He had to keep moving, but where was he to go? Panic made his chest hurt even more. How could he survive without Arrakesh to help him? He depended on him. Take a hold of yourself, he reproached himself. You may not have Arrakesh as your guide, but you know this forest. Think!
As he tried to reason with himself, images of Jalena flashed into his mind. He clung to the pain they caused, holding his grief tight within him. To let it go, he feared, would be to let Jalena go. It was all he had left. He didn’t want to let her go. He simply wanted her back. Why hadn’t Arrakesh made his warning clearer? Shutting his eyes, Jakan forced his feelings down.
With time, his mind calmed and his breathing returned to normal. He looked around, taking note of the moon and the stars, the moss on the trees and the thickness of the forest. Gradually these things all came together and he began to get a sense of where he was. He had travelled south. If he kept going this way he should reach the village of the Second Tribe of Arrakesh before morning.
Once again he struggled with doubt. What if he did reach the Second Tribe? How would that help? He could never expect them to become involved. It was too dangerous. Anyway, that bird would never let him mount any kind of resistance. If he didn’t leave, it would kill him. He felt quite sure of that.

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Sunday 26/6/11

The procession worked its way back down through the trees and the village to the open area near the Meeting Hall. Here, fires had been lit the night before and wild boar had been set to roast. The appetising smell pervaded the air.
At the bottom of the hill, Jakan stopped and watched as people began to dry their tears. They looked forward, he knew, to the feasting and games to follow. There would be much talking and laughter about the exploits of Kattan. This was the way for all those who died. The tribe celebrated the life of their friend or family member, to acknowledge the part they had played in the life of the village. Today, however, Jakan wondered for a brief moment if anyone would notice if he slipped away.
As he wandered towards the fires, he saw the black hawk perched high on the apex of the roof on the Meeting Hall. It stared at him hypnotically with golden eye. Jakan tensed. Wherever that bird appeared, Beldror never seemed to be far away. Sure enough, he soon saw him, leaning nonchalantly against the wall and gazing with indifference at the proceedings. Jakan felt his gall rise. This man claimed to be there in Varyd’s footsteps, to study the ways of the People of Arrakesh. Yet on this momentous occasion in the life of the village, he showed no interest. On the contrary, his look came so close to disdain as to be insulting.
Jakan forced himself to stop for a moment, to quell his anger. Beldror didn’t move when he saw Jakan coming towards him, but a smile played on his lips. To Jakan, the smile lacked sincerity. In fact, it was smug. He swallowed his anger like a bitter potion and kept his voice even.
“It’s a shame you couldn’t attend the Farewell, Beldror. I’m happy to say that we’re quite a healthy lot and, pray Arrakesh, you may not get the chance to experience another Farewell before you leave.”
 “I’m not an early riser. In Carlika, funerals are held at a much more hospitable time of day!”
Jakan fumed. Varyd, the visitor of his youth, had never compared what the People of Arrakesh did to his own, except in a positive way. For the first time in his life Jakan felt the non-violent nature that had been passed to him and all the People of Arrakesh, being truly challenged. His fists clenched and he was struggling to find a cutting reply when Grifad strode towards them, a determined look on his florid face.
“Beldror, young man, you simply must come and join us at the breakfast feast!” He bellowed as if Beldror were deaf. “We can’t have our honoured guest being left out, can we?”
Beldror shrugged. “Why not? With all this food, I should be able to find something palatable.”
Apparently oblivious to the insult, Grifad waved his arms towards the fires, his smile as broad as his face. He cast Jakan a self-satisfied look. Then he strode off after Beldror, his portly frame battling to catch up. Jakan took deep breaths in an effort to calm himself. He glanced up and once again caught the eye of the hawk. It glared at him. Then, with the same supercilious look as its master, it took off into the forest with a ponderous flap of its great black wings.

Sunday 12/6/11

An old man stooped at a well, hauling a bucket of water from the bottom. He looked up as Dovan approached and nodded a silent greeting. Dovan stopped and cleared his throat.
“Good morning,” he said. “I’ve travelled from the Fifth Tribe in search of your Treespeaker, Putakash. Could you tell me where his cottage is, please?”
The old man hoisted the bucket from the well and put it on the ground, before answering. “You need to follow the path you’re on, past the Meeting Hall, until you get to the end. Then turn left and look for the cottage with the ivy growing by the door. That belongs to Putakash. It’s not hard to find. You’ll see the tree carved on his lintel.”
Dovan waved and continued on his way. As the man had predicted, he found the cottage without difficulty. He gave a timid knock, but soon a middle-aged woman answered it. She gave a warm smile in greeting, though she studied his face without sign of recognition.
“I’m sorry,” she said, when Dovan explained who he was looking for. “Putakash isn’t here at the moment, but he shouldn’t be long. Please, come in and have some refreshments while you wait.”
Dovan hesitated, disappointed that he would have to wait, that his father hadn’t come to the door to greet him, but he was hungry and thirsty, so he nodded and followed the woman in, murmuring thanks. As he walked through the door, a sudden wave of dizziness hit him and he grabbed at the doorframe. Again, the sensation that his father had been here overwhelmed him. He breathed deeply to steady himself.
“Are you all right?” the woman asked. “You’ve gone very pale.”
Dovan nodded unsteadily. “It’s been a long journey. I’m probably just tired.”
“Please, come in, sit down and rest yourself.” She waved her arm, pointing across the airy room to the cushions around the low table that seemed to be a feature of every Arrakeshi home.
Dovan leaned over and left his bag by the door, then slumped onto a cushion. He felt shy and awkward, but so many questions raced around his mind. Why had he felt his father’s presence if there was no sign of him here? Where was Putak?
“My name is Ashfareba,” the woman said as she found a cup and filled it from a jug. She placed the cup in front of him and turned to get him food. “What’s yours?”
“I’m sorry, I should have said earlier, I’m Dovan, son of Jakanash.” He watched her closely as he spoke.
Ashfareba had her back to him as she reached into a large pot for some bread, but she tensed at his words. She swung around to face him. Her cheeks were tinged with red. “Son of Jakanash?”
At that moment, the door of the cottage opened and a tall grey-haired man entered. He was frowning a little to himself as he walked in and didn’t seem to notice the visitor until Dovan jumped to his feet. Then Putak raised his thick eyebrows and an expression of concern crossed his face. He glanced at his wife, who bustled forward and took a gentle hold of Dovan’s arm.
“Putak,” she said, “this is Dovan. Dovanash. Son of Jakanash.” She stressed the last three words a little, nodding her head as she spoke. The man stared at Dovan for a few seconds before he strode forward and took his hand. His grip was firm as he spoke and Dovan felt warm, soothing energy relieving his spirit.
“Welcome, Dovan. You’ve grown to a man since I last saw you. I didn’t recognise you. I’m relieved. It’s saved me a walk.”
 “A walk, sir?”
The Treespeaker squeezed his hand and gave a sad smile before letting it go. “Sit down, lad. You must be exhausted.”
“My father…”
“Sit. Then we’ll talk.”

Sunday 5/6/11

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It didn’t take them long to find Beldror. A group of children had persuaded him to play a game and he leaned against a tree, tossing a leather ball with lazy ease for them to chase.
Beldror looked up as Dovan and Maden approached and gave a smile of obvious relief.
“Ah, Maden, I hear you’re to show me the skills required for the difficult task of wood-gathering.” He grinned at his own joke and pushed himself away from the tree.
The children complained at the sudden end to their game, but Beldror waved them away with a chuckle.
“Another day. Off you go.” He took the ball from a young boy and tossed it into the forest. The children chased after it with happy squeals.
“This is Dovanash.”
Dovan reddened at his friend’s formal introduction and grew even hotter when the visitor’s eyes widened with interest.
“Ash? So you’re related to Jakanash?”
“He’s my father. Just call me Dovan.”
Beldror regarded him for a moment, his brown eyes sharp with interest. “So, tell me, Dovan, are you following in your father’s footsteps?”
“What do you mean?”
“Are you a Treespeaker?”
That was what Dovan had thought he meant. “No.”
Beldror cocked his head to one side and cast him a quizzical look. Then he laughed. “So you’re your own man. It’s good to be independent. A man has to live his own life.”
Dovan warmed with pleasure. He was going to like Beldror. He pointed towards Padhag Klen. “We need to take the wood up there. I’ll go and get a cart.” He hurried off towards the storehouse.
With a cart from behind the storehouse in tow, the three young men sauntered up the hill, past Kattan’s cottage and into the forest. A tree had fallen by the stream last year and hadn’t yet been gathered. Branches from it would make a good tall fire for the SpringSpeak.
As they approached the stream, a black hawk flew down and perched on Beldror’s shoulder. Maden moved towards it, but it flapped its wings and screeched. He took a quick step back.
“Meet Jahl,” Beldror rubbed the hawk’s chest with his finger tip.
“Is he a pet?” Maden stayed back now, eyeing the bird from a distance.
Beldror’s lips curled into an enigmatic smile. “He’s a hunter.”
“What does he hunt?”
“Whatever I tell him to.”

Sunday, 29/5/11

They had eaten most of their meal before Dovan came in. He said nothing as he entered, but nodded a greeting before removing his cloak and hanging it on the hook. His brown hair was tussled and his face slightly flushed. He came to sit at the table with them and Jakan noticed the strong scent of honeyed mead about him. Jalena began to stand, but caught the irate look that Jakan sent her. She slid back onto her cushion.
Jakan didn’t look at his son. “It’s customary for a man to wash the toil from his hands before sitting to a meal with his family.”
“Sorry.” Dovan started to get up.
“Ah, but I’d forgotten! You have no toil to wash from yours, have you?” Jakan’s voice was low and gruff, as if flowing over gravel. Jalena closed her eyes and he felt a flash of guilt. He knew she hated it when he and Dovan argued, but sometimes there was no alternative.
Dovan was halfway up from his seat, but sat back down. He opened his mouth to say something, then shut it without a word. His face grew redder than ever.
At last he spoke. “I’ve been studying.”
Jakan stared at his son. Then his eyes narrowed. “With Beldror?”
Dovan seemed oblivious to the terseness of Jakan’s voice. He became quite animated. “You studied with Varyd Kohl, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I studied with Varyd. But did I not say to you, just the other day, that I didn’t want you to associate with Beldror?”
“I don’t see why not, Father. Beldror’s teaching me all about life in Garuga, the city in Carlika he comes from. I need to know. After all, I can take my sharesh in a few moons.”
An old disappointment filled Jakan’s soul. He had never taken his own sharesh, for a Treespeaker was bound within the Veil forever. He had hoped that Dovan would never go for the same reason, but he bore no sign of having the gift.
Dovan, relaxed by the mead, played with the fastening on his tunic as he continued. “Carlika must be such a great place to live. They have so much more than we have here. They can all read you know, and they have buildings called libraries, full of books about everything that has ever happened. They’re printed on the finest cloth and bound in leather. And they have communal eating houses called inns where everyone can go to eat together.”
“What’s wrong with eating at home?” Jakan dropped his spoon into the bowl as he spoke, swiping at the drops that splashed onto the table. “Can the women in Garuga not cook?”
 Dovan reached for some bread from a bowl in the centre of the table and began to tear it into tiny pieces. “Yes, of course, but this way they get to have a rest from cooking.” He piled the breadcrumbs in front of him.
 “So are the women of Garuga overworked?”
Dovan frowned and glanced at his mother. He was obviously getting a little worried about where this conversation was going. “All women deserve a break sometimes!” He cast Jalena a placating smile. Her lips curled a little in reply.
“Yes,” Jakan said, “a woman needs to be respected for the amount of work she does.”
Dovan said nothing, but nodded, looking relieved.
Jakan wiped his mouth on his hand. He stared at the bowl in front of him as his anger erupted. “So she doesn’t need her lazy, disrespectful, seventeen-year-old son strolling in late for his meals, not having the courtesy to wash and then expecting her to dash away from her own meal to serve his!”
Father and son glared at each other for a moment. Both had their fists balled in front of them on the table. Dovan backed down first, pushing himself away and standing up.
“I’m sorry, Mother. I wasn’t thinking.”
Jalena’s nod was almost imperceptible. Dovan went over to the bowl, now on a cupboard under the window, to wash. Jalena began to clear the wooden dishes. She looked pale and kept throwing Jakan pleading looks. Jakan realised that she hoped he would move away from the table and leave Dovan to eat his meal alone, but he stayed, resting his chin on his hands and glaring at nothing in particular. He had a lot more to say yet.
He remained silent until Dovan served himself a meal and came back to sit, looking nervous. Even then, Jakan said nothing until his son was well into his meal.
“Tell me,” he said, “has Beldror told you what would be in those books – the ones about everything that has ever happened? Has he told you how the forest that covered the whole land was destroyed, the people murdered? About the wars that have been fought in Carlika ever since then, over who owns what? About the slave trade? About the poor who die for lack of food, whilst others grow fat? Has he told you all that?”
His son’s face paled. “Well, no, but…”
“And what have you taught Beldror of our ways?”
 “Our ways?”
“Yes, the ways of the Arrakeshi. What have you taught him of the ways of the Arrakeshi?”
His son stuck out his lower lip. “We’ve discussed a few things.”
“Have you explained to him, perhaps, how Arrakesh keeps us safe from the violence and greed of the Outlands? How, without him, we would be living in skin tents, travelling from place to place, incessantly in search of food? Or worse, we’d be fighting for our lives against Outlanders who see our forest as a source of materials to feed their greed? Did you explain how Arrakesh helps us to work together for the common good?”
Dovan shrugged. “That’s not how Beldror sees it,” he said. “He says that in Arrakesh, the common good is seen as so paramount that individual talent is undervalued. Life is so labour-intensive that no progress can ever happen. And as for receiving the will of Arrakesh –”
It was Jalena who interrupted her son. Jakan held up his hand to silence her. Dovan looked sheepish.
 Anger bubbled in Jakan’s chest. “Go on. As for receiving the will of Arrakesh…?”
Dovan shifted on his cushion and fiddled with his spoon. “Well, he simply questions how anyone can believe that an inanimate object like a tree can tell just one man how a whole village should organise their lives…” He trailed off, looking defeated.
Jakan’s heart beat so hard he felt ill. “That one man being me?” He stressed each word.
The colour drained from his son’s face.
“So Beldror says I’m a liar?” Jakan’s voice had the low growl of a bear about to attack.
Dovan said nothing. Abruptly Jakan slammed his fist onto the table making everything shake. He glared at Dovan.
“I can’t believe that my own son would freely associate with someone who spouts such sacrilege.” His eyes narrowed. “But to actually repeat it in this house…!”
There was a moment’s silence.
Dovan glared. “I didn’t say I agreed with him!”
“So you argued with him?” Jakan waited, hoping, but Dovan dropped his gaze to the table and remained silent. Jakan’s face burned. “You will not associate with this man again!”
“How can you say that, when you yourself had such a good friendship with an Outlander?”
Jakan took a deep breath. He’d not handled this well, he knew. “Varyd and I discussed our respective lives. He taught me about Carlika, I taught him about Arrakesh. Never once did he show disrespect for my beliefs, nor I for his.” He pointed a finger at his son. “I repeat, you will not associate with Beldror. He’s evil. The sooner he leaves this village the better!”
At this Dovan leapt to his feet. “You can’t tell me what to do. There’s nothing wrong with Beldror. If I want to have him as a friend, I will! Do you think I’m still a child that you can tell me who I can have as my friends? That’s my choice.”
Jakan stood and drew himself to his full height. It didn’t seem long ago that he would have towered over his son. Now he stared at Dovan’s nose. He raised his voice to compensate.
“You still behave like a child and you’re still my son! And while you live in my house, you’ll do as I say!”
As soon as the words left his lips, he realised his mistake.
Dovan threw his hands in the air. “Fine! Then I won’t live in your house anymore!” He cast Jakan a contemptuous look. “Who wants to live with a madman anyway?”
“Dovan. Please!” Jalena stood, her arms outstretched.
Dovan shrugged at her, then turned and strode to lift his cape from the hook. For a brief second he paused before opening the door. Then he was gone.
The slam of the door was like a knife in Jakan’s heart. Jalena’s sobs broke it in two. He shut his eyes as the image of the taloned feet lifted his son away.
Madman? he thought. Is that what they all think?

Sunday, 22/5/11

The woman grinned and dug the man next to her in the ribs with her elbow. “’E’s a quick learner, Elbarn.”
The man only grunted in reply. Jakan looked at him for the first time. He was a big man, about thirty years old, with dark hair, a square, stolid face and a slack, thick-lipped mouth. He stared at Jakan for a moment. Then his brow furrowed.
“Go ’way. Go ’way, dirty Bakshi.” As he spoke in a slow drawl, he placed his large hands on the table and pushed himself to stand. Jakan had never seen anyone so tall. The man leaned over him, spittle splashing from his lips as he shouted now. “Elbie don’t like Bakshi.”
Jakan swallowed and leaned back, aware once again of the silence of the room. By this time the woman had also risen and had hold of the man’s arms. She pulled on them gently, urging him to sit. “No Elbie, he’s not Bakshi.” She cocked her head at Jakan. “Are you?” He gave a quick shake of his head and the woman pulled once again on the man’s arms. “See? Now sit down an’ stop bein’ naughty.”
The man’s head dropped onto his chest and his bottom lip protruded as he slumped back onto the bench. “Elbie don’t like Bakshi.”
“Well, he’s not Bakshi, so behave yoursel’.” The woman turned to Jakan and gave an apologetic smile, as the voices in the room began to lift again. “Sorry. He’s a few eggs short of a dozen.” She tapped her temple as she spoke. “His father were killed in a Bakshi raid, so he’s got this thing about ’em. Where are you from, if you don’t mind me askin’?”
“Arrakesh. My name is Jakan.” He shrugged off his coat as he spoke and lay it on the bench beside him.
The woman poked a finger into her chest. “Griselka, and this great lummock is my son, Elbarn.” She held out a brown, rough-skinned hand and squeezed Jakan’s hand tight as she shook it.
Elbarn leaned forward, staring open-mouthed at Jakan’s throat. “Little bird,” he said. “Man’s got little bird on ’im, Ma. Look.” He reached out to touch the tattoo, but Griselka slapped his hand and he snatched it away, biting his bottom lip.
“It’s my totem,” Jakan said. “A morshu.”