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The Veins of the Forest

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When Azkil was a young man, his beard newly braided above his collar, he dedicated his spear to the Godbrothers and sailed to the west, to the lands of the accursed sorcerers. He raided in the sea-roads of Gont and the Torikles; he fought in the sack of Spevy and wintered over in the burnt hall of its lord. And after two years at sea, he returned to Karego-At wealthy with plunder.

 

The slaves and the Andrades wine, he gave to the gods and the Godking, in gratitude for his safe voyage; the jewels, he portioned out among his sisters, and the coin, he kept. But the war-banner of the Lords of Spevy, that he tore from the rafters of the Isle-lord's hall while the fire still raged, he carried down to the dockside, into the workshops of Kemmil Shipwright, and gave to the shipwright's daughter Metteir as her bride-piece. They married before the moon was out.

 

Metteir wore the crimson standard as her cloak all winter and spring. And when in summer she bore a son, she swaddled him in it, and she called him Azver, which is 'war-banner' in the Kargish tongue.

 

Azkil doted on the child, and on the three daughters who followed, but he did not hang up his spear. Every summer he would take ship, and return at the start of winter with treasure. The priests' portion and the Godking's tax were greater every summer, but still Azkil came home with gold and ivory coins for his daughters to wear in their hair, and bales of fine woven stuffs for Metteir-- once, even a bolt of silk from the far south, taken from the hold of a Gontish pirate in his own home waters.

 

His chief gift to Azver was a share in his glory. Azkil was a warrior of the Godbrothers, and in Karego-At in those years, there was no greater honor. In the streets of their seaside town, people hailed Azkil in the streets with the Godbrothers' names, even when he went out without his red plumes. They called him gerwah, which is 'lord,' and his son akkerwah, which is 'little lord." And even Azkil would call Azver akkerwah, whenever his grandfather had a good word for him on his workshop floor (which was often), or the priest praised him at the temple school (which was rare); and he would repeat all praise of the boy to Metteir, laying it at her feet as he had once done with Azver's namesake. Metteir would smile, and send Azver about his work.

 

And so Azver grew up secure in his father's love and his mother's presence. And that may seem harsh, for certainly Metteir loved her children, and Azver knew it. But Metteir's love was an everyday thing, while Azkil's was a winter's treat, to be hoarded up and savored in memory when the longships sailed again.

 

The summer that Azver was fourteen, Azkil sailed out, and his fleet did not return at the Sailor's Moon. Metteir and her children prayed for him, in the Godbrothers' temple with the other warriors' families, and alone before the little altar in their house. But the winter came, and crusts of ice froze along the harbor quays, and still the ships did not come. Not until a moon past midwinter did they return, when the harbor was iced over a quarter mile out from shore, and the men returning had to drag their shallow-keeled longships up onto the ice and haul them with ropes up to the dockside. But though Azkil's ship was among them, Azkil and all his crew were gone.

 

They had been scattered off Spevy, the men said, by ships of the accursed sorcerers; and though they had found Azkil's craft adrift in a river-mouth bay halfway round the island, there had been no sign of her crew.

 

Metteir was a warrior's wife; at the news, her face did not change. Only Azver, huddled against the wind in the shelter of the ship's tall prow, saw the hem of her cloak brush the ice, and then leap up again as she squared her shoulders. "You searched for him?"

 

The captain of the troop bowed to her. It was not the same man who had commanded in summer, when the fleet had sailed. "We rowed far up the stream, gerui; but we saw no smoke nor fire. We beat drums and gave the war-cry, but no man called back, save for one last ship of the accursed-sorcerers." He grinned, teeth showing sudden as an adze-stroke through his beard, and drew a short sword from his belt. It was Archipelegan steel, plain work, but even Azver could see how keen the blade was, and how bright. "But we dealt with them, gerui."

 

He laid the sword on his two hands, as though to offer it in peace, hesitated, and-- when Metteir made no move to take it-- stooped down a little and held the sword out to Azver. "Take it, akkerwah. As your father's blood-reckoning. Mind the blade; it's a double edge."

 

Azver took it. The sword was light; it was hard to not close his fingers around the blade, so lightly it lay in his hands. The steel was rippled like water, or the grain of wood; reflected light beaded on the metal, and as he tilted the blade, the beads flowed together into a cold sun at the point, and winked out.

 

He looked up at the captain, still smiling, and at his mother, still impassive. "Thank you." Azver had no sword-belt. He untied his own belt of woolen cords and wound it around the hilt, retied it at his waist. The warrior hid his teeth again, and let out a breath, and only then did Azver realize the man had been afraid. He'd given ill news in one breath and a sword in the next; Azver supposed men had been struck down before, doing the same. But Azver could not make his fingers want to strike. His father was lost or betrayed, captive or dead; it should have made a difference, but Azver felt only the familiar absence.

 

His oldest sister, Purun, crowded up against his side, shivering; Azver followed her gaze and caught his mother staring at the sword, and then at him. Her eyes had gone red, though no tears showed. She drew herself even taller and took her leave of the captain, and swept the children into the folds of her cloak and shooed them up the street and home, and straight to the back of the house and the little shrine.

 

Metteir did not pray the same prayers at the house-altar that she prayed in the temple; and that was only right, for the Godbrothers and the Godking, though one might call on them anywhere, were not house gods. But today, she made prayers that Azver had never heard. She pried up the altar-stone, and dug her broken nails into the earth floor below it as she chanted. The motes of torn-up earth danced over the packed clay, leaping higher the louder she wailed.

 

At last, with a sob, she ceased; the scattered earth fell and lay still. She rocked on her knees, silent, tight-lipped. Purun and the little girls huddled together in one corner, watching; Azver crouched in another, hugging his knees, his fingers shying away from the hilt of the sword. His eyes were shut when Metteir rose; he opened them to see her standing before him, offering her hand. Her face was tear-stained and red. "We will go to their own shrine," she said. "There's one prayer left, I can't make it here, but we can go to them. Come. Come."

 

The day was dimming when she led them back out to the street. Not sunset, for there was no sun visible, nor any shadows on the ground. But the luminous, featureless white of the winter cloud-blanket dimmed, and faded to gray; and soon after they crossed the town gates and took to the hill road, the gray darkened suddenly and seamlessly to a starless black.

 

They had no torch. After a while, the darkness seemed to lift; perhaps the moon had risen behind the clouds, or perhaps Azver's eyes had grown accustomed. They were well up into the hills; below, to one side, the lights of the town glittered. Above, the hill-slope was grown over with trees, low maples and white birch. He knew this place, he realized; far up the hill was the timber road his grandfather took, in search of the few straight old trees that still grew here.

 

But Metteir did not make for the timber road; she left the road altogether, and ducked between two trees that seemed no different from any others, into the darkness of the wood. Now Azver and Purun had to carry the little girls, for there was no light and nearly no path, and all Metteir's attention was bent on finding their way.

 

This was not like the dark on the road. There, Azver had had the wind in his ears, the bitter, brisk wind off the harbor that told of open fields and the long empty stretch of the sea. This dark pressed close, and the few gusts of wind that slipped through the net of trees blew across his neck like a draft let into a shut-up room. He held tighter to little Keppa, and felt at each step for the swing of the sword against his thigh.

 

This darkness, too, slowly yielded to their eyes, but even as the shapes of tree-boles began to swim up from the black, the weight of the dark, and the chill of each breath of wind, seemed to grow. When Metteir finally halted them, Azver could just see her face, a pale glimmer like a comet's tail; but he looked behind her, over her shoulder, searching for the eyes he felt certain were watching him.

 

And so he saw the tree, a darkness against the darkness, outlined in writhing fingers of light. It was a great dead maple, a grandmother of trees, hollow and rotten. Shoots grew up from the roots, ten or twelve of them in a ring, their branches weaving through and around each other; it was their smooth gray bark he saw, limning the black space between. He set Keppa down on her feet, but held her close in a fold of his cloak.

 

Metteir reached out for the tree-- Azver's arm tightened around his sister-- and under her white hands, he watched it take shape. There was a dark crack at the center of the darkness, a narrow fissure in the dead wood, half-blocked by leafless sapling boughs. Metteir found it, traced it up and down. "Wait here for me," she said, in the same voice she'd taken leave of the raid-captain with. And she set one foot into the crack, and lifted herself up.

 

But not through. She was a tall woman, broad-shouldered and broad-hipped, and she had borne four children. Duck and twist as she would, she could not fit into the heart of the tree, though she tore her dress and her skin in trying.

 

At last, with a sigh that had tears behind it, she turned to Purun. Purun was twelve, a tall girl, but her height had taken all her baby roundness with it; and she crawled through easily, though Azver could hear her trembling, in the shaking of her loud breath. "Now pray," said Metteir. "Pray to the Nameless Ones. Pray them to show you your father. With all your heart, pray!"

 

There was nothing to hear but the rasp of Purun's breath. Keppa buried her face in Azver's cloak, and baby Ammikil hugged Keppa's legs. Metteir drew something from her bodice-- Azver smelled it before he saw it, a flask of rose attar, the most precious offering from the house-altar-- and nestled it in a crack in the bark, where a humped root made an altar in the tree's own skin. She muttered her own prayers under her breath, promises of further offerings. The scent of roses faded into the chill, the stifling dark swallowing it up. But the offering was not accepted; Purun's breathing and her gasped prayers came quicker and shallower, until with a sob she flung herself out through the crack and collapsed at Metteir's feet. "They won't listen," she cried. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, they won't listen to me. I tried. I tried."

 

Metteir held her close and stroked her hair and soothed her. And when she was quiet, Metteir turned to Azver, and his two younger sisters.

 

Ammikil was only three. Keppa looked up at Metteir's face and began to wail, and cried harder when Metteir would touch her; and Azver said, "I will go."

 

Metteir seized his chin, and looked him in the eye. Her own eyes were only shadows under her brows, her mouth a dark gash through her pallor. "This is not men's worship," she said; but then her grip loosened, and she stroked his chin, where the beard had only just sprouted, still soft and sparse. "But you are no man, not yet." She stepped back. "Leave the sword," she said.

 

He untied his belt, and gave the sword into Metteir's hands. Keppa and Ammikil crowded up to Purun and hid their faces in her skirts. Purun watched him between her fingers.

 

The roots and boughs of the young saplings showed him the way, but he could have found the door even without them, even in darkness blinder than this. The gash in the ancient bole breathed, like a toothless mouth; the air within was warm, and the warmth made him shiver. He steeled himself as best he could, though his hands still trembled. And then he dug his fingers into the crumbling bark and hoisted himself up and in.

 

It was a close fit, and hard to gauge in the dark; he wrenched his shoulder and scraped his shin through his trouser leg. And then he was through, entombed in the rotting wood.

 

Inside, it was utterly black, and the leafless branches fell to behind him, blocking any hint of light or wind. The air was close and musty, full of wormy dust and owl feathers and the smells of decay. He groped blindly for the walls of the hollow, feeling sure with every inch he reached out that he was falling, that the cramped space emptied out, just beyond his fingertips, into an endless chasm; and even touching the far wall did not banish the fear. He pressed his back against the flaking wood and scrambled with hands for some purchase, too scared to call out to the Nameless Ones. He could feel them, even now, groping for him in this dark space-- and then seeking him more and more surely, unafraid, here in their sacred place.

 

But then his hand found the smooth bark of living wood-- some root or branch of the living tree, thrust right through the dead tree's body. He gripped it tightly; it was solid. He took an easier breath. He felt a vein pulse in his palm; and felt, as if in answer, a thrum like blood well up under the living bark.

 

Sap, flowing, running, waiting for the thaw. He could feel it, as he felt the blood rushing under his own skin. He took another breath, filling up his body, and the Nameless Ones came no closer. They were still around him, he knew; but he knew, also, that the roots of their own shrine also nourished the living trunks around him, and that in the breathing roots and the soil around them, the Nameless ones were held at bay.

 

And the roots of this old, massive maple tangled with the roots of birch and pine, with the roots of every tree in this grove. He could almost see them, the little wood stretching up the hill.

 

And beyond, farther and farther than any grove could go. There are no forests on Karego-At. There are great cedar woods on Hur-at-Hur, they said; his grandfather bought timber from the barbarians there. As he formed the thought, he saw them: red-fleshed boles, bigger around than two men's arms, rising up from their wild twining roots, though the sharp litter of their fragrant needles.

 

The sudden clarity of the vision startled and scared him, and as quickly as it had fled, the darkness closed again around him. But even as his awareness returned to the dark, the breath of the Nameless, the decaying tree, he could feel the thrum of sap, water, blood, racing and churning through his own body and away back into the soil. The roots of this tree went deep, they touched roots wherever there were roots. Vision returned, in brief and scattered glimpses: junipers rising from the mountains of Atuan; tall pines high above a sea-cliff, where eagles nested; a tree he had no name for, someplace where the light came down green and gold through the leaves.

 

But Azver was there to follow his own roots, his own blood; and he found it.

 

The man lay dead in the oak litter. Already, his body fed the doughty trees, and the little saplings, and the slender hemlocks that snatched the sunlight the oaks let fall. His blood soaked the ground and joined the water, salt flowing to meet salt, someplace where the moon pulled the sea up into the streams and let it fall back. Dead, and decaying, in the clean air and the light. The Nameless Ones could not have shown him this; it was not one of their places. But anywhere that the sunlight fell, the veins of the forest ran.

 

The vision faded, green to gold to black. Azver shut his eyes and opened them again, and thought for a moment that he saw the dappled light of that grove of unfamiliar trees. But it was the yellow of dawn, and as he watched, it turned to white: the trunk above him had rotted clean through, and outside, the slender boles of the young maples were swaying, carving the whiteness with their dark strong lines. Outside, his mother was calling his name.

 

Inside, Azver could see how fragile the half-rotted wood was, see where he had crushed the delicate shelves and cornices into powder. The root he had lain against was solid and gray, save where his fingernails had marked it with half-moon scars. Beads of sap, quick with the pressure of early spring, had welled up to fill them. Azver brought his fingers to his mouth, tasted sweetness. He took another clear drop on his finger: sweet, and the tang of a copper coin, a drop of blood, a burst of green.

 

He climbed out, moving slowly with cold and cramp. Metteir's face was gray; her reddened eyes went wide when he lifted the living boughs from the crack. "Azver?" She held the sword out to him, carefully, at arm's length.

 

He set it on the ground and took her hands. "My father lies dead in an oak grove, above that river mouth on Spevy. Dead, and for months. I saw it."

 

She bowed her head over his hands and cried a little, not the wracking sobs of last night, but a simple welling of clear, warm tears. Azver cried, too. "He was always so proud of you," she said, when she looked up again. "I always hoped that he would give you his spear. But you will earn your own." She cupped his chin again, more gently than last night. "Not so many years to go, no?"

 

"No," he agreed. "Not so many." And he picked up the sword and girt in on. He held Purun and rubbed her cold hands and patted her cheeks until she stuck her tongue out at him; he woke Keppa and picked up little Ammikil without waking her. And they began the long walk into town, under the bright white sky and the rattling gray boughs.

 

The wind blew in their faces, cool and brisk, but wetter than the night before, damp with spring; every breath tasted of salt, from the sea, from tears. Under the salt, Azver's tongue still held the fresh sweetness of sap, the tastes of gold and green.