“The unnatural and the strange have a perfume of their own” ― Fernando Pessoa
Grunting and sweating, the round man called Franklyn lumbered behind Will and his pack.
"Why do we— why do we have to climb the hill again?" the man huffed.
Will kept his eyes forward, on the dogs. Noses to the mossy ground, they were advancing quickly up the steep incline, weaving in a tight rank through the thick tangle of trees. The trail must have been close.
"Stagwood’s only found on exposed forest hilltops," Will replied. "It's where it ages best."
"Uh-huh," Franklyn managed, then paused to wipe his forehead and sneeze loudly. "All that way just to find some stagmare poop," he muttered.
Will frowned over his shoulder. "Stagwood isn't faeces. You don't know much about perfume, do you?"
"I've only just started this job," Franklyn said defensively. "They say I have a good nose. Though probably not as good as your dogs."
Nothing compares to those noses, Will thought. The dogs were also trained, but Will didn't share this with his companion — it would only invite further attempts at conversation. Over the years Will had succeeded in teaching every member of his pack to find some of the most precious ingredients used in scent-making. Ellie excelled in resins: she could catch a whiff of an oozing styrax shrub from a mile off. Harley sniffed out roots and rhizomes: wild irises and gingers that refused to be cultivated outside the deepest forests. Even little Zoe's nose could home in on the rare lichens and mosses that multiplied only after a certain amount of rainfall.
Just now, they were all following Winston's lead. Winston had been trained to find stagwood.
Stagwood was no wood, but a fatty residue sometimes passed in the droppings of stagmares. Stagmares were rare. Their droppings were rarer — they ate little, and digested slowly. The expelled product of a stagmare's intestinal glands was rarest of all. It was more valuable than gold. And the scent...
The slope eased off, and Franklyn began to recover. His chattering picked up anew with great zest.
"See, I used to make cheese," he proclaimed, trotting up close enough for Will to smell the lactic stench of his sweat. "Quite the nose I had for cheese, too. But this job paid better. I'm sure that's not the reason you're a tracker though, right? You probably do this because you're really good at it."
"I do it because it pays well, same as you," Will said without looking back.
The dogs picked up their pace, and so did Will. He'd lied. He loved the job because it let him escape the company of people like Franklyn, of people in general. In the seclusion of the woods, his mind — normally brimming with strange daydreams and impulses he worked hard to contain — grew still and calm. Here, lost and found among the purity of a thousand scents, he felt like a part of some greater whole.
Why had Jack Crawford sent him out with this moronic cheesemonger anyway? Will might have only just joined Balti's perfumers' guild, but he'd been tracking in the woods for years — he didn't need the safety of numbers. Besides, if worse came to worst, the dogs could easily lead him out of the forest, out to where Price and Zeller were waiting with the donkey cart to take them back into town.
Franklyn panted some steps behind him. Will, too, was getting tired — they'd been searching the woods for hours. Will's glasses kept steaming up and he was leaning more and more on his hiking stick. It was early autumn, but the sickly summer heat had persisted even in the heart of the forest. The fecundity of nature was just starting to soften and slump, releasing the sweet damp redolence of vegetal decomposition. It was a smell Will had always loved. The most beautiful scents, he secretly thought, carried a note of death and decay.
"Jack thinks really highly of you," Franklyn went on. "He couldn't wait for you to get started. I thought he might even send you out to find the Wendigo tree. I mean, that would be something, if someone finally found, if we found—"
"The Wendigo tree?"
Franklyn beamed, clearly pleased to know something Will didn't. "I forgot, you haven't been in the Moorlands long. Everyone around here knows about the Wendigo tree. They say there's only one in existence, though no one’s ever seen it. Stagmares eat its leaves to make stagwood—"
Will stopped at that and spun sharply on his heel. The round cheesemaker collided into him with a startled huff.
"You ever hear of cyclopses, Franklyn?" Will said. "Centaurs, vampires, werewolves? People invent all sorts of stuff. Especially explanations for things they don't understand or don't want to accept." He turned and walked on, briskly. "There's no such thing as a Wendigo tree. Stagwood is secreted and expelled from the glands of a frightened stagmare. It's made from fear."
Franklyn broke into a trot again, trying to keep up. “But what could scare a stagmare? They're so huge.”
“I don't know," Will said quietly. Part of him didn't want to know.
"Right, okay," Franklyn said, clearly unimpressed. "But if the tree doesn't exist, why does Count Lecter want to find it? I mean, if a man as important as Hannibal Lecter—" Franklyn huffed again and nearly took a tumble over a fallen branch.
Of course. Count Hannibal Lecter — Jack's best customer. Will had been in the Moorlands for less than a month but he'd already heard the name spoken plenty of times. Most of the stagwood, if Will ended up finding some, would almost certainly be ground into a pearly black powder, distilled into exquisite tinctures, and delivered to the count whose castle soared above Balti, its dark amber windows glaring over the town and the sprawling moorlands beyond. The entire guild would live off the exorbitant payment it would receive for the scents for months to come.
"There's a rumour that he doesn't wear anything the perfumery sends him," Franklyn continued, conspiratorially. "He just collects the stuff, bottle after bottle. But who's to say? No one's seen the man for years."
“He's a recluse?” Will asked, stepping over a rotting pine log. The trees were thinning now, and the clearing was in sight.
“Well, sort of. He still hosts huge dinner parties. My friend Tobias has been a few times," Franklyn said, puffing up a bit. Then added, more musingly: “He throws the parties, but never shows up himself. Maybe he’s disfigured or diseased? Who knows. The Balti Tattler says he was very good looking back in the day.”
Will wondered why he was still putting up with this useless and insufferable companion going on about nonsense noblemen and imaginary trees. He should have left Franklyn with Price and Zeller and gone on to track alone, in peace. Meanwhile the dogs were getting restless, streaming together, bounding over felled trees, multicolour fur glistening in the dappled sunshine that beamed through the high boughs. They were close now. Will paused to stoop and check for hoof prints when something was thrust before him.
A rumpled copy of the Balti Tattler, dragged from Franklyn's bag, was held up under Will's nose. Its garish headline shouted at him:
Another party at Castle Lecter! But will the host show his face at last?
Will stared at the paper, then blinked past it. He nudged the paper and Franklyn's hand slowly out of the way.
"Franklyn," he whispered. "It's—"
"Yes, it's obviously unlikely that the count would show up, but it doesn't stop Freddie Lounds from speculating—"
"No. Shut up. Look."
They were standing inside an irregularly shaped impression, overgrown with moss and softened with a bedding of newly rotted leaves. The dip in the earth was enormous, twice the size of a wagon wheel, and shaped like a teardrop cleft in two. Some distance away, another like it had been pressed into the floor of the forest. And some distance further, another.
The dogs had vanished from Will's sight.
Franklyn followed Will's gaze and let out a nervous giggle.
"Oh, that's, uh—"
"Old stagmare prints," Will said quietly. "We're finally getting somewhere."
Franklyn's face, already sweaty, turned clammy and white with terror. The crumpled copy of the Tattler began to shake in his hands. "Does that mean there's stagmares? Oh— oh gods—"
"They're long gone, Franklyn. And they wouldn't hurt you anyway."
From somewhere nearby came an excited bark — Winston's.
Will ran at once.
He ran and bounded like his hounds, leaping over roots and logs, hacking with his walking stick at the tangled vines and branches that got in his way. Instinct carried him on, and the heady familiar promise of discovery made him feel as if he'd given chase after his own heart.
He didn't stop until he found himself in the harsh light of the rocky clearing.
They were all there under the clear sky, the whole pack, woofing and panting and dancing their mad dance of canine joy around a jagged pile of stones that crowned this bald patch of the forest. Will paused for breath, and to savour the moment he knew so well. Then he fed each dog a little piece of jerky from his bag and sunk to his knees beside them.
It lay like a strange flattened egg amongst the stubby wind-battered grasses and crumbled boulders. A smooth palm-sized oval, easily mistaken for an exquisite stone. Somehow both pearly and iridescent yet profoundly black, speckled throughout with broken veins of gold. Like a piece of the night sky.
It was old. The organic matter around it had long vanished, rotted and washed away. The stagmares must have passed through here well over a year ago. Will could almost picture their herd, paused here some moonlit night, looming high above the entire wood. Would the people of Balti have seen them up here then, seen those antlers huge as trees, silhouetted by the moon?
At least a year. And all that time the stagwood had been lying here, while the winds blew and the sun scorched and perfected its properties. Waiting for Will.
He picked it up with both hands, closed his eyes, counted to three — and brought it to his nose.
The world melted away. Or Will did. All that remained was a complex sweetness that saturated his soul and his senses.
The scent of stagwood was ever new. At times it was the warm fur of a clean animal. At others, the smell of rain hitting freshly upturned soil. Sometimes Will thought it smelled like fresh frost and honey. Today it smelled like sunshine flickering on the surface of a lake.
And it would be smashed up, ground up, and sold to some eccentric rich bastard who, according to Franklyn—
Franklyn. Hadn't the little man managed to keep up? Will snapped himself from his reverie and looked around. Only him and the dogs. Only harsh sunshine and howling wind, up here on this bare patch of the world. The rest of the wood had fallen bizarrely quiet. Even the dogs were frozen to their spots, their excitement vanished. They were staring at Will with strangely bewildered eyes.
"Franklyn!" Will called out. "Over here, Franklyn!"
He got up and walked back to the edge of the wood. The dogs stalked after him, cautious in their stride, keeping close.
He called again, waited — silence.
"Winston, Harley, go— search!" he ordered.
Somewhere from deep in the forest came a frantic rustle, a loud groaning creak, a strange unnatural wheeze. The dogs looked up at Will with cowering eyes. They refused to budge.
"What the—" Will muttered, then yelled again: "Hey, Franklyn!"
Same persistent silence. Will's heart struck a single harsh note of fear. He stared into the forest. From its gaping dark mouth, no reply was forthcoming.