Murdoch’s Tale, Chapter 1

woods1I have found it! I, Tovan of the faer, watched from the shelter of the forest. At the foot of the hill, beyond the cluster of huts where they lived, the quetan bent to their harvest, shining blades swinging in the bright sunlight. One corner of the field they would not cut, they could not. There the barley lay shattered on the ground, flattened by a summer squall, and that would be ours. I give thanks, Lady, for your gift. I gathered the threads of the vaira, sensing the connection, like the tiniest of roots sinking into my being, and sent my joy radiating through it, seeking my kin. I felt their response, the warm, sweet taste of gratitude filling my heart, and the thought, Brave, Tovan. We will eat well this Winter. We give thanks! 

Then I heard a quetan child’s shrill voice from the village below. “Corwin! Get back here! You’re to be footman and hold my skirts.” Hands on her hips, she stamped her foot. “Mum said you must do everything I say!” she screeched, like an angry crow, in the noisy way of the quetan. I watched from the wood as a quetan boy, smaller than her, climbed toward me, up the hill above the village, his short legs pumping, following a butterfly. 

“No,” he said, not bothering to turn his head or raise his voice. 

The butterfly, blue as a piece of fallen sky, had tattered wings. It must have survived a great storm that blew it from some far land. The boy Corwin reached out his hand to touch it, and it fluttered off. He followed as it meandered, stopping at whiles to sip nectar from the few remaining asters. I felt into the vaira, and found the thread that connected us. To my surprise, I felt kindness in this child’s heart, so unlike what we faer have encountered from the quetan. The butterfly was a hurt thing, and he wanted to heal it. 

The butterfly flew on, and Corwin doggedly stumped after it, coming close, but still not seeing me, blinded by the ksh, like the rest of his kind. Near the top of the hill, the slope grew steeper. Chubby hands grasping at the dying grass, he climbed the steep slope. Where the wood began, the butterfly took off skyward. The boy’s breath came ragged. He frowned and sat in the shade at the edge of the wood. The butterfly returned and settled near him, on a dandelion.

Then I felt it, the bitter, metallic taste creeping through the vaira into my skin from beyond the next ridge. In the field below the village, his people continued their harvest, the ksh blinding them like the rest of their kind. A flock of crows rose from the trees beyond the field, cawing. “Da says that means danger,” the boy explained to the butterfly. “Fox, maybe, or badger.” But I could feel them. More quetan, intent on destruction. 

A spark flew through the air, then another, then a shower of them, arcing from the wood at the further side of the field. Black dots appeared in the field and grew into circles that ate both the quetan‘s harvest and our own. I felt the sourness of my sorrow and disappointment go through the vaira to my kin. Unless I could find another shattered field, the Dreaming would be long this year, long enough that we might not live to see the return of food in the Spring. 

Smoke rose. The women screamed as they turned and ran back toward the village. The men stopped mowing and grasped their scythes, only to fall, pierced by arrows. Mounted quetan came galloping into the village from the ridge. They slaughtered the children and broke in the doors of the houses. Horror seized me, the burning acid itch of their desires etching my skin, and I pulled myself from the vaira, as much as is possible to do such a thing. I covered my ears to block the screams, and cast my eyes down. 

But one thread would not sever. The boy stood, frozen in fear, in front of me. He was quetan, but had shown kindness. I remembered my brother, how the quetan had taken him, never to return. Perhaps my taking him would right the balance. I hesitated, fighting the fear that bid me run to the safety of the forest. 

I sent the feeling of safety through the thread that connected us. Run into the forest. Run! I could feel the pounding of his heart. Now! Before they see you! He turned and clambered up the slope and stood before me, still not seeing me, breathing in sobs. He covered his ears with his hands. 

Why do you quetan do this? 

The boy looked startled. Quetan? What is quetan?

Come with me. It is safe in the forest, away from the ksh.

The boy gasped. He still did not see me. Below him, the screams of the villagers ebbed and stopped. The chickens gabbled and the pigs squealed as they, too, were slaughtered. The quetan threw torches onto the thatch, and flames roared, sending dense smoke to foul the sky. It took all my will to stand there, feeling the sharp, burning, stench of their cruelty pierce my flesh like jagged blades, infecting the vaira.

We cannot stay here, little one.

“I want my mum and da.” His lip trembled.

I hesitated. Could we care for this child? Would there be enough food? I thought of Boronil, and what joy she would take in having a child among us, of Dworning and Bartrym, with a young one to teach. I will find you a new mum and da. 

He looked for me then, really looked, and at last his eyes met mine. I had never been so close to a quetan. Although paler, he did not look so different from us in form, and this one had shown kindness. That gave me hope. I reached out my hand. I am Tovan, little quetan, and I will find you a new mum and da. Come.

The boy turned and ran. Below, I could see an archer, eye drawn by the movement, take aim at the boy. Corwin saw him and froze. I could stay where I was, my leggings of rabbit fur the color of the bark, my cloak the mottled green of the forest, the ivy twined in my hair like the leaves of a sapling, and he would never see me. I could do nothing, and let the quetan way triumph yet again.

Fighting my fear, I raised my head and stepped out of the forest. 

The archer’s eyes met mine. His mouth fell agape and he lowered his bow. To him, as I had hoped, it was as though a piece of the forest had taken quetan form. I seized the child and stepped back into the forest shadow, pulling the vaira close around us, hoping it would be enough. I peered between the leaves and saw that he shook his head in disbelief and ran off to join the others despoiling the village.

 I am Tovan. We must leave this place, little quetan. There is only death down there. No child, not even a quetan child, should ever see such a sight. 

Below us, through the smoke, the brigands heaved the last pig carcass into the cart. One climbed onto the seat and whipped the horse into motion. 

No, thought the boy. Molly’s a good horse. You only have to say, “Get up,” and she’ll pull. After all he had seen, it was this sight that pulled the tears from his eyes: gentle Molly in the hands of such cruel men.

One of those on horseback turned and looked over his handiwork: the flames, the stench, the corpses lying where they had fallen. His gaze raked the land. I sank back into the shade and his eyes passed over us. Smiling grimly, the horseman turned and cantered to the head of the retreating column.

The boy lay his head on my shoulder. No fight was in him, nor will to break away from me, a stranger. His world lay below, all blood and ashes, the Lady’s gift destroyed along with it. I must find another field. I sniffed the wind and looked at the clouds. Three days, at most, to find and gather grain before the rains spoiled it, and now I had a little quetan to care for. 

* * *

We followed the ridge, away from the direction the men had gone. 

“Where will we go, Tovan?” Corwin asked. “I’m hungry.” 

I put him down and plucked a mushroom. Here, eat. 

I glanced around, took a step to my right, and plucked a handful of sorrel. The Lady’s bounty was good here, not stripped bare like some other places. By the time Corwin finished what I’d given him, I had full hands: nuts, berries, leaves, and had not taken more than five steps in any direction. I looked at him, his pale hair and eyes so different from ours, his form the same. Can I keep him? I reached into the vaira for Dunwadi’s counsel.

* * *

My heart sank as I realized that I could not keep him. I could not care for him and still search for the grain that would feed my people through the Winter. But I had said I would find him a new mum and da. How to find a quetan that would care for him without getting myself killed?

I spent the rest of the day in a delicate dance: close enough to the realm of the quetan to search for the field that would feed us through the winter and to find a family for the boy, while dodging the fighters who seemed to be everywhere, seeking their kind for the purpose of killing each other. Their madness infected the vaira like a stinging itch that nothing could soothe. 

As evening came upon us, the forest grew thin between the trampled fields and we came to one of the quetan’s roads, a muddy scar across the land. Lady, we need food. 

I reached into the vaira and felt the sweet taste of apples. I turned southward, walking along the road, fearing at every moment that quetan would see us. The forest ended and the road climbed a hill. I saw a waist-high stone wall at the top and smelled the stench of burnt flesh. Corwin began to whine with hunger. I grasped his hand and went ahead to the wall, and within it found an orchard, branches heavy with fruit, slashed from the trees and lying on the ground. The trees wept, their pain jagged against my flesh. Still, the apples looked ripe enough to eat. Thank you, Lady, for bringing us here. I let the trees feel my sadness, not that it would help them. Only the Lady could do that. Then I lifted Corwin over the stone wall, careful to keep him turned toward me. The smoking ruin of a house stood at the further side, reeking of burnt wood and flesh, and I feared to let him see what, or who, might have burned within it. 

I set Corwin down inside the wall and climbed over. He ran to the nearest branch and pulled an apple from it, laughing with delight. I picked, bundling my cloak for a sack, until we had enough to feed us. He wanted to keep picking—he was quetan, after all—but did not complain when I lifted him over the wall and handed him an apple. I led him back into the wood and away from the road to eat.

As the moon rose, I sat, leaning against a tree. The child slept, curled in my lap. Would that it were always Summer, and that quetan and faer could live in friendship. 

* * *

The silence ended as the moon stood high overhead. Corwin screamed, a high-pitched sound like a hare being torn apart by a hawk. He thrashed, his legs running, as he lay in my arms. He was quetan, after all, blind to what is present, and alive to things that are not. I patted his chest to calm him. Corwin, Corwin, you are safe. 

He sobbed, his small body shaking. I reached into the vaira to find something to distract him and bring him back to the real. The leaves on the forest floor in front of us rustled and a mouse poked its nose out into the moonlight. Look, Corwin. A mouse. I think you woke him up. Corwin sat up and sniffled. I wiped his nose with a corner of my cloak. Look how close he has come to us. He must be a very brave mouse. Corwin nodded. 

You must be brave like him. He nodded again and leaned against me, his fingers worrying at the hem of my cloak until he fell asleep.

Tomorrow I must find the food that will sustain us for the Winter, and yet I must make good my promise to this child. 

I reached into the vaira, seeking. 

* * *

At dawn I heard the sound of a cart: the squeak of wheels and the slow clop of hoofs. Would the quetan in it be of goodwill toward this child? I reached into the vaira seeking the thread to their hearts. I had little time to decide. They came closer. Lady, help me choose wisely.

* * *

I crouched in the bushes, watching the cart approach. When the horse reached the place where I’d lain the sleeping boy, it stopped and sniffed at him. Sleepily, he pushed it away with his hand. The horse snorted, a hay-scented gust. 

The quetan climbed down from the seat. He was huge, even for a quetan, with a bushy black beard and lively brown eyes. “Well, what have we here, asleep in the middle of the road?” he boomed in a deep voice. 

The boy sat up and rubbed his eyes. Dry leaves and twigs stuck in his hair and left red marks on his cheeks. 

“Look, Acha,” the quetan called over his shoulder to the woman on the high seat of the open cart. “A child!” He bent over the boy, his voice gentle. “Here, lad, now what’s your name?” 

The boy’s eyes widened, but he did not speak. He looked around, but I dared not show myself. 

“Now, it’s all right, lad. There’s naught to fear from us.”

“Oswy, there’s been fighting here. Look at his rags! The lad’s been through Hell.” 

“No doubt, Acha. Where are your mum and da, lad?” There was no answer except for the child’s blank look of despair.

“The poor bairn,” Acha muttered under her breath.

Oswy glanced at her and she nodded. “Son, would you like to come with us?” The child’s nod was almost invisible. Oswy extended his hand and the boy took it. They walked the few steps to the cart and Oswy’s strong hands lifted him to Acha’s waiting arms. He did not speak, nor did he weep, but let out a long, shuddering sigh as the woman embraced him as softly as a cloud. 

Thank you, Lady.

“My name is Oswy,” he told the boy, “and I am a blacksmith. Acha and I are going south, to Alnwick, where Lord Eustace has his castle. We’ll be safe there.” The boy gave no sign of hearing his words. He sank into Acha’s arms like a drop of rain into loam.

“What’s your name, dear?” she asked.

“Corwin,” he whispered. She stiffened.

“The same as your father, Oswy,” she whispered. She crossed herself. “A good name, and only fair. This war took him from us and gave us this bairn.”

This memory stays with me, and I cherish it: the sight of his little hands twined in Acha’s blond hair. 

Fare well, little quetan. He looked up, expecting to see me, but could see only the tracks of a deer surrounding the place where he had been lying. 


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