The Bone-Carver’s Son

09/17/2015 § 2 Comments

The last lights of a late autumn day. The wind loud up among the oak trees, the first real mountain-wind of the year, that causes the entire forest to shudder and moan in a shower of dead leaves. The oak-song, his people call it, though it isn’t like any song he knows, it’s something more, something else. An ache deep within the earth, declaring itself through the wind and the trees.

Now on the forest floor, among the knotted roots and thick, pungent duff, the sound is loud enough to drown out all the others. Even the baying of hounds sounds far-off when it comes, as if from another world.

And that is precisely what this place is—another world. These are ancient trees, the oaks of Uldwood, much older than the One God of the Ilmarens and older still than all the disparate gods and goddesses from Chalchides. The forest belongs to those beings whose names have long been forgotten or never truly known by the world of Man. Gods, demi-gods, spirits that roam the mossy depth in bestial hides… The Lords of the Uldwood are to be worshipped, feared, but never understood.

No people know this last as well as the kith of Sitae, native to the wind-scoured plains between the Uldwood and the river Rhoin. It is what defines them as kith, living so close to a realm that far exceeds any human understanding, and the sense of grim and undeniable awe that comes from it, and has bound them to the Uldwood for centuries.

The Sitae teach their young to fear the forest, to respect its boundaries, and to accept without qualm all that the Lords may give and take away. Most of the children grow old and die without ever setting a foot in the Uldwood. But some, those who come of age strong in body and spirit, are made to enter the forest and seek acceptance from the Lords. Many who enter are never seen again—but those who do return, their spirits forever marked by the Uldwood, become the kith’s hunters and huntresses.

The hunters and huntresses are much honoured by all, for the Sitae depend on the game from the Uldwood for sustenance, for they are not farmers, and the plains are ill-suited for farming. Without the hides and horns and carved bones to barter at the Ilmaren trade posts by the Rhoin for grain and other goods, the kith would—as they have in the past—starve during the winter months.

To beseech the Lords for the allowance of game the kith needs each year, the seers, hunters and huntresses who have grown too old and weak for the challenge, make sacrifices in a marked grove on the Day of the Long Sun. These sacrifices, however, do not guarantee the Lords’ favour. Sometimes the Lords take more than they give, or else withhold from giving altogether. In such times, families are forced to draw lots. Those who lose, those who draw black, must then give up one member of their family to be bartered away at the trade posts, from where they are taken south across the river and sold as slaves in the Empire.

This was the fate that awaited the boy, his father having drawn one of the black stones. It was why he had run away, why he was running now on treacherous ground in wan evening light, alone in the Uldwood where he had never been allowed before and had never dared to enter.

He was rightfully afraid of where he was. The very air had changed the moment he’d entered the woods, and there was a weight to it now, and an odour, that reminded him with every breath of the sheer wrongness of his being here. The boy had been raised in the fear and respect of the Uldwood, as was proper for all the kith’s children; he’d listened to—and believed in—countless stories about the perils and mysteries of the Forest and its Lords. But now, more than all those stories put together, the boy simply knew. This was a hallowed place. A place of unspeakable beauty and terror that did not suffer lightly to be tread upon by any mortal man, let alone a boy not even of age.

Over and above that primal fear, his anger was the only thing that kept him moving. The boy was angry with his father for drawing the accursed stone, angry with the kith’s elders for declaring the lot necessary, and in that vein, he was angry even with the Lords themselves for giving the kith so little game since the end of summer.

The boy was turning fourteen in the coming spring, had been secretly preparing himself to enter the woods and become accepted by the Lords—even though the seers, who thought him too wilful for his own good, hadn’t marked him for the trial. Was that too proud, perhaps? Was that why his father had drawn the wrong stone? Was this all a punishment from the Lords, for his arrogance? He had woken up this morning at dawn feeling proud and sore from the previous night’s spear-practice (thrusting, throwing, with stone-tipped spears he’d fashioned for himself over the past two years), determined as ever to become a hunter worthy of the kith. Now he was to be traded like a bundle of hides for his weight in grain and become slave to some Ilmaren pig.

No. It wasn’t right, it wasn’t right at all. That his whole life could fall apart like so in the course of a single day. He could not accept it, would not. He would sooner let the whole kith starve than consign himself to a life of bondage.

In a state of such dumb, raging fury, aggrieved beyond all reason and knowing, he had fled his home and come to the Uldwood. Let the Lords decide what may become of him, he thought.

What he hadn’t thought of, though it was obvious now in hindsight, was that the kith’s hunters would come after him. The drawing lot was a pact, just as sacred, if not as forbidding, as the sacrifices made on the Day of the Long Sun. The kith’s elders couldn’t just let him disappear into the forest—of course they would call for the hunters.

They couldn’t be far behind now. The very fact that he could hear the hounds, however distantly and fitfully in the thrumming of the forest, told him that. He knew little about masking his tracks in a forest, hadn’t bothered trying. He had no hope of evading the hunters; sooner or later they were going catch him.

He did not know how he was to be dealt with once he was caught. No one he knew had ever tried to defy or run from the result of the lot. The elders might feel they need to make a strong example. He could be killed, he thought, bitterly, by the very ones he had so aspired to join.

Truth be told, the boy had no earthly notion of where he was headed, wasn’t even sure which direction he was running. He had wanted to go north, directly away from the village and into the depth of the Uldwood. But here the oaks were dense and the light wan, and the ground was gnarled and uneven, and ferns and moss grew from tree to tree like so much webbing. For all his self-imposed training throwing spears and running distances, the boy had been lost almost as soon as he’d entered the forest. The knowledge of these woods, and the skills to navigate them, were things that could only be taught after the trial—after you were accepted by its Lords.

It was only by his anger, made desperate by the chase and the fear of the Uldwood, that he kept pushing forward.

He was determined to face the Lords, or die trying. You could call that stubbornness, foolishness, arrogance. He had been called all those things before, mostly by his father, who was a bone-carver and had been trying of late to teach his only son the craft in earnest. For months they had been arguing about the boy’s lack of enthusiasm at taking up carving, and the disrespect that implied. But none of that mattered now. He had gone to the lot this afternoon and drawn the black stone, his father. Had had a hand across his face, afterwards at home, telling him to pack his cloths. He hadn’t even put up a fight when the boy shoved him aside and started running for the forest.

Yes, it was foolish beyond words, what he was trying to do. A selfish thing, a reckless thing. But it was also, to him, an act of faith. You lived your life in the shadow of the Uldwood, by the sufferance of its Lords, and all your life you were taught to accept their whims without question. But how did you know what the Lords willed, when they were so clearly beyond mortal understanding? How did anyone? Even the seers, who had spent their entire lives hunting in the Uldwood before retiring to pass their knowledge onto the young, never claimed to know. There was a reason that every one of their stories began with a declamation: “Seek not to understand the Lords of the Forest. Though nothing be certain, believe that their will guides all things.”

And the boy believed. He truly did. He believed that the Lords had willed him here, because he was here. That he didn’t accept what the lot had decided for him, that he couldn’t, because he wasn’t meant to. He believed he would find and be found by the Lords. Always had, for as far back as he could remember. He had been preparing to enter the forest on his next name day, in the spring.

Now bursting through a blanket of fern and moss, the boy found himself in a small clearing. He paused to see clear sky for the first time since entering the forest. It was almost night. The moon had risen early, slender as an eyelash.

In the middle of the clearing stood a pale white tree, surrounded by a circle of rocks. Its bark was as smooth as bone and its branches were clustered with bright red leaves. It was a small tree, especially in comparison to the ancient oaks that towered over the grove.

The boy stood as if transfixed at the sight of the pale tree. As with all the kith’s children, he had heard of this place, had heard of the Bone Tree. It was here that the Lords first made pact with his ancestors, a hundred lifetimes ago; this was where the seers came on the Day of the Long Sun to beggar the Lords with the blood and flesh and bones of one of their own.

For how long he stood like that, still as a heron, the boy could not say. He started only when he heard the hounds again. Louder and closer, not far away at all. He could even hear—or so he thought—the low whistles the hunters used to communicate with each other in the forest. The mountain-wind, the boy realized belatedly, had died down. The oaks had stopped singing.

He knew he had to keep moving, told himself as much. But he could not. Some part of him, indeed the same one that had made him defy the lot and run to the Uldwood, was telling him that this was the place. It could not be coincidence that he stumbled onto the Bone Tree. He was sure of it. He was meant to be here, had been led here. Here at this very moment, as the Lords would have it.

“I am here!” he shouted into still air, lifting his arms in a gesture that was at once supplication and a beckoning.

The first hound entered the clearing from his left, followed by two more. Snarling, growling, they immediately panned out and forced him toward the middle of the grove, closer to the Bone Tree. The hunters came through shortly afterwards; three from the way the hounds had, and more from the opposite side behind his back.

The boy bit his lower lip. The chase was over. “I am here!” he shouted once again, looking straight up.

“Lorn!”

The voice that called out his name in response was not a divine one. He turned and saw, in utter disbelief, his father’s face among the hunters, drenched in sweat yet looking much too pale. That was wrong. A dark foreboding seized him, seeing his father in that moment.

“What—are you doing here?” he asked. Then wheeling, he shouted at the hunters. “Why did you do this? How could you?”

“They didn’t make me,” said his father, wheezing a little, trying to catch his breath. “I entered of my own will.”

“Go back, abba,” Lorn pleaded. “You shouldn’t be here.”

“And you should? Think about what you are doing, son. Think about where we are.”

Lorn shook his head. “You don’t understand, abba. This is where I am supposed to be. The Lords—”

“Enough! Enough with your… delusions! I raised you better than this. I taught you better than to wrong the kith for petty pride and foolishness. You shame me, son. You shame your dead mother. And for what? So you can throw your life away? So I can watch the crows feast on your corpse, in the middle of the village?”

Lorn felt the words like lashes on his back. When he opened his mouth to reply, his anger was there for him.

“If you care about me so deeply, then why didn’t you stop me, hmm? Why did you let me go?”

His father’s eyes shook at his words. But there was no satisfaction.

“I shouldn’t have,” his father said. “And that is why I’ve come.”

His father stepped forward until they were just an arm’s length apart. Then he reached out toward him, slowly. Lorn hesitated, then in the very last moment he flinched and took a step back, regretting it even as he did so. They stared at one another like that for a long moment, as they had countless times in the months past; neither knowing what to say or do but aware, acutely so, of their anger and disappointment at one another dissipating into a kind of hopelessness, a sense of something broken that could not be amended. Back then, they would turn their backs on each other and go on with the day in silence. But this was different now, here in the Uldwood, in the sacrificial grove, surrounded by the kith’s hunters and huntresses.

When his father spoke again, at length, it was in a different tone that reminded Lorn of the days when his mother still lived.

“Come back, son. I know it won’t be the life you wanted. But you’ll have a life. You’ll live. That is all I want.”

“Listen to you father, child,” a hunter spoke from behind his father. “We are to kill you if you resist. None of us wants to kill a defenceless boy, but trust me, by the Lords, we will do it if we must. Yield, and live.”

Lorn closed his eyes. He was moved—and horrified—that his father had come into the Uldwood after him. For him. He hadn’t expected that, would never have believed his father capable of such a thing. The man was a bone-carver. A quiet, soft-spoken man all the days of his life.

The answer came to him, more readily than he thought was possible. But he knew it to be true, in the inmost part of his soul, no matter how much it frightened him to say it.

“No.”

His father moved as if to embrace him, but the arrow was quicker.

It took Lorn in the left shoulder, threw him back whirling from where he stood. He did not feel himself fall until the ground struck him. His whole body shook. There was a roar inside his ears, loud as thunder, full of pain.

Through the tears welling up in his eyes, and dirt and duff, Lorn saw his father step in between him and a huntress, with arms outstretched. He was shouting something at her, at all the hunters. She struck him in the stomach with the nock of her bow and shoved him aside.

Lorn began to scream, called out to his father over and over again, though he could not hear himself.

The huntress grabbed him by the shoulder and turned him so that he was flat on his back. Then she pinned him down with her knee to his chest and drew a long knife from her vest. She did not look pleased or sorry. Only grim.

He asked her to please see his father back to the village, unharmed. She nodded, then said something back to him. He wished he could hear it.

Lorn closed his eyes shut. His teeth were clenched. Regret came, like a blade in his soul, keen against his faith in the Lords and in himself. It seemed he had been a fool after all, a wretched, proud fool, believing he would find and be found by the Lords. He felt himself beginning to shake. He felt shame.

As he waited for the knife to fall, as he waited for his life to end, the shaking in his body grew and grew until he was certain it wasn’t him. It was the ground. He opened his eyes to see the huntress looking behind her shoulder in dismay.

The hounds must have been the first to sense it. They were snarling and snapping at their handlers now, who were trying and failing utterly to calm them down.

Lorn did not so much as hear but feel the sound that engulfed the grove in the next moment. It washed over him, it washed over them all like a great gust. The trees shuddered, made to sing—scream—once again. He saw, in great awe and terror, as fine red lines began to appear on the bone-white tree, like veins, like gossamer dipped in blood, bursting into a pattern of such intricacy that he could not bear to look upon it.

The hounds turned and ran. A rank odour hung in the air now. The huntress stood up and left him to join the others, who had formed a tight circle with weapons drawn.

Lorn crawled over to where his father lay on his side. He was in pain, they both were. His father’s hand came up and sought his face. Lorn draped his body over him and cried, not quite understanding why.

“Run, if you want to live!” The huntress yelled at them.

They got up, the father and the son, leaning on each other. They began to limp toward the tree line. But the sound came again, and this time Lorn heard it—a low, guttural howl, impossibly loud, that seemed to shake the very foundations of the earth. The force of it knocked them back once more.

It seemed to last an eternity to Lorn, that howl, as did the rumbling of the earth and the choking fear in his heart. But it did come to a stop, eventually. The earth grew still. The trees righted themselves. Breath came.

In the silence that followed, which was utter and whole, there came the unmistakable taint of a wild animal, of wet fur and rotting leaves, of blood and piss and dung.

Something huge and black emerged from the treeline, revealing itself to them from one moment to the next.

“It’s the Uberac,” someone whispered.

As one, the hunters dropped their weapons and fell to their knees, putting their hands and faces on the ground in prostration.

His father did the same, with one trembling hand tugging at Lorn’s tunic. Lorn looked at his father, at the back of his stooped head, feeling strangely detached. There was so much grey in it now. He hadn’t noticed, before.

He shivered. He shook off his father’s hand, got up, and walked toward a god that had come to him in the shape of a great boar.

The Uberac towered over him. Its tusks were enormous, carved with the shapes of the animals of the forest in staggering detail. One was broken halfway; there were stories about that. Lorn placed himself between the tusks, and bowed. Felt the god’s breath, wet and rank, on the back of his head. He waited, face down, for what felt like a very long time. Then, at last, he felt himself touched by something cool and smooth on the side of his face. He looked up. The Uberac had touched him with its broken tusk.

He felt the impossible smallness of his own being, but he was unafraid, unfeeling. He looked into the eyes of the Uberac. They were black, so very black, unfathomable as night sky without moon and stars. But Lorn saw in them—was allowed to see in them—what he had needed to know.

The Uberac turned with a surprising grace, and began moving back toward the oaks.

“Why?” Lorn asked after it. He hadn’t known he was going to.

No answer came. And none would, until a lifetime after. The Uberac did not pause. Just as it had come, in perfectly wrought silence, the boar-god disappeared back into the forest.

Moments pass, from one to the next. Night comes and fills the canopied sky. Up above, far beyond the reaches of human figures passing through the darkness of the Uldwood, the mountain-wind resumes its course. And the oaks of Uldwood begin their song once more, their voices loud as ever, as if they had never stopped singing.

Read the next chapter: A Homecoming

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