Trees race by while I stand still, and they leave me bare in the plains beyond them, bare and shivering as the humans on their great steeds surround me. Plated in scales no Pan could touch, the other-dwellers drop from their mounts, iron fangs drawn and pointed at me in unison. I’m not hurt by my capture as much as by the forest’s betrayal.
“Beautiful as it is dangerous. Fetch a net. A year back a young faun killed Marco.”
“Aye, oi remember.”
Their voices are alien, foreign to my ears, and though I know what they say I can’t communicate with them. Humans speak a variant of the sylvan tongue, but cannot understand the main branch.
I twist in the circle of their points, crouching, staring. I can see no way out past them. Perhaps under them? I bring the panpipes up to my lips, taking in a breath. I let the air flow over and into the topmost pipe.
“Spell! Argus- counter- we need it back alive!”
The note is so piercing it even makes me wince, but the response is near instant. The ground beneath me opens up, slams together again as I drop. The earth muffles shouts and curses and traps one iron fang as it closes above my head.
“Spread out- it’ll-“
Whatever they say, I don’t hear. The root pulls me away too quickly.
The world blurs as the twining thing, wrapped around my legs, whisks me away faster than a blink.
It drags me down the tunnel and then releases me suddenly, leaving me on my back, aching all over, alone in the near pitch blackness under the earth. The only light is from a light-touched spore-tree, glowing just enough to hide the shadows beyond. It had been guesswork– if I had been plunged into the earth without a tunnel here, I’m sure it would have been much worse.
I look at the pipes sadly- I can feel the broken edges. Ten pipes they had been, all in a line. Now they are five. The rest must be lost somewhere along in the darkness.
I push myself up to my hooves. Thankful for the fey tunnel I’d been dragged into, but apprehensive about what lies ahead, I suck in a breath and continue into the dark.
I come to a wall– a solid mass of thick tree roots bars my way.
I can still hear the a set of plated boots above me. I think it must belong to a human thread-twister and one of the Scaled, but there’s no way to know. When I pause, they pause. When I stop, they stop. When I lean against the root wall before me, they bicker.
“It can’t have gone into the tree.”
“She stopped, and here it is.”
Earthfather’s child, warmed in the sun
Your leaves I search for, the humans I run
Part your roots and let me through
Only this I ask of you.
It works– I feel the roots part before my fingers. I duck into the gap and it closes behind me. The footsteps do not follow me.
More roots hang down before me, touching, feeling for me as I pass. The voice of this earthchild is strong and very much awake.
Child of the forest’s sin, go you where and back again?
I shiver. The voice itself is… sick somehow. Wrong in ways I can’t begin to fathom.
I can crush those humans for you, grind their bones and break their hearts.
Shall I take and batter their scales, soak them in the ancient art?
Their skull’s soft dust will feed my roots, their eyes will burst and nourish my bark….
I reach the edge of the child’s rootcircle, only to find that another wall of roots bars my path as surely as the darkness blocks my sight.
Shouts from above me, a cry and a crack. The hissing, whistling sound of branches moving, creaking in wind. Then silence. Then heavy, muffled breathing, a noise like a cry or a whimper, a wounded animal.
“Oh gods Argus oh gods it killed him oh-“
I freeze under the earth. A root is twining around my neck.
Slowly, carefully, I bring the pipes to my lips. Its roots must go on and on.
Another root plays against my hand, another drifts down my back and curls around my short tail- it is all I can do not to panic, my heart is beating so loudly I know the whole tunnel knows it.
“Gods no, gods- why, why did it do that, the tree moved, the whole tree moved-“
I draw in a breath, inching the pipe over to the second longest reed.
Air escapes my lungs in a squeak as a root viciously encircles and constricts my chest.
You think I am blind, little faun, but under the earth I feel your intent.
Put it out of your mind, put it out of your hands. Drop the pipes, little faun, drop them now or I will squeeze until your mind is raw.
Choking, I let the pipes slip from my fingers, a dull, terrible feeling growing in my stomach. They thud wetly in the earth. The ceiling above me opens, and the root pulls me upward into the sun. I’m left blinking and blind for a few moments, bare and feeling terribly exposed.
The price is paid, little human. Take your faun, take the forest sinchild and go.
There is a man here, as my vision clears. A human dressed in plate. At his feet another man, dressed in withered earthchildren woven together so tight you couldn’t see the join between them. They’re painted a lurid red, but the red isn’t as bright and sick as the pool around his skull, broken open to show the white of bone, gleaming in the light of the sun.
The root releases me, and my hooves clack on the stone-hard bark near the base of the wicked, ancient, sky-touching earthchild. Its branches sway and hiss menacingly, and another shudder goes through me. I haven’t my pipes, so I am well and truly defenseless.
I stand there, afraid to move, afraid to breathe, as the human straightens, walks over to me on shaking legs and, grasping my arm roughly, drags me after him.
The touch of his hand is leather, not iron, and its like being handled by the dead, but I let him pull me away from that terrible earthchild– because I know that if I try to run, the wicked creature will kill me for certain. I walk with him meekly as I can, ready to bolt once we’re out of the tree’s range.
To my horror, however, we only walk a short while before we reach his den– a short, thin-walled tent, like that made by a worm- but much smaller.
He pulls me with him and throws me into the tent. I scramble away from him, surprised at first by the spaciousness, and then by the unmistakable tingle of filthy human magic. For a few moments, at least, my body ignores my pleas to move, and he capitalizes on the moment to clasp bands around my wrists and just above my hooves.
“Hah. There,” he says. His voice is shaking. He seems frightened, continually glances back towards the massive earthchild, still visible, its thick trunk towering above the ground, its many boughs curled and deceptively tranquil.
“I can’t believe the Captain risked us for you,” he murmurs darkly. “You can’t be more than twenty years come and gone, and here he’s willing to sacrifice the lot of us.”
The magic fades, and I kick out at him once.
“Stop trying to attack me.”
The filthy tingle is back. Suddenly I can’t think of striking at him. Attempting to move my leg for another kick results in a hot, sick wave of pain.
I glare at him, but can do nothing else.
“Whatever. I don’t know where the Captain and his squad are, but we aren’t going anywhere until he gets here.”
I don’t say anything. Why should I bother? He can’t understand me. Even if he could, humans hate fauns. They hate panii in general.
To myself, I mutter, “Mud-drinking human. I’ll be gone long before your Captain arrives.”
His eyes open wide, and then narrow. “Fauns speak Sylvan?”
I quickly shut my mouth and turn away, but it’s too late. “Tell me.”
Pain lances through my lips and forces them apart, searing fire moves my tongue for me. “Y-Yes! Of course we speak Sylvan!”
It fades as soon as it came.
A pause as both of us stare at one another. My heart is pounding again, and I know my fingers are curled against the floor. The human feels too close. The burning touch of his scaled plate makes me want to squirm away, but I’m afraid if I draw attention to it he’ll order me to stay close. Humans are sick creatures like that–
“I never knew,” he whispers, and sits back. He stares at me. “I never- I never knew…”
Silence passes between us for a while, awkward and thick.
“You speak Sylvan?” I ask, curious despite myself.
He removes his helmet, gazing at me steadily. It is only then that I notice his tapered, rounded ears.
“Yes,” he replies. “I do.”
“You’re– earthblooded!” is what escapes me. “Why are you with them-?”
He shakes his head ruefully. “My mother was a feywolf and my father a mercenary. She was his slave. I signed on to the military when I was younger.”
Now the feyblood doesn’t meet my eyes. His, I notice, are a deep silvery grey, mirrors to mine.
“Why did you try to run?” he asks sadly. “Argus is dead because you ran.”
“You would run as well if you were hunted down by the most dangerous predators in all the forests combined. You capture fauns and eat them. Or… the humans do.”
He actually laughs, and for a moment fear stabs at my heart. I listen, all the same.
“We never eat fauns. We’re preserving them. We try to catch as many as we can from the groves we schedule to be cut down.”
I shrink away as he reaches out to me, but it’s only to pull a long metal stick from behind me. It isn’t an earthmetal. I know it’s likely some worked human abomination, but the colors are a soft green, and almost pretty.
He brings the tip just before his lips and speaks again. It takes me only a moment to realize what it is. The fact that he again speaks his human branch of Sylvan is a help.
“I’ve found her…. Argus is dead. Massive rooted wood-walker here too. Killed Argus. Probably not the faun’s fault. Pitched the tent. Awaiting orders.”
A voice comes back through the rod.
“Remain where you are. The Captain will be back from his hunting foray and we will pick you up. That is an order.”
“Understood,” the half-man replies sharply, and looks up at me again.
I shiver under the force of that gaze, not meeting his eyes. “You do mean to take me with you.”
“There will be more fauns where we are going,” he says softly. “Take comfort in that.”
“I take no comfort in false promises,” I snap. “You captured me. You are betraying your kind.”
“And if I sided with you, I would be betraying my kind as well.”
“I am not a human,” I point out. “I am not one of the humans.”
“Is that meant to be persuasive? I’ve lived most of my life with humans. Why should I care whether you are a human or not?”
“Because you’ve lived most of your life with humans,” I respond, and look him in the eyes. I take a deep breath, take a chance, twining some of the magic of the panii into my voice. “You want to learn about your sylvan family too. You are curious.”
He frowns. “I may be curious, but I can learn all I need to about the fey from the library in the citadel.”
I sigh, then, pushing myself up into a sitting position, glaring at him. “And what will you do with me?”
His grin is downright frightening. “Whatever I wish.”
As it turns out, he wishes to comb through the fur on my legs with his fingers, as though a bird preening feathers. As it turns out, he is searching for bite-flies and the little white eggs they occasionally leave behind. I let him, because resisting is pointless. I don’t know what form of magic he has me under, what form of human sorcery it is, but it binds me fast whenever I attempt to disobey him.
His hands touch on a lump in my left leg. I wince, kick reflexively, but thankfully don’t manage to hurt him.
“When did this happen?” he asks softly. “When did you hurt your leg?”
“Months ago. I couldn’t move it. I fell and couldn’t move it. It’s better now.”
Well, I hadn’t fallen, really. But he doesn’t need to know that.
He frowns. “The bone never set properly.”
“What?” I ask blankly. What does he mean?
“It healed wrong. Look, it’s out of place here. Your other leg isn’t like that. Does it hurt when I press on it?” he does so, pushing. His fingers feel like razorpine and his palm like coarse sand wrapped in bark and scraped slowly against an open wound.
A squeal escapes without my meaning it. I try to tug my leg away, but his grip is firm and the pain is too much.
“Yes it hurts! Stop!” I snap. “Why do you care?”
He shrugs, looking up at me with serious eyes. “I’m sure you wouldn’t understand why I care.”
I turn away from his gaze. “There’s nothing wrong with my leg.”
“Here,” he says quietly. “I’ll show you what’s wrong with your leg. You haven’t the slightest idea.”
He reaches out, but I grab his wrist as his hand moves towards my head. “What are you doing?” I snarl. “Keep your hand-“
A chilly, sickish, tingly feeling spreads outward from his wrist into me. It trickles up my back and settles in my mind like a gentle, soft weight. Suddenly, I know.
The bone in my leg is splintered and fused together in five different ways. The bump on my leg is where the broken shaft is protruding out into the skin surrounding it. I have a clear image in my head of what the bone looks like– a stick split in the center, the edges of it surrounded by lumps of flesh formed around to cushion them. The knowledge of the way the bone mended wrong, how instead of fusing along the seam, muscle formed a wedge between the cracks in the bone and slowly began to push it apart.
Just as quickly as the feeling came, it vanishes, leaving me with foreign knowledge in my head- knowledge without understanding. Seam? Muscle? Fused?
They are human words! How did he fill my head with human words?
I have an ache centered in the front of my head and it stings as I move my leg. It hadn’t stung before I knew what was happening. Did he magic my leg like this?
It looks the same as before, though, so I resist the urge to aim a kick at him.
“What did you do to me?” I ask.
“Showed you what was wrong with your leg,” he says dryly. “I told you that I would.”
“What is a seam?” I ask again, feeling lost. “Why do I know of- muscle and… fused? Why are those words in my head?”
“Sylvan doesn’t have those words. A seam is stitching, but here it means… like a crack. Where the bone should be joined together. Muscle is what you use to move. Fusing or fused things are… things that are… together? Pushed together or held together.”
I shake my head, still uncomprehending, but he sighs, lifts his shoulders, drops them again. “When the Captain gets here, I’ll have the healer take a look at it.”
I close my eyes as he finishes picking through my fur. Now that he’s groomed me I know what will come next.
“Is this your first time?”
His voice interrupts my train of thought, but only slightly. I stare at him and narrow my eyes. “What do you mean?”
He stands, stretches in the not-so-cramped confines of the surprisingly spacious den. A bed of woven plants and iron sits in the corner of it. To my surprise, he walks over to it and sits on the edge.
“Is this your first time being captured?” he asks. “Have you been caught by humans before?”
“Mud-drinkers twice, orcs once. I almost prefer the company of orcs,” I say flatly.
“There are usually fewer of them.”
There is silence between us for a moment. I don’t feel like talking to him now anyway. In fact, I haven’t a clue why I started up conversation in the first place. He is a monster, like most other humans. He may have given me information, but he invaded my mind to do it. He may have helped me escape the clutches of that earthchild, but he did it for his own gain.
I want nothing to do with him. I want to escape.
To that end, I rise to my hooves and step outside of the tent.
He doesn’t say anything, just watches me. I can feel his eyes on my back as I step out into the air.
A series of terrible, violent and obscene images spring into my mind. Sensations like hard oak pistons drive into me from every direction. My legs quake. Little faun. You know what it is I will wreak; back to the tent where the humans stink. Come out again if come out you dare. I can reach you, even there.
The voice sickens me to the point that I feel dizzy, and I stumble back into the tent again, hugging myself and trying to banish the memory of it– like wet, slimy, rotten death, like a tendril of something terrible is worming its way into my mind. As soon as I step into the tent again, it leaves me, and I blink back tears.
“It talked to you.”
I stare at the half-blood.
I nod once, weakly, and turn back to the entrance of the tent, gazing outward.
His voice draws me back again, though. “What does it say? I can hear it but I can’t understand it.”
“It says- it wants to kill us both. And it s-shows me. What it will do to me if I try to escape.” I can feel my voice crack, and I sit down, staring into the bright of the day and the dark of the earthchild’s shadow. “When will your Captain be here?”
“I don’t know,” he replies quietly. “When he does get here, he will take care of the wood-walker.”
Time goes by again, in total silence. Finally, though, I let curiosity get the better of me.
“What is your name?” I ask, curious.
“Yimmer. My surname is Kindleheart. I am a private and a pathfinder for the Aegis legion.”
Silence passes yet again. For a time all is quiet, and then it strikes me.
“You didn’t ask me my name,” I point out.
“Fauns have names?”
I can see him grinning, but it still hurts. “Of course!” I huff, feeling put off. “Everything has a name.”
“What’s your name?” he asks quietly. He is resting on his back now, arms behind his head. “What do other faun ladies call you?”
“My name is Sarah.”
“That’s an odd name,” Yimmer says, after a pause.
“It’s the name I was born with,” I reply shortly.
“It’ll do. I’m sorry we had to meet under such poor circumstances, Sarah.”
Any time I meet a human is automatically under poor circumstance, in my opinion, but I don’t voice it.
I suddenly feel a warm, steady hum in the bands around my arms and legs. Startled, I rise.
“Sit down,” comes Yimmer’s command in bastard Sylvan. I find my legs folding under me. The bands begin to glow. Though the humming can’t be described as uncomfortable, it isn’t comforting.
I’m about to say something when I hear voices from outside of the tent.
“This looks to be the tent. It has our insignia.”
“I’m not losing any men to a tent mimic. Ho there! Private Kindleheart!”
Yimmer, sitting up now, calls back.
“It’s me! I’m not a mimic. You can come in!”
“T’would be better served if I cut my own throat! Step out so I might see you for myself, Private.”
With a sigh and a sheepish grin I can’t be sure he means, the half-human stands up and walks towards the entrance of the tent.
Bound by his command and the ever present agony-threat of the bands around my wrists and ankles, I sit there and wait as he ducks out.
“Well, I’ll be! Alive and well, Private Yimmer? A faun can be a wily one- did it escape you?”
“No sir. She’s in the tent. The control bands work a treat.”
I stare at the entrance to the tent I sit in. The silk twitches aside to reveal a human with bright blue eyes and wild silver hair that cascades down its shoulders. It doesn’t seem to be clad in any particular type of iron, but it is wearing dead, dry skin, leather. Studded in each glove is a thick earthstone, glowing green. The blasphemy of Terrus’s tears set amidst dead flesh makes me sick to my stomach in a way iron couldn’t match.
“So you’re the one who killed Argus,” it says softly. I can’t be sure from looks alone whether this human is a man or a woman. “We’ve gone to a lot of trouble to catch you.”
I don’t respond. What would be the point? I wouldn’t be understood. I am not the one who killed Argus- that wicked earthchild killed Argus, if Argus was the robed human lying in his own blood.
“On your knees. Wait there until I call you.”
My hesitation causes searing agony to writhe its way up my spine. It’s all I can do not to cry out, but my legs fold themselves under me and I sit on my knees obediently. The burning is slow to fade, and the humiliation lingers even when the pain is gone. I am not by nature proud, but this… taming, if that is what it is, is swiftly shredding even that small inclination towards self-respect.
The human, dressed in its dead skins, leaves. The first to come in after him is a short but wiry human with soft green eyes and a bald head. He wears iron scales for protection and carries a short fang at his belt. He seems more curious than malicious.
He looks directly into my eyes and smiles. I hear his thought-voice in my head.
Do not despair. Soon you will be with more of your kind than you have ever seen.
I gaze back at him steadily. I can’t answer. He wouldn’t understand me, so what would be the point in trying?
I can hear your thoughts, faunling. If you think it, I know it.
I don’t know if I believe that. I’m quite sure that if I wanted to keep my thoughts hidden it would be a simple enough thing. I don’t like the intensity of his stare, and I don’t care about joining more of my kind. All I want is freedom.
He straightens, then, nods once, smile fading, and leaves the tent.
“She does not want to be here, Captain.”
Their voices are hard to differentiate, but I recognize the wiry man’s thought-voice in his true voice. The Captain’s tone is familiar as well.
“If our operation relied on its comfort, we’d never have tried to capture it. Anyone else want to spend some time with the beast? I’ll overlook it as long as there isn’t a mark on its spotted hide when we reach the gardens.”
“What, sleep with a faun?”
“I will,” I hear Yimmer say.
“Fancy yourself a little faerie wife, Kindleheart?”
“About time you started eyeing women though, right?”
I shiver, hugging myself and shutting my eyes. These stupid bands! Were it not for the Captain’s command and these horrible devices I know I would be able to escape.
At least, if I still had my pipes I could escape…
“Set up camp here. There’s room amidst these trees. Mind you don’t settle too close to the wood-walker. I’d rather not fight that thing until I absolutely need to.”
A heartbeat or two later, I hear sounds of movement all around the tent. I quake there, sitting on my knees and trying not to think about what is almost certainly coming. It doesn’t work- trapped as I am on my knees at the Captain’s orders, I stare out into the day and wait, in dread and doubt, for the day to turn to night. After listening to each human pitch their own ideas for Yimmer to hear on how to have me, after being cooped up in the tent for who knows how long, the tent flap twitches aside and Yimmer, golden eyes soft and tired, steps in.
“The Captain says you may move now,” he says dryly. “Do not leave the tent.”
I push myself away from him immediately, still hugging myself, eyeing him suspiciously. He ignores me entirely, moving to the woven plant-and-iron nest in the corner, lying on it and staring at the wall of the tent.
For my part, I lean against the farthest wall from him, still hugging my knees- which ache horribly from being in the same position for the entire day. The pain in my leg, where the bone is splintered, was made much worse for me sitting back on it. Now I’m not so certain I could escape even if the bands were away and I had a moment of freedom. I watch Yimmer until he closes his eyes, until the rise and fall of his chest stabilizes, evens, and he seems to be asleep. Eventually I close my eyes as well, and my heartbeat slows down enough that some semblance of rest comes to me.
I am awakened, and rudely. A hand is curled tight in my hair. I won’t begin to describe the taste in my mouth or what I see when my eyes open. I will say only that in one moment I am stunned, confused, terrified. I can’t breathe. Something is- blocking my lungs from drawing in air. I scream, shout, bite- around whatever it is in my mouth, but it pinches down on my tongue and forces my mouth open wide.
The noise- from what little I can see around the belly of whoever stuffed their fingers between my lips, wakes up Yimmer who, initially bleary, is near instantaneously furious as he rises to his feet and takes stock of the situation.
“What are you doing?”
“What does it look like I’m doing? A man can’t have fun in peace? Want her all to yourself, Yimmer?”
The hand releases me, though, and something in my mouth is withdrawn just as I bite down. I feel a sharp blow to my side and curl in on myself, coughing, gasping.
Yimmer’s voice, when next it comes, is sharp as a fang, and deadlier than ever I have heard.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like to- you know… at the same time?”
“Get out of my tent!” comes the answering snarl. From my dazed vantage point on the floor, I see a man calmly drawing up the woven animal-skin over his waist again.
His eyes linger on my prone form as he ducks out, and he leers openly. “Suit yerself. It’s a long trip to the gardens, boy. I’ll get my chance.”
As soon as the tent flap closes behind him, I feel Yimmer’s hand on my arm drawing me up with him.
Without a word, he pushes me into the nest he made for himself and, upon drawing the woven silk sheet over me, walks to the entrance of the tent and, leaning against the wall, closes his eyes again, taking up silent guard.
Shaking uncontrollably, I lie still in the bed, jumping at every footstep. My tongue is sore and bleeding from the man’s nails digging into it, and something in my mouth tastes absolutely foul even with those thick fingers gone. I feel violated in the worst of ways, as though a part of me is now soiled. Inexplicably, I find tears in my eyes, find I’ve lost the strength to hold them back. Alone in the tent but for Yimmer, who only feigns sleep in the corner, I cry until the tears won’t come anymore. When they finally leave me, when my cheeks are drenched with them and my heart aches fit to burst to pieces, I take a deep, shuddering breath and let it out slowly.
I open my eyes to find Yimmer staring into them, close enough to touch.
Still saying nothing, he brushes a tear from my cheek with the back of his hand. I can’t help but notice the coarseness of his skin– not as rough as the fingers had been, from before. Finally, as he looks at me, as he stares at me, I understand.
“Don’t cry, little faun,” he says, quiet as can be. “I’m here. If that man comes back I will drive this sword into his gut. No one will miss him.”
He isn’t seeing me, not really. Even as he gazes at me, even as I watch him smile, I know it is not me he sees lying before him. Those are the eyes of a pan mad with anger, and to be honest I find them more frightening than anything I have ever seen. How could he care about what happens to me? The moon has not even risen into the sky on the day he found me, the night is not yet at its peak, but he protects me. Why?
“What hurt you, to make you like this?” I ask, and curse myself for my weakness. I don’t know what drives me to ask in the first place. Some idiotic curiosity spilling over in my heart. “What pushes you to do that for me?”
Yimmer blinks, then shakes his head, as if clearing it, stares at me as if truly seeing me for the first time.
“I don’t know,” he murmurs, and turns away, leaning against the side of the bed of iron and woven plant. “I… I suppose I really don’t. It doesn’t sit well with me. Their treatment of you. Argus didn’t die… just so they could… hurt you, like that.”
It’s alien. Wrong somehow. I didn’t grow up with him. I never sang or played the pipes or danced with him in the forest. I’ve just met him. I’ve only just now begun to understand him.
Why would he help me? There must be some motive beyond me, something that I don’t understand.
“Who was Argus?” I ask, after a time.
He doesn’t answer, and after watching him for a while, I decide he must be asleep.
It isn’t until I lean over to see his face that I can be sure.
Tears are streaking his cheeks, his breaths come in short and clipped, his eyes are shut tightly.
I pull away, lying against the plants. So woven, they don’t really feel like the green friends I know in the forest- they don’t feel alive. I’ve heard humans talk about it once. Cloth perhaps. Silk for what spiders and worms weave.
After a time, I manage to find sleep. Though silent, I can feel Yimmer’s crushing sorrow, and though dreamless, my rest is not restful.
The human voice startles me awake. I look into the eyes of the human captain. They are downcast, and after a moment I realize he is staring down at Yimmer, and not at me.
“Private Kindleheart, on your feet.”
“We leave. Now.”
“Yessir,” Yimmer replies. Were he full human, I could not read him. Since he has sylvan blood, his emotions are clear as day: He doesn’t want to go. The captain turns to me.
“Faunling. Stand. Follow.”
I find the nearly familiar agony burning in my legs, and quickly rise to my hooves, standing. As the captain steps from the tent, I follow after him, tossing a quick glance back at Yimmer, who rises as well. Then the pain shoots down my legs, followed by a less familiar sharp spike of it along the bone. I cry out without meaning to, but force myself to follow after the human, stepping out into the dawn.
A voice fills my head, and not one I am pleased to feel.
Little faun. You will not escape. The men and their dogs will die.
I’ll wrap you up in a rootfold cape and tear you apart inside.
Say one word to the human fools and you will be first to fall.
Deep in the earth, buried and covered, I will begin to draw.
The marrow from bone will slake my thirst and in blood my seed will grow.
The strength of the images that twisted earthchild sends me chill my blood, chill me to the core. I feel shakes and shivers roll through me. I can’t stop them, and nearly fall when Yimmer notices. He steadies me, a hand on my shoulder, a hand on my back. As the world fades into focus again and I hear those around me, I am aware of muttering.
I realize that Yimmer is holding me, then, that aside from his hand, he has an arm wrapped around me.
“Her leg is broken,” he says to the stares. “She shouldn’t be walking on it in the first place. How are we to deal with the wood-walker?”
“A fair question,” concedes the captain. “We brought torches. I suggest firebrands as a defense at least, to ward it away, and then moving swiftly out of its reach.”
Yimmer glances at me, and I find myself shaking my head. “No,” I whisper. “Fire won’t work. This earthchild is bigger than- at least five of the oldest sleeping earthchildren put together. We can’t fight it with fire.”
I can see your lips moving… I know what you say…
I freeze, trembling. I can feel the vibrations as the earthchild’s roots move underneath me.
“What is your name?” I ask, quietly. “If you are to kill me, tell me your name.”
“What?” Yimmer says sharply. “I’m not going to-“ Then, realization. “Captain! The wood-walker will strike now! We need to mo-“
All around, the ground caves in. All around us, the earth gives way. Wriggling, writhing under it, seething with growth and masses of living, squirming roots, some as thick around as my thighs, some as thin as a hair. Shouts, screams, cries.
The air is thick with the sound of snapping, crunching bone, battered iron scales, broken fangs and rent skin.
Just as abruptly, the air is thick with rain. The sky opens up and pours down rain, heavy as can be, and I hear the earthchild scream in agony, see its flailing roots, bare and smoking as water pours onto them, feel its pain as a palpable wave.
I am astonished, but not for long. On hands and legs both I feel the human magic hiss and drain free, and instantly I understand, instantly I know as I watch the roots stiffen and still.
“Purifying storm,” I whisper. On one leg, then on both I bolt, but I don’t make it far. As I yank myself away from Yimmer, stumble, trip and near fall, I feel his arms around my waist and chest, feel him draw me back hard against him. He should know better.
I smash his toes in with one hoof, stomping hard, and slam the back of my head into his nose. It makes a sickening crunch.
He doesn’t even flinch, even as something warm runs down the back of my neck, something warm and sticky.
“Listen to me, faunling,” he whispers. “Listen to me, Sarah.”
I don’t know why I can’t run. I don’t know what keeps me here. The human magic contained in the bands still wrapped around my legs and wrists is gone. Their foul leash is gone.
“You can’t run. Don’t run.”
Even without magic to tell me not to move, to send pain scything through me, I listen to him. I relax in his grip, half-turn, easing up my hoof from his foot.
“They will kill you if you run. They will track you down now. They think it is panii sorcery and nothing I say will convince them otherwise.” His voice is thick. It doesn’t surprise me, considering his crushed nose.
I can feel his pain bubbling up through his toes. I can feel his heart pounding against my back, even through his leather scales.
“Are you going to run?” he asks quietly. I can barely hear him over the sound of the rain.
I shake my head, aware that my hair is wet with his blood. Terror steals strength from my limbs. Terror and stabbing pain lingering in my leg. I’ve failed again.
“I will not run,” I say, in a voice that comes out more like a whimper. “I promise. I swear.”
“Do you have her, Kindleheart?”
“I have her. With respect, sir, our division is in disarray. What’s left of our men might take days to reach the Gardens.”
The captain stares at Yimmer for a moment, and then nods. “Go on.”
“Let me take her there. Two will travel much faster than a group like this.”
“Absolutely not, Private. If you split off, what’s to stop it from kicking free and running as soon as it can?”
“The bands, sir,” Kindleheart points out. “The control bands.”
The captain hesitates. Finally, he seems to make up his mind. “I’m coming with you.”
Yimmer’s expression doesn’t change, but I can feel his hope sink away. “Yes sir.”
I turn slightly in his grip, looking at his face- bloody, sylvan features slightly smashed from contact with the back of my skull. I can see the pain in his eyes, but I can’t really understand it.
I realize then, walking with him, that my heart is pounding in my chest again. As we pick our way over petrified roots, as we stumble through the forest, following after the captain, I feel excitement rushing through me. He doesn’t know those filthy human bands are magic-less now. He doesn’t know I’m free.
I feel as though my heart could burst in my chest.
Any second now, I know he’ll weaken, I know his grip will weaken, and I will escape.
I know he will.
I’m led down, around and away from the whole of the earthchild. Its roots are still and its branches no longer sway as though alive. Its magic, exposed to the purifying storm, is drained away, just like the evil energy stored in the bands was leeched. The way is twisting and winding- some of the roots are as thick around as whole other earthchildren. Twice I stumble, twice Yimmer is there with his arms around me, to pull me back against him. He could let me fall, but he doesn’t. Twice then, I realize I could bolt. Twice, I let my hooves continue to carry me unhindered and refuse to attempt escape.
I don’t know what comes over me. Even with my heart pounding and my legs trembling with every step, even though I know the chances I have of escaping shrink with every step I take towards the edge of the forest, I can’t make myself run.
Then, all at once, we stop. A dread rushes through me all at once. Something about the human’s stance seems off. Something about the way he holds himself seems wrong.
“That seems far enough,” the captain says, and then he changes. His eyes turn a sharp red, his fingers lengthen, his whole body twists and then rises. Leather footwear turns to hooves, woven clothes fall away to reveal the lower half of a massive stag and the upper half of a man– he is a pan. Armor fades away to nothing, a glamour I hadn’t even noticed. Naked and massive, he towers over both of us, wild muscle rippling as he stretches out.
He faces me, faces Yimmer, grinning with jagged teeth. His words come in full sylvan.
“I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist, boy. Her song ensnared you, and now you’re both mine.”
Without a word, I can almost feel the half-blood soldier draw free his iron fang, and I do feel him push me gently away.
The pan’s voice is familiar, and almost instantly I place it, even in sylvan base instead of common, like back in the tent. Dimly, I wonder what happened to the real captain of Yimmer’s legion. Dimly, I realize that this must be why the earthchild had not struck him down. It had not sensed him. He is not human.
Dumbly, I stand on my hooves, numb.
Yimmer takes a step between me and the pan, who stares at me with open lust and fiery rage. That gaze focuses on the halfblood next, and even though the twisted pansatyr is without a fang, he stands three heads above Yimmer, just as I stand a head below. He is massive. Even though Yimmer holds iron, I know it is a fight he will not win. The pansatyr’s eyes gleam with hidden magic and craft.
Quaking, I freeze in indecision.
Yimmer’s gaze flicks to me but a moment. “Run, faunling,” he whispers.
On broken leg and shattered hope, I bolt.
After crashing through the forest a time, I come to the edge of a thick stream. The water flows past, cold against my fingers as I kneel down and let it run over them. Reeds, spidery and thin, stretch up into the air in the bank, as if begging for rain. I twist my fingers around them, hide among them, ducking, crouching down, listening. In the first few minutes, all I could hear was my heartbeat. Now it still holds true. There is no sound of pursuit. My leg is pulsing agony in hot, sick waves. I can feel the bone where it pierces muscle.
Every instinct tells me I need to run. I can’t scent him– the pan– and I don’t have the scent of Yimmer…
He had just smelled of leather, mostly. Leather and something else. Something familiar and strange at the same time.
Like home, like the groves.
I’m surprised by tears, dripping down my cheeks.
My heart freezes in my chest at the sound, very faint and yet very close, of a stick snapping. I close my eyes, crouched, ready to spring away despite my leg’s protests, fingers curling against my palms. Steadily, crunching noises- squelching noises, sticks crunching under hooves, ground giving way under the weight of something massive. I hear it all, feel it in my bones as it approaches.
“Come out, little faun,” a voice- the voice of the pan, of the fat man from the tent, of the captain. “Come out and see what I’ve done to your friend…”
I can’t move. I can’t breathe.
I left him. It’s my fault. I left him there to fight alone.
“He screamed and screamed… will you scream like he did? He isn’t saying anything anymore, and I’m getting bored….”
I feel my heart grow colder in my chest, colder still. My eyes close and my heart stings it beats so hard. I can smell blood now. He’s upwind of me. I know he is. I can smell him and the scent makes my legs tremble. Thick with wild lust, thick with hunger and rage. It’s a heady scent, something that lingers in my nose and lungs and inundates me like magic. It’s a pressure I can’t stand.
I hear Yimmer’s voice, then, raised in a whimper. I feel terror rooting me to the spot. I can’t move. My heart is racing and I can’t move.
Slowly, ever so slowly, I can hear the footsteps begin to crunch away over sticks and brush.
“Maybe I’ll leave him here, to drown in the muck…”
I hear a splash. A gurgling noise. Suddenly, I can see a shape, struggling, sputtering in the stream, not even two armspans away and still nearly shrouded with reeds. Skin like olive thrashes in the stream. A hoof is barely visible resting atop Yimmer’s back and holding him down. He will drown.
“Come out, faun… don’t you want to save your friend?”
Finally then, my body unfreezes.
I stand, straighten on legs that shake, straighten no more than two spans away from the pansatyr where he stands, one foot on the bank, the other on Yimmer’s slowly weakening body. Instantly I realize that he is already staring at me, has been looking at me the entire time. I can see it in his grin, can see it in his eyes.
“Good girl,” he says softly. “Good little doe, so loyal.”
Flee flee FLEE scream my instincts. Run until you can’t run anymore!
Numbly, barely aware of it, I twist the reeds in my hands.
I twist them and twist them until I realize they’ve taken on a shape– a familiar, wonderfully comforting shape. As the pan steps towards me onto the bank, the dawn catching his features and shining bright, I bring the pipes, formed from hope and eager, friendly reeds, up to my mouth.
Staring at my grinning, jagged-toothed antagonist, feeling his sick intent, I blow into the shortest reed. Energy gathers around me and, at the call of the reed- which splinters into pieces under the pressure, launches itself forth.
The blast ripples outwards in a terrible wave, sings through the air like lightning. It smashes into the pan’s chest with a hideous crack, and he stumbles back into the stream, so shocked he can’t breathe a curse. He makes a tremendous splash as he falls over.
Shaking in terror and relief, legs moving without me willing them, I half-limp half-stagger into the stream after Yimmer. The water is frigid.
My fur is soaked through, but I ignore it. I wade, then hop back onto the bank and, heedless of reeds, roots or otherwise, follow it along the bank. In the light of the dawn though, it does not take long for me to find him.
Find him I do- he lies facedown in the water, spans and spans- countless steps downstream.
I don’t call out. The pansatyr is not dead and I have no wish to draw attention to myself. Instead I lean at the edge of the water and, gripping Yimmer’s hand, I pull him up onto the bank of the creek, pull him up, put my arms under his and manage to drag him into the cover of the reeds. There I sit, holding him in my lap, heart pounding, pipes- sans the lowest- clutched in my hand.
After a time, he stirs, and my heart leaps. Yimmer’s eyes flutter open. His body is caked with blood and mud. He’s shivering uncontrollably and completely naked, though rendered decent– by positioning if not by dirt.
“Sar-!” he starts, but I cover his mouth with a hand desperately.
“Shh,” I hiss. “No words.”
I know my lower half is wet and cold, but he is so freezing it must be an improvement.
I slip my hands down and then up under his rear, pull him up tight against me. It’s then that I feel it- rather, I feel the lack of it, and I stare into his eyes, bleary, frightened and riddled with guilt. There’s no time to talk, though. As I open my mouth, I hear a familiar crunching noise, of hooves on twigs. I hear harsh breathing, feel an oppressive presence.
“I’m going to eat you, little faun… i’ll eat you right up, swallow you whole… you and your blasted pipes…. I was just going to have fun before… now I’m angry….”
I feel Yimmer freeze- insofar as it’s possible, shaking and cold as he is. His body is cut in a dozen different places, but I don’t think they hurt him. I think he’s too numb for that.
I know songs on the pipe to warm the blood, I know notes to play to put heat in the bones of anyone who listens to them. I dare not, I know not to play those songs now. I can nearly feel the pan. I can hear its heavy breathing as though it stands right next to me, as though those jagged teeth are about to plunge into my neck.
Suddenly, I feel an urgency. If he finds Yimmer…
I can’t defend him like this. I can’t face the pan sitting down.
And I know I must. I know if I don’t face down the satyr here, he’ll regain his strength- his fur will dry, his chest will heal, and he’ll come after me again when I am unaware. Then he’ll kill me. This is not a fight I can run from.
At the least I can draw him away from Yimmer and give him a better chance!
I stand, letting Yimmer rest on the bank. I leap from behind the reeds all in one moment, duck a hairy hand and scramble away into the trees. My leg cries out in pain, my hoof barely supports my weight. It’s a short run.
All at once, before I can steel myself, before I can even scream, the pansatyr is upon me. His thick fingers close tight on my left arm and yank me back so hard that it does something terrible to my shoulder and the pipes drop from my fingers.
Tears of pain dot my face as he bears me down, as one of his hooves crunches the pipes into the grass. He hurls me forward onto the ground, face down. His hands reach for me, grabbing my legs, his breath released in a heavy growl. Those thick fingers dig into my fur and pinch my skin.
Terror takes me- mindless terror. I kick out. His grip slips and my hoof connects with his jaw. His remaining hand doesn’t let go, but he snarls and I know I’m going to die. “Stupid little doe-“
“Drop her,” Yimmer says flatly. I can’t see him, but I hear the pan shift, twist around to face him. He’ll get himself killed!
“You should have stayed down, boy who is not,” the pan says with a low chuckle. “Now I’ll eat you, too.”
“I’m more of a man than you,” Yimmer says, and there’s no fight in his voice at all. He sounds tired and cold. He smells tired and cold. Determined, perhaps- but it won’t protect him. He’s buying me time. “More of a man than a wild, lust-crazed beast. Even Sarah is more man than a monster.”
“Monster?” the pan asks slowly. It drops me, but not before leaving long scratches on my thighs, dirty and stinging. He straightens and turns, he stands and turns and walks towards Yimmer’s voice, one hoof after the other. “Monster?”
I scrabble in the mud then, with one hand, ignoring the terrible ache in my leg, tears streaming down my face, gasping in mixed relief and panic. I find the shattered remnants of the pipes and my heart plummets. The world fades to grey and black.
I hear a gasp and a sharp growl, hear Yimmer’s reply. I hear his subsequent whimper of pain, and my vision blurs red. Sharp red, like the splintered pipes in my grip.
Thick pipes, thick reed pipes. Splintered.
Rising, I turn and, walking slowly on grass and dirt, approach behind the pansatyr who, so intent on Yimmer, bent over him, doesn’t notice until I drive one of the splintered, jagged pieces of reed pipe into the back of his neck. I slam it in so hard that its tip bursts from the other side. He rises with a hideous gurgle, turns, swinging, the tips of his long fingernails slicing into my bare chest, clipping me and sending me stumbling backward. He follows after me, tottering forward a step or two. A moment more and the pipetip disappears. There’s a sick squelching noise, and then the pansatyr topples, collapses into a heap on the ground.
For our parts, Yimmer, clutching the jagged piece of reed, stares across at me as I stare back at him. The moment comes, lingers, and then is gone. Tension seeps away from us in a tide.
There are many questions I have– why he would pretend to be a soldier, what drives him to be a man, where we will go– but for once I stifle my curiosity. I’m too weak to move, so it is Yimmer who walks to me and sinks into my arms.
Cold, shaking, but overwhelmed with relief, we hold tight to one another.
As the sun shines down and slowly begins to warm us, I finally understand what it is that drew him to protect me.
“I love you,” I whisper into his ear.
His smile warms me more than the sun ever could.
Okay, so I’m a dirty liar. I AM working hard– believe you me, in the last few months I’ve been working harder and writing much more than ever I have before. The caveat of course, is that it takes much longer than I thought to write a short story- I CAN do them in a day, but that would be easiest when I have nothing BUT short stories to write. And hardest, because then I get distracted. I may not be playing competitive games, but there are plenty of other things to distract you when you’re intent on fulfilling a resolution! Well, here it is- after all that work. I have actually done two in the time it usually takes me to make one, but I can’t post the other one, alas.
Anyway. Hope you enjoyed. If it drags on too long this next time I’ll do poetry or something to tide you guys over. (and because I haven’t poeted in a long while)