Write With Me

     Ash and regret filled her mouth, erasing the sweetness left behind by the berries she found buried beneath the thorny brambles.  With eyes welled with tears that weren’t entirely because of the acrid smoke billowing around her, a lone figure stood in the middle of the bedlam. Beneath a shaggy mane of unkempt hair, she glared through the flames at the mass of people cowering just beyond the wall of flames.  She’d make them pay.  She’d make them all pay for what they did to her.

     A sinisterly bright beam of sunshine ripped Twlyn from her slumber.  Throwing an arm over her face, she groaned and turned away for a few more precious moments of sleep.  But with the coming of the sun, so did her responsibilities.  Chickens demand their release and morning meal.  Molly, the old nanny goat, bleated from its pitiful shed, as did Thorn the donkey.

     Cursing, she threw back her threadbare and heavily patched blanket.  She paid no attention to the bitter bit of the cold flagstone floors and shuffled over the open air hearth.  Beneath the protective layer of ash, a small nest of coals awaited her.  In three heart beats, Twlyn rekindled yesterday’s fire, feeding larger bits of wood to the hungry flames.  Sitting back on her heels, she watched the flames for a moment longer, her eyes vacant.  The insistent demands of her animals drew her back.  Rising to her feet, she pulled a rough-spun tunic over her head before sliding into her well-worn boots.

     Her home wasn’t much, just a single room hut, much like many of the homes in the village.  But it was one of the furthest from the village center, only a short walk away from Damarisk Forest.  Unlike the others down in the village, Twlyn wasn’t afraid of the strange and magical creatures that made the forest their home.  She knew that as long as you didn’t bother them, most of the creatures would leave you alone.  And if they didn’t…she had her aether to protect her.

Aether, the magical connection to a singular elemental force of nature.  Not every human could channel or control the aether and those who could would never know a moment’s peace.

     The chickens erupted from their house in a flurry of noise and feathers.  As soon as their feet touched the sandy soil, they went to work searching for bugs and seeds.  Twlyn threw a scattering of feed before grabbing the beaten tin bucket meant for Molly’s milk.  She wouldn’t be able to drink the day’s milk, not if she wanted to avoid the important persons visiting today.  

      Twlyn grimaced as she tugged on Molly’s teats, creamy streams of milk streaming into the bucket.  Perhaps she could drop it off at the paupers that lived along the hedge that separated the village from the forest.  Not that it offered any sort of protection, except as a visual warning for mortals to stay away from the monster’s territory.  After tending to Molly and Thron’s needs, Twlyn left out food and water, releasing them to the small communal pasture near her home.  She wouldn’t be back until nightfall, perhaps even the following day.  It all depended on how long the members of the Order lingered in the village.

     She went back inside, setting a small clay pot on the flames before filling it with water she collected the day before and two handfuls of oats.  Twlyn frowned at the nearly bare bottom of her grain ark.  If she didn’t do something soon, she’d be out of food.  

Early spring was always the hardest time for the villagers.  Most of their stores were completely empty or near bare like hers.  At least she didn’t have a horde of children to feed. Or a husband that spent his days laboring in the fields during the day and at the bottom of the pint at night.  Of course, that was one of the many reasons the villagers looked upon her with suspicion.  No woman lived alone, and she’d only lived among them for five years, choosing to stay after spending a decade on the road as part of a merchant caravan.

     It wasn’t only her unorthodox background that raised the villager’s suspicion; it was her appearance as well.  Twlyn stood as tall as most of the men in the village.  Her body was stocky and muscular with wide shoulders and the barest hint of a waist.   The pallor of her skin was several shades darker than the villagers, more muddy than red, like the farmers who’d spent their entire lives toiling beneath the sun.  Her hair was unruly and thick, the same shade of acorn brown as her eyes.  All a gift from her father, who had bedded her mother before disappearing into the sea.

     Not that she cared one way or the other.  Her mother always spoke kindly of Twlyn’s father, lamenting that she never made it to the port that day.  Her mother had tried, but Twlyn’s grandfather and uncle had been stronger.

     All the same, her mother left home, pregnant and unwed.  Her life had been hard, but she worked harder to make sure that Twlyn had at least some pleasant memories.  And to protect her from those who would use her like a common tool.

     And that's why Twlyn headed to the Damarisk Forest, risking life and limb instead of risking her freedom.

     At first glance, the Damarisk Forest looked like any other forest, full of ancient trees reaching toward the heaven’s.  But after a few yards, it changed.  Brown trunks gave way to silver.  Shades of green, yellow, and brown shifting to bright pinks, rich mauves, and red as vibrant as freshly spilled blood.

     Twlyn thought the forest was beautiful.  Beneath its canopy, she felt a sense of peace that was completely missing from her life in the mortal lands.  After a while, the trees and underbrush thinned, eventually opening up into a small clearing.

     A massive, gnarled oak took prominence in the clearing as if all the other trees were respectfully keeping their distance from the king of the forest.  Twlyn paused for a moment in respect for the tree that gave her shelter on every Revelation Day, before refilling her water skin from the sparkling creek.  Dark shapes of fish stood out against the rainbow rocks in the river bed.  

     Twlyn stood, eyes closed, and willed the surrounding serenity to ease the lines of tension along her body.  One breath, then two.  Stillness, like an undisturbed lake, filled the planes of her consciousness.  When she opened her eyes again, the surrounding trees seemed to shine brighter, light from inside by some power.  

     It only took her a moment to scramble up the trunk of the oak, its wide branches and thick foliage completely shielding her from unwanted eyes.  Nestled into a crook of a branch, she dug out a heel of bread and settled in for a long day of waiting.

     The patches of sunlight that pierced the canopy were warm and the wind that sang through the leaves was cool.  The stillness inside her spread, dragging her down into a blissful slumber.

     She woke with a start several hours later, her heart racing and senses stretched to their limits. Nothing but the sounds of the forest greeted her ears and yet, something had changed.  Moving carefully to not rustle the leaves, Twlyn slid down a branch.  Crouched low, her hand slid to her waist, going for the knife she always carried.  

     A hush fell over the clearing.  Tensing, Twlyn slid closer to the center of the oak.

     The soft sound of bells filled the silence.  Twlyn steeled her breath and peered into the soft gray shadows beneath the boughs.  Bright, cerulean eyes appeared first, followed shortly by a dusky nose and dove gray fur.  

     Twlyn held her breath as a twilight deer entered the clearing.  A soft smile broke across her face as wide, night black antlers came into view, tiny pinpricks of light erupting as the buck strode through a sunbeam.  Twlyn relaxed against the trunk and watched as her long time woodland friend lightly walked over to the creek.

     The air around the clearing shifted once more, raising the hairs on the back of Twlyn’s neck.  She latched onto the trunk, her nails screaming in pain.  From the other side of the clearing, a white-robed figure materialized as if walking straight out of a sunbeam.  

     A priest of the Aether!

      The priest stilled, spying the twilight buck.  Power shimmered around his palms as he raised them, poised to strike down the creature for the power of his parts.  Twlyn froze, unsure of what to do.  Should she risk her own freedom to save the animal?  Or could she live with the guilt of standing by as an innocent died?