Reynard wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. Even in the cool air of early autumn, bringing down these trees was no easy feat and made for a long day’s work. These old hardwood trees took forever to fall, but the wood they provided would burn long into a cold winter’s night. It was good honest work but far removed from his village, deep in the dark forested lowlands of the Tessian River.
The old oaks and elms loomed over him, their still dense foliage warding off sunlight, enveloping him with shadows. The stand surrounded them, muffling the sounds of his exertion and the presence of the other two work party members. It made him feel alone when he stopped and looked at the tall sentinels surrounding him. Their faceless existence tolerated his company, not that they had a choice.
“Break time!” came a shout echoing amongst the trees. Reynard turned to see the leader of his group, Pytr Nilson, snake his tall, lanky form from between a pair of large trees.
Pytr brushed back his long sweat-matted gray-streaked black hair and gestured to Reynard. “You got any water left?”
Reynard tapped the water skin at his feet with a boot. “Yes, plenty.” He let the ax slip to the ground and grabbed it. With a grunt, he hurled the water skin toward Pytr, who snatched it out of the air.
The man yanked the stopper, tipped the skin, and guzzled water as it splashed and dripped down his matted beard and over his heavy cotton shirt. “Ah!” he sighed, wiping his lips with his forearm. “Have you seen the boy?”
Reynard shrugged, “Not since we arrived this morning.”
“He’s probably sleeping somewhere. Better call him in.”
Cupping his mouth, Reynard turned and bellowed into the forest, “SORKIN!” After the muffled echoes, silence greeted him. Drat, that boy, where was he?
After several more shouts and a few minutes, a beardless young man appeared, his heavy linen tunic stained with sweat, an ax resting on his shoulder.
“Where have you been?”
Sorkin blinked a few times before glancing at the dull, stained ax blade on his shoulder. “Cutting wood, apparently.”
Pytr laughed. “Well, what else would you be doing? Or maybe you were daydreaming about Gretta.” He nudged Reynard.
Gretta Lenzil, clearly the prettiest girl in the village, had all the hearts of the young men and perhaps some of the lusty hearts of the older ones.
“Oh, not Gretta, I’ll bet,” Reynard chimed in. “Perhaps the widow Danby then,” he said with a smile.
Pytr roared. Danby looked like the wrong end of a horse and smelled like one too.
Sorkin blinked and looked between the two men. Pytr clapped the younger man on the shoulder, nearly causing him to stumble.
“Relax, boy, we were just kidding.”
With a poisonous glance, Sorkin glared at Pytr.
Reynard grabbed his satchel and looked inside. “You hungry, boy?”
Sorkin looked at him. “Oh, yes, I guess I am.”
“Here!” Reynard whipped his arm toward Sorkin, who awkwardly dropped the ax and caught a small sack.
Reynard pulled out a hunk of bread and cheese from his satchel and sat heavily on a nearby stump. He looked up to see Sorkin staring into the sack. “Is there a problem?”
Sorkin looked up at him. “No.” He dug out some cheese, eyed it carefully, and sniffed it.
Reynard ripped off a chunk of bread and nipped off some cheese to go with it. Danby might look like a horse, but she baked like an angel. He looked up to see Sorkin chewing some cheese with his eyes closed.
“This is fantastic,” he said as crumbs dribbled down his chin. He stuffed most of the cheese into his mouth.
“Whoa, take it easy,” Pytr said. “You’ll choke on it if you aren’t careful.”
Sorkin looked at him but chewed rapidly and swallowed, though not without some obvious discomfort. “You got anything to drink?”
Pytr proffered the waterskin. Sorkin took it and swallowed several large gulps.
Reynard tasted bile in his throat and put his food back in the satchel. His stomach was hungry but unsettled. He didn’t know why, but these woods gave him the creeps. He looked up at Pytr.
“You suppose we’re the first ones in here?”
“No,” Sorkin said with a pinch of bread between his thumb and forefinger. He gave it a sniff and popped it into his mouth.
“How would you know?” Pytr shot back.
Sorkin’s eyes flicked in his direction. “Ah, well, that’s my guess anyway.”
Pytr rolled his eyes. “These woods are virgin stands, good solid and thick,” he said, slapping a nearby tree trunk. “No one has been in here. Not for a long time anyway.”
Reynard looked at the trees grimly. “No matter, I don’t like the feel of this stand. They feel almost alive. Nothing like the trees near the village.”
“You sound like an old woman,” Pytr scolded.
Reynard growled back, “I do not take rumors lightly. Some say these woods are haunted by evil spirits that devour the minds of those they enter and who never see their homes again.”
Pytr blew out a loud breath, “Nonsense. Nothing lives in here except squirrels and snakes.”
“That’s not what I heard,” Sorkin said, his eyes flicking between the two men.
“Oh, this should be entertaining,” Pytr laughed. “How about you tell us about it? I could stand to hear a good story.”
Sorkin blinked. “All right. I will then.” He sat down on a stump and cleared his throat.
“What do you know of the Shadowless?”
Pytr waved the question away. “Yes, I’ve heard of them. My mother used to tell us stories about them, so we wouldn’t play in the forest after dark. So, you’re going to tell us a ghost story?”
Reynar rubbed his chin. He, too, had heard the stories. But unlike Pytr, he still harbored a fear of the formless creatures who devoured the souls of those they possess, but there was no way he’d let either man know that. “Oh, let him tell the story.”
“In the beginning, not even the Shadowless knew they were different than the wild creatures they lived among. But they soon realized they could leap into the bodies of creatures around them and maintain that existence until the forms they occupied no longer suited them. Then they would move on to other animals, accumulating skills and experience and achieving self-awareness. In the old forests of the piedmont, they lived a lean and meager existence during bitter, long winters and short temperate summers. Rains fell each spring, bringing forth new life and opportunities to grow. And grow they did, from a select few, into hundreds of creatures, spreading beyond the ancient uplands into the more fertile and temperate forests and primeval swamps.
Life, such as it was, was good solid, definable, and predictable. But that changed when the newcomers arrived, first in small numbers. Their fitful and pitiful attempts often ending in disaster – whole families finding their way into the soil, only to fertilize it for the next group to arrive. But the newcomers were resilient, relentlessly scratching and clawing an existence out of the earth, chopping down the trees, hunting the animals the Shadowless relied on. The invaders reshaped the land to meet their needs, not the Shadowless. As the cancer of the invaders’ existence grew, the Shadowless watched. Some wanted to fight back, but most did not – so they retreated further up the slopes to the foot-hills from whence they came, into the thinner forests of the uplands.”
Suddenly Pytr shivered. Reynard noticed. “You okay?”
Pytr glared at him briefly. “Yeah, fine.” He looked away. “Just caught a chill.”
“Okay, Sorkin,” Reynard said, looking at the younger man. “Go on.”
“A lean existence became a meager one. They left the elk, deer, and fox for the goat, eagle, and snake. But the invaders followed, picking and hacking their way over precipices and passes, relentlessly taking away places of refuge, closing off paths of escape. In desperation, some dove deep into the caves – scraping out an existence amongst the bats, snakes, and lowly spiders. The rest scattered to even more remote areas.
As sanctuaries disappeared, so did their community. They lost touch with the other clans – and their numbers declined steadily until only a handful were left – a small pitiful remnant of a sizeable and glorious clan. So they decided to risk everything and head back to the lowlands, and the wild forested lands near the river, where some Shadowless were rumored to have taken refuge. They took courage from the fact that the invaders had not penetrated there and hoped that they could survive, perhaps even regain some of the vigor they once had.
For some time, they did find safety until the sounds of axes echoed among the trees, and the destruction began anew. There was no consideration of escape this time, only a desire to strike back.”
Sorkin paused and slowly drank from the waterskin, never taking his eyes off Reynard.
Reynard grinned, “So what happened?”
Pytr visibly tensed, staring him down. “That is up to you.”
Reynard’s curiosity wavered; he was beginning to feel uneasy. “Me? What do you mean?”
Sorkin straightened and picked up his ax. “Do you want to be a messenger or an example?”
A shiver ran down Reynard’s spine as he helplessly scoured the menacing faces of Sorkin and Pytr. He couldn’t fathom their motives but knew he had no choice. He nervously replied, “Your home?”
Sorkin glanced up at the looming trees and spoke softly yet firmly, “This is ours now. Tell your people what happens to those who dare to step here again. Leave us alone, and we will leave you in peace.”
Dread filled Reynard as he stumbled backward, away from these two imposing figures. His thoughts circled from his family’s fear-stricken faces to the repercussions that would soon follow this encounter. They wouldn’t believe him about these men, so more would come in search of them. But it would not be him who led them here. His life meant far more than risking it in the dark places.