Dandec stepped lightly once he was among the trees. Really among them. The giants, the deciduous monsters that could be seen peering over the horizon like mountaintops from many miles away. For all his knowledge, it was a challenge for the arboreal philosopher to resist the sense that the house-wide trunks would lurch from their roots to gravitate towards and crush him if he disturbed them. As if these weren’t as peaceful as a living thing could be. Dandec hefted his rucksack and moved through, one eye up to watch the inconceivable pillars pass slowly with the midday sun tangled in their crown-shy canopy, the other down to watch the deceptively treacherous earth.
It had been a long journey to visit the northeast forest. All told, from Dandec’s original home in the lower propeller towers of Alu Hechak – to the Esori satellite university town that had taken demihumans for students without selling them as slaves in the wider territory – to the woodland village in the Moth Cup where he had written most of his botanical treatises – and the other places he had settled to work – he thought he had come ten thousand miles. And walked it all: whatever pheromone he gave off that frightened horses and lungers, and the visceral distress the sound of a magicomechanical engine such as that of an autocarriage triggered in him, walking had been necessary. But this had always been the destination.
He moved along through the sparse underbrush that rarely came above knee-high. The forest was a hundred miles across in every direction, and he meant to bury himself deep in it before he stopped. The air was cool and thick with salty precipitation, the earth was firm with millennia of tight-packed mulch. Dandec knew the signs of a pitlion’s trap, a horned bull beetle’s hunting ground, the red berries of the gasping-cloud-choker shrub, the other outsize insects and toxic plants that made the northwest forest their home, but he still stumbled sometimes when a pocket of slowly dispersing air made a patch of dirt too loose to walk on. (He didn’t believe that the trees screamed from their roots in horror at their age and immobility, as centuries of myth told, but he still planned to inspect those loose patches carefully. He suspected more of an arboreal belch. Not everything was so poetic.)
After another four or five miles of careful treading, he reached a marker. In a world of deep brown and bright green, a pillar of pink-dyed animal bones cemented together reached up from the ground about even with his not-inconsiderable height. Atop it was hung a gourd painted with an endearingly baffled face. It made Dandec smile. Of course he couldn’t understand any symbolism it may have contained, if the color pink implied safety or danger, if the choice of gourd indicated whether there was a village nearby (he rather hoped there wasn’t), but he noted and described the marker on his map.
There was another a few more miles in. This one was made of a pile of crushed giant beetle shells forming a circular mat, on which two clumsily disproportionate figures made of stuffed foreign clothing were posed as though enthusiastically dancing. Their heads were sacks of bug-chewed burlap that swung in the cool eastward wind in a way that seemed to shape them into snouted faces. Dandec noted this one too.
He rested in sight of a third marker, a crude statue of a crowfolk peddler carrying a triangular pack, whose wares seemed all to be useless broken tools, and whose head was adorned with the husk of a dried jellyfish. Not right under it; even if there were no need to worry about bandits or travelers who did not like to see a demihuman out unattended, his eyes did not obey him in his sleep, and he did not like to wake with the shadow of a humanoid figure above him. He had to force himself to stop. His legs and feet and trunk may be impervious to exhaustion and road-wear anymore, but he could not walk all night without sleep. He lay out a blanket from his rucksack, ate one of the dense and spicy biscuits he had bartered for in the last town before the woods, and slept to the infinitesimal shuddering of leaves and creaking of wood.
There was someone there when he woke. A young man, probably full-human, dressed in a simple waist-wrap and moccasins and hung with a variety of reflective necklaces, carrying a basket in either hand. His skin was the pale greenish-gray of the humans local to this region. He was tending to the marker when Dandec rose and noticed him.
The philosopher had not wanted to encounter anyone. Maybe not for days, or for a whole season. Maybe not ever, aside from the minimum to publish anything he discovered here. But there was no avoiding being spotted once he had gotten up to his knees.
The forester looked at him silently for several seconds, then returned to brushing salt off the plaster crow. Dandec hesitated a long while before speaking. He tried a greeting in the local language, which he did not himself speak very well, and got no response. In Plainstongue, because it was spoken everywhere; also nothing. And in his native Hechaki, in case traders from across the ocean sometimes came this far in from the ports in the east.
“Hello,” the youth said back impatiently. “You’ve seen the marker, you can go now.”
Dandec’s eyes went back to the image of the unwise peddler. His left one went rogue and looked off to the mists gathering in the west.
“I just want to ask about it,” he said.
“Your eyes are big,” the youth observed. “And like a snake’s. You’re demi.”
“I am,” Dandec did not lie, but also did not point out the many other inhuman features that marked him.
“We don’t have those here.”
Dandec set his teeth. Demihumans were born everywhere, but many places did not admit it, and had ways of turning their denial into truth. So this local’s home was not the one he would be bringing his treatises to, or coming to for paper.
“You just want to ask about the marker,” the youth said. “Most people who come through just want to see our markers. They are famous, yes?”
“I’ve heard of them.”
“You’ve not come to laugh at them and call us quaint and odd.”
“I’ve come to study the trees. How they grow, what’s inside them. And write about them. Should I know anything about this marker? Does a crowfolk beak always point to danger, or do their wares mean anything?”
An irritable glance back to him.
“It’s a crow, carrying bad tools,” he said as though it were the most foolish possible question. “because you will remember a plaster crow carrying bad tools. Your tracks come from the south: I suspect you passed the foreign bag-head dancers, and the confused bone pillar.”
Dandec felt a little cowed. He rolled his blanket back up to pack it away.
“If you follow the path from here to the wooden moth woman holding a berry pie and keep going,” the young man continued. “You’ll find my village.”
Dandec nodded, and made sure not to follow any wooden moth woman with a pie. As he nodded and headed north again, the local opened one of his watertight baskets, produced from it a fresh dead jellyfish, and replaced the one on the crow peddler’s head.