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This story © Keenan Cross, 2022
After several days of exploring, Dandec has found several such markers. Across two pages in his largest notebook, he has drawn a map, with his camp at its center, and carefully plotted the locations of trees, ponds, and markers all. He named the markers as he finds them, sketches them, and describes them thoroughly.
Due north of the marker with the plaster-cast bones, there is one made from old, shabby clothes; breeches and shirt stuffed with rocks and dirt and lain side by side, with a stone carving inbetween them that seems to be the rain-eroded form of a lemur. The clothes are old and patched, and of a style Dandec recognizes from the regions just to the south of the forest. Maybe they were bought from a traveler, or abandoned and replaced.
Southeast from the Clothes and Lemur, there is a marker made from glass eyes, such as the peoples of the Northwest Delta use in sculpture, cemented together into a crude stalagmite rising from the forest floor. Inbetween some of the eyes are the bones of birds, embedded in the cement.
Farther east from the Eyes, there is a marker made from the frozen body of a stonefury—somewhat cruel, Dandec thinks—that has been painted in swirling patterns of bright colors, which have cracked as the creature moves at its infinitesimal pace. It is also draped with strings of beads and shells.
Southwest of the Colorful Stonefury is perhaps the strangest marker. A rectangular frame, similar in size and shape to an outhouse or a tool shed, built from arms and legs broken off of statues, hands planted in the ground and feet on top. Twine of varying color is strung around and between the stone limbs, making a random net that entraps a glass sphere, onto which has been drawn the silhouette of a ptericeryne stag.
Dandec does not even know what to name
that one, other than “The Limbs.”
There are some half dozen more he has found, maybe an hour’s walk between. As huge as the forest is, he thinks there must be hundreds of them. Numerous, but scattered so that they can be easily missed.
There must be a language to the markers, Dandec thinks. To their contents, to their shapes, to their placement. He carefully studies his drawings, extrapolates on his observations. Is it significant that many incorporate images of bodies? Or indications of different species, as in the case of the stonefury and the ptericeryne?All of it is vague. He copies his map so that he can plot lines between them and see if any shape emerges. There is no recognizable pattern at present, but he also cannot say for sure that he has found all of the markers in this area to draw from in the first place.
His initial stocks of food are running low. Meat has never done him much good (and the scent on him that frightens horses and lungers repels other animals too), and leaves can only nourish him so much. The trees put out many seeds, but they are small and he has not found a way to hoard them sufficiently, if possible. He will need to make contact with the locals eventually, or else return to the nearest town and hope he is not deterred from coming back.
After thirty days or so, he compromises by moving his camp. He gathers back up his books and papers and pots and bedroll from the shelter beneath the fallen tree [[double check, where did he set up camp?]], and hikes to the farthest east point that he has mapped, and continues from there. When he is sufficiently far that the character of the surrounding forest feels—if unqualifiably—different, he finds a new tree to shelter downwind from, and settles there.
He will stay here a few days, he decides, to see if he fares better. Otherwise he will leave the forest, at least for now.
It is a slightly different assortment of flora here. Dandec is immediately able to supply himself with mushrooms that grow in abundance at the base of some bushes, small ones that he can pick by the handful, heat in a pleasing mixture of local herbs. That cannot possibly serve him indefinitely, though.
He sets to mapping this next region of forest. Now in addition to landmarks, he notes sources of food, such as the bushes that shelter the handful mushrooms. The ground is also less even here. He has to mark ravines and sudden drop-offs as well. Some of which he discovers by spilling down them headfirst.
He loses a pen in one such fall, and realizes that he has taken his other supplies for granted. A return to town seems inevitable.
There are more markers here.
In a sheer rock face, there is a person-sized oval painstakingly carved, about two thumbs deep. Eroded with time, but probably perfectly round when it was carved, its back perfectly flat. It must be another marker, because it is too shallow and too narrow to be of use as a shelter or a seat, and there is no sign that it has ever been an altar. Dandec names it, “the Oval.”
Another is a pillar of fossilwood slabs, such as would be used for money in most of the world, stacked in such a way that they would never stand if they weren’t cemented together, much like the Eyes. The pillar is surrounded by a circle of rocks; surprisingly mundane in comparison. Dandec names it, “the Expensive One.”
There are more, but Dandec begins to worry that he is running too short on supplies to keep mapping day after day. The ghost of desperation to come becomes a desperation in itself.
He looks to the giants.
After so long living among them, Dandec has practically forgotten to be awed. The flabby whispers they put off are familiar enough that he does not notice them above his own thoughts. It was his intent to study them in detail when he had developed a sustainable life here, but perhaps some close observation was called for, to see how they might assist in the sustaining.
The bark is not edible, he discovers quickly. It is intensely salty, and ingesting a small piece makes him ill. A shame, because it is as abundant as air.
He digs to the roots, which must form an impenetrable network farther down. He cannot get far with only his hand shovel, but he is able to find an ofshoot small enough to cut. It has a strong flavor unlike anything Dandec has eaten. It may be usable, but it is better as tea than as food.
On one of his first hungry days in this part of the forest, his eyes trace one of the giants up to its breathing structures. The burl-like lips and flexible tissues are different from the surrounding bark, and certainly softer than the inner wood.
On one tree, one of those is abnormally low. Dandec digs fingers and toes into the bark, knife held between his teeth, and inches his way up. He need only reach perhaps his height and half again. A moth, even stooped Karst Loess, could probably reach the structure from the ground.
The smell as he approaches the tree’s breathing apparatus is sickly sweet, simultaneously like sap and decaying flesh. He will spare time to be amused when he is on solid ground, by the thought that this tree’s breath is bad.
When he finds a situation in which he can safely hold himself up with knees, feet, and one hand, he takes the knife from his mouth. He can just reach the lowest flap of soft flesh: he digs the knife in and begins to saw outward, to isolate a strip he can take as a sample.
It takes Dandec a moment to recognize the sound he hears as a voice. He blinks and retracts his knife, and tries to find an angle from which he can look down. There is someone below him on the ground.
In his twisting around to try and see, he loses his grip entirely and plummets to the forest floor. It is an interminable fall, and though he lands in an inch of soft leaf matter, he is utterly winded. His eyes will not look at the figure who moves to stand over him, and he is awash in pain and embarrassment as he loses consciousness.
Dandec remains prostrate before the pale full-human who startled him off the tree. In part because the full-human shouts angrily, but also because his eyes have not drifted downward from a painful straight-upward angle since he woke, and it is the only one he can see the person in any detail.
He is sure he has found a local of the forest. The full-human is very pale, tow-colored in complexion. He wears something like a tunic with breeches, both open and loose to allow for the humid sea air. His wrists clatter with wooden and metal jewelry, and his dark eyes are lined with charcoal. The language in which he remonstrates the foreign demihuman is not like one Dandec knows.
When he first woke up, the local had brandished the knife with which he had been cutting at the tree, before making sure Dandec saw him throwing it away. He seems to understand the difficulty Dandec has with his eyes, better than most when they first encounter him. Hence he was not impressed when the demihuman prostrated himself.
After his initial tirade is complete, the full-human quiets, and then nudges Dandec to stand. He stands over the intruder, hands where those bulging eyes point, and tries to explain.
He makes a wavy sign, backs it up with both hands side by side, shuddering. Gestures to his linen-wrapped breast, inhales and exhales deeply. Makes a stabbing motion against a hand held out as before, and then an upward, expanding shape. Taps two fingers on his forehead, then over each eye, and points them directly at his throat.
Dandec cannot interpret the last so clearly, but he understood well enough. Those who live in the forest will not abide the no-kind interlocutor to harm the trees. The demihuman nods enthusiastically, mouth in an apologetic frown, and pats the top of his forehead with four fingers, a gesture that throughout the Plains indicates understanding.
Surprisingly, this does seem to satisfy the local to some extent. He rests his hands on his hips and nods, and takes a few slow paces: What am I going to do with you?
In time, Dandec’s eyes resume their habitual wandering. When they do, he has the chance to see that this is the only local around. There is no sign of where he had come from, or how he had watched the demihuman without being seen himself. Dandec cannot believe he had dropped down from the canopy.
“Do you speak another language?” Dandec ventures. He asks it first in Plainstongue, and then in Esor Asel. Two languages that one was guaranteed to hear nearly anywhere in the world, and two of the three Dandec speaks. When the local merely looks at him disdainfully, he almost does not try Hechaki. He is three thousand or more miles from his home, after all. But when the local turns his head in vague interest, Dandec realizes: the forest is not so far from the trade cities that Alu Hechak’s merchants sail to and from in a constant flow.
“Do you know this tongue?” he asks, more than a little desperately. “I have many come very far, I have many questions to ask. I will leave if the forest is sacred, but I must—”
The young full-human hushed him and shook his head. He makes a flapping motion with two fingers, tilting the hand toward and away from one ear: he does not understand. But his look of resignation told Dandec that he feels obligated to bring the stranger to someone who might.
Or, rather, bring someone to Dandec. He gestures wait, and disappears around the trunk of a giant. Close to an hour later he reappears, leading an elderly full-human, perhaps a father or grandfather, respectfully on. Dandec, still on his knees, covers his eyes, in case that was a sign of respect.
“I am told,” the elder says, in a slow, uncertain but deliberate Hechaki. “You are an intruder but an innocent.”
That seems a fair description of Dandec role in the forest.
“I don’t mean any harm,” the demihuman says. “I am only a botanist.”
“That is what we mean when we say ‘an intruder but an innocent,’” the elder says levelly. “Our word is rahrak. It means idiot.”
The insult is like being slapped in the face, but Dandec accepts it. Though he knows forests and he knows people, he is not, after all, knowledgeable about this forest or its people. He is also sore, and very hungry.
Dandec considers what he will ask. In the last fifteen years, Hechaki has been the language of Dandec’s thoughts, of the words he says to himself and himself alone. He does not know if the language has warped in his private use, if it is still familiar to those who speak it with others. He feels like a child. Like a rahrak.
“This place sustains you,” he says, clumsily. “May it sustain me?”
The old full-human turns to watch him sidelong. His head is balding, beard thinning. In old age his tow-colored skin has become sandy. His eyes are traced with charcoal as well.
“This place is not a place for crooked-heads,” he says, sourly.
“Can a crooked head be straightened?”
Nevertheless, the elder does not abandon or oust Dandec outright. He says something to the younger, who takes a fallen stick and carves a pair of circles into the leaves. Dandec understands and seats himself within one.
“If you give us something that eases, but does not cheapen our life,” the elder says, from the other circle. “We will call you pranhey, one of worthy goods, and then there are things for which you may be forgiven.”
Dandec nods. He asks for the pack he set aside to climb the tree and from it produces one of his notebooks.
“I have made maps of several miles of forest,” he explains, showing the pages on which he drew them. “They are detailed and useful, and use methods I learned from experts in Esor.”
The elder leans forward and swats the notebook out of Dandec’s hands.
“To remake a place as an image is to smash it flat with a hammer,” he spits. “Crooked-heads never understand this.”
Dandec stares at his notebook, open and face down on the leaves and detritus, like a dead animal.
“I can tell you the way things grow,” he says, more softly. “I am a master in this.”
“Mastery at your age,” the elder scoffs, but quiets himself. Not because he believes Dandec, but because he knows he is a demihuman, and could have lived four normal lifetimes and looked so young. “We know how to grow what grows here, and what does not grow here has no place here.”
Dandec’s shoulders sink.
Do you know how to cook it?” he asks, dimly.
The elder stands over him. He does not answer for some time.
“You are welcome to see if you know any methods we do not.”