I hope you enjoyed seeing as much of the Demihuman World as this story covers. It definitely experienced some scope creep over its writing, but not so much that it drowned out the story, I don’t think. Please let me know if you enjoyed it, if it made sense, and what themes you detected!

See the introduction for more information.

This story © Keenan Cross, 2022

[present, 10afm, 26yo]

Dandec gently shakes a basin of seeds soaking in water caught through the canopy, to make sure none settle and protect the others from moisture.  In a few hours he will roll over them with a smooth-cut branch to break their hulls and free the kernels, which he will grind to make a paste.  Two children, one crowfolk and one full-human, watch in bemused curiosity.  They know only that the crooked-head was invited in by an elder, which has never happened in their lives—but they have also liked the things he has cooked so far.  Dandec is not an expert; the demiherd under whom he had been junior would balk at the state of some of the dishes he makes that they had prepared together.  But he has not studied these many years without learning how to use the properties of his subjects practically.

The locals of the forest live not in the branches or in huts at the feet of the trees, as he had expected, but within the trees themselves.  The elder’s home in which Dandec cooks is carved straight into the trunk of an ancient tree, its entrance hidden by illusory arts he does not expect to ever learn of.  It is rounded, crescent-shaped to disrupt as little of the heartwood as possible, polished to a shine to prevent the wood from healing.  A ladder leads to another dwelling above it, and from there another above that.  Outside there are entrances to a warren of tunnels, hidden below the leaves on the ground, where there are yet more homes.  Apparently this is one of many, possibly dozens of such villages across the wide forest.  Any real number, or the locations of any others, Dandec also does not expect to learn.

He lets the children sample a sweet loaf he has baked, flavored with the aromatic needles of a local bush.  They are pleased, and run across the elder’s home to eat in private, but still watch the stranger.

The elder is still Dandec’s sole contact, and it is as strange to speak Hechaki daily as it is to be here inside the tree at all.  The old full-human is grudgingly pleased with his pranhey, and after a few satisfying meals, officially forgives him the knife wound he gave the tree.

There is a new year ceremony among the locals when the breeze ceases, which happens once per year and lasts for four days.  The elder informs Dandec that, while he should not be welcomed there, he will be allowed because the children like him.  The crooked-head will produce the feast, so long as he does it himself with no aid, because the straight-heads will be mourning in the doldrums.

He spends the first two windless days foraging, referring to his maps to find the dozens of ingredients he plans to use.  The forest is so silent that he is tempted to think he never encountered his hosts at all, but only imagined the several days he has spent with them.  On the third day he cooks over several fires he builds among the leaves.  A preposterous amount of food for him to surround himself with: quiches and stews, succotashes of beans and seeds, savory uncooked rolls stuffed with herbal spices.  He has some meat from the village’s stores but he can only guess what to do with it.

He has to stand guard through the night to prevent it all being stolen by marauding animals while he is not allowed into the trees.  In the morning the locals emerge from the invisible entrances to their trees, dozens of them, in lacy robes and tunics and clattering jewelry.

The Mother of Wind has expelled her breath, Dandec has been told.  She needs four days to gather it back up and blow for the next year.  Those who know her and the rest of the true pantheon must pray for her health, first in isolation and then in a wild, ecstatic dance at dawn.

Dandec sees none of it, because his eyes will not show him.  They avoid the dance as though they wish not to see it, and their owner grows tired of trying.  He rests against a tree to watch, along with the young children and the very old.  The latter of whom eye him darkly, while the former eye the feast.

There is singing and speaking, the beating of drums and plucking of strings.  Dandec is horrified when the priests divide his feast and bury one half beneath the leaves, but he says nothing.  When the wind returns near midday, the dancers raise their hands to it—the ptericeryne among them their wings—and the new year has begun.

They all sit on their knees, Dandec now among them, while the children carry each dish among them to take what they want.  By now few distrust the crooked-head’s cooking.  They thank him, many in broken Hechaki, for providing their new year’s feast.

In the evening, the elder takes Dandec aside.

“You will not live among us,” he says seriously.

Dandec nods.  He does not wish to.

“But you have brought us something that does not cheapen our lives.  We will permit you to remain in the forest.  And we will permit curiosity.”

Dandec nodded again.  He had his maps, and his notes.  He was content to keep a distance from the trees that housed villages.  So long as he could build or find himself a permanent shelter, and, on occasion, he could take a letter outside the forest to send away.  He was only curious about one thing.

“I have tried to understand your markers,” he says, bringing out the book in which he has drawn them.  His eyes are are pointed outward, but he is able to point to the pages.  “The ones among the trees.”

“Understand them.”

“I am confused about their language.  I think, perhaps, that the presence of an arm indicates trees with lower branches; a rectangular shape indicates a ledge nearby; a sign of an animal may mean it points to a village…”

For the first time, Dandec hears the elder laugh.  The demihuman is dismayed at first, before realizing that the laughter is not derisive but genuinely amused.

“There is no language to them,” the old full-human chuckles.  “They are strange, so that if you must walk the woods, you will remember them.”

Dandec shuts his book and retracts it sheepishly.  In that case, remember them he will.


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