The Will and the Wilds – Charlie N. Holmberg

A chill wind snakes its way through the wildwood, whispering of misfortunes to come. My hands pause against moist soil between oon berry and rabbit’s ear in my mysting garden as I turn to face it, listening. It’s the height of summer in Fendell, but one can never be sure what will emerge from the wildwood, or when. But the stone dangling from the silver bracelet around my wrist is quiet, assuring me the wind is simply wind. Still, I feel the instinct to move, to stretch out my legs, which have cramped from tending my herbs, so I stand and brush my hands across the apron over my skirt. Stepping out the narrow gate, I wind around the house to the open cellar door, which leads to the earthy room where thousands of mushrooms grow. There are always some ready for harvest, while others are just sprouting from their mulch and soil. “Papa?” I call down into the darkness. “I’m finished. We can go.” “Go where?” “To the market. You asked this morning. You’re collecting the mushrooms?” A pause. “Oh. Yes.

Here I come.” A moment later the ladder creaks, and my father emerges from the shadows, a thickly woven basket hanging from the crook of his elbow. Gray, white, and brown mushrooms fill it, matching the speckling of his beard. He’s kept the mushrooms sorted, which will save us time in town. “Come.” I take his hand and brush soil from his knuckles. “Remind me to get some lye.” He won’t, but I know he appreciates the sentiment. The people of Fendell will never know the truth behind my father’s weakened faculties, though it is a grand story, the sort a bard could sing a dozen verses about. Papa was a swordsman for Lord Eris, and when I was but a babe, he was recruited into the king’s army to answer the threat of a mysting army intent on conquering the mortal realm.

A rare threat, as mystings can only withstand our plane temporarily before it begins to consume them, just as the monster realm would consume us. But he heeded the call, and after the threat was quelled, he stole into the monster realm and thieved a charm from a warlord there. Something to protect his daughter against the mystings, as mystings had killed her mother. The stone, dark as old blood, or perhaps wet rust, swings from my bracelet as I lead my father into town. I don’t think the realm of monsters damaged his mind enough for him to get lost on such a simple path, but I won’t chance it. Fendell opens before us. It’s not a place one gradually strolls into, but one that happens suddenly. Follow the dirt path parallel to the wildwood, and homes and shops, wood walls and stone fences burst into being. The path widens to a road lined with linen tents and wooden stalls selling the day’s wares. A large well sits near its center, and above it reaches a two-story tower.

The town watch only rings the tower bell to warn others when mystings are spotted leaving the forest. It hasn’t sounded for nearly six months. Not because mystings aren’t nearby, but because they go unseen. Fortunately, large groups of humans repulse most mystings. It is the lone traveler that need be wary. The crowd is abrupt and busy, and stepping into it is like falling into deep water, with the same currents and garbled sounds. The Lovesses’ booth is one of the closest to us in the market, and perhaps that’s why my father chooses to do business with them. Or maybe he favors them because the Lovess family doesn’t sideeye us as much as the others do, marking us the strange, reclusive pair who live so close to the wildwood, too far from the protection of the town. The man whose mind slips more than it stays, and the girl who knows more about mystings than any person should. I take the basket from my father and approach the long tables beneath a white linen tent to keep off bug and breeze.

The eldest Lovess son manages the rows of fruits and vegetables, and I offer him a smile as I near. He returns the gesture, and it warms me through. Tennith Lovess is of an age with me, twenty, and is as fine a boy as Fendell could produce. Kind in heart and young in face, with arms and shoulders that tell of hard work on his family’s farm. He is fair in his bargaining and treats Papa well. I’d respect him for that alone, even if he weren’t wonderful to look at. “What have you today?” He leans over the table to take my basket. “I’m afraid I haven’t counted them.” “That’s fine.” His fingers dance over the mushrooms, his lips moving silently as he counts the harvest.

“Had someone not a quarter hour ago asking for these. Glad to have them.” He sets the basket down and retrieves a bag of coin. He counts out eight coppers and passes them to me. His warm and calloused fingertips brush my palm, sending tingles across my skin. “Thank you.” He smiles, but I mustn’t linger. My father has crossed the road and is staring intently at a chicken. I take his elbow. “I do need lye.

Thank you, Papa.” “Yes. Don’t forget.” He nods. I walk him down the road. We’re mostly overlooked by the town. I pay no attention to the folk, for I’ve learned, mostly, not to care for the opinion of others, as they have never cared for mine. Though we have lived in Fendell for all the life I can remember, many of the people here are strangers. I know the wildwood better than I know their faces. The fact should sadden me, but it doesn’t.

And yet, when I pass two young men laughing with each other, I grit my teeth against a pang of jealousy. Ever since my grandmother’s passing, there has been little laughter in my home. My father is too nostalgic and forgetful for jokes, and perhaps I am too prudish to make my own. Pulling my attention from the lads, I approach the soap maker and select his least expensive lye. I have lavender in the mysting garden if I want to smell fair, and it helps that many species of mysting find lavender repulsive. I offer my coin. Papa pulls me toward another vendor, gesturing to a goat shank. A cool sensation, like that of melting snow in the first weeks of spring, runs up my arm and dances across my shoulders, causing me to shiver. The silver bracelet around my left wrist feels heavy, and I swing its dark, egg-shaped stone into my palm. It’s cold as deep soil against my skin, leaving me with no doubt.

There is a mysting nearby. Though I’ve cultivated an interest in mystings, planted by my grandmother years ago, I shudder. Monsters are only ever fascinating from afar. I lift my head from the butchered meat my father examines and look around, acutely aware of the sound of my own breathing. We are in the heart of Fendell, surrounded by townspeople and their homes. It’s unlikely a mysting will show itself in such a crowd, but the suddenness of the chill concerns me. As though the creature entered the plane nearby, and didn’t merely wander within reach of the charm’s senses. How close is this one? I massage the stone, coaxing its answer. My father notices my stillness right away. “Where?” he asks.

“What?” The only faces I see are human, a few of them peering back at me with confusion, or maybe disdain for the odd girl and her senseless father. They are easy to forgive. They do not have a Telling Stone. They do not know what I know. I shake my head in response to my father’s question. I’m unsure. My father quits his purchase and, with his hand on my back, leads me away from the market. “Let’s head home,” he murmurs. A breeze picks up bits of his dark-blond hair and tosses them across his eyelashes. A few strands stick.

Some of my own darker locks brush against the stubble of his jaw. With my pinky finger I pull them free, letting the hair fall back against my chin. I slide away from him just enough to grasp his calloused hand—a hand that once knew the weight of a king’s sword, but no more, thanks to me. “Papa, home is this way.” I tug him south. He pauses—“Yes. It is.”—and follows me. All the while my free hand stiffens with cold. The Telling Stone pulses against my skin like a second heartbeat.

I keep it pressed to my hip, concealing it, for such a powerful charm would sell at a grand price, and there are those who wouldn’t think twice about stealing it for their own gain. We skirt a wagon, two men on horseback, and a young girl selling wreaths of oon berry to keep away evil. I think to warn them of the mysting nearby, but I’ve done so before to ill effect. The townsfolk murmur about me, I know, even more so because my warnings have always come to naught. Never has a mysting outright attacked Fendell. The thieves who creep about in the night are usually human, and although a dead traveler is occasionally found in the road, most would sigh and say it is the consequence of venturing so close to the wildwood after dark. The road whittles back down to a footpath, and then to a trail of trodden weeds. The knuckles of my left hand ache, but now that we’re away from the crowd, I sense the mysting clearly. “Deep in the wildwood,” I whisper, though I do not think anyone else is close enough to overhear me. Closing my eyes, I turn my thoughts from the rhythm of my father’s steps to the cadence of the Telling Stone’s pulse.

I grit my teeth as another shudder courses through my body, then open my eyes. “A gobler.” “Gobler?” Papa repeats. “Here?” I nod and release the stone, though warmth is slow to return to my hand—the silver chain of the bracelet conducts the stone’s chill across my wrist. Goblers do not frequent our part of the country. They are not suited for the wildwood, preferring colder lands with plenty of water. But I know it is a gobler the stone has sensed, and never in my years of wearing it has it led me astray. More likely than not, this creature will vanish into the wood like so many before it, never crossing my path. But the day a person becomes complacent with mystings is the day her safety is forfeit. I quicken my feet, seeking the refuge of our home, which is not clustered in safety with the rest of the town.

Ours is a robust house, built by my father during a time of peace in Amaranda. It’s constructed of the sturdiest trees from the wildwood and is a little larger than most of the residences in town. At the time of its construction, my father made good coin and possessed all his faculties. To understand my father’s sacrifice, why he risked so much for a simple stone, one need only look to the horror in which I came into this world. My mother, Elefie Rydar, was a beautiful woman, or so I am told. I have her eyes and hair, though I’ve heard she was much taller, with a strong jaw, while I inherited the heart-shaped face of my paternal grandmother. She was a silversmith’s daughter, and my father a swordsman for Lord Eris. They fell in love quickly and wed, and my father purchased this land on the border of Fendell, green and fertile as all earth is near the wildwood. My mother loved the forest. It is easy to love, even with the whispers of mystings weaving through the trees.

For one with knowledge, a mysting is no more harmful than a snake or a bear; if you take precautions and avoid them, you can live in relative peace. But even the cautious can fall to the sting of venom or stumble upon a mother and her cub. Thus was the story of my mother. They were grinlers. They lack speech and common understanding, but their deficiencies in intelligence are made up for in ferocity. Small, feral creatures, they reach between knee and hip height, with wild, matted manes that encompass their entire bodies. Their thin limbs end in humanlike hands that sport long, terrible claws, and their rounded snouts bear short tusks, or possibly thick fangs. They travel in packs like wolves, but any similarity ends there. I would prefer wolves to grinlers. Wolves are more merciful.

My paternal grandmother lived only a few miles away until she died some seven years ago, and my mother went to visit her, cutting through the wildwood. I don’t know why the grinlers came so close to the forest’s edge. They’re drawn to the smell of blood, so perhaps my mother had injured herself. It was not her monthly time, for she was eight months pregnant. But the grinlers found her, and despite wielding the silver knife my father had gifted her, they overtook her. My father must have known in his gut, or perhaps they had traveled together and gotten separated—he’s never been able to clarify, due either to grief or to the missing parts of his mind. He fought the beasts off, but was too late to rescue my partially eaten mother. You see, grinlers do not wait for their prey to die before feasting. Her life was gone, but her belly moved, and so by the bloodied hands of my father did I emerge into life, barely large enough to survive on my own. I have never sought details of that part of the story.

My imagination is enough. So are the imaginations of the townsfolk, for they have numerous versions of this tale, all of which end in my father’s mind breaking in sorrow. He was sorrowful. He still is. But that is not what broke him. When the king heard rumors of a mysting army, my father was recruited to his side. The war was brief, a short sequence of battles in which my father fought valiantly, or so his medals testify. He heard of the Telling Stone—from whom, I am not sure—and dared to venture into the monster realm to retrieve it. I imagine his grief emboldened him, as did his fear for me, for he succeeded in stealing the stone that now hangs from my wrist. For that, I name him a hero.

For me, he gave up much. Too much. Mankind cannot linger in the monster realm, just as mystings cannot abide here long. Our worlds are too different, and they reject those who don’t belong. My father stayed too many hours in the monster realm, and in exchange, it claimed the sharper bits of his mind. And so he retired here with the Telling Stone, learned to grow mushrooms, and the rest of our lives have been uneventful. I consider this as we step over the curls of oon berry that surround our log home like a fence, though the plants grow only a foot high. Mystings cannot cross oon berry without great suffering. All the mystings I know of, at least, and I know of many. Yet worry over the gobler rankles me as I help my father get comfortable in a chair by the hearth.

They are predators, as nearly all mystings are, and would not traipse the wildwood without a sure purpose to be there. I pinch the icy Telling Stone in my fingers, not liking how close the mysting is. But it seems to be wandering, so perhaps it is simply lost. I set the mostly empty basket in the kitchen and walk down the hall to my room. It is simply furnished, with a narrow bed, an old bookshelf, a nightstand, and the rocking chair my mother would have nursed me in. On the shelf is a small collection of books, one of which is written in my grandmother’s hand. Her mysting journal, in which she recorded all her knowledge and theories about the nether creatures that lurk in the wildwood. Another, larger volume is written in my own script—a tome in which I transcribed all my grandmother’s notes and sketches, sandwiched between my own. Theories I’ve learned from townsfolk, passing travelers, ramblings, or my father’s half-forgotten stories. Some of the notes are pure speculation garnered from studying footprints or the like in the wildwood.

Once, and only once, I used the Telling Stone to track down a rooter for my research, and thus I have an accurate sketch. I’ve never tried the tactic to spy on any other species. I value my life too much. I’ve attempted to share this knowledge, just as I’ve shared the warnings of the Telling Stone, but it’s earned me nothing but strange looks in town. Needless to say, I’ve learned to keep my findings private. I would desperately love to leave Fendell, to attend the king’s college, or even a lesser school, where I could earn credibility as a writer or a researcher. Where I could establish a background that would demand others listen to my theories or, better yet, allow me to publish them. Yet my education as a girl was not prestigious, and there aren’t enough mushrooms in Amaranda to afford the cost. Those impediments aside, I am a woman, and most advanced schools would never look at me twice, even if I were privately educated and rich. Fear of leaving Papa on his own pins me here as well, for it would take effort greater than I possess to convince him to leave this house.

To leave my mother’s grave site. Pushing the thoughts from my mind, I look through my half-filled book for the page on goblers and study the lightly sketched picture of one, the charcoal lines half-worn from rubbing against its sister page. Chubby things, with too much flesh gathered beneath their wide, rounded heads. I’ve never seen one with my own eyes, and I don’t care to change that fact. I read my grandmother’s notes. Though they’re in my hand, they flow through my mind in her voice. Goblers are vengeful monsters who mark their prey with a simple touch. If one fails to destroy it, the mark guarantees others will hunt it down. They dislike pokeweed, tusk nettle, and red salt; all of the listed will help to nullify a gobler mark. Shuddering, I press my fingertip to the list.

Pokeweed is a desert plant, but tusk nettle grows in my garden, and there are several stones of red salt in the cellar. I set the book back on the shelf, stoke the fire in the hearth, and set a kettle over the flames to ready some tea for my father. “Where are you going?” he asks when I pull on my gardening gloves. My left hand is stiff with the Telling Stone’s bite, but I dare not take off the bracelet. “To harvest some tusk nettle. To secure the house. I opened the window so you’ll hear me.” He grabs the armrests of his chair, as though ready to stand, but lets out a great sigh and relaxes back. “Quickly, Enna.” Promising swiftness with a nod, I step outside, scanning the wildwood as is my habit.

Its secrets are cocooned beneath sun-warmed trees and the flitting shadows of flapping bird wings. Were I better able to defend myself, or perhaps had I academic funding for a team of armed men, I could walk deep into that forest and study its darkest workings. How beneficial would it be to mankind to know how to turn back a fevered pack of grinlers? To close a portal made from within the realm of monsters? Or, even, to communicate with mystings forbidden the gift of speech? I glance back to the house, to the open window. To my father. Perhaps I’ll take those risks someday. But not today. Today, I guard against a gobler. My mysting garden is small—a grave-sized plot I dug into the earth outside the kitchen when I was thirteen and had newly inherited Grandmother’s journal. Half of the plants within its fenced perimeter were harvested from the wildwood; the rest I gathered as bulb or seed from local farmers and the town apothecary. Oon berry and lavender are plentiful in these parts; the blue thistle cost me dearly.

I step through the gate and lift my skirt—dark gray and perhaps a little uncomely, but the desire to draw attention has never been mine, and simple lines are the easiest to sew. I seek out the cluster of tusk nettle and kneel in the soil beside it. Tusk nettle is a weed and would overcome the entire garden if left untended, so I’m glad for the excuse to cut back its broad, spindly leaves. I gather a basketful, pull a few weeds springing up by the topis root, and make my way to the cellar. Our cellar is large, expanded by my now-deceased paternal grandfather after Papa gave up his sword. Great shelves fill the majority of it, reaching from floor to ceiling, sporting bits of dead log, moss, lichen, and composted soil. We grow four varieties of mushroom. The fungi button up from the beds, catching the light as I descend the ladder. The narrow space not occupied by mushrooms holds our food stores, meager preparations for next winter, dried herbs, vegetables pickled and pickling. A shelf at the end contains a collection of wood and stones, many taken from my grandmother’s home.

Among them is a large chunk of red salt, which looks like rough, pink crystal. It weighs down my arm and crushes the tusk nettle in my basket. I’m a little out of breath when I ascend the ladder. When tusk nettle leaves and salt fill the windows and line the doorways of the house, I walk the perimeter of our property to be sure the oon berry guard has not been split, then weave together a few stems where the shrubs are thinning. Returning inside, I warm my left hand by the fire and make my father’s tea. “No worries now,” I say, though the Telling Stone persists in its chill. I eye the sheathed sword atop the mantel—its worn hilt, the depiction of a great stag in the center of the scabbard. Straightening, I brush dust from its length with my fingers. “I’ll make us some stew,” I offer, and wipe my fingers on my dress. I prepare lunch, sweep the kitchen, and tend to the daily chores.

All the while, the Telling Stone hangs cold from my wrist. As the sun makes its descent, I lock the windows and doors, then hide away by the laundry and clutch the stone between both palms. I don’t know the language of sorcery—it is very old and no longer regarded with the esteem it once was—but somehow the stone speaks to me, filling my thoughts with its shadowy knowledge. A gobler, and it’s close. Closer than before. But we will be safe. I’ve taken all the precautions, and mystings don’t like trouble. It’s easier to prey upon an unsuspecting stranger than a fortified house, and we are not so very far from town. There’s no reason my father and I should be on this creature’s agenda. Still, I double-check the nettle leaves and salt before settling into a cold and restless sleep.

It is the clamoring of the larger salt crystals hitting the floor that stirs me from half-lidded slumber. My left arm is frozen. I can barely move my elbow, my shoulder aches, and my fingers are curved into claws. The gobler is near. Very near. Shallow breaths burn my throat. I throw off my blanket and search for the silver dagger tucked beneath the mattress—the very same one my mother once carried. It did not save her, yet I clutch it in my one warm hand. Creaking boards sound in the living room. The stone whispers that they do not bend under the weight of my father.

But if it’s the gobler, how did it get in? Why? No mysting could be so desperate. Thankful the fire in the front room still burns, I slip from my room, inching along the hallway. My hands shake with both fear and the ice emanating from my bracelet. Peeking into the living area, I see a thick form blocking part of the glowing hearth. Shorter than myself, and much wider. The dying flames highlight thick rolls of blubber around neck and wrists. It’s almost humanoid in that it has a head, two arms, and two legs, but the rest is pure monster. The gobler turns, searching, its large eyes shifting back and forth, its cavernous nostrils flaring. Wide gray lips roll above a nearly nonexistent chin. Burns and bluish blood mar its skin from where it encountered my wards.

Its dark fist-sized eyes land on me and widen. As I lift my dagger, it launches.

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