The blood rushing to her brain made her skull ache. Her heart threatened to beat out of her ribcage. It was still following.
Beneath her, the leaves were wet and slick with dew, sticking to her bare feet, coming up in clumps of soft dirt between her toes which made her lose her grip on the earth. The arrows riding her shoulder jostled, eager to fly from her quiver in every direction. Her bow smacked her backside with every rock and ravine crossing her path. Without slowing pace, she fumbled at the leather harness between her breasts, discarding the bundle of arrows. Her bow followed in the dirt. She kept on, free of everything but muscle and skin and her auburn braid and the dapples of sunlight percolating down from the branches.
She could hear the arrows snapping like twigs with heavy, inhuman footfalls, and knew the halfman was close behind. Strengthened through fear, she kept momentum as brambles reached for her ankles and river rocks cut into her soles. She would never tire, never waver. After all, she was not like other humans. Her sense of touch was as keen as her vision. She could feel the Goddess everywhere, in the rain, in the wind, as part of the wood and as part of her.
But she was far from the wood she knew.
An immense camphor tree stood in a depression of leaves like a parent over the forest. Her fingers and toes were still covered in sap from sleeping in the branches. The stickiness helped her dig into the brittle bark, scurry up the sheer trunk with little effort. She came up through the foliage into the open sky, where she squatted along a bed of twigs that swayed underfoot.
Certain the halfman could not follow, she placed a hand to her breast, feeling her heart grow calm, her breathing settle into rhythm. No more running. She’d lost him in the high places like so many other predators.
Shades of green stretched below, split by a deep, waterfall studded gorge and the azure ribbon of the Potamis River. The river spilled into the turquoise moon that filled the horizon. The smaller moon swam like a purple fish across the face of the greater, marking the cycles till nightfall.
In quiet moments like these, when she was in hiding, she doted on the ilm her father gave her, now cast away with her arrows. When she was confident that the halfman was gone, she would go look for it, and when in her palm again, try to recall the orange and purple that colored the hills of Ilmarinen.
How many eclipses came and went since leaving home? For cycles she followed the Potamis, maintaining a southerly course, keeping the greater moon to her left. The river served as a guide and a source for drink and bathing. When the waterway dipped through barren valleys, her sustenance consisted of grubs and beetles, but in the wood she drank dew from leaves and trusted in her marksmanship to sate her hunger. Despite sincere effort, her parents could not have prepared her for the vast and nameless stretches of Aenya. They could not have known of the strange and uninviting flora of each passing day, of the fruits their daughter could only guess at eating, which could either soothe the hollowness in her belly or leave her crippled with aching and vomiting. The further from home, the harsher the touch of the world. Days were scorching and nights made her shudder. Termites found her blood sweet as she slept in the trees, and even the flowers had thorns. But she refused to mask her body in the protective cloth her mother gave her. Even the occasional thorn was preferable to the hideous, sultry, constant grating of that frock. The outside world was unlike Ilmarinen, but every new sensation made her more alive—for the Goddess was in all things.
The darkness that came with the fully eclipsed sun, the depths of the night, belonged to other gods, or so it seemed. In Ilmarinen, she laid down on the roof of her father’s house under a universe of twinkling fires, with a warm hearth and eleven siblings slumbering below. But here, lonesome but for the surrounding trees, she shut her eyes and forced sleep to come, fitfully picking out the harmless noises from invisible things that hunted in the dark.
|Halfman by David Pasco
Leaves whispered and branches crackled, rousing her from her thoughts. Her foundation was swaying, threatening to fling her hundreds of feet to the ground. Something was making its way up towards her. As it burst through the foliage, she caught a glimpse of howling teeth and fur like the color of blood.
She scurried away like a four legged animal. Without realizing it, she was in the adjoining tree. He was in the other, growling in his guttural language, shaking the bone talisman in his fist. But he was not as limber or as swift on the tree tops. Careful to watch his footing, he moved uneasily across the makeshift bridge of touching branches. She reached for her bow only to realize she’d thrown it away. The limbs of the trees groaned in protest as she pulled herself to the fringes of the camphor’s height. With its trunk at her knees, the wind gushed fiercely about her, testing her balance. Being twice her size, she was certain that the halfman could not follow, that the branches would snap under his weight. But he could still reach—she could feel him now, clawing her heels, drawing blood with his nails. With nowhere to go, she navigated through the maze of branches, down and backwards, blindly reaching for anything to hold to, clutching at twigs no thicker than her fingers.
When she could no longer see his bloody red hide, she allowed herself a moment to breathe, and then the halfman dropped from above. She slinked away again, her feet kicking empty air, and suddenly her stomach lurched as the sound of splintering timber rounded in her ears.
She broke through the branches as she fell. The ground was strewn with leaves, but hit harder than dirt. Lifting herself carefully, she tested for body for pain, for broken bones—and was off again, her feet slapping against a flat unyielding surface. In a blur of stone and iron, she could feel the strangeness of her surroundings, the runes etched into the floor, the obelisks and massive rings, tall as trees, teasing her curiosity as she gaped for breath. Vague human shapes towered over her, faceless giants lining the path. Golems, her people called the statues; they were everywhere, even in Ilmarinen masquerading as boulders. But she’d never seen so many before, standing upright like sentinels. The place was old beyond memory—a great city from aeons ago, from before the greater moon. Every stone in every courtyard echoed with the memories of the dead. But the forest was reclaiming it. Grasses sprouted between tiles. Roots cut through walls without doors or rooftops. She had no time to wonder at these wonders, however—the halfman still wanted her for dinner and she could not hope to lose him in the open.
Turning toward a broken archway, beyond the watchful faces of stone, she flew deep into the thick of the wood, hoping to be concealed by the fan shaped leaves. She moved with the grace of a hunted treer, navigating streams and slopes and thickets as though running it a hundred times before. But the halfman was not giving up the chase. Nor was it growing distant. Any moment, her legs would give out, and he would be on top of her. Hiding had failed her and running no longer seemed the wisest course. If there was any chance to fight, it could not happen with her back to it. But there was no hope of turning. Its monstrous breathing was raising the hairs of her neck. Then the shock of its raking claws threw her off balance and she collapsed hard, repeatedly punished as she rolled across the uneven, volcanic terrain.
She could feel the heat of his growl, smell the undigested meat between its oversized molars. The halfman overshadowed her, beating its muscled breast with arms thicker than her waist. But she did not show fear. With equal ferocity she returned his gaze, with eyes of green fire, giving the monster pause. But her fists would not be enough. She frantically searched her surroundings, looking for anything she could use to do harm—a rock, a branch, anything at all. Her touch found it before the eyes could follow; it was smooth and hard and jagged, a larger fragment amid bits of glass scattered across the ground. The shard of obsidian cut into her palm as she lifted it to the moon and down again. The shimmering blade plunged between the halfman’s eye and nostril. Its howl was like needles in the ear, and she stumbled away, mesmerized by the horror of it, by the black glass jutting from its mutilated face.
You should be running.
Before she could see it happen, his meaty fingers closed about her wrist, snapping her body like a doll. Tendrils of pain shot through her shoulder. She could not hope to wrestle free, even with two good arms. The halfman roared, pounding its chest again. She winced as it flexed for the killing blow, her final thoughts of the home, of the brothers and sisters she would never see again. But the blow never came.
The halfman’s grip died away, and her arm flopped lifeless to her hip. His ape face contorted in a mix of rage and confusion, with an arrowhead jutting from its throat.
She blinked through the pain at the shapes emerging from the haze, hardly recognizing them for what they were. Human bodies were supple and hairy and did not gleam in the sunlight—at least not the kind of human bodies she was familiar with.
“The rumors appear to be true, Captain Dantes,” one of the men said to the other. “Halfmen,” he added, nudging the lifeless mass of fur with his boot, “and so close to camp.”
“Aye,” said the man on the right, tilting his faceplate open, “but what of this one?” He fixed his shaggy gray brows on her, astonishment showing through his age sunken cheeks.
She was suddenly a very young girl, lost and vulnerable. Her eyes, bright as an emerald lagoon, wandered with intense curiosity over the leather and bronze of their armor, over their belts and boots and gloves, as if never having seen clothing before. But outsiders were not entirely unknown to her people. It was what had brought her so far from home.
“Why, she’s as bare as a newborn!” the older man exclaimed. “. . . It’s a wood nymph if ever I saw one!”
“Her grace kindles the heart, indeed,” the Captain replied, “but she’s just a girl, a feral child, perhaps, lost to the wood when the bogrens came to her village. And she’s hurt.”
They stared, branding her every curve to memory, but she did not know to feel shame any more than a fish can know what it means to be wet. She simply stood, still as a morning dewdrop, her right arm limp against her side.
The man called Captain pulled off his helmet. He had dark eyes and an ebony beard and was pleasing to look at, and did not seem capable of hating her, despite her parents’ warning. Her instinct was to dash into the wood, but she did not flinch as he unhinged his cloak and stepped closer, wrapping her in it. She tugged at the hem, finding the fabric richer and more finely worked than her mother’s tunic. He pulled a jeweled dagger from his belt, the finest blade she had ever seen, and with a single stroke cut a long strip from the edge of his cloak to fasten about her palm, staunching the flow of blood.
“Do you have a name?”
My name is Thelana.
“Can you speak?”
Words did not leave her mouth and she did not know why. She understood most of what was spoken to her. It was a dialect similar to the one used by Aola, the outsider who taught her the ways of the bow. But it’d been so long since speaking with anyone. Perhaps she’d forgotten how.