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Valhalla

A whisper in the woods

Written by Danial Leath


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Aiedail screamed, startling herself awake. Settling back against her pillow she thought

about the nightmare, one that she had been having every night since her 14th birthday about a

week ago. The screams, the chaos, the stench of burning flesh and the metallic taste of blood

stuck in her mind long after she woke each day. Even though it was well before sunrise, she

needed to do something to distract herself from the lingering horror. Slipping out of bed, she

pulled on a pair of rugged leather pants and a short cloak, grabbed her bow and bundle of

arrows from their place on the wall and ran out her door. Upon reaching the main room

(separating her from the door), she saw her mother at the table applying a poultice to her older

brother Jakob’s ribs, which were magnificently bruised. Aiedail caught his eye and smiled at

him, raising her eyebrows in a bemusedly questioning manner. He simply grinned widely,

indicating that she would be hearing an entertaining tale from him later. Gesturing to her bow

and then to their mother, who hadn’t noticed Aiedail or her communication with the boy, she

made her gold flecked storm-grey eyes look sad, a non-verbal plea to her brother to keep his

silence. Jakob put his finger to his lips, winked, and turned back to watch his mother work. Even

the poultice was something that she had already taught him, he questioned his mother about it’s

contents, distracting her attention from the rest of the room. Satisfied that her brother wouldn’t

alert their mother to her presence, Aiedail darted across the room, put on her old boots and

slipped quietly out the door.

The early morning air was cool and crisp, as early fall air should be, carrying the memory

of the last night’s rain. Aiedail stood for a moment, allowing its gentle coolness to caress her

face before putting on the hood of her cloak, concealing her shoulder length raven hair and

casting her pale ivory face into shadow. She turned and, aided by the dim light of the half moon

filtering through the clouds, sprinted towards the familiar, reassuring presence of the trees. The

dark conifer forest that surrounded most of Aiedail’s town extended up and around the lower

slopes of Mount Kaldur, which rose over the village like a silent sentinel, and together with the

mountain range of which Kaldur is just a small part, encompassed the whole region.

As she entered the trees, she closed her eyes, feeling the slow simple consciousness of

each tree brush against her mind, and kept running, following the presences of some of the

most familiar, which she used like landmarks to find her way in the darkness. When she was

first allowed to go near the forest, she recognized that she could feel something coming from

them, but it took several years before she was familiar enough with the inhuman simplicity of the

trees’ consciousness’s (a slow amalgamation of the impulses (or urges/ needs) to grow, to seek

water, to reach sunlight, to endure) to be able to first discern the differences between a cedar

and a douglas fir, and then be able to tell one individual tree from another.

Aiedail knew these trees so well she was able to navigate them at a dead run,

sometimes in complete darkness. She was very good at running and enjoyed it very much. She

ran for what seemed like hours until she eventually reached a clearing deep in the forest, much

farther than any villager dared to venture. She particularly liked this clearing because even

though the forest was mostly cedars, douglas firs and hemlocks, there were several large

chestnut trees encircling it. She had searched large swaths of the forest with her mind, but as

far as she knew, this was the only place in the forest they existed, she was drawn here by their

presence. Because she was the only one who could find this place she regularly collected the

chestnuts and sold them in the village to help provide what little she could for her family.

When she reached the clearing she went to the center where a large boulder protruded

from the ground. She placed her bow on the ground next to the stone and sat on it with her

head bowed, breathing in the thick, heady scent of damp cedar bark and listening to the last

drops from last night’s rain complete their journey from the upper branches to the forest floor

mingling with the rustling of small animals in the ferns and underbrush. Slowly becoming one

with her surroundings she sat motionless, a statue on a stone in the center of her oasis, as she

had done countless times before. And for the last week this was the place where she was able

to push back against the nightmare that was trying harder and harder to seep its way farther into

her waking world. She listened to the trees, Searching for a rabbit or some other small creature

that would actually be helped by being eaten instead of surviving in the forest. Sensing a

suitable candidate she reached for her bow, keeping her eyes closed. She grabbed an arrow,

and knocking it on the string, she pulled back taking careful aim using her mind as a guide.

Just as she was about to release the arrow, her mental vision flashed blindingly white,

wrenching her mind from her body and dragging it back through the trees all the way to her

house, and then her attic. She could see, with her mind’s eye, that in a remote corner, tucked up

in the rafters, there was a large bundle that she had never seen before. She could see that the

bundle was covered with strange symbols that seemed to flit in and out of the visible spectrum.

She could sense a presence drawing her attention to the inside of the bundle, communicating to

her mind a sense of some indispensable task which wasn’t being completed, and an

overwhelming desire to complete it. She tried to push back on the presence and maybe try and

give it a sense of her confusion, but it stabbed into her mind with another blinding flash. She

came back into her body with a start, falling backwards off the rock, sprawling as her eyelids

flew open. In the dim light of the just rising sun, she could barely see the tops of the trees

around the clearing as she lay spread-eagled on the thick mossy carpet. After several long

minutes, she got shakily to her feet, grabbed her arrows and her bow, and ran towards home,

avoiding the people of the village with the help of the trees.

They didn’t know that they were helping her (they actually didn’t really know anything in

the way that we do, they don’t really have conscious thoughts per se) but the rhythm of their

impulses reflects the presence of a creature, and different creatures cause different ripples in

the fabric of the consciousnesses of the trees, and she had learned years ago that by looking at

the interference patterns in the collective consciousnesses of a group of trees she could

determine (to a certain extent) what it was, where it was, and when it passed. Much in the same

way that examining the growth rings of a tree can provide a rough timeline of influences on that

specific tree’s development and rate of growth, but by looking at the growth rings of many trees

from the same region, you can extrapolate regional conditions such as rainfall and climate, and

ascertain the period with greater accuracy.

She was so focused on getting home and talking to her mother that she ran much faster

than before, not even consciously processing the input from the trees, just losing herself in the

rhythm of her flight. As she left the influence of the trees, she almost ran into her other brother,

Kevin (who was about a year older than Jakob) when he was walking from the door of their

house towards the forest.

“Hey Ai-Ai! (that is the nickname that her family and friends used for her, because Aiedail

is hard to say) I was going out to try and find you. Jakob said he saw you leave a few hours ago.

I just wanted to make sure you are okay, you aren’t usually gone for this long”

“I had another nightmare last night” She said, dropping her things onto the damp grass

next to him and slumping down next to them, “It is getting worse… I also had some sort of vision

while I was sitting in my clearing”

“Is that why you don’t have any rabbits today?” He said, laughing as he stood her up

even though she was several inches taller than him, “Mom is in town, helping some traders who

were injured in something or another with their oxen” “You really shouldn’t run so fast, even

though you can, you look more drained than usual”

“I am not physically tired, my head is throbbing from whatever it was that gave me the

vision, it pushed back…”

“What do you mean, it pushed back?” Kevin said as they walked into the house and

towards her room. “Is that why your head hurts?”

Aiedail always tried to explain the things that she did to her brothers. Even though they

were good listeners and did their best to grasp the abstract concepts that she was trying to

describe, most of the time they fell a little short. Regardless, she told him the whole occurrence

as they walked into the house and made their way to her room. When she finished talking, she

collapsed on her bed. Kevin sat down next to her, contemplating what he had just been told.

“Maybe since mother isn’t back yet, and you really want to tell her about this, you can go

up and look in the attic and try to find this bundle or whatever it is and figure out what it is,” he

said, looking at her slightly concernedly. “I need to leave now though, because I promised Jakob

that I would help him unload the barges that are coming in today, because of his ribs.”

“How did that happen anyway? I didn’t get a chance to talk to him when I saw him this

morning.”

“He fell off of the ladder to the loft this morning, when he was on the way back from the

outhouse” Kevin chuckled, stood up and turned to leave. “Good luck finding your so called

‘presence’!” Aiedail was too busy laughing to respond, so he left her to her mirth and returned to

his brother in town.

When she finished laughing, Aiedail got up, taking care to replace her arrows to their

canister and bow to it’s place on the wall, and walked out of her room, towards the loft that

served as both Jakob’s bedroom and the entrance to the attic. She climbed up the ladder,

opening the shutters of the window that was set in the slanted ceiling once she got to the top.

With the help of the bright morning light that streamed in, she made her way past her brother’s

things,under bunches of onions and bundles of herbs hanging from the ceiling, and past the

shelves of bottles that her mother used to store things that shouldn’t be easy to access, like a

plant that, when infused in a tea, helps quicken healing, but if it is eaten, it is a deadly fast acting

poison. As she made her way closer to the spot she had seen with her mind, she wondered how

she hadn’t noticed it before. She had walked past this corner hundreds of times, whether she

was messing around with her brothers or just wanted to be alone, but she had never noticed the

bundle that she now saw, wedged in the shadowy gap where the floor meets the rafters and the

slanting roof.

She reached out and dislodged the bundle, causing it to unwrap and spill its contents on

the ground, leaving her holding a dark traveling cloak. It was dusty from its time in the attic, but

still obviously good quality and durable. She looked at it closely, trying to get a good look at the

faint, shimmery symbols that seemed to move around in the fabric, but she could never actually

look directly at them. She absentmindedly slipped the cloak on as she shifted her attention to

the contents of the bundle; a pair of boots and a small box. Aiedail reached for the box and as

soon as she touched it, she felt the presence again on the edge of her mind, this time

emanating gratitude and triumph instead of longing. She flinched at the unanticipated contact,

expecting another stab of pain, but none came. Breathing deeply and slowly she carefully

pushed back, probing, wary of retaliation from the box. This time, however, the presence wasn’t

aggressive, in fact it seemed to welcome her exploration. She could tell immediately that this

wasn’t the consciousness of any living creature, but more like a concept given form as a

sentient entity. She pulled back fully into her mind, then picked up the box and examined it. It

was made of a dark ebony-like wood, edged and inlaid with bright silver. There was a small

locked clasp in the front without a keyhole. She puzzled over the box for a moment longer, and

then stuck it in one of the inside pockets of the cloak. When she put her hand deep into the

cloak, she felt something in it that she hadn’t noticed before. She pulled it out and saw that it

was a folded piece of parchment. She turned it over and froze, because on the other side were

the words “For Aiedail”

After she got over her initial shock, she became immediately suspicious, thinking that

this was somehow an elaborate trick set up by her brothers. She unfolded the parchment and

started to read:

“You and I are from one of the four ancient families whose bloodlines are acutely

aware of the currents of power that flow throughout the worlds and adept at tapping into

this power.The most powerful and intelligent, the Ward, lead the Families and devote

their lives and energies to keeping the human destiny focused towards growth and

prosperity, instead of descending into the feudal chaos that is our species’s natural

inclination. About 300 years ago, The Families retreated to our mountain sanctuaries,

isolating ourselves from the majority of humanity when one of our brightest acolytes

chose to not only act on his urge to use his gifts to exercise dominion over others, but

also to persuade many of his young friends, including many of our most promising

prospective Wards, to join him in the conquest and enslavement of the lands on the

other side of our mountains. The Wards were responsible for protecting the people of

this land from the oppressive leaders of the other, who call themselves the Catalyst.”

At this point, she was entirely sure that this wasn’t a prank from her brothers. Even though they

were smart, they lacked the imagination to make up something this complicated…

“We had been hearing rumors of other sanctuaries being destroyed, and we

determined that ours was the last one still operating, but we hadn’t been attack until a

week ago when the sanctuary watched over by me and your father, who was the Captain

of the guard, was attacked by soldiers of the Catalyst. We held them off for several days,

but your father was killed, weakening the resolve of the remaining guard. The enemy

soldiers quickly overwhelmed our people, and rampaging through the sanctuary, killing

anyone they encountered and burning anything that would catch a flame. Your father

and I discussed this outcome right after the siege started, and we both promised each

other that if one of us died, the other would take you to safety, and ensure that you fulfil

your potential. I was mortally wounded in my flight, but I managed to get the two of us

out and to a small village on our side of the mountains, where I found a very kind woman

whom you would call mother. You already showed the signs of great power, even at

such a young age.

When you are able to find this letter, you will be the age that would have marked

the beginning of your career as a Ward, after learning about and honing your abilities for

several years, if you had grown up in the sanctuary. The spirit of the Work (one of the

things contained in the box, the reason for the ‘vision’ you no doubt had) will help you

gain access to secrets of the stronghold and help you grow and learn, if you can reach

the ruins. You alone can find the path, if you wish to find it. My final contribution to the

Great Work is to enable its continuation, but you are the only one who can ensure it! I

wish you the greatest of luck, my beloved Aiedail.

Signed,

Your Grandfather;

Arenn, Chief Ward of the Great Work at Mount Kaldur”

Aiedail finished reading the letter, and then she just stood there, staring at the signature at the

bottom. Now she understood why she was so… different; from her family, her siblings, and the

other children her age. Now she knew why she so looked different from her mother and

brothers, and why she was at least 4 inches taller than her brother Kevin, who was the next

tallest. She read the letter a few more times, and then she put it back in the pocket, grabbed the

boots, and ran back out of the attic. She put the boots on, pausing for a moment to marvel at

how comfortable they were, and then climbed down the ladder. As she entered the main room,

she saw her mother walk in the door.

“Mother!

IhadavisionintheforestandIsawaboxintheatticandIranhomeandwentinandfoundthisstuffandaletter

andwhydidntyoutellme!!?!!?!!” she said, all in one breath.

“Oh, my!” her mother said, taking in her daughter’s outfit and realizing the implications.

“From the moment your grandfather showed up on this doorstep, mortally wounded and carrying

the most beautiful little girl I had ever seen, and asked me to raise her as my own, I knew that

it wouldn’t last. I wanted to tell you, but he said that it was important that you discovered it on

your own.” “I love you” she said, giving Aiedail a hug, ” I read the letter before I hid that bundle,

11 years ago. I know that you have a destiny to fulfill, and I won’t stop you” She was trying not

to cry as she moved out of the doorway.

Aiedail stood there for a moment, thinking. She knew what had to be done, and she

knew that if she didn’t leave now, she would never leave. So she ran to her room, grabbed her

arrows and bow and her leather bag from her room, then returned to the doorway.

“I love you too mother” she said, hugging her mother and trying not to cry. “I couldn’t

have wished for a better family! I have to leave now, or I know that I will never leave, so tell

Kevin and Jakob goodbye for me. I love you!!” She squeezed her mother’s hand one last time

and then turned and sprinted into the forest, dark hair streaming behind her and her face shining

with tears.

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A whisper in the woods