“Welcome to Vilashar Forest”. Nobody had ever thought to put up signs around it, and you would have needed an awful lot of them. The forest was one of the largest ‘wild’ stretches of land in Aeldor: A vast area of woodland, it took up a great deal of the Orasen Vale, and extended over a fair portion of the hills to the North. Much of it was relatively unexplored territory, although there were several well-travelled, safe, routes through it. The place was untamed enough that there were many stories, tales and myths about its depths, and who or what might exist in them. There, almost insignificant by its Southeast border, lay the busy town of Pandirech.
She threaded her way carefully through the throng of people outside the law-court: sometimes resorting to the ungentle practice of “judicious application of strategically placed sharp elbows”. The twenty-day journey here had done nothing to encourage her normal polite nature. Corlee usually enjoyed travelling, but rarely ventured this far from home. The middle-aged woman, arguably the most powerful seer of her time, had learnt not to ignore the things she saw; and sometimes, not to talk about ‘all’ she had seen. That, of course, was why she had come this distance: her dark vision of nearly four months ago, and the fact that it related, in a very personal way, to friends of hers from Rella’s Haven. She knew that, here and now, was where and when she was meant to be.
She entered the building. The tall man waiting for her, wearing a turquoise armlet, similar to her own, bowed respectfully before speaking.
“My name is Dalva. I might wish for better circumstances, but your presence is a blessing for us all, at any time. Allow me to be your host during your stay with us”.
Her manners restored by the compliment, Corlee answered her fellow seer with a bright smile.
“Some people I know have a young son with your name. Should he grow up to have your graciousness, his parents will be well pleased”.
A few more pleasantries: time to relax with some relatively meaningless small talk, and local gossip: time to consume several pots of keevah: and then it was on to the courtroom itself, and the serious business that had brought her here.
Orben: an individual almost as well known as Corlee. He had been law-giver for numerous years and had probably, at one time or another, served in most of the major towns of Aeldor. Age had gifted, or cursed, him with a face that now conveyed a sense of severity he did not deserve. The sentences he dispensed were still considered the fairest, and sometimes most unexpected, in all of Aeldor. The plain, midnight-blue gown that most of his profession favoured, and his badge of office, were all he needed for anyone, even a stranger, to be able to recognise his authority; and most could guess at his identity.
At present, you could not see what was suspended from the chain around his neck. He opened the fist across his chest: after a few moments of absolute silence and stillness in the large, cool room: freeing the representation of a small golden cup. When the chalice of truth was ‘bare’ in court, there would be no falsehood, no opinion other than an honest one, no misdirection: only truth, and judgement. Court was now, officially, in session. Orben was an experienced enough judge of character that he new full well when someone was lying: and those that appeared before ‘him’ were aware that he knew.
Looking down impartially at the seven men before him, his voice contained no malicious tones, no pre-judgement: and perhaps its even measured, melodic baritone, seemed in some way even more ominous because of that ‘kindly’ character trait.
“You are here, at your own request, to have your lives ordered by others. You have claimed protection, although you have so far refused to say what it is you need protection from. You claim that you ‘wish to do penance’ for past deeds; yet you have offered no information about any crimes you may, or may not, have committed. You bring before me, and the people of this place, an intriguing, and impossible, task … I confess that ‘I’ have so far sought no second-opinion regarding these matters … the ‘second-opinion’, which contains more truth than ‘you’ have seen fit to reveal, has found me”.
He nodded briefly across at Corlee. They had only had time for a brief introduction; nevertheless he believed he could trust anything she might have to say. For an instant his face warmed, and he winked at her. The seer did not need her talent to interpret that quick, unexpected, sympathetic and understanding look, “I know: you do not wish to be here, but sometimes duty places us where we would rather not be”.
She stood, and began to describe her vision in detail. It was a short and cruel story: how a man, wife, and their twelve year old daughter were travelling home through the forest, stopping four days away from the town they had left: how a band of nine robbers had come across them in the middle of the night … they could have easily relieved them of their possessions, and left them to return; poorer, but alive; to Pandirech … no: how the adults had been slaughtered while sleeping: how a rough, hurtful hand had been clamped over the mouth of the barely waking child, before she was dragged off with them, not even seeing the corpses of her parents.
Corlee stopped at that point. Orben stood slowly, and repeated, word for word, the entire tale. Law-givers, by the very nature of their work, had very good ‘immediate’ recall. This was an important and integral part of the court ritual. It wasn’t repetition in case someone had not heard everything. It was a mark of respect for what had just been said: a law-giver’s way of confirming, “this ‘is’ true, otherwise ‘I’ would not be saying it”.
Orben looked over the men again. His face seemed even more severe, but the voice was just as impartial as it had been before.
“So: you are thieves, and possibly murderers. I notice you appear to be missing two of your colleagues. If you have anything to add to the testimony as it stands …”
They remained silent, and the law-giver turned to the seer. His hand came up and covered the tiny cup. This was not unusual, mid-session, but did indicate that his next words would be more private, and not necessarily part of the court’s business.
“I take it you have more information for me? If there is some way I can prevent you having to disclose it to all here, please let me know”.
Corlee thanked him for his consideration, and beckoned Dalva to join her. It isn’t something generally known, but neither is it a secret: two seers, working together, can, with little effort, directly input a vision into another’s mind.
She spared nothing: letting Orben experience everything she had ‘seen’: all the ways in which the girl had been mistreated and abused in the three and a half months of her ‘servitude’, until the day she had somehow managed to loosen her bonds, and escape into the surrounding trees … at which stage Corlee rather abruptly cut the images, severed her link through Dalva, and in a clear, steady voice, offered the entire court two short sentences: just eleven words.
“The murderers are already dead. Kethra is safe in the forest”.
Orben hardly knew the seer; however he could easily sense how much strain it had caused her, reliving those brutal memories, and from the cold, tight-lipped expression on her face that she intended to share nothing else with him today.
His hand withdrew again, and light flashed off the chalice of truth. Wise, and unforgiving eyes stared, once more, down at the seven robbers.
“I take it that you require protection from the fate which befell your colleagues? Very well. You will have the protection of the town.
I take a dim view of robbery, but at least you are not murderers; and there was never a need for killing: you could have persuaded your ‘friends’ to let them live. You did not … I am ashamed at your treatment of the child. Some of us have servants: some of us, in our youth, have been servants, but …”
The voice hardened, and lashed at the men, like a whip.
“… we do not have slaves, and no adult ‘ever’ has any excuse for causing the harm that you have done to that poor girl’s life”.
Orben calmed down, but there was little mercy in the way he delivered his words: it was nothing more, or less, than a statement.
“You will be given accommodation. You will form a work-group, and be paid fairly for your labour. You will be accompanied at all times by at least five others, and will not leave the boundaries of Pandirech. You are free, as a group, to treat the town as your home, and go where you will, but your muscles will be used wherever and whenever the town sees fit … for the next eight years of your lives”.
You could almost see the relief on their faces. No harsh physical punishment: no imprisonment. They knew it was going to be hard work, but they would probably have better lives than they had as thieves. And that was it, verdict passed.
The chalice had been tucked away inside Orben’s gown, and the court was finished … the law-giver, however, was not.
“For the first two years, you will voluntarily lose a quarter of your earnings in tithes. This will help to balance the cost, time and effort that we intend to put into finding Kethra. There is no possible way you could apologise to her for your actions, and I do not intend to make you try to … In four years time, I, or my successor, will be here in this court, and so will you. Each of you will bring with you twelve townspeople who will testify to your ‘renewed’ character, and worth. Those of you that can accomplish this small task will only work a further two years: those that cannot, will serve this town for an extra six years past their sentence”.
It was a typical Orben twist. Not law, as such, but when ‘he’ recommended something, it became a one choice option. You ‘will’ do this and, in case you hadn’t noticed, there is no ‘or’. Capital punishment was not unknown in this country, but it was very rare, and seen as a last resort by most law-givers. Orben had given them a, not too easy, opportunity to rehabilitate themselves. It was hard, merciful, and fair.
“I just wish we could find her. It would sometimes be better if children were not so independent: and I would certainly prefer that ‘she’ wasn’t proving so resourceful. The town’s best people have been unable to track her, or even find any evidence of her continued existence. The experienced woodsmen that her uncle sent have had no luck either … Are you certain she is alright?”
It was a rather unnecessary question for the law-giver to ask of the seer. They were, as usual, discussing Kethra. Corlee had assured him, on several occasions over the last month, that the girl was healthy and somehow managing to fend for herself: although she had not ‘seen’ enough details to guide the various searchers to her.
The two had become good friends in the short time they had known each other.
Orben’s respect for Corlee’s reputation had been confirmed by the time they spent in each other’s company, and he liked her not just for her talent, but also for her wit, humour, lady-like manner, and natural beauty. She understood his professional ‘coolness’, and was pleasantly surprised to discover, even without her gifts, that hidden underneath it was a strong, gentle character, with an endearingly warped view of the world. His tales of the more outrageous judgements he had ‘considered’ in his work, and eventually rejected because of their inappropriateness (and sometimes, downright stupidity) made her appreciate his sense of justice and right: and more than a few times, they caused her to break out in fits of uncontrolled laughter.
The seer grinned at the older man before replying to his query.
“What would you like me to do: link with Dalva every single day, so he can tell you the same thing, over and over? I am as concerned as you about Kethra, but she ‘is’ alright: safe at the moment, and whatever emotional turmoil she is coping with, it may be that the forest is a better place to heal that pain, rather than bringing her back to an adult world she no-longer trusts”.
Orben sat quietly for a while: considering the seer’s words.
“You could be right there, and, as you can ‘see’ nothing more, I suppose we will just have to wait until she is found, or decides to trust someone … anyone, again”.
“Orben, you know very well I will inform you if there is any change. I don’t know why you wouldn’t let me leave with the caravan yesterday, or was it that you couldn’t resist another day in my company …”?
The law-giver was about to protest, but realised immediately that the seer was only, gently, baiting him.
“… but I do appreciate the escort you’ve arranged, who have been waiting outside for long enough: and the next time ‘you’ get a reasonable break from your duties, I hope you’ll visit us. Parvic will like you”.
Orben laughed as Corlee got up from the table, and left. Corlee had talked a lot about her husband, and he honestly looked forward to, one day, meeting the big man.
She was clad in clothes of scraps: bits of fabric found, picked up; torn patches recovered from deserted campsites or thorny bushes. Maybe it was a half-forgotten remnant from her past, but due to her skill with a needle, the outfit was snug, warm, and the patchwork colours were set in a pleasing style, while still being inconspicuous enough that she could hide easily, blending into the background of the forest.
She followed ‘people’ cautiously and silently when they passed through her domain: recovering any useful ‘leavings’. Kethra didn’t like these visitors, and distrusted and resented their intrusion. They were far too noisy and, although their speech had meaning to her, she couldn’t spare the effort of understanding it. I don’t think any traveller was even aware of her shadow, always following them until they left to go, somewhere else, far off.
Her possessions were simple, and few. A couple of cracked bowls that had been discarded by their previous owners; a small knife that had slipped unnoticed out of a merchant’s belt as he was mounting his horse; the sowing kit that was all she retained from her past; threads long ago used up, but replaced by carefully unravelled cloth, and sections teased patiently from the fibrous Hala root; and the garments she wore. These were her worldly goods. These, and the memories she refused to allow to surface.
Five and a half years had made her world a familiar place. Kethra had found, very early on, the caves that were safe to sleep in whenever storms came crashing over. The largest of these contained a carefully maintained, all but smokeless, fire. About six months into her self-imposed exile from society, she had not stockpiled enough fuel for it, and had spent a miserable, scared, dark and cold eleven nights, before a nearby lightning strike had restored warmth to her.
Stone and sky were now her guardians, and tutors. She knew every variety of tree and shrub: which roots, berries, leaves, were sweet and/or nutritious; which ones speeded up the healing of everyday cuts and bruises; and which ones caused headaches, sickness, and were generally to be avoided. Time and experience had been good and effective teachers.
You would easily mistake her for a forest spirit of some kind, if you saw her. She kept herself clean, bathing regularly in the fresh, heart-shaped lake, but there was always that sense of slight unearthliness in the way she moved, so quietly: in her clothing, and the braided olive vines that held back her rich brown locks: in the way those hazel-green eyes darted swiftly around her, no longer quite so nervous, taking in everything that moved: in the unexpected nymph-like laughter that bubbled often to the surface, and broke the silence when she knew herself to be truly alone: and, last but not least, in the way she and her ‘sometimes’ companion slid gracefully through the trees at early evening … hardly ‘feral’, but both forms, despite the many differences between them, appearing to share the same un-human, feline qualities.
Kethra was by nature, and current circumstance, primarily vegetarian. She could tickle the occasional fish from the lake: its small piscine population seemed to re-balance itself easily enough to accommodate her slight appetite, but she had never killed any other living creature. Animals that died by natural causes; mainly age, or more often, by the unwelcome attention of some bigger animal, tended to be poor food-stuff and, ignoring the improbability of one of the larger voles ever actually being hit by lightning, if it happened, the unfortunate mammal would probably be more than over-cooked by the experience.
That left Poran. The cat led her to the carcase of the deer-like creature that he had brought down earlier. It was far too big a meal for him: which he justified, in his own thoughts, by saying to himself that it was valuable hunting practice, and anyway, he liked keeping this particular human, his friend, healthy. Kethra thanked him with a brief smile before kneeling to get on with the business of butchering. The small knife had become an effective multi-purpose tool in her slim hands. Today they would both have full stomachs by the time darkness fell, and supper was finished.
She liked the big, almost fully grown, feline. He had been, on and off, with her for about four years now, and she still remembered their first meeting.
It had been a hot day, and she had let the fire die down to a minimum maintenance level. She had, uncharacteristically for her, dozed off, and came to with a start at the almost imperceptible noise of soft paws gliding into her cave. The cat, for some unknown reason, didn’t appear to her to be frightening in any way. He merely strolled in, dropped what he had been carrying in his mouth near the fire, almost in the embers: it seemed like the two small mammals were being presented to her as a gift: and then, purring all the time, came to within about three feet of where she sat. Kethra laughed, the first time she had done so for a good while, as the head was cocked to one side observing her, “It’s alright, you’re not prey”, and then this deadly feline simply rolled on his back, paws waving in the air, “Hey look … I have a tummy … tickle please?” She was certain she didn’t actually hear any words, but that was what the actions conveyed … and that was the start of their long friendship.
It was the nearby singing that eventually woke her: she always slept well after eating meat. This was something that was recognisable, and she considered it unthreatening. Kethra knew the pleasant voice, from one of the few less-resented visitors. She had learnt useful skills from watching them hunting, and skinning small animals for their own meals. She scrambled quickly and quietly out of her cave, to find the source of the sound.
She expected to find this regular ‘interruption’ sitting by an efficient and neat campfire, horse tethered close by, and probably enjoying a pot of keevah. She was hardly expecting the surprise waiting for her.
Kethra was, perhaps, even more cautious than usual as she approached the clearing. She suspected that this person had hearing at least as acute as her own. Twice, in the past, a head had turned in her direction, almost as if they could hear and see where she was hidden, and knew they were being observed. Stopping at a safe, she thought, distance, she silently pushed the last branch to one side, for a better view … there … what?
For one instant, she honestly thought that Poran was attacking for some unknown reason, but immediately realised that this unfamiliar cat was a slightly lighter colour, and somehow she sensed that it was female: also, and this came as a bit of a shock, they were … playing. The raven-haired young woman continued singing while, in a very unladylike manner rolling about on the ground with her partner. Kethra almost laughed, watching them for a while; wrestling, playing patty-cake hand to paw, paw to hand, and generally behaving like idiots. She had not, until this moment, considered that there could be the possibility of another human/cat friendship similar to the one she enjoyed with Poran.
Eventually the two of them stopped fooling around. The woman made a quick rather futile attempt at brushing some of the dust off herself, and squatted near the fire to pour a mug of steaming keevah. The cat prowled around for a brief time, and then settled down: lounging casually by the side of a bed-roll, and looking directly at Kethra.
She froze, for one heart-stopping moment, as she felt the invasion of her mind.
No-one had spoken to her for over five years: and if you asked her, she could honestly claim that she had no idea how she knew Poran’s name: but the soft, friendly thoughts/images that reached her came across clearly, as if they were fully formed words.
“You don’t want anyone to know that you’re there: do you? It’s alright: if it’s that important to you, I won’t tell her.”
This, all too short message, was probably the most comforting and important thing that had happened to her for a very long time. Kethra knew instinctively that she could trust the cat as much as she trusted Poran, and maybe this was the start of the healing process for her.
She may have been young, nevertheless she was emotionally a very strong person.
A weaker individual would have given the game away. Correl gave no indication that there was any change from her previous journeys through here. She held back the tears until she was a good distance from her last stop, and then let them flow freely. They were tears of both sadness, and relief. Resh had refused, point blank, to tell her what had happened but, even without seer or other talents, she was somehow convinced that they had, at last, made contact with Kethra. Thanks to her own considerable hunting skills, she had sensed the presence of the young girl on her last five trips, and could have made a good guess at where she had been hiding on each occasion.
Five years earlier, Djor and Aerdris had faced one of the most difficult decisions, and made their choice. It would have been simple to send out a ‘rescue’ party to bring her home, back to civilisation. It would also have been very wrong. They appreciated how much she must have been hurt, mostly in terms of how little she would now trust any of her own kind. The important question for them was, “How do we help to keep her alive and well?” Guided by Corlee, and their own senses, they set in motion a long-term plan; although they were aware that it would not, necessarily, bring her back. Kethra, as a child, had been headstrong and unruly, and, much like their eldest daughter, had always shown great resourcefulness and courage.
Djor and his wife, and Orben, had regularly asked Corlee how ‘justice’ had been served: how the murderers of the girl’s parents had met their end, but the seer never, ever spoke about it. Whatever had happened to them, she kept that secret to herself.
How do you help someone who has learnt to trust no-one? How do you get close enough to them that you can have a chance of undoing hurtful memories, or at the very least balancing them with more pleasant ones?
In the first year, Kethra demonstrated her ability to hide from those looking for her. The most experienced woodsmen had been unable to track her, or find any trace of ‘how’ she was living. Corlee expressed concern about health and diet issues, and it was decided that maybe, just maybe, a non-human friend would be more acceptable to the ‘lost’ child. Poran was the most obvious choice to ask if he would help. The male cat: much more private than his sibling, Resh, rarely even attempted to communicate with people, but liked their company on a one-to-one basis. He spent as much time as possible with her over the following years and, as part of the ‘gradual’ process of rehabilitation, even warned her away from getting too close to Correl’s earlier visits: which allowed Kethra the chance to come to know her from a safe distance.
You can’t second-guess the future; and on this occasion, a certain seer was not prepared to give any hints. It was possible that Kethra would one day come out of hiding, approach Correl, speak with her, and eventually rejoin the world she had left. It was equally as possible that she would find greatest peace in the calm, solitary existence she had known for the last five years, and would stay, apart from Poran, on her own.
She was back at the Keep, and relaxing after her recent journey, with her parents.
Correl was tired, and both sad and in some strange way content.
“I haven’t seen my cousin yet, but I still remember her. I hope she has, despite what she’s been through, managed to rediscover that wonderful laugh of hers.
I believe she is safe, and no matter what else ‘I’ might wish for, I cannot ask the Gods for more than that”.