(These Myldoran Younglings are seven yrs old – but in maturity more like our tens or elevens)
By the end of the first Round-of-Days friendships had begun to form. Five Younglings made close friendships with Poelimo and me. We were a pretty mixed group. There was quiet Frolure, with an interest in Healing; self-assured Rolpure, who didn’t know yet whether she liked making things in clay, wood or metal best; small Enkulimo had a gift for calculating and making plans; bold Reoshimo, like myself had no obvious talent, but hoped he might be able to Turn; and finally thoughtful Shanure, who despite being in awe of the strength of Poelimo’s Gift, wanted to be accepted in the Mind Libraries; and all of them took me as I was with no thought of strangeness, which was wonderful.
On Water-of-Life-Day we persuaded our parents to let us go exploring into the forest. After they’d made sure we were well wrapped up, and had extracted various promises from us, most of which we didn’t take seriously, we set out, feeling far too adventurous to be sensible.
Reoshimo tried to take charge. ‘I’ve been here longer than the rest of you,’ he announced boldly, ‘and I’ve had time to explore, so I’ll lead the way.’
‘Longer? How much longer?’ Enkulimo demanded, but Reoshimo, already striding off down a pathway between the houses didn’t bother to answer.
I wasn’t concerned with a hierarchy based on how many days we’d been at the Place. ‘He does seem to know the way,’ I laughed, and we hurried after him. He certainly knew the short cuts which avoided the centre of the town, and within half an hour we were standing at the woodshore looking into the forest.
‘These are grand old trees, ‘I said as we wandered along a broad winding way, looking at them with Adi’s forester’s eyes and appreciating their growth and shape.
‘I’d like to cut some down!’ exclaimed Rolpure eagerly.
‘What!’ I gasped in horror.
‘For their wood, you know,’ she explained quickly. ‘They’d make wonderful timber for carved furniture. And I only meant one here, and another somewhere else, about three or four different ones. That would last a workshop a couple of Changes.’
‘Yes, well, you’d have to ask the Forester first!’ I declared, only half mollified by her words.
‘I know that, Bruathimo, and I was only wishing. These trees near the town are sure to be protected,’ and she grinned at me in such a friendly way I was disarmed.
We explored the forest for a couple of hours, looking at and discussing everything. Enkulimo’d forgotten about hierarchies of time, and was trying to work out how many trees there were in this forest compared to the one he knew at home; while Frolure was explaining to Shanure the healing properties of different kinds of bark, and Rolpure was telling Reoshimo which timbers were best for carving, and picking up fallen branches to study the quality of the wood.
Poeli wandered over to me and said with a grin, ‘From the way we’re talking you’d think we were Scholars already, not Sevens who haven’t begun our Learning yet.’
We laughed, and then had to explain the joke to the others, who looked embarrassed for a second before laughing at themselves. After that we stopped trying to impress each other with what we knew, and soon we were playing games we’d learned as Fours.
Some time later we were lying in an exhausted heap on the soft moss beneath one of the forest giants, when Frolure looked around, and in a slightly shaky voice asked, ‘Does anyone know where we are?’
We sat up very quickly, looking at each other, and then, as realisation struck, at the tall, dark trees surrounding us. We were a long way from the well-spaced fringe of the forest, and there was no particular path or trail within sight.
Reoshimo wandered a few paces off to our left, looking for a wider gap between the trunks, which suddenly seemed like an ominous fence, and their branches less like a friendly shelter than an oppressive roof.
There were no signs of the animals we’d glimpsed in the open glades, the rabbits, slender-deer or bushy-tailed tree-climbers, and there was no sound of birdsong. Our chatter and laughter had hidden the silence from us, but now we noticed it and it felt ominous.
Poelimo also rose and looked up, but his view of the sky was blocked by the close, dark trees. ‘What do you think the time is?’ he asked, ‘because I think the sun’s sinking.’
That was a worrying thought, but no one had any answer for him. Certainly the air was colder, and we were reminded that this was still only the second Round of Freezing. With a clear sky there would be a hard frost tonight.
By now everyone was on their feet and panic was rising in the group. I hastily built up my inner shieldings and said as confidently as I could, ‘My Adi is a Senior Master of Forests, he told me if I was lost to mark the trees as I walked to make sure I didn’t go in circles.’ Then I swallowed nervously, and asked, ‘Has anyone got a blade?. . .’Cos I didn’t bring mine!’
As it turned out no one had, but before the panic grew any worse Rolpure found a stone which was sharp enough to cut notches in bark. So now we just had to decide which direction to try first. We took a vote, and then prepared to move off, Enkulimo organising us into a line with Reoshimo at the front and himself at the back.
‘I’ll be able to see if our line is straight,’ he explained, ‘and then, by marking the trees as well, we can be sure we’re not going round in circles.’
‘Before we start,’ said Rolpure, ‘are we quite certain no one can remember the way back?’ and she looked hard at Shanure and Poelimo. ‘I thought you two were Gifted with Remembering.’
‘Not even a Lore Master would remember if he wasn’t paying any attention!’ exclaimed Poelimo indignantly, ‘and we are only Sevens!’
‘I’ll tell you something, if it helps,’ Shanure replied a little more calmly. ‘I Remember the shape of the valley as we saw it from the hill by the lake. If we make sure we walk downwards, we’ll end up either by the river or the lake. We just have to be careful not to go uphill.’
We were mightily impressed by that, and Rolpure thanked her most generously. So off we went, slowly and carefully, marking the trees and bearing a little left or right as instructed from the rear by Enkulimo.
We’d hoped that as we went it would grow lighter and more open, but Poeli had been right, evening was coming on, and the trees seemed to draw even closer and a tangle of undergrowth hindered our progress. Unexpectedly the slope suddenly became much steeper, and we heard the sound of running water below and to our left.
‘Have we found the river?’ wondered Shanure.
‘It’s not loud enough for that,’ Enkulimo answered, ‘but it should lead us to the river if we follow it,’ and before we could reply he’d slid down the slope, and soon we heard him shouting up, ‘There’s a path or trail here.’
A minute later we were all standing on a narrow path which wound along the bottom of a gully beside a fast flowing stream, and, feeling more hopeful we set off at a fairly brisk pace, anxious to get into more open woodland before the darkness became complete. Most of the others were trudging along determinedly and concentrating on the path, but as usual I was looking around as I went, so I was the only one who noticed the marks.
‘Stop!’ I called, keeping my voice low but clear. ‘Look at these,’ and I pointed to a set of deep vertical gouges in the bark of a tree beside the path. The others gathered round and gasped. The gouges were not in themselves too much to worry about – quite small animals have strong claws and sharpen them on trees – but these were at a height only Tearimo the Tall could have reached! Whatever had made these was huge, and this was their path we were following.
‘What d’you think it is, Bru?’ asked Poeli.
‘Adi’s taught me about forest animals, and there’re a couple of possibilities. We need to be sure which of them it is, because if it’s a fandrin, it’s feline and can climb trees, though this is so big it wouldn’t manage any but the strongest branches. On the other hand if it’s a bresson it’s ursine and won’t climb. However, fandrini are shy and likely to avoid us, whereas bressoni are bad-tempered and will attack for no reason at all.’ I moved past the others to where the trail was untrampled and bent down, searching for paw marks in the damp earth on the stream side. My heart sank. ‘Yes, it’s a bresson, I’m afraid, and,’ I stood up and turned to the others, ‘we’re walking right through its territory.’
Huddled together in a tight group, they looked anxiously around, and their increased fear began to make my head pound.
‘What should we do?’ Poeli asked, as frightened as the rest, but trying to sound calm and thoughtful.
‘We must get off this trail if we can. Bressoni have a good sense of smell, and leaving our scent on its path will enrage it. We’ve been on it too long already. Can anyone see a way out?’
‘The sides are too steep here,’ Shanure said, ‘unless a tree can help us.’ But none of the trees stood close enough to the top of the banks to give us an escape ladder, so we had only two choices – to go on downwards in the hope the banks would become climbable, or go back to where we originally came down them and attempt to scramble back up. We decided to go downwards, but this time we walked silently, and I went first, hoping not to come face to face with the bresson round the next corner.
Although the gully continued to slope downwards it grew no shallower, and the sides remained sheer. At the same time it was becoming darker as the shadow of the Purple Mountain grew longer and the sunset light in the sky faded away. We slowed our pace even further and linked hands, as much for the comfort of the touch as for any practical use. After all no one could get lost, there was only one way forward, and one back.
‘It’s a half-moon tonight,’ Reoshimo said, ‘and at least the sky’s clear, the starlight should help once our eyes adjust to it.’
I decided not to mention how cold it could get on a clear night in Freezing. The Month wasn’t named so for fun, but there were enough of us that if we could find somewhere safe we could keep each other warm. I’d given up all thought of getting home before morning.
‘Keep a close eye on the trees as we go,’ I instructed them. ‘Remember the ones you could climb. If we meet the bresson get as high as you can – he can reach a long way when he’s standing upright.’
‘Bruathimo,’ Folure said, ‘I thought ursines slept through Chilling. Won’t this bresson be asleep?’
‘I’m afraid it’s not certain. The deep forest ones wake up at regular intervals to patrol their territory and eat. They’ve got food stores cached all over the place. We might be lucky if he’s sleeping tonight, but we can’t rely on it.’
The mood of the group, which had lightened for a moment, sank again, and their fear grew so strong my shieldings collapsed completely, leaving me defenceless.
‘The last thing we need now is for me to be sick,’ I thought, as the familiar taste filled my mouth and I stopped, shaking and dizzy. Poeli, who’d been in the middle of the line, let go of Shanure and Rolpure and hurried to my side.
‘Are you alright?’
‘It’s their fear,’ I murmured. ‘My shieldings have gone. Hold the group together for a moment,’ and I walked round the next bend and a little further down the path and was thoroughly sick behind a large Frilly Leaf.
I’d just cleaned myself up with some ferns and was stepping out from behind the bush onto the path, when I heard the sound I’d most feared – shambling footsteps and a heavy rumbling breathing. I raced back to my friends.
‘Up a tree! Quickly, he’s coming!’
Our terror lent us a speed we didn’t know we possessed, and before he came rumbling and roaring round the bend in the path we were out of his reach in a young King tree, sitting in pairs on three different branches, the innermost Youngling holding firmly to the trunk while the other clung desperately to them.
He was angry. Indeed he was in the most dreadful rage, and at one point, when he kept pushing and crashing against the tree, we thought he would manage to shake us out of it. But we stayed silent, and as still as possible, and after about an hour he gave up his efforts; but he didn’t leave. He prowled round and round the bole, lifting his head and rumbling at us for a long while, until he decided he was tired, and curling up with his back against the tree, fell asleep and snored loudly for the rest of the night.
We were cold, and getting colder, and sitting on branches didn’t allow us to huddle together as we would otherwise have done. Each pair snuggled up as best they could, but sleep was impossible, and the hours crept by very slowly.
‘Bruathimo, did you go for a pee?’ the irrepressible Reoshimo asked in a low voice. The others sniggered.
‘No, I didn’t. If you must know, I was sick.’
‘With fear?’ his voice sounded as if that too was funny, and a chill settled in my stomach. But Poeli squeezed me even more tightly, and whispered, ‘Keep on top, Bru.’
‘I’m not sure what with,’ I said, making my voice sound lighter and much more cheerful than my heart felt, ‘but you can be glad I was. He stopped to smell it and scratch around it. He probably peed on it to give it his scent, and that gave us time to get up here. If he’d come straight round that bend with no warning, you, Reoshimo, might be his late supper by now.’
Shanure giggled and said, ‘He might not be, I don’t think he’d taste very nice.’
A rumble from below told us our voices had wakened the bresson, and we stayed silent for the rest of the night, apart from one or two whispers.
‘Will he go away in the morning?’ Folure wanted to know.
‘He might, but he might wait around hoping to get hold of one of us.’
This wasn’t a cheerful thought, and no one spoke again until the faint light of a new day began to filter through the branches high above. Everyone had spent the night imagining the state our parents must be in, and while dreading the trouble which would inevitably descend on us, we hoped desperately that a search would find us before someone, weakened by cold and hunger, fell out of the tree into the claws waiting below.
Though it had risen, the sun wasn’t reaching into the gully – it was too deep – and the cold was becoming the more serious problem. Enkulimo, who was small and slight for a Seven, was growing sleepy and confused. Finally I decided that helping him was more important than keeping the bresson happy, so Poeli and I climbed over to his branch, which was fortunately one of the larger ones at this height, and with the help of Reoshimo we got him to his feet and held him between the three of us. We rubbed his hands and put my hat over his own. We made him move his feet and legs, ‘Pick one up, put it down. Now the other. Again, keep going, you can’t fall, we’ve got hold of you.’
It helped a little, but we knew he needed proper warmth, and that pretty soon.
The bresson, once he was awake, persisted in his attempts to get a good morning meal, and we had a couple of terrifying moments when he took a run and charged the tree with all his weight. The girls squealed with fright, and Frolure would have slipped if Shanure hadn’t been holding her so tightly.
At about mid-morning the bresson, who’d been having a most welcome rest, suddenly rose to his hind-legs again, but rather than attacking the tree, he stood for a moment with his head on one side listening, and then with a resentful rumble shambled off up the path.
Rolpure heard it first, a distant shout.
Terrified they’d miss us, we yelled and shouted until our voices threatened to give out, but eventually we were heard, and half an hour later we were being lifted down from the lower branches by a team of foresters and seven very anxious and angry adimos.
None of our parents was impressed with our adventure – Enkulimo had to spend three days in the Halls of Healing – and a variety of punishments, warnings and restrictions were handed out, which we privately agreed were well deserved.