Progeniture, Ch. 3
The mat was nearly cleared when the old woman sat up sharply and cocked her head, listening. After a frozen moment she burst into motion, scooping up everything left and shoving it into her pack, leaving whatever slipped from her grip. She eyed the mat for half a heartbeat--it had taken months to craft--before deciding it would be too bulky and heavy to run with.
The little boy was sitting off to her left, some ways down the treeline. He’d been watching her pack dozily, relaxing in the shadows. He sat up alert when the woman began her frantic scramble. When she unslung her bow, the boy leaped up and slunk toward her, keeping in the shadows, his wide eyes darting all around.
The old woman grimaced--this wasn’t a burden she was prepared to take on. She’d learned long ago that orphans could only ever lead to misery for her. Even if they beat the odds and survived, even if they grew into capable, agreeable companions, they inevitably continued on into old age and death within the blink of an eye. The best few years of love and companionship hadn’t been enough to outweigh the decades of crushing loneliness that had followed.
She bent to retrieve the knife the boy had thrown aside. A small drop of his blood rolled down from the edge, curving across the smooth horn as she turned it. A sudden, bizarre compulsion gripped her and, before she could stop, she lifted the blade to her mouth and licked it.
She stood frozen for a moment, looking down at the red smear, horrified at herself. What could have possessed her to do such a thing? She never acted so rashly, or without reason. It was a large part of why she’d been alive for so long. That she would just... act... without any thought of consequence was deeply disturbing. Was it truly her hand that lifted the blade? Had the impulse to stretch out her dry, rigid tongue... had it truly come from her? No way to know for sure. No time left to ponder.
She tossed the knife over to the boy, who was staring at her with his jaw hanging open. It hit him butt-first, bouncing harmlessly off his arm and back into the grass. He slowly kneeled to retrieve it, never breaking his stare, or closing his mouth.
She turned and darted away, flying from the boy and into the deeper forest. A ragged, thin shadow she was, sliding across trees, shrubs, rocks and roots without a sound. She looked back periodically, trying to catch sight of the boy trailing behind. He was nowhere in sight. Her grimace deepened.
She slid into the shadow of a broad old oak Father and stood motionless, palms pressed against his rough skin. Eyes closed, she listened to the forest’s voice--the squirrel's chattering, the leaves rustling, the water gurgling, the wood groaning--waiting for any hint of pursuit. All was quiet, though, but for a distant cacophony of bird cries. The forest had felt the presence of a monster and was now frozen, listening as she was. She focused on the bird cries, picking out certain trills and caws, dissecting the patterns. The crattha was huge, they said, but thin and ravenous. A bull that had ventured too deep into woods and was now starving from lack of the larger plains game it was used to. It was tearing through the forest, coming up rapidly on the clearing she had just fled.
The old woman leaned forward to place a gentle kiss on the Father's trunk, her dry lips rasping as they brushed the bark. This impulse was well-known, as familiar to her as kissing her mother-sisters had been. All the Fathers lent their support, their strength, but oaks had always been her favorites.
An acorn bounced off her forehead, sending a jolt of shock through her body. Her eyes popped open, and she looked up to see the boy, grinning with his tongue out. He squatted on the fork of a neighboring tree's branch, bouncing up and down and giggling.
He threw another acorn, which bounced harmlessly off her cocked staff. "Caught you, old lady!"
Another, bigger jolt coursed through her. She hadn't heard the ancient tongue on another's lips since her own distant youth, in the tribe of her birth. Her own words came with great difficulty. "You speak?"
The boy pulled his head back and scrunched up his face. "Why you kissing trees, old lady?"
He was speaking words of the One Tongue. "How you learn the Tongue, boy? Who give you this?" She paused. "Before, why not speak in trade?"
"How do I know you talk before, huh? Why talk to any dumb old lady?" He slid further out on the branch, which bowed down and brought them closer together. "I'm called Vess. What you called, huh? And where'd you learn? Who gave it to you?"
The woman thought for a moment. It had been a long time since she'd had any use for names. "Dahlia. My people called me Dahlia. And it was they taught me the tongue. The Elders passed it on, to keep it safe through the Ages," she paused, her face pinched. The boy shouldn't have this. Words long-forgotten suddenly came tumbling out. "But they lived near forever! Only a few tens of generations had passed in our tribe, it wasn't yet a challenge to preserve the Myth and Tongue... until we were killed." She squints, and a million wrinkles spray from her eyes. "But you! How old are you? No more than ten summers? Your people have mayfly lives! Fifty thousand generations, fifty thousand chances to break the Chain of Truth! And yet... and yet you speak the Tongue as if you were an Ancient yourself. How can this be?" Her eyes glistened.
Vess crept out a little further, the thin outer branch steady in his hands. It bowed even further, bringing them nearly face-to-face. "I dont know about mayflies or chains-of-anything, but I learned the Tongue in the visions. All my people got them. You don't get the visions, old lady?" He cocked his head and grinned. "Maybe you will."
A bone chilling shriek resounded through the forest halls, and all was suddenly quiet. The boy dropped softly to the ground, landing in a crouch. The branch whipped up with a whoosh, showering them in green and gold leaves.
Dahlia pushed off from the trunk and darted away, dodging through the bushes and vines that clogged the forest floor. Vess kept on her tail, following her every move. It was a smarter choice of path than any other- he knew it was her land, and that she would know the best path. He would have to be shaken before she made it home.