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A Whisper in the Woods

Trial beneath the trees

By Dominic Casey-LeePublished about a month ago 12 min read
A Whisper in the Woods
Photo by Deric on Unsplash

A barely perceptible hum reverberated through the trees. Most humans wouldn’t have noticed, definitely not consciously. Maybe some would have felt a wind that wasn’t there or heard leaves rustle in unison without a breeze to stir them, but none, other than those educated in the ways of the forest, would have known that the trees themselves were speaking. Not for the first time since he set out from Kaidin’s Bend, Caen silently thanked his cousin’s teachings.

For Caen, the voice of the trees made itself known as a slight shudder in the vines that bound him hand and foot, spreadeagled on a large boulder which rose up at an angle from the bank of the crystalline stream burbling its way through the clearing. Though dawn had broken some time ago, the first rays of sunlight were only now filtering through the canopy. One such ray shone directly onto Caen’s face and he closed his eyes, inhaling deeply as the warmth spread through his body. He wiggled his fingers and twinkled his toes, trying to wake up his muscles as best he could in his restricted state. His whole body ached from the night spent tied to the boulder, particularly his shoulders, unused to being stretched for such a long time, and his back, pressed hard against the unyielding rock.

Footsteps sounded off to Caen’s right, but he did not turn his neck to look. He didn’t even open his eyes. He knew who approached. Only when the sunlight bathing his face vanished did Caen crack an eye. Looming over him, so close he could almost have stuck out his tongue to lick her nose, was an alarmingly feline face. At this distance he could see the individual hairs of the short, velveteen black fur that covered her skin. He wanted to stroke her cheek to check if the fur was as soft as it looked.

“Good morning,” she purred.

“Good morning to you too, Ksenia,” Caen replied evenly. Although the nearly murderous rage from the night before had subsided overnight, he still did not feel overly positive towards his captors. The woman currently leaning over him was probably his favourite, in truth. She at least had let him spend the night tied the right way up and had stopped another from pouring water over his face while he was upside down. On the other hand, being the Witch Doctor, she was the one keeping his bonds in place.

“Did you sleep well?” only the slightest hint of mockery entered her tone.

“Barely a wink.”

Her smile bared needle-like incisors. As she straightened, the sun illuminating Caen’s face once again, he felt his bonds loosen. The vines around his ankles retracted, and those securing his hands slackened, though their grip on his wrists did not weaken.

“You may rise,” the woman declared, though Caen had not waited for invitation, already standing unsteadily, shaking pins and needles from his legs. The vines still holding his arms were long enough now that he could sink into a crouch, though not so long that he could wrap his arms around himself to relieve his aching shoulders.

When Caen rose, Ksenia had moved to stand between him and the council of five K’rrisi who had come to prosecute his trial: the three tribal Elders, the Chief of the Hunt, and the Stone Chanter. Each of them was covered in fur in shades of grey, brown or black, shorter on their faces than the rest of their bodies. Tufts of fur sprouted from the tips of their pointed, mobile ears, elbows and on the backs of their hands, and ridges of longer fur ran from their shoulders down their spines. Long tails swayed and twitched; like those of their evolutionary inspirations, the tails provided a glimpse of their owner’s internal world. As Witch Doctor, Ksenia was to be the arbitrator and, if necessary, executioner, of Caen’s trial.

“Your cousin has replied,” she stated.

“I know,” Caen said.

“It appears you speak the truth.”

“I thought that much would have been obvious when I spoke to the trees.” Caen’s response was dry and not a little exasperated.

“Any fool can learn words to make the trees whisper,” spat the K’rar, Chief of the Hunt; a tall male with reddish-brown fur that darkened to black where it grew long. His thick, russet mane was carefully crafted into spikes in attempt to look fierce. Caen thought it made him look like an aged sunflower.

“But not just any fool can hear what the trees say in return,” Caen retorted.

The Chief of the Hunt bared his teeth in a snarl. “No furless can truly speak with the trees.”

“Your mind is smaller than your claws,” Caen jibed.

The Chief hissed, his golden eyes flaring and hackles rising. Caen shot a glance at his hands, noticing sharp claws spring from the tips of his stubby, yet still humanoid fingers. They were pretty long, actually. Receiving a strike from them was not an attractive prospect.

“Enough,” one of the Elders cut in, her cloud-grey fur whitening around her mouth and her jade-green eyes. “This furless clearly has some capacity to communicate with the forest, and we promised a fair trial should his claim prove true. We will keep our word. Tylenya, you may announce the charges.”

A second Elder, her fur striped black and iron, stepped forward. “This furless has been found wandering the forest unaccompanied by a guide, far from any furless settlement, armed, and bearing tools of cutting and burning.”

Caen nearly rolled his eyes at that. True, he was carrying a sword, but it was bundled with his sleeping roll. And yes, his pack held a small hatchet and a tinderbox. Technically, they were tools for cutting and burning, but he was hardly going to cut down one of these forest giants with that hatchet, let alone set fire to a vast forest that rained every second day on average with just a tinderbox.

“Not only that, but I see embers in his eyes. They speak of fire and rage. A sturdy gust of the wind can turn embers to flame in moments. I see within him a blaze that could consume not only our forest, but every tree in Munaria,” the third Elder’s voice was a scratchy hiss, but it pierced through the bubbling of the brook with an air of peril. Only traces of sandy brown peeked through his now almost completely grey fur. He was hunched over a gnarled staff of white beech. Caen took this charge sombrely. It was a fair call; he was a danger to virtually anyone around him. Laila’s barn was testament to that.

“What say you to these charges, furless?” asked the Witch Doctor, cocking her head in curiosity, the sun gleaming off her blue-black fur. Caen met her inquisitive blue eyes, not for the first time suspecting that she was finding this whole scenario amusing.

“I accept that I have trespassed in your territory. I acknowledge that, equipped as I am, I may be perceived as a danger to the trees, though I doubt I would threaten your warriors.” Cats are fond of flattery, and Caen hoped that might soften them a little. A pity the Chief of the Hunt already hated him so much, he was simple enough to fall for that kind of trick otherwise.

“As for the fire this Elder speaks of…” Caen took a deep breath. This was the tricky part. He knew what the old man was talking about, and that it was the main reason they wanted to drown him in the creek. If he misspoke, he could well end up tied to another rock and thrown in the water hole.

“I know I have a fire in me. It’s what has driven me from my village in the first place. I know it is there but I do not know why, or where it has come from. I must find out so that I can control it.”

“The best way to control a fire is to put it out before it grows,” the Chief of the Hunt snarled.

Caen ignored him. “I am sorry that I have caused alarm, but believe me when I say I that harming this forest is the last thing I want to do. I grew up among these trees, they are like a second home to me. I have never struck with steel nor burned living wood, save that allowed by the Velm Accords. On more than one occasion I have defended the forest from those who intend to use it for profit. If you let me go now, I swear by the Roots of Broöst to leave this forest by the quickest route, and never return to these woods until I have found the source of the fire within me and learned to control it.”

In the silence that followed his defence, Caen looked to each of his prosecutors in turn, searching for a sign of sympathy. Their faces were blank, only the twitching of their tails betraying any sign of their thoughts. Considering how effectively they could utilise those virtually prehensile appendages in climbing, combat, and day-to-day life, Caen was surprised by the lack of control they exhibited when idle. Only Ksenia’s and the old tom’s tails gave nothing away. Ksenia was tickling herself under her chin with hers. She smirked when he looked at her. The Elder’s tail lay limp on the ground, as if he didn’t possess the energy to keep it moving as the others did. By the way he leaned on that staff, he probably didn’t.

He already knew the Chief of the Hunt was against him, so he barely glanced at his violently gyrating tail. Tylenya’s flicked back and forth as though deep in deliberation. The grey Elder’s moved with erratically, seemingly without a pattern, and he could not read it. That of the Stone Chanter’s wove a figure-eight at an even pace, and she appeared calmest of all. Caen couldn’t get a read on her either. Her fur was the cool grey of a wet river pebble.

“Does the council need time to confer, honoured ones? Or would they like to pass judgment immediately?” asked Ksenia.

The members looked at one another, in silent conversation with only their eyes, twitching ears and tails. “We will take conference,” Tylenya declared. “But keep the prisoner standing, we will not be long.”

They turned and made their way to the edge of the clearing, where the trees met the stream’s bank and its burbling obscured the sound of their voices. Caen could feel his heart rate increase and his breathing quicken in anticipation. He tried not to let his nerves show, Ksenia was watching him with a smirk of amusement on her thin lips. When he looked at her, she flashed him a grin, her incisors gleaming, “Nervous, little flame?”

Caen didn’t have a witty reply on hand, so he stayed silent, hoping he looked stoic instead of frightened.

“It’s ok,” she purred. “I wouldn’t let them hurt you, even if they were going to. Your path is much too interesting, and you’re far too pretty to look at.”

Caen snapped his head around, eyebrows furrowed in consternation, “What do you mean?”

“Well, I thought I was quite plain. You’re rather good looking for a furless. If you had a bit more of that strange human hair on your body, and a tail, I might think of lying with you,” she answered.

“Not that part. What was it you said about my path?”

“Oh, I said it was interesting, dear. Very interesting.”

“What do you know of it?”

“A little. Or maybe nothing at all. I have seen some things. Perhaps they will come to pass, or perhaps you will come up with some other way to surprise me. Either way, I will be watching.”

“Tell me,” Caen demanded.

“No, dear. That would ruin the surprise. You will find out in due time.”

“But I will get out of this, then? They aren’t going to kill me?”

“Well, I certainly am not going to kill you. And I am meant to be the executioner. But who knows? Maybe K’rar will tear your innards out with his claws when I refuse.”

Caen gave her a simmering look, but she returned it with that same dry amusement. Realising there was nothing more to be gained by pressing her, Caen decided to take his mind off the trial by engaging her in conversation, “What age were you when you became Witch Doctor?”

“I was born Witch Doctor, birthed from the trunk of a great eucalypt.”

Caen stared at her flatly.

“Oh don’t be like that, you look like K’rar. He always takes things too seriously. I’m just having a bit of fun.”

The comparison with that angry sunflower rankled, “I’m sorry, my sense of humour is somewhat blunted by the thought of potentially impending death.”

“Well I hope you learn to use such a stone to sharpen instead of dull that blade, you may be encountering it more often than you might like.”

The allusion to some knowledge of his future once again made Caen’s thoughts whirl. He pushed down the urge to inquire further, knowing he would only receive nonchalant deflections.

“Oh look, the conference is over, here they come,” Ksenia said, somewhat too cheerily for his liking.

The council was advancing slowly back across the clearing towards them. Caen’s heart beat faster still, and he struggled to keep his breathing even. K’rar was trailing a few steps behind the others, tail thrashing in obvious rage that was also painted on his face in the form of a vicious snarl. Caen decided that could only bode well for him, and he relaxed slightly as the council formed up in before him in a V, with Ressr the Stone Chanter at its point, closest to him.

“What has the council decided?” Ksenia intoned.

“The decision is to pardon, with only one voice of dissent, who wishes to make it clearly known,” Ressr said, glancing at K’rar, whose snarl grew even fiercer with the announcement. Caen closed his eyes and sighed in relief. “The conditions are those stated by the accused himself: that he will never return to these woods until he has put out the fire within him…”

“That’s not what I said,” Caen cut in.

Ressr gave him a stern stare, then looked to Ksenia in inquiry.

“Let him speak,” she said.

“I don’t know that I can put this fire out. I swore never to return until I learn how to control it.”

“A fire is always at the brink of losing control. Only by dousing it may one truly control it,” Ressr asserted.

“Not so,” countered Ksenia, defending him directly for the first time. “Even we of the forest light small fires that we keep strictly contained.”

“Yes, but they are always put out.”

“And what of the Eternal Flame of the Zuron, which to this day is said to be burning in the heart of those mountains?” Ksenia said with a raised eyebrow.

Ressr glowered, pursing her lips. “The Eternal Flame was a wonder of the Zuron’s wisdom and mastery of the natural world. This boy is a human in his adolescence, known for their recklessness and disregard for wild places.”

“I think you may be underestimating him. This ‘boy’ has something within him that we have never encountered before, though I have heard tales of the elements living within sentient beings in Zuron annals. I believe that he may surprise us all. I insist that you grant him pardon on his conditions, as he spoke them, not altered to your liking.”

The two women stared at each other for some time, even their tales still as they took the other’s measure. Finally, Ressr inclined her head, “It will be as you say. He may leave, only to return should he learn to control the fire within him.”

Ksenia nodded her acceptance.

“But,” Ressr went on, “We have a second condition.”

“Go on,” Ksenia prompted in a curious tone.

“There is a task he must complete, on his own, before he is allowed to leave this forest.” She dipped a hand (or paw?) into the pouch at her waist, producing a dagger a little longer than Caen’s hand. The blade was black obsidian crystal, bound to a handle of bone-white wood with vines. The jagged edges were clearly very sharp. Caen’s hopes fell. This sounded ominous. He looked to Ksenia and saw that smirk of dry amusement yet again. His sense of foreboding deepened.

“It will be so,” she stated, a glint in her eye.


About the Creator

Dominic Casey-Lee

Ecclectic, erotic, enigmatic. Exploring the mysteries of our existence through words, and hopefully providing some entertainment along the way.

Here you'll find excerpts from my fantasy project, stories, poems and general rambling.

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