A story for young adventurers
by Tyler McNamara
We cannot say where things begin and end. A tree does not end at the ground. No, its roots go deeper still, and even at the tiniest thread of rootlet there is no end. The roots, at their tips connect to the soil and the minerals, nutrients, and microorganisms that live in the soil. If you follow the trunk upward it splits into limbs, branches, twigs, and hundreds of leaves. The leaves are made up of hundreds of cells and it doesn’t end there. Every tree breathes with the sun, and speaks to the wind.
We might say that this forest or that forest began after the Earth cooled, or after the glaciers migrated north, but every seed started somewhere and not even WE know where. And when the boy first entered the Queen’s Forest WE thought that he began inside his mother, but even that is not his beginning—his shape, his basic nature, and his health were already much older than his great-great-grandmother.
An easier task is noticing what is different. The air is different from the earth, the water is different from the fire, and after his journey the boy, who his people called Red Eft, became different too.
Dipping a leaf into the cool water, Red Eft watched as it turned from a lush green to a silvery white. “Her wet leaves shimmer like fancy things,” he whispered, and scrambled lightly back up the bank to the patch where he’d picked the test leaf. The words were from a nursery rhyme all children know.
Two sisters live in the dark brown dirt
One plays nice but the other will hurt
Teaches akin to steam from the kettle
You’ll soon know she’s called Stinging Nettle
Fail your test and you’ll find yourself in need
So I’ll introduce you to Jewelweed
Her wet leaves shimmer like fancy things
Give thanks first than put’er on yer stings
Sing this song and teach it to your folk
For Jewel will even cure poison oak
Silently he thanked the plant for giving its life, and he ‘cut’ it at its base with a wooden practice knife his uncle White Ash has carved for him on the day he turned seven. Sitting amongst the orange spotted flowers he gently scratched at the white bumps that were beginning to appear on his leg and remembered his uncle’s words:
Stinging nettle is not a ‘dumb plant’, Red Eft. The Prince planted it to gently remind us to pay attention.
He crushed the jewelweed until its juice squished out between his small fingers then carefully patted it on to his legs where the nettles had stung him. “Gotta pay attention,” he reminded himself.
The Prince’s lessons are often harsh surprises: stinging nettle, poison ivy, ground wasps, and sharp stones are all of his reminders that you must always be aware of your surroundings.
No sooner than he had decided to be more aware, Red Eft noticed that the birds had gone silent. He stretched his ears listening for an alarm call as they warned each other about the cooper’s hawk silently hunting, or the grey fox slinking through the barberry bushes, but heard none. They must have gone silent at the approach of much larger predator.
“Mountain lion,” he mouthed, almost hopeful that he was right, for the other possibility was that a chimera had crossed the Black Ridge and was at this very moment sniffing his scent in the air with one of its deformed heads and drooling hungrily with another. Again he remembered his uncle’s voice.
“As you reach the Black Ridge Red Eft, you must be very alert, and very quiet. That is the land of the chimera, the troll, and the goblin, and the only way you can defend yourself is with the undisarmable weapons that we have given you.”
The boy held up the wooden knife, and in one fluid motion Uncle Hornbeam grabbed the boy’s wrist and twisted under and away until the knife voluntarily fell from his fingers. Spinning, Hornbeam caught it before it hit the ground. Tears welled up in his eyes, but this wasn’t the first time he had grappled with his uncles. As he massaged his wrist, his Hornbeam said, “You are disarmed.” He flipped the knife over and handed it back to Red Eft, “Undisarmable mean that it cannot be taken away. Besides, that wooden knife will be useless against them. It is merely a reminder of what waits for you when you return.”
The boy’s ears almost grew as he held his breath and strained to hear anything. The silence was more unsettling than any noise could have been. Red Eft opened his eyes wide and tried not to focus on anything. A Ranger trick that let his eyes watch for movement rather than detail. Presently, a flock of chickadees came flitting silently through the trees. The birds, normally playful and curious, seemed to be in a hurry and were even too busy to sing an alarm. Red Eft watched them fly over him and the Arrowstone creek, and fondly remembered the victorious moment when he was able to feed one right out of his hand.
Aunt Sycamore had invited him to practice his invisibility. It had been boring at first, for it involved many hours of sitting perfectly still, but eventually his aunt decided that he was ready for the test. She told Red Eft to sit without moving a muscle, and placed sunflower seeds all along his arms, legs, and even on the top of his head. He sat for a long time while the chickadees hopped and sang “IIII’m here,” to each other in the branches above him. Slowly they ventured lower as they noticed the seed, and when the first one cautiously landed on his arm Red Eft almost jumped for joy, almost. He remembered to be patient and waited. Soon there were two or three birds jumping down his arms, landing on his fingers, and pecking the seeds from his hair. The exited energy built up inside of him until he could stand it no longer, and he jumped up and ran to tell Aunt Sycamore. Immediately the birds scattered to the high branches and shrieked at him: “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee-dee!” They were angry, but he was too excited to care.
As he watched the last chickadee fade from sight he whispered, “It’s somethin’ big alright.” Keeping low to the ground he followed them toward the Arrowstone creek.
Before entering the steam he carefully tightened the soft deer-hide boots his grandmother had made for him, so that his feet would stay dry even if he stepped in a deep spot. With the cloud of panic almost on top of him, he silently wept, wishing that he had stayed in his grandparent’s hall instead of venturing out alone into the dangerous forest.
Stalking through the creek gave Red Eft three advantages: Uncle Sugar Maple had told him that every time he stepped on the earth a part of him was left behind, but walking in the cool water would wash away his scent. The second was that the sound of the burbling creek masked the sound of his footsteps as long as he didn’t drag them through the water. So as he walked into the cold stream, he lifted each foot high above the water and quietly slid it back in. Being a very young boy and also very afraid he often forgot this and caught himself hurrying upstream, slipping, and splashing all the while. In those moments he tried to remember the great blue heron, and the way its head stays perfectly still when he moves his feet.
Over the years the creek had carved a deep trench into the Queen’s forest and this gave Red Eft a third benefit, which was that he was out of sight to anyone (or anything) stalking through the wood, but this also meant that he was unable to see anything coming until it was directly upon him.
Red Eft stalked up the stream for a long time, until his legs were starting to hurt from moving so slowly. He turned and crawled up out of the creek bed on the same side the chickadees had flown. As he poked his head over the edge he startled a pair of Robins feeding on the ground nearby. Not badly enough that they flew away, but just enough for them to quietly complain, “Tut-tut-tut,” and hop a few yards away. One of them staying alert while the other fed, then they would switch. In his head, Red Eft sang the robin song.
Robin, robin high up in the tree
Robin, robin, where do you hide?
In the bushes from the hawks
In the trees from the fox
When I move my butt
you’ll hear my say: Tut TUT tut tut tut tut tut tut
These robins clearly felt he was the only threat nearby, so Ref Eft relaxed and let his guard down for the moment. He climbed up out of the stream bed and dusted his hands off on his gray woolen cloak.
“You father once wore this very cloak during his knife quest,” said his grandfather, draping it over his shoulders. “Keep it safe and it will keep you safe.”
Tears came to his eyes again as he realized how far he was from the village, and how no one would be there to help him if he got hurt, lost, or worse. Suddenly there was a commotion from deeper in the woods, and the robins responded by flying to a low branch in a nearby elm tree. Ref Eft’s imagination went wild and he followed the robins. Shinnying up the nearest elm to the lowest branches he where he climbed higher, hiding among the foliage he drew his wooden knife from its sheath. While he waited, his nervousness began to fade and he squished the corky elm bark with his fingers, and rubbed the furry underside of the leaves. Many minutes passed before he heard the robins alarming nearby, and when he looked down through the leaves he saw a red fox walking through the woods toward the steam. All thoughts of trolls and goblins faded from his mind and he breathed a sigh of relief. Quietly he watched the fox as she ignored the birds that taunted her and walked beneath him with a sense of purpose. Yet just as she passed under him something interrupted her gait. She stopped and sniffed around. “She’s found my trail,” he thought and smiled, “I outsmarted Fox.” But then she easily followed his scent trail to the base of the elm tree, which she walked around twice and looked up. Suddenly Red Eft realized that if it were something larger, a mountain lion or hungry chimera, he’d be dead. After spotting him up the branches Fox almost looked ashamed and she slinked down the bank to the stream, where she took a long drink, crossed the Arrowstone jumping lightly from rock to rock and continued on in the same direction.
“Bye Misses Fox, thanks for your lesson.” As he looked around, he noticed just how late the day it had become. “Don’t wanna be on the Black Ridge after dark.” He hurried down the tree holding the wooden knife between his teeth. Hanging from the bottom branch, he swung back and forth a few times before letting go, but his fall was suddenly interrupted as the cloak got caught on a branch above. The salamander-shaped cloak pin that secured the fabric around his neck pressed into his throat and he hung there unable to breathe. He thought of calling out for help, but realized no one was there to help him. Red Eft’s hands reached up and tried to grab hold of the fabric above him, while his feet kicked uselessly in the air beneath. Suddenly there was a tearing sound and he fell flat on his back, his head banged into a root and the wind was knocked out of his lungs. Ref Eft gasped for air but his lungs wouldn’t let him breathe. Tears welled up in his eyes and he mouthed the word: ouch.
When his breath returned his cries of pain grew louder and louder, “Ouch, ow ow ooooowww!” He was crying heavily now. He curled up into a ball on the ground and held and head between both hands. After a time the sadness passed and anger came to take its place. Red Eft got to his feet and kicked the tree, “Stupid tree, you almost killed me! If I had a real knife I’d cut off all the bark around your trunk so you’d die!” He stomped away and followed the Arrowstone creek back down the hill toward the Ranger village. “I hate this quest!”
With tears hiding in the edges of his eyes he picked up every loose stone and dead stick along his path and threw it blindly out into the Queen’s forest. “I don’t care if I fail, this quest is dumb anyway. So what if White Ash is angry with me.”
“…and Sugar Maple.”
“…and grandma and grandpa.” He seemed to realize something and looked down at his cloak. There was a long ugly tear about four inches long at the bottom seam. “Oh no, Father’s cloak!” His grandfather’s words echoed in his mind.
“Keep it safe and it will keep you safe.”
A scream pierced the silence of the wood. Instinctively he reached for his knife, but found the sheath empty. “I must’ve left it beneath that elm,” he thought. But then he remembered White Ash’s words:
“…The only way you can defend yourself is with the undisarmable weapons that we have given you.”
“The first weapon is smell,” he thought, breathing deep through his nose Red Eft took in every sent on the breeze. He could smell the fresh damp air of the Arrowstone creek and the green growing smell his uncles called ‘the Queen’s perfume’.
“The second weapon is touch.” He stoop on all fours and felt the dead leaves under his fingers, they were still pliable and slightly cold. “They haven’t completely dried since the rain this morning.” Then he used both weapons at once and found another smell on the air. “Scat!” He crawled along the ground, careful not to cause a racket by dragging his cloak, until he found a pile of small round pellets barely bigger than his fingernail. They were dark brown and still had a glossy look to them. “Rabbit left these recently.” He looked around for its tracks and found where it had nibbled at a patch of grass alongside the creek.
“The third undisarmable weapon is hearing,” He thought, and cupped his hands around his ears to make them bigger. He turned his head to block out the sounds of the creek, and closed his eyes. The birds around him were wary of his presence, but not alarmed by it. And whatever had screamed didn’t scare birds toward him, like whatever had scared the chickadees earlier. Suddenly he heard the scream a second time and realized who it was. “Rabbit!” He said, opening his eyes he quickly moved in its direction. As he ran among the trees, he tried to keep his sense of smell, touch, and hearing all engaged. This time as he reached for dead sticks in his path he looked for a small, heavy one that could be used as a throwing stick.
As he approached the rabbit screamed a third time, and Red Eft immediately saw why. The young rabbit kit hung three feet off the ground by a crudely tanned leather thong that was wrapped around its hind leg. The strip of leather was tied to a striped maple sapling that had been bent over into a snare trap, which Rabbit had triggered with his leg.
“This is no ranger-made trap,” Red Eft thought, “This snare was crafted by goblin hands. Good thing too, if they hadn’t used a green sapling, it probably would have broken Rabbit’s leg. I must be pretty close to the Black Ridge.”
“Wait here,” he whispered to the kit, “And keep quiet, if you keep screaming you’ll draw the goblins to us.” Quickly, Red Eft slid down the bank of creek and began looking for one of the creamy grey stones the Arrowstone was named after.
“Grandfather Stones,” he whispered to the ground, “I need your help to save a life, please show yourself to me.” A moment later he found just the stone he walk looking for. Balancing it on its long axis between four smaller stones, he then dropped the biggest stone he could lift on top of it. It landed with a crack and a crash and the arrowstone split in half, leaving him with two rocks with razor sharp edges. “Thank you Grandfathers,” he said, selected the sharper of the two and rushed back to the kit.
As he sawed back and forth on the thick, greasy leather string, heard saw a small flock of song sparrows quietly fly past. “Something’s coming.” He thought and sawed faster. The rabbit also seemed to sense something approach and began struggling uselessly at the end of the string, which only made it more difficult for Ref Eft to cut.
Something horrid called out through the wood, and other foul voices yelled back in answer. Red Eft was breathing heavily but refused to look up from his work. As the leather snapped and the kit fell to the ground, the boy and rabbit immediately took off running in different directions. The rabbit dashed into a thick patch of barberry, and the boy slid down the embankment to the Arrowstone creek.
The stones seemed to have suddenly turned sharp and slippery at the same time, and as Red Eft scrambled along the edge of the creek, his feet threatened to slip and trip him up every step of the way. To make things worse the sun was setting and it was getting harder and harder to see in the grey light. An angry scream gurgled out across the twilit woods. “The goblins must have found the trap all cut up,” he thought. Risking a peek over his shoulder he saw six silvery-golden orbs of light, the glowing eyes of three goblins rushing into the Arrowstone in pursuit. They called after him in their cruel language of taunts and hatred. Suddenly his foot slammed into on a large stone and he tripped, falling headlong into a pool. The spring water was icy cold and squeezed a cry that burbled from his mouth. Frantically he tried to force his head above the water’s surface, but his waterlogged cloak seemed to be pulling him back under. He desperately yanked open the clasp on the salamander cloak pin, and half swam/half crawled to the pool’s edge leaving his father’s cloak behind.
Quickly looking around, Red Eft found that the pool he had stumbled into was the source of the Arrowstone. The Queen’s forest had ended twenty yards back, and the first stars were twinkling into life above him. The walls of the pool rose steeply on all but the downstream side, and an incline that was too exact to have been carved by nature’s hand rose abruptly before him. His uncle’s voice seemed to whisper in his ears:
“The wall beneath the Black Ridge is unnaturally true. It follows the contour of the land, but ends at exactly the same height all along its length. You will climb this wall, and return with a piece of the charcoal stone.”
Red Eft looked up the wall. Half-way up he saw a stone pipe extending directly over the pool. Not wasting a moment he scrambled up the wall, which was easy enough for a climber of his level, and quickly slipped into the stone pipe. Peaking over the edge, he saw the eyes and the dark shapes of the goblins approach. They carried crude scraps of rusted metal with rawhide bits wrapped around one end to form handles. Five goblins in all circled around the pool and leered into its depths, where, in the last light of dusk, he saw his father’s cloak slowly sinking like a drowning boy.
The goblins punched each other and pointed into the water, they yell and jeered, pointing into the pool and raising their voices at each other, but none among them was brave enough to enter the cold water. As their curses grew more fowl Red Eft became afraid of what they might do to each other, and carefully inched deeper into the pipe. He covered his ears to block out their voices and tried to focus on the constellations rising in the east. From this height he could see over the entirety of the Queen’s forest, and beyond to the Grey Towers.
The comforting voices of the night could not reach him from up here, and he fell asleep to the frightening sounds of angry goblins.
Sometime in the darkest hours before first light Red Eft was awakened by a fierce shivering that gripped his entire body. He breathed out, but his breath didn’t turn to mist. The night wasn’t cold, he was. “What did you es’pect?” he thought, “Sleeping in dripping wet clothes in a stone pipe.”
He looked out over the Queen’s forest and saw The Hourglass had just escaped the edge of the eastern horizon.
“The hourglass represents the twelfth undisarmable weapon. For half the night the sand in the hourglass is being dumped out.” His grandfather explained, using an actual hourglass to demonstrate. The two were lying on their backs in the fields on the eastern edge of the forest. Grandfather held the hourglass in the east so that its sands poured out. Slowly he moved the hourglass across the sky and their field of vision. “Then as the night ripens, time is slowed, stopped...” He held his hand at the zenith. “…and begins to flow backward.” He moved the hourglass to the west and over Ref Eft’s head, his sleeve brushed the boy’s cheek, and he could smell the sweet scent of wood smoke and elk musk. “The hourglass lets us approach every day as a new opportunity. It invites us to greet the mundane with new eyes.”
“It’s going to be a while ‘til morning. I gotta get warm.” Red Eft crawled to the edge of the stone pipe and peered over the edge. He could see the stars above him reflected in the pool below, and knew his father’s cloak waited beneath the cold mirrored surface.
“Keep it safe and it will keep you safe.”
“You tried to choke me, then you tried to drown me.” Red Eft quietly called down to it. “But the goblins thought you were me, so I guess you protected me. But now you’re drowning.”
He carefully climbed out of the pipe, his cold fingers struggling to hold on. He looked down at the pool twenty feet below him. Hanging from the pipe’s end, he swung to the wall and balanced himself on a handful of Virginia creeper vines that were far better climbers than he. Once he reached the edge of the pool he began to undress, slowly at first, but he realized he was only getting colder and there was no use taking it slow. Leaving his pile of clothes he scrambled down the bank surrounding the pool and dipped his foot in the water. The ripples spread over the surface and the reflection of the stars twinkled out. Wincing and whimpering he slipped beneath its black surface feeling as if the bitter cold water wanted to swallow him up. It was useless opening his eyes, there was nothing to see in the dark water, and he was forced to feel his way along the bottom. Twice he came gasping to the surface empty handed. The third time he emerged a black shape was trailing behind him as he swam to the pool’s edge.
Red Eft’s teeth were chattering nosily, and his skin burned from the cold, but he pushed the thought out of his mind as he pulled the black shape out of the water. The waterlogged wool cloak was heavy, but after hastily putting his damp clothes back on and spending the next few minutes ringing it out it almost felt dry to the touch. After draping it over his shoulders he realized that his salamander cloak pin was still somewhere at the bottom of the pool. It had been hard enough to find the cloak, and Red Eft couldn’t imagine groping around the bottom of the frigid pool for the small salamander pin.
Sadly he turned back to the Queen’s Forest, and stumbled his way among the huge white oak trees. Barely realizing how heavy his eyelids had become.
“Gotta get warm before I—” he yawned, “—fall asleep.” Red Eft found a small slope that flattened briefly before continuing downward. Starting a hundred feet above the flat spot, he began scraping the top layer of leaves and debris off the forest floor.
“What’s that squirrel doing?” asked Uncle White Ash. Red Eft looked and saw a grey squirrel stuffing leaf after leaf into its mouth. “It’s eating leaves!” He giggled. White Ash said nothing and they both continued to watch. Once its mouth looked like it would burst, it took off to a specific tree, a White Oak his uncle called The Squirrel Tree. “Look,” he told his uncle as it ran up the ‘squirrel highway’, the place where the bark of the oak had been worn down by tiny squirrel claws running up and down, up and down at the very same spot. At the top of the highway the huge trunk of the oak split into two forks, and the squirrel took the left, running almost to the top where it walked out along a strong limb to a ball of leaves.
“It went into that leaf ball!” he cried out.
“I bet that’s where the squirrel lays its eggs,” his uncle said, very seriously.
Red Eft rolled his eyes, “Uncle White Ash, squirrels don’t lay eggs.”
“Then why is it called a squirrel nest?”
“I don’t know. I thought those were just old leaves that got stuck in the branches.”
By the time Red Eft had reached the flat spot, he had a pile of dried leaves that was four times bigger than he was, and the hard work had warmed him, but he was even more tired than before. Wrapping his cloak around himself he crawled into the middle of the squirrel nest he’d made. At first it felt cold and damp, but he knew to be patient. Even before the leaves started to warm up, he was fast asleep.
The night was so dark that Red Eft couldn’t see his hand in front of his face, and he had to reach out with his fingers feeling for sticks that might poke him. His toes tested the ground for good footing so he wouldn’t fall into another pool. He wanted to run from the Black Ridge for he knew the Chimera had found his scent and was close behind, but he knew that he mustn’t. If he walked slowly the Chimera might catch him, but if he ran he was sure to hurt himself. Ahead of him he thought he saw the light of dawn cresting the eastern horizon, but as it grew closer he realized that it was coming from beneath the trees, and that the light was not the grew light of dawn, but an eerie green glow. It silhouetted the trees ahead of him, and he could have moved faster, but he was afraid of what lay ahead.
A large branch cracked in the forest behind him, and he jerked around. A liquid darkness seemed to be moving through the forest toward him. It seemed to wither the trees, and wilt the plants on the forest floor, but what it was he couldn’t say, the only thing that could be seen were six glowing red eyes drawing slowly closer. He started to back away and when he turned to run, there in front of him was The Verdant Prince. Standing taller than any man he had ever seen, The Prince’s features were neither bearded nor particularly manly, some described him as Elvin, but Red Eft thought he looked like a teenager who hadn’t yet grown a beard. His eyes were entirely black like an owl’s and he looked stern but not unkind. From his long green hair that was made up of overlapping leaves of red cedar, sprang the ears and antlers of an ancient white-tailed deer. Red Eft counted eight points on each. The Prince’s broad shoulders were hidden beneath a cape of glowing phosphorescent mushrooms that overlapped like scaled armor, and under the cape, Red Eft could see that the prince was dressed in a loose tunic of poison ivy leaves, and breeches woven from brambles. So old were his clothes that mosses and lichens had found a home among them.
Red Eft knelt before The Prince and bowed his head.
“Do not kneel without knowing what your actions mean.
“I am the season that forces change, the storm that tears down trees, the rockslide that moves the landscape, the flood that reroutes rivers, the swarm of insects that devours. I am the lack and the larder. I am the hunger that all wild things feel. I am the chaos that wants simplicity. I am the warrior that destroys in the name of life, that kills in the name of life, that festers and rots in the name of life. I am the Lord of this land. I love through laws, teach through pain, and gift those who help me with vision, and intuition. While I may be a lord The Queen is my sovereign and it is to Her that I live to serve.” His enormous frame seemed to come crashing down with the sound of a storm blowing through the trees as he dropped to his knees, bent over and kissed the ground sweetly. The sudden motion stirred The Prince’s scent of wet clay, thunder storms, rotten logs, and the Queen’s perfume.
Red Eft was unsure what to do. He felt scared and safe all in the same moment.
“To whom do you serve?” he asked.
Again Red Eft bowed his head and said, “I serve The Queen, my Lord.”
“Then I welcome you into my service and my protection.”
Another stick snapped behind him and Red Eft remembered the Chimera that was following him. The Verdant Prince’s eyes looked past him and he snarled, his mouth suddenly filled with a wolf’s share of teeth sharper than arrow stones, and his hands had shifted into the powerful claws of a bear. The Prince leapt over Red Eft into the liquid darkness that had been pursuing him, and the sound the two of them made froze Red Eft where he knelt. As the green glowing light of The Prince’s cloak wrestled with the darkness he found he was unable to move, a panic rose in him and soon he realized he wasn’t even breathing, and he screamed…
Red Eft awoke from the dream with a start. He was still in the squirrel nest he had made. The leaves beneath him had squished down to almost nothing yet they still protected him from the cold ground. He peeked out of the leaves and found that the forest was grey and patrolled by long wisps of fog. The sky in the east burned violet, orange and pink as if a great fire were burning just beneath the horizon. He pulled his cloak tight around him and watched and listened to the forest wake up.
“Cheer me up cheer-a-ly. Cheer me up cheer-a-ly,” called the robin, and at first his was the only song.
Soon a cardinal joined him, but a moment later they were drowned out as a tree full of starlings woke up and added their cacophony of voices to the chorus.
A pair of ducks flew overhead, but the only noise they made was the foosh foosh foosh of their wing beats. Before long there were so many voices chiming in Red Eft couldn’t count them all. More often than not he was awake to listen to the dawn chorus, but this morning felt different.
The first rays of sunlight broke the horizon, cut through the trees and kissed his face. The chill in his cheeks and the tip of his nose were instantly banished and Red Eft realized that he could have died last night. He thought of the goblins that had chased him to the pool, and the nightmare of the Chimera that had felt so real.
“Why do the birds sing so loudly all at once?” he asked.
His mother snuggled him in close and asked, “Have you ever been so happy you felt like singing?”
“I guess, but this is like our whole village being so happy all of us start singing.”
She listed to the birds for a moment. “What could be making them so happy?”
“I don’t know.” Red Eft said, hoping she would tell him.
“Maybe someday you will.”
“Mother was right,” he thought, “Now I KNOW why they’re so happy.”
He stood, turned his face toward the rising sun and sang.
Goooooood morning suuuuun
Goooooood morning suuuuun
You warmed my face and the fear was gone
Goooooood morning suuuuun
Suddenly he saw something that made his breath catch in his throat; through the morning fog he saw the silhouette of something with big ears and even bigger antlers, and for a moment he imagined it was wearing a long cloak.
“The Prince,” he thought, but then it moved, the fog thinned and he saw that it was an equally regal buck. He sighed with relief and a little disappointment. Before making up the next line, he knelt in the leaf pile that had been his bed, and bowed his head.
Goooooood morning queeeeeen
Goooooood morning queeeeeen
I love your woods, they taught me good,
and I can get anything I neeeeeed
Red Eft smiled, it felt good to add his song to the morning chorus, especially since he felt so overwhelmingly grateful to be alive. And just for good measure he sang the first verse again.
Goooooood morning suuuuun
Goooooood morning suuuuun
You warmed my face and the fear was gone
Goooooood morning suuuuun
He scattered the leaf pile, trying his best to return the forest to how it had been before he’d arrived, and headed uphill toward the forest’s edge and the Black Ridge. As he walked he remembered the Prince’s words from his dream, “To whom do you serve?”
He troubled over the question for a while, and finally felt brave enough to admit, “I wanted to say ‘myself’. The food I take from the forest feeds only myself, the jewelweed I picked yesterday only served me, and I’m too little to do anything about the goblins that invade The Queen’s Forest.”
There was an explosion of motion in front of him, and Red Eft’s heart leapt into his throat. He hadn’t been paying attention and had spooked a rabbit that was nibbling on some wood sorrel along the edge of the forest. It darted off in an explosion of dried leaves and dashed left and right before jumping headlong into an enormous tangle of rose bushes.
“Sorry, Mr. Rabbit,” he called after it. Then he stooped and knelt beside the patch of wood sorrel, he thanked it for giving its life to feed him, and he picked a handful of the sweet and sour leaves. It did little to effect his hunger, but at least it was something. Nibbling the sorrel like a rabbit, he remembered the rabbit kit he had freed from the trap. “I do serve something other than myself.” Helping the kit helped the forest and it helped fight the goblins. “If I really only serve myself, I should just go live with the goblins right now.” He thought about the five goblins standing around the pool, teasing and taunting each other to go in. “If that were me and my friends, I know I be the one brave enough to volunteer to jump in.”
The space between the forest’s edge and where the wall rose to meet the Black Ridge was covered in briars. Red Eft looked at the empty blackberry and raspberry bushes and wished it weren’t so late in the year. Then he looked to the south and saw the stone pipe where he had spent the first half of the night, and to his utter joy, between he and the pipe was a scraggly old apple tree. Its apples barely bigger than his fists, and just a little redder than green. Red Eft crawled on all fours through the wall of briars, rolling and twisting away from them like his uncles has shown him.
There were lots of apples beneath the tree, but many of them were pecked by birds or half eaten by squirrels. And when he looked very very close, he could even see the teeth marks of a yellow jacket. He collected an armful of sticky, chewed apples and began throwing them at the reddest and ripest apples above him.
Good morning apple treeee
Good morning apple treeee
Please please pleeeeease, give some fruit to me
His aim was true and after knocking down four small apples, he stuffed three into his pockets, the fourth into his mouth, and said, “Ank oo aapl ee,” and crunched into the sour juicy fruit.
He continued crawling through the briars, and by the time he reached the wall his stomach was no longer complaining, and only one apple remained. He looked up the wall of stone and vines. Last night he had climbed so high and it had been so easy, but today the task seemed daunting.
“This is what I came here to do,” he thought and started to climb. The wall was built out of perfectly cut stone bricks that were longer than he was tall, and so thick they came up to his waist. Each layer of bricks was stacked upon the other like stairs, but each step was only as wide as his foot was long.
Step after step Red Eft would lean far to one side, get his foot up to the next step, then reach as high as he could, grabbing handful of Virginia creeper vines and shifting his weight to the other side. Slowly he counted, but around fourteen he forgot if the step he was climbing was his fourteenth or fifteenth. He was most of the way up the wall and already as high as he had ever climbed in a tree, but the stone felt more exposed and dangerous than in the arms of the Squirrel Tree.
Higher and higher he climbed, trying not to let the height of the wall make him afraid. As he pulled himself exhausted up over the edge, he startled a pair of ravens feasting on something dead. They squawked, flew just out of reach, and took their prize with them.
The top of the wall was by no means the top of the Black Ridge, but Red Eft knew this was his destination. All along the top of the wall there was a band of steel held at chest height by steel posts. It wouldn’t provide full coverage like the merlons along the top of a castle wall, but maybe they had had to compromise since steel was not easy to come by. On the other side of the steel barrier, the road was as wide as four horses, and extended to the north and south following the contour of the ridge. His uncles had called it black, and Red Eft had imagined it being one solid piece of black rock, but in fact it was more of a darker grey and made up of hundreds of small rocks. If the stories were true, the once rocky trail had been ground to gravel by the boots of the great orc army, and were fused together by black orc blood.
This was the line that no orc could cross. Any orc who dared would be stuck full of arrows before it had even started to climb down. The Rangers have protected the Queen’s forest since the beginning of the second era, but the orcs kept growing bolder until the day the Rangers called the black flood. When wave upon wave of orcs spilled over the Black Ridge and came rushing down upon them. It had taken twenty years and the lives of a thousand Rangers to drive the orcs from the Black Ridge once and for all.
The ravens yelled at Red Eft, startling him from his daydream.
“…Return with a piece of the charcoal stone.”
Red Eft grabbed a normal rock from the bottom of the cliff where the ridge continued up and used it to break off a piece of the Black Ridge the size of his fist. Inside, the rock was indeed black, and smelled unlike anything he had ever smelled. It wasn’t the stink of decomposing swamp or of rotting meat, but something else entirely foul. The ravens cawed at him again. He turned to begin the climb back down, and saw the smoke of the Ranger’s cook fires back at the village rising up through the trees. He wanted to run home. He wished he could fly. But Red Eft knew that his journey was only half way complete. The dangers that lurked in the forest, the snakes and yellow jackets, were no less there just because he was bound for home.
It unnerved him to be so out in the open, but instead of climbing down where he had come up, he crept along the wall behind the steel barrier until he was over the stone pipe and the pool at the head of the Arrowstone creek. Here the Virginia creeper vines shared the sunlight with thicker and stronger wild grape vines. As Red Eft climbed down he took many snack breaks and by the time he reached the bottom, his face and hands were stained a deep royal purple by the sour and sweet wild grapes.
The pool was crystal clear, and he could see right to the muddy bottom. He looked for a long time trying to see if he could spot the salamander cloak pin he had lost. He could not, and didn’t think he could hold his breath long enough to comb through the mud with his fingers. It was gone.
“Maybe they’ll send me back for it,” he said, thinking of how precious the metal was, and how finely it had been crafted. With downcast eyes and slumped shoulders he turned toward the new-day sun and followed the banks of the Arrowstone downstream.
The rising sun cast long shadows through the trees, some of which looked like people, but when he turned his head no one was there. As he walked, he had the distinct feeling that he was being watched. The hairs on his arms and the back of his neck stood on end, but the birds sang out no warning.
At a bend in the river, the trees turned to elm and stood close to the Arrowstone so they could soak their feet in the stream. A disturbance in the leaves caught his eye, and under one of the rough elm leaves Red Eft found a perfect red fox track pressed into the mud. Only, it wasn’t really mud anymore. Today the ground was much to dry. Even with the morning dew Red Eft couldn’t make as clear a track with his own paws. Yesterday though had been much wetter from the rain the night before.
“What else is going on here?”
Uncle Paper Birch had often asked. Red Eft stood and looked at the track from farther away. He stepped back and looked at an even bigger picture. Suddenly he recognized where he was. This was the same grove of elm that he had climbed up into and watched the red fox walk by. Without trouble, he found the exact tree he had climbed and there at its base was his wooden knife. Red Eft held the piece of wood between his fingers, “It’s just a stick, but I feel more… brave when I hold it out in front of me.” He tucked the wooden knife into his belt and continued downstream.
When he reached the spot where he had freed the rabbit from the goblin’s trap he searched for more traps, but couldn’t find any. Red Eft remembered the exact direction the goblins had come from, it was in the opposite direction from his village. But he felt there was something he needed to do. He pulled the wooden knife from his belt and stuck it in the ground. “I’m coming back for you,” he told the knife, “But I need to do this alone.”
Each footstep was slowly and carefully placed so that his pinky toe touched the ground first, then he rolled the rest of his foot down and slowly shifted the weight onto it. Fox-walking, his aunt had called it. He remembered the fox from yesterday and imagined himself with those long and light legs, and paws as silent as the stars. Red Eft opened his eyes wide and tried not to focus on anything. He sniffed the air. Took a step. Listened to the cheerful voices of the birds. Took a step. Felt the soft earth beneath his feet. Took a step. He combed through the trees, knowing that goblin’s were creatures of habit, and they would always walk the same way when wherever they went. If they were using the Arrowstone for water there would be a trail. If this was one goblin’s hunting ground, all of them would use it and there would be a trail. After walking slowly and using all of his senses, he caught the smell of something foul. His nose led him to a pile of goblin poop right alongside the Arrowstone. His uncles had invited him to look at scat before, once during a day of deer trailing last winter they had looked at many piles of ‘deer berries’, noting how soon the temperature faded, and how quickly they dried.
On his hands and knees Red Eft looked and sniffed at the goblin scat. He noticed that it was filled with rabbit hair and white bits of crushed up bone, that it still smelled, which meant that it was fairly recent, but that it had begun to dry so it could be as old as a day.
Knowing that the scat could poison the stream, Red Eft found a big flat rock in the creek and scraped up the pile of goblin poop, and carefully carried it away from the stream. After about a hundred feet, he threw it, stone and all into a patch of barberry bushes.
“Yuck,” he said, wiping his hands clean in a handful of leaves, and suddenly he found it. As he released his leaves, he found a thin trail, maybe four hands across that lead deeper into the woods away from home.
“That trail goes to the goblin camp. If I can find out where their camp is, I can tell the scouts about it when I get back to the village. But I gotta be careful.”
Farther down the Arrowstone a beech had been struck by lightning and had fallen across the creek. Red Eft turned north and balanced along the top of the beech log. The sun had worked its way higher in the sky and it felt warm on the back of his neck. Though Red Eft’s stomach rumbled hungrily he took a longer route around the patch of stinging nettles that he had come through.
A distance farther, he saw the familiar ‘face’ of the huge grandmother white oak where he would often sit alone for hours watching the clouds, trying to guess the weather like his father could, and listening to the birds. Suddenly he heard a noise and stopped. Many voices were singing.
The whole village had formed a double line and sang him back into the center of the village, where his siblings, parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents welcomed him with hugs and smiles. Though Red Eft greeted them all, no one said anything to him, and he remembered why.
“When you return, your story must be the first words spoken. Until then, it is very bad luck for anyone to say anything.”
Red Eft stood in the central space surrounded by his village, and began his story.
Uncle White Ash stood when the boy had finished. “You have given us a gift with your words. And you have proven your competence with the undisarmable weapons you have been given. I no longer see the child Red Eft before me. Would you like a new name?” he smiled.
The boy with no name nodded.
“Then put your wooden knife in the fire and say the words.”
He knew them well. He had heard them from the lips of the boys and girls that had come before him. “I am no longer Red Eft,” he said feeding the knife carefully to the flames.
“You are… Red Squirrel,” said White Ash taking a sheathed knife from inside the folds of his cloak. “And this knife belongs to you.”
The blade was narrow and sharp, and the steel was covered in lines that almost looked like wood grain, but Red Eft knew they were made when the smith folded the metal over and over again to make it strong. The handle was fashioned from a white-tailed deer antler and fit perfectly in his hand. Triumphant, Red Squirrel held it above his head.
“WELCOME HOME RED SQUIRREL!” The village said as one voice.
First Knife by Tyler McNamara is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.