Away With Words
Fran's fingers caged the bird loosely. The wings of the little creature were frantic, feet catching on bow-string calluses, but it made no other noise. She raised it to her eye, looked into the ball made by palm, fingers, claws.
The bird stilled.
Through a gap between fingers, the black eye glinted, watching its doom. Fran felt its heartbeat against her fingers, a flicker faster than time. Felt its breast heave. The warmth.
It calmed eventually. Fran thought, even the worst of horrors must became mundane with time.
She opened her palms.
When it became clear the bird would not leave, Fran placed it with some care on a nearby low branch and settled onto her heels to wait. Claws ticked against the wood. Feathers flexed, settled out of place. The bird blinked, chirruped once, spread its tail feathers. Its heartbeat flickered through its ribs, and it continued to watch, and did not fly.
The young man called himself old.
'Old Dalan,' he repeated, and stroked the bare stubble on his chin. The hairs were gold.
'But you are not.'
'Old at heart,' he spread his palms, for what purpose she could not deduce. 'Old in experience. Old in idiocy. It is what my friends have called me, on hearing my intent to cross the world. I will be old before they see me again, they say.'
Fran seated herself. Dalan lowered his packs to the path also. He sank gracefully, ankles crossed in mimicry.
'I intend to live forever,' he added, 'so I may yet grow into the name.'
'The Wood's defenders are not solely viera. The others do not speak, and they would have killed you without thought for your goal.'
'Call it a metaphor, viera. A figure of speech. All beings who speak have potential for poetry, and who knows what part of me will live forever? Perhaps my stories. My poems. This is more than enough.'
Fran flicked an ear. Thought of the sound of her bowstring once struck.
'Do you have a name?' he asked. 'In my city of Rabanastre the viera do. But in the city of Rabanastre they are never so young as you. Or are all wood viera as nameless as the leaves on a tree?'
'Fran,' she said, ignored the rest, but he had said. 'There are others?'
She looked up. Trees, branches curving across the sky, breaking the light, shattering it. Fragments scattered across the clearing, her hair, his hair, his eye. Not the beady black eye of a bird.
In the end, he left her in a sun-warmed curve of tree. He came back once, long after the sun had moved on, laden with his old packs, his old weapons, and a new expression on his face.
'I will die when I die,' Fran said. She thought of her mother, and the Archadian swords, of the words her elder sisters whispered so as not to disturb the voice of the Wood. 'But you will die first.'
His mouth twisted. 'Cage a bird with such facts, and it becomes afraid of living.'
Fran ignored him, which would becomes easier with time.
Mjrn sat in the same sun-warmed curve of the tree, watching Fran contemplating a small pile of leaves, pulled with care from a nearby branch.
'This has some purpose,' Mjrn said.
'Do you think each has a name?'
Mjrn tilted her head to one side. 'Only the Wood knows the names of all children. Ask her.'
'So we have said. To be,' Fran hesitated, 'literal, we expect that the Wood knows the name every leaf on every tree.'
Mjrn stirred. Her ears flicked, uncomfortable. 'Of course.'
'Yet the leaf has no life or death but that of the tree. To name it would be the name of the tree.'
'Whatever you would call it, it is dead now.'
'The tree does not mark the loss.' Fran touched her fingers lightly to her chest, spilling the leaves she still held across her body. Hurt failed to encompass the feeling. 'What think you will end first against empery's tide, us, or the Wood?'
Mjrn gave her a look. A beast before fleeing.
'You believe we cannot have a life but that of the Wood.'
Mjrn relaxed, barely. Her eyes were wary. 'Yes.'
'What pretense is this, then, naming ourselves; of Mjrn and Fran, viera and coerl. You must think, Mjrn. We are not leaves to fall unmarked no matter what might befall the tree. Even a bird may fly.'
Mjrn stood. Her gaze darted behind Fran, and relief read in the sudden slump of her ears.
Fran did not turn around.
'Enough,' said Jote, from behind her. Jote touched her shoulder, warm claws, warm skin, cold heart. Old heart. 'Fran, enough. You should not have brought in the hume. Their ways are not ours. Their lives are brief, meaningless. They are alone; we are the Wood.'
'This is not because of the hume. This is me, sister.'
'Enough,' Jote said. 'The Wood has need of you, and not as this.'
'You will be alone,' Jote warned her. 'Always alone.'
Said as though Fran had not known loneliness before.
Continue to Chapter 3 →
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