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Children Of The Forest

Many years ago I mentioned that I was a Fortean to a careful reporter who was taping the interview. My several psychiatrist friends were hugely amused when the printed version stated that I was a Freudian. Since then I've been careful to give an explanation of what I mean by the word.

Charles Fort collected reports of anomalous events from periodicals (largely from scientific journals) and published them in four volumes from 1919 to 1932. These include reports of things which are now accepted as true (for instance, giant squid and ball lightning) but which orthodox science at the time rejected as observer errors; matters which are unexplained but aren't especially controversial (for instance, unconfirmed sightings of astronomical bodies by respectable observers); and utterly bizarre things like a rain of frogs in England or a rain of shaved meat in Kentucky. Fort didn't write about UFOs, but they're part of modern Fortean interests.

Now—the fact that I'm interested in such things doesn't mean I believe in all of them. There are people who do, just as there are people who believe that disproving a report of spontaneous human combustion disproves all such reports. I consider both groups delusional (and I consider people who think you get real science or real history from a TV show to be deeply ignorant, but that's a slightly different matter).

One of the most entertaining writers on Forteana (and on natural history generally) was

Ivan T. Sanderson. He was capable of modifying his data to improve a story, but he was a fine writer and a man of great culture and intelligence.

One of Sanderson's essays was on wudewasas, woodhouses (yes, that's what the name of the humorist P.G. Wodehouse comes from): the drawings of wild men found in the margins of medieval manuscripts. He speculated that there'd been a European version of the Sasquatch, but that it was man-sized rather than a giant like the wild man of the Northwest United States.

The likelihood that this is true (or for that matter, the likelihood that Bigfoot is running around Northern California) didn't matter for my purposes. I thought the notion would work for a story, so I wrote "Children of the Forest."

The form goes back to the fairy tales which I loved of mine even I could read. It's become fashionable to give fairy tales a modern slant or to twist them. I wasn't trying to be clever, but I did try to treat the realities of medieval life and its class structure with the same sort of realism that I'd bring to a story set in Viet Nam.

When "Children . . . " was first published in F&SF, it brought me two angry letters. (Only one other story of mine from the '70s aroused any comment at all.) I'm not sure what that means, as the letter writers were incensed about completely different aspects of the story (and both were wrong). It may simply indicate that when I'm on, my fiction arouses an emotional reaction in readers.

If so, well, that's what I'm trying to do.


When Teller came in from the field, gnarled as his hoe-handle and looking twice his forty years, his wife said, "The cow has gone dry, man." Teller scowled. She had slapped out her words like bolts from a crossbow. He understood them, understood also why she was whetting the black iron blade of their only knife. From his wife, warped and time-blackened by the same years that had destroyed him, Teller turned to his daughter Lena.

And Lena was a dazzle of sunlight in the darkened hut.

She was six, though neither of her parents could have told a stranger that without an interval of mumbling and dabbing fingers to cracked lips. But there were no strangers. In the dozen years since the Black Death had swept southern Germany, the track that once led to the high road and thence to Stuttgart had merged back into the Forest. The hut was all of civilization, a beehive with two openings in its thatch. Teller now stooped in the doorway; above him was the roof hole that served as chimney for the open fire in the center of the room. By that fire sat Lena, easing another baulk of wood under the porridge pot before looking at her father. Her smile was timid, but the joy underlying it was as real as the blond of her sooty hair. She dared not show Teller the welts beneath her shift, but she knew that her mother would not beat her in his presence.

"I said, the cow has gone dry," the woman repeated.

The rasp of iron on stone echoed her words."You know we can't go on until the harvest with three mouths and no milk."

"Woman, I'll butcher—"

"You will not." She slid to the floor and faced him, bandy-legged and shorter on her own legs than when sitting on the stool."The meat will rot in a month, we have no salt. Three mouths will not last the summer on the cow's meat, man.

"Three mouths will not last the summer."

She was an iron woman, black-faced and blackhearted. She did not look at Lena, who cowered as her mother stepped forward and held out the wood-hafted knife to Teller. He took it, his eyes as blank as the pit of his mouth opening and closing in his beard. "Perhaps . . . I can hunt more . . . ?"

"Hoo, coward!"mocked the woman."You're afraid to leave the clearing now for the woods devils, afraid to go out the door to piss in the night!" The reek of the wall across from the pine-straw bedding proved her statement. "You'll not go hunting, man."


"Kill her. Kill her!" she shrieked, and Lena's clear voice wailed hopelessly as a background to the raucous cries. Teller stared at the weapon as though it were a viper which had crawled into his hand in the night. He flung it from him in a fury of despair, not hearing it clack against the whetstone or the ping! of the blade as it parted.

The woman's brief silence was as complete as if the knife had pierced her heart instead of shattering. She picked up the longest shard, a hand's breadth of iron whose edge still oozed light, and cradled it in her palms. Her voice crooned without meaning, while Teller watched and Lena burrowed her face into the pine needles.

"We can't all three eat and live to the harvest, man," the woman said calmly. And Teller knew that she was right.

"Lena," he said, not looking at the girl but instead at his cloak crumpled on the earthen floor. It was steerhide, worn patchily hairless during the years since he had bartered eggs for it from a passing peddler. That one had been the last of the peddlers, nor were there chickens anymore since the woods demons had become bolder.

"Child," he said again, a little louder but with only kindness in his voice. He lifted the cloak with his left hand, stroked his daughter between the shoulder blades with his right. "Come, we must go for a little journey, you and I."

The woman backed against the hut wall again. Her eyes and the knife edge had the same hard glitter.

Lena raised her face to her father's knee; his arm, strong for all its stringiness, lifted her against his chest. The cloak enveloped her and she thrashed her head free. "I'm hot, Papa."

"No, we'll play a game," Teller said. He hawked and spat cracklingly on the fire before he could continue. "You won't look at the way we go, you'll hide your head. All right, little one?"

"Yes, Papa." Her curls, smooth as gold smeared with river mud, bobbled as she obediently faced his chest and let him draw the leather about her again.

"The bow, woman," Teller said. Silently she turned and handed it to him: a short, springy product of his own craftsmanship. With it were the three remaining arrows, straight-shafted with iron heads, but with only tufts remaining of the fletching. His jaw muscles began to work in fury. He thrust the bow back to her, knots of anger dimpling the surface of his bare left arm. "String it! String it, you bitch, or—"

She stepped away from his rage and quickly obeyed him, tensing the cord without difficulty. The wood was too supple to make a good bow, but a stiffer bowshaft would have snapped the bark string. Teller strode from the hut, not deigning to speak again to his wife.

There was no guide but the sun, and that was a poor, feeble twinkling through the ranked pines and spruces. It was old growth, save in slashes where age or lightning had brought down a giant and given opportunity to lesser growth. Man had not made serious inroads on this portion of the Forest even before the Plague had stripped away a third of the continent's population. Fear had driven Teller and his wife to flee with their first child, leaving their village for a lonely clearing free from contamination. But there were other fears than that of the Black Death, things only hinted at in a bustling hamlet. In the Forest they became a deeper blackness in the shadows and a heavy padding on moonless nights.

They were near him now.

Teller lengthened his stride, refusing to look to the sides or behind him. He was not an intelligent man, but he knew instinctively that if he acknowledged what he felt, he would be lost. He would be unable to move at all, would remain hunched against a tree trunk until either starvation or the demons came for him.

Lena began humming a little tune. Though off-key, it was recognizable as a lullaby. Teller's wife had never bothered to rock Lena to sleep, but their elder daughter, born before the panicked flight into the wilderness, had absorbed enough of the memories of her babyhood to pass them on to her sister. It was not the Plague that had taken the girl, nor yet the demons. Rather, there had been a general malaise, a wasting fed by seven years in an environment that supported life but did nothing to make life supportable. In the end she had died, perhaps saving Teller the earlier agony of a journey like the one he made now.

Far enough, he decided. A spruce sapling thrust up from among three adult trees. Though its bole was only a hand's breadth in diameter, the first branches were a full ten feet in the air. It formed a post firmer than that on which Sebastian was martyred.

"Now, Lena," Teller said as he put the girl down, "you'll wait here by this tree for a while."

She opened her eyes for the first time since she had left the house with her father. The conifers around her were spearpoints thrust through the earth. Black-green branches shuddered in a breath of wind. The girl screamed, paused, and screamed again.

Teller panicked at the sound and the open terror of her bright blue gaze. He stopped fumbling at the cord knotted about his waist and struck open-handed, his palm smudging the soot on her cheek. Lena bounced back against the spruce trunk, stunned mentally rather than physically by the blow. She closed her mouth unblinking, then spun to her feet and ran. Teller gulped fear and remorse as he snatched up his bow to follow.

Lena ran like a startled fawn. She should not have been able to escape a grown man, but the fearsome shadows came to her aid. When Lena dodged around the scaly bole of a hemlock, Teller, following, was knocked sprawling by a branch. He picked himself up, picked up also the arrows he had scattered as he fell. He nocked the one with the most fletching, though he could not have explained to a questioner what he meant to do with it. "Lena?" he called. The trees drank his voice.

A rustle and a stutter of light caught his attention, but it was a squirrel's flag tail jerking on a spruce tip. Teller eased the tension on his bowstring.

There was another sound behind him, and he turned very quickly.

Lena, trembling in the crease of a giant that had fallen so long ago that the trees growing around it were of nearly equal girth, heard her father blundering nearby. Her frightened whimper was almost a silence itself, no more than the burr of a millipede's feet through the leaf mould in front of her nose. She heard Teller call, then a ghastly double cry that merged with the twang of a bow. No more voices, then, but a grunt and the chock! of something hollow crushing against a tree trunk.

For a moment, then, there was real silence.

"Coo-o?"trilled a voice too deep to be birdlike."Coo-o-o?"it repeated, closer now to Lena though unaccompanied by the crackling brush that had heralded her father's progress."Coo?"and it was directly above her. Almost more afraid to look up than not to, Lena slowly turned her head.

It was leaning over the log to peer down at her, a broad face set with sharp black eyes and a pug nose. The grinning lips were black, the skin pink where it could be glimpsed beneath the fine, russet fur. Lena's hands swung to her mouth and she bit down hard on her knuckles. The creature vaulted soundlessly over the log. It was about the height of Lena's father, but was much deeper in the chest. Palms and soles were bare of the fur that clothed the rest of it. Its right hand reached out and plucked away the arrow that flopped from its left shoulder. A jewel of blood marked the fur at that point, but the creature's torso and long arms were already sticky with blood not its own.

The hands reached down for Lena. She would have screamed again, but her mind was folding up within her as a white blur.

* * *

"Coo-ree?" questioned a liquid voice in Lena's ear, and she blinked awake. A girl with a shy grin was watching her, a child so innocent that Lena forgot to be afraid. Even though the child was as furry as the adult who must have brought Lena to the grassy hollow in which she now lay. A smile that bared square, yellowed teeth split the fur and the little—shorter even than Lena though more compactly built—creature held out a double handful of hemlock nodules, painstakingly knocked clean of dirt. The skin of her hands was a rich onyx black in contrast to the broken, copper-colored fingernails.

As shyly as her benefactress, Lena took the roots and crunched one between her teeth. The nodule had a rich, almost meaty, flavor and a texture pleasant to her gums. She smiled back. A twittering at the crest of the hollow caused her to spin about and gape at the broad-chested male creature she had met in the woods, now with a smaller companion to either side. On the right was a four-dugged female, slimmer than the male and slightly hunched. The remaining woods man—but Lena's mind still shrieked demon, troll—was another child, obviously male and of lighter coloration than his parents. His cublike roundness had not yet given way to ropy adult musculature, and his nervous smile was a reflection of his sister's.

Lena stood. Her body had gone cold and the bright sunlight seemed suddenly to glance away as from a block of ice. The adult male had washed since she first saw him: his pelt was smooth and clean save for the smudged left shoulder. Another drop of blood oozed to the surface and the female, seeing it, cooed in vexation and nuzzled the wound. Her teeth chopped as she cleaned it. The male pushed her gently away, his eyes locked with Lena's. Trembling with courage she had not known was hers, Lena bit off another hemlock nodule, then extended the remainder of the bunch toward the watching woods folk. The three before her began to caper with joy, and a warm, furry arm encircled Lena's waist from behind.

They were foragers and therefore by necessity wanderers, the family of which Lena was now a part. After a month in the bowl which chance or ancient vulcanism had pocked into the Jura Mountains, they spent a pair of weeks combing a stream with a different sleeping place every night. Food was plentiful in that spring and the summer it wore into: roots and berries, spruce tips and the tender shoots of other vegetation; birds' eggs while they lasted, but never the birds themselves. Lena was almost too young to remember the last of her parents' hens. Still, learning that they had succumbed to nest raiding, not slaughter, calmed a remaining bristle of unease.

She tried not to think of Teller at all.

Kort was the father of the family, even-tempered but awesomely strong. Rather than climb a hardwood to pick nuts before the squirrels had combed them, he would find a boulder or the largest fallen limb in the neighborhood and smash it against the tree trunk, showering himself and the ground with the ripe offerings. It was Kort, too, who trudged off on day-long journeys to the cave in which the family wintered, carrying in a bark-cloth basket the dried excess of their gleaning. The winter stores were kept beneath a stone too tight-fitting for a mouse to slide around and too massive for a bear's awkward limbs to thrust aside.

But if Kort's strength was the shaft which supported the family's existence, it was the quick mind of Kue-meh, his mate, which provided directing force. Her fingers wove the strips of cambium into fabric as smooth and as supple as the wool and linen of the villages beyond the Forest. The woods folk used the cloth for carrying bulky goods, not as clothing, though Lena once ineptly wove a crossbelt for herself when her shift disintegrated. Kue-meh guided the foraging, judging its progress and determining when and where the family would move. She could tell at a glance which hickory nut was sound and sweet, which had been emptied in its shell by a worm.

At first the children were never wholly alone, for there were dangers in the Forest. Not the bears, so much, for their strength and ugly tempers were outweighed by clumsiness and their preference for other food. Even Lena was soon able to scramble up a tree before a peevish grunt gave way to a charge. Lynxes were more of a potential threat, for they were swift and had the blood-lust common to all cats. Still Chi, the female woods child and smallest of the three, weighed forty founds by now and was too strong and active to be a comfortable victim.

The wolves, though, the wolves . . . .

They feared nothing very greatly, those lean gray killers. Fire, perhaps; but the woods folk feared it more and Lena learned to avoid the flames after being cuffed fiercely away from a lightning-slashed tree. From spring through fall the wolves padded through the Forest alone and in pairs, tracking a plump doe or a healthy fawn to rip down and devour. Like most powerful carnivores, the wolves chose their prey not for its weakness but for its taste—and after years of chaos and the Plague, some of them had found a taste for men.

Lena's long legs, and the new sense of freedom brought by roaming the Forest with folk who thought it home, not exile, took her and Faal, the young male, almost into long-toothed jaws. They were digging root nodules, using sharpened stakes and cloth bags while Kue-meh wove. Faal went around one side of a huge hemlock, Lena the other—the far side. The empty woods, a chorus of blacks and greens and browns, spoke to her suddenly. Dropping her equipment with a silent giggle, Lena darted off among the aisles of trees.

Faal heard the pad of her feet—months in the wild had trained Lena's step, but not beyond notice of ears that had been born there. He followed her without calling or even thinking. Faal was swiftly gaining his father's deep chest, but he showed signs of being in Kort's mental image as well. The two children were gone a minute or longer before Kue-meh looked up from her own work and Chi to notice that her other charges were gone. She hooted in anger, but Faal was already beyond earshot and Lena was ahead of him.

She was a shuttle racing over a loom of needles and spruce twigs. Faal was stronger and his lungs might have brought him abreast of her in time, but Lena's legs would have been the envy of a doe. Faal on his stumpy limbs could not outsprint the girl. But the two wolves which converged on Lena in a grove of beeches were quicker yet.

Lena stopped, too startled at first to be frightened. Faal had aimed a playful tackle at her before he saw the reason for her halt. He flopped to the leaf mould instead and skidded. The nearer of the red-tongued wolves lowered its tail and hunched.

Lena stepped without thought between Faal and the gray killer. The wolf drew back. It was more than the scent of a true man, the reivers with iron and fire, where only woods folk had been expected. There was something within Lena herself that allowed her, a slim six-year-old, to face down a pair of wolves. They stood for an instant, each of them half again the girl's size; then they bolted. Only their fresh spoor was visible a moment later when Kue-meh raced into the glade, Chi under her left arm and a six-foot pine knot in her right hand. Lena and Faal were pummeled heavily for the run, but Kue-meh spent the rest of the afternoon in thought. Afterwards she let all three children stray, so long as her own two kept close to Lena.

Early hunger and a vegetarian diet should have stunted Lena's growth. Instead she gained willowy inches to quickly overtop Faal and Chi. The woods folk were a cleanly people and the grime that had disfigured Lena's first six years disappeared in the ice-fed stream nearest the hollow in which she joined the family. It never returned. Her skin was clear and did not, even bare to the sun and the wind, take on the swarthy cast of her parents'. In the summer she was a warm brown, traced with the thin scabs of bramble cuts; in the winter her complexion counterfeited the creamy yellowness of old ivory polished by loving hands.

For all the beauty of her body and skin, Lena's hair was her crown. It had never been cut, a result of her mother's apathy rather than any interest in the girl's adornment. Washed out and laboriously carded with twigs by all four of the woods folk, it flowed down her back like liquid gold. Loose, it was a bright flood behind her as she ran—but then it snagged and caught and diminished. Faal began to plait it in the evening imitating Kue-meh's bark weavings. Simple at first, the patterns grew increasingly complex and changed nightly. The hair was Faal's delight. During the long winter evenings he spent hours braiding and reopening her tresses, then braiding them again. Lena bore the attention, but her mind strayed beyond the boy's gentle fingers.

There was another predator in the Forest, though Lena was twelve before she encountered it. She was miles from the high crag the family then occupied, following Kort to the winter cave, when a horn wound in the near distance. Kort's reaction was to panic. He danced in a little circle of indecision, then began scrambling up a princely fir tree. The bag of stores jerked with every hunch of his back, scattering bunches of hemlock nodules. Kort's feet and long right arm—his left held the bag and, in any case, would not lift above shoulder height since the arrow wound had healed—had shot him halfway up the trunk before he realized that Lena's progress was much slower than his own. There was more than a difference in strength. Though the woods folk did not have opposed big toes either, their control of their foot muscles was much greater than that of Lena's subspecies.

Kort scrabbled down again, chattering haste in an angry voice. Lena, terrified by the uncertain situation, tried to obey and lost her grip, slipping ten feet to the ground. Kort's nervous rage burst out in a clatter of syllables. Finally the stocky male threw himself up the bole in leaps that would have been impressive even if horizontal. He caught the bag of provisions in the crotch of a huge limb eighty feet in the air, then dropped back to Lena's level in four incredible stages. Slinging the girl with as little ceremony as he had the bag, he remounted the tree with equal speed. Shuddering with fear, pressed between the bole and Kort's great gasping breaths, Lena stared at the ground so far below that it trembled in the breeze. The horn blew again, very nearby.

A stag wobbled out of a clump of firs, its tongue grayish and drooling from the corner of its jaw. Twenty yards from the tree in which Kort and Lena sheltered, the deer fell under the whipsaw impact of a pair of mastiffs. Each dog looked as large as the victim. The stag cartwheeled. One of the great brindled dogs clamped on the deer's throat, the other caught the right foreleg. There was a flurry of humus. The stag's spine snapped like the first crack that follows the lightning.

There were a dozen dogs swirling on the forest floor now, hounds trained to back off after guiding the killer mastiffs to their prey. They belled and leaped for gobbets of the deer still thrashing in its death throes. The riders were on them then, two green-garbed huntsmen with full beards and long whips with which they cut at the milling pack . . . and a third man, a youth whose hair gleamed almost white in a stray beam of sun. He rocked back in the saddle of his great gray stallion and laughed to the sky. Lena froze to see his face lifting, but he was not searching the treetops, he was only bubbling over with the joy of the kill.

He was splendid, perfect in her eyes.

There were more riders, scores of men on foot including dog handlers as shaggy and grim as the beasts they dragged off the mangled stag. A huntsman's broad knife flashed and he raised the deer's ears and tail to the laughing youth. An unexpected warmth had driven the fear from Lena's mind. She watched, empty even of wonder at the scene beneath her—more men by ten times than she had ever before seen—while her eyes drank in every motion, every nuance of the young rider in red and gold.

Quick knives unlaced the deer, spilling the entrails to the reward of the hounds. The mastiffs sat aloof on their haunches, nearly the height of the footmen who skirted them with nervous eyes. Those killers were fed once daily and scorned to show interest in the game they brought down. Only their tongues . . . they flashed and rolled, infinitely flexible as they wiped clean the bloody jowls.

The babble thinned as did the crowd below. The hounds were tired and sated. They whined when the handlers chained them in pairs, but they allowed the men to lead them back the way they had come. Two brawny retainers slung the gutted deer on a pole and trotted off behind the youth on horseback. Riders drifted after them, talking and laughing as they passed out of earshot. Nothing remained but a ragged circle trampled black on the leaf mould. The horn was playing a caracol that seemed to hang in the air even after it was actually inaudible.

"The Ritter Karl," Lena was whispering to herself. She slurred into the heavy Swabish of her parents the name purred by the retainers. "Karl von Arnheim . . . ."

Kort, already reslinging the load of food, paid her no attention. But Lena continued to roll the syllables under her tongue.

Months passed. Occasionally there were true men in the Forest: a pair of nervous travelers with packs and staves, whistling into the shadows; a vagabond whose rags were streaked with pus from the ulcers they covered; once a dozen men together, armed and as lean as the wolves . . . these wore mismated finery and as many as a dozen rings on each hand.

The von Arnheim hunt did not pass close enough for Lena to hear and run to it.

The woods folk travelled, but they did not roam. Lena's wanderings, at first for hours and then for days, were a cause of great concern to the family. Kuemeh pleaded with her, but the soft, cooing language of the folk had no words for the emotions that were driving the girl. The pleading stopped in time, for none of the family could catch Lena now if she ran. A foraging people learn not to waste effort. Some useful knowledge came from the trips: food sources that the family could exploit now or in the future, caves that opened into spacious chambers from throats too narrow for a bear to enter. But more and more, Lena's travels were to the edge of the fields of men; and this she did not explain to the woods folk, knowing instinctively that if she had, nothing would have kept Kue-meh from ordering an immediate move scores of miles deeper into the Forest.

And already the trips were considerable endeavors. Settlements had shrunk back from the trees, save for scattered households as Teller's had been. There were more of those than Lena would have guessed in the days when the Forest was a prison wall, but rarely did the inhabitants attempt to farm the thin soil as had her parents. Most were charcoal burners, blackened men or couples too bent to display sexual distinctions, hiking ever further to find the hardwoods that stoked their greedy kilns. Their huts were ragged shambles, sometimes lean-tos sprawled against some Forest giant; but the kilns were anchors, too slow and demanding of construction to be abandoned for new sites nearer the fuel. The increasing journeys to find an oak in the evergreen forest, then to fell it and laboriously drag back lengths with a shoulder harness, left no time for the necessary leisure of building another kiln.

Spread by the Plague, the lonely farmers were men who had tried to escape Death by running and had delayed his approach by a score of miserable years. The charcoal burners were caught between the upper and nether millstones of shrunken markets and scarcer raw materials, the farmers between declining fertility and impoverishment of tools. The third group, the meat hunters, had shrunk also though they might have been expected to increase. Game had returned to the fringe lands when men had melted away in the black ooze of the Plague, but the Forest had grown darker. Even those who had made their living in it for decades began to edge out into the sunlight.

The demons that haunted the minds of humans in the Forest were not the woods folk. In all her ramblings, Lena found no sign of hairy men other than Kort and his family.

She searched farther, into the lands where farms still sprawled in the open and men plowed behind animals, instead of prodding the soil with a stick. In the dusk she eeled along hedgerows so silently that the hens nesting in them did not stir. Where there were dogs, they rose and stalked stiff-legged over to Lena. After they sniffed at her, they whined and walked away. Occasionally a persistent brute would nuzzle the girl until her fingers stroked a rumbling purr from its rib cage. None of the beasts barked or attacked her.

The domestic animals were new to her, but she paid them little attention. Lena had come to the lands of men to find a man.

The farmers' huts were windowless, occasionally stone or proper wood but more often wattle and daub. The girl's eyes found chinks when the buildings were lighted, raked the faces of sleepy residents when they stumbled out to relieve themselves on the ground. But the man she sought would not be found in a hovel. It was long months before she came to understand that, however, since her upbringing had been silent about the Herren, the Masters.

As the seasons passed, as a month of searching became twelve, Lena's life was still almost wholly within the Forest. The trips beyond were windows of excitement that sparkled to set off well-loved panels of wood. The tall child had become a tall girl, muscled like a deer but with the same lithe slimness she had borne from the first. The woods folk did most things with grace, but they could not run. Faal watched Lena's sudden fits of exuberance, her flashing spurts across a clearing or through a briar thicket without misstep. His eyes glowed with the wonder and delight of a prophet to whom an angel was descending.

At night his copper nails glinted as they plaited her hair in wondrous fashion.

In a human world with little romance, the golden wraith became a legend before she was truly a rumor. Cottagers nodded and swilled thin beer as one of their number embellished an instant's vision. Sometimes Lena became a messenger from God or a Hell-sprite, searching for an infant's soul to steal. More often the stories were rooted deeper in the soul-earth of the peasants than Christ would ever be, and lowered voices spoke of Forest shadows and spirits of the Earth.

Marvel in most listeners became professional curiosity in gray Rausch the huntsman. His belt knife, honed to a wire edge on a stream-tumbled egg of granite, had silver mountings and the rampant wyvern crest of the von Arnheims. The late Ritter, Karl's father Otto, had presented it to Rausch twenty-one years before to replace the knife his junior huntsman had broken on a boar's scapula. Barehanded, ignoring the blood-slick tusks, Rausch had wrestled the beast to the dirt at the feet of the Ritter's pregnant wife. From that day he rode at Otto's right stirrup and that of Karl after him. He would not have exchanged that blade for the Emperor's sceptre.

Save for when von Arnheim hunted, Rausch's time was his own. If he chose to examine a hedgerow on his knees, snuffling like a gray-jowled hound, who was there to gainsay him? So Rausch listened and he watched, while as carefully as a cathedral mason his mind was constructing the hunt that would crown him and his master.

When the first hound belled, Lena ignored it. She knew now from long experience that the dogs were not her enemies. She had been away from the family the past three days, spending the daylit hours in the Forest fringe and the nights deeper into the open lands than she had ever gone before. The castle sitting gray on a detached plateau had drawn her eyes months earlier, but anticipation itself had delayed her approach to it. Now at last she had slipped to the very edge of its straggling curtain walls, let her fingers caress the rough stone. It could easily be climbed, but its hidden interior made the act not a moment's but a thing for long pondering in the Forest depths. That in her mind, Lena had started back, her course across the fields more hasty than deliberate since she had let the dawn stride too nearby as she studied the wall.

The second joyous bugling would have been a surface impression as well, except for the prompt echo of the hunting horn.

Lena was already among the trees. Her first reaction was that of her foster father, to choose the highest and secrete herself in the upper branches. A premonition that this hunt was no chance crossing of her path drove her instead to headlong flight. Panic rode her, a brutal jockey whose violence spewed out the strength that might otherwise have carried her free.

For a mile she sprinted, leaping obstacles and dreading at every instant that the hounds would give tongue again. They did not. She half turned, then, her nerves begging for the object of their fear, and her right shoulder brushed an oak sapling. It was no more than a glancing blow, but it sufficed to break her stride and allow reaction to her masterless effort throw her to the ground.

And as she lay sobbing on the needle-strewn earth, the hounds and the horn sounded again. She had gained on her pursuers; but they knew, dogs and men, that a hunt was decided in its last moments, not the first. They suited their pace to that certainty. With proper governance, Lena could have run all day. In the darkness, when the men were blind and the dogs nervously unwilling to range ahead, she would have disappeared. A night of sleepless excitement and the disastrous sprint had gutted her. Fear drove Lena back to her feet, but she had lost the ability to force the pace.

With leisure to choose the course, Lena might have led the hunt into empty stretches of the Forest where only squirrels would have been disturbed by its passage. Terror eliminated all chance of such forethought and she plunged straight as a plumb line for the distant cedar copse in which she had last huddled with the woods folk. Perhaps she would have done the same in any event: Lena had never before been hunted, and she lacked the instincts of the wild-born.

The sun was well up before a bright goosequill signaled the nearest of the hunters to Lena's backward glance. The feather bobbed, visible when the green hat and man and charger beneath it were not. She turned as if unfeeling, her face an ivory cameo, her legs scissors of bronze. She did not pump her arms as she ran, avoiding a practice that could stitch a runner's torso with cramps while the great veins of his legs still balanced oxygen and poisons in the working muscles.

The hounds were close behind her. The men may not have known how close, for except in that instant's flash down an aisle of trees they had been beyond sight. Rausch left little to chance, and two of the riders were horse handlers leading picked remudas. But time was lost changing from foundered mounts to fresh ones, and the strings could not follow with the ease of the unhindered riders through brush that clutched at leadropes. The dogs, loping with their muzzles high and quivering with the fresh scent, yelped madly but did not attempt to close the twenty yards separating them from their quarry. They were the fingers of Death, but not his jaws.

In a noon-bright clearing deep in the Forest, Lena stumbled a second time. She rolled smoothly to her feet and collapsed, her reflexes whole but her body without the strength to effect them. The hounds were in a yapping, yelping circle around her. When she tried to rise again the foam-smeared breast of a great stallion slammed her down.

Lena's lungs were balls of yellow fire. Above her bellowed the green-suited hunter, a little man who had unslung his cocked arbalest to wave it as a signal of triumph.

The knobbed end of a ten-foot tree limb dashed his brains out with the effectiveness of a trebuchet.

Kue-meh, bandy-legged and slight, had darted through the pack. If her strength was inferior to that of Kort, it was still beyond the standards of true men—and the female had the cold will to overcome panic and act in the face of catastrophe. The hounds gave back, snarling. The riderless horse lurched away from the dragging weight still caught in the reins. Two more men, Karl in red silk and cloth-of-gold and Rausch beside him, his grim face a fortress in the midst of chaos, burst into the clearing in which their victim lay: Kue-meh hissed at them and waggled her brain-spattered club.

Rausch reined up and his left hand caught his master's bridle as well, preventing the youth from thrusting into the deadly circle of the club. Then he whistled and from behind his horse, stark as Furies, loped a pair of mastiffs.

There was neither choice nor hope. Kue-meh strode forward as boldly as if her death were not certain. She swung at the nearer of the mastiffs, missing her aim as it reared back. Kort bellowed from the edge of the clearing, but his rage was too late. The second mastiff 's leap ended with its fangs grinding on the bones of Kue-meh's right shoulder. She cried out despairingly as the first dog's jaws closed on her head.

Her neck popped loudly.

The smack of a hunting crossbow was simultaneous.

Halfway between the brush and the killer dogs, Kort's body jerked backwards. The fourth hunter had ridden into the clearing, having paused first to lay a square-headed quarrel in the launching groove of his weapon. The great iron bolt lifted Kort, carrying part of his breastbone with it through the back of his ribs.

The mastiffs stalked away as the pack began to scuffle for its trophies. The archer slung his arbalest from the saddle of his blowing horse and dismounted to whip the dogs away from Kort. Rausch, too, slipped to the ground, a purposeful thumb on the edge of his blade as he walked toward Kue-meh.

"No, these—creatures—are unclean," the Ritter said, triumph vibrant through the weariness of his voice. "We won't carry those back. Let the dogs eat." He lifted himself out of the saddle. His eyes remained fixed on Lena's, holding her firm as a snake would a rabbit. His breeches and tunic were shot with gold no brighter than his unbound hair. Froth from the succession of horses he had ridden to death blackened his calves and thighs, and his tunic was dark with his own sweat. Still his broad shoulders did not droop and there was laughter on his tongue after he splashed it with wine from the skin Rausch offered. "So . . . . She gave us a run, did she not, my Rauschkin? But I think she was worth a few horses, no . . . ? And even poor Hermann, he rode well, but it was his own fault if he let a troll brain him."

In a more businesslike voice he added to Rausch, "Be ready to hold her arms."

Lena's eyes were open, staring. But even if the fact registered on her mind, she would not at first have understood why von Arnheim was unlacing his breeches.

* * *

Eventually, awareness returned. They had tied her for the ride back to the castle, her wrists to the saddlehorn and her ankles lashed to one another beneath the horse's belly. That pain she had escaped as during the grim, slow jogging she lay slumped over the corpse of Hermann who hung crosswise in front of her. Her blond hair was matted over a pair of transverse welts. Rausch had finally used the loaded end of his whip to quiet the girl for his master.

Her thighs were sticky with blood, some of it from the brambles.

She was in a tiny room when she awakened. Outside, a mastiff growled. It had a low rumble, penetrating without being loud, that could terrify in a way that the frenzied barking of lesser beasts could not. The hour was long past sundown, but odor alone told Lena that she had been thrust into an empty kennel with the mastiffs on guard at the opening. Unlike Karl's human retainers, the great dogs could be depended on to keep all others away from what was, for now, the Ritter's property alone.

Lena squirmed to the doorway. A horse-huge mastiff lay across it. The beast's head was raised and one of the dog handlers, well aware of the brute's capabilities, was scuttling away across the muddy courtyard. Only the casks of strong ale, broached for the Ritter's triumph, had given the man courage to approach as closely as he had.

Awakened by the intruder, the brindled dog turned to lick its own flanks. Lena froze, but moonlight on her hair drew the broad muzzle into the opening. The eyes were calm and dark-pupiled, larger than a man's. The mastiff 's tongue flapped against Lena's temple like a soft rag, sponging at the blood caked there.

Fearfully—no present kindness would erase memory of Kue-meh's last moment of life—Lena brushed her fingers across the dog's forehead, then caressed the upthrust ears. Power burred again in the dog's thorax, but it now was rich with delight. The head gave back, directed by the girl's proddings where it could not have been forced, and let her worm out into the open.

The courtyard was empty of all but the two dogs and a squalor which even the gentle moon limned clearly. The second, fawn-colored, mastiff whined and nuzzled Lena wetly. There was a faint murmuring from the other kennels, wattled domes little different in design from the huts of the peasants. No man or other dog appeared to try the wrath of the killer who now supported the girl on either side.

Her hands absorbing strength from the skin folded over the dogs' withers, Lena made her way to the wall. Behind her, the tower of the keep climbed seventy feet from the ground. No lights gleamed through its arrow-slits. The drink that had enspirited one man had crumpled all his fellows. Even perfect success could only briefly have counteracted the exertion required to gain it, and the Ritter's ale-sodden feast had done for the stay-at-homes as well. Three crossbowmen snored away their guard on the tower, and the occasional sounds from beyond the low wall to the inner court came from the fowl arid pigs of the humans quartered there. The snorts of the horses sharing the outer courtyard with Lena and the dogs were muted. Seven had been ridden to death during the morning or had been swallowed in the Forest beyond later recall by the exhausted hunters.

Lena touched the stones of the curtain wall, massive gray blocks more of nature than of man. She was beyond strength or weakness now, as inanimate as the limestone in which her hands found natural holds. The larger, brindled mastiff raised itself to its full height on the wall and licked the sole of her foot. Then she was over, sliding down the face of the wall and beginning to run the instant she touched the rocky soil below. This time there was no pursuit.

She followed the trail broken by the day's long hunt, knowing the confused scents would hinder the dogs if they were loosed on her. As she passed them, her hands plucked off berries and the pale, tender shoots of budding spruce. Once, in splashing across a rill, she paused for three quick gulps and a mouthful that she absorbed over the next minutes rather than swallowing. Her pace was not particularly swift, but it was as regular as a machine's.

The forest floor paid little mind to dawn or darkness, but the needles of sunlight piercing to the loam were nearly vertical when Lena reached the scene of death and capture. Kort lay huddled, flies black on the raw wounds which crows had already enlarged. Three of the birds croaked angrily from the limb to which Lena's intrusion had sent them, pacing from side to side and hunching their pinions.

Kue-meh's face, undisturbed by the fangs of the pack, bore a look of peculiar kindliness and peace. It was the face with which she had greeted Lena seven years before, less resigned than willing to accept. Lena looked away. It was not that for which she had returned.

"Coo-ee?" she called softly.

The Forest grew very silent. Even the crows left off their grumblings.

"Coo-ee?" the girl repeated. The bushes parted as she knew they must, and Chi, then Faal, stood timidly before her. Gurgling sounds that were partly tears and partly words of a language even older than that of the woods folk, Lena threw herself into their arms. She hugged their smooth, furred bodies like the shades of her lost innocence. At last she thrust them back to arm's length. Wiping her face free of the mingled tears, she said, "We must go now, very quickly. There are places in the Forest so far away from here that the Others will never come. They will never find us again."

She spoke and led the way into the Forest without a glance behind her. Chi followed at once. Faal, a picture of his father now in all but the gray that had tinged Kort's fur, hesitated. As yet he lacked the consciousness of strength that would let him unconcernedly follow into the unknown. But in a moment he ran to catch the females and, as he shambled on at Lena's side, his fingers began caressing the tawny gold of her hair.

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