Atterwald‘s third main point-of-view character, the central protagonist, is a hal’ryth’kei of the Rat Tribe, and has lived among the nomadic bandits thinking she has two choices: grow up to become like them, or die. She believes the latter might be a better option. Yet in this excerpt, she finds herself unexpectedly liberated from her lawless comrades.
A swish, and suddenly she felt light and free. Her tether had been cut.
You’ve been a captive, something whispered in her ear, no different from that poor mouse-man with the crooked chin. What do captives do when they have the chance?
Her lips formed the word. Escape. She raced toward the nearest tree to hide. She clutched her knees and let herself blubber, she ventured to hope, for the last time.
The wind wrapped around her like a cool, soft quilt. It merged with the shadow of the tree to shelter her, chanting in rhythmic whispered words she didn’t recognize: fahrian eln… fahrian eln…
Drawing in the bark’s damp scent, she understood suddenly that this lovely phrase was the tree’s secret name. She sensed as it swirled gently around her that the wind was befriending her, touching her and speaking to her as no other being ever had. She yearned to remain here where she would be safe, or at least slip out of life happily, at peace for the first time.
The wind-whispers wafted in circles about each other, forming patterns she envisioned as glowing spirals of color and light. She heard them leaping and racing, winding and diving. In this dance she sensed an invitation to discovery. She listened with every atom of her being.
She loved the word and at times thought she understood it. Though her elders’ raucous shouting offered her no example, she sensed it in the rustling leaves and whispering grass. Here, in the weavings of the wind, she caught it at last — music. She needed to hear it more closely.
Willing her transformation, she spun downward, like slipping down a waterfall stone. Her head pitched dreamily as her senses sharpened. The harmonies of the wind grew sweeter, moving through her fur and setting her tail a-tingle. She let out a long breath and closed her eyes as they sang her to a peaceful sleep.
She awoke to the touch of sun on her face. Yawning, she stretched herself into a human once more. She was bursting with some glorious thing she couldn’t quite name. The breath of wind played about her ears. Savoring it, she opened her eyes. White threads of sunlight streamed through a verdant curtain of leaf and limb above her. She stretched out her fingers to them, pondering. What might it be like to rise into the sky, absorbed in these lovely strings of light?
She peered around the tree at the little house and garden. Though the hut still stood, the garden looked as if a storm had torn through it. The flowers’ stems were crushed, their petals scattered. Of the vegetables, only a few scraggly carrots and bruised radishes remained. The bladed instrument that had cut her tether now lay half-buried in disheveled greenery…
The wind ruffled the leaves under the child’s hand. As she moved her fingers, they struck something odd. Soft, smooth, slippery. A cloth of some kind. The sketch of the dancing children flashed in her mind’s eye. Had she found one of those fat hair ribbons? Her fingertips tingled as if they’d brushed against ice.
Half turning, she glimpsed an object wrapped in a shiny white blanket, lying in a hollow at the tree’s roots. She reached in to draw it out. Her breath in her throat, she unfolded the blanket, uncovering a wooden rod and a thing she had never seen before.
The breeze strengthened. She heard it whispering something about this strange object. She strove to think of something, anything it resembled. A figure… like her own if she were attired as she wished to be — long neck, curved bosom, waist, and spreading skirt. She liked the feel of her fingertips along its edges.
A gust blowing across the strings made a heart-stirring sound. She heard the faint but distinct suggestion of music — those glorious harmonies the breezes had sung.
This thing could make sounds like that.
Yet how? She shuddered, breathless as she noticed the stick, too, had strings bound and drawn tight to it. String against string. Heart tight with anticipation, she scraped the stick’s strings across the strings of the larger object.
All this effort got her was a high-pitched shriek. She ground her teeth in annoyance, but her heart wound tighter still. The thing shivered under her fingers. It lived, somehow. If she moved the stick-strings and touched the thing-strings just so, she could unlock its soul. She tried again. Still it screamed at her.
“So they left one behind.”
Startled, the Dying One dropped the objects.
“Nichtel,” by Kaysha Siemens