Thanks to Catherine Russell for providing a quick beta read.
Bailar sim Prensin caught his footing, not falling this time, and kept walking. Farl’s gibe was hardly original, after all, not worth responding to.
“Crazy lout,” the older boy muttered as Bailar stumbled by. “Someday, the Forest will eat you.”
At this, Bailar smirked. In this little farming community along the edge of the Deep Forest, children tested their nerve by venturing into the trees, daring each other to go a little farther in. But the Forest never held any terror for Bailar—indeed, to him it was a welcoming place. Even as a child, he had oft embarrassed Farl and other older children in their game, wandering farther into the trees than any.
“Don’t know why the mothers let you watch their babies,” Farl sneered, turning away. Bailar often wondered the same, but it was one of the few useful things he could do to earn some coins. He was too clumsy for most physical labor, and there was little call for intellectual pursuits here in the hinterlands of the Stolevan Matriarchy. Still, babies enjoyed his company, and he prided himself on never dropping any of them. As for the mothers, they seemed to like him—or perhaps they pitied him.
He left the road and walked the edge of a rye field, using the fence to help with his balance. A few younger children capered ahead, probably nerving themselves up to dash into the trees beyond. They slowed as they drew closer to the edge of the Deep Forest, though, and he caught up to them. Bailar could hear the trees whispering, even from here, although there was no wind. He knew why: ages ago, the Unfallen had once dwelt in the Forest. The trees awakened under their care, and Unfallen and trees protected each other. The last of the Unfallen had passed on, transcended, centuries ago—but the trees still remembered.
“Crazy Bailar,” one of the bigger girls said. She looked about two years younger than Bailar’s thirteen. “He wins.”
“I’m not playing the game this time,” Bailar retorted. “And yes, I’m just a boy, but I’m older and you should have at least a little respect.” The girl stuck her tongue out at him.
“What are you doing, then?” one of the boys asked.
“I’ll show you.” Bailar stepped past the first trees. “Hoy!” he called. “My eldest sister is sick. Will you allow me to gather everbalm and flameweed to help make her better?”
The trees whispered a reply. Bailar could not make out words, as always, but the whispers sounded agreeable. The younger children gaped as he found his balance and hiked away.
“If a boy can do it, I can do it,” he heard behind him. A girl jogged toward him, the one who had insulted him. “Hoy! Bailar! Wait!”
Bailar stopped to oblige her. It will be interesting to see how long she lasts, he thought. It would be a new experience, hiking the Forest with someone at his side—even a sharp-tongued girl.
“How do you know what to look for?” she asked, matching his stride but stealing glances over her shoulder.
“Healer Rosha told me,” he replied, looking around. “Flameweed to help with her fever, everbalm for the coughing.” He stifled a laugh, thinking about the conversation with Rosha and his mother:
“If I had the herbs,” said Rosha, “I could cure her. But the barge won’t be here for a week, and who knows if it’ll carry any?”
“I can get them,” said Bailar.
“Where?” Mother cocked an eyebrow, perhaps knowing the answer.
“I’ll ask the Forest.”
“The Forest?” Rosha looked horrified. “You’ll go… ah. I forget.”
He had laughed, but thought at last, this might be my calling. Rosha had an older apprentice, but perhaps if he could bring her what she needed, she might take a second…
“How do you know where to go?” The girl’s question brought him back to the present. “Do the trees talk to you?”
“No,” Bailar replied. “You have to have magic in you to hear what the trees say. That’s what the old grands say, anyway. But you know how you can tell someone something without words?”
“Indeed.” She stopped, a step behind Bailar, and looked back. “What are you doing?”
“Looking for the trees to point the way.” He crouched and pointed. “See how the leaves are mounded a little, going off that way?”
“No. Ah, ah, I’d better go back. I shouldn’t be alone with a boy anyway, and someone has to look out for the others.”
“It’s all right,” Bailar assured her.
She turned away, but looked up and screamed. “A dragon! Oh gods, a dragon!” She dashed to Bailar and hid behind him, making him laugh.
“It’s just an Oakendrake,” he said. “They won’t hurt you unless you try to grab it, or get too close to its nest.” Bailar had read everything he could find about dragons, which was not much. But he had seen Oakendrakes before. He looked up at the green dragon, only as long as his arm, crouched on a tree limb. “Hello, dragon. Would you fly away long enough for my friend to run back to her other friends?”
The Oakendrake squawked, making the girl cringe, and disappeared above the trees.
“That way.” Bailar pointed, and the girl wasted no time sprinting away. He shrugged and followed the path the trees laid out for him. The Oakendrake returned, flitting from branch to branch. They were curious creatures, after all.
The line of leaves led to a clearing. The north edge held a riot of different herbs, all vying for a place in the sun. Bailar found what he needed, and gathered a small bag of each as the dragon watched from a short distance.
“Thank you for your aid, O Forest,” he said, bowing with palm to forehead. “And to you, Oakendrake, for watching over me.” The little dragon squawked and flew away again. “I should have asked for a stick to use for a staff,” he muttered, as he left the clearing. “I could—”
His foot caught an exposed root, and he went sprawling. Somehow, he kept a grip on his bags. His free hand caught something hard.
Take up, he heard. A whisper like the trees, but as clear as any voice.
“What?” He pushed himself to his knees. “Who said that?”
Your staff, came the reply. Take up.
In his hand was a dry root, as long as he was tall. He stood, stick in hand. One end was a gnarled knot, the other a ragged break. There were no cracks in between. It would make a perfect staff, with minimal work. “I—I—thank you again, O Forest.”
Later, braced against the work table, the stick clamped down, Bailar sawed off the broken end. He kept his free hand well away, and took his time. He could often avoid hurting himself if he took enough time and care. His sister, already feeling better, had offered to sew a leather boot for his staff, and Mother had donated a handful of fat to help cure the wood. But his mind was elsewhere. I heard the trees speak, he thought. ‘Prenticing himself to the Healer was no longer the best he could do.
He had a little money from caring for infants. But now, minding children was in his past. With two older sisters, he had no inheritance to speak of. So, when the barge came, he would leave his old life behind. Surely a sorcerer downriver would take him as apprentice. He had heard the voice of the Forest, and all things were possible.