Time passes, rain falls, stars spin as the moon waxes and wanes and one foot tries to outpace the other. Always it was dim and gray on the paths beneath the trees. But the paths beneath the trees were no longer empty.
Dagan was doing his level best to make as little sound as his traveling companion. As time had passed, he had gotten pretty good at it. The silence that came so easily to the red haired man required Dagan’s total concentration to achieve. It was progress. Quite suddenly, in the corner of his eye, Dagan spotted movement. In his momentary distraction he missed his step and crunched down on a patch of dry leaves. The sound shattered the silence.
The red haired man chuckled softly- the first sound he had made in what felt like days- and asked without looking back “I take it the wolf interrupted you.”
Of course he would know.
“I couldn’t quite tell what it was, it went by so fast.” It was not until the words were out of his mouth that Dagan realized how afraid he should be, and wasn’t. Wolf? Wolf!
“You’re right not to fear this one, child.”
Of course he would know.
“It’s just another wanderer. You already knew that though, if you had been paying attention.”
Dagan didn’t answer right away. He’d long since learned that the man didn’t really expect him to, and that it was better to consider his words first anyway. Had he been paying attention? Obviously, since he’d been startled my movement. What had he been paying attention to? His movement. Why? He had been seeking silent movement. Why? To emulate his companion- or at least to emulate a skill he admired. That track makes sense. What else was out there, then? Something that had proven distracting. Movement. According to his companion, a wolf in the woods. Had the movement looked like a wolf? Dagan thought back. Low to the ground but not so low as the little skittering creatures; silent and very fast; had it had the rolling quality of a wolf in motion? Yes. Other things moved in similar fashions but not usually so silently. Wolf makes sense, then. So what was he missing?
“Don’t forget- the senses of your body are not your only senses, child.”
Of course he would know.
Dagan had learned better than to question comments like that one. Of course there were other senses. Hadn’t he experienced them himself in days, nights and nightmares past? The boy thought back, trying to recall whether anything had given him that strange sensation in the back of his head, a whisper along his shoulder blades or a dissonant vibration that he heard without hearing. Yes.. there had been something. Just a moment before the movement registered in his eyes there had been… something.
“Recognition and avoidance.” The red haired man said. “Of course, I would know.”
That, Dagan did not doubt.
They walked in silence for some time after that, with no other signs of life in the dim woods to either side. There were other creatures out there, the boy knew. Sometimes he would hear an owl cry, or see the whisper of rusty fur as a fox slunk along just at the edge of some clearing. Once he had looked up- after a particularly dissonant sensation- just in time to see a large bird of prey wheeling across a break in the trees. Sometimes if they were still they might hear a soft slithering sound but that was very rare and only seemed to happen when they were far between openings in the woods.
Finally, Dagan voiced one of the questions that had been gnawing at his mind for a long time. “Why is it so empty in the woods?”
The red haired man looked back a moment at that. “Is it empty?”
Oops. Dagan thought. Wrong words. He tried again “Why does it seem to empty in the woods?”
“Better. It seems empty because it is empty.” The man turned his attention back to the path. Dagan tried to keep his exasperation from leaking out, knowing full well that it wouldn’t do him any good.
But the boy was growing, and he wasn’t going to give up just yet. He thought for long minutes before he said “Why then do so few others wander in the woods where we might see them?”
“Ah.” The red haired man stopped in his tracks. “A much better question.” When he turned there was a smile on his face, one that seemed to wash away years of bitterness and living by its mere presence. Dagan wondered if he had just said something brilliant and might actually get an answer or if he had said something very stupid and was about to be made to sound a complete fool. He thought he had done it right this time.
The man turned to the side of the path and beckoned Dagan to follow. “Come, child, there is something you should see.” Though the idea of leaving the path was frightening, Dagan followed.
They wound single file through dense trees. They crossed a stream and Dagan was surprised to see it filled with small fish. On a log above the stream a vixen sat, eying them curiously and without fear. When Dagan glanced back she was gone. The terrain shifted again, and both wanderers had to climb up a steep bank, grasping at protruding roots to aid their climb. The light was still dim but the sensation of life and movement around them was stronger than ever. Dagan was confused. Thin places, places where the red haired man would lead them through into the world again were usually also filled with life but the light changed to reflect the time of day or night they were about to enter. Dagan felt by the light and the lack of disorientation he usually felt when stepping out of the woods that they were in fact still well within the woods. Yet… here was life and a lot of it.
“Some things do live here.” The man said quietly “slippery, sneaking things for the most part. And some wonderful things. Most just come through on their way to somewhere else. That’s what makes this path different than the ones we’ve been using. Mind the thorns.”
And thorns there were. At the top of the hill was a hedge of briars taller than any man and hopelessly deep. On the other side Dagan sensed… space. He started to speak but his companion silenced him immediately.
“Say nothing. Make no sound at all if you can. We are close to a road and I do not wish to be seen by those that travel on roads.”
Dagan nodded. What else could he do? There was an edge of command in the man’s voice that Dagan had heard only rarely. He would not brook anything but obedience at this moment and Dagan knew he had his reasons.
Dagan was eying the wall of briars and so he felt but didn’t see his companion move. The red haired man stood at his shoulder and reached one deceptively slim hand to rest on Dagan’s arm. “Now child, pay attention to all of your senses.” There was no other warning. Total disorientation followed. Earth and sky seemed confused as to which of them belonged where and senses seemed determined to do each other’s jobs in his mind. The whisper of wind tasted clear and cool while the ground- which finally found its proper place- pulsed in his eyes as red gold light.
The brambles looked very, very tall.
Dagan felt very, very small.
He looked down.
The earth was right in front of his nose.
His pointed, furry nose that he could see in front of him. He felt himself jump involuntarily and realized that the black furred paws he could see were… his.
He was a fox.
Dagan had lost all track of time while he was wandering in the woods. He knew that the last time they had stepped out into the world he had needed to work for new clothes that would actually fit his new height. He had helped with harvests in multiple places and he was not entirely sure that all harvests had happened in the same season. Time was strange and he had spent a lot of it wandering. Had it been any less time, had he been any less aware of just who his companion was, he would have panicked completely.
It was a very near thing.
He had learned, though, that all new situations brought new information and the best thing to do if one had the time was to gather as much of that information as possible. Carefully, Dagan thought his way down his new body. Twitchy adorable nose, eyes that looked at everything from unknown angles, ears that could hear another heartbeat immediately behind him, the paws were strange and caught at the earth very oddly until he realized- claws. Wind ruffled the fur down his sides and… tail? Well that was new.
The heartbeat behind him shifted and another fox came into view. It cocked its head at him in a very familiar way and then began to slink silently into the wall of briars, finding a path that no human shape could have traveled. Dagan tried to follow and quickly found out that he had no idea how to move this body. For a moment frustration welled up in him, along with a fair amount of panic. Then an image came into his head of the vixen sitting on the log over the stream. He thought about how she had… sat? posed? balanced? No… been.
Slowly, Dagan followed the older fox into the briars.
They reached a place in the maze of thorns where they could just see through to the other side. Stillness, silence, and the briars themselves would keep them hidden from any passersby. They waited. In fact, he was surprised at how long they waited. His legs began to feel stiff and uncomfortable, his fur itched where he was unused to the sensation, the wind teased his ears with strange sounds. Again, Dagan felt the image of the vixen over the stream enter his mind. Her stillness was absolute. Dagan tried to recall what sort of whisper she had made in the senses that were not of the body. She had barely made any at all. So Dagan tried to quiet himself, not just his body but his mind also. He listened to the steady beating of the other fox’s heart. He listened to his own. He slowed his breathing. He let himself sink down into that red and gold he had seen when he changed shape. It held him. Then the dissonant rhythms faded and there was only the sound of one heart beating and it beat in time with the red and gold light.
What is time, anyway?
Something nudged his shoulder and Dagan found his strange moment shattered. He heard his companion’s voice. “Not so deeply, child, not yet. Watch.”
Shaking his head, Dagan looked back out at the road as the sensations of light and stillness faded away like fog in the sun. There was someone on the road. Dagan looked more closely. There were several someones on the road, but he did not think that they were aware of each other. They moved all out of time with one another, stepping into each others’ paths and tripping each other up. He wondered if they knew why they stumbled. They were young, mostly women, and wearing some of the strangest clothing Dagan had ever seen. As they passed by Dagan heard them clearly though he did not know their language. They babbled to themselves and to others he could not see. They grated against his ears that were not really the ears on his body in such a way that he cringed, even though a physical reaction was not likely to have any effect.
When they had gone, the other fox rose from his place and turned to leave. Dagan followed.
Outside of the briars and away from the road Dagan felt himself relax a bit. The sensation of being crowded was fading just in time for a sudden spasm of tangled senses and twisted directions to snarl around him again. For a moment Dagan felt himself standing upright again- and then he was sprawled inelegantly on the ground.
The red haired man laughed softly. “Human is such an awkward shape.”
Standing up quickly, Dagan wanted to burst into questions. A look from the man stopped him. Not yet. Still, he could feel all the questions- what? How? Who?- screaming inside his head like wasps. Dagan’s mental strength was about worn through after everything that had happened. He wasn’t sure he could keep quiet until they were back wherever the red haired man was leading him now.
Down the hill, across the stream, the vixen’s log, through the dense stand of ancient trees and there was the familiar feeling of stillness and aloneness under the gray trees. All the way, Dagan held his tongue. It wasn’t easy. Finally his companion stopped just short of the path’s edge. There was a small open space there with a great long stone just breaking the surface of the mossy ground. The red haired man stopped at the stone and seated himself with his back to the rock. “Find wood, child, we both need to eat.”
The last time the red haired man had made him swallow his questions and go about a mundane task, Dagan had reacted like most children. He’d asked anyway, seeking the comfort of answers instead of taking the offered opportunity. The red haired man had not reacted kindly to the tantrum. Now, though, Dagan understood something. He was being told to go and let his mind rest. Let things settle, focus on the senses of the body and let the others recover before trying to sort out everything that had happened.
Dagan went hunting for firewood.
To be continued.