23 March 2012

ELVEHELM: Eldisle I (Interlude) - The Gift of the Forest

            The Forest Mother came for her in the twilight, after brightstar had passed beyond the eastern hills.  Wren had ceded pride place of pride to lark, and hawk was resting in his bower while owl plied his lethal trade, searching for motion with emotionless eyes, and listening for the furtive scuttling of rodents beneath the snow. 

            Membalas was standing in her grove, feeling the current of the kesatuan flicker across her consciousness.  She felt the attentiveness of the owls, the quiescence of the hawks, and the hammering heartbeats of the field mice cowering in their nests.  Images, sounds, tastes flitted by, a cascade of sensation that fascinated even as it instructed her and enfolded her in its warming embrace, keeping her whole and hale.  She swayed gently in the darkness, enthralled by the intricacy of the symphony unfolding all around her, basking in the endless wash of sound and spectacle.

            Beyond the reach of her inward-turned senses, what little warmth the brightstar had bequeathed had given way to evening’s chill.  The breath was stilled, and far beneath the snow, the water rose obediently, bringing with it eloquence and purpose, cool, life-giving and clear.  Soft airs caressed her, stippling her flesh, making her long for the gentle light of Hunter and Huntress, when the landscape would come alive with sparkling colour.

            The wind wound through the boughs, bringing with it scents that she could taste, but that she would never smell: wood and mould, sea-salt and corruption, iron and fire and stone and life.  She did not miss the smells; she could not miss what neither she nor any of her sisters, the sudarakayu, had never known.  Instead, she revelled in the breeze, savouring the taste of the forest that came with it, and shivering at the gentle caress of the innumerable spirits that it bore: spirits of root and heartwood, leaf and bough, the tiniest vine and the mightiest redwood, wafted gently along on the river of the world’s breath. 

            The spirits stayed a while with her.  Sometimes they sang to her; sometimes, they brought her their stories.  The spoke to her of birthings and dyings, of new-found rooting-places, of blossoming buds, and of the things that they had seen.  In the spring, their stories spoke of scents and flowers and the return of bees; in autumn, of the withering of life, of ending, and of the long sleep.  In winter, the spirits often lay hidden and still, their songs and stories silenced in the season when the winds of world’s-breath are not longed-for, but endured. 

            And in summer...ah, in summer, they were a symphony.

            Spring and summer, autumn too, though, were long gone, and winter was at its deepest depth when Hutanibu came to her, descending from lowering clouds in a gentle fall of snow.  Even though it only came with the great sleep; even though it hardened the earth, and slowed the life-giving water, and dimmed the glory of brightstar, Membalas loved the snow for the silence that it brought.  Enrobed in  flawless white, she stood still and alone, isolated from all the wide world while still lingering within and a part of it.  It was an intoxicating feeling; to be one with the green, and yet alone, however momentarily.  The snow stilled the babble of the birds, stifled the wind, muffled the voices of the forest.  It let her think.  Her sisters had marvelled at her love for the Season of Sleep, when she told them of it.  Some had even shivered delicately in horror at the thought of willingly separating themselves, however briefly, from kesatuan.  It made Membalas different from the rest of the sudarakayu; she realized that much.  The difference had never bothered her.

            Her inward focus was so severe, her fascination at the thundering flow of understanding that poured through her joining to the vast, overwhelming existence of the forest so intense that, at first, Membalas was entirely ignorant of the fact that another presence had entered her grove. 

            This was less a consequence of inattention than of the nature of the visitor.  Hutanibu could be surreptitious when she wanted to; indeed, because she was in essence everywhere already, a visitation could be granted with little more than the gradual intensification of her presence in one particular spot. 

            And so, the snow fell more heavily for a few moments, bringing with it the growing power and consciousness of the green.  After a time, the flakes swirled together into a column, and she was there. 

            Seeing that the grove’s occupant was still locked in rapt contemplation, Hutanibu decided, as a matter of courtesy, to reach out and touch the kesatuan with the merest corner of her consciousness.

            Membalas came back to herself with a jolt.  The power in that briefest of touches had sent tremors like lightning flashing through the link, shattering her concentration, overwhelming the flow of image and sound with the vast, indomitable and unending lifespirit of the wood, the throbbing current that lay beneath all existence and consciousness.  Though she had never felt that touch before - at least, not so intimately - she knew instantly what it was.  And who.

            Dropping out of the link, she focussed her senses on her immediate corporeal surroundings.  The glade was as it had been when she had joined kesatuan - silent beneath its blanket of snow, the vast trees leaning over it like attentive guardians.  Beside her stood Ikanatek, straight, tall and strong; bare of leaves in this silent season, and with the watery lifeblood stilled and sluggish within him, but withal rigid, mighty and unbending.  He was her love, her strength, her life.  She shot a sliver of thought towards the gentle murmur of his consciousness, and sighed in relief; he too had noticed the presence of another, but was undisturbed by it.  Indeed, he welcomed it.

            Membalas looked around, and saw at last what had broken her concentration, and drawn Ikanatek’s attention and silent approval.  It was a snow squall; the spiralling flurry of snow looked like a localized blizzard, the flakes whirling and spinning as if in dance.

            Stunned at the enormity of the honour being done her, Membalas shrugged off acarapohon, shrinking and melding back into her natural shape.  The cold of winter, which in tree-form she did not even notice, flooded back, and she shivered slightly.  She did not mind the cold - none of her sisters did - but she definitely preferred the other seasons.  And there was a psychological impact to standing half-clad in a snowstorm that was difficult to deny.

            Ignoring the chill, she fell to her knees, covering her mouth briefly with her hands before raising them before her, palms open, a gesture of acceptance and obedience.  “Welcome.”

            I thank you.  The words seemed to form in her mind, coalescing out of the innumerable individual flakes and shards of consciousness carried by the storm.  May I enter, daughter?

            Membalas began to shake. Her tremors had nothing to do with the cold.  “You are Hutanibu,” she said, her voice quavering.  “I...you do not need my permission, Mother.”

            I was aware.  The wind carried something like an indulgent chuckle.  But this is induk belukar, Membalas.  This is your grove, and that of ikanatek.  I did not wish to be discourteous.

            Membalas smiled despite her shivering.  “Mother, your presence could only honour us.  I beg you, enter.”

            The snow-squall whirled, tightened, and broke apart.  When it cleared, it revealed a creature not unlike Membalas in shape and stature; indeed, the visitor seemed to differ only in colour.  Where Membalas, even in winter, was as green as verdant summer, her visitor - Hutanibu, the Forest Mother, clad in a mortal manu - was the rich brown of oak leaves in autumn.

            The newcomer also radiated so much life, so much power, that her mere presence was a palpable force that nearly stopped Membalas’ heart.  She tried unsuccessfully to still her shaking. 

            She stood, brushing flakes of snow from her knees as she did so.  Bobbing her head in an unconscious gesture of submission, she repeated, “Welcome.”

            Hutanibu glanced down at her nut-brown limbs, clenching and stretching her fingers as if startled by the sensation of flesh.  “I adore this form,” she said happily.  “Divine Bræa was inspired when she created it.”

            Membalas said nothing, taken aback by the casual reference to she who was first among the Anari.  Her astonishment increased as her visitor bent double, placed her hands on the snow-covered earth, and executed a flawless handstand. 

            “Don’t you?” Hutanibu asked, looking at Membalas upside-down.  Her long hair, unbound, the colour of rich walnut, mingled with the snow.

            “Don’t I what?”

            The visitor back-flipped easily to her feet.  “Don’t you love your Kindred shape?” Hutanibu asked, dusting the snow from her hands.

            “I suppose,” Membalas replied, still stunned, as much by her visitor’s antics as by her divine presence.  “Of course, I’ve never worn any other.  Apart from acarapohon, of course.”

            “I’m glad to hear it,” Hutanibu replied.  “Because you’re going to be spending a lot more time in that form.”

            “I...”  Membalas was dumbfounded.  “Mother,” she said at last, “why have you come?  How may I serve you?”

            Hutanibu’s fair face grew serious.  “I have a task for you, daughter.”

            “I accept,” Membalas said instantly.

            “Thank you,” the visitor smiled.  “But not before you have heard what I require.”

            Belajara, Hutanibu.”  Instruct me, Forest Mother.

            “There is something stirring, deep within in the most secret places of the green,” Hutanibu said.  She looked around Membalas’ grove, noting in a glance the life and health of the trees.  They were flawless, immaculate; obviously well cared-for.  The undercurrent of life vibrated all around them.  She had chosen wisely. 

            “Some power,” she went on, “that lies outside my ken has germinated and is growing.  It is alien, and yet it is a part of us.  A challenger, perhaps.  Something mighty, and unnatural...and yet, this power bears within it all of the strength and wisdom that is mine to command.”  She paused.

            Membalas waited, silent.

            “This new power,” Hutanibu continued after a moment, “is able to shape the life of the forest...but it does so outside of the bounds of kesatuan, and therefore beyond the scope of my vision and thought.  It is a usurpation of my strength, my right...and yet, I cannot touch or taste, hear or see it.  I do not know what it is, or where it is...or why it is doing what it has done.”

            “What has it done?” Membalas asked, confused.

            “It has usurped and twisted the green,” Hutanibu replied.  Stepping closer, she reached out and placed her nut-brown palm on Membalas’ breast.  “Feel with me.”

            Membalas closed her eyes.  Instantly her heart and mind were assaulted by an overwhelming flood of image and emotion: skies darkened by whirling winds, the shrieking of kites, the crackling groan of trees.  Mortal screams, and the howling of beasts; thunder of skyfire, hammering fall of rain, cracking of stone, scent of new-turned earth... 

            And life – oh, such life!  Writhing, clutching, grasping, beating; forced from the earth by some potent, irresistible compulsion; clawing skyward, shoving, battering, clinging, smashing, reaching for the brightstar in a horrific frenzy of vegetative fecundity, howling for..howling…

            Hutanibu withdrew her touch, and the wash of sight and sound dissolved like a handful of earth flung into a fast-flowing river.  Membalas staggered, overcome by the grotesquerie of what she had been shown.  “What...Mother, what is happening?” she whispered.

            “I do not know,” Hutanibu sighed.  “I see, I feel, all the vast and mingled currents of the natural world.  Nothing that is bound to kesatuan is beyond my reach.  That is the task the Holy Mother has given me, and the limit of my power and my sight.

            “But I cannot see this.  Whatever is doing this lies beyond kesatuan.  It is not part of our world, and yet is has power over it.  More power than even I can wield, I fear.

“Some terrible force, daughter, has entered the green.  You must find it for me.”

The dryad’s eyes widened.  “Me?” she blurted.


Membalas began to quiver.  “Why not...where are the ratu hijau?”

Hutanibu pursed her lips.  “The queens of the woodlands,” she said slowly, “cannot help me in this.  For many reasons, foremost among which is the fact that they suffer the same limits as I.  They can perceive, can feel, only that which is bound to kesatuan.”

She looked troubled, and that look worried Membalas.  “What else, mother?” she asked quietly.

The goddess shrugged.  “The queens...they could not come, even if I called.  Ibu Salju, Queen of Winter, cannot leave the northlands, lest she perish in warmer climes.  Anak Sugai, Queen of Spring, is bound to the inland waters, and cannot walk the lands where the Kindred dwell.

“And Hau’le Kauani, Queen of Autumn, has been sore afflicted by a dire winter, north and east of here, in the great wasteland south of Dweorgaheim.  Her strength is almost spent; it is only through mortal intervention, through the actions of Kindred heroes, that she prevailed, and autumn spared the ravages of abomination.  I cannot ask this of her.”  She fell silent.

Membalas waited for a moment.  She knew she had to ask.  “What of my own sovereign?” she whispered hesitantly.  “What of Kahunahele, the Queen of Summer?  Surely she...”

“She does not answer.”

The dryad started.  “What?”

“Kahunahele does not answer,” Hutanibu said heavily.  “I cannot see her.”

“What has become of her?”

“I do not know.  The green does not taste her footsteps and the flux no longer knows her.  There is a hole in kesatuan, where once she was.”

“Is she...” Membalas shivered and swallowed nervously.  “Mother, is she...dead?”

“No,” Hutanibu replied, clearly troubled.  “I have vouchsafed each of the queens a portion of my power.  If Kahunahele perished, that power would return to me.  It has not.  Wherever she is, she lives, and my power - the power of summer, the power of blooming and growth - resides still within her.”  

Her gaze, penetrating and potent beyond mortal imagining, grew distant.  “Perhaps she has forsaken the green.  Perhaps she has betrayed us.  I do not know.”

She glanced back at the quivering dryad.  “This is why you must undertake this task for me.  You must stand in Kahunahele’s stead.  I cannot grant you the power that is the summer-queen’s right, for I no longer possess it.  I am sorry.  You must succeed nonetheless.”

            Membalas started.  “How am I to...Mother, I cannot read all the wide world.  Without the power of the summer-queen, I am...I am only myself.  And I do not possess even the hundredth part of your sight or your skill.”

            “Not even the hundredth part of a hundredth part,” Hutanibu corrected with a smile.  “But I do not ask you to read the world our way, through kesatuan.  I ask you to see it.

            “You must go beyond the unity, and into the Kindred realms.  The children of Bræa are at the root of this, I think.  To do what I ask - to find what I seek - you must see the world as they see it.  You must leave induk belukar, and walk abroad.  To do what must be done, my daughter, you must leave the green.”

            Membalas closed her eyes, trembling.  “Then I shall die.”

            “No.  I have watched you, Membalas; your heart is here, with ikanatek, to be sure; but your spirit has already left this place many times.  Many upon many!  Your thought roams the wide world unfettered.  I know you.  For you, this not exile, but a severing of chains.  It is why I have chosen you, among all my children, to bear this burden.

            “And do not fear for your life, or your bond.  You will live.  Through my benison and my blessing, you will live.  That much, at least, I can grant you.” 

The goddess extended a hand.  There was a gentle rustling.  Membalas looked up, and gaped in wonder.  Overhead, Ikanatek’s branch-tips were quivering.  She felt a tremor of power ripple through the glade...and high above, the branch-tips burst into an explosion of verdant life.

            Hutanibu snapped her fingers, and Ikanatek bent obediently.  His vast, iron-hard limbs curved downwards, almost as if he were bowing to their divine caller.  The cluster of leaves drew closer, closer...and a single acorn dropped into the Forest Mother’s outstretched hand.

            As Membalas watched in astonishment, the brown-skinned woods-woman held the acorn to her lips and breathed tenderly upon it.  Gradually, almost imperceptibly, a gentle golden glow filled the glade, emanating from between her curled fingers.

            When Hutanibu opened her hands, Membalas gasped.  The tiny acorn had been transformed into a brilliant, glowing point of light.  As she watched, the light dimmed, then brightened; then dimmed, and brightened again.   The pulsation continued, strengthened, and sped to match her own hammering lifebeat.

            Hutanibu saw the shock on her servant’s face and smiled.  “Will you serve me, Membalas?  To walk abroad, as my envoy?”

            Membalas, still staring at the throbbing light, nodded.  “If you command it, Mother.”

            “To find the thing that threatens the green?  To know it?  To end it, if you can?”

            “If you command it, Mother...I will.”

            Nodding, Hutanibu clenched her fingers around the pulsing acorn.  Then, stepping forward, she laid her fist against Membalas’ chest just beneath her breasts...and slid it into her sternum.

            Membalas shuddered as the divine fire of life burst within her.  Her muscles quivered and collapsed, and she would have fallen, had not the visitor’s immense strength served to hold her upright.  She hung, shuddering and gasping, suspended in the air by the brown limb sunk into her chest.

            “I name you Hutana Membalas,” the Forest Mother whispered.  Like the acorn, her voice throbbed with tightly-leashed power.  “Henceforth, you shall be known throughout the green as ‘Gift of the Forest’.  Armed with my benison, you may leave your grove and your bond-tree, for I have placed his seed within your heart.  Take care that you give it light and life each day, and his spirit will remain with you, and sustain you in your quest.

            “While your task endures,” Hutanibu continued, her voice fading into the sibilant hiss of windswept leaves, “while my queens are impotent, or lost, you shall be my envoy: Caraka Ilahi, Divine Messenger of the green, most blessed of all the sudarakayu.  You are my emissary to the world outside.

            “The last of my power is now yours, daughter.  You must not fail.”

            Membalas, her shimmering verdant eyes rolled back in her head, quivered as though palsied, and said nothing.

            When she came back to herself, she was alone in the glade.  It was dark; full night was upon her. 

She glanced around, and saw that Hutanibu was gone.  Her beloved Ikanatek stood still and silent, branches bare of any hint of foliage.  The snow was falling gently, undisturbed by whisper or by wind.

            She was conscious of something profoundly different, and knew in an instant what it was.  She put her hand to her breast and felt the throbbing duet within her - her own lifebeat, hot and racing, and the deeper, slower pulsation of Ikanatek’s existence.  His vast endurance, patient strength and gentle love, mingled with and bound unto her own by the Forest Mother’s divine power, suffused her being.  The strength, spirit and gentle wisdom of the mighty tree, her life-long bond-mate, was within her now, supporting and sustaining her.  She felt as if she could dance upon the clouds, command their lightnings, tear mountains down.

            The oak-bond had not been severed; it had been strengthened a thousand-fold.  She did not need to be next to him; she could touch him whenever she needed comfort, strength or reassurance.  Now, too, she could leave the grove, and walk abroad, taking her bond-might with her, and fulfilling the Forest Mother’s will. 

            She rose to her feet, and walked.  Every step seemed to thunder against the earth like the stride of a giant.  The snow parted before her like a curtain, whipped away by the power that Hutanibu had placed within her.  She felt as if she were wrapped in a warm cowl.  No hint of chill could penetrate the comfort that Hutanibu had vouchsafed her.

            At the lip of the dell, she neither turned nor even paused.  There was no need for farewells.  She was not leaving Ikanatek; she bore him within her heart.

            Together, as one, the dual being – Hutana Membalas and Ikanatek, reforged by the might of the Forest Mother into Caraka Ilahi, Divine messenger of the green – departed induk belukar, and walked out into the wide, wild world.