Prologue — Whispering Leaves

Morning is marked by the cacophony of sunfall. Inside any village in the Great Forest Pando, suncatchers, tall and short, skinny and fat, ornate and plain, dutifully emptied, and forgotten and overflowing catch the light of the sun in their mesh covers. Rays of light descend through the canopy, hit the covers and collect into drops of sun. A single sundrop makes a sound like the chimes the metalsmith sells for the little children, the pitch and timbre depending on the shape and material of the container and the amount of sun already inside. Thousands of sundrops make the sound of sunfall.

This morning, the sound masks another — the whoosh of a descending beast. Razor-sharp claws dig into unprotected flesh, and a massive beak sets to work rending tendon from bone. Bystanders can do nothing. What they witness is impossible. Gryphons do not attack people like them.

The woman huddles on the ground, taking it all in silence, her long black hair covers her face as the animal tears her dress and her body, carving out chunks, stabbing with its yellow beak, spraying the dirt with blood.

Moment by moment, the agony wears on, until the woman can remain silent no more, and even over the sunfall, screams draw people from all over the village. Still, no one moves to help – how do you stop an unstoppable monster from doing something it can’t be doing?

Then the Greenwarden arrives. Tall, lean, olive-skinned and blonde. Every bit the Pandoan. His presence and the relic in his hands bring a calm to the gathered. 

But this is no ordinary crisis. Alisair Greenwarden takes one look at the woman’s black hair and the color leaves his face. “Odessa!” He shouts, but he holds his ground. Baring his teeth, he takes the ugly walking stick in his hands and sends it in long, slow rotations, as if stirring a pot. The people’s eyes flit from the carnage to their savior. Our Greenwarden will solve this. He will make it right.

Odessa’s screaming weakens as Alisair’s stirring produces nothing. Again and again he rotates his staff, cursing it. Cursing Pando for ignoring him. He stops. “Odessa, hang on!”

One watery blue eye peeks from the black hair, and a pitiful voice pleads. “Al. Save Lewellyn.”

In the next moment, the sacred staff of the Greenwardens lies forgotten on the ground. Alisair sprints to the metalsmith’s hut. When he returns, Odessa is still. Beneath her, another sound emerges. A crying babe. The mad Gryphon clamps its beak around the corpse’s neck and flings it to the side like a sack of cassava roots. A tiny baby in swaddling clothes lays in a congealing pool of her mother’s blood, balling her hands into little fists and waving them in the air as she wails. The gryphon stares, then rears back with a screech, talons ready to strike.

“Hey!” shouts Alisair. The gryphon turns its hulking form and lands its talons in the ground. Alisair carries an iron poker, red-hot from the forge. He sprints at the animal, who stares, dumbfounded, as the burning chunk of metal plunges into its chest. The gryphon’s eyes open wide in an unmistakable look. Somehow, after everything that happened, this beast is convinced that Alisair just betrayed it. People like him do not attack gryphons.

The gryphon screeches in pain and confusion as Alisair yanks out the poker and sends it in again. It takes a step backward, narrowly avoiding stepping on the child, and croaks as he advances like he has gone mad himself, stabbing and stabbing, drawing blood from the gryphon in twice the measure it drew from his wife. It turns his face dripping red, his green cloak a sodden brown. Finally, the gryphon spreads its wings to make its escape. 

Alisair has one last chance at a stab, and this time he goes for the neck. The poker sticking from its neck, the Gryphon gags and chokes. Its wings pull inward and it collapses to the ground, writhing, gasping for breath. Alisair takes a knee and yanks the poker out, sending it once more into the animal’s chest. With one last jerk, its eyes close upward, the lower lid rising up to halfway over the eyeball, and it falls still.

Bystanders can do nothing. They cannot cheer the death of one of the great beastly protectors of the forest, nor can they condemn the man who may well have saved them from it. They just stare, and Alisair stares back at them. The moment drags on, and it looks like Alisair is about to speak, but he doesn’t. Still on his knees, he shuffles to Odessa. She lays on her back, The worst of her wounds mercifully hidden. Empty blue eyes stare at the black-green canopy, the only sky the people of Pando know. 

Sunfall reaches its natural end, and the only sound is the whispering leaves. Apologies, condolences, or something else, it is no one’s place to say. Pando does not speak for mortal ears. Alisair’s breath comes heavy. As the baby soaked in every blood but her own cries beside him, he straightens and holds his head high.

He meets every gaze as he walks to his staff, daring anyone to challenge him. He lifts it, and he is the Greenwarden, protector of the Great Forest Pando, face and clothes dripping with the blood of the same forest’s other great protector. Before he leaves, he looks at the crowd and waves a bloody hand back towards his bawling daughter.

“Someone make sure the child gets home.”

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By Sam Munk

Science fiction and Fantasy author with a focus on philosophical inquiry and character-driven drama.

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