Chapter 1 — Charcoal

On the solstice of the bright season, sunfall is at its loudest. Today, the cacophony made a fitting accompaniment as the young daughter of the village High Elder forced a heavy iron-tooth comb through her tangled blonde hair. 

A small white rat perched on her bare shoulder, long whiskers twitching, an air about him of one who is always right but never heeded. He spoke in the language of small rodents, one the child had learned almost as early as she had her own tongue. To untrained ears, his words were nothing more than meaningless chittering. In fact, they were heavy with judgment.

“This isn’t a fantasy, Lewellyn,” chittered the rat. “This is real life. These are real responsibilities, and you’ll never live up to them if you don’t think about the consequences of your actions.”

“Francis, I didn’t do anything,” Lew chittered back, gritting her teeth and tugging at the comb. Francis understood her words perfectly well, but lacked the structures to reproduce them, so they used his language.

“That’s right, you did nothing as Bat-face took his grubby fingers and made your hair the nightmare we see before us.”

 The serving boy’s ears stuck out to the sides, so Lew called him Bat-face, even though his face didn’t look like a bat. Francis may have forgotten that he had any other name. Lew had known that Bat-face was messing up her hair, but she couldn’t say why she hadn’t stopped him. She would have if she had known it was going to be this bad, she was sure.

“He told me he could help,” Lew mumbled.

“Help you tie a Melaani braid? And why would he know how to do that?”

“Why wouldn’t he? His job is to help me with these things!”

“Well, now you’ve got to comb out your hair and do it yourself. Comb fast, or you’ll be late for the ceremony.” 

Lew lost her temper and turned on her little friend, switching to her own language. “Would you quit hasslin’ me, Francis! I ain’t gonna be late!”

Tch,” said Francis. It was one of a small dictionary’s worth of rude Chichu words Lew had learned in his company. “The last rat to the spoils gets none.” 

She ignored him. “Besides, they ain’t gonna start the ceremony without me! if I ain’t there, there ain’t no ceremony at all!”

“Now you’re talking like a servant again. If you can’t get that under control, you might be better off saying your oaths in Chichu.” 

“I’m gonna be the youngest ever Greenwarden in all a Pando, Francis. If anybody wants to quibble about how I talk, Pando can drag ‘em under. I don’t care.”

Francis squeaked a high note in Lew’s ear. “Chi-ka. You are not a Greenwarden yet, Lewellyn Eldersdaughter. You may be the daughter of the most powerful man in Pando, but when you shirk your obligations, I have no protection from the consequences.”

Lew waved him off. “Whatever.”

There came a knock at the heavy wooden door. “Hurry, Lew.” Francis chittered, and hopped to the floor and scurried away. Bat-face entered the room, pale extending all the way to his outstretched ears. Evidently Stepmother Aerith had told him more than just to come get Lew. He avoided her eyes, and as much as she normally loved to do so, she couldn’t bring herself to pile any more abuse on him. Instead, she stood silent and allowed him to help her into the green robe custom made for her. All the existing robes had been made for men and women fully grown.

“…should go, Miss,” Bat-face mumbled, reaching out his arm, staring at the foot of Lew’s bed. Lew took it, and together they walked down the steps and out the door.

As Bat-face closed the door behind her, he did a double-take and snatched a paper from where it had been stuck with a knife. He made to crumple it, but Lew grabbed it and he knew better than to fight her. 

Someone had spent a long time rendering a detailed image in charcoal. A baby lay in the foreground, wrapped in swaddling clothes. Around the child’s neck a chain of beaks and claws hung. Gripped in one tiny hand was an ugly walking stick, one that you couldn’t tell from any other except from context – the Greenwarden staff. In the child’s hand the staff seemed ludicrously large, several times longer than its wielder. The background, Lew noticed last, was a forest of colossal trees – Pando – in roaring flame. “Someone really went outta his way,” Lew remarked, perturbed. “Why would someone make this? I ain’t gonna burn down Pando.”

Bat-Face shook his head and reached for the paper, “I know you ain’t, mistress. Now let me get rid a this nonsense.” Lew yanked it from his reach, enunciating her words, “No, I think I shall keep it. I shall put it up on my wall and point to it when I’m a hero. Let the artist feel like a proper fool when I make the Great Wood safer than it’s ever been.”

“Yes, a course,” said Bat-Face with a grimace, “Shall I put it ‘n your room?”

“I shall do it myself. You wait here.” This was how proper educated folk spoke. Speaking this way made Lew feel a little taller. She put her hand out for the dagger and returned to her room, where she stabbed it into the thick wooden column at the center and gazed at it once more. 

She was no swaddled babe, but the staff was still taller than she was. No flowery language would change that. What if she really wasn’t ready? In Lew’s mind, limbs curled in the heat and dropped their leaves into the raging inferno. Ashes blew into the sky, and the once mighty trees above whispered the last of Pando’s mysterious words. Words of disappointment and regret over the Greenwarden who could not protect him. 

Lew shuddered and shook her head. Then she hurried back to Bat-face to go to the ceremony.

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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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