The next days were a confusion to her. She could not recall when she was asleep or awake, when she spoke to the old man, or when she only dreamt she had. She did not understand what he meant when he had spoken of the Elements. Often, the pain in her head was so great at times the only thing she was capable of doing was that of biting her lip to keep from crying out.
When she couldn’t stay her cries of pain, the old man would come to her and bid her bite down on a thin plank of wood. It dulled the pain almost completely, even more so than the ointment. She learned quickly, however, that it was effective for only a short time and she would be obliged to continue chewing on the bark continuously for it to remain useful to her.
During the times when her pain ebbed and allowed her a moment of reprieve, she would stare at the ceiling and think. She could not recall anything about herself; her name, where she was from. The only thing she had been able to discover while confined to her bed were two identical markings on the palms of her hands. They were thin, blue lines in the shape of teardrops, but they held no meaning for her.
The evenings were long and filled with nothing but the ache of thoughts void of memory, a haunting fact that regularly robbed her of sleep. Night after night, she spent the dark hours staring at the ceiling, impatient for the old man to come and disrupt the ever growing apprehension plaguing her.
On the nights she did manage to drift into sleep, her dreams would be chaotic, images of things she did not understand raced from one incomplete thought to the next as her mind desperately tried to put the broken pieces of her past together. She was never successful.
On the morning of the tenth day since her first conversation with the old man, nearly a month since she first awoke, she was able to sit up and drink a little hot broth. She did not care for the taste, but it strengthened her. The broth had been brought to her daily since she first woke up and the old man had been obliged to spoon feed her. Today, she found the strength to feed herself. The old man, she learned, was also called Hominem, as were all the male Elders of the village. He also allowed her to call him Narratus, but he took great pains to make it clear to her to do so was to contradict the Laws of the Village.
“When will you let me leave this room?” She asked as she sipped the broth ruefully.
She was tired of broth, water, and sleep. Her life was a relentless cycle of meaningless tasks. She wanted to move, wanted to explore, to do more than sit in a bed with a handful of broken memories.
“I shall permit you to leave, but only when you can go a day without putting that in your mouth.” He replied curtly, pointing to the bark next to her bed. He was aware of the addiction she had developed for it.
“I prefer the bark to the ointment. It keeps my mind clear and the pain at bay. It also happens to improve my mood. It might improve yours as well if you were to try it.”
She took the bark and offered it to him with a playful raise of her eyebrows. He lightly slapped her hand away.
“Eat your broth.”
“This is not food for eating. This is food for drinking. I tire of it, Old Man.”
“It is the only food you’re going to receive until you can learn to tame that tongue of yours. You would not be calling me Old Man if you knew what you were, Child.” He shot back.
Despite his age, he had a quick mind and was clever. He was a source of amusement to her. She was fond of him, at least more so than the other Elders, all of whom visited only on the rarest of occasions. This suited her well.
“I would know what I am if you were to tell me. But you have yet to do so.”
She choked down the last of her broth and set the bowl down next to her bed before taking up the bark in her mouth. She bit down hard. She loved chewing on it. It felt good to crush something between her teeth even if it caused her scar to pinch. That in itself was a comfort to her. It was something she had control over, however small that something was.
“I rue the day I ever gave you that damned thing.”
He tried to reach for the bark, but she was too quick. She twisted her head down and kept it away from his reach.
“Give me the bark, you stubborn ass of a creature.” He demanded.
She took it out of her mouth and hid it away behind her pillow.
“No.” She replied flatly. “This tree has been the only source of comfort to me since I woke up. It is the only thing I know anything about since you refuse to offer me any information at all.” She paused to look at him. “I’m going to go mad if you do not start talking. Narratus, please.”
She spoke earnestly now, desperate for both something to distract her from her confines, the room that was becoming smaller and smaller each day, and for any information to help aid her in remembering her past. The old man, or Narratus, as she called him, sighed and sat down on the bed next to her.
“I shall strike a deal with you, Daughter of Trees. I’ll tell you about yourself, but only if you are willing to stay here with me for another fortnight. After that, you will be released to the Village and free to do as you wish.” He cocked an eyebrow at her. “Within reason.”
She gave her consent quickly. Another fortnight would be nothing if she knew there was reprieve to follow.
“Tell me everything. Who am I?”
He paused for a moment, considering how to begin. “What do you remember of yourself before you woke up?”
She looked down at the palms of her hands, tracing the lines of blue with her eyes. “I can’t remember.”
“What can you not remember?”
“Anything.” She looked into Narratus’ eyes, pained. “All I can recall is the throbbing in my head and waking up here. There’s nothing before that.”
“Do you know how you came to sustain the wound on the back of your head?” Narratus stared intently back.
“No.” She shook her head.
“Then, I suppose I should begin with that. When you were discovered by the Elders, the wound on your head had become…” Narratus paused, struggling to find the right word.
“Had become what?” She prompted.
“While others might have assumed your wound was infected simply by virtue of it having been open and uncleaned for so long, the truth is whatever weapon was used to cause your wound was also laced with a particular poison.”
She felt a deep lurch in her stomach.
Narratus continued. “The poison used is one I have not seen for a very long time. By the Common Tongue, it’s called the Breathless Slumber, an old venom wielded in the days of the Old Kingdoms. The unfortunate recipient of its effects would slowly lose all feeling and fall into a deep sleep, but not before experiencing great pain and agony.”
“Could they not have simply been woken up?” Even as she asked the question, she knew what the answer would be.
“It was not a natural sleep, Child. It was a sleep meant to kill the victim by consuming their spirit, the very essence of who they were, leaving behind a hollow body, void of all thought. Of all memory. Void of life itself.”
Narratus rose and went to the back of the room which was covered in shelves holding rows upon rows of books. He took a large, black volume with gold writing from the top shelf and brought it back to the bed, grunting under its weight. He sat next to her again and opened to the center of the book, turning it towards her as he did.
“You will not understand the words, but look upon the drawings.”
She looked at the page and her breath caught in her throat. The drawings were of men, women, and children. They were crude at best, but the meaning could not be mistaken. These were living corpses, their eyes white and without life, blood dripping from the corners, pooling into sunken cheeks. Their bodies had withered to bones and skin, their teeth protruding from beneath frail lips caked with mold and rot. Rats consumed entrails that spilled from their broken bodies. The drawings cried out to her in wretched anguish, the stench of the dead rising with them.
“Take it away.” She said, turning away from it.
Narratus pulled the book to his other side. “I’m sorry. I know these images are far from pleasant. I show you only so you might understand. The creatures you see are what is left of those who were exposed to the Breathless Slumber. The same poison you suffered. It was created by the barbarians of the salted waters, and it came to the Valley by way of the man they hailed as their lord. Umbra, who is also known as the Shadow.
“Umbra was a dark being not of this earth. He was wholly evil, known to feed on the spirits of the living, consuming them. He was the cause of great suffering and pain during the days of the Old Kingdoms. He bore no light, only darkness, and was without compassion entirely.”
She shook her head as she looked at Narratus. “I don’t understand.”
“Look at the book again.”
She gave him a wary glance, but he turned to a different place in the large volume and set it before her. Upon the page was a painting. A tall man with white hair, not unlike her own, though much longer, looked back at her. She could not tell his age, for he seemed youthful, yet more wise and ancient than even Narratus. He was extraordinarily handsome, and his icy grey eyes and elegant features bore the countenance of royalty. He was dressed in earth toned cloaks, the fabric pulling against his broad shoulders and strong limbs.
Thick roots rose up from the rich soil beneath him and were wound around his bare feet. Fire and water danced behind his arms, and his hair and cloaks billowed around his legs, caught in a strong breeze the artist had not drawn. She fixed her gaze upon his eyes, unwilling to look away just yet. He was alive to her, and as she gingerly ran her fingers across the page, she imagined she could hear the whispering of voices.
“This is Umbra?” Glaciem questioned, confused.
“No. This was his brother. Audens, the King and Heart of the Old Forest. He is the one who brought life to the Elements. He was their first master.”
Narratus took her hands in his. He turned her palms upwards.
“Look at these markings. They are unique. You will not see them on another, for it is forbidden to bear the mark of the Elements if you are not able to wield them. The Forest declares it.”
She looked down at her hands. The markings were curious; teardrops, but not inlaid into the skin as one might have done with needle and ink. They glimmered as sun on water, and were raised ever so.
“What do you mean by Audens giving life to the Elements?” She asked, emphasizing the name. She liked the way it sounded.
Narratus nodded back at the open book. The man on the page stood with his arms held away from his sides, his palms facing outward. The markings on his palms were similar, only his were more than what she had. The large teardrop encircled a tongue a fire. Within the tongue of fire was the shape of a leaf, within the leaf a small spiral of white.
“King Audens and his people were called the Sons and Daughters of the Forest.” Narratus searched her face, looking for any indication of recognition.
“Daughter of the Forest.” She repeated slowly, feeling the words in her mouth as she recalled the first time she had heard it weeks before.
“Some have coined them People of the Earth, or the Blessed Creatures.”
“Why are the roots coming up from the ground to meet him?”
Narratus flipped the page back to the depictions of the decayed humans. “King Audens and Umbra were twins and dwelt within the Old Forest. It was said they were born of the sun and moon. They were revered by all. Audens was crowned King by the ancient people of an ancient kingdom and as time passed, Umbra grew jealous and a terrible rivalry developed between the two brothers. Umbra betrayed his brother and tried to kill him, burning his kingdom to the ground. The Forest, taking pity on Audens, took the Spirits of his subjects and placed them within the Elements, giving Audens the ability to wield them. This was the birth of the Sons and Daughters of the Forest. It was said that, because of the love his people bore him, King Audens could move whole mountains with a whisper.
“This was not without great cost, for as he was a twin, Umbra was also blessed with this ability, and he used his power for great evil, killing his own army of salted men so their black Spirits might provide him a vast Elemental army in order to wage war against Audens. King Audens, however, was more powerful, and he was able to bring down his brother, the Shadow. It is not known what happened to King Audens after that great battle, though it is rumored he died from his own wounds and the Forest, so struck with grief at the death of their King, turned savage.
“The Old Forest, as it is now called, still bears the Spirits of Auden’s peoples, though it is but a whisper of the glory of the great Kingdom that once resided within it. The trees have now grown quite feral. There are few who dare to venture into Its borders, and fewer still who return when they do.”
Here, Narratus stopped, and the two sat in contemplative silence.
After a time, she looked up at him. “You mean to say that because I bear these marks on my hand I am of the same people as this man here?”
She flipped the pages back to the image of Audens.
“It is as you say.”
She shook her head. “But the markings on my hands aren’t the same. Not exactly.”
Narratus shook his head and sighed. “No, they are not. I fear you’ve lost not only most of your memory, but also the majority of your abilities. Had we found you even a day later, you might have lost them completely. I blame the poison for this.” Narratus chuckled ruefully. “I suppose, on some level, you should be flattered. The Slumber was not often used on those whom the Shadow did not view as a true threat, if history is to be believed.”
She pursed her lips, unconvinced. “This is nothing more than a story imagined for the sole purpose of scaring children. It is a myth you’ve told for so long you’re starting to believe it.”
“And where do you suppose myth comes from? Whether you would believe me or not, there are often hidden truths buried deep within myths and legends.”
She snorted. “What truth can there be in a story such as this? Men who wield the Elements, poisons that steal memories, magickal trees…” She trailed off, shaking her head.
She flipped through the pages, only catching bits of the illustrations. There was a part of her that yearned to accept what Narratus said, and she could not deny the disappointment she felt as she mentally resigned herself to disbelief. She turned the page back to the drawing of Audens. She leaned forward, staring at the illustration intently, silently willing it to prove her wrong. When it did not, she signed and flopped back into the pillow behind her.
“It’s just a story.” She said flatly.
Narratus chuckled quietly. “You can pretend all you like that you don’t believe me, but I can see it in your eyes, Glaciem.”
That name again. She thought, her lips tightening in mild irritation.
Narratus poked a finger into her forehead. “You can feel it, I can tell. Don’t try to deny hundreds of years of proven history simply because you can’t make sense of it. Remember, Child, you’re the one with half a memory. You can’t presume to claim something as invalid or otherwise when there is so much you can no longer recall.”
She swatted his hand away as she gave him a rueful look. “Half a memory or not, you can’t possibly expect me to blindly believe a story from a complete stranger, much less a story in which I am a supposed being with powers that defy the laws of nature themselves. Besides which, if I were to believe your story, it would mean that I am also the supposed mortal enemy of an evil lord named Umbra and sustained an almost mortal wound that conveniently took away those supposed powers in addition to my memory. We’ll not mention the fact that this all happened hundreds of years ago. Can you truly blame me for not believing you?”
“Do not mock these stories, girl.”
“I’m not mocking them, I’m simply saying you can’t possibly expect me to believe them!”
They glared at each other, neither refusing to turn away until finally Narratus relented and stood abruptly. He stared down at her for a moment before nodding his head in silent agreement with some thought she could not interpret. He took the book from her and slammed it down on the chair beside the bed before stomping out of the room. She was sure he would not return and was about to scoot further down onto the bed, but just as she was about to do so, he burst back through the doorway and walked swiftly to her and slapped her hard across her face.
She gasped in shock and yelped as he grabbed her by the throat and pinned her down onto the bed with one hand, his grip surprisingly strong for his age. He raised his other hand high above her head, his fingers tightly grasping a long, silver dagger with a red hilt.
She tried to breathe, but could only choke as his hand squeezed tighter. Her eyes felt as though they would explode, so she closed them tightly, desperately trying to talk, to plead for him to relent. Her head was throbbing and her wound was ignited with a fire that shot deep into her limbs. She clawed at his arms, but he only pressed down on her harder.
“Stop me! You have the power, Glaciem! Stop me! If it means my life, then so be it! I will force you to understand!” Narratus shouted, his voice echoing in the room as he drove the dagger down towards her heart.
The seconds that followed slowed as she watched the dagger lower itself towards her. Icy white pain began to build in her palms, growing stronger as it ran up the length of her arms to meet the fire that traveled from the back of her head. Quite suddenly, she found she was no longer gasping for air. She felt calm.
She opened her eyes, and it was only then that she realized her hands had moved of their own accord, both palms out toward Narratus and the weapon he wielded. Between her hands was the dagger, trapped within a thick sheet of glassy ice. The markings on her hands glowed a brilliant blue. Narratus himself was on the floor in a heap. The only sound in the room was that of the bowl of water beside her bed as it wobbled on its edge, emptied of its contents.
She cried out and pushed back into her pillows, trying to create distance between herself and the dagger. It fell from between her hands, clattering heavily against the floor as the ice encasing it melted into the floorboards. She looked at her hands in shock. The lines had faded to their customary blue, but she could still feel the burning cold pulsing in her fingertips.
Narratus moaned on the ground as he struggled to get up, failing almost as soon as he did. She shifted herself to the edge of the bed and tried to stand up, but her feet gave way and she crumpled to the ground beside him. It took her a moment to realize, much to her frustration, that she had not walked for more than a year and had no strength left in her legs. Refusing to give up, she began to pull herself along the floor to the old man.
“What have you done?” She gasped when she reached him, clawing at his shoulder to turn him over, checking him for signs of injury as he rolled over to face her. “What have I done?”
Narratus looked at her, his eyes wide with shock, the blue a stark contrast to the blood that was beginning to seep from a gash in his forehead. He wiped the blood away with his hands, and as he did so he broke into a wide grin which remained even as he pulled his fingers away, the tips red and wet. He chuckled and then almost immediately groaned, his free hand going to his side. She stared at him incredulously.
“I didn’t know how else to convince you. Yes, yes, It was foolish, I know, but I wanted to show you proof of both the claims I made and of your abilities. I took a chance, hoping the Elements would naturally protect you when you experienced a threat.” Narratus explained, pursing his lips ruefully. “I did not imagine they would react so quickly nor so powerfully. You are strong, Child, so very strong. I think great things may come of you.”
“I am as you say then?” She said it more to herself than to Narratus, a queasy feeling settling heavily in her stomach.
She helped him to sit upright. They sat together on the floor, holding each other up, neither possessing the strength yet to stand.
“I am… ”
“You are a true Daughter of the Forest, yes, and it would seem you are the last of your kind. The records have not indicated Elemental activity for over a hundred years.”
“Everything you’ve said then, Umbra, King Audens, it is truth.” She did not ask it as a question, but rather stated it, willing herself to believe fully. She paused, then asked quietly. “Why did Umbra want me dead?”
“I do not know, Glaciem.” Narratus looked at her, a sad smile on his face. “But you are alive and well, and that is enough. We have much to learn from one another.”
She opened her mouth to reply when she heard a shriek from the doorway. Both she and Narratus turned and saw three Elders, two women, and one man, staring at them in horror.
“What has happened?” The first Elder who had spoken to her upon her awakening moved swiftly to Narratus’ side. “Why are you both on the floor?” Her eyes grew wide as she saw the wound on his face. “You are bleeding.”
“Do not be alarmed, my fellow Elders,” Narratus grunted as the two women pulled him up. “I fell, and the Daughter tried to help me. Her legs are still too weak to support herself for any length of time, and she was not able to lift us both. She stayed with me on the ground to see to my wound. It is nothing more than a light scratch.”
“You were fortunate she was awake and of sound mind.”
The man who had accompanied them was also one of the first to have spoken to her when she awoke. She remembered him by the stone around his neck; bright blue.
“You are not hurt, Daughter of the Forest?” He asked as he picked her up and brought her back to the bed.
“I am well.” She said, bracing herself against the tall man’s arms. She still did not care for the touch of the other Elders.
“And the wound on the back of your head?” He tilted his head as he reached out a hand to touch her scalp, but she gently turned away.
“It is healing well. Narra-” She caught herself before the full word escaped her lips. She willed herself to use the proper term for Narratus, grimacing at how foreign and unnatural it felt on her tongue. “That is to say, Hominem, has taken great pains to ensure it did not infect again. I believe I might be able to leave here soon.” “Not away from the Village, I hope?”
There was a tightness in the man’s voice as he asked the question and it set the hairs on the back of her head on end. She looked towards Narratus, who was standing between the two women. His look was uncertain, cautious perhaps, and while she could not quite interpret either Elder’s look, she could not deny the swell of emotion that was filling her heart as she looked at him. She did not relish the thought of losing his company.
“No. Not away from the Village.” She said finally, nodding slightly to Narratus.
He smiled discreetly back at her.
“This is most excellent news!” The Mulier who had spoken to her first, her stone purple, came forward and stood next to the man. She gently brushed the arm of his black robe with her hand. “We must confess that we had hoped for this answer. It has been our greatest desire to invite you to live with us.”
She furrowed her brows, confused. “Will I not to stay here with Narratus then if I am to remain in the Village?”
The man sighed. “I see he has allowed you a name by which to call him.” He turned to look disapprovingly at his fellow Elder. “The Elders do not have names, Daughter, and it is not good to call him this, for he had vowed to relinquish all names in order that he might surrender himself entirely to the Village. This is his duty. He is the Tenth Hominem, the Keeper of History, and he is the least of us. You shall call him either Tenth Hominem, or the Tenth Elder, from now on.”
He gestured first to himself and then to the woman beside him.
“I am the First Elder and this is my wife, the Second. Standing next to the Tenth is the Third. We have come to see your progress and to ensure your healing, for we desire to move you to your permanent residence here in the Village. The Second Mulier and I have arranged for you to stay with us. There, you will be given the care you need.”
Uneasiness began to settle in her stomach as the First Elder spoke. She did not want to be parted from Narratus. She had grown fond of him in the short time she had been with him. Now, she turned to look at him helplessly, her eyes conveying her trepidation. He stepped forward to speak to the others, his head bowed and his eyes turned to the ground.
“Forgive me, my First, but she has not yet fully recovered. Might I be granted the honor of keeping her with me to ensure her wound has closed properly for a little while longer? She has many things to learn as well, for her memory has been completely destroyed. She does not know of her people, she does not know of her history. Permit me to teach her these things first for it is, as you say, my duty as an Elder.”
The First Hominem studied Narratus before turning back to glance at her. “Do you wish to stay with the Tenth Elder?”
“Please.” She tried not to sound desperate as she said it.
The First Elder sighed, his brows furrowing in irritation. “Very well. You may stay with the Tenth until you can walk without aid, at which point you will be moved to our home at the heart of the Village.”
It was not a suggestion, but a clear command that was not to be questioned further.
He motioned to the door and another Elder, a shorter, younger man with a red stone entered. Beside him was a tall boy with wide green eyes and dark hair that fell in his face as he walked. She looked at him curiously and he looked back defiantly, his eyebrow cocked in mild arrogance.
“This is my son, Strong Heart.” The First Hominem placed a hand on his shoulder. “He is twelve years of age and is the most talented boy in the Village. He has a great capacity for knowledge, and has already accomplished a great many things. I fully believe and expect him to become a great leader.”
“He is called Strong Heart for at his birth a sickness had come over him and stopped his breath.” The Second Mulier said. “We thought we had lost him and his spirit had passed beyond but, quite miraculously, his heart began to beat again and he overcame the death that had attempted to claim him.”
“He will be your companion, Daughter of the Forest. Let him teach you the ways of the Village.” The First Elder firmly pushed the young boy towards her.
The two stared at each other for a while until finally, the boy turned to his father. “How am I supposed to address her? I don’t know her name.” He spoke quietly, his voice deep for his age.
“My son is quite correct.” The First Elder said, smiling. “We must give the Daughter a name! Perhaps the Second Mulier would be so kind as to-”
“-I have a name.” She interrupted him. They all looked at her in surprise. “What I mean to say is,” She shot a glance at Narratus, who shook his head subtly, his eyes warning her to keep his part in the matter secret, “That is…”
“Have you remembered something of your past?” The Second Elder asked softly, catching the silent communication between her and Narratus. She smiled and beckoned her to continue.
She looked at the Second Mulier. She wasn’t willing to outright lie, nor was she willing to squander the opportunity given. “I have a name.” She repeated slowly, silently praying the First Elder wasn’t as perceptive as the Second.
The First Elder showed only impatience.
“Tell us your name, Child! Do not keep us waiting!” He huffed.
Her eyes flashed briefly towards Narratus once more before turning back to the other Elders. She held her chin up and looked at the First Hominem evenly, willing her voice to remain steady.
“My name is Glaciem, the Ice Child.”