Chapter 1

If there was one thing I knew, it was to never go in Eldritch Forest. It was one of many warnings which I had received, practically since birth. If I’m honest myself, nothing scared me more than the prospect of spending any amount of time in Eldritch.

“Al, it’s time to go.” My mother’s depressed face appeared in the doorway or our house. Our house was small, only one room, which was quite unfortunate when Da was having a fit of fantasty. My mom had to work in the clan gardens every day, but she had today off in view of a certain ‘event’ going on in our family.

The short story is, my da is crazy. He wasn’t always. It confused me when he started raving about the ‘lost villages’ hidden within the woods of Eldritch. No one believed him, and for good reason. No one ever made it out of Eldritch. It was the worst punishment; to be banished into the forest, other than being burned at the stake, but that hasn’t happened for years.   

You see, I didn’t want to let my Da go. I still remember when he would tuck me into my straw bed at night and tell me old clan legends, and he’d softly kiss me on the forehead. Every night. For years.

But then things changed. My da, Plover Frond, was threatened with banishment from the clan because he started acting upon his beliefs, his wild and surely untrue dreams. He’d been saying he’d been receiving visions; visions of people, a people in the forest. He began to create quiet plots against our clan leaders, the elders, and Chief Falcon. No one seemed to want to follow him and risk death, and the clan elders had finally decided it had gone too far. Yesterday they had decided that I should walk my father to the edge of the forest, armed clan elders blocking the village at my side.  

The clan leaders, or “clannies” as the younger clan citizens and I often mockingly called them, were concerned over the secret, rebellious generation which gradually grew under their strict leadership, like a blister under a tight sandal strap.  Of course, my father was rumored to be raising up the coercive, silent young rebels, being young himself – he could be hardly older than 30 – and that was a fact.  I’d been following’ after my Da’s ways ever since I was a wee child of seven.  However, my mother was kin to Chief Fal, and she seemed to cared little for my father’s radical ideas, especially after one of his rages of fantastical thoughts.  Mema said he’d been a good child, once, and that was why she’d married him a year early, at fifteen.  I was still young for marriage, too old to play among the wee ones, yet too youthful to begin to seriously commit to and to follow after the Elder Folk.  I was at that shadow age, the age where one is too young and too old.  I was fifteen, and I was walking my crazed father towards the woods of death.  I considered myself too young to cry.

***

“Swallow, you look strained.”  My Da looked at me with eyes full of concern, and I could hardly believe that he’d been running the borders of our settlement, tripping crazily around the rim of the stockade-blocked woods like a madman, only the night before.  It was at times like now, however, when I wondered how I had ever feared him, him and his fanatical ideas.

“Why Da, I reckon I have right to be afraid of the forest.” I gripped his hand tighter, as we approached the twisted fence of logs and briars, which surrounded our clan’s camp.  It was meant to protect us from enemy marauders, visitors, and creatures of the night.  It was meant to protect us from the forest.  As we were surrounded by woods, all of the above came from the forest.  

“Child, you have no need to be afraid.  I do not fear the woods – Eldritch is no curse to our clan, but a blessing.”

He must be drunk or something.  Yet his eyes had never been clearer, nor his face more awakened.  Da was strong,  and his muscles rippled through his tunic.  Of course he didn’t fear the woods, he was stronger than iron!

Softly, I spoke again. “Da, you must be quiet now, and return to the fence next morning.  I’ll be awaiting you there.”  Tears sprung to my eyes, but I forced them down.  “Surely the Chief and the clannies and the Elder Folk will pardon you if you arrive humbled and unharmed.”  Or unarmed, I was thinking.

“Child, I shall not return here.”  Da’s voice was solemn with conviction.  

“Do not be a fool Da!  You must live – for me!” I whispered. Sweet birds sing, but a Swallow never cries, I reminded myself.  It was one of Mema’s many favorite sayings.

“I shall not return here, young one, because I do not wish to.”  

That settles it. He’s is drunk beyond repair.  I paused in the dirt path, overlooking our shaded, tight, and muddy settlement.  Spring rains had stirred up the streets and our swollen Muddy Creek, creating wallowing places for dogs, and pigs waded carelessly through the knee-deep muck.  Fondly my eyes focused on our dirty mud-and-straw brick hut, noting our pigs, one of whom was just heading inside.  Mema would most likely let it lick our  dining plates clean, its sticky tongue swiping away the soft potatoes and crisp onions.  A pig’s tongue is a fine feeling.  

Meanwhile, Da noticed my silence.  “Swallow Frond, I pass on my vision to you.  Carry my dreams onward – remember, just one well-planned revolt will change our settlement!”

I halted at the stockade, and my eyes burned with tears, but I stopped the unwelcome drops of weakness once again.  “But Da, I don’t know how to lead.”

Da’s gentle-rough hand brushed mine, and his back braced against the cold wood of our stockade.  In the distance, the Clan guards watched.  

“Find me, Swallow.”  My father said, as his grip loosened and he lept over the fence, into the woods.  A crackle of brush, and he was gone.  

 

Chapter 2

I stared after him, my breath stuck in my throat.  I practically fainted, leaning breathless with anxiety against the moist bark of the logs; thinking about what my father had told me.  

Find me, Swallow.”

I finally tore my eyes from their target – dreadful Eldritch Forest, causer of such pain and separation! – and turned around slowly.  I started to walk back towards our cottage, weak as a baby bird. How could Da do this? Leave me in such danger? I thought.  Da expected me, an fifteen year old girl weak in strength, to lead a revolution.  Pah!  The idea was preposterous. And to go after him into Eldritch? When he would be dead by the malicious Huns by nightfall? For the first time, I truly thought my father was honestly insane and not just commonly drunk with dreams.

As soon as I arrived back at our hut, Mema enveloped me from the doorway.  She outstretched her arms, beckoning to me. I ran into her strong arms and stayed there, feeling safe and warm. She bent down and whispered something in my ear.

“You can do it Al. I believe in you.” As soon as I had registered her words, my head snapped up.

“You believe him?” I whispered back, confusion and amazement filling my mind.

She looked around, seriousness overtaking her expression. “We must not speak of this out here, they shall hear us and banish us – before we’re ready.”

“Ready for what?” Mema grabbed my hand and pulled my suddenly into the dank hut. The door slammed shut, and we were in the dark.

“Al, everything your father told you was true, every bit of it.” Mema took a deep breath.  “Plover was never drunk, just drunk on dreams.”  My mother turned to face me; her long dusty-auburn hair was dingy, and her face streaked with grime. She was close to tears. “Every single thing your father believed in. It was all true.” She grabbed my hand and began stroking it.

“Mema-” I began, but she cut me short.

“Al, I know it’s asking a lot  of you, but, when you were born, your father and I knew you were the one.” I looked at my mother in confusion.

“The one? Like in the old legends? They’re all true?”

“Every bit of them.”

The legend was that one day, the elders of the clan would become oppressive. They would kill. They would become cannibals. They would desire to completely ruin the clan. Destroy it. Not leave anyone safe. But one, a special one, would deliver the clan from their tyranny; one who was at first weak in body, yet always strong in heart.  A redeeming one with a soul of iron, and the wise mind of a bird.  One who would be rejected at first. But then those of the clan would see. Those blinded would see the clannies’ oppression, and they would fight. They would fight, and fight, until they couldn’t fight any more. They would be close to losing everything, the rebel’s soldiers dead.  But –

Nothing.

That was all the legend contained. The end of the prophecy had been lost many years ago, and not one soul knew how it ended.

And yet, prim, cool Mema, kin to Chief Fal, considered her weak daughter to be capable of fulfilling the famous words!  But Swallow Frond was only fifteen –

“Mema, I am too young, and also practically friendless!  An outcast of the children, because of my father…”  I sighed.  

“Bide a wee – after all, “Sweet birds sing, but a Swallow never cries.”  You, my child, are a rare bird.  All others dance, mindlessly, in the light – and yet you contemplate the dim to imagine – all others are plumed with fine beauty, hair of red, eyes of blue, or hair of gold, eyes of green; but you, my Swallow, have never allowed tears to fall across your pale face, or sorrow to grey your deep brown locks.  You, my child are Different.  You are the One.”  

My heart grew warm, but my spirit still was sunken within in the ice of sorrow and the chill of fear.

***

After a fitful night on the straw mats which covered our floor, I arose and went outside.  Muddy Creek roared at my feet.  

Oh lichen-foot.  It was a spring flood.  

Cautiously exiting the hut, sliding on the slippery ground, I checked to make sure that our pigs were inside the hut, then pulled down the twig curtain – a panel formed of interwoven twigs, basket-woven into a rectangle.  Now that the doorway was shut –

“Oh no.” I groaned.

Two bullying teens were floundering across the stream, in the direction of where I stood.  Sly grins flickered across their faces, and I stared them defiantly in the eye.  They kept coming.  I sighed.  Did Ibis and Hummings, who currently called himself Hum, have to come mock me this early!  I groaned, then made myself presentable and straightened my windblown dress where it hung limp and muddy against my bare legs. Ibis was that sort of sassy-to-younger-kids, favorite-of-the-elders child in the village.  Most villages had them, I was sure, although I’d never so much as set a foot over the fence.  Ibis had, like most of the clan families’ children, thick golden hair, which hung in a mat down to her skirt.  Hum, a lanky orphan  boy with a kind heart although he was prone to be mislead – as he was the possessor of a follower’s mind – followed Ibis everywhere, as he was sixteen and so was she. I hated Ibis.  She was beautiful, snobbish, and had the most handsome boy in the clan following her around, (although he were of little or insignificant means) yet practically ignored him for reasons which I could only assume were foolish indeed.

And yet here they were, she coming to bully me, no doubt, the day after my father’s exile.  I straightened my neck, hardened my heart, and fingered my dagger.  Ibis and Hummings splashed through the rushing waters, across the slippery creek bank, and up the muddy hill towards our hut with difficulty.  

Mema is already at her work in the gardens of the Chief, so I can fight back without rebuke.  I thought, and my prideful mind elevated itself.  By the time Ibis and Hum reached me, their muddy conditions were just about equal to my bedraggled, messy state.  

“So, Al Frond, you consider yourself above us!  And you will likely end up an exiled, dead rebel, like your father is now!”     

Hum frowned, looking as though he wished he were not there, with Ibis, who so infuriatingly mocked me.

“And look where you are – in your dirty dress, in your dirty hut!”  Ibis sneered.  Hum, disturbed by his friends cruelties, began to back away from Ibis and I,  in the direction of the creek.

“Well, I think your hut is made of mud, same as mine!”  I returned, frowning.  How could I lead our clan when not even a girl would listen to me?  I worried, How could I live up to Da’s expectations?  

Hum was dangerously close to the swollen, raging creek now, continuing to silently tread backward.  

“Yes, but my family is a lot more – how do I say it? – respectable than yours.”  Ibis continued.  

A splash.  Ibis whirled.  

“Where’s Hum?  What’d you do to him!” she cried, hurrying towards the creek.  A long, thin hand reached above the waters, grasping, but closing around nothing.  

Hum couldn’t swim.

“Hum!  I’m coming for you!”  I cried, careless of my loose dress as I plunged into the raging current. I suppose it was instinct. Although I hated the two, I couldn’t stand there and watch one of them die. The water was freezing, and my eyes burned when I opened them.   

“Hum!”  

I’m sure that Ibis just stared.  She never was one for immediate action.  The current pulled me along with it.  Our clan’s muddy creek was deeper than I thought…I touched something warm and soft – Hum…  as my strength ebbed away, I tugged his limp body towards the bank.  I grappled for one final instant with the deadly waves before heaving myself onto shore.  I coughed up muddy water as I pulled Hum onto the slippery bank.

“Ibis…”  I panted, light grey dress bedraggled and torn, “Could somebody – somebody…meaning you – fetch the healer?”  I allowed myself to faint into blissful sleep, not noticing that I was still gripping Hum’s hand, in the same position as I had tugged him out of that creek of death. Chapter 3

It was nearly sunset. Had I really slept all day? The next thing I remember was waking up, on the shoreline again, alone. Thank you Ibis. I thought, as I remembered what I had done for her best friend. As I painfully got up, I saw Hummers come towards me. He looked tired, but alright. His cropped dark hair was clotted with dirt from the creek, and his face was dirty. But to me, he just looked like, well, a Hum.

“Hey Swallow.” He said, as he offered me his hand. He pulled me to my feet, and I wiped my hands off on my wet dress. I looked at him. “Ibis told me what you did, and I want to thank you.  Hardly anyone looks out for me, you know, being an orphan and all.”  

I sighed. “It was instinct. I don’t know. Something inside kind of ‘snapped’, you know? I couldn’t stand there and watch you drown.  And Hum, just know that even if you’re missing your family, you’re not alone.”  The memory of Da’s plea came to mind,

Find me, Swallow.  

Hum grinned encouragingly.  I continued, “Hum, I know I can trust you with this.  You think you already know about my Da – no doubt Ibis told you he was a rebel, and a sorry one at that, being banished and such.  Many people in our clan have lost their family, due to -” I lowered my voice, “The clannies’ interference and such.  But we are not alone here.  My Da is waiting in Eldritch for me.  Before he left, he told me to find him.  And I will, Hum, because I am not alone.  So, I’m trusting you with this information, okay?  Because you owe me your life.”  And if you tell anyone what I have so foolishly told you, I’ll take your life, too.  I muttered under my breath. But still, I felt I could trust this quiet orphan, and I needed someone to talk to right now –

“Well, thank you anyway. I owe you one.” He gave me a lopsided grin as he backed up and began to turn around. I looked down at my muddy dress and began walking back up the hill towards Mema and I’s hut.

Da told me to come after him. Mema says that I can lead a revolution. How in the name of all that is good am I going to do it? I suppose I should start with the first thing I was told to do…find Da.  By the time I made it back to the hut, I had made my decision.

“Mema!” I called into the house. I was met with silence and darkness. I looked around in confusion. Mema was normally back before sunset. Suddenly I heard a series of horrific screams. It sounded like everything good in the world was being slowly tortured. To death.

I rushed back outside and ran to the center of our village. The clan elders were whipping three people: an old man, a young girl I didn’t recognize, and. Mema. They were whipping Mema.

“Stop!” I screamed at the top of my lungs as I sprinted towards the whipping posts. She was tied to a metal post, and she was on her knees; her back was bleeding profusely, and her face looked terribly bruised. The elder assigned to her drew back his whip as I rushed in front of the man.

“Please, stop!” I said. My voice was winded, and I saw Mema turn her head in my direction. She was breathing heavily, and every breath she took sounded as if she could hardly breath. The elder, holding the whip sneered at me.

“Get out of the way.” He said, his voice low and dangerous.

“Not until you tell me what she did.” I glared at him, and he looked away momentarily.

“Do you want this?” He questioned, gesturing to his whip.

“No, and I don’t believe my mother does either.” The man looked as if he would have whipped me right then and there if he could have.

“She deserves every cut she gets.”

“What did she do?” My voice cracked with exasperation and fear.

“She killed an elder.” I gasped at his words. What?

“Al, ugh. I can explain-” My mother gasped.

“SILENCE!” the man screamed. “I can explain for you.”

I glared even harder at the man. Mema was not a murderer.

“While doing her daily work for the good of the clan, your mother was told that she needed to collect more wheat for the day’s quota. She didn’t have enough. In retaliation, and pure defiance, she pulled out a wheat scythe and stabbed him through the heart.” My heart beat faster and faster. I simply could not believe what the man was telling me.

“Mema is not a killer.” The man smirked at me.

“The evidence proves otherwise.”

“Please. Just let her go! How many lashings has she had?”

“Only twelve out of the twenty that she deserves!” the man yelled.

“Then give me the rest.”

***

Chapter 4

“Sheesh.” I groaned as Mema soaked my cuts. My back throbbed, and the soaking was only making it sting more. That malicious  elder had happily allowed me to be whipped in mother’s place.  I considered that the cruel man was glad, even excited, to whip me.  

“I hope this hasn’t hurt you too much, Al.”  Mema smiled, a faded smile.  

“Oh no, it’s fine Mema.  He went easier on me then he did on you.  Only eight lashes, remember?”

“No, child, I didn’t mean you were hurting in that way.  You are young, and this won’t hold you back long.  I know I’ll be unable to walk about for quite a while.  I am speaking of your injured pride, my swallow.”

I stopped.  Mema was propped against the wall, using her one unflogged hand to tenderly bathe the cuts on my back.  “Mema, you will be fine, you will!

But Mema continued, forgetting her pain as she talked, “I feel that your pride is injured, and as our future leader, you must not forget our people.  Why, Hum stopped by, and you ignored him.  After all, I was fifteen when I met your father… ”

“Mema…”  I groaned.  Matchmaking me, and her unable to walk a few steps without falling!  

A tremor of pain travelled through her weakened body, and the former, fleeting smile was replaced by a shiver of silent agony.  “Swallow, listen to me…I may not have much longer…Allow me to finish cleaning your wounds…”

My voice tightened with fear.  “I can finish the rest of the cuts.”  I jerked away.  

“My Swallow, please let me-”

“NO, Mema.   You are in great pain, and should not do such work.  The clan elders will force you to return to your work tomorrow.  And three days is hardly enough time for you to heal.  I hate those rough men.  Surely, surely the woods cannot be much worse.”

Mema sighed.  “They have warned us to avoid the woods all our lives, remember the saying, “Danger lurks among forest Huns, great trees again darken the suns –””

I interrupted her yet again.  “Mema.  You must understand!  I know you have kin here, and that Chief Falcon is your brother, but true family would never allow kin to be whipped.  We must flee, as soon as you are able.  Life here will only get worse.”

Mema’s hand fell limply from my back to the ground.  She closed her eyes.

“Mema!  You must understand.  How could you have lived here all your life, and not noticed the evil around us?”

“Evil has increased during these past few years…” Mema  protested weakly.  

“Mema, your words only make my determination to leave more resolute.  My mind is set.  I shall go to the woods, Huns or no Huns.  During these past few days – have you noticed the increase of cries of terror?  The wails of sorrow?  The deaths?  The bodies, thrown over the stockade?  New leaders have come to power, I am sure, and the elders wish none to know.  Chief Fal – I am assured that he could not possibly be behind the frequent whippings.”

“Swallow, tis not too recent – when you were but a child of  eleven, that disobedient members of our clan began to be punished by whippings, sometimes one was being punished every other week!”

I straightened my back, and winced with pain.  The cold night air had caused my wounds to stiffen, and they cracked when I moved.  “Mema, as soon as you are in better health, we shall flee to the woods together.  We are not wanted here.”

“But Swallow,”  Mema tried one last time, “Your Da told you that you must lead your people, and how can one lead if they are not with their comrades?”

“I shall return, and bring to safety the loyal and rebellious generation my Da raised up – and we shall overcome the elders, and the clannies, and I shall lead them.  We will fight until all seems lost, and we will champion over the oppressors.  Though they reject me at first, I shall continue.  We shall continue. We shall overcome. We must.”

Courage filled my mind as I said these prophetic words.  Mema smiled at me.  

“My brave girl.”  she said, and those were the last words I heard her say for a long, long time.   

 

My mother had gone to sleep. Her face looked pained, exhausted, and weak. As much as I absolutely hated the idea of leaving her this way, I knew that she was strong. I was still worried. She was not as strong as she once was.  I just hoped the best I could that she could conquer her injuries. Quickly, I gathered up a selection of raw vegetables into a sack, and filled a few canteens with water. I crossed my fingers that the journey to find Da wouldn’t be lengthy.

As quietly as possible, I crept out of the door of our hut. By now, it was nearly midnight. The sun was completely down, under the horizon, the flaming colors gone; dissolved into the overwhelming pitch black darkness.

Stealthily, as if I really were a nimble swallow, I crept across the dew-laden grass towards the Western wall. My dagger in hand, I had almost reached the fence. I heard shouting, and I turned and saw at least seven people, elders! For a brief moment, I was confused as to whom they were pursueing with such vigor. Only a brief moment. They were rushing after me!

I ran as hard as I could towards the wall, my back throbbing from my whip wounds, but my legs refused to yield to the pain. The elders were gaining on me given that they were taller and stronger than I. They all held flaming torches, and a few had bows; they nocked arrows and drew them back to fire.

I ran as hard as I could, again pushing my legs to the absolute limit. I had reached the fence when one elder let his arrow fly. I watched in terror as the feathered missile shot towards me, seeming to travel in slow motion.  Then the other elders launched their bows, letting loose a torrent of bird-like daggers and swords.  

They were so close.

Twenty feet.

“I’m sorry Da,” I whispered, shutting my eyes tight in attempt to close out the coming agony.

Ten feet. I shrunk back quietly.

Clang. Startled, I opened my eyes. In front of me, standing bravely with shield in hand, was Hummers. Ibis stood about fifteen feet in front of us, and she was fiercely battling two of the elders at once. She appeared to be in a fantastic position, but the other clannies were quickly closing in on her. Hum turned around and grinned mischievously.

“Now we’re even.” he said, as he helped me up. “And how dare you give up hope so easily?”

I flushed a bit, he must have heard my gentle whisper. “I’m sorry,” I replied shakingly.

“You know combat right?”

“As much as I ever will.” I answered, fingering my dagger.

“Well, then come on!” He sped off to help Ibis, and I followed him, against my better judgement. I could throw my knife and hit any target, but I must say close range combat was not my strongest point.

“GRAH!” the elders cried, slashing their swords through the air. As well as I could, I defended myself against their blows. Ibis and Hum were doing well; they had four of the elders on the ground, and making quick work of two more. I slashed roughly at the elder directly in front of me. He blocked with his wooden shield. Angrily, I yanked my dagger from the oppressing clannie’s shield. I held the anger inside me like a living treasure chest; the anger beating my insides to escape.

Again, I slashed downwards, hoping to hit his leg, and luckily I was immensely successful. The dagger was lodged in his thigh, and blood had already begun to evenly spurt from the wound. He grunted and fell face first into the mud. Triumphantly I looked around as I removed my dagger. Hum and Ibis had knocked out the three remaining soldiers and they were looking at me expectantly.  

“So,” Ibis said. “When do we leave this dump?”

“Now!” I cried, as I noticed the confused conglomerate of elders conversing below us.  They were reinforcing, and fellow clannies streamed from their huts to meet them.  We had no chance at the moment, the first few clannies I was determined had mostly been from pure luck.

“Over the brush, Hum!”  I tugged his sleeve, as he stared  open mouthed at what seemed to be our whole village, running up towards us and the stockade.

Hummers unfroze, and we leapt over the stockade, into the darkness.  The elders had probably wanted us to go into the woods anyways.  Well, here we were – I looked above, a dark canopy of leaves rustled against the stars.  The voices approached the stockade.  In seconds, I was up and running like a madman, out of my dazed state and tugging along at Hum – at least I hoped it was Hum.  Within seconds, I was lost. Lost in the forest. I was lost in Eldritch.

 

Chapter 5

 

It may seem difficult to believe that I could get lost so quickly – but trust me, I could.  I couldn’t figure out how quickly the stockade had seemed to melt into the darkness, or how soon I had seemed to lose Hum.  And Ibis.

Oh lichen-foot.

Slowly, I rotated in a circle, rounding a tree with the thickness of Chief Fal’s largest hut.  I didn’t know where I was.  I didn’t know where my friends were.  

Wait – for how long had they been my friends?  Just a few days ago, had they not been my enemies?  Perhaps seeing me humiliated had changed them.  No, it must have been when I saved Hum.

“HUM!” I screamed, sense returning to me, or was it leaving me, for would my pursuers dare venture just a few steps beyond the stockade for murder and glory?

“HUM! IBIS!  Come BACK!”  Was this forest truly a swallower of souls?  For inasmuch I cried, I felt more hopeless still –

A rustle.  In the blackness, I readied my bloodstained dagger, after wiping the blade clean on my dress.  It snagged, and the ripping of the fabric echoed loudly against the silence of the woods.  Had not birdsong emanated from the trees by day?  How could then the woods of Eldritch be so silent during the pitch of night?

And lonely.  I tried to recall a saying of my mother’s, “Sweet birds sing, but a swallow never cries.”

More rustling.  I yelped and scurried towards a great black thing.  The warm trunk stopped me, as I stiffened silently, hiding from my pursuer, I seemed to feel it pulsing at the pace of a rabbit, similar to my heartbeat, as though alive.  I leaned further into it –

Into it?  The tree was hollow!  And there I hid, clamping my eyes and my fists shut against the forces which could lurk inside the woods…  

Dawn was just crimping the land with a faint tinge of grey when I at last dared open them.  The tree where I had hidden was hollow, wide enough for a girl to sit cross legged, with a gash through which one could enter.  A hill of dusty-white moss rose up in front of the opening, obscuring it from all but elvin eyes.  I smiled blissfully, then jolted awake.

Hum.  

I must find Hum.  And Ibis, I reminded myself, no doubt she’s lost among this mystical  woodland trap, too.  I slid silently out of my hole like a deer fearful of the hunter, expecting a waiting cult of elders to jump out from the trees at any waking moment.  

No ambushers.  Slowly, leaning against the huge tree, I looked myself over.  

Welts from the whip still creased my body, but they were not deep and had healed quickly.  I was bruised from the hand to hand contact with the clannies, but that was just sore.

Alas- my dress was torn!  Now I could not fix it – oh well, I can run faster with a shorter dress.  It was more like pants, I had always wanted pants – I stood up, suddenly anxious.  I must find my allies! For I knew not whether they were my friends yet.

Setting off over the hill of moss, I hurried in search of Hum and Ibis.  Calling had not worked in the silent forest last night, so I reckoned I should just look.  I passed a swampland wrapped in loose grasses.  Stopping for a moment, I surprised a sleepy pheasant, and hurling my dagger at it, was surprised to hit my mark!  I retrieved the animal, wrapping it in reeds for later.  I slung the pheasant over my shoulder as I tied the cut part of my dress out of my way.  After I picked up my sack,  I headed off into the woods, towards my rebel friends.

It seemed like hours. Although honestly, by the sun’s position in the sky, I knew it hadn’t. As I wandered throughout the mysterious wood, my mind began to wander. I began to look in awe at the leafy trees, hear the fall leaves fall onto the unsuspecting ground, while feeling the cool air blow them around making a gentle whoosh. The morning sun poked through the treetops, making uneven beams on the ground, and to me it seemed as though the sun was favoring only certain trees. I walked through the torrents of leaves through the forest until my stomach began to throb from hunger.

I came upon a sunlit clearing and sat down on my knees. I squinted my eyes because the sun was so bright. As soon as I had picked up the pheasant from my bag, I collected some sticks and got to work.

As well as I could, I rubbed the sticks together and eventually started a fire. The effort it took was painful, for my back was still aching in pain. However, I soon started the fire and began to cook the bird.

I had slept well that night. The tree trunk had seemed warm, even though I knew that was impossible. For some reason however, I had grown colder about an hour before I had awakened. I had no idea how that was possible, but I didn’t dwell on it.

The pheasant was delicious and I ate it with vigor. I drank some of the water from my canteen and stood once again. Suddenly, I heard the nearby bushes shake. I heard a voice.

“Al?” Hum.

“Hum!” I called back. “I’m here!” I ran toward the movement.

The bushes shook, and I called my shaking nerves.  Hum would have answered by now – was it a clannie sent to spy on me -?  Well, it was now or never –

I leaped into the bushes, dagger at my side.  

A blood curdling scream rolled off my lips, answered at once by a squashed animal yelp.

Wait, what?

I set myself back in the undergrowth, glancing back up at the sunlight filtering through the dim leaves above.  

Sunlight above?  

Of course the sun was above me, don’t be stupid Swallow!  I told myself, shaking.  All the same, I felt lower than I had formerly been.  Like I was in a hole…

Or a cave –

“Oh, great lichen foot!”  I whisper-shouted, rolling to my feet, “I pray I have not stumbled from the dangerous heights to the depth of a coyote’s den – quite literally!”  

The moan caught my attention again.  “Al…ow.

Cautiously, I crept through the dimly lit pass.  It appeared to be a thin segment of rock severed between two overarching cliffs.  Up above, a great tree trunk, thick as a band of angry Clannies, clung to the edge of the cliff.  With a start, I realized that that must have been the tree I had spent the night.  No other trees had I seen during all my day’s wanderings – had I walked so far, only to have gone full circle again?  

I inched my way across the slippery rock, clinging to the ridge with my spare hand, using the dagger to grip the cliff like the flickery hairs on the toes of a sloth.As I slipped along the wet rock, raising to Lichen-Foot that I would not become trapped between the icy-slick faces of limestone and granite, I noticed a dark shaft peering from the wall.  The moan came again, fainter this time.

“Al…ow.”  

Already shocked at my luck so far, outrunning the clannies, leaping safely into a narrow, unknown pit, surviving thus far my slippery journey –

I decided to try my luck once more, and lept into the passage.

Chapter 6

The dim light cast its weak shaft upon the ancient floor.  Even farther up, higher than my height, the ominous walls of the passage rose up.  I rubbed my hand upon my knee and smelled blood, but it was only a scratch.  I was sure by now that the sounds which I had been hearing were from Hum.  “Al…ow”  Sounded like Swallow.  Perhaps Hum, too, had tumbled into the precipice and crawled, frantically searching for safety, into this musty, sheltered shaft.  I stood up, conked my head on the low roof, and dropped my dagger on the musty ground.  A spark momentarily shot up.  

The floor was made of flint.  

The steel of my weapon – the refuse scattered under my bare feet – light!  vision!  Hum!  

Wildly, I dug my fingers through the gravel shards, raking up what burnable matter I could find.  I rubbed the blade of my weapon across the ground, shielding the weak sparks from the cold of the cavern.  At last, the light caught.  Fire spurted up from the ground, and I screamed and jumped away.  

Rubbing my bruised head, which I had so foolishly bashed once again on the roof of the cavern, I knelt and examined the pale, white hand which loomed so dangerously near the fire.  

Hum.  

I knelt down quickly and took his hand, which was as cold as death itself. His ice blue eyes blinked with sheer terror, and he stuttered, trying to form words.  I saw him turn his head towards me.

“F-find Ibis.” He was able to stammer.

“No way. Are you hurt?” He shook his head weakly.

“Just starving. P-please. Find food and go get Ibis. We can’t let her d-die.”  

“Why not?” He didn’t respond. “Ok…fine. Just, don’t move.”

I quickly got up. My mind finally started to accept the fact that I had found Hum, and I wasn’t entirely lost in the woods any longer. But I wasn’t out of the woods yet.  Now I still had to find food, Ibis, and Da.  Why was Ibis in on this?  She had used to be so popular, for no apparent reason except that she was exceptionally obedient, but in that trait all of us citizens of the Clan were alike…

There must be something about Ibis that was special, but what? Hum had seemed desperately agitated that I find her, to make sure that she didn’t die.  Ibis had always been a favorite child of the Elder clannies, but the clannies mattered nothing to me.  The evil Elders might as well be the dirty village streets, streets of a past long forgotten, streets which I crunched between my bare toes, streets which Ibis walked with the spoiled air of royalty –  

Royalty!

Could Ibis – could she – was it possible that she was the clan princess, the pet raised up by the Elders to mother Chief Fal’s grandchildren?  The future first Chieftess, the supposedly all-powerful, whom the Elders sometimes talked about in whispered voices?  Would I, the common and dirt poor, beaten and shamed hut-child work side by side with the most valuable person of my generation?  Would she be upset that I had stolen her faithful follower, practically servant, Hum?  Could we three youth work together to lead a rebellion, a new generation?  

Yes, we could.  There was no doubt about it.

Difficult? Yes, of course. Overpowering the clannies’ self-centered desires once and for all would be very, very hard.  I, Swallow Frond, along with Hum and Ibis could all die. But impossible? No.  There was always the chance that, bravely, we would survive  and the whole plan of rebellion would work splendidly… Together, we could overcome….

Sharply, I heard a sudden fragrance of music, the quiet morning twitter of birdsong.  

“Could it be morning already, Hum?”  I wondered aloud, rushing to the front of the cavern.  There I immediately started to try to find crevices in order to climb to the surface of the forest. I placed my hands on the small holes set in various areas over the large rock. As soon as I was high enough, I also realized that I was starving.

The rations in the clan village were awful; normally we only were allowed to have two meals a day, and then it was only very small portions of vegetables and stew. Of course, the day before, after I’d been whipped I had mostly lost my appetite and not eaten most of my portion. Looking back, I realized that that was a idiotic decision because for the most part I knew what was ahead.

When I reached the surface, I pulled myself up, my muscles shaking, and walked around the clearing, trying to find some berries or perhaps a wounded animal.

I was in luck! About two paces from the tree where I had spent the night was a very fat squirrel.  He appeared to be wounded; he wasn’t moving at all, a bit like a statue. I moved up behind the rodent and he still didn’t even twitch.

I moved quickly. It disgusted my soul that I was killing another creature; I had always had that ache whenever I took the life of another animal. But we were starving, and of course our cause was worthy to kill at least one squirrel to keep us alive. I gathered up the body and took it to the cave.

Hum seemed much more lively after feasting on roasted squirrel. In the firelight he didn’t appear hurt, just exhausted. After quickly scrounging up every shred of meat on the squirrel (except for a bit which we kept for Ibis) we set out again.

The mid-day sun burned on our shoulders, but we didn’t notice. We were far too distracted with the task at hand. We searched and searched for Ibis but to no avail. She seemed to have disappeared into thin air. After almost three hours of searching, we stopped for a rest.

We stopped directly in front of a clear stream. The water ran free and seemed to wave in the sunlight. The reflection was slightly blinding.  After clambering down a bank to its deep waters, I knelt to drink.  Hum did the same.  We scooped water into our hands and poured it gladly into our thirsty mouths. The  liquid refreshed us more than I can describe.  As I enjoyed the serenity of the temporary respite, I suddenly felt Hum’s hand on my arm.

“Don’t move,” He whispered into my ear. My heart seemed to freeze. Slightly ignoring his command, I slowly lifted my head to view what he saw.

The worst possible thing we could have run into.

A Hun.

 

Chapter 7

I tried to scream, but I couldn’t. I’m very thankful my fear drove the screams away because a scream would not have helped us at all. Hum grabbed my arm and slowly we stood up and began backing up the bank, towards the woods.  If the huge creature didn’t attack us, we could hide.

The horrible Hun was ginormous; at least eight feet high and around three feet wide. He looked a medieval viking, with his sandals and spiked helmet. Where could he have received them from, out here? His face was bent into a sneer, and he looked a bit like a mad dog, about to growl.

So, in intelligent premonition, I growled first.  

The Hun, rather than stepping back, stepped forward, and it was like David versus Goliath.  As swiftly as an owl pounces upon a swallow, the Hun drew forth a scimitar and slashed at me.  I leaped backwards, pulling Hum’s arm tight, after me.  The Hun also leaped, his hair prickling like a cactus, all the while waving his rusty sword.

Oh lichen-foot.  That wasn’t rust.  It was dried blood.

This was when Hum took over for my stalled brain.  I felt a cold thread of metal run across my side, as my frozen wits heard the slash of metal upon metal.  Finally it came to me that the Hun, attempting to slice my side, had been blocked mostly by my dagger. And that Hum had just tore my dagger from my side to fight the Hun.  And that it might be a good idea to run away…

“Hum!” I cried, tripping off the high bank of the creek into the icy waters, “Run!  We must hide!”  As I struggled to keep my face above the current, I called, “Don’t come back for me…I – can – swim…”  

Then my head sank below the deep waters, and the current carried my limp body onward.

***

My body may have seemed limp, but my mind wasn’t.  Over the sound of rushing water, I could hear the Hun’s splashing, and Hum’s yells of protest as he ran onward.  I kept my body still, so the Hun would think me dead and not stab me as I floated down the stream.  Discretely, I turned my mouth above the water, gulping a deep breathe. My eyes, open under the water, could glimpse the water’s color becoming darker, more stirred up and muddy…like rapids.  The creek’s water, besides quickly turning into liquid mud, churned faster and faster.  

Oh no, I thought, A rapids.  

I sat bolt upright in the deep water and began to tread.  Good news and bad news, I thought to myself, Mostly good news: I was far from the Hun, I could tell because I could no longer  hear his frightening grunts.  But I was also far from Hum now.  Also bad news: I could not touch the ground of the creek.  

Quickly, I began to pull myself towards the high banks of the churning waters.  

My stomach was also churning.  Probably due to the condition of the waters.  

Thrusting out my arms like a champion swimmer, imagining I was swiming for Hum in the muddy village creek, imagining Ibis standing there, screaming, imagining –

My face hit land.  Hard, as was obvious from my throbbing head and crunched neck.  But there was no time for pity parties for me.  Quickly, I pulled myself against the slippery stone bank, set practically at a right angle to the rushing water.  My fingers cramped, as I tried to pull myself up the bank.  If my life or my strength were like those of the Huns, I would have been able to heave myself up onto the bank with little effort at all.  I was not a Hun however, and my cramped fingers, throbbing head, scraped knee, and Hun-dagger-nicked side caused me to toss myself back into the foaming waves, groaning.  The water deepened even further, the waves churned harder, and I began to pray furiously, just as I shot over the edge of a waterfall.

 

I burst forth from the filthy froth, kicking frantically and rubbing my stinging eyes on my damp shoulders.  Swimming for my life away from the torrents of water, I kicked the pebbly ground.  

Land! At last!

The ground was at my feet, my toes scraped hard earth, and I pulled myself onto oily pebbles and slept gratifyingly.  

***

“Great lichen-foot, we just keep getting seperated don’t we?” I heard Hum say.

“Swallow, you shouldn’t keep running away from us like that!” Ibis!

“You’re back! You’re okay! Oh thank goodness.” On impulse, I pulled myself up and threw myself into her slightly reluctant arms. Against her immediate will, I saw her give a small grin.

 

Chapter 8

It seemed as if we were walking for hours before a small village came into view. My heart began to pound like a bass drum, it actually hurt my chest with every hard beat. If this was where my father was, this was the beginning of a true revolution; freedom from the tyranny and injustice of the clannies and the poverty of living in our village.

As we entered into the town, everything seemed to be silent and abandoned. I looked cautiously at Hum and Ibis, who were smiling wildly and edging at me to go on. Nodding, I continued to walk. As I approached the fountain in the center, my heart went into my throat. It was Da.

He looked as if he hadn’t shaved in a few years, even though it had only been a few days. His warm eyes gazed upon me with admiration and approval. He held out his scruffy arms, and as if I were a bright eyed rabbit, I sprang into them.

He held me for a long time, and even though I had seen him three days ago, I’m sure I was crying. His warm chest seemed very inviting, so I snuggled closer into it. Finally, after what seemed like years, he let me go.

“Hello Al.” Da said, his soft voice ringing with fondness, “I knew you would come back.”

*** *** ***

The next few hours felt as if I were watching someone else live my own life for me. Everything I did seemed to be like a dream. We discussed battle plans, and how we were going to infiltrate the village. This wasn’t me! This was a warrior, which I was not. I slowly began to grow accustomed to how all the people in the small village saluted me as their leader, a feeling I had never before experienced. Later, we sat down by the village fountain, a work of art such as I had never seen before.  THere we ate a small meal of deer and raw carrots, such as the ones Mema plucked from the clan gardens…  

“So Al,” Da began. “How was the journey here? I already know that you got seperated from Ibis and Hum here, but I’d like to hear your version of the tale.” I looked up with a slightly overwhelmed grin.

I went on to explain in much detail just exactly what had befallen in the last few days. I told Da how I saved Hum’s life in the pond, of the pain when Mema was whipped, and when we ran for our lives from the clannies. He listened with a vivid captivation as I told him of my first night in Eldritch, finding Hum again, and then being attacked by the Hun. I ended my narrative by telling him about my journey through the water, down the waterfall, and eventually ending up here. He shook his head when I had finished telling my story.

“Great lichen foot! This is exactly why you are the one of the prophecy. None of the rest of us could have survived that with a meager scratch on our side. I’m so proud of you.” I smiled mischievously.  

“Now, I want to hear what all of you have to say.” I responded evenly. Hum and Ibis seemed to give each other a side grin. For two people who had just survived two days in the wilderness, they seemed as bright eyed and bushy tailed as newborn rabbits.

“Well,” Ibis said. “The journey was hard, being alone and all, but I must say it’s downright more fun than being the future Clan Princess -”

“The what!” Da said, interrupting her quite unlike a leader, “You left the best position in the clan for this?”

“As a matter of fact, I did, Plover Frond, so I pray you will let me continue my story.”  Ibis said haughtily, winking at Hum and I knowingly.  She flipped her hair, and the droplets from the fountain caught in it, sparkling in the sunlight.  

“After we escaped the elders, leaping over the stockade into the living death according to our community, Swallow, Hum, and I all ran in separate directions.  I tore through the woods that night, and finally found a safe place to rest on a high embankment over a creek.  Come morning, I thought that the best way to find you, my friends, would be to follow the water.  After all, all need water to live.”  

During her pause, Da nodded understandingly and Hum punched Ibis gently in the shoulder.

“Get on with it, beautiful!”  he said laughingly.  

Ibis blushed and continued, “Well, an enormous fallen tree, half pushed into the water, half lodged on the swollen creek’s bank, offered a convenient way to travel the woods without tripping on underbrush.  I shoved the log into the water and went along for the ride.  I must have been half asleep, because the next thing I knew, I was hurtling through the roaring rapids, in the direction of a great plume of falling water!”

Hum gasped, and I laughed.  He blushed and Ibis punched him for a change!

“Well, you stubborn menfolk keep interrupting my story.  Do you want to hear the ending or not?”

Instantly, Hum and Da were silent as two scruffy, brawny  angels.  I snorted in spite of myself, and Ibis proudly finished her saga, “Well, being the intelligent woman that I am, I leaped off my watercraft just in time, for no sooner had it shot ahead of me than a wild torrent of water crashed about my head!  Well, to make a long story short, I surfaced with ease and swam ashore to the distantly visible village with the carelessness of a nymph from above -”

This time I punched her, and she rubbed her arm pitifully.  “It’s no small task to swim ashore while tons of water are pounding your ears!  Stop sounding so darn princess like and talk like a warrior!”  

My father looked surprised, but smiled charmingly.

“This is not the shy, smart, yet unspoken-to-the-crowds little Al I left?” He said.  In reply, I grinned grimly, expressing all the seriousness in the world, along with joy.

“No, Da, I am afraid it is not.  Al of the Clan is dead.  She died during Mema’s and her own whipping.  She died under the arrows of those she trusted. She died under the thumb of a blood-thirsty Hun.  Al is dead, and I do not mourn her.”  

Da gaped for a moment, but straightened his back and set his face.  He was proud of me, I could tell, only a little startled.  I would be startled too, in his case.  But Da was right.  I had changed.  I had changed from an intelligent child to a hardened warrior.  No longer would I pause to draw the dagger, Mema’s brutal whipping had changed that.  No longer would I fear the roaring waters of filthy, bubbling rivers, Hum’s near drowning and my brave and wild creekside plunge had made sure of that.  No longer did I hide what was on my mind, I spoke it outright.  No longer was I his little angel-Al, I was Swallow the Fierce, the one spoken of by seers of old, the one who would lead her people back to the Truth and Justice.  

“I am Swallow the Fierce, Da, and together Hum, Ibis, you, I: we and those of this village shall guide our people back to freedom.”

Chapter 9

Hum, Ibis, and Da looked at me proudly.  Our conversation strayed to topics of the upcoming rebellion, then turned once again.  This turn composed of Da’s explanation to us  regarding the cause of the village.  

He sighed with a happy weariness, watched the fountain’s gurgling for a moment, then began, “This will be rather a long story, I assume, but since you all have just eaten, we have some time to discuss this.”  

A villager woman sat down on the rim of the fountain to listen.  She was a smiling middle aged girl with the “barbarian” looks of the Huns.  However, I thought, The Huns probably call our Clan’s people “barbarians” too.  

As I observed our visiting villager, Da continued his explanation.

He said, “This village was created to help those in dire danger, those in such danger that they would leap from the heights of a waterfall to escape their malicious pursuers.  Those escaping from the other Clans, or even the wickeder societies of those heathen Huns, could stumble upon us if they had the courage to run from their known trials into the unknown tortures of these woods.”  

“The only thing that allowed me to find out about this place were my visions. Back when I would receive them in the village, I would try to act on them. I began receiving them when I first married your Mema. For a long time, I put them off, demanding myself to say that they weren’t true. But they became more intense. Instead of only having them at night when I was asleep, they began to plague me during the day. The worst one I had came over me when I first got into Eldritch. It led me straight to the village, which I almost knew it would do. So that’s how I found myself here.” Da looked over at Hum and beckoned him to tell the rest of his story.

Hum quickly accounted his story, which was nearly the same as my experience; after fighting the Hun, he had driven the beastly man back, only for the Hun to retaliate by making a running leap!   The Hun then hurridly dragged Hum down the length of the creek, then threw the boy into the rapids.  Hum had then tumbled down the down the waterfall.  There, Da and Ibis had discovered him.

Everyone hurried off to get some more food, but I didn’t go immediately. Ibis didn’t either. She looked exhausted, but also confused.

“You okay?” I asked carefully, hoping that I wouldn’t offend her in any way.

“Yeah, I’m just confused.”

“Why’s that?”

“Everything in all my life has been horrible until Hum. And then you. And then this village and your Da. I can’t help thinking that things might get better.” Ibis glanced at me, ashamed.

“What are you confused about?” I asked again.

“Why is everyone all of the sudden acting nice to me?”

I looked at her solemnly, and I was a bit hurt. Hadn’t she been the one persecuting me before all of this had happened?  “Well-” I began, but I was interrupted.

“I’m just shocked that all of the sudden everyone treats me like a, like a- princess.” She smacked away a tear. “When I was born, my Mama was banished from the clan, so naturally, no one knew that I was a clan princess. Da – no. He isn’t worthy to be called a father to anyone. Chief Fal used to beat me because I didn’t want the power and responsibility that came with being who I am; he would hire me out to work as a slave in his fields because I refused to be who he expected a princess to be; someone who is only a doll that stands in front of a village. I wanted to be a Warrior. He hated that.” She looked down at her lap and was absentmindedly twiddling her thumbs. I knew the look.

“I’m one of the only people you’ve told about this, correct?” I asked gently.

She sniffled and shoved her hand to wipe away another tear. “Yes. You and Hum. I trust you guys.” I got a small sensation down deep inside my gut, as I knew just how hard it was to earn someone’s trust.

“Thanks Ibis.” I said, smiling quietly.

“I figured because Hum went through some tough stuff being an orphan and all, and you lost your dad kind of, you guys would understand how broken I am.” I looked at Ibis’ face for a moment and I saw her eyes darken. She had experienced horrors under the thumbs of the elders that I could never even fathom. But she trusted me with her brokenness. And that made all the difference.

“When did you and Hum become so close?” I asked innocently. I saw a look in her face and immediately said, “I don’t mean to pry, I’m just asking.”

She shook her head. “No, it’s okay. He accidentally walked in on Chief Fal beating me one time. I was nine. He ran in front of me, kind of like when you saved your Ma. Chief told me all about the outrage.” She smiled. “That was dreadfully brave by the way. Anyway, he protected me from Chief Fal. Later, he came back and we got to know one another. He’s one of the most loyal people you will ever know, Swallow Frond. He swore that day that he would always protect me. No matter what. Chief Fal hasn’t beaten me since then.” After she told me, all I could say was,

“Wow.”

 

Chapter 10

After a night in the village, each of us sharing clean cottages by sturdy barns on freshly swept streets, I arose and wandered off in search of Hum or Ibis.  I couldn’t find them, however, and later Ibis told me where she had been.

***

Ibis pushed the tan curtains aside from the doorway of the clean cottage where she stayed in Eldritch’s village.  As she watched the sparkling waters of the fountain, from which the villagers gathered water rather than hiking to a muddy creek, a faint sigh caught her ear.  Startled, Ibis slipped silently from the sleeping house, careful to not wake the dreaming tenants.  Her heart skipped a beat when she saw who it was, forlornly slipping into the forest, tripping fast towards the waterfall.  

Hum.  Where could he be going?

Tiptoeing silently after her friend, Ibis watched him stumble blindly through the woods.  

Where could he be going?  Hum and her – he would not leave her?  Hum would not betray them, would he? Oh well, Hum couldn’t even swim, he could never get back up that –

wat-

er-

fall… Oh lichen-foot.  Why were there a group of Huns by the pool.  Ibis burst from the shadows of the woods, just as Hum reached the cluster of Huns by the falls.  

“HUM!!!  Don’t leave me!!! Where – are – you – going!!!”  

“Shut up Ibis, okay!  I had to make a deal with these men when I was fighting that Hun with Swallow.”

“MEN?!?!  Don’t you mean savages!”  Ibis screamed, anxiety taking over, rather than sense.  The four Huns began to converse carelessly with her friend, ignoring her.  

“HUM!!!  LISTEN TO ME!!!”  Ibis shouted, her voice reverberating across the pool.  Shouts poured suddenly forth from the village.

Oh good.  The villagers could help stop Hum and his evil Hun-friends.  Ibis stopped and thought for a moment, then, gripping her dagger, she plunged across the pool, wondering all the while, “How did the Huns get down the waterfall, anyways?”  

The Huns, hearing the voices of the villager army being raised and seeing the crazed girl swimming after them, scampered behind the waterfall.  

Ibis had reached the place where Hum stood, only to find all of them vanished.  Villagers crowded the banks of the falls, swooping across the stream with strong strokes, Plover Frond among them.  

“Ibis!  We heard you shouting for Hum!  Where is he?”  cried Plover, brandishing a bow boldly.

“He was conversing with four Huns.  He is a cowardly traitor – Hum is against us – he showed the Huns the location of our village and they vanished into a tunnel…a tunnel behind the falls!”  Ibis hollered back tearfully.

Plover, already clambering up the bank near Ibis and a few other swimmers, froze mid leap, frowning deeply.  “Well, we must speed up our attack plans, fellow Freemen!”  Plover cried courageously, but his voice trembled and his brow furrowed even more deeply with worry.  

Ibis and the others glanced at him for direction, and Plover made a split second decision.  His daughter Swallow and most of the village stood beside him now.  

Taking a deep breath, Plover Frond shouted commandingly, “You there, Brown-Finch!  You’re the nearest to the tunnel by now, I would ask you and Ibis to investigate it.  Ibis, this is a time of action.  Please dry your tears and hold your dagger at ready.”

How could no villager have yet discovered this tunnel behind the falls?  Ibis wondered, as she followed the boy called Brown-Finch under an overhang which blocked the thundering canopy of water.  The two found nothing.  Brown-Finch even climbed up a little ways but merely discovered a seeming dead end. Disappointed, they returned to the villagers on the bank, and Plover, after consulting with Swallow, determined that he would set up some of the villages strongest men to investigate and guard thoroughly the passageway from evil users.  Leaving ten villagers to guard the falls, and sound the alarm if invaders were ever sighted, Plover, Swallow, and Ibis returned to the village to make plans of battle.  The battle against the Clan and the Huns must happen the next day.

***

After a hurried conference with my father, Ibis, and some important men of the village, I, Swallow sank down.  Hum really had left us.  But wasn’t Ibis his friend? His best friend? Whom Hum would never leave?  Hadn’t I, Swallow, saved the boy’s life in the village creek?  What was the cause of his betrayal to the Huns, then?  Could the Hun my friend had supposedly fought by the forest creek have allowed him to escape if he promised to show the malicious peoples the location of the village?  Had Hum made an unwise promise to the Huns?  Were the Huns working together with the Elders to destroy us?  Were –

I stopped my worrying at the sound of clashing iron. I ran through the trees with extreme emotions running through my mind and body, all reaching a tumultuous climax when I saw Da, Ibis, and all the warriors of our newfound village madly tearing through the shrubbery from our Eldritch village.  The boy called Brown-Finch led the way through the waterfall passage, all the village scrambling through the dank space behind him, trying to keep up.  After an hour or so of beeline-straight, guided running, our attacking rebel group reached the outskirts of the clan.  I noted that several of the villagers ground their teeth in anger at the sight of its dreaded stockade.  Da had already discussed the plans with the village, so all were in readiness.  We would strike, silently, leaping over the walls, catching the elders off guard.  Brown-Finch and I were the first to mount the stockade, the distant sound of rising chaos, as though the clannies already fought some unknown invader, reached our ears. The sight we beheld was not at all what we had expected.  

The Huns were fighting against the clannies.

They hadn’t betrayed us.

We were going to win.

Chapter 11

As the village of Eldritch swirled around us, streaming down the hill to work with the Huns to fight the clannies, I wondered where Hum was, then dismissed the thought from my mind.  Instead, courage filled my soul.  Brandishing our weapons above our heads, we let out our battle cry,

LIBERTATUM! FOR FREEDOM!”

Battling courageously, we knocked out one clannie after the other. Over top of the crowd, I could see Mema watching tentatively from the doorway of our old hut. She looked weary, but hopeful. Very hopeful.   And proud.  Very proud.  I winked in her direction and charged down the hill, brandishing my dagger with courage.  

to be continued! as of Monday, March 7, 2016

 

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