Chapter 5: Eina
North-east of Laeden and slowly rising northwards with the land was a vast region covered with ancient forests. How vast, though, nobody really knew, for it belonged to no kingdom save for a thin strip along its southern edge, which was now, unofficially, part of Astur.
The forests were the home of an old race which had inhabited them long before the first Man arrived in those lands. The Eina were a peaceful people, leading a simple life of harmony with all living things, which to them meant not just creatures, but anything that grew. They lived in tribes, but were not nomads, though they did not claim possession of the land either. Instead they viewed the forest as a host, feeding and sheltering them, and themselves as guests, equal in rights and importance to any other being. Theirs was only that which they created.
They did not grow their food, for there was enough there to feed all creatures, large or small. Roots, herbs, nuts and fruits were in plenty, and so were birds and animals. Skilled hunters with the bow or knife and capable of stalking their game through the thick of the forest, they never killed more than they could eat and seldom needed to do so in defence. And when they killed, it was always swift, so their prey would not suffer pain or fear. Taller than the average Man, slender and nimble, they moved with ease and speed in places no one could keep up with them. They were agile climbers, very knowledgeable about plants and animals, and gifted healers.
When the Man had settled in those parts, the Eina had met them with open hearts and had treated them with kindness, in the same manner they had always treated living creatures. Greed, selfishness, envy or deceit were unknown to them. Rivalry and fighting, either for food or a mate, may have been natural for many of the forest’s inhabitants, but had no meaning or purpose among them. So when the king of Astur, the rising kingdom at their borders, had set out to conquer the southern tribes—for he thought them to be a weak, primitive race—he had taken them by complete surprise.
They had tried to protect their home, but such was the peaceful, caring nature of the Eina that they stood little chance against the numbers and brutality of the enemy. At last they had fled deeper into the forest and, with no one to oppose them, Man had claimed those lands and had ravaged their home.
But their beloved forest, injured as it were, had come to their aid, for soon enough the Man had begun to fall, one after another, until, in a matter of days, half of the enemy had been poisoned or harmed by things unseen and unknown, despite all efforts from their own healers. And when the king’s own sons had fallen sick, he had finally given up his conquest, terrified by the strange power of that place. He had promised to let the Eina return to their home and way of life, in exchange for their help to save his sons and stop whatever was claiming the lives his people. They had reached a truce which had lasted ever since, for no king had wished to repeat the mistake.
With time they had been absorbed into the kingdom, if mostly in name, since they kept living the same as before. But there seemed to be no desire to push Astur’s borders further—the forests had proven too wild and strange, dangerous to exploit and impossible to control—nor to forcibly assimilate the tribes. Things had settled into a curious, but altogether peaceful coexistence, where they traded knowledge and learned from each other, without mingling or changing their ways.
All was well for a while. The Man realized the Eina were not so different from them, that they were intelligent and their simple living was not a limitation, but a conscious choice. Their gentle nature was appealing and their healing skills were in demand. Until they discovered things about them that were so unnatural, some began to avoid and even fear them.
For one, they lived much longer. With an average life of two hundred years, some reaching as much as two hundred and fifty, they had twice the lifespan of Man. They also shared an unusual bond with the forest and all its inhabitants, so much stronger than what the Man were accustomed with, it defied their understanding.
But the strangest of all were the children. The Eina were born without gender—which was inconceivable—and lived that way until around the age of fifteen when, through an ancient, secret ritual, they became either boys or girls. It was such an extraordinary, disturbing attribute that it took many Man generations, and a great deal of patience and kindness on part of the Eina, for them to accept it, not as something natural or right, but at least as something less appalling, which they could tolerate. Fortunately the infamous state lasted a very small fraction of their long life, but during that time Man would not allow Eina children around their own.
Even after many generations there were some who feared them without ever meeting one, but not all Man were so simple minded. Those who had settled along the forest edges were in good relations with the tribes and engaged in trades, as it usually happened along peaceful borders. Many scholars and travelled people, even the kings, took a great interest in them, acknowledging their uniqueness and complex understanding of the world. Though their impressive healing skills seemed connected to that bond they had with living things, some physicians thought their practical knowledge was valuable and within Man’s abilities to learn. But there were still voices who deemed them a latent danger for the very same reasons, despite their cordial nature, so the kings kept a watchful eye on the tribes.
The Eina may have kept to their home, but word of them had spread far and wide, even to the neighbouring countries. Travelling folk sometimes told fantastic stories about them, whether they had seen the forest people themselves or not. But such is the fate of all fantastic stories, that the older and farther away from the source they get, the more extraordinary and hard to believe they become, so for many people outside Astur, the Eina were just a legend.
That being said, it was not unexpected that a scholar from Laeden would set forth on a long journey to find the truth. Or so an educated person would think, but people generally had a different opinion. They thought the stories were absolute hogwash and his quest a regretful waste of time and money—‘At your age, you ought to use them to build a family,’ they said—and seemed more concerned about that than about his decision to make the long, perilous journey alone. But Valan Breen could not care less about what people thought. He had heard about the old race and had worked hard to save money, so that he could see it with his own eyes.
Months of work and weeks of travel, which had taken a toll on him, were almost lost when, just as he reached the famed lands, he was ambushed, mugged, beaten and forsaken at the edge of the forest. It was a cruel irony that he had arrived so far without any harm, only to fail miserably at the end of the journey.
And not even meet those whom I came looking for. Life has such a twisted sense of humour, he thought with disappointment, lying face up in the grass and barely breathing.
He had managed to crawl as far as the road, but he was exhausted and his body was throbbing with pain. He could not go any further. They had taken his horse—poor animal, he had grown fond of it—his travel bags with food and water, his coin purse, everything. Gone. Not everything, he remembered.
“Idiots. They didn’t check the boots.”
Good thing his boots looked so worn and unattractive. He laughed and felt a sharp stab in the side. Then again when he took a deeper breath. Bastards, they broke my ribs. What else? He tried to clear his mind. His hands were fine, save for two broken fingers, as were his legs and the rest of his body, although he expected ugly bruises everywhere. His head hurt and he tasted blood in his mouth.
“Oh, Master Breen, what made you think you can fight back? You’re a scholar,” he reproached himself, imagining the pitying looks of those who had tried to convince him to give up his quest, if they saw him in that condition.
Yet it was better than he first thought, though he was still in trouble. The sun was going to set soon, he was too far from the last settlement he had seen and had no strength to walk, anyway. The odds were not in his favour and for the first time in his life the young, stubborn man with a quick mind, who used to think any problem has a solution, had no idea what to do. So he lay on the side of the road, his body growing numb, his thoughts hazy, until he slowly fell into a deep, dreamless sleep. Or perhaps unconsciousness.
He opened his eyes surprised to be alive. He was lying on a soft bed that smelled of grass and there was a roof above him. A strange, round roof, the sort he had never seen before. Slender, radial beams were gathering at the top in a swirling motion, where the structure closed with a small, flat ring. On top of them were layers of branches intricately woven like a net and… he could not say what was on top of those.
He closed his eyes, trying to collect his thoughts. He had been robbed and beaten and abandoned to his fate. Had he been rescued? Or was this just the hallucination of a delirious, dying mind? He knew, had seen that some people hallucinated in the last moments, before life left them, and whatever they saw or heard seemed real to them. But his mind was obviously working, as were all his senses.
He opened his eyes again, half expecting—fearing—to see a darkening evening sky. Yet there were beams above him, and a net of branches and whatever else was beyond them.
So I’m not dying.
He pushed himself up gingerly to take a better look—the pain was real, though far less intense than he had expected. The room was round and no wider than ten feet, perhaps, with coarse walls and timbered floor. There was a recessed door in front of the bed and a small window on one side, covered with a plain curtain which filtered the daylight, but hid the outside from his view. Other than his bed, a small chest and a stool, there was no furniture, nor was there room for it. His clothes had been washed and lay folded at his feet, his small coin pouches—the ones his robbers had missed, he remembered—on top of them.
Indistinct sounds came through the window, birds and people voices, but they seemed muffled somehow. Was it morning or afternoon? How long had he been lying in that bed? Where was he? He was considering going back to sleep, inclined to believe this was only a dream, when the door opened quietly and a young woman came in, carrying a cloth and a small bowl.
“Ah! You are awake.” She placed the bowl on the stool and a herbal scent reached his nostrils. “I hope you are feeling better.”
She was speaking Asturan in a melodic voice, with unusual inflections. Valan’s Asturan was quite good, if one disregarded his peculiar pronunciation—the language probably had different origins than Laedan—but he had heard the native accent in the last days. He could tell it was not her language. Which meant… His heart fluttered. Fates of all kingdoms! Could it be that he had found the Eina?
“I am, I think… unless you are just a... a figment of my imagination… Are you?”
That amused her. “Your mind is still confused, but not that much. You are not dreaming.”
He made up his mind and pushed the cover aside, sitting carefully on the edge of the bed. She made no attempt to stop him. He was wearing a long night shirt and his left hand was wrapped in bandages. My fingers. “Thank you! For saving my life… for everything. I am forever in your debt.” He bowed slowly.
“Do not concern yourself with that.”
There was something very gentle and comforting in her presence and Valan found himself staring at her. Indeed she looked as their race was described: tall, slender, fair skinned, handsome. Her dark hair, the deep colour of horse-chestnuts, was pulled back in a thick braid, tied with a green ribbon that matched her eyes. Instead of the usual dress she wore a plain, long tunic—cut on one side, the front lifted and tucked inside the belt—and tight fitting trousers. She was barefoot.
“How long was I… away?”
He blinked surprised. “Only three? But the pain… I could not move, my ribs were broken, my fingers…”
Her eyebrows rose. “Are you a doctor?”
“Still learning,” he said, a little embarrassed.
“You were fortunate,” she said, smiling. And what a tender, sincere smile. “You must be hungry, I will bring you some food.”
It was only then that he realized his empty stomach was demanding attention. “What time is it?”
“It’s well past noon.”
“I think—” He stood up a little unsteady, a hand on the wall to balance himself, but he felt he could move. “I think I can walk. I wish to see this place, if you don’t mind.” He needed to move, to be sure all of it was real.
A noise came from behind the door and a small head peeked through. “Manee?”
“Kiri, our guest is awake, come and greet him.”
The child entered the room, grabbing her arm, quiet and shy like a kitten. His eyes, however, were anything but.
Valan smiled. “Hello, little master.”
“Do you feel better? Manee said you are very sick and you must sleep.” Just like that, without any introduction.
“I was, but I feel much better now, thank you,” said Valan, diverted by such candour.
“You must eat, your body needs strength,” said the woman.
She moved towards the door and the child ran out of the room. Valan followed them with slow steps.
They passed into another room that was joined with the first one through a very short, narrow passage. This one was also round, but larger and seemed to be the heart of the household. The floor was a step lower and there was a hole in the middle of it, like a hearth, and many cushions spread around it, but not much else. The roof had the same round, swirling shape, but it was double: it had a large middle ring and the top was raised to let light pour inside through the opening. Along the walls were hanging many unlit lamps and bundles of aromatic herbs. Several passages, like the one they had come through, seemed to lead to other rooms and a tall door led outside.
They went around the hearth and passed into a third room—by this time Valan was beginning to suspect they were all round, individual structures—which had two windows and another opening towards what looked like a kitchen. The windows were wide open and he went straight to one of them, finally able to peek outside through the ivy that was draping them like a shredded curtain. He saw tall, old trees and between them, looking almost like mushrooms after the rain, clusters of round houses, covered with creepers. The air smelled of grass and ferns and… green, he thought. Birds were singing in the canopy and he heard people voices again, though he could not see them, nor could he understand their speech. But the sounds were loud and clear, not muffled as when he had first opened his eyes.
The woman’s voice startled him.
“Please, sit.” She disappeared in the kitchen.
There was a round table with chairs in the middle of the room. Valan pulled one and the child took another, staring at him in silence, but without hiding his curiosity. He seemed around nine or ten. Though his limbs were long and thin, overall he was rather small. He had the pale skin of his race—for there was no doubt in Valan’s mind, now, that they were Eina—and his hair fell in ruffled waves just above the shoulder. A couple of leaves were still tangled in them and there was a smudge on his cheek, as if he had played outside only moments before they met. He looked like a young version of his mother, except for his eyes: they were slightly elongated and had the colour of dark honey, rich and warm, with a copper tint.
The woman returned with a steaming bowl of soup and two, round flatbreads. A delicate, nutty mushroom flavour was rising from the bowl and Valan’s stomach growled.
“You should eat slowly,” she said, sitting beside her child.
He tried to break the bread, but the bandage on his left hand was hindering and the woman broke it for him. It had a certain sweetness and was softer than he expected. The soup was quite thick and indeed had mushrooms, though not a sort he recognized, some kind of roots and herbs. It was delicious and filling and he tried to eat as slowly as he could, despite the hunger and his excited state. When he finished everything he felt replete, less weak and eager to learn about the place.
“Do you wish more?” asked the woman, standing to take the bowl.
“It was very good, thank you, but my stomach is… small.” That was the wrong word.
“Tight?” Arryn helped him.
He nodded quickly. Sometimes the right words, even simple ones, eluded him precisely when he needed them, while words he had no idea he knew came out of nowhere. One of the quirks of learning a foreign language from books, without having the opportunity to speak it.
She took the bowl to the kitchen and returned to the table, sitting.
“Forgive my manners, I forgot to introduce myself.” He stood to bow politely. “I am Valan Breen, physician… novice physician, and I travelled from Laeden to meet your people.” He paused. “I didn’t expect my journey to end so… abruptly.”
“You found us.”
Was it praise or consolation?
“Rather the other way round,” he answered slightly embarrassed.
“Is that important?”
He shook his head.
“I am Arryn, wife of Keryon of the Enma tribe. Our village is but one of our tribe’s. Kiri is a yanee, one in-between. He is nine.”
Valan felt a thrill of excitement. So the stories about the genderless children were true! But Kiri looked like any other child his age, and a sweet one to boot, why were people so appalled by his kind? True, now that he took a better look, it was hard to guess whether he was a boy or a girl, but other than that there was nothing unusual about him. Him? Or it?
“It’s just a convention. It makes it easier for Man to overlook a yanee’s condition.”
“I’m sorry, that was unkind of me.”
Kiri did not seem to mind, he was too busy staring at the stranger in front of him.
“Not at all,” said Arryn, brushing her child’s hair lovingly. “They don’t meet many people outside the tribe during this period. It is better this way. You will be quite a curiosity for them,” she said with a smile. “Why did you want to meet our kin?”
“I am interested in plants and their medical use,” he began slowly, searching for his words. “I grew up close to woods and I loved to wander them as a boy. My mother, she knew a little about herbs and my father was a, um… woodworker. He wanted to teach me, but I had no call for it. My interests were different, so I left my home to study in the city.” He paused, looking at his wrapped hand, rubbing the bandages with his other thumb. “They both… passed too soon and I could not help them.” He looked up at his beautiful host. “I wish I could do more for others. Help the sick and earn a living at the same time, that would make me really happy. But I feel there is… there must be more to that than treating a wound or preparing medicine.” He felt his statement might sound arrogant in the presence of these people, and blushed. “I cannot pretend I know what I’m looking for—that would be saying I understand things more than I really do.”
“It is a good thing to have a curious mind. But you are young and understanding comes with experience, so don’t feel uneasy about not knowing what you are looking for. As long as you keep looking, the answers will come to you.”
Her words made Valan wonder how old she was. She looked about the same age as him, perhaps younger, but with Eina’s long lifespan, she could have been twice as old.
“They say your people has an unusual bond with living things. It was my greatest wish to meet you ever since I heard that. I was hoping… you will allow me to stay for a while and learn. I was prepared to pay for it, of course, but then…” He almost felt sick. A part of his wish had come true, and he was grateful, but now he would have to give up the rest of it because he had nothing to offer them in return. He swallowed hard. “They took everything. I only have the small pouches because they were hidden, but it’s too little… I owe you my life as well.”
“All life is important and our duty is to preserve it. You owe us nothing.”
He felt the opposite, but what good would it do to argue? Words meant very little. Perhaps one day he would find a way to repay their kindness. One day… Would he ever get another chance?
He pushed that thought away, trying to hide the disappointment. “How did you find me? I thought I was far from any village.”
“Far enough for you to reach one in your condition. My husband found you lying on the roadside. You were almost unconscious, but he said you spoke when he raised you on the horse. He did not understand your speech. Neither of us did when you talked again in your sleep, save for a few words. You said Eina several times.”
“You helped me even though you didn’t understand me?”
“What difference does it make? Would you not help a sick creature because you don’t understand its tongue? Do you perceive someone only through his words?”
“Of course not. But I could be a…” What was the word he had heard the other day? “A ruffian.”
“Did you kill somebody?” asked Kiri with a serious, fearless face.
The blunt question shocked Valan and Arryn burst into laughter.
“No! Goodness, no! I was just—” What could he answer to that?
“Kiri, Master Breen was just curious, he doesn’t know our ways.” Then to Valan, “We would not have left you to die even if you were a ruffian. But we would have taken you to Maelifeld, had we thought anything was amiss.”
“Maelifeld? The town?”
His shoulders sagged a little. “I was going to spend the night there.” That day he had been closer to his goal than he had thought. How ironic. “I travelled many days to get here. People called me a fool for taking this journey, alone, and… maybe they were right, considering what happened. But I know what they really meant was a fool for chasing fairytales… Folk in Laeden don’t know much about your kin. Some never heard of you, others think you are a myth, or that the stories… exaggerate. I don’t know anyone who met an Eina.”
“We keep to our forest,” said Arryn.
“It’s what I heard.”
A butterfly wandered in through the window and, after flying aimlessly around the room, landed on Kiri’s arm. Valan held his breath. Its wings were a dull brown, but when they caught the light he saw tiny golden specks on them. Kiri took it in his palm, blowing softly on its wings to make them tremble and shimmer, and the creature did not fly. It just sat there, until the child raised the palm towards the window and it flew back outside.
Valan breathed out, sinking in his chair. “Now I don’t know what to do. The money I have left is not enough to stay, but not enough to go back either. My horse and all my things are lost.”
“You came here with a purpose, I don’t see why you should give that up. If you truly wish to learn, you are welcome to stay with us for as long as you please.”
It took Valan a few moments to understand what she said. He understood the words, yes, but their meaning took longer to break through his upset thoughts. When they did, he could not believe them. Could it be true? Could it be that these people were willing to grant him his wish? They were said to be kind and generous, but he already owed them so much.
Arryn’s gaze was warm and steady upon his face and he saw the truth in her eyes.
“I… I am most grateful, Mistress Arryn,” said Valan, his strangled voice barely above whisper. Since childhood he had only cried twice, but he felt he would cry, if he were alone in that moment. He cleared his throat. “I shall work for my part, whatever is needed. And… and I hope someday I shall be able to return your kindness.”
Arryn shook her head. “Master Breen, you have a lot to learn about us. We are not doing this for payment or gratitude. Our ways and knowledge are open for anyone with a good heart and a wish to know them. But help is always welcome and, since we don’t travel, I’m sure we can learn from you as well.”
“Thank you.” What could he possibly teach them?
Kiri’s eyes sparkled. “You will stay with us?”
“I guess so,” said Valan, smiling both at Kiri and himself. He could not entirely believe it either, but the disappointment from a few moments ago was already making way to new hopes.
“Can you tell me about your home? And your trip?”
“Anything you wish to know, if I know the answer.”
“Kiri! Kiriiii!!!” cried a child in front of the house.
Kiri went to the window. “Ee, mai!” He turned to Valan hesitating.
“Go ahead,” said his mother. “Master Breen already said he is staying. You will have time to talk.”
The child grinned, then ran outside to his friends.
“He is lovely,” said Valan. His own emotion surprised him.
“He is. And very curious, don’t be deceived by his silence. You just met, but let me warn you to prepare yourself, now that you promised to answer his questions.”
“I shall try not to disappoint him.”
“Keryon will be home later, he is gone to Maelifeld. You can rest until then. I must go out to pick some herbs.”
“Do you mind if I join you? A walk would be good.” It was probably too soon for him to move so much, but he could not go back to sleep after their conversation. How could he, when the woman’s words had stirred such a whirlwind of thoughts and emotions in him?
“Do not force yourself, it has only been three days.”
“Forgive me, you are right.” And what if the rest of the village were of a different opinion? He wanted to see as much as he could, before they would change their mind.
She sensed his disappointment. “Do you need help changing?”
“Thank you, I think I can do that myself.” His eyes brightened with anticipation.
“Then you will find me in the kitchen.”
The village looked nothing like Valan had ever seen or imagined before. It was not at the edge of the forest as he had thought, but further inside. The forest itself was very old and the trees, although some looked familiar, were taller than the ones in his parts. The houses seemed to grow from the ground, covered in vegetation as they were, scattered along winding paths on the gently sloped land, trees—old and young—rising undisturbed between them. Some almost looked like green mounds, hardly distinguishable if not for the doors and windows. Because of that, and because they were not as close to one another as he was used to, he could not guess their number.
“This is… incredible,” said Valan, breathless. “I never imagined you could build an entire village without cutting the forest.”
“We are but guests here, just like any other creature,” said Arryn. “Our presence must not disturb the place, if possible. Long ago, when our ancestors made peace with Astur, they built their homes on the ground because the woods had been harmed by the war. But further north they are untouched and very, very old. The trees are true giants and people still live in houses up in the crowns, as our kin has always had.”
“So that is why each room is a separate… structure.”
“Yes. We can add more if we really must, because we live together, young and old. Our house has fewer rooms than others. Kiri’s used to be the room of Keryon’s sister. She followed her husband to his tribe, before Kiri was born, just as I did.”
“You come from a different tribe?”
“I was of the Niseth, before wedding Keryon. But that is not always the case. Some wed simply in a different village, or even in the same one they were born.”
Among the Man it was the same.
Valan paused, not knowing whether his next question was appropriate or not, but Arryn’s raised brow encouraged him. “Forgive me, but… I was wondering how old you are.”
The woman laughed softly, amused by this hesitancy she had noticed before at his kin. Among the Eina ageing was never a reason for embarrassment, but she had heard that the women of Man were more concerned about it.
“Much older than you, as you have probably guessed by now. But still young for our race. I am six-and-sixty.”
“So, um, if we were to say, for… simplicity, that your age is twice that of Man, would that be the same as three-and-thirty for my people?”
“For the sake of simplicity, yes.”
“We are of the same age. In fact I’m older than you by a year,” he said with a sheepish smile, almost regretting his words the very next moment, when he realized that his little joke might, in fact, been perceived as rudeness. They had barely met and he knew almost nothing about these people.
He felt relieved to see that Arryn found that point of view amusing.
There was a large clearing in the middle of the village, with cultivated gardens. Arryn explained him that the vegetables had been brought by the Asturans, since they did not grow in the woods. In time, when the two races had learned to coexist, they started to borrow from one another.
A few men and women were working the gardens, talking among themselves, but they stopped when they heard them. They were of various ages, all tall and slender. Like his host, the women wore plain, long tunics with the front tucked inside the belt and fitting trousers. It makes sense, thought Valan, a regular skirt would be cumbersome. Men’s were shorter, just above the knee. Both had thin leather boots, to protect their feet from the undergrowth, and, to his surprise, both wore their hair long—women much longer than men—braided or tied in a horse tail. They greeted them with nods and friendly smiles and two of the women came closer, looking especially pleased to see him, as if they had met before.
“I see that you are finally awake. And looking very well, no less,” said one, shorter and, possibly, older than Arryn, in the same Asturan with strange inflections.
“Thank you, I feel much better,” answered Valan with a polite incline, a little confused by her direct approach.
Arryn came to his aid. “Master Breen woke up just a while ago, Ethri, but he was keen to see the place. He has travelled all the way from Laeden to meet our kin.”
“That is a long journey. I hope you are not disappointed, especially after that unfortunate event,” said the second woman in a soft voice. Of all three, she seemed the youngest.
“No, not at all! Everything I saw and heard so far was… beyond my expectations. I feel like a child who discovered a treasure.” His cheeks coloured.
The women giggled pleased.
“Arryn, we should make a gathering soon, people would like to meet your guest. If you don’t mind that, Master Breen.”
Valan’s blush deepened and he bowed his head slightly, trying to hide his embarrassment. “I feel honoured.” He thought he was undeserving of such attention, but he dared not say it, for fear of offending his guests.
“He must first regain his strength, Aneri. He may be anxious to meet you, but his body is not healed yet. Do not forget your broken bones, Master Breen,” said Arryn in a motherly tone.
“That goes without saying,” agreed Aneri, the one with the soft voice.
Valan thought there was a semblance between her and the other woman, Ethri.
“How long will you stay with us, Master Breen?” asked Ethri.
“As long as my kind host will suffer me. I came here hoping to learn from you.”
“Then we look forward to teaching you,” said Ethri. “Do not strain your body, you have plenty of time. That gathering can wait. It was a pleasure finally talking to you, Master Breen.”
“The pleasure was all mine,” said Valan, nodding.
The two women returned to the gardens, where the others were waiting, no doubt curious about the conversation. Arryn turned to him pleased.
“Ethri and Aneri have helped us nurse you,” she said. That explained the familiarity of their address. “Everyone knows about you and is very excited. We have not had a visitor from another land in a very long time. Though I’m sure no one expected such a young one. Do you feel up for a walk in the woods?”
In the golden light of the afternoon her eyes were the colour of moss, the most striking shade of green he had ever seen. Valan was dazzled.
“That would be wonderful.”
So he said, but after wandering for a while, so completely engrossed by his surroundings and the woman’s stories he forgot his own state, his body grew tired and began to hurt again. He did not pay attention until it was painful to breathe. Arryn helped him return to the house and watched over him until he was asleep. He could not meet Keryon that evening.
It took a week for him to be able to move around without frequent need to rest, and another fortnight to take longer walks without his breathing growing painful. Which was faster than he would have thought, anyway. Back home it would have taken him at least six weeks to heal. The Eina were indeed gifted.
During this time he met the entire family and half the village paid him at least one visit. It was awkward, at first, to be the object of everyone’s attention, but they only wished to welcome him. He had not anticipated such a warm and friendly reception. Kiri spent a lot of time with him and, just as Arryn had warned, the child discarded the shyness and let his curiosity loose. Despite being rather clumsy with children, Valan found him easy to talk to and very well behaved. They quickly became friends.
At first he did not venture too far into the woods, not after what had happened on the day he woke up. He could not be of much help to his hosts yet, and feared he might hinder them. He did, however, see the village. And it was not as large as it seemed, about thirty or so houses, but in that place it would have been hard to guess its size.
It was mid spring, the sunlight sifting through the new foliage was warming the moist soil, and ferns, creepers and a large assortment of plants were thriving on the forest floor. Everything was green: ground, trees and houses. A stream cutting through the village, to the east of the gardens, was the main source of water, but there were also springs around. In a smaller glade, on the other side of the stream, he saw—not without surprise—horses, goats and chickens.
“I didn’t think you raised animals,” he said one morning to Yunal, Keryon’s mother, when she took him with her to milk the goats. She was thirty-five-and-one-hundred, but looked younger and stronger than a woman in her sixties in Laeden. Her skin was so smooth and her hair barely grizzled, Valan would have never guessed her age.
“We did not, back in the old age, before the arrival of the Man. Although, up in the mountains, there have always been wild goats and all sorts of birds. These were brought by Man. Our ancestors thought it strange and cruel, at first, to raise other creatures so that they could eat them later. But eggs and milk are good and horses are very helpful.”
“So you don’t eat them?” That was unheard of!
“Not unless we have no choice. We must be careful that they do not breed too much. They are still newcomers to these woods.”
“Back home we keep them in pens, or else they can get lost or spoil our crops. You let yours run free?”
“What right do we have to stop them?”
“But don’t you fear they will not come back? Or that wild animals might kill them?”
“This is their home and they always come back,” said Yunal. “And wild animals do not come into the village. We respect their place, they respect ours. But we cannot stop them from hunting. If an animal gets lost and eaten, well, that is life. We have enough to share with others.”
“Well, what about the gardens?”
“What about them?”
“Don’t they go in?”
“They have plenty of food everywhere. Even if they did, we could not confine them for that.”
The path slowly went down to the stream, where there was a wooden bridge, then back up, winding through the trees towards the animals’ glade. The water was cool and clear and the banks were covered with ferns and shrubs.
“Are there many wild animals around?” asked Valan.
“It is said there used to be many more, before the forests had been ravaged by the war, and that they fled deeper north. But there are still plenty. Rabbits, foxes, deer…”
“Any, um… big ones?”
Yunal chuckled. “You mean big enough to eat us? Yes. But, as I said, they never come in the village.”
“And if you’re not in the village?”
“It is very rare for them to attack us. And we are good climbers.”
“You don’t kill them?”
“Do your goats kill you for trying to eat them?”
Valan burst into laughter, the image was both ridiculous and chilling.
“But I would not advise you to go too far alone,” added Yunal. “Wild animals are not the only dangerous things out there.”
The glade looked almost dreamlike in the morning light. Wild flowers had popped everywhere, opening their small crowns in the warm sun, white and yellow freckles on the green, soft face of the ground. The air buzzed with insects eager to taste them and, up in the trees, birds were singing wonderfully intricate songs. Somewhere a chicken was cackling loudly, as though bragging for accomplishing her duty. A few horses were scattered about, grazing, and in the shade of the trees a dozen goats were resting, ruminating lazily. It was so peaceful Valan felt he could have stayed there forever.
Yunal made a melodious, whistling sound and the goats came running with cheerful bleats, as if glad to see her. They gathered around, eager to be touched, pushing each other and trying to get close to her, rubbing on her legs and licking her hands. She petted each one, scratching their cheeks, heads and backs and talking to them in a gentle, caring voice. To Valan it looked as though she were under attack and, had she ten hands instead of two, it would still not be enough to satisfy their crave for attention. But Yunal did not look troubled, even when she knelt on the grass and they climbed on her back and to her head, nuzzling her face and hair.
He was not ignored either and, before he could do anything, they were nibbling at his tunic and trousers. A few more joined them from the trees towards the stream and he found himself surrounded and helpless. There were no goats where he grew up, nor in the city. He knew little about them and their assertive behaviour took him by surprise. Yunal saw his panicked face and started laughing. It was so easy to forget this woman had already lived over a hundred years.
“They like you,” came another voice from the path behind them.
Valan turned to see Ethri and Aneri, both carrying wooden buckets and heading towards them. That first day after he met them Arryn told him they were sisters.
“As food?” He tried to free his sleeve from the grip of a bold, reddish doe. He breathed with relief when they abandoned him for the other two women. “A good morning to you. And thank you for saving me.”
“You did look a little lost,” teased him Ethri. “A good morning, Master Breen.”
Such excitement among the animals was probably ordinary, because, just like Yunal before, they knelt on the grass to stroke and scratch them.
“They are very affectionate creatures,” said Aneri, hugging a lovely white doeling that was trying to climb in her lap like a cat. “They like attention.”
“They want to eat me,” said Valan, when another one came to claim his fingers.
“You are a new face,” explained Yunal. “It is their way of making an acquaintance. Do you not have goats?”
“Not where I live. I saw some in my travels, but I had no idea they are so… brazen.”
“They have their days,” she admitted.
The three women sat down to milk and the does slowly calmed, standing quiet and patient under their hands, the others rubbing gently on them. Even Valan could now touch their heads without fear of losing his clothes. When they were done, each was carrying a full bucket. He offered to help, but Yunal refused.
“You should not carry weights yet. Be patient.”
“It’s embarrassing, I’m a man,” he protested.
The other women giggled.
“Nonsense. You need not prove anything.”
“But I need to do something. I feel useless.”
“You are such a hasty race,” observed Ethri.
“Time doesn’t wait for anyone,” Valan said softer.
Yunal gave him a long, pensive look. “Perhaps you are right,” she said. “There are things you can help with. Let’s go back, first.”
They left the glade chatting, followed by a retinue of noisy goats, but when they reached the stream the animals turned back without being told, as if that were as far as they were supposed to go.