Larch nearly slipped off the branch of the tree and somehow, didn’t fall. Flower, next to her, laughed in cat fashion with a little mrrp, amused eyes watching her. They remained the same purple as all those years ago, when they were both young, and Flower just a sprout with a tiny amethyst bloom.
“Not all of us have claws. Statistically I’m doing well,” Larch said. She pushed her glasses farther up her nose and looked for the next branch. She’d ditched the gear she usually wore, leaving the young woman in just a long green tunic and breeches. Her belt with its many pouches, vials, gardening tools, and notebook remained. The chestnut-mahogany hair was stuck to her forehead with sweat, and the blonde streaks she kept in braids were coming slowly undone. The tree had added more leaves and a twig or two to the greenery that grew there. The fur shawl remained. Larch had rolled the sleeves up, showing scars and the tribal tattoo of her clan here in the privacy of the forest. Flower licked a paw, and then, with the ease and agility of her species, delicately leaped from one branch to another farther above. ….Showoff.
This was the fifth oak tree she’d searched so far. Her hands were rough by hard work and dirt already, but she’d acquired a few scratches here and there, and a lovely shin bruise. Golden Acorns were worth it though, and she examined the leaves and canopy around her intently.
If they were going to take on the hags…. They’d need defenses.
And it was only scratches and bruises. Nothing like before.
I am sorry about your family, echoed the voice of the old man in her memory. There had been no… polite (she was working on politeness; not all creatures had a forthright nature, Amalya told her) way to tell him that the dead had it easy. They hadn’t been quick deaths, precisely, but they died quick enough to keep the suffering to a minimum, and they died with honor in battle. Her father’s witchery took several of the machines with him, his black cat howling death and battle cries that echoed her mother’s screams of rage, and the howling blizzard that answered her call….
Not that any of it had mattered in the end.
Larch inhaled, exhaled, put it out of her mind. Compartmentalize. That was the key. Compartmentalize. The poisonous rage and grief would get her killed if she gave it reign. She knew it then and she knew it now. They had died as well as could be asked for, defending the tribe.
There had been no way to tell him that the survivors were the ones who had it the hardest. That they were the ones who deserved condolences for all the years of being made into examples of what happens when you defy the Metal Men.
And here she was, just like then, looking for dangerous magical plants for a fucking-
….I had been doing so well. She stopped and wiped her brow. The Doctor would need additional protections. This was the intelligent, logical thing to do. The anise hag would be in melee; the Doctor fought in melee. It was simply good sense. She was choosing to do it. He was one of them, but all his experiments involved his own flesh. And Bolke would need it as well, even as exceedingly tough as she was, and maybe some of the others. Flower could use them. They were a great thing, Golden Acorns.
It’s fine. I’m fine. The Doctor is… fine. Everything is fine. And he is dead. Nothing could survive that explosion. The rest of my people have probably fled farther north. With the Metal Men focused on me, they should have had time to do it. They’ve likely found a camp, by now, rebuilt a little… I hope they can defend the area from raiders. At least Iron Fang is here, not there.
In its heyday, Iron Fang had been quite feared. Not by her people, of course, for the Wolves of Pines feared little, but there had always been a grudging respect of skill.
Everything is fine.
Especially if I can find more Golden Acorns.
That was what the shaman did for the tribe. She hadn’t manifested before the attack, though she’d always been interested in green and growing things. They called her Little Squirrel for how she was always up in the pines. But she knew this was her job, to help protect the people she was with.
And she’d show them- them and the world- what “mere sprouts” could do.
….Though I’m a woman grown now. Funny how things linger. Still. It’s a good thing to pursue… and when I am finished, the Metal Men-
But that was a thought for another day.
A bird chittered at her. She looked up. A sparrow, perfect in every feather, looked at her with green eyes.
“Oh. Hello, Song.”
Twittering. Song of a Thousand Birds at Sunset pecked a finger slightly. Animals were less her forte than plants were, but she valued Song’s wisdom. And Amalya vouched for her after all.
“I am looking for acorns. It’s to help kill a hag, you see.”
An inquisitive chirp.
“Mmm. They are very bad.”
More chirping. A fluffle of feathers.
“It is good to see you again. I hope you are well?” Larch rested against the tree trunk, more to climb still ahead. But her hands were sweaty and her arms burning with the effort. The sparrow hopped down from its branch and sat on her knee, and musical birdsong filling the air around them for a bit as it chattered at her.
“I will take that as a yes. If… if you see Amalya before I do, give her my regards. I am well. I have not grown roots.”
The sparrow blinks intelligent green eyes at her, and chirps once. Then it is simply…. Gone.
She finds no more acorns. Larch thanks the trees for their patience and starts back.
She’s tired. It’s night now; and she has been using her magic relentlessly to mend and fix things made of wood, coax harvests from newly planted seeds, maximize efficiency of the soil and its nutrients, feed the worst of the hungry with her gifts, and begin the preparation of more medicinals. Hunger meant illness could gain a foothold easier, and it was still cold out at night. I should put more cold and flu syrup together. Those are always the first to strike. Nettle tea with…. Honey and mint, for malnutrition too… and a warming one for the nights. Ginger, clove- could I borrow some cinnamon…?
So when Larch pulls herself into the wagon’s converted bed to do her nightly checks, it can be tiredness to blame as she nearly trips over the black book. The shaman catches herself and swears softly in Hallit.
“You,” she mutters. “I was hoping I had lost you in the forest.”
The black book said nothing, did not move. It looked an awful lot like a notebook of some sort, crossed with a wizard’s spell book- the leather that bound it was black, and the edges charred. There was no writing, label, or title. Just black leather.
I should have known better though, she thought to herself as she sighed. Knowledge knows no bounds.
“I’m not dealing with you tonight. I’m already tired.”
Larch picked up the book and threw it as far as she could away from the wagon.
It would be back. It always was. The Black Library was as relentless and ruthless as her own curiosity… and she HAD accepted it for the sake of her revenge. But it was- difficult. Strange. No Flower, the other half of her heart, or little bird introduced to her by Amalya, teaching her the ways of beasts. They were still negotiating the terms of their relationship. …Especially since she did reduce its former home to a crater, partly using the knowledge it gave her.
There was a debt there. Both of them knew that. But it had enjoyed the dream lichen, the effects and things firsthand- seeing those in person was a boon to the knowledge they both sought. So that was good.
Flower bumped against her leg and purred. Larch picked her up and buried her face in her fur, inhaling. As always, she smelled like home: pines and fresh loam, cool and sweet. Flower purred harder, and the two of them sat together in the wagon for a while, away from the world.
Maybe she would just sleep here tonight, with the plants and Flower. It was safe here, and Flower would keep watch; the bond between spirit familiar and shaman was strong, and she trusted the not-quite-a-cat absolutely. It had been a while since she needed to, to keep the nightmares at bay…
But first. Always first: tending the plants, tending her moose, and tending her remedies. Rutt might have picked up a stone. (She thought briefly of the impressive giant bees she saw at that market, but… no. They weren’t quiet enough, and the price!!) Plus the tincture of lemonbalm would be ready by now. And tomorrow she would check the river. It would be cold, given the raw newness of this spring, but doable if she didn’t dally. Fanged algea would be a good thing for the coming fight, and Mallory would likely appreciate some swampweed…