Back then, before the Beast came to the Land Behind the Mountains, back before a curse was set upon the women of that land, there lived a girl.
Her father had died long before she was born, and her mother didn't re-marry until much later. So, the task of naming the child fell on her mother's shoulder. And she named her daughter Sun-On-Moss, though it was usually shortened down to Moss.
They lived in Darklight village, a part of the Crescent Tribes, near the Gray Wood. And it was the Gray Wood that caused Moss's life to become a story told and retold. Though her part is mostly forgotten. The people of Southlands, as it is now called, usually only remember her elder brother, Foxeye. The boy who was lost in the Gray Woods - and returned.
But here, her story will be told.
In the year that the mango crop was struck with blight, Foxeye came of age to make his passage; he was now seventeen. Moss was fifteen, but that was no matter. Nothing of importance happened to a girl at that age. The girls of Darklight never married until sixteen or, on occasion, older. Her birthday was a little over looked in the shadow of her brother's rite into manhood.
Moss loved her brother, and he loved her. When little, and had time to play, it was always with each other, despite the difference in age.
Moss stood near the stake and waved him off, calling blessings that the Lights Above would shield him. Watching as he disappeared into the Wood. She had no doubt he would return - and he would get something amazing, at that. As they had gotten older, they had spent more and more time apart. Girls were not supposed to spend their free hours with the boys like that, even if they were brother and sister. But still would talk, when they could.
And they would wonder about the stories told. About the beasts young men would bring back from the Gray Wood.
That had been Foxeye's dream. He wanted to kill a beast that would take him down through their land's lore forever. Moss would laugh or smile quietly. She didn't quite believe what the old ones would say. The Gray Woods were probably roamed by wolves and panthers - dangerous animals, but nothing fantastic. Whatever Foxeye got would be amazing, but not magical.
Still, she wished.... All her life... she had wanted to enter those trees. She had always been too scared to do it, though. Not without a rope tied around her so she could find a way back.
But even ropes do not protect as well as one might hope.
Foxeye had been in the Gray Woods for two days. It was a long time, longer than any lad of Darklight village had ever been in there.
And then... the rope went slack. Moss was in her family's hut, preparing a meal when she heard the cries. She hurried out and caught the words people were saying.
"... He is lost."
"My brother, his son was lost the same way."
Her skin turned an eerie pale, and Moss ran.
She pushed through the people, never minding when her bare feet cut on rocks, and raced to the gorge. The crowd broke around her, and she saw her mother. Hunched on the ground, weeping, while her husband tried to quiet her.
Men were pulling the rope out, and she saw the end appear; frayed and cut, without her brother. Foxeye was lost.
It cannot be said that Sun-On-Moss was a coward. No more did a day pass after her brother was lost before she went to the gorge by the Gray Wood again. It was deserted now, and she should have been dressed in red, with her family, mourning for her brother. Weeping over the loss of one close to you was not given much time amongst the Crescent People. Three days of silence in their home, red for the dead one's still blood, and then life went on.
But Moss was not at home, nor was she wearing red.
Her dress of skins was a plain brown. And she approached the edge of gorge looking determined. Hidden under it was a look of fear, but Moss tried to ignore that feeling.
She stepped to the edge... and began to climb down. The rocks were sharp and hot with the heat of the day. And her hair in a long, thick dark braid was heavy on her back and seemed to gather the moisture from the air. But she didn't stop, not until she was at the bottom. She rested there for a few minutes, allowing herself a few sips from her water skin. But she didn't drink much before she tucked it back in her sack. It would need to be saved.
She was going into the Woods. She was going to find her brother. And she wouldn't come back - though she might die in there, and her bones lie in that foreign place away from all she knew - she wouldn't come back until she found Foxeye.
There was a river at the bottom. Boats were fastened to the shore. Most of them were on the near side, but one... only one was across it, where the Gray Woods began.
Moss climbed into one on her shore and untied it. Immediately the river took hold of the boat, and Moss had to struggle with the paddles. Her arms screamed with the pain of the exertion as she tried to make it across, but she wasn't strong enough! She couldn't do it! And the river was carrying her away.
Her eyes darted frantically around, hoping for... she didn't know what.
Uselessly, she shouted out. One word, and that word was lost in the roar of the river: "Help!" But there was no one to hear her cry, and Moss knew it... or so she thought.
Her hands still held the paddles. With one last desperate attempt to control the boat, she struggled to push against the water.
To Moss, it felt as if hands had suddenly grabbed a hold of the handles next to her's. And the paddles pushed in her grasp, rowing against the current, taking her to shore.
The boat struck the land. Moss sat, shocked, then came to herself and jumped out. She ran along the shore, and when she glanced back, the boat had been swept away.
She journeyed beside the Wood until she came back to the place where Foxeye's boat was tied. There, she took three things from her sack: a stake, a hammer, and a coil of rope. Moss pounded the first into the ground, tied the rope to it, and then the other end of the rope around herself. Filling her skin quickly from the river, she turned back to the Gray Wood. The place she had always dreamed of entering. But in her games of childhood, she had always been a courageous exploring warrior maiden, setting off to discover what lay beyond. Not searching for her lost brother; and never scared. And she was scared, for Foxeye, and for herself.
But she had to, for Foxeye. For him.
She ran into the trees, not stopping until she was far in, for fear that she would be too afraid and go back.
Moss was in the Gray Woods.
Nothing happened. The Wood was quiet, seemed darker than she might have thought, but nothing unusual like the stories. Nothing unusual, except for how still it was. In these trees, the softest song of a bird would sing like a battle cry. And Moss was weary of the silence.
Still... there was nothing to be afraid of here. She carefully stepped through the trees, parting the underbrush. Hours must have passed for her, but what little of the sky she could glimpse through the branches showed no sign of darkness. If Moss noticed the strangeness of that (for it had been late afternoon when she had descended from her village, and must be near night now), it didn't bother her. And she searched through the Gray Woods for hours. Finally, her legs could carry her no more. Moss located a firm tree and climbed it. The bark was rougher than any in Darklight, and the branches larger. But it was a tree, and Moss had climbed them since she was old enough to remember. She had gone up trees to pluck fruit for gathering, or when playing with her brother.
Moss spoke in a near whisper. "Foxeye... I'll find you.... I will, brother."
And she settled in her branches, and fell asleep. It was calm and quiet all the while Moss slept, until...
When she awoke, there was talking. Moss didn't move, trying to figure out where it was coming from.
"No, no - you mustn’t go along da River - go by a Rudiobus Path - that's is the way to go." A second voice responded, deeper, and though the first was spoken quickly, this was quicker.
"Da Merry Folk? - No, - they wouldne let me - they wouldne let others - why not da River? - He's a pal a mine."
"He's is not!"
The speakers babbled and squabbled. They seemed to want to go somewhere, and were arguing over the best way to get there. Moss had pinpointed where the voices were coming from: above her. She looked up, but couldn't see anything. Still, she could hear them up there, they sounded right above her head.
Anxious to find out who it was, Moss shifted to try and better see. The tree shook with her movements, and the voices stopped.
She stopped too, scared of what might happen.
"What's a that?" The first voice asked, hissing out a whisper.
"Oh, a! - down there - you see?"
There was a fluttering noise. With no time for Moss to do anything, they suddenly appeared on the branch right there, the space of an arm above her head.
The creatures she saw were almost like birds. Almost: their bodies were like an eagle - except for the talons, which were gnarled and three of them turned the wrong way. But their heads were what stood out. For their heads looked like a man's.
Moss opened her mouth and tried to speak, but all that came out was a noise like a croak.
"Here's - what's a is it?" The one on the left spoke, it was the one with the higher voice. Its feathers were brown, while its companion's were gray spotted with white. The gray and white one didn't answer, but eyed the girl. And his talons curled.
Moss scrambled back, trying to get out of the tree. She fell. Her rope caught on branches when she fell, and tightened around her middle as the line went taunt. Moss panicked, she couldn't breathe! Wildly she pulled at the rope, and it came loose, dropping her three more feet to the ground.
She lay there, struggling to get in air, and saw those things swoop down.
Moss pushed herself up to stand. The creature landed in the lowest branch of the tree.
"What's you? - Rudiobus? - Butannaziba? - or..."
Moss burst in before it could speak again. "I am Sun-On-Moss, daughter of Quickhawk, from Darklight village."
"Oh - mortal - sounds a mortal - a mortal!" The gray and white one said.
It flapped its wings, and Moss held up her sack in case she should need to defend herself. Her arms shook and felt weak, and she dropped the bag.
She took a step back. The gray bird flew away with a flap, calling to its companion. The brown one paused a moment, and looked at her, almost kindly. But it was hard to take comfort from a beast half human half animal, especially when they had talons so sharp.
"You go back - not meant for a here - no, no, no, not for Woods - stay off Paths - off da Paths, not for a you! - listen to me!" Then took flight and disappeared.
Moss crumpled to the ground and lay there for a long time.
Of course, eventually, her water skin began to get low. Moss's rope caught on the trees and underbrush as she went. Searching and calling for Foxeye. Her voice grew hoarse, and she went quiet.
The creatures had spoken of a river; she might find that, somewhere in here. The Gray Woods scared her. There were those... things, and the quiet and, not matter how far she went the she didn't run out of rope. That worried her.
Food had been packed, and Moss ate some of it. Then she went on.
But when she made her way through the Gray Wood this time, something was different. One step and it changed. The air grew dark. Moss had never thought air could do something like growing dark, but it did. And smells vanished, except for one thing - smoke. It was not the fresh smoke Moss would smell from a cooking fire, but heavy, horrible, choking smoke.
She coughed, wiping at her eyes. And then seeing what gave off the smoke. Through the trees, she could see them. Women, dancing and whirling, made of smoke. They shifted, becoming long and tall, short, or like a horse, with long legs.
And interchanging with each other. Four of them - two broke apart, now six. They danced. Some faded away and disappeared. New ones came.
Moss backed away. A scream wanted out, but they would hear her.
She stumbled back, and just as suddenly as it had happened, it all disappeared. And Moss ran away as far and as long as she could.
The trees around her never changed, and she grew used to them; it was better than before. If everything was calm like this, she wouldn't mind. She liked the quiet better than what else the Wood was capable of doing to her. Then, after a long time, she saw a break up ahead. She stopped.
"Foxeye?" She called. Then she said again, louder, “Foxeye! Brother, are you there?"
Out of the corner of her eye, Moss thought she saw something. She turned to it, but there was nothing but trees.
Moss looked back up ahead, and hurried toward it. The trees began to thin and Moss stepped into a clearing.
She stopped, taken back.
Everything was dead. The grass was brown, and there were stumps of trees. The ground dipped slightly in front of her. And the ground in the dip was cracked and bare.
Moss hesitated. It almost looked like... a path. Those - those things, the bird-beasts, they had warned her about paths, or something to that extent. But, if they had said paths were bad, wouldn't paths be good? Moss was unsure. They, of course, couldn't be good. Not if they looked like that. The stories she had always thought ridiculous - Lights Above, how wrong she was! - never had good coming from the Gray Wood. Any beasts within them were evil. The Wood itself was evil, too.
"Who is there?"
Her grip around the sack tightened, and Moss gasped. The voice had come from the ground, from the dead cracked ground.
Moss took a step back, then spoke. "I am Sun-On-Moss... from Darklight village."
It was quiet, then it seemed to her like the ground sighed.
"Ah... I knew someone would come... He told me so, and I listen, now."
Moss stared at the ground in wonder and fear. If it weren't for Foxeye, she would run out now back from the Gray Woods and up the gorge to the Land Behind the Mountains. Of course, if it wasn't for Foxeye, she wouldn't have come into the Woods in the first place.
It spoke again.
"I didn't used to. I didn't used to listen... I was a river, once...." It paused, and Moss gazed at what she know realized was a dried up stream bed. It called itself a river, but was too small for that.
"I can take you where you need." The stream bed said. Moss bit her lip.
It went on. "Come, follow me. Step into me, I will show you where."
Moss stepped back away from it, but a whisper spoke in her ear.
Follow. Trust Me, and trust him.
She could trust the voice. She knew she could, and Moss did not question where it came from.
Her feet were tired and sore, and the dust of the stream bed stuck to them as she stepped in.
"Good," The voice murmured from beneath her. "Walk along me. And let me tell you my story."
Each step was cautious, but Moss followed the way before her. And Moss listened. This is what the old, dried stream said:
"I had a name, back when I was wet and free and water ran over me. But I do not use it anymore." It paused, and Moss did not say anything. She kept her eyes ahead to where she went, but the clearing with the dead grass and stumps went on forever.
"I once met Goldstone, and we would run together, our water mixing. And I heard His voice, but I did not listen. He said He loved me..... Maybe I believed Him, I don't recall. But I did not listen. I was young; my water was fresh, and I was free... I was free...."
He - somehow, it seemed a he - was silent. Moss spoke. "What happened?"
"I dried up. Lume is bright, and does not mean to be, but is cruel. My water was taken, and no more flowed. What was left seeped into me, and then I was dry. Dry and alone; and I knew, then - I know now. I am still here, but I am dry. He loved me. The One Who Names Them loved me." The last words sounded wondering and prideful, and the stream spoke as though he clung to them.
The stream came to an end, and the trees started.
"Here, go here." The stream bed said.
"Go into the Woods now, and go where you will find him. He told me he is near."
His words made no sense. Moss stepped from the dry bed, and paused a moment. The stream murmured again, softly.
"He loved me... but I am dry, and I did not listen. I still hear Him. And I heard you would come. And I heard about him... and I saw him. I was told by Him. But it is too late; He will not want a cracked bed that once flowed with water."
"But if he loved you so, would not he love you still?" The words burst out of the girl.
A sound startled Moss, and she glanced around in bewilderment. It sounded like water dashing against rocks. She did not understand, but that is how rivers and streams laugh - even if they have no more water.
"Yes!" The stream cried. "Yes! I come to Him.
"Go to Him, Sun-On-Moss, mortal girl! And find him. Yes! Yes!"
The voice died aware. And Moss stood there for a moment before she continued into the Wood.
Her water ran out. The skin was dry. But Foxeye was in the Gray Wood still.
She called, and stumbled, tripping on a root. Moss did not get up. She let go of her sack and empty skin, pushing them away. A few tears trickled on her cheeks. "Foxeye!" She shouted. "You cannot be lost! I'm here, I came to find you!"
The tears poured out. Moss could not go on. She wasn't strong enough, she couldn't last on her own. She had no water.
"Where are you, brother? Help me..." She would have said, 'find you.' but could not go on.
Without hope, her face pressed to the ground, and alone.
But she was not. Moss did not realize that until she felt something press her hand. Fear shot through her, but then it was overwhelmed with something else. Something flowed into her with that touch. And when Moss slowly turned herself and looked up, she saw a man crouched next to her. He was not a creature, like those women, and the bird-beasts, but he did not seem the same as her either. His skin was pale, and his hair not quite as dark as the people from the Land. But Moss sensed there was more than that.
Moss stared up at him, and the last tear slipped down her face.
"Do not cry, Moss." He spoke. His voice was gentle but firm.
Words pushed at her mouth, and her face quivered, but the words would not come out.
His right hand held hers, and his left reached and wiped away the tears that clung to her face. "I have been here. Will you listen?"
She shook her head. "I am not of your land," She finally said.
The man smiled, but his face looked sad.
"You are not of this land, no. But even if that would matter, you are mine."
"No," She said, and part of her told her not to be scared, but she was. "I am not. And you don't want me. I... I am worn - I would not do you any good.”
"Moss, I do not mean to harm you."
Her face shook, and she looked down. "Even... I still... I am not worth anything. These Woods have scared me, and I can't find him." She didn't explain, for he seemed to understand. He seemed to already know. "I'm so weak... tired... thirsty... please...."
His hand stroked her hair, and he spoke in a kind voice. "I can help you Moss. Stand up. Come with me."
Moss shook her head. "I'm not of your land. I belong to the Land Behind the Mountain. I need to go back. I am not like you, here."
"Would I not love you still?"
Moss looked up. The man was standing, and His hand was held down to her.
"You are... you're the one the stream spoke of - the one who..." Moss didn't know how to finish. But she stood up. She took His hand, and found herself in His embrace.
"I have loved you, child. Sun-On-Moss. You have wandered far in search of your brother, but you will not find him in here. Without a Path in the Woods, he is lost, and cannot be found." Her heart felt like it stopped beating, but He went on.
"You will not find him, but I can help you. Together, we shall find Foxeye. Moss, will you follow me?"
Moss looked up at him. Slowly, her face began to tighten, and she pulled back, breaking away from him.
"No... this is a trick. You are from the Gray Wood, creatures in here can't be trusted. You are... this is a trick, you mean to do me harm! I won't let you take me!" She turned before he could say more. Moss stumbled into the Wood, running away from him.
Something moved in the trees ahead of her. Foxeye - it had to be him, it had to be Foxeye.
She rushed after it, her sack left where she had dropped it. "Foxeye! Brother! It is Moss!" She crashed through the Wood. Again, something moved before her, and it seemed to lead Moss on. But finally it disappeared. Moss stopped, heaving in and out, her eyes darted quickly around her. There was a noise. She jerked to her right. There, staring back at her, cuts covering his arms, the skin of a squirrel in his hands, a cut rope hanging from his middle, was Foxeye.
She grabbed him before he could vanish like the smoke women. And they clutched each other.
Foxeye remember nothing of what had happened. He had been hunting, and his rope and gotten cut. And then... he couldn't remember anything else. It had seemed like no time had passed since then. But he had been gone for a day after that, and Moss must have been in the Gray Woods searching for many days, she insisted. But it didn't matter.
They kept hold of each other and began to trace her rope back out. Moss tried to ignore the fact it would take them too long to get back. They did not have water, they would die. But the Wood played by different rules than any land of Mortals.
It seemed less than an hour, when Foxeye cried out, and she followed his pointing hand to where the Wood ended.
He began running, her arm jerked and she was dragged with him. As the left they Gray Wood... Moss saw a flash of gold, almost like the fur of an animal, darting through the trees.
But she went with her brother, back to her land.
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