The season was Yew, the season of doom
Of hope and the year the leaden tomb,
The ending of Elder, the shortest of days,
When the Karelhi came on their ravaging ways.
The moon was old and the night was dark:
Their only warning an old hound's bark
As the Karelhi band surged into the glen
And fired the steading and slaughtered the men
Who stood, unaccustomed to combat and strife,
With sickles and knives in the fight of their life.
They didn't come cheaply, they sold themselves dear,
But the lucky ones died before they knew fear.
The Karelhi butchered the young and the old;
The women they took and eventually sold
In the markets at Mavi, or Namet, or Velhem:
The half-grown they slew or they spared at a whim,
To do to death later, or sell if they could.
The old hound they butchered and tossed on the wood
Of the fire they made of the steading bereft,
And the cattle and horses they took when they left.
Now this is a tale that's too often told;
In the heat of the summer or deep winter's cold
The Karelhi raid and slaughter and burn.
Too harsh and too often the lessons we learn.
But still this one time a difference we find
The Karelhi slaughter left one life behind.
Half grown, and half dead, and all buried in snow,
The grey-eyed boy watched the Karelhi go.
Not moving, except for a breath now and then,
Under a pile of slaughtered men,
He heard the screaming children die,
And watched his sisters be herded by,
As panic-frozen as any beast.
Not 'till the sun lifted high in the east
Dared he to stirand then crawled away
Into the woods to wait out the day
'Till the night returned, whose darkness grim
He felt was best to cover him
And the shame that burned inside his breast
And the guilt that would not let him rest.
The season was nothing, the time had no name,
The day for the settling of all debt or blame,
Outside of the year, the one shortest day,
When the youngster crossed into the forested way.
The moon was new and the night was dark.
He heard wolves howl and foxes bark,
And owls drifted by on ghost-grey wings
And he jumped and started at all these things.
He shivered for more than want of a coat,
And he tasted fear at the back of his throat.
For all that he was woods-stead born,
He'd entered deep woods only after the morn
And never stayed later than twilight's pale grey:
Nor had any he'd known before that day
When the Karelhi drove him to desperate flight,
His face to the darkness, his back to the light.
His heartbeat raced, and he broke out in sweat,
He stood and trembled like a horse in a fret.
Then all sounds ceased, and he went past fear
As, still in the trees there, he saw the great deer.
Not the silver stag of the Knifeblade north,
Whose luminous antlers draw men's souls forth
To chase and follow him whither he wills
And never return from those haunted hills;
This was a stag of russet red,
Dark eyes wide in a uplifted head
With branching antlers against the sky.
The moon, it seemed, was trapped thereby:
A new-made crescent of silver gleams.
The hoarfrost glistened in the slanting beams
Along the ground and the tree trunks bare
And the cloven hooves that were halted there.
Mostly shadow against the dark,
The frost and the eyes were the only spark
Of light in all the unmoving form,
That and the fog of his outbreathing warm
That gathered and clouded in the calm, still air
For the what seemed hours he was standing there
Before at last he gathered and leapt
Into the night that received him and kept.
And with his vanishing came up the wind
That sighed and moaned like a grieving friend,
That rattled the branches and scattered the cloud
Of breath that had hung in the night like a shroud.
It ruffled the hair on the young boy's head
And all the while one word it said
Or seemed to saythat hung in the air
Like the memory of something he'd heard somewhere,
As close and as far as his next indrawn breath,
A word that seemed to him stronger than death.
Terhan the wind sighed to him, and the trees
Echoed back Terhan as soft as the breeze.
(Terh means a fortress, a place that is strong,
And an is the folkterm for 'nay, but you're wrong.')
Terhanwas a name, he realised then,
Though not such a name as was then used by men,
A name that at once took both guilt and shame
And filled him with strength that blazed like a flame.
The season was Fir, the season of bloom,
Of hope and the year the silver womb,
The beginning of Birch, short days growing long
When the young man came out of deep woods into song.
Healed of his wounds, and cured of his shame,
Carrying for for pride his new-given name,
Bearing a long bow he'd made of strong yew,
Wearing tree green and earth brown too.
His grey eyes blazed in the weak winter sun
As he went to each steading and talked in each one.
"I bring you four lessons, and this is the first:
Knives against swords always come off the worst.
The bow was the weapon our forefathers carried
When worse than the Karelhi chased them and harried.
Let each of us take up the longbow again:
It once slaughtered Demons, will now slaughter men.
Here is the second: ten can't beat twenty.
Whenever we fight, we must always be plenty.
No more each steading to stand alone,
Each is ours, and they all are our own.
"The third is this: it's better to be
Alive than dead, better to flee
Than stay and die in a losing fight.
Who runs today, may strike back tonight.
And this is the last: we can not afford
To pretend that the High King will act as our lord.
We stand alone. We live or we die
By the strength of our hands and the tears that we cry.
Those who live north on wide moors cannot know
How the deep woods are, or how our lives go.
We are the woods rangers, we; it is we
Who must hold back the reavers and keep our folk free."
These were the lessons, easy to recite,
We got from the woodscolt who held back the night:
Whose rangers, still bowmen, and still wearing green,
Patrol the deep woods and the meadows serene,
On guard 'gainst the Karelhi, Chaikans, and more;
Who long ago broke loose the yoke that we wore.
Terhan did not live to see Taighem be free,
But he was the dreamer who dreamt us to be.
Varennikov rides the forest paths,
Varennikov owns the night:
And what he wants to do, he does
Under the pale moonlight:
But more than hedge and backroad wild
Sees Varennikov on his way,
For he will ride the king's high roads,
And that by light of day.
For all he goes in leathern gear,
And they in shining mail,
The soldiers of the king are wise
To say they've lost his trail.
Varennikov's like a great grey wolf,
Varennikov's like a bear,
And no one ever has returned
That trailed him to his lair.
Varennikov's like a ghost by day,
He's like a forest shade.
They say he's out in Bobriki,
Travellers he's waylaid.
But then he's seen in Zaitsina,
Or up by Yastreb grey,
And none can bring it home to him
No matter what they say.
Varennikov rides a tall red mare
Who's fleeter than the wind,
And only he can tame her pride,
He only rein her in;
And she has run from Belkorov'
To Brest in but one night,
And he has quaffed his ale by morn
And put the guards to spite.
For how could any mortal man,
Without a mage's aid,
Lay siege to men in Belkorov'
Such as they say he laid,
But yet be found inside the walls
That circle the scholars' town
Before the moon has chance to rise
Or ere the sun goes down?
Brave Garnet stands inside the barn
And trembles as she stands:
No horse as she since Bluewind brave
Was foaled in northern lands.
No soldier of the king could guess
There could be such a ride
But hostlers at the "Sun" know well
The truth they'll always hide.
Varennikov rides the roads by day,
He haunts the roads by night;
And Garnet's hooves, all silver-shod,
Spurn the road with sparks of light.
Varennikov more than king or duke
Or earl or well-born knight
Owns all the hearts of all the folk
That watch his passing flight.
The earl sat late
MidSummer's Day with his young bride:
Red wine, new love,
And for light the golden moon.
He called for song
To please the girl there at his side.
The noise of hounds
Rang out and spoiled the minstrel's tune.
Once on his feet
He called to know whence came the sound.
His steward came,
And answered him 'twas from the west.
"Go fetch my blade,
And have my roan horse brought around.
I will ride out
And see who dares disturb our rest."
He rode and looked
Beneath the moon as bright as day
And saw a man
Running from the chasing hounds.
He kicked his horse
Across the ground into their way
And with his crop
Amongst the pack he laid around.
The hounds drew back.
The peasant stared, then cried, "My lord!"
Gwyn's eyes grew cold.
He drew rein and turned to wait.
Their horses wet from Irtysh ford
Approached and stopped
And quailed beneath that gaze of slate.
"Whose men are you?"
He asked as though he could not read
Their shields, where blazed
Golden lions fire bright.
"Why do you ride
Across my land at such a speed?
Why chase a man
That's mine, and wake the sleeping night?"
No answer found to give the earl,
But found themselves
Slinking back into the night,
And Gwyn returned
To rest beside his dark sweet girl,
Beneath the moon
That showed his land at peace and bright.
Ursula of the forest came down to Oriol
And there she stood before the palace gate:
She had business with the King, she said.
They told her he was not inside.
They told her, leave a note instead.
They told her he was occupied.
"Well, then," growled Ursula, "I guess I'll wait."
Ursula of the forest stood still in Oriol
Like a tree, or like a stone, or something dead.
She would not leave until she spoke
The words that she had come to say,
The words on which her silence broke,
The words that made her leave her way:
She'd stand, and she would wait, or so she said.
Ursula of the forest waited there in Oriol
Until at last she drew the king to hear.
"Come tell me what you would," he said.
"Speak out what you have come to say;
"Speak out, if it be good or dread
"Speak out and then please go away."
And so she told his doom in phrases clear.
Ursula of the forest went back from Oriol,
The king went to his war and died.
She heard the news inside her cave:
"I knew that this would come," she said.
"I knew that were he faint or brave,
"I knew this war would leave him dead:
"He made his choice between his life and pride."
Ursula of the forest lived far from Oriol
And Darovlad lived all-too-short a life.
But kings and seeresses, it seems,
May sometimes share a vision bright;
May sometimes share their fleeting dreams,
May sometimes share the dark of night
Though Fate may sever them like Chalma's knife.
Out of the world's green beating heart no one had ever come
To tell what lives beneath the trees, where tranquil rivers run
Across the miles of forest old to feed a great blue lake,
Bottomless and never seen by man that was awake.
Unicorns and gryphons there their ancient feud lay by,
And wolves that walk abroad at noon peer with sagacious eye
At elves as green as grass or leaf that with young dragons play,
And goathooved dancers mark the turfor so the legends say.
From Lion Peaks, or Knifeblade long, or mountains south or north,
We stand upon the highest point and cast our vision forth
But never more than green of farflung canopy we see
And never any knowledge gain of what's beneath the tree.
No one goes down the other side to enter that demesne,
For out of that green and darksome land no man's come back again,
And all we know of what is there is what the old tales tell.
It may be paradise that holds, it may be demons fell.
And yet we now have some report of what lies hidden there
For six have come to Lionred who marvellous tidings bear:
They have returned to the Outer Lands whence they once did go,
Out of the world's green beating heart back to the world we know.
Kirsten Lady Armstrong, her warrior spouse also,
Of Jolan's town, and with them another lord did go,
A soldier out of Taighem made four that rode from Brest,
And the Earl of Nora, Kirsti, and her man made up the rest.
Mark the words thoughmark them welltoo soon do not rejoice:
They that have come back to us did not go out by choice!
He that brought them back to where the Darya mountains loom
By the fact that they were strayed alone held back their doom.
Dazzling before their eyes a heat-sprung shadow rose
Though heat was none in Ivy and their horses tracked through snows.
Four of them in Chaiku where the travelled roadways lie,
And two of them beneath the Tashær cliffs alone and high.
Six that saw it: four but chased itwanting took each man.
Unenchanted women tried to stop the four who ran.
And all inside a mazy prison ended up at last
Where days and weeks were mazed as well, seeming slow, but fast.
Doorways flowed and melted there, colors changing hue
From green to white, brown to red, orange, black, and blue.
Kirsten chose the doorway green, and that led to the trees,
And there they learned was home againbut not where they took ease.
For they were in the world's green heart, where just beyond their sight
Beings followed, lowering, and anger filled the night.
But as they'd not come willingly, at last they were let go
And brought to Darien's borders by roads they did not know.
So out of the world's green beating heart though someone now has passed,
The tale they bear gives warning that the way is still barred fast,
And if you cross the mountains still the Dancers claim your life:
So if you see the dancing heat, then turn back to your wife!
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