Chapter 4: Of roots and prayers
The treeman still had not uttered a word after an hour. Brin had attempted to engage him several times without any success. He did help himself to the roasted roots, sniffing them curiously before devouring them in two bites per root. When he ate the first one, his eyes opened wide in surprise and he made some sort of happy growling sound. The other roots disappeared into his maw shortly thereafter. He seemed to enjoy the warmth of the fire on his feet, but had little use for the smoke which the wind would sometimes carry to his face. He would shake his head and make faces, as a child would, to show his displeasure. Brin had no doubt that the treeman was dangerous, but after close scrutiny he doubted that he was a cold blooded assassin. If it had wanted to kill him, it would have had no problem doing so before. Still, he had no idea of what his next move should be.
It was too late to run. Looking at the Treeman’s frame, Brin could tell that he would make it all of four steps before he was caught – and hopefully not eaten. Communication seemed to be a wall as well. Either he was not interested in talking or didn’t know how to. Searching his surroundings he realized that there was nowhere to hide, either. Desperation seized him. Even if he made it to the Priests of the Sacred Grove, what could they do? Pray that his death was not overly painful?
Brin jumped back to his immediate surroundings as the Treeman stretched his arms out and cracked his back audibly. The reach of his arms was unsettling. The creature easily had twice the reach of a tall man with hands three times the size. After his back stretch, he reached down into the frozen ground in front of where he was sitting and came up with an armload of the mostly frozen soil which he unceremoniously threw over the fire, extinguishing the embers. Standing up, he caught Brin’s gaze and said in a low, rumbling voice, reminiscent of an oncoming storm:
“Excuse me good sir, but where are we going?” Brin cautioned. “I promise you that I harbor you no ill will and would never tell a soul that I have so much as seen you.”
“We go.” More thunder rumbled from his mouth, deeper now.
“But you see, I am a merchant on my way, overdue I might add, to pick up wares in a distant town. If I hesitate, even for a day, the seller will sell my goods to another. This is my livelihood, good man, and I cannot afford to…”
The Treeman took two steps forward; faster than Brin could ever imagined that it could move. It reached down with one long arm and swept everything that Brin had with him into one giant hand. His bedroll and provisions were dumped, unceremoniously, at his feet. The Treeman leaned over so as to be eye level with him. Brin could feel the hot breath exhaled from oversized nostrils. So close to his face, his curiosity about the creature faded and quickly became rapt attention mixed with fear.
The treeman blinked twice and put one of his enormous, heavy hands on Brin’s shoulder.
“We go. We go, see tiny gods.”
A giant smile opened up on his face. His eyes shone. He threw his head back and laughed.
It was then and there that Brin knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this thing, this Treeman-in case he had had any doubts before, had the upper hand. Now, with the revelation about the ‘Tiny Gods’ he would have no choice but to oblige. He seemed to be stuck between a resolute giant and a group of irate hermit-priests.
Half of the day had passed and the trees had become thick again. The sun that was now just past mid-sky warmed the frost off of the ground and made a fine mist that obscured the view. The roots and briars that were constantly tripping Brin seemed not to bother the Treeman at all. His feet just seemed to know where to go without looking. Brin was not so lucky. The giant’s pace was unrelenting and whenever his did not match it, he was nudged along by a gentle push and a reminder that “We go.”
There was no map to get to the sacred grove; one had to use other means. The first few times the priests allowed him into the grove, he was taught the path of senses. This was a methodology that had nothing to do with maps or logic, but seemed to be the only way to find the grove. He had tried all other ways he could think of. Making maps failed spectacularly. Counting footsteps inevitably led him to the edge of a small cliff. Marking landmarks never worked as he could never find the landmarks again. It was if the terrain was constantly shifting. He had decided long ago to not think too deeply about the landscape here.
His was trained during an entire harvest season by the nameless priests. The training was simply how to locate their outpost. This, alone, was no easy task. He knew that it was an honor of the highest sort-not to mention profitable, to be able to be the merchant selected to bring provisions to the priests. The ancient coin he was paid with was always plentiful and his loads were always light. The priests had very little in the way of material needs. The ones they did have were often a pain to procure but it always ended up in his favor in the end. The only stipulation that the priests imposed upon him was that he never mentioned who he was dealing with or how to locate them. The wages he was paid made that easy. Two trips a year, one to take the order, one to bring in the provisions and he was assured never to go hungry that year.
There were five parts to the path of senses that would lead him to the grove and it was never possible to take the same path twice in a row. His teacher had been a kindly, middle-aged woman who was quite wise in the lay of the land. Like the other priests, she had renounced any name. They would be gone for days in the forest and would subsist on foraged fruits and nuts that never left even his considerable hunger wanting. They would always sleep in the softest of moss beds and no bugs would ever bite their exposed flesh at night. He soon learned how to identify every type of tree and bush in the forest. He knew what plants he could eat, which ones would heal and which would kill. He learned to listen for underground rivers that would slake his thirst. Her daily lessons may have been arduous but he always awoke feeling completely refreshed. It was if the woods had granted them favor. Brin recalled her holding out her hand on his final day of lessons, her fingers spread wide.
“As you know there are many paths to a single destination. The grove, however, is different. There is only one path and that path changes with the whims of the Little Gods of the forest.”
She held out her thumb and held it to her nose. First , there is the path of scents. “There will be a time, when you seek the grove” the nameless priestess had told him those many years ago, “that you will smell a redflower in the air. You must immediately stop where you are and slowly move in a circle. When the grove wants you to find it, you shall. This path will show itself to you when the forest is in harmony. When you come to us with an open heart and pure intention this will be your way. “
“When you are hungry, sore and in need of comfort you shall find it in the path of taste.” She then held out her palm and showed me a handful of berries she had collected earlier. She let one roll down to the tip of her index finger where it sat there balanced precariously. It was bright red with curious yellow stripes radiating from where the fruit met the stem. “These are known as cat berries. They grow all year from the abundance of spring to the sleep of winter. They will only let themselves be found when you are in need. If you respect the bush and eat only one you will soon find another bush. Another will soon follow. The Little God that lives within the bush will lead you to the grove as long as you do not gorge yourself on the berries. It may seem a simple thing to do… “
She then pushed one of the berries into his mouth. It was the most amazing thing he had ever tasted. One berry filled his mouth with the taste of sweet red wine, and strange, spicy fruit. All fatigue immediately fell from his shoulders. It was one berry but felt as though it was as substantial as a mouthful of hearty stew. He swallowed and immediately reached for another from her hand. She closed her fingers around the berries and quickly snatched away her hand. The craving for another did not pass until an hour later.
“This,” She said with a grave stare, “is what you will have to fight to find your way to us. The berries hold a powerful sway over all that eat the fruit. Animals know better than to touch them. Humans have long ago lost such common sense. The berries let you think that you are healed but this is only an illusion. There have been people who have lost their senses and starved due to wanting for nothing else. You must find the strength within yourself to be strong of spirit and calm of mind to find your path.”
After giving him a little while to center himself she continued her lesson. She pointed her middle finger to the sky. “The path of the crows, also known as the path of hearing will be opened to you when you follow the caw of the crow to us. This is a very difficult path in that you must never be seen by a crow when you follow him. A crow will remember your face for as long as you live and will tell all of its brothers to lead you into trouble if he sees you. If you know that you have been seen, you will more likely be led to a bear than you will to us. The secret is to follow the caw of the crow from a distance. If you hear it get too close, hide yourself and quickly. Due to the long memories of the crow, most people lose this path first. Crows are never in a hurry, except to eat, so be patient. It may seem like you are being led in circles but if you relax and do not lose patience, you will be brought to our gates.”
She ran her ring finger down the side of his face, softly. “The path of skin is deceptive because it is the quickest way in but is quite difficult to follow. If you give yourself over to the wind blowing on your face, it will guide you. This does not sound difficult but the wind is a little god that is difficult to understand. If you do not have complete trust in its gentle pushes, it will recognize your lack of faith and send you in circles. If you can bring yourself to just let go and be led, you will be feasting with us before the sun goes down. “
They had been walking during the lesson and after she had finished he looked up and saw that they were, once again, at the gates of the grove. The arch always took his breath away. It was two giant trees that had grown together about four body lengths high and knotted themselves together in a beautiful, symmetric arch that only could have been nursed into being by the most skillful of botanists. The doors of the gates were alive with green, no matter the season. He turned to enter the gates when a thought struck him.
“Teacher…’” he said whilst furrowing his brow. “ You said that this was there were five parts to the path of five senses. You only told me of four.”
The priestess looked him squarely in the eye and said “The final path is one we have never found. The Little Gods have whispered to us that in the time of great crisis the forest itself will seek the path to our door for sanctuary. We have never been able to decipher its meaning. The Little Gods are seldom literal. Their words are the wind. “
“Everything in the world has a voice” she continued, ”and usually these voices speak in harmony; as things have a true nature and are known in a certain way. But the fifth path is almost an unconscious point of discord for the little gods. It is something that we, mortals, were not meant to know. Everything that we ask gives us a different answer. There is no better way to rile one of the Little Gods than to ask about the fifth path. Unless your bonds are strong and true they will never speak to you again.”
Brin was brought back to his present situation by a large finger nudging him in the small of his back and yet another reminder that “We go.”
He could smell no flowers, feel no wind. There were no berry bushes that he could see and if there were crows, they were eerily silent. Over the many years he had visited the grove numerous times and had never had any difficulty finding the path. He did his best to sweep out while walking, sometimes moving to his left, sometimes to his right. He tried to keep his eyes level with the horizon to see any irregularities that may be the beginning of a path. As much as it seemed that he opened himself to the way of the path, the less things became clear. Frustration weighed heavy on his shoulders. What if the priests didn’t want to be found? It would be hard to blame them. Potentially dangerous giants are seldom welcome in bastions of tranquility.
The Treeman had been spending less time poking him in the back and more time exploring the environment carefully. He would sometimes run ahead and disappear for a little while. His running reminded Brin more of an animal than it did a man. Human-like steps quickly gave way to a loping gait of a wolf. It was a strange thing to see. He knew that he certainly wouldn’t be able to contort his body in order to run on all fours and it made him all the more leery. He would return with a branch in his hand which he would carefully study before casually tossing it behind him. Occasionally, he would lift his head to the sky and let out a whistle and cock his ear as if listening for a reply. When none came, he would once again urge Brin onwards.
By the time the Treeman stopped for any length of time, it was about an hour before sunset. Normally this is the time when you hear the local wildlife begin to stir, but the forest was silent. With the sun disappearing, the cold was starting to seep into the land again. The skies above were beginning to cloud over. If they didn’t get to where going soon, there would be snow to contend with. He could smell it in the air. The Treeman hollowed out a small pit in the ground with the end of a branch that Brin would have had a hard time lifting, never mind using it as a tool. Disappearing again into the brush he soon returned with two logs. He placed both by the fire pit and began to unroll his pack. Two rocks emerged which, after smashing them together a few times, soon roared to life as a raging fire. It was then that Brin noticed the priests emerging from the forest in every direction.
“Ahh, Little Gods.” The treeman said. “Come. sit.”