Books: forest born
  The lost chapter

SPOILERS! Please don't read if you haven't read the book yet.
Seriously. It doesn't make sense out of context anyway.

This chapter took place on Rin and the fire sisters' journey through Bayern toward Kel. It dealt with a concept I've had for some time and I really wanted it to work. Dean read the first draft and said he didn't think this part was necessary. I reworked it and crossed my fingers. My editor read the second draft and said she didn't think it was necessary. I sighed and cut it. It made sense to cut, really. The aftermath of this discovery didn't affect the rest of the book significantly enough to justify an entire chapter--and besides, this was near the end of Part 2, and that whole section had been getting pretty long. Some of the bits I reused elsewhere. Rin's character and problems are a little different in this early draft than they ended up being in the final, so it reads a little confusingly here. Sometimes it's ouchy to have spent dozens of hours on something only to toss it away. But hard as it is, there is also much satisfaction in making big cuts. It feels like good, hard work.


On their fourth day traveling the woods, the girls bungled through a deep, sticky area, so much tangle of vines and branches, bramble bushes, trees dead and rotting still vertical, that when the girls tripped, there was no room to fall. Rin kept waiting for a deer path, a stream, anything that cut through this snarl of plants that they could follow out, even if it took them south. Nothing crossed their path. So they kept on. Slowly. Enna cursed once when Dasha walked past a twig, letting it snap back and scrape Enna's cheek. And then she just kept those curses going, cursing the ferns and tumble flowers and rocks and wasps nests and whoever was the cause of this miserable journey and was due a hard shin kicking.

For a long while, Enna's murmurs were the only conversation. Even Dasha found nothing to happy to say. It seemed to take hours to move a few feet, as if they walked through knee-deep sand. Rin began fantasizing about climbing into the treetops and leaping from one to the other like a squirrel.

At last she spied a stream of sunlight that broke through the canopy. Perhaps it was only a small copse, but at least they could rest there, maybe find a better direction to travel.

Rin in the lead, they clambered over a thick log, fell to their knees to inch through a shrub, and finally emerged into a small opening ringed with river birch.

Rin froze. She could hear everything.

To her eyes, it was just a loose circle of trees, a trickle of a stream, clumps of meadow grass, blue asters and white lady's lace. But all the same, it seemed to shimmer and shift and sing--not to her eyes, but to her...her ears? Her nose? Her heart? What was happening here? Why was the whole world suddenly alive and singing out to all of her, how was she aware of...of that snail there, climbing up the far side of a leaf, even though she could not see it? And there was a vine climbing the tree--she could almost feel the way it wrapped around one branch and dangled its leaves to be stroked by a breeze. There were three--no four--birds in the trees. One was calling to another, saying...saying it was thirsty. And the other birds understood it. But so did the tree, and the water, and the snail and the grass and the wind... And Rin too.

Rin glanced at her companions, suddenly fearful that she'd fallen deeper into some tree-speaking madness and might never crawl out again. But there were Enna, Isi, and Dasha, all stopped too, all staring around, their eyes wide in wonder, lips parted. And the girls were so clear to Rin, too, not as if she could just guess their thoughts by their expressions and motions, but as if she could feel them. Dasha had her hands clasped together before her chest. She began to laugh and laugh as if someone had told the wittiest joke, and she rushed forward, falling onto her knees before the little stream, tickling the long grasses that grew on its banks. Dasha did not say anything, but Rin could feel how delighted she was to know what the grasses by the river were, to hear their thin, whispery sighs to be so green and so wet. How she'd always wondered what the banks knew of the stream.

And Enna was reaching, running her fingers through leaves like through freshly-washed hair. Rin had never seen her--or felt her--or known her to be so content, so peacefully happy. It was as though before, Enna had always been balancing on a thin branch, arms out, trying to keep from falling one way or the other. But now, she relaxed, the way a frog relaxes into water.

Isi was weeping. Staring around, her mouth open, and tears making a steady rush down her cheeks, her whole being at once curious, delighted, and terrified.

Terrified? That did not make sense. Rin paused to wonder why, to try and see in Isi the cause of her terror, but there was so much, so much...The trees! The trees were speaking. Not in the way she'd thought, not like a person speaks. They were...they were living, and their life was a language. She could detect that now. Oh, they were so beautiful, so strong from roots to trunk, so daring from branch to twig, so free in their swinging leaves. So perfect. And old too--they remembered each day, each night, each creature that had passed by or climbed in their limbs. Not like the butterflies or snails or wind, that only remembered in the instant.

The wind! It loved the sky, it loved space, it loved rubbing between the trees and through leaves, and it knew every thing's name. And it passed on the names of what it last touched to each new touch. The stone hummed, a deep, slow contentment. There was a mole living between the roots and muttering about the lovely, dark soil there that smelled so luscious and warmed its fur. All those flowers, so aware of the sunlight, spinning slowly, turning toward the sun like a woman to the voice of her beloved. A lizard on the rock loving the sun with eyelids half closed, a leaf about to fall from a branch...almost...(there it goes), a badger ambling in to dig up a flower bulb, a bee with a heavy pollen song buzzing up and up, a tiny silver fish darting in shadows the bank grasses made in the water just to enjoy the splash of light and dark, a long-legged bug skating so lightly on the stream's surface it was not even wet, a fat black beetle, a glinting green dragonfly, blue grasses, wet soil, drying mud, sand, silt, butterflies, bark slipping from a birch trunk, a bird calling to its mate, humming, singing, insects, grasses, wet, dry, budding, digging, reaching, sleeping, hunger, speed, stealth, yearning, tightness, growling, waving, moving, inching, leaping, growing...

And then...

And then, it stopped. Everything stopped. Silence.

Rin put her hands over her mouth. She pressed her hands to her belly. Her heart seemed to have stopped, but it still beat. Had all the air gone out of the world? How could there be so much silence?

No, there was still the sounds of the stream, the wind clicking the leaves, the scurry of a squirrel. And yet, after all the languages Rin had just heard, it seemed the most horrible, deadened silence, as if everything had died, and as if death meant a void and nothing would ever exist again. The rush of life and voices had only lasted a few moments, but its departure now made the usual world seem so bleak. She held her breath until it hurt.

Enna was whipping her head around as if looking for some hostile enemy. Isi remained standing where she'd first entered the copse, clutching her hands. Rin remembered now Isi's weeping and terror, and she wished she had listened to Isi in the moment, heard her the way she had heard wind and stream.

Isi knew why everything had gone silent. She understood something here that Rin did not. Something important.

"What happened?" Dasha whispered.

They were all standing now, their calm lost, their motions frantic as they begin to scramble about as if looking for something lost. Perhaps the place of languages had moved, shifted to the side somehow, perhaps they could find it again. They walked around and around, entered the opening the way they had before, searched nearby. Nothing. Just trees and grass and animals, just the normal woods, which now in the new silence seemed unspeakably lifeless.

Isi was the first to stop her frenzied search. In fact, Rin realized, she had seemed reluctant in her movements from the beginning, as if she'd known it was useless but could not help trying. The queen stood in the midst of the birches, her hands on her face, looking calmly at the sky. Her brow furrowed. One by one the other girls ceased running to and fro and joined her. Rin waited for Isi to speak. It seemed too long. Rin hated the silence after what she had heard. She wished Isi would hurry and fill it so she would not be so keenly aware of everything that had ceased.

Finally Enna spoke. "Isi, please." She stood behind her friend, held her shoulders and pressed her forehead against Isi's back. Enna seemed exhausted, her voice barely raised above a whisper. "I can tell you don't much want to say what's on your mind. It's hurting you. But if you know what just happened here and what went wrong, you've got to tell us. Just say it fast, like pulling out a nasty splinter. Just fast, so we know and can start breathing again."

Isi closed her eyes and spoke in an exhale. "We broke the world."

Dasha gasped. "What?"

Isi shook her head, then took a breath and seemed to prepare herself for battle. "Dasha, Rin, you know the story of creation?" Her voice was hollow. After just knowing what the others were thinking and doing, this old way of using mouth and ears to communicate seemed cumbersome and crippling to Rin. She tried to speak, to say that she knew the stories, to explain the story that she knew, but talking seemed even more difficult in all that silence than it ever had.

Isi continued. "When the creator first made the world, everything had its own language, and all could communicate freely--tree to wind, rock to snail, flower to honeybee. Then all the languages were lost, and soon birds could only speak to their own kind, and even a sparrow couldn't understand an owl. I'd thought that it was just a part of the changing of the world--as each creature moved into its own place, it forgot the languages that it knew. But recently, I'd begun to suspect...after reading some ancient poetry and thinking on what I knew, I realized...I think it was people. When the creator made people, last of all, our presence changed much. Maybe at first people lived at ease with other creations, but eventually, people must have done something to corrupt it all. Used their understanding to overpower, to enslave, and wherever people roamed, the tie of languages ripped and fell away."

"But, here..." Enna ran her fingers through the thigh-high grass. "Here, everything was still speaking to each other, and then..."

"We broke it," said Isi. "We shouldn't be...shouldn't have touched it."

Dasha sat on a rock, pushed her hands against her chest, and cried. Cried as if someone had died. Rin sat beside her and felt the same cracking pain. They had destroyed something beautiful, sacred, irreplaceable. How could they have done such a thing? Without meaning to, without wanting--how could they have committed such a terrible act by accident? Nothing was safe. Home used to be, until she changed and was pushed away. And the world was full of crossbolts and fire wielders, and beautiful places that could be broken. Such things should not happen. She wished she could stay home, huddled up and harmless and never hurt anything again.

Rin was trembling with questions and anger and frustration, and she could say was, "How?"

Isi sat beside her. "I think it's because people are so different from animals, from rocks and wind and any growing thing. And the power of our thoughts and our will is too much. It breaks the balance. I've seen it happen before on a small scale. Whenever any person only has the knowledge of one language, it nearly overcomes them. Enna struggled with fire, until she learned wind speech and created that balance in her. Dasha the same with the water, until Enna taught her fire. But I've never seen anything that rots a person so like people-speaking."

Enna snorted.

Isi nodded as if Enna had made a valid point. "The people-speakers I've met have been--"

"Evil," said Enna. "Dark-souled, likely to chew their own grandmother's eyeballs..."

" tainted by their gift, they couldn't do any good with it. Overcome by it. So easy is it for them to understand people and bend them to their will, they stop seeing people and instead see tools. I think people-speaking is the most dangerous gift to have alone, with nothing to balance it, even more dangerous than fire. It should be a way to understand what people are really trying to say, to speak to them clearly in a way each person can grasp--but instead, they've used it to manipulate. Of the three people-speakers I've known, two died young. I wonder now, if a person can exist long with such a burden. My mother--she must have something else balancing her, just a bit, maybe without even knowing it. Because she was difficult," Isi smiled ruefully, "but she was not so bad as some."

"Sileph," said Enna. "Selia..."

"Who are they?" asked Dasha.

Isi wrinkled her nose in disgust. "People we knew once. People-speakers. They're both dead."

People-speaking. The very words terrorized Rin to her center. She had never imagined such a thing existed. What a horrible curse it must be, how it would corrode a soul, how it would separate a person from everyone else. And how lonely that must be. And how frightening for everyone who loved them, to never know if what they spoke was truth or lies. The idea of such a thing stayed with Rin, making her gut feel sick and heavy as if full of rotten meat. She could not shake the dread of people-speaking all day, and she did not know why.

Without knowing Sileph or Selia or Isi's mother, Rin pitied them a bit. She was in a mood to feel sorry for everything. She stared at the place where her footprint bent some grass to the dirt.

"I hope there are other places like this one tucked away in the wild, where no one will ever step. No person will ever see. Just a few. I'd like to know that there are still a few left."

It had hurt her throat to speak so much just then, made her heart pound uncomfortably and her stomach ache. But she was glad she had spoken those words aloud. Perhaps somehow, in this mysterious world of languages, she'd made some magic, and the wind would carry off her words to keep safe other untouched copses, other untread wildernesses, other pockets of silence where the world was still full of voices.

Feeling heavy and exhausted, they all stood and staggered back into the thick, unforgiving woods. The trees looked new to her--so large and silent and indifferent after hearing them in that untouched place. They had never been trying to speak to her, she realized now. They were just living. But their language was new to her, so their voice was strange, and coming at her at a shout. Perhaps the more she soaked it in, the tune of the language would not be so overwhelming.

She felt desperate to make some contact again and know that they had not broken everything. If only she could hear the trees--just one word, just borrow a sliver of their contentment. She began to walk with one arm outstretched, fingers grazing leaves, smooth and rough trunks, spiny twigs poking out from bramble bushes and sturdy branches reaching out from trees.

Please, she thought. Please. Tell me something in this world is still all right.

Sunlight. Her fingers stroked over the bark of an elm. Sunlight. It was aware of the sun, of the light tickling the upturned faces of its leaves, of the warm gush of life the light made, starting in the delicate veins of the leaves and surging down through the branches.

The thought came to her as had the thought of the bear from that beech days ago. It was not an image she saw in her mind, not words she heard or felt in anyway. The closest she could come was scent, though that was not it either. How easily the understanding slipped into her now--not as strong as it had been in that copse, but still it entered her simply, as if a place inside her had already been stretched and made for the hearing and was only waiting to be filled.

They kept walking, and Rin let her fingers stroke branches and bark, amazed, more aware of the trees than she had ever been. In losing all those other languages, this one at least became louder, almost palpable to her. The trees breathed. They shifted. They hummed. They remembered everything that had ever passed them before. And these trees did not remember people. But they noticed her, they remembered her. She let her hand run over rough bark and dangling leaves as a sort of greeting.

As she eased through this wood, making acquaintance with unfamiliar trees, seeing them anew, the cloying ache of their presence began to relax, just a little. She could breathe more easily now, the devastation of the copse not as heavy in her limbs. And even more, hope was tickling inside her, making her feel buoyant. Trees had voices--or something like it. She was beginning to hear. What more would they say? How would this shared language change her? The idea seemed as inviting as a bowl of berries just picked, and Rin felt herself lighten just a bit. The grief she felt in breaking the languages eased enough to allow her to look up. She stretched her fingers and imagined they were leaves, turning themselves in the sunlight.

Would she be able to be at ease among her own pines and aspens again? Could she go home again? Isi said Enna was almost overcome by fire until she learned another language to balance it. Would the tree-speaking bury her until she thought she was a tree, until she forgot how to speak to people altogether? And there was something else, something still wrong. She had an itchy doubt caught inside her, like a burr in her thoughts. She could not think straight at it, not to understand it, and felt only that it was too soon to hope.

When they finally emerged from that thick woods, scratched, glum, and exhausted, they made their camp on the banks of a stream and stayed the rest of the night and most of the day. It was heavenly just to sleep and nap and nap some more, to lie on their backs and look at the trees and clouds move with the wind. Rin kept a hand on a trunk of a tree and just listened to everything it remembered, days to seasons to years, though she made sure never to listen for long, afraid she would be drawn into a tree sleep and not wake up again.

The next morning as they walked, something pulled her attention, as if a cool breath against her cheek announced another's close presence. She stared off into the trees, searching the branches, until she saw it.

A bear. A small brown bear, perhaps two years old. It had been in the birches before, for just a moment, lumbering between birches toward the smell of berries. Unsure of the four new smells of the girls, it climbed a tree to watch them past. Now it was looking right at Rin, looked at her eyes and said, You smell different. I will not eat you. Stay away from my berries.

She looked at it and growled back, her mouth open wide, her teeth exposed. It was a hollow growl, coming out of an open throat, and somehow she understood how to say politely in bear speech, Many berries for you and a short winter.

"Rin?" asked Isi.

Rin shrugged. "I speak bear now, I guess."

And the three girls nodded as if that were a thing to be expected.

All the girls left that broken clearing with one more language intact than they'd understood before they entered. Rin imagined it was as though they had walked through a sticky spider's web of languages and some strings stuck to them still, clinging to their skin and trailing behind. The knowledge was sudden and strangely complete. Isi told of how she had learned bird language as a girl, how she had to be taught each language, practice the sounds and movements with each new species. But Isi figured that whatever had happened in that copse of birches had been so deep, languages soaking into them at a rush, that what language remained was whole, a complete knowledge.

"Lizards," said Enna, shaking her head. "Little lizards. There are more in the woods than I've thought. And for some reason, I think they're unbelievably wonderful."

Dasha giggled as she said, "Frogs. I can still hear them. There's a little clan of them off to the left there in a muddy patch. They really love mud. I never knew any creature could love mud so much. To tell the truth, after hearing them go on and on, rolling around in a lovely, squishy mud bath is beginning to sound tempting."

"Deer," said Isi. "I never imagined I'd understand a deer. They're so--focused. And anxious. And they love the smell of bark."

Isi was anxious to keep moving, Rin could see that, but she let the day drift by so the others could rest. Dasha was able to use her water-speaking to find and trap a few fish. Enna made a fire, and they ate hot fish on leaves, pulling the white slivers of bones from between their lips.

Dasha laughed. "We're sitting on the ground eating fish with our fingers! This is so fun." She held out her arm. "Look. I am so streaked with dirt you can't see the freckles on my skin. Now I know I'm having an adventure."

Isi stood upright. "Enna, did you hear that?"

Enna shook her head, but closed her eyes and listened to what news the wind brought.

"People," she said.

Isi nodded. "There's a village just beyond this woods. We're near the border of Kel, so I thought we'd skirt the village and move into Kel tonight. But something's happening there now, I--" Isi shuddered. "Something going on. Something bad, I think. More people came in, and--"

Enna's eyes opened. "There's fire."

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