A Court of Strawberries and Lavender - Part One
I slowly extended my hand to gently pinch the narrow, low hanging branch of the tree in front of me, carefully choosing where I’d bend it. There is an art to moving silently in the forest. Satisfied with the amount of give the branch had—a clear sign it was still flowing green with life inside—I gripped my fingers around it harder and eased it backward, giving me a clear view of the prey I’d been tracking.
In the clearing ahead, a white stag lapped at the wet edge of an icicle hanging down from an Elderwood, softened in the glow of the midday sun, the same sun which cast a warm, red hue through the leaves of the great, white barked tree onto the snow of the clearing. The stag didn’t react as a large clump of snow atop a nearby branch melted just past its ability to maintain its center of gravity and dropped to the forest floor with a muffled thump. These were the sounds it was used to, there is a rhythm in the seeming randomness of the sounds of a forest, not as deliberate as the sounds of someone, or something, travelling through it, and if you can find this rhythm, you can become a ghost within it, hidden safely in the unconscious places of the mind that all beings store their sense of everything familiar. The snap of a twig, the scraping of fabric against a body, or the deliberate pace of a casual hunter's footstep, these would alert those of the woods of something out of place. The thump of a fall of melting snow, the rustle of leaves or the swaying of a branch in the wind, these were the sounds of the forest breathing, these were the sounds I’d been taught to hide behind.
Silently, I slid an arrow from the quiver at my side, nocked it into the string of my bow and pulled it half taut, not enough that it would cause any strain as I chose the perfect moment and placement for my shot.
There, after every seventh lap of the stag's tongue it looked up and around the clearing, its tongue still working at the water coating its nose. I drew the string tight, my aim true to the heart of the large beast. I counted the laps of its tongue.
Four. Five. Six.
Without looking up the large, white stag leapt suddenly forward and dashed off through the woods.
Had it somehow heard me? No, I felt the vibration in the ground before I heard the noise of hooves approaching at speed. The crack of wood of a dry branch giving way further announced the arrival of the hooded figure who burst into view in the small clearing. Despite the heavy cloak the figure wore concealing their identity, I immediately recognized them as a Preservationist by the way they rode with neither bridle nor saddle. Their hands instead gripped the long, curved horns that ran along either side of their horse’s head.
I loosened my grip on the string of my bow, grateful that the stag had bolted when it did. Another heartbeat and this unknown rider would have arrived just as my arrow pierced my quarry, there’d have been no keeping myself hidden if that had been the case. I watched as the rider lowered their hood. A man, a boy really, with long black hair tied in a knot which hung several inches below his shoulders.
What was he doing here? Preservationists weren’t outright outlaws, but they’d been driven out of the Sacred Imperium’s lands decades ago, first politically and financially, and eventually by forced relocation. It was dangerous enough for me to be here hunting without permission, but no one of my station ever received permission these days, and there were many hungry mouths to feed back in Wakefield, it had been a meek harvest, and fishing was out of the question, with winter on us the water of the Wooden Shore had turned harder than stone. Far more dangerous for a Preservationist. We’d both likely be hung, but at least I’d be given a trial if either of us were caught by an Imperium patrol, or worse, a straynge.
I shuddered at the thought of the white-haired witch warriors, the personal guard of Great Father Addemson himself. I touched each of my shoulders and then my heart with my right hand for luck as I shook my superstitions away. Left shoulder for my ancestors, right for my descendants, my heart to honour them both, with the hand blessed by God. Many a scary story of my youth had featured the white-haired straynges as either antihero or villain, nearly every superstition I could think of was tied back to them in one way or another. But the odds of crossing one this far into the outskirts of the Elderwood was so low, I nearly laughed at the way a trail of goosebumps in an unmistakable shape of fear briefly followed the shudder down my spine at the thought of them. Far more likely to encounter…
The earth moved again with thunderous hoof beats as a second horse ran into the clearing from the opposing side. This one was mounted by a red uniformed rider, military officers cut, with an Imperium style bridle and saddle, the horns cut short at the sides of its head. The rider sat perfectly erect in the saddle and rode with a practiced grace as she circled the black-haired boy that had first arrived.
Her face stayed serious as she dismounted and flipped her long curly red hair to one side.
“State your business, Intruder,” she said.
“I am but a travelling minstrel, simply passing through.” The boy responded as he dismounted as well and began a confident stride towards the young woman.
“If you’re a minstrel,” she said, “Then let us have a song.”
“Were I to sing my lady,” the boy replied, a huge smile spreading across his face, “I’m afraid you would fall in love.”
The officer stared at him intensely for a moment, then abruptly laughed and threw her arms around him in a hug.
“Ichigo, I have missed you dearly.”
“I’ve missed you too, Charlie!” Ichigo replied, straightening his cloak after their warm embrace. “Your father is nowhere near the cook you are. He doesn’t snore quite as loud though.”
“How. Dare. You.” The young woman named Charlie said back to him melodramatically. “Please give him my love when you return, Ich, it has been a long two years without seeing him.”
“Hopefully, that’s coming to an end sooner than you think.” Ichigo said.
“You found it?” Charlie’s voice was surprised and hopeful. “You have the arcanum?”
I tensed up at the word. The arcanum was only a myth, wasn’t it?
“Well, we don’t have it, but we know where it is.” Ichigo answered her. He looked down as he dug his boot in the snow of the forest floor. “But you’re not going to like this next part. It’s in Addemson’s palace.”
“You need me to steal it, don’t you?”
Ichigo didn’t answer, but Charlie seemed to take this as an answer.
“Alright then, what’s the plan?”
There was a woosh of air and as Charlie extended her arm out without looking a black and white owl swooped in and landed on her. She met the owl’s eyes then looked at Ichigo.
“Time for you to go, we aren’t alone.”
My blood froze at the words. How did they know? I hadn’t made so much as a whisper, and not even that owl's eyes could make me out where I’d hidden. Ichigo mounted and was out of the clearing in seconds. It was less than a minute later when a small group of red uniformed soldiers of the Sacred Imperial Army rode in. Seeing Charlie there, they pressed two fingers to their foreheads in a formal salute. She returned the gesture.
“Captain Lavender,” one of them said, a large male with short, cropped hair and a scar running the length of the left side of his hairline, “There were reports of unlicensed hunters in the Elderwood from the villages to the East.”
“Troubling times, how hungry does one have to be to grow bold enough to hunt on sacred land.” Her words were as much condemnation of the system that allowed such a hunger, as the people forced to live under it, a nuance that slipped right past the soldier. “Well, you’d best be getting on with your patrol.” She pointed in the direction Ichigo had ridden off in, “I’ve just come from there and haven’t seen anyone in a few hours' ride, I hope that helps narrow your search.”
She spoke casually, yet with such certainty that if I hadn’t watched her secret companion ride off with my own eyes a moment ago, I’d have been inclined to believe her myself. The patrol seemed to as well, thanked her and rode off. A moment later she rode off as well.
I waited a full five minutes before I began to slowly work my way out of my hiding spot. Easing my way under the tree branches, wiping away my tracks as I went, it took nearly a minute to extricate myself from cover. I stood up and turned around and felt all the blood drain from my face.
Standing there waiting as I crawled out from under the tree, was an unnaturally white-haired man, wearing the traditional robes of a straynge. He smiled smugly as a crease formed on my brow. Impossible, nothing moves that quietly in the forest, not even me. The crease deepened as I noticed the tracks leading up to where his feet now stood began as those of a stag but finished as those of a man.
“Joshua, of Wakefield,” the straynge said, his voice cool and calm. How could he know my name or where I was from? “You weren’t meant to see any of that today.” He reached his hand out toward me and I felt my entire body tighten as though a large invisible hand had gripped me as the man continued to speak in slow deliberate words. “Now isn’t that strange?”