List of Characters
Alonzo... "Ready for a fight."
- A farmer's son. Rather a kind man, though life hasn't been kind to him in turn... He loves his children and his wife. He's somewhat of a poor man, and took the farmstead on the edge of the Forest because the Milne would pay him highly to settle there - they want to "civilize" the area. At this point he is wary of the forest and despises it, not without reason. He was 24 when he married Lena. He is 41 when the story begins.
- An educated girl. Fell in love with Alonzo although she was in school to be a physician, and married him when she was 22. She was deeply hurt by Tristan's death and took a long time to recover from it. Never expected herself to love her children so much. Lena hates the forest too, but she wants to stick it out so they can send Shasta to school when she's of age. A graceful woman. She is 39 when the story begins.
- He was Alonzo and Lena's first child - born when Lena was 23. He died at two years of age from the lungrot sickness. Although his death was painful at the time, it's more or less a healed wound now.
Nathan... "Gift from God."
- Born when Lena was 26. He was a quiet, clever, introverted and somewhat precocious child, and with them until he was seven. He was rather fond of Shasta, though he was also rather puzzled by her. He went with Lena and Alonzo to the edge of the Woods and began to turn away from them, deeper towards the power bounded by the trees. Near his eighth birthday (Shasta's first year) he apparently went mad and ran into the woods one night, jumping from the house window. Lena was agonized by the seeming insanity of her second child, and refuses to believe him dead. Alonzo fears to think what his alternatives to death are.
- At the time the story begins, Shasta is eight, which would put Nathan at about fourteen if he were alive...
- Born when Lena was around 31. Another clever half-wild child. A girl this time. She was born on the woods and has lived there her entire life, and is unused to people in any amounts. Somewhat selfish and spoiled. Has a tendency to look down on other children even as she craves contact with them. Remembers Nathan in a sort of faded incomprehensible way - doesn't truly believe that she has a brother. Has a growing interest in the Woods and the things she senses in there. Eight when the story begins.
Jasper, who isn't related but is still important... "Treasurer."
- Basically the first trained Thaumaturge of the Milne. Pretty much trained himself. Only slightly mutated by magic - has unnaturally reflective eyes, too-long too-thin fingers, and nails that go to tiny points. He had a younger brother mutated entirely into a monster. He killed his younger brother because of this. Somewhat kind, but also intensely interested in making sure that nothing like what happened to him ever happens to anyone else. He is sent out by the Milne Parliament to survey the woods and find out what the heck is going on - the Milne has finally decided to take note of all the reports of frightening animals and crazy monsters swarming around their farmsteads. He is obsessed with finding a way to safely use magic. About 29.Absent
- the first day with Alonzo and Lena, after Nathan ran into the woods
The softness of the morning after was truly where they suffered.
Alonzo wakes first, and looks up at the ceiling beams. Something seems off in his snug house and he can’t place quite what it is yet: trying to remember he feels himself tottering backwards over a cavernous and huge abyss, so he withdraws the memory quickly. Three people breathe evenly in the grey light: himself, Shasta in her cradle, Lena tucked in the blankets beside him, and this is what makes him remember.
Just to check, he sits up and looks towards the trundle bed –as expected it’s empty as a new grave. Checked quilt unmussed. Pillow undented by any tousled head. The window above the kitchen table is boarded over where the oiled sheet of vellum was torn – and he remembers that too. Slowly, not waking his wife, he sits up and drops his face into his calloused palms to catch his breath in soft agony. For a few minutes he allows himself to make dry animal noises of pain into his palms. He does not want to disturb Lena or the baby, who is finally sleeping whole nights.
The thought is a pointless one. Lena is a sensitive woman; she is drawing herself up from the deep anesthetic of sleep even as he wakes. She hears her husband’s grief and reaches up with nurturer’s instinct to smooth a caress across his knotted shoulders, molding the curve of her body to his. “Alonzo,” she whispers. “Alonzo, we’ll find him.”
He cannot believe that. He watched his son last night, all of eight years old, turn his face from his mother’s gentle scolding, widen his eyes, leap for the window with his face intense as a naked flame, tearing like a stone through the vellum, slender enough to slither through the window-slit and spirit himself between the cornrows to the edge of the trees – unreachable.
Shasta sleeps easy in her cradle near the fire. Alonzo rolls himself out of bed, pads over polished floorboards to lift her frail body into his arms. He strokes her face until it wrinkles, and she frowns slightly and begins to burble and complain for breakfast. “’Lonz,” Lena says, sounding tired. “Why did you wake her? We should get out and search now.”
“One of us should have a morning meal,” Alonzo replies, staring deeply into his baby’s now-open eyes. They are dark-storm grey, unfocused, mild. Beginning to crinkle as she prepares howls. He passes the baby off to Lena to nurse and misses the weight of her. “We can’t leave Shasta here alone, whatever we do.”
“Of course not,” Lena murmurs, sliding down the shoulder of her night-shift to expose one breast. Their child settles easily to drink, and soft suckling noises make a good counterpoint to silence. Alonzo listens to the routine noises of what’s left of his family and turns to Nathan’s shelf, picking up chunky carved toys, stirring up bird feathers and dust, all the things that little boys collected when they lived near a forest. What was a man to do, without a son? Sons made a man, that was what his father had said… and now his son had run into the woods, gone feral and wild as a wolf. What could a man do, to a thing like that…?
His hand jerks. A dog figurine careens off the edge of the shelf, bashes itself in two pieces on the floor. “Be careful, Alonzo!” Lena objects. “He’ll want those nice, when he comes home…”
Behind himself Alonzo can feel the world tearing itself to pieces and blowing away. A round creek stone polished green and smooth meets his hand next; he picks it up, rolls it firmly into his palm. Sometime Nathan must have found it this way, taken it daintily in his fingers and turned it over and over in the summer light before deciding it was the perfect prize and returning with it to home. His evaluating gaze had tracked over each object, had given it its own perfection – and now he was gone and the collection was revealed for what it truly was, a motley gathering of random scraps of nothing.
Alonzo drops his hand, brushes swirls through the dust gathered on the smooth wood. Wipes dust away to show the grain. Beneath his feet it seemed he could sense the slavering and hollow chasm ready to strip his house and life away, and between that and himself and Lena and the new-minted child there was – nothing.100_remarks
On the coldest winter days Shata went out and left eggs at the dark rushing edge of the wood - three white pearls.
Mother set her down on the wood table and gave her a sugary cinnamon crisp.
Pidgeons cooed and gurgled to each other; Shasa pulled the largest from his cubbyhole and gave him a handful of grain.
"Will you play hopstones with me, Daddy?"
Shasta followed the path between the cornrows, drowning in the rustling leaves, heavy-weighted gold cobs, thick stalks.
At cool midnight the woods exhaled a soft mist that she could smell from her window.
She looked up at the big, dark, amiably champing horse and laid one light hand on his warm leg.
Daddy set her up on his shoulders and whistled Nona in.
"Be careful, Shasta," Jaspel said, "to not go too far in - if you aren't careful you'll be changed. Magic's not a native thing to our cells; it doesn't like us."
She turned back to the house, hesitating, searching for the tiny doll that was her mother in the distance.
He crept in through the shattered ruins of her window, a clawed, soft-hissing, faceted-eyed violent thing, and she knew him and whispered, "Nathan."
All round the night Shasta laid awake, hearing the tomping of footsteps on the flat roof.
"Mama," she wailed, and kicked off her shoes to run better.
"Well, hello," Jaspel said, "what are you? A little dandelion sprite? Something come from a flower of the deep woods?"I had a brother once
, she thought, not knowing were the idea came from.
Shasta liked wearing the threadbare things the best, the old loose absolutely comfortable things, with her hair in two cornsilk braids.
Jaspel swept her up, leaned her tired head on his shoulder.
Daddy set her up in the scratchy hay wagon.
Oh, to be a bird, sparrow or hawk; to be butterfly, or bumblebee, wildcat or wolf, anything
that could go and see the woods.
Sugarwater called down butterflies to perch sedately on her arms, folding and opening their wings with metronomic rythm.
She didn't need magic to love what her brother had become.
In the morning the pidgeon coop was destroyed, dead birds scattered with broken necks, bodies frozen hard as stones. Shasta put her fingers in her mouth and cried over the uneaten bodies.
She whistled sparrows down to her hands.
She'd never been in a place that wanted to eat
her before - the woods was like that.
Snow piled up, past her knees, past her waist, over her head; enough to make a mole-tunnel in.
They let her sit by Jaspel for dinner; Shasta bounced and quaked with excitement, on her best manners.
She didn't like reading.
A hold was dug at the edge of the field for Nona's body, Shasta whimpering at the sight of the grave, steaming moistly in the cold air and open like a mouth.
Trees were for little girls to climb, as naturally as air was for little girls to laugh in and mud was to make pies out of.
The neighbors were the most fun to visit, because they were farther back from the tree's edge and the nights were tamer there, safe enough for little girls to tromp through.
"Power's in the air," Jaspel sand to her, spinning Shasta round and round in his wiry arms: "Power's there in the earth, in the birds, in the way the buck thirsts for the doe, power that you and I can touch, but lightly
, Shasta, lightly
Jaspel held her hand through it all, and Shasta looked to her right, studying the delicate way his fingernails drew to points, the elongated bones of his fingers.
Shasta was born the third, which gave her her name: the first was Tristan, dead at two of lungrot, the second - she didn't know, but he was gone.
"Your hair's as wild as a dandelion puff," Mama told her, yanking a wide-toothed wood comb through the fine strands.
She hid in the barn loft to watch the Milnemooth thaumaturge arrive, and that was where they found her, sleeping.
Slowly, unconciously, her fingers crept up to her mouth and slid in.
Mama ripped her up to standing, beat the dragonflies hovering around Shasta's head away with her bare arms.
It was three weeks until she worked up the nerve to ask Jaspel for a game of hopstones, and by then the snows were already sifting down.
From the day she'd come to the woods' edge Shasta had been singing a calling song, a questing song, an asking song, to all the teeming beasts that lived underneath the canopy.
Jaspel wound a thin bracelet of copper wire and lumpy glass beads around her wrist for a birthday present.
Shasta had never much feared talking to strangers before.
On the winter solstice the day slithered from the womb, gurgled weakly, died without really breathing; Shasta stayed snugabed through the flat blood-colored sun and the parody of a sunset, shivering.
Footprints dented the door at morning-light - Shasta inspected them to find that four of her own small feet fit into one of the unknowns.
"Help me drive in the sheep," Daddy said, the lines around his eyes harpstring-tight, and Shasta didn't argue with him.
"Do you want to be a worm?" Jaspel grated. "Do you want to be an ugly monster? Do you want to be a girl-spider that eats raw meat? Because if you keep on this way, that's what you'll become
"If you apprentice to me, I'll take you to see the ocean," Jaspel promised. "It's blue, as big as the sky."
"Hello, sister," Nathan whispered to her, and Shasta bubbled up tears, stroking his skin-turned-chitin, running her hands over the jewel-sharp lines of his face.
"I want mama," Shasta said, and nothing had ever been more true in her life.
"Eavesdropped," Jaspel whispered to her, dropping a smile down white as the moon, his not-quite-normal eyes flashing.
She raced into the trees, crying like thunder; bolted through dark and underbrush with branches lashing her face and pulling at her hair.
On the horse she was as tall as the sky, as strong as an angel.
Without a roof, without walls, the night was too big and dark and alien to dare.
Shasta laid awake the whole night long, listening to her heart go p-tum, p-tum.
She dreamed restless dreams, far-flung dreams.
The walk home was long and when Shasta tired, Jaspel whirled her up onto his lean shoulders and took her along.
Dust motes floated into the air, clogged her throat and mouth.
Another child would have made the greatest birthday gift: a friend to walk and play with.
Shasta was born to get underfoot - it came naturally.
"From now on," Jaspel said, "you make your own luck."
Summer rain: muggy, plashing, thunder-crashing blessing for any prospective puddle-jumper!
How glad she was to have her feet, her birdlike tiny hands.
The path seemed natural-made for people feet, winding out before her an extended invitation.
"I wish for adventures, and princes, and lions," she asked of the first star in a week.
Oh, look: the wildness all around stills, draws closer to the stranger-child come new to the woods.
She hugged Nona's thick furry neck to her chest.
It was her job to feed the chickens, and one she took very seriously.
She checked her hands: five fingers still, but cracked and puffy with blisters.
When a baby she had cried thinly, with a sense of great weariness, but still with the strength to go on for ages.
What Shasta didn't know was that she wasn't truly suited for playing with other children.
Three steps on her hands was all she managed before falling over.
If she had ever visited the Milne, Shasta wouldn't have been so put off by what seemed like insanely crowded district meetings.
"No," she said, "I don't like honey -" and she pressed her lips up tight and refused to have any.
Nathan liked to stroke the ticklish whisps the her hair from her face - all seven feet of his long body coiled round so he could see her eyes easily.
This was what, from birth, she'd been straining towards without knowing.
Shasta wore hand-me-downs from the sibling she couldn't remember, and loved them deeply: every hole and wear.
Shasta was an avid collector of holes, and every chance she got for her clothes to get more threadbare she took.
Woodsmaiden, truly: a flower garland, a homespun smock, no glitter-glass or cold metal to touch her.
She's been hoping for something a little more huggable.
She dropped tears onto the path as Jaspel hauled her over the hill.
"I want my mama," she insisted, howling.
Uneducated deepwoods monsters didn't know quite what to do with her.
Shasta was the type of girl to declare herself as holding a handful of glad when what she actually had was a fistful of matted wool.
First thing, breakfast: Shasta scrambled heaps of eggs, enough for Mama, Daddy and the Thaumaturge.
Storm-grey eyes peered intently into Jaspel's own.
Wiggle, slidge, creep, whisper - be silent as worm - be still as cat - shadow along as softly as cloud.
She bit her fingers, without meaning to: hard enough to draw blood.
Now, on the farthest darknest point on her orbit, she wished nothing more than to be drawn back into the sun.
She had a nose that promised to be large, sharp, and strong; prominent even through the remnants of baby fat.
"Read to me, Mama," she whispered.
"My favorite is cornbread and butter," she told Jaspel with elfin good cheer.
Pressed under Nona she woke up.
Proud thing, calling down the coons from the trees, and Shasta pursed her lips and whistled mellow golden notes.
Hop-skippity-plash, it was so easy - she hopped on the water, feeling the surface tension bounce her back up.
She had the kind of dreams meant for living through.
In the winter her skin became fine and white, faintly luminous, as light shining through thin porclain might.
She tied three lengths of red ribbon into her tangled hair: one for Nathan, one for Jaspel, one for herself.
She did not weep, only became mealy-mouthed and soft at the sight.
She laid her head against the musky leather of Jaspel's cloak, blinking slowly.
Her world was small, but it was splitting at the seams with potential to get bigger.
Up in the sky, the moon was getting bigger; down below Shasta smiled, full of gleeful secrets.