As promised, today is a passage that originally began life as a short piece of an Open University creative writing assessment. It’s subsequently been edited and now has the potential to start a short story.
He knows what they search for is close.
The boy and his father have been travelling since first light, descending through the purple-hewn valleys of heather and scrub grass, moving further from light into darkness. The child’s belly rumbles, demanding sustenance, but to ask for water and the bread his grandmother gave would be considered a weakness. On this day, hunger or fatigue must be forgotten, buried deep within. The moment they cross the perimeter of the copse something passes through the slim, strong body, understanding that they should head east, towards the river. He had expected his father to lead but now he holds back, and his reticence is no longer of concern. It is the boy’s turn to strike forward, driven by instinct. Memory sparks; words planted the night before. Him and her by the bonfire, dark green ritual paint applied to a willing forehead. His mentor’s instructions repeated, learnt by heart and mind: the wood will call, hear its bidding: yours to carve and turn, change and transform. The whole creates your staff, and then our training begins.
You will not choose the wood, son of the forest. It already calls to you.
The boy is suddenly startled, flock of birds escaping the ceiling of thinning leaves above him. The last tendrils of his twelfth Hot Season are shrinking away, blue skies filled with ever-thickening clouds; warmth bleeding into cooler air, sharper gusts of wind from the north. He should be in the fields, gathering grain as his sisters are, but he remains Chosen. Of all those girls in the village who had trained and learnt the Words, hoped to be favoured by the Elders, it had been him they had picked. Seven generations had passed since the last Lone Son, and much already sat on expectant shoulders. He had stared intently into raging fire, hoping for inspiration, and there grew the twisted remains of this fallen dark oak, felled with others in the recent storms. Nature had been nothing but thorough in its decimation of both land and life. It had called him here yet he was uncertain, and his father had reassured, soothed the fear. This was the right path, and they would tread it together.
‘You see, it isn’t dead.’
From the twisted and buckled remains of the stump there grows a branch, thickness of the boy’s upper arm and about four times the length, still very much alive, covered with a scattering of tiny twigs. It looks totally out of place, desperately clinging to the remains of its parent, last vestiges of life before death. The wind lifts suddenly, moving the leaves from the copse’s edge in a wave of sound, rustling through the space around them both. Aran closes eyes and listens, hoping to hear something more than he knows exists, but for now it is only the wind. There is no truth without the wood, conduit between his world and the Earth, and so he goes to the branch, reaching out a willing hand to touch.
As his palm grasps the bark there is noise; cry of anguish, unexpected anger. A sudden stab of pain to the back as an arrow hits from behind, cleanly passing through ribcage and flesh as he falls to the ground. The soldier has no time to react, dead as a bloodied body crumples to the earth, life slowly leeching into the soil, back to the land from which he came.
It takes a moment for the boy to recover and understand what has just happened, given a Waking Dream like countless ones before, except this is not about family but a total stranger. Beneath him lies a soldier from the time Before, fighting man who died, whose remains lie buried under leaves and dirt and history, bound to the tree and that branch which will become his staff. From the past, through the roots of Earth and time, his message is passed and understood. We will fight again, and you will lead us. Aran Mennas turns to his father with a measure of understanding: he was right to believe in him. This destiny is right and solid, without hesitation. The tree provides the weapon, with which he will both see both future and hear wisdom from the past.
This place is where destiny begins anew.