Within an hour’s-half, Tildy was headed north through Eddlweld, having donned a traveling cloak of blackish-green with wooden buttons that crossed from shoulder to waist. A row of trinket pockets followed a parallel course below them, though they were empty for this journey. It was her favorite because the wool seemed to shift hue in sunlight and shadows and pulling up the hood allowed her to pass through the woodlands as unseen as a forest spirit.
She carried the witch’s blessing and a lunch of knot-links, red cheese, and toasted bread in a small bag slung over one shoulder. A waterskin also hung there, and in her opposite hand she clutched a cedar walking stick below its carved Dragon’s head. Old Whitts, the woodcarver, had told her a Dragon had imbued his staves with strength, and he had only chisled enough to reveal the beast hidden within the wood. Even if she didn’t believe him, she often pictured Dragons as the warmth of her hand released the wood’s fragrant scent.
She had been younger and smaller the last time she’d made this trip, a journey of a few hours, including the instructive stops the witch liked to make. She walked effortlessly through the trees of Eddlweld, for a path always led from the witch’s cottage in the direction a person was headed, although none led to it, unless the person had visited before.
Soon she would emerge into unfiltered daylight and turn east. Although there was no road to Caraban Losh from there, she could have found her way in the dark. The specialness of the place had made an indelible mark in her memory that served better than any map or road.
Tildy stopped, her remarkable ears picking up an animal carefully padding through the underbrush. Its approach suggested that it was unaware of her presence which, as usual, filled her with pride. It didn’t stalk like a predator, or scamper like one of the noisy rodents who lived in the forest, so she guessed it was either a stag or its lithe cousin, the ambiset. As it passed from behind the protective screen of thick neverwinter trees, however, she saw it was neither! She sucked in her breath, not wanting the small sapphox to see her. Unfortunately, the inhalation was enough noise to cause the creature to pause, its translucent fur bristling like the needles of a blue spruce tree. She’d never seen one before, and her eyes drank in every detail, from its white nose and whiskers to a tail that became deep indigo at the tip.
The reclusive animal had a rich folklore in the lands around Wayfahren, and she’d heard the many and varied stories. She’d found in her short life that, the less frequently something had been seen, the more tales there were to tell. Most agreed the sapphox was a fair omen that meant a person was about to learn something or discover a lost treasure. There were also tales of those trying to fix fate, such as the man who dyed an ordinary red fox but only succeeded in permanently staining his hands. She didn’t put much faith in superstitions, though this was true enough a rare sight.
Fears assuaged, the sapphox ambled on, though more cautiously than before. She waited until its steps had faded, grateful for the chance encounter and hoping others would be able to appreciate this wonder of the wilds.
She resumed her journey, mind wandering above unguided footsteps and giving not a sausage for fear. The forest protected those who walked within its margins, though the preternatural darkness beneath its canopy daunted fewer trespassers than the witch’s whispered reputation.
As her thoughts often had during the winter, she found herself dwelling on her discovery at Caraban Losh, as well as her adoption and the years after. Though none in Wayfahren knew the true tale, the “baby bairn of Eddlweld” remained a favorite fireside topic in the town’s taverns. Since no one had seen the witch in the companionship of any men, and since she obviously had queer powers, it was rumored that Tildy was a miracle birth. It made no nevermind to the locals that she’d not been seen as a baby. Nor did it seem to matter that she had never displayed a single magical gift. “Speculation was surer than the sunrise when it came to folktales,” they said.
Dark rumor there also was, of child-thieving in the night, or something fouler. Stories told by hearthlight often turned or twisted facts into nightmare tales, and witchlore was fertile ground for unkind hearts. More often than not, these stories were shouted down by wiser people who’d never seen a hint of such evil. “Strange she may be, she’s one of us,” they’d tell outsiders who clearly knew no better.
For her part, the witch never corrected a single story or accusation, nor did she answer any question directly. “Tildeneth is my daughter. Simple as that.” Most people accepted the witch’s words, unsatisfactory an answer they might seem. In this region, known as Senessen, the word of upstanding folk was rarely questioned, especially when that person had a history in the area. And the witch had a longer history than most.
Tildy followed her lead, allowing people their folly. She called her “mother” in public (the only time the witch didn’t seem to grumble about it) and always feigned ignorance about her birth. The whole thing made her feel special: the girl with the secret past and some hidden power. Someone not destined for a quiet life as a gardener or herbmaster. It was like something out of a book.
Coming out of her thoughts, Tildy realized she’d arrived at Caraban Losh: a margin of prairie that rose into forest, where a massive beech tree held court like some king of giants. Its trunk-sized branches dwarfed most trees at Dappledown and the witch had once told Tildy that a Dragon could shelter within its deep shade. All around, bushes and brush intermingled with yellow highgrasses and flowers with long, slender stems. Nearby, the fragrant tildenethia were as strong as ever, oppressive in their potency.
She’d been longing for the familiarity of the place. She was quite certain her parents had died at Caraban Losh, though she hadn’t any memory or proof. Despite that, she could take solace from walking where they’d shared their last moments together as a family.
She knew not many orphans would imagine that their lost parents were dead. She guessed other children would be waiting for them to return from some magical place, eager to reunite their broken families. Such thoughts had never occurred to Tildy. She was certain her parents were dead, and the belief that they had died protecting her was about as much comfort as she could derive from the tragedy.
The witch had nothing but conjecture, despite having arrived shortly after the assault. The attackers had despoiled the bodies and set everything aflame, destroying anything that might have provided answers. When she walked amidst the drifting smoke and spirits of the dead, she’d heard a baby alone in the brush, perhaps dropped, but more likely hidden. Fearful for the child, she had fled without taking more time to investigate. Soon after, she’d learned that the king had fallen and there was likely no sheriff or authority who would help reunite the child with other relations. Tildy was just another baby orphaned by the war.
She had called this location Caraban Losh as a small girl because a speech impediment prevented her from saying ‘caravan lost’. She had scrawled Caraban Losh on a map when she was learning her letters and the name had stuck. The witch later discovered the impairment resulted from Tildy’s jawbone and tongue unconsciously shifting in unnatural directions when she was tired. This was the first clue to her adopted daughter’s special abilities, though the inexperienced witch had originally dismissed them as changes in a growing child. With some concentrated practice, Tildy had control: her words crisp and her mouth a regular shape.
Surveying her surroundings, she saw little had changed in the last few years, aside from trees being taller, grass growing wilder, and tildenethia smelling stronger. In the cool shade beneath the beech, the tildenethia flourished in the brown mulch of countless years of fallen leaves. Tildy also noticed that it was still as quiet as she remembered. When she had visited with the witch, they never spoke, nor did they hear any bird or beast. Even the wind had no voice. This wasn’t a place for conversation, Human or otherwise. Tildy imagined this was like visiting a graveyard.
She walked to the tildenethia, easily identifying those stalks that were ready for harvesting. As she crouched and started slicing with her knife, she thought about being found at this spot. It offered the best hiding place, and clearly, she had been hidden by loving parents. Who else would have done that for a child that wasn’t theirs? It also suggested that her parents knew there was no escape. Had they been targeted? Had it been bandits?
With a soft squish and squelch, the plant’s silvery ichor began running over her knife and fingers. Tildy paused her thoughts, standing to wipe her hand on her dress. She could go on and on like this, and had before, stuck in the imaginings and what-ifs that unanswered questions always brought forward. Realizing that she’d been holding her breath in concentration, she inhaled deeply, letting the familiar fragrance of the tildenethia flow through her.
Then, as though she were seeing a memory played out in the world around her, a vision of an armed man staggered into the flowers, a bundle in his arms that prevented her from seeing the full heraldry of his tunic. He loosely held a ruined sword and an arrow jutted from his shoulder blade. Scorch marks dotted his clothing here and there. As he collapsed, something fell from the bundle, glinting in the light before disappearing into the foliage below. He lay sprawed on the ground at her feet, two more arrows in his back. The bundle squirmed for a moment beneath him, but remained silent. A shadow fell upon them and she gasped as a black blade was thrust into the knight’s back. She looked up, but his killer had disappeared into hissing smoke, like the rest of the vision.
Tildy closed her eyes and concentrated, but she couldn’t get the image to return. What was that? A memory? At first it felt like a daydream, created by pieces of the witch’s stories of finding her, but it was so real! Vivid, yet obscured, like watching people moving through fog. There were snatches of color that dimmed as the mist increased, though they felt implanted in her memory as though she’d actually witnessed them. What if she had? What if this was her true story?
Questions old and new flooded her mind. Why was she protected by a knight, if true knight he was? Could he have been her father? Where were her parents? Who had attacked them and why? How had she survived?
Hadn’t the witch told her she’d been found in the tildenethia? Yes, but there had been no mention of being hidden under a dead knight. Tildy supposed that could have been to save her from nightmares, but even so. What she’d seen seemed more real than the witch’s story.
Standing here amongst the herbs, there was one way to find out. She got down on hands and knees to search amongst the roots. It was long odds, as her friend Fietha would say, but what else did she have to do today? Certainly, a lost clue to her past was worth some dirty fingernails and skinned knees.
The remnants of old leaves at her feet were cool, but the matted layers were thick and would take some time to explore thoroughly. Tildy rooted about, digging and clearing space between the stems of the tildenethia, the smell of which began to overwhelm her. She thought she might be overcome if she didn’t raise up her head soon. But she was too caught up in her hopes to realize how much the fragrance affected her.
The world swam before her. Tildy was about to stand up, when again in her mind’s eye, she saw the glinting metal piece falling through the air. Here, below the tops of the tall tildenethia, she watched it fall to the ground near her right hand. In a haze, she scratched at the ground, one part of her mind chastising herself for the ridiculous notion, another part certain of what she would find.
Her eyes lost focus. Her head drifted. She forgot where she was. Her hand scraped something metal. Her fingers grasped it. She stood.
Tildy stumbled from the flower patch and into a warm daylight that was filled with popping black stars.
A figure rushed up. “Tildeneth!”
Tildy looked up quickly – too quickly – and she swooned. She fell into the man’s arms and he laid her gently on the ground. As she lay there, taking in cool breaths of relief, she kept her eyes closed, not quite ready to see the dizzying motion of the world around her.
“Take easy breaths, love. There you are,” the man said in soothing tones that were distorted by her haze. She knew that voice, said a distant echo in her mind, but she couldn’t focus her memory. The hairs on her neck did not prickle in warning, yet for reasons she didn’t understand, she surreptitiously slipped the mysterious pin into her pocket.
Finally, she had recovered enough for her mind to start working again. She opened her eyes and blinked in the sunlight. Recognizing the crooked nose, scarred forehead, greying beard, she said, “Fietha?” and sat up.
The older man smiled, which wrinkled the corners of his eyes. “Aye. Lucky I saw you fall, eh? In that cloak, no one would have found you in the tildenethia this time, unless you were crying with a wet nappy again.”
“I was a yearling,” she replied, returning as much of the smile as she could. “What are you doing here?” Her thoughts more coherent, it seemed an odd coincidence that her friend should happen upon this spot on the same day.
“Me?” Fietha repeated, scratching his scruffy face. She knew his sharp mind was concocting a very convincing story, which would be mostly true. Mostly. “There’s more for a trader up here than flowers and dew, lass.”
The witch had said something similar to Tildy before she left. She interrupted him before he could get into the full tale.
“You did see her. I knew it.”
The man held his hands up in defense, but he was smiling. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Seeing what a fine Spring day it was, and suddenly realizing that some of my stock of tildenethia was depleted, I thought I would drive my wagon up here to replenish. After all,” he added, “it is Heal’s Eve.”
“Uh huh,” she took his proffered hand to stand. “You don’t trade tildenethia. And the old road is overgrown. And,” she said, placing extra emphasis on the word to indicate that she saw through his subterfuge, “tildenethia doesn’t need to be harvested on Heal’s Eve.”
“You might be right,” he said, giving her an unabashed smile. “But well do I know this place, regardless. How are you feeling?”
“Better,” she said, inhaling a deep breath. The world was again in focus. “Better in the fresh air.”
“That is well. But Tildeneth, you know to be careful amongst your namesake. Some find tildenethia wonderfully intoxicating, but most folk become overwhelmed.”
“I know, I know.” Tildy hated being reminded of her lapses in judgment.
“Yes, I know you do. What was it that your mother always said about the tildenethia?”
“Adoptive mother,” she corrected. She saw a smile being restrained at the corners of his mouth and she sighed. “Tildenethia is a beautiful and pungent flower, much like the baby she found sleeping in the bushes twelve years ago,” she recited in a monotone. She rolled her eyes and began to walk away. “You know I go by ‘Tildy’.”
Fietha clearly saw her eyeroll, but he was enjoying himself. He caught up to her and said, “Ah, but I see you are at an age where a parent’s jokes become wearisome!” He laughed, the bright and infectious kind that always caused others to laugh along. As she joined in, he added, “Fine, and I will call you ‘Tildy’ as you so often request. But I seem to remember you had other names by which you wanted to be known. Several, in fact.”
Normally, Tildy would have dismissed his jest, but it reminded her of something she’d been meaning to tell her friend. “Fietha, listen, I think I’ve chosen my last name,” she blurted as she stopped. She’d put much thought into this, but had been unable to discuss it with anyone yet. For all her wisdom, the witch didn’t understand Tildy’s need.
“Well, yes.” Tildy frowned, suspecting that she was about to lose control of the conversation with her sharp-tongued friend.
“You no longer desire Lightfoot?”
“Silverwing?” Fietha was the only other person who knew about her wings.
“No.” This wasn’t going as she’d hoped.
“What about Applebosom?”
“It was Applebottom!”
“Is that any better?” he laughed.
“Well, no,” Tildy said with a blush.
“I’m not sure I want to tell you anymore.”
Fietha laughed some more, but there was no malice in it. “Come, sweet lady! Tell me, Tildeneth of Eddlweld, so I can address you properly.”
She took a breath, unhappy that the conversation had gone in this direction. But stronger was her desire to share her decision with someone. “Silverleaf,” she said, giving him a tentative glance. “Tildy Silverleaf.”
“I like it.”
“Really?” Tildy breathed a sigh of relief. It felt good to finally share, and his opinion mattered nearly as much as the witch’s—one of the reasons she told him first.
“That means a lot, Fietha.”
He studied her face for a moment, as though searching for something new about her. “Tell me, m’lady Silverleaf. Why so focused on your surname? I’ve never known a person who’s put as much thought into it as you.”
Tildy hesitated, though she already knew the answer. Would he understand? This was something she’d contemplated her entire life, though years had passed before she’d been old enough to put thought into explanation. Finally she said, “Unlike most people, I don’t know my own name. I have the one the witch gave me – Tildeneth – but it’s never felt quite right.”
“That would explain your insistence to be called Tildy.”
“Yes and no,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s more than that. I had a name before the witch found me, but it’s lost. Like everything else I had. Parents, home, family,” she said quietly. “Probably forever.” Although she’d considered this many times, there was a finality in saying it aloud, as though she’d accepted it at long last. Given up. She didn’t feel like crying, though a tear did slide down her cheek and she bowed her head to hide it.
Fietha leaned down and lifted her chin. “Forever is a long time.”
“I know.” How could she help him understand? She wiped her face and said, “We assign so much of our identities to a name. It becomes as much a part of you as your hair or skin or the toes on your feet.” Her voice strengthened as her conviction returned. “I guess choosing the name helps me move on. Gives me a little control over the situation. Everything about me was lost when the caravan was attacked. My life as it was, taken, and my name with it. Now, I’ve taken it back.”
Fietha stared at her, studying her face again. “You’re very wise for one your age. I mean it.”
“Cheers, Fietha,” Tildy said, some of the sadness returning to mix with the gratitude. It wasn’t easy discussing her past or the fears or the sense of loss that no one else understood. Talking with Fietha helped, as it always did, even if he couldn’t relate.
“Tildy,” he continued, “you might be the only one to survive the attack, but you know you’re not alone, eh?”
“I know,” said Tildy, walking again. “I do know.”
“Family and friends and homes, they all come and go in our lives. Sometimes we have them for years. Sometimes it feels like the space between the blinks of an eye.” He sighed. “I don’t tell you these things to dismiss your feelings. Quite the opposite. I think that the importance of these things, the sense of loss you feel, mean that you will have these things again. Not the same ones you’ve lost, but new ones. Truly, the pursuit of a name is but the first on that journey.”
Tildy smiled at him but did not respond. They walked in silence for long minutes, during which time she studied the world around her: the trees with their new leaves and buds, the bright yellow highgrasses infused by daylight, the dollops of white cloud that hung in the sky, slowly transforming as they rolled east. Perhaps Fietha was right. These lands, the Garden of Dappledown, even nearby Wayfahren town, these places were more of a home than the one she’d lost. The sadness began to fade and the sun seemed to shine upon her face again.
Perhaps seeing this change, he said, “Well, we’re rather quiet today. How about a song?”
“Oh yes,” Tildy said, relieved for an opportunity for a happier subject. He knew all sorts that could liven any day.
“Several come to mind,” Fietha began.
“No drinking songs!” she laughed.
“Fine, fine. According to your mother, you’re too young to properly enjoy those anyways. Ah, yes. I have one. Deedee dee doo,” he sang, and the singchain in his pocket confirmed his pitch. Satisfied, he began to chant as they walked:
Beneath the bridge
Amidst the rocks
They’re taking kids
They’re taking flocks
They chew the bones
They eat the meat
Their breath is never thought as sweet.
Beware the Troll!
Down from mount’n,
Up from hole.
As hard as stone
As stern as rock
Tough to kill
And bad to mock
Dull in head
But quick of hand
Beware, my fragile little lad!
Beware the Troll!
Down from mount’n,
Up from hole.
With horn-ed feet
And knobbled thumb
With gimlet eye
And bleeding gum!
To run is smart
To fight, mistake
With streams of fallen in their wake.
Beware the Troll!
Down from mount’n,
Up from hole.
With tree of oak
Or other club
Worn down to nub
He’ll strike you dead,
He’ll strike you blind
Your head will care no nevermind!
Beware the Troll!
Down from mount’n,
Up from hole.
Perhaps you’ll find
Some crack or craw
Some weakest point
Some armored flaw
And then you’ll break
His horn-ed hide.
And dance in vict-ry as he died.
No more the Troll!
N’more from mount’n,
N’more from hole.
Tildy clapped with delight as Fietha held the last note until his breath ran out. The song was an old favorite that he had taught her years ago. “I can’t remember the last time you sang that,” she said.
“Aye, it’s been years,” he replied. He gave her a sideways glance. “You should put those away you know.”
It was then that Tildy realized she was floating along beside him, her wings fluttering. “Oh!” she exclaimed, landing with a bump. “I didn’t realize.” Her wings disappeared beneath the hidden flap in her dress. “Well, you’ve known about these for years. Good thing it’s just us, huh?” she said, but the forming smile died when she saw his disappointed look.
“Yes,” Fietha said, beginning a soft rebuke. “Tildy, I know you know this, but I must say it anyways. These lands are filled with sneak-thieves and creatures of dark purpose—”
“And some with crack or craw or armored flaw?” she joked. But seeing his serious face, she recited in a monotone, “Many of whom would pursue me because they’ve never seen a Human like me.” She finished with a heavy sigh: “I know.”
“And I’m sure you hear it all the time from your mother. But listen,” he said, stopping in front of her, “you’re on the verge of womanhood, and everything is about to change for you. There will be so many things that you’ll need to consider.”
Tildy interrupted again. “I really don’t want to hear about womanly changes from you.” She crossed her arms over her chest.
“Yes well, there’s no need to be rude. I have an inkling of how this transition will be for you and I don’t want you having to consciously think about hiding yourself at the same time. Believe me, you’ll be grateful for the feeling that some things are within your control when so many things are not.” His eyes searched her face, but Tildy was done listening.
Fietha finally gave up. “Fine. Sulk away.” He walked away from her. “My wagon is over there. I’ll bring you home. I have a bag of bones to feed to Drewgi, anyway.”
Tildy was already lost in her thoughts. It was bad enough hearing the witch stumbling through the topic of adolescence. She definitely didn’t want to hear it from a man who obviously had no real idea, whatever he said. Of course, she knew she had to hide her wings. They’d been saying the same thing for years—how could they think she didn’t understand? If anything, they were the ones who weren’t comprehending. It’s not like she was deliberately flying about, flashing her wings. Sometimes they popped out when she was particularly happy. Or mad, now that she thought about it.
Whether this happened because she was feeling strong emotions, she didn’t particularly care. This was an accident. No one had seen her. And no one ever would. She climbed into the wagon and sat beside him. Biscuit, his cart horse, whinnied in annoyance for being ignored. Fietha snapped the reins and they rolled away in silence.
Her hand brushed her dress pocket, where she felt the dirt-encrusted pin. It might be nothing, but she sensed its significance. Deciding she was not ready to share it or the vision, she would keep it from Fietha and her adoptive mother. They would likely dismiss her experience as illusion and coincendence.
As they followed the edge of the forest, her mood lightened and her head cleared the last remnants the tildenethia’s spell. And her irritation. Regardless of what had happened in the brush, she was returning home, where there was food and protection and love. Most importantly, she bore a secret in her pocket that might be a clue to her past.
In his typical fashion, Fietha started talking again, yet saying little of import. Tildy suspected he liked to hear his voice. She looked about as they drove along the edge of the forest. It was a fine Spring day, and a finer morning had not yet been seen this season.
© Michael Wallevand, November 2016
- Updated 3/11/17, 11/3/18, 7/17/19