I remember the first time I ever saw Tarn.
It was in the woods, not so distant from my village that I was lost or afraid, but farther than my parents would have wanted me to go. "Keep the village in sight," they had always warned. "The forest is no place for a girl to wander alone." But I was young and bold, and very headstrong. It almost seemed that I went simply because they had told me not to.
I remember the feeling I had when I had crossed into the trees. A shiver ran up and down my spine, an electric thrill of knowing what I was doing was forbidden, and something more I did not know.
I wandered for a while, slowly being drawn deeper and deeper into the forest. The trees grew older and larger and more gnarled as I neared the heart of the forest. Their branches wove together, blocking partially the golden sunlight, and I was left with only a dim light to see by. I could no longer tell what time of day it was.
But still I was not frightened. I was sure I could find my way back before dark, and something insistent was pulling me deeper in. Calling to me. The forest is a lonely place, and I think…I think the heart wanted to be seen after all those years of solitude. Perhaps even forests can grow lonely. Who can say, truly?
So deeper I ventured, through the vines and brambles and thorns that threatened to choke the trails I followed entirely. And then, as if a knife from heaven had cut them clean through, the trees stopped, the undergrowth stopped, everything stopped.
I found myself in a clearing, wide and open and filled with light. The grass underfoot was wonderfully soft, and the air almost seemed to sparkle with a feeling of peace and contentment. In the center of the grove was a single standing stone, and I could see that once it had held carvings of something, but years of erosion had weathered them away so as to be nearly invisible. From the top of the rock protruded a solid wooden stave, emerging from the stone as if it had every right to be there, as if it indeed had always been there. Unbidden, a thought came firmly into my mind.
Maerdri. It was not a word I knew, but somehow…I knew it was a name. I stood in awe on the edge of the trees, looking from the dense darkness behind me to this wonderful place before me. Slowly, with awe and something near reverence, I stepped forward into the clearing. It almost seemed as if the whole forest let out a collective sigh, the wind rustling through their branches suddenly.
I placed one hand delicately on the weathered face of the rock, and again I could hear in my mind, in my heart, the name. Maerdri. The word filled my heart with an unspeakable feeling of happiness, as if it would burst. I felt as if I had come home in some way. Why would my parents forbid a blessing such as this to me? Did anyone but I even know of the place?
I stood there, motionless, for how long I do not know. Words and images flashed across my mind like figures in the mist, almost within reach but darting away when I tried to look at them more clearly.
Maerdri, a voice whispered over and over to me. The very trees seemed to be passing it along in chorus. Maerdri, Maerdri, Maerdri…Maerdri's Peace. It was the name of this place I knew instantly. I wondered who Maerdri was, and what she had done here.
When I finally pulled myself away from the stone, it was night around me. Moonlight and stars shone down like a halo around Maerdri's stone memorial, but the forest all around looked darker than ever. In the distance I heard a wolf howl, and suddenly I was quite anxious to be home, safe beside my family. How selfish of me to make them worry as I knew they must be, I thought to myself.
I headed in roughly the same direction I had come, but where before it had felt as if the whole forest was opening up to bring me in, the trees now closed thicker around me, keeping me in their wooden cage. They did not want me to go. The sounds and sights which I had before thought lovely and old gained a new and threatening cast under the dark branches and muted moonlight.
Shivering, I stumbled through the forest as quickly as I could, tripping over the roots and plant growth. Trees moved around me, and I knew I was not seeing things; this was real. The forest was alive.
And it didn't want to let me out.
I understood now why my parents had forbidden me to venture here, and I vowed that if ever I made it out alive, I would not disobey them again.
Again I encountered a sudden break in the trees, and seeing buildings in the distance, thought myself home. As I ran towards the village though, my heart sank. It was empty, and smoke poured into the sky from the ruined buildings, hanging like a shroud over the whole ruin. The ground was black and ashy beneath my bare feet, and in places blasted with craters. I wondered what had happened here.
I would have turned back then, but the howling of wolves, which I had heard intermittently throughout the night, suddenly sounded in a chorus behind me, and I ran quick as I could into the village. Ruin or no, at least it was a place to hide.
I ran down the dark and empty streets, and into the first building I saw, its door hanging off its hinges. What I saw made me retch and stagger back out immediately.
The room was filled with corpses. Babies, men, children, women…all kinds, and all mutilated beyond anything a child my age should have ever had to see. I stumbled back into the street, gagging, and feeling as if I would vomit.
And then I heard it.
A high, keening howl, which pierced my heart straight through like an arrow, overwhelming me with its sheer grief. I could hear the pain and anger in that howl as clearly as if it had been my own. Instinctively, I ran toward it. At the end of the street, a building still burned, and I saw heads on pikes, the bodies discarded in a pile below. On top of the pile crouched a boy, from whom the howl emanated like a physical presence.
Abruptly the howl cut off and he turned to stare directly into my eyes. I gasped. The boy was around my age, with long black hair, and eyes…his eyes were gold and black, and beautiful, and I had never seen their like. They were wolf's eyes. He turned and he looked at me and growled. Though he spoke no words, the meaning was clear: You're not welcome here.
I stepped back, afraid but curious and wanting to help at the same time. Suddenly, a huge black…thing, rose out of the ruins and turned its burning gaze upon me. It was large, and black as pitch, and its eyes burned red with an angry fire. It stank of rotting flesh and its jaws clacked and scraped as it moved. I screamed and stood frozen as it slithered toward me. I knew I was about to die.
I should have died. But the boy jumped between me and it, growling. They circled each other warily, and the boy gave me a sharp glance and pointed with his head back at the forest. Go.
I needed no second telling. I ran as fast as my legs could carry me. I ran until it seemed as if my lungs would burst. Finally I had to stop, gasping for breath. I heard branches rustle behind me and started, afraid. Golden eyes peered out at me from the bushes.
"What is your name?" I asked.
The eyes blinked and abruptly they were gone as suddenly as they had come. When I had rested I continued on my way, slower this time, and I could hear, just barely on the edge of my hearing, footsteps not quite in step with mine. From time to time I would see a telltale flash of those eyes in the forest around me. I felt safe, knowing I had a protector. I finally arrived home, and looked back one more time at the forest I had so foolishly entered.
The boy stood there, clothed in furs and skins, a spear in one hand, his raven hair blowing gently in the wind. He nodded sternly at me and brought one hand to his chest, making a fist, then swung it out towards me, a gesture of farewell. His eyes were hard as steel and cold as ice as they locked onto mine, and again he gave a slow nod.
Do not come back.
I turned and fled back to my village, laughing inwardly and yet afraid. Nothing he could have done would make me desire to go back stronger than that gaze, but yet…I was afraid, of that village, and that monstrous thing which lived in it, and of those eyes which were so unforgiving. But my curiosity was unbearable. Who was this boy who had saved me? Why did he want me out of the forest so badly?
I returned to the forest the next day, slipping past my watchful parents. I was determined to find the boy and, at the least, thank him for saving me from that monster. If all went well, I hoped to actually get to know him.
I trekked through the woods. It was eerily silent, and I felt as if I was being watched the entire time. Not so subtly, the trees would part, sometimes even pushing me forward if I stopped, urging me toward my destination. I arrived swiftly at Maerdri's Peace, only to find the boy already there, reclining in the grass and staring at the central stone. I gasped.
Instantly he turned, saw me, and bared his teeth in a growl, backing away slowly. I immediately began to regret my decision to seek him out. This boy was wild, dangerous even. Even as my fears rose, he recoiled as if struck and bowed meekly towards the pillar, and at the same moment I felt the calm I had felt on my previous visit soothing my fears away. We stared at each other for a long time. I was waiting for him to break the awkward silence, but he did not oblige, instead staring at the staff.
I finally reached the point where I could not stand it anymore. "Who is Maerdri?" I asked. He glared at me, as if to suggest that I should remain silent. "Is this some sort of holy place?" I tried again. Another glare. "My name is Nemira…" I prompted. He merely looked at me and cocked his head, as if to ask, why should I care?
"Why did you save me from that…monster?" He stiffened up straight then, and I thought at last he might actually say something. But his face when he turned back to me was torn, and he abruptly spun to his feet and padded from the grove. At first I was too shocked to speak, by the time I managed to clamber to my own feet and cry "Wait!" he was already gone. I started to run after him, but a gentle voice restrained me.
Let him go, little one. I turned, and, seeing no one, was afraid for the briefest of moments. "Maerdri?" I queried cautiously. Another sigh rippled from the forest, and the grass around me stirred. I felt, rather than saw, the unseen voice smile.
It has been…so long…since anyone bothered to listen to me. So very long since I heard my name. Thank you. The wind blew once more and I saw, on the edge of vision, a figure of a woman in a flowing dress. I knew it was Maerdri, and I knew I could never forget her. She was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. Slowly, as if not believing it was real, the woman stepped into the grove. Instantly her face broke into the widest smile, and she whirled briefly in pleasure.
"I am here…how am I here, you dear, dear little child?" She held her hand before her, ran it through her own long black hair and felt her face in simple wonder. "A thousand thanks upon the faith of a child!" She laughed, and swept me into her arms and spun, laughing, before setting me back down.
"You are Maerdri?" I asked, somewhat shaken.
She curtsied. "Indeed."
"What is this place?"
"When I lived, it was called J'halla's Wood. It was sacred to the goddess I worshipped. But it was…overrun," she said sadly. "Monsters came, many of them, and blighted the forest. The village you saw was much like yours, once. Before…" she shuddered. "Before Azrai'el came."
"Who is he?"
"Death," said Maerdri simply. "Death when he was still a man. Before he became what he is now. That village…" Maerdri sighed. "No one even remembers its name. I cannot remember. Azrai'el ripped it from my memories, because I was one of the few others to know. But when he lived, he lived there, and…for reasons of his own, he grew to hate it."
She held up a hand to silence my many questions. Why had he hated it? How could death be a person? How could he be alive like me? Why had he destroyed the village? My mind echoed with a chorus of endless whys.
"It is a long story, and I will not delve into it here, of all places. Your nightmares will be bad enough just from seeing what you did. If I told you the rest…" she broke off. "It could very well kill you."
I sat down, stunned into silence. Maerdri stood solemnly nearby, her face sad. "I haven't answered you, have I? This place," she held out her hands to indicate the grove, "Is my refuge. No creature can harm another here, and no one can harbor evil or hurtful thoughts in my Peace. It is a safe place, the very heart of the forest." She reached up a hand as if to stroke the staff, and stopped, wistful.
"This was my staff," she smiled sadly. "I fought the Azkrothin here, with this staff, and banished them." She sighed again. "I died here fighting them. It was my last heroism, my last good deed. I am content with that."
"Demons, created by Azrai'el," Maerdri explained. "The monster you met in the nameless village was one of them, and there are probably others."
"I thought you said you'd destroyed them?"
Maerdri laughed a trifle sadly. "I banished them dear one, I did not destroy them. I don't think they can be destroyed. But certainly there are much fewer than there were, and they are bound to remain in the ruins, where Azrai'el's power is strongest. You are safe here, and in the forest. They will not harm you." She held my chin gently in her hand. "So do not feel fear, child. You are safe with me."
I nodded and fell silent, content in Maerdri's Peace. At last I asked the question which had been burning in my mind.
"Who is that boy?"
Maerdri gave me a sharp glance. I gazed back, all the innocence I could muster plastered on my face. Maerdri alternately scowled and smiled. Finally she answered,
"He is…he used to live in the village, before Azrai'el destroyed it. He is the last, and only, survivor."
"Why does he run from us?"
"He runs from you," Maerdri chuckled. "I see him often, though I've never known if he has heard the words of comfort I give. I do know that he takes refuge here. It is the only place he can truly escape his past, thanks to my magic."
"What is his name?" I pressed, determined.
Maerdri again shook her head. "I do not know. He doesn't speak."
I gasped in surprise. "Never? At all?"
"He's a special child, like you. He is a boy who is also a wolf. These days more a wolf who is sometimes a boy. It is hard to tell which came first. You are lucky even to have seen his human face. He rarely leaves his wolf form."
My mind reeled. "How-"
"He was marked by the Wolf Lord at birth. And he has seen more than he ever should have had to bear. It would drive any shalvabraad into his wild side, especially in one so young. And he has spent so long as a wolf I don't think he even knows which is his true form anymore."
As if on cue, a wolf, larger than any I had ever seen, padded into the Peace. Midnight-black fur framed two stark yellow eyes which gazed first at me, then at Maerdri. The wolf cocked his head to the side, puzzled. Maerdri curtsied.
"I am Maerdri." The wolf's eyes widened and it crouched in what might have been a bow. Then it padded to Maerdri and sniffed her outstretched hand, then licked it and bumped against her. I let out a sigh I hadn't realized I'd been holding. Maerdri and the wolf looked at me, both curious.
I shrugged. "I wasn't sure what would happen," I explained. Cautiously I held my hand out for the wolf to inspect. He stared at and then began to shake, his tongue lolling out the side of his mouth. Abruptly I realized he was laughing. Affronted, I drew my hand back. "He seems much more cheerful in this form. I can't picture that boy even smiling, let alone mocking me," I retorted with a hint of bitterness.
The wolf stopped just as abruptly and glared at me. Maerdri also gave me a somewhat less severe glare. "Child, mind this place. At least be civil to each other. This is, after all," she gestured to the grove around her with outstretched hands, "my Peace, and should be just that: peaceful. That goes for you as well," she said taking the wolf's head in either hand and forcing him to meet her eyes.
The wolf whined appropriately and did another little ducking bow.