Forrest woke to a cool, wooden room, and scratchy straw tickling the skin of her arms and neck. She moved to a scraping rustle of hay and looked blearily around her. She was, she realised quite quickly, in the interior of a nool hut. The sight of all that murdered wood surrounding her made her feel quite sick. She swallowed her nausea and looked around. The room was entirely empty except for the four mounds of hay, one of which she had slept upon. There were no windows in this room. There was also no one else there. Slowly she got up.
Her muscles ached with a powerful stiffness that made each step painful. She tried to shake them out, and to stretch them gently, but there seemed to be no better remedy than simply walking, and since she was already fully intending to explore, walk she did.
The bedchamber, if it could really be called that, had a rough door in the internal wall - it was just a gap in the woven straw, not even tied off so that scraps of straw were even poking out through the edges, easy to tear away. Through this hole, Forrest stepped into the living chamber. Another, entirely empty space, this time with a window and an external door, but without the hay. Again, she saw no one.
The main door to the hut also had no 'door' as such, more like a gap in the woodwork through which one could pass. The door led her out into the sun which, she lamented, she had no way to measure how many turns it had made by now. She thought for a brief moment of Berkeley and her mother and the diplomats party. Those things seemed like an age ago. Was she still in the woods, close to her home? She felt like she was in another world.
She thought briefly of Gail and felt concerned. He was, she knew, a better hider and capable human, although he was prone to moments of panic and fear. She could only hope that he would be able to find his way without her.
There was, in any case, nothing she could do at the moment, so she didn't waste unnecessary time worrying about him. Instead she took her first look at what she would later discover was called the forum.
The door of the hut was on thin stilts, and there were five roughly hewn steps down to the ground. Forrest took them, and made her way to the centre of the area where a stone table stood, surrounded by dust and sun.
There was no one around. The other huts were silent and eerie. There weren't even any trees to rustle their leaves in a high breeze. The air near the ground had turned hot and oppressive, despite the autumn season. The giant ferns that stood around the area, making it seem something like a circle, were motionless in the airless heat.
Forrest's feet kicked up dust as she made her way tentatively towards the stone table. Her eyes moved about warily, conscious of being snuck up upon in the middle of this wide space. She didn't like the circle. There was no way she could keep her eyes on everything at once. There was always a part of it that was behind her.
When she reached the table, she lay her hands on it, and noticed the writing. It was necessary to brush away a light accumulation of dust in order to read it. What she saw there surprised her.
"Humanity?" She mouthed the words to herself. But we are the humans, and they are only nool. Why would they write this? She wrinkled her brow in thought, until an old, wrinkled voice sounded from somewhere behind her.
"You're awake, young Prince."
Forrest spun around in astonishment.
Sitting on the steps of the house she had only just left was an ancient looking woman. Forrest nearly cursed with surprise. She was sure as anything that the woman hadn't been there moments before.
The woman lent on a gnarled stick, her frail form stooped and shrivelled. Forrest glared at her.
"What makes you think I'm a Prince?" She demanded defensively.
"You're the hart. Everyone knows what the hart means."
Forrest pursed her lips slightly, but had no reply to make, remembering the way she had plunged into the midst of what had looked some kind of meeting however long ago it had been.
"If you know I'm a Prince, why did you help me?"
The old woman's expression seemed to turn serious and she stared hard at Forrest across the distance.
"Is the Prince my enemy?"
Forrest was rather taken aback by the question. "Well, no but... but I'm a human. And you're a nool."
"And you are my enemy?"
"No... no. I'm not your enemy."
"Then, we help you." As if it were the simplest, most obvious thing in the world.
Forrest sighed slightly. The old woman didn't seem to understand. Perhaps the long years had turned her slightly senile. She just didn't get it at all.
"Where is everyone?" Forrest asked instead.
"It is meal time. They have gone for their rations."
"I see. Then... they'll come back..." Forrest felt strangely nervous at the prospect of being confronted and interrogated by the community of nool. They had helped her, and that meant that she owed them something that she couldn't repay. She was frightened that they might ask her for help. That they would think she had the power to help them, when she could do nothing at all. She feared disappointing them more than she feared their possible hostility.
Forrest had never felt small. She had always been strong. She had been a master of her own world. But this - the nool reservation - the farm, the acreage, the sheer numbers of nool and guards, utterly dwarfed her. For the first time she was forced to question her ability to do anything at all. Who would listen to her voice in the midst of a machine this huge?
She wanted to fight. She just didn't know who she was supposed to be fighting against. The bear? Perhaps. The nool? The humans, her mother, herself? Was there blame to be laid down at all? Perhaps this was the way it was meant to be. Perhaps this was the best, the safest place, for the unevolved nool. These primitive, basic creatures. They could not change, they had no animal mind. They could do nothing except spread, devour and destroy. Here, in the reservation they were contained, policed, kept occupied and productive. They had the chance to be a community, to feed, water and clothe themselves. They were safe from the dangers of the world, cared for by their benevolent human overlords. That was what Forrest had been taught in class - what every human child was taught in class. And she had believed it. And she still wanted to believe it. The theory, she felt, was accurate. But the reality didn't add up with her visions of the ideal. Because now she'd seen this place with her own eyes, she'd come to recognise one thing.
Unhappiness. She could feel it everywhere, as if the whole place were saturated with it.
The nool were unhappy.
And that made everything, even the best and most noble intentions of Forrest's people, wrong.
Her heart bled for them all.
"Young Hart," the old woman addressed her kindly. "Do not feel blue. To stop sadness, you must act. Take these pitchers and fill them with water from the pump beyond the fifth hut. This will make you feel better."
Forrest looked sceptical of the advice, but not being in a position to refuse, she picked up a couple of baskets from the pile the old woman indicated. They were woven from the branches of saplings, and lined tightly with large shiny green leaves to keep the water within. Forrest only had to take half a look to know they would leak horribly.
"What is your name?" she asked as she shouldered them under her arms, her hands sprawling out awkwardly on either side of her.
The old lady smiled. "You may call me Grandma. Everyone does."
Forrest raised one brow. "Grandma," she repeated. It seemed odd to call her such a thing, no less since she was, realistically, a completely different species all together.
"Well, hello then, Grandma." She lifted her lips into a grin. "My name is Forrest. And I'm going to get you your water."
Grandma smiled pleasantly back.
It was easy to find, just a short ramble down the dusty road, past five or six huts before the pump contraption came into view by the side of the road. Forrest felt strange and light-footed as she walked along, a basket on each shoulder, swinging her arms. She was going to get water. She was acting just like one of the nool. The idea made her strangely pleased.
She placed the baskets by the pump and then examined it thoroughly, trying to figure out the mechanism. Forrest did not live in a technological world – even the simple farm tools of the nool mystified her – so the pump was several leaps beyond her experience. It was simply operated by a lever which, when pumped up and down, brought water to the surface from an underground channel beneath the ground. This water would then slush noisily into whatever container had been set underneath the spout. But Forrest didn't know this. Her only experience with collecting water was from a flowing river or stream.
Her enthusiasm waned somewhat as she examined the thing, feeling increasingly foolish and helpless. She didn't want to go back to Grandma empty handed, or to admit she didn't know what to do, but she couldn't see any water, nor any obvious method for obtaining it. Suddenly the huts around her seemed to be full of prying eyes – nool looked out at her struggle and laughing at her. She felt herself grow hot, despite knowing there was probably no one there at all.
Eventually she discovered that the lever could move, but was so surprised by the small tickle of water that appeared from the spout that she abandoned her effort to go and look, causing the water to cease. She frowned.
"What are you, an idiot?"
Forrest turned around so quickly she almost fell over.
"I know you shifters are all simple-minded, but even a baby knows how to work a pump."
Forrest visibly bristled. Before her, on the dust road not ten feet away was a nool. He seemed about her age, maybe a little younger. He had the same pitch black hair and tall, ungainly grace as the rest of his race. His arms were folded and his face twisted into a sneer of condescension. His bright blue eyes were hot with dislike.
Forrest did not back down.
"Shut up," she replied with all the venom she could spit. "I've never seen one before. How am I supposed to know how it works?"
"We'll you're obviously never going to work it out by yourself. Move out of the way."
Forrest's expression turned tight and displeased, but she stepped reluctantly out of his way and watched as he lent all his weight onto the lever and began to make it move. A torrent of water immediately flooded out of the spout, filling a basket in moments.
As soon as it was full, Forrest moved in and switched the first basket with the second, getting her hands and arms soaked in the process, as the nool did not bother to slow the stream of water for her. It irritated her, but she didn't say anything.
He was, she felt, sort of interesting. He knew things, like how to work the pump. And besides, she realised, she'd seen him before. He was the boy who'd tried to fight off the bear. The very same one she had sent Gail off to help.
She didn't know much about him, but she knew he was brave. At the very least she was willing to bestow just a little of her begrudging respect.
"I'm Forrest," she told him, after the second basket was also full.
"That's a stupid name," was his response.
"I bet yours is stupider."
"No it's not. It's Luther."
"Luther? What sort of name is that? No rational person would name a child Luther. It doesn't sound like the woods at all."
"Why should it have to sound like the woods?"
"Well..." she floundered a little, "...well, it just should. Woods names are beautiful. Everyone knows that."
"Well I never heard that."
"That's 'cos you're just stupid."
"Not as stupid as you."
By the time they returned to the forum, they were something like reluctant good friends.