In the heart of the Whispering Woods, where ancient trees whispered secrets of old and the air hummed with magic, there existed a tale passed down through generations.

It was said that long ago, when the world was young and the stars danced freely in the night sky, there lived a humble village nestled amidst the towering trees. The villagers were simple folk, living in harmony with nature and the mystical beings that called the woods their home.

But one fateful night, darkness descended upon the Whispering Woods. A malevolent force, known only as the Shadow, crept from the depths of the forest, its chilling whispers spreading fear and despair.

The villagers trembled as the Shadow’s influence grew, ensnaring the hearts of those it touched. Crops withered, streams ran dry, and the once vibrant forest became cloaked in shadow.

Amidst the despair, a young orphan named Elara emerged. With courage in her heart and determination in her eyes, she embarked on a journey to confront the Shadow and restore balance to the Whispering Woods.

Guided by the whispers of the ancient trees, Elara ventured deep into the heart of the forest, facing trials and tribulations along the way. She encountered mystical creatures, forged unlikely alliances, and uncovered forgotten truths buried beneath the shadows.

Through her unwavering spirit and selfless deeds, Elara discovered that the true power of the Shadow lay not in its darkness, but in the fear it instilled in the hearts of the villagers. Armed with this knowledge, she rallied her fellow villagers, igniting the flame of hope that had long been extinguished.

Together, they stood against the Shadow, their voices raised in unity against the darkness. With each step they took, the forest echoed with their resolve, shaking the very foundations of the Shadow’s domain.

In a final confrontation beneath the canopy of ancient trees, Elara faced the Shadow head-on, her spirit shining bright against the darkness. With a triumphant cry, she banished the Shadow from the Whispering Woods, restoring light and life to the forest once more.

As the whispers of the trees rejoiced in their victory, the villagers gathered to honor Elara and the courage she had shown. And though the tale of the Whispering Woods would fade with time, the memory of Elara’s bravery would live on, a beacon of hope for generations to come.

For in the heart of the Whispering Woods, where ancient trees whispered secrets of old, there existed a tale—a tale of courage, resilience, and the power of hope. And in that tale, we remember the triumph of light over darkness, and the enduring spirit of those who dare to believe.

She is uneasy. I can smell it. The grey one is talking to her softly in the shrinking light. We will move soon, not away from the strange trees, but into them. This seems bad to me. They are older than the other trees and smell angry and strong. There is ample food, clean and rapid water, and there is a friendly bitch in a hut close to the ravine I would like to get to know. We do not need to go in order to live.

But once they are up on their hind legs, these ones take themselves far too seriously. They start making and building fancy things and places and ideas. She has fed me since I was very small, though. I will bite anything that threatens her. I understand how many meanings bark has.

“Seldom are hounds allowed to take part in the rite, Bridget. The elders have granted you this boon after lengthy deliberation. Do not make me look the fool by squandering it. Only three women have been welcomed into our midst before. If you do what you must, you will become the fourth. Do you understand what must be done?” Daffyd looked at me with the same cool skepticism that he showed when I asked him for more lamb than I ought to have had at a feast when I was a child. His beard was brown then, his back straight. Time eats everything and everyone with slow and deliberate care, from fruit to rind.

“I understand. Cuidiú cannot misbehave; he would be insulted by any suggestion to the contrary. He hears and smells things I cannot. I respect him. So will they.” Daffyd deplores careless, superfluous talk. I have learned to speak in a way that wins his respect. I want his respect because it will allow me to learn things few know, and fewer understand.

“He has acquitted himself well in war and in peace. He is no ordinary hound. We will await your return. There will be pain. There will be fear. You will learn. Go, now. If you return, you will be welcome. So will he.” Daffyd smiled. He has fewer teeth than he had when we met. I will count them, when next he affords me the chance. He whispers a blessing and hands me the bachall. It is as long and experienced as his femur. Walking among the roots can be tricky. It will be useful, and carrying it is mandated by tradition in any event. Rituals are coins with the faces rubbed off. It is foolish to underestimate their worth. Daffyd taught me that, before I became a woman and understood it, for both good and ill.

Here she comes. We are moving now. I smell the grey one. He will see his last winter soon. Something is rotting in his guts.

Squirrels never relax. They always taste exhausted. Two are arguing there, over the grey one’s head. Few of their kind venture further in, where she and I must. Are we not wiser than squirrels?

Cuidiú’s eyes hunt through mine for signs of distress, as always. They look like bowls of my grandmother’s broth, brimming with warm, brown, familiar comfort. Looking at him watching me is a recipe for courage. No one will ever love me as purely and simply as he does. I am glad of it.

I whistle and look into the trees. He huffs and canters around me in a quick, affectionate circle, then moves into their shadows. I envy his confidence.

The twilight is ordinary until it is not. I admire his coat, his determined musculature, the casual elegance of his limbs. I have always been a little clumsy. Cuidiú marches like a compact, auburn army.

The young trees are almost behind us now. Even the moles are few after they give way to their elders, and what birds there are seem asleep or pretending to be. I can smell one wolf and many deer. One fewer left than came. Wolves. Freedom sometimes stinks.

It is thick, the stillness among the eldest trees, like a pause before an ugly truth is told. Fitting. That is what Daffyd and the others told me to be prepared for. Here it is.

**We remember when you burned our kin. Some of our children are your father’s spears. Does it please you, when we die so you might kill?**

There is no sound, but Cuidiú lifts his nose from the earth and retreats a step when these words bloom in my head. There are images of a cooking fire, then a battle’s storm of motion and blood and the smell of smoke teases my nostrils, though there is none about. I clutch the bachall and wait, like a swimmer obeying the tide. They are just clearing their throats. It is not a single voice, but a chorus: a school of ancient fish turning in time, or a field of wheat unanimously flattering the wind. If all of the leaves in a forest moved the same way at the same time, the words in my mind sound as they would. Can Cuidiú hear them?

I watch her eyes for instruction. She heard something I could not, which is as rare as a third ear. Almost nothing moves here, save she and I and the parts of them that can. The dirt is blank. I would be bored if I was not afraid. I mustn’t show her, or she will become so in turn. Disease loves spreading.

**We remember when your kind first crawled toward us. Filthy, stupid, smug in your rootlessness. How little you have grown. Where is your shame?**

It had weight, that one. I am on my knees before I know it, holding on to the bachall like a sailor clinging to a mast in a stinging, salty gale. Cuidiú is before me, growling. The history of my clan dripped from those words like bitter tears. I saw my ancestors killing and eating birds and animals; befriending and betraying; raping and murdering; marrying and scheming and praying. All in an instant. It was like eating a morsel and realizing it was every meal you have ever eaten in a tiny disguise. I want to vomit and cannot. My legs are water.

**We remember your great grandfather’s lord and his secret lust for his sister’s daughter. His eyes moved over her breasts like thieves weighing their neighbors’ wealth. What makes you worthy to bear his ugly blood into our presence?**

They are hurting her. I do not know how. It does not matter. I will protect her in every way I can. Trees are not as they seem. The sun is a cruel king. It makes them hard. They can only move by growing, or when pushed. Imagine being a toy for the wind.

I smile at that last salvo, the images of a lusty, crowned fool ogling an innocent and the stench of mead and burned meat that came with it. I stand up. The stupidity of men is not my responsibility. I stroke Cuidiú’s back. He checks my eyes again, whines softly. I nod and he advances. He is not tentative but he is prudent. He wags his tail a bit to bolster my spirits. I actually chuckle. We advance a little, into their dark assembly.

**We remember your great grandmother touching the priestess behind the altar. Oh, the moist stink of their pleasure! How it stuck to the shocked eyes of your gods! How can you, brittle leaf of that soiled plant, presume to walk under our boughs?**

I have never seen her hurt herself before. She raised the stick and hit her cheek. No fly was there to be swatted. Her head retreated and she yelped. I am starting to hate these trees. We should not have come. She is stubborn. We are alike. Paws like ours seldom pause.

I could hear their gasping and see their bodies undulating to heretical, sweet music behind the crude altar in the dark. I could smell parts of them I wished I had not. If I can learn to do this, I am not sure I wish to, or ought to, especially because some kinds of pain you recognize right away as permanent. The moon waxes and wanes, but it is always the moon. Touching my cheek is a mistake. Cuidiú’s eyes are a blend of worry and indignant rage. How often they are mirrors for mine!

**We remember how you spoiled that song at your mother’s funeral. The bashful, wincing shame of your father! The priests still mutter and chuckle about it when you are not listening. Your aunt cannot even spell forgiveness in the tongue of that memory. Who do you think is walking in our shadows, now? One worthy to know anything we have to teach? You were forgotten before you were born, sapling!**

Guilt is a thick, acrid poison. It fills my mouth, as that clumsy song did, refusing fluidly to move into the ears of the mourners who craved its pure balm. I feel as if I have grown fat and tired in an instant. All of my strength has crept into the dirt and sighed into death. Cuidiú is trembling and barking at me. Looking up reveals nothing of the sparkling ink of the night. Their ancient limbs mock my search for the sky’s shining succor.

**We remember when you were planted in your mother. Do you think it was your father’s seed she greedily drank? How small and shallow the pool of your mind is; how dirty and impure. Do you know how light tastes, mewling child?**

For the first time, an answer almost bursts out of me. Daffyd’s words were clear and cold as fresh ice: “Do any of us impudently talk back to our elders, Bridget, if we have the sense the gods gave a goose? You must not answer them, no matter how great the will to do so grows. Your silence is your prayer to them. They are older than our eldest memories and their roots are deeper than our ancestor’s graves. Say nothing. Do not even answer in your mind. If a druid you wish to be, act like one.” So, I hold my tongue and let Cuidiú bark and growl for me.

She looks older than she was when we began walking. The bruise is dark and growing. Her eyes are lost. What if I quench their rotten old roots with my piss? Will they leave her alone and hurt me instead?

**We remember when you piled the corpses of our fathers to make your dwellings. We remember when you hewed the bones of our children to float toward disasters of your own making. We remember when fire was not your servant, but your terrible and mysterious master. We remember when you ate of what we dropped and left us whole. How petulant, how proud, how prurient and prying your minds and hands are. Why should we give you anything, you twig from a bushel of barbarians and brutes?**

Failures and follies avalanche into my head: broken vows and ships dashed by stones while their oarsmen drank and cursed the clouds; villages burned by the sleepy neglect of their guardians or the malice of canny marauders slipping under the noses of distracted sentries; temples built on the ashes of others’ altars; a cascade of petty crimes and traitorous dagger blows, all to the music of incredulous, outraged shouting, pleas for mercy, cries of alarm imprisoned in slashed throats. The aroma of catastrophe, equal parts shit and rot, stuffs my nostrils. I feel like a filthy dwarf, awakened from a dream in which I was a beautiful titan. I kneel in the dirt and weep. Cuidiú curls about me and whimpers.

She smells sick and broken, suddenly. It is such a vulnerable way to move, on one’s hind legs, with all of one’s softest parts smiling in the sun. I will never leave her, but she is strange and embarrassing so often; so weak and easily hurt, but always sure. Her thumbs and her thoughts are impressive, but really, she is not half a hound in most ways.

**We remember when you planted some of our youngest kin. We remember when you stayed your brother’s hand before he could cut our brother to build a festival fire. We remember when you touched the bark of our nephew in the grove like that of a lover and asked his advice after you were told that you were not strong or swift enough to join the kern and make war. We remember the finest seeds you have planted in the sordid soil of the history of this place and your people. We will grant what you seek. Leave us.**

When I awoke, I was being carried. I do not remember the darkness descending. Who is the man who carries me, and why do Daffyd and the other elders, gathered just beyond the trees, look as though they are watching a god or a demon approach?

It is strange, walking with everything stretched out this way, but I am honored and happy to carry her. I will love her differently now, as a man.

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