You hear a lot about “treehuggers,” but no one ever talks about “predator pals” (no one that I’m aware of, anyway).
Final Forest Exam, by Alexander Paul Willging
Word Count: 925
“Child, you are almost ready for your anointment. You have just one more test to fulfill.”
Mother Nira’s words echoed through her mind as she slid to a halt behind a tree. Several yards away, the wolf growled. Kumiko closed her eyes and prayed to Mother Earth that the false herbs she’d dropped would distract the beast.
She didn’t know what she was doing. From the moment she entered the forest, Kumiko knew she was a failure. She could never become a true druid.
In her mind’s eye, she saw Mother Nira back at the Solar Shrine. Gaunt-faced and tall, born as one of the male fey, but she wore the gown and veil of a priestess consecrated to the Great Mother. Nira had smiled and touched the pointed tips of Kumiko’s ears with drops of holy oil. The air around them had been filled with the birdsong chants of the Sun Dancers, honoring the gods at daybreak.
“You must not falter, you must not fear,” Nira had said, seeming as tender as Kumiko’s mother and aunts. “The world is a mirror, child. Show it fear and it will respond in fear. Show it love and it will love you back. Show it courage and it will suffer you bravely.”
Sitting behind an ancient black tree, with a great wolf on her tail, Kumiko didn’t think her wisdom could help her know.
The beast snarled and drew closer. Kumiko cursed herself for trying to rely on false herbs as a distraction. She was going to die unless she fought the wolf. But what druid’s spell could do that?
She could heal a wound, tread silently, swim for miles, and sense the presence of flora and fauna alike. But she was no battle-mage. Her sorcery could only deflect. It’d do nothing to protect her from being ripped limb from limb.
“Show it courage and it will suffer you bravely…”
Mother Nira, you’re an old fool, Kumiko thought, falling to her hands and knees. The Wild didn’t care if you were just or brave. It just ate and gave birth to things that could be eaten. Nothing more.
Kumiko wished she could see her family one last time, just to tell them how sorry she was to have failed as a druid. Her father Lord Yori would be disgraced, as if his sept wasn’t in enough trouble with the Erlking. She’d make everything worse just by being alive.
I’m already dead, the timid fey realized. I’m dead and there’s no going back.
Impossibly, that thought calmed her a little. She turned around and stepped out from behind the tree.
The gray, shaggy-coated wolf snarled when it laid eyes on her. With a saliva-dripping maw widened, it raced forward on all four legs and leapt for Kumiko’s throat. The fey tilted her head back, ready for the end.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered to her family, to Mother Nira. “Think kindly of me when I’m gone. Do that for me.”
Her eyes squeezed shut as the wolf’s forepaws slammed into her chest, pinning her onto the dirt. Kumiko waited for the jaws to tear into her throat and end her miserable life.
It never happened.
Slowly, cautiously, she opened her eyes and stared into the wolf’s terrifying face.
It was looking down at her intently. The beast’s breath stank of raw meat and fur as it panted.
“Why?” Kumiko asked. She wondered if Mother Earth would appear in all Her glory and answer.
The wolf gave a short yip. To Kumiko’s ears, she heard it as a common grunt. But in the depths of her mind, it sounded completely different.
A voice. A crude, masculine, unlearned voice.
Because girl says so.
The wolf barked and she heard it in her mind as, Girl says think kindly.
“Y-you can understand me?”
With cant. First tongue.
Kumiko had heard about Cant. The language of truth, Mother Nira had called it. A primordial language known to every beast of the Wild and buried deep inside the mind of every fey. Only a true druid knew how to rediscover the words of Cant, to commune with all of nature and honor Mother Earth in Her Own Word.
And now Kumiko saw the truth of the matter. That moment of stillness. She’d been ready to die. She’d conquered her fear. She’d opened her deepest self to the jaws of death and shame.
“I am not your enemy,” Kumiko said slowly. She felt uncomfortable staring into the wolf’s golden eyes, but she owed it that much. “I am a friend.”
Yes, the wolf whined as it pulled its paws off of her. Friend. Am Teor.
“Teor.” As she sat up, Kumiko didn’t bother brushing away the dirt from her hair or the saliva in her face. She looked around at the black forest with new eyes.
It wasn’t threatening anymore. It just existed. An extension of the Wild and nothing more.
“Teor,” she said calmly. “I lost my way. I must go home.”
The wolf barked and wagged its tail. Home. Know your scent. Follow Teor now.
The fey smiled and, after a moment’s thought, she reached down to scratch the wolf’s neck. When the canine panted in delight, Kumiko pointed back the way she came. The wolf barked and led the way.
Somewhere close by, the birds were singing and a squirrel was running up the side of an oak. Kumiko heard it all, just as she heard Mother Nira saying, “Show it love and it will love you back…”
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