The Grove of the Dendromancer

Simon Whitechapel

Arboribusque comæ.  Q. Horatii Flacci Carmina IV vii.
   “And leaves to the trees.” Horace’s Odes 4:7.

Their ship Mgyuukkenav, or Ocean-Vampire, cornered, driven ashore and incinerated by the amber-headed fire-arrows of two of the emperor’s triremes, the pirates had fled in hastily launched longboats through a long-familiar maze of razor-toothed rock and tide-drained channel to the west of the grounding, gesturing obscenely to their conquerers till even the cerulean gonfalons atop the triremes’ masts had been swallowed by the green fangs of the headland forest around which they rowed. It was now that, safe out of sight, they made for shore, dragged the longboats up its slope, and carried them sweating, fly-swarmed, and cursing atop and over a ridge to the broad green coolth of the river Pagbatiir. Here they might have taken their ease for a time, even bathing in the river and trawling its banks for river-crabs to roast; but their scarred and monoculate captain Tanshuu, his voice already cracked from the alarums of the day, drove them to their oars with croaking descriptions of the exquisite and ingeniously prolonged torments awaiting them in the imperial capital, should the triremes’ crew manage to solve the maze, follow their trail and capture them.

The longboats were duly re-launched, yet one disobeyed him, turning with the river-flow rather than against, to drift with increasing speed seaward as its oarsmen sat idle and grinning at their rowlocks.

“Upriver, damn ye!” he had croaked after them, then spat into the water with a shrug. “Very well, ye fools,” he muttered. “Stake ye your skins, and other essentials, against the perspicacity of our emperor’s captains. The river debouches too close along the coast and the one of the triremes may be awaiting ye, if our destination has been guessed.

“So, on, lads! Upriver!” he resumed in his scarce-louder croak to the oarsmen of his own longboat, gesturing the command to the oarsmen of the five others to remain subordinate. “Blister your hands a day or two and ye will have safety for months to come. There will be villages to raid, pigs to spit and maidens to tup, or arsy-varsy, if so ye please!”

The laughter with which the oarsmen of his longboat greeted the sally provoked curiosity from the oarsmen of the five others, and even drifted faintly to insubordinate ears now far downriver, but he stilled curiosity and merriment alike with mimic gestures of capture and torture; and the pirates settled to their oars and rowed, seeking that media via in the river granting them relief from both the sweat-thirsty flies of the bank and the scudding flow of mid-water. On through the remainder of the day they rowed, keeping a sharp eye astern for pursuit, and then beached on alluvial sand wherein, probing with sticks of riimedh-wood, they soon uncovered the eggs of river-turtles. Turning deaf ear in their hunger to the advice of Captain Tanshuu and his two lieutenants, who urged that the feast be delayed till morning lest the fires be seen even at great distance, they roasted the eggs with river-crabs and tautened their bellies till, one by one, they laid themselves to rest beneath the swinging sickle of late-rising Gvanuur.

In the morning they rose with grunts and flatulence to resume their flight; but one longboat, whose crew had mutually nodded and winked as they settled to their rowlocks, turned with the current as the longboat of the previous day had done, and drifted off in identical fashion, its idle oarsmen mocking the resumed efforts of their erstwhile comrades. Tanshuu spat after them and shrugged again, before releasing a nether-crack of contempt.

“They are greater fools than those of yesterday,” he said, his voice half-recovered from its exertions of the period he named. “For by now men of the triremes are surely rowing hard in our wake, the eyes of their lookouts sharpened by eagerness for the gold circlets the emperor’s bounty has placed on all our heads. Nay, numbwit, I spake in metaphor, not of actuality!”

And again laughter went up from his longboat, provoked this time by the lummocky native of melanodermic Maahen, who had put wondering hand to his pate as Tanshuu spoke of the gold circlets; and again Tanshuu silenced the merriment and urged his pirates on. Yet scarce had they rowed a seven-knot than a cry went up from a steersman who had cast eyes downriver in watch for pursuit; and all eyes fastened on a faint mid-water glitter. Even as the pirates watched it was carried out of sight round a bight of the river, but its significance none paused to dispute. ’Twas the idlers of the deserting longboat, in vain battle for their skins against imperial capture. The visions yester-conjured by Tanshuu’s words anent torture rose afresh within all skulls and they set to their oars with a will.

But now another cry went up, and looking to the right and left bank they saw that tributaries were emptying into the Pagbatiir, whose waters received to the right a load of red silt and to the left of yellow, which mingled and swirled in the green of the greater river in a milliard never-repeating patterns. Tanshu gestured for the slower-flowing left tributary, double-bluffing the wits of later pursuit, and the piratical crews turned and rowed hard, knowing their chances of escape grew with every stroke. Yet as they passed the mouth of the Nwuyeraa, or “yellow tributary” as they soon named it, its silty waters pocked and dappled with the rising larvae of some river-insect, which clung surface-wise and split, releasing the shimmer-vanned black flies within.

In droning swarms they sprang into the air and dove at the toiling pirates, clinging to sweat-spiced arms and faces as they pierced the shining skin with horny probosces and eagerly sucked the warm blood within. Oarsmen broke off their rowing to slap with curses at this fluminal pest, but Tanshuu croaked and gestured them back to their oars, ignoring three encrimsoning flies that asterized his own face.

“Row, ye scurvy dogs, and let them tickle ye awhile with their kisses! ’Tis a further safeguard for our flight, for the sailors of the imperial fleet will judge us by their own pampered skins and, should they turn this way, conclude we never tried it or rejected it as soon we discovered its guardians.”

And so, with grunts of reluctant acquiescence, the pirates seized their oars again and rowed on through the flies, which thickened for a time, to their increasing discomfort, then began to dwindle slowly to nothing, leaving them spotted with bites whose itch would not subside for a week. As though in compensation, however, the tributary’s flow slackened further and they made much faster way than on the Pagbatiir, soon putting many bends between them and the imperial pursuit. Tanshuu let them beach at midday, to roast turtle-eggs and river-crabs again and risk their digestions in experimental sampling of forest fruit and berries, then drove them on till nightfall.

“We are safe now, I believe, lads,” he told the council they held in judgment of their misfortunes, “but a further day’s oarwork will assure it, and then we can set our sights on a village. Our steel blades and shark-gut bows will make short work of these forest tribes, and ’tis not unknown for them to keep gold-dust and gems in stock for trade with the river-merchants. Sooner than ye might expect we shall buy our way back to the sea-lanes, and with wits sharpened surely we shall rove and reave to even better effect than before. Say ye not, lads?”

And an “Aye!” of hearty agreement rose to the zenithing stars. In the morning no longboat turned with the river-flow, for all had drawn full lesson from the fate of the previous deserters, but the oarwork was slack and it was evident that thoughts of a fat village were now more pressing than fear of pursuit. So it was that glee greeted the sight of a landing-stage towards mid-morning, and a vote whether to land or row on was cast heavily in the former’s favor. The longboats were roped to the stage and the pirates swarmed to its springy boards, testing their sword-strokes on the sunny air and recalling Tanshuu’s jest of the pigs-and-maidens with grins and laughter. A man was left with each boat, lest the village’s welcome prove warmer than expected, then Tanshuu led the main band off down the forest-path that stretched from the stage, concealing his own doubts at the delay.

Yet the sun had moved barely a finger’s-breath in the sky before they reached two vast ivied trees to left and right of the path, guarding the entrance to a sun-dappled grove of vaster trees still, around whose roots, to their surprise, unseasonal drifts of late-surviving or early-fallen autumn leaves lay like the spreading gold or scarlet of giants’ cloaks. Nor was this the only uncanniness of the grove and its tree-guardians, for as the pirates paused between the latter to further scan the shadow and sun-dapple of the former, they noted first that many green-swaddled corpses hung feet-first from some lower branches of the grove; and second that the ivy-leaves of the guardians bore pale runes against their green, so that the ivy trembled and rustled with a secret significance.

“Nay, nay,” urged Tanshuu against the superstitious murmurs that awoke in the band of raiders. “’Tis a child’s trick, no more. This is some shrine or temple of the forest-tribes, and their priests have gummed rune-shapes of horn or parchment to the ivy-leaves, bleaching them thus before the gum loosens and the rune-shapes fall free. Come, there are rich pickings before us!”

And he led them between the twin tree-guardians before any eyes probed the ivy further, to note that its rune-leaves numbered far more and stretched far higher than his reasoning of the child’s trick foretold. As they passed within the shadows of the grove proper, a sudden momentary wind whipped up a cloak of autumn leaves into their faces; but as they slapped the leaves aside with coarse oaths, their renewed unease was forgotten, for trotting to meet them from huts of woven withy came some thirty or forty green-clad priestesses, fair of face and form and around whose slender necks and beckoning forearms hung many-gemmed necklaces and bracelets of ruby, emerald, beryl and pearl. Concupiscence of both flesh and fortune flared up in the pirate band, and they grinned and guffawed to see the innocence with which the shrine’s attendrices, whose movements and uptilted faces spoke of some common and perhaps ritual blindness, hastened toward them.

But disappointment was swift to follow their glee, for when with roars of lust the vanguard of the pirate band seized the vanguard of the priestesses, greatly surprised by the lightness and softness of the limbs and waists they grasped, they discovered that the gems around the necks and forearms were but forest-berries strung on flax; and when they stripped away the fresh-sewn leaf-cloth with which the priestesses were clad, they discovered that the promise of swelling breasts and hips was unfulfilled. No vas inferius offered itself for the quenching of their lust, whether naturale or nefandum. Furthermore, when a pirate swung a scarred fist against the blind beauty of a face whose owner struggled to escape him, the unnaturally soft skull caved in with a crunch and his hand was splattered not with wholesome red blood but with perturbing green sap. In half-a-minute the discovery had been made thrice more, and the pirates’ frustrated lust swung and crashed like a storm-deserted tiller, turning their purpose on quite another track.

“’Tis witchery!” they cried, and turned from bootless rape to ravening butchery, seizing and swinging sword and ax at the bewildered priestesses. Limbs and heads were chopped loose with green and gold gouts of sap most painful of later removal from beard and eyebrow, and the pirates’ righteous fury increased as it became evident that the life remained to the severed limbs and heads even as to denuded torsos. No sound did the priestesses utter, for no mouth lay behind the petal-red lips in their pale faces, but they writhed and wriggled to the blows that quartered and re-quartered them, till the pirates sickened of the quivering collops that littered the earth at their feet and passed on into the grove, shaking their blades free of the sap that stained them.

Herewith another dismaying discovery was made, for one of Tanshuu’s lieutenants, high-strung by the uncanniness of the struggle just past, was nudged in the face by the dangling head of a swaddled corpse, and hacked at it with an oath, sending the head thudding to the earth. Yet from the decapitated neck sap poured too, and eyes grown accustomed to the shadow now saw that the corpses hung on plant-cord, not rope, and were breasted and buttocked beneath their green-swaddling like the fresh-slain priestesses. A slash at the fallen head cut its swaddling away, and the mute blind features of a priestess peeped forth, blurred with the incompleteness of its growth.

“They sprout from the trees!” cried the lieutenant; and this might have been the signal for a general flight back to the landing-stage and longboats, had not a flash of movement ahead attracted the attention of his fellows. Further priestesses, it was seen, were carrying a palanquin in flight, and the pirates’ superstitious dread was quelled by the evident fear they had instilled. Bows twanged and priestesses tumbled as arrows sprouted in their narrow backs, though more from the force with which the arrows flew, it seemed, than from the injuries they inflicted; and the pirates rushed up to coup-de-grâce the wriggling porters and rout the palanquin’s occupant forth. Ah, ’twas an old wizard, gabbling with fright and telling the knobbled seeds of a necklace, which he tried to withhold from them in vain; and their good humor was restored by the sport that followed, when they strung him up by his eld-lengthened beard from a low-hanging branch of his own grove and roasted his feet and legs from beneath with a pyre of his own disreputably unseasonal leaves.

“Art begging us for release, wise-father?” they cried, dangling the snapped seed-necklace before him, before tossing it, to his most satisfying distress, into the smouldering pyre. “Then do so in a familiar tongue and we shall certainly give ear to thy petition!”

Nor did the premature end of the sport, when the heart of the sportee evidently burst from the exertion of his pogonic suspension and pedal calefaction, signal an end to their good humor, for a search of the grove had uncovered his dwelling, wherein much good food and wine was stored. Tanshuu too surrendered to the roistering, and even the appearance of the men left with the longboats, who had tired of their watch and come to see the success of the village-raid, did not disturb him over-much.

“Nay, I think fortune is with us and the imperial pursuit abandoned or long-since gone astray,” he slurred to a more anxious lieutenant. “For look what we have seized by seeming chance: finer trees for a ship than I never hoped to see. We shall over-winter here and in spring build us our new Mgyuukkenav, for the trunks can easily be rollered to the Nwuyeraa for construction on its banks. I think too,” he continued, swinging a wine-warmed eye to the dangling growth of future priestesses, “that we can devise better uses for these plant-women than sword-practice. They can cook and sew for us, and will prove satisfying concubines with the exercise of a little ingenuity, eh?”

So it proved; and indeed, when the u-Mgyuukkenav, or Ocean-Vampire II, was resin-caulked and ready for launch, some among the pirates elected to remain at the site of the half-vanished grove with the plant-wives they had hibernally trained, arguing that the beguiling fragrance and texture of their flesh was recommendation enough, let alone their inability to talk and the ease with which bored husbands could replace them with fresh-grown sisters from the gyavuunek, or priestess-trees. No attempt was made to carry plant-wives with the ship, for it had become apparent during the winter that salt was a deadly poison to the creatures and they would doubtless succumb in very short order even to the sea-breezes. The u-Mgyuukkenav accordingly sailed with only pirates aboard, to make its sea-trial before a trip across the strait of Raaku for recruitment in the lawless ports clustering the further coast. Tanshuu had had dreams of erecting a pirate capital on the site of the grove, for assaults in autumn and winter by tribesmen of the forest, maddened at the desecration of the shrine, had proved the ease with which it could be defended; and though he had been toppled by a coup in the autumn and provided similar, though satisfyingly longer, sport to the wizard, his vision was safeguarded still by his usurping lieutenant.

This worthy, yclept Sahriut, sailed as captain of the u-Mgyuukkenav, beard-strokingly confident of future success, for had not the tree-felling and ship-building passed with finger-click ease? And did not the ship now ride the water with the lightness and grace of a luulek, or swallow? Indeed, the helmsman could have steered with a fingertip or perhaps mostly stood with tattoo’d arms folded on his chest, for the u-Mgyuukkenav seemed enspirited with her own intelligence, as though the dryads of the trees that composed her communed with the undines of the river and swung her tiller like the tail of a fish. In an eyeblink, it seemed, they had negotiated the curves of the Nwuyeraa and were turning into the yellow-and-red-tainted green flow of Pagbatiir; but herewith, after a minute, Sahriut strode round the rails, pausing here and here to stare down long and hard at the water. The sails were still furled chrysalis-tight on the spars above his head, but the u-Mgyuukkenav was sailing faster than the river’s flow: see the wave that curled port and starboard to the blade of the prow and the foaming wake she left at her stern.

But Sahriut looked up with a grin and answered readily enough to chaff flung his way by the bare-foot ship’s cook, concealing his momentary unease lest he infect the ever-superstitious crew. Later, however, when the ship was cresting the green-tinged sea-waves at the mouth of the Pagbatiir, he sought out his mate and asked him to conduct an inspection of the ship — unremarkable enough now that they were at sea, if a little premature. The mate came to him around the eighth watch, holding a small sprig of green leaf, which he had found, he said, in the depths of the hold, growing from a rough-chiseled beam. When Sahriut came to the spot he found only the fresh soot of the mate’s lamp, in which he traced a rune of bon voyage with a shrug at his own returned unease. By now they were proceeding up the coast, testing the ship’s capabilities and finding them equal to any early demand; and on the third day, when they were returning on the same course, having swung back and then back again, Sahriut could see no further excuse for delay and gave the order for the journey across the strait of Raaku. The morale of the crew was star-high now and they would have laughed to scorn the three withered sprigs Sahriut held in his cabin, each plucked from that rough-chiseled beam in the hold.

But that evening, as the first sparks of sea-phosphorescence began to wake at the u-Mgyuukkenav ’s creaming prow-blade, a cry went up from a cabin-boy throwing rubbish overboard and in half-a-minute a dozen fierce, bearded faces were glaring over the rail, eyes straining in the twilight for the sea-serpents the boy insisted he had seen. And aye: there they were, clustering thick on the ship-side! Yet there was something odd about them, remarked by three voices raised as one, and soon the cabin-boy was being lowered overboard on a deck-cord, a long knife between his teeth, to splash and spin in the water before he was able to cut a sample free — only to lose it and have to try again. Then came his double jerk on the rope and he was lifted back to the deck, knife between his teeth again, a pale length of serpent clutched to the rope with his two hands.

Sahriut examined the sample carefully in the light of lamp held by his mate. ’Twas a root, and plainly the ship had been sprouting faster without than within. Yet even as he handed the thing to another curious hand, the deck drummed with running feet and he was brought the news that the hold was full of freshly sprouting sprigs, growing almost as ye watch, by the teats of Yrrîmdhel!, and that the tiller was seizing fast, answering the helmsman only when turned to the uncharted waters of the southern ocean. Sahriut went and saw for himself, descending into the hold to find that by now the sprigs were growing as the spectator watched, and were green as though they bathed in strong sunlight and not flickering lamplight; and tugging himself at the by-now jammed wheel.

The cabin-boy, whose clothes were already half-dried in the tropical warmth that had swallowed the ship as they left the coast, was dangled overboard again to inspect the tiller and cut away the jam; but he worked half-an-hour and then double-jerked for hauling back, to inform his shipmates that the roots had torn the knife from his grip even as he sliced at them. An older and brawnier pirate was lowered, equipped with a fresh-sharpened cutlass, but he too was soon hauled back to report failure. A voice somewhere in the throng at the stern voiced the thought in the mind of all: “’Tis a bewitching!”; and then, as though the words had opened the spell to full flower, a general shout of consternation and horror went up at the transformations taking place around them. The air was full of brain-swooning resins and the deck was sprouting beneath their feet, lifting thick-leafed stems that brushed cool and smooth against sweat-slicked skin bared to the heat. Men began to hack at the uncanny growth with knife and cutlass, but wherever a fragment of leaf or stem landed on the deck or rail it took root and began to grow with redoubled speed.

“Cease! Cease!” Sahriut cried, pointing out the futility of the assault and ordering the crew aloft to take in the sails, lest they be carried still further off their course. They climbed easily enough, for the masts were now clustered thick with stems and foliage, but the futility of their efforts was soon apparent again, for so fast as the sails were gathered in vines were dropping from the upper spars to the lower, interweaving to create leaf-sails that bulged in a wind not apparent in the swooning air of deck. Standing there, Sahruit gaped stupidly upward, catching a last glimpse of the star-spangled zenith in a gap between sprouting leaves and murmuring in understanding of what he saw. ’Twas the constellation of the Flower-Crown of Queen Besumgau, placed in the heavens by master-spell of her court-wizard, so the legend ran. He heard muffled cries from above him and shouted in reply, working his arms to keep his torso and head free of the growth springing upward from the deck, but soon nothing met his ears but the rustle and lisp of the leaves and his arms were growing weary.

* * * *

A week after the departure of the u-Mgyuukkenav for her sea-trials the grove-lieutenant, a scarred veteran yclept Jwuzan-Míolf, wandered out, as was increasingly his wont, to examine the trees that had begun to grow on the site of the old wizard’s torture and death. He had noted them first when he had returned to the grove after seeing off the u-Mgyuukkenav, but since then the thirteen sharp green sprouts had speared skyward at a startling rate, and now were already chest-high and putting forth true branches equipped with tough, red-veined leaves shaped like blunt-fingered hands. Nor was the speed with which they grew their solitary anomaly, for their bark bore nodules somewhat reminiscent of closed and sleeping eyes, and their leaves were restless even in the stillest air, as though they were true hands and drummed the air with impatience, awaiting the resolution of some approaching crisis.

Jwuzan-Míolf had considered ordering their axing and incineration, but the superstitions that hold such sway over him afloat lost all virulence ashore and he had thrown into the opposite balance the hope that their wood would prove of use in ship-building. If this were so and their growth did not slacken with age, such trees might furnish a whole fleet in a fraction of the expected time. Thus it was that he let them be but kept a weather-eye, as he named it to himself, upon their growth. In the second week, however, he discovered that he was not the only inhabitant of the grove to have concern for the trees. Nay, some among the plant-wives too were visitors, it transpired, for a pirate missed his when he awoke one morning around dawn, disturbed by the breeze that blew through the open door of his hut. He tracked her footsteps through the matutinal dew to the burgeoning arboretum, where he found his own and twelve other plant-wives tending the young trees. Word was brought to Jwuzan-Míolf, who nodded to hear it and went out to the trees again.

The earth around their roots was disturbed, he saw, and when he delved therein he found that the plant-wives had buried stolen meat at the trees’ pale and twining roots, which were already invading the offering. He hereupon ordered the current crop of plant-wives slaughtered, the guilty with the innocent, lest the infection become general, and had their quartered corpses dug into the trees’ roots in substitution for the stolen meat.

“’Tis some lingering devotion to that old wizard of theirs,” he told the disappointed husbands, who begrudged the week it would take for a new crop of plant-wives to ripen, “and we must ensure it end here. These trees too are proving almost more nuisance than they are worth, and if the coming plant-wives seek association with them I shall have them all uprooted and burnt.”

But it proved not so, and indeed the new plant-wives avoided the trees with great care, as though the spilt sap of their quartered sisters still tainted the air in warning. A month after the departure of the u-Mgyuukkenav, when her return was looked for daily with new-hired crew, the trees raised branches at twice a tall man’s height and Jwuzan-Míolf was well-pleased that he had refrained from ordering their destruction. In early evening he wandered out to examine them as he had not for two days past, too absorbed with the sampling of a batch of forest-bee mead brewed for him by his latest and most quick-learning plant-wife. But what was this? In the slanting light of sunset, encrimsoned by cloud like sea-water sluicing the shambles of a sea-fight, those nodules on their bark seemed to glow and blink at him with a deeper red. And those restless, hand-shaped leaves of theirs: did they not flex on a common rhythm?

He shook his head, trying to clear it of its meady heaviness, and rubbed at his blurring eyes. Then he stumbled in his approach and went to one knee with a cry. The ground was shaking heavily beneath his feet and a muffled snapping and slithering rose from it to his mead-bemused ears. And were the trees growing yet higher before him? Nay, ’twas not so, he saw now, with a final, fatalistic realization of his own folly: they were merely dragging their roots free of the earth that had nourished their growth, that they might advance on him, red bark-eyes glaring his will and limbs to paralysis, and pluck the first-fruit of the dendromancer’s belated vengeance.

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