Morning has come to the forest where Quail spent a frightening, cold, and mostly sleepless night huddled in the crook of a low tree branch. He is vaguely aware of the circumstances that have delivered him from his home in Hartwich to this old and lonely forest. But it is here that he’s awakened by a series of small stones thrown from below. Peaking out from his nest, Quail finds an odd visage of a young girl staring back.
She is fair of skin, wearing a tangled mass of dirty blond hair that falls across her shoulders. Covering her sparse frame is a green shift that comes to her knees. Her feet are bare and filthy. Her one outstanding feature is an animal skull strapped to the right side of her head. It is difficult to tell exactly what animal it once was, only that it was dangerous in life. In an innocent, child-like voice she asks,
Girl: “What are you doing in that tree?”
Girl: “Oh, I guess that’s a good thing… but I wouldn’t stay there too long.”
Quail: “Why’s that?”
Girl: “Because it’s a terrible hiding place.”
Quail: “No it’s not! This tree hid me perfectly well from whatever that giant, gurgling tree-thingy was last night.”
Girl: “True, but what you call a “giant, gurgling tree-thingy” was probably searching for you. Thus, it never would have found you. I, on the other hand, wasn’t searching for you at all. Therefore, I found you easily. And speaking for most things in this forest, including the occasional giant, gurgling tree-thingy, they won’t be searching for you either. Which means they’ll eventually find you, especially if you’re sitting in that tree. Now I suggest you climb down from there before the tree decides to drop you. She’s getting rather tired of holding you.”
The girl turns to depart, leaving Quail to climb down and ultimately fall from his not so lofty perch. Gaining his feet and running after her…
Quail: “Hey! Wait up! Where are you going?”
Girl: “I’m sure I don’t know.”
Quail: “What do you mean you don’t know? Don’t you know where we are? Don’t tell me you’re lost too? Please tell me you know where we’re going.”
Girl: “Oh, I’m not lost. But you certainly are. Me, I know exactly where I am, but as to where we’re going… that’s for the future to decide… and the future hasn’t spoken to me about you just yet.
Quail: “Great! Just my luck to get found by a crazy.”
Girl: “Crazy you say? Perhaps, but I’m not the one wandering lost in the woods hiding from giant, gurgling tree-thingys.”
Catching up to the girl…
Quail: “Uh, if you don’t mind me asking, what’s with the skull cap?”
Girl: “This,” tapping the sharp-fanged animal skull, “speaks to me of dangers. It keeps me from having to sleep in trees all night long.”
Quail: “Yeah, sure it does. Just like my shoes tell my feet which way to run when I’m being chased by angry highland gnomes.”
His new companion stops, turns, and bends close to investigate Quail’s shoes. Before he can become too uncomfortable, she stands straight up, placing hands on hips with feet spread. She’d be nose to nose with Quail, but that the top of her head only reaches his chin. She stares him straight in the eyes and that’s when he notices her left eye is a mixture of brown and green while the one on the right is a bright blue. In either case, there’s fire behind them.
Girl: “You lied. They’re just shoes. You shouldn’t lie. It’s not nice.”
Girl: “I should have known you were lying. You could never outrun one of the fair folk, even if your shoes were magical.”
The girl turns and continues her undeclared path through the forest.
Quail: “Well, if you can’t tell me where we’re heading, at least could you tell me your name. Mine’s Quail.”
Girl: “Quail… So you claim the name of a bird as your own, do you? Is that what I’m to believe? Is that what you’d have me think? By day you’re human, but by night you take on the accursed form of a feathered meal. Well most certainly this must be, for what better reason would there be for you to sleep in trees only to awaken as a boy in the morning. So that must be how you came to the forest. You flew upon magical wings last night and took refuge amongst the branches. At least I can believe all that before I’ll accept magical shoes that outrun gnomes.”
Quail: “No! No, I didn’t say any of that. You just made all that up. All I said was my name is Quail and then you started making up that silly story. And as for how I got here, I really don’t know. Really! One minute I’m looking for my parents in our house, searching every room, and the next I’m standing in the middle of a darkened forest. So if there was anything magical about me coming here, I certainly don’t know what it was. But I definitely did not turn into a bird. And if you say it again, well then you’re the one who’s telling lies and not being nice.”
Girl: “Hmmm? No then? Not a bird? Good, I’m glad to hear you’ve given up that particular fantasy. Now if we can just get you to stop lying about your shoes.”
Quail: “Look, I wasn’t lying about my shoes! I said I was sorry. I was just joking about the shoes. They really are just shoes. They don’t tell me anything.”
Girl: “Nothing except that your feet stink.”
Quail: “Yeah, right. Thanks. So anyway… you never did tell me your name.”
Girl: “You are most certainly correct in that. I never did.”
Quail: “Well, are you?”
Girl: “Am I what?”
Quail: “Going to tell me your name.”
Girl: “I’m sure I can’t.”
Quail: “What do you mean you can’t? Is it like you don’t know where we’re going? Yet we’re going somewhere. Or is it that you just won’t tell me.”
Girl: “Something like that.”
Quail: “Well, which one is it? You can’t or you won’t tell me?
Quail: “Both! How can it be both! It’s either one or the other.”
Girl: “Now don’t go getting your plumage all ruffled my fine-feathered friend. It is most definitely both. Both because my mother says I “can’t” tell anyone my name and therefore, I “won’t” tell anyone my name. So there you have it, both.”
Quail: “Oh… well then I guess I’ll just have to go with “Hey you.”
Girl: “No… I think not… at least not unless you wish to remain lost. If a name is necessary, I suggest Peregrine.”
Quail: “Peregrine? What’s that?”
Girl: “A bird of prey that possesses sharp claws and a hooked beak used for capturing, killing, and eating other animals. It is everything that a quail is not.”
Quail: “I see.”
Girl: “I’m so glad you do.”
The two continue to travel quietly for several minutes until Quail breaks the relative silence.
Quail: “Peregrine, you said your mother wouldn’t let you tell your real name. Are you taking me to see your mother?
Peregrine: “Oh, I suppose I could, but you wouldn’t want that. She doesn’t much care for your kind.”
Quail: “What do you mean ‘your kind?’”
Quail: “But I’m just a boy.”
Peregrine: “Same thing as far as she’s concerned.”
Quail: “Well, what about your father? Could we go see him?”
Peregrine: “He’s not allowed in this part of the forest. Besides, I’ve never met him and I’m not sure where he lives. He could be dead for all I know.”
Quail: “Oh, sorry.”
Peregrine: “Don’t be. I understand he was a right beastly individual and not very sociable. Now please be quiet. We’re traveling quite near my mother’s home and I should hate to disturb her with your endless prattle.”
In short, the pair skirts a relative clearing with a massive tree trunk standing at the opposite. Within the colossal buttress are several carved steps leading to an intricate and arcane looking door. The girl is silent and quick to lead Quail away from this most mystifying sight, taking him to what feels is only deeper into the ancient forest.
Quail: “Peregrine, where are we going? I mean, if we’re not going to your mom or dad, then where are you taking me?”
Peregrine: “I’m taking you across this bridge, over the hill, and to Grandma’s house.”
And sure enough, before them is an open chasm with a single fallen tree acting as bridge between the sides. Where the bottom comes to rest is beyond the limited light’s ability to reach. But finding that bottom would be no difficult task as there is little to prevent the two from slipping off the tree into the great abyss below.
Peregrine: “It would not be wise to fall, nor take too much time in crossing. For as you can see, it is a trap easily sprung and difficult to break free of. Thankfully, my friend (tapping her skull) has been rather silent for most of our journey. Now would be a particularly good time to pass over. Please follow, but not too closely.”
Quail: “Hey! Now just wait a minute. Cross that? Isn’t there some other way? Some way that’s a lot safer.”
Peregrine: “Not unless you’re on a first name basis with goblins. In which case I should probably rethink helping you. You’re not friends with goblins are you?
Quail: “I don’t think so. Least wise, I don’t believe I’ve ever met one to be friends with.”
Peregrine: “Good, otherwise I would have to push you off the bridge. Now stop stalling and let’s go. My friend is starting to whisper and I don’t care much for what he’s saying.”
Quail: “Why? What’s he saying?”
Peregrine: “That you ask too many questions when instead you should be moving forward. Now do as it says, otherwise, I’ll just leave you here as a plaything for the meanie-greenies.
With this last threat, the girl steps up to the great fallen trunk and quickly begins to ascend the root ladder to the top of the makeshift bridge. It is rather easy for the boy to follow, as this seems to be a well-worn series of hand and foot holds. Reaching the peak, the two stand upon a flattened surface with various carved symbols leading off and forming a path across the tree and chasm.
Peregrine: “My mother will know we are here now, but that can’t be helped.
Quail: “How’s that?”
Peregrine: “See these. Everything that crosses the bridge is shown to her through these runes. I’m told she carved them long ago. Hopefully, she may not choose to take notice, believing we are just a pair of meanie-greenies, but I wouldn’t put too much stock in hope if I were you.
Quail: “What will happen if she does take notice?”
Peregrine: “She’ll most likely hunt us down, kill you, and punish me.”
Quail: “You really think she would do that? What ever did I do to her?”
Peregrine: “Like I said, she doesn’t much care for your kind. As for what you did… you entered into her forest domain. Humans aren’t allowed in this part of the forest.”
Quail: “What do you mean humans aren’t allowed into this part of the forest? You’re here… you’re just as human as me.”
Peregrine: “Now… now… there’s no need to be rude. I’m no more a man than you.”
Quail: “Well of course you’re not a man! You’re a girl who doesn’t look like a year over seven.”
Peregrine: “Well aren’t you just the cutest for saying so. Perhaps I should keep you. But then, Mother would never allow it. More’s the pity.”
Quail: “You make it sound like your mother isn’t human.”
Peregrine: “She’s not.”
Quail: “Then what is she if she isn’t human?”
Before any answer can be given, a long piercing scream cuts through the forest growth. Birds take flight and various other unseen animals bolt for distance and safety from whatever issued the cry. It is a shriek not of pain and suffering, but one of anger that promises both in turn. It comes from a direction the pair has left behind.
Peregrine: “So much for hope.”
Quail: “What was that?”
Peregrine: “That I’m afraid to say was Mother. Now, like all the other birds of the forest, it’s time you cease your questions and take flight if you wish to live beyond this day.”
Peregrine begins to quickly progress down the path of the tree trunk turned bridge, sure footed as if she’s traveled these steps a thousand times over. Quail, not so sure, moves tentatively, measuring each step as if it may be his last. His gaze is kept level and well forward, remembering that old adage, “Never look down.” Before he is half way across, the girl is already on the other side waving Quail on in urgent appeal.
Peregrine: “Hurry you fool! You must be off this bridge and over the hill before she lays eyes upon us. Damn your fears! Move! Now!”
From the forest behind, Quail begins to hear the rendering of branches and the movement of something fierce. It is enough to force caution from his step and send the boy across the remaining span to where Peregrine quickly whisks him away.
Theirs is now a race to the hill, ducking through thick undergrowth and around giant boulders. All the while being chased by the sounds of eminent destruction crashing through the forest. It is a close thing, with equal amounts of terror and glee. Terror reflected in the eyes of Quail who cannot help but imagine the gruesome death that stalks him through the forest. Glee found in the eyes of Peregrine who has not felt such emotions for years uncounted.
She remembers an old rhyme from days long past. It comes to her in a singsong voice that she offers up as a taunt to their pursuer.
Peregrine: “Run, run as fast as you can. You can’t catch me. I’m the magic music man.”
Another angry shriek and a toppled tree are the response to Peregrine’s ditty.
Quail: “What are you doing? Are you trying to piss that thing off more than it already is?”
Peregrine: “I don’t see why not. She deserves it for all the times I’ve had to suffer at her pleasure. Now it’s her turn.”
Quail: “Oh, that’s just great! I think you’re forgetting I’m the one that’s going to get killed at the end of this.”
Peregrine: “Not if you keep running. Look! The Sentinel awaits.”
Before the couple is a small rise clear of most foliage save a few old oaks and what first appears at the crest to be a lonely, gnarled and burned out trunk. From a distance the twisted figure seems to be an ancient face watching over the forest. Closer inspection only intensifies the image.
Peregrine continues to run and pull Quail towards the top of the hill, all along urging him to greater speed and not to look back. While behind, the sound of pursuit draws ever closer.
Thankfully they reach the top and its promised safety, where Quail can’t help but slow down. Eventually pulling Peregrine to a stop.
Peregrine: “What are you doing? We have to keep running.”
Quail: “But we made it. You said we’d be safe if we got to the hill.”
Peregrine: “Yes, that’s true. Mother cannot go past the Sentinel,” pointing to the deformed trunk. “But that doesn’t mean her influence stops here. We must make it to the other side of the hill and seek shelter. If we stay here, Mother can still do us harm. We are not safe yet. So keep running.”
As if to accentuate her final words, out from the forest’s edge emerges what can only be Mother.
It takes very little encouragement by Peregrine to set Quail running down the opposite slope. Especially as a shriek, sending near paralyzing shivers down Quail’s spine, cuts through the morning air for a third time.
Their mad dash is for a large group of boulders towards the bottom of the hill. Peregrine hopes they can hide there until Mother looses interest and departs the hilltop. That’s if she and the boy can get there before Mother crests the rise and spots them.
Peregrine: “Quick, head towards those large boulders on the left. And be sure not to turn around. If we can get there first, we should be able to survive all this fun.”
Quail: “Fun! Is that what you call it being chased by some crazed, nine-foot tall, green-demon monster? Fun!”
Peregrine: “I’d be careful of how you talk about Mother, little birdy. It’s not to late for me to pluck your feathers and serve you up on a silver platter.”
Quail: “Oh, sorry. I forgot, she’s your mother.”
Peregrine: “I should say you did. Apology accepted. Now get behind those rocks and go to ground. And no matter what you do, don’t be seen!”
This is sound advice that is readily accepted by the fleeing boy. The pair quickly scurry behind the shelter of the massive rocks at the foot of the hill, panting for air to fill tired lungs. It takes time for Quail’s heart to slow down, but eventually it matches something close to normal. Peregrine has taken the posture of waiting boredom, picking ancient dirt from beneath ill kept fingernails. She gives Quail a complacent smile.
Quail: “Now what?”
Peregrine: “We wait for her to go away.”
Quail: “Well, how long will that be?”
Peregrine: “As long as it takes, I imagine.”
Long is rarely a measure of time the impatient achieve. Quail quickly begins to fidget. He keeps looking to Peregrine for some sign as to what to do. She offers only indifference.
Quail: “Do you think she’s gone?”
Quail: “Are you sure? Maybe I should take a look.”
Peregrine: “Go ahead. It’s your choice to make.”
Slowly peeking over the top of cover, Quail is met with the sight of a glowing green energy bolt a split second before it slams into his forehead. He is conscience only long enough to recognize that he is no longer standing on his own two feet.
When he awakens, it is to the blurry image of a two-headed monster, both equally hideous and beautiful. As much as he demands his body to seek shelter from this dreadful beast, Quail is unable to make any part of his body respond to the call. He lies there, awaiting the end that never comes. Eventually the blurry image coalesces into one solid picture of Peregrine and her sharp toothed headgear. Slowly, muscles and bones begin to work again.
Quail: “What happened?”
Peregrine: “Well, at first you soared through the air like a beautiful swan. Then, suddenly you transformed into a lumbering fowl landing in a heap of twisted wings, feathers and legs. I assure you, it was quite entertaining to watch. After which, believing I couldn’t just leave you in the sun to roast, I dragged your sorry remains back here to the shade of the boulder. And as you measure it, I’d say you’ve been laying here for quite some time deciding to live or die. So, now that you’ve decided to live, I think it wise if you were to move about some before you take root. There’s no telling what Mother cursed you with.”
Quail: “Is Mother gone yet?”
Peregrine: “Yes, she departed right after your flying lesson.”
Quail slowly brings his body to a sitting position, resting his back to the boulder. His mouth is sticky and he’s suffering from a tremendous headache.
Quail: “Am I alright? Am I bleeding? What hit me?”
Peregrine: “That remains to be decided. No. And, Mother.”
Peregrine: “You are still breathing, able to move, and talk with some intelligence. This leads me to believe that you are alright. As for bleeding, I see no evidence of leaks. And as for what hit you,” poking Quail in the middle of his forehead and causing considerable pain, “that would be Mother. I told you to stay hidden, to not let her see you. What is it with men? You’re like cats, only without the extra lives to throw around all willy-nilly.”
Quail: “Do you have any water?”
Peregrine: “No, but I can get some. I suppose you’re hungry as well.”
Quail: “Yes, I could use something to eat.”
Peregrine: “Very well. Stay here, keep quiet, and out of sight. I shall be back as quickly as possible. And do what I tell you this time. There are meanie-greenies about.”
Peregrine swiftly melts into the forest green and is gone from Quail’s sight. As much as he is frightened to be left alone in this potentially hostile environment, Quail is still suffering from the effects of Mother’s touch. Thus, he spends most of Peregrine’s absence floating in and out of coherent wakefulness. If any danger comes near, he is blissfully unaware. In time, Peregrine returns with the much needed water and food. She hands Quail a small wooden bowl, which he greedily accepts. The water is less than fresh.
Quail: “What is this?”
Quail: “From where?”
Peregrine: “From the swamp. But it should be fine to drink.”
Quail is skittish at first, but quickly succumbs to the greater need to quench his thirst. The brackish water does not last long in the bowl.
Quail: “Did you bring anything to eat?”
Peregrine produces a dead squirrel. Quail receives it with a questioning look.
Quail: “What am I suppose to do with this?”
Peregrine: “Eat it. Isn’t that what men eat, meat?”
Quail: “Well, yes. But how am I suppose to do that?”
Peregrine: “With your teeth I believe.”
Quail: “But I just can’t eat this raw. I need to skin it first and then cook it with fire.”
Peregrine: “Oh, I don’t use sharp objects or fire.”
Quail: “Well, what do you eat?”
Peregrine: “Not meat. I eat fruits, nuts, berries, roots, things like that.”
Quail: “Well, can I have some of that?”
Peregrine: “So, you’re not going to eat the squirrel after all the trouble I went through finding it, and all the trouble it went through to die?”
Quail: “Sorry, but no.”
Peregrine: “Well, isn’t that just like a man. Now I can see why Mother won’t let me keep one.”
Once again, Peregrine quickly disappears into the forest only to return later with another bowl of water and a hand full of berries and nuts. This she gives to Quail, having already had her fill while hunting the forest.
Deciding that it is too late in the day to continue on, Peregrine has Quail rest through the night. As he sleeps, she covers Quail in dried leaves to hide and keep him warm. She also discovers several edible roots and a dress full of nuts and berries before he awakens in the morning.
With the coming of dawn, Quail is full of aches and pains, and stiff joints. It was a fitful sleep, full of green monsters and being chased by trees. A face full of leaves only serves to scare him further as he ventures out of dreamland into a wakeful state.
Peregrine: “Good morning my little worm. It’s time you crawl forth from your earthly womb and join the waking world. Care for some berries?”
Quail: “Thank you.” Taking some from her full hand, “Why did you bury me in leaves?”
Peregrine: “What better way is there to keep you warm. And should you have died in the night, then I wouldn’t have had to bother burying you in the morning. It’s like killing two birds with one stone. Only in this case, it was one bird with many leaves. Either way, it’s effective.” Offering up her other hand, “Nuts?”
Quail: “Of that I have no doubts.”
Peregrine: “No doubts? About what?”
Quail: “That you’re nuts.”
Peregrine: “Oh, I’m not nuts. I just have some. And you should learn to be more generous and less insulting to the one who is feeding them to you. That is, unless you’d rather gnaw on uncooked squirrel for your breakfast.”
Peregrine: “I should say you are. Now eat some more before I change my mind.”
The two finish their morning meal and Quail practices using his limbs. Thankfully there doesn’t seem to be any serious or lasting damage. He’s still suffering from a slight headache, but nothing so severe as what he felt the day before.
What Quail doesn’t know, and what Peregrine hasn’t chosen to reveal to the boy, is that there is a very visible effect to Mother’s touch. Right at Quail’s hairline, at the crest of his forehead, is a scar in the form of an ancient binding symbol. A single dot with two interlocking swirls twisting off in opposite directions and across his scalp. The other effect is a small swath of white hair amongst all the black where the scar touches Quail’s curls. Peregrine believes that it will most likely become a permanent badge of yesterday’s meeting. She also believes the boy will find out soon enough without her having to say anything just yet.
Peregrine: “If you’re finished, I believe it’s time we head off for Grandma’s house.”
Quail: “Peregrine, why are we going to your Grandma’s house?”
Peregrine: “I need a stick. And if you want to go home, you’ll have to get it for me.”
Quail: “Why do I have to get it? She’s your grandma. Why can’t you get it?”
Peregrine: “Because I’m not allowed. Mother say’s I can’t touch it, but she didn’t say you couldn’t touch it. So if you want to go home, you’ll need the stick. Because the stick does the trick. Now, if you’re done with all the questions it’s time we get going. Come along and try to be quiet. Trouble is about.”
Quail: “What trouble?”
Peregrine: “The mean and green kind. And I don’t want it knowing where we are, so hush.”
Peregrine takes the lead into the forest, followed by a slightly mollified and aching Quail. Their path is unmarked, but relatively straight. That is, until Peregrine stops their steady progress with an immediate and unexpected left turn. Her pace increases, but never beyond a brisk walk. Finally, she enters and kneels down into a thick patch of undergrowth. She directs Quail to do the same, placing one finger to pursed lips in the universal sign of silence.
In no small time, there is grumbling to be heard and branches being pushed aside. Ahead of them, in no more than twenty feet of forest, is an image Quail can only equate to fairytales told by his mother. Shaped like a human and standing nearly as tall as Quail, the similarity to himself ends there. This creature and its two companions resembles more the bat in the face with their long pointy ears, flattened noses, and thin eyes, than anything truly human. Their skin possesses a slight greenish-brown hue, with tufts of black hair, and various lesions.
What piecemeal armor and weaponry they carry reflects a crude understanding of metal smithy, relying mostly on woodwork and leather. What cloth there is mimics wrappings more than woven or tailored fabric. There are several pieces of jewelry amongst the trio, mostly imbedded in their elongated ears. Feathers and skulls from the forest fauna hang from shields and various other aspects of their attire.
Their speech is unintelligible to the spying Quail, but it is obvious there is meaning behind it. The terrifying trio soon comes to an agreement on how to proceed and continues with their unknown search. They quickly disappear into the forest. Soon they can no longer be seen or heard.
Quail lets out a held breath and realizes that he’s forgotten to breathe while watching these fantastic creatures. There is no time to question what he has just seen, as Peregrine starts off in the opposite direction of the trio. He can only assume that what he has just witnessed were the “meanie-greenies” Peregrine keeps mentioning. What his own mother would call “goblins” or “orcs.”
Without any further interruptions or course alterations, Peregrine quickly brings Quail to a small, overgrown cliff-face. She removes some of the vines to reveal not only a path, but also a rather ornate entrance to a long, dark tunnel of finished rock.
Peregrine: “Grandma’s house.”
Quail: “In there? Well, I’ll just follow you then.
Peregrine: “No, you must go first if we are to get what we came for.”
Quail: “The stick that does the trick. Fine, but if I’m to go first I’ll need something to help me see.”
Peregrine: “And I suppose you came without any torches or any way to make fire.”
Quail: “Nope, but then I wasn’t expecting to be here at all. So you really can’t blame me for not having such things.”
Peregrine: “Sure I can, but why bother.”
Quail: “Well, how’s that fair?”
Peregrine: “It’s not. But who ever said I was fair? Now stay here and I’ll be back with something that should help.”
Peregrine is gone for some time, during which Quail seeks to hide himself in some thick underbrush. How long she is absent is unclear as he takes the opportunity to rest, even sleep. It is only with the wrestling of some nearby bushes that Quail comes fully awake. He is not sure if he is still dreaming when what appears to be a creature covered in moss shambles out of the forest.
Quail: With a sigh of relief, “What is all that?”
Peregrine: “Moss. Glow moss to be exact. It’s what makes certain parts of the forest glow at night. Here, cup your hands around it. See, it glows in the dark."
Quail: “Wow, magic moss.”
Peregrine: “No, not magic, but if you want to call it that, then that’s your choice. Here, take some of this and start wrapping it around your arms and legs.”
Soon Quail and Peregrine both look as if they’ve been rolling around in a stringy green mess.
Quail: “Peregrine, if I get you this stick, do you promise to get me home.”
Peregrine: “No. Mother says I should never make promises. Especially ones I can’t keep. However, what I will do is try to get you as close to home as possible. But first, you must get the stick. Otherwise, it matters not what I say or promise to do.”
Quail: “Oh, okay. I guess I have to go into the tunnel now.”
Peregrine: “Only if you want to go home. After you.”