Hank and Gretchen
The Road to Damascus

Babes in the Wood

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In all fairness, the lines that bound Tansnir and Tangrid snapped in battle. No mischief intended, but it made for a better story with the added benefit of a royally pissed off Torben. 

The goats belonged on Baffin Island, but without Torben's lines there was no way to cross the land bridge, and swimming was out of the question. Assuming Torben would come for them eventually, they turned and headed south until they reached forest. Neither considered the possibility that they wouldn't be able to find their way back. 

Goats don't know forest. They know mountains and they understand the plains. A goat in the forest is a lost soul; helpless as a lamb. The possibility of domestication was unthinkable. They discussed the merits of shedding their skin, but weren't sure what would emerge. Tansnir wanted to summon Haydall, but Tangrid thought they'd be better off with Grendel. Regardless of popular opinion, Grendel was a known and controllable entity; Haydall was not. He may very well be the way home, but good luck getting past him if you weren't freshly dead from some major battle. Unable to reach agreement, they filled their bellies, drank deep from the river, snarled, gnashed, and stepped into the darkness. 

It took weeks to reach the clearing. 

****

They arrived surprisingly well fed and watered with a new appreciation for the forest floor. Tangrid suspected Fake News; Lohkah spreading rumors to keep the forest floor for herself. Tansnir was inclined to agree, but was not in the mood to consider the possible ramifications. Lohkah had a reputation for turning harmless fun on its head. She'd managed to start a few minor battles over what started out as somebody else's minor prank. To the best of his knowledge, she'd never taken and kept anything of value for herself. It was always about chaos; in which case maybe they'd grossly underestimated her motives. He told Tangrid they just got lucky and should not consider all forests safe. She wasn't convinced but her full belly said maybe otherwise.

It wasn't a big clearing and wasn't like the plains, which was confusing. It was big enough to cultivate a small meadow, but with no visible horizon, no mountains, only trees. It smelled of sunbaked earth and clean water. Without thought, they settled in to graze. The tallest grasses were no higher than Tangrid's withers, and so they should have seen her. At the very least, she should have had a smell. She did not. The woman sat on a log at the center of the meadow. She first heard their approach a week before arrival, but smelled them the moment they set hoof into the forest. It wasn't until they made eye contact that she knew who they were.

So much for domesticating a couple of goats. Torben's lines trailed behind the doe. She considered asking how they'd got themselves free but decided to save it for later. Chances were good they'd spill that information eventually. It is a mistake to assume all goats are uneducated. It was a mistake to assume they wouldn't know her, at least by reputation. She smiled and introduced herself. 

My name is Yelena and you've come to my forest. I'd offer food and water, but you seem to have managed well enough on your own. You are free to graze in my meadow until you are ready to move on. In the meantime, I'm happy for the company. It's a bit lonely out here.

Then why do you stay?

Because someone has to hold the clearing. 

Are you bound?

No. Of course not. The clearing is my home and if I left it unattended it would be gone before I returned.

Even for an hour?

Even for a minute.

How does that work?

I don't know. I've never tested it, but my mother told me, and her mother told her.

How did your mother's mother know?

Ah. That's a good question. My grandmother left the clearing and never returned. I don't think I was more than five when she went away but she told me stories and I remember some of them. I believe she was stolen and bound by some minor god from the North. I haven't been out of the forest, but I'm told she crossed the big water. Is there a big water? 

There are several big waters.

Can you drink from all of them?

That's an odd question, but no. You can drink from streams and rivers, some ponds, and most lakes. You cannot drink from still waters and you absolutely must not drink from the sea.

The sea?

That's another word for big water.

Is it still water?

Oh, no, not at all! 

Then why can't I drink?

Because you will only want to drink more and more. Your thirst will be unlike anything you've ever experienced. It is the worst thing possible. You drink and drink and drink until you die.

Magic water!

No. Salt water. There's nothing magic about it, lady, and I think you're testing us. I think you have the answers and want to know where we come from.

Smart goat.

Yes. We are very smart goats. We're very special goats and someone is looking for us, but he's taking his sweet time about finding us. 

Who is looking for you?

I think you know.

OK, don't tell me. I don't suppose I really need to know. I'm sure when he gets here you'll tell him I've been kind.

Probably.

****

When Torben lost his goats, he also lost his hammer which presented a bigger problem. Torben could go to war without his goats, but without a weapon he might as well go to Grendel's cave, curl up with the beast, and hope nobody came looking for him. He thought about throwing himself at Haydall's feet and begging early retirement. If you showed up dead, or mostly dead, would Haydall really know how you died, or was a battle death assumed? Maybe if he got himself into a fight and showed up mostly dead... The sorry truth was that Torben wasn't even thinking about his goats. They might as well have been lost lambs in the woods. 

****

There was something oddly compelling about the clearing. Tansnir and Tangrid wandered the forest daily. There was always plenty on forest floor and they always kept east of a stream. The void of any other creature didn't concern them. They often had the mountain top to themselves with only raptors for company. It didn't occur to either of them, that the forest should also have the great birds flying overhead. But what could two babes in the wood really know?

They returned every evening and every evening, Yelena appeared surprised. She had placed a great red salt lick in front of the log. With no consideration, they went to it each evening, lapping up the salt they hadn't ever needed. She fed them small oat cakes and scratched the tops of their heads. She asked nothing in return until the day she needed to fetch water from another stream. Since they could not fill the jug and carry the water, she would have to go herself. She asked if one would remain by the log and another at the eastern boundary. Yelena was fairly certain she could return as long as she could smell one of them. 

Tansnir posted himself resolutely by the log, with Tangrid's assurance that she wouldn't get distracted and wander off. He didn't think he could hold the clearing on his own and he was right. They really did need to be positioned just so. Almost like a sundial or a beacon. They were sure she would return. She had the sweetest smile, which could only mean she loved them; or at least meant no harm. In a way, they were right, but a witch's love is not benign. By it's very nature, it is self-serving and eventually destructive. They did not worry; they only wondered when the next oatcakes would appear.

Yelena returned well before nightfall with a full jug. Watch now, she said, magic is happening. She took the jug to the log and pour a bit of water on her seat. Trailing the same small trickle, she made a water path about a tree's length from the log. At the end of her path, she turned right, walked another tree length and turned left. She returned to the beginning and poured the last of the water onto the log. She stood with the goats and waited. And waited. And waited.

Oh, fuck my life! I think I went to the wrong stream! No. Wait. I'm just missing something. Tangrid, would you do me a favor and stand in the middle of that circle? I think it's wanting an anchor of some sort. Tangrid trotted into the circle. Nothing.

A little bit west, please?

OK, now, north.

Yes. That should be good. Just stand there please. Or maybe lie down. Can you lie down without moving too much?

Tangrid dropped to her knees and curled around herself. As perfect a doe as you'd ever want. They waited. Nothing. Yelena made soft distress noises and began to weep. Tansnir, believing he had an opportunity to be heroic, galloped straight into the circle and joined his sister. As their noses touched in goatly greeting, the sun went out. Tangrid bellowed and ground her teeth. Tansnir's snarling was the start of a battle cry. Flank by flank they rushed the darkness, heads down, horns full steam ahead.

They bashed into something solid.

How does it go, Tangrid asked, Fuck my life? Is that it? Come in here, you bitch, and bring back the sun! Yelena opened a door, letting in a broad shaft of sunlight. I'm so very sorry! I had no idea it would go up like that! I was told it could be done, but I didn't even know it would have a roof! Would you look at this? A house! We've made a house!

What the fuck is a house?

Who taught you to say, 'fuck'?

Lady, please. You said 'fuck my life', sniffed back a couple of tears, and we jumped in without thinking. So what the fuck is a house?

Well, it's shelter. Can't you tell?

It's awfully small to be shelter. Shelter is the Great Hall, the Long Room, the place of warriors and feasting. If this is shelter, it's a very poor approximation.

But we don't need a shelter big enough for fifty warriors; we only need a shelter big enough for three. Anything more would be wasteful and also hard to heat. 

Why do we need shelter?

Because it's getting colder; hadn't you noticed?

Too cold for us?

Oh, yes, way too cold for even you. We need shelter and fire and I need something to eat.

You don't eat oatcakes?

I do. But did it ever occur to you to wonder where they come from?

No. Not really, but now that you mention it...

I can only do so much with the acorns I store and I've been sharing with you two for the last three years.

Three years, you say? Nonsense. We've only just been severed from Torben's lines and he hasn't come which means it hasn't been that long.

I'm sorry, but it's true. I didn't want to alarm you but Torben isn't coming.

THAT'S NOT TRUE! TORBEN WOULD NEVER ABANDON US!

Well. He lost his hammer. Can you imagine what losing a hammer like Torben's can do to a man like Torben? He's probably run off to Grendel's cave to hide. 

He would never do that. He would never leave us here.

Has it occurred to either of you that you're replaceable? Don't you think it would be far easier to fetch another pair off the top of your mountain than invest the time required to find you in my forest?

Both goats dropped to their knees. Tangrid was furious. Tansnir cried the very first goat tears. This lasted precisely three and half seconds. They pulled themselves together and went about their trademark snarling and gnashing. Yelena wasn't impressed but she did have a solution.

Look. I'm sorry to have broken the news. I really didn't want to; I didn't want you hurt. You see, I've come to love you and I've never loved anything or anyone besides my mother and her mother. I'd forgotten what it felt like. But now I have a problem.

What.

Love makes a person vulnerable. Not goats. Goats can love and remain just as they are. But I am vulnerable because of your love. You love me too, I think.

What?

I know you do. You show me every evening when you return. You don't have to return; I've never asked it of you, but you come back every time. Why? Why do you come back?

Tansnir and Tangrid looked at each other, and then at Yelena. They remained silent.

Will you do something for me?

Maybe.

Wow. I was expecting, 'Anything', not 'Maybe'.

Don't push it. What do you want. We're a bit prickly at the moment.

Well. Given my state, this vulnerability, I could use a warrior, a protector, a minor god, even. 

We are not minor gods. We don't even want to speak of them. They've been bad. At least one of them has been bad. A very, very bad and terribly minor god.

Warrior?

Without our minor god, we are no longer warriors.

But your battle cries?

It's a fake.

But nobody has to know that.

True.

Would you stay and protect me? In exchange I will always love you and never cause you harm.

We'll think about it and get back to you.

It only took one more visit to the salt lick. She had them and she knew it. They believed they retained their goatly free-will when in fact, that final big, yummy slurp of salt sealed their fates.

****

Yelena was the first witch in the forest to possess two familiars. She was the first witch ever to have a goat as a familiar. They were smart goats, strong goats, and best of all, very willing goats.

The first task she gave to Tansnir. She asked him to shed his skin and take the form of a man. She provided him with clothing, a sturdy pair of boots, and instructions to walk straight down the mountain, turn left at the road and enter the Town of Man. He was to find a big yellow house with a barn. Bring him back to me, Tansnir. You'll know him when you see him and chances are, he'll come to you. However, under no circumstances is SHE to leave the house. He comes alone. While you are gone, Tangrid will keep your skin safe.

*

And Tansnir? Should he give you trouble, please remind him that Lohkah does not get to run away from his mother.

His?

 

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