by Christian O'Kane

“Would you please hurry Roderick,” the woman on horseback said as she looked around nervously. She was of middling height and her body was slim and trim but with enough muscle to accent her form. Her eyes were green and she wore no makeup or jewelry. Indeed the only feminine thing she had was the silver bow that was used to tie her long brown hair into a ponytail. She had not cut her hair very short as many gender morphs did. Terrant was not happy about being in these haunted woods but she respected Roderick enough to acquiesce to his desire to come here.

“This cannot be rushed,” the figure on the ground answered. The person was small, barely five feet tall and just a little over ninety pounds. It had the tan and black spotted coat of one of the smaller jungle felines. Roderick had adapted easily to being half animal was wearing only a small pair of shorts with a hole at the back for his new, long feline tail. There wasn’t even any shoes on his paws. He was kneeling in front of a massive old elm, gnarled with age, so large that it shaded the ground for ten strides in any direction from its trunk. Some of its limbs were as big around as a man, and none of the party members, not even Alwyn the horse-morph could reach even half-way around the trunk. “The sprit of the tree must be spoke to in the correct manner or it will be angered.” Evenly spaced around the tree were a dozen small cones incense, their sweet smelling smoke clung close to the tree itself.

“It’s not the tree spirits that have me nervous.”

“We are safe here as long as it is daylight,” Alwyn commented. The dapple gray stallion morph was standing next to his horse calmly patting her mane. He looked calm but he only used his left hand to calm the mare. His right hand – his sword hand was kept close to the hilt of his sword. The flicking back and forth of his tail and the twitching of his mane betrayed his nervousness.

“Are you sure we are safe until dark?”

“Edmund himself told me so,” the equine knight answered.

Nearby in a tight thicket a shadowy figure stood. It was far older and far more powerful then the others. It didn’t like intruders in its forest. “LOOTERS!” the shadow said harshly to itself. And moved towards the group. It knew how to deal with such thieves.

“What instrument will you make from it?” the rider asked.

Roderick shrugged. “I won’t know till the wood itself tells me.”

“What does that mean?”

The rest just looked at the feline silently.

“When I examine the wood I will discover what it lends itself to be,” came the explanation.

Alfred just shook his head. “Spoken like a true craftsman and artisan. Vague and confusing.”

The feline carefully examined one of the lower limbs of the tree. “You never disapproved when I was making a bow for you.”

“We were in a farmers orchard then. Not these ghost haunted woods.”

“This one,” Roderick said patting a tree limb that was about a foot in width at the base and surprisingly long. “The tree is allowing me to take this limb.” He took a small brush and painted a green line completely around the limb. Then he proceeded to draw many small symbols on both sides of that line.

The figure that was watching and stalking the group was shadowy. At times it looked almost human in shape, other times it looked more like an animal and still other times it was shapeless and amorphous like most shadows were.

The shadow halted at the base of a tree and looked at the intruders, confused. Why were they painting symbols onto a tree? Most looters simply rooted through the ruins looking for gold and silver. He listened to the words and watched the motions the one figure was doing and recognized a spirit spell. The ritual was old, even by the shadows standards but it still held power. It was not a spell of binding but one of placation!

Finally Roderick took a saw from off the ground and began to quickly cut the limb. The saw was in his right hand and he used his left to hold the soon to be cut limb. The metal blade bit into the wood with fearsome efficiency. With one last stroke of the blade the limb came free and dropped into his hand. Reverently he laid the severed limb onto the ground.

He took a small pot and a brush from his bag of tools. Roderick dipped the brush into the liquid in the pot and began painting the black material over the open wound in the tree. When it was fully covered he drew a simple symbol into the liquid. “This will seal the wound till the tree heals itself.” He explained.

“Good,” the stallion morph commented. “Edmund ordered that we be clear of these woods by nightfall and sunset is approaching.

“Edmund!” the shadow said silently. “I know that name. These are his people, doing his bidding.” The spirit relaxed understanding that these were not here to loot. What he did not understand was why they needed just one tree limb.

Roderick was still getting used to so many new things. His new surroundings, his new Overlord, his new workshop and his new body. He did not mind Duke Thomas. The stallion was a good and intelligent nobleman. A true leader. A thing all too rare now a days. Edmund had chosen wisely to serve this Duke. The weather up here in the mountain valley was a lot colder then the lowland farm of his birth but he did not mind. Many years of campaigning had left him indifferent to the effects of the weather.

But the change imposed by the curse excited and frightened him. He had been worried about being reduced to a child. Even being a woman was better then that! So when he had seen the spotted fur sprout on his body he had been relieved. He was even more excited by what he had become. Roderick had become a Margay. A Tree Ocelot. A TREE ocelot! The spirit of the Keep had indeed been kind to him.

Over the centuries Roderick’s family had been closely tied to the forest and the trees in it. Empires had come and gone, armies swept past as family members were carpenters, timberman, cabinetmakers, archers, fletchers. But no matter the occupation, the language spoken or the ruler there always remained the forest and the wood. Even converting to the Follower faith had not changed that. Although they did temper things with more modesty and privacy. In these unsettled times many Follower fanatics simply branded such working with spirits as evil. Edmund was one of the few Follower paladins that had openly accepted Roderick’s dealings with the spirits. Even so Edmund had carefully examined every aspect of it and had prayed for a full week before deciding that these spirits were among The Great Ones creations. The oldest family legend told of a time in the ancient past when a family elder was saved from death by a tree spirit. In gratitude he pledged to protect the forest. No one knew if the legend was true but the bond with the trees remained.

For Roderick being an archer was a small part of his life. Everyone who served with Sir Delacot knew how to fight. He spent most of his days making bows, arrows, ladles, bowls and whatever else a host the size of Sir Edmunds needed. Still he managed to find the time for the artistry that he really desired and prized. He always found it ironic that he had campaigned all over the Midlands and yet he was still doing the same work he had learned at home from his parents.

Over the years he had worked with many different trees and used their wood to create countless items. But this tree limb was as different and special as the tree it had come from. Some trees had spirits that were stronger and more important then others. The wood from such trees was always of the highest quality and well worth all the placating needs to calm the spirit.

The limb was resting on a table in the middle of the room all by itself. Aside from the singular cut that had detached it from the trunk the limb was pristine. Roderick had been very careful not to damage any part of the branch on its journey to the keep. Slowly the feline walked around the table examining the branch closely, looking at each twig, knot and curl. This was an old branch from an old tree. Although it had been planted by human hands it had been left to grow wild for many centuries. It was a strong and broad branch with a fine grained wood that was hard to find. One didn’t just cut up wood this fine into arrows and wooden dishes. This was special wood and had to be treated as such. Every part of this limb would be used. Even the bark.

With a pencil he started marking various parts as he decided what to make of them. One section would be used for a small statue. Another long strip would find its way into a bow. Various little pieces he had decided on but what to make of the heart wood eluded him. This had to be a musical instrument. His heart had told him so from the very start. But what instrument?

A violin? Perhaps a flute? Although those instruments produced fine music they did not have the sound he wanted. He wanted something soft and warm. A violin was too harsh and a flute was too soft. A lute! Its sweet sound was always beautiful and as he looked at the tree branch the shape of the instrument came to him. He picked up a debarking tool and set to work.

The days passed quickly for Roderick. When he was not doing mundane carpentry or in weapons practice he was working on the instrument.

He carefully removed the bark from the branch setting it aside for later use. No piece of this limb would be unused. Even the smallest piece of bark would find some use.

To build a lute first meant creating the interior framework that would give the instrument its shape and strength. He carefully marked out the location and shape of each piece on the wood. He tried to place all the cuts close together to use as little wood as possible but the wood itself dictated the cuts and their location. He needed each piece to be as light as possible but still be strong. Roderick made each cut with as small and thin a blade as possible. After each piece had been cut it had to be sanded down to its final shape and then to a satin smooth finish.

Roderick took a small saw and starting at one end he cut a long, thick strip. When he was done he placed it carefully onto a small table nearby. Then he set to cutting another strip and then another. Once the strips had been cut he laid them all out flat on a table. These would be the skin that made up the bowl of the lute. Each strip was marked and carefully cut to fit one specific spot.

Each strip was headed over a kettle of boiling water, letting all the steam seep into the wood making it malleable. Then they were slowly and laboriously bend over the ribs of the infer frame and then nailed and glued so that kept in that shape till it had cooled. Then the piece would keep the shape.

Next came the soundboard and the neck. This was the flat piece that would go on top. It had the sound holes and would hold the various parts for the strings. The location of the holes and fret was most important and he measured them all several times before deciding on their final locations.

The instrument as it was now would play and play beautifully but to Roderick it was NOT finished. The wood was far too plain and unadorned. No instrument was done till it had been properly decorated. To him a musical instrument had to be as pleasing to the eye as it was to the ear.

Roderick flexed his forefinger and extended its claw. It was long, thing and wickedly sharp. A lot finer and sharper then any of the carving tools he owned. He pressed the claw into the wood and started to carve a delicate flower into the base of the instrument. It was the same flower he had seen on the tree the wood had come from.

The instrument rested on a pillow in the center of the workbench. It had been there for over a week. The dark grained wood of the lute glistened and sparkled from countless hours of polishing. The decorations carved into its surface were of simple leaves and flower. The neck was carved to resemble a tree branch. To most people it looked finished but Roderick wasn’t so sure. He walked around it again and again examining each section minutely. Finally satisfied he began to string it.

Everyone was surprised when a small cart clattered up the old empire road. Most people either walked or rode a horse. In spite of passing centuries and being covered with weeds, grass and small trees the road was still solid. The single horse pulling it did not have to strain.

The cart pulled to a halt a few feet from the group. Edmund leaped down from the drivers seat and made his way to the back of the cart. The cheetah morph was wearing a suit of simple leather armor that was decorated with a follower cross on the chest. The paladin usually wore tougher armor like plate mail but it was too hot and restrictive for today.

A young woman stood up in the cart and stepped down to the ground. At first glance one would think she was a fox morph with the lean fox like muzzle and russet red hair. But she did not have the warm underfur typical of a vulpine was not there. Also her legs were long and spindly unlike any other vulpine or canine. She was dressed in a green and gray dress of cotton. She had a beautiful necklace around her neck with a small follower cross on it. All of gold and costly.

He extended his had and she put hers in it and Edmund led the lady by the hand.

George bowed. “Good morning to you both.”

“Good . . .” Bridgette stuttered softly. Fighting her tongue and lips to form the words. “Good . . . Morning . . . . Sssir.”

“Good to see you out,” George replied cheerfully.

“Thank you,” Bridgette answered and nodded.

“That is a beautiful necklace you have on,” Terry said. She walked up to stand next to George.

“It is!” Bridgette answered as she fingered the jewelry. “Edmund gave it to me.”

Edmund’s tail dropped and he laid his ears back in embarrassment. “A fine lady needs beauty to compliment her looks.”

Bridgette leaned towards Edmund and then licked his muzzle tenderly in a canine kiss. “Thank you my brave hero.”

“Ah . . I . . . “ Edmund stuttered at a loss for words.

Terry rescued her leader. “I think it was a wonderful thing to do.”

“Thank you,” Edmund managed to answer. “I think Roderick is about ready to start. We had best take our place.”

The group slowly made its way to the same tree that Roderick had removed the branch from so many months ago. The feline himself was seated on a grass at the foot of the tree. He was dressed in a dark brown tunic and pants of pure silk and must have cost the old craftsman a lot of money.

The rest of the group slowly and quietly gathered around the tree and Roderick keeping a respectful distance from both. Roderick spent several long minute fussing with the new instrument tuning and cleaning it endlessly before he was finally satisfied that it was ready. He slowly brought the instrument up to his chest and a total silence descended upon the woods even more profound then as was usual. It was as if the forest itself was waiting for the music.

Roderick’s fingers moved slowly almost imperceptibly but with increasing speed and confidence. His claws gently plucking at the strings. At first they could not hear the music and they heard was silence. Then slowly and subtly the sounds of the instrument crept into their hearing. The soft lilting sounds drifted through the woods like a warm, summer breeze. The music seemed to spread slowly and almost without notice. Its warmth moved all that it touched bringing souls both living and dead to a halt as they let its magic engulf them. Edmund recognized the music. It was an old one, speaking of love found, lost and regained.

In the woods around them the other became aware of faint shadows gathering about, attracted by the sweet tones. The trees surrounding them seemed to fade away and the walls of roof’s of a town slowly came into view. The tall, old elm in the middle of the woods was gone. Instead Roderick was seated next to a young sapling barely a decade old. Also gone was the rough, trail through the woods. In it’s place there was a strong, clear, stone road passing through a prosperous Seuiliman town.

Alwyn caught sight of a young woman standing less then an arms span from him. She looked real, with her blonde hair and smooth skin. At first he thought she was alive until he realized she was wearing a short nondescript robe with a broad blue strip along the bottom. Those clothes were long out of date and the only ones who wore them here in these woods were the dead. The stallion morph looked around and became aware of other spirits clustering around the group. He recognized, soldiers, slaves, nobleman, young ladies and grand old dames. Even little children who clung close to their mothers skirts for protection. All were staring intently at the musician and his instrument.

Roderick saw none of this. His mind and senses were solely for the instrument and the music that came from it. The rest of the world disappeared for him as he lost himself in the music itself.

For the Shadow Fox it was like something from a dream. He was seeing a world that he had lost centuries ago. People who had suffered the torment of a half death now seemed alive again and happy. A part of him understood this was not a release for the souls but merely a small reprieve. Still the shadow felt an emotion that it had not felt in a long time. Hope.

The echoes of the last, soft notes seemed to linger in the woods as if the forest itself refused to let it end. But finally it did slowly fade away leaving the world around him bathed in utter silence.

For a long time no one moved or made a sound. Alnwyn looked at the young woman next to him and she gave him a soft smile that seemed to sink down to his very soul and warm his whole body. Then she slowly start to fade. Her body growing more and more transparent till she was gone leaving nothing behind but the memory of a warm smile in the mind of a young warrior.