The Looming Shadow

By Wm. Jay Carter III (Hero of Geeks)

Chapter III - Challenges in the Wood

Pudgy cloven hooves shuffled over the mat of pine needles that covered the ground near the edge of the forest. The wild boar snorted, nosing up the bark of an oak. Then, finding the flavorful fungus it was searching for, it began to dig at the soft ground with its tusks. Above the pig, hidden behind one of the tree’s large branches, was a pair of deep green eyes. As soon as the animal had begun feasting on its meal, a green-clad child fell from above and landed squarely on the boar’s dark brown back. Kicking his bare heels into the pig’s sides, the child yelped and the animal squealed throwing clumps of turf into the air as it reared and ran off between the trees. Suddenly a crowd of children sprang to life, green-clothed and leaf-capped, seemingly emerging from the trees themselves, cheering and squealing with laughter. And then the chase was on.

The boar wheeled, charged, bucked and stamped, but the child held tight to the animal’s tusks, his legs circling its belly. Further and further into the forest sped the steed and its rider, trees whipping by like blurred arboreal columns. The other children followed, their small feet carrying their small bodies swiftly over the mat of pine needles and into the denser brush of the deep wood. Their footing told of how they must have traveled these places often, and at great speed; toes touched the tops of roots only to leap swiftly away, paths were followed as soon as ignored, but none of the children were ever lost. Each of them followed the leader as easily as putting one foot before the other.

Then the ignorant observer would become aware that these children were something more than ordinary; for with seemingly no delay in their cheerful race the children appeared to leap directly into the trees that made up the forest, passing through them as surely as ghosts, emerging from another tree some way on in their path. In this way the green-clad children paced the daring child on his porcine steed. They surely could have surpassed him, but the fun was in watching him until he fell off—it was not a race after all, but sport!

These green-clad children were the Koroki; spirits of the forest, ever-young and always innocent, but old as time and some of them no less wise. Their lives were laughing and play, and never a care would cross their minds except what might make a good challenge for the other children. Once a challenge was made it was never questioned, and as soon as it was accepted it was attempted, and all the other children came to watch. Today Saria challenged Aako to ride a boar until he fell off, and she was naturally at the front of the crowd to watch him when he did.

The boar was tiring a little, which made it more reckless, and soon it slammed into a thick pine tree, throwing Aako’s curled Dekku-leaf cap from his head. Aako held on tighter, shook the daze from his head and tried to steady his deep green eyes on the swiftly traveling bracken. Then he had an idea.

Aako looked around at the crowd of children pacing him and made sure Saria was watching. Then he grinned impishly and pulled up on the boar’s tusks. The boar skidded to a halt in the mat of needles and reared, setting Aako on his feet for a moment. In that moment he leaned backward and twisted, landing the boar on its own four hooves, facing the opposite direction with Aako on its back again. The rush of children flew haphazardly around him, faces of surprise and glee flashing like little candles. Then Aako leaned forward, yelped in the face of his steed and they bolted off again.

The Koroki all squealed at this new spin on the game—now, instead of watch until Aako fell off, it was don’t let Aako get away. So all the children, including a disgruntled Saria who was now at the back of the childish mob, turned and chased after Aako’s quickly diminishing form. Once he could see the other children were following he slowed down a little, dragging his feet on the turf. Soon Saria had caught up, emerging from a tree to the right of Aako and hollering at him before disappearing into another trunk. “Cheater!” she yelled. “Unfair!”

“Fair, fair!”
Aako hollered back from atop the speeding boar. “Smart!” And then he twisted the boar’s tusks hard to the right. Turning with Aako’s direction, the boar careened into the tree from which Saria had just emerged. Saria yelped and fell to the ground. Aako was thrown from the boar’s back and flew through the air, landing on top of Saria. They rolled together over a carpet of orange and red deciduous leaves, a mass of tangled child arms and legs, until they came to the edge of an incline. The other children watched as Saria and Aako untangled themselves with shouts of “Cheater!” and “Smart!” while the two kept trying to push the other down, smiling all the while.

The other Koroki caught on to this new game, too. Now it was push down Saria and Aako. So they all rushed the quarreling pair, knocking them over the edge of the incline, and then the larger tangle of children slid down the incline into the creek below. A few stragglers came to the edge of the incline only to push each other over, falling with the rest of them, giggling happily. At the bottom they all thrashed about, rolling in the shallow water until they were not green-, but mud-clad children.

Then a sound from nearby called all of them out of their reverie and froze them in place; a wagon was coming up the path. One of the children whispered hide, which, of course, became the new game. So all the Koroki pulled themselves out of the mud and scrambled toward the bridge that spanned the shallow creek. Just before the wagon came into view they were all nestled together under the bridge, shushing each other, covering their mouths and spitting mud.

At least, almost all of them. Aako was still standing in the middle of the creek. Another curious thing about the Koroki was that they might look like nothing in particular to normal folk. So Aako stood right where he was, looking like a child-shaped muddy stump, defying the others in their game.

Saria motioned to Aako to hurry, scooping at him with her hand. “Come!” she mouthed, but Aako stood firm, shaking his head and smiling surreptitiously. Then the wagon came out from behind the trees. It was small and had a door on the side which was painted in bright happy colors. 'Happy Mask Salesman' said the words painted on the door, and sure enough the wagon was covered all over with a variety of masks—wooden masks with tribal markings hanging from the railing around the top of the wagon, polished doll-like masks and scary masks nailed to the wagon’s outer planks, even a mask that had one large red eye with a tear below it hanging from the doorknob.

The wagon was pulled by a single pony, and its driver was a skinny man with squinty eyes and greasy red hair parted down the middle. He wore a long purple coat buttoned up over a matching set of trousers, pointed shoes that curled at the ends, and a smile that never wavered from the moment Aako set eyes on him. His pony was slowing down, favoring one of its hind legs. The wagon stopped on the bridge.

“What is it Tortus?” said the driver with a rough voice that belied his smiling face. Despite the sign on the door of the wagon and the man’s persistent smile, he sounded anything but happy. “What’s got into you?” The Koroki children held their fingers to their lips and Saria stood to look between the planks of the bridge. The driver lashed the reins to a bar in front of the seat and got out. “This is the last time I’ll travel with a pony,” the salesman said, placing his hands on his hips. He stood on the bridge a moment, stooping with a noticeable hunch. Then from further down the path there was a snort; it sounded like the boar had come to and was wandering aimlessly. The snort caught the salesman’s attention and he turned without removing his hands from his hips. “Well, now, Tortus, it may have been a good thing we stopped,” he said, never ceasing to smile.

The salesman watched as the boar began snuffling at the base of a tree near the path, just out of Aako’s sight. “Oh, so you’re that kind, are you?” said the salesman. “We haven’t got one of these, Tortus.” And the salesman turned and went to his wagon, opening the brightly painted door and fumbling with some things inside. He emerged with a long polished wand, painted a color that was clearly meant to match his coat and trousers but was actually a faded violet instead. The salesman walked calmly past his horse and hunched beside the boar which was still snuffling at the base of the tree. The salesman pointed his wand at the animal and for a moment Aako thought he was going to poke it, but instead the salesman waved the wand in a swooping motion over the boar. At the same time, the salesman began to hum a melody that Aako had never heard before. In a moment there was a squeal and a flash of purple light, and the salesman lowered his wand. Then he stooped and picked up something from the ground.

As the salesman turned to walk back to his wagon Aako could see that he was carrying a mask that looked remarkably like a boar with tusks protruding from the face. Tortus nickered. “Yes, very nice, I think, Tortus.” And the salesman placed his wand and his new mask inside the wagon, shut the door and got into his seat. “Shall we, then?” He was about to untie the reins when he paused and smacked his head. “Oh, now I remember, stupid horse,” he said and got out again. Kneeling down he examined the horse’s hind leg.

Just then one of the Koroki boys edged out from under the bridge and one of the little girls smiled after him mischievously. Saria saw the boy and tried to grab him by the back of his muddy green clothes, but he was already up the slope and watching the salesman to see if he would turn around. “Hold on, now Tortus, it’s almost out,” said the salesman, and the Koroki boy stepped lightly up to the wagon, snatched the closest mask he could reach and darted back under the bridge. The pony nickered. “There. It’s out,” the salesman said, and crawled back into his seat. He untied the reins and held them loose. Then he turned his head and looked straight in Aako’s direction.

“Don’t think I haven’t seen you, little one. I am no one from these parts; blind and stupid to your little tricks. And I’ll be back for my mask, you can be sure of that.” The smiling man clicked his tongue and snapped the reins. His pony went trotting away with the wagon in tow.

Aako stood still. Did the salesman think Aako had taken the mask? Did he know there were others? Aako had waited until the cart was almost out of sight. When the cart didn’t stop or turn, Aako ran up the slope and watched the wagon disappear into the trees. The boar was nowhere to be seen.

* * *

A small blue light hovered over Aako’s head. He and the other children had come straight back to tell the great Dekku Tree of what they had seen. The boughs of the great tree spanned the breadth of the clearing, the sunlight of midday filtering down through the tree’s wide, glossy green leaves. The ground hummed just before the tree spoke:

“Thou art certain the man left the forest?” said the huge tree-face.

“We are sure, Father Dekku,” a small voice said, coming from the ball of light hovering over Aako’s head. Delicate dragonfly wings stretched out of the light, twitching as they kept the blue ball aloft.

The ground reverberated and the tree spoke again. The air coming from its mouth smelled of rich brown soil. “Very well, then. It is to be seen what shall come of this. Have ye still the mask that was taken?”

A pale yellow light emerged from the crowd of children and the boy who took the mask walked meekly forward, the pale light trailing behind him. “We stole it,” said the fairy hovering over his head.

Felso, hast thou the mask that ye have stolen?” the tree hummed.

In response Felso produced from behind his back a heart-shaped mask with large red eyes and tribal markings. The ground reverberated again as the tree pondered the mask. “This mask seemeth to me an evil thing. It should be returned to its rightful owner as soon as can be arranged. Felso, give the mask to Aako.” Aako received the mask.

For a moment the clearing was quiet, with little more than the hollow sound of a lazy breeze whistling across the subterranean wooden tubes that gave the great tree his voice. Father Dekku seemed to be pondering. Several Koroki children shifted their feet on the packed turf near the entrance of the clearing. Finally, the ground hummed and the tree spoke: “This is not the first time thou hast stolen, Felso. Thou hast been warned, and now thou must receive the fruits of thy deeds. For this thing which thou hast done, thou art banished to the Lost Woods.” The boy hung his head and his fairy drooped a little in the air, its pale yellow light dimming.

All of the other children mumbled in astonishment. Then one of the girls stepped forward boldly; her deep purple fairy emerged and spoke. “We dared him to, Father Dekku. It’s our fault.” The child’s jaw was set, her arms were folded across her young chest, and the light emanating from her fairy was steady and brilliant. The face of the tree bent and twisted so that it seemed to raise its eyebrows.

“The wrong he has done was not done by thee, Solfe,” the tree hummed. “Nevertheless, thou wouldst share his punishment?”

“Fair,” said Solfe.

“Thou must know that Felso’s guardian, Tatl, and thy guardian, Tael, shall remain with me and ye shall wander the forest alone. Art thou willing to do this on Felso’s behalf?”

“Fair,” Solfe repeated. Felso rotated his bowed head to look at Solfe. She smiled at him softly.

“Very well. It is a kind thing thou hast done to ease him in his loneliness. It shall be enough that ye are without the forest; soon that youth which I have given thee shall become as dry wood. Know that at length thy memories shall fail and ye shall not remember these, thy companions. Moreover thou shalt not remember thy misdeeds, but shall be innocent again, to start anew in the woods. Only once before has a Koroki child been banished to the Lost Woods, and though I loathe it, it must be done. I delight in your games and am pleased by your happiness, but mischief I cannot abide. Tael, Tatl, come to me.” The fairies obeyed reluctantly. They hovered to one side, near the tree’s gargantuan roots.

Felso and Solfe shivered before the other children like outcasts. To be without a fairy to them was like being without a soul. “Mido, wilt thou guide these to the borders of the Lost Woods? Return to me with haste,” said the Dekku tree.

A boy with a blue fairy stepped forward with a haughty air. Then he turned and marched out of the clearing by the entrance, the other children parting to let him through. Felso looked at Solfe timidly and reached for her hand. Her mouth twitched into an uncertain smile and they followed after Mido.

The Dekku tree spoke again. “Please, my children, return to your trees. Rest awhile. Then, when the weight of these things has lifted, I would that ye should play again. Go now and rest.” The children turned and left by the entrance of the clearing. Then, just as they had almost all gone, the tree called for Aako and Saria. They paused where they stood.

“Come forward, children,” the tree said.

They did so. “What is it Father Dekku?” said Saria’s fairy, which glowed a light blue.

“I have aught to tell thee. I sense a great evil approaching; a man…a man with hatred in his heart, and a lust for power. Aako, this is the man who came to Castle Town. Go to the temple behind the Lost Woods and bring me the Emerald so that we can be certain the Stone remains safe. Saria, you shall return to the bridge in the forest. Take with you the mask that was stolen. Remain hidden until the man from whom it was stolen should return for it. Be gone no longer than you must.”

Saria accepted the mask from Aako. Then Aako ran out of the clearing. Saria hesitated, looking down at the mask. Its red eyes seemed to stare straight into hers.

“What is it, dear one?” said the Dekku tree.

“Scary,” said Saria.

“Yes. I cannot fathom from whence it comes,” said the tree. “There is evil in that mask. It feels like the power of the Goddesses, but foreign; strange. Do not put it on, and do not let anyone else do so. I am certain that it is cursed.”

“Father Dekku?” said Saria’s fairy, “what became of the other one…the one that was banished?”

“Ah, yes. I have thought of him of late. He still lives in the woods, a shadow of what he once was. When he left the forest his once green clothes turned brown and orange, his youth became withered and dry, like twigs. He remembers nothing of his past life, and knows no joys in his present one, except perhaps music. For some time I felt him passing through the wood, following around the lost travelers and playing his flute for them. But they were frightened by him and they would flee from before him. Since that time he has grown bitter, and tries to scare away or mislead any who come near. I feared sending Felso away lest he should share a similar fate. But as Solfe has gone with him, I have hope that they might not…”

“Father?” said Saria’s fairy again.

“Yes, dear one?”

“What was the name of the one who was sent away?”

Skulki,” the tree said, with an expression of remembered grief. “And his fairy was called Navi.”



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