How Skiff Came to Leave His Village

and, again, for Stephen

When very young, and thus kept close to home, Skiff was rambunctiousness itself, all eager nose and questing, all bounding joy and exploration, forever underfoot and in the way, a trial to all his family. But eke a joy, for well-knew the dog-tribe that the wilder the youth the better the adult, and so was Skiff tolerated and encouraged and borne with, and spoken of with pride on the hunting paths and beyond the high hills that ringed the village. Of him great things were expected, whether sage counsel in peacetime, or fearsome gallantry in time of war, or cunning invention, or mighty song raised beneath the stars.

Now the custom of the northern tribe is this: to lead the competent into the ropy heart of the northern rainforest, and there to leave her, without food nor water nor map nor friend withal, but at the head of a broad and straight path that leads to the high cities of tenebrous Oast and Albion on the winedark sea. Thus is the choice put before her. Shall she return through dangerous ways and uncertain to the warm bosom of clan, friends, and family? Or shall she take the chalken road laid into the loam of the northern rainforest, and go thence to the winedark sea and unknown cities, and be bereft of wide-smiling friends? Each way lay dangers and glories enough for the bravest heart.

And Skiff’s turn came when the face of the earth dropped below the sun, one day in late spring. Over the wide plains they wended their way, Skiff and his guides, who — in the manner of their high office — spoke not, nor signed by gestures what choice ought to be made. Nor would Skiff have listened; the grasslands were charged with verdancy and poured forth that bounty in riotous blooming, heady scents, explosive flights of minute hedgebirds, and the dazzling bounty of butterflies, all of which set Skiff’s head awhirl and his heart aflutter.

How dark the forest when first it appeared, a dark smudge there on the horizon! How ominous seemed that kohl-ring upon the sky’s lid! And through the mosses and the tangling bracken they forced their way, and up hill and down dale, and through chill rivers, and through the fusty tunnels of logs, and into the ropy heart of the forest where sprawled the gleaming whiteness of the road, and there Skiff stayed as night drew close beneath the canopy.

Through that night he sat, sleepless, and listened to the unfamiliar sounds of the rainforest, and looked through the heavy boughs at the stars, charting their paths and positions from long memory. All chaos was his heart, formless and fluid, with no spirit upon the waters to give shape or direction. The path? The forest? The path? Through the long night he sat, his heart turning within him, the unseen stars turning above. The forest? The path?

Soft-fingered Dawn found him yet awake, and yet unresolved. In pity did she carry forth to him the beat of distant toms, the war-summons of the city-lands, and stirred his young blood. And so Skiff set upon the chalken road to follow the toms, to Albion on the winedark sea, and the Shu, and beyond to Hoopla; and so in the woods the silent guards moved away from the ropy forest’s heart, and back to the plains, with news and tidings indeed.