Without a second's delay, the girls rushed off and set to work. Aster, Saphira and Cynthia headed back to the cabin where Aster and her mother lived. "You can cook in my kitchen," Aster's mother had agreed. "But you must clean up in there too." Cleaning was dull, but the girls did not mind: they knew their LIVES were at stake here.
Before they could begin to cook, however, they would need ingredients - that was Cal and Rio's job. Hastily, Aster scrawled down a long list of steaks, spices and other items they would need and handed it to Rio.
"Where am I supposed to get dried fermented scallops?"Rio asked, looking dumbfounded at the eccentric list before her. Aster shrugged. "You'll figure it out. There's probably some in the fishmongers in the Lebuhk Tribal Village." she said with a dismissive wave of her hand. Her many bangle bracelets clanged together as she did so.
Afterwards, she wrote down another list of various herbs and plants and handed it to Cal. "I'm growing most of these, but I'll be able to find the others in the forest." Cal said, briefly scanning the list. Satisfied, Aster nodded. "You better go. Be as quick as you can, okay?" Aster said as Rio shook her head with a mischievous grin.
"Aster, please, we'll be fine. Nobody knows the forest like Cal, and, honestly, when have I ever been slow?" Rio grinned, and before anyone could reply, she dashed off as fast as the wind.
Shortly afterwards, Cal left too, and set off into the snow-blanketed forest. Tall fir trees loomed above her, their bristles like moustaches standing haughty and unrivalled. Roots twisted underfoot.
To the untrained eye, the forest was still. No signs of life were hidden among the impenetrable undergrowth.
To Cal, however, the trees danced, the bushes rustled, and birds flit from perch to perch.
To the untrained ear, the forest was eerily silent: so much that one feels they should tread lightly, as though not to awaken the sleeping giants that formed the tree-blanketed hills.
Yet Cal knew better. She could hear the forgotten lyrics of the centuries-old pines, she hummed along with the breeze as it whispered snippets of long-lost songs. Amongst the crisp leaves and tunnelling roots, she delighted at the whistle of secret critters.
To the untrained, the forest had very little action - but to Cal, life blossomed.
With a small smile on her face, Cal wandered under the towering trees. Dappled sunlight draped the floor. Branches crunched underfoot as she travelled, searching in every nook and cranny for the herbs and plants written on he list.
Of course Cal had been picked to search in the forest; nobody knew the forest like Cal.
She knew it like Rio knew haadnelsof, like Aster knew cooking, like Saphira knew ice-fishing and like Cynthia knew the clouds. Everyone had their oyster, and Cal's was the forest.
What Cal did not know, however, was the large root snaking across the leaf-littered floor was planning on tripping her up.
Suddenly, Cal plummeted down the slope, went hurtling blindly through a few thorned bushes, stumbling through the tangled maze. Branches snagged at her clothes. Tree limbs snatched at her heels.
Still she tumbled through dirt and dust, until at last she came to a halt, and found herself staring wide-eyed into the mouth of a cave.
"Ouch," murmured Cal, standing up and pulling a few leaves out of her hair. Sticky bobs clung to her cloak and thorns pierced her pale skin. The cave loomed over her, like an ominous shadow.
Most people would have turned around immediately without a second thought, and attempted to find where they had been stood. But something about the cave...beckoned Cal. Faint calls slipped into Cal's ear. "Cal," breathed the cave mouth with its stalactite teeth. "C-come c l o o o o s e r r r Cal..."
As if in a trance, Cal's feet obeyed and shuffled her forward into the cave. Inside, it was dark and damp. Shadows scuttled in the corners. Every inch of the place screamed 'Turn Around!', but in the distance, Cal could just about make out a faint glow. Like will-o-the-wisps, the dim light drew her in. Fear hollowed out her stomach.
Despite her heart thumping double-quick, Cal could not stop herself and she gradually made her way to the light source.
When she discovered where the light was coming from, Cal let a gasp slip from her tongue.
She barely even realised that she spoke. There was a song, that Cal's mother had once sung to her when she was a child. Though her memories were foggy, Cal could just about remember the lyrics:
[Spooky high-pitched Nordic herding call vibes hehe]
ℑ𝔣 𝔬𝔫𝔢 𝔣𝔦𝔫𝔡𝔰 𝔟𝔬𝔫𝔢𝔰, ℑ𝔫 𝔱𝔥𝔢 𝔴𝔬𝔬𝔡, 𝔗𝔥𝔢𝔫 𝔬𝔫𝔢 𝔰𝔥𝔬𝔲𝔩𝔡 𝔩𝔦𝔰𝔱𝔢𝔫 𝔠𝔩𝔬𝔰𝔢𝔩𝔶, 𝔉𝔬𝔯 𝔱𝔥𝔬𝔰𝔢 𝔟𝔬𝔫𝔢𝔰 𝔞𝔯𝔢 𝔬𝔩𝔡 𝔞𝔫𝔡 𝔤𝔬𝔬𝔡. 𝔗𝔥𝔢𝔶’𝔩𝔩 𝔰𝔥𝔞𝔯𝔢 𝔱𝔥𝔢𝔦𝔯 𝔱𝔞𝔩𝔢𝔰, 𝔒𝔣 𝔩𝔢𝔤𝔢𝔫𝔡𝔰 𝔣𝔬𝔯𝔪 𝔱𝔥𝔢𝔦𝔯 𝔩𝔦𝔳𝔢𝔰, 𝔓𝔞𝔰𝔱 𝔤𝔢𝔫𝔢𝔯𝔞𝔱𝔦𝔬𝔫𝔰, 𝔗𝔥𝔢𝔦𝔯 𝔥𝔲𝔰𝔟𝔞𝔫𝔡𝔰 𝔞𝔫𝔡 𝔱𝔥𝔢𝔦𝔯 𝔴𝔦𝔳𝔢𝔰.
𝔒𝔫𝔢 𝔴𝔥𝔬𝔪 𝔦𝔰 𝔩𝔲𝔠𝔨𝔶, 𝔐𝔞𝔶 𝔩𝔢𝔞𝔯𝔫 𝔬𝔣 𝔞𝔫𝔠𝔦𝔢𝔫𝔱 𝔰𝔢𝔠𝔯𝔢𝔱𝔰, 𝔐𝔞𝔤𝔦𝔠 𝔰𝔭𝔢𝔩𝔩𝔰 𝔞𝔫𝔡 𝔖𝔱𝔬𝔯𝔦𝔢𝔰 𝔬𝔣 𝔱𝔯𝔦𝔟𝔢𝔰-𝔭𝔢𝔬𝔭𝔩𝔢. 𝔅𝔲𝔱 𝔦𝔣 𝔬𝔫𝔢 𝔣𝔦𝔫𝔡𝔰 𝔟𝔬𝔫𝔢𝔰, 𝔇𝔢𝔢𝔭 𝔲𝔫𝔡𝔢𝔯 𝔱𝔥𝔢 𝔰𝔢𝔞, 𝔗𝔥𝔢𝔫 𝔱𝔞𝔨𝔢 𝔱𝔥𝔢𝔪 𝔞𝔰 𝔞 𝔴𝔞𝔯𝔫𝔦𝔫𝔤, 𝔄𝔫𝔡 𝔴𝔦𝔱𝔥 𝔥𝔞𝔰𝔱𝔢 𝔬𝔫𝔢 𝔪𝔲𝔰𝔱 𝔣𝔩𝔢𝔢.
A marrow-curdling chill tiptoed down Cal's spine. It had been years since she'd heard the lyrics and even came out of her own mouth they still made her shiver. Maikohean music often had the power to do that to you - especially age-old lullabies like this song.
Snapping out of memories of four-year-old her sitting with a cup of cocoa infront of the hearth listening to her mother sing, Cal edged forwards.
"Child," a raspy voice cut through the air. Shocked, Cal stared at the pile of bones, which appeared to consist of two ulnas, two femurs, half a ribcage and a clavicle. She couldn't help but wonder where the rest of the bones might be.
"Child," came the raspy voice again. Though the bones did not move, they glowed very faintly. Curiosity took control of Cal and she knelt down leaned in for a listen.
"Child," croaked the bones. "What would you like to know?"
Cal hesitated, taking a deep breath, and replied, "What would you like to tell me?"
To her astonishment, Cal could've sworn she heard a quiet chuckle. Who knew bones could laugh?
"Have you ever visited the Rune Stones, child?" breathed the bones.
"Once, your eldership." Cal's voice was merely a whisper. The Rune Stones were a sacred place deep in the heart of the woods, consisting of strange circle of boulders slotted into the ground. Each was inscribed with a letter from a forgotten tongue. Only once had Cal visited, when she was 10 years of age, yet she vividly remembered great feelings of awe.
Were the bones going to explain the secrets of the runes to her?
"The Rune Stones are actually a puzzle, child. If arranged into a certain order, they spell a word, which then opens a passage way into the great mound close by. Inside is a secret haven, where creatures of all kinds gather. Even the magical kind."
Amazed, Cal let her jaw drop. 𝘌𝘷𝘦𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘮𝘢𝘨𝘪𝘤𝘢𝘭 𝘬𝘪𝘯𝘥. More beings with magic?! Like...like her...
"In my days I was sworn to secrecy of the word one must spell and and the order the stones must go in, and I intend to keep my promise even as death-dust. But, child, know that the Rune Stones are not written in a lost tongue as legends say. Humans may have forgotten it, but not all creatures have."
"So there might be a way..." the words barely left Cal's lips. Raw incredulity filled Cal's body. Was she dreaming? No - she really was talking to ancient bones!
"My truth has been told, and I have nothing more to say. Run along now, child, for it is time for us to part." the bones instructed Cal. She stood, and thanked the bones graciously.
"Farewell, young Cal. I see bright things in your future!"
"Farewell, bones!" called Cal, before slowly making her way out of the cave.
The bright light of the evening sun blinded Cal when she emerged from the dark cave mouth. Still speechless, she found herself back to the path and decided to head back to the village, clutching her herbs and plants.
As she made her way home, a sudden thought stuck Cal - she had never told the bones her name...
....and yet they still knew...
To be continued...