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Courtship in the Forest of Extinction

Courtship in the Forest of Extinction – Part 1

By Doug Lefler

Bryn Oakkart was listening to the music of the stream at the center of Whispering Hollow when he saw her for the first time. Her eyes were so attentive and her smile so mysterious that he forgave her for not being human.

At the age of sixteen, Bryn had fallen in love. Not with Aila, the minister’s daughter, as his mother had hoped, but with the lute. All thoughts of a career in the clergy vanished in a single day. The instrument came from his grandfather, who had given up on music in his youth and allowed the lute to languish, unused for the better part of five decades.

Bryn’s lute was not one of those modern monstrosities that had grown to enormous proportions in hopes of overpowering a crowded music hall. It was a proper lute with seven lines of strings that emerged from its base, angled gently over the bridge to race straight and sure across the soundboard, and up the neck where all fourteen strings made an abrupt and well-choreographed turn at the pegboard. Byrn’s natural talent, quick ear, and nimble fingers had the added benefit of an excellent teacher. Master Harlyn Owler had once been the First Lutenist at the Court of Ridge Rock beyond the Great Meadows. Harlyn had retired to Bryn’s small fishing village, hoping that the sea air would save his lungs.

They did not, and he died of consumption two years later, but not before imparting the basics of the instrument and a passion for music to his talented student.

At eighteen, Bryn’s indulgent father gave him an old horse named Fellow, and with this gentle beast, the young man began a wandering life. He enjoyed some popularity on the Western Coast, from Recollection Bay to the vibrant seaport of New Conquest. By nineteen he had learned all the favorite ballads, love songs, and comic ditties of his day and had begun writing his own. To this end, he would often venture off the forest road seeking a quiet spot to compose. Thus, fate and a liberal amount of artistic ambition landed him in the seldom visited Whispering Hollow of Old Badger Woods.

Bryn had heard stories of the Hamadryads but did not believe that there was any left on this side of the Colliding Mountains, but with her large black eyes, gracefully pointed ears, and lightly spotted blue skin, the girl could be nothing else.

“Hello,” Bryn said in his most soothing voice. “How long have you been watching me?”

The creature looked down on him and blinked.

“Can you understand me?” Bryn asked.

She cocked her head curiously but made no reply.

“Master Owler said that music is the universal language. Let me play something or you.”

The Hamadryad made no protest, so Bryn rested his grandfather’s lute on his lap and began a slow melody.

The girl in the tree had been crouching like a compressed spring, but now she settled into a comfortable position. Bryn played for her the sweetest songs in his repertoire, and the Hamadryad lingered until the sun went down. When he finally stopped, the creature rewarded him with a tantalizing smile.

“If you don’t mind,” Bryn said gently, “I am going to stand now. I’ve been sitting for hours, and my right leg has fallen asleep.”

He carefully set aside his lute and uncrossed his legs.

“Don’t be alarmed. I won’t approach your tree.”

She exhibited no alarm as she dangled her naked legs from the crook of the oak branch, but by the time Bryn had his feet underneath him and was stretching his back, the branch was empty. Her exit had stirred not a leaf. Not a sound betrayed her movement.

The hollow was quiet except for the music of the stream.

“Lady of the Trees” was the talk of the Summer Festival at New Conquest that year. He had intended to spend three days at the festival, but the coin and applause kept him there for two weeks. The Innkeeper’s daughter at the Broken Wheel was much more polite to him the day after she attended one of his performances, and he was able to afford a new saddle for Fellow.

“Although lovely to see, the Hamadryads were simple creatures,” Mr. Drake, the bookseller, read from a leather-bound tome. “Incapable of articulate speech, but proficient climbers by virtue of their long slender arms and prehensile tails –”

“Tails, you say?” interrupted Bryn. It was musty inside the bookseller’s shop, although the smell might have been coming from Mr. Drake himself. The Allistyr Drake Book Emporium was his last stop before leaving New Conquest. Bryn did not remember a tail on the Hamadryad, but she had been some distance up a tree.

Mr. Drake lifted his eyes over his spectacles to glanced sharply at the young man. “May I continue?”

“Apologies,” Bryn replied.

“These forest spirits were the most passive creatures of the Faerie Realm,” the bookseller’s bony index finger followed the words on the mottled parchment. “They would not raise a hand to defend themselves even in the face of their death, which is likely the reason for their eventual extinction.”

“How much for the book?”

Mr. Drake displayed a condescending smile.

“More than a street musician can afford, I’m afraid. Books,” he insisted, “are meant for the elite. This particular volume represents two years of impeccable scribe work by the monks of Red Rook Abbey.”

Bryn knew that his next question would likely get him expelled from the shop, but it was time to leave, and Mr. Drake was annoying.

“How much just to buy the pages on the Hamadryad?”

Bryn had left Whispering Hollow with the determination that he would return. To that end, he had carefully marked the path back to the forest road. But as he retraced his journey through Old Badger Woods, those markers were nowhere to be seen.

“That’s curious,” he said to his horse. Each marker consisted of three stacked stones. He might have missed one or two of these stacks, but not all. “Do you suppose someone moved them?”

Fellow snorted but offered no opinion.

Would a passive and unintelligent creature like the Hamadryad do such a thing? Bryn frowned. A thought intruded that maybe the forest girl did not want to hear him play again, but his ego quickly dismissed that as implausible. When he closed his eyes and remained still, he thought he could discern the Whispering Hollow stream’s signature music, but it was impossible to identify in which direction it lay.

Having no other option, he decided to play his lute in the middle of a quiet grove and hope that the Hamadryad would come to him.

The sun was sinking, Bryn’s fingers were numb, and he had exhausted all of the songs that pleased the Hamadryad on their first meeting. There was no sign of her. Bryn had saved the best for last. As the light was fading, he began “The Lady of the Trees.” Bryn had been eager to play it for her ever since he composed it. She must be listening now, he thought. She must.

As he strummed the final chord, Fellow tossed his head and whinnied.

“What is it, boy?” Bryn was expectant. “Is she here?”

The horse fidgetted and pawed the turf. Bryn could hear something approach. He knew that it was not his Hamadryad, primarily because he heard it coming. Through the birch trees, he could discern three stout men riding three draft horses.

There was no logic in fleeing. Bryn had previously removed his new saddle from Fellow’s back, but his old horse could not have outdistanced those hardy steads even if he was packed and ready to leave. So instead, he stood with his lute in one hand and bowed graciously to the intruders.

“Greetings, gentlemen. Welcome to my humble camp,” he said to the men. They were wearing woodsmen garb.

One of them nodded politely to the young musician.

“That was an able bit of minstrelling just now,” he offered in a deep voice. “Are you familiar with that song Malwyn?”

He turned to the bearded man on his left.

“It’s new to me. Mervyn?”

The third man shook his head. “Very pretty,” he offered. “What’s it called?”

Bryn was hesitant to answer, but he had been singing this song for weeks; it was now public knowledge, and other musicians had picked it up and were spreading it from tavern to tavern. “‘The Lady of the Trees’,” he answered.

“I am Madog,” announced the first man. “And we are –”

“The Three Huntsmen of Craggulch,” interjected Bryn, for they could be none other.

“You know of us?” Malwyn asked.

“From the song ‘The Gryphon of Calamity,'” Bryn replied with another bow. “Written, if memory serves me, by the Minstrel to the Court of King Edryd. I am honored to make your acquaintance.”

“The honor is ours,” said Madog as he untied a complex object that hung from his saddlebag. In the dark, Bryn could not discern what the thing was until it thudded to the ground in front of him. He looked down on the head of a magnificent stag, with shaggy red and blue fur and extravagantly curled alters of iridescent gold. The eyes stared blankly, and the tongue protruded from the mouth in an undignified.

The three Huntsmen of Craggulch dismounted.

“If you will permit us to share your camp,” said Madog as they unpacked their gear, “we will gladly share our bread. And there will be five copper pieces for you if you’ll play for us after supper.”

“An appreciative audience is all the payment I require,” lied Bryn. Seeing the stag’s head had cost him his appetite.

“Nevertheless, the copper pieces are yours to take,” insisted Madog, and he counted out five of them onto a flat stone in the middle of the camp.

After supper, Bryn played a medley of tranquil ballads and soothing lullabies. He put his heart into the performance, and soon the huntsmen had dropped into a deep slumber. Bryn gathered his belongings and led his horse out of the camp.

He did not take the five copper pieces.

Two months had elapsed before Bryn Okkart passed through the Old Badger Woods again. He did not pause to play his lute in the birch grove or seek the path to Whispering Hollow. If the Hamadryad was still in the forest, she should stay as far away from humans as possible, including those who sang songs that might draw attention to her. Bryn had not performed “Lady of the Trees” since his encounter with the Huntsmen. To his consternation, the song’s popularity spread without his help.

Some distance beyond the grove, Bryn reined Fellow off the path and found a quiet stream. It had been a long ride from Bailly Ridge, and the young man was happy to unlace his boots, pull off his shirt and trousers, and bathe in the clear water. The stream was refreshing. Its current tumbled over the rounded stones to make a hauntingly familiar melody. Bryn found himself pondering how fast the world was changing. Mystic Dire Wolves once hunted Unicorns through these woods. In his grandfather’s time, meetings with the Fair Folk were uncommon but not astonishing. These days an encounter like the one he had with the tree spirit could only be described as an aberration. Magic was leaving the world.

The stream was lulling Bryn into a dream. Falling asleep under these conditions could have tragic consequences, so Bryn shook himself and rose from the water. His bare feet made their way across the smooth river stones until he was back on the bank.

“What’s this?” Byrn asked. He looked at his horse. He looked about the clearing and then back at the ground. “Where are my clothes?” And then, with rising alarm,  “Where is my lute?”

He searched the clearing, bruising his bare feet on rocks and sticks.

“Someone took all of my things, and you just stood there?” Bryn demanded of his horse. “You didn’t make a sound?” Fellow shook his mane and looked in the direction of an elm tree. Bryn followed his gaze.

“Oh!” he exclaimed.

Eighteen feet above him was the Hamadryad dangling her bare legs from the crook of a branch. She was wearing Bryn’s shirt; his boots were next to her, his lute rested on her lap, and she was examining his trousers with fascination.

“Hello again,” Bryn said, for he was sure this was the same creature he had met before. “Could I please have my lute back –?” and suddenly remembering that he was naked, “and my trousers?”

The Hamadryad paid him no notice as she draped his trousers over the branch and picked up the lute. She held it to her ear as if she expected music to come from it. Frustrated by the silence, she shook the instrument.

“Please be careful with that,” the young man pleaded.

The Hamadryad took the lute by its handle and knocked it against the tree trunk. It was making a noise, but not the sound she wanted.

“Don’t! Please! That’s my livelihood!” Bryn insisted. Panic was rising in his stomach. “If you give it back to me,” he said as calmly as he could manage, “I will play it for you.”

He nodded, smiled, and held out his hands for the instrument.

The Hamadryad looked down at him, cocked her head, and held the lute toward him.

“Yes,” Bryn nodded more emphatically. “If you,” he pointed at her, “give it back to me,” gesturing to himself, “I will play it for you,” and he mimed the action of strumming.

The girl in the tree shrugged and let the lute drop. Bryn lunged forward and caught the instrument, stubbing the big toe of his right foot on a root of the elm tree. He danced about in pain, which seemed to amuse the Hamadryad. She mimed the action of strumming the instrument back at him to remind Bryn of his promise.

“Alright,” Bryn sat on a log and positioned the lute on his lap. “Just one song, and then I need my trousers back.”

The song seemed to delight the tree spirit more than the first time he played for her. Perhaps the three months’ absence of music had made her want it more. When he finished, she swung her feet in delight and tossed him one of his boots.

“No, not my boots.” Bryn caught himself and smiled at her again. “Well, I need my boots too. And I think I see how this will play out.”

Another song later, and the second boot dropped.

He played “Lady of the Trees” for her, and she gave him back his pants. Bryn dressed quickly, but by the time he finished lacing his boots, the elm tree branch was vacant. He turned to find the Hamadryad stood on the ground ten feet away. She was still wearing his shirt, and she placed a hand on the fabric to clutched it possessively.

“You can keep it,” He had another shirt in his rucksack that he usually saved for his performances. Bryne grinned at her. “You should have something to protect your modesty.”

“Modesty,” the Hamadryad said.

“You can speak!” Byrne exclaimed.

“Modesty,” she repeated.

“I’m Bryne Oakkart. Do you have a name?”

“Modesty.”

“Are you going to keep saying that word back to me?”

“Bryne,” she said, pointing at him. “Modesty,” she placed her hand on her chest.

“Very well. Modesty is what I’ll call you.”

The Hamadryad looked down at the shirt she was wearing and made a twirl. It hung on her like a short dress, but Bryn could see most of her bare bottom.

“No tail,” he asserted. “So much for the impeccable work of the Scribes of Red Rook Abbey.”

When Bryn woke the next morning, the Hamadryad, who he now called Modesty, was lying next to him. Nature had taken its course the night before as you might expect with a boy and a girl alone in a forest. Bryn realized that inter-species coupling would be a thing frowned upon by polite society, but when he saw her face in the morning light, he thought, “perhaps I’ll stay in the forest one more day.”

The next morning when she was still lying beside him, Bryn thought, “I can afford to stay one week.”

A month passed before the Minstrel packed his saddlebag again. He was surprised at his reluctance to leave Old Badger Wood,  but he had agreed to perform at the Festival of Enlightenment in Ironhorn. To neglect his commitments would be a mark against his growing reputation. Modesty walked with him to the edge of the forest but would not pass beyond the tree line.

“I will be back in one week,” Bryn promised her. Modesty placed a hand over her heart, and Bryn answered with the same gesture.

Read Part Two of COURTSHIP IN THE FOREST OF EXTINCTION.

Posted August 27th 2021
Teegra reading a script

Meeting Frank Frazetta

by Doug Lefler

“They’re bringing Frank Frazetta around for a tour!” my co-worker informed me. I was at the drawing board in my cramped office. Indirect light filtered through my window that faced the courtyard of our building.  “But we’re not supposed to ask for his autograph.”

                “Excuse me?” I asked.

                “The boss thinks it would be unprofessional.” My co-worker slumped under the weight of this mandate.

                “Go away,” I told him. “You and I never had this conversation.”

I wrote and illustrated for a small production company that shared a floor with a Hollywood casting agency. Outside my window, people frequently gathered in types.  These occurrences were more bizarre than it sounds. We don’t usually see twenty short, stout Italian bakers, fifteen Asian American police officers, or thirty middle-aged, balding biology teachers sitting together while trying to ignore one another. In 1981 this casting agency was working on FIRE AND ICE. On my first day in that building, I arrived to find the courtyard filled by twenty voluptuous, dark-haired, almond-eyed women in string bikinis. They were auditioning to be Frazetta girls.

                I had spent the last four years working in Disney Feature Animation, and before that, in the insular environment of art school. So as I absorbed the spectacle now before me, I thought: “Is this what it’s like in the outside world?”   

Several months later, I was in my office early when I heard voices coming down the corridor. Three men appeared outside my office window. One of them was Dennis Gallegos, the casting agency owner who would become a producer on FIRE AND ICE. The second was Ralph Bakshi, the film’s director. He was the tallest and the loudest of the group, and he stopped abruptly to look at the illustrations on my walls.

                “Jesus Christ! What’s this?” Bakshi demanded.

                Dennis replied, “It’s a film project that these people are developing.” None of them noticed me sitting behind my drawing board.

                “Looks good enough to steal,” Bakshi pronounced before he and the casting agent continued on their way.

                The third man, shorter, older, and significantly more fit than the other two, lingered a few moments to study my art. It was Frank Frazetta.

“What medium do you use?” Frazetta asked me when he stopped by my office later in the day.

                “Pastel,” I answered. “Only because it’s fast.”

                He smiled. “I paint in mud.”

We were not alone. The casting agent was there with my boss (the two of them were friends) and several of my co-workers. I wasted no time in taking out my copy of The Fantastic Art of Frank Frazetta 1 and asked if the artist would sign it. It fascinated me to see that Frazetta wrote the inscription, but he sketched his signature, and you could see when he switched from one mode to the other.

The Fantastic Art of Frank Frazetta

I imagine my boss was annoyed, but I feigned innocents and avoided eye contact. Finally, when he saw how gracious Frazetta was to an adoring fan, my boss turned to the rest of the staff crowded in the doorway.

                “Alright, get your books.”

                None of us knew in advance Frazetta was coming, but it wasn’t surprising that we all had copies of his book in our offices. In the early 80s, everyone in my business did. After signing all of them, Frazetta took one last look at my wall of illustrations.

                “How old are you?” he asked.

                “Twenty-four,” I told him.

                He nodded and said, “you’ll make it.”

Posted July 30th 2021

Voyage Rhapsody 2

The Mysterious Passengers

“Inform your Mistress that this will not stand.”

            The surf was teasing the launch’s stern while three Krimsian Guards waited in the sand near the vessel’s bow. The sky and the beach were white, with sea birds attracted by the novelty of humans on their shores.

“You have been paid in full for your services,” Syisha did not want to prolong this parting for fear that they would all lose their nerve. “Please cast off before you miss your rendezvous.”

            “We are not interested in further profit,” insisted Rowl, the Captain of the Krimsian Guard. “But our reputations would suffer if we left clients to face the legendary perils of Disiri Island alone. We understand you seek something beyond these cliffs, at the very heart of the Three Rings.”

            “It is not the island that endangers you,” the men turned to face Lady Nacia Oriandra. She was covered head to toe in her purple robes, the color of death. The hint of her eyes was visible beneath the shade of her hood. These were the first words she had ever spoken to them. “It is I.”

There was a raucous squawking among the gulls. A single raven, the color of midnight, had appeared. The other birds scattered to avoid it. Syisha, Song, and Jewell circled the Lady of Oriandra.

            “If you love life,” Syisha shouted to the men. “Leave while you can!”

            The squawking escalated into a cacophony as the seabirds took flight. Two more ravens had inexplicably joined the first. Rowl’s companions, Pike and Cort, fell into position flanking their Captain, hands tight on the hilts of sabers. Now there were five, seven, a score of the northern birds incongruously gathered on this tropical beach. They circled in tight formation above a rock at the foot of the Disiri cliffs, coalesced into a chaotic mass that resolved into the shape of a tall man. His robes, the color of midnight, remained a chaotic silhouette, the outline of which was occasionally interrupted by the flutter of a black wing.

Three sabers sang with the reverberation of tempered steel drawn from scabbards.

            “Greetings, Milady,” said Cagi Nor, the Nightling Thaumaturge. His voice was surprisingly mundane, like that of a money lender. “Congratulations. Your little party has survived many challenges to reach this most obscure of islands.”

            “Stand down!” Nacia shouted to the Krimsians. She faced the Thaumaturge. “Be merciful, Cagi. Let these men go. They have earned their lives.”

            “But Milady,” replied the tall man. “After braving so much for you, don’t they deserve to see your face?”             Cagi Nor gave a wave of the hand as if he were brushing lint from a hat. Nacia’s hood erupted in a cloud of purple butterflies that flitted into the air.

The Lady of Oriandra was as slender as her three companions. Her face was delicately proportioned and symmetrical, and yet at the sight of her, Pike, who was standing closet, dropped his sword and moved forward with arms outstretched.

            He advanced three steps before his head was separated from his shoulders by the Captain of the Guard. Rowl was Pike’s brother, but the thought of another man wanting Nacia was suddenly unbearable to him. Before Rowl could take his brother’s place, he felt Cort’s blade slice open his back on its first stroke and hamstring his lower legs on its second. Then, as the Captain fell, he instinctively pivoted and buried his saber in Cort’s heart.

            The three bodies landed in the sand within moments of each other.

A wail of anguish escaped Nacia as the purple butterflies settled back into the fabric draped from her shoulders. Jewell dropped to her knees and covered her eyes.

Song stepped up to Nacia and touched her arm. “Milady, Rowl still lives.”

The Captain lay on his back while the blood was abandoning his body to mingle with the sand.

“We should spare him this misery,” said Syisha as she picked up a saber. “Does anyone know how to use one of these?”

“I have trained with ceremonial swords,” offered Jewell as she knelt in the sand. “But only for the stage.”

“I’ll do it,” said Nacia. She knelt beside the dying man. “Thank you for your service,” She said as she bent to kiss his forehead.

For a moment, the pain left Rowl. He smiled and closed his eyes as the slightest touch of Nacia’s lips caused the flesh to evaporate from his skeleton like a sigh in the wind.

“How can any man be so heartless?” Nacia Oriandra turned to confront the Nightling Thaumaturge.

“It was your wish to be the most desired woman in the Five Kingdoms.” Cagi looked offended. “I am merely your servant.”

“You deceived me!”

“Men desire most that which they can never possess.” The birds that formed his cloak became restless once again. “Don’t blame me for human nature.”

With that, the tall man’s form dispersed into a flock of ravens and took wing. A moment later, the four women were alone on the beach with a launch they could not sail and three dead men at their feet.

The first thing Durn asked himself when he opened his eyes was, “Why is there a flock of ravens flying over me?” The second thing was, “Where the hell am I?”

Posted June 27th 2021

Voyage Rhapsody

1

“Overboard”

“I probably deserve this,” Durn thought when the guards threw him from the forecastle of the Xebec. He felt a rush of warm evening air before the cruel ocean swallowed him.

When he broke the surface of the water seconds later, Durn saw his former ship plowing relentlessly toward the horizon. The lanterns in the Captain’s quarters were lit, revealing the mysterious passengers who secreted there.

Besides the Captain, Durn was the only one who knew they were there. He had defied orders by climbing down the stern of the ship and peeking through the window. One of the four young women was pushing an empty barrel over the railing. Durn was confused by the thought that she intended the barrel for him.

His argument with the First Mate had been loud enough for the passengers to hear, but why would they be sympathetic to an insignificant sailor like him.  Durn wanted to study the expression on the young woman’s face, but the heartless wind was carrying her and her companions fast away.

When the sun rose on the endless ocean, it shone down on the unfortunate sailor clinging to the empty barrel. As flotation devices went, the barrel was merely adequate. Durn could not climb on top of it. Barrels roll, it is in their design, and they will do so whether on land or in the sea. The morning sun would soon be burning his skin, even the submerged parts, and although water surrounded him, there was not a drop to drink.

Why had he risked everything to glimpse the mysterious passengers sequestered in the Captain’s cabin? The Captain himself did not go there; instead, he bunked with the First Mate and the Navigator. With hope diminishing, Durn thought of his youthful ambition to rise above his station in life. A dream all but killed by the three years he had spent sleeping before the mast.

Lost in his pondering, Durn almost missed the cries of sea birds overhead. His heart quickened at the sound, and he rotated in the water to follow their flight. On the edge of the horizon was a lone island pushing up from the ocean floor. If not for the gulls, he would have missed it.

Too far away for him to swim even if he had a restful night’s sleep behind him, all he could do was hope for the tide to carry him closer.

Durn suddenly felt a tingle as if a warm current was surging past him. Then, from the corner of his left eye, he caught a glimpse of a shape. It was the length of a dolphin but more slender as it skimmed just below the surface of the rolling waves. For a moment, the ocean felt alive and inviting.

The moment was short-lived. The sailor sensed the shark’s presence before he saw its huge fin cutting the rolling surface of the ocean.  Durn controlled his fear and remained motionless. The creature was in pursuit of something, and Durn saw no profit in distracting it. 

What he did next, Durn did without deliberation. He abandoned the barrel and caught hold of the dorsal fin as it sliced the water next to him. It was a desperate move by a desperate man. But the shark was moving quickly in the direction he wanted to go. If it carried him halfway to his destination (assuming he did not get eaten in the process), he might swim the rest of the distance.

For several heightened moments, the young sailor’s plan seemed to be working. He kept his eyes focused on the island growing larger before him and not on the 2,500 lbs of sea predator taking him there. He was gauging the best moment to divest himself of his transportation when the creature the shark was pursuing breached the waves.

A shift in Durn’s perception of the world immediately occurred. He wanted to believe that what he had seen were two separate living things, one human and one fish, but that idea was proving a hard sell.

In meager heartbeats, the creature would be experiencing the shark’s teeth unless the sailor intervened. But what could a six-foot land dweller do against a twenty-four-foot carnivore in its preferred environment?

The shark had three tender parts. Its snout and its eyes were beyond the sailor’s reach, so Durn slid his right hand between the great fish’s gill, grabbed a handful of the soft flesh inside, and twisted with all the strength he had left.

The results were immediate. The giant predator thrashed violently, throwing Durn from its back and striking him in the head with its tail.

Everything went black and reasonable people might assume this was the end of the impetuous young man’s story.

Posted June 17th 2021
Posted March 17th 2021