The people in the trees, and what became of them  A folk tale of Hochland

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The people in the trees, and what became of them

A folk tale of Hochland

This brief tale serves as an ideal introduction to the fascinating culture of Hochland, a land where the mystical traditions of the past sit side-by-side with modern gun-making workshops and other such places of industry. Hochland has often been under the dominion of its larger neighbours, and has seen much repression and persecution for its adherence to the old ways. Yet this has only encouraged an indomitability of spirit in the Hochlanders, and a ferocious pride in their traditions. - JWG

There was a village in the south of Hochland where the people went out every morning to speak to the trees. Now some say this was done in veneration of Rhya, who is the Lady of the Green, and some say it goes back further still, to the spirit-worship of our most distant ancestors[1]. But others say that the trees themselves were aware and understanding, and that they contained in them human forms, so that at times they walked among the people of the village, and at others slept within walls of bark.

In this village there was a certain young lad named Leaf,[2] who was approaching the first day of his manhood. Leaf was a hard-working boy, but not bright; he could never be trusted to remember the least task or engagement, and so was often a cause of great frustration to his family. Yet still the family made every preparation for Leaf's birthday, for vexing as he was Leaf was still in every way loveable. So they baked sweet honey-cakes from oats, and brewed bitter dark ale, and cured the finest bacon in apple-wood smoke.

On the first day of his manhood, Leaf was woken very early in the morning by four terrifying apparitions. The first wore a robe of stitched dead leaves, and in place of his head was the bleached-white skull of a deer. In his hand he carried a long, thin rod of hazel wood. The second wore patchwork armour of leather and furs, and carried a stout cudgel. His head was that of a bear. The third wore a soft robe of green cloth, set about with flowers, and had the head of a rabbit. The fourth and last wore a robe of solemn grey, with a hood pulled up to hide his face. He leant upon a staff, as though brought low by age.

These then were the spirits of the four seasons: cruel winter, violent spring, loving summer, and weary autumn[3]. They did not speak to Leaf, but bade him raise from his bed and dress only in his trousers. Then, in silence still, they made him walk ahead of them through the empty house, and out into the chill morning air. The grass was drenched in dew beneath his bare feet, and Leaf shivered. But he did not dare defy the spirits, and walked on into the forest for an hour or more.

At last he came to a clearing by a small, bright pool of water. There at once the spirit of winter came forward and took hold of Leaf. Again and again the hazel rod came down upon Leaf's back with fearful strength, until his pale skin was striped in scarlet welts. But by and by the spirit cast down its rod, and instead dropped Leaf into the water, which was as cold as cold could be.

A moment later Leaf was lifted out of the pool and set on his feet. It was the fearsome figure of spring that had rescued him. The spirit put a cudgel into Leaf's hand, and then raised its own. Suddenly, Leaf realised that he was expected to fight the spirit, and ducked in time to avoid a blow aimed at his head. Circling and weaving, the spirit attacked Leaf from all angles, but each attack was repulsed. At last, the spirit of spring bowed very low, and backed away.

Now summer came forward. Inclining its rabbit head first to one side, then the other, the spirit offered Leaf a cup of water to drink from, and a sweet cake to eat. Then it rubbed a thick green salve over his back, dulling the pain of winter's beating.

Summer withdrew, and autumn approached, slow and unsteady on its feet. The spirit sat upon the ground, motioning for Leaf to do likewise, and took out a bowl filled with red-brown paste. Autumn used this paste to draw swirling patterns across Leaf's chest and face, at last tracing a single word across Leaf's forehead: this word, that was known only to Leaf and to the spirit, was Leaf's true name, the final marker of manhood[4]. As the name was drawn across his head, leaving no mark, Leaf closed his eyes and sank into grateful sleep.

When he awoke he was surrounded by the all the people of the village, clad in their finest clothing, gathered together into the clearing. They cheered and laughed and sang, and together all took a feast of the fine cakes, bacon and beer that had been so carefully assembled. This went on until the food and drink was exhausted, and the people too were weary from long celebration.

It was then that a second group of people arrived in the clearing. These people were not dressed as the villagers, but wore strange costumes of living greenery. Among their number were the four spirits of the seasons, though the masks were now drawn back to reveal faces that seemed at first to be those of men and women, but at closer inspection were thinner and finer of feature[5]. The people of the trees brought with them the most wondrous music, and they caught Leaf up in a wild dance that whirled him around and around until he no longer felt the ground beneath his feet.

On and on, faster and faster. Now the tired villagers took a second strength from somewhere, and also joined the dance. The music of the village and of the trees became intermingled, so that there no longer seemed any real distinction between them, and to Leaf's eyes even the faces merged together. Day became night, and still the dance continued. Even the stars did not disdain the celebration, but spun in quiet circles in the black sky. Only when the sun showed its red face over the horizon did the music fade and the dancers slow. The people from the trees each took a villager in their arms and held them, kissing each cheek with fondness. Then they returned into the depths of the forest, perhaps to embrace the trunks of the largest trees and sink beneath the bark, so as to sleep.

As for Leaf, the villagers carried him back to his home, where he crossed the threshold for the first time as a man.

[1] Often called 'The Old Faith,' this profoundly ancient religion is still followed in isolated communities throughout The Empire.

[2] I have translated the name from the original Cherusen, so as to make the meaning clear.

[3] The particular attributes of these personifications of the seasons are quite unlike those to be found elsewhere in The Empire.

[4] The tradition of granting a secret name upon coming-of-age is an old tradition indeed, and is to be found in every part of the world (or so it is said).

[5] I hesitate to name these tree-people elves, for who has ever heard of such close kinship between men and elves?


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