Prologue: What's In a Memory?
Coo-cuuoo. Cooo, co-cuuuuoooo
A dove sang out his love song as the sun rose in the warm morning air. It was not long before its attention was snatched away by a mysterious new presence. The creatures of the forest could feel it. It was something that they rarely encountered in the northern forests. Every pair of eyes turned toward the source: a young boy.
He sat at the edge of the clearing, inspecting his torn clothing. The boy furrowed his brow over his cobalt blue eyes, running his fingers over the graying fabric that seemed suddenly so foreign. A sudden wind would have ripped it right out of his hands if he weren't holding it so tightly.
He released a tensed sigh and darted his eyes upward, finally relaxing his grip on the shirt. The clearing appeared to be bubbling with life. Songbirds sang in the distance, filling the air with their sweet music. A pitter-patter of little feet scampered at his left. The boy looked down in apprehension, only to smile at two small rodents sniffing the air about him. Their bushy tails flickered in confusion, and their beady eyes stared up at him, as if asking for some sort of an explanation.
"Hmm, what is it?" The boy tilted his head ever so slightly to the side. "Were you looking for something?"
The first rodent cautiously stared at the young boy for a moment longer before turning away. The other squeaked in puzzlement before following the first.
He chuckled in amusement. It somehow was out of place for small animals to be so friendly. Then again, things were awfully strange today.
At least the sky is a lovely blue, he thought. The only problem is
where am I?
A brightly colored bird landed in the far edge of the clearing, glancing down at him as it passed overhead. It gave a small tweet before splashing about in a small puddle. Chirping, it pecked at the ground, grabbed a small worm, and took of toward the sky once more.
The boy put a hand to the moist ground to help himself up. It was odd how difficult it was to stand. His muscles felt cramped and his hands trembled with the soft breeze. It felt as if his entire body had been stampeded by a hoard of thirsty animals in search of water.
"That is strange. Well, perhaps a bit of water to my face will help me think straight," he reflected out loud.
He tried to step forward, but his feeble muscles refused to cooperate. Instead, he fell to the ground with a yelp of surprise and pain. Slowly standing up again, the boy brushed the dirt off of his gray pants. He was more careful as he attempted to walk once more, testing the feel of each step before he put his full weight on it.
Walking across the field attracted some wildlife, but the boy hardly noticed. He was to busy consecrating on reaching the pool of water. Wincing as each step wracked his body in pain, he started to wonder what could have caused this intense pain? He searched for the answer, but couldn't put his finger on what had happened. It even hurt to trying to recall it.
As the boy knelt beside the water, the wildlife around him seemed to hold their breaths in anticipation. He dipped his hands into the pooling of water and splashed some on his face. Looking down, he could see his reflection in the rippling water.
He took in a sudden gasp. The light-blue eyes of the reflection blinked once, then twice. A hand was brought up to touch the top of the sandy hair, making its way southward. It touched the tip of an ear. An ear that protruded from the side of the face at a slight angle, narrowing into a point. The mouth dropped in sheer surprise and those blue eyes stared right back. His eyes. His hair. His ears.
"What in the world happened to me?" the boy whispered in huffs as confusion wrapped its long fingers around his mind.
The few birds that had gathered curiously around him suddenly looked up toward the trees at the far end of the meadow. They unfolded their wings and retreated into the sky above. Squirrels twitched their whiskers anxiously, frozen for a moment before bolting towards the tree line. Even the lone deer pricked up its ears and began to sprint for safety. All could hear the subtle crack of twigs coming from the edge of the woods.
All but the boy. He continued to scrutinize his stunned face in the murky water.
"What has happened to my face? What is going on?" He fearfully grasped the edge of his jaw with one hand and felt along his cheekbone with the other, both of which were too prominent. "Have I ever looked like this before?"
He suddenly stopped, blinking away from the water for once. "I don't remember if any of this is right or not," he almost whimpered. Gasping, his eyes widening and brows raising toward golden hair, the boy knelt, motionless.
"I don't recognize it because I can't remember. I can't remember. I can't remember anything! I can't even who I am!" The boy's voice rose with each statement, slowly becoming unintelligible shrieking. He flailed his hands outward in desperation.
He had forgotten how weak he was feeling. His abrupt movements caused him to double over in pain, and he allowed a small grunt to escape from his lips. Somewhere in the back of his mind, the boy had a fleeting idea of being someone brave in these sorts of situations.
"Wha What was that?" The boy whirled around, springing to his feet. What ever it was, he was going to be ready for it. Ignoring the screams of pain from every inch of his body, he forced himself to scan the edge of the tree line. His breathing nearly stopped. He was definitely not ready for this.
A large, canine-like beast with shaggy brown fur limped into the light of the clearing, clearly favoring its left paw. The canine lumbered slowly, its breathing hovering past its large, sharp fangs. The brown fur on its right shoulder was turning red from blood that slowly dripped toward the ground. An arrow still clung to its body, clearly the cause of the blood. The arrow quivered with each pained step. The creature looked nearly dead. Until its stubby snout turned directly towards the boy, that is.
Ceasing its difficult breathing, it lowered its shoulders, as if a cat about to pounce. A low rumble grew in the creature's chest. The poor boy screamed and tried to scramble away, looking just once over his shoulder. The creature took a few cautious steps, and then broke out in a labored sprint towards him.
Altunus couldn't help but smiling when he looked down at his little brother. His stern little eyebrows were furrowed in concentration over his steel blue eyes. Bow still in hand, he still held his pose a few seconds after the arrow had flown. But the most satisfying part was the dull thud of contact and the tortured cry from the injured malcrei. Rex was truly a man.
The boy looked up and met his gaze, excitement abounding in his eyes. "Altunus! I did it!" He did a small fist pump in the air. "Do you think it's going to take much longer?"
"Naw, he's on his last legs now," Altunus commended, ruffling his brother's curly black hair. "Let's go finish him off."
Rex flashed him an annoyed smile as he slung his equipment bag upon his back and secured his sword around his waist. His older brother nodded his head in approval, and they started off in pursuit.
Altunus beamed as they rushed through the forest. This was it! With the ceremony of the Malcrei Right to Manhood, his thirteen-year-old brother would become a man. And thankfully, their father had agreed in allowing him to escort Rex during the hunt. Three years ago, during his own Malcrei Right to Manhood hunt, their father had been too busy to accompany him, so he had sent a trusted mentor to escort him. The teen had never seen the man before, and the hunt had turned into an awkward and better-off-forgotten memory.
But not this hunt! During the last few days through the northern wilderness, Altunus had created new, strong bonds with his brother. With all of his current stresses and worries, the sixteen-year-old had found things becoming tense with Rex. This was exactly what they needed to restore their old relationship. Things were finally right again, and he wasn't going to let anything in the world change that now. He breathed a silent prayer of thanks, and his green eyes looked down at his brother, his smile burning bright with pride.
"You know Rexathor, I am so proud of you. You have grown so much over the last couple of years."
It wasn't very often that he said Rex's full nameit was usually only when he was upset at his younger brother. Not today. Rex's bright, sapphire eyes locked on to his, beaming with excitement.
"Really? Are you really proud of me?"
"Of course, stupid! What, did you think I said that for my health?" he laughed, rustling his hair once more.
"Hey! Quit it!" Rex shoved his hand away and tried to rustle Altunus' wavy brown hair, jumping as he attempted to reach. "Don't think you can keep getting away with that just because you're so much taller than me!"
"Oh yeah? Just watch me," he teased, sprinting off ahead of him.
"Hey!" Rex followed in hot pursuit.
Altunus chuckled silently to himself. The boy was too easily provoked. The smile, however, was wiped from his face as he skidded to a halt. He held up his hand to motion his brother to do the same. Rex stopped suddenly, realization creping onto his face.
"Is it the malcrei?"
"Yeah," he whispered, bringing a finger to his lips, "so be quiet. We can catch it from behind and fin"
A scream shattered the silence causing both boys to jump in surprise.
"Wha?" Rex started to ask, dazed.
Altunus cringed and broke out into a sprint. They had taken their sweet time to kill the malcrei, and now it was endangering someone else.
"Come on! We don't have any time," he called over his shoulder, thankful to see the boy springing into action. Altunus pulled his out his own bow, his right hand pulling back on the arrow's feathers. He was not going to jeopardize any moment of time. Altunus noticed Rex was crashing along behind him. Seeing the boy's hand going to his hilt did not surprise Altunus; the sword was his brother's weapon of choice. But would it prove unwise in this situation?
The light of the clearing greeted them with a frightening sight. A young boy, no older than eight years old, was scrambling away from the charging malcrei at the other edge of the clearing. Altunus blinked once in surprise before quickly bringing up his bow. He closed his eyes, steadying himself for a moment. A loud shout from behind caused him to gasp and release an unsure arrow.
"Hey!" Rex yelled at the malcrei, charging full force into the meadow with sword in both hands.
The injured predator turned slightly towards the noise. It let out a pained shriek as Altunus' arrow buried itself between two ribs. It slowed to a crawl, breathing heavily. Altunus breathed a sight of relief while grimacing slightly. His aim had been off thanks to Rex's little war cry, but the malcrei had been startled as well. Though the arrow had not hit its original destination, it had still struck the great canine. He started to reach for another arrow before realizing what Rex was doing.
"Rex! Don't go near it! It's still dangerous," Altunus bellowed, sprinting towards him. Malcrei were known to have ferocious fighting sprit, especially on their last legs.
"You're mine!" The young teen hoisted his blade, making the sunlight glimmer on its edge. The beast raised a bloody paw and growled a terrible growl. It began to clumsily charge towards him.
"No, Rex!" He wasn't going to get there in time! Rex was being far too careless. Altunus knew that wild look in the malcrei's eyes. It was the look of a creature who would go to any lengths in the name of survival.
His brother thrust his blade through the beast's chest as it brought its heavy paw down on his left shoulder. It crashed down on top of him, smothering him with its last breaths.
The dull thud-thud of blood hammering in his ears was all Altunus could hear as he ran the short distance to the heap of flesh. This was not happening. Rex could not die in the middle of the Malcrei Right to Manhood. He was only thirteen! His whole life was ahead of him. What kind of a pathetic excuse of an older brother was he for letting this happen to his only brother in the world?
"Rexathor," he whimpered as he pulled at the massive heap of dead weight. His green eyes frantically examined his stunned little brother on the ground. Staring aimlessly into the sky, the young teen was still clinging to the bloody hilt of his sword. Deep blotches of crimson lightly decorated his tunic, and his breeches looked worse for wear. Rex blinked several times up at his older brother's shocked face before allowing himself to breath again.
"I did it. I really did it," he said almost wearily, looking up guiltily at Altunus. His hands shook slightly as he released the hilt and propped himself up on his elbows.
"What the hell were you thinking? You almost got yourself killed!" He angrily grabbed him and shook his shoulders. "Do you know how lucky you are? That malcrei would have killed you if you had lied under there for much longer!"
Rex averred his eyes towards the ground. "Altunus
" He heaved a heavy sigh. "I only acted on instinct. I don'tAltunus!" He stopped mid thought and pointed at a young boy trembling at the edge of the meadow.
"Oh," Altunus exclaimed softly, finally looking over at the young boy cowering at the tree line. His blond hair was slightly covered by his hands clutching his head, as if he was trying to block out the world. Little frightened blue eyes stared out the entire scene. Altunus wondered if the boy was assessing whether or not it was safe to approach them.
He's so young, Altunus thought. He can't be any older than seven. Perhaps eight. Poor thing.
"Hey there," Rex said moving toward him. "Did the malcrei hurt you?"
The boy seemed frightened by his sudden advance and eyed him cautiously as if Rex was a dangerous animal as well. Something in his face seemed to change and brighten as he came to grips with the situation. He smiled and brought his hands away from his head and shakily stood to his feet.
Rex suddenly stopped his advance, his jaw dropping in surprise. Altunus, who had stared moving towards the boy, found himself frozen solid as well. The young boy looked at them curiously before taking a few shaky steps forward.
"I can't believe it," Altunus whispered, "It's an istus." An awed smile crept over his face as he shook his head in disbelief. "Am I dreaming? Or is this really happening?"
The young istus wobbly approached them, clasping both hands around Rex. A joyous look of complete reassurance illumined his small face as he began to speak.
"Mi estis tiom tim kiu tremiga besto!" His eyes burned brightly, mixed with a bizarre sense of weariness. "Vi du sav mi! Mi ŝuld vi du por vivdaŭro!"
Rex shook his head, amazement clear on his face. "Sorry, but we can't understand the language of the istusen."
The eight-year-old's face clouded with confusion. "Vi ne povas kompren kio mi estas dir?"
The young boy hung his head in disappointment, putting his curious pointed ears in plain view of the two teens. Altunus knew that they had wandered a bit farther north than what they had planned, but they had to be practically on the border of istusen country. And what was this istus doing here all by himself? He felt a twinge of concern to see the istus so alone at such a young age.
This was the first istus any human had ever seen since the Great War. And that was so long ago; the istusen had almost become nothing but myths and bedtime stories for young children. Despite their reputation as mere legends, whisperings had been floating around. Whisperings of the istusen's desire for revenge. Altunus absent-mindedly remembered one such rumor of how the istusen were planning on sneaking out of their hidden wood and recapturing the human kingdom for their own.
But surely they wouldn't hold a grudge for hundreds of years, would they? Altunus nearly snorted out loud at his own ignorance. The istusen were rumored to live for several centuries, at the very least. It was said that they appeared reach adulthood at the same rate of humans. Only, the istusen would appear "frozen in time" after adolescence, aging ever so slowly, a human would never be able discern any physical changes over their lifetime. Couldn't there still be some istusen alive who remembered the war, and most likely, still held distasteful feelings for humans?
Trying his best to think only of the positive, Altunus could hardly believe their luck. Not only had they met a young istus, but they had also saved his life. If he played his cards right, he and this young istus could bridge the gap between the two races.
He swept his arm out to the side in a welcoming pose, a huge smile radiating from his face. "What are you doing out here all by yourself? Do you need some help?"
The boy asked a question in his strange language and sadly shook his head in confusion.
Rex turned to his brother with a look of exasperation. "Come on, Altunus, you dummy! We can't talk like this. We have to figure something else out." He turned back to the eight-year-old, determined to make himself understood. "Hello," he started, waving his hand in a greeting. "I'm Rexathor. Rex-uh-thor." He tapped his chest with every syllable and raised his eyebrows in anticipation.
The blond cocked his head and smirked in slight amusement at the method, but pointed back and repeated, "Rex-uh-thor."
"Yes!" Rex said excitedly.
Before either brother could say any more, the clever istus pointed at Altunus and rambled off an indiscernible question.
"I am Al-tuh-nus."
Altunus smiled over at his brother, pleased with their progress so far. Rex returned the smile, but quickly brought his attention back to the situation at hand.
?" the younger brother asked expectantly, pointing his hand towards the boy.
The confused and anxious look returned to his face as he became suddenly downcast. His brow furrowed as he slowly shook his head from side to side, even bringing up his hand to cover his head once more. He mumbled something in a frightened voice that neither brother could understand. Altunus put his hand on his shoulder, making the boy look up into his shining green eyes. He smiled a sad smile and turned his free hand upwards, asking silently what he meant.
The boy clenched his fists and shook his head as if unsure how to express himself. He seemed to get an idea and then began to tap his forehead several times, and then turned his hand away from his face. He did this a number of times, tears building up all the while in the corners of his eyes.
"He can't remember his own name," Altunus breathed. Rex looked fretfully over at his brother before looking back at the istus and softly nodded his head to say that they understood.
The istus' steel-blue eyes blurred with tears as he attempted to blink them away. He swept his arms around to point out their surroundings. Once again, he tapped his forehead and moved his hand away, a pleading look in his eyes.
"I think he's trying to say that he's lost," Altunus said to his brother.
Rex looked at him with wonder. "Wow, you're really good at this. Can you see if he needs a place to stay?"
"Heh, I thought you were the one who was going to figure this out. But if you insist, I guess I could whip something up
Rex shot him a daggered look. Altunus found it hard to suppress a tiny chuckle. He really was too easy to rile up!
"Do you know," he started, pointing at the boy, then at his head, "where you live?" He did his best to make a small box shape with his hands, hoping that he would understand it as a home.
The boy squinted his eyes and turned his head to the side, in clear question of his pantomime.
" He bit his lip, unsure on how to clarify himself.
"Oh!" Rex exclaimed, motioning for the istus to watch him. He proceeded to tilt his head onto his folded hands and pretended to snore quietly with closed eyes. He then mimed grabbing some food and brought it towards his mouth, chewing the imaginary meal. His curly, black hair bounced as he nodded in expectation as his hands once more made the box of a home as his older brother did.
The boy clapped his hands together as his face brightened with understanding. "Aj jen kio nome! Mia hejmo!" His bright little face suddenly darkened again. He tapped his head once more, trusting away his hand as before. "Mi ne memori
"Do you want to come with us?" Altunus asked, pointing at the iustus then at himself and his brother, and made a walking motion with two fingers.
The blond looked completely relieved at the suggestion and nodded vigorously. He happily rattled off what they could only assume as a 'yes, please' in his beautiful and flowing language.
"Good," Altunus exclaimed. He turned towards his brother with a smile on his face. "Go claim the malcrei's claws for your hunt. We shouldn't waste a single moment."
Rex obediently went over to the beast, pulled out his knife, and quickly began sever the claws. Once he had sawed off the three from the right forepaw, as customary, he ran back to his older brother and the young stranger, overflowing with excitement.
"Come on, let's go. The istus doesn't look like he's feeling so great. The sooner we get back, the better."
"Yeah," Altunus agreed, putting a gentle hand on iustus' back, leading him out of the meadow. "Father will be very pleased with us."
The eight-year-old looked up at the two teens with questions in his eyes, but kept silent. From a single glance, anyone could tell the boy was exceptionally bright. Altunus knew it wouldn't be long before the boy could speak Ortanis.
"Don't worry," he said softly, giving the boy a look complete reassurance. "We'll find a way to make this work."