[Word count: 4007]
Ishin rode between the trees, following the wide pathway between the broad trunks as they kept an eye on the ground for fallen sticks.
Naught but grasses grew on the pathways of the Talan, but nothing could stop the surrounding trees from dropping leaves and branches onto whatever lay beneath them, and a large enough branch could damage the wheels of the motorbike. Only the ground underneath the massive mushroom caps that grew in intervals between the trees was free of litter.
The underbrush to both sides grew thicker the further Ishin rode, rising higher over trellises until they were passing between two green walls. Wide legged Talan-style trousers were tucked securely into the tops of their boots to stop them flapping in the wind.
They passed several gaps in the walls which led to other paths before they found the one they needed.
For years they had been coming to visit the Talan and to trade with them, mostly on behalf of an apothecary in the city back east. Another break in the tall hedges took them to a large cleared area before a stand of old fig trees, where Ishin shut off the bike, stopping the dull hum that emanated from its engine.
“Ishin, you’re early,” Hanash said, emerging from between the buttressed roots of one of the fig trees, ducking under the high tip of the opening to allow for her antlers.
Glancing up at the canopy Ishin judged it to be around midday, and shrugged before they got off the bike, dropping their helmet into the side-car. “If you say so,” they said, approaching the Talan to touch palms in greeting.
“Would you like to see the harvest? The century beans were productive this year, we got twice the average yield,” Hanash said, leading the way toward one of the figs growing behind the others.
A gap between two of the tall root structures led into a small cavity in the middle of the tree, the sides of which were lined with shelves. The walls tapered inward as they rose up the tree, with one small window set just below the narrow ceiling that let in enough sunlight to see by.
Wooden crates and tightly woven baskets filled the shelves beneath criss-crossing strings of still drying herb bundles.
“Hanash?” a voice called from outside, and she excused herself.
Looking over the stock in her absence Ishin pulled down a basket, savouring the fragrance emanating off of the large seeds. Earthy and sweet.
Returning the basket to the shelf they bumped the wooden box next to it, knocking it off. Stepping forward to catch it before it hit the paved floor their grip slipped on the heavy wood and it fell through their hand.
The crack of the box hitting their shin resounded through their body, and with a cry they fell to the ground. Dormant daffodil bulbs, the contents of the box, spilled across the pave stones.
Shifting slowly to stretch the aching leg before them Ishin pulled up their trousers to examine the wound. The angry red weal that crossed their shin wasn’t bleeding but the bruise was spreading and rapidly darkening.
“What happened?” Hanash asked as she entered, dropping to a crouch beside Ishin.
“I dropped a box on myself.”
The tightening of her lips made Ishin sure that she was biting back a sharp comment about intelligence.
“That angle looks a little odd, wait here,” Hanash said, rising and leaving as swiftly as she’d appeared.
Trying to relax Ishin watched the dust motes drift through the stream of sunlight coming from the window. Now that someone else had said it they’d realised that their leg was definitely not laying perfectly straight, and would rather not look at it.
Birdsong and sunlight drifted through the canopy. Ishin sat in a wicker armchair outside the tree they had been staying in, a book open in their lap as they stared off into the mid-distance.
The Talan doctor had expected Ishin’s leg to heal a week ago, but instead of telling them it was safe to travel they’d rescheduled. The appointment was sometime that afternoon, and Ishin had packed their few belongings in anticipation.
Although they’d left Ayla to take care of the farm it wasn’t the same as Ishin being there themself. They supposed that they could ask Hanash to use her communication magic to contact Ayla again, but the spell seemed to make her uncomfortable; she’d seemed more nervous about the swirling mist that had appeared before her than the fact that her friend had broken their leg.
The sound of chatting voices rose over the rustling of leaves and birdsong as Hanash approached with the doctor.
The motorbike’s engine hummed steadily as Ishin crossed the cleared land of the fire break, leaving the trees of the Talan’s forest behind as the more organised orchards and food groves of the western farmland spread before them. Wooden bridges carried the dirt road across the many swampy dips in the undulating land, places where in the rainy summertime creeks flowed swiftly on their way to the river and the bay.
Where the forest had smelled richly of loam, the orchards held the scent of honey and lingering blossoms. Ishin breathed deeply of the homely aroma.
The sun was further west than usual by the time they reached their own land. To make up for the accident Hanash had pressed more on Ishin than they had space for, and had ended up loaning them a cart to carry it all. The cart had been tied behind the bike with strong rope, and Ishin had taken the corners slower than they usually would to compensate for the cart’s weight.
Turning off of the main road east, which tried to follow the flattest path, they rode up a small hill as the humming grew more forceful from the engine. Another side road took them to their own front door, the stone cottage appearing out of the trees as they turned the last corner.
The top of Ayla’s head, all bushy bronze curls, could be seen over a bean trellis as Ishin parked the bike.
“Welcome home,” she called, her hand appearing in a wave. “The water should be boiling.”
Ishin wandered inside, removing their coat to hang beside the front door and pausing just for a moment to relish the familiarity of their own space. A pot of water bubbled happily on the wood burning stove next to the hearth.
“How’re you feeling?” Ayla asked as she entered, a basket of spinach and marigolds on her arm.
“Good to be home,” Ishin said. The Talan doctor had promised that riding their bike home so soon would hurt, and the dull ache was developing as expected.
“I’ll fetch the children to unload in a moment,” she said, taking a seat at the kitchen table with a fresh cup. The children that she referred to were her adult offspring, one of whom lived in her house with the other two nearby.
As the two of them sipped at their tea Ishin asked Ayla for updates , thanking their friend for the extra work while they’d been recovering. Without Ayla the plants would have perished. However there were certain seasonal rituals that only Ishin held to, relics of their mother’s foreign heritage, which would have to be tended now that they were back.
Thanking Ayla for all her trouble Ishin walked her to the door.
“Don’t bother your children this evening,” they said as the sunlight gilded the treetops on its journey west, “I’ll just put the whole bike in the shed tonight, we can deal with it tomorrow.”
Closing the storage shed behind them Ishin limped slightly as they made their way back to the house. Pausing to look over the gardens in the last light of the day they grinned despite the pain.
It was good to be home.
Ishin frowned as they prodded the bed of coals. The fire had died in the night, despite being banked, and when they blew on the dully glowing embers they were rewarded not with the flicker of flame but with an effusion of heavy smoke which hung about them.
The coffee percolator sat cold on the stove top, the mug Ishin had left on the kitchen table waited with cream and honey slowly mingling in the bottom.
Stabbing a fresh stick of kindling into the coals Ishin sat back on their heels. Moisture must have gotten into the wood somehow. With a muted groan they stood.
The morning was chilly and grey, a damp fog following the low lying waterways and concealing the land beyond the hilltop. Emerging into the yard Ishin huddled within their shawl as they crossed their small island amongst the clouds. There was dry wood in the shed.
A small armful would be enough to boil the coffee and Ishin hugged it to their chest as they returned to the house. Fumbling with the door they nearly dropped the loose bundle as the sharp crackle of flame greeted them from the hearth. Kicking the door closed they hurried across the room.
The kindling that they’d left stuck in the coals had caught while they were outside, a merry lick of flame climbing up its side. Ishin hastily added more wood from their armful and used the iron poker to move the conflagration under the stove. Bubbling sounds rose from the percolator.
Closing the grill on the fire Ishin got to their feet and set a round of day old flat bread on the stove top next to the coffee. Fetching their mug as the bubbling sounds ceased they paused, staring into the earthenware vessel. It was empty.
Frowning again they slowly set the mug down. Certain that they’d already added cream and honey, as they did first every morning, Ishin fetched the honey pot.
By mid-morning when Ayla arrived the sun had already burnt off the fog, and Ishin was seated at a rough wooden table under the spreading eucalyptus at the front of the house. A heavy book filled with their mother’s tight script lay open before them, their finger following the lines of text as they read through the old rituals, recipes, and family history.
“Don’t you have that thing memorised cover to cover by now?” Ayla asked as she sat at the table.
She’d insisted on daily visits while Ishin was still recovering, to help tend the gardens. With her youngest living at home and doing the majority of the work over there Ayla was probably bored, and Ishin could use the help.
“The recipes I do,” they said, looking up from the page to smile at her. “Say, has the hearth been hard to light at all while I was gone?”
Ayla raised her eyebrows before wiggling the fingers of one hand at them. “Not with magic,” she said.
“Maybe the flu is clogged,” Ishin mused. Closing the book they stood, stretching lightly as their joints creaked. “Fire’s still hot anyway if you want a drink, I’ve some things to do at the bottom of the hill.”
Ayla waved them off, eyes straying to the garden beds as her hands twitched with the urge to bury themselves in soil. By the time Ishin had wheeled the bike out of the shed she had disappeared among the trellises and greenery.
The bike carried them to the base of the hill and a little ways out on the rutted lowland between the rises, where they parked it under a mango tree. Walking a little way further along the dirt road Ishin turned amongst the trees at the edge of their land.
Clearing their throat they began to hum. The tune was simple, three notes up and down with each held for a different length of time, and allowed Ishin’s mind to wander as they walked as directly as they could through the trees and underbrush.
Several times when they’d been younger they had crossed their small pocket of land and dreamed of expanding the groves of fruiting trees into a larger forest. Now, passing the half way point as they circled the hill and with their still-healing leg starting to ache, they were glad that the path wasn’t longer.
The tune was harder to maintain as their breathing got rougher, but Ishin held the pattern until they’d rejoined the driveway.
Resting against the mango tree they gulped at the water bottle from the side-car, stopping before they gave themself a stomach ache. The breeze cooled their warm skin as their heart-rate and breathing slowly returned to normal. Maybe next year they should teach someone else how to do the more strenuous rites.
Equilibrium regained Ishin returned to the hilltop, the scent of warming grass and winter flowers following them through the air. The sight of Varo’s truck parked next to the shed greeted them, and the sound of voices chatting amiably drifted across the yard, the sharp bark of Ayla’s laughter filling the garden soon after.
Wandering amongst the beds full of lush leafy greens and herbs, the occasional tomato or chilli gleaming like a jewel amid the chaos, they soon found Ayla and Varo standing in the sun by a barrow full of pulled weeds. Varo was studying magic, and came to Ishin for lessons on plant identification and produce supply, or what Ishin called Talan-centric diplomacy. The forest dwellers could be touchy about some unexpected subjects.
He also carted their produce back to the city with him whenever he visited, which saved Ishin the trip.
“Had you seen the broad beans today?” Ayla asked by way of greeting, the humour dropping from her face.
Ishin shook their head. The look in her eye was discouraging.
Crooking a finger Ayla beckoned them to follow as she wove her way amongst the haphazard beds toward the low line of twigs supporting the small crop. At least half of them were missing.
“Rot,” she said, curling her upper lip at the small divets in the ground where the plants had been ripped out by the roots.
“Those late season rains we had,” Ishin said. Some winters were dry enough to grow broad beans, but more often than not the plants grew mould before their flowers had even bloomed. “The rest are rot free?” they asked, gesturing at the small band of survivors.
Chuckling at her Ishin turned to Varo. “Do you know why the beans have rotted?” they asked.
“Humidity,” he said. “We’re too warm here.”
Ishin nodded briefly, they’d expected him to get it right.
Walking back toward the house they occasionally pointed out plants for him to identify, nodding again as he got each one correct. Crossing the small grassy yard Ishin opened the front door and had to remove their shawl once inside. The small fire had lasted longer than usual and the large main room of the house was as warm as a summer eve.
Opening the many diamond-paned windows to let the heat out they waved a hand for him to settle himself at the kitchen table, fetching what they needed for the lesson. Most days they would walk through the garden for longer to test his knowledge, but Ishin needed to rest their leg. Dropping a pile of books on the table with a heavy thud they grinned wickedly at Varo.
“How about we run through all of the invasive plants known to infest Verlese?”
The scent of rosemary and vinegar lingered beneath the stronger smell of paint rising from the freshened lintels and eaves. Varo had helped to wash the stone walls of the cottage during his visit the previous day, seeming to enjoy the lesson on herbal washes despite the laborious work.
His assistance had given Ishin more time to work on the painted designs around the windows and doors; the finer details were more difficult to follow as the years went by. As it was, they’d done all but the beam over the front door before the light of day faded and they’d had to stop for the night.
Stepping down from the small ladder Ishin looked up at the deep blue crossbeam, the pattern of skinks and beetles distinct in the morning light. The decorated frames were a tradition of their father’s, to keep ill wishes from the house; the washing came from their mother’s culture, to clean away old energies.
Fetching the coffee pot from inside, Ishin settled themself at the table under the eucalyptus tree.
The rich bitterness of the drink helped to chase the lingering smells from their nose as a small stingless bee hovered about the dandelions by the table leg. It may have been from Ishin’s own hives.
As it did every year the combined smells of wash and paint had infiltrated the house and Ishin wrinkled their nose as they rinsed their mug in the kitchen. Lighting incense and leaving it in every room they left.
The smell would be tolerable by the afternoon.
The treetops shone red gold as the sun crept behind the mountains to the west.
Ishin’s aunt had told stories about the closest mountain, a large double peaked outcropping removed from the ranges by a wide band of forest.
Most of the stories were old, or of Talan origin; Ishin’s family had lived by the forest’s eaves for generations. Tales about the Dragons that inhabited the dark mountain, who seldom interacted with the other races.
Happily the bike hummed as it bounced along the dirt road toward home. Ayla’s partner had cooked a late lunch, delaying Ishin’s return as they’d devoured second and third serves of pie and wild green salad.
The small lamp at the front of the bike flickered to life as the natural light faded, its narrow beam illuminating the road ahead. On a turn the light hit the long roadside grasses, disturbing a swarm of fire-beetles.
They rose in flight, brown carapaces parting to reveal orange glowing abdomens as they hovered for a moment over the grassy verge before moving as one to find a new resting place. Ishin slowed as the insects crossed the road above and around the moving motorbike, their tiny bodies shining like so many sparks in the night.
Smiling to themself Ishin watched them until they covered their lights once more.
The dark house greeted them silently, and Ishin hoped that the incense had helped the smell inside. They could already detect paint on the softly floating breezes.
Pushing open the front door Ishin walked into a cloud of smoke. Coughing, they tugged the edge of their scarf up to cover their mouth and nose, looking around with watering eyes to find the source of the haze. Perhaps the coal tip of an incense stick had caught something alight?
Searching quickly through the few rooms Ishin found no coals smouldering bar those in the hearth.
The front yard provided a blessed breath of fresh air, the scent of paint negligible. Forcing themself to breathe steadily Ishin watched the smoke flowing slowly out of the open front door like some sort of gaseous sludge as it hung close to the ground.
A brief glance at the chimney showed only the thinnest of smoke plumes emerging from beneath its cap.
Bracing themself Ishin covered their mouth and walked inside. If they opened all of the windows and doors perhaps the smoke would dissipate by morning. Enough to enter the house at least.
Returning to the shed Ishin smothered a yawn. The smell of smoke lingered around their clothing and hair, but their swag was warm enough to leave their clothes outside for the night and the shed was richly scented with the dried plant matter filling the storage boxes.
Belly still full from lunch it didn’t take Ishin long to fall asleep in the middle of plans to clean the chimney.
Bleary eyed and grouchy Ishin glared at the bed of coals and ash in the hearth before them. They couldn’t make coffee until the chimney was cleared, and the weight of their bones without caffeine to help hold them up was insulting.
A pair of safety goggles and a breathing mask hid their face, while an old stained painting smock covered last night’s shirt. Crouching with trowel and bucket Ishin began scraping out the hearth.
“Are you trying to kill me?” a voice, cracked like an old pipe smoker’s, demanded abruptly.
Tightening their grip on the implements as they started in shock Ishin looked from the empty front door, still open to let the smell out, to the hearth. Shadows within the ash seemed to pull away from their trowel, tendrils shying away from the dull blade. Ishin squinted through the goggles.
Using the tip of the small shovel they prodded the darkness at the back of the cavity.
“Ouch, quit it,” the voice snapped.
Resting more comfortably on their heels Ishin propped their elbows in their knees and gazed into the shadows. “What are you doing in my hearth?” they asked.
“I was relaxing until you started casting spells and waving weaponry about.”
“But why in my hearth?” Ishin asked, resisting the temptation to wave the trowel at it. “And what spells?”
“The go away spell, as if I could be scared off with vinegar and a baby witch. Besides, where else would I live?” the shadows coalesced softly in the back of the cavity, forming an indefinite shape.
Ishin coughed back a short laugh as they realised that Varo must be the thing in the hearth’s “baby witch”.
“Where else is something you’re going to have to figure out, you’re clogging up my chimney,” they said, looking at the bucket in their hand. Would it be suitable to transport the creature? If it could be convinced to leave.
“I am not,” the shape bulged and frayed along its top as the voice rose in anger, “I don’t block chimneys, to accuse me- The chimney is blocked because you haven’t cleaned it, human.”
Ishin raised their brows at the creature’s outburst. “So you didn’t fill my house with smoke?”
“No,” the voice said, “But I didn’t stop it either, I don’t work for free you know.”
“Well,” Ishin said, sighing as they rubbed their forehead. This was a lot to try to wrap their mind around before breakfast. “You still have to go for me to clean the chimney so the smoke can get out, sorry.”
“Wait wait,” the shadowy shape shrank away from the approaching trowel, “I can get rid of the blockage.”
Ishin hesitated. Cleaning the chimney was dirty sweaty work, a dreaded chore. But creatures that dwelt in fires were seldom good to humans.
“If you let me stay I’ll keep the whole fireplace clean and I’ll help the fire burn hotter for longer, but if you scrape me out I’ll die, I can’t survive out there,” the voice said, feeling Ishin’s doubt. “All I eat is soot and maybe a little cream, but you can’t drag me out to die in the sun!”
“Okay, shush,” Ishin snapped, putting the trowel down to try to calm the creature in the hearth.
“Okay I can stay?”
Ishin bit their lip gently, thinking. “If you even seem like you’re going to burn the house down, you’re gone,” they said at last.
“That’s a yes?” the voice pressed.
“Yes, yes, if I get you some wood can you heat up water for coffee while you clean the chimney?”
“Of course I can,” the voice said, its shadow puffing up to fill the back of the hearth, “Give me some cream along with the wood and I’ll have this house so warm you’ll think it’s mid-summer, I’ll maintain cooking temperatures for however long you need, I’ll-”
“Just the coffee for now, thanks,” Ishin said, getting to their feet. The happy voice of the creature followed them out into the yard as they collected wood. Did it have a name? Ishin would have to find out, if only to tell it to shut up.