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A note from Thornsong

Thornsong and Raspberry begin their ascent up the mountain, in pursuit of the suspected cannibal. Along the way, they encounter the fabled Little People.

Thornsong and Raspberry left the bog behind. It happened in degrees. The grass got a little drier, a little greener. The mud dried on their clothes turned from black to gray to red. The land slanted ever so slightly uphill, and the burn in the front of their legs shifted to their calves.

“I don’t think I’ll ever be clean again,” said Raspberry.

“Were you ever?” Thornsong said.

“You think you’re funny, sometimes,” he said. “I know the truth.”

“Which is?”

“You’re too cynical to really be funny,” Raspberry said.

“It’s called having dry humor.”

“Where was it in the bog? I could’ve used anything dry. Anything at all.”

“What I’m getting from all this is you want a bath.”

“Dearly. And some food that isn’t wet, slimy, or mealy.”

“We’re moving into the hills now. Fewer opportunities for standing water, but there should be a stream or two on the way. I noticed the water at the far end of the bog was chillier than the water coming off the village lake.”

“A dip in a mountain stream sounds about right,” Raspberry said. “Maybe find a stand of trees with some kind of mast - acorns or whatnot.”

“And where there’s acorns there’s squirrels.”

“And deer.”

“And deer. But I’ve no bow and no spear and no spear-thrower.”

“Didn’t you want to make a shield from the lechuza feathers?”

“I did. But we don’t have much time for me to stop and craft.”

Raspberry took a few quick steps and then rounded on Thornsong.

“You know, we really should talk soon about what exactly we’re looking for up on this mountain. And why there’s such a damn rush.”

Thornsong’s face went slack.

“I don’t want to scare you.”

“Scare me?”

Raspberry stretched his arms above his head, puffed his chest, and bellowed. Every nearby bird and squirrel took off in a flurry of wings and bobbing tails. Thornsong’s ears rang. Raspberry thumped his chest three times.

“I am Raspberry of the almas of the stone garden,” he said. “I am the wind and the driving rain and the rockslide. I am the-”

“Wendigo,” Thornsong said. “If we don’t get to the cannibal in time, he’ll become a wendigo.”

Raspberry let his arms drift to his sides. He looked at his feet, then at Thornsong, then back to his feet again.

“Well then - I guess we ought to hurry.”

“We ought.”

They walked on for an hour in silence. Raspberry idly picked at the vegetation as it went by. The trees started out scraggly, but as they left the stink of the bog behind the trees began to assert themselves. No longer drowned and anchored in uncertain muck, the stunted swamp white oaks began to give way to chestnut and beech.

“See those?” Thornsong said, pointing to an unassuming little bush with tiny white berries.

“Looks tasty,” Raspberry said.

“Snowberry. Poison,” he said. “In large doses, of course. In small doses or in a poultice, it brings down swelling. Grab as many as you can while we walk.”

“Plan on getting hurt?”

Thornsong didn’t respond. His moccasins crunched through the thickening undergrowth.

“A knife, a tomahawk, and my fists,” Raspberry said. “That’s all we’ve got.”

“And all we’re likely to have. We need to hurry.”

“It’ll be dark soon. We could camp, craft spears, at least.”

Thornsong put a hand over his eyes and scouted the sun. Raspberry was right.

“We need to keep moving as quickly as we can,” he said. “But you’re right - we shouldn’t travel after dark.”

“I’m not disagreeing with you. But why not?”

“It’s...disrespectful here.”

Raspberry sighed.

“Almas don’t talk much. Not even to each other. No need. Family clans sometimes live in the same 20-mile radius their entire lives. We live up close. We know what each other is thinking, nearly all the time. I never know what you’re thinking. And you talk in half-thoughts. I think I’d get more out of you if you said nothing at all.”

Thornsong stopped and kicked a space clear of thorny chestnut pods at the base of a particularly large tree.

“If we try to walk these woods at night, the Little People will lead us astray. Turn us around, make us lose time, steal our gear. Maybe kill us.”
“I don’t believe in the Little People,” Raspberry said. “I’ve heard legends of them from here to lost Beringia, and never seen one.”

“I showed you a footprint, once,” Thornsong said.

“That proves nothing,” said Raspberry. “Bring me a foot, and then I’ll believe.”

“I think you’ll be a believer after tonight,” Thornsong said. “And this might even play to our advantage. The Little People aren’t malicious. They’re just extremely long-lived. They get bored, and so they play tricks. And they’re damn near immortal, or so it’s said. They have no fear, because nothing can really hurt them. But they-”

A twig crunched nearby. Then another. And another.

“I don’t see a thing,” Raspberry said.

“You won’t. Not yet,” said Thornsong. “But let’s talk later. Time to pitch camp.”

In better times and places, Thornsong would have strung a line between two trees, draped a cotton tarp over it, weighted down the corners and then slung a few hides for warmth.

Seeing as he had no tarp or hides, he and Raspberry improvised a lean-to. Thornsong chopped down a small tree - no more than a year old - and peeled it clean of branches with his tomahawk to make a pole. Raspberry placed it as straight as he could in the crooks of two nearby trees, at about chest high. Together, the pair gathered up the branches peeled from the tree and leaned them against the wedged pole. They added fallen branches and clumps of leaves to fill in the gaps. Thornsong rapped his tomahawk against the backside of the completed lean-to. It rattled, but it held.

“Let’s hope for clear weather,” he said, pulling his firemaking kit out of his pack. He struck a spark into a bit of dried moss and blew on it until it came alive in his hands. He dumped it on a prepared pile of twigs and flapped a small turkey-feather fan at it until the flames took.

By the time darkness settled in, they had a decently hot fire. A tad smokey, but enough to keep off of the chill and cast a wavering orange glow around the campsite.

Raspberry bit off a chunk of dried catfish he fished from Thornsong’s bag. He offered the remainder to him.

“It’s starting to turn,” he said.

Thornsong took the sliver of fish without comment and gnawed it while scanning the trees at the edge of the light.

“You make me nervous,” Raspberry said.

“In general?”

“No. Now. What are you looking for?”

“Nothing at all,” he said, raising his voice.

He suddenly stopped, mid-chew. A snap in the woods. Another. Another. Another. The sound of breaking twigs circled the camp, just beyond the light.

Thornsong leaned in close to Raspberry.

“Be a good sport,” he said. “And show no fear. Do not run. Do not lash out. Do not roar or swear or swing. Follow my lead.”

A spiked chestnut pod smacked Raspberry directly in the cheek. The pod’s needle bit into his cheek and he bared his teeth, swiveling in the direction of the thrown pod.

“Easy,” Thornsong said, putting his hand on the rough hair on Raspberry’s chest.

Another pod came sailing out of the dark and nicked Thornsong’s shoulder. It stuck, and a thin line of blood trickled down his arm.

“Are the squirrels at play?” he said. “Are they bored of chestnuts?”

Twigs snapped all around, as if someone - or many someones - was running laps around the camp. More pods sailed in. The vast majority targeted Raspberry.

“They hurt,” he said, under his breath.

“They do,” Thornsong agreed.

He stood.

“If the squirrels don’t care for chestnuts anymore, maybe they’d like a little fish? It’s a bit old and musty, but it’s all we have. That and a handful of dried bog strawberries.”

The pods stopped, as did the snapping twigs. The woods were utterly silent.

“They’ve gone?” Raspberry said.

“Who’s gone?” said a voice beyond the light.

“It must be one of our new squirrel friends,” Thornsong said. “Come, sit by the fire, and chat. Just watch your tail.”

A small man walked out of the woods and into the light, shielding his over-large eyes. He was even hairier than Raspberry. His thick, reddish beard dragged on the ground between his legs and his body was utterly covered except for the tip of his broad nose and those gleaming eyes. The hair on top of his head was swept up in a cone shape, like some kind of living hat.

“No squirrels here,” the man said. His voice was high and the words flowed together like falling water. “Ate too many. They won’t be back in force until next year.”

He walked up to the fire and sat beside Raspberry, as if he’d been their traveling companion all along. He yawned, farted, and stretched his feet toward the fire.

“I believe you mentioned food. Bog food, but food all the same.”

Thornsong rummaged in the pack and gave him the remainder of their food, to Raspberry’s obvious dismay.

“Let’s see - fish and strawberries, like you said. Toss me that pack - you’re not holding out on me, are you?”

Thornsong tossed him the pack. Raspberry, easily five or six times the size of the Little Person, scooted aside.

“You weren’t lying. This pack is bare. We could eat it, I guess. The only difference between jerky and leather is about two weeks,” he said.

He shoveled the remainder of the fish into his mouth, but held out the berries in his right hand - or paw, more accurately, being a collection of dog-like pads and tufts of hair.

“It’s not just me in these woods, you know. There’s lots of us. Lots and lots. Two for each tree, at least, I reckon. Course, I never bother with counting. There’s a little and there’s a lot. And that’s all the counting you need to know.”

“Quite right,” Thornsong said.

The Little Person cupped the strawberries in his paws, shook them, and tossed them into the fire. Raspberry watched in awe as the berries swelled in the fire, twisting in shape and size, until six fat apples sat crisping in the flames.

The Little Person rummaged on the ground for a stick and speared one of the apples. He pulled it out and crunched into it. Juice slicked his beard.

“Have one, have one. But just one,” he said. Thornsong and Raspberry likewise speared an apple and bit into it.

“This is - this is amazing,” Raspberry said.

“Know apples, do you?” the Little Person said.

“They’re one of my favorites. And this is the best apple I’ve ever tasted,” Raspberry said.

The Little Person clapped.

The remaining apples in the fire twisted and grew again, until they were swollen yellow pumpkins baking in the flame. Each was the size of Raspberry’s head - which itself was the size of a late-harvest pumpkin.

“Let those bake awhile. We have to talk,” the Little Person said.

He whistled, and a new round of snapping twigs began at the edge of the light. It seemed to Thornsong that Little People were moving away from the fire, back into the woods.

“Now, what are you doing here? You didn’t come to bring us gifts, that’s for damn sure,” the Little Person said.

“We’re following someone,” he said. Thornsong swallowed. It wouldn’t do to lie to the Little People. It was nigh impossible, anyhow. “We’re following a man suspected of cannibalism. He fled north, up the mountain.”

The Little Person nodded and sighed.

“I can hear what you’re not saying. You’ll not save him. Not if it’s been more than a day or two.”

“I have to try.”

“Why?”

Raspberry studied Thornsong’s face. It remained still, except for a twitch in the corner of his eye.

“He wants to save himself, too,” Raspberry said.

The Little Person nodded again.

“I thought it might be something like that. A fool’s errand, but nearly all of man’s errands are fools errands. And what about you, Hairy One? Not seen your like around here - not in a long time.”

“I’m surprised you’ve ever seen one of my kind. I’m an almas. There aren’t many of us left.”

“There’s more than you think, but you’re right. Not many,” the Little Person said. Raspberry cocked his head and stared at the strange little creature.

“What do you mean-”

“I mean only what I say, and I don’t say a lot,” the Little Person said. “In fact, I mean to stop talking altogether, soon. But you seem a good lot. You offered what little you had and you didn’t get sore over a bit of sport. I think your mission’s already failed, but we’ll offer you a little help, anyway.”

The Little Person stood, cracked his back, and gestured toward Thornsong’s pack.

“Toss that in the woods, beyond the light,” he said. “I’ll see that it gets filled.”

He walked over and sized up Raspberry.

“You’ve got fists like boulders and a jaw to match. Not much I can do for you on the fighting front, should it come to that. And it likely will. But there’s no need to crack your knuckles on anything. I’ll see to that, too.”

The Little Person turned to Thornsong.

“You’ve got lechuza feathers in that bag, right? Did you have plans for them?”

“I was going to make a shield,” he said.

“Good idea. But that’ll take you a while, with the stitching and the drilling and the bending of a frame. I think we might be able to do it a tad faster. And you’ve got - what? - a knife and a tomahawk?”

“Meteoric iron and stone,” he said.

“Awful close-range stuff for the work you’ve probably got ahead of you. Let’s see if we can’t give you a little more reach.”

Thornsong stood and tossed his pack into the woods.

“We’re extremely grateful,” he said.

The Little Person wandered into the woods, past the campfire light, in the general direction of the pack.

“We know,” he said. The darkness swallowed him up completely, and his voice seemed to come from all directions at once. “It’s the reason we didn’t skin you and hang you in the trees for a laugh. Sleep now. There’ll be gifts come morning.”

Thornsong and Raspberry sat back down at the fire. They said nothing for a long time.

“Best get some rest,” Thornsong said, finally.

“Yeah,” Raspberry said. “It might be hard to sleep.”

“I know the feeling.”

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About the author

Thornsong

  • Leechburg, Pennsylvania
  • Dan Hilliard

Bio: Journey through the fantastical prehistoric landscape of the Americas alongside native hunter Thornsong as he battles cryptids, cannibals and more with his sasquatch companion Raspberry.

Mammoths and thunderbirds, skinwalkers and wendigos, terror birds and wicked shamans populate this fantasy world, which represents a stark departure from the classic European high fantasy tropes.

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