Low hanging limbs cast spiny shadows in the firelight. The bare branches resembled nothing so much as bony fingers clawing at thin air as they were aroused by the chill breeze. Hubert and Ulric drank from large bottles of a brown liquid that smelled as if it had come from the most unpleasant place of a horse. They laughed wildly between long droughts and any words that chanced to slip from their mouths. More than some of it was terrible slander and mockery of the late Branidrises.
“You should have seen her face! It’s the last look that gets me.” Ulric hooted. “Always shows ’em for the cowards they really are.”
“Not my precious wife and baby!” Hubert mimicked in a whiny, high pitched voice for the third time. He laughed at this until he fell over backward, and kept laughing.
Jarin laughed along with the others, though not fully paying attention. His mind was preoccupied with the small, sleeping dilemma still hidden in his jacket. He was glad of the darkness and their drunkenness hiding the obvious bulge in his jacket. The course of his life had not led him to be around infants overmuch, but he still knew the baby couldn’t sleep forever, especially not in noise like this. Sooner or later he would have to decide what to do with it. He knew he couldn’t keep it, the thought made him feel sick. Should he give it to a family to be raised properly? No; Hubert would find out about it and have the child, if not the whole family, killed.
He turned his head to scan the forest surrounding him, as if expecting an answer to spring from the darkness. The wind howled, blowing the flames away from him. An idea struck him; there was really nothing else to do. He turned to face the wind. In the midst of the darkness the firelight glinted off a single pair of beady eyes. A raven called once, beckoning him into the forest. He stood, still staring where the eyes had been.
“Hey, Jarin! Where you goin’?” Hubert shouted drunkenly.
Jarin waved him off and walked into the woods.
His breath appeared in a cloud before him with every gasping pant. Moonlight illuminated the forest just enough to make shadows out of trees and monsters out of shadows. He walked, and walked, every step a muffled crunch in the stiff underbrush, every step more tentative than the last. Branches brushed at his face, sighing to him softly in a language he didn’t understand. He jumped at every touch, and closed his eyes tightly. All else was silent, a collective breath was held as the forest itself watched him carry the child deeper into the night.
He stopped. He opened his eyes. He took his jacket off. He wrapped the jacket around the child and laid him down on the forest floor. His eyes darted from tree to tree, sure he would see someone and they would know what he was doing. Without looking down at the infant he slipped away back to the campsite. An unkindness of ravens rose from the trees, all screeching and crying, again in that unknown language. Jarin ran on and never spoke of a word of what he’d done.
Hours passed and the cold forest got colder. The small infant awoke and began to cry for warmth and care, unaware that he was unwanted and alone in a forbidding forest. Still he cried on in ever louder tones.
Two figures ghosted through the woods, bending the shadows to their will. Their feet made no sound on the undergrowth as they strode gracefully upon it. The only thing that stood out against the shadows was their pale, almost white skin. They both stopped suddenly as they heard the unfamiliar sound of crying carrying through the quiet landscape. Curiously, they stepped closer. One dared so far as to stand right over the child and poke it with one long, grey finger. He jumped back as the child screamed harder.
Watching for a moment, he walked closer again and set a gentle finger to the child’s lips, speaking a language that sounded like the sighing of the wind on lonely moors. Almost instantly, the crying stopped. The child looked up into the angular face and slanted eyes of the stranger. He reached up one tiny hand and grabbed his long nose. The grey figure laughed, a sound more like the falling of water over stones than a human laugh, and picked the baby up.
The other figure walked over and looked closely at the tiny bundle in his friend’s arms. He looked up at his friend and asked a question in the same wind-like language. The figure holding the baby answered in like fashion and seemed pleased, but the other seemed perplexed. The first stranger laughed and walked back the way he had come, still with the child in his arms. The second cocked his head and muttered something under his breath before following.