The bite of axes echoed through the alabaster grove, drowned out by he barks of burly foremen. Porcine Wolloks chortled defiantly as they were harnessed to carts of fallen timber, each log marked with a crude rune. The cloying stench of sap and rot was ever present, punctuating the aroma of sweat and sawdust.
Rinevold surveyed the crews as they laboured, scratching his pale beard as he pondered. Each log would be broken down into planks and poles at the village, and traded northward for iron. It was Rinevold’s duty as chief to make sure his people received proper payment for their goods, and every log that left his land was mentally tallied.
The chief let out a soft sigh, doing his best to find comfort on the stump upon which he sat. It was dull work, tedious mathematics punctuated by the occasional injury as the tribe’s youths overcame their awkwardness. Rinevold bore a number of scars himself, testaments to his rough and tumble childhood amongst the trees.
Now his life was as dull as his morning porridge. It had been a decade since he had swung an axe, fought a battle or engaged in other escapades of youth. And though he pined for his lost vigour, Rinevold appreciated the wisdom that came with age. He mused on the peace he had brokered with his neighbours, swords replaced by coin as the symbol of might. Without a foe warriors turned their axes against the primeval trees, reaping a profitable tally.
Rinevold’s musing was shattered by a tapping on his shoulder, pulling the chief back into a world of sap and saws. He grumbled and smoothed his beard, barking over his shoulder, “Can I help you?”
A timid voice answered back. “Well, boss, sir,” the faceless voice mumbled, “we had an accident that-“.
“It’s a work site boy,” Rinevold grumbled, waving to the industry before him, “accidents happen.” The aged chief snorted and shook his head. “Builds character, I’ll tell you what…”
“Boss, uh, this isn’t a work accident. It’s Odal, he’s been burned.”
“Burned?” Rinevold cried, glancing behind him. “What, the layabout was taking a break on my coin? Bloody kids these days, I tell you…”
A hand was placed on Rinevold’s boney shoulder, forcing the chief to turn and face the scruffy youth eye to eye. “I’m sorry boss, but you really need to look at this.”
Rinevold grumbled as he hobbled over wayward branches and log piles, leaning on a cut down haft of ash. “This better be worth my time,” he spat, returning a stiff salute from one of the many lumberjacks. “Forcing an old man to trundle up and down the bloody forest.” The lad, Heniker, didn’t reply, only slowing his pace to match that of the aged chief.
Rinevold was preparing another age fuelled tirade when he picked up a pathetic mewling from the trees ahead. At first the chief was puzzled, the sound not from any forest beast he was familiar with. He snorted. “Did a Wollok trip on a bloody root?”
“That’s Odal, boss,” the you woodsman said, nodding towards a tall alabaster tree wreathed in black leaves. “He was trimming down that tree there.”
Rinevold sputtered, nearly toppling over in his fury. “Don’t you listened to the damn shamans boy? You don’t cut the black leaved ones you wretch!” The chief raised his cane, thwapping Heniker across his shoulder. The youth recoiled, scuttling out of Rinevold’s meagre reach.
“It was Odal’s idea boss,” he cried, cowering before the fuming chief. “It was the only log big enough and we had a quota to meet and-”
“So you took an axe to a sacred tree, that it?! You want to bring damnation to the village you damn numbskull?” Rinevold continued his hobble, his eyes burning. “Where is Odal? I’ll have the bastard flogged with nettles.”
Rinevold followed the mewling round the black wreathed tree, his cane raised. His nose whistled as his breath deepened, his arthritic hands vibrating.
His fire was put out as he rounded the corner, and he saw the sad state of Odal. The boy was propped against the tree, staring at the charred ruin of his hands. Ivory bone shone through ebon black skin, flakes of flesh falling into his lap. Tears streaked from his eyes as he looked at Rinevold, presenting his scorched hands. “I’m sorry boss,” he cried, “I buggered up. I really buggered up.”
Rinevold gawked at the horrid sight before him, the stink of cooked flesh assaulting his nostrils. “By my fathers bones what happened hear?” he asked, holding back the need to wretch.
“It was the tree, boss,” Heniker stated, pointing to the alabaster giant that sat before them. Rinevold followed the lads finger to a deep, dark gash on the pristine timber.
Steam rolled off the wound as viscous black sap oozed forth from the cut, rolling down the gnarled trunk to the leaf littered ground. The leaves at the base of the tree, though fresh and wet everywhere else, were blackened and curled. By that, the warped head of an axe sat embedded in the dirt, the haft burned off.
A curt, bass voice called, “What’s the holdup?” It was Scav, one of Rinevold’s sub-bosses. The towering mountain-man stomped into view, his auburn beard flecked with sawdust. “Oi, Odal! What I tell ya about nappin’?” His narrow eyes bugged as he saw the mess that was Odal. “Mountain’s bounty, what happened?”
“This lackwit cut into a sacred tree,” Rinevold barked as he waved with his cane. “The ancestors punished him for it, that’s what bloody happened.”
Scav eyed the tree up and down, one bushy eyebrow raised. “Don’t know about ancestors, but it looks like that sap scorched ‘im good.” His gaze lingered on the warped axe. “Even melted iron. Can’t even do that in the forges back home.”
“The ancestors are mighty,” Rhinevold snorted, crossing his arms. “You’d do well to remember it, Scav.”
The bruiser nodded, stroking his beard. “I’ll do just that…” He waved to an unseen crew. “Get a healer over here, take Odal back to the village.” He turned back to Rinevold, who was fussing over the wicked wound on the trunk of the tree.
The chief placed a crooked hand on the trunk, bowing his head in reverence. He mumbled a short prayer, his eyes closed.
Scav broke the chief’s prayer. “So, is the tree going to live?”
Rinevold shook his head. “No, I’m afraid not.”
Scav hummed, asking, “So… What will we do with it?”
“We’ll let the poor tree pass.”
“Seems like a bit of a waste,” Scav said. “It’s good timber, and if the sap can melt metal I’d like to see how the wood burns.”
Rinevold sputtered. “It’s a bloody sacred tree!”
Scav shrugged. “And it’s a dead sacred tree.”
“Out of the question! The ancestors have suffered enough.”
“I’m sure the ancestors wouldn’t want the tree to go to waste.”
“Feh,” Rinevold waved Scav away, “you hillfolk know nothing of the ancestors.” The aged chief looked the great tree over. “Though I suppose the shamans would have the final say…”
“I’ll send for ’em, boss.”
The sun was kissing the tree-line when the high-shaman arrived. She was an ancient hag, old when Rinevold was still swinging an axe. Rinevold bowed his head as she passed, the rattle of nuts and branches heralding her arrival. A cloak of fresh pine twigs hung over her crooked frame, dropping needles as she shuffled forward. Acorns rattled against a length of white oak she used as a staff, the surface laced with marks.
“I apologize, sage,” Rhinevold said, bowing his head, “but we-”
The primeval hag waved her staff at the chief, silencing him. “None of your prattling, boy,” she croaked, “show me to the tree.”
The chief nodded, and waved his cane to the bleeding tree. The shaman sprang forward, laying an boney hand on the pale bark. Her head hung low, and her skeletal features contorted into a grimace. Rinevold saw her thin lips murmur an unheard chant.
The chief leaned on his cane, watching the shaman at work. Scav plodded behind him, asking, “She talking to the tree?”
Rinevold spat. “She’s speaking with the ancestors you moron.”
Scav snorted. “Your ancestors live in the trees? Or they are trees?”
Rinevold frowned, not wanting to dignify the hillman with a response. He was far too focused on the fate of the sacred tree, and the possible dressing down he may receive from the shaman.
The pine-garbed crone sighed heavily, and gave the great tree one final pat before rising. She turned to Rinevold, and shook her head. “The ancestors have left this tree,” she murmured, forcing Rinevold to shuffle forward.
“By the branches,” the chief ran a hand through his thinning hair, “this is a travesty.”
He spat onto the loamy soil, and barked, “Have Odal bound! The lad better count himself lucky I don’t have him flayed alive!” Rinevold heard a rustling behind him, Heniker sprinting to the village.
“And lumber?” Scav asked.
Rinevold turned to the foreman, shooting a stare that could pierce oak.
“The tree is dead now,” the hag croaked, her voice heavy with grief. “It matters not.”
“So… can we cut it down?”
“Do as you will,” the shaman replied, “I must rest now.”
Rinevold nodded to the ancient woman, signalling two young labourers to assist her to the village.
No sooner did the crone depart that Scav cleared his throat. “Is that the go ahead?”
Rinevold snorted. “It’s the bloody go ahead, wretch.”
Scav grinned through his beard and cracked his knuckles. “Right! I’ll get a crew-“.
“You’ll be doing it yourself. I’ll not put one of my boys in that position.”
Scav deflated, sizing the massive tree up. “That’s gonna take me all night!”
“Better get started then,” Rinevold retorted. Leaning on his cane, the chief made for the village. As he passed the hillman he added, “You pay for any damaged tools.” He heard Scav snort and gob in the needles below.