Unlikely Partners: Your main character is left in the forest to die, as the annual sacrifice to the god of the forest. The god shows up, but this year he is not interested in the death of his sacrifice. He is looking for a new servant and/or sidekick.
Claudia kicked and strained at the bonds tying her to the tree. They didn’t budge. They hadn’t budged since those two-faced, muck crawling, worm turds had trapped her in them as the annual sacrifice to their all-brawn, no brain excuse for a forest god.
“Now, now, enough of that.”
Her head whipped around as the shadows at the edge of the clearing coalesced into, something.
As the shape moved forward, her struggles increased, along with her stream of mental invective.
It stopped at the edge of the overhang of the tree she was tied to, a massive old oak, king of the forest in its own way as well.
The shadows clenched together, then fled, leaving behind a tall, well-build man with skin the colour of new Golden Birch leaves and hair the colour of the oak bark currently digging into her back. She wasn’t close enough to see his eyes and didn’t want to be.
He pinched the bridge of his nose. “The first thing I’ll need to teach you is some basic shielding. That and manners. It’s an honour to become one of mine.”
“Only if I actually believe in a ruling deity of this sodding forest.”
“I would have thought the evidence quite convincing.”
She snorted and kept pulling at the bonds. “A two-bit conjurer with an illusion cloak and stage training.”
He looked down his nose at her, she snarled back.
“If I prove to you I’m truly the Forest God. Will you behave yourself and swear to serve me?”
She stilled. “You’re not going to kill me?”
“And waste a perfectly good servant? Certainly not. Your erstwhile friends have a nasty habit of staking out their terminally ill or permanently disabled each year. I do kill some of them, it’s a kindness. Others I find other uses for.”
“And that’s not ominous at all.”
“Stop struggling, you’re not going to get free and the scent of your blood will send my wolves into a hunting frenzy.”
“Good, they can go and hunt down a few of those bottom-rotting villagers.”
“Back to the subject at hand. What will you accept as proof and will you submit to your role if I provide it?”
“What happens if I don’t?”
“I leave you here for the wolves.”
“Fine, I believe you, come and get me out of these things.”
He looked confused. “You didn’t ask for proof.”
“I don’t sodding care about proof, I want out of these bonds and to not be eaten by wolves. If you let me go, I agree to become your servant until their next sacrifice – but I don’t do sex or kill things.”
“I’m not sure you’re in a position to negotiate but very well. I’ll release you, you will serve me for a year, at which time we’ll have a further conversation. We can discuss the details of your employment later.”
With that, he stepped forward, then ran his finger along the rope binding her legs to the tree. It disintegrated at his touch, fluttering to the ground in a shower of fine, desiccated strands. He did the same to the ropes confining her wrists and body, then moved to catch her as she fell forward.
He swept her into his arms, saying as she struggled. “You promised to behave remember, and I don’t have time for you to walk. Be good and hold on.”
That was her only warning. The shadows descended again and they moved forward at what felt like a dizzying pace. Since she couldn’t see anything of the world they were passing through though, she couldn’t be sure of how fast, or far, they were travelling.
He slowed, then stopped and the shadows flew back.
They were standing in a wide clearing, somewhere in the forest. If the villagers knew of this place, they would have moved to it in an instant. The sun warmed the air around her, the wind that constantly blew through the scanty houses of the village was blocked here by a cliff, rising high enough that she had no idea what might be at the top. It seemed to continue on for quite some way in either direction, although it was hard to tell through the shrubs and vines that clung to its surface, cascading down to flow over the trees washing up to its base. Only here was the bottom clear enough to view, and the greenery clinging to this surface wasn’t as thick.
At one side, a narrow stream threw itself over the top of the cliff and bounced happily off rocks and protrusions before settling into a more decorous path along a wide, shallow stream bed at the bottom.
Her companion, rescuer? kidnapper? carefully tipped her onto her feet, keeping hold of an arm as she staggered. He let go as she steadied and started walking towards a crack in the cliff face, about three horse-lengths from the waterfall. Claudia considered her options, shook her legs out, and followed him.
He spoke without turning his head. “How did you end up as my sacrifice this year? As I said, you’re rather different to the usual fare.”
“The son of the blacksmith was apprenticed to an old friend in the city. I met him there and ended up marrying him. He wanted to come back to his home village to settle and I agreed but never really fit.” She swallowed, then continued. “He was killed in the storms last winter, a tree fell on him as he was trying to get some idiot goat to shelter. His parents insisted I stay, at least for a while and this is the result.”
The man turned, frowning. “Children?”
“No.” She turned her face away.
He snorted. “Their loss is clearly my gain. Your husband’s loss is regrettable of course but you’ll be far better suited to life here than stagnating away in that threadbare place.”
“If you think so little of them, why do you put up with them at all? Or why don’t you help them?”
“My interest is the well-being of the forest and they are forest creatures as much as any other, just more destructive. If they don’t damage the forest, I leave well enough alone.”
“Then why do they sacrifice people to you every year?”
“You’re very full of questions. Why do humans do anything?”
“They told me that if they didn’t, you’d rain down fire and flood on them.”
“Interesting. I wonder what set that off. Humans are strange creatures indeed and while a few are valuable to a forest, too many are a blight. I have found it necessary to cull the population every now and again.”
“You really are quite disrespectful. I don’t actually kill them, it’s bad for the forest. I simply encourage certain settlements to either reduce in size, or leave. My colleagues in the cities are always happy to receive them.”
They’d reached the crack by this time. Nothing was visible inside it but he was continuing on, unconcerned, so she decided she may as well act the same.
He turned sideways to slip through the narrow gap. “Mind your footing, the pathway is steep and small stones like to scatter down it.”
That was her only warning as she slipped through and found herself facing a near-vertical climb up the inside of the cliff.
“Why can’t you magic us to the top? You did something strange to get us here.”
“More questions. I think you will have to earn the right to ask them in future. I don’t go to the top because I don’t wish to go to the top.”
She bit her tongue on the ‘why’ that desperately wanted to come out and concentrated on scrambling up the narrow, rock-strewn path. The only light available came from above and was, of course largely blocked by the egotistical pig in front of her.
He called back down. “You learn to shield this afternoon.”
What was this shielding business he was going on about? She rolled her eyes at his obtuseness and focused on finding firm ground for her feet.
“Shielding is where you learn how to not allow your every thought fly about for anyone to overhear, and loud enough that they’re impossible to ignore.”
“You’re spying on my thoughts?”
“Right now they’re very full of sharp blades and my back. I would far rather not have to put up with them, they are giving me a headache. You will learn to keep things to yourself.”
“Why are you bothering with all this if I’m so troublesome? You could have just left me for the wolves.”
“I still can. Perhaps you should be thinking about giving me reasons for not wanting to do so.”
They finally emerged at the top of the path and Claudia leaned against a convenient rocky outcrop to regain her breath.
The god’s lips twitched into a hint of a smile. “You say and do the most inappropriate things. I believe I’ll be keeping you for amusement if nothing else.”
She frowned at him, then looked at the stone she was leaning against. It was less of an outcrop and more of a statue of the man in front of her, but at least double the height, so the hand she was resting her head on was directly covering the statue’s crotch. She bolted upright.
Any retorts or insults died on her lips as she took in the world around her. To her right, about one horse-length from where she stood, was the cliff edge. Beyond it, the trees spread before her like a deep green ocean, where the islands went down instead of up, they must be clearings. Some had thin strings of smoke winding up from them.
She pointed. “Are those villages?”
“The larger ones. The smaller ones are single huts, either hunters or woodcutters.”
“I had no idea there were so many. The village I came from seemed an eternity from anywhere.”
“They are one of the more isolated locations. And one of the stranger groups. None of these other communities feel it necessary to leave humans out for me. They generally make do with either a large party each year, or a portion of their produce. Or both.”
“And what do you do with that?”
He suddenly looked sly. “That’s where you come in. Come along.”