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Tuesday, 14 September 2021

The Harvest Watch

     It wasn't that long ago when the wild things still wandered; when the forests were still dark places and village walls meant only tentative safety. When there were no reliable hearthfires, no filling meals every night, no guarantee of survival through the winter - none of the luxuries we have now in our rug-strewn, stone-built homes.
     It wasn't that long ago, and yet, for that basic uncertainty, things were done so very differently.
     Before the leaves fell - before they even turned - the final harvest of the year would take place. From the beginning of August to the end of September, villages would be out cutting and gathering their grains, laying them out to dry and storing them through the winter - some to eat, most to sell. Whatever was needed. And then, when the coldest months came, the oldest or sickest animals would be slaughtered. But that meat would never go far enough. Grains were staple. Crucial. Populations relied on those more than anything else.
     But even without the risk of stampedes or smoking-house fires, a grain harvest was never a straight-forward thing. Aside from the back-breaking work, there were also the threats of rot and pests. One ill-timed autumn rain could plunge whole provinces into famine. And so the old deities were beseeched and offerings left to the wild itself, to appease the witches and the vengeful spirits that dwelled within against attack, abduction, cursing the grain or directing the scavengers.
     And it wasn't that long ago that the deities may have answered.

     The girl turned her father a wide-eyed look through the dappled forest light, and again she watched the strange pride in his smile as he nodded his head towards the tree stump.
     For some reason, of all the children in the village, she'd been the one chosen to carry out some kind of important duty. She'd been taught a poem, shown how to arrange wheat husks, and that morning had her golden hair pulled and braided with summer flowers and her dress painted with berries. Then she'd been brought out here, so deep into the forest she couldn't see the fields behind them. That was strange, after having been told for eight years not to stray anywhere near the trees, but being here now was...exciting. And scary. So scary and so exciting that she couldn't keep her knees still. And only partly because of all the villagers' eyes on her.
     With a deep breath, she looked ahead and took the last two steps towards the tree stump, stole a glance up at the twisted woody giant looming close behind it, then followed her gaze as it dragged back to the bundle in her hands. The first head of grain, cut by her father that morning, a privilege for his daughter having been chosen. Leaving this on the altar and speaking the old poem was supposed to make the forest happy and keep them safe while they worked in the fields outside. But that, she'd decided, didn't make any sense. Why grain and not a loaf of bread? And would bread or grain really make the forest happy?
     Probably not. There wouldn't be enough. The forest was big. And once the grain was gone, it was gone, and the happiness would be gone with it. It wouldn't last anywhere near long enough to cut the crops. It had taken a year last time, as far as she could remember. Certainly not the two months her mother kept saying it was.
     But the grown ups wouldn't listen. So she'd taken matters into her own hands.
     While the adults watched, she reached out and laid the head of grain on the tree stump just as she'd been taught to, perfectly in the centre of the few rings and carved shapes she could see through the lichen. Then she stepped back and carefully recited the words:

"The first head cut,
we bring to appease,
and carry our
hearts bare in our pleas.
Contain this time
your huntress shadows,
and spare our young
the depths of barrows."

     She stole a peek behind her. All eyes were closed.
     She bent quickly and set her straw-stuffed doll down at the foot of the stump, and was upright again before anyone noticed. "Tall trees; fields fallow; may we all thrive as one."
     There was a murmur of approval behind her while the rest of the village stirred, and as her father's hand came to rest proudly on her shoulder, she erased her mischievous smile, stood tall, then turned and led the gathering away. As their footsteps moved from twigs to grass, the forest fell silent behind them.
     And the twisted tree looming over the stump twitched.

     Two flecks of green glowed softly like fireflies in hollow sockets, barely breaking the dappled darkness, and a head of twigs, woven into a horned bear skull, creaked high on its neck among the boughs. The silent, glowing stare followed the fleshy creatures closely. And only once stillness embraced the dark again did the tangled trunk follow.
     With barely a rustle through the sticks and roots, the misshapen trunk split, and two latticed, lichen-marked legs stepped over the altar in a single stride. Three steps the kvistdjur took, a guardian grown of twigs and roots, before it stopped frozen again and turned back to the stump. For a long while, it stared at the head of grain resting on top.
     The warning had been made. The humans were moving.
     And the kvistdjur would stand guard against them.
     Turning on its wooden heel, it began its march to the edge of the shadows to take up its vigil against the creatures loose in their golden fields, until a squirrel bounced onto its leafy antlers from a branch above. Again it froze, obligingly this time, and glowing eyes followed it down to its shoulder, along its arm, down its leg and across to the altar. And there it noticed, as the squirrel stopped and sniffed tentatively at the foot, a small human of equal size sitting among the roots.
     Its horned head twitched.
     As fast and graceful as a mantis, the kvistdjur flickered to its knees beside it. But while the squirrel sprang up to the grain, the kvistdjur realised its mistake. It was no living human, but a thing in human cladding and stuffed with dry grass.
     Slowly, the kvistdjur peered closer. The cladding was frayed, the straw was rotting, and the nut that resembled its head was cracked and scarred. The thing didn't move as it was prodded with a woody talon.
     For another long moment, it watched and waited, but still nothing happened. So, while the squirrel began stealing apart the grain, chittering at its approaching kin, the kvistdjur dismissed it, rose without a sound, and marched at last to its vigil.

     For days, the kvistdjur roamed the woods, watching the humans and their scythes butcher the golden fields. They were dangerous with these weapons; they cut too clean, too quick, too greedily. Saplings and squirrels would be no match. Too much could fall too fast, and if they were left unchallenged, the humans would do it again the next year, and the year after that, and more of them would join with each swarm.
     And that morning, in the dying light of a half-moon, they had wandered the closest yet.
     The kvistdjur stared from the shadows, firefly eyes aglow with every flash of steel, woody talons twitching, as long and sharp as scythes themselves. Their voices were too clear. It could feel them in the ground, see them fluttering through the leaves, disturbing every edge of life until those animals who were able finally moved away for sleep or safety. Before too long, the wilds would grow wistfully empty.
     Glinting movement towards the eastern edge suddenly snatched its malicious stare, and it dashed ahead while the glowing heart in its chest tightened and flared through the weave of its ribs. A tall, skinny one was moving slowly towards the trees.
     Wrapped in shadow, the kvistdjur stopped nearby and controlled the flare of its heart.
     Nearer, the creature wandered.
     Nearer.
     Nearer.
     The kvistdjur's talons stretched and flexed, its leg twitched impatiently. But before it could flicker forwards, the figure stopped and sat down in the shade.
     The kvistdjur remained as watchful, rigid and motionless as the trees.
     For several long minutes, the skinny one held its burning attention without once turning at the heat of those eyes. Then it rose again and moved back into the fields, oblivious to the danger.
     Slowly, the woven guardian creaked and settled in the shift of dappled light, until another voice stirred the leaves nearby, one higher and more vibrant than the rest.
     Again, its stare flicked onto its target: a small human, fairer and more golden than the rest. But this small one didn't cut, instead it gathered what the others had reaped and bundled it up in arms too small for the job, yet a job it did with glee.
     This one, the kvistdjur watched for a long while.

     Another puff of alarm went up ahead as the trees bent out of the kvistdjur's way, and the hunting one ran and stumbled on through the roots, firing back another haphazard arrow that whistled through the guardian's woven body. But it already had distance; the bow gave it reach. The kvistdjur couldn't chase it all the way out, and it was already too far from its post. It had little choice but to leave the hunting one to another. It was far from the only guardian in these woods.
     As fast as a bird, it turned and surged back through the forest, flickering between the trunks towards the edge of the trees where again it stopped, stared, and twitched at every flash of the scythes and every careless movement. But this time its eyes were searching, and as the small human walked by again, struggling with the bundles of grain, red-faced and glistening in the sunlight, the kvistdjur's attention settled.

     An entire moon had passed since the warning was left on the stump; that night, the sky was black and empty, and where the humans had retreated inside, light glowed through the holes in their nests.
     The kvistdjur watched them blaze.
     For all its vigilance over twenty-eight passes of the sun, nothing yet had forced its hand. But it was only a matter of time. And there was more than one attack front to watch.
     Finally, the lights went out, and one hour later, the kvistdjur turned and stalked away through the woods in search of hunters, traps and trespassers.
     It listened carefully to every sound that bounced across the trees, distinguishing between the wilds and invasive footsteps. As empty as the woods now were, humans would still try their luck, as with the reaping of the golden fields came the reaping of deer, boar and grouse. Their captives were never enough; they would kill yet more while keeping their own alive. The patrol had to be made.
     Finally, something snapped nearby.
     In a heartbeat, the kvistdjur spun and made towards it at speed. Leaves parted, branches moved aside, and owls hooted directions. But the kvistdjur was already there. It leapt, it landed, and it caged the human in its limbs. A sharp squeak was all that stopped its talons from striking.
     Bright firefly eyes stared down into the huge reflective orbs of the small, golden-headed human, whose body remained as still as stone in its grasp. Neither moved, neither made a sound. A long, warm breath of wind danced between them, stirring leaves and golden strands.
     It must have carried something with it; the small human suddenly scrambled backwards, struggled to its feet, and ran away without a sound.
     The kvistdjur watched it flee in silence. Then its stare sank back to the ground where it had lain. Another tiny, straw-stuffed human lay strewn in the dirt. One with tiny twigs tied to its acorn head, and two green, mossy smudges for eyes.
     Talons closed around it, then it rose back to its feet and stalked off after the small creature. It broke into another rapid run when the squeak rose again nearby, morphed into a shriek, and was answered by the snarl and bark of wolves.
     The kvistdjur burst in behind them, roared bitterly from its wooden throat, and sent the wolves fleeing.
     And again, it and the human stared at one another for another long moment. But though the creature was guarded, this time it didn't run. Instead, it dared a step closer.
     The kvistdjur twitched backwards, then sharply raised its talons.
     The small human hesitated, but its stare never broke. And it took another step.
     The kvistdjur hissed nervously.
     The human froze. The pair of them stared. Then the human's mouth moved, but no squeak came out. Several wolf howls nearby stopped whatever sound it was about to make, and it turned and ran off again.

     The kvistdjur watched the creature throughout the harvest, and the creature stared back into the woods from time to time. But they didn't step near one another. Then, after another black night and another new moon, nothing but one single stalk of grain was left standing in the flat, golden fields. The kvistdjur watched as all humans gathered around it, and the smallest of them, the fairest, its golden head dressed again in flowers and cladding coloured with berries, stepped forwards with a scythe and felled it.
     The kvistdjur straightened. The sign was made, the ritual done. Its vigil here was over.
     Duty fell from its shoulders as it turned its head to the breeze, and looked off back into the woods just as a shard of orange drifted down beside it. Its talons rose gently to its leafy antlers even as it peered up at the yellowing trees.
     It was time to move on. The Drowse was on its way, and the kvistdjur's final task was approaching.
     Turning its back to the human fields, it opened its other hand, dropped the two grass-stuffed figures to the dirt, and stalked off into the woods. These wilds were safe from this harvest.
     It didn't notice the small human looking its way with a smile.




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