Laila had always been able to talk to the creatures in Hazewood. It freaked the people in her village out.
Balley Gorm, the name the people called the gathering of stone huts where Laila had been born, was on the edge of Hazewood. They wanted nothing to do with the forest and thought anyone who went there was mad or cursed. Laila spent most of her time there.
As soon as she could walk, Laila wandered towards the voices she heard in the forest. "Come and see me!" Some called. "I'm over here!" Howled others. "Where did I hide those acorns?"
Every day and night Laila heard a constant babble coming from Hazewood. Perhaps that's why she was drawn out there when she was four. She wanted to know more about who was speaking.
Her parents had been working in the grain fields and grandma had been taking a nap. Laila stood just under the shadows of some birch trees. "Hello?" She said in the loud unafraid voice all toddlers use.
"You're tesspassing two leged cub," a shadow said as it walked slowly towards the girl. "This is my part of the woods." Laila not, old enough to understand what she was doing, countered. "I'm sorry Mr. Big Doggy," Laila said. "I just wanted to know who lives here." The grey beast stopped short. "It's funny you speak our tongue," he said. "Yet you mistake me. I am no slave of the two legs. I am a wolf, my pack calls me Father Grey Fang."
Laila was suprised the wolves in mommy's stories were mean and scary. This one just seemed proud and a little brusk. "All right nice to meet you," she said. "I'm Leila. My mommy and daddy live in those houses. Hey! Your name is Father Grey Fang! Do you have kids?"
A look that might have been amusement came over the wolf. "I do have cubs," he said. "My mate, Mother Swift Paw, and I are currently rearing a litter of five." A human voice was calling Laila. Grey Fang's ears swiveled towards the sound. "Two legged cub," he said. "As interesting as this has been, I think a grown one of your kind has noticed you are missing. It wouldn't be wise for us to be seen together. Goodbye."
With hardly a sound Grey Fang turned and retreated deeper into Hazewood. Laila was still too enchanted to move. The voice coming from Balley Gorm was getting closer. It was her father Fin. "There you are!" He exclaimed. "Don't go away without telling your mom or gradma!"
Laila put a nervous hand in her mouth and nibbled her fore finger. "Sorry daddy," she said. "I'm okay though! I made a new friend!" Her father looked around the clearing and was troubled when he didn't see anyone. "Oh," Fin said. "Well lets go home. Your mother must have supper going by now."
As she grew up she learned the hard way she was the only one in the village who heard the animals speak. Laila's father had been about to slaughter a pig. "No please!" It squealed. "Don't hurt me!" Laila ran to the barn and stood between her father and the swine. "Stop dad!" She shouted. The axe Fin was about to swing was slowly lowered.
"Laila sweet," he said. "We need this meat for the winter time." She was about to cry. She could hear the pig grunting "oh no," repeatedly. "But dad," she said. "I could hear him screaming. He was begging you not to kill him!"
Her father looked pained. "All pigs squeal loudly when they're scared," he said. "I don't think those are words. A pig's an animal not a person. Now please move." Laila knew her father was serrious. She thought about staying put and arguing but knew there would be consequences if she did.
Furious that she couldn't sway her father, Laila ran from the barn. Her guts clenched as she heard a terrified "NOOOO" cut short as the axe fell.
That night Laila only played with the meal her mother had made. "What's wrong?" Laila's mother asked. "You still haven't touched your veal." Laila dropped her fork. "I just..can't," she said. "I don't think I can eat this." Fin threw his fork down. "I work hard to raise this food!" He shouted. "You finish your supper or I'll make you wish you had!" Laila picked up her utensil and speared a beet slice with it. "Dear," her mother chided. "You don't have to be so harsh--"
"Don't I Maggie?!" Fin roared. "Our stupid daughter is going mad! She tried to stop me from butchering a pig today! If I don't take a firm line with her she'll be a complete lunatic and no one will marry her!" Maggie pinched her lips together letting some silence pass. "Laila," she said. "Eat a little bit more then go to bed."
Somewhat obediently Laila finished some of her dinner. (It was all vegtables. She slipped the veal to the family dog, Fergus.) Then went over to her bed and drew the curtain. She lay listening to the evning voices of Hazewood. "Good night," said the song birds.
"Bugs! Bugs! Bugs!" The bats began to squeak at dusk. Laila still couldn't sleep. She wondered what Grey Fang was doing. It had been a while since they had talked. Maybe her friend would comfort her.
Carefull to be sure her parents and grandma was asleep, Laila snuck through the window near her bed. She went to the spot where she and Grey Fang had first met. It had become their place to keep one another's company.
"Grey Fang, are you there?" She asked quietly. "Two legged cub!" He said. "This is unusual! Usually your kind only emerges from your dens during daylight hours. Did something happen?"
Fretting with her dress Laila raised up her courage. "Well there was this pig screaming 'No please! Don't hurt me!'" She said. "My dad was going to kill him! I tried to stop him but he killed him anyway!" Laila brushed away tears she didn't realize she'd been shedding. "Your pack needed food?" Grey Fang asked. "Dad said we needed meat for the winter," Laila said. "We have grain and roots to eat!"
Grey Fang snarled lightly. "Cub," he said. "I need you to understand something about life." Realising she had upset her friend Laila bridled her anger a little. "Oh?" She said. "And what would that be?" Grey Fang began to pace. "All animals eat to live," he said. "Deer eat grass. Bears devour anything they can find. If they don't or can't feed, any animal dies. It is the way of the world."
"So that means he had to?" Laila asked. Grey Fang finally layed down with his paws in front of him. "Seasons change," he said. "The plants die. Your kind cannot eat bark like the deer. Your father is ensuring the survival of his pack." Laila wasn't entirely convinced. "I had to hear that pig's dying screams," she said.
Grey Fang was not without empathy. "Unlike you I cannot understand my prey," he said. "You have a gift as well as a curse Laila. As you grow hopefully it will become apparent why the gods made you able to hear animal voices. Now go home, two legged cub, we can talk some other time."
As the seasons cycled Laila grew into a young woman. She visited Hazewood nearly every day and made friends with Grey Fang's pack and other animals as well. Three generations of tree squirrel knew who Laila was. A few deer even introduced their fawns to her as "Aunty Lala." It made things a little awkward sometimes because in addition to the deer Laila was also friends with a she-bear who called herself "Bruinhild".
Laila was aware of the various insects, lizards and fish but they were not particularly good company. Fish were mostly concerned with swimming, eating and spawning. Reptiles, especially snakes, just wanted to be left alone. The only tricky part was convincing cotton mouths that she wasn't there to eat them and that they shouldn't bite her. Bugs on the other hand didn't seem to have enough consciousness to communicate.
A long time ago, back when she was a child most of the people in her village had decided to steer clear of her. Her parents tried their hardest to ignore their daughter's eccentricities and told people she was touched in the head from a mule kick. So the inhabitants of Hazewood were her surogate friends and family.
"Auntie Lala!" A fawn shouted as it bounded up. "Auntie Lala! Come quick! Something's wrong with mama!" Laila knealt down and tried to calm the fawn. "Tell me what happened," she said. "Just make sure to slow down enough so I can understand."
"We were grazing in the meadow," the fawn said. "This black goopy looking thing--I don't know what it was--flew out of the forest and glooped its self all over my mom! She's in trouble!" It was disturbing; Laila had grown up in Hazewood. This sort of thing never happened.
"Is your mom still alive?" Laila asked. The fawn looked around them making sure there were no threats. "I think so," it said. "But she was laying on her side. Hurry up and come with me!"
Laila ran trying to keep up with the baby deer. They managed to reach the meadow. The doe was in bad shape, her breathing was laboured and her fur was matted with black slime. Laila reccognised her. "Bluebell," Laila said. "How are you?"
Bluebell raised her head. "Oh Laila," she said. "I feel terrible." Laila didn't know what to do so she tore a scrap off her apron and wetted it with some of the contents of her canteen. She used the damp fabric to try to wash the ooze off.
"Did you see what attacked you?" Laila asked. Bluebell was fading fast. She barely had the ability to form words. "I'm not sure," she said. "I think Grandma Thistle used to tell stories about it." Laila was shocked. "Something like this happened before?"
"Yes," Bluebell confirmed. "Before your village was built, your ancestors used to live side by side with the animals of Hazewood. They guarded it and kept The Blight imprisioned."
This wasn't at all what Laila had expected. "What are you talking about?" She asked. "People in the village loathe Hazewood." Bluebell somehow found the strength to hold on. "Yes that was after Ulfred deposed the old ways," she said. "Your people were forbiden to visit after Ulfred userped power from the High Preistess years after The Blight had been defeated."
Laila didn't like the sounds of what her dying friend was saying. "What's The Blight?" She asked. "It is a manifestation of decay," Bluebell said. "It is an entity that will leech the life from this world if given the chance. Your only hope is to rebuild the cairn and say the incantation to seal it away."
"Where's the cairn? How do I do any of that?"
"The darkest part of the forest. Ancestors guide you."
The light went from the doe's eyes. The fawn wimpered beside Laila. "Will we be okay?" It asked. She looked at the young deer. It was not full grown yet but little velvet covered bumps were starting to sprout between its ears. "I think you'll be fine," she said. "You're almost a yearling so you can graze on your own. I'll stop The Blight somehow."
It took most of the afternoon but Laila found the place Bluebell had mentioned. It was a dense thicket choked with bushes and trees so close together that their leaves almost blocked out the daylight. The cairn had been toppled only two stones remained stacked. Laila froze as she saw darkness ooze out from some nearby boulders.
"Ssssoooo a huuumannn," a voice said. "Iiit hassss beennn agesss sssince I have feasted on that ssssort of ennnergy!" The Blight finished extruding from its hiding place. It was more frightening than she had imagined. Stuck in it's gelatinous form were the skelitons of its victims two vole skulls floated towards what Laila thought was The Blight's head.
"I'll not be your fodder," Laila said. "I'm here to stop you." The twin skulls in The Blight fixed on her like eyes. "Yoouu cannn hear me?" it said. "You must be descended from the priestesses that put me in that vile stone! I had to wait for a long time before a storm destroyed that blasted cairn. I won't let you put me back!"
In a great rush The Blight surged towards Laila. She instictively tried to hide behind her arms. A great white light struck at The Blight.
Looking up Laila saw dozens of white figures. Eagles, stags, bears and some strange women in robes. They formed a protective ring around Laila.
One of the women stepped forward and spoke. "We are the priestesses of Duannathu, The Great Mother," she said. "Our spirits have been sent to assist in restoring the cairn." Laila finally recovering from the shock was still trying to understand. "I don't know how." She said. "Can you show me?" The priestess who was talking to her smiled sadly. "We cannot assist," the priestess said. "You must lift the stones. Duannathu will put the words of binding in your heart. Speak from there and The Blight will be bound once more."
The stones were somehow easier to lift than they should have been. Laila felt something welling up inside her. "I place this stone in the name of life," she intoned.
The Blight sensed what was happening. "It won't work," it taunted. "You can't call on the Goddess."
She picked up the next stone. "I place this stone in the name of the future."
"YOU CANNOT DEFEAT ME!" The Blight shouted. "I WILL BREAK THESE SPIRITS AND THEIR PROTECTION!"
Ignoring the threats Laila picked up the final stone. "I place this stone in the name of Duannathu!" She intoned. "By its power the cairn is complete and The Blight is bound as long as it stands! So be it!"
With a horrible shrieking and wailing The Blight was sucked into the cairn. One by one the spirits faded from view. Laila felt exhausted yet triumphant. Hazewood and Balley Gorm were safe.
After returning long enough to say goodbye, Laila returned to Hazewood. She knew it was where she belonged. It felt right and the best way to protect the people, places and animals she loved.