Iron creaked. Rust flaked from hinges stiff from age and wrapping ivy. Small hands pushed into the pitted bars, shoved. There was a huff, an exasperated kick.
"Heike," grumbled Karl, turning from the stuck gate. Green light dappled him, shone through thick oaks. "Help. It's all stuck."
Some ways back, Heike looked up. A red candy stick wobbled in the corner of her mouth. "Coming." She stood, dirty-kneed, from the patch of mushcaps* she'd been prodding.
Together, they set paws to the gate, gave it a hearty shove. Karl grunted, strained. The hinges groaned. Heike yelped, yanked away.
"Cut my thumb," said Heike, sucked stickily on the digit.
"S'nothing," judged Karl.
"Hurts," said the girl. She examined the cut. "Maybe we're not allowed because the gate's sharp. Father said it's dangerous."
"Nah. He means the woods, for sure." Karl kicked the gate. "Come on and try again." Heike nodded. She stuck her sweet behind an ear, where it stuck to yellow hairs.
Together, they shouldered the gate, pushed. Bare toes cut deep into dirt and moss. Red rust flaked in little clouds. Abruptly, there was a shriek of metal, a clang. The gate swung abruptly open. The children fell forward.
Karl groaned. Beside him, Heike blinked dirt from her eyes, rose to elbows, looked about. Past the gate was a dim path, narrow and dappled by the small light permitted by looming, black-green foliage. A slight mist crawled low over the earth, made white where the sparse sun showed through. Heady mist, sweet with the oils of plants.
Heike nudged her brother. He rose, rubbed his grazed and dirty elbows, looked about. "Excellent," he grinned, scampered off.
"Wait up!" squealed Heike, following.
Skipping over unruly lumps of roots, the children dashed into ever darker reaches of the forest tunnel. Swirls of vapor whipped and trailed from their heels. Queer, soft lilac pixies danced in their wake.
Eventually, the path let up into a wide place overhung by the knuckly bows of oaks. A dark humus of many ages of rotten acorns carpeted the place, leant a biting must to the sweet air.
"Wow," mumbled Karl, turning about. Fat trunks of oaks stretched, innumerable, for acres around. Mist and green light dimmed the shadowed plot of each, save for one. Some distance from the children, a spot of unhindered sunlight staged a weeping stump.
Karl picked his way to that bright clearing, feet rolling and crunching over layered acorns. Heike followed, waved at the pixies attempting to braid her hair.
Their dirty feet stepped into warm sun. About the stump, many sprouts with lobed leaves had emerged, each planted in its own circle of groomed dirt. Heike took care not to trod on them. "How curious," she said, examining the stump. Karl had jumped atop it, stamped his feet on the sticky rings.
Round that stump, in the dim, were bundles of sticks and a pile of broad log-rounds. Near, in one of the truncated oak's high roots was sunk an axe, shiny in the weak sun.
Karl pointed, spun about idly. "That's Father's good axe," he said. "Box he made for Mother must've come from this wood."
Hieke nodded, idly sucked her cut thumb. She squatted, looked hard at the oak sprouts and their circles. Karl had trodden on some. They leaned, sad and smashed, in the footprints which disturbed their perfect rings. She frowned, looked up, startled. "Oh."
A pair of shining black eyes peered at her over a root, just outside the clearing. Pointed, furry ears twitched above. The creature blinked quickly, sporadically, looked with inky stare.
Karl quit spinning, looked for the source of Heike's startlement. He saw the eyes. "What an odd cat."
The eyes blinked once more, rose into light. A sharp face showed, patterned with grey, fluffy cheeks and black blotches round the eyes. Heike met its gaze, smiled at the rapidly flaring nose.
It crept forward, reaching with hands attached like tassels to the corners of a furred, sackish body. A bottlebrush tail striped with black and grey twitched behind.
"Don't think that's a cat," said Heike. She watched the creature creep into the light. Only there could woven plaits of grass and reed be seen on its back and wrists, tied decoratively and with skill.
Careful under the eyes of the children, it reached with humanlike, black hands for the first squashed sapling, began to right it. With delicacy, it lifted the fledgling tree, set it back in its place, redrew the careful circle, and erased Karl's footprint. It moved to the next. The children watched, silently rapt.
"What is it, then?" broached Karl, whispering. The creature looked at him momently, squinted, resumed its work.
Heike considered. "Remember those fairy-stories Mother tells form the green book?" she said, thoughtfully.
"I think its a tree-gardener, like in Askel and the Knockers."
"Ooh," said Karl.
"What do you think we should do?"
"What'd Askel do?"
"Drove them off."
They looked to the hunched, furry worker, watched it right and preen a tiny shoot with immaculate care. It barely paid them heed, save for an occasional black glance. "Don't really want to do that," said Heike.
"I'd rather be friends with it, I think."
Heike nodded. Slowly, she removed the sweet from her ear, tugged a few hairs off, broke off an end. "Hey," she said, addressing the creature. It looked up, black eyes impassive. Heike licked the piece of sweet, smiled exaggeratedly, extended it, wavered it. A glittering cherry line flashed in the black eyes.
Unhurriedly, deft black paws traced the last ring to be repaired, then slowly crept to Heike. The thing advanced paws-first, head tucked as far back as permissible. It approached the girl's hand, sniffed, hissed. Heike startled, withdrew. She gave it an inquisitive look.
"Your thumb," said Karl. "The blood, the iron." **
His sister nodded, switched to her other hand, offered it. This time, the beast sniffed, stretched out a paw, quickly snatched the sweet.
Heike giggled. The gardener looked askance at her, passed the sticky confection between its paws. Experimentally, it closed badger-like teeth round the morsel, crunched off a bit. A burst of excited lip-smacking and catlike head-bobbing ensued. The tail twitched. It consumed the rest.
Karl and Heike exchanged excited glances. The girl proffered another morsel, this time closer. The creature took it, crunched it down mere inches before her. With the next, it rested a paw upon her knee. By the last, it was sitting in her lap.
"Better than a cat," said Heike, marveling at the gardener's woven garb. The thing snuffled about her, searching for more candy. She pet it, experimentally. It licked her fingers, but not the thumb, holding them one at a time.
Karl grinned. He sat beside, stroked the striped tail. "Far better."
Heike sighed. "They say they're bad, though. Really bad omens."
"Yeah," said Karl, hesitantly.
The creature scrabbled up Heike's shoulders, wrapped its arms round her head, rested its chin in her hair. It sighed.
"I say we keep it."
For the Other, a curious vanguard defies the cutters of trees and tamers of wilds. They are not monsters, nor are they wicked ælves or trolls. They are spriggans, tree-planters: The cunning workers of the otherworld.
* Distinct from mushrooms, motile mushcaps are apt to spring up where the otherworld is none too distant.
** Creatures of the Other are averse to iron, even the small quantity in human blood, for it burns their black-ichor flesh.
*** "Littoran" describes any creature native to the Coast, be they human, mouse, or otherwise.
† Despite the ignorance of the smallfolk, the cultures and national leadership of the Coast as a whole are quite aware of this war, if not its minutiae. A philosophical concept of imperative destiny drives Littoran expansion into wilderness. Otherwordly wilderlands must be tamed, so says the philosophy, lest they subsume the world.
‡ Coastal folk have an ingrained and prevailing fear of having their children stolen by fairies. Spriggans are thought to serve as scouts for later child-stealing. If only for this reason alone, they are shot whenever possible.