The animals gathered in the very heart of the forest, rows and rows of beasts, great and small, encircled the massive oak tree that stood at the dead centre of the clearing. Great Oak's mighty limbs stretched out overhead, spanning the breadth of the clearing; her trunk was so wide that it would take eight men standing hand-in-hand to encircle its monstrous girth. Her bark was old and gnarled by the centuries of her life. Two great knots that sat above a scar-like slash in her trunk gave the appearance of a face, both old and noble.
One-by-one the animals stood before Great Oak and stared into the gnarled knots that made her eyes. And every time she would only utter one single guttural word.
It seemed as if the ground itself was rumbling as the mighty tree spoke, slowly and deeply.
The squirrels told of all the acorns they had eaten, and also of every way that they had helped the Wilderwood and paid it for its shelter and protection. They spoke of how they had spread the seeds and berries of trees all across the forest, meaning that new trees would grow and give food and protection for all the generations to come. Every animal told a similar story: the worms of how they turn the earth; the small animals of how they spread seeds; and the larger animals of how they stopped the smaller animals and insects becoming too many. At the end of each animal’s turn a single flower with petals as white as milk would unfurl between the sprawling of Great Oak’s roots.
Soon came the turn of the wolves; twenty or so of the hulking brutes stood spread evenly in an arc before Great Oak.
“Tell,” croaked the mighty tree.
At the centre of the arc a pair of yellow slit-like eyes broke through the gloom beneath the forest canopy. Nineteen silver-grey pelts stood surrounding the limbs of the venerable tree, supported by bulky muscle-clad frames that loomed above the other creatures of the Wilderwood, each sporting a crooked smile filled with razor-pointed teeth. The wolf in the centre of the arc, with the gleaming yellow eyes that appeared to shine from within the midst of a void of nothingness, towered above the other wolves and stood even further apart from them with his jet-black coat. Orcus, leader of the wolves, stepped forward.
“We hear your whispers, we obey the whispers, take those that need taking and watch those who need watching,” growled Orcus, and almost before his sentence had finished the whole pack had drifted silently once again into the undergrowth as if they had never been anywhere else; and all that moved was a solitary white flower.
Next came the turn of the foxes.
The rare shafts of light that had forced their way through the density of the forest canopy danced upon the coats of the foxes with an arrogant glee that could only be matched by the foxes themselves.[Eve1]
The foxes came forward with a nonchalant grace, and with a gait as relaxed as ever, Dapper spoke on their behalf. “We have returned the little we have taken from the Wilderwood, and we really have taken only very little.” The foxes began to turn away ready to leave the clearing, yet a horde of yellow slit-like eyes blocked their path.
“Look,” commanded Orcus. The foxes turned back towards the tree. A small flower had blossomed at its base, and protruding from its stem were six scarlet leaves, without a trace of white in sight.
The wolves circled the foxes menacingly.
“You have taken much, and given nothing!” The ancient tree erupted in a blaze of angered animation, its limbs crashed on the floor as if to emphasise every word.
“You have sheltered beneath the canopy of the Wilderwood, made dens beneath its trees, hidden from those that would do you harm in its midst, yet you say you have taken NOTHING!” The floor tremored with the barely contained rage that emanated from her final word.
Uthor mustered just enough courage to speak.
“We haven’t done anything wrong; we’ve done all that we do every year.”
“I have many eyes within the Wilderwood, all of the tiny creatures whisper to the leaves and the leaves in turn whisper to me. No one saw you eat, no one saw you hunt, no one saw you kill, and yet you do not look starved; in fact you all look rather plump.” The mottled knots of bark that served for Great Oak’s eyes bore into Uthor with unbridled suspicion.
“The food we took was not from the Wilderwood, therefore we owe nothing for it,” Uthor said sticking out his chest defiantly.
“Look at the trees around you; do they look well?” Uthor’s expression changed from defiant to puzzled as he looked around where he stood, taking in the trees that surrounded them. The trees did indeed not look at all well: along the base of their trunks the wood had been stripped bare of bark, as if something had been gnawing away at them.
“This is preposterous,” bellowed Uthor. “Foxes do not eat the bark from trees. It’s the chicken and lamb from the farms of men that have been filling our bellies, not the bark from trees! You accuse us wrongly!” yelled Uthor.
With a sudden gentleness appearing in her voice, Great Oak whispered, “You may come out now little ones.”
A pair of long ears sprung up from the ground, then another and another and another. Within moments the entire forest floor had been transformed into a sea of fluffy tails and twitching noses; hundreds, possibly thousands, of rabbits had filled the clearing.
“Another tree, an oak like myself and almost as large and old, fell to the ground recently, because their burrows went under his roots. They eat the bark off of the trees as there is not enough of their usual food like small plants, grass and nuts. Why are there too many rabbits, do you think?”
Great Oak’s question had rendered Uthor silent, so it was Clarabella who meekly replied, “Because we didn’t hunt them?”
“You have disobeyed the rules of the Wilderwood; your actions have caused it and all that live within great harm. You have not protected the way of the Wilderwood and so the Wilderwood shall not protect you.” A cold fury that billowed from the trunk of the monstrous tree filled the air around all those in the clearing; the foxes huddled together in fear.
Dark shadows with yellow eyes circled the foxes like a whirlpool, their deathly dance gained momentum with a sickening fluidity, drawing them ever closer together. The occasional glint of pearl-white teeth would appear, gnashing and snarling amongst the swirling ring of bodies, until the foxes could smell the stench of rotten meat on the wolves’ breath.
“But if you kill us who will hunt the rabbits?” pleaded Clarabella.
Orcus leered towards the cowering vixen.
“Your cubs are nearly grown enough to hunt. Without you to bring them food they will learn soon enough. They have broken no rule; their lives will be spared.”