Prologue

She wakes up heavily. Eyelids flutter, but she is unsure if they have opened properly because all she can see is the dark. Limbs, stiff like dried wood, move creakily and she attempts to regain some semblance of bodily control. Her mouth thins into a tense line as she tries to twitch her fingers, but she does not notice; her focus is on the small spasms of movement flicking through her palms.

Her head hurts. She knows this because when she tries to crane her neck up to peer at the hazy surroundings, sharp pain darts from the base of her skull down to her toes.

Ah toes, she thinks, and directs her attention back towards movement. The dull ache in her skull continues regardless.

There is a reason she is in this place, a faint part of her mind concludes. As the tips of her fingers contract and clench into fists she nods inwardly. Yes, she needs to remember the reason she is here.

Something deep rumbles inside her skulls, and her eyes reflexively snap open, even if they cannot tell the difference. It is deep, and its tremors crackle along the surface of her very bones until she is sure her whole body must be shaking to it. Warm, fizzy energy is now sizzling down through her muscles, snapping through like lightning in her nerves and synapses.

Air is being sucked into her lungs, she realizes; lips peeling away from teeth to make way for the rasping sound of her breath. The copper tang taste of blood on the back of her tongue and the violent, blaring white noise jarring her ear drums make her gasp and writhe, but the baritone rumbling thrum within her body does not falter, only intensify.

She cannot see, but she can feel. Her body is alive, she is sure of that, though the sensory influx is swelling her to what feels like bursting point.

Alive, alive, the reason I am here is I'm alive...runs the mantra in her head, along to the rhythm of her cracking bones, snapping muscles and gnashing teeth. Should the mantra stop, her body will fall still; as cold and unresponsive as dark earth.

She cannot let that happen, so she screams.

A cool pressure touches her forehead, and her world falls still and silent.

The sudden change shocks her to the core, and all she can do is gape aimlessly; stunned like fish out of water. She can't even think to move.

Slowly, the thick heaviness before her eyes shifts a little. Blinking unconsciously, she stares silent, waiting for the next change of scenery, wondering. The gentle pressure on her forehead increases, and she thinks that she hears words, but cannot tell if they are of another language or simply gibberish. Neither would surprise her at this point.

"So you are here, gùþ-wine, that is good."

Sound suddenly has meaning to her, which makes her blink. Some vague part of her tries to formulate a response, but it seems that words are still lost to her. She does not even know what she is trying to say.

A strange barking noise erupts from above her. Briefly she wonders if she should be afraid, but the noise peters off gently. She wonders if she is being laughed at and realizes she has no basis of comparison.

"Ah liss, I had forgotten."

The cool pressure on her forehead lifts for a moment, before dripping down again. Cool liquid seems to slide right through the skin and bone of her skull, pooling for a moment where she is sure her brain must be, before slipping down her spine to puddle somewhere at her feet.

It is so sudden that she is sitting up and clutching at air before she realizes that the haze has cleared and she can see her hands.

"Pretty things, are they not?" The voice comments as she stares at her bony appendages. Pale skin, stretched thinly over long fingers, looks reassuringly solid in the soft orange glow of the sun.

The sun, she thinks, and looks up expectantly only to see a burnt yellow sky. What else was I expecting? But she does not have the answer.

"I hope you are feeling more better now." The throaty voice continues "More whole, yes?"

She nods, not moving her gaze from her hands as they clench and stretch. She can only take one thing at a time, at this moment. Rediscovered her body as a solid, mobile thing takes precedent. Reaching forward tentatively, she brushes her fingers along the long, thin things she supposes are her legs. Her toes wiggle back at her, and she almost smiles, looking up at her watcher for approval.

But the sun is too bright, in that burnt, burnt sky, and she must shield her eyes against the glare behind his shadow, for she has decided that the voice is male.

"Ah, too soon, too soon, my gùþ-wine," He grumbles gently, and from behind her fingers she spies silhouettes of long tapered out branches and shaggy fur. Her lips move to ask, but there is a tightness in her throat that she had not noticed before. "This time is for you to listen, to hear the moment of your nemning."

She lowers her head, trying to understand what he might mean. The strange bark sounds again, and she thinks he might be amused. Only now does she realise that there is now other sound but that of his voice.

"Ready then, little one?"

She nods slowly, for what else is there to do? There is no way of knowing if she has ever had a name before.

"That is well. A good name, then. Leóf-tǽle; a kind one, but with strength." A weighted pressure draws her bones to the black earth again, and she feels her body sinking slowly through it. A great yawning stretch of noise hovers over her as she lays there, half suspended in clay. Silence clouds around her once again.

"Ah." He says finally, before breathing out a soft word, before she falls into oblivion again.

"Esma."