Michael followed Angelico up over the hill, and at its crest they could see what was assuredly the tree the little girl had spoken of. It stood out among all the others in the hills, for it was larger in every sense, and of an odd shape that was not quite a hardwood, like the live oaks that dotted the plain, and not like a cedar, which grew in groves to their north. Beside it ran a clear, gentle stream with green rushes along its banks.
As they got nearer, having to ford the stream, Michael saw that its trunk was more massive than they had originally thought, made to look deceptively smaller by its thick and heavy branches of leaves that were like flat needles. Michael dismounted and walked around it, touching the twisting bark.
“What sort of tree is this, sir?” Angelico said. He reached up from his horse and plucked a strange green berry from a bough. He put it in his mouth to taste it.
“Be careful, the seed is poisonous,” Sharona said. “As are the leaves and bark. Notice that nothing grows under this tree.”
Angelico nodded and spat the berry out. “Unripe and sour anyway.”
“I’ve never seen a tree like this,” Michael said. He found a spot where was carved the name of the girl – Everani. The stream ran on the other side of the tree, a few feet down from the high tuffet that held up the tree.
“It’s called a Needle Ash,” Sharona said. “It grows best in the colder climbs of the petty kingdoms. There are many in the Wold, but this is the first one I have seen in the divine strand.”
“Look, sir,” Angelico said, pointing to a hole in the tree bark. Michael looked into it and saw that the center of the tree was not just hollow, but missing, with rotten bark littering the floor of a tiny room within that had as its ceiling branches.
“I see no sign of the stream changing course, sire,” Guissali said. He was walking between the stream and a bare patch of higher ground on the other side of the tree.
“You wouldn’t,” Sharona said. “This is a thin place. This tree is a memory, left behind, of where the assassins went. I’m quite sure of it. If the stream were to change course, it would be as if it had always run in the new place. That is the nature of the eternal dream which you do not understand.”
“The Fay, you mean,” Angelico said.
Sharona nodded. “Yes. Well, sort of. The nature of the world can be changed by those in it. Or at least, it was more changeable in the past. That schism of a realm the dark elves went into… I’m assuming it is less mundane than this one, so things may change shape or placement around the tree, just like in the other realm.”
“Strange,” Michael said.
“To you, yes, it would be, but not to them.”
“If everything is changing where it is all the time, do these dark elves find themselves perpetually lost?”
Sharona cocked her head. “Not if they are like the fay folk. If they are like the fay folk, they wish to walk home, and soon they are there. Of course, it is probably quite easy for you or I to get lost within.”
“Like I said, strange,” Michael said. “Well, how do we get in?”
“I don’t know,” Sharona said.
“What? You said that you could.”
“No I didn’t. I said that I was capable of it, which I am. I need to learn a spell to call to them, so that we can speak to them here in this world.”
“Learn a spell?” Guissali said. “How in blazes are you going to learn a spell out here?”
“Through careful thought and understanding,” Sharona said. “A person’s command of magic is the result of their understanding the nature of things at their core. Understanding comes from study in the flesh, not just books.”
“Why would they speak to us?” Michael said.
“Curiosity, or perhaps because the spell binds them to. Whatever it is, there has got to be a way as the assassins would not have done anything randomly.”
“Have you considered that the queen did it, sir?” Angelico said. “She was here, after all. I don’t know when Towler would have managed coming out here.”
“I have considered it,” Michael said. “But she has little reason to assassinate the king only after she has signed away territory to end the war.”
“But perhaps not no reason,” Sharona said. “Undoubtedly she could have called the assassins.”
“It could still have been Towler who betrayed us in the last battle, even if another contacted these dark elves,” Michael said. He sighed. “I might have been mistaken. This… I don’t understand it, now.”
“Should I send a messenger to your brother, sir,” Angelico said. “I mean, the king. He is king now.”
“He is not king yet,” Michael said. “But he is the monarch. He will be crowned when my father’s bones are laid to rest, at home in Artalland. But don’t send a messenger just yet.”
“I think he would want to know, sir.”
“Johan will want answers. I have none, yet.”
“But he may meet with the queen,” Guissali said. “I agree with Angelico, your highness. He needs forewarning of our suspicions.”
Michael shook his head and ran his hand along the gnarled bark of the tree. “No. I know my brother, and I have learned recent lessons well. Suspicions are not enough. He will want to know for sure. Besides, Johan, for whatever I might fault him, is a shrewd man when it comes to politics. He likely already suspects the queen.”
The night was bright, the plains and sparse trees lit by a moon nearing full. Michael sat with Guissali and Sharona in the deep, black shade of an oak tree perched on a steep slope of one of the taller hills outside the village of Havara. From their shadows they espied, at the bottom of the hill, the needle ash with its little brook running beside it. The night air was filled with the sounds of hidden life – beetles clacked and buzzed, crickets chirped, and owls called to each other. The three companions spoke little, anxiously awaiting the night to deepen and reveal the truth of little Everani’s tale.
The stars crawled across the sky, and Sharona took out her pipe to smoke. Waching her light the bowl with a flick of magic fire from her finger, Guissali and Michael produced their own briarwood pipes, each suited to his tastes. Guissali’s bowl was large and unadorned; the polish, apparent when he put fire to the tobacco, was from long years of use, the oils of his skin imparting it a dull luster. Michael’s pipe was, in contrast, small and ornately carved of abstract designs, with a long stem like the one he gave to Sharona.
Michael watched Sharona’s eyes glow orange as she drew on the tobacco, and he perceived in her glassy stare a familiar detachment. The eyes, dark and brooding, reminded him of his father.
“Tell me about your homeland,” Michael said softly.
“It’s the same as yours,” Guissali said.
Sharona didn’t break her stare. “The woods are rich. The fields, if you can keep them clear, are generous. The people are kind and thoughtful. Too peaceful for their own good, the people of the Dobo Wold will give even a scoundrel the benefit of the doubt. But seldom do scoundrels tread there.”
“I’ve heard tales of that forest,” Guissali said. “That the trees spring to life on you.”
“All trees are alive,” Sharona said.
“You know what I mean,” Guissali said. “They reach out and grab you.”
“Only if they are told to do so, and who will do the telling?” Sharona said. “But ‘tis true that we seldom get anyone in the Wold, scoundrel or not. It’s a forgetful forest, and will not remember a path if there is not a man there to remember it.”
“That is an advantageous defense,” Guissali said. “If only we could do that for the woods of Artilland.”
“Artilland is too real for that. The Dobo Wold has become too real for it, too. The more men come and go, the more mundane it becomes, and it already had seldom little of the prim left there.”
Michael took his pipe out and chewed his tongue. “My mother used to tell me… Things that might be considered heresy now.” He glanced at Guissali, who had no reaction. “That there remains still pockets of the prim in the world, where the mists of creation have not departed, like puddles on the road after a rain, before the water drains away. Is the Dobo Wold such a place?”
Sharona turned to Michael at last and gave him a weak smile. “Maybe once. Now it is more a memory of the prim. The Fay Lands still hold a piece of that first dream, the eternal dream, but they are more dangerous by far than the Wold.”
“You said you’d been there,” Michael said. “Once, you told me that, anyway, but I didn’t really listen.”
“Of course not. Yes, I went there once, but only to the edge.”
“I don’t remember. I presume there is a reason, though.”
“What do you mean, you don’t remember?” Guissali said. “It’s quite a journey, going that far north and east.”
“Oh, I remember going there just fine. I just don’t remember why I went there. I do know why I left, though.”
“You’re such a puzzle,” Michael said.
“No, I am a woman,” Sharona said.
“Yes, sire, puzzle doesn’t begin to describe a woman!” Guissali said with a laugh. Michael chuckled with him, but Sharona did not react. Instead, she turned back to face the needle ash and pointed.
There was a light moving by the tree, along the water. It soon faded.
“Most fascinating,” Guissali said.
“That, I declare, was not light from the marsh,” Michael said. “That must have been one of – what did they call them? Glowers?”
“Where did it go, then?” Guissali said.
“I think I am beginning to understand,” said Sharona. “Let us get a bit closer.”
“Is it safe?” Michael said.
“Nothing is ever safe, Michael,” Sharona said. “But don’t worry. I will protect you.”
Sharona stood up and walked slowly down the hill, the wind picking up her skirt and hair. Her pipe (apparently snuffed by magic), she put away into a bag at her hip. Michael quickly got up to follow, leaving Guissali sitting alone, still smoking.
When they got closer to the tree, Michael realized that there was a mist surrounding them, very thin and pale, that barely blurred the stars and the moon above them. Sharona stopped by the stream and gave Michael a wide smile.
“Do you feel it?” she said.
Michael shook his head. “I… I see-”
“Then look,” she said, and put her hand lightly under Michael’s chin. She turned his face upward, where he saw, as if refracted through the mist, branches and thin, long leaves from other trees, surrounding them a few yards away in all directions.
“Where are we?”
“We’re still in Midgard, but we can see it. The realm… it’s like an echo.” She laughed softly. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Do you remember now?”
“What?” Michael said. But even as he spoke he saw in the mist more trees, and within the trees, or between them, were buildings of strange design. Every surface, it seemed, was carved with some twisting form of lines, and though the image was dim, it was beautiful to behold. As he looked, he could even perceive people moving, dim but clear of form, unlike the shade. They were lithe and wore long hair, along with clothing of simple design, but clearly well-made.
“Can they see us?” Michael said. He looked over to see Sharona almost glassy-eyed again, her lips moving silently.
“What are you looking at sire?” Guissali had apparently just met them.
“This… whatever this is. A vision of a village, or maybe a city.”
“I don’t ken, sire.”
Frustrated, Michael pulled Guissali closer. “There! Do you see it? Do you see her? That maiden, watering with an open pot, by that strange stone house without doors?”
“All I see around us is a white mist, sire.” Guissali squinted. “Wait. I think I see the mist moving.”
“You don’t have the right mind for this, Guissali,” Sharona said. “I forgive you your practicality.”
“Yes, but can they see us?” Michael continued. “Can we communicate with them?”
“Those are two different questions,” Sharona said.
“Well… Pick one to answer.”
“I assume they cannot see us, as they would react.”
“I guess that answers the second question.”
“Not entirely,” Sharona said. “I have an idea. Do you have an object that you don’t mind parting with? Something somebody would want to pick up.”
“Sure. How about a coin?”
Michael reached into his jacket pocket and took out a silver coin. He handed it to Sharona, who walked around the tree to where it opened to its hollow center. She dropped the coin into it.
“Nothing happened,” Guissali said.
Sharona looked at him, her face nearly blank. “I am seeing if one of these people will pick it up.”
“How would they if they don’t know it’s there?” Michael said.
Sharona smiled at him. “Of course.” She withdrew her pipe and dug out some of the remaining tobacco. From the leather bag at her hip she took out more tobacco, and put both of the piles together, her palms up. Quietly, she spoke words that Michael did not understand. She then took the fresh tobacco and dropped it down the tree. She repacked the old tobacco and lit her pipe with a quick snap. The tree was soon full of smoke and, to Guissali’s delight, blowing large smoke rings from its opening.
Sharona sat down and continued smoking, spreading her skirts out to shield her legs against the chill. After a few minutes, people approached. Their edges were blurry and indistinct, but through the thin mist Michael could detect eyes that glowed with their own light and long, almost drooping, ears that framed graceful faces. It was a young girl, judging by her simple dress, and an older woman, perhaps a mother.
The spectres approached the tree, growing in detail. The older one looked into the tree and withdrew, to Michael’s amazement, the silver coin, which was now slightly translucent. The little girl tapped her mother and pointed to Sharona. The elf startled and grabbed the child.
“Hullo!” Sharona said, and blew a smoke ring.
The older woman spoke quickly, but in a language Michael did not understand. They hurried away, becoming ghost-like again before blending into the mist. Michael peered into the hollow tree. He saw the tobacco smoking, but did not see his coin.
“What did she say?” Guissali said. Apparently he could see the girl and her mother.
“I haven’t the faintest idea,” Sharona said. “I don’t speak the language of the Dark Elves.”
“Well, that ought to make communication a bit difficult,” Michael said.
“Yes, perhaps,” Sharona said. “But I know now how it works. I know how to enter their realm.”
“We just go into the tree, right?” Guissali said.
“Not quite,” Sharona said. She stood up. “I have a few ideas now. How soon can we travel back to Forgoroto?”
“What?” Michael said. “But we haven’t caught the assassins!”
“Not yet, no,” Sharona said. “But I need a library if we are to talk to these people.”
“A library?” Michael said.
“Yes. It’s a place full of books,” Sharona said. “The one in Forgoroto will have a book on the language, or it won’t.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
Sharona sighed and looked through the mist, which was becoming slightly thinner. “I wonder if we can buy a few looking glasses from the villagers. Do you think so?”
“Uh… yes,” Michael said.
“Good. Let’s head to bed. I’m very tired,” Sharona said, already dusting herself off and walking back up the hill to where their horses waited.
“Women be fickle creatures sir, and a great puzzle,” Guissali said, giving Michael a slight frown. “Some prefer to be puzzles.”
This post is part of a project to write and publish a book in a month, as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). If you enjoy this story, consider buying my other fantasy novel The Water of Awakening.