“Where the Forest Meets the Sea” is the tale of a wizard coming of age trapped between elves, humans, and his own questionable conscience. With his power growing beyond his control, time is running out and the decisions he make may overturn the world.
Chapter Chapter Fourteen
Old Man Willow
“We have to.”
“But you heard those men. It’s not safe to go into the forest.”
“It’s not safe to stay on the road in a hail storm either!”
Giles stared into the darkened gloom of the forest, still hesitant to go into those shadows, but the knight was insistent. The poor pansy was getting stung by the thumbnail-sized hail and had decided that the trees would make good cover. Since Giles was reluctant to use his power even for something as minor as a shield, he was getting just as bruised.
He glared at the knight who was already dismounting and leading his horse into the underbrush. Since he had no better argument than the advice of a perfect stranger, Giles followed suit, still grumbling under his breath. The wind caught his cloak, whipping it up to strangle him. He battled the sodden thing back into submission and trudged after the knight who had already disappeared.
The wood enfolded them and the chestnut heaved a sigh Giles would have sworn was one of relief. He wasn’t quite as complacent. This place had an unnatural feel to it. It could be simply because it was different from the forests he knew in the north. But the feeling that they were being watched persisted.
The thrum of the rain on the leaves drowned out the sound of their footsteps. The thick underbrush gave way to misty ferns and the dim green of filtered light. The trees here were more slender than the forests of oak and maple he was accustomed to. They had silvery leaves that were almost round and thin, white bark. They rustled and whispered in a wind that Giles couldn’t feel.
Giles glanced back over his shoulder. Behind him, the hail pounded harder than ever, the dark shadows deepening. He turned back. The pale midmorning sunlight caressed the leaves and warmed the mist that hung wraithlike in the autumn air. It was as unnatural as the hailstorm that had come out of nowhere.
“I wonder why no one comes this way,” Colin called back over his shoulder after they had been walking for some time. “This is quite lovely.”
“Because it’s dangerous?” Giles grumbled under his breath. He couldn’t put his finger on what was wrong, but he wanted out of this forest as soon as humanly possible. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end. It felt almost as if they were being driven – herded.
The gelding plodded along beside him, head hanging and ears pricked. There was nothing he could do but follow the knight who was already out of sight. Tugging on the reins, Giles jogged faster until he caught sight of Colin walking blithely along as if out for a summer stroll in the gardens.
Giles didn’t trust this at all. It didn’t help that he felt the stirring inside of himself that had twice now preceded a loss of control. He glared at the knight in his velvet cloak with his sparkling silver sword. Stupid court flower. The dandy had probably never spent the night out of doors or traveled through a forest before this began. Giles would hardly qualify as a woodsman, but he knew enough to trust his instincts. His every instinct was screaming at him that all was not what it seemed.
“Sir Colin? We need to be heading a bit more to the south,” he tried suggesting. “We’re getting off track.”
“No, I think this is right. If we keep going in this direction we’ll meet the road where it curves around the wood. Just think,” the knight continued cheerfully, “we are cutting off several miles this way. Almost a full day’s travel.”
A thin tendril of vine snaked down from the tree beside him as he spoke. With the speed of a striking snake, it coiled itself around the knight and jerked him into the air. Giles darted toward the tree, drawing his knife as he went. The horses stood placidly where they were, unconcerned with the commotion.
The knight jerked and twisted as he tried to free himself from the vine, but more joined the first, trapping his arms until he was cocooned in the greenery.
“Colin!” Giles reached for his power and found it sluggish to respond, slipping away from his touch.
“Pretty,” purred a voice from above.
Giles looked up, beyond the still struggling knight, into a pair of green eyes. The face also had a green cast and it definitely belonged to a female. She reached out to touch the thrashing bundle of vines. The greenery moved away as if on command and she smiled into Colin’s red face.
“Pretty, pretty.” She gave a throaty chuckle. “Very pretty.”
“Leave him alone!”
The green female being lost her smile, frowning down at him. She crept down the tree on all fours, slinking around her prey. She was hardly bigger than a child, but her lack of any clothing left no doubt that she was fully-grown. “No. Not you. You blood bad.”
“You’re not getting his blood either.”
Her fingers and toes were elongated, he noticed, and she clung to the bark as easily as a fly on a wall as she leaned to growl down at him. “No. Not hurt pretty. Love. Go away.”
Love him to death was more likely. Giles tightened his grip on the knife in his hand. “You can’t have him.”
“Not yours, fire man. Mine now.”
It happened so quickly, Giles had no chance to fight it. The power rose and swelled through him, taking him away from himself and into the world around him.
Through the fine lens of power, he saw the world through different eyes, eyes that saw more than surface detail, eyes that saw every particle in existence and the interlinking bonds between them. Stone formed the bones of the world, offering both support and sustenance. Water made another link in the chain – water in the air, water on the ground, water that flowed through every vein and cell in his body. The two elements came together and for the first time in his life he saw the third side of the triangle. Life. Name. Soul. By whatever name he called it, it was a power he had never before envisioned.
His power swept out to encompass the whole of the world for one glorious, terrifying moment and then he slammed back into his own body. The green female that clung to the tree above him still snarled down at him in defiance. Colin still struggled against the vines that bound him. To Giles’s bewildered gaze it seemed that no time at all had passed. He had consumed the world in the space of a single heartbeat.
Like pieces of a puzzle, the universe clicked into place and Giles looked around him with new understanding. He could feel the bond between the tree and the earth, the bond between the small female and the tree. He knew her name, knew that she had lived in this tree for over five hundred years. On the periphery of his mind, he felt other souls like hers, bound to the trees and hence to the earth. They were all females.
Suddenly, he understood why she wanted Colin so badly and amusement trickled down his spine. He stifled his grin. No matter how comical he might find the situation, he couldn’t let her have the knight.
Placing his hand gently on the tree, he felt his power answer his summons with silky ease. He looked up into her green eyes and smiled. “You take something of mine, I take something of yours, small one.”
She backed away, confused but still defiant. “No. Not.”
“Yes, I can. I can burn the heart out of this tree before you can blink. You try to take his life, I will take yours.”
“Not kill,” she insisted, still backing away from him. “Love.”
“You take the remainder of his life against his will, no matter what you want to do with him, I will take the remainder of yours.”
“Willow man kill you,” she spat furiously.
“He can try, but you are going to put my friend back on the ground now. Unharmed.”
She dashed a circuit of the tree, snarling and spitting her fury. Giles let a spark of heat flicker in the heart of the tree as a warning. The dryad let out a long, ululating cry of pain and the bundle of vines that was Colin began to descend. When the knight’s feet were safely planted on the ground, the vines whipped free, vanishing back up into the branches. The dryad retreated to the upper branches, peering down at them and hissing softly to herself.
Giles caught Colin’s arm, steadying him. “Are you all right?”
“What was that?” The vines had left ugly red marks across the knight’s face.
“That’s a dryad, Sir Colin.” Giles retained his grip on the knife, keeping an eye on the fuming female. “Unless you fancy your women small and green, I would suggest that we move on. Stay away from the trees and watch where you walk, above and below.”
The knight stared at him and Giles saw the first spark of wary fear. It was about time the flower realized that the pretty places weren’t always the safest places to be.
“Come on, pretty, pretty,” he jabbed. “Let’s get out of this lovely place before something else tries to keep you.”
The horses didn’t seem to have noticed anything amiss and willingly allowed themselves to be led. Neither Giles nor Colin were inclined to talk and they continued on in silence, watching the trees for any sign of attack. Occasionally, they would catch a glimpse of movement high above them, but they weren’t troubled again.
Night was falling fast when Colin dragged his horse to a halt, breathing heavily.
“Are we lost?”
“No.” Giles was sure of that much. “We’re going the right way, but I’m not sure how much farther it is to the road.”
“You want to stop here?” Colin sounded incredulous and Giles smiled grimly. It was obviously not an idea that appealed to the knight.
Through the darkening twilight, he could see eyes in the treetops, glowing down at them. He tightened his grip on the knife in his hand, unwilling to sheath the weapon. With his newly heightened senses, he could feel their hunger beating at him. Not hunger for food. The dryads all wanted one thing – Colin.
“This might not be the safest place for you to be right now, Sir Colin, but I don’t know how safe it would be to go bumbling through the woods in the dark. It would be dangerous for the horses. One of them could break a leg and then where would we be?”
“I know.” The knight sounded frustrated. “But I definitely don’t want to stay here any longer than we have to.”
“If I said I told you so . . .”
“I’d be forced to kill you.”
“I thought so.” Giles tested his senses again. “There is a place not much further where there are no trees. It’s a bare sort of knoll. We could spend the night there. The dryads won’t leave their trees. Their life force is bound to their individual tree, and they can’t leave it.”
“How do you know there’s a hill?”
“I can see in the dark,” Giles quipped, running out of patience. “It’s our only choice. We can’t keep going all night.”
“Can’t you light the way?”
Giles snorted. “I could but, trust me on this, it would be a very bad idea. If I make a fire or a light . . .”
“These things would take it as a threat to their trees.” The knight sighed. He was little more than a dim outline in the gathering darkness.
“Not things, Colin. These are dryads, a very old race, and they have their own powers. You really don’t want to make them angry with you.”
“I’m a different story. Because I’m a wizard, I’m unacceptable to them.” It seemed pointless to beat around that dryad-infested bush any longer. “Colin, these dryads don’t want to kill you. All dryads are female.”
“So, you would live a long time in their care and once you were dead they would give your remains to the trees where your memory would live on forever.”
“What do you mean?”
“God, you are naïve. They are all female, Colin. All of them. They can’t breed unless . . .”
“Oh, God.” The horror in the knight’s voice was worth the trouble.
“They don’t want me because wizard power follows blood lines. It’s likely that my father, whoever he was, was at the very least a trace talent. I have the potential to sire wizard children. Dryads don’t want that. They want you. They would breed you to every female here until you gave out. With their powers, you wouldn’t have the option of refusing.”
It wasn’t such a bad way to go if a man didn’t mind green women, Giles reflected. Small, green, very possessive women. The knight didn’t seem to care for the idea, however.
“How much farther to this hill?”
“Then lead on, wizard.”
Giles took the lead, picking his way carefully. It was a relief when the ground began to rise and the trees gave way to a hill bald but for a single willow tree at the crown. Giles stretched his senses but could find no hint of danger. The knoll was the only place in the whole forest that was safe. No dryad claimed the ancient willow as hers.
It was strange but he couldn’t seem to sense the willow either.
“We make a cold camp tonight and split the watches. I’ll take first watch. Get some sleep, Sir Colin,” he suggested. “The morning is a long way off.”
They took care of the horses, staking them to graze, and Colin rolled into his blankets without argument. Giles doubted that he would sleep much but at least he would try. They would need all their energy tomorrow. He couldn’t see the dryads giving up a prize like Colin without a fight.
The old willow tree rustled in the light breeze, its branches creaking.
Giles settled himself on a rock, his knife still in his hand, staring up at the willow. Just what was happening to him? He could sense the wood around them, alive in a way he had never experienced before. He had listened to Gaelan and Gwendyrion speak of Name, that sense of knowing that was both the power and weakness of elven kind. An elf could be tracked and bound through the power of his name alone, but it also granted a deeper sense of belonging between those of elven blood and the world around them. It was not a power that wizards or any human possessed.
For the first time in a long time, he wished he knew who his father was. He wished he knew more about the man who had bequeathed him these strange gifts and then left him to find his own way. His mother had never spoken of his father except to say that he was a sailor, just like all the rest. The bitterness in her voice had ended his questions when he was very young,
The storm passed, the tattered remnants of the clouds streaming away to leave behind the bright sparkle of stars against the night sky. Giles looked up and shivered. If he stared at them long enough he could feel the world move beneath him. It was disconcerting. Even his childhood game of connecting the stars to form patterns was irrevocably altered. The new power that pulsed through him found new patterns and forms on a scale that terrified him.
“It’s like a dance,” he whispered. “A very intricate court dance.”
“Those dancers know the steps.”
Giles jerked around to find a small man sitting on a stump where there had been a willow tree moments before. “Who are you?”
The man shrugged, swinging his feet like a small child in a chair. The few wisps of hair he possessed stuck out from his head at odd angles. His eyes twinkled at the bemused wizard, ancient eyes set in an ageless face. “It doesn’t matter. Who rarely does. What – now that’s the question you should be asking.”
There was nothing there, his senses screamed. No tree, no man, nothing.
The man only smiled. “I’m not really here? But are you really here either? Where is here?”
Giles turned slowly to find that his body was slumped over, snoring softly. He was standing several feet away from his own body. He swallowed his panic with difficulty and tried for merely unnerved instead. “What’s happening to me?”
“I don’t dream things like this.”
“You were never ready before. You are now or you wouldn’t have come here.”
“We didn’t mean to come here. The storm . . .”
The man’s smile widened. “Handy thing, the weather. You would never have come into this wood unless I made things difficult for you.”
“You wanted to meet us?”
“You. I wanted to meet you. The other is enlightening but hardly unexpected. You, on the other hand, I have waited a long, long time for.” The little man beckoned him closer. Against his will, Giles took one step and then another, but he fought taking a third and managed to halt. The man smiled again, satisfied. “Strong willed and headstrong. Fighter’s build and a desire to learn. You should do well. They need you.”
“Who needs me? Do well at what? You’re not making any sense.”
“I’m making perfect sense if you had the sense to listen.”
“I am listening.”
“With your ears.” The little man huffed and swung his feet in frustration.
“Well, I can’t listen with my toes.”
“Listen with your heart! Your soul!” The man reached out to thump Giles in the center of his chest. “Listen with all that power you have in you, boy.”
“If I listen to that power, you’re not really here.” Giles was getting tired of talking in circles. “Are you the willow man the dryad was talking about?”
For the first time, the little man looked genuinely angry. “I owe her for that. She belongs to me and she knows it. She had no right to try to take him. He’s not for the likes of her.”
“I thought she was desperate.”
“Then she can come to me. They all know that.”
It was strange how this new power could give him answers when he wasn’t even sure of the question. It swelled gently, taking in first the knoll and then the whole of the wood. As the wave subsided Giles could only stare at the little man in wonder.
Old Man Willow smiled, pleased. “Now, that’s the way to do it, boy. Roots run deep in this part of the world. Yes, the wood is the willow and the willow is the wood. It is the way it has been since dragons last darkened the sky and the Sidhe sang their death dirges. I saw the first of elven kind take their first steps and I walked beside the first wizards ever spawned. I saw cities of crystal rise and fall and human kind forget where they came from.”
Giles sat down. “I saw those cities. They must have been beautiful once. I saw a dragon there all made of mist.”
“A mere ghost of the reality, boy. A real dragon’s not something you want to ever meet.”
“Why did you want to see me?”
“Not see. Eyes are useless just like ears. I wanted to meet you.”
“Because I was curious? Because I’m a meddling old fool? Perhaps because I knew there was no one else.” Old Man Willow jerked his chin at the knife in Giles’s hand. “I guess I felt that you should at least know what it means.”
The emerald in the hilt glowed softly in the moonlight. He hadn’t drawn his own knife after all. Or maybe it was just part of the dream. It didn’t seem to matter. “It’s not a knife. It’s almost alive.”
It was easy to say that here in this unreal dream to a man who wasn’t really there. The knife felt real in his hand, but his body actually was over there while he was over here. The entire situation seemed a twisted delusion, but a part of him refused to trust so simple an explanation. The knife was the only piece of reality he could find. The blade shimmered in the moonlight, a silver whisper that brushed against the back of his mind, and he held onto it, anchoring himself against the world that was quickly turning to quicksand under his feet.
“You’re not alive,” he blurted suddenly. “Does that make you a ghost?”
Old Man Willow shook his head, wisps of cobweb fine hair flying about his face. “Not dead, boy. Was never alive the way you mean. Name has no meaning for those like me. We are part of creation but not part of this song. We are guardians and watchers, teachers and executioners. We are forever and nothing at the same time.”
“Why did you want to meet me?”
“To see the new gift.” Old Man Willow tucked his feet beneath him and fixed Giles with a stern look. “Ask your questions, boy, but choose them well. You can ask anything but you only have until dawn.”
That didn’t leave him much time. Where to begin? Taking a deep breath, Giles asked the question that had plagued him since Argonmoor.
“Am I taking in the four elements?”
“Four? There are only three elements, boy.”
“Earth, air, fire and water,” Giles argued.
Old Man Willow shook his head. “No. Three. Earth, memory and Name. Three aspects of creation and three races of elves to tend them.”
“High Elven and earth, the Elf Kin and name, and I guess the sprites would be memory. I understand that, but I’m not an elf. No elf I’ve ever heard of possessed all three powers.”
“But you’re not an elf.”
Giles opened his mouth to argue but closed it again, shoving his temper aside. This was no place for impatience. If he wasn’t getting the answers he wanted, it might be because he was asking the wrong questions.
“What am I?” he asked softly.
The old man shifted uneasily. “Not an easy question. What do you think you are?”
Giles shook his head. “I can list you facts, where I was born, that I’m a bastard and that I’ve had this power all my life. But I don’t know what I am exactly. I don’t fit the rules.”
“There are rules? Existence and your part in it are not bound by rules. Rules are made to control the mind and spirit into manageable structure.”
“But what I am has to have some kind of definition, some kind of boundaries. Every thing in nature does.”
“Yes and no.” The old man looked away, clearly disturbed. “You are human, yes, with the finite lifespan of your kind, but you have been given a gift and a responsibility. You can deny them or you can accept them but once done it cannot be undone.”
“The blade came to you. It chose you as it has chosen guardians since the time of the Sidhe. That is its purpose. It is a key that will unlock your guardianship and your future. It is your inheritance.”
“A guardian like you?” Giles wasn’t sure he liked the idea of being bound to one place, to one tree, the way Old Man Willow was.
“Yes and no. I am the guardian of this place, this sanctuary. You are the guardian of a people.”
It was starting to make a strange kind of sense in this vague and dreamlike place. That was why his power was acting like this, why he was gathering the three elements of life rather than the four elements that wizards worked with. He wasn’t a wizard at all. Guardian? Of elven kind?
Giles sat back, trying to make these new pieces fit into what he knew. He had always known he was powerful, but he had never thought he was any different than any other wizard. The knife. Lady Raine. Gaelan. He glanced over to where Colin slept on peacefully. His fine boned face was outlined in the pale moonlight. Giles’s breath caught as a face from his past superimposed itself over the knight’s with chilling accuracy.
“Yes,” Old Man Willow murmured. “You see it now. You and he are much alike. Neither of you have known your fathers, both are gifted and both protected by powerful men. Split between two worlds, the both of you. Drawn together whether you will it or no.”
Giles choked. “How?”
“His father lost his mate. Despairing, he left his people intending to die. He found a woman who had lost her husband, who grieved as he did. He saw it as a way to give her the comfort she needed and give him the death he desired so desperately. He gave her one night, never knowing that she would bear him a son. She never knew what he was or that taking him into her bed ended his life.”
“High Elven,” Giles managed. “Half-blood? But I thought that was impossible.”
“Not impossible. Nothing is really impossible. Some things are just more difficult to achieve.”
“I’ll have to remember that.” Dawn was already lighting the eastern sky. He had to ask his questions and ask them quickly. “Why me and why now?”
“Who better than you and now because you are needed now. The High Elven wish to reenter the world, the N’mara are hunted and the Elf Kin are besieged. Elven kind must be protected. They can no longer trust human kings and past alliances to protect them.”
“And if I refuse?”
“Then you refuse. The world will turn and the sun will rise, but you will never be offered the chance again.”
“What exactly does being a guardian entail?”
“If you accept, you will know. It is different for every one of us.”
“Then how do I choose?”
“The same way you listen.”
Pale light drifted across the bare crown of the hill, gilding the blades of grass, and the world tumbled sideways.
Giles jerked himself upright. He was back inside his body again. His shoulders ached from his uncomfortable position, but he still clutched the knife. His body felt stiff but rested. He jerked around to stare at the willow tree that rustled softly in the morning breeze. His senses still told him that it wasn’t really there, but a smile creased his face.
“Thank you.” The willow bowed and stirred. Old Man Willow had heard him.