Even in the quiet hour before sunset, the Wood filled with music.
One didn’t need the ears of a bard to hear it in the rhythmic jingle of Bessa’s harness, or when doves sang lullabies to each other through the branches. A heartspeaker couldn’t fail to miss the new counterpoint percussion of magic, like the steady, silent beat of a drum.
But underneath it all, only Telyn knew the song of the Wood itself.
A secret composition of chords and harmonies existed beneath the ambient sound of leaves. Sometimes it skirled with a wild and unruly air, and other times echoed with heartbreaking sweetness through the glades. It changed with the landscape, never the same melody twice. It would rush past her in waves, or sing in eloquent whispers almost beyond her scope of hearing. Even when she wasn’t listening, murmurs of song invaded her subconscious like a child humming in hushed tones.
And in not-so-hushed tones.
Telyn pulled back on Bessa’s reins. The grey horse snorted and slowed to a stop. One of the newer Gwaith’orn hailed her—the truly Old Ones seldom used such common means to get her attention. For those reborn in the wake of the great spell cast in the Circle, it remained a new and exciting thing to be able to speak aloud. As a result, they were impulsive and sometimes a little rude.
The resonant vibrations marked the nearby presence of the tree folk. She caught her breath in surprise when the brush on her right parted in invitation. Bessa snorted, turning the wagon from the stony road into the temptation of soft, green grass. Telyn laughed and gave the mare her head. “Well, that’s settled then. Are you ready to camp, my dear?”
The sun lowered upon the tree-broken horizon, ready to slip behind the mountains. Light and darkness balanced in equality for the moment. But shadow always lay in the deepest parts of the Wood, gray-green areas that seldom saw a shaft of sunlight. Here the Gwaith’orn held court. Once trapped by an ancient spell, her magic and life force bought their freedom. Telyn advanced without fear, for these strange creatures were now her allies.
All around her, the Wood pulsed with the promise of magic, but the Gwaith’orn remained silent. She sensed mischief, and her mouth quirked upwards in a smile.
A new tree, with bone-white upper limbs and wide green leaves, stood in the lee of the old, sprung from the roots of its ancestor. Telyn pulled the wagon into the clearing. Somewhere beyond, the sound of water announced the presence of the river she followed south from Ilparien. She dismounted the bench seat and walked into the heart of the grove, leaving Bessa content to crop the grass.
“Well, I’m here.” Her hand brushed the star-shaped leaves at head level, the tree grown to a startling twelve feet in less than two months. They all grew with unnatural speed—nearly five hundred of them at the last count. “What do you need, young-Old-One?”
The voice came from behind and made her jump, even though she thought herself prepared. “You might have passed us by and not known, Telyn.”
She whirled. The being that stood at her shoulder gave a laugh like the trill of a bird’s song, high and sweet. Its honey-colored eyes crinkled in amusement.
“Not known what?” she asked. It was still extraordinary to see the Gwaith’orn take human-like shapes in the groves. The young ones seemed to revel in it, although they could only manifest within the root-spans of the old trees. Early on, she started to call these manifestations “sprites” because of their playful nature. The name was now indelible in Tauron lore.
Slender white limbs gestured with the grace of breeze-caught branches. “Mithrais is not far away. We believe he will look for you.”
Telyn grinned in delighted surprise. “Thank you for telling me. I’ll stay here tonight.”
Mithrais and his fellow Magians were busy testing the magical knowledge bestowed upon them by the Gwaith’orn. There were also more domestic reasons her lifemate had been unable to join her. These obligations called Telyn to turn her wheels south and begin the three-day journey to the northern gate of Cerisild.
Time had passed without discernible measure in a joyful blur of music and storytelling. She brought the news of magic’s return to the people of the Wood, the shelter of the deep forest more like home by the day. But the passage of weeks meant the inevitable approach of midsummer and the arrival of a royal delegation.
She began to remove Bessa’s harness to allow the horse a well-deserved rest. “There are visitors coming to Cerisild,” she told the sprite while she worked. “Have you sensed anyone entering the Wood who might mean me harm?”
“None who seek you. There is a mind full of chaos. It is getting closer, but we sense no threat there.”
She suspected this mind belonged to Vuldur, Lord of the East. An unfortunate, deadly history lay between them. Telyn would never be able to change the fact she killed his son in an act of self-defense. She had just begun to forgive herself for the accidental spell that allowed an already charged situation to escalate. Vuldur only knew his heir was dead—and who was responsible.
“That may be the man who sent the bounty hunters.” Telyn watched the sprite as it followed the erratic flight of a moth through the grove. “I don’t think he will try to harm me himself, but I do fear him.”
“Few can harm you now, Seed-voice, unless you allow it.” It chased the moth to the edge of the root span and watched it flutter off. “We have given you the knowledge of what to do with your magic to keep yourself safe.”
“And I thank you.” There had been little opportunity to test the knowledge left imprinted in her mind, a gift of gratitude from the Gwaith’orn. She didn’t like the thought of using song magic as a weapon. It was contradictory to the self-imposed rules she held concerning her unique powers. “I hope I don’t meet anything my blade can’t turn aside.”
“Danger will not wait for a sword to be unsheathed or an arrow to be drawn. The darkness which grows may prove more challenging.” The sprite allowed a bird to light on its hand.
A frisson of fear crawled down her neck, and Telyn stopped unbuckling the harnesses. “Darkness? Tell me what you mean.”
“Another life quickened here with your spell; one we believed no longer viable.” It stroked the feathers and laughed when the little brown bird pecked at its fingers. “It is old, like we are, but less aware. It needs a vessel, whereas we may live free, thanks to you.”
“Is it dangerous?”
“All magic is dangerous. This we told you before, and this you already knew.” The strange creature trapped the bird in its fingers like a cage of wood. The bird squawked in protest and struggled. “It seeks a way out of its prison.” Wooden fingers opened and released the bird, which shook itself and took flight as feathers drifted behind it.
“Should we do something to protect against it?” Telyn asked, perplexed.
“We do not fear it. You will be safe here with us.”
“That’s not what I meant.” The Gwaith’orn were often maddeningly evasive. Unless one asked the right questions, they would never give a straight answer. “Do the Magians need to act against it to protect others?”
“The time will come when our faithful ones will need to act. But not yet.” It bent at an impossible upside-down angle to watch Bessa crop the grass and laughed when the horse whuffled at its leaf-capped head.
She blew out her breath in frustration and reminded herself this sprite truly was a child. It would remain impractical for her to ask questions with it still delirious in its new freedom.
The day’s heat waned there in the deep forest as she removed the rest of Bessa’s harness. Telyn shivered inexplicably. She glanced into the shadows. She’d never been afraid of the dark before, but the Gwaith’orn’s warning lingered in the back of her mind. Uneasiness crept into her soul.
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