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.
Inside the arc of standing stones, Mithrais closed his eyes and listened to what he heard around him and within him.
Wind from the south brought with it the low of cattle and the shouts of two young boys, herding the beasts to their sheds near the village. Behind him, water rushed over its stony channel and the cry of sea birds echoed from the basalt cliffs where they built their nests. Only when he turned his focus inward did he hear the new tone below these outward sounds, and sense the pulse-like beat that brushed against his mind.
The pulse of magic flowed from the mystical fount beneath the Circle, where it welled up like one of the springs that honeycombed the Wood. Many leagues to the south, his fellow Magians had worked a spell upon the great Compass Stone at dawn. It manifested in a resonance similar to that of the Gwaith’orn. The new sound Mithrais heard in his mind could be identified by any of the heartspeakers who embodied the Tauron Order.
The Magians hoped this plan would solve some of the unanticipated communication issues that stemmed from the return of magic. The young Gwaith’orn sprites had proven to be distractible. Attempts to take location bearings in the deep Wood were not returned with any regularity. Messages, once sent through the resonance in a series of pulses, became garbled or lost and cost valuable time in response to calls for aid. To be certain the new signal could be heard throughout the Wood, Mithrais would visit the perimeter of the trees in each direction. Once verified, more spells would create powerful beacons and mark the compass points to true orientation.
He held the rank of Westwarden in the Tauron Order, but his service had been limited by familial duties for the past six weeks. He was glad to finally be of use. Due to all these obligations, twelve days had passed since he had last been able to join his lifemate for even a short time. Telyn Songmaker had made a promise to their friend Cormac, upon his initiation into the Tauron, that she would visit Ilparien. The standing stones of the North lay not far outside the village from which his fellow Magian hailed.
Smoke rose above the trees a short distance down the valley and gave him an idea of the location of the settlement. There, the northern road ended and fertile green fields began. Grasslands spread up to the slopes of the craggy foothills at the base of the western mountains and the curved, sheer wall of cliffs to the north.
The North made the third compass point to which he had traveled that day to determine the viability of this new location system. The northernmost shore of the isle lay on the other side of those cliffs, a sight never seen with his own eyes—nor would he today. The sea and the last of the compass points would have to wait. It was the first time Mithrais traveled so far or so often using magic. The final leg of his journey had taken its toll upon his strength, but he hoped to find Telyn here.
Parallel light cast long black shadows from the stones as the day and the summer’s heat began to ebb, and he pulled at the neck of his jerkin to loosen it. The sound of rushing water tempted him and promised to be icy cold in its plunge from the mountains. He left the standing stones behind to follow the glimpse of rainbow spray through the trees.
The stream bounded in white-tipped rapids over a rocky bed. He knelt and scooped up the frigid water to drink from his cupped hands and splashed some of it against his heated face and neck. He stood and continued upstream in search of the waterfall he could hear but hadn’t yet seen.
A silver sheet of water spilled down the cliff face into a deep pool. Ripples of reflected light cast shimmers on everything in the glade. Against an outcropping of grey stone, an enormous black boulder interrupted the cataract in random splashes of water. He would have taken it for a recent rockfall—had the boulder not chosen that moment to move.
It rose lazily on scaly legs and turned. A narrow head, perched upon a long, serpentine neck, swiveled toward him. Mithrais froze.
It was a dragon.
Slit pupils widened. It watched him with glittering scarlet eyes. Then with cool, almost feline dismissal, it turned its crested head away and climbed out of the water. It slipped away into the trees and brush surrounding the pool.
He nearly forgot to breathe. He laughed in disbelief and continued to stare after it until the sounds of the dragon’s passage faded away into the crags above the waterfall. Mithrais did not hear the second dragon until it was directly behind him.
The dragon opened a maw full of deadly white teeth—and yawned. Mithrais stumbled backwards with a shout of surprise and tripped over the stones on the bank of the river. He sat down hard into chest-deep rapids and came up spluttering against the current, body coiled and ready to cast a defensive spell if needed.
The creature regarded him with a cocked head and bellowed before it entered the water and scrambled up the opposite bank after its—mate? Brother? Mithrais, dripping, laughed in shaky relief and watched it disappear.
“They don’t seem to have a taste for Tauron.”
The voice startled him, and his head whipped around. Just downstream, an older man with a grey-streaked queue leaned on a staff. He stepped into the river and offered his hand to Mithrais, who accepted it with thanks. When they made contact, a spark of connection deflected off the shields of his mind, and the man hauled him out of the rushing water onto the bank.
“You’re a heartspeaker,” he noted.
“I used to be a warden.” The man squinted at him. “And you look like Gwidion.”
“I suppose I do. I’m Mithrais, Gwidion’s son.”
“Kendric.” They exchanged a more introductory clasp of wrists.
“My father has spoken of you. You trained together?”
“A long, long time ago, before he was Lord of Cerisild. We’re short on wardens in this area with Colm gone. I’ve taken it upon myself to reactivate my service. So, you’ve seen our beasties.”
“I have, but I still don’t know if I believe it. How long have they been here?”
“Well, there are stories going back to the beginning times, and I don’t think they ever really left. When the covenant was sealed, it may have put them into hibernation like the Gwaith’orn. They woke up about the same time the Old Ones did.” Kendric leaned on the stout quarterstaff and rubbed his jaw. “There’s a cave up on the mountain above the waterfall. When I was a lad, I’d always heard there were dragons in it. Even went up to the cave once, but it was too dark and deep to explore without risking my neck. I saw them a week ago for the first time.”
“Are they dangerous?”
“Only if you’re a cow. We’ve lost some because the deer have made themselves scarce. The dragons ignore people for the most part, and they avoid the village.”
Kendric cocked his head and listened; the way he focused let Mithrais know he employed his heartspeaking senses and not his ears. “What is the new sound I’m hearing? It started this morning near sunrise.”
“The Gwaith’orn aren’t as interested in helping us navigate the deep Wood, now that they are free. We’ve set a beacon at the Circle and will be adding the four compass points in the future. The standing stones will mark the north.”
Kendric grunted. “How will you do this?”
“Ah, of course. The Tauron have changed a bit since I last served, I hear. There was a bard came to the village yesterday—first I’ve ever seen. She told us Colm and Cormac have become sorcerers.”
“They have indeed.” Mithrais grinned, glad to hear Telyn had been able to fulfill her promise to Cormac. He now had a fair idea of how close she might be.
“Are you one, too?”
Mithrais hesitated a moment before he answered. “Yes, I am.”
“The Old Ones chose well then. Good strong lads like Colm and Cormac and yourself, if you’re anything like Gwidion.”
“I hope so, Kendric. It’s all very new to us yet.” Mithrais sat down to empty the water out of his boots. “Have you noticed anything different since magic’s return?”
“Other than dragons?” The man snorted and grew more serious. “There has been something in the last fortnight or so. Darkness in the Wood that wasn’t there before. Shadowed areas that don’t seem to resonate with the rest of it, and I haven’t investigated. I’ve never been afraid to go anywhere in my Wood, but suddenly…it feels strange in the night. Not like it was. And there’s one place I won’t go.”
Mithrais replaced his boots and looked up at the man somberly. “Where would this place be?”
“Three hours on the road, but less than two if you follow the river downstream to where it bends south of the village. A hundred yards off the eastern bank, you’ll find a cairn. Always used it for local navigation, but now it seems more of a warning post. Behind the cairn is a pathway. It leads to what may have been a tomb once if you listen to what the old women say, but there’s nothing there now except rocks and silence. We patrolled it to make certain travelers didn’t disturb it, but even back then, no one seemed to want to go in. That path is what frightens me now.”
“I’ll have a look.”
“Not in the dark.” The older man’s voice held the urgency of fear. He gripped his staff and continued in a lower voice, “Be careful, my lad. There’s something about it that makes my hair stand on end. I can’t shake the feeling that if I walked in, I wouldn’t walk out the same way.”
Mithrais regarded him. Kendric was in earnest, and his own intuition told him to trust the man’s warning. “I’ll come back, then. Perhaps Colm and Cormac will come with me, and we can investigate together.”
“Wise decision.” He began to walk down-valley toward the haze marking the village. “Don’t stay here too long, or our beasties may decide you look tasty after all.”
With one more cautious look at the brush into which the dragons had vanished, Mithrais walked with Kendric for a few moments. The older man asked, “Will you stay the night? My hearth is yours.”
“I’m grateful for your offer, but I need to find the bard you mentioned.”
“She left a few hours ago. A shame, that. She didn’t believe me about the dragons. If she’d seen them herself, it would have made one fine story for a winter’s evening.”
“I’ll show her you’re an honest man. She’s my lifemate.”
“Is she, then? I don’t think you’ll catch her before nightfall on foot.” Kendric’s eyes twinkled, but he sobered in realization. “She’ll be near the cairn by now. I don’t like to think of her alone in the dark, on the road. I tried to convince her to stay until morning.”
“She’s a warrior bard, and Tauron to boot. I think she’ll be…” Mithrais stopped. He should not discount the man’s fear, disconcerting in a warden who had known the Wood so long. “Kendric, do you really think there’s something out there?”
“I would be a liar if I said I knew without a doubt.” Kendric faced him. “But I’ve never been afraid of the dark. I am now. Something besides dragons woke here in the North.”
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish