Dawn had come and gone faster than James had thought possible. Little light could push through the canopy to the forest floor. The foliage was so dense that at times they were forced off the raggedy path to get over fallen trees or twisted walls of roots. He hadn’t seen anything like it before. Even in Woodton, where the trees and brush were considerably thick, it would have been easier to travel than here in the
The rumble of the earth had long passed away, or perhaps it was that they had traveled far enough now that they could not feel the vibrations. Either way, James knew that Luthien would be marching on Ti’nagal and, despite the two rivers of magma, the city would fall. There were not enough soldiers, nor enough fortifications or weaponry to repel the army of thousands upon thousands.
As it was, they had traveled through most of what seemed to be morning, moving constantly at a northward direction. There were little to no sharp turns, though the path wound back and forth like a slithering snake. Birds and other creatures made miniscule amounts of noise as they traveled, but every so often they heard the cry of tiny mammals, like a pack of bickering squirrels in the distance. But James did not attribute these new noises to anything that Belrin had told them about the creatures that lived here. The calls were not sentient, not as far as he could tell. They were rodent in nature, like some distant and altogether other-worldly relative to the animals he had become familiar with back home. He imagined the little creatures with bushy tails, collecting nuts and hopping tree to tree and screeching whenever a predator or competitor appeared.
Soon the sun began to take its leave and the light faded. Pea retrieved his torch and lit it with magic. The light shined bright and cast dark shadows beyond its circle. Here the light had places to go, unlike back in the tunnel beneath the river.
“We should set up camp soon,” Pea said.
Darl grunted. “I would be apprehensive to stay the night here in this place. It is too alive for my tastes.”
“It’ll take us a few days to get through this,” James said. “It’s not exactly a straight shoot through the woods.”
“I know, but if we can help it, I would prefer not putting ourselves in a position to become targets.”
“You think there is truth to what Belrin said.” Pea leaned sideways so that he was visible behind Bel’ahtor’s head. James looked back, realizing by this point that he did not have to control Mirdur’eth in any fashion—the animal would walk without his aid.
“I think there is enough truth there to be cautious. If Belrin is wrong and there are no dangerous creatures living here, then we have sprites and the like that might hinder our journey while we sleep. They are mischievous little creatures.”
“As there are everywhere.”
“Let’s just go farther. I do not feel even the slightest comfortable here.”
The Blaersteeds pushed on, passing through brush and long reaching tree limbs as if they were nothing more than minor hindrances. Pale moonlight made its way through the canopy; the sun made its last stand at the horizon before slowly dipping away into the mountains. Stars shined above, visible in rare holes in the forest.
Silence reigned supreme in the
. Night brought with it no sounds other than the soft clacks of the Blaersteeds. Even the strange squirrel noises in the distance were gone, replaced now by nothing. It felt too silent to James. He couldn’t concentrate on anything else. The silence was too abnormal. He had never been in a forest that had no sound in the night. He could remember the owls hooting loud and clear in Woodton. There could be no mistake that this forest in the Forest of Gall was silent for a very specific reason and he knew deep down that it had nothing to do with there being a lack of night creatures. Something made life here stay quiet; something frightening even to those that wandered in the dark. land of Traea
A few more hours passed and the forest parted slightly, opening the path fully to the night sky, bathing it in the white-blue light of the moon. James gathered that this might be the closest thing to a clearing in the
. It provided a mere ten feet of open space, but it looked like a fissure in the earth covered on both sides by impenetrable walls of trees. Here Mirdur’eth stopped and refused to go any farther no matter how hard he tried to coax the black steed. He turned back to find that both Pea and Darl were at a standstill too. Darl looked far from happy about it. James thought that at any moment the old man would start screaming at his horse. Forest of Gall
But no such thing happened. Darl finally gave up, peered grumpily at James, and said, “Apparently we can’t go any farther.”
James smiled. “These horses have minds of their own.”
Mirdur’eth snorted loudly.
“Sorry, I meant Blaersteeds.”
The steed nodded once and shuddered.
“We’ll make camp here,” Darl said, dismounting and guiding his steed to the center of the clearing. “Collect some wood for a fire,” he said to James. “Not much. Just enough for a small flame.” Then the old man tied his steed to a root that stuck up in a tall curve from the center of the path. James dropped and quickly did the same, though Mirdur’eth shifted uncomfortably. Pea was not far behind with his torch.
James jogged to the edge of the clearing. The light from Pea’s torch cast long shadows here as if there were dozens of Leans all encircled by bright rays of moonlight. He began piling bits of wood—twigs, sticks, and bark—into his arms. There was plenty there near the edge of the forest and before long he had a decent arm full. He returned it to Darl and went back for more. Then one of the trees caught his eye. Of all the tree trunks along the edge, this one in particular stood out the most. Its entire side, facing at his best guess to the west, was covered in a thick matt of moss. The verdant moss was a bright shade of green intermingled with speckles of black, gray, and dark green. Even little shimmers of silver could be seen there. He found himself perplexed by it, not because he had never seen moss before, but because something about the moss seemed unnatural, even somewhat alien. Being one for knowledge and understanding, he reached out and gently ran his fingers on the moss. It was pillow-soft to the touch and smooth like a well polished stone.
Then something surprising happened. As he ran his hands over the moss, intrigued by the astonied feeling on the sensitive edges of his fingers, the mass shivered. Then, before he could think twice about it, two eyes opened—pale green opals that gleamed with the blank stare of a wild animal. They were at eye level and he took a quick step back. The moss quivered again, and then, suddenly, a tiny little creature hopped off of the tree trunk. It stood barely two and a half feet tall and had the shape of a small child. From head to toe it was covered in green moss as if the plant itself was a part of the creature. It looked like a tiny human covered in plant-life rather than clothes. Its eyes, however, forced him to think twice before speaking, for he came to the conclusion somewhere far in his mind that this creature would not understand his words nor his physical movements.
Then, the little moss creature screeched, a sound like a human child letting out a blood curdling scream, and bolted into the forest, hopping and disappearing into the darkness.
James stood and took several steps back from the forest wall. He took a gander left and right, forwards and backwards. There were no other visible trees covered in the thick moss. He made the last few steps to the center of the clearing and stood, surveying the two forest walls cautiously. Darl and Pea were standing next to him.
“I saw something,” he said.
“And we heard it,” Pea said.
“It was a little man. Only covered in moss. A green man. One of the Littlekind maybe.”
“The Moss People. La’laskiné, as they are known among the Littlekind. An old word from the same language we heard in Arnur. It means the People of the Moss.”
“Could they be the things Belrin was talking about?”
Pea shook his head slowly. “Not likely. They rarely speak and purposefully avoid contact with outsiders, usually. They have been known to leave piles of fruit and vegetables for weary travelers. And, they are not too fond of being surprised.”
James caught the hint of a smirk on Pea’s face.
“Back to the fire then,” Darl said.
A small fire crackled to life some minutes later. The Blaersteeds laid down in a large tuft of grass and Pea went to retrieve food from the panniers. When he returned a huge grin was on his little face.
“Tonight we eat like kings!”
Darl looked up questioningly.
“Boiled Fidget Fowl eggs!”
James beamed, then looked at Darl, who seemed slightly put off by Pea’s armful. “They’ll go bad if we don’t eat them now Darl,” James said. “Besides, I think we all deserve a treat.”
“James, my dear boy, you have not spoken truer words before!”
Darl had no chance to protest before Pea began shoving eggs onto sticks. He roasted them on the fire. Soon everyone had their share of the delicious things and James conceded that he could eat no more—four Fidget Fowl eggs was his limit. He hadn’t noticed before how easily the eggs filled his stomach.
Then blankets were laid out around the fire. Darl made the decision to keep watch, taking the first shift for himself. James quickly fell asleep, drifting off into dream world, something which he sorely missed. He had not dreamed of anything good in a long time and now, as happy thoughts filled his mind, he found himself wandering through green pastures under glimmering sunlight. Birds chirped and deer grazed nearby. All thoughts of the pain and suffering around him in the last few days were gone. Now all he could think of was the beauty of Traea before Luthien—the golden fields by
, Triska’s beautifully scented home, and Woodton, before he had learned of this other world. He saw his parents in his dream, and they came to him with outstretched arms. He hugged them. And Laura was there, off climbing trees in the distance. He waved to her. Arlin City
Then, his dreams turned to darkness. His parents faded away, the green pastures and golden fields erupted in flames, and Laura was suddenly chained in a mechanical cage. Bulbous shackles covered her hands and wrists, feet and ankles. Her eyes were blank, staring forward as strange rays of blue and gray light covered her head. He tried to run, but every place he turned ended in a stone wall. He looked back again and there was the eye, just as icy blue the first time he had seen it. But this time it was not just hovering in the darkness of a bag. This time the eye was connected to a face—the face of Luthien. He stumbled back, but could not escape. The dream world was too strong. Luthien stood tall, clad in black armor and a long black cloak. His gauntlets were a dark shade of gray, as if intentionally made so that they bore no traces of silver. He had only one eye—the eye that he could see the future with. It blinked and in the other socket was nothing but the black tunnel that led into his head. Luthien reached for him and he fell over.
James woke, but not fully, not entirely. Immediately he pushed himself into paralysis, turning the world around him into a haze. He cried out for Dulien and in the back of his mind he felt the connection come to life.
I dreamed of Luthien.
“I know,” Dulien said. “Your dreams might mean nothing, but they serve as a warning to you. Be careful. Luthien is as frightening as your dream suggested.”
Strange shapes, distorted by his paralyzed state, came into view. He ignored them.
Do you know anything of the ancient language?
Al’na ner’avón ul al’soral la’muért. What does it mean?
For a while Dulien said nothing. His mind was deathly quiet; not even his own thoughts made a sound.
Then, with a long sigh that echoed in his mind, Dulien said, “The one who rides in the shadow of the dead. It refers to…”
“Yes. But I do not know the origins of the name.”
What exactly does it mean?
“Some in this world dwell in dark magic. Some in the light. Some are neutral. Those that dwell in the magic of the darkest of dark are known to walk among the dead, for they are nothing short of dead themselves. Someone who rides in the shadow of the dead is far worse. That person is not dead and is not bound the laws of the dead. One who rides among the dead is one that controls the dead.”
The thought of zombies came into his mind. He’d seen a few films before and he couldn’t imagine someone controlling such flesh-thirsty creatures.
“There are worse things than zombies in the world.”
He agreed, conveying the physical nod in his mind to Dulien. Lyphons, for example. Tell me, you said you didn’t choose me. How did we end up connected like this?
“Most Fearls make a decision. There are some that do not. There are higher powers that command greater respect than the laws of this world allow. So, I did not choose this connection, but neither do I dislike it. I was destined for this, to be connected to an off-worlder. That was the decision of the Great Fathers.”
Was it their decision for you not to ascend into the Halls?
“No, that was my own. I chose to live among those that stay within the middle. A third realm exists for those of us who do not wish to be dispersed into the heavens. At least, for a time. I chose to stay here to serve a greater purpose. And so I have.”
So, you’re not dead, but you’re not living? A mental image of agreement passed through him. So, you’re sort of like the undead?
“Think of me as un-judged.”
Light flashed in his mind and he knew immediately that Dulien had gone elsewhere. The world came back to him, shadows and all. His vision cleared and he found himself face to face with the same creature from that night—a Moss Person. At first he thought he was still in a dream, but then it dawned on him that this was real. It breathed cold on his face and he let out a yelp. The Moss Person jumped back, made a chittering noise, and knelt low to its knees cautiously. James sat up. There were dozens of Moss People all around the camp. Some were tall, some short, and all under three feet. They looked at him with their wild eyes, watching him with interest as if he were a newfound toy. There was another creature too, one that was not a Moss Person. It stood a mere twenty inches high. It had brown fur all over its body, except its feet, hands, and face. Two giant deep chocolate eyes, a short nose, and two large ears that stuck out slightly from the sides of it head all gave James the impression that this creature was some sort of relative to the Bush Baby. It had a tail too, long like a cat.
“Pea!” he said. Pea sat bolt upright; he could see it in his peripheral vision. “Darl!” The old man did not get up and when he looked over he found that Darl had fallen asleep at his post, sword dug into the ground and head resting on the hilt.
“I’m getting rather tired of this waking up to surprises bit,” Pea said.
The sun was now climbing over the horizon, making it early morning. There was light in the clearing and the fire had gone out some time ago.
The Bush Baby creature came forward, chattered with the Moss Person that James had met earlier, and then raised its arms out. It walked too human for his liking.
“It seems you have startled the little people of the forest, and the forest itself. You must bring a terrible omen to them,” it said with a masculine voice. “I am Tum Tum. You have already met Tiddle.” He chattered again with the one named Tiddle. “You come to the forest bearing gifts.”
James got up. “Gifts.”
“Why else would you drag three horses into the
? Certainly not to escape some ill fate.” Forest of Gall
He gulped. “Yes, actually.”
“Goodness. Well that changes things.” Tum Tum looked back to his companions and said something in the strange chitter-chattering and screeching language. “My good friends here think that it would be prudent to sing you a song. But I find that rather rude considering we have not been formally introduced.”
“Forgive us,” Pea said, “we are not familiar with this part of the world. I am Pantifilus of the Farthland, or what remains of it. But you may call me Pea.” Pea bowed.
James bowed also. “I am James.”
“And where might you be from young lad?”
He wasn’t sure how to answer. Should I tell the truth or lie? He decided it best to say, “I am not from any place that you would know.”
“Well said. Now, shall I sing a song? It is custom.”
James looked at Pea, who shrugged. “Sure.”
Tum Tum cleared his throat, as did the collection of Moss People. Then the Moss People hummed the bass line, a smooth and melodious sound like a tiny section of cellos. Tum Tum began:
“In the land of trees where all is green
There live such people as them and me,
Under starry skies and gentle wind
We sing this song with joyous glee.
Tum Tum Little they call me here,
‘A Brownie man’ do they declare!
‘Tiddle the Wink does he befriend
Both as clean as the rivers fair’.
Tum Tum is me and I’ll be sure
That what they say is true today
For surely you would like to stay
With Tum Tum Little the pure and gay!
And to all of you the people claim
‘Tum Tum Little is the same
As the grassy knolls and Mossy Maids
A gent all ‘round that never fades’.
‘Tum Tum Little and Tiddle the Wink
Are friends to all in the em’rald brink.
Little Tum Tum and Winking Tiddle,
Listen now for their faddle fiddle’.
Then Tum Tum and Tiddle each produced out of thin air golden fiddles and emerald green bows. The two of them struck their fiddles and began playing a folksy duet, fast paced and utterly complex. James found himself bobbing to the song and soon the humming Moss People were clapping. Tum Tum’s legs began to move and soon the Brownie was dancing back and forth as he played. Then, in a single bound, Tum Tum flipped backwards and landed on top of Tiddle’s head and together they played the last few beats of the song. The song ended with a de-diddle-diddle and a loud ‘hey’ from the entire group.
James and Pea both clapped. Tum Tum hopped down and bowed along with Tiddle. Then James looked over at Darl, expecting now that the old man would be up and severely angry with himself for falling asleep. But Darl was in the same position as before.
“I’m surprised he’s still sleeping,” James said. Pea looked up at him and he tipped his head toward Darl.
“Oh him?” Tum Tum said. “No, he’s just under the spell of the Moss Maidens. Tiddle here determined he was the grumpy one in the group.”
“I’d say that Tiddle has a good eye, but I think it is pretty obvious who has the temper,” Pea said, laughing.
“Will he be alright?”
Tum Tum skipped over to where Darl sat and flicked the old man in the ear and played several off key notes on his fiddle. “Yup, perfectly.”
“You can’t be the strange creatures the people of Ti’nagal were talking about.” James crossed his arms.
“Us? Oh, well I suppose it would be. What do they say about us in that place?”
Pea jumped in. “That you warn travelers and become violent when they don’t leave.”
“Well that’s a half-truth if I’ve ever heard one.” Tum Tum skipped back to the center. “I think the folks that tell those lies forget to mention that they refused to listen to our songs and so we banished them from the
. Perhaps they didn’t want to have the blame placed on themselves. No matter, your passage will be a wonderful journey indeed!” Then Tum Tum held himself up by his tail. Forest of Gall
“It was a nice song,” James said.
“Nice? Only nice?”
“Better than nice. Beautiful. Wonderful.”
“That’s more like it. Now tell me, where are you off to?”
“Nor’sigal. As soon as we can,” Pea said.
“Goodness, you should find a better place to visit than that dreadful old city. A city of plump wealthies as I say. Perhaps you could come visit Buschgrossmutter. She would be pleased to meet outsider folk.”
“I’m afraid we have to decline your invitation.” Pea bowed gently. “We have prior engagements in Nor’sigal unfortunately. They cannot be changed at this time.”
James nodded agreement, then said, “We could come another time. As soon as we are done with our journey.”
“Make it a promise?”
“I promise I’ll come.”
“I promise as well.”
“Good! Then shall we wake the grumpy one?” Tum Tum dropped from his tail and clapped his hands.
* * *
Darl had not woken happy, and James didn’t blame him. Learning that you have been put under a spell is not easy to take, especially if you are the grumpy type. When Darl woke his first instinct was to draw his sword, but the result of this movement were farcical trips, stumbles, and falls, until Darl landed face first with both hands clasping the hilt of his sword between his legs. The Moss People howled with laughter; James couldn’t resist.
Darl stood now, glaring in such a way that suggested that he thought he could peer at them all simultaneously. James and Pea quickly explained what was going on and Darl, in all his grumpiness, stomped away to pack the Blaersteeds. He didn’t say anything at all.
“Well,” Tum Tum began, “the good news is that he’s incapable of causing damage to anyone upon waking up. The bad news is he’ll likely be upset for the next few days.”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” Pea said. “He’ll be grumpy for the next few weeks at least. He won’t forget this for some time.” The two little men grinned wide. James laughed.
Some of the Moss People had wandered off into the forest, while some remained behind to see off the strangers. Tum Tum was the most energetic about it all. Tiddle was excited, but not to the point of dancing, which was what Tum Tum was doing. The Brownie bounded back and forth, strumming some strange melody on his fiddle, humming, and whistling. He made a circle, flipped, and pitter-pattered like a ballerina. Occasionally Tiddle would join in and together the two looked like a pair of Irish River Dancers.
Then the Blaersteeds were packed and on their feet. The three of them mounted their steeds and continued their journey with Tum Tum and Tiddle bouncing around below; the remaining Moss People dispersed into the forest. A thin smile was planted on James’ face; he couldn’t help being overjoyed at the change in their journey. Here he had songs and joyful creatures, unlike anywhere else he had been before. There had been joy in
, but now all of that was gone. Everywhere he went he knew that Luthien was behind him. He wondered if Luthien would come into the Arlin City . It seemed pointless to him. The forest couldn’t be controlled, not by Luthien at least. It was too large a place to be controlled by anyone, and the creatures that lived there would be unhappy with the evil that Luthien would bring. Whether or not the Moss People or Tum Tum and his fellow Brownies, wherever they were, could fend off an attack by Luthien he couldn’t say. He didn’t know how many Moss People or Brownies there were, nor what other Littlekind lived in the forest. But at the same time he knew that Luthien would not send an army trudging through a forest as thick and uninviting as the Forest of Gall . Forest of Gall
Tum Tum quickly took to singing again, even though he did not have his miniature choir of Moss People. Tiddle hummed along sprightly. It seemed as though Tum Tum was making the songs up on the spot and James took to listening to the words with great intent.
The sweetest sounds of All.
Think a ‘lil, speak a ‘lil
Here in the
For hope we rise so tall.
Take a gander, at ol’ Oleander,
His eyes can show the way.
Silly be me and silly be you
To wander night and day.
A’speak a peep, A’speak a weep,
And ask me what they say.
‘A’goodly time, A’woodly time
For all who wander the trees.
With herald bells, with barreled dells
We sing this song of threes.
A’dip a’doo, A’zip a’loo,
We sing this song of sprees’.
The songs went on for hours. Though James wanted to listen, after a while he could not. His head began to hurt. Tum Tum had no concept of time as far as James was concerned, nor any limitation to his vocal chords. Tum Tum sang and sang, merrily and joyously as if he had no worries in the world, and then, stopped abruptly as Darl, having bit his tongue to save against irritating the little Brownie, began setting up a fire. Tum Tum and Tiddle were both asleep before the rest; not a single word was spoken about it. The two simply laid down and slept.
After a small dinner James too fell asleep, this time without his frightening dreams. He slept softly, waking whenever something cried out in the night or the fire crackled, but ultimately he slept without fear.