James woke early the following morning. His mind raced with thoughts of the past day as he slowly took in his surroundings. Here the bright sunlight could be seen for the trees opened up like welcoming arms to the blue sky. The fire had been put out and he quickly found that he was not the only one that had awoken. Pea and Darl were nearby arguing over something he couldn’t see. They spoke in whispers, but he could tell from the tone in Darl’s voice that the two were on the verge of insulting each other.
He stood up and let the covers fall from his body. He yawned and stretched. The scent of his un-bathed body wafted over him and he cringed. He sorely missed having a daily shower. It had been days since his last shower—far too long for his liking. Deep down he wished he could go back to Arnur and the great pool of little cleaning beings. The feeling of being one hundred percent clean of all dirt and grime seemed only a dull memory now.
James walked over to Pea and Darl, listening closely as he went.
“What if it’s poisoned?” Darl said, his whisper strong and nearly loud enough to be at normal speech.
“Why would they poison us with one of their own among us?” Pea said.
“Why not? False sense of security!”
Then James was next to them. They looked at him; he looked down and found the object of their argument. Four baskets weaved of leaves and filled with berries of all shapes, colors, and sizes, and other fruits that both looked familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, lay next to the dead fire. There were fruits he knew—bananas, apples, pears, and even kiwis. He marveled at the sight of it. Even in
he had not seen such a brilliant array of fruits. Arlin City
“It was left overnight,” Darl said to him.
“Oh?” James mumbled.
Forest folk of some sort. Maybe the Moss People left it. Maybe Brownies.”
“Darl thinks it’s a trap,” Pea said.
“Why would the Moss People poison us?”
Darl grimaced. “Rumors and legends are generally born out of some sort of reality.”
“You honestly think the Moss People would be behind this?” Pea’s voice rose to just above a whisper.
“Or the Brownies.”
Then Darl and Pea were arguing fully again and James tuned them both out. He stared down at the four baskets. Saliva built in his mouth. It all looked delicious, like a perfectly prepared array of the best pickings possible. Would they really poison us, he thought. Why? We’ve done nothing to them.
Just then Tum Tum walked between his legs, yawning and stumbling side to side. The Brownie was not yet fully awake. As Tum Tum reached the baskets Pea and Darl ceased their whispered arguing to watch. Then the little man grabbed an apple, turned with drooping eyes, took a bite, and walked back through James’ legs and to where Tiddle lay fast asleep. The three of them watched intently. Suddenly Tum Tum heaved and began to choke. His eyes went wide; he coughed and hacked, clutching at his throat, teetering this way and that.
Then, just as abruptly as it had all started, Tum Tum stopped and looked at the apple in his hands. He threw it with all the might a little man could muster into the forest and cried out, “Bloody tricksters! That apple is still a day away from being ripe you filthy little…” Tum Tum caught himself, took a deep breath, and brushed himself off. “Humph.” Then he went back to his bed and fell asleep in an instant.
James, Pea, and Darl stared in disbelief. Then James took a peach from one of the baskets and ate. Darl tried to protest, but it was too late. Wonderment came over him as the juices of the peach filled him. The peach was juicy, as all peaches should be, and brought every sensation of joy imaginable from the sense of taste. A little stream of juice dribbled down his chin; he wiped it away. Soon Darl and Pea joined in and they all ate together, reveling in the amazing array of choices.
Several minutes later, or at least long enough for James to realize that the sun was now truly rising from the horizon and spilling light over everything, Tum Tum and Tiddle awoke and took off along the path. Nobody tried to stop them, though James could tell that Darl truly wanted to. Instead, the three packed everything up in a rush and quickly mounted their respective Blaersteeds. The steeds took off without a single command and in no time they were alongside Tum Tum and Tiddle, both of which had taken to singing and playing their fiddles. This time James did not listen. He instead allowed his mind to wander for he had had far too much of their singing the day before and already could feel a headache building above his eyes. He focused on the sky, the trees, bushes, and other plants both old and new to him. His eyes wandered from the dense black hairs of Mirdur’eth to the path before him that had suddenly stopped winding in an out of the forest that seemed impossible to traverse. The path was as close to straight as he could hope, only taking mild turns here and there. The path itself was clear of brush as if it suddenly was heavily traveled. He wondered if perhaps the Moss People or even the other Brownies, which he assumed there were, had some affect on the way the forest behaved. Perhaps they can move it. Maybe they have control over the trees and their branches. He quickly shook those thoughts away. Even in this crazy world that would be impossible. Trees can’t move.
The day dragged on. Tum Tum and Tiddle took a few hours’ break from singing, much to the delight of the rest. The forest seemed endless. By mid-afternoon the trail had taken a gradual turn northeast, but gave no indication that it would open up near Nor’sigal or the river. Their two newest companions were seemingly unconcerned about the apparent lack of an ending. James had hoped that at some point at the end of the day there would be some sign that the forest was thinning out or that they were reaching their destination, but the forest kept on as thick and confusing as ever as if the life of the forest knew nothing whatsoever about how ecosystems functioned.
Night fell. Tum Tum and Tiddle went asleep in much the same fashion as they had the night before and the following morning yet another batch of baskets was left by a fire that had long since died out. This time there was no argument; everyone ate their fill and they set off once again into the forest. Tum Tum and Tiddle hummed now, rather than sang, and James gathered it was because the two Littlekind had run out of lyrics.
After a few hours more of endless forest James looked down at Tum Tum, who was skipping now alongside Mirdur’eth, and said, “Are there many more like you Tum Tum?”
“Enough for an army. And a darn good one I must say,” Tum Tum said cheerfully.
“An army? Are the Brownies going to war?”
“Nope. We’re preparing for the end of the world.”
“What?!” James’ voice cracked, but he maintained composure.
“The end of the world my good friend. It is upon us!” Tum Tum did a cartwheel and grinned up at James. “Don’t seem so rigid. We know of you and your quest.”
“Yes indeed. The Buschgrossmutter saw the futures.”
“Don’t you mean future?”
Tum Tum shook his little head fervently. “I meant futures. Learn to hear. Brownies don’t speak incorrectly. She saw a few. One was the end of the world.”
“Then why are you so cheerful? Shouldn’t you try to stop that future from happening?”
“Well, I suppose we could. But that would require the forest folk to be a little less cheerful about things, and, well, that’s somewhat against our nature. We like things happy! To the end of the world my horse mounted Humankind!”
“Blaersteed. Forgive me.” Then Tum Tum produced a tiny bottle and two tiny cups, the likes of which could have fit over James’ thumbs. Tum Tum poured bright blue liquid from the bottle into each cup, gave one to James and said, “To the end of the world .” Tum Tum gulped down his share.
James hesitated. He looked into the blue, watching the bubbles as they rose to the surface and popped. Then he drank it and coughed hard. The liquid was strong, and highly alcoholic. His parents had given him a taste of wine before, but this blue substance was far stronger than anything he had ever tasted. It surged through him and he could feel it slipping deep into his belly to be digested. He coughed again. Somewhere in that alcoholic surge there was flavor, but his young taste buds couldn’t taste it.
“Brownie-lixer. Good stuff. Not brown though. Very much the color of clean blue water. But, good nonetheless!” Tum Tum reached out for James’ cup. He handed it down and Tum Tum cart wheeled forward and away, leaving him somewhat disturbed.
How can anyone be so cheerful about the end of the world? Why would anyone want to be cheerful? Why wouldn’t they want to stop it? I would. James couldn’t imagine anyone being unconcerned with what was going on in the world. He wondered how much Tum Tum knew of him and Laura, or about Luthien. Does he fully understand what will happen to his people if Luthien controls all of Traea?
The day disappeared much the same as it had the previous day—uneventful and relatively unhindered. When night came everyone ate and slept near the fire and morning repeated itself. Four more baskets were laid out, everyone ate, and then they were off once more. Five more days went by with much the same effect and James began to feel as though they would never get out of the
. He hoped that Luthien was far behind them still. He hoped that Ti’nagal had stalled Luthien’s armies long enough, and he hoped that the Moss People and Tum Tum weren’t tricking him and his companions. Forest of Gall
At mid-afternoon on the tenth day the forest began to thin out. James smiled broadly at this, hoping and hoping that this would mean leaving the
. As much as he liked Tum Tum and Tiddle and the generous hospitality they were providing, he wanted desperately to be in more open terrain. The forest made him feel claustrophobic. He could no longer stand being trapped in the forest. He wanted to move on, to get closer to Teirlin’pur and Laura. The sooner they could reach open ground the faster they could traverse the many miles of terrain ahead. Forest of Gall
As he hoped, the forest opened up into a wide field that was met in the distance by the Nor’
. Somewhere northeast was Nor’sigal. James wasn’t sure how far north they had come along the river, but he knew they had to move quickly now. In the forest they had the cover of trees, but along the river there was little in the way of forests. Some cover was there, but not enough to hide them well from any scouts that Luthien might have been sent north. duíl River
“Ah, so we’ve reached the end of our participation in your journey,” Tum Tum said, taking a seat at Tiddle’s feet.
“It appears that way,” Pea said.
“We need to move,” Darl said. “We appreciate your hospitality, but we have to go now while we can. There’s no telling how long we’ll be able to avoid other people.”
“Thank you Tum Tum,” James said.
“Thank you for listening to my songs.” Tum Tum bowed his head. “Now scoot along and remember to come visit when you are through with your magical rescue operation.” Tum Tum waved delicately, princess-like, and then hopped up, did two somersaults and, with Tiddle in tow, disappeared into the woods. Somewhere behind in the maze of trees, bushes, and vines, came the sound of two fiddles playing in harmony.
“Well, now that that’s done,” Darl said, grunting as he did so.
“You’re just upset because he called you the grumpy one.” Pea grinned mischievously.
The three of them set off at a brisk pace, or rather the three Blaersteeds trotted while their riders held the reins pointlessly. They saw nobody along the river, nor in the distance to the north or south. So they continued on, pushing along the yellow and green field to the river. Tall grasses abruptly gave way to a riding trail, which they promptly avoided, taking to the taller grass on the opposite side closer to the river. They could hear the water flowing from there, bubbling and churning in places where there were rapids or rocks. Here and there were patches of trees and bushes, both tall and short, and in varying shades of green like a giant living painting blended together.
James gently patted Mirdur’eth’s neck, running his fingers through the black mane. He was glad to be clear of the
, but deep down he missed Tum Tum and Tiddle. He would miss their songs, however annoying, and he prayed that one day he would see them again in a time when the world didn’t end. He was also happy to see the sun fully again. They had spent so many days in the Forest of Gall under the thick canopy. Sometimes they had seen sun, and other times they had not. He liked the sun, except when it was extremely hot, yet he knew that once they crossed into the Fire Rim they would not see the sun for days again. He decided to enjoy the warmth while he could. Forest of Gall
The Blaersteeds took them many miles upstream. James couldn’t be sure the distance, but he guessed—with a little mathematics thrown in—that they had traveled some forty miles judging from the sun. The sun had crossed through the apex of its curve in the sky to partway into evening. He turned his head to watch the river, bobbing up and down on Mirdur’eth as smoothly as he could manage. Between the occasional trees he could see the water flowing swiftly, yet fluidly. The occasional jut of rocks forced the water to move to the side, creating little rapids, but otherwise, here, the water was relatively calm. The river was clear too, clearer than he had ever seen in the waters of Woodton, where the
ran. At times that river could be quite clear, especially in the environmentally conscious town of Stillwater River . Yet the Nor’ Woodton was clearer, cleaner, and altogether purer than anything he had ever seen. He continued watching. He saw fish, spotted and easily over two feet long. Trout, or something related to trout. Maybe I’ll get to fish here one day. duíl River
James followed the river behind him, watching the fish pass. Then something glimmering caught his eye and Mirdur’eth grunted and halted. The other two steeds stopped as well. Far behind something reflected bright flashes of light—something metallic. Then more of the flashes appeared, all of which were apart from the first flash giving away that there was more than one something there.
“What is that?” He said.
The lights flashed away revealing four objects or figures, he couldn’t be sure which. The suns rays obscured the view, warping the air in the distance so that whatever the four things were was distorted beyond recognition as if they were hallucinations in a desert.
“That,” Darl said, “is a sign that we need to run.”
“No, James,” Pea said. They would have turned away as soon as they saw us. Assassins perhaps. Coming fast too.”
“Unnaturally fast.” He turned away and peered down at Mirdur’eth. The steed looked him in the eye; he stared into the black pool of the pupil and closed his grip hard over the reins. “Let’s go then.” At that, Mirdur’eth bolted forward, through Pea and Darl. Bel’ahtor and Arna’tu lurched forward a second later and all three steeds galloped fast across the field along the river. James held tight, trying with all his might to move fluidly with the black muscular body below him. Despite his best efforts he could not move perfectly and found himself bouncing harshly. He risked a look back; the four objects were closer and now looked like armored riders on gray steeds.
“They’re gaining,” he said, yelling back to Darl, who in turn peered back.
“Wicked magic! Go!”
The three steeds pushed harder. James could feel Mirdur’eth breathing heavy underneath him. Somehow he knew that the Blaersteed would not be so easily halted; exhaustion would have to take him first.
Looking back he could see that the four riders were even closer. The steeds they rode were visible now, but they weren’t truly steeds at all. Beneath the four armored riders—each with long, shimmering silver blades drawn high above their black armor—were four phantoms. They each had four legs like a horse and ran just the same, but when their hooves touched the earth the legs faded in and out in puffs of smoke, as if they were made of gray remnants of a fire. Smoke poured from their mouths as they breathed, falling away like sand from their bodies. Their eyes were tiny orange embers like stones heated over a fire. James knew now that they were not running from anything entirely human. These riders were users of magic, and powerful magic to be able to conjure horses of smoke that could move at such speeds.
The riders closed in, shrinking the gap now to a mere hundred feet. James looked again, Darl and Pea did too, and at that moment the four riders lifted their swords high above their heads. A loud clap sounded and the blades, shining bright silver as if they were freshly made, became engulfed in fire. The flames wrapped around the blades, writhing and turning about like dozens of snakes.
He faced forward again, no longer wanting to see the horror that was closing on him. Ahead the choppy tree line broke. The shore of the river opened into a flat area on both sides. The water ran slow there, and in the center of the river was a circle of stones each carved into the shape of a hand and each the size of two men.
“The Summering Rocks!”
Mirdur’eth turned and bore into the water. All three steeds were force to slow down against the current. They crossed through the water and into the circle of stones. Mirdur’eth halted. Darl faced the riders who had come up behind, wielding their flaming swords maliciously. Beneath their helms could be seen the wicked faces of four men, Humankind the lot.
“Your wicked steeds won’t come into this water,” Darl said firmly. “Turn back now.”
The riders grinned wide; their teeth were sickeningly white, so white that it seemed completely unnatural. Then they dismounted and began to trudge into the water.
“Prepare yourselves.” Then Darl drew his sword, the metal hissing as it came out of the sheath. James followed suit. “Turn back.”
“Arguing over this is senseless,” the closest rider said, a hissing sound deep in his throat. “Your death…”
James didn’t let the horrid man finish his sentence. He grabbed his magic, formed it, pushed it, and in his mind willed stones from underwater forward. The water bubbled once and in that instant a dripping hand of water and stone appeared and thrust out in a fist. The force of it struck the rider square in the chest and launched the unsuspecting man into the air, out of the river, and hard into the earth. Water doused the flames on the riders’ sword. The sound of metal crunching as the stones, pebbles, and sound bore into the black armor sent a shiver down James’ spine. Then he cut off the magic, breathing heavily.
But the rider stood slowly, brushing away the damage and removing his chest plate. A thick laugh came from the man.
“Dirty trick, boy,” the rider said. “Very dirty trick.”
The three other riders took a single step forward. Then the flames from their swords burst out, reaching at James, Pea, and Darl like serpents. Magic came again through James and he felt Pea pulling too. Invisible force struck the flames and the fire dispersed through the air all around them, pushing off towards the sky, earth, and everywhere. The first rider met up with his companions and together all four converged on the group. Flames appeared again into their blades.
Slowly they came to the edge of the Summering Rocks. Then the rider who had spoken, the leader, took a step into the circle. Suddenly the hands glowed bright, yellow and orange hues pushing outward as if tiny suns were inside them. The riders glanced to one another nervously. Then the leader stepped again. A loud twang, a sound like an enormous pole that when struck rings out the deepest imaginable tuning note, tore into ear drums. Something rustled through the air and in an instant invisible force gripped the lead rider and thrust him high above. He cried out and the other three stared in disbelief. The twang sounded again and the lead rider screeched.
James shifted uncomfortably; Mirdur’eth did too, moving closer to the center of the circle of stone hands. The lead rider screeched once more and then, in a flash of red, he fell from the sky and crashed into the earth on the shore. No sound came from him and from where James sat on Mirdur’eth’s back he could see that the rider’s face had caved in. The other riders took a few steps back; the stones ceased glowing.
Something hissed behind. James turned just in time to feel a dozen arrows brush past him. The wind rushed by his face and he could only catch glimpses of the wood and feathers. The riders pulled upon their magic, but it was too late and they were unprepared for such a sneak attack. The arrows dug deep into the riders’ chests and they crashed into the water. The smoky steeds grunted nearby, then seemed to willingly dissolve into nothingness, the smoke disappearing like a fire dying out.
Then the origin of the arrows became clear. Five men appeared out of the grass on the opposite side of the river. They wore tunics and pants that were laced with gold and brown grasses—perfect camouflage. Each was thin and the leader came forward. He had scars all across his face giving him a menacing look under his gentle smile. Some looked as though they were from battle, and others were small and suggested that the man had plenty of scratches and cuts from wandering in the woods. They were scouts, and sneaky ones at that. James started to think of them as medieval snipers—hiding away in the bushes for days in search of a target or scouting enemy movements.
Then the leader came forward and grinned wide and cheerfully. “Welcome to the Summering Rocks, James of Woodton.”