Glaciem groaned and opened her eyes. Something was in her face. She shifted to push it away. It was long and feathery and irritated her skin.
“Don’t move too quickly, you’ve been asleep for a week now. You’ll faint if you’re not careful.”
She turned her head. “Alexandros?”
Alexandros looked up and though she could see the weariness in his eyes, it did not prevent him from giving her a lopsided grin. He was idling stirring something in a small pot over a fire, more interested in her welfare than its contents.
“Welcome back to the land of the living, Wielder of the Elements.” He said, his eyes warm.
“Why are you here?” She looked around at the unfamiliar surroundings before trying to raise herself. “Where are we?”
Alexandros quickly rose to kneel beside her.
“Don’t move.” He reiterated firmly, gently pushing her back down. “You’re perfectly safe; we’re still in the Forest.”
She didn’t bother to argue that the Forest was not exactly what she would consider safe. She let the weight of her head settle against her cloak which had been folded up to form a pillow of sorts.
“In answer to your first question.” Alexandros began as he walked back to the pot, satisfied she wouldn’t try to move again. “Legs heal, and with the Elders’ considerable abilities my leg healed very quickly. In answer to your second question, I am here because I could not wait for your return any longer. A year is far too long a time.” He finished softly as he studied her.
“A year?” Glaciem asked, incredulous. “We’ve only been here for three days!”
“That you are aware of and remember.” Alexandros retorted. “Regardless, by my count, it’s been a year and the Trees grew more agitated every day for a year until finally, they began beating at the Village walls.”
Glaciem looked stricken.
“I don’t think their intent was to harm us,” Alexandros explained quickly. “I think they were trying to get our attention. As soon as I stepped into the Forest they stopped and formed a path which led me straight to you.” He tilted his head at her. “You weren’t very far into the Forest, you know. Barely more than a day’s journey.”
His eyes darted from her eyes to the bandages he had wrapped around her multiple wounds, but the look was so quick, Glaciem did not catch it.
Instead, she shook her head and looked at the ceiling. It was earthy, and damp wherever they were, the fire being the only source of heat or light.
“You followed me.” She concluded flatly.
“I had intended to follow after you as soon as I could, but the Elders were so against it that even as the First I was not at liberty to leave without good reason. Fortunately for me, the Trees provided a very good reason. I was finally permitted a leave of absence. Not that lack of permission would have kept me from leaving the Village.” Alexandros said ruefully, “I would have gone to find you regardless of what they said.” As he spoke, the bright blue gem signifying his position swayed against his tunic.
“I thought we agreed you would stay put.”
“I changed my mind.”
He shrugged and half-grinned at her briefly before letting it fade, his expression turning serious.
“What happened to you? Where is Bick?”
Glaciem set her jaw and continued to stare at the ceiling.
Alexandros’ eyes bored into her. “Where is he, Glaciem?”
“Bick is gone.” She said, her voice tight.
“Dead?” The shock in his voice was unmistakable.
“I don’t know.”
Alexandros’ eyebrows furrowed. “What do you mean then?”
“Bick isn’t Bick, or perhaps Bick was never Bick. I don’t know how to put it.” Glaciem said searching the dirt above her for answers. “He’s…Bick’s not human.”
Alexandros shook his head, not understanding.
“When Bick and I first entered the Forest the Trees immediately knew something was wrong and they tried to warn me, but I was stubborn and wouldn’t listen. I assumed they didn’t like him because he was a foreigner, of the Valley, or maybe because he bore the blood of the Elders. But, as we continued further, something quickly changed, something happened to him. Something went…dark inside of him. It changed him. Took over his body.”
Glaciem sighed miserably as she closed her eyes, the wretched memories of what had occurred resurfacing against her will.
“I was a fool for letting him go with me. I should have made him stay in the Village. With you. You both should have stayed in the Village.”
“You had no choice in Bick going with you and you can’t possibly have thought I wouldn’t have followed you eventually.” Alexandros said gently.
She shifted to her side and stared at him, her lips pursed. “Of course not. Why would I have assumed that either one of you would do what’s best for you?”
Alexandros sighed. “Stop it. There’s no point in bickering right now. What happened has happened the way it was meant to happen.”
“Bick said something similar not so long ago.” Glaciem replied bitterly.
“You should listen to it then. It’s not without good reason.” He paused to study her for a moment before continuing. “You have not yet told me what exactly happened to Bick.”
Glaciem fell back and stared at the ceiling again. “I needed water to fill my skin. We found a river the morning after we left the village. Something came up from the deep and dragged us down. I could hear a voice in the water, but it was different from the Whispers. I almost drowned. Bick saved my life, but after that, his body began to change. His eyes first and his hands. He was able to see things I couldn’t, and he could hear the Whispers as I could hear them.
“On the third day of our journey, we found a strange clearing in the Forest. There were seven trees, all tall and narrow. Their bark was black and they felt dead, and there was something…peculiar…about them.” Glaciem slowly lifted a hand, crafting the memories in the air as she spoke. “I didn’t want to come any closer to the trees, but I couldn’t convince Bick to leave. He could feel something, it was pulling at him. As soon as we reached the trees, he changed entirely. His skin was different, and his eyes…” She couldn’t bring herself to speak of the golden orbs that had seared themselves into her mind.
Glaciem’s turned to look at Alexandros, her stomach dropping as she relived the nightmare. “He could wield the Elements. And he was far stronger than I could ever hope to be. The destruction he could cause would be terrible. I can barely move branches, but he moved whole trees with total ease.”
“You moved a whole forest once, don’t forget that.”
Glaciem did not respond. She gently pushed herself up to a sitting position, moving slowly, thinking as she did, trying to understand everything that had happened. While she remembered with certainty that Umbra had used Bick to attack her, she knew she was missing something. She remembered feeling confusion and pain, remembered a blinding light and burning sensation pounding through her scar. As she thought about it, her hand involuntarily went to the back of her head, but was blocked by long strands of white thread.
“What is this?” She asked, pulling at it, the strands tugging against her scalp.
Confused, she dropped her hand and let her fingers run through the length down to the ends gently brushing against the floor. Her gaze idly continued past where it ended.
She shrieked and bolted from the ground, hitting her head on the ceiling. The shock of standing so quickly caused her vision to fade and she fell heavily back to the ground, white strands of hair falling into her face.
Glaciem held her hand up to where she had knocked her head, looking helplessly at Alexandros. Her eyes moved back to her legs. Her pants had been rolled up to expose her calves. One leg was as it should be, the skin pale and warm, albeit covered in long scars. The other leg, however, stopped just below the knee and slowly transitioned from skin to wood. The body of the new leg imitated the shape and curve of her real leg, but the end was similar to the hoof of a deer, delicately carved and hard to the touch. The wood was as white as her leg, the polished surface glinting when the light of the fire touched it, intricate designs circling down the length of the limb.
Alexandros could only shake his head, his hands held up in a helpless shrug. “This is how you were when I found you. You were totally unconscious. I was afraid you wouldn’t wake up even if I did take you somewhere safe. I didn’t realize what had happened to your leg until after I had washed the blood and dirt away.”
Glaciem tore her eyes from it, her memory coming into focus. “He took my leg with a blade of ice, and then he just stopped and walked away. He said we would meet again.” She closed her eyes as she remembered. “We would meet again when I was worthy.”
“Bick said that.” Alexandros stated with uncertainty.
“No. It was -” Glaciem stopped, unwilling to speak Umbra’s name aloud. She chose to ignore Alexandros’ inquiry and continued. “After my leg, there was nothing. At least, nothing that I can remember. Eventually, I woke up here. With you.”
The look Alexandros gave her made it clear he still didn’t fully understand, but as she didn’t either, she chose to ignore it. He turned back to the fire and poured what was in the pot into a small wooden bowl before pivoting to kneel before her, setting the bowl down beside her makeshift bed.
“When I left to find you it was relatively easy.” He said as he checked the cuts along her left leg. “The Forest was kind and made my path for me. After that, the Trees led me to a small cave and inside were tools and blankets, a little bit of food. I was reluctant to use it for fear we were using someone else’s belongings, but I didn’t have much of a choice. I can only assume they were left here by Hunters.”
“How have you managed food then?”
“There’s a birch tree. It brings us what we need.” He said, chuckling a little. “It sounds ridiculous when I hear myself saying it out loud, but it’s the truth. In fact, you should see him in a little while.”
“Him?” She snorted.
“Oh I don’t know if it’s male or not, but they absolutely have personality. I can’t help but treat them as individual beings. It seemed callous to do otherwise”
Glaciem hummed noncommittally in response. He continued.
“The birch brings me wood every day as well. At first, I refused to use it for the fire, but the damned thing kept throwing the branches into the pit so eventually, I relented. The trees didn’t allow me to leave your side for long, and the further I traveled from where you were resting, the more wild and belligerent they became. They’ve made it clear where my place is.”
As he spoke, Glaciem sat up again, slowly, allowing Alexandros to reach a hand around her back to steady her. She tried to push her hair out of her eyes, the length foreign to her. It seemed to her that it was everywhere and catching on everything all at once.
“Why is it so long?” She asked, exasperated by the knots. She looked around for something sharp, intent on cutting it all off.
“Let me.” Alexandros insisted, chuckling as he pulled it all into his hands. “You’ve grown a tree for a leg and you’re wondering at the length of your hair?”
She pursed her lips as she watched him. “I can’t remember it ever being this long.”
Alexandros ran his fingers through the mass and carefully untangled it until he was able to weave it into a thick braid that hung well past her waist. Glaciem took the braid from his hands after he had bound it, idly running her fingers down the plait. She looked back at Alexandros with an eyebrow raised in silent question.
He shrugged. “Rose had long hair. It was yellow.”
When Glaciem did not answer him, he coughed awkwardly before turning to hand the bowl to her. She let the braid drop, taking the bowl in her hands.
“What do you intend to do now? Your circumstances are not exactly as they were before.” Alexandros asked quietly, changing the subject.
She shook her head. “I’m not sure. My concern now is Bick. If he’s alive, he’s more capable than I am and it is now in his power to do the Valley serious harm. The Forest listens to him considerably more than It listens to me. He has full control of the Elements. I need to stop him.”
“You aren’t suggesting the Forest would obey anyone other than an Elemental?”
“That’s precisely what I am suggesting. I saw it, Alexandros. I know my abilities have grown, but being able to cough up a fireball or turn a rock onto its side is nothing compared to what Bick did.”
“But was it really Bick? It is possible he was possessed?” Alexandros hesitated at the mention of Bick’s mother.
Glaciem paused to consider this. “I don’t know that I would call it possessed. He himself changed, and it was gradual, not something that happened all at once. Whoever else he may have been, he was still also Bick, just darker. Stronger.” She squinted her eyes in frustration, trying to describe what had happened. “It was as if Bick had taken the role of his shadow and his shadow had taken the role of Bick. I doubt he even had control of his own body.”
“Perhaps he can be saved then, if it was against his will.”
“I don’t know.” She murmured. “The longer I’m here the more I realize hoping for anything is nothing more than an idle pastime. It’s not helpful.”
Glaciem’s voice stuck in her throat. “I’m reluctant to believe I’ll get Bick back.” She said quietly, tears pricking at the corners of her lids. “If I do hope for it and in the end, it doesn’t happen…” She trailed off, not willing to verbalize such an outcome.
“I didn’t take you for one to who refused to hope.” Alexandros replied, half teasing, half chiding.
“After everything that’s happened you can hardly blame me for being so cautious.” She replied shortly, unamused.
“I can and I shall.” He retorted, no hint of joking in his voice this time. “You were kept alive, hidden by leaves all this time. We’re being fed by trees. Trees, Glaciem. You could have been killed, but you are here. Alive. You lost your leg in a fight so the Forest recognized your need and gave you another. Yet, for all of these things, you think the possibility of saving Bick is not worth your hope? You might not be willing to see it clearly, but the Forest has given you every reason to hope.”
I am with you.
Glaciem let Bick’s words float through her mind. She remembered the sincerity in his voice and the determination in his eyes. She did not doubt him or question his strength, only the depth of the darkness that had taken hold of him. She idly lifted the bowl to her lips, distracted with her thoughts as she began to sip at its contents. As the liquid hit the back of her throat and tongue, she flinched violently and coughed.
“What is that?” She spat, pushing the bowl back into Alexandros’ hands.
“Bark.” Alexandros stated, his grin lopsided. “For the pain. I couldn’t be sure if your leg would bother you and you do have quite a few gashes still healing across your arms and belly. I want you to sleep without waking up tonight. We’re leaving in the morning.”
“And where exactly do you plan for us to go?”
He looked at her evenly, “Are you able to fully wield all of the elements?”
“Do you remember more of your past?”
“Then I plan for us to continue what you started. You have not finished your journey. Bick or no, we need to continue. Nothing has changed that fact. You said it yourself. Bick is more capable than you right now and if you try to go up against the darkness again in this state, you will lose. You need to fully understand and control your own strength and I think that will be best accomplished if we continue forward.”
Glaciem opened her mouth to protest, but Alexandros held up his hand.
“You and I know full well you don’t have a better idea. Go to sleep. We’re leaving first thing tomorrow morning.”
Glaciem sighed. She didn’t have the energy to argue with him so she obeyed. Besides, the bark tea was strong. Even though she had only managed to choke down a few sips of the bitter liquid, she could feel it seeping heavily into her limbs.
Almost involuntarily, she shifted back down into the bed, weakly nudging at the folded cloak in an attempt to plump it. The moment her head touched the fabric she began to drift off, and as she did she thought she could make out the silhouette of a birch tree moving to stand at the opening of the cave, its leaves glowing in the golden glow of dusk.
Glaciem woke just as the sunlight was creeping into the cave. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes as she glanced around. Alexandros was pushed up against the far wall with his cloak wrapped around his body, his head rolled to the side. His chest rose and dipped with the deep breath of slumber.
He must be exhausted. She thought. A week of waiting for me to wake up without any reprieve or even the promise that I would wake would have tested the strength of any man. I wonder if that was how Narratus felt when he cared for me.
Her thoughts shifted from Alexandros to her own self. She sighed deeply and summoned the courage to peer down at her new limb. The sight of the wood was so strange to her that as she forced herself to focus on the new leg she had to take a moment to allow the nausea to subside before she could properly study it.
“This is part of you now. You have no choice but to grow used to it.” Glaciem muttered quietly, hoping the determination of her words would help.
Slowly, she sat up. Though she felt considerably better than the day before, she was still unsteady. She paused her efforts every few seconds, both to keep herself from collapsing and to make sure Alexandros stayed asleep. She also had no desire to hit her head on the ceiling again. When she did pull herself up to her full height, she made sure to keep a hand firmly planted against the wall of the cave, still unwilling to trust her feet entirely.
After a moment of experimenting, she discovered the wooden leg felt quite solid when she set her entire weight upon it. It became clear to her almost immediately that the wood was not ordinary. It bent and moved with ease and did not act at all as she had expected it to. She chanced a step, then another, and another. To her relief, she could not feel any pinching or discomfort where skin and wood met at the base of her knee. A small laugh escaped her lips.
I can’t even tell it’s not my own flesh.
Glaciem peered back at Alexandros and, seeing that he was still asleep, walked swiftly out of the cave.
The cold air cut through her frame and bit at her cheeks, but she welcomed the feeling gratefully, the crisp breeze clearing her lungs of the dirt and damp from the cave. The sudden change in temperature ignited her senses and she stretched luxuriously as her blood began to quicken and course through her veins like thin bolts of electricity. The more alert she became, the more at ease she felt with her surroundings, which she quickly realized were vastly different from the place she had been when Bick had turned.
How far did Alexandros carry me?
The Trees swayed in greeting as she walked past, some lowering their branches as if to pat her on the head in congratulatory relief upon seeing her recovering so well.
“Why were you not so pleasant before? I could have used your help, you know.” She murmured irritably, reaching up to brush her fingers against a few leaves here and there.
The Whispers hummed deep within her chest. She could not interpret what they meant, but the humming was comforting and warm so she stopped trying to understand and simply allowed the feeling to wash over her. Now that Bick was not with her, everything seemed calmer, more secure. Rather than finding solace in the feeling, however, she felt only the pangs of guilt tearing into her stomach.
What could have been avoided had I insisted on going alone? I could have snuck out without him knowing. Why didn’t I just leave? Glaciem pursed her lips discontentedly, the brief enjoyment of the morning fading almost immediately.
Not far from the cave was a lake that was covered in steam rising from its still glass waters. She approached it cautiously, unsure as to how safe she was anymore around large bodies of water, but the Whispers did not alter nor did their humming catch. She chose to trust the Trees and kept moving forward. The water was cold, but it felt like silk to Glaciem as she walked unflinchingly into it, ripples floating away from her and into the center. Though she loved feeling the water soak into her clothes, weighing her down as it did, she took great pains to stay as aware as she could, unwilling to chance a repeat of her previous experience with Forest water.
As she looked intently into the depths below to check for any signs of danger, she cocked her head and let her hair swing around to the front of her shoulders and into her outstretched hand. It took her a moment of fiddling to undo the knotted fabric at its end, but after a moment she managed it and let the fabric fall into the water, watching it float away as she undid her braid. Still seeing nothing, she took a deep breath and plunged into the water headfirst, inwardly sighing with content as it washed away the grime and dirt still embedded in the creases of her skin. Her hair flowed behind her like a silvery veil.
The water was clear; she could see several hundred feet in every direction, her vision blurred only by the occasional ripple caused by her own hands. She continued to glide further down, even as the Whispers began to pulse in her ears and her lungs began to burn. Rather than resurfacing for air, she pulled little bubbles out of the water and into her mouth, allowing her small breaths.
If only I had thought of that before, I might not have almost drowned. The bitter thought crossed her mind, but it disappeared almost as quickly as she thought of what Alexandros had said earlier.
What happened has happened the way it was meant to happen.
The weight of his words and of the water comforted her, the sounds of the waking Forest muffled and rounded. It was a rare moment of peace, the silence entirely different from when she and Bick had struggled in the river. Clearly, there was no Shadow here, no darkness.
Glaciem reached out a hand and felt the soft spongy mud that inhabited the bottom of the lake, her view immediately marred by black clouds of the stuff. She released a small puff of air and as the bubbles quickly rose to the surface, now feet above her, she settled softly into the black mess below. It was cold and quiet, though not entirely dark. She could still see the light from the rising sun sparkling above her with its ever moving rays of sunshine.
Small floating bits of foliage rushed away from her as she stretched herself out on the bottom of the lake, clouds of thick dirt swirling away from her fingers. Her hair floated freely above her, dancing with an unseen partner, swaying languidly from one side to another. Here, as she felt free and at ease, a sudden thought occurred to her.
If she was comfortable here, without the distraction of the world above, perhaps she could actually make something more happen with the Elements. Something beyond a chance occurrence of them obeying her out of pity or as an act of indulgence. She had managed small sparks of fire when Bick attacked, but that had only been out of sheer panic and she still could not explain why parts of the Forest simply chose to obey her thoughts and whims while other parts refused.
It’s worth the effort of trying. She decided.
Glaciem closed her eyes and let the weight of the water continue to press down on her, allowing the dizziness from lack of air engulf her senses entirely. She wanted her instincts to completely take over. As she felt her heart thumping loudly in her ears, she tried to focus on the way the fire had kindled in her belly, reliving the warmth rushing up her throat and down her fingertips.
Slowly, but unmistakably, a burning sensation rose up from the base of her torso and steadily climbed up and into the back of her skull. Glaciem’s thoughts began to race in excitement. She felt triumphant, ecstatic, and incredulous all at once.
You have no idea who you’re up against, do you?
The unpleasant memory abruptly overtook all other thoughts, Umbra’s words sending chills down her spine, breaking her concentration. Glaciem opened her eyes suddenly and gasped as the beginnings of fire tickling at her throat burst unexpectedly out of her mouth.
Washed rushed into her lungs as she thrashed her legs out wildly to push up from the ground below. She shot up and broke through the surface of the water, spitting and gasping as she fought for air. The same panic she had felt in the clearing with Umbra spread from her stomach to her limbs, her heart thudding in her chest uncomfortably.
Glaciem growled and grit her teeth in frustration. This is precisely what he wants. She thought, defeated. If I’m so overcome with fear, I’m going to end up killing myself without him doing a thing. How can I expect to properly wield the Elements if I can’t even think of his name without panicking?
“Has no one ever told you only fish can breathe underwater?”
Glaciem twisted around to face the bank, about twenty feet from where she was treading water, and groaned. Alexandros was casually leaning against a nearby tree, a bemused look on his face.
She glared at him. “Don’t say a word.” She snarled between coughs.
“I wouldn’t dare.” He replied, grinning widely, his eyes dancing with amusement.
Glaciem swam towards the bank and allowed him to pull her up and back into the trees, silently willing the uneasiness of her thoughts away. Alexandros took a skin he had brought with him and filled it with water while she coughed the last of the moisture from her lungs. He tossed the skin towards Glaciem, who caught it deftly. Silently, they made their way back to the cave, Glaciem in front and Alex in back. He studied her as she moved, noting the fluidity of her gait with her new leg.
“It fits you well, then?” He asked, nodding to it.
She turned around and followed his eyes to her right calf.
“It does.” She answered simply.
Glaciem spread her arms and legs out, water droplets pulling away from her clothing and hair, leaving her dry. She absentmindedly waved the water away with a flick of her hand and it dropped to the ground, leaving only a faint trace of moisture behind. It occurred to her suddenly that her leg may not have fared as well as the rest of her. She knelt down to feel the wood, noting that it had begun to take on some of her body’s warmth.
“Do you suppose it will warp?” She asked.
She ran her hand along the leg, gingerly feeling the patterns beneath her fingertips. It was becoming easier to look at it, the feeling of queasiness less than it had been before.
“I wouldn’t worry if I were you,” Alexandros answered as he passed her and ducked into the cave. “It’s living wood. The same as the Trees of the Forest. I can’t imagine you would be blessed with so unusual a gift only to have it destroyed by the very Element you possess well enough to wield on command.”
Glaciem stood up and followed Alexandros into the cave. “I hadn’t thought of it like that before.”
“You don’t give the Forest enough credit. There is magick here and yet you still act as though this place is nothing more than an ordinary forest. I believe you’ve become quite the cynic.”
Alexandros hoisted a pack over his shoulder before turning her around to tie her hair back into a braid once more. He finished quickly and tossed a cloak over her shoulder.
She searched the floor of the cave as she tugged the fabric on, fastening it around her throat. She could not find her dagger and realized with grim acceptance that Bick must have taken it from her.
“You don’t need a weapon. You are a weapon.” Alexandros said, reading her thoughts.
“A dull weapon.” She retorted.
He only rolled his eyes and gestured for her to take a pack. He had brought two with him.
“We need to move. Now that you’re awake, the rest of the Forest is too. It’s much more active than it’s been the past few days and I fear the things we don’t like will take notice.”
“Which way do you propose we go?”
“Whichever way the Trees tell us to go.” He replied, pointing.
Glaciem looked past his hand and although it was not very clear, she could see a narrow trail heading towards the east. She glanced back at Alexandros, choosing to ignore the pointed look he gave her as he grinned and stepped outside.
She walked behind him in silence, allowing him to lead the way. It was strange to her how different he seemed. In her mind, she had only just left the Village, but to him, it had been a full year. It was only natural that he would have changed. Still, she wondered at him.
“How are the Elders?” She asked at length, half jogging to catch up with him and walk by his side.
He glanced at her from the corner of his eye, not turning his head. “Narratus is fairing well and he sends you his love and well wishes.” A slight smile tugged at the corners of his lips.
“I asked how they were all doing.” Glaciem protested.
“Yes, but you did mean to ask about Narratus only.”
“Not entirely true,” She argued. “Of course I want to know how he is, but I also want to know what all has happened since we left.”
Alexandros’ smile grew, “The Elders are all well, but especially Narratus. He has become the most sought after Elder, apart from myself. It seems the Tenth is no longer the least in the eyes of the Village UnNamed. As far as the others, their lives have not changed much. The Elders were placed in their positions to endure all things and they have lived up to their purpose entirely.”
“Have you named others to take the place of the vacant Elders’ titles?”
“No, not yet. There are men and women who have requested to be considered for the positions, but the Elders believed it to be in the best interest of the Village to wait until you returned to us.”
“I see.” Glaciem said quietly.
It had been some time since she had thought about the plan for her to be elected as Second Elder. As she understood it, there was no obligation for the First and Second to be married and it had simply happened by chance that Bick’s parents were both named Elders. Those betrothed or married to citizens anointed Elders were obliged to remain by their side. Any possible future children born of such a union were to be presented as eligible prospects for outsiders, the same as any other child.
“You’ve strayed.” Alexandros called out to her.
Glaciem stopped. She had indeed drifted from the path. Trees nestled against her in quiet protest.
I really must stop letting my mind wander so much. She thought to herself, idly running her fingers along the smooth bark of a sapling who was occupied with curling its branches around her wrist. It was soon joined by its nearby brothers and sisters. It was not before Glaciem found herself almost completely surrounded by the trees, all of whom seemed intent on touching her in some way.
“That’s enough, you’ll have time to profess your undying devotion to her later.” Alexandros said as he maneuvered around the trees, gently swatting at their leaves.
The Trees sighed in protest and all but the sapling obeyed. As Alexandros glared at it, it twisted itself firmly around Glaciem and refused to move.
“You’re making this more difficult than you need to.” Glaciem said to the sapling, chuckling slightly.
Ignoring them, the tree began to pull at Glaciem’s arm, beckoning her, refusing to relent even as she dug her heels into the ground and barked protests at it. It lifted its shallow roots to the top of the soil and began inching away from the trail.
Glaciem looked at Alexandros, “Should we follow it?”
She winced as the tree yanked on her arm, its pull becoming more firm as it grew more confident.
“Perhaps it’s been touched by the Shadow.” Alexandros pointed out, uncertain.
The Tree stopped pulling, recoiling and hissing at Alexandros, clearly offended at his suggestion. Glaciem tried to listen to the humming around her, but could not detect any alarm or malice.
“I don’t think so.” She said slowly, thinking. “It’s a young tree. It’s small, weak. What use would the Shadow have for it?”
Alexandros crossed his arms, not convinced. “Well for one, it could lead an unsuspecting Elemental to her doom.”
She shook her head, “I want to find out what it wants. If I feel the Trees telling me anything different then we’ll turn back at once.”
“And if I don’t agree with this course of action?”
“I’m not asking you.” She answered ruefully, allowing the tree to pull her farther away from Alexandros.
“This isn’t wise, Glaciem. It would be better to remain on the path.” He called after her, firmly standing his ground.
“I am on the path!” She called back, pointing to his feet.
He looked down and watched the roots redirect themselves to follow after Glaciem. He sighed and reluctantly jogged after them.
They followed the sapling in silence for some time. At first, the slender tree led them with purpose, its movements swift and without pause, but as they continued, it grew less deliberate. The tree began to slow, winding through fellow trees and shrubberies as though it were trying to find something it had lost on the ground or to perhaps recall a memory. Every time the sapling changed its mind and abruptly turned down a different direction, the larger trees were obliged to move out of its way, their trunks creaking in irritation. Eventually, the sapling arrived at a clearing. As it neared the edge, the little tree stopped and stiffened.
“What’s the matter?” Glaciem asked, placing a hand on its slender trunk.
It shivered and would not move, nor would it give her any indication of its feelings. She turned questioningly at Alexandros.
He only shrugged. “I don’t speak tree.”
She shook her head in exasperation and unwound her hand from the sapling’s now dormant branches and walked cautiously toward the clearing. Leaves and thin branches gently brushed against her face as she walked. She ignored them until one of the leaves hit her and smeared something wet and sticky across her cheek.
Dew? She thought, bringing her fingers to her cheek to wipe it away.
As Glaciem brought her hand back, her heart jumped into her throat. Her eyes widened in alarm as she held her fingers out to Alexandros. Upon seeing her hand, he immediately went for the sword at his side as he walked to observe the substance on her hands.
“It’s too dark for blood.” He mused, peering at the liquid closely.
“For human’s blood, perhaps.”
The liquid was thick and glossy, its color almost black, but when Glaciem tilted her hand into the sunlight, she could see a distinct red sheen.
Glaciem turned as Alexandros stepped away from her to point at the tree beside them. It was pulsing laboriously, as if struggling for air. As it did, deep gashes running through its bark oozed the same black liquid as what was on her hands.
Glaciem tenderly ran her hand along the tree, which shied away in pain. “I don’t understand.” She said quietly. “I cut into a tree when it attacked Bick, but it didn’t bleed.”
“Perhaps it’s a matter of who did the cutting.” Alexandros suggested.
They both looked to the clearing, now only a few feet away from them. Glaciem let her eyes wander and easily picked out the faint path of black running along the sides of the trees and branches, dozens wounded and seeping, all shivering miserably.
Glaciem whispered to the water from her waterskin. It snaked its way over her hands until it crystallized into two daggers, their edges serrated and sinister.
They slowly entered the clearing, but it was soon apparent the clearing was not a true clearing at all. It had been created by the trees in the immediate area. They had grouped themselves into a tight huddle around something, much like the Forest had done around the Village.
“What are they doing?” Alexandros whispered to her.
Glaciem glanced at him. “There is no reason to assume that because I do speak tree I can understand everything about them.” She looked back at the trees. “Regardless, this is what the sapling wanted us to see. I’m sure of it.”
“By ‘see’ you, of course, mean ‘bother’ and ‘investigate’ and ‘put ourselves in possible unnecessary danger’.” Alexandros replied, his eyes not leaving the trees in front.
“Possibly.” Glaciem took another step towards the trees.
Alexandros groaned, his displeasure evident.
“What possible purpose could only seeing serve?” Glaciem argued quietly as she tried to convince herself of the same thing.
“What possible purpose could irritating them serve?”
“You yourself said I needed to continue trying to understand what was happening in the Forest. This is what is happening in the Forest and this is what I need to understand.”
Alexandros pursed his lips, knowing she was right.
“If you’re so unsure, follow behind me and I shall go in alone. They might prefer that.”
“I’m not about to let you go in there by yourself.” He snapped quietly.
Glaciem ignored him and walked forward slowly in what she hoped would be interpreted as non threatening. The closer she got, the more she could feel the trees’ humming. They were agitated and upset, but she was certain their hostility was not towards her or Alexandros. The trees were covered with the same tears and cuts as the bleeding trees. Their bark was torn and ripped away to reveal the smooth, white wood underneath. As she peered closely, she could see red sap beginning to ooze out of the cuts.
“These wounds are newer than the ones on the other trees.” She whispered.
Alexandros did not reply.
Glaciem gently touched the closest tree. Though they did not move back to their original locations, the trees simultaneously unfurled themselves, revealing a small patch of grass. Glaciem looked at it, confused.
“There’s nothing here.” She said finally, turning her head slightly to speak to Alexandros.
Her eyebrows furrowed as she ran her eyes over the tiny wildflowers that peaked just above the tall blades of green. She was becoming less sure of their safety, the lack of clear direction from her Whispers becoming more unnerving to her with each passing moment.
Alexandros walked up beside her and gazed at the empty patch. He tipped his chin towards the very center of the grass. “There’s something on the grass.”
He eyed the trees cautiously as he stepped forward. They did not move, but remained in their tight circling. Alexandros knelt down and gingerly picked up the object before holding it up for Glaciem to see. It was a crown, delicate and painstakingly carved. The base had been created by a single braid of wood intertwining within itself. Leaves rose from the plait to create the points of the circlet. Within each leaf was a small star cradling a yellow stone.
Glaciem took the crown from Alexandros and held it up to the sun, letting the light hit the stones. “Do you see anything besides this?” She asked.
Alexandros observed the thick grass, trying to find anything else of value. When he could not, he moved to the outside of the circle and slowly walked around the trees, gently running his fingers along what was left of their bark. It did not take him long to walk the entire circle, the red ooze dripping from his hands when he returned.
“There’s nothing else.” He said as he pointed to the crown. “Maybe that’s what the trees were protecting.”
“But what would have caused such damage for such a little thing?”
Alexandros shook his head, not knowing.
“Do you suppose it was Bick?” She pressed.
Alexandros turned back to observe the marred trees outside of the clearing. “These trees here guarding this area knew something was coming. Whatever it was made no effort to hide its arrival. The wounds inflicted on the trees we first saw were clean, deep, and made very quickly. Here, the wounds are much less controlled and focused on the centers of the trees, like it was trying to dig through them. You see these slashes? They’re shallow and erratic. It knew there was something of importance here and it was desperately trying to reach it.”
“Perhaps it did reach it. Perhaps we’re too late.” Glaciem tensed uncomfortably.
The moment Glaciem had touched the crown, the pain from the wounds the trees suffered had begun to seep its way into her own body, settling most intensely in her false leg. She winced, but didn’t say anything to Alexandros, fearing if she did he would insist on them leaving before she was ready to.
Alexandros paused, thinking. “No. I don’t think so. Why would the trees still be behaving this way if they no longer had anything to protect?”
“But why would the trees suffer so much for this?” Glaciem peered at the crown. “What could possibly be so special about it?”
“I don’t know.”
“And if this is what the trees are protecting, what happens to them when whatever wanted it comes back?”
Perhaps the sapling was a ruse after all.
“That sounds an awful lot like you think it might have been a mistake in coming this way.” Alexandros replied. “It is almost as if I suggested something quite similar only moments ago.” He said as a small, almost bitter grin played across his lips.
Before she could respond, the ground beneath them began to vibrate and roll. Glaciem tensed in alarm and held her arms out to steady herself. Alexandros grabbed her hand so they couldn’t be pulled apart. The ground beneath them gave way to reveal a dark chasm. They fell, shouting in alarm as they plummeted.