She hesitated before turning on her heel, intent on walking out the way she had come. As she did, her mouth dropped open as she watched the trees twist themselves together, barring her path home completely, the fenced border totally blocked from view. She was not leaving this place until the Forest decided she could leave. She froze momentarily before turning back around slowly. With one careful step at a time, she began moving deeper into the Forest, knowing now there was no other way.
As she moved, Glaciem continued to slowly look around, trying to take in as much of the trees and brush before her, everything utterly vibrant and wild, magnified by an invisible power she could not see, but could feel. She closed her eyes and breathed in the rich smell of dirt wafting from the ground, feeling it move and roll beneath her feet. The grass flowed with breezes only the Forest Itself could feel. The Whispers, which had been only a quiet tug in previous times, now sang with a sure and clear voice, their tune soft and strange. It was dissonant at first, but Glaciem found she could still pick out different bits and pieces.
As she listened, her uncertainty at being there lessened and she found herself smiling slightly at the wonder of it. The Whispers sound like water. She realized, the babbling joining together to form a single melody.
Even the light had changed. Outside, it was not yet afternoon, but within the Forest, golden rays shone through the tall trees, bathing everything in an unearthly warmth. She could not tell where the light was coming from, but it was hot and made her sweat, the air so thick she could almost chew it. She stopped walking, the plethora of sights and sounds too much to take in while moving. Where there was no moss, there were rich, yellow flowers, the petals no bigger than the nails of her fingers. They rippled in the air, moving as if submerged in water. She bent down to touch one and it quivered before moving towards her cautiously to brush against her finger timidly, the soft and velvety petals leaving behind a small trail of glittering pollen on her skin.
Glaciem stood up and continued walking further into the Forest. Though she did not know what she was looking for, she could sense the Whispers pulling at her. In their own quiet way, they were directing her, telling her where they wanted her to go. She still could not discern words, but she could distinctly feel their tugging within the deepest parts of her core, their urging incessant and unrelenting.
As she walked, Glaciem recalled the tales from the books she read in Narratus’ study. When King Audens disappeared, the Forest became feral and violent, having grown wild for lack of a keeper. After hundreds of years, it had become so dangerous those who dared to attempt to travel beyond the outer rings of trees were often never heard from again. Very few successfully passed through and those who did never spoke of what they had seen within, unwilling to divulge even the smallest, most insignificant amounts of information lest the Forest exact revenge on them.
When the Village UnNamed was founded now many decades ago, the first generation of Elders had struck a deal of sorts with the Forest. The borders created by the Elders served as a barrier between the two and a begrudging truce was forged. There was the occasional rebel on both sides; small trees could be seen roaming the fields and children often played games to see who could venture furthest past the Border Tree. Members of the Village with many years of experience were permitted to pass into the outermost parts of the Forest, but the legends suggested those who dared to delve deeper were consumed by the ground, fed upon by the monsters dwelling deep within.
The first time Glaciem had visited the Border Tree she had been terrified, too unsure of herself and her Element that Narratus had been obliged the nearly drag her to it, let alone to the Forest itself. She had been awake and out of bed for two years by then, but was still frail and weak. Even though she was still hundreds of feet away from the Forest, Narratus’ promises that she would remain unharmed had fallen on deaf ears. When she had finally reached the single tree, she had expected giant roots to rise up from the ground and consume her. She found, however, the Forest remained where it was, the trees blurring together in a tangle of leaf and twig, the Border Tree still and silent. It had been both a relief and a disappointment to her. Even from afar the Forest had never looked like it did now, alive and breathing.
As the years had passed, both her frailty and weakness had been trained out of her, countless hours of brawling and fighting with Bick had honed her skills and drawn out what seemed to be a natural talent for combat. None of that comforted her now however, for with each step she became more nervous of where she was being led. She was not thrilled at the prospect of walking blindly, but she could not deny the fact that the Whispers were growing louder in her mind and the Forest more agitated with each step she took. The song she could hear was becoming darker, notes of anguish surfacing above the dissonance. The fluttering flowers were slowly drawing into themselves, little green petals folding over yellow ones.
Why must I continue deeper into the Forest? She pleaded with the Whispers as she tried in vain to stay the tremble in her hands.
She felt dread settling deep in her bones. If the Forest was going to act out against her, would it not do so now that she was alone and It alive and free to move about, uninhibited by human eyes? She stopped walking.
Glaciem stood still, not sure what she was waiting for. The song remained dissonant and harrowing, but beyond that, she could hear nothing save the occasional creak of the trees or the rustle of grass. The twisting in her stomach continued to grow worse and after a moment of waiting, she decided to chance returning to the entrance once more. If nothing else, she could try to find a way to climb through the wall of trees.
She had only made it a few steps when the singing abruptly stopped. All noise followed suit, ceasing completely and leaving her in silence. Her eyes widened and she stopped walking. The light began to wane as she tensed and prepared for a fight, her fingers gripping the ice daggers so tightly she thought she might crush them.
The trees in front of Glaciem began to shake. Her stomach dropped as she heard the dozens of branches snapping and shattering in the wake of whatever was barreling towards her. A great rush of wind blew a wave of leaves in her face and she flinched as a deep roar echoed through the Forest. Something big was coming to meet her and it was moving fast. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, calming herself, forcing her still trembling hands to steady themselves.
If the Forest wants my life, then It’s going to have to fight for it. She thought as the reckless need to survive coursed through her body, the will to live a crackling electricity surging through her limbs.
She ran towards the sound, both hands raised, ready to plunge her daggers deep into the heart of whatever thing racing to meet her.
As quickly as she had started, Glaciem stopped and gasped. Looming before her was the largest tree she had ever seen. It easily surpassed the height of all the other trees around her, its trunk so wide it would have taken nearly a dozen of her arm spans to circle it. The tree was breathing heavily, its bark creaking and heaving with each expansion of invisible lungs. Though its bark was smooth and its surface was void of knots, Glaciem knew she was looking at its face. She also knew with absolute certainty that it was looking back. The Whispers paused with a breath of anticipation.
Glaciem’s eyes grew wide and she could feel her heart pounding in her chest. All fight in her immediately dissipated as she felt her lungs collapse in on themselves, her limbs suddenly heavy with terror. She slowly raised her hands and opened them, allowing the daggers to fall to the ground so the tree might know she surrendered and would attempt no harm. It did not move or change its breathing as the daggers dropped to the floor of the Forest. They melted away instantly.
She was trying not to panic, all previous ease and wonder vanished and replaced with unabashed fear. If the tree did not accept her surrender, would it kill her? Should she try to flee? She took a slow, cautious step backward, but as soon as her foot touched the ground behind her, the tree lurched towards her, closing the gap she had attempted to create. An involuntary yelp escaped her lips. She was not leaving until the tree said she could.
“I…I am a Daughter of the Forest…a Wielder of Elements” She stuttered on the words.
The tree did not react.
“The Whispers called me here, I would not have thought to trespass had the Whispers not called me here.”
The tree grumbled, the low sound deep and strong enough she could feel it in her feet.
Glaciem dropped to her hands and knees.
I’m going to die.
She bowed her head, her stomach churning in knots, her will to fight gone in moments. No amount of training could have prepared her for the behemoth now standing before her.
Abruptly, the Tree wrenched its roots up from deep within the ground, flinging moss and dirt into the air as the thick tendrils tore themselves free from the earth. She flinched and clenched her eyes shut, preparing for the blow that would surely end her life. It did not come. When she cautiously opened her eyes again, she saw the Tree was holding out a root in front of her, as if offering a hand to help her up from the ground. She looked at it in surprise.
“I’m not touching you.” She said quietly, horrified at her own words. If the tree hadn’t been angry with her before surely it would be now.
The tree, however, ignored her comment and continued to hold the root out for her. It rumbled again and pushed closer to Glaciem’s face. She whimpered slightly at its touch, turning her head away, but to no avail.
Knowing full well what it wanted, she clenched her eyes shut and blindly grasped at the air, her fingers flinching slightly when they brushed against the dampened wood. The tree shivered and Glaciem forced herself to remain still as the root traveled up and down her arms. She wasn’t sure if it was feeling or tasting her.
She allowed the tree to run its smooth tendrils of roots up to her shoulders and back down, surprised at how nimble they were for their size. Small strands of roots broke free from the larger one, creating finger like appendages that begin to travel across her face and neck, flitting gently across her nose and cheeks. She flipped her hands up for the tree and as she did she slowly opened her eyes. She raised her eyebrows in surprise as she looked at her palms, now glowing more brightly than she had ever seen before. The tree stiffened and froze at the sight and for a moment Glaciem thought she had done the wrong thing, but the tree relaxed after a moment and the thin roots slid down to trace the markings on her hands. Glaciem’s breath hitched in her throat as she watched the roots begin to glow green, its light blending with the blue light of her palms.
As quickly as the roots had raised themselves, they sunk back into the ground. The tree started to rumble again and something beneath Glaciem’s feet began to split, the sound bouncing off the trees surrounding them. She got up from her knees and looked around. The Whispers’ song returned and she braced herself, trying to remain upright as the ground began to rise and fall in rolling heaves.
The whole of the Forest is breathing.
The tree growled as it moved away from Glaciem, its trunk shaking and trembling. The Whispers commanded that she follow. She did, but soon the tree was moving so quickly she found she could not keep its pace. She began to jog before almost immediately breaking out into a run in order to keep track of the tree, a task much harder than she would have thought for its size and girth.
“Wait!” She called, watching it disappear into a large thicket of smaller trees that had moved aside, allowing the tree to disappear within their mess of branches and leaves.
As Glaciem broke through the trees she stumbled and crashed into the ground, large piles of moss easing her fall. She groaned as she pushed herself up, brushing away the vegetation from her shoulders, looking around as she did.
She furrowed her eyebrows at the half buried slab of stone jutting out of the rich earth of the clearing, its presence a stark contrast to the otherwise unmarred landscape. Small flowers and bits of vines wrapped themselves into the tiny cracks running along the ancient stone. The scent of rot filled her nostrils, the heat of decomposing grass rising up to prick at her eyes, the blades killed by the weight of what rested upon it.
With each passing moment, it became more clear to Glaciem where she was. She knew what she would see once she dared to step forward towards the slab, yet even as she forced herself to look upon the large stone vessel nestled deep in the earth beside the lid, she was obliged to press a hand to her stomach to stay the nausea that threatened to overwhelm her.
The Whispers hummed quietly as she exhaled the breath she had been holding in before standing up. She slowly ran her eyes across her gravesite, willing herself to walk towards the coffin, the very one in which she had first been discovered ten years ago.
The coffin was void of marking and a soft light peaked through the cracks within the stone. As Glaciem tentatively peered in, she could see no reason for the glow; the inside as dark and cold as it had always been.
“Why go through the trouble of scaring me half to death by sending that monster of a tree if only to allow me passage in the end?” She murmured. “And why bring me here of all places?”
As if in answer, a large gust of wind blew through the clearing and the circle of trees shivered and swayed. For the first time, she could understand the Whispers clearly, the breathiness of their many voices working together to form a single, unmistakable word.
Protect. They sighed, speaking through the wind as it rushed about her.
“Protect? Protect what?” She asked.
Protect, protect, protect, protect.
Over and over again, never ceasing. The Whispers chanted, louder and louder. The wind was growing stronger, the trees moving in closer. She could see their roots rising to the surface of the earth, all glowing green as the giant tree had before. The moss crawled towards her.
Glaciem’s eyes widened. The Forest was coming for her, coming to take her alive. She could not move and when she looked down she realized with horror that her own feet had become roots, buried deep within the ground. She was trapped.
The Whispers were screaming in her head and the trees groaned as the ground began to roll more violently than before. As the chaos overwhelmed her, Glaciem covered her ears with her hands, her palms still glowing bright blue. It did nothing to help dissipate the noise. She bent down to the ground, trying to cover her entire head with the rest of her body, trying to protect herself from the Forest as it closed in tighter and tighter.
The trees were nearly touching her and her scar was burning white hot. She could feel her Spirit being sucked from her body by the earth as the roots reached out to her, the branches clawing at her from all directions.
Her knees were sinking into the soft ground beneath her. She was becoming a tree, with bark for skin and knots for eyes. She felt stiff and wooden and old. She was not being consumed, but rather being absorbed and added to the Spirits of the Forest.
Protect, protect, protect, protect. Over and over and over.
She was growing weary, her muscles giving way. Amidst the chaos, she could hear a single voice beckoning to her. The voice was both old and young and as Glaciem let her lids shut, she could clearly see a boy with large eyes and long white hair. His head tilted to the side as he called to her.
Come back, Daughter of Trees. He said, his voice a low whisper. Come home to us.
I am already home.
Whether she spoke the words aloud or only thought them within her mind, she could not tell. She pulled her knees free from the earth, the roots tearing and ripping at her skin as she wrenched herself free. She cried out in agony from the pain, prying her mouth, now made of wood, open.
“STOP!” She cried.
She knelt down and put her palms to the ground, calling every ounce of moisture she could find deep within the earth. The trees were screaming with the Whispers, loud wails of anguish and pain rising from all around her.
PROTECT, PROTECT, PROTECT! They bellowed.
The wind was rushing straight up from the ground now, blowing her clothing every which way and the earth was rolling so rapidly she could barely keep her balance.
Glaciem sucked in a breath, waiting for a moment, trying to find the right time. Finally, she tensed and jumped as high as she could into the air. A great flow of water raced up from the earth, following her into the air and back down. She landed on the ground with a dull thud, her legs spread wide, every muscle in her being flexed and firm. She flung her arms out as hard as she could, icy water spraying onto the branches of the trees in a frozen sheet of thick ice. What water remained within the soil now froze in winding tendrils, wrapping themselves around the roots she could not see, but could feel.
The trees did not like the ice and they growled and hissed at her as the wind turned cold. The ground trembled and groaned under her and in her mind’s eye, she could see the boy, cowering and wincing.
Protect. He insisted, his voice a pained whine.
“You will be silenced!” She commanded in a voice she did not recognize.
She raised her hand to the skies. A great thundercloud clapped above her head. Frigid rain poured down, drenching her and the already frozen Forest. Her thoughts rang out clearly in the air.
I am your Keeper, and you are mine to command. You will not take me.
A blinding flash of lightning cracked through the sky and another great roll of thunder rumbled above them, vibrating through the earth. The trees wept and shrieked, shivering from the cold as they did.
“Do you yield to me, Old Forest ?” She asked quietly, speaking aloud this time.
She could feel the pain of the Trees and a pang of sorrow rushed through her, but she kept her hand to the skies, unwilling to relent for fear of the repercussions of her doing so.
Yield. The wind choked out the words, the boy in tears.
She immediately dropped her hand. The rain stopped and the ice melted. The trees retreated from her and dissipated into the rest of the Forest, abandoning their post around her grave. The giant Tree had disappeared from her view entirely.
It was dark, the Forest asleep and silent. Glaciem could not see the boy in her mind, nor could she hear the Whispers, their many voices having gone silent. Everything around her was quiet and black, the yellow flowers blanketing the ground gone. The golden light had faded away. Everything was drowned in the pitch black of nothingness.
What have I done? Glaciem thought as panic seized her.
It took her several moments to realize her eyes were clenched tightly shut, something she had not remembered doing. She opened them. She was lying on her back, staring at the sky. She reached out and felt grass beneath her hands, instantly recognizing the fields that stretched between the Village and Forest.
Glaciem turned her head. She was only a few hundred feet away from the gates of the Village, the same place she had been when she first heard the Whispers. The guards were still talking amongst themselves, the grass having obstructed her from their view.
She sat up and looked toward the Forest before pressing her fingers against her scar. It was throbbing mildly.
Was it a dream? A vision?
She shook her head, confused, trying to recall what she had just seen, finding it difficult to do so. Everything was hazy, as if it was simply a distant memory from long ago. She closed her eyes and tried again to picture what she saw.
Talking flowers, and swimming trees…no, that wasn’t right. She grit her teeth. Talking trees? A single talking tree. No. Not a tree. A boy…What did he say to me?
She stood up, taking a mental tally of her limbs to make sure nothing was hurt. The only discomfort she felt was the pulse in her scar and the irritation of not remembering what the boy had told her. Over and over she had heard it in the Forest just now, but here on the outside she found she could not remember.
I must speak with Narratus. She thought. He will know what this is about.
She walked with purpose to the gates, praying the old man would be well enough to offer her at least some information regarding what had just happened.
When she reached the guards, they nodded at her stiffly.
I am not yet one of them.
Though many lived as welcomed and cherished members of the Village even before their betrothal, she had been treated much differently, partly by her own fault. She was a silent and reclusive creature and had made no attempt to befriend anyone apart from Narratus and Bick. There was no reason for the guards or anyone in the Village, therefore, to feel any warmth toward her, nor she toward them. Regardless, she had questions and whether they wanted to or not, they would speak with her.
“How long has it been since my brother returned to the Village?” She asked.
The guard to her left stared at her oddly.
“He passed by only moments ago, my lady.” He said, answering her, his confusion at her question evident in his voice.
She nodded her thanks and continued to make her way through the Village, her course straight and unyielding. She ignored the small murmurs of protest at those she passed swiftly by.
It did not seem possible for her to have dreamt all those things in a matter of moments.
She needed to speak with Narratus.