Deep within the Silverwood forest, Serenthel awoke with a scream.
His wide eyes stared wildly up at the tree canopy as his chest heaved in an effort to draw in air. The branches swayed with a strange wind, their forms slowly taking shape to dispel the lingering visions from an unsettling dream. A nesting pair of honey breasted wrens vocally protested his disturbance, and the scattering of deer could be heard through the nearby thicket.
Ah, nettles!, he cursed silently and raised a hand to his aching head. He’d been tracking those deer all morning, hoping to catch sight of the sickened doe reported by a local watcher. The herd had been close, just in the next clearing over, when the dream had overtaken him.
He sat up and found himself alone, nestled in the crook between moss topped tree roots half a man high which jutted from the earth like miniature mountain ranges along the forest floor, connecting each tree to the trees around it. The forest breathed as spring-sweetened breezes played through the branches like an exhale. Above, the wrens gave up their arguments and the forest fell silent once more. In the settling stillness, Serenthel heard his own heart pounding in his sharply pointed ears as an ominous shiver twitched up his spine.
He had never dreamed before.
With legs crossed, eyes closed and his back pressed against the rough tree bark, he focused on reining in his racing heart. A bead of sweat rolled down his smooth jawline despite the cool dampness of the forest floor. His hands fisted over his knees. Behind his eyelids, he once more saw flames trapped within shadow and heard the thunderous roar that followed in its wake.
Unable to shake the dream, he stood and cast his eyes towards his lost quarry. The possibly injured doe would have to wait. One did not simply have a dream within the Silverwood and carry on with their day.
The Silverwood stood as a forest of sky reaching silverbark sequoia whose grey trunks grew thirty feet around and played tricks on the eye to appear as silver as a swordsman’s blade when the light hit them just right. This part of the Elvan lands lay far southeast beyond Lath’limnieir’s Wall and the Greenwood Dale, deeply entrenched in a winding valley that had remained protected from the ever expanding dreams of man. The Elvan thought themselves safe there. They were supposed to be safe there.
Hands on his hips, Serenthel took in a deep breath of loamy air scented by tree sap, dark earth and a nearby stream. The breeze tugged through his auburn hair, lifting it from his shoulders. His nose wrinkled at an unexpected sour note to the wind and he glowered in the direction from whence it came. The herd. Perhaps he was too late and the doe had died. With a disappointed sigh, he gathered his pack and resolved himself to sending a scout to retrieve the poor creature’s corpse so he could at least investigate the cause.
It had been a hard winter, he reminded himself. The doe could’ve been sickened from malnourishment or the infected bite of a wolf hunt not so perfectly evaded. There would be little good in fearing the worst without seeing it with his own eyes. Carnath and its blight, after all, lay a long journey north and beyond the wall.
Even if the blight said to be plaguing the northernmost kingdom of man was truly as bad as the rumors led him to believe, to think it could pass the wall’s protective wards raised more concerns than were prudent without evidence. The troubles of man, he knew, had a bothersome habit of spreading to other kingdoms like wildfire, and with them came the fear and ignorance that could upend entire nations. It had been nigh on a thousand years since the last great helyn’tir, but like the trees surrounding him, the memory of the Elvan people remained long enough to remember it well enough to be worried. The memory of man was short, however, and their kind seemed doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.
With a high whistle, Serenthel called to his friend and walked towards the river where he knew his friend would be waiting. His friend came to greet him a small distance from the riverbank and gave a low rumbling call and a shake of velvet covered antlers. Serenthel patted the elk stag’s thickly furred neck and received a customary nuzzle in return.
“Vastha lythel, Forfolyn,” Serenthel greeted and checked the loomed cloth riding blanket draped over Forfolyn’s strong back. The stag stared off to the forest behind and dug one front hoof against the earth. Serenthel gave his friend a pat of reassurance. “No, I did not find the doe, my friend, but other troubles must direct our path now. I have had a dream.”
Forfolyn turned his large head back to look at Serenthel, as if understanding those words and their urgent nature. In Forfolyn’s large brown eyes, Serenthel saw the wisdom of the forest reflected. “Do not worry so, my friend,” Serenthel assured as he lifted himself gracefully onto the elk’s back. “We will go and see our Mother. She will know what to do.”
Forfolyn set off along the riverbank without even the slightest nudge to his ribs from Serenthel. They’d been friends for onwards of twenty summers, the Mother’s magic allowing the elk to age at a slower pace in keeping with Serenthel’s own natural progression. Forfolyn ran with the vigor of an elk a quarter his age, and Serenthel had last year concluded the rights of Hyn after reaching the age of thirty summers, passing from youth’s sweet embrace to a role requiring more responsibility. Appearing no more than sixteen in the years of man, Serenthel knew he had barely scratched the beginning of life’s journey. He had over a century and a half of growth yet before reaching Hynna’durai, the age when you chose to lay down life’s burdens and rejoin the land which birthed you, or to become a voice of the land for the people, like the Mother.
Of which option Serenthel would choose when he got there, he had not decided. As it was, he believed the same as his kin: the journey, and not the destination, was what mattered most. And now that he had been gifted a dream, where that journey may take him held uncertain but wondrous promise. A dream, as rare as they had become and even as frightening as his had been, were often the start of great adventures as retold and shared in memories passed down from one generation to the next. Portents of great upheaval and change, yes, but did not all great adventures begin with a great change?
Serenthel did his best to cast off his excitement and maintain a calm presence as he entered the Mother’s Grove. He nodded to the sentries posted in front of two large silverbark trees whose arching bowers served as the entryway. Built along these trees in an ancient technique that could support structures without harming the trees themselves, stairs rounded upwards into landings, communal houses and gathering places. Rope bound wood plank bridges stretched across from tree to tree at dizzying heights. Everbright lanterns lit the way, their soft white glow dotting the tree canopy with small beacons of life and welcoming home the children of the Lwyn’fam.
In his thirty years, he had yet to walk through the gate without pausing in awe to look up at all his people had accomplished. He believed that even in his three-hundredth year, the same feelings of coming home would persist. Perhaps becoming a voice of the land would not be disagreeable with him, if it meant he could stay here in this place and stare up at the lighted canopy until the end of time.
“Serenthel, vastha lythel!” a young voice called out.
Serenthel smiled across the clearing as a boy weaved in and out of passing groups with the energy and boundless emotion that would be tempered in his later years. A few of the elders raised their eyebrows in the boy’s direction, and one or two called out for him to slow his pacing, but most joined Serenthel in his smiling at the reminders of what had been left behind after the rights of Hyn. The boy skidded to a stop in front of Forfolyn and set a palm against the stag’s nose in greeting.
“Hail, Efferthas,” Serenthel greeted with a raised hand and restrained levity befitting one of his age. “You come as a spring rabbit newly awakened from the burrow, though less quietly so.”
Efferthas flushed and ducked his head. “I mean no disturbance, brother, but I have been sent to find your arrival. Mother knows of your return and has requested your presence.”
The hairs at the back of Serenthel’s neck raised. Mother must know of the dream, he thought, and was not entirely surprised by the news. Pride had him wanting to share this rare happening with Efferthas, but forethought held his tongue. Dismounting, he handed Forfolyn’s loosely harnessed reins to the boy, who in truth was only four years Serenthel’s junior.
“Please see to Forfolyn,” Serenthel requested. “And see that a scout is sent to the bitterroot thicket just west of Swallows Bend. I believe a doe has met an unfortunate end, and I wish the body be brought to the druids for examination lest it be some sickness that may spread to the others.”
“Best to be assured,” Efferthas agreed, his solemn tone more in keeping with a youth only a few swiftly passing years away from his Hyn. “I will see it is done. You should hurry. Mother seemed… troubled.”
Serenthel set a reassuring hand on Efferthas’s shoulder. “Worry not, brother. All will be well.” He set off across the open market area beneath the canopy, not quite as assured by his own words as he’d like to have been.
He passed by a group of weavers huddled around one loom, the elders passing on their knowledge to the younglings with care and patience. After a hundred years of practice, they would still be considered apprentices. Only a few would ever truly reach the expertise required to be called a meis’wyd, or Loom Master. The Lwyn’fam currently had only two, one a few years from his time of choosing, and another a quarter century behind. The younger weavers watched their elder’s hands move over the loom with rapt attention, in their eyes a hope that their hands would one day would hold as much skill.
Such was the way of the Elvan; an extended youth leading into a century of training and perfecting a chosen profession. Be they weaver or druid or bowyer, each had a skill to be nourished, cherished and shared. Efferthas had already chosen to become a watcher, his love for the elk and exploration setting him on a path towards a Hyn that would allow some freedom to keep his seemingly boundless energy and untempered spirit as he watched over the migrating herds both near and far from the grove. Serenthel, too, once considered the path of the watcher, but in the end, the Mother helped him to see that his was a similar yet vastly different calling. Perhaps then, as now, she had already foreseen the dream that was to come.
He thought over the dream as he walked across the clearing, pausing only to take a piece of flatbread offered freely by a hearthkeeper. “Thank you, sister.”
Unlike the wealth driven economies of man, his appreciative smile was all the payment required for the bread she’d spent the morning making. Her bread was shared to all, and all would in turn share the products of their chosen paths with her. It was hard for him to understand how a society could properly function any other way, with the needs of some being pushed aside for the want of few circles of pressed metal with the face of a crowned man stamped on it. It seemed a strange thing indeed to labor for coins you could not eat only to exchange them for something you could.
The bread’s warm flavors were a welcome distraction from the lingering dream. He thought instead of the talent required to mingle such herbs and get the dough just right to form a soft texture inside a hard crust. He thought of the beautiful blankets and fabrics the weavers created, of the artfully carved longbows that could shoot across a hundred yards without effort, of the music he could hear pleasantly playing along with the breeze dancing in the leaves, of his home; a home he knew he would soon be leaving.
By the time his feet had taken him to the Mother’s Tree, he had finished the bread but felt no less apprehensive. If anything, it had reminded him of all he would soon be called upon to leave behind. He hadn’t known it would come in the form of a dream, but he had known since the day he accepted his path, that a traveler was not destined to remain long in the place of his birth.
“Vastha lythel, Serenthel,” one of the Mother’s attendants warmly greeted. She had hand painted beads woven into her blonde hair and a simple dress of white that had been proudly stained brown and green around the edges by hours spent tending the Mother’s garden. “The Mother is waiting for you.”
“Thank you, Lissan.” Serenthel passed under a shaped bower of wild purple wisteria branches and entered the garden. A sense of serenity permeated the air, along with the scents of flowers forever in bloom be it the height of spring or the depths of winter. The Mother’s garden was a place set a part from the outside world, yet fully connected to it in ways Serenthel knew he could never truly understand.
Well-tended flower beds and neatly stoned paths flowed in and out from more chaotic sections that had been left to grow as nature intended. Dark spaces of shade untouched by light juxtaposed bright and airy plots where tulips grew in organized rows of varying colors. Water trickled into a pond topped by lilies and alive with golden scaled fish. Hummingbirds and butterflies and bees flitted from flower to flower, forever dancing within a paradise of unending abundance. Centering it all stood a tree, its light pink flowers forever in bloom despite ripe fruit and silver leaves always hanging from its branches. Its height remained short and its canopy’s shadow never growing beyond the small sloping hill on which it had rooted. The hill gave the most splendid view of the garden, and on it, under her tree, sat the Mother.
Although, she didn’t exactly sit. Like the tree at her back, the bottom of her legs had become wooden, rooted into the earth and connected with it. Unmovable, and forever looking out onto her eternal garden. The price of immortality, they said. At her Hynna’durai, she had chosen to become a voice of the forest for the Lwyn’fam. The price, her mobility and part of who she had been, served as fertile soil for a seed to grow. From this seed, she had gained sight beyond where she sat rooted, and knowledge older than the trees.
Despite such wondrous gifts, Serenthel was uncertain he would find such a price agreeable. His legs always craved movement, his eyes always seeking something new to see. That he had been named the Lwyn’fam’s first traveler in over a hundred years came as little surprise to those who knew his heart best. The previous traveler had not yet returned, so it fell to the community to become his guide. It seemed everyone in the grove had something to teach him, some small or large piece of advice to share.
Be mindful of your surroundings. Always pack for longer than you expect. This plant is edible, but this one will kill you. Represent our people with dignity, compassion and grace. Humans rarely say what they mean. Do not go into the Grey Marsh. Come back to us.
Observe, learn, but do not interfere. Humans can be dangerous. Come back to us.
Shadows can exist in the most radiant of lights. Do not be tempted by the dreaming.
Come back to us.
With those words whispering across strands of anxious tension, he reverently approached the grove’s first traveler. She had seen the far reaches of the world, observed and learned and brought stories back to her people. She had come back home in her one-hundredth and eighty-seventh year and chose to never leave it again. Would his eyes show him the same fate, he wondered? Would seeing the world lead him to desire such an ending for his journey?
“Ah, the traveler has come.” The Mother’s greeting rang clear over the garden, almost as birdsong more than a woman’s voice.
Her white, colorless eyes looked up as Serenthel’s shadow joined the speckled shadow of her flowering tree. Long tresses of equally white hair hung in straight lines from her head and pooled around her in puddles of moonlight. Woven between the strands, vines grew and flowers blossomed, their roots clinging to her body and seeping into her milky skin. Her smile was ethereal, and it brought unmeasured joy to his heart.
“Mother,” he said softly and lowered to one knee before her. “I come as summoned, and in search of your guidance.”
“You have dreamed,” she said, the words reverberating into his very soul and carrying with them a weight that foretold his future. “And you now feel the pull of the unseen world upon your spirit.”
“Yes, Mother.” That she understood did not surprise him, but it also did not put him any more at ease. “It both excites and frightens me.”
“As it should, traveler.” She smiled at him and touched a spot on the grass beside her.
He gratefully accepted her invitation and sat next to her, his knees pulled up to his chest in a manner not in keeping with one who had passed his Hyn but more so bearing of the youth he’d been meant to leave behind. There were no elders to judge him in this garden, however, so he forwent the more dignified posture of sitting with his legs tucked under him and knees to the ground. The Mother was more than an elder; she was, well, the Mother, and in her presence he felt but a child.
“Did you know?” he first asked the question most weighing on his mind. “When you said I should be the one to investigate the doe, did you know I was to have a dream today?”
“No,” she replied, her smile wistful. “I knew only that the winds have changed, and in them I felt your own time of change drawing near. That it would come as a dream is not entirely unexpected, though the nature of it is…disquieting.”
To hear that even the Mother had been troubled by the dream’s darkness made Serenthel hug his knees more tightly. “It was not a pleasant experience. Is it always like that, to dream?”
“There was a time,” she said and cast her gaze out over her garden, “when we welcomed and even sought out the dreams of man. Back when the world was young and man’s place in it younger still, our kind felt drawn to the dream, a magic we could not ourselves create, a magic that man continues to maintain a blind ignorance to. They know not the power of their dreams, and as the nature of man darkened, so too did their dreams. The dreaming claimed many an Elvan spirit before we learned ways to keep safe from their strong allure.”
“Lanth’limnier’s Wall,” Serenthel spoke softly the name of the great wall he had heard stories of but never seen with his own eyes.
He could imagine its towering stones splitting the earth between the Elvan lands and the lands of Orynthis. The great elk statues gleaming alabaster white in the sun. The large iron barred tunnels that allowed water and fish to flow from the Idrisil Riverlands into the Greenwood Dale. The watchers with their bows at the ready to fire warnings at any who dared attempt to sneak into what remained of the Elvan homelands.
Idrisil and parts of Orynthis had once belong to the Elvan people, too, before the fall of D’nas Glas. Now, the Riverland’s tainted source and the ruins of that once great Elvan city lay on the other side of the White Stag Gate, a gate few Elvan would ever walk beyond, a gate he may well soon be seeing for himself. Try though he might, he could not quiet the trepidation quickening his heartbeat. If the Elvan people had once fallen prey to the darker dreams of man and been corrupted by their tempting power, how was he not to become yet another lost spirit when he crossed the wall?
As if hearing every uncertain thought drifting through his head, Mother placed her hand over his. Her long, slender fingers gave his rougher, earth worked skin a squeeze then retreated. In his palm, he found she had left something behind.
“A gift,” she said as he examined the smooth alabaster stone. “It will help keep the darker dreams at bay.”
The milky white, round stone had a hole drilled through it and was hung from a leather band. One side was completely smooth and looked like the full moon. On the other side, the delicate image of a great tree had been carved. Simply holding it within his palm, he felt reminded of home and more at ease with the journey that awaited him.
“Thank you, Mother.” He hung the stone from around his neck and returned her gentle smile. A peaceful silence drifted between them, the traveler and the traveled, until his heart could no longer contain its other questions. “Where do I begin?”
“All journeys begin with but a single step,” she said, her gaze cast back out over the flowers. “Your heart will choose the path.”
A sweet breeze lifted the strands of hair from her brow, and he though he saw the hint of some deep melancholy cross her vision. Heretofore unnoticed wrinkles and signs of time’s heavy weight sagged her ageless face. Her lips parted, a breath came and went, then whispered words broke her silent watch of memories he could not see.
“Promise me, traveler; no matter how steep the path, nor how sharp its stones underfoot, nor how uncertain the bend in the road may be, you will follow it. Follow it to its very end, for only at its end will you find your way back home.”
With his hand clutching the smooth alabaster, he looked upon her garden and answered with his heart. “To its very end, Mother, I promise.”