A Walk Among the Trees
Avalon and Fenrir looked to each other without amusement. An escort? That was rather unnecessary and quite the inconvenience for the alchemist to effectively survey the area.
“If you disagree with my decisions you are welcome to leave. Though we will take measures to protect our location should that be your choice.” The Lady Rowena said without looking to the stranger, pulling a book from one of hundreds of shelves that lined the tower’s walls.
Avalon hid her excitement being in the presence of such a collection of books. She doubted even if she was granted a full lifetime she would not finish every book kept here. A young wizard by the name of Finlay would act as her escort as she treaded the Dark Forest. A man of his eighteenth year, he was small and thin, pale with short dark hair and was quite clumsy. Whatever this boy could do against her was beyond the alchemist, she felt if she so much as blew on his face he would fall over. Still...though he did not look capable the Enchantress seemed to have a reason in tasking him with a dragon-fighting stranger.
Finlay saw the large dire wolf beside Avalon and she could see the brightness in his eyes. After they left and were away from the village, half-way around the loch, Avalon could stand the timid boy’s silence no longer.
“Fenrir.” The wolf straightened at his name, “Play.”
The wolf dashed off and jumped the boy, assaulting him with his vicious tongue. Finlay laughed, having not the strength to remove the wolf and only blocked some of these attacks. Avalon found a rock and sat, watching the two play and chase each other until the boy’s reserves of energy had depleted. Fenrir sniffed the wizard as he lay on the ground to catch his breath, the wolf’s head was petted and was met with more assaults of a slobbery tongue. The wizard stood back up, realizing Avalon had been watching the entire time and turned red.
“Was I that obvious?” Finlay asked sheepishly.
Avalon chuckled as she nodded, “Yes, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, Fenrir is quite the attention whore.”
“I wish everyone else thought that.” The wizard said looking back to the village, “They see me more as a hinderance than a capable wizard. That is why I like animals, they do not care.”
Avalon motioned for the boy to come closer, having him sit beside her as she took in the view. She was in no rush to explore or locate the source of the disruption at the moment. Lady Rowena had granted her a temporary residence and the ability to located what she sought, but nothing more. Avalon was meant to be gone by the end of the week and for the alchemist such a deadline was perfect, she saw a coming storm rolling in from afar and it would likely arrive with the next strong wind in two days. The path thru the mountain would be snowed in and her time and residence would be extended to the spring. If the Enchantress was as wise as they say, she would have known this to be the goal, yet before the others the witch allowed Avalon to stay. She too had her own motivations in this and the alchemist hoped it was not to suffer the same fate as the fool the Dark Ones sent.
“Finlay right? What can you tell me about this land?” Avalon pointed across the valley.
“A jewel of the world.” The wizard said fondly, “Our coven has resided here for hundreds of years, as far as our records go at least. We were not the original people, but the last. There was once many people, a few covens and a clan, but after many wars our elders decided to conceal the valley and seclude ourselves to prevent more fighting.”
Avalon could only guess that clan was the Anexus. It was surprising that the Anexus would have been driven out however, no such record is openly shared of anything here. Based on what the Volva said, there was an outpost which would explain the lack of structure and information. A small detachment, even Anexus were no match for many covens.
“I noticed your words, you and your people are quite educated for those living in seclusion.” Avalon saw the inside of the tower in her mind’s eye.
“The Ravenclaw family have always prided themselves as being those of wit and learning. They express the same teachings to every member of the village no matter who they are.” Finlay smiled proudly, “Lady Rowena is especially gifted, her knowledge and power has no bounds. She sees all a person may hide, she likely saw you as no real threat which is why someone as talentless as me was put as your escort.”
Avalon frowned at the boy’s empty laugh towards himself.
“You must not think so little of yourself. If Lady Rowena is as wise as you say, then she knew you being with me would have a good influence on the both of us.” Avalon gripped his shoulder, “She sees your skills and knowledge of animals; magic is not the only tool a wizard has.”
The alchemist unstrapped her sword and had it rest on the legs of both people.
“My sword has no edge.”
Finlay looked at Avalon in confusion, how does a sword meant for battle not have an edge?
“My sword is not meant to cut, to kill, it deflects magic. Which means it is meant to protect, to act as a shield.” Avalon allowed Finlay to touch Caliburn’s blade, to feel that it truly lacked the ability to cut.
She adjusted the sword to its original place and stood, stretching her arms as she looked to the Dark Forest on the other side of the loch. It was still morning, they had plenty of time to reach the forest and explore yet still have the time to return before night. In an unfamiliar forest, one whose magic was not balanced, it was unwise to dwell in such danger. Besides, Avalon was certain the village would want Finlay returned well and unharmed. She could not promise that once the sun fell.
“I ask that during our time together, you do not speak ill of yourself again. Fenrir will not play with you if you do.”
The Dark Forest lived to its name well as it was massive, thick with trees — beech, oak, pine, sycamore, and yew. There was also undergrowth such as knotgrass and thorns which had made travel even more difficult and without a proper, man-made path, this travel was nearly impossible without becoming lost. Finlay explained that many have disappeared in this forest, but there are some natural paths made by the numerous creatures that inhabit it-- should one know how to look--as well as brooks, and some clearings. Some of the nearby coven have attempted exploration and mapping of the forest, but just as their valley cannot be mapped neither can the forest and thus, most of what anyone knows is memory and experience-based.
Avalon felt quite comfortable in the forest, though Finlay was on the nervous end as his escorted did not take the cares he and his fellow villagers did when entering the forest. He was much quieter than she was, stepping effortlessly across the branches and leaves that littered the forest floor. Finlay grew up in this forest, he found comfort and solace among the silence of the trees, without judgement, without ridicule. This was his home and one he too noticed was being disrupted and despite his uncertainty of a stranger, found himself trusting of Avalon.
“How about a game?” Finlay suggested.
Avalon, surprised at its randomness agreed to play.
The wizard stepped on a log, offering a helping hand to Avalon who was not accustomed to the terrain,“I ask a question and you answer then you ask one and I answer.”
The alchemist chuckled, “Not much of a game.”
“Better than I spy something green.”
Even Fenrir found that funny.
“Where do you come from?” Finlay began.
“South, much warmer--” She lifted herself over a rock, “Less climbing too.”
They waited a moment, looking around for Finlay to recall his way to the clearing.
Avalon continued, “That tower--what types of books are in it?”
“All kinds: magic, history, literature--”
“Any fiction? Romance?” Avalon asked for her favorite genres.
“Not many, Lady Rowena does not believe they are valuable or beneficial in the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.” Finlay said, having gone thru the sections himself.
Avalon looked around seeing the occasional animal, “Do any of you ever read for fun?”
Finlay laughed, “Not often.”
“You people need to get out more.” The wolf huffed in agreement.
“What was that magic you used?” He looked to the woman’s marked brachers one being an enchantment, the other being not.
Finlay became excited, “That was alchemy! I have never seen it before, how does it work?”
Avalon placed her hand to her lips to silence the boy. Fenrir kept low, crawling with Avalon and Finlay to peak over a ledge. There was shouting and the sound of hooves to the ground--centaurs. A very large herd of them. They were training in the clearing, practicing bows and arrows at trees and testing their speed against each other. They were not a creature Avalon wanted anything to do with. Centaurs in her homeland have never gotten along with any humans and both the Anexus and they keep out of each other’s way. They were a proud race, skilled in divining, archery, and astronomy all of which were skills the Volva taught were ones the Anexus learned from them. It did not do anyone well to insult a centaur, but they were nonetheless an honorable race almost never laying a hand on children. Elene and her sons were safe in the forest because of this.
Avalon did not want to interact with a herd she knew nothing of and sought to hide and evade. Finlay was the opposite. He stood up, having slipped Avalon’s grip as he came to the opening and presented himself. A few saw him, most ignored, but a young centaur, not of fighting age galloped over. This was a young female centaur, the lower half of her was indeed a golden coat as her torso was a tone lighter, though the green of a leafy shirt stood out as her hair creamy white, just barely touched her shoulders.
“Finlay! I did not think you were coming so soon!” Exclaimed the centaur as she slowed, circling the wizard.
The wizard smiled, “Lady Rowena asked me to be an escort of a visitor who said she could help the forest.”
The centaur girl was named Phenione and she drew a concerned look as the wizard said this. Avalon assumed he may have overstepped his friendship with the herd by bringing and introducing a stranger. The only saving grace was that Avalon was not neither witch nor muggle. The alchemist came from the ledge slowly, instructing Fenrir to keep beside her and to not be threatening no matter how the centaurs presented themselves. Phenione was cautious, she watched every move this new comer made, trying to determine a purpose of her presence.
“Had I known I would be introduced to centaurs, I would have dressed more appropriately.” Avalon lowered her head respectfully, shooting a glare to an apologetic Finlay. He excitement got the best of him.
“You are no witch.” Phenione said as the herd took notice of another and proceeded to halt their training.
Avalon shook her head, “I am an alchemist, I lead the Anexus Clan in the southern lands.”
The herd galloped, circling the three, though aiming all their arrows to Avalon.
“Impossible.” Growled a centaur, “The Anexus have not set foot in this forest for centuries.”
Avalon was becoming rather annoyed at being at the wrong end of everything.
“I know.” Was all she could say.
“The Anexus abandoned their duties to protect this forest!” Yelled another.
“With all do respect...” Avalon clenched her fist, “I cannot speak for my ancestors, nor their actions in a time I was not alive for.” The chief kept still, “But I am here now because the Guardian of your forest sent for help.”
“You speak lies!”
“The Guardian of this forest abandoned us years ago!”
The head of the herd came, the largest of the centaurs, of blackened hair and deep bronze flesh. He towered over Avalon, who showed no fear in his presence, Phenione pulled Finlay out of the center, fearing his safety. The centaurs held no resentment of him, for he knew not of the scarred relationship between the Anexus and they.
“I understand the resentment you may have of my ancestors, but I am not them!” Avalon’s anger of being compared to those of the past seeped thru her tact, “I have given you respect as you deserve I ask the same be returned.”
“How can you say you are Anexus when you walk with a wizard?” Asked the previously silent head.
Avalon breathed in deeply than exhaled as this centaur did not speak to her in a belittling tone, rather a skeptical one which was more accepting of the ladder.
“Times have changed Lord Centaur; the Anexus now fight beside three of the Great Families of the wizarding world against the a newly risen Dark Lord.” The alchemist explained, lifting her arm to display the enchanted bracer, the twin of which was worn by the wizard Godric Gryffindor.
The centaurs looked to each other, surprised at this. Of course word had not reached them of the ordeals of the magical world--these are ordeals of humans. So long as the humans did not cross into centaur land and wood there would be no confrontation. However, the stories of the past, of the neighbors whom also lived beside the herd of old were passed onto each generation. They would not forget, nor forgive of the abandonment. The Anexus the supposed protectors of creatures of magic, of the Great Balance, and yet they lost so easily to the witches and wizards who fought another. Truth be told...the centaurs believed the Anexus to be whipped from the world as none survived the battles fought here.
Avalon looked around to the race that was not human nor horse, but their own people entirely. Did they think the outpost that was here was all that the Anexus had? If that was true it was understandable of their thoughts of abandonment and weakness. Such is not the case, not then, and not now for the Chief of the Anexus had come at the call.
“Lord Centaur...if you and your people believe my clan to have abandoned you then I ask that I be allowed the chance to change your thoughts.” The alchemist asked earnestly, intentionally suggesting the fault of this misunderstanding to belong to the Anexus. Which was not entirely false.
The others argued against this accusing Avalon to be a liar and a false messenger. She was a stranger and an invader, that Finlay had been led astray by this woman and she should be dealt with quickly. Avalon knew if they decided to kill her she would not survive and realizing that...the woman was internally fearful. She spoke up asking if she was to be believed as a false messenger then to at least allow Finlay to go unpunished for he was only carrying out the task Lady Rowena sent him on. Mentally, she hoped that Fenrir would not throw his life away for her because Avalon did not want both of them to meet an end here. If anything...Finlay would take good care of him until he decided to return to Elene.
“Divination shall determine whether you are to be a friend or foe of us.” Said the head, who ordered his herd to escort Avalon and the ‘filthy dog’ away.
Phenione took Finlay back to the edge of the Dark Forest for him to return to the village. How he would explain this to Lady Rowena was beyond him. Avalon saw the sun had long fallen towards the western horizon and knew the coming night was fast upon them. Should she have the chance...should she truly be in danger, though she will be running blind, escape was possible. Though the centaurs were familiar with the Anexus, whether they were familiar with alchemy’s activation was seemingly low.
It was strange to hear her fate to be decided by Divination for she had never had her past or future seen before. The Volva was no seer, she had only seen that which she lived thru and though her knowledge was great the Anexus were not those fluent in Divination; a skill that found no use among the battle-born Anexus, any method or teaching has either been discarded or abandoned. For centaurs who have a way of practicing divination distinct from that of humans, they place the accuracy of their skill based around observing the movement of planets, moons, and stars. Avalon knew nothing of Divination, she heard the term once or twice in her year, but nothing more. She was quite occupied with things other than the uncertainty of ‘seeing’ whether eating eggs or boar would upset her stomach the next day.
The herd led her to a natural camp, young trees bent and woven in a way that had them grow into their intended shape creating homes out of living trees. This process was repeated over and over throughout the centuries until the village among the trees was truly so. It was a far more naturalistic manner of balance and harmony, one of course centaurs alone could perform and tolerate. Avalon admitted she was quite fond of her fireplace and very much in longing of it right about now. How centaurs could stand the cold here was beyond her and it was just the beginning of winter. It was going to be rough few months, that was certain.
“Lord Centaur...I did not introduce myself before: my name is Avalon Anexus.” Avalon said as the head of the heard turned his head slightly to her.
“And I am Thadaros, Chief Anexus.”
Avalon smiled, “So you do believe me.”
Thadaros nodded, “Wizards and witches, they see themselves as the superior of all that is magic; their ways of divination are a self-flattering nonsense.” The centaur frowned, “They think themselves greater and dare to compare us as mere mules!”
Avalon understood him, “They are not all that way though.” She felt for the hum of the bracer, “Time and people have both changed I was able to see that and convinced my fellow members to give them a chance.”
Thandaros and Avalon were left standing beside each other, another centaur, one much older looked to the night skies. The alchemist woman admitted her night eye was not to par with others, but the light of the stars allowed for her to see enough not to trip. It was a beautiful, quiet night where though the sky was black, the milky way made it appear blue. The Anexus admitted she had not taken a moment to look at the Majesty of the night sky for a long time. Her mind has always been on what was in front of her, on the ground, in the material world. If she was being honest with herself she had not even thought of what was waiting for her after her death...knowing how close she was too it...she tried to keep it as far from her mind as possible.
The elder centaur gazed upon the milky way, reading its moments and the alignment of the planets on the last clear night. As winter was coming, this was likely to be the last divination for a while and for Avalon to have arrived in time for it was no coincidence. Centaurs would use divination to foresee major events this way, one Avalon would not doubt be apart of and would determine whether she was friend or foe.
The alchemist felt a sudden chill, she wrapped her cloak tighter to keep out the wind, a motion that had Fenrir press himself against his companion.
Avalon smiled lightly, lightly pushing into her wolf, “Thank you.”
The elder spoke of her sight and Thandaros kindly translated it to the human: this night, Mars shone brightly in the sky; a harbinger of war. Avalon knew this war was already a factor of her life, but as divination is not an exact skill she concluded this was simply a telling of the past and her present. Thandaros listened to his fellow centaur in phases and words Avalon held no understanding of.
Avalon was neither friend nor foe for this divination did not involve just her, but those who fought beside and against her. It was a future of times long beyond this one, when magic and muggles would grow closer and closer as acceptance and understanding became possible. Not all would be together in that age, many would reject it, seeking to repeat the past. For the centaurs concern, as they did not care about the world of man, Avalon was free to travel the Dark Forest. Perhaps she could be of some help though, as she was true to her word it is the honorable to assist in a manner.
Avalon and Thandaros stood in the clearing, watching the stars.
“The reason why you were thought to be false was not only because we thought the Anexus to be gone, but that you mentioned the Guardian.” The centaur began, “There has not been a Guardian in these woods, not since your people disappeared.”
Avalon was shocked, “That cannot be that--”
The centaur shook his head, “It should not be, we are both aware that Guardians are the manifestations of the will of the forest. But no one, not a single creature has seen it in years, even we began to believe the forest had abandoned us and yet the forest still lives.”
Avalon had never heard this before, nothing could prepare her for this. How the Anexus went this long without knowing this was unacceptable, but why after all this time did they receive a call? Was this because of the dragons? Avalon learned they had appeared only the past few years and their numbers and actions seemed to be growing. Was this an omen then? Was there another great war about to break loose, or was something about to change the course of history? The alchemist did not know what to do, her knowledge as an alchemist, an Anexus; their chief, as one who learns of the magic of witches and wizards provided no answers.
Something disrupted the deep magic of this land, a thing that had nature cry out to for help. If not the Guardian who called her to this place? Could the forest substitute the lack of a Guardian for something else, could it be that the Great Balance itself has a will? Not likely, if that was so the Anexus would know of it; it is nature, it simply is. Avalon placed her bare hand to the soft grass shutting her eyes and feeling the magic within. It is easy to sense the magic here, there is so much of it, even a child could be taught to tone out the world and listen.
Avalon opened her eyes, “The dragons that have been migrating here, do you know where they nest?”
Thandaros thought it was a strange question to ask, "We have seen them when they attack the village on the Black Lake. After they take their prey they fly up river, towards the north western mountains, but beyond that we do not know and are not foolish enough to follow. Why do you ask?"
Avalon leaned back and watched the stars, "They may hold the answers to where the Guardian has gone. If I can find the Guardian I will surely find the way to restore balance to these lands."
All she could hope was not to repeat the mistakes of her youth. A valuable lesson she and Godric both learned: Never wake a sleeping dragon.