THE ELFIN FOREST
As they approached the bridge that spanned the moat and prepared to cross, Willow thought that she heard a cry from behind them.
She asked, “Did either of you hear that?”
Both boys pulled back on the reins and turned their heads. Sprinting across the grass was a blur of pink, shouting indistinguishably. As the blur drew near, Willow saw that it was a little girl, dressed in pink pajamas and a fluffy pink robe that flapped in the wind. Her long blonde hair pulled back in two plaits, trailed behind her.
“Ro Ro...Ro Ro!” the little girl called.
Devon looked at Rohan, eyebrows raised, a mocking smile firmly in place, “Ro Ro, huh? That’s adorable. An admirer of yours?”
“Come off it. She’s my little sister.”
Rohan attempted to dismount as Kelby approached, but his foot got caught in the stirrup. Willow reached out instinctively, and Rohan was suspended in mid air as her magic held him there. Willow stared in shock at what she had done. Rohan struggled to free his foot while hanging upside down. Willow recovered quickly and flipped her outstretched hand, flipping Rohan right side up simultaneously. Slowly lowering her hand, Rohan’s feet gently came to rest on the hard earth.
Panting Rohan breathed, “You are incredible.”
Willow flushed pink, and remained silent.
Unperturbed by the sight of her brother flip-flopping in the air, Kelby demanded answers, “Where are you going? I saw you leaving from my dorm window.”
“I have to help Willow with something. I’ll be back as soon as I can. Mom and Dad already know. Professor Edgar sent them a letter.”
Mail worked curiously in the world of Tutis. A person simply wrote a name on the envelope and pushed it through the slot at the post. It would instantly materialize in the recipient’s hand.
“Can I come?” Kelby asked.
“No. I’m sorry Kel Bel. When you’re older, you’ll understand. Now go on inside and get some breakfast.”
Stamping her foot, she cried, “But that’s not fair!”
Rohan calmed her with a stern look.
Seeing that her brother was not about to relent, she sniffled as tears rolled down her cheeks. “Can I at least see you off?”
“Sure,” Rohan said as he scrambled onto his horse’s back.
Without a mounting block or the added height of a step, it was a trying feat.
Once atop the saddle, he turned his attention back to his sister, “As soon as we are out of sight, head straight back inside. And don’t cross the bridge.”
“Okay,” she said appeased.
Willow and Rohan gazed back several times to wave to Kelby, until they finally rounded the bend and lost sight of her. Willow’s heart broke as she wondered if she would ever see that precious girl again. She shook her head to drive away her negative thoughts. If she continued to believe that they were doomed to fail, chances were that was precisely what would transpire -- self-fulfilling prophesy at work.
The bend steered them onto the main street of Speratus, the dirt road called Briar Oak Lane. The village was quiet with slumbering citizens. Only a few proprietors and their most faithful patrons were up and about.
The main square of the village consisted of a blacksmith shop, a mill, a baker, and a tavern. A stone well stood in a place of prominence in the center of the village. Twenty or so modest wood homes filled with wattle and daub and capped with thatched roofs were dispersed behind the rows of businesses on either side of the lane. Glimpses of the surrounding fields and vineyards could be seen between them.
A middle aged woman in a shabby linen dress and a patched, wide brim hat puttered about in her yard just outside the tavern.
She recognized Willow and called out a greeting, “Why hello, Willow. Beautiful morning isn’t it? No school today?”
“Hello, Mrs. Godelief. Yes, it’s beautiful today. No, no school,” Willow said. Then adding to herself in a whisper, “Not for us anyway.”
Mrs. Godelief was blissfully ignorant of the significance of the trio’s march.
Briar Oak Lane dead ended at the church, a small building of gray stone, complete with large, arched, stained glass windows and a steeple. It was through the churchyard that they had to travel to reach the forest’s boarder.
Passing through the graveyard, Willow felt a slight pang of sadness knowing there would be no graves marked for her parents that she could visit. No tomb to decorate with a wreath of flowers, but then, the tiny torch around her neck grew a few degrees warmer as if to remind her that her parents’ presence carried on. Their Everflames burned above her heart.
They reached the forest edge. The dense hardwood forest was vibrant with pigment -- fiery reds, sunny yellows, and golden browns created a stunning canopy. This was the one place where Willow had always felt magical, despite her previous lack of supernatural abilities. Even now, something in the crisp autumn air touched her soul, speaking of endless possibility.
A narrow tunnel formed by overlapping branches protected a well worn path. Golden leaves cascaded in a gentle rain. The peaceful forest was perfectly silent except for the occasional flutter of leaves and the sing-song of a distant bird. In such enchanting surroundings it was almost impossible for Willow to believe that they had a perilous journey ahead. A journey her parents, like so may before them, lost their lives attempting to complete.
Willow was struck by the idea that this could have been like any other day in summer when she had spent so many solitary hours riding Bellefire through these very woods. The summers were always a quiet season for her; time itself seemed to slow down. Though that might have more to do with Rohan’s brief absence than the nature of the season itself. Time lost all meaning when he was by her side.
She loved watching the small childlike faces pop in and out of view behind the trees as the Elves played hide-and-seek or splashed and swam in the river. Elves added to the mystic of the forest. At the dawn of every spring, Willow took a special, solitary trip to the forest to silently observe the Elves celebrate the blossoms where they played in their magical home, their laughter ringing through the forest.
The Elves hardly surpassed the humble height of four feet. Their fair faces had sharp, yet delicate features with high cheek bones and star-like, expressive eyes in an array of splendid colors. Pointy ears stuck out from beneath unruly golden hair that accentuated their graceful, fragile characteristics.
Wardens of nature, their long lives knew no illness or affliction, and with old age came only greater wisdom and strength. They led quiet, peaceful lives, were calm and patient in all things, never interfering with the villagers. Their strength in both spirit and limb exceeded the bonds of their small stature. Possessing exceptional vitality and endurance, as well as keener vision and hearing than humans, they were well adapted for their forest home.
As they entered the tunnel of deciduous trees, Willow was greeted by a heavenly chorus that sang of peace and tranquility. On both sides of the trail, slim and tiny Elves adorned in greenish-gray vestments of semi-transparent silk stepped forward, heads wreathed in leafy crowns and bowed in solemn deference. Awed by what she heard and saw, she took in the display before her in silence.
Unlike Mrs. Godelief, they had grasped the magnitude and gravity of this procession. Their spirits were sensitive to the subtle shifts in the balance of nature. Willow was truly touched by their gesture and her eyes teared at the sight of their send off.
Once past the final two elves, Willow turned and whispered “Thank you.”
Rohan’s stomach gave an angry growl, breaking her trance. Devon reached into his saddle bag and pulled out three apples. He tossed one each to Rohan and Willow, keeping one for himself.
Rohan examined the apple in his hand, and said to Willow, “It’s a shame we couldn’t head out after breakfast -- scrambled eggs and bacon. Yum!”
His stomach gave another gurgle, and he grudgingly took a bite of the apple. Willow found that even after inhaling two sandwiches early this morning, she still had room for the apple.
After their snack, Devon said, “We should probably pick up the pace for a bit. I want to be through the forest by nightfall.”
A stifled groan escaped Rohan. He was never quite able to master horseback riding, scraping by with below average marks in his equine lessons. In his fifth year at Credo, the year when these lessons were no longer deemed mandatory, he quit taking them and never looked back. Willow on the other hand, was quite at home on horseback, and took double lessons as her electives each year.
“Sometimes it helps if you talk to your horse. His name is Caper. Devon, your horse’s name is Apollo, by the way,” Willow said.
“Here goes nothing, Caper,” Rohan said, clearly not expecting much, but digging in his heels nonetheless.
Devon and Willow rode at a comfortable trot, posting expertly in their saddles. Rohan bounced along in his seat, absolutely terrified. Willow entertained herself by watching the dragonflies and butterflies flitting through the sunny rays slanting through the dense foliage.
After a few hours of alternating between sprightly trots and abbreviated walks, the three found themselves at Windcross Run -- the wide river that divided the forest almost perfectly in half in a broad, slithering, silvery ribbon.
It had been an unusually rainy summer, and the water was high, broken with barreling rapids that roared and clattered over its pebbled bottom. Willow paced her horse in front of the spot that was usually calm enough to ford.
Turning to the boys she said, “It’s too deep, we can’t cross here.”
Rohan pointed at something behind Willow, a huge smile spreading across his face, and said, “You might want to think again.”
Willow looked behind her and realized with sudden shock that the water was dammed up on both sides creating a path shallow enough to cross, right where she had been pacing. Stunned, she watched as Rohan and Devon crossed easily. Of course, she thought. Water -- another Element. Willow crossed with her horse, disconcerted by the looks that came from Rohan and Devon’s direction, as the walls of water met with a great splash behind her.
Rohan’s mouth hung open in utter disbelief.
Wanting to turn the attention away from herself, Willow said, “Why don’t we stop here for lunch. I think we only have another four hour ride from here to the far end of the forest.”
Devon pulled out cold cut slices of meat wrapped in cloth and some dried fruit he thought to supply. He passed them around as they sat on the mossy bank of the river. Though Devon had a bow and some fishing tackle, she appreciated the luxury of being able to eat this first meal on the run. She wondered how far she and Rohan would have been able to go without Devon’s preparations.
After allowing the horses a good long drink and a snack of their own -- the rich river-fed grass -- the three filled their canteens to the brim as they continued their trek.
Rohan insisted on assisting Willow into her saddle, glaring at Devon as he said, “I am her Guardian, after all.”
With much difficulty and a good deal of upper body strength on Willow’s part, she managed to find her seat in the saddle. Rohan used a rotten stump to pull himself into Caper’s saddle, and Devon lithely mounted Apollo. Instead of taking his place to Willow’s right as he had done during the morning, Devon forced his stead between Rohan and Willow.
Rohan trailed behind the two of them, his sore legs adding to his difficulties. Willow occasionally glanced back apologetically, but was enamored by Devon’s stories as he entertained her with tales of adventure from his time with her parents.
“So the Grim was on our tail, and closing in fast. We ran into the forest, and for a moment we thought that we had lost them. But before we could catch our breath, the forest grew eerily quiet -- much too quiet. I sensed that we hadn’t seen the last of the Grim for the day. Then the ground began to shake as if something monstrous was pounding through the trees. The vibrations kept growing; whatever was behind us was not wasting any time --”
“What was it?” Willow asked, tense despite knowing that the outcome would be favorable.
“A Cockatrice. A snake-like creature with great leathery wings like those of a dragon, and the head and legs of a rooster. They have glowing red eyes with coal black pupils, and a gaze that can petrify an attacker into solid stone. And if that isn’t enough, their very breath is poisonous.
I told your parents to quickly get behind a boulder and under no circumstance look the beast in its eye.”
“Oh, my. What did you do? How could you have possibly escaped?” Willow asked as an involuntary shiver danced down her spine.
“The only thing one can do when faced with such a brute.”
“And that is?”
“Having a Cockatrice look at itself in a reflection is the only fail-safe way to kill it.”
“And you had a looking glass?”
“No. Not exactly. But I knew that there was a lake only feet away, just beyond the trees, and if I could just get the beast to hold off until I reached it, I would be able to kill it.”
“Well, I ran with all my might, zigzagging through the trees and jumping over rocks and logs, the creature right behind me. I broke from the tree line with just enough time to throw myself into some bushes. I watched as the Cockatrice approached the lake searching for me. I waited until its back was turned to me, and then I stood and threw a rock as far out as I could. The splash caught its attention, and it turned its fiery stare on the water. It stood transfixed for a moment before dropping dead at the sight of its reflection.”
“Wow. You did it!”
“Yeah, I killed it, but we were not out of the woods just yet.”
“A Cockatrice’s power of petrifaction is effective even after death.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said with a sly smile, obviously enjoying her rapt attention.
“So, what did you do then?”
“I had to stab its eyes out, a difficult task considering I had to close my eyes while I did it.”
After telling her about this face-to-face encounter with a Cockatrice, the third terrible creature he had supposedly defeated, Rohan caught up to interrupt.
“And just how did you manage all of this without even the help of magic? I mean really… first it was a Chimera, then a Manticore, and now a Cockatrice. ” he asked, disbelief coloring his tone.
Devon turned, a cocky smile uplifting the corners of his mouth, “I’m Devon Riley, of course.”
“You say that like it clears everything up.”
A giggle escaped Willow. She was intrigued by his confidence. But catching Rohan’s expression, she quickly stifled her laughter. Her best friend was having a tough time, and she did not want to make things worse for him.
At that moment, out of the corner of her eye, Willow detected a flash of red rustling among the bracken.
“Did you see that?” she asked.
“See what?” asked Rohan.
“I thought I saw something red moving through the ferns.”
“It was probably nothing, a bug or snake, or something.”
“Yes, I’m sure your right,” she said, feeling unnerved despite his reassurance.
Just as the light began to fade, they reached the edge of the forest. They looked down at the trail before them descending down to an arid plain. A small stream trickled by, fed by Windcross Run. This was farther than Willow had ever ridden, and she eyed the desert with trepidation. Devon suggested that they camp in the shelter of the last trees, and this time his words comforted her.
“If we camp here and get an early start, we should be in good shape to cross the desert before tomorrow night,” he said with satisfaction.
After a refreshing drink in the stream, and securing the horses on long leads so they could drink and graze at their pleasure, Devon took his bow and walked into the growing darkness to capture dinner. Willow and Rohan gathered some tinder, kindling, and larger dry pieces of wood, and piled them in the small clearing.
“Flamma,” Rohan said while directing his wand at the pile of wood.
A single spark appeared but failed to produce a flame. Willow snickered at the irony of the countless times Rohan had accidentally set things on fire. But now, when he actually intended to start one -- nothing.
“What’s so funny?”
“It’s nothing,” she said composing herself.
“Come on, tell me.”
“It’s just that I always thought setting things on fire was kind of your specialty,” she said, laughing harder.
Rohan shrugged his shoulders and laughed along. “I’m full of surprises. I have to keep you on your toes.”
“Is that what it is?”
“That’s my story and I’m sticking to it,” he said. “How about a little help?”
Willow turned her attention to the dying spark, and simply by willing it to grow she had the fire raging in no time.
“Show off,” Rohan said.
Willow knew that he was only jesting. She smiled, a little smug.
While they waited for Devon to return, Rohan suggested that Willow practice her new powers.
“You already seem to have mastered Levitation, Fire, and Water. Why don’t you try manipulating the other Elements?”
Willow looked down at her hands, “I’d feel foolish. For the most part, everything is happening without me even trying. I don’t know if I can force magic.”
“Sure you can. You just have to learn to control your abilities, don’t let them control you.”
“You sound like Professor Edgar,” Willow teased.
Rohan laughed before continuing. “When I first started at Credo I was a royal mess, remember? The teachers would actually cringe when I walked into class. Mrs. Hopkins even used to hide behind her desk when it was my turn to practice. We both know I’m not the most agile person in the world.”
Willow laughed at the severe understatement. Rohan was far and away the biggest klutz at Credo.
Rohan gave an embarrassed smile and shrugged his shoulders.
“Anyways, my powers were out of control. In a single period, I could manage to cause an explosion and injure any number of my classmates. But slowly I got the hang of it. I learned to measure my movements and concentrate precisely on what I wanted to do. I’m no Professor Edgar -- as you can see by my failed attempt at fire tonight -- but I’m also not sending students running to the infirmary after becoming the unfortunate recipients of my poorly aimed hexes. Well, at least not routinely. That’s progress,” he said, winking at Willow.
“Okay, okay. What should I try to do?”
“Umm, why don’t you see what you can do with Earth?” he said, pointing to the ground beneath them.
Willow examined the crunchy leaves in front of where she sat. With her hand she swept them out of the way to reveal the cool, hard soil beneath. Memorizing this image, she closed her eyes concentrating on the feel of the firm earth, the smell of the moist dirt. She pictured the earth in front of her splitting in two. She opened her eyes as a slight fissure appeared and split open with a surprisingly loud crack.
“I told you that you could do it. Now try Air. See if you can move the leaves.”
Focusing on the leaves first, then the air surrounding them, Willow imagined a strong wind. The air stirred the leaves, spinning them in a small cyclone. Willow watched the leaves swirl round and round several times before releasing her gaze. The leaves fluttered to earth and were still.
“It’s such a curious feeling, Rohan. I was used to you always doing the magic.”
“You know what this means, don’t you?”
Willow shook her head. “What?”
“Just think of all the fun we’ll have in class from now on. The teachers won’t know what befell them!”
“Oh, Rohan, what am I going to do with you? Always causing mischief.”
“You know me, gotta keep life exciting!”
Willow’s tone turned serious, “I kind of think life is rather too exciting at the moment. Do you think we can really do this? No one has before. Where is the hope?”
“You know what my mom always says? Hope survives as long as love prevails; and love never fails. Good always seems to find a way to conquer evil. It will all work out Willow, I can feel it.”
“Ever the optimist, my friend,” Willow said, comforted by his words. “You really are the best.”
“Truly? Even with brawny Devon around?” Rohan asked, his arms held out to the sides mimicking Devon showing off his muscles.
His tone was mocking, but Willow heard an undercurrent of dejection.
“Sure, I do.”
“But you fancy him, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I do,” Willow said quietly, surprising herself with how much she meant those three words.
Seeing Rohan’s downcast expression, she added for his benefit, “But he is no Rohan Brewster. You are definitely one of a kind.”
Rohan gave a small smile.
“But you still don’t trust him?” Willow asked.
“I’m telling you, I get a really bad feeling when he’s around. Do you really believe all that stuff -- those stories, I mean -- that he told you? He’s not even a wizard!”
“I’m sure he embellished a bit.”
Rohan scoffed, “A bit!”
“Even so, is that so bad? Even if he is just trying to impress me for some bizarre reason, why does that bother you so much? Where is the harm in it?”
Rohan blushed and said nothing. Once again Willow felt confused. As of late, she had been plagued with the feeling that Rohan was trying to tell her something, but for the life of her she could not decipher what it could be. They had always been so open with each other, brutally honest. He was the one person she never had to hold back with, and vice versa. She hoped this feeling would not linger.
“Anyways,” Willow continued, “He’s helped so much already – the journal, navigating us through the forest, supplying food.”
“I get it, Willow. I know you trust him,” Rohan said with a sadness Willow did not fully grasp. “Why don’t you keep practicing? You were doing great.”
He dropped the subject. Apparently the feeling would not be fading tonight.
They spent the next half hour or so putting Willow’s powers to the test. Eventually they were interrupted by the sound of crackling leaves. Devon walked into the little clearing with two rabbits draped over his shoulders. He cleaned them expertly with his hunting knife and cooked them to perfection.
With their bellies full, their early start and the long day of travel caught up to them. Circled about the dying fire, they laid back in the brittle leaves. The air temperature dropped. Willow pulled the boys close for warmth, a single blanket shared between them (another provision supplied by Devon). The glow from the expiring fire made the roof of leaves flash gold above them. The branches were so thick, not a single star could be seen. After much tossing and turning, trying to find comfortable positions on the hard ground, they slowly drifted to sleep.