Chapter Three: A Vision in the Woods
It was almost noon when Efkin and Ebin passed under the arched boughs of the forest and came toward the Whistling Lake. Beneath tangled branches, the lake sparkled in the sunlight and birds whistled like a sighing wind in the trees around them. The beauty and peace of the woodland lifted their hearts with the memory of brighter days. Amidst the wonder of the trees, they might have imagined that nothing had changed on the elven isle. But even as they stood in the midst of this mystic place where the dryads sometimes gathered, they could not forget that dark things gathered in the hills.
“How could Thog summon the shaith?” said Efkin. “The trolls have no sorcerous knowledge.”
“It seems they do,” replied Ebin.
“They are crude beasts. None of their kind has dealt in sorcery.”
“There was a time when men did not deal in sorcery,” Ebin said, “and now they darken the world with their vile arts.”
“The sorceries of men have come from centuries of practice. How can trolls summon powers men have not conjured in many years?”
“It is quite strange. I would not think such things were possible some days ago.”
Efkin fell silent, glancing through the trees that swayed around them.
“There is a foulness on this isle,” he said.
“The dark things come at last,” said Ebin. “We knew this day would come, when men would taint our land with their wickedness.”
“I doubt Mor’s lords have reached the elven isle.”
“Where did the trolls get their iron if not from men? Mor grows stronger each day, spreading like a shadow over the world. We are not safe from the treacheries of men.”
Efkin was familiar with Ebin’s opinion of men; he considered them naturally foul, convinced their cruel works reflected a ruinous bent that was their true nature. Though he did not share this view of mankind, Efkin also looked on men with suspicion. Still, he dismissed the notion held by some that all men had in some part of them an ancient malice that drove them toward great destruction.
“We must not fear all men,” Efkin said. “There are many who stand with us against Mor.”
“I fear only those men closest to me,” replied Ebin.
They paused a moment, standing near the lake in the whistling air and feeling the wonder of the wood around them. Efkin sensed something strange; the trees seemed different somehow; he could almost imagine the rustle of the leaves calling him, stirring in the wind like a gentle whisper.
He stood very still, listening to the breeze that swept around him. Before he could make sense of what was happening, he saw Ebin beside him and woke from his trance.
“Thog is slain,” said Efkin. “Perhaps he alone possessed sorcerous skill and no others can summon the shaith. He was the foulest of the beasts. There was a cunning in his gaze I have not seen in any of his kind.”
“Thog was not like others of his kind,” Ebin agreed. “He spoke with guile and stepped with a proud gait. In truth, he seemed more like a man than a troll.”
With this, Ebin had casually articulated the strange quality Thog possessed, a subtlety and craft that seemed in some way a perverse imitation of mankind and, at once, Efkin understood the terror of his presence.
“I saw it in his eyes,” Efkin said, “he had the cunning of men in his gaze.”
“I sometimes wonder if men are not worse than trolls,” said Ebin. “Trolls are wretched beasts, but they do not kill their own kind.”
“Men are cruel, but I must believe they are not touched with evil in the same way that trolls are. I think men are not in their nature truly evil. I think fear has a greater hold on their hearts and guides them toward most of their ends.”
Ebin was silenced. He had not expected these words from his friend or the quiet power he heard in his voice which, at this moment, seemed not entirely his own.
“Perhaps it is so,” Ebin said. “I do not know if men are wicked in their hearts, I know only their deeds.”
“They will be the end of us all,” Efkin agreed, “unless we alter their course.”
Ebin paused again, hearing something in his voice, as if a hidden power stirred with his breath in the air as he spoke.
“I suppose we must try,” Ebin said.
Efkin stood very still in the warm glow of sunlight. He looked at the lake and saw reflected in the water his own curious gaze staring back at him. He heard the wind sighing through the trees and watched the stir of leaves in the rippling water that mirrored the forest, his thoughts wandering as he stared at the lake. There were many questions in these days, but as he looked at the water, Efkin felt he could almost forget the strange things happening in the world, musing that he peered into another realm through the glistening water of the lake.
Another breeze sent billows coursing over the lake, and in the whistling air around him, Efkin thought he heard something.
Suddenly his eyes widened with surprise as he glimpsed strands of light curling in the water. The glowing swirls spiraled endlessly, bending in every direction. As he watched them spread, a strange sense came upon him; the wind seemed to call him again, summoning him to another place. He was struck with wonder as he perceived the curling rays of light were the roots of a great tree, spinning into infinity. He felt a power he could not apprehend, stirring like wind through the trees.
And then it vanished.
Efkin stood staring at the lake for a moment, wondering if he had wakened from a dream.