Chapter Five : The Gift of the Dryads
Some time later, the crowd had dwindled so that only a score were left in the queen’s hall and Efkin found himself in the woods outside the palace, walking alone through the trees. His stride was slow as he made his way deeper into the forest, as if some burden weighted his steps, and the wind blowing at his back seemed to press him forward.
Some leaves fluttered in the breeze, swirling around him as he passed, and he paused a moment to glance at the pendant he wore. He stood very still, hearing the sounds of the rustling wood as he gazed at the Whistling Lake some distance away.
There was a rush of wind and the trees stirred with the sighing breeze. The wind blew stronger, shaking the trees so that moonlight slanted through wavering boughs and shadows danced in the flickering light. Efkin stood staring at the moon, fascinated by the glowing light that almost seemed to pulse in the sky. The trees whipped in the air and he imagined voices in the howling wind. There was movement everywhere as shadows darted and twisted around him. He was staring up at the moon, almost in a trance, when he heard a crumple of leaves and saw that a fox had wandered into his midst.
Suddenly, Efkin had the sense of something strange in the air. His vision blurred a moment and he felt dizzy. A darkness spread around him and he fought to keep his balance against the rush of wind. His head ached and he felt he would lose consciousness. He stumbled, almost falling to the ground. He could see again as a ray of moonlight pierced the darkness and he noticed someone standing in front of him. He turned his gaze to the figure and stared aghast at a coppery elf in a flowing gown. His eyes widened with fear and surprise, for he stared at himself. He saw himself gasp with fright, as if he looked in a mirror at his reflection, but something was strange. He had the sense that his eyes were not his own, as if a part of his consciousness had drifted out of his body to peer through the eyes of another.
The wind shrieked and suddenly he was looking down at the fox that stared up at him. He paused, still dizzy, wondering if he had fallen asleep and dreamt a while in the wood. His head still ached. His vision was fading again. He felt a sharp pain in his skull. Both hands clutched his head and he groaned. He fell with a sudden gust. The moon shone bright over him and he stared at the light in the sky as he lay on the leafy ground.
At once he was in the air, overlooking the forest and spying himself in its midst. He passed over the wavering forest like a gentle breeze and then he was suddenly staring up at the sky again, watching a bird glide through the air. He was flat on the ground, staring up at the moon through branches that tossed in the wind. Leaves blew off the trees and swirled in the howling air. He felt a strange weariness upon him. The moon seemed to blur in the sky and a darkness crept over the forest.
And then silence.
The trees were still swaying, the air was still spinning, but he heard nothing in that moment, there was no rush of wind or rustle of leaves. The moon dimmed and he saw nothing but the blackness of night. He lay still in the silent dark.
Suddenly, the ground trembled and seemed to dissolve beneath him and he had the sensation that he was floating in the air. There was a sound like a clap of thunder and his body shook with the noise. The trees appeared around him and the moon shone above. For a moment, it seemed he had wakened from a dream.
Then the wind roared, the earth shook, and everything was twisting and spinning around him. Trees stretched into the sky with boughs spreading in every direction, bending and warping into strange forms. Stars danced in the air, growing larger and brighter, surrounding him with light. His head was throbbing with pain as he fell through space and his vision blurred.
The light faded and he found himself in some kind of tunnel, suspended in the air as he went shooting down a twisting path that wound endlessly. He hurtled down the strange passage, hands at his aching head, dimly aware of a shimmering light that surrounded him. He heard storm winds blowing and tides crashing. He felt great forces stirring in the air, pulling him, as if all the hidden powers of earth seized him, casting him on his course, and his body shook as he tumbled down the curling passage. A thousand voices called and his own cry was lost in the din as he convulsed in the air.
There was a flash of light and a crack of thunder so loud it seemed the whole world had been sundered. At once, he was staring down at the rolling seas through clouds that passed under him as he soared over the earth, borne on a singing wind that blew him through the skies.
The seas surged high into the air and, for a moment, it seemed he floated in the ocean, then the waters vanished and he passed into the depths of the molten earth, through layers of rock and rivers of flame, plunging it seemed to the heart of the world. A thousand stars surrounded him and it seemed he had fallen away from the earth, cast into a black void beyond the realm he knew. He felt himself spinning. A faint emerald light mingled with the glow of stars that swirled around him, and suddenly he had the strange sense that he was still hurtling down the twisting passage, as if the tunnel were formed of the very stars.
A light flashed and thunder roared. Then he was in the tunnel again, crossing the otherworldly passage that wound its way through the stars and through all the world so that he glimpsed every part of the earth, every tree and blade of grass, and heard every wind that blows and every tide that rushes on the shore. The scenes flashed around him, overlapping so that clouds drifted in the seas and trees glittered with stars that hung from branches like leaves. The whole world was twisting in a swirling ocean of light. He saw men and beasts and many things that were strange burst into existence then disappear as suddenly as they had materialized, flickering through layers of shimmering images that blurred into each other, shifting and churning like a storm around him. All creation surrounded him as he went spinning into infinity, losing all sense of time and space, all sense of himself with each passing scene.
He rode a black horse across a field of battle, swinging a sword with a hand that was not his own, pressing forward, cutting a path through an army of men who fell before his sweeping blade. There was fighting all around him; everywhere men raised swords and axes, hewing and stabbing, slaughtering each other like mad beasts. He was thrusting a deathly blow that he parried in the same moment, seeing through the eyes of the man he assailed. He saw every man and heard every cry. He knew every blow that was struck, every shield that was raised, and every foul deed that was done on that field.
He was a sailor sliding across a wet deck, clinging to a splintered rail to brace himself against the angry sea. He held tight as a foaming surf washed over him and the ship rose and fell with the force of the wave. A man tumbled toward him and he reached out to catch him by the arm.
He stood overlooking a city where people scattered in the streets in terror of the forces that gathered outside their walls. There was a noise like thunder and his gaze fell upon an iron gate that boomed and thudded with smashing blows and then burst into fragments. A frightful horde of men and beasts swept into the city like a tide of steel and sorcery, cutting down the citizens who fell screaming. He turned his glance away from the terrible scene and caught his reflection in a silvery shield that hung over his balcony, noticing the glint of a crown.
He walked on a cobbled road, weaving his way through a crowd of men and women, and he knew every person that passed him, seeing their lives, their very souls, as he glimpsed the world through their eyes. He was a sailor stepping onto a pier, a smith lowering his hammer, an artisan, a merchant, a scholar; he was every man and woman in that city, slipping in and out of their minds and bodies.
He was in the sea, staring at an emerald light, at once aware that he inhabited no physical form, his essence flowing, as if his being were part of the ocean. The shimmering light surrounded him and he felt the power and wonder of the sea, spinning and twisting, and then he was shooting down a watery tunnel, endlessly falling, pulled by mysterious forces. He saw things he could not have imagined, strange powers that spread over the earth, whole histories that flashed by in the blink of an eye. He was hurtling through a shimmering, timeless realm that had no beginning or end, seeing all the world twist and spread around him. All creation quivered like an otherworldly sea that rippled as he passed.
There were strands of light spinning, stretching into infinity, and he perceived the glowing roots of a tree, curling and reaching in every direction. Scenes flashed like lightning, seas crashed, skies thundered, all the world was spinning round him as he fell through the myriad planes of existence, faster and faster, down a spiraling vortex of warping images. His mind spun with the raging chaos around him. His body shook with forces that seized every part of him so that he felt he would be torn to pieces.
And then the whole spinning world stood still. Every scene, every aspect of existence, all creation was fixed in a moment outside of time, and he glimpsed what no eyes could see.
He was cast into madness. He felt himself dissolving, slipping away, his mind and body, his very essence pulled apart by powers beyond apprehension. He fought the powers, hoping to cling to his thoughts, his dreams, his fears, whatever remained of his being in a desperate attempt to regain himself, but he could not overcome the forces upon him.
He screamed and a million voices cried with him.
There was movement. Strands of light were spinning and curling in every direction, and suddenly he was falling down the shimmering passage again, hurtling on his way through every layer of existence as he stared into infinity.
A light flashed and the scenes faded, curling like wisps of smoke that vanish in the wind. He saw the glint of stars through the trees. He was lying on his back, feeling the warmth of a breeze on his face, wondering if he had awoken from a dream.
For a moment, he was very still, staring at the moon. Then he rose slowly, aching in every part of his body. Some distance away, he heard bright voices and, turning his gaze, he saw the elves singing and dancing under the stars.
As he started on his way toward them, he heard a stir of leaves on the ground. He glanced back and spied a fox scampering off, disappearing into the wood.
He woke with the light of dawn slanting into his chamber and the rush of trees rustling in the wind like a song. A bright morning was upon him, but he felt strange and stayed a while in his bed, the vague memory of a dream fading like mist.
His thoughts were troubled as he rose. He looked out his window and stared in bewilderment at a landscape that seemed familiar and yet very strange. There was something amiss. It seemed all the world had changed somehow. His eyes wandered from the trees of the wood to the clouds of the air, as if searching for something he had lost. Then he stood there a moment, staring at a world he did not recognize.
A breeze sighed around him and he heard something clatter on the floor. He turned and found a gold leaf at his feet. He reached for the pendant and held it so that it glowed in the sunlight. He eyed the shining leaf as one lost might glance at a star in the sky, for it seemed the only familiar thing in the world at that moment. He fixed the pendant to his shirt and made his way out of the chamber.
He went riding alone that morning, galloping along the shore to watch the rolling sea. With hooves splashing in the water, his horse drove him across the sand through a wind that whipped spray in his face and whistled around him. He held a casual grip on the reins as he rode, brooding in his saddle, hoping in vain to distract himself from his thoughts.
He returned to the sea each morning, rising with the dawn from a troubled sleep, dimly aware of strange things he had seen: ships in the sky, clouds in the sea, stars in the trees, all whirling in his mind. His dreams were vague and sometimes he could not remember the scenes that stormed through his mind, but there was one vision that could not be forgotten, a scene that repeated itself almost every night. A young girl cries in a forest as a wicked horde enters the wood. The shadowy terrors dart through the air, menacing the child, but she does not weep for herself, she cries for the woodland. Then she screams and glows brighter than any star and the trees around her shimmer with an otherworldly light and suddenly the girl and the trees disappear. This dream was always the same.
Each day he went to the stables, avoiding the company of others to mount his steed and ride along the shore. The rush of tide seemed to call him, whispering over the earth with the echo of days past. The voice of the sea crooned like a song, but he found no joy in the music, for it rang with the haunting tones of the world he had known, the world he sought to remember as he rode by the shore.
He rode on, each day hoping to thwart his sadness, but he could not escape the sense that everything had changed. The clouds that hung in the sky were like any clouds he had seen and yet different somehow, curling like shadows over the grey world he perceived. He felt he was peering through a shroud that hid the light of the earth from his eyes so that he glimpsed only a vague trace of the world he knew.
One morning, his gaze went out across the sea and he heard something in the rush of tide, like a distant voice calling across miles. His eyes welled with tears as he longed for the days of his youth and the world he had known.
For days afterward, he wandered alone through the woods, far away from the sea, walking aimlessly amidst the trees to ponder his dreams. He kept away from others, seeking solitude in the forest where only the whisper of wind could distract him from his thoughts. He grew anxious with each breeze that swept past him; the whistling air seemed to speak to him in a tongue he could not understand, and he was troubled by the growing sense that something had been lost or forgotten.
His visions came back to him as he wandered alone, bewildering him. At times, he felt he could almost perceive something meaningful, as if some memory tried to surface. He tried to grasp it, whatever it was, but it always slipped away.
He was walking through the woods one day when Callob found him and told him that his presence was requested at the palace. Efkin was surprised that Gabreu wanted to speak with him. He put his thoughts aside and made his way back to the palace. After being alone for days, a talk with Gabreu would be a welcome respite from his brooding.
He went up a wide stair and entered the queen’s hall. The chamber was empty. He walked toward the throne, recalling his induction when he had crossed this hall with Callob and Sefaf. He had barely spoken to anyone since the ceremony and still wondered if others had seen the druid standing beside the queen or if he alone had perceived the woodland being in their midst.
Against the throne, he saw a sword in its sheath, its gold hilt glinting with morning rays. He stood a moment staring at the blade and then found Gabreu behind him. She came toward him and her eyes were bright and curious.
“Lord Efkin, we have not talked for days. You are scarcely seen at the palace. I am told you wander through the woods alone and not even Ebin rides at your side.”
Efkin hesitated a moment. He wanted to tell her about what he had seen, but some part of him felt he could not share such things with others yet, as if his visions might diminish somehow if he spoke of them.
“There have been many changes in these days,” he said, trying to hide his thoughts from the queen of the elves.
“Does something trouble you, Efkin?”
He met her gaze and felt the power of her presence upon him. “I have wondered what other things the trolls might conjure,” he replied.
“Is that why you spend your days alone? The trolls have parted you from us?”
“Strange things have come to our isle. We do not know what comes.”
“No, we cannot say what comes.” She paused and looked into his eyes. Efkin met her gaze and was stunned for a moment, dimly aware of a strange sensation, a warmth that seemed to surround him. He felt his tension dissolve and his mind was clear. He was still looking into Gabreu’s eyes and he wondered if something more than words had issued from her soft voice, for he had heard of the peculiar powers she possessed.
Gabreu held her gaze a moment, then she turned and climbed the steps to the throne. “I have something for you, Efkin.”
His eyes were upon the sword as she reached for the blade. She offered it to him and he grasped the gold hilt. At once, he was aware of a force coursing into his hand. The sword seemed to pulse in his grasp and he thought he perceived a sound like a faint hum coming from the blade.
“Harbinger is silent now,” said Gabreu, “but the blade croons when demons are near.”
“Who forged this sword?”
“It was found in the woods years ago. Some elves were in the forest one morning when they caught sight of a shimmering being near the Whistling Lake. They went toward the lake to behold the bright spirit, but she had vanished. Then they found a silvery sword laid upon a rock with leaves and vines twined round its gold hilt, as if the very woods had fashioned the sword and wrapped it as a gift. They knew it was no ordinary blade, for it sang with a sentient force. None dared to wield it, sensing it was intended for another.”
Efkin looked at the mystic blade. “Did the dryads forge this sword?”
“I do not know, but it seems likely they have played some role in its making.” She watched him wield the sword and smiled. “It is their gift to you.”
Efkin turned to her. “A gift?”
“It is your sword. I have kept it for you until this day.”
“But it was found in the woods years ago. How can it be a gift for me?”
Gabreu smiled. “It was indeed a gift, Efkin, found one morning in the woods outside the palace, and that same day Sienne and Ragner had a son.”
Efkin stared at the glinting silver, in disbelief that the sentient blade was intended for him.
“So, you see, the sword was one of the first gifts you were given in this world.”
“We do not know, but I have heard of others who were given gifts this way; bracelets in the branches of trees that a priestess or queen would find, but that was long ago.” Gabreu looked at the sword. “And this is not a bracelet.”
“What does it mean?”
Gabreu eyed the blade. “The stories tell of gifts that were given to complete a ritual or rite, some kind of task that needed to be performed.”
“So I have been given a task?”
“It would appear so.”
“What sort of task?”
Gabreu brought her gaze back to Efkin. “A task that requires a sword.”
Efkin was back in the forest before noon. He made a small effort to remain at the palace after his talk with Gabreu, but could not resist the lure of the trees and wind which still seemed to call him. The sword at his side was another reason he sought the woods, for if it was truly the work of dryads, he wondered what might happen if he took the blade into the forest where they dwelt. The thought of encountering the woodland spirits excited him. He imagined how they would appear to him, materializing out of the air. They were one of the oldest races upon the earth, enchanted beings who dwelled in these woods for centuries and traveled along paths that were hidden from men and elves, knowing all the secret ways.
He walked among the trees a while and watched the grass roll under him. He felt a crisp wind on his face and the warmth of sunlight flickering through the trees. He stood very still for some moments, seeing all the wonder of the wood around him. His mind was clear. The visions that had troubled him were at last fading from his thoughts. He could not explain why his mood had changed so suddenly, but suspected Gabreu had influenced him in some way.
He drew the sword from its sheath as a breeze blew around him. Above the whisper of wind, he perceived a distant hum. He stared at the shining sword, daunted by the sylvan blade he had been granted.
Suddenly the wind blew stronger and he turned his gaze up to the trees as leaves spun in curling patterns. He sensed something in the air, and he thought he could vaguely perceive strands of light stretching and bending around him. It could have been a play of sunlight, but the radiant beams seemed to interlace and form a luminous net that glowed in the air for a moment. And then the shimmering strands vanished as suddenly as they had appeared.