When Torren lifted his foot to step out of the woods, a silent wave shivered down his bones and tossed him gracelessly to the wood-floor, which was thick with scarlet leaves and the earthy scent of fungus. When he opened his eyes, his breath caught round in his throat, he realized his back cricked with a rather small pain, and he reached his long earth-singer’s fingers back to warm it. Humming a healing song, he felt the light warm the ache away.
He crouched then, elbows on his knees, and considered. Although he had seen twenty midsummers, he was young in his tribe’s reckoning, and his training had lately kept him confined to Master Althus’s hut at the edge of the leaf-hall. But it had been Master Althus himself who had sent Torren out before dawn broke the sky with a request for iron from the smithy in the village a half day’s run down the forest road.
“Your feet are faster than mine,” Althus said with a grunt. “You go.”
Sucking a nervous breath, Torren had nodded. “Should I take my bow?”
“Hells no. And announce yourself to the queen’s men? Your knife is all the protection you need out there—that and those fleet feet of yours. Borrow some clothing from Rourke. And cover your ears.”
Althus had rolled back into sleep, leaving it to Torren to rouse Rourke before dawn to beg the rough dun tunic and breeches the townsfolk wore.
Torren scratched his leg and then felt in the leaves for a stick. Holding it before him, he stood and prodded the bright light beyond the leaf-dappled edge of the forest. Nothing happened. He stepped forward until his fingertips were just at the edge of that veil separating light and dark. He froze, took a hard breath, and let just the sliver of one fingernail cross into light. The stick shattered in his hand.
Althus peered through the blue-grey smoke of his long thin pipe. “Tell me again, more slowly this time.”
Torren took a breath, sucking air and the calming mint of Althus’s pipe smoke deep into his lungs. He began with the sound and ended with the slivers of wood falling from his fingers.
Althus leaned back against the wall and pulled on his pipe, his eyes closed. Smoke drifted up and over his head, accumulating and hovering in a cloud, a fragrant cloud—moments passed and Torren felt his eyes grow heavy and he swayed in his perch. He bit the inside of his cheek, bit it hard and sat upright.
“Pain as a stimulant,” Althus murmured and the cloud evaporated. “Interesting choice, Torren.” He leaned forward, his pale blue eyes as cold as bitter ice. “You have much to learn yet.”
“Why did the forest not let me leave?” Torren asked. “Do you know?”
Althus closed his eyes. “I have many thoughts and may tell you in time. Meanwhile, I want you to do two things. First, compose a list of possibilities. What may the sound have been? What might it portend? And also, consider a better stimulant. Pain—self-inflicted as that was—will only weaken you.” He sucked on his pipe, closed his eyes, and leaned back. Torren knew he had been dismissed.
It was far more easy to roam the sun-streamed leaf halls of Manluviár than to focus on the task Althus had set him. Each room was built of trees charmed to shelter the woodfolk from the elements; each room held treasures formed in ancient days, treasures whose craftsmanship had been lost as his race diminished, their magic dimmed, their ageless bodies fallen prey to the grey-fletched arrows of Queen Asyn’s men.
This queen had appeared one winter out of the deeps of the Grey Mountains just as the white-bearded human king was dying, and she had settled her gaunt, black-robed form into his vacant throne, and she had summoned a silent army of men, fierce of eye and swift of arrow, to surround her. The king had been burned with indecent haste, and a rumor--more than a rumor--had reached the Folk of a flicker of his eyelid as the flames licked hungrily at his robes. Some said his hand twitched or maybe clenched. One rumor said the new queen had tossed another brand onto the fire, her eyes glowing (maybe with fireglow or maybe--none would complete the sentence). But all agreed that when she cast that branch on the pyre, the fire had leapt up and consumed the body of the king that was.