SECRETS OF THE OAK
It was odd that he had never before noticed the rather large hole at the base of the twisted oak. It’s roots sprawled over each other, as if they were grappling desperately for something. Their tangled fingers extended to the low hanging branches of the nearby willow, forming a narrow bridge between trees. Todd crouched down and under the bridge and crawled toward the side nearest the oak. There was the hole, covered in sticks, moss, and wet leaves from the fall of yesteryear. He touched the moss that draped partly over the hole; the rest of it had been ripped or chewed off. Most likely by some animal, he thought, an animal preparing for the winter.
Todd lowered himself to the ground on his stomach and angled his head to peer inside the hole, trying to reveal what animal it could be.
The hole was empty and black, and even with the assistance of his lantern Todd could see nothing. He reached inside, expecting to find the dirt surface of a rabbit hole or fox dwelling, but his hand lingering in the space around. As far as he could reach, Todd could not feel a back, a side, or a bottom to that hollow. It was limitless in all directions. Todd dropped his arm inside the opening and it fell freely, hitting nothing. He jerked his shoulder back and pulled the arm out, an icy, distant feeling leaving an indelible mark on the edge of his mind.
There was no animal in that hollow, and it was no small hole. Todd scraped away at the moss, tearing chunks of it away from the tree and throwing it aside into a pile. The moss he had thought had always covered the roots of the tree, but the more he pulled out, the more he realized there were no roots around that hollow.
He fell back, out of breath; his vision blurred then sharpened to reveal the reality of the hole he had dug out. It was large enough for a human to fit through and not natural enough just to have been there all the while. On sudden impulse he snatched his lantern and leaned over the edge of the hole, letting it dangle. When the lantern stopped moving, Todd discovered that he could see the bottom of the hole. It was not far down, and if he crept down into it, he could certainly climb back out. He took the dare his mind taunted him with as he turned around, and slid feet first into the hollow under the tree.
He fell shortly, feeling the hardened chunks of dirt and rock angle sharply into his soft leather boots. Todd reached to the ledge of the hole and pulled the lantern down. Suddenly the hollow became visible and Todd realized that he had found much more than just a hole.
On his left there was a door, one of roughly hacked branches tied together with twine that split when he touched it. The arch of the doorway was formed of the roots of the oak tree above him. They were entwined in such a way that appeared unnatural to him, but curious nonetheless.
Todd pushed on the door slightly; it shifted and scraped against the rock beneath it. He shoved it to the side, finding that it moved surprisingly easy for its age. He was astounded by what lay before him as he ventured past the door.
It was a little room, small in the sense that it was not large enough for a family to live in, but big enough for a dwelling under the ground. He crept in, stirring up a blanket of cobwebs and dust that lifted from the various books, scrolls, and furniture that were scattered around the room.
There were several blankets stacked in one corner of the room, decayed with age and rousing a sour smell. Todd expected no hearth under the base of a tree, and assumed that the blankets had been used for warmth on cold winter days. He lifted the corner of one such quilt and the cloth broke off in his hand, crumbling into dust as he balled his fist. He let the powdered cloth fall from his hand and watched it still floating in the dry air as he moved on toward a narrow plank of wood spread across two tall logs. He took the structure to be a table of some sort. On the table were two small globes, both clouded like the sky on a rainy day. They were mounted on top of two silver circles, tarnished with age, and Todd could only guess that they served as paperweights or ornaments. Brushing away the cobwebs, he further discovered a feather pen, jammed solidly into an inkwell that was sitting on top of several yellow manuscripts with writing so faded that Todd did not bother to try and read them.
Most of the room was filled with manuscripts, such as the one on the table, and books that were stacked in piles in the corners or shoved lopsidedly into the shelves that protrude downward with the weight of them. He picked a book from one of the shelves and flipped it open, several leaves fell out and others broke at his touch. Todd turned the book over and the binding fell off in his hand. He dropped the book and opened a few more, with the same result for each. Several more he picked up, reading the faint titles inscribed on each: Skills of Weaponry and War from the Accomplished Soldiers of Andervine, Spells, Hexes, and Runes to Look For When Witch hunting, Adena’s First Guide to the Birds of Novegard.
None of the books seemed to spark his interest and none of them could he make out the faded writing, some of which had been scorched with fire. Finally he grew tired of looking at all the books and knocked them from their shelves, watching in amusement as they all broke apart. He was ready to leave the hollow, fearing that he would have too little oil in his lamp to make it back to Seven Hearths, when suddenly he spied a rolled up parchment tucked in the corner of an empty shelf behind a book end. How he saw it so clearly, he did not know how, for he even had trouble trying to find it again as he wandered toward it. The parchment had an aura about it, a remote and ageless feeling that drew him towards it.
Todd unraveled the parchment and spread it out on the desk-like plank. In dark, yet legible hand, Todd made out the words in the form of two verses, reading them both aloud as he went along.
From the winter’s flaming tinder
Spawns the forest’s changeling child
Among the shadows’ waning voices
Crows the Raven, soaring wild
When the Moon
Begins to shimmer
And the wind
Scares the chill
Turn to sugar
As the Hawk
Awakes at will
Todd traced the rhymes with his fingers, tired as he was, he felt that perhaps by touching the words he could get more from them. It was futile; there was nothing more to be gained from the parchment. The rhymes, he believed, described the persona of Kay Ravengard and Aya Hawke, but the days of those two legends were over, and seeing the chants reciting the essence of their souls sent a chill ringing through his brain.
“Forest’s changeling child? Snow shall turn to sugar?” he questioned aloud. It didn’t make sense; the rhymes meant virtually nothing. The bard must have been mad! He thought to himself.
At the sudden pounding that came on the door, Todd jumped, throwing aside the manuscript fiercely; afraid that someone might discover he had been looking at it. His eyes scanned the room in an instant, demanding a place to hide himself. Who could have found the hole so soon? he wondered. Who could know I’m here?
Thoughts raced through his mind all in the time between when he jumped and when the door yielded to the pounding and burst open against the wall it was fixed upon. Todd’s eyes were aimed rigidly at the dirt in the wall where the door hit with such sudden fierceness. He watched it crumble and plunge to the ground where it scattered and mixed with a light, powdery substance. Todd realized that it was dust that gathered at the foot of the door, and the foot of a person.
He glanced up, almost afraid at what he might find, and saw the face of young woman, unruly dark brown hair framing her pale, weathered face. Her clear gray eyes were staring straight at him, contemplating his every move with glares that pierced like needles. Her mouth started to quiver as she tried to speak, but no words escaped her lips.
Todd was in awe, the innocence of her appearance seemed deceiving in such a way that she almost appeared sinister. But his clear thinking prevailed, and Todd stood his ground, ready for whatever tirade would befall him.
As she could read his mind, the woman’s eyes lost their clarity and her expression its innocence. Suddenly the bones in her face sharpened and the skin seemed to draw more tightly across her brow. Dust stirred in her hair and swirled in hazy clouds around her face, as if she were an age-old artifact recently removed from an antiquated shelf. She neither blinked once, nor sneezed, as a person surrounded by dust might. Instead, her eyes watched him with a grave foreboding of a prophecy attaining a fulfillment, a grim realization of what might lie ahead.
There was no way Todd could tell what thoughts sped behind her eyes, but the face he saw now was not the face of a lost, or puzzled young woman, but the countenance of a legend.
“Atleina synuviel telindil `maia vernebreth, isiudur gimrudel ferimir orrierlie,” her words were foreign, but Todd recognized the tongue with which she spoke. The words sent icy spears that pierced his head and froze all thoughts that raced through his mind. The unmistakable language was that of the folk of the wood, fair to the ear yet filled with impending disaster. He had heard the phrase many times before from the lip of many a traveler that had wandered into Novegard. “Wait and the wrath of the stone witch will befall you, causing something much greater than terror to strike into your heart.”
Todd eyed the woman, still suspicious of her conduct, still wondering if he had really stumbled upon Kay Ravengard. Her eyes glittered like a pair of lost stars as two black tears escaped them tenaciously and glided down her moon-kissed cheek. In one glib brush of her hand she had the two black drops in the palm of her hand. She extended her slender arm and opened her clenched fist for Todd to see. He looked into her eyes, searching for a welcome. But there was no smile, no shining eyes that beckoned him forth. Instead he drew forth as if she compelled him by her own sheer will to do so.
Suddenly he felt weakened, as if his soul was being drawn to her hand. Unable to battle the powerful force that pulled at him, Todd gave in and endeavored to look at the pair of black tears.
At once he saw that they were not tears at all, but hard, rounded spheres of a black stone. He reached out and touched one. It was cold, with a faint, indifferent feel of an extinguished life. The two jeweled drops grew colder and colder then so icy that Todd was forced to recoil, afraid that his fingertips would turn to ice. But whether or not the woman felt them, she gave no sign of it. And when Todd searched her eyes for answers she replied, “The eyes of the raven were the eyes to the world, they kept the girl from transforming. But when the summon is read, the enchantment breaks, and all of Ravenwood could not return these baubles of rancor to her eyes except of her own will and the powers of the stone witch.”
“You speak of yourself?” Todd asked, his eyes transfixed on the black jewels, wondering what he was doing in such a predicament.
“I speak not only of myself, but of the spell that was fixed upon me in which these accursed stones of wickedness were forced into my eyes, transforming me into the dark and malevolent raven. I’ve been trapped between worlds and stuck in time as a raven, and even now I dread to what extent this world has changed while I was away.” Her hands now began to tremble at holding the dire jewels.
Sensing her fear of them and himself feeling more courageous in return, Todd took the jewels from her and placed them snugly in a small pouch he used to collect herbs. He tied the pouch and strung it back around his neck where he kept it habitually. She eyed the leather lace around his neck that held the pouch.
“Yes, keep them far from me, for they still have the power to find their way back into my eyes, and only in times of staid demand must they be released, for those would the times that I must transform myself in order to find it . . .”
Her voice trailed off into light whisper that hung as faint as the mists over the lake in the morning. Todd could barely follow it as it left her lips and seemed headed for the door, for that was where her eyes lay attentive next; never leaving the emptiness of the door until he spoke.
“Find what?” He felt as if he were prying into the innermost depths of her mind.
“Why Ravenwood of course,” she said, making his question sound foolish.
“Ravenwood?” Todd had heard of it, but only as a story around the hearth, only as a drunkard’s passing yarn, never as a real place. Todd began to doubt the woman’s sanity. Her eyes were rigid with a cold gleam that glittered like sun dappled icicles, in whatever way she looked or move the passing thought of winter came to his mind.
At that moment he felt the two black jewels press with icy callousness against his chest. His neck began to hang low as the pouch became heavier and yet stronger still. He fell to his knees and his head hit the ground with a deranged force. It was not until then did he feel them become an unbearable burden. He strained his fingers and released the knot that bound the pouch to his neck. Immediately the agitated pulling stopped and he was able to stand again. He held the pouch at length, eyeing it with uncertainty. It did not shift weight again.
The woman’s eyes turned toward him, reaching inside his innermost thoughts, searching for some form of answer. She held him long in her gaze before he broke away, terrified of her now and of the power the jewels had over him. Todd dropped the pouch to the ground; he could almost see the two black eyes from behind the thick leather, glowing impassively as they inched their way out of the pouch.
“You would not be able to stand the witch’s power if you cannot hold on to a mere spell,” she said, fetching the leather pouch. The two black jewels had already burned through it leaving strands of curly smoke to disappear in the thin air. She picked them up and curled her fist, letting the burned pouch drop. “No mortal on earth is strong enough to face the witch’s power if she acquires the magic past Ravenwood.
“Ravenwood,” she said again, the name seemed to have a sort of soothing harmony for her, an antidote for her cold indifference. “Also the place of uncertain reality. It lies past the Arouet River at the Ford of Harrinyoung, the entrance to the dark crested trees of the old forest. The belderim woods; blackened trees and darkened leaves.” She said these words as if to refresh her mind of the journey to the wood, perhaps one she made many times over and never found a purpose for.
“The old forest is days away,” Todd explained, trying to ignore the incident of the black stones and the odd tone of her voice, “and no one has lived there in decades.”
“Then that would be the ideal place for Ravenwood to sit, would it not?” She raised her left brow at him; puzzled that he did not know of Ravenwood and even more bewildered that he did not seem to believe.
“What is this Ravenwood?” he asked her, though he had heard the stories he wondered what her interpretation might be.
“Ravenwood is the wood in which the wood cutter’s house dwells,” she said, her eyes growing distant, as if the wood were already in front of her. “In the wood cutter’s cottage there are four windows in which you may see in all directions of what lies beyond Novegard. To the north lies the winter lands of wasteful beauty, Tiernanell. The mountains in Tiernanell are the most colossal monuments left in this earth as a mark of the folk that dwelt there in ancient days. There are some that would say that the mountains are the guardians of the old magic. Others would say that the east carries the knowledge of magic on its gilded wings of ice-laden wind along with the spring of the land. For Theria is the land that keeps the youth of the world eternal. But in the west, this land holds autumn dear to it as it does its own name; Aureate Petiole, land of the golden leaves. But the south recalls the soothing glades of Summer and it comes first from down the mountains where in spreads through the land like wild fire, whispering the scorching name of Feria’lae, season of eternal blaze. But in the wood cutter’s cottage there is a door where everything you know and see here, disappears once you pass through it and all the directions come together to form the land beyond the wood. Ravenwood is the gateway to the truth, the real world.”
“Perhaps we should go now,” Todd said, feeling sorry for this mad wild woman. As he spoke, the cold gleam left her eyes and the grayness of them and the color of her face returned. “The sun has already been swallowed and there will be no moon tonight. The oil in my lantern is failing but there’s an inn only a mile away. You can’t stay here tonight, this rat hole is not suitable.”
She glared at him and Todd felt that she knew exactly what he had thought. “I had lived in this rat hole for twenty-one years, and I will stay in my own home without sleeping at the Seven Hearths.”
“How did you know the name?” Todd asked.
“The Raven flies around,” she said. She lifted her hand and blew a kiss into the room. Her breath spread like a huge gust of wind, and within seconds the room had been cleared of any dust. A bed in the corner that Todd had seen without blankets was now made with pillows and quilts. Her desk was free of cobwebs and the two little globes now glowed with immeasurable radiance, lighting up the room as candles might but with much more power. And from the floor, all the broken manuscripts and books that he had thrown were now neatly stacked in the shelves. A single cool breeze wafted about the room and gave him the shivers though the room had become increasingly hot. It was as if she had removed a shield from the room that protected it from time, everything looked just as it should sixty-seven years ago.
A faint glimpse of smile he saw curled about her lips as she left his side and stepped into the center of the room. She wandered to a long box in rounded corner that Todd had neglected to tear open; had he even seen it. If Todd had seen the box, with its unusual designs engraved on the sides, he would have recognized it.
“Kurniviel nothural.” These words she read were carved in the like of fair and ancient runes on the top of the box, and with them the latch clicked. The woman lifted the latch and inside Todd viewed the sharpest and most elaborate double headed ax he had ever seen. Two-curved ax blades met at a point sharp enough for a spear and were attached to a long wooden stave that was polished to a dark brown.
The woman carried the ax masterfully in two hands and then lifted Todd’s lantern off her shelf with the point of it. He accepted the lantern but could not help being afraid of the ax she yielded. She smiled coldly. “Hurry along to the Seven Hearths, these woods are not deficient of perils on moonless nights. I can read your face as plainly as I see it. You are not ready for the secrets that I wield, nor will you be lest you break free of the hold this world has upon you. When you are ready, you will find me waiting, and even then, the strains of Novegard will tear violently at your heart that is stained with the ways of the stone witch. For you, and no others you bring, will want to leave the world you have grown into, or would it be better said that the world has grown into you?”
Though he knew not the full meaning of her words, a grim realization filled his mind and he blocked it out, refusing to acknowledge a long regarded suspicion that had always placed doubt in his mind when he looked upon Novegard at dawn every day. She found his thoughts with her cold gray eyes and smiled with a virtuous yet a wicked meaning, as if she understood exactly what he thought and refused to comfort him.
“What do you know of my thoughts,” he asked audaciously.
Expecting a sardonic explanation, Todd was surprised when the woman replied.
Her voice rang with a sad and ancient toll that breached the sheer paths of forgotten tales with the walls of lost chronicles. “I know that in your heart you dwell on the food of this world, but deep behind your soul you sense a profound wrongness. I know that every morning when you awake and see the sun lift the shoulders of the earth you feel the difference between your eyes and those of your immediate company. I know that you seek the truth, and only your eyes can see it, if you are willing.
“Do you think mere chance brought you here, to this tree? Do you think that what you hear are the estranged words of a madwoman? It is out there, Todd, it is out there and it is waiting for you.”
“What?” he asked. “Tell me what it is that calls me, though I fear it.”
The words he was speaking felt not of his own, but they were, and he knew that he spoke from his soul. She retreated from the box and approached him, the cold gleam had returned to her eye. He was terrified of her again and could not understand how she could be so compelling and yet interchangeably, so frightening. She held his eyes in her gaze once more, and then she looked away and bent forward to his ear. “Ravenwood.”
He could not bring himself to look at her, though something told him she was speaking the truth. Todd turned his back on the woman and left her dwelling with out furthering words between them. He husbanded his strength of soul and retreated into the forest, new thoughts teeming in his mind.