THE LADY OF THE WOOD
Todd had long passed the old oak when his lantern began to flicker. He examined it briefly and saw that the oil in it had indeed run low to the point of burning out. Sighing in agitation he paused in the middle of the wood and sought to find a path that ran under the light of the moon. In truth, he did not know where he was. All around him brush littered the forest floor and the thick curtains of leaves of the oaks and ash made it impossible to for him to see further ahead. The lamp flickered gently and the sudden puff of wind blew it out. Todd dropped the lantern and cursed, swearing that the breath of the trees themselves had blown it out. He kicked a root of a burr oak that rose above the ground in irate annoyance. Suddenly he felt the tree shift and the air became thicker, stuffier, and filled with tension. Determined to exit the forest as a wholesome person, Todd leapt over the low root and escaped the angered tree. The thought passed his mind as he looked back, to return to the old oak and beg the strange woman for some oil or in the least one of her globe lights. But Todd decided he had his fill of secrets for a long time and he turned back on his path.
The soft pounding of his footfalls echoed in slight whispering vibrations as he steered every once and again off the old path to find a new one hidden behind a few trees under the light of the moon. The paths seemed to be turning him around as if the menacing forest were drawing him into a clever trap. He began to run along the path that flanked a gully that he had never seen before. The gully diffused into long, random shadows that expanded out to the east. In the dark hollows of the night, his eyes could neither make out the other side of the gully or what perils lay at the bottom of the wide gap. Only the faint lines of more trees were apparent in the ever-darkening forest.
The path veered to his right and tipped forward at a great incline. Todd felt himself sliding down its steep edges as it swerved down into the gully. Finally the path came to a standstill and the ground leveled out. He looked behind him at saw that the path was indeed much to steep to try and surmount if he chose to turn back. Afraid of what might lay ahead of him in the darkened crevices of the forest, but panicked about the length of time the climb up would require, Todd abandoned the way behind him and continued forward, following the stiff path ahead.
Without knowing it, Todd had lost sight of the moon above the thickly woven blanket of leaves above his head. Though it careened this way and that, he felt that it was drawing him out of the forest. He thought of the woman’s words, “these woods are not deficient of perils on moonless nights.” Already her carillon voice seem far away, as ancient as the tradition of crickets humming on hazy summer nights. He had forgotten little of what was said, but in his mind the picture of her began to fade. All that was left the strange woman in his mind were the thoughts of innocence and clarity he had when he first laid eyes on her. He looked up again while running, the blankets of leaves grew thicker and no twinkling star could be seen through their cracks.
Todd stumbled upon a rock and tripped upon the edge of a dark pool. He failed to deter his fall and crashed through the dark and odious waters with an explosive plummet. All around him everything was silent, pardoning his heavy gasps for breath and the hissing of the white glowing steam that arose from the icy waters. Todd jumped up and watched the pool quiet down as he slowly retreated further down the path. He could smell its gases rise and fill the forest, stifling what little breathable air was left.
Once again he started the path and ventured deeper and deeper into the unexplored, unmapped forest that was stretched from west Novegard to the borders of the Seas of Torinth. Leagues away were such boundaries as these and harsh were the troubles of the wood that lay in that direction, much more dangerous than the poison steam pools or the grabbing trees that he had but brief encumbrances with.
He stopped after what felt like hours on the side of the path against a rather large rock. The path before him rushed into a long rising run up the side of a cliff and he knew that it was useless to try and hurdle it with the weariness he was feeling. Perhaps it was the spell of the wood that had come over him, for though he was not a sprite lad, he was enduring and strong of limb. Yet the fatigue drowned his arms and legs and he found it impossible to pursue the path any further.
Strange noises that sounded naught like the animals of the wood beckoned him into the night. But Todd lay still against the rock and kept his eyes open, despite the languor that harried him. He thought he heard faint footfalls coming down the path to his right, but when nothing appeared for some time he gave up looking and concentrated on the leaves above, wondering how long he would have to wait for the reception of dawn.
He lay still many hours in the forest with no noises to hinder his thoughts, as if the forest wished to lull him into sleep. He coughed lightly into one hand and the noise echoed softly in the wood around him. A chill stirred the stuffy air, and all at once the forest seemed to grow darker and colder, shrinking down into a black abyss of trees.
A shrill cry and the unmistakable fluttering of wings overhead, warned Todd of his present situation. He made likely prey for the hunters of the forest. What animals dared dwell deep in the old forest, he did not know. It was the prospect of what did dwell in the old forest that caused him to shudder. The cry he recognized as a hawk, but it had passed overhead long before and left no sign that it might return and lead him to safety. The image of wandering in the wood till he died did not comfort his thoughts as he stirred uncomfortably against the rock.
The shadow of repose failed to pass him over and Todd felt less likely to fall asleep under the cold eyes of the forest as the night became longer and dawn seemed no nearer to breaching the shoulders of land. Perhaps dawn did not rise deep in the old forest; perhaps night reigned with a cruel dark hand eternally, troubling any passing stranger with a restless uneasiness, a fear of sleep. What if he, stranger in these fell woods, obliviously passed into unwanted slumber, never to awaken again to the invitation of the sun, if it did indeed pass over the branches of the foreign trees.
Paralyzed with anticipation of what could happen in those unfamiliar parts, Todd resisted the pawing of slumber that nagged at him, softly whispering blithe thoughts in his ears. He felt the fingers of sleep softly tug at his lids but wrenching them free, he remained awake, refusing to think what horrors awaited him in slumber. Shunning himself from unwanted enervation, Todd stood up and stretched his long limbs, shaking sleep from them frantically.
He heard a soft whisper twist down the path and through the boughs of the many trees he saw a dim, glowing light. It gave off little light around it, and gave no identification to the one that was carrying it, if there was someone behind the floating glimmer. Todd ducked behind his rock and watched as the light began to float down the path and the whispers grow louder and more harmonious. Todd fancied for a moment that the trees themselves were singing. He felt drawn to the whispering and the soft light and yet he forced himself to stay close to the ground and behind the rock.
The light emerged after a short while and Todd felt his heart beating heavily against his chest, causing his whole frame to shudder. Attached the glowing light was a long, white arm. Todd studied the arm that led to the body of woman clad in white. Her long ghostly gown fell about her in a shimmering rill and moved like water when she moved. She had seen him and was now approaching him slowly, the gown flowing behind her as though a strange wind rode under it. She set the lantern down on the rock and motioned with her fingers for Todd to stand up. He did so with little fear, this woman, unlike the dark one he met earlier that night imposed no trepidation upon him. She was smooth where the other was rough, and smiling while the other frowned.
He had not realized it at first, but the woman in white carried a bow in her left hand and a quiver of arrows on her right shoulder. She set the bow on the rock and Todd admired the skillful designs that were carved into the white ivory. The quiver that held the arrows was of red velvet and the designs that stood out in gold embroidery were foreign to him. It seemed more of a valuable artifact that one would put on display rather than a real hunting quiver. The arrows too were white, but far more splendid than the quiver, instead of feathers at the end of each shaft, Todd saw what was revealed to him as a bright, shining twinkle. At that moment, he would not doubt if the woman came from the stars.
Ulieviel liery yuvieas slieng githerin. The words were in the same language of the dark woman and Todd could find no response to them. “I cannot understand what you say, mistress, the tongue is but foreign to me,” he said, hoping that she would understand.
The Lady sensed his anxiety and spoke again. “I’m afraid I know little of what goes on in these days. I had not the faintest idea that Novegard no longer required the ancient language to be spoken. Indeed I have not been here for many years.”
Her sudden language transition was no surprise to him, but she had not been to Novegard for many years. The white woman looked hardly older than he.
“Who are you?” he said, trying not to sound too presumptuous.
“Aren’t you a bit demanding?” The woman smiled and brushed her white hand across his face. “After all, I’ve only spoken a few words.”
Todd looked at her disagreeably. “Of what I’ve been through tonight? I think I have the right to know who wanders the old forest with such assurance. These are perilous parts.”
“But not to myself. Long have I wandered these woods and well do I know their paths and secrets. It is you good master Flannery who are lost.”
“How is it you know my name?”
The woman motioned about her. “Why this is the old forest, it tells many things that the ears of mortals cannot hear. When you have been around as long as I you must learn to listen to the language of the flowers. I came quickly and found you here. Would you care to explain yourself?”
“Not until I know who I’m explaining myself to,” he remarked dryly.
She laughed lightly with a soft tone. “Very well, master Flannery. I am the woman who the people of Novegard once called Aya Rhea of the White Hawks.”
“Aya Hawke?” Todd said, astounded.
Aya mused, “If that is what my name as been shortened to over these long years, then yes, that is my name.”
“But you are dead,” Todd said stubbornly, “you lived over two hundred years ago.”
Aya shook her head. “Aye, it is true that I was born but a century before this day, but I must say that I have not but the life of normal human. My youth has been trapped halfway, and I have but lived fully only five and twenty years of age.”
Two diamond tears glittered from her eyes. Todd leaned forward and wiped them onto his palm. They were a pair of clear jewels, exactly like the dark woman’s. “Were you then, a hawk all these years?” he asked, handing her the diamonds.
Aya glanced at them without out the dread that which the dark woman had looked upon them. She replied, “It is as you say, but it does not seem as if it is true. Does it?”
Todd shook his head. “What brought you back?”
“I don’t understand.”
“You read my summons, and a fire sprung up on the snowy mountain where I’ve dwelled for centuries. The heat of the fire melted the ice that fastened the jewels to my eyes, and thus melted the enchantment. I am Aya of the White Hawks once again.”
“I still don’t understand why you became that way, what was the enchantment?” She sounded as if she was speaking metaphorically.
Aya gave a faint smile. “In the days of old I was a servant of the ancients that gathered upon the mountains to perform the rites of spring, summer, fall, and winter. I was a protector of the magic that dwelt there and I was the guardian of the sorceress Rhialnoon.”
“She died nearly a century ago.”
“I know, being one of the Mira she has a life that would last hundreds of years, though she was not immortal,” Aya said. “I have since then taken to wing and flown over Novegard. When my wings fail me, I stop at Evalon, the White Mountain.”
“And there you heard the summons,” Todd finished.
Aya nodded and made no venture to speak any more.
“What will you do, now that the enchantment has been broken.”
“Oh, it hasn’t been broken,” Aya began. “And I apologize if I’ve misled you to believe that.”
“Then what,” Todd said, “then what happens now.”
“I fly to Acropolypse.”
“To Acropolypse I fly, for Veramere I seek, the throne of the white witch, stony gray and bleak.”
“You’ll fly to Veramere, where the Queen sleeps?” Todd was wary of her strange words.
Aya nodded solemnly. “For with the granddaughter of Rhialnoon, I am bound to stay, until her quest is completed, the sorceress Rhiannon the Fey.”
For the moment Todd ignored the fact that Aya spoke in rhyme and concentrated on her words. They deciphered into nothing that he could see was of importance. “You’re gonna fly, how? By putting these jewels back into your eyes?”
Todd watched closely as Aya brought the tiny diamonds close to her clear amber eyes. She place each one on the cornea of each eye and closed her eyelids around them. When she opened them again her eyes were no longer a light amber, but a frightening dark brown, almost black in color. “Can you ever become human again?” he asked her.
“The Queen will allow me to carry out her wishes in my mortal form, and for that she need only to read the summons.” Even Aya’s voice became clouded with a hoarse croaking. Todd watched, horrified, as the lady of the hawks doubled over in pain and began to transform.
“Ahhhhh!” A violent scream erupted from her breast, the transformation forced her to her hands and knees where she began to convulse. Todd stepped back, half wanting to help but half wanting to run.
Aya clawed at the ground where she lay, shrieking miserably. As he watched her writhing form on the ground, Todd saw her fingers curl into the unmistakable claws of hawk. She clawed the stone rock next to her and the long talons left deep gouges in the stone.
Her gown seemed to be growing feathers as it clung tightly to her skin and her legs curled up under her, become the thin legs of a large hawk. The sight was atrociously monstrous. Todd bit back the impulse to cover his ears and shut his eyes. He then forced himself to watch as her screaming increase and her body shook uncontrollably.
Suddenly she quieted and shook no longer. In one swift movement the rest of her human form melted into that of a large white hawk. The hawk shifted upright, glance at him with knowing eyes and then swept off up into the air with the wind under its wings and the ivory bow and quiver in its claws.