VOICES FROM THE HEARTH
When Aya Hawke left, Todd remembered that he was lost, and that she had actually done nothing to better his situation. He took a few steps on the path and suddenly recognized the faint aroma of salted pork and blackberry brew so common at Seven Hearths. His chest pounding at every break of air, Todd bounded into the woods towards the source of the familiar odors, ignoring the path he had followed all night.
As soon as he left the path he began to see things through the trees. He saw the lanterns that dangled on the front porch of the inn and tavern and the dim lights that glowed from the windows of those still awake. He could hear the sound of erratic laughter and feel the soft heat press against him as he neared that circle of protection. For the moment he forgot Aya Hawke’s strange transformation and the dark woman’s haunting face, and leapt up the stairs of the inn, grasping each railing with relief.
Todd staggered into the inn as he tripped on the last step and was met by boisterous music and gay and drunken laughter. The bright lights of the inn stunned him and he cringed, trying to regain his normal eyesight. As his eyes developed he recognized familiar faces of people from the town and country.
Todd made his way through the lively dancers who cursed at him when they tripped. He slapped down a penny at the counter, “the blackberry,” he said, the favorite beverage of the townsfolk; it was made of fermented blackberries and violet stems. A few moments later he received a pewter mug and began to drink thoroughly of the brew.
Rika pulled the long wooden handle from the open hearth and let the bread slid off onto the prepared counter lined with cloth. She picked up each hot loaf, fingered the crust, and inhaled deeply of its fresh baked smell. “Hot Bread!” she called out.
“Hot bread!” yelled Elsa, a waitress. The words continued for a few moments as they were passed into the dining hall where a few regulars mimicked the familiar calls as loud as they could. Rika had scarcely time to step aside when immediately the two loaves were stolen, cut up, and ready to be served. She watched as the last of bread made its way out to the frenzy of the dining hall. With that done with, Rika washed her face clean of the hot sweat that clung to her all day long in the kitchens. The normally icy cold water felt cool and welcoming. She ran a wet towel through her matted hair, sticky with perspiration, and removed her apron, hanging it on a hook until the next day. “Goin’ home, Rika?” Tanner, the cook’s apprentice, inquired thoughtfully.
Rika nodded halfheartedly, her mouth felt too sticky open and all she could think about was a nice mug of blackberry ale. When she entered the dining hall she was surprised to see Todd resting his head in his arms on the counter. Beside him, a half-finished mug of ale sat there, tempting her thirst beyond control. Rika glanced around and made a quick dash for his mug. The draught was a nice wash of fermented berries that tasted as they did when they were first picked and she could smell the sweet violet mixed in with it.
Todd looked up, weary-eyed, and spotted Rika drinking his mug out of the corner of his eye. “My, what quick lips you have,” he yawned, the drink getting to him.
“The faster to snatch your ale, my friend.” She set down the mug and rubbed his shoulders as he continued to yawn. “Come, I’ll buy you another.”
“What for?” All he wanted to do was lie there comfortably with Rika’s long narrow fingers massaging his tired shoulders.
“So you can drink it on the way to the grotto.”
Todd sighed and cradled his head. Rika shoved him playfully and stopped rubbing his shoulders. “You forgot, didn’t you?”
“Heaven’s no,” he mumbled, not remembering when they ever had agreed to meet early on summer’s evening. Rika pulled Todd up by his hair and bent over. “Look me in the eye, and say that again.”
“Heavens no?” he said, watching her reaction.
A quick twitch of her upper lip was Rika’s biggest smile. “You’re lying, I know you better.” She kissed his forehead as a child would. “Mmm-ma, let’s move it, we’ve got a long meeting ahead of us and the grotto en’t no walk among flowers.”
Flowers, Todd thought, remembering Aya’s words. Reluctantly, he got up and paid the tavern keeper for another mug. He barely had his hands on it when Rika jerked him away, splashing dark ale all over the front of his shirt. “Get a move on, we’ll be late.”
At the moment, Todd cared nothing of the grotto or the meeting, all he wanted was a nice soft pillow for his mind-weary head. It was no use. Rika dragged him out of Seven Hearths and pulled him down the dark road. Todd could make out the faint glow of the sun on the horizon. “I don’t know how you could have forgotten,” Rika babbled, “we’ve been planning this meeting for weeks. First light on midsummer’s morn, the overlooking the waves it was all so romantic. You were always the one reminding me.”
Rika stopped suddenly and Todd staggered ahead, knocking her off her feet. She picked herself up from the rocky path. “What happened?” she asked, her deep voice full of solemnity. “Did something happen yesterday when you went out into the woods.” She remembered vaguely that Todd said something about investigating hollow trees for a new meeting place. Too many people, he had said, knew about the grotto, and it would lead to trouble one day.
Raven and Hawk, he thought. Regaining his senses, Todd spilled the rest of the ale on the path and stored the pewter mug in Rika’s satchel. “I’ll tell you when we get there. It was the strangest thing. Two, of the strangest things,” he corrected himself.
The cave in which Todd and his companions met regularly was but a notch in the cliff that overlooked the ocean. They had discovered it one day on a picnic and Rika had toppled over the edge. No one wanted to look over the edge for fear of seeing her smashed body on the rocks. Reluctantly, Todd had peered over the side with a sick feeling in his stomach and nearly fell over himself when he heard her voice cry out. As it turned out, Rika had landed on an outcrop that led into a small cave. The inside was beautiful, small crystals peeked from behind overprotecting rocks, and three stalactites with a flat old table-top made a wonderful table big enough for the five of them.
Whenever they met at the cave, Todd had that marvelous feeling of being a child again; participating in secret meetings or hiding out in caves and trees. Lately, he had begun to feel himself grow out of the phase of childhood yearning. The cave held not the same meaning for him anymore. When his companions had sent him out in the woods to search for a new secret place, Todd had felt reluctant, tired, and irritable; he found no pleasure in those games anymore.
Rika remained herself, refusing to break custom without her friends’ approval. Yet Todd could see that the fresh glow of fantasy had left her face, leaving her stern and sarcastic. She never said anything, but he knew what she was feeling because he felt the same way.
They approached the cliff and Todd swung down first, landing snugly on the rocky outcrop. Rika slid down rope almost immediately and Todd stood below her, waiting to break her fall if she slipped. Her long, pale thin legs dangled like two broken sticks as she grappled for a foothold. Within a moment she was on her feet beside him and they approached the dark cave. Rounding a corner they saw the shadows of light and made out the unmistakable voices of their three companions.
“You’re late, Todd, Luscious.” Brock said, referring to Rika by her nickname-Luscious Rika Lucius. He stirred their supper, a bean soup with small chunks of ham. Sweat swabbed his brow as he leaned over the fire.
“I forgot the bread,” Rika moaned, catching sight of the soup. “Damn!”
Doe-eyed Keana stared at Rika unforgivably. Her dark eyes set off with golden flashes from the fire.
“Well-” Rika broke off, trying to make an excuse for her language. She pointed suddenly at Todd. “If it weren’t for Mister Expressive over here, I would have remembered. But he was sulking at the counter with his face in a mug of ale.” Rika promptly sat down, an unbreakable expression of seriousness on her face.
Todd shrugged, too tired to make excuses and too tongue tied to fight Rika. But nothing could stop Keana from looking with a horrified countenance towards Todd. A virgin in all matters of life, Keana would not dare touch a glass of wine or ale, even if she were at a special celebration or spring wedding.
“Don’t start,” Todd warned, finding a spot next to Rika, completing the circle around the fire. “I’ve had a long day, and an even longer night-“
“Something happened in the woods, yesterday.” Todd looked at the interloper beside him; Rika shot him a cynical smile, which involved a lip curl and an eyebrow lift.
Brock stopped stirring, tasted the broth, and then began to serve each of them. Dain, the stonecutter’s son seated next to Brock, began to speak slowly. “Did you find a good tree?”
Sarcasm sprang to Todd’s tongue. “Oh, yeah, I found a great tree, someone was already living in it, though!”
Dain looked up, a rush of blonde hair cascading across his light blue eyes. Keana’s eyes lit up with terror and she snuggled deeper into the comfort of her scarlet cloak. Rika’s hand went rigid beside him. Brock passed him a wooden bowl of soup. “Go on,” he urged.
Todd took a deep breath and his chest flooded with the events from the past nightfall. “I was searching for a tree, and we all know that there are plenty of hollow ones near the borders of the woods. But I didn’t want one of the trees close by; it wouldn’t be secluded. So I ventured quite a ways in and it was dark out by now. Then I saw a tree that we used to play on as kids, before the woods became dangerous.”
That brought back poisonous memories and Keana’s eyes glittered with tears. No one knew exactly when the woods became unsafe, but after Keana’s older brother, who they thought was invincible as children, disappeared. His body was found four weeks later in a tangle of branches, one skeleton of a tendril wrapped around his neck where mottled flesh clung. Keana refused to go near the woods for years after that, constantly she muttered “the trees took him, nasty trees,” and no one could convince her otherwise.
After Marc was found, Todd felt that the woods began to grow with a spirit of their own, using the lives of wanderers and animals to grow more powerful. The trees bore an evil scent and often a wood cutter would find that their trunks were black around the edges, as if they were rotting towards the center.
The trees weren’t the only part of the forest that seemed to be deteriorating. Harvest brought many to the woods to pick berries and nuts, only to find that they were crawling with worms and stinking of rotten foliage. People claimed that after the sun went down the moon cast a light on strange shadows setting off what the villagers called specters and the nobles declared as mindless fantasies of the poorer folk.
Todd, Rika, Brock, and Dain, found nothing intimidating about the outskirts of the forest, and it was a while before they could convince Keana to think as they did. Todd might have even gone on believing that nothing was terribly wrong with the forest itself if it hadn’t been for the night’s events.
“There was a lot of dust and everything was falling apart. Books would crumble it my hands and blankets would canker at my touch. There were two strange globes on this table and tucked away with the books was a scroll. I opened it and there were two poems, both different it sound, though they both pertained to an animal, a bird actually.”
“Cardinal?” Dain volunteered.
“A sparrow perhaps,” Keana’s eyes pleaded the most innocent of birds.
“An owl,” Brock said absently.
Rika’s eyes glowed, “A hawk!”
Todd nodded, “The first I read was a raven, the second; a hawk.”
“How do you think they were put together?” Todd posed the question. No one moved for a moment, they were all pondering the connection. “I’ll give you a piece. The rhymes were so short I can remember them both:
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
The clues were so vague that no one could guess. Nonetheless, Todd decided to continue. “After I read the poems aloud a second time someone entered the room. It was a tall young woman with dark hair and sad gray eyes. She didn’t tell me but I think . . . I think she was Kay Ravengard.”
” ‘Was’ is certainly the most appropriate word,” Brock said, breaking a smile. “After all, the likes of the Ravengards haven’t been seen around here for a hundred years. She was the last of them, wasn’t she.”
Dain chuckled. “Wonderful story Todd, Luscious herself couldn’t have done better. A bit tense, though.”
Rika pouted. She was notorious for being the village liar.
Todd frowned, he was not one to take something lightly. “She had two black gems that fell out of her eyes, they were so cold that they burned. Kay Ravengard she was, and she knew my name.”
“How is it that she has been alive all these years?” Brock asked.
“She disappeared a little over a two ages ago because an enchantment was cast over her. The poem that I read was her summons, it brought her back into her human form as it was so long ago. She spoke in the language of the folk of the wood at first, but when she saw that I could not speak it, she began to speak our tongue.”
“What about the second poem?” Keana asked. “Was that a summons, too?”
Todd held up his hand in a motion for patience. “When she first spoke she said ‘Wait and the wrath of the stone witch will befall you, causing something much greater than terror to strike into your heart.’ Then she spoke of Ravenwood, the brink of some great fantasy.”
The name froze in the eyes of his companions. Ravenwood, they remembered, was the forest of the Illusion; a great power dwelt there, dark and malevolent. Their Queen, Rhiannon the Fair, would not allow any of her people to venture there. She posted a guard at the entrance day and night, for no one would dare to go around the forest.
“I left after that, and then I got lost in the woods, my lamp finally ran out of oil, and I was forced to wander the paths alone. I wandered deeper and deeper into the woods coming across odd trees and black pools. Finally, I gave up and rested against a rock when suddenly the second phantom of the past came upon me.
“She was a young woman who was as tall as Kay Ravengard, but where Kay was dark, this woman was light. She too spoke in the language of the wood folk at first, and then switched languages. ‘They call me Aya Rhea of the White Hawks,’ she said, and I was astounded. Aya, too, had gems at her eyes, white diamonds. She told me that I summoned her and that now she must go to Veramere to the aid of Queen Rhiannon, Rhiannon the Fey, she called her, perhaps an ancient name for fair-“
“Or fairy,” Rika put in, “Fay or fey.”
Todd shrugged and continued, “She put the gems back in her eyes and was violently transformed into a hawk. She flew away and after that, I could see the lights of the inn, and smell the aroma of food coming from it.”
“Aya Hawke,” Keana barely whispered, afraid to breathe. “She vanished at the same time of Kay Ravengard, did she not?”
Todd shook his head. “An age before Ravengard. I don’t know what to make of it, though. Perhaps I should take you all to the oak tree and meet the legend herself. Or perhaps we could go up the Acropolypse and speak with Aya Rhea.”
Rika’s eyes flashed Dain a brief look of excitement and danger; the Acropolypse was a test of true audacity.
“Don’t jest,” Keana said, as if it were blasphemous to speak sarcastically. “If who you saw was really Aya Hawke and Kay Ravengard, then there must be something amiss in Novegard. It is too much to believe that just because you read two poems that they came back to life, something else must having been working for them to arrive, a force that pulled them here. Words can hardly do that.”
The dark sound of thunder cackled above the cliff and rain beagn to pour heavily on the shores below. Silence enveloped the room, eluding sound for several aging moments. Dain stirred in his seat and his lips moved silently yet he said nothing. Todd stared at his feet, wondering profoundly what he should do next. Keana stared at the waning fire, and Brock stirred the slowly burning beans. It was Rika, who broke the silence, as if it were her job and hers alone. “Perhaps we should go see the oak tree, tomorrow at least. After work is completed we can all meet at Seven Hearths. Dain, Todd, and I can bring lanterns if you-Brock-and Keana can bring extra oil.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Dain seconded Erika’s motion.
“And then what?” Todd asked cantankerously. “We meet ‘Kay’ and talk to her-how’s it like to be a bird all those years? Did you eat a lot of worms?”
“Todd . . .” Keana whined.
Todd cast an annoyed glance at Keana and she stopped. “I know this is going to sound crazy to all of you, but why do we even meet here anymore.”
He was greeted not with surprise but weary glances. He recognized now that they were all failing in interest of this child’s game. “What is it that we’re searching for anyway? A magic crystal, a fallen star, an elfin shoe?”
Brock looked up, his dark eyes asking the same question. “There used to be something there Todd,” he said. “Something magical about everything. Remember when we first formed this comradeship. We were but children with wild ideas of adventure and magic.”
“We wanted to be heroes,” Keana added. “None of us wanted to accept the reality that there is nothing magical in Novegard. This country has always been a place of grim and gray hardships and jovial celebrations. It is a mixture of everything good and bad. But, oh, how I wanted there to be something to live for, a fantasy come true.”
“No, Keana,” Dain cut in, “I think you’re wrong. There is something powerful in Novegard but none of us are brave enough or free enough to discover what it is. Look inside the old forest, by the Harrinyoung Ford, and then tell me that there is nothing there. There is something, and we felt it when we were young, but the strict pulls of the normal, everyday life of everyone else has pulled us into conformity. Todd, you take us to see that old oak, and then if that woman is really Kay Ravengard, I think we can be rescued.”
Todd sighed. He remembered Kay’s prophetic words. There is something wrong with this place, he thought, there is something out there that is better, I’m being drawn to it, and I’m dragging my friends along with me. Despite these harsh thoughts, Todd agreed. “Tomorrow then,” he said, “after work.”
Rika clapped her hands and stood up suddenly, nearly banging her head on the ceiling of the cave. “Tomorrow it is, and blackberry ale for everyone! Especially you two, Keana and Dain, I’m quite impressed with profound and insightful words. Good thinkin’.”
Dain grinned and Keana, as usual, blushed. Todd stood up and because Rika’s head was a bit higher than his, he only brushed the stone topside.