The forest breathed green around the two travellers. They had passed from tightly clustered greenwood to an area where sunlight reached the ground, unchoked by dense foliage. The path they trod was free of undergrowth, no longer the mere guess of a trail it had been deeper in the woods.
Andanu raised his eyes from the tree-rooted path to examine his teacher Taril as she trudged ahead of him. She was tireless, never bowed down under the weight of her travelling pack, her eyes constantly keen and interested in the world.
He had slept poorly and his back ached. He trudged along behind Taril, leaning heavily on his staff with every step. He envied her light strides. They had left their small west-shore town a week ago, and he felt the day’s weight on his shoulders. He hoped they would get enough new patrons at the east-shore town’s great summer-festival to make the journey worth it. At least the way through the forest was the shortest way from coast to coast of the island, even if it was a foot-wearying, bone-aching way. Most people preferred to take sail and skirt the coast eastwards, but that would have required funds that Taril and Andanu did not have.
Before they left, Taril had hummed songs that spoke of great trees, of lands swallowed up by the great green, of the mystical experience that was the forest. During their journey, Andanu had discovered that he appreciated the majesty of the greenwood better from afar, when he didn’t have to sleep on tree-roots every night.
“Do many travellers come this way?” he asked to get his mind off the line of pain tracing its way along his lower back.
Taril glanced back at him, eyes crinkling in a smile as she beheld his no doubt peevish expression. “Not as many as used to in the old days, so they say,” she said. “But yes, this is a common route. Particularly used by rogues and musicians-itinerant such as ourselves.” She didn’t stop walking, although her pace relented a little, and Andanu was able to catch up to her. “Of course, nothing is as it was in the old days.”
“The days before the great smoke?”
“Just so. Those days three hundred years past and more. Do you remember the song I taught you, about the faces in the green?”
“Yes.” The first line, As I wandered in the wilds, slipped into his head, and he knew he could sing all nine verses if needed. He was pleased to discover that even the more obscure songs stuck in his memory these days.
“That song is ancient. They sung it in the days before the great smoke, if our musician-sages guess right.” Taril’s steps slowed down, irregular. “We have such precious little knowledge surviving from before. All we have are a snatchful of songs and tales.”
Andanu thought about how much there must have been to know in the old days. The thought made him shudder at the vastness of it all. Perhaps it was a blessing, after all, to live in a later age, a simpler world.
“Wait!” said Taril suddenly. “What’s that?”
The hair on Andanu’s neck stood up. They had been fortunate enough to encounter few dangers on the road so far; his skills with his fighting staff had not been needed. Most of their encounters had been with fellow travellers eager to accept their gifts of music and tales in return for food and a fire. Still, he took a firmer grip on the staff now.
Taril had wandered off the path to the left. Andanu followed her among the mossy trees and riotous undergrowth.
They pushed past an ivy-covered oak and discovered themselves in a small glade. It was thrown into shadow by two immense trees on the other side. Gnarled and knobbly-barked, they reached towards each other, their branches weaving together so seamlessly it was as if someone had made them so. They formed an arc, almost like a massive gate. Andanu chuckled: the forest was making him fanciful.
“This,” said Taril, her eyes narrowed, “hasn’t been here before.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve walked the forest path before. This glade has not been here.”
Andanu raised his eyebrows. “Sounds like one of your ancient tales. Perhaps you just haven’t noticed this place before.”
“No,” said Taril. “I saw the sun glint on stone, just now. I would have noticed such a thing before.” She pointed. “There. That’s what I saw from the path.”
Next to the huge trees, nestled near their roots, stood a ruined building of grey stone. It had once been a cottage, but the roof had caved in and all that was left was its bare outline. The doorway gaped open to the skies.
“Why would someone have built a cottage this deep in the forest?” asked Andanu. He shook his head, trying to clear it. There was a strange feeling in the glade, as if they had stumbled onto a forgotten pocket of the land, where the memory of the past wove a strong spell.
“It shouldn’t be here.” Taril stalked closer to inspect the ruin. Trees had taken refuge in what had once been the inside of the cottage: they had grown tall, pushing up above the crest of the crumbling roof. Moss and ivy clung to the stones. “It’s old,” she said, “very old. Could be hundreds of years.”
“You think this was built before the great smoke?” Andanu wandered closer, feeling tendrils of wonder creep inside him.
“It could be. This isn’t how we build our houses. And see how tall and thick the trees are, growing within its walls.”
Andanu scrambled over mossy roots and reached the grey walls dappled with fronds of ferns and moss. The stones exuded a coolness that was welcome in the rising heat of the day. He leant closer, touched the ruined door-lintel with his bare hand. “I wonder who lived–”
His head was spinning so fast he felt sick. He could feel his left hand still touching the cool stone of the cottage, but the real world was fading, and another reality taking over…
…and he spins into the cottage’s memory. A confused jumble of images hits him all at once. A woman in a tall headdress is kneading dough on the kitchen table. The door opens, a man comes in with bow and arrows and a bunch of dead partridges. She runs forward to kiss him, takes his face in her floury hands. Many people run, laugh, die in this place. Children run clattering on the dirt floor. A homecoming fire burns in the hearth. The air is filled with the sounds of a great feast. Laughter, kisses: the cottage has known such things. And then the great smoke comes. How can it be anything else? Fire rages in the sky. Noise like thunder. Rain falls with the fire. Ashes, ashes. The roof burns down, the cottage screams as only stone-wrought creatures can. Andanu feels its pain as if his own flesh is burning…
He returned to consciousness with a jolt, hand jerking free from the stone. Taril’s hand was on his shoulder. “What’s wrong, Andanu? You’ve gone all grey.”
He blinked, trying to focus his bleary eyes, and backed away from the wall. He fought against an urge to heave up the remains of his breakfast. “I saw something, Taril. When I touched the wall… I saw things. Things from the past.”
Taril led him by the arm and sat him down on a knee-high root sprawling from one of the strangely arched trees next to the cottage. As he described what he had seen, he saw the frown lines deepen on his teacher’s face.
He took a deep breath to steady himself. “The old tales I’ve learnt are full of magic, Taril. So much magic it feels unreal to us. What if the world was a different place then? Maybe things that are impossible for us might have been possible then, and some of that lingers in this place.”
It sounded far-fetched even to him, but there was still a roiling pit in his stomach and black spots danced behind his eyes when he closed them. He did not doubt he’d truly had the vision. He was fairly sure he was not inclined to insanity, either.
Taril frowned. “You mean that those charlatan Magicworkers who swindle the gullible might once have truly been able to change the substance of the world?”
“Perhaps. Perhaps we’ve stumbled on a pocket of the old magic. I know it sounds impossible, but I truly saw the history of this place through the stone.”
Taril snorted. “You’re saying magic is tied to place? That’s not what the Magicworkers say. They say it depends on the position of the stars and the deftness of their finger-work.” She shook her head and reached into her travel pack. “There. That’ll help with your queasiness.” She handed him a piece of travel bread to gnaw on.
Andanu chewed on the bread. The bland taste did help quell the nausea. “I’m just spinning a tale, Taril. You know me.” Yet it did not feel like falsehood.
Taril’s eyes dimmed with thought. She looked up at the vast girth of the tree they sat under, her eyes tracing the branches where it joined with the other tree. “It’s an interesting notion, of course. What if magic truly had once been part of the weave of this world? What if the tales we tell weren’t so beyond the realm of the possible?”
“You’re what-ifing a lot,” Andanu said to goad her.
“Far less than you were a moment ago.”
He felt hollow and fragile inside. He focused on the ruined cottage again, barely believing that simply touching the wall had forced such a vision on him. Could there truly be places in the greenwood where magic still coursed stronger through the veins of the world?
Taril took her flute from her pack and started to play a lilting tune that cut right into the heart. Andanu thought the tree-root he sat on trembled, an almost imperceptible movement. The leaves above rustled and sighed with many sharp voices even though there was no wind in the glade.
A shiver ran down his aching back. It was as if the tree was listening to Taril’s music, dancing in time to her tune.