Avarron headed straight for the gates. A haunted forest, the old man had called it. What a stupid and superstitious idea. It had looked perfectly normal last night. Whatever gave these people such ideas, he wondered and decided to take a closer look at it. He was sure that there was a sensible explanation for all of it.
When he had passed the gate, he realized it different from the gate he had entered the village through. That made this the north gate. A trail winded into the forest. He eagerly followed it.
As soon as he had set a few steps, a terrifying cry pierced his ears. Involuntarily, he shivered. Trembled, even. Instantly, he drew his sword, trying to determine where the sound had come from. If someone was in danger, he had to help.
“You!” a woman’s voice screamed. “You have some guts to return here after all these years! Let me tear them from your bowels!” The sound seemed to come from right in front of him, though he was alone.
As he ascertained that by looking around, the air in front of him started to shimmer Like a rapidly upcoming mist. The mist swirled until it formed itself into the shape of woman with long, flowing hair and a dress that blurred seamlessly into the mist. Her mouth moved and words came out. Avarron was fascinated by the detail of the mist-formed image, until her words entered his ears: “I swear you this, Theryn Donash: you will not leave this forest alive!”
“Why are you standing there? Can’t you recognize a banshee when you see one? Run!” A voice from behind him said. He turned around to find the fairy behind him. He didn’t really understand what she said, aside from the notion that the forest was both far more crazy and dangerous than the village. However, both trail and village where nowhere to be seen.
Llaweyra seemed to realize this as well. “This way!” she told him, quickly dashing into the forest. Avarron followed, though it certainly didn’t seem like a good idea to follow the fairy into the forest. But every fiber in his body told him to get as far away from the murderous apparition as possible.
He nervously chased the fairy through the dark forest. Wasn’t it supposed to be morning? He didn’t know for how long he ran after the blue-green light, jumping over roots and dodging under branches, but eventually she stopped. It allowed him to catch his breath and look around. They were in a small clearing, allowing some little light into the forest.
The forest unlike any he had ever seen before. It was dark as night. The trees and their branches were twisted and gnarled, as if they could not decide in which direction to grow. This was what the devil’s own hunting grounds would look like. And for a moment, he thought he saw a pair of eyes spying at him from the darkness. He raised his sword in defence, but then the eyes vanished. He did not lower his sword.
“Don’t worry, it’s gone now,” Llaweyra told him.
“What was it?” Avarron asked the fairy uneasily.
The fairy dipped in the air. “Could’ve been a goblin. Or a hobgoblin, maybe an imp.”
“I was thinking more along the lines of a wolf, or maybe a wild dog,” Avarron said dryly.
He slowly sheathed his sword, trying hard to get his breath under control. As he did, something took a firm grip on his ankle and pulled. He lost his balance and with it, the grip on his sword. It fell on the ground as Avarron resisted the strange pull, trying to stay on his feet. The pull only became stronger and he fell as his foot was pulled backwards.
“No! Bad tree, bad tree!” Llaweyra yelled.
Avarron ignored the screaming fairy, rolled on his back and saw vines wrapped around his ankle, dragging him into the forest. He reached for his sword but it was out of reach already. Quickly, he pulled his knife instead and started to cut the vines, but they were though and his knife was barely damaging them as they continued to drag him into the darkness of the forest.
Suddenly, the knife had vanished from his hand. Half a second later it was replaced with his sword. He had no idea what just happened, but he’d figure that out later. He started hacking at the vines, which proved much more effective. After a few slashes, he was free and the vines around his ankle fell off.
“What was that?” he asked as he got back on his feet. If he didn’t know better, he’d have thought those vines had a mind of their own, assaulting him like that. Perhaps it was an animal instead. He had heard of creatures that disguise themselves as plants, though he had never encountered such in Kyst.
“Duck!” Llaweyra yelled.
Avarron frowned at her. Surely she didn’t mean…
A split second too late he realized that she didn’t. A tree branch twisted around his neck and pulled him up. He flailed with his arms and legs. The branch tightened its grip on his neck, making it hard to breathe. With his free hand, he tried to pull the branch off his throat while he swung his sword at the wooden attacker.
“Silly knight, not ducking when I tell him to,” Llaweyra complained loudly as she flew over to the tree holding Avarron. “Let go of him, you overgrown piece of naughty firewood!” she said to the tree.
Avarron would have rolled his eyes at the fairy for talking to a tree if he wasn’t so busy freeing himself from the damned thing.
Behind him, Llaweyra continued to throw curses at the tree. From the corner of his eye, he also noticed a few flashes of bright light. A moment later, the branch holding him finally broke under his repeated assault and he fell a good two meters back to the ground. He pulled the wooden choke-hold from his throat, breathing heavily.
“What a stupid tree. As if he thought I’d just let him kill you. Nono, sir. Silly knights are more fun when they’re not dead.”
“In my experience, trees don’t think at all,” Avarron told her, deciding to just ignore the insult. “Although I’ve also never experienced a tree branch swooping me like that,” he rubbed his painful throat.
“Yeah, beware the swooping. It’s particularly fashionable these days,” Llaweyra giggled.
“Fashionable?” Avarron raised an eyebrow at the fairy. The word ‘fashion’ made him think of noblewomen, fretting over which dress to wear. He was pretty sure he wouldn’t find any in a forest. Especially not this forest. And they wouldn’t do any swooping. Certainly not in those dresses.
His expression seemed to greatly amuse the fairy. “Hee! Where’s my manners?” she giggled. “Welcome to the Witchwood. We have goblins and gremlins, fairies and Sidhe, witches and wizards. The trees walk, some of which are murderous, and we receive the occasional dragon visit. It’s the best place ever!”
Avarron frowned at the fairy, who said, as if it was too obvious to warrant an explanation: “It’s never boring here.”
“I suppose not, with such a wild imagination,” Avarron said unimpressed.
Llaweyra hovered right in front of him, so close that he could see a mischievous grin on her tiny face. He could now also see that the blue and green glow she generated came from a pair of translucent, butterfly-like wings. Seeing the fairy in such detail made it very hard to reason that the blue-green blur he had seen earlier was nothing but a trick the light played on his eyes. A strange glow could be attributed to imagination, and so could a woman-shaped mist. As well as hearing strange voices. But hovering in front of him was definitely a fairy. Which could only mean that he was still dreaming, no matter how vivid everything seemed.
Watching the wings flutter was somehow captivating, as if it put him in a trance. For a while he stared at the fascinating blending on colours that the wings produced. Then Llaweyra snapped in her fingers and he returned to his senses.
He found himself floating well above the forest’s canopy. There was a clear visible distinction between the dark, gloomy Witchwood and the surrounding forests. “This is a dream. It’s all a dream,” he told himself. The moment he said it, he started to fall back to the earth at an ever increasing speed.
“Oops,” Llaweyra said and giggled loudly as she flew after the knight. As the ground closed in on him, he suddenly slowed down and landed softly in the grass. As he caught his breath, he heard the fairy giggling and bursting into fits of laughter.
“That was not funny,” he said as he slowly got up, gasping for air.
“It was!” she protested. “It’s a pity though…”
She put her finger on his forehead. “What did they put in here that makes you so anti-magic?”
“Common sense,” Avarron replied annoyed.
Llaweyra laughed. “Hee, it’s not a show of sense at all when you dispell a levitation spell mid-flight, silly.”
“I didn’t dispell anything,” Avarron protested and then corrected himself: “There was nothing to dispell in the first place.”
The words seemed hollow as they came out of his mouth. The fall had certainly not been a dream. He hadn’t just seen the ground approach him, he had felt the wind in his hair and face. The ever increasing speed of his fall had made it hard to breathe. And yet his landing had been incredibly soft, as if the fall hadn’t been there at all. Besides…
“So how’d you get up there?” Llaweyra asked amused.
Avarron thought about that but was forced to conclude that he had no idea at all. “I don’t know,” he admitted with a sour face. “It feels as if, when I passed through the gate of that accursed village, I stepped into a fairy tale book.”
“I’d start believing in fairy tales if I were you, you silly knight,” Llaweyra told him in an almost serious tone. “You haven’t seen the last of them.”
“I’ve seen more than enough,” Avarron complained. He couldn’t leave this nonsensical place fast enough.
“Well, since you resist my levitation spell, you’re in for a rather long walk if you wish to get out of the forest. And you better keep your eyes open if you wish to do so alive. Not all fairy tales have a happy ending. Certainly not in the Witchwood,” she was dead serious now.
Avarron didn’t know what to say to that. Sorcery had indeed become an increasingly tempting explanation. He simply lacked the words to describe the occurred events in any other way. Except, he reminded himself, that ‘sorcery’ in itself was no explanation at all.
Llaweyra completely ignored the thoughtful frown on his face and interrupted his pondering: “The Witchwood is a difficult place to travel, but you’re in luck, ’cause you’ve got the awesomest guide in the forest.”
But what if sorcery is something that can be explained, he continued his pondering. Something intangible, but still real. Like fire. You can’t touch fire. But it still provides heat. That was probably exactly what Eleana had tried to tell him the other day. When the tools to create fire were first invented, people probably thought that it was sorcery too.
“Come on!” Llaweyra told him impatient, waiting at the edge of the small clearing.
Avarron shook his head and sighed. All this thinking was a scholar’s job, not a knight’s. More importantly, it was not his place to question the wisdom of the Angels. He walked over to the fairy. Eleana must be right, he thought. A particularly wise sage would be able to explain, without resorting to calling it sorcery, the fairy, the flying and even the screeching mist-woman that Llaweyra had led him away from. But in his mind, no other explanation and no other description was available for what he had seen and experienced.
Still, he didn’t like the idea of following the fairy again at all. He had done so once, and the result was that he was now lost in the forest. “I don’t think I can trust you,” he told her.
Llaweyra gave him a puzzled look. “You think you can navigate the Witchwood on your own? Even if you still don’t believe in walking trees,” She softly giggled and added: “Sinister, swooping trees.”
“Now you sounds like an assassin I’ve met,” Avarron said annoyed. It was the second time in three days time that he had he had been forced to accept help from a most untrustworthy source. He wondered how that had happened.
“And you sound like someone who tends to get himself in trouble, without knowing how to get out of it on your own,” Llaweyra retorted.
Those words stung Avarron. He had always been proud of his independence, but he now found it sorely lacking. Asratorix and, especially in problems such as his current one, Dann had provided the solution. He greatly missed their wisdom and experience. But he was on his own now. He had even lost Eleana, the lady he had sworn to protect and escort to Altraom. The entire expedition had been nothing but a long string of failures. He sighed sadly.
“Lead on,” he said resigned and walked after the fairy. “It’s not as if you can make thing any worse than they are.”
Llaweyra turned around, flying backwards as she carefully studied Avarron’s face. “A challenge, indeed. A challenge worthy of the awesome Llaweyra, I’d say,” the fairy teased.
“But you’re in luck once again, for it will be an ever greater challenge to get such a silly knight as yourself out of this mess. This is going to be so much fun!” she added excited.