The castles great hall was large but not the grandest Lyncon had seen before. The simple rectangular room was made from walls of thick stone that were only broken by the huge fireplace set to one side. There was little decoration, only a handful of faded canvas paintings hanging above the fire. The ceilings were high, looming in shadows, smoke circling above them like miniature storm clouds. At one end of the room was a raised dais with a singular wooden throne positioned at its centre. This was where Lord Falik Marion was now seated, peering down at Lyncon with a mixture of curiosity and disgust. Behind him, a man dressed in full armour stood guard, one hand resting on the pommel of his sword.
“I was told you were a militios but had no idea you were a werewarg. I have not met one of your kind before. In truth, I did not think there were any left.” He gave a slight nod of his head, as if reassuring himself that what he said was correct.
Lyncon gave a small bow. “I am honoured to be the first, Lord Marion.”
“Yes well, it is not like you had much choice in the matter.” He motioned to the group of guards behind the werewarg, standing close and alert in open fear. “I have been told you showed some resistance to your arrest; broke a man’s nose with a wine jug. Indeed, I believe that had my men not threatened your little pet then there would have been even more bloodshed in your name.”
The werewarg didn’t reply but bristled at the mention of Vanhelm. He was used to Lords, however. They often liked to hear themselves speak and Lord Marion was no different.
“Ha, not even denying it? I appreciate your honesty or perhaps just your lack of lies; it is a refreshing change around here. You have nothing to fear, I will not harm the beast, you have my word.” The lord gave an ugly smile, his small black eyes gleaming in the firelight.
“Why am I here?” Lyncon demanded. He had decided niceties were not the way to deal with Falik. There was a cunning about the lord that suggested to Lyncon he would see through simple flattery.
“Don’t play games, wolfman! You know why you are here!” The lord’s face flashed with anger. “You are here to be tried for killing a farmer, to hear my judgement and sentence. Even the likes of you must be punished, a consequence of murder. “
“That man wronged me. I killed a monster for him and was promised payment, payment that was not given. Instead he tried to offer me his wife, like a common whore. The man was as much a monster as the one he tasked me to kill. I felt no more guilt at killing him than I did at killing the basilisk. Do not expect me to show remorse.”
The lord grinned. “How very eloquent. Perhaps I misjudged you militios.” He stroked his pointed chin with long thin fingers. “Nevertheless, you have committed a crime, a crime that is punishable by death.” He waited for Lyncon’s reaction, perhaps expecting him to suddenly crack and beg, but nothing came. If he was disappointed he did not show it. “However, maybe we can come to an arrangement. It just so happens I may have a job for a particular man of your talents.”
Lyncon raised an eyebrow. “What sort of arrangement?”
“I have a...monster issue. If you deal with it for me I will consider your sentence revoked.” He peered down his nose at the werewarg with familiar habit.
He pretended to consider his options while both men knew he had none. “Fine. What is it you wish me to do?”
“Straight to the point? No lavish thanks for the mercy you have been offered? Very well but not here.” The lord stood abruptly. “Join me in my study. We can talk there.”
Lyncon followed Lord Marion out of the hall and down a narrow, dimly lit corridor. The captain and his guards followed closely behind. For a moment Lyncon was tempted to reach for his weapon. In this confined gloomy corridor he had all the advantages but in the end he left his hands at his sides. He would not risk Vanhelm’s safety.
The study was small but comfortable, decorated a little more lavishly than the hall with ornate furniture arranged around a wide oak desk. Falik took his seat behind the desk and gestured for Lyncon to sit opposite.
“Captain Veer, you may stay but tell the rest of your men to wait outside.” The man agreed without question and took his place beside the door as he shut it behind him.
The lord opened a draw and fished out a jug of wine along with two cups. “Wine, werewarg?”
He shook his head. “I don’t drink.”
“Interesting. A story for another time perhaps.” The lord poured himself a generous cup, downed it in one gulp and then poured himself another. The crimson liquids sickly sweet scent filled Lyncon’s nose. It was strong stuff.
“What do you want from me?”
Falik gave him a look of disdain from over the rim of his cup. “Don’t test me, wolfman. I could still revoke my offer. Some common courtesy will go a long way to sparing your life.”
“Of course, my lord” he responded through gritted teeth. “My apologies.”
“Very good, there is hope for you yet.” The lord sneered. Lyncon fought hard not to spring up and punch him in the jaw.
Lord Marion reached into another draw and withdrew a map which he carefully unfolded onto the desk between them. He stabbed a thin finger at a small wood, marked by carefully illustrated trees, set at the base of a steep ravine. “This is Braxwood Forest, old woodland that grows on my families land. The trees there are old and tall, perfect for logging. Recently I decided that the forest should be cut down. The price of timber is high and there is excellent money to be made.” He took a sip of wine, savouring the drink. “Two weeks ago I sent a logging team to fell the trees and bring me the timber for sale. It was a simple task, these are experienced men, but when they returned they were empty handed.”
The lord paused and Lyncon waited patiently for him to continue. His eyes studied the map, taking in every detail.
“When I questioned the loggers they all told me that the forest was overrun, that a monster lived within its depths. As they had tried to fell the first tree the air had been filled with hideous calls and monstrous wails. Two of the men were killed, ripped open by the creature. At first I did not believe them. I sent them back with soldiers to watch them, make sure they performed their task, but the result was the same. They all fled back here, the soldiers included. More stories of a monster. More deaths.”
“And you want me to kill this monster? So you can safely log the trees?”
“Maybe you are not as dull as you look after all.” He smirked as he took another sip. “I need that creature dealt with, not chased off but killed, so it can never bother me again.”
He nodded slowly, considering. “What type of creature is it? Did any of the men describe it?”
“Well that’s the problem, nobody saw anything. All the men said they heard screeching and roars, the sounds of branches breaking as the beast moved through the trees, but none of them actually saw the beast.”
“What about when it attacked? Did anyone see it? Were there survivors?”
“Nobody witnessed the attacks, only found the bodies, the monster already gone. There were no survivors.”
Lyncon frowned. “None of the men saw anything? Not even a glimpse?” When the lord shook his head the werewarg paused in thought. He was surprised there were no details from the logger’s accounts. Usually when men saw a monster they were quick to tell anyone who would listen, exaggerating every detail to fuel their bravado. No sightings suggested this was more than your average troll or rootcrab.
Silence bloomed between them as the werewarg continued to consider what he had been told. Lord Marion finished his wine and poured himself more. Veer stood motionless at the door, hand resting gently on his sword as his eyes remained fixed on the visitor.
“Well? What do you think? I haven’t got all night.” Falik’s cheeks had begun to flower a bright shade of pink, a mix of the heat and the wine.
“You haven’t given me a lot to go on and I don’t know what type of creature is in your forest. Without evidence it is impossible to know.” He sighed. “However, you have given me little choice in the matter. I will go to Braxwood and hunt the monster for you.”
“Kill the monster” Falik corrected, beady eyes watching him carefully. “I want it dead.”
He nodded. “Very well.” He held the lord’s gaze as he spoke, grey eyes as hard and cold as granite. “In return I wish for Vanhelm to be returned to me at o...”
“You are in no position to bargain!” Falik rose in fury, cheeks glowing ever more crimson. Lyncon remained unmoved. “I will dictate your terms. Understand?” When there was only silence he banged his hand against the table top, spilling wine over the map still spread there. “Understand?”
“Yes, my lord.” Beneath the table his hands balled into fists but he kept them there.
“Good. Your pet shall remain here, as insurance that you carry out the job I have given you. Once completed, he shall be returned to you and your crimes will be forgotten.” He paused, enjoying his power over the bigger man. “Now get out. You have a job to do. I do not expect to see you again until the monster is dead.”
He reached Braxwood the following afternoon. Despite his wolf-blood scaring any horse that went near him he could run faster and further than any normal man. Thinking of Vanhelm he had not tarried, spurring his body on as he ran across green fields and muddied tracks.
The forest was nestled at the base of a steep ravine, the sides rising up in boulder-strewn slopes as they flanked the trees on three fronts. The trees themselves were tall and green, shifting gently in the spring sunshine. All looked calm on the surface, the canopy hiding what horrors may lie beneath.
A lone, narrow track leads into the trees and signs of the loggers activities were clear to see. Discarded tools littered the grass and a broken cart lay on its side by the forest edge, seemingly upturned in the panic to flee. Scanning the ground Lyncon could see no sign of any monster, no footprints or trails to follow.
Standing still the werewarg focused and opened his senses, taking time to examine every detail of the world around him. His eyes saw every stirring of the leaves and branches while his nostrils were filled with the thick scent of moss and rotting vegetation. He could hear no sounds of any monsters other than the scurrying of a pair of squirrels, the evil grey devils racing each other from one tree to the next.
With no sign of the creature, Lyncon moved to his second plan. Walking to the cart he selected an axe from the back, testing the sharpness of the blade with his thumb before giving a satisfied nod. Then, strolling at a leisurely pace, he moved to the nearest tree, pulled back his arms and swung the axe at the trunk with all his strength. The blade should have cut deep into the wood, splintering the bark with ease, but it didn’t. Instead the axe rebounded back with immense force, sending both the weapon and user flying backward to land in a heap some ten feet away.
Laying on the grass, staring up at the clouds above, Lyncon let out a deep groan. Winded, he took his time rising to one elbow. The axe in his hand was unrecognisable. The head had been completely ripped free of the handle to lie on the grass a short distance away. The remains of the handle were a splintered mess.
Slowly, he heaved himself to his feet and made his way back to the tree, rolling his sore shoulder muscles as he went. Bending closer he inspected the spot the axe had struck. To his surprise there was no cut in the bark, not even a scratch, the tree was completely untouched. Carefully, he placed the splintered end of the axe handle against the tree. Looking closer the werewarg could see that the end of the axe did not touch the wood but instead stopped just shy of the bark, hovering against an invisible barrier. No matter how hard Lyncon pushed the axe would not touch the tree, it simply refused to budge.
“Magic!” Lyncon growled to himself, face creasing into a disapproving frown. With a shake of his head he moved on, further into the forest, axe still in hand.
Deeper into the forest the air was thick and heavy, undisturbed by a breeze as the tree closed in on every side, pressing down from above like a great green cloud. It was darker in here too, the leaves blocking out the sunlight above, but it made little difference to Lyncon. Every now and then he would stop and press the axe against a tree, testing for further enchantments. Around him the forest was deathly silent. Still Lyncon remained alert, his left hand resting on the hilt of his sword, expecting an attack at any moment.
Soon Lyncon was lost amongst the trees, the edge of the forest a distance memory. Still he tested, each one revealing its own invisible armour. His eyes scanned the gloom but still he saw no sign of a monster. Suddenly, as he held the axe handle against a tree, barely paying it any mind while he surveyed the forest depths, he felt a sharp tug from the weapon in his hand. Looking down he froze in surprise. The splintered end of the wood had been grabbed by a host of tiny vines that had suddenly grown from the very bark of the tree. Instantly the vines began to pull the handle inward with immense strength, the splintered end being absorbed by the trunk itself. At first Lyncon fought back but almost immediately knew it was a losing battle, the grip of the vines was relentless, drawing the handle in at a steady pace. Reluctantly, he let go and simply watched as the axe disappeared into the tree. When it was gone the bark twisted and warped, the vines stitched themselves back into the wood to rest exactly as they had been, leaving behind no sign that anything had ever been different.
Stunned, Lyncon gently placed his hand against the bark, feeling the rough wood against his skin. There was no magic barrier here but the wood was oddly warm, unnaturally so. He had seen magic before, invisible barriers and flying objects, but nothing like this. This was strange, something deeper, more powerful.
He heard the arrow before it struck, the air distorting and rippling as the lethal projectile travelled through the air. It hit his hand, piercing flesh and bone alike before wedging itself in the tree beyond. Lyncon let out a roar of shock and pain as he glanced at the wound, blood already flowing onto the grass below. The arrow, its shaft sculpted from pure white wood, still quivered from the impact of the shot.
Footsteps behind him alerted him to the presence of his attacker but, when he turned, hand still pinned to the tree, he saw no one at all. Listening closely he could hear breathing, shallow and faint but recognisable to his ears and coming from more than one source. He tried to wriggle his hand of free but was met by a fresh wave of pain and failed to stifle a cry.
“It is better to remove it fast, get it over with in one quick yank.” The velvety voice floated through the air as if from the trees themselves.
“Would you know from experience, elf?” he spat back, focusing on his hand as he tried to wriggle the air free with little success.
For a moment there was silence. Then the voice returned, this time laced with a hint of concern. “What gave us away?”
Lyncon grinned to himself. “Despite your best attempts you are not as silent as you might hope. Besides, I know of no other people who can work arrows from heartwood.” Gritting his teeth, he grasped his right hand with his left and gave an almighty pull. With a sickening squelch the hand slid up the arrow and away, trailing a stream of scarlet drops behind it. He howled in pain and quickly wrapped the wound in a rag from his pocket. It was quickly sodden and stained red.
Finally turning, Lyncon was greeted by five elves emerging from the shadows, all armed with the short, curved bows that their kind so often favoured. They were all tall and thin with pale skin, wide round eyes and pointed ears. It had been years since Lyncon had seen an elf and he was struck by how different they were to humans, their movements natural and full of grace, everything they did composed and calculated, so at odds with humanities tendencies to be erratic and irrational.
The leader eyed the werewarg with suspicion, watching him from behind the untidy curtain of jet black hair that fell to his shoulders. He brushed it away to reveal a jaded face, sunken cheeks flanking a nose that was split by a jagged pink scar running up and through his left eyebrow.
“Who are you stranger who knows so much about our culture and can so easily detect our presence? What is your business in Braxwood forest?” The elves words were quiet but firm, as sharp and to the point as the arrow still wedged in the trunk.
“My name is Lyncon and I am here, by the orders of Lord Falik Marion, to slay a monster.” He looked at each elf individually, eyeing their movements, knowing their reflexes were faster even than his own. His hand continued to throb as he clutched it against his chest. “I am a consequence of murder, the deaths of innocent loggers simply trying to do their jobs.”
A hint of a smile played across the lead elf’s lips, appearing for an instance before vanishing just as quickly. “Why would Lord Marion send you, a man alone, to face such a fearsome beast?”
He paused for a moment, considering his reply. “I am a werewarg and Lord Marion’s last chance of removing the monster quietly before he is forced to send his armies here to search through every inch of these trees. However, something tells me that they would find nothing if they did for I now strongly suspect that the monster I seek does not exist.”
The elves were visibly startled and a few gripped their bows a little tighter, suddenly tense and now perhaps a little afraid of the man standing before them, bleeding hand or not. One even reached for an arrow from his quiver but was stilled by a raised hand from their leader who now stared at Lyncon with great curiosity, brow furrowed as his eyes examined him again.
“A werewarg you say? Legend tells they are all dead, killed or lost at The Breaking of the Neck.” The words were quiet now, the confident arrogance gone.
Lyncon smiled at the old myth, amused that it had reached even here. “Lost does not mean dead.”
After a moment’s pause the elf grinned and strode forwards, the tension in the air now lost amongst the canopy above. “Very true. It is an honour to meet you Lyncon the werewarg. I am Leedran, captain of the guard here in Braxwood.” He extended his hand and Lyncon pressed the inside of his wrist against the elf’s in according with their tradition. Leedran smiled. “You are well taught indeed, few who are not elves would know the correct greeting.”
“I had a good teacher.”
“Clearly.” He glanced at Lyncon’s bleeding hand. “I apologise for your hand. Please, allow me to help you with that.”
Uneasily, Lyncon offered him his hand and the elf closed his own around it, muttering words to himself under his breath. After a while he took a bandage of finely woven grass from a pouch on his belt and wound it gently round Lyncon’s hand, tying it off neatly at one end. Already the bleeding had stopped though the pain still remained.
“Magic?” Lyncon asked, hesitantly wiggling his fingers a little.
The elf simply shrugged. “That depends what you define as magic. Nevertheless, the wound will be healed by tomorrow. There will be no lasting damage.”
Leedran bowed. “A pleasure.” He turned back to his companions. “You must come with us Lyncon. Our lord will wish to speak to you as I suspect you wish to speak to him.”
The werewarg nodded. “Fine but first tell me, is there a monster?”
The elf simply smiled. “That depends on your definition of a monster.” With that he turned and strode away, his companions following silently behind him.
It was dark by the time they reached their destination. In the black the air felt close and dead, the once green canopy above now a never-ending mass of shifting grey. Slivers of moonlight occasional pierced the gloom but the trees seemed to be trying their best to keep Braxwood in a deep darkness. Even so, none of their party lit torches. Elves eyes were just as good as those of any werewarg and all of them picked their way through the dark with relative ease.
This deep into the wood the trees were tall and strong, anchored to the earth with roots that had grown for centuries. Their trunks were wide black columns rising into the night while their thick branches snaked above them, reaching for the stars. Around them the forest creaked and moaned as if constantly shifting to watch them pass. Lyncon had explored many forests in his years but few like this. This forest was old, older even than the elves before him, and it had seen much in that time, things few mortals had witnessed.
Abruptly, the party emerged into a small clearing, a wide tree-less circle punctured only by a huge rock standing proud in its centre. In turn, the elves walked to the rock and laid their hands on its rough surface, pausing for a moment and muttering under their breath before moving on for the next one.
Leedran went last and then turned back to face Lyncon. “Touch the rock.” He instructed. “It must know you before you can pass beyond.”
Puzzled, Lyncon did as he was told and, stepping forward, he laid his uninjured palm on the weather-worn stone. As soon as his skin touched the cold rock he froze, muscles tensing as his back arched and his mouth opened in a silent scream. He couldn’t breathe; his lungs were suddenly full of water, icy cold and stinging. His eyes bulged in fear and shock as he continued to choke and drown. Then, as quickly as it had started, it was gone, his hand slipped from the rock and he fell forward onto his knees before it, gasping for air. His whole body shook and he felt deathly cold.
Once he had regained his breath, he stood and turned to his hosts with a furious glint in his eye. “What the fuck was that?”
Leedran only shrugged. “Only you can answer that. The forest is different for all.” He turned and began to stride off after his companions. “Come, it is not far now.”
They left the clearing and entered the trees once more. Lyncon followed at a slower pace now, sense fully alert, hand never far from his sword handle. The incident with the stone had spooked him, the power or magic that it controlled had taken him by surprise. Even as he walked, his lungs continued to ache a little though he knew he could not have truly been drowning. He had his suspicions at what the stone had done but he did not voice them, they were his alone to know.
It was only a short walk to their final destination and Lyncon paused in both shock and awe as soon as he saw it. Here, amongst the trees and in them, stood an entire elven village. Each house or building, he could make out at least a dozen, clung to a tree trunk some twenty feet from the ground, linked by a series of walkways built onto the larger branches. Lyncon stared up at the strange buildings, each structure unique in shape and size, perfectly moulded to the tree that housed it as if it too had grown as the tree did. Above him elves moved between the trees with careless grace, going about their lives, oblivious to him below them. The whole scene was lit by a plethora of glowing purple plants, snaking over and around the trees and walkways. They pulsed slowly, their gentle light fading and then growing again and again.
While Lyncon was lost in wonder, Leedran had stalked away to speak quietly to another elf who had walked to meet them. As they spoke he eyed Lyncon with open suspicion, mouth set in an unwavering line as he listened intently. Eventually, he dismissed Leedran with a wave of his hand and strode over. He was taller than the others and his neatly embroidered clothes marked him out as a figure of importance.
“Leedran tells me you are a werewarg, a creation of our people. It is a pleasure to meet you Lyncon of Belanthor.” He extended a thin, pale arm and Lyncon placed the wrist against his own.
“It is a long time since I was last in Belanthor. Before the war.”
A thin smile formed on the elves lips. “Then we have something in common there.” He studied Lyncon carefully for a moment then continued in an emotive tone “You are a strange sight indeed. Born of elven virtue, graced with our immortality and clad in our armour but yet you move and act like a human, hurried and inconsiderate, thinking about little more than your own survival.” His eyes widened as they rested on the sword at Lyncon’s hip. “And is that a dwarven forged blade? I am sure the events that lead you to such a weapon would make quite the tale.”
“Another time, perhaps.” He replied coldly.
The elf gave a brief nod. “I am Lord Delnor, leader here amongst my kin. Leedran informed me you are here on behalf of the humans, a consequence of us defending ourselves. I hope that you do not wish to do us harm, werewarg. We have no quarrel with you and I have no wish to spill your blood.”
“Nor I yours.” The pair watched each other for a moment, only inches apart, neither backing down. Above them the other elves continued their lives, uninterested in what occurred below. “I was sent here to kill a monster and, in my opinion, that does not mean elves.”
“Good. That is good.” Swiftly, the elf turned on his heel. “Follow me, werewarg. The forest wishes to speak to you.”
Reluctantly, Lyncon did as he was bid, keeping silent. He knew elves liked to hear themselves talk as much as humans did, especially when people usually listened. He suspected Delnor was no different. He was quickly proved right.
“We have lived here a long time, long enough to have built a life here. We do not stray from the woods, never interfere in human affairs. In times we have even helped the humans, told the trees to slow the river when in flood or to feed it when there is drought. We do not want conflict. We are self-sufficient; the forest provides us with all that we need.” He paused, his next words as cold as fresh snow. “I do not regret what we did. We were protecting ourselves. This wood is ours and we will defend it, from anyone.”
Lyncon ignored the poorly veiled threat and tried to keep his tone pleasant. “I understand and I am not here to harm any of you. I was told there was a monster here; I did not expect to find elves instead. In truth, I did not think there were any left in Petra.”
“For all we know, we could be the last.” He paused and a sorrowful silence filled the void between them, each lost to memories of centuries past that were so vivid they might have only occurred hours ago. “It has been a long time since I last saw Belanthor, saw Vilantis even, but I remember it as if it were yesterday. Years pass us by like leaves in a breeze. It seems the only thing that is timeless in the greed of man.”
The werewarg sighed. “True enough but murder is murder. There can be no escaping its consequences, trust me I know. You should have known Lord Marion would not rest.”
“Indeed and let him come. It has been a while since I have spilled human blood.”
Lyncon grimaced at the elf lord’s hard-edged tone but he said nothing. Convincing an elf to like a human would be like trying to convince a forest to like fire.
They walked on in silence, passing like ghosts beneath the elven village. It was a peaceful place, filled with soft laughter and the occasional singing. A stream appeared before, busily hurrying on its way as the water flowed this way and that. They crossed on a path of smooth, round stepping stones, carefully positioned at the shallowest point.
“How many of you are there?” he asked. Lyncon had spied at least twenty figures in the trees above but guessed there would be more.
“Forty-three.” Replied Delnor as they continued out of the village. Soon they were alone in the gloom, the lights and sounds of the village fading away behind them.
Eventually, a tree unlike the others began to become visible in the darkness and immediately Lyncon knew this was their destination. This tree was bigger and taller than the rest, its trunk wider than most roads while its branches stretched out above them in a web of criss-crossing limbs. Even in the dark its stark white wood shone with an unearthly glow, pale and unblemished. It was a heartwood tree. The first Lyncon had ever laid eyes on.
The duo stopped at the base of the towering trunk, a living column of ivory stretching up towards the clouds. Delnor spoke softly with head bowed. “I have brought him, as you bid.”
Immediately the tree responded. Its branches and leaves began to shake violently while the very wood of the trunk itself began to twist and contort before them. Lyncon watching in astonishment as a figure appeared from the pale wood, emerging from the tree to stand before them. It was neither tree nor person but instead a mixture of both for while it had a clear body, with arms and legs and head, it was also interwoven with branches and vines that disappeared seamlessly beneath the pale skin. One eye had been invaded by a stray root and now a flower bloomed in its place, a delicate star of crimson punctuated by a bead of inky black. The other eye was large and piercing, alarmingly normal in appearance compared to the body it inhabited. A tangle of moss fell around the head in place of hair, tumbling over slight, delicate shoulders. Its left hand was missing, instead replaced by a knot of roots that waved and wandered gently in the air. Whilst now separate from the tree a host of branches and roots connected the two, almost like a mother and child connected by a cord at birth.
For a moment The Figure simply regarded them, its singular eye taking in their every detail. When it spoke the voice was both loud and quiet at once, as if spoken by one voice and many in unison. “Welcome Lyncon. “
Lyncon was speechless for a moment but finally managed to mutter. “Who...who are you?”
“Did Delnor not explain? I am the forest, Braxwood and all that live inside it. They are me and I am them. We are one.”
When Lyncon looked at Delnor the elf just shook his head. “Her name was Rondaa. She was one of us. When we first arrived we took shelter in these trees. Rondaa lay down to rest and the forest claimed her, judging her worthy to ascend and become one with the earth. Now she watches over us, watches over all of Braxwood, and we help her in any way we can. She was the one that told us of the loggers, warned of their approach.”
The Figure stepped closer. “Tell me werewarg; are you here to destroy us?”
He did not hesitate with his reply. “No. I was sent here to kill a monster and I do not believe you are such a thing.”
The Forest gave a hideous grin. “You do not believe I am a monster? Even after I almost drown you?”
He shook his head. “Memories, nothing more.”
“Ha, you are more cunning than I first thought.” The figure shifted its features into a poor imitation of a smile.
“Perhaps but we are not here to discuss me. Lord Marion owns these lands and he wishes to log them. When I return to him I will have to tell him what I have found.”
“What? Why?” Delnor turned on him with sudden fury. “That greedy oaf would destroy us all just to gain a few coins. You know as well as any what they do to elves here on Petra!”
Lyncon remained unmoved. “Lord Marion is the ruler of these lands by law; he has a right to do whatever he pleases with them. Besides, he has my friend hostage. If I do not return with proof of a dead beast then he will kill my friend and me along with him. I will have to tell him. The best I can do is delay my journey back to give you time to escape.” With genuine regret, he added. “ I am sorry, there is no other way.”
“You’re sorry? How dare you! You want to destroy everything we have but we are simply supposed to accept it because you are sorry?!” Delnor spat the words with more venom then any snake. “I am the lord of these woods and we will not be leaving! Never!” The elf’s eyes were cold fury, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword.
“You are no lord!” retorted Lyncon, his temper getting the better of him. “You think because I live with humans that I am as blind as they are? I know what you are; refugees, outcasts, forgotten soldiers. Forty-three elves and yet all are male? A strange coincidence. Unless, of course, you were soldiers, sent here to spy on the humans during the war and left behind after The Breaking of The Neck, now living on another’s land like squatters, killing innocent workers to preserve your little hidey-hole.”
Delnor drew his sword with frightening speed, a practising, graceful movement that shocked Lyncon despite the fact he had been expecting it. Indeed the werewarg had barely managed to draw his own weapon before the elf launched a flurry of vicious strikes at him, aimed to kill. Hatred burned brightly in the elf’s eyes as Lyncon desperately parried each blow, losing ground with each strike. Sensing the one-sided nature of the duel, Lyncon darted beneath a strike and shoulder-charged the elf in the gut, sending them both sprawling to the ground. As they both leapt to their feet strong white vines shot out and snaked around their ankle and wrists, binding them tightly in place.
“Enough!” The Forest’s words were not loud but firm and full of disapproval. “You both act like the children you are, quarrelling over things that do not matter. Drop your blades and my vines will release you.”
Reluctantly, Delnor dropped his sword, refusing to look at either of them. Lyncon followed suit and as soon as he did the vines began to release their grip, free them both as they snaked away back to the tree.
“Very good. I will forgive that little scuffle but I warn you both, do not do that again.” She left no room for argument as she turned to Lyncon and fixed him with her one-eyed stare. “What you have said is true, all of it, but you are wrong to think Lord Marion has any power here. He has no claim to these lands and neither does anyone else. That is not about to change now.” She paused, tilting her head slightly as she examined him. “I know you, werewarg. I have heard much about you, stories carried on the wind, told by people you have saved or perhaps those that have saved you.” At this Lyncon’s eyes widened slightly and the forest smiled at his response. “They tell me you are a good man. That you try to do good by all those around you. I think they are right. However, this time you are wrong. If you tell Lord Marion what you have found here you will doom these elves to certain destruction.”
The Forest reached out and touched Lyncon’s arm. Immediately his mind was flooded with a thousand visions, memories of times gone, all crystal clear, as if they were happening right now in front of him. He saw elves fleeing a burning building, arrows raining down from the night sky. He saw Delnor standing over a grave, tears rolling down his cheeks. He saw human cavalry charging towards a lone elf as he brandished his sword in the sunlight. All these visions came to him at once, washed over him like a wave. He shuddered at their power.
“These elves were hunted, chased across Petra like a fox pursued by a pack of baying hounds. With The Neck broken they were trapped here, stranded, far from home in a foreign and hostile land with no safety to run too. This wood is their home now, I am their home now and I will protect them. If you bring the humans here there will only be bloodshed.”
The militios sighed. “I understand but I can return to Lord Marion and simply tell him nothing. Nor can I lie. If he believes there is no monster he will continue the logging and if I fail to return he will kill my friend. I cannot risk Vanhelm’s safety, for anything.” He bowed his head in genuine regret.
The forest reached out and gently raised his chin again, forcing his eyes to meet her own. “I know. Your hands are tied. Luckily, I have a solution.”
At the raising of her hand, the tree behind her began to twist and contort once more, its branches stretching down and presenting what, at first glance, looked like a giant golden egg, easily the size of a watermelon. The vines laid the things carefully at their feet and retreated back into the darkness. Bending down Lyncon could now see that the thing at his feet was not an egg but a seed, its golden surface glowing of its own accord.
“Take this back to Lord Marion, present it to him as a gift from the forest. In return, he will leave these trees alone; Braxwood shall remain untouched by his greed.” She reached down and picked up the seed with ease and handed it to the werewarg. It was heavy and warm to Lyncon’s touch, the rough skin like golden bark, dazzling even in the darkness. “You will make no mention of the elves, not a word. You can tell Lord Marion it was I who defended myself and will continue to do so if he thinks to stray upon my borders again.”
Lyncon bowed his head. “Thank you. I will do as you bid though I can give no guarantee that Falik will agree to your terms. He is determined to log these trees and I fear even this splendid gift may not be enough.”
The Forest only smiled at his concerns. “Oh militios, he will agree. I have no doubt about that. Have a little faith.” Lyncon nodded. “Excellent. Now go, your friend awaits.” The vines began to lift her from the forest floor, drawing her back into the tree. “Delnor, give our guest a bed for the night and food for his journey. See him off at first light.”
The elf lord nodded and bowed though Lyncon knew it pained him to do so. He turned on his heel and strode away, not looking back. Lyncon set off in pursuit, carrying prize.
“Werewarg, wait!” He turned to see The Forest almost one with the tree, only her upper torso and head visible now. “Say hello to Vanhelm for me. It has been a long time.” With that she was gone, back into the depths of the heart tree, leaving no trace she had ever been there at all.
“So you have finally returned.” Lord Marion sneered down at him from his throne. “I was beginning to think you had fled or been eaten by the creature.” He paused, his eyes filled with a cruel gleam. “Your beast has missed you I think.”
When Lyncon didn’t reply, Falik scowled. Behind him stood Veer in full armour, still and silent save for his shifting gaze. Outside the sun was just setting, casting long shadows across the halls stone floor.
“Well? Did you kill the beast?” the lord asked impatiently.
“There was no beast.” The werewarg stated simply.
“What do you mean there was no beast?” Falik demanded, fury and disbelief burning in his gaze. “What killed my men if not a monster?”
“The forest killed your men. It was simply protecting itself.”
Lord Marion stared at Lyncon as if he were insane and the werewarg wasn’t at all surprised. It had taken Lyncon most of the previous night to figure out what he had witnessed in Braxwood Forest and even this morning, as he left the trees behind, he could not shake the constant feeling of being watched. The seed, in a sack at his feet, pulsed slowly, vibrating slightly against his boot, as if in answer to his thoughts.
Finally, the lord conjured words and spat them at his guest with considerable venom. “I hope this is not your idea of some sort of joke, wolfman? Maybe something you freaks do to amuse yourselves.” He shook his head in disgust. “Explain yourself!”
“Braxwood is an old forest, ancient in fact. It is not like others; it was not planted but born with a soul and a spirit, a collective consciousness shared amongst all the trees. The forest is alive and I spoke to it.” He paused; suppressing a smile at the lord’s baffled expression. It never ceased to amaze him how humans could believe in elves and magic but then so easily dismiss something like a talking tree as being pure fantasy. “I told the forest why you had sent me and it explained that it killed your men in self-defence, that it will not be logged, ever. If you insist on sending more men the forest will retaliate, more will die.”
Had it not been for Lyncon’s blank, calm expression, eyes giving no hint of jest, then Lord Marion surely would have had him executed for simply wasting his time but something about the militios told him that what he said might be genuine. “Perhaps a man of your...occupation is more used to such preposterous tales but I am not. I presume you have proof? In that bag perhaps?”
He nodded. “Of course. The forest sent me back with a gift for you, a gift that I was to present to you in exchange for your oath that you will cease all attempts to log Braxwood Forest and would never disturb those woods again.”
The lord raised a thin eyebrow. “A gift? From a forest? What exactly could a forest give me that I do not already have?” Despite his sneer his eyes betrayed his curiosity and when Lyncon said nothing he finally gave in. “Well, bring it here! Let me see what you have brought me!”
Removing the sack, Lyncon drew out the gift and presented it to the lord. Falik’s eyes widened in awe and even Veer could not help but lean closer for a better look. Falik scooped up the seed in greedy hands and set it gently in his lap.
Lyncon stepped back and watched as lord stared hungrily at the golden bark, gently pulsing beneath his fingers, lost to the beauty of this magical object. As Falik gently ran his hand over the seeds smooth surface, Lyncon froze, noting a sudden shift in the air. Watching closely, he noticed that the seed seemed to be given off some kind of gas, visible only by the way the air shimmered around it. Neither of the others registered the change as they continued to stare lovingly at their prize too engrossed by its beauty. Suddenly, Lord Marion froze and his eyes began to glaze over, focusing on something in the middle distance that was not there. Slowly, he tilted his head towards Lyncon but his eyes did not look at him. When he spoke his words were slow as if each one was an effort.
“I hereby pledge that, from this day forth, House Marion will never set foot amongst or log the tress of Braxwood Forest. It shall remain sacred and undisturbed.” Again he turned his head, this time top face Veer. “Captain, let the dog go. This man has done his job.”
The captain was frozen in surprise for a moment but then jumped to his task and unbolted the heavy door beside him. Immediately Vanhelm came bounding out and ran to Lyncon with tail wagging. The werewarg gave him an affectionate hug, running his hands through the dogs fur to check for signs of ill treatment. Luckily, he found none.
Straightening up, He looked down at his friend. “Come Vanhelm, it is time to leave.” The pair turned and left the hall, neither once looking back. Behind them Lord Marion has resumed caressing his prize, oblivious to all except his own greed.