It smelled like the color brown.
Cinnamon, wood, wool, tea, old people. It was silent except for the gentle snapping of what must have been a fire. John sighed lightly, slowly flexing his fingers. The cushion beneath him felt strange, like a knit blanket stuffed with cotton balls. Whatever it was, it was shockingly comfortable. He was warm.
He had left football to go home. His car...the phone call...the street lights.
What had happened?
There was a scraping rustle, like a door that was too heavy for its mold was being pushed open. John froze, fighting the urge to open his eyes. No sane person would hurt a sleeping boy. A guttural sound broke the natural silence, like someone clearing his throat or shivering.
“The cold has come early this year.”
A young man’s voice, low and smooth as if he had never yelled a day of his life. But who was he talking to?
“The ice always follows the Second Age.”
John stifled a grunt of surprise. Someone had been there with him the whole time, an elderly man with a high thin voice that trembled. Light footsteps ground on what sounded like a dirt floor, coming close to John’s head. He stiffened, ready to lash out of need be. The young man sighed.
“I pity the boy. If he has not yet woken by this time, he has not the stamina for the duties required of him.”
“But he is awake. Open your eyes, John. You are not fooling anyone.”
He swallowed heavily, slowly cracking open his eyes. There was a gentle yellow glow that made everything blurry for long seconds and he blinked several times. A shape cleared into a body, a man dressed all in black with long, dark hair pulled back into a ponytail at the nape of his neck. John frowned. The man looked like something out of a Goth fairytale, wearing black leather pants and a studded black vest over a black silk shirt. Boots were laced just below his knees and an immense black cloak dusted with snow obscured his form. His sea green eyes were fixated on John, studying him.
The teenager swallowed again.
“Help him up, Leofred.”
The man glanced back over his broad shoulder, then back at John, reaching out a hand. John stared at it a long moment, then reached out of the blanket and took it, heaving himself to sit up and swinging his legs over the edge of the mattress. He instantly froze, moaning softly. His head was swimming and sweat coated his brow.
“Give yourself time, young John. It will take moments to recover.”
He drew in several long breaths, forcing himself to raise his eyes. They widened.
“We’re in a tree.”
There was a cackle from his left and his eyes skipped to an ancient form huddled in mounds of earthy brown blankets. Not much could be seen but a wispy white beard that must have been two feet long and beady eyes peering at him from beneath a hood of brown. The bundle rocked back and forth.
“That is always their first observation! As if you have no trees where you come from!”
John straightened. He felt a lot better suddenly. Slowly, he stood up, Leofred straightening with him. The teenager eyes everything, turning in a full circle to take it all in. He was literally inside a tree, the walls conical, extending dozens of feet above their heads and tapering towards the top. It was too wide, though, to honey to make sense. There was plenty of room to walk around, even while it housed a bed, a rocking chair, low table, and bookcase chock full of leather bound tomes that had all but fallen apart. The wooden walls were run through with random splatters of some glowing yellow substance that provided more than enough light to see.
“Heroeith, we call it,” the old man explained, nodding thoughtfully as he studied the walls. “Or Fingerprints, in your language.”
“Why?” John breathed. His chest felt thick and his head fuzzy with confusion and escalating panic. “Fingerprints?”
“The residue of Bara Vinyu’s handiwork,” Leofred elaborated, his voice monotonous and almost listless. John shook his head, scrubbing his hand through his hair.
“That didn’t help. What...okay, what's going on? Where am I and how did I get here? I was just about to go home when...when the lights-”
“We know how you came here, my boy,” the old man interrupted, waving a dismissive hand completely concealed by his blankets. “Why don’t you sit down and let us explain?”
“I’d rather stand,” John replied shortly. His mouth was dry. “Thank you.”
The man shrugged. “As you will. Allow me to first light my pipe, though? It is quite impossible for me to tell a story correctly without my pipe.”
John gaped incredulously, but Leofred crossed to the bookcase and opened a small wooden box, revealing a beautifully carved and polished wooden pipe. He passed it to the old man in the rocking chair.
“Thank you, Leofred.” He produced a match from his blankets and struck it against the wall. John watched in tense agony as the man puffed slowly at the little pipe until grey smoke flitted from the bowl. He sighed in satisfaction and sat back. “Now I am ready.”
“Good,” the teenager sighed. “And please make it quick? My mom’s probably going bonkers now.”
“Ah, you youngsters,” the old man chuckled, snuggling into the blankets. “Always in a hurry. Well, to get to your story, we must start at the very beginning. The story of creation.”
John gasped an agonized chuckle, shaking his head violently.
“But i’m here now! I don’t need to hear your creation story!”
“The fewer interruptions,” Leofred muttered. “The quicker we may get this done.”
The teenager gestured helplessly and plopped back down on the mattress.
“Fine. Bestow on me your creation story.”