I stopped at the very edge of the forest and slowly extended a hand towards the nearest tree. Its skin was strange—chunky, jagged, and craggy. I had never been close enough to one to see it in detail, so I was unprepared for such a texture. Fruit trees were confined within carefully secured orchards, and the few varieties of small, ornamental flowering trees—little more than bushes, really—that were allowed inside the Clearings all had skin that was more or less smooth with only an occasional bump in it. As I had never seen anything to suggest the true nature of tree skin to me, I had assumed that they were all as smooth as the flowering bushes kept in the Clearings.
I didn’t realize how long I had been standing there touching and pondering it until Mira approached and stood, staring not at the tree but at me.
“Have you truly never even touched one before?” she asked.
“Never,” I replied. “The few scrubby little things you saw in gardens in Havenwing are the closest things to trees that I’ve ever touched.”
“Do you like it?”
I paused to consider. “To be honest, I’m not sure. I don’t think I dislike it, it’s just…it’s just so very different than I had expected.” A sudden compulsion took me, and I wrapped my arms as far around the tree as they would go and leaned into it with all of my strength.
Mira snickered and then burst out laughing. “Lythia, what in the world are you trying to do?”
The tree’s rigidity surprised me as well. It didn’t budge a hair under my weight or force! “I don’t understand,” I said. “When the wind blows they seem to sway and dance, but it feels so solid now. I thought it would be more…more fluid, more flexible.”
“You thought you would push it about?” Mira asked. If her smile got any bigger, her face might have burst. She was still laughing, but not at all in a mocking way. I believe she was simply amused and delighted beyond her ability to contain it. “We are going to have such a time,” she said. “You will get used to the way they move after a while, I promise. It’s hard to explain, but you’ll learn to understand it. But only if you come on and give me the chance to show you, rather than just standing there trying to push that tree over!”
She poked my arm with her finger and gave me a teasing laugh as I backed, a little self-consciously, away from the tree, adjusted the pack on my back, and followed her.
The sudden shade and quiet unnerved me, and I turned to look back towards the Clearing. What if I never found it again? What if the forest closed around me and swallowed me whole, and I was never able to fight my way free of it?
I could feel my heartbeat speeding up, and my breaths were small and shaking as I took step after cautious step. How in the world did Mira walk with such casual ease, when there was so much to look out for? After every step I took I had to stop and scan the branches above me for ogres, goblins, trolls, anything that would be a threat—even though I had never seen any of those creatures and had absolutely no idea what they looked like—and before each step I had to pause and search the ground for any signs of quicksand or snares.
Mira was the first to realize that she had gotten quite a distance ahead of me—I was too occupied looking for danger. She came back towards me, laughing.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Well—there’s just so much to be watchful of,” I said. “I don’t know how you do it.”
“You’re worried about danger?”
“Well of course I am!”
She took my hand and gave me a sympathetic look. “Lythia, I would not bring you here if it would put you in danger. That’s not what friends do. Trust me: you’re perfectly safe here. Well…provided you don’t walk into any low branches!” She giggled, and I tried to laugh with her, but it came out a little strained.
“I’m not sure you understand,” I said. “My entire life, I have been taught to fear the woods. I’ve been told that they’re deadly and full of monsters that are just waiting for someone to venture close enough that they can grab them and devour them.”
“And I have lived here my entire life, and have not been grabbed or devoured yet,” Mira replied. “I will not tell you that there are no dangers, but there is danger in any place you go. Back in Havenwing you could be run over by a carriage if you don’t pay careful enough attention, yes?”
“All right, then,” she said. “I’ll walk a little slower from here on, if you wish, but soon we’ll come to the road and you won’t have to worry so much.”
“The road?” I asked, picturing one of the highways that connected the Clearings to each other. The nearest one of those was miles away.
“Of course,” Mira said.
“The road that leads to my village.”
“You have roads in the woods?”
Again, she laughed and shook her head. “Lythia, we are not savages! Our roads may not be like your streets, all covered in cobblestones, but of course we have them! Just like we have houses and gardens and throw parties and go to school. We do nearly everything you do, just differently.”
I stood there, trying desperately to sort out the dozens of different thoughts all swarming around inside my head like a flock of starlings. “I…I didn’t mean to be insulting,” I began, but Mira’s laugh cut me off.
“I am not insulted! Truly! You’re not seeing my point! My point is that it is safe for you to relax. I know the woods; I will keep you safe, and we’re going to have a marvelous time.”
She took my hand and squeezed it. “Now let’s get going, shall we? Otherwise it’ll be long after dark before we reach my home and my family will be worried about us.”
We set out again, and this time I kept pace with her, though I still found myself constantly looking all around, trying to take in everything there was to see.
Every time the breeze stirred, a wild rushing sound swept through the canopy overhead and bright-colored leaves showered down around us. Once, a leaf tumbled down to land right in front of me, and I stopped to stare in wonder at its beauty. It was a deep crimson, with tiny freckles of its original green still remaining near its center.
I bent to look closer. “Is it…safe to pick it up?” I asked.
Mira laughed again. “Of course it’s safe,” she said. “There are very few plants whose leaves aren’t safe to touch, and we do our best to keep them cleared out, away from areas we frequent.”
I bent and picked up the leaf by its stem and held it close to my face, taking in every detail of its intricate beauty.
“You’ll have more than you can carry before it’s all over,” Mira said, sauntering away and tossing me a smile over her shoulder.
Maybe I would, I thought…but for the moment I held my red leaf close and followed her.
We hadn’t walked for long when we came onto a narrow dirt path and began following it. I was fascinated by the way it wound around rocks and trees and contours of the earth, rather than shooting straight through, demolishing anything in its way like the roads I was used to.
After a while that path joined a larger one from another direction, and we followed that one farther in. Around us, the trees were larger—far, far larger—than those at the edge of the forest. By comparison, those trees were little more than saplings! Their trunks were barely as thick as some of the branches of these trees! I leaned against one and spread my arms; by my best guess, they only reached about a sixth of the distance around it.
“Just wait,” Mira said, watching me with a knowing smile. “You haven’t seen any of the really big trees yet.”
I lost track of how many times the path we followed merged onto a larger path. The sun went down, and deep beneath the canopy of the trees the darkness fell thick and heavy. I began to worry—how would we find our way in the dark? What kind of creatures moved about in the forest after nightfall?
I stopped in my tracks with a gasp when a spot of silver light appeared on the road ahead of us.
“Mira, what is it?” I hissed.
She laughed. “What do you suppose it is? It’s a lantern, of course! I told you, Lythia, we’re not savages just because we live in the woods. We have lights along the roads, just as you have streetlamps in Havenwing.”
“Oh,” I said, letting out the breath I had been holding. “I was afraid it might be a monster’s glowing eyes or something.”
“Those usually come in pairs,” Mira said offhandedly.
I stared at her as she resumed her former pace, desperately wanting to know whether she was joking or serious, but too terrified of her answer to ask.
“We’re almost there now,” she added, quickening her pace.
More lamps followed the first as the road grew even wider, and the trees grew ever larger. I felt as though I must be shrinking—the trunks of the trees around me were as wide as some of the rooms in my uncle’s house, and they towered higher above us than the spires of Havenwing’s cathedral!
Mira grinned at my slack-jawed staring and reached over to squeeze my hand. “Just wait,” she said. “Just wait.”
“For what?” I asked, but her reply was prevented by the call of a man’s voice.
At first I thought that being startled had made me misunderstand him, but Mira called back to him with a string of words I had never heard before. I did catch her name among the gibberish, though, and realized that the Fae had a different language all their own.
A man stepped onto the road in front of us and into the light of the lanterns. He stood a little more than a head taller than both me and Mira, and appeared to be very muscular, despite being covered from his chin down in an outfit that had a military look about it—though it was different than any uniform I had ever seen, with insignia I didn’t understand.
“You’re out very late, Mira,” he said, and I was surprised to hear him speaking my language now. “With the days shortening you should be in earlier.”
“I’m sorry, Sergeant,” Mira said. “I didn’t intend to be out so late, it just took longer than I thought.”
“That was my fault,” I blurted. “I caused the delay.”
The sergeant gave me a smile. “You must be the friend that we’ve all heard so much about.”
Heat shot up my neck into my face. What had Mira told them about me? And who was this “all” he talked about? How many people lived here, anyway?
“I suppose I am,” I said. “I didn’t mean to keep Mira out too late, and I hope I haven’t caused any trouble—”
“No, no trouble, we just want to make certain everyone is safe.”
So it was dangerous to be out in the woods after dark! I knew it!
Mira had already spotted—perhaps she had anticipated—my accusing look and sighed. “Lythia, do you walk about in Havenwing after dark?”
That silenced everything I was about to say.
“Have a good evening, girls,” the sergeant said as we resumed walking.
As soon as we had passed him, it seemed, everything changed.