The faces in the leaves were honeyed and kind, but the forest was full of voices. The elk walked as quietly as he could, trying not to rouse the dangers hidden in the wild and violent colors around him. Flowers towered above, and he pushed through them, catching stalks on his horns.
The other elk followed him closely, and together they tried to find their way through the wilderness.
At length he realized that he was hungry and the plants around him smelled sweet and full of flavor. He raised his neck and bit into one of the flowers. The taste was sharp. He lowered his neck and tried the stalks of the flower, and found them delicious.
For a long time they ate, starving after their journey through… he could not remember. Dark. A dark place that smelled of blood.
A low rumble became a growl nearby, and they both fled. The plants flew past his vision, sometimes catching on his horns. He could hear his mate running close behind.
The beasts of Tohr flayed the grovegrass on either side, moving through the stalks with a sound like ripping sky. Wide eyes watched the shadows fall slowly behind. Still they ran and ran until he had to pull the air into lungs that had not the strength to inhale.
He lay then on the ground, one eye looking up through layers of purple and pale red, up to the canopy. Hints of sunlight dripped like honey through layers of leaves until the light that made it to the ground was leaf-green and gentle and flower touched. His mate’s head lay upon his side, and he could feel her ragged breaths in time with his own.
Drops of dew clung to the stalks of long grass. He lifted his head and licked the dew from the stalks. It was not enough.
He rose on four legs and walked slowly over toward the twilight under one of the larger trees. Around him were smaller plants with leaves like ladles. Water from a recent rain lay pooled within the leaves. He drank, and his mate drank with him.
Noa is both the water and the elk.
He looked up, scanning the wilderness around, but saw no source for the voice. Feeling exposed in the shadow of the giant tree, he moved back into the tall grovegrass.
A wind came and stirred the flowers that shined across the field. He lifted his nose and allowed the breeze to play along his face. The scent of sweet berries and moss on the giant trees, the moisture and voice of a clear stream.
The scent of the beasts was lost. All that remained was the scent of morning, the sunlight dripping from the leaves above, and the cool wind of early spring.
The beasts would come again, he knew, along with the Revenant of elves, the Tohr’mentirii. He would scent danger again. He would run with his mate through the grove of giants, perhaps even turn and face their foe to allow her to flee.
But that was later. This was the time between, when they could eat and drink in the cool mist beneath the canopy. The time when he could feel the wind on his face, a wind as restless as he.
The sun drifted down, achingly slow behind the leviathan wood, peering around the boles until it sank into the world at last, and he smelled the night come. In the gloaming, the fireflies like stars swept across the world.
He shook his head and found that his horns were gone. He stood on two feet, and his unbound hair flew about his face in the wind. He turned at looked at Sairi… but she was still in the form on an elk.
Is this still a dream?
Arebon saw that they stood upon a rock high in the air. Carefully he walked toward the edge and looked down. Sairi’s nose nuzzled against him, and he stroked the fur along her neck.
They were high, very high above the world. It was as if they could see all of the Plains stretched out before them. Peoples and cities that had been there for centuries dotted the landscape, with rivers and trade roads cutting through the land.
But something changed. A fire started here, there. At first, nothing. Yet as they watched, more fires started, until it seemed that smoke from a hundred chimneys dotted the Plains.
And then a shadow moving in from the east. It could have been the shadow of one of the many dark clouds that moved over the world, yet as they watched, it shaped itself into the shadow of a great hand stretching across the land. He quickly looked up, seeking whatever giant could cast such a shadow—but saw nothing. Still the shadow of the hand moved and grew until it threatened all the land.
Arebon’s eyes searched, seeking. There, Havensong. And many days’ journey to the south: Sarnishar, city of trade, where Isonis and Aovyn and Crowdancer awaited their return.
A voice upon the wind: a growl, rising in ferocity until it became a cry of rage and triumph… and then the shadow of the hand blotted out the vision altogether.
Arebon opened his eyes again. He looked over and saw Sairi in her true form, her face reflecting the wonder that he felt.
“You saw,” she said.
Arebon could not remember how to speak. He tried to form a word but could find no language within him but the wind.
And peace. A great calm within him that seemed at odds with the visions they had seen. The wind ran fingers through his hair.
Around them draped colorful lights from the trees, lights of blue and green and amber, and looking around they saw that they stood in a wide pathway between rows of tents and wagons in more colors and patterns than they had ever seen. Yet some of them seemed spectral, as if they were not physically there, as if they stood only partly in the same world. Shadows moved past on either side, some shaped like the elves, and others bearing horns upon their heads, or the ears of wolves, or elaborate headwear. Some of the figures seemed real, while others seemed as ghostly as many of the tents and wagons.
“W…” said Sairi, and Arebon understood.
Full moons in eclipse watched over the Night Market.
* * * * *
They walked a path of dreams. Many paths, for they wove in and out of one another in no pattern that they could discern. For a long time they simply walked, not knowing where to go or who they could speak to—or even how real any of it was.
Around them, deals were stuck. Words lit the air in fire and spark, and contracts formed out of their dance as if they were solid things. Promises and gifts were exchanged. The Market vendors eyed the passersby, drew coins from the air to test the veracity of their patrons. One man who seemed made of flesh and bone eyed the passersby with kestrel eyes. A small, winged man approached his booth, his hand making an odd symbol behind his back.
To the left they saw a tent of canvas in shades of currant and rosewood. Both flaps were open, revealing a rug in the flickering lantern light. It seemed real enough.
Arebon stared at the light, and something burned in his heart. He felt both the fear and the certainty that for this tent had he walked across the long plains and into the roots of the world, chasing moons and visions until he and Sairi walked this market town of half-ghosts.
Without a thought he felt himself take Sairi’s hand in his own, and together they ducked and entered the tent. Patches in the canvas spoke of repairs made over and over through generations.
A woman of long years sat within on cushions of burgundy and rust, and twin lanterns revealed a thick rug on the ground inside. Tight strings of turquoise beads circled the woman’s head and lay upon her brow with tiny bells of gold. From these strands her gray hair emerged and flung itself into every direction before settling uneasily upon her shoulders.
The woman did not look up from her cards. She laid them quietly face down on the rug in a circle. Arebon sat down across from her, and Sairi by his side, and they watched the woman place the cards. When the circle was complete, she began another circle within the first, until there lay two circles on the rug in the shape of two full moons in eclipse.
“What,” he said… but then he couldn’t remember the words he needed.
“Surely you can remember how to speak,” said the woman. “You are elves, after all.”
Her voice creaked and groaned like an instrument long played until the edges have worn and age has taken the gift of song.
“I remember,” said Sairi.
The woman looked up at her and smiled slightly, adding more lines to a face already thickly lined. “So you do. Can you remember your names?”
“Arebon.” He cleared his throat. “I am Arebon Shalebrook. And this is Sairi Salaysander. May I ask your name?”
“I am often called Mielikki.”
“What are you doing, mother?”
She looked at him and smiled. “I was wondering who would come to speak with me tonight. I wondered about their journey, their troubles, their fears… and their hopes.”
“I do not know of our hopes. I think… I wonder if that’s why I tried so hard to find my way here.”
“Yes, I see.” She looked back down at the hidden cards. “From what were you running?”
“Running? I…” He frowned, remembering. “I think I dreamed I was an elk.”
Mielikki chuckled. “Dreamed, you say. Tell me about this dream.”
“We were here, in this wild end of the world. We ran through strange and colorful plants, and for a time something was chasing us.” He frowned. “For some reason I dreamed it was the Beasts of Tohr, but that cannot be. We left them behind on S’iolaen, along with the fallen ones of our people.”
“And so having left behind your monsters, you expected never to find them again, or to find such as them in a new world.”
“We had hoped,” said Sairi. “Though it seems the monsters have found us again. Monsters of the Ginto instead of our own, though perhaps not so different.”
“You thought time would take you farther from darkness, ever farther into light. And the Beasts would ever recede.” She laid a finger upon one card on turned it over, revealing the likeness of a Beast with dark gray fur and sharp teeth, standing hunchbacked over the half-cleaned ribs of a recent kill. “Yet I find,” she moved her finger around the outer circle, “that things always come around again.” Her finger stopped once more upon the Beast card.
“We also saw… the shadow of a great hand reaching across the Plains.”
“You need not be dreaming to see that.”
“Mother, what are we to do?” asked Arebon. “Are we meant to do something in this dark time?”
“Are you ‘chosen’ for something? Is that what you ask?” She looked up from the cards and stared at him a moment, one brow raised. Then she laughed and looked back down. “You are not chosen. But you must choose. In such a time as this, there are only three choices, wouldn’t you say?”
“What are they?” asked Sairi, leaning forward.
Mielikki held up a trembling finger. “You fight and perhaps die for the world that shakes in fear.” A second finger. “You fight and perhaps die for your people.” A third. “You run and perhaps find a place to hide until the Dawn comes and live the rest of your life knowing you did nothing.”
Arebon felt a chill take him, and he could not speak.
Mielikki leaned back and sipped something from a celadon mug. “Why did you trod this continent from west to east looking for an answer when everything is already within you, albeit twisted and covered with layers of old pain.”
“Someone led us here,” whispered Arebon.
“Perhaps this person meant well. Tell me, in this… dream,” the smile again, “what happened after the fear of being hunted? The shadow of the hand?”
He closed his eyes. “It was peaceful. I felt the wind…” he moved his fingers in front of his face, as if tracing the fingers of wind along the long nose of the elk he was before.
“The wind is everywhere,” said Mielikki, and her voice was clear. The voice of a young mother.
Arebon opened his eyes and drew a breath. She sat before the cards as before, but she looked like a woman in her twenties, sometimes an elf and sometimes something other. And her hair was all the colors of leaves in every season—pale green with flowers, the bold green of a summer forest, the sharp reds of Redgrove, the orange and rust of autumn. She had shown them winter, and now she showed them the year to come.
“Who are you?” he said softly.
“Some call me Mielikki. Some call me Mistress of the Woods. I am the mother of the bear and the hiisi elk, healer of the sick, and I sing the threnody of the lost.”
“We are lost,” said Sairi.
Mielikki turned to her and smiled. “Remember the wind. Remember the taste of water after fear. Remember the wind.”
“Would that I could feel that peace again.”
She began to slowly turn over the cards, one here and one there. “If you have come to the Night Market to buy peace, I’m afraid you will find many willing to sell such a thing. The price will be high, and what you have bought will be ashes.”
“Then what can I find here?” asked Arebon.
“Did you not come to buy hope?”
“Is that a thing I must pay for?”
“Of course not. But you must be open to its shape, its hue, in whatever form you find it. Many don’t even hear it when it calls them by name.”
The young woman, or old woman, or god, continued turning cards face up. Each face portrayed something terrible in vivid colors. He saw paintings of brutality, of death and famine, of grave markers and ruins and skulls.
“Is this what you have to show us?” asked Sairi in a small voice.
“This is what Terminus has to show us all in these times. I did not urge three cruel demigods to wage war upon light, upon life itself. Yet here we are.”
Arebon sighed deeply. “Three choices, you say.”
“Those doors are closing. Your time is running out.”
Slowly she turned over another card.
Arebon pounced upon the card and held it up. “This… this is one of my people.”
“How did this… what does it mean?”
“Your time is running out.”
His eyes skimmed the other cards, the destruction and death upon all of them. “Is this card hope, or is it more like those?”
“Time is running out,” she said.
“What do I do?”
“Time is running out.”
He took a deep breath.
“We need to get back to our people. We need to go back now.”
“It is a long way, wherever you are going.”
“Can you help us?”
She looked at him, questioning. “What do you seek? A portal?”
“To rejoin my companions in Sarnishar as quickly as possible, yes.”
“You must be careful of your words in the Night Market. There are those here who would sift your words for every loophole and find amusement in fulfilling your wish to the letter. All I can offer you is passage.”
“We have to get there in time!”
“There is no guarantee that you can get there at all.”
“The moons!” He shouted. “Is this not a time of portals? We’ve come through darkness and visions and dreams. There must be a portal that will take us to Sarnishar.”
“What do you offer?”
His breath was quick and shallow. “I…” he looked at Sairi.
Sairi turned to Mielikki and said, “What can we offer that would allow us to return to them?”
“You are asking for the chance to save a life, if time has not run out.”
“What do you offer?”
Arebon stared at the woman, suddenly calm. “A life. My life.”
“Arebon…” began Sairi.
He nodded. “I have chosen.”
Arebon blinked, and they were alone in the tent. The cards lay still upon the rug, but every face was blank. He stood shakily, and Sairi stood beside him. Arebon inhaled deeply of the scents of rosewood and plum blossom, then turned and left the tent.
They stood on a hill beneath the sun, looking down upon a burning city.