Velda has gathered some information about Revanth. He’s with two men, and they are several hours ahead of the companions, heading toward town, in order to sell him. Alton has also sensed their passing.
“How can you know that?” Astrid asked.
“My friends, the trees, told me. The three of them stopped here for midday meal. It was here that Revanth was threatened. His connection to me remains, and he was able to leave me a message with the white oak over there,” Alton replied.
Astrid rose, walking over to the tree he indicated. She put her hand on the bark and closed her eyes. She laid her face against the bark, hugging the tree. It felt as if it shifted and she imagined arms around her. When she opened her eyes, instead of a tree, she hugged an old woman with brown skin and dark green eyes. She ought to have been surprised, but somehow the fact that the tree had changed didn’t shock her.
“Hello, child,” the old woman said. Her voice was deep and rich like the soil around them. “Your young man is a strong, enterprising soul. He left his message with me. Would you like to hear it?”
The tree woman shifted slightly, spreading her arms. Her face tilted back toward the waning sun. “Tell Astrid that I love her. Ask her to be strong. I know she and our friends come for me.”
Astrid burst into tears. The old woman folded her into her arms once more.
“Shh, child. It is well. They have stopped for the night and he is safe. He’s tied up securely and can’t escape on his own.”
“Are they close?”
“No. But your naiad friend knows more.”
“May I know your name?” Astrid asked her.
“You may call me Oak Mother,” she replied. “Now, I must leave you. Don’t fear. You’ll find him.”
“Thank you again, Oak Mother. May the soil around your roots be rich and life-bearing.”
“May you walk in health, little one.” She kissed Astrid’s brow, before turning back into a tree.
Alton watched the exchange with puzzled delight. “You have a mixed lineage, my girl. You speak to the river and the trees. Are your people elves?”
“No. But I live in woods like this, as I said. My father said we must always talk to the trees, water, animals and earth as if they could understand us. It’s the way of our people.”
“I’m curious to find out what you are,” Velda said. “But first, let’s talk about Revanth. They are camping several miles from here like Oak Mother said. They intend to take the ferry across the river tomorrow morning, so are camped close to the ferry’s docks. The ferryman won’t cross in the dark—wise of him. The naiads in those parts like their quiet. I spoke to them, and they will do their best to slow the passage of the ferry, so we can catch up. Going is easier on the far bank. Much more of it is populated, so there is a road that leads to West Farland.”
“Can we get ahead of them?” Astrid asked.
“We can’t,” Velda replied. “He can.” She nodded at Alton.
“Without you, I can move very quickly,” Alton replied. “I can go all night without resting. I wasn’t going to leave you to travel alone while Velda took to the water.”
“I’m back now, love. The trees will protect us.”
“You’ll be all right on your own?”
“Of course, my love. We’re not helpless.”
Alton picked up his pack, slinging it over his shoulder. He handed Velda provisions from his food sack, kissed her and left. He moved so quietly, Astrid wouldn’t have known, if she hadn’t see him go. He faded into the woods so completely, she couldn’t follow his passing.
“Can he really travel that quickly?” Astrid asked.
“Like the wind,” Velda replied.
“Will he attack the men, and bring Revanth back?”
“I don’t know his plans. For now, he’ll follow them. If the magistrate back there is so corrupt that he allows horse thieves to operate with impunity…. Well, I suspect that Alton has some sort of just desserts in mind for him.”
Bidding one another a fond goodnight, they slept in the grove by the river, curled up near Oak Mother.
When the women woke the next day, Oak Mother gave them a message from Alton. He bid them rest and stay in the safety of Oak Mother’s grove. The women ate their fill, finding the food hadn’t depleted at all. Astrid questioned this.
“Alton has some small magics that he may work. They are particularly strong in sacred groves, such as this. We have made a powerful ally in the blessed Oak Mother,” Velda explained. She laid a small offering of fresh fruit in a cleft of branches. “Thank you, great Oak Mother, for your blessings and love.”
The tree shook her branches, reaching for the sky. Sighing, she settled back down. “Your gift is acceptable,” she said.
Alton skirted the muddy, rock strewn edge of the river. It had broadened to a delta, the mouth only a mile or so away. The water seemed slow and sluggish here, but Alton knew beneath the glassy surface, treacherous currents tangled.
The men and horse had crossed five miles down river. Alton followed them, greeting the river naiads as he crossed, apologizing for disturbing their rest. He picked up the trail of horse and men fairly easily, venturing after them. Reaching out with his energy, Alton contacted Revanth. He kept his message short, the distance making lingering contact difficult.
“I’m close, brother. I’m coming.”
“Hurry, brother!” Revanth’s answer was full of pain.
© 2019 Dellani Oakes