Alton and Revanth know they must break his curse, before they can go after the women. An elderly dryad gives them advice and gifts to help in their quest.
Turning to Revanth, she took his face in her hands. Leaning her forehead against his, she breathed into his nostrils. “May the courage of all of us fill you, horse-man, for you will need it all. Watch after your impetuous brother, and keep him safe.”
Revanth snorted, nodding.
“My gift to you—is love. And this.” She braided a charm made from bits of glass and metal, into his mane. “Your brother is of the wood and earth. You are of the moon and sky. Remember that, for you will need it.” She kissed them both and headed back to the grove.
The others bid farewell. By this time, the residents of the next territory had joined them and been introduced. They took over showing Revanth and Alton the way. This handing off was done three more times before the two came to the place where they would sleep for the night.
Alton was all for forging ahead, but Revanth dug in his heels, refusing to go another step. He was tired, but he also knew that traveling all night was foolish. His protests were met with resistance on Alton’s part, until one of the dryads spoke. She was a pretty thing, with pale golden hair and moss green eyes. Her tree was an ash.
“Your brother is right,” she told Alton. “You can’t travel all night and arrive tired. You’ll need your strength to outwit Eleion.”
“Do you mean fight her?”
The dryad said nothing more. She set out food and drink for the two and showed them to a stream where they could bathe. The naiads here laughed and dove as Alton bathed, making comments about his attributes. Revanth chuckled as he splashed around in the river. The naiads climbed on him, weaving twigs and bits of glass into his mane.
As they ate, the sprites and fairies sang to them. Nymphs and dryads built beds for them from grass, moss and heather. They fell asleep with music winding around them.
His eyes fell shut and Alton stepped into the dream world. He was in the grove, but the colors were more vivid, the scents and sounds more pronounced. A man with black hair and dark eyes was standing beside him. Smiling, the fellow held open his arms, greeting Alton.
“Yes, brother. Apparently, this grove makes it possible for me to join you. It feels good to be a man again! I wish it could last.” His eyes turned sad and he fell silent.
Alton hugged him, clapping his friend on the back. “Soon enough, brother.”
“Do you know the agony I’ve felt all these months? What if I never change back? Am I destined to love a woman I can’t have? Will I revert to an animal? Even now, the human traits and thoughts fade from my mind. Every day, I become more horse and less man.”
“With the help of these good people, we’ll save you, my brother.”
“While we have this time, we should talk about our plan.”
“Agreed. Tell me what I need to do.”
They sat down together, talking long into the night. Near dawn, they woke, rested and refreshed. A quick breakfast, and they were on their way. After half a day’s travel, they came to a very different environment. The trees were gnarled and twisted. Thick moss covered the trunks. Tendrils of hanging plants and vines dangled from their branches. No friendly dryads or sprites came to greet them.
Before stepping into this strange and unpleasant looking land, Alton stopped. He raised his head, sniffing and listening. “I don’t like this place,” he murmured.
Revanth snorted, nodding adamantly before nudging the wood sprite with his head.
“I know,” Alton snapped. “Do you know how this feels? Imagine walking into a room full of spider webs, and not knowing where the spiders are.”
Shuddering, he and Revanth advanced. The ground was spongy underfoot, oozing with each step. Puddles of stagnant, scum covered water dotted the landscape. Footing became treacherous, especially for the horse. Alton went first, searching for the best path. Their progress slowed as they struggled through the quagmire. Only the croaking of frogs, buzz of biting insects and slither of snakes accompanied them.
Late in the afternoon, they came across cultivated lands. Stands of barley dotted the marshy land. Neatly maintained shrubs and squat trees formed a ring around a clearing. The smell of decay and damp was slightly less here. It took a few moments to realize that there was a low hut not far from them, in the center of the clearing. Smoke struggled from the chimney, dribbling toward the ground, as if unable to rise in the moist air.
“Do we dare approach?” Alton whispered.
Revanth sniffed, raising his head. He turned slightly, inhaling deeply. With a snort and horsey chuckle, he led Alton forward, picking his way delicately between the paddies. Alton followed, the path not wide enough for two.
The door to the hut opened when they arrived. An old man, as dark and gnarled as the trees, stood in the doorway. He smoked a long, narrow pipe made of muddy clay. The smoke from the bowl dripped and wriggled downward like snakes hanging from trees. A toothless smile split his weathered, dark brown face.
“So, you’re here at last, eh? I’ve been expecting you all day. Well, don’t just stand there. Come in!” He gestured to the hut.
It hardly looked large enough for Revanth, but that didn’t stop the old man from inviting them in. Somehow, the horse fit through the opening, though Alton couldn’t have said how. It was as if the doorway stretched to accommodate the horse.
Inside, the hut was clean and cozy. A peat fire burned in the hearth and a savory stew bubbled in a cast iron pot. A pile of hay and bin of oats stood on the side of the hut furthest from the fire. A table, laid for two, took up most of the space in the floor. The old man gestured to Alton.
© 2019 Dellani Oakes