Seven Twines and the Dragon Heartwoods

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      It felt as if all hell had broken loose this morning. Everyone seemed to look for their heads, and all in the wrong places.

      What he was really looking for, was his heart. Taking about other people, they used to say things like “his heart’s in the right place, you know”, as a form of apology, as if they knew what was the right place. Maybe they all were wrong, and nobody knew for sure.

      In the morning, the ginkgo trees in the lane leading to the fortified city had all started to turn to gold, glittering the path with golden flecks. Magic comes from the heart they all whispered in the cold wind telling tales of first snows. Autumn had arrived late this year, and the weather was playing all kinds of strange choreographies.

      He could do well with a bit of magic, but magic was tricky to harness these days. All the good practitioners of old seemed to have been replaced by snake oil merchants. But the trees still knew about magic.

      He had a theory, that some pockets of old magic remained, shrouded in nature, oblivious to the city-life encroachments, ever-alive and ripe for the picking. He had heard the term “area of enchantment”, and that was to him the perfect description. He knew some sweet spots, near derelict places, gently overgrown with foliage, sitting side by side with the humbums of the busy city life.
      He would ask the trees and vines there if they could help with the unusual wreckage of this morning.

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      “Let the man speak!” Yorath’s voice boomed from the back of the vociferous crowd. “Let’s hear what he has to say!”

      “Nobody asked me to vote on no bloody fence!” shouted a plump middle aged woman, jabbing her spectacles up her nose with an indignant prod. “Nobody can put fences up, not without a vote, what’s he think this is, the dark ages?”

      The people who were still paying attention nodded or voiced their agreement. Many had already started to wander off. It appeared that something more interesting had captured their attention.

      Leroway started to resume his address to the public about the purpose and benefits of the new fence and toll booths, and then fell silent as more people started to amble off. Where were they all going? he wondered, feeling his curiosity stirring after a moments irritation. They were all heading in the same direction, and yet nobody was rushing. They all looked rather aimless, and leaving at different times, and yet there was no doubt that they were all going the same way.

      Yorath caught Leroway’s eye and smiled. “They noticed the oiliphant in the room.”


      There was one inn he knew about, the last one before the haunted bamboo forest. It served a solid but plain mountain meal, enough to be worth your coins, and carry you through the rigours of the cold ahead.

      He doubted the oiliphant would carry him further through the thickly planted bamboos, so he would have to let her go for now, let her return to one of the secret entrances to the Forest, and be one again with the wild and her own.
      Already the little crowd following them was getting thinner and thinner. After a while, the spell of novelty wore off, and they would realise where the enormous beast was walking toward. Very few wanted to have anything to do with the place. Rukshan wasn’t sure how such legend had spread about the bamboo forest behind haunted, as he would as a youngling find the crackling and wooshing sounds in the large plants rather soothing. Of course, as of all places, it was dangerous to venture there mindlessly, but he’d found the spirits dwelling there usually rarely ill disposed towards visitors, unlike deeper and higher in the mountains were some evils would ride the wind to great distances.

      Not without feeling a small pinch in his chest, he said a last goodbye to his oiliphant friend, and went in the direction of the inn as the sun was already low on the horizon. The distinct sound of the bamboos could be heard from miles away, and there was only a few people left looking at the beast. His goodbye seemed to have lifted the last of the trance, and they suddenly woke up to where they were, some with an instant recoil on their faces. After a few minutes, he was alone once more.

      Strangely, the fence had continued for longer than he’d thought. It wasn’t very high, more like a little nuisance really, but the complete oddity of its presence was enough to grate his nerves. He was reminded of something his master had told him For every inside, there is an outside, and every outside, there is an inside. And though they are different, they go together. The secret of all insides and outsides is this – they look a different as possible, but underneath are the same, for you cannot find one without the other. It made him realise that he couldn’t tell where the people who’d built the fence were from – the city or the forest. He’d immediately assumed something, while it could have been easily the reverse.
      Now he looked at the fence itself, it was quite an ingenious piece of work, trying as much as possible to reuse local and discarded materials. Maybe it was more a tentative of a connective tissue rather than a fence…

      It was in this more peaceful mood that he reached the inn, just an hour before nightfall, as he could tell from the sun. Lanterns were already lit outside of the inn, and although he’d expected it to be empty of customers as often was the case, it seemed to have another guest. He wouldn’t mind a little company, maybe they could enlighten him about the nature of this new boundary.

      “My name is Lhamom” the traveler said to him with an inviting grin and slim beaming face. She wore a deerskin hat, and a patchwork of tribal clothes from villages around the mountains in the manner of an explorer of old times. She was already drinking the local woolly goat butter milk tea, and seemed to thoroughly enjoy every mouthful.
      Rukshan would only bear it with enough spices to soften the strong taste. Nonetheless, he took polite sips of the offered beverage, and listened to the pleasant stories of the nearby and faraway countries she would eagerly tell about.
      Now, curled up near the burning woodstove, enjoying a simple meal and simple everyday stories, after a lovely day riding above troubles, he would already feel complete, and closer to the magic he sought.


      Fox ran through the city, enjoying his transient invisibility. He didn’t have to care about people, he didn’t feel the social burden of being himself. He had fun brushing past the legs of men to frighten them, biting the dresses of women to make them drop their baskets. One of them contained some freshly baked meatloaf. Fox got rid of the bread and swallowed the meat. He laughed with his fox’s laugh at the puzzled look of a child seeing the meat disappear in mid air.

      At first, Fox enjoyed being invisible tremendously. Then, he felt a bit lonely. No one was there to see him have fun. Furthermore, he had no idea how long of it remained. The woman had said one hour. His problem was that in his fox form, he wasn’t so good at keeping track of time. The fun of the invisibility wearing off, he decided to go back to the forest. He would get back his clothes and meet with the woman in his human form.

      He followed the scent of the autumn leaves.

      After barely five minutes, he noticed that people were going in the same direction. How unusual, Fox thought. He kept on running. After another five minutes, he felt a tingling feeling. Then, he heard the familiar shout accompanying his being seen.

      Fox had mixed feelings. At the same time he felt relieved —he was happy to be back into the world—, and he felt annoyed by what he considered to be an unnecessary mishap. He felt his heartbeat speeding up and prepared himself to the chase. But nobody seemed to care about the shout. People looked hypnotized and simply didn’t pay attention to him even though they looked at him running past them.

      How unusual, he thought again.

      Fifteen minutes later, he stopped in front of a fence that wasn’t there in the early morning. It was not so high that he couldn’t jump over it and continue on his way to the forest. But he stayed there a few seconds, too startled to think anything. He got out of his own puzzlement when he heard a whine. It was coming from his own mouth. It was so unusual that it helped him got rid off the spell that surrounded the fence. It seemed to be powerful enough to make people believe they couldn’t go past it into the forest.

      Very clever, he thought. Whoever erected this fence, they were no ordinary man or woman. Fox thought about the old young witch who gave him the potion but readily shook the idea away. This is something else, he decided. His nose became itchy, Fox needed to find out who created this thing. Maybe they knew about the burning smell.

      Fox left the flow of people still following the fence to some unknown destination and jumped over into the forest. The feeling was the same on the other side. A repelling spell. But once on this side of the fence, it had a different flavour. This one talked about danger of leaving the forest, whereas in the city it whispered about the danger of going into the forest. Fox didn’t feel surprised. It was simply another odd occurence.

      He took a deep breath, enjoying the rich scents of the soil and the trees. The smell of the little animals close to the ground, and those of the birds in the air above. The odorant track left by a wild boar. Among all those scents, one was quite unique and remarkable. The gentleman of the forests, Fox thought. What is he doing here? Whatever the explanation was, the wise ape and would certainly have answers. After all, he was the one who taught a little fox the art of human shapeshifting.

      Fox began to run deep into the forest. His heart beating fast at the idea to see his old master. He had totally forgotten about the dwarf and his strange companion, or about the kind witch and her potions. He only felt hope in his heart and cold winter air on his snout. Leading him to some resolution.


      Glynis woke to the sound of wind and rain. Heavy still with sleep, she stared at the cracked and yellowed bedroom ceiling and noticed a large damp patch had formed where the thatched roof needed repairs. Drip by relentless drip, it was slowly but surely creating a puddle on the wooden floor below. Her lemon and puce floral window curtains billowed majestically into the room.

      Strange, I must have left the sash open last night.

      There was a loud crash in the kitchen.

      Leaping out of bed with an agility which belied her sleepiness, Glynis rushed to investigate. A large ornately framed print of a bowl of fruit had fallen from its hanging place above the mantlepiece.

      Glynis stared in amazement. She thought the dark renaissance colours of the painting were depressing but had found it too cumbersome to remove from the wall. Now, as if by magic, the picture lay shattered and defeated on the tiles below.

      It took her a few seconds to take in that there was a small opening in the wall behind where the picture had hung.

      Putting on her sturdy work boots and gloves she swept up the glass so she could safely approach the opening. It wasn’t that big, just a square which had been neatly cut into a wooden beam to form a hiding space. She peered inside the darkness of the cavity and then explored the interior with her hand.


      She felt oddly disappointed and chastised herself, wondering what it was she had been expecting.

      Anyway, at least I can get rid of that damned bowl of fruit now.

      She carefully removed the rest of the glass and pulled the picture from its frame. Turning it over, Glynis discovered what she thought at first glance was an oil spill on the back, but after more careful inspection she realised it was a roughly drawn map.


      Rukshan woke up early. A fine drizzle was almost in suspension in the air, and already the sounds of nature were heard all around the inn.
      They shared breakfast with Lahmom who was packing to join a group for a trek high in the mountains. He wasn’t going in the same direction —the rain shadow and high plateaus of the mountainous ranges were not as attractive as the green slopes, and in winter, the treks were perilous.

      The inn-keeper fed them an honest and nourishing breakfast, and after eating it in silent contentment, they went on their separate way, happy for the moment of companionship.

      The entrance to the bamboo forest was easy to find, there were many stone sculptures almost all made from the same molds on either sides, many were propitiation offerings, that were clothed in red more often than not.
      Once inside the bamboos, it was as though all sounds from outside had disappeared. It was only the omnipresent forest breathing slowly.

      The path was narrow, and required some concentration to not miss the fading marks along the way. It had not been trodden for a while, it was obvious from the thick layers of brown leaves covering the ground.

      After an hour or so of walking, he was already deep inside the forest, slowly on his way up to the slopes of the mountain forest where the Hermit and some relatives lived.

      There was a soft cry that caught his attention. It wasn’t unusual to find all sorts of creatures in the woods, normally they would leave you alone if you did the same. But the sounds were like a calling for help, full of sadness.
      It would surely mean a detour, but again, after that fence business, he may as well have been guided here for some unfathomable purpose. He walked resolutely toward the sound, and after a short walk in the sodden earth, he found the origin of the sound.

      There was a small hole made of bamboo leaves, and in it he could see that there was a dying mother gibbon. Rukshan knew some stories about them, and his people had great respect for the peaceful apes. He move calmly to the side of the ape so as not to frighten her. She had an infant cradled in her arms, and she didn’t seem surprised to see him.
      There were no words between them, but with her touch she told him all he needed to know. She was dying, and he could do nothing about it. She wanted for her boy to be taken care of. He already knew how to change his appearance to that of a young boy, but would need to be taught in the ways of humans. That was what many gibbons were doing, trying to live among humans. There was no turning back to the old ways, it was the way for her kind to survive, and she was too old for it.

      Rukshan waited at her side, until she was ready to peacefully go. He closed her eyes gently, and when he was done, turned around to notice the baby ape had turned into a little silent boy with deep sad eyes and a thick mop of silvery hair. As he was standing naked in the misty forest, Rukshan’s first thought was to tear a piece of cloth from his cape to make a sort of tunic for the boy. Braiding some dry leaves of bamboos made a small rope he could use as a belt.

      With that done, and last silent respects paid to the mother, he took the boy’s hand into his own, and went back to find the path he’d left.


      Fox awakened from an agitated night in the forest. He was feeling weak and not so hungry. His stomach growled. Fox hoped it was not the precursor of another discharge of his bowels, but silence settled in. His body relaxed. He had the strange impression it helped him being more present. Anyhow, he couldn’t keep on running like that now. He needed to find food to refuel his body.

      Don’t take advantage of your invisibility, had said the woman.

      Fox thought there were two ways to look at his little misadventure. Either it was retribution for stealing that meatloaf, the meatloaf karma theory, or he had helped a poor family to avoid being sick all night. Which is just another expression of the meatloaf karma theory. All in all, the karma account was still balanced.

      Fox smelled the forest wind. It was full of earth and water. Not so much fire with all this morning dew, he thought. There were also the scents of little animals, and mushrooms. Among it all, he was surprised to feel sadness. It was not so much about himself and his condition. He had been through worse. And it was more a quality of the atmosphere than a physical smell. It was as though the whole forest was feeling sad. Fox felt the tears at the corner of his eyes.

      “I can’t continue running around like that,” he said.

      “Good,” answered a deep voice.


      The small fire had died during the night. There wasn’t a lot of firewood in the forest, so he’d used all the dry leaves he could find. The child was quiet, and sleeping peacefully.
      Waiting for the sun to rise, Rukshan was carving a piece of bamboo into a flute.

      The night had been cold, and a lot of the smaller bamboos had turned yellow. He thought about the ginkgo trees in the town, guessing they would have left all their golden leaves to the ground by now, going into the winter sleep, falling silent for a little while.

      He didn’t have a clear plan, but some twirling leaves on the ground seemed to invite him in another direction than he had planned. He gazed into the last of the fire’s smoke, and saw there was a small lodge he didn’t know about, close to the Dragon Heartwood. Something he didn’t expect. There was an old woman there, to whom he could entrust the care of the boy, while he would go to the mountains.

      They would go there, another little detour, at the first crack of the pale sunlight above the bamboos’ tops.


      Margoritt Loursenoir wrapped a thick blanket around her shoulders. The window of her lodge was open to the chill outside, but she would keep the windows open as much as she could bear, for she’d missed the fresh air for a long time inside the city.
      The view of the forest was also a renewed pleasure, she could stay in meditation in front of the window for hours, as if looking at a moving picture, a better work than any painter from the city would ever accomplish.
      Besides, she liked being wrapped in a shawl like these women from the far away east she admired so much for their strength and independence.

      She’d come there to rekindle her inspiration. In the City of the Seven Hills, she had risen to quite a fame with her literary works, even though her works were deemed fictional, and that she was a woman.
      To her, they weren’t fictions. They were just the order of things revealed, the natural evolution of things, a glimpse of what was to come if the civilisation were to keep its greedy pace.

      That rheumatism is killing me she looked at her hands, swollen after yesterday’s rain. An old lady like me, and that lifestyle… for how long… She would need to return for a needle session in the City. Already the supplies she’d brought were becoming scarce. She would go find some mushrooms and roots later, but for now she didn’t want to worry about that.
      There was something irremediably irreconcilable about life here and life there. She was aware of the artificial nature of her escapades, but every time she moved out of the bustling city, into the enchanted woods, she would see it. Magic was still alive here, not as strong as before, but still very much alive.

      Rising from her chair, she put the last of her bread’s crumbs on the windowsill. The crumbs she’d put yesterday were still there, untouched. There were hardly any birds left during winter, merely a few suspicious crows who never came too close.

      It was time for her morning writing session.


      The sky had darkened ominously as Yorath and Leroway stood chatting beside the toll booth, thunder rumbling in the distance. Yorath nodded politely as the old mayor described the contraption he was currently working on, a team of mechanical Bubot’s capable of cutting quantities of bamboo swiftly, for the construction of sunshades and pleasure rafts and the many other things that could easily be made out of the versatile plant, for the pleasure, leisure, comfort and entertainment of his townspeople.

      With one eye on the approaching storm, Yorath asked where Leroway had in mind for the harvest. Surely the bold innovator wasn’t thinking of sending the Bubot’s to cut swathes of the bamboo forest down.

      “But Leroway, old boy,” replied Yorath in consternation upon hearing the confirmation that this was indeed the plan, “Are you quite sure that will meet with public approval?”

      “What’s that you say, public approval?” Leroway beamed, missing his point. “They’re going to love it!” He went on to describe at length his plans for making use of the canes for the public good.

      The first fat drops of rain plopped down. Yorath made peace with the idea of a thorough soaking as it was entirely inevitable at this juncture, and continued to listen, showing no indication of impatience. There were more important things at stake here than wetting ones jacket, even if it was a rare igglydupat silk in a shade of iridescent primrose yellow ~ that was, incidentally, a good match for the tundercluds flowering at his feet, not to mention the encroaching eerily sunlit thunderclouds rapidly approaching. For a brief moment his attention wandered from the inventors monologue, engulfed as he was in the effervescent yellow sensation.

      “This is all so very interesting,” Yorath interrupted, having a brainwave, “That I am going to make a detour, and come and visit your town. Lead on, my good man!”

      Leroway beamed, once again misinterpreting the travelers meaning.

      The trip to the city would have to wait.


      Gibbon stretched his long arm and touched Fox’s forehead. The hand was warm and soothing. Fox felt his heartbeat slow down, and as his thoughts dissolved into nothingness the rain gradually stopped. Soon there were spots of sunlight coming through the naked branches of the trees.

      What did I tell you? asked Gibbon. His white beard shaking like the one of a Easter sage. He cupped his mouth like apes do and touched his chest where the heart was. Have you forgotten what I taught you?

      Fox whined but said nothing. There was nothing to be said while his master was talking.

      Go into your heart and quiet that nonsensical quest of yours. You know you need the human form to do that. When you’re in your fox form, your senses are easily fooled and caught by all the traps of Dam Sarah.

      Fox knew very well the story of Dam Sarah, the Goddess of Illusion. He knew that in order to be free he had to use the form of a human, not only because they had duller senses, but also for other reasons that his fox self couldn’t very well comprehend. He had to be in his human form to make sense of all those gibbonish talks.

      He focused on his breath, lulled by his master’s voice. It was like the whisper of the forest, whispering endlessly about ancient forgotten wisdom that only the soul could fathom. And soon the aromas of the nature around him seemed to fade away. Fox knew it was only because his sense of smell was changing closer to that of a human.

      The only thing that could be an obstacle at first was the cold air. Fox really didn’t like being cold, and humans didn’t have much fur to protect them against it. But once the change had taken, the cold was helpful to anchor you into the present state of humanity. Fox caught it with all his heart to help him finish the transformation. It was strange to use the very trap that you wanted to flee.
      He felt his spirit suddenly clear and empty as the bright blue sky above the forest. His previous wandering around, following the smells seemed quite silly. He had been influenced by that burning smell and got gradually caught into reverting back to his fox self for longer than he dared to admit to himself. His anxiety and constant wondering about it was the trap of Dam Sarah for the humans.

      —Good, said Gibbon. But don’t forget that burning smell.
      Gibbon had also took on the shape of a fully clothed human. Still his presence was unmistakably powerful and natural. He blew a warm breath on Fox’s puzzled face, which helped a lot with the shivers, and dropped some clothes at his pupil’s naked feet. Fox would have to ask his master how to bring your clothes into the transformation.
      —Now, get dressed, Gibbon said. We don’t want you to catch cold. I have something to tell you.

      Fox put on his clothes before the warmth of his master’s breath wore off. The familiarity of the fabric on his skin was another way to get deeper into the human form. The form is like a fishnet, keeping you tight into your reality. You can use it, or be used by it, he remembered now.


      It was the smell of the cedar incense that brought him back to consciousness. All was still very confused in his head, his muscles aching, sore from the run.
      He remembered the sudden cold that stopped the rain in mid-air, blanketing the bamboos in snow in a snap.
      Something had disturbed the spirits

      “Ah, I see you’ve woken up! About time! You’ve slept the sleep of the dead” the voice of an old woman —he remembered her too, vaguely,… stout and strong, finding him and…
      Tak?” his voice croaked, his throat was parched with thirst.
      “There, there, have a hot drink here, it will give you back your strength.” He almost recoiled at the strong smell.
      “Don’t be a child, or Emma will think you don’t like her.” She pointed at something at the back of the lodge. A small hairy goat bleated knowingly. “A gift from Mr Minn. She’s cute, gives good milk, and lets me weave her lovely fur, what’s not to like? She’s for the company he said. He helps me settle here Mr Minn. Quite a funny fellow, you’ll see.”

      Tak? Where is he?”
      The old woman looked surprised for a moment, then almost immediately smiled. “Oh, you mean your monkey?”
      “Not monkey…” he said before she cut him “I know, an ape, don’t lecture me on the difference, I was a philosophy professor before I turned weaver-author. He’s here, come, little one! I must say it’s the strangest monk… ape I’ve seen,… I like the outfit by the way. I guess without him, you’d be still freezing to death in that forest. He was quite stubborn.” She seemed not to have spoken in ages, and was never out of subjects.
      “I’m Margoritt by the way. All my friends call me Margo.”
      Rukshan” he croaked.
      “You’re a fae, right. I could tell. You were lighter than you seem, made carrying you easier. Even with Emma helping, my knees were killing me. Anyway, you fae were a long way home. You probably have fascinating tells to share. I’ve seen your book. Oh don’t get all upset, it’s safe, I didn’t open it, just saw the leather-bound spine. You’ll tell me all about it if you want when you get back on your feet. For now, you should rest.”

      I feel so old… he said in a whisper before falling back to sleep.
      He could hear Margoritt’s unstoppable litany continue in the background “No complaining about that again! Old, old,… bah, I’m old. I was not meant to live centuries like you, and that cold…”


      Slowly and methodically, Glynis cleared away the rest of the broken glass. Her morning porage, one of the small luxuries she purchased with the coins she received for her potions, was bubbling gently on the stove top. A cup of rosemary tea sat brewing on the kitchen table.

      Next to the map.

      Glynis was not a believer in coincidence. She knew there were some who might say the picture had just happened to fall from the wall that morning. Perhaps the hook which for all these years held on so stoically was weakened over time and had chosen that moment —that very moment— to finally give in.

      Yes for sure, this is what some would say, shaking their heads at any superstitious nonsense about things being ‘meant to be’.

      But Glynis was not one of those people. As a child growing up she had been fed magic the way other children might be fed bread. And though there were times she had battled it, she knew magic was embedded in her heart, in every breath she took.

      “I breathe the Wisdom of Ages,” she said quietly, comforted by the words.

      She had sensed for a while that things were moving. She would wake in the morning, still fatigued from restless uneasy dreams, and know that all was no longer well with her world.

      Could she resist that call? she wondered. What would happen if she just ignored it? Would the heavens open and lightening strike her? Or would she just slowly wither away and become the old crone others already saw?

      And what would it matter anyway?

      She touched her face with her hand, tracing the outlines of the scales. Nausea rose in her gut and she felt her chest constrict.



      Calming herself, Glynis sat down at the table with her porage and rosemary tea to inspect the map.


      Eleri shivered. The cold had descended quickly once the rain had stopped. If only the rain had stopped a little sooner, she could have made her way back home, but as it was, Eleri had allowed Jolly to persuade her to spend the night in Trustinghampton.

      Pulling the goat wool blankets closer, Eleri gazed at the nearly full moon framed in the attic window, the crumbling castle ramparts faintly visible in the silver light. The scene reminded her of another moonlit night many years ago, not long after she had first arrived here with Alexandria and Lobbocks.

      It had been a summer night, and long before Leroway had improvised a cooling system with ventilation shafts constructed with old drainage pipes, a particularly molten sweltering night, and Eleri had risen from her crumpled sweaty bed to find a breath of cooler air. Quietly she slipped through the door willing it not to creak too much and awaken anyone. The cobblestones felt deliciously cool on her bare feet and she climbed the winding street towards the castle, her senses swathed in the scents of night flowering dama de noche. Lady of the Night, she whispered. Perhaps there would be a breeze up there.

      She paused at the castle gate archway and turned to view the sleeping village below. A light glimmered from the window of Leroway’s workshop, but otherwise the village houses were the still dark quiet of the dreaming night.

      Eleri wandered through the castle grounds, alternately focused on watching her step, and pausing for a few moments, lost in thoughts. It was good, this community, there was a promising feeling about it. It wasn’t always easy, but the hardships seemed lighter with the spirit of adventure and enthusiasm. And it was much better up here than it had been in the Lowlands, there was no doubt about that.

      Her brow furrowed when she recalled her last days down there, when leaving had become the only possible course of action. Don’t dwell on that, she admonished herself silently. She resumed her aimless strolling.

      Behind the castle, on the opposite side to the village, the ground fell away in series of small plateaus. At certain times of the years when the rains came, these plateaus were green meadows sprinkled with daisies and grazing goats, but now they were crisply browned and dry underfoot. Striking rock formations loomed in the darkness, looking like gun metal where the moonlight shone on them. One of them was shaped like a chair, a flat stone seat with an upright stone wedged behind it. Eleri sat, appreciating the feel of the cool rock through her thin dress and on her bare legs.

      It feels like a throne, she thought, just before slipping into a half sleep. The dreams came immediately, as if they had already started and she only needed to shift her attention away from the hot night in the castle to another world. Her cotton shift became a long heavy coarsely woven gown, and her head was weighed down somehow. She had to move her head very slowly and only from side to side. She knew not to look down because of the weight of the thing on her head.

      Looking to her right, she saw him. “Micawber Minn, at your service,” he said with a cheeky grin. “At last, you have returned.”

      Eleri awoke with a start. Touching her head, she realized the weighty head dress was gone, although there was a ring of indentation in her hair. Her heavy gown was gone too, although she could still feel the places where the prickly cloth had scratched her.

      Suddenly aware of the thin material of her dress, she glanced to her right. He was still there!

      Spellbound, Eleri gazed at the magnificent man beside her. Surely she was still dreaming! Such an arresting face, finely chiseled features and penetrating but amused eyes. Broad shoulders, flowing platinum locks, really there was not much to fault. What a stroke of luck to find such a man, and on such a romantic night. And what a perfect setting!

      And yet, although she knew she had never met him before, he seemed familiar. Eleri shifted her position on the stone throne and inched closer to him. He leaned towards her, opening his arms. And she fell into the rapture.


      Gibbon was peeling a red apple at the end of their impromptu lunch. He handed a thin slice to Fox who took it and chewed it carefully. It was sweet and juicy, prompting him to want more.

      They had returned to Fox’s hut outside the city wall. It had not the comfort that plumbing and central heating could bring, but its four walls were enough to protect them from the chilly air outside and give them a sense of proximity. Humans like to be in human sized boxes, thought Fox. They lived in boxes they called houses; they went to work in other boxes they called bank, or smithery, or medical centre —even their outdoor markets were full of virtual boxes called booth or stand; then they had fun in another kind of boxes they called Inn, or Night Club, or brothel (depending on the persona).

      “You’re thinking again,” said Gibbon without raising his eyes from his apple. He handed another slice to Fox who was impressed and annoyed by how his master could read him so easily. Maybe it was luck or real power. Gibbon never told about how he did all that he did. He only said: “I’m not sure that would help you quiet your thoughts.” And that was the end of the subject.

      Fox took the slice and came back to his conscientious mastication. It was the rule, he had learned, with Gibbon. You don’t talk when you eat. You don’t think when you eat. You just eat, and breath when you are not swallowing. Fox felt like he was back into the Southern forest where Gibbon had found him, the lone survivor of a litter of five. His mother had been killed, and already four of his siblings were dead. Gibbon, who was already old at that time, took him in and taught him the wisdom of breathing innate among his kind. Fox then did as he was taught, focus his attention on his actions, and particularly on his breathing at all time. It helped him focus and calm down his heart.

      After they finished the apple and cleaned the place a bit, Gibbon took a deep breath. Fox knew it was the time he would Talk.

      “You’ve been looking for a reason,” said the old master in a breath. Fox was all ears, he almost began to feel them becoming pointy again. He moved his attention back to his breathing and peace filled in his heart again. It was mingled with the excitement of listening to his old master’s voice again, but Fox sticked to the peace and the excitement subsided naturally.

      “I’m going to give you an assignment,” continued Gibbon in between his long breaths. His eyes were shiny and seemed to glow in the dim light of the hut. He wasn’t blinking. He never blinked when he Talked. “I see you’ve mastered the power of breathing. You need to learn the wisdom of the Heart now.”

      Fox was ready. He had been for many years. Even when Fox left the Southern forest to find his destiny he was ready. He now realised he left because Gibbon would not teach him. And now, he came to teach me! Fox let the thought and the excitement subside again. His master would not Talk again until it was quiet.

      IIIIIIII’m not going to teach you,” said the master. “You are going to find your own master for this one.”

      “But you are my master,” said Fox, not understanding why it was happening again. “You have the power of the Heart. You can teach me.”

      IIIIII’m not your master on this one, Fox. I taught you all I was supposed to teach you. No less, no more.”

      “Where will I find my master then?”

      “You will find him in time. But first your assignment,” said Gibbon. He paused to breath deeply, his eyes intense as the full Moon. “You’ll find a lost soul in the enchanted forest. Bring it back to its rightful owner. Then you shall find your master.”

      Fox had opened his mouth to ask him how he could find a lost piece of soul, or what a piece of soul looked like, but Gibbon had already closed his eyes and entered in a deep meditation from where there were no outside interruption possible. He stood up and stretched his body. There was no need to wait aimlessly around, hoping Gibbon would come out of his meditation state soon. It could last days, even weeks.

      While packing a few things he would need on the road, like food, a knife, some clothes, Fox pondered his options. Going in the enchanted forest looking randomly for something he didn’t even know about seemed to much like his old self. He needed some more information and he had an idea about who could give them to him. The witch from the market. She would know. And she lived in the enchanted forest.

      Before closing the hut’s door, Fox looked at his master one last time. His body was very still, if you didn’t know him, you’d think he was not breathing. He had a serene smile on his face. Fox smiled and felt the love of his master and his master’s way fill his heart. He had given him a purpose, and for that Fox was grateful. He shut the door quietly and began to walk toward the enchanted forest. He heard ducks in the distance, it was as if they were singing. He laughed. It was mid afternoon. If he walked at a good pace, he would arrive at the old mansion before nightfall.


      Tak holds the bamboo flute carefully against his chest. The clothes are two sizes too large for his natural appearance, but he did not dare change to human form.

      He is looking through the window at the snow falling gently. He isn’t used to not smell the forest nearby, and seeing it through the window without its smell is utterly fascinating.

      The old woman is always busy, writing on paper, weaving goat’s hair, cleaning vigorously and when she isn’t, she is busy talking to herself. He doesn’t mind the chatter, oftentimes gibbons are chatty too.

      “Are you hungry? He’s going to be fine you know” the kind woman talks to him again. The goat nearby seems used to it, and is busy eating straws. “Let me see your flute, I will teach you how to play.”

      He looks at her with an air of surprise.

      “But for that you’ll have to take your human form.” She smiles warmly to him. He doesn’t know how she knows, but he knows she knows.

      “I’ve seen many strange things at the edge of the Enchanted Forest’s heart, you see. That’s what I like here, you have to expect the unexpected.”

      By breathing slowly, he’s able to regain his human child appearance and asks with a voice full of hesitation, handing over the precious instrument “Music?”


      Eventually Eleri fell back to sleep, warmed by her memories. She was awakened by the sound of a flute and the sun streaming in the window. Realizing she had overslept and that it would now be impossible to slip away unseen at dawn, she lay there watching the dust particles dancing in the shaft of light. The motes swirled and jigged as if to the lilting tune and the temptation was strong to drift off into another reverie, but Eleri roused herself. Stretching, she inched the blankets back. The tile floor was chilly on her bare feet so she inched over to the sunlit square, pleasantly surprised to find her body felt rejuvenated somehow, supple and limber. She made a mental note to remember to appreciate that, while simultaneously mulling over the ensuing inevitable encounter with Leroway.

      Maybe she had avoided him too long, and it was no longer necessary. It had become a habit, perhaps, to keep out of his way, automatic. She dressed quickly, for it was a chilly morning despite the sun, and slipped down the attic stairs in search of a hot drink. Hippy tea they used to call it, back in the days when everyone preferred coffee but felt that herbal teas were more beneficial, but coffee was hard to come by these days, and the various hippy teas were welcome enough.

      Pausing before entering the kitchen, Eleri frowned. Surely that was Yorath’s voice? What was he doing here? They had parted ways the previous morning, Yorath heading for the city and then on to other places, his rucksack of elerium replaced with dried mushrooms. She had hugged him and thanked him, and set off up the hill towards the mountain village to see her friend, wondering when he would return.

      Eleri remained standing behind the kitchen door, listening. Leroway and Yorath were deep in conversation. Her mouth was dry and she badly wanted to visit the outhouse, but she didn’t want to interrupt their flow. They were talking about the bamboo forest.

      She continued to eavesdrop, wondering where the rambling and seemingly aimless discussion was going.


      You’re a fool, Olli

      His mother’s voice, even now kept haunting him. Olliver was a bit of a fool, far too credulous at times.
      People would think him a simpleton, and, at 17, he would still arch his back when he was around others, maybe a little more now that he’d grown so much, always feeling awkward and unsuitable for anything.

      He wasn’t so clear how the foolish plan had hatched in his head, honestly, he wasn’t very clever. Maybe he was guided. There was no other explanation.

      Slowly, slowly his mother Ethely would exhort him, when he struggled to explain so many things in his head.

      There was the house first. They had come early in the day, paint it with the white triangle in a circle. That meant it was to be demolished soon. The Pasha wanted to remove the ugliness of the town, the old bazar and the cows and chickens pens out of the town’s wall. He wanted a nice clean pall-mall place for his games, with boring clean white walls, and fake grass, his mum told him.
      What is fake grass made of? he asked at the time. It was all he could think of. He hadn’t imagined they could tear down their neighbourhood, or their old familiar house.

      So first, the house. Then the precious package. He liked it, the gilded egg with the strange difficult name. Rukji (that’s how he’d told him to call him, it was more easy) had left a note for him. He didn’t write much, in large big letters for him to read slowly. He remembered the stories Rukji told him about the egg. He used to forget a lot of things, but the stories were always very clear in his head, and he never forgot them.
      Rukji said the egg used to transport people and things to distant places, at the speed of thought.
      Olli had laughed when he told him that, he’d said his thoughts were not very quick. Rukji had smiled, with his nice and a bit sad smile.

      So, he’d thought, maybe the egg could send his house and mum to a safe place, before they remove the house.
      He’d tried to think of it, touch the eggs and its gilded scales, but nothing happened. You’re a fool Olli his mother said, while she was gathering their few things in a large cloth and wicker basket.

      Then there was the tower. He’d thought Rukji would be there, still. He could tell him the secrets surely. But the stern man at the clock building told him he had gone.

      Olli didn’t trust the man, and went from the back-entrance he knew about, up in the tower, to see in case he was there. But he wasn’t.

      It was only the stroke of the 7th hour. And one of the mannequins from the tower moved as he would do, four times a day. Alone, at 7 in the morning, and 7 at night, and with everyone at noon, and midnight.

      Olli had recognized the god of travel, with a funny pose on his plinth. He called him Halis. He had trouble with remembering names, especially long names. Ha-sa-me-lis. Sometimes he would say the names out of order. Like Hamamelis, and that would make everybody laugh.

      That’s when something happened. He’d prayed to the god, to help his mother and their house. But the golden egg with his scales touched the statue, at a place where there was no pigeons stains. And zap! that was it.

      Black for a moment, and then he was in the forest.
      And he wasn’t alone.

      “Free! At last!” he’d shouted.
      Then he’d said “Ain’t that unexpected rusty magic… You tricky bastard managed to zap me out of my concrete shell! now, pray tell, where in the eleven hells did you send us, young warlock?”

      What a fool you are, Olli, you got us all lost he could hear her whisper in his head.


      The cry startled Lobbocks, who had been enjoying the long peaceful walk home through the forest, and instinctively he dived behind an uprooted tree stump. Peering between the fungi sprouting on the rotting limbs, he felt a moments disorientation as he identified the clumsy giant of a man as the statue of Hasamelis that stood opposite the town clock.

      For a moment he felt mildly irritated at the interruption. Lobbocks always found solitary walks soothing and beneficial, despite his sociable personality, and was by no means averse to chance encounters and surprises. But this felt a bit different, even before Lobbocks had identified the intruder into his forest space. Whatever part of the woodland paths he was on, he considered his forest space. He didn’t tend to think much about the rest of the forest, just the space he was in. But usually the surprises and encounters glided in, or flew in, to his space ~ this one had dive bombed in, somehow. And who was the lad with him? The lad seemed to have glided in, but the statue crash landed.

      For reasons he couldn’t fathom, although he didn’t wonder why at the time, he remained hidden. It simply didn’t occur to him to announce himself cordially, and simply ask a few questions of the fellow travelers, in an attempt to deduce the meaning of a statue relocating ~ and animating ~ in the middle of the forest.

      Lobbocks breathed a sigh of relief as they lumbered off back down the hill, in the opposite direction to his journey home to the mountain village. The last thing he heard before they moved out of earshot was: “That woman who turned me to stone, she was down by a river, down in the valley….”

      Aghast, Lobbocks started to understand why Hasamelis had felt so repellent. He was on a rampage of revenge and he blamed Eleri.

      Should he follow them, try to over take them somehow, and warn Eleri? Or go back to the village and confer with the others. Lobbocks didn’t know a thing about magic, but some of the others did. And this might be one of those kind of things. Not like intercepting Leroway, back in the old days, so Eleri could slip away….

      Lobbocks quickened his pace. Someone in the village would know what to do.


      “Damn it!” said Glynis, “Let’s do this!”

      She slammed her hand on the map—which she had been studying for several days now—in an attempt at bravado.

      Now, what do I need to take with me?


      “I know you want to get out, but it’s not time yet” Margoritt is braiding small twig figurines on the wooden table, and has lined up already four of them.
      “One for each soul in the house,” she says as if to answer silent questions, “you Tak, Rukshan, Emma and myself.”
      The young Tak is pointing at the last one she makes inquisitively.

      “It’s tradition to make one more for the Stranger. Who knows maybe someone is on their way, or in need of help. There, help me hold this.” She ties the head firmly and nips the thread with a quick jab.

      “If they come, they’d better arrive during daytime. Nobody wants to be outside during the night.”

      She looks pensively at the bed, where Rukshan lies motionless. “Whatever got you, may still be out there, lurking. Tonight’s the longest night, better get prepared.”

      She smiles again and gives the little figurines to Tak. “Keep them safe, we’ll do the burning ceremony at noon. I hope it will give new energy to your friend. He’s been in deep sleep for a long time already.”

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