It was the most intriguing dream she’d ever encountered.
Farryn stood on the outermost edge of the tree line, peering into the forest. It wasn't a natural forest, not by any stretch of the word. For one thing, there were no shadows. For another, each tree looked as though it had been woven of gossamer golden threads, strand after strand intricately braided to form the overall tree-like effect. The result was terribly alluring . . .
She knew better.
Farryn grimaced, but couldn’t ignore the truth: This was a strange dream. A stranger’s dream. It could belong to anyone. And the protective runes she’d scratched in the dirt surrounding her mortal body might not be enough to protect her from whatever mind dwelled within the bounds of that dream. Or anything that mind might conjure.
It could be the dream of a monster. Or a fae.
From the very beginning, Mother Ulla had been painfully clear with her: “Never walk into a dream if you don’t know the dreamer. That’s the first and foremost rule of dream-walking, girl, and if you can’t learn it, you ain’t got no business in this trade. Magic ain’t meant for fun and games. You hear me?”
Farryn had heard all right. But . . .
Her physical body sat cross-legged in the center of the rune-circle, her witch’s staff laid across her lap. But her spirit-self stood on a path in the Otherway, the hazy realm of the unconscious through which a well-trained mind might enter dreams. Just because she could, however, didn’t mean she should.
Farryn reached with her awareness back to the physical world, touching on the physical sensations of hard earth under her backside, the way the blood circulation in her legs was slowly cut off, the shape of her gnarly staff gripped lightly in her hands. Then she reached beyond those sensations to the hum of the runes. She’d taken great care in writing them, each stroke long and precise, the end of her staff digging deep into the dirt so that even should a stray wind pick up suddenly, the writing could not be easily marred.
The circle was strong. She’d done her work well. And, more to the point, she didn’t expect Mother Ulla back for hours yet. The old witch had ventured into Sydale village for a birthing. Goodwife Venda was about to pop out her sixth little redheaded babe, and she was notorious throughout the countryside for her long—and loud—labors.
“Mind you get the south plot weeded before I get back, girl,” Mother Ulla had said, even as she packed all of her strange birthing implements into her stout black satchel. She’d given Farryn such a look from beneath her bristling brows, it was almost enough to make a body believe in the old tales of witches giving folk the “evil eye.” But that was nonsense, as Farryn well knew now, four years into her apprenticeship. Witch magic was nothing like the stories she’d heard growing up.
It was much more interesting.
Four years, and Farryn had rarely found opportunity to practice her budding craft on her own. Mother Ulla gave her spells and taught her runes apparently on pure whim alone, and otherwise preferred to put her apprentice to more practical use: weeding, scrubbing, cooking, mending. Only when the old woman ventured out to make her calls on the three nearby villages that fell under her wardship could Farryn snatch a spare moment for her own eager experimentation.
This morning she’d waited until Mother Ulla’s hooded head had vanished around a bend in the road before grabbing her staff and running to a certain clearing not far from the witch’s cottage. It was a grassless dirt clearing sheltered in a grove of whispering aspens, and Farryn had long ago claimed it as her own secret place. The south plot could wait. The dreams of Whispering Wood beckoned.
So there she sat in the center of her rune-circle. She drew a long breath, steadying herself, then let her mind, poised in the Otherway, step a little closer to the edge of that intriguing dream.
Dream-magic was her gift. It was her natural aptitude for dreams and all the magic contained within them that had first brought her to Mother Ulla’s attention. Mother Ulla herself was not particular adept at this sort of magic. It wasn’t a skill that often cropped up among low-magic users, but was rather more the provenance of the great mages—the Miphates. By rights, Mother Ulla had sighed on more than one occasion, Farryn should have been sent to train among their number instead.
But to become a Miphato required . . . well, all sorts of things Farryn did not have. Money. Connections. A family bloodline as old and blue as the River Wim. No lowly joiner’s daughter would ever be so lucky as to go study magic at the Miphates University.
So instead she was apprenticed to the old ward witch, who was bound and determined to make something of her abilities. Farryn knew she was lucky. It was good work. The towns and villages bordering Whispering Wood depended on their local witch after all. And Mother Ulla wasn’t getting any younger; whoever she left her cottage to would be sure of a good, steady living for the rest of her days. A ward witch would never have to worry about marriage or suchlike to get by in life. Not unless she wanted to.
Not that there were many men willing to undertake the harrowing adventure of wedding a witch.
Farryn shifted slightly where she sat, wishing she dared stretch out her stiffening legs. But to do so would run the risk of breaking the rune-circle, and she wasn’t ready for that. Not yet. The shimmering dream-forest seemed to hum a strange, thready tune. She could almost see the notes pulsing between the gossamer-woven branches, down the trunks, into the roots, moving from tree to tree. It was so lovely and so alluring.
What kind of a mind dreamed something like this? If she ventured in, she might be able to find out. It was so tempting . . . . Would there be any harm in taking a step or two? She couldn’t learn more about either the potential or the limits of her magic by always holding back, now could she?
Her dream-self stood there in the hazy Otherway on the edge of the forest, pale and transparent, but otherwise a perfect replica of her physical-self, even down to the rough-spun garments, the bare feet, and the tangle of wild, honey-brown hair flowing over her shoulders. A stray movement in the air—like a breeze, only there was no breeze here in the dream realm—plucked at strands and pulled them across her face.
She impatiently brushed the hair out of her eyes, just as she would in the physical world. Then, after reaching out one last time with her senses to double-check the strength of her runes, she took a step.
It was so easy in the end. So natural. One moment, she was in the Otherway. The next she was deep, deep in that golden wood. Trees surrounded her on all sides, and she could easily forget she even had a mortal body somewhere out there beyond the reaches of this world.
This was dangerous thinking, however. A dream-walker must take care never forget that she dreamed.
Farryn took a moment to plant her staff in front of her and called to the runes of her protective circle. They responded to her call, appearing in the air around her, small floating symbols of light, like flickering fireflies. She felt safer at once, more sure of herself, and ready to see what this dream might offer. Who knew what wonders a mind like this could conjure? And perhaps she might find the dreamer and—
Something moved, vanishing behind a tree off to her right.
Farryn turned swiftly, her eyes wide. There was nothing there, only more of the beautiful golden trees. She frowned slightly and started to turn away again, only to look a second time more closely.
There was something wrong about that tree.
Where all around her was golden growth and life and humming song, that particular tree was . . . silver. It wasn’t made up of delicately woven, shining strands of light either, but instead looked as though it had been blasted by a powerful wave. The liquid droplets had frozen heavily in the branches, misshaping the original graceful form. It was such a curious sight and so out of place here, Farryn couldn’t resist moving closer to see it better. She kept her runes close, her protective-circle tight. She wasn’t a fool, after all.
The silver tree looked uglier up close. What’s more, the silver itself wasn’t frozen and solid, but still wet, dripping in rivulets and globs down the trunk and from the leaves. It pooled around the roots, and Farryn took care not to step to close. She looked beyond the tree and saw more like it . . . many more, spreading deep into the golden forest.
This wasn’t right. This wasn’t the natural shape of this dream. Was the dreamer ill? Or . . . .
A sound of a cracking branch broke the humming of the golden trees, sharp like the snap of a whip. Farryn whirled on heel in time to spy a little figure darting out from behind one tree and ducking behind another. For a second, a thrill of fear tightened her chest.
The next second, however, a little pixie face peered out from behind the tree trunk. Farryn breathed more easily. It was only a child. A small, red-skinned child with a wild nest of hair that looked like a clump of green pine needles. Wide golden eyes stared at her, bright and contemplative before the face pulled back behind the tree once more.
“Hullo,” Farryn said. “Hullo there! You don’t need to be frightened. I won’t hurt you.”
The face reappeared slowly. The strange golden eyes blinked.
“Are you . . .” Farryn hesitated, uncertain if she ought to ask the question on her lips. But the child didn’t look particularly threatening, and her rune-circle was strong and steady. She smiled gently and persisted, “Are you the dreamer then?”
The child tilted its head to one side. It stepped out from behind the tree, and Farryn was only momentarily shocked to see that it was totally naked save for a little strip of cloth around its loins. A male child, she thought, though still so young that she wasn’t absolutely certain. And certainly not human, judging by the long claws extending from its fingertips or the pointed ears protruding through its pine-needle hair. It stood tense, nostrils flaring, poised on the balls of its feet, looking very much like a young fawn ready to bolt.
“It’s all right,” Farryn said, holding out one hand in what she hoped was soothing gesture. “I’m not really that scary. I just wanted to see your dream up close. It’s very beautiful, you know. Is it all out of your own head, or is based on somewhere you know?”
The child tilted his head to the other side, turning to focus on yellow eye more intensely on her while the other eye closed. It was a disconcerting gaze. But still, she didn’t need to be afraid of such a young dreamer, did she?
“Can you tell me something?” Farryn said, turning somewhat and swinging an arm to indicate the blasted silver trees behind her. “What happened over there? That bit of the dream doesn’t look very healthy and I—”
The child’s mouth dropped open in a sudden, terrible scream. It startled Farryn so badly, she nearly jumped out of her own protective circle. She clutched her staff in both hands, raising it up and holding it between her and the child. But those golden eyes weren’t fixed.
They were looking beyond her. At the silver forest.
Farryn turned. The moment she looked away from the child, the scream stopped, and when she cast a quick glance over her shoulder, she saw that it was gone, vanished like a blown-out candle. She faced the silver forest again, searching for what had caused such a reaction in the little dreamer.
She felt something. A seething, pulsing something, like music and yet not at all like. It was a rhythm in the air, a vibration of . . . of rage. And blood-thirst. No, not blood-thirst, for that was too mortal, too base, too physical a word for this sensation.
This was . . . soul-thirst.
Farryn gasped in dismay and tried to pull back to the Otherway. She took a step, but it wasn’t enough. Why wasn’t it enough? She hadn’t walked that deeply into the dream! She looked back over her shoulder, searching for the hazy, cloudlike reality she’d left behind. But the forest had closed in all around her, swallowing her up.
Something moved in the shadows beyond the blasted silver-trees. Something hungry . . . .
Seven gods above! She should have known better. She had known better. Oh, what was she thinking, so blithely disobeying the rules of dream-walking? When Mother Ulla returned, when she found her dried-out husk in the clearing, surrounded by broken runes, she would twitch her long nose, snort, and say, “Well, you got what you deserved now, didn’t you, girl?”
The ground shifted beneath Farryn’s feet. The silver trees shuddered, and the liquid silver dripped from their limbs and pooled together in a shining stream that steamed with heat. Desperate, Farryn reached out with her awareness, using her runes to try to find her mortal body once more. If she could just return to the shelter of her own mind, then she ought to be . . . .
A horrible roar blasted through the trees, many of them over, exposing their roots like many-fingered giants’ hands. Farryn screamed and tried to jump backwards, but somehow this only seemed to bring her closer to that roar. She couldn’t retreat. She couldn’t flee.
Instead, she raised her witch’s staff. It was only a vision of the staff she held in her lap, but it was real enough here in the dream-world. She saw an impression something moving through the forest, through the fallen trees—a lurching, long-limbed, hunchbacked shape, twice again as tall as she. She thought she glimpsed razor spines, dragging arms, a wide, gaping jaw, but it was all so hazy, so obscured by tortured silver branches.
Bracing herself, squaring her shoulders, Farryn raised her staff in both hands. With a wordless cry, she brought it down hard, digging it into the soil. At first she feared it would find no purchase, that encroaching liquid silver would blot out whatever she tried to write. But no. For the moment at least, the ground was solid enough, and that meant . . . that meant . . . .
She drew the shape of a single, potent rune. The Gweyir—the Shield.
A blast of ice-cold air tore through the air around her. She felt it, but it did not hit her, instead rippling away around the rune and running off on either side of her, like foaming wake around a boat’s prow. The rune flickered for a moment, she feared it would give out, and she would succumb to that blast after all. Grinding her teeth, she dug her staff deeper into the dream-soil, willing the power of the Gweyir Rune to hold.
Then a voice, deep as midnight, soft as a cat’s purr, whispered in her ear: “Who are you?”
She lay on her back beneath the spreading branches of the aspen grove, gazing up at patches of blue sky shining bright between a lacework of green. For some moments, she could only lie there, trying to remember how to breathe.
Then with a great gasp, she sat up. Her hands still clutched her staff hard, her knuckles standing out sharp and white. Her eyes played tricks on her, telling her that she saw black smoke trailing from the end of the staff, but that image faded after a few determined blinks. She shook her head then winced and tentatively felt the back of her skull beneath her hair. She’d hit hard when she fell backwards, and a lump was swiftly forming.
Cursing softly, Farryn looked around at her rune-circle. It was broken in three places. It looked as though . . . as though huge claws had torn through the dirt, ripping the symbols as they went. The magic had failed.
She ought to be dead. Why wasn’t she dead?
Farryn groaned and rubbed a hand down the side of her face. What was that thing she’d seen in the dream-forest? She knew of many different types of dream-monsters, parasites and predators that infested minds and stalked souls. But she’d never heard of anything quite like that. Something so nightmarish and powerful. And hungry.
“You know better,” she muttered. Moving stiffly, she got to her feet and brushed dirt and leaves from her skirts. “You know better than to go bumbling into a stranger’s dream like that! Would have served you right if you’d been swallowed whole.”
But . . . she hadn’t been . . . .
Despite the pounding of her heart, despite the ache in her head, despite the dizzy, dark flashes on the edges of her vision every time she blinked, a small smile pulled at the corners of her mouth. She’d survived. She’d entered into that strange, deadly forest, and she’d survived. Apparently by the strength of her own magic. That Gweyir Rune had worked, after all.
Or had it? She frowned again, looking around the rune circle and then beyond it at the trees surrounding her. They were ordinary trees, insofar as any tree growing in Whispering Wood could be ordinary. A red squirrel clambered in the branches overhead, and birds sang just out of sight. It all felt normal. Almost.
Was she imagining it, or was there an odd tension in the air?
“Farryn! Farryn Boddart, get your hide back here, you lazy lout of a girl!”
Startled, Farryn whirled on heel, her eyes widening. “Seven gods!” she cried.
Mother Ulla. She was back. Already. Devils take that Mistress Venda! Her babe must have come much faster than usual. And the south plot was still overgrown with weeds!
Cursing by each of the seven gods’ names in turn, Farryn picked up her staff and took to her heels, leaving the aspen grove behind. For the moment, she forgot about the silver forest and the monstrous form she had almost glimpsed through the trees. She even forgot about that subtle, dangerous voice which had whispered at the edge of her awareness.
Mother Ulla was a far more present and potent concern.