“It’s gonna be a short one tonight, Daxy-boy,” I called to the long-haired German Shepard who tilted his great head to one side with an ear pricked straight up.
The wind had just picked up, tearing leaves from the ground and throwing them hard in my face and pulling at the hood I’d drawn over my head.
When the rain finally fell from the slate-gray sky, it was is if I’d stepped into a cold shower, my coat kept my torso dry but my legs were soaked through in a matter of seconds.
A blinding flash and clap of thunder sent me sprawling as it hit the ancient oak tree a few hundred feet from my position. Dax appeared at my side in a second, snuffling my face to make sure I was okay.
I looked into the storm, awe pulling at my mind as I watched half the oak tree fall, as if in slow motion, to the ground.
I covered my face as the old, dry wood splintered and exploded in all directions, sending splinters and chunks of wood flying through the air like missiles.
As the rain had lessened slightly, I made my way across to the remains of the oak tree, through the steam, which the lightning strike had caused, to look down the near perfect line where the bole had split.
“Jesus Christ!” I heard someone shout as my eyes looked down upon the young girl’s body, curled into a fetal position in a hollow at the base of the oak. It took several moments for me to realize it had been me who shouted.
With a trembling hand, I reached down to feel for a pulse, jumping back when my fingers touched her cold, pale skin. What to do? What to do? The question rolled over in my mind. If she’s dead, I can’t move her, or the police might think I’ve tampered with evidence.
The police; the police! CALL THE POLICE, DICKHEAD!
I dragged my phone out and looked at the screen. No signal. Of course there’s no signal, why would I expect there to be any fucking signal?
She moved! My eyes snapped from the phone to the girl’s form, noticing she was shaking as much as me. She’s alive!
Without thought I snatched her thin body up and clutched it against mine. She was so light, so thin her body felt like it was made of match sticks.
I raced for home; just on the edge of the woods, warmth and safety lay there as well as a working phone.
I flung the back door open and raced inside, laying the girl on the sofa and throwing more wood on the fire. I raced across to the phone, which, of course, was dead, the storms around here always knocked out the phones.
I looked down at her small form.
Dax watched me intently as I dried as much of the rain off her as I could, I grabbed a comforter and threw it across her, noting a pale pink blush had lit her skin and the trembling had stopped.
Once I’d changed and dried Dax off, I added some logs to the fire and settled in an armchair with a book, making sure I was available if she woke.
Streaming sun roused me from my slumber and my eyes shot to the couch which was suspiciously devoid of the waif thin woman. My dog had absconded too.
I rushed through my kitchen and to the back porch where the door stood open. A fluttering of either fright or anticipation drilled up through my guts and chest as I looked out the door.
Dax sat, staring in total adoration at the woman who stood by my pile of seasoned logs. For her part, she had her face close to the butt ends of the logs and was sniffing at them.
A gasp escaped me as her tongue shot out and licked at one of the chunks of wood and her head snapped round, fixing me with the most intense stare I’d ever endured.
“Are you the barbarian responsible for hewing these mighty creatures?” Her voice had an accusatory edge to it.
Confusion hit me like a sucker punch as I looked back into eyes of such a dark blue they were almost black.
“What creatures?” I finally managed to ask. Without a change of expression the thin woman grabbed a long piece of wood from the pile and started towards me.
“These creatures!” Her voice had risen in anger and I thought she was going to brain me with the log but she just shook it near my face as I threw my hands up in defense.
Shaking my head, as I realized she actually meant the trees which formed my log pile, seemed to satisfy her and she let her hand drop, still gripping the wood.
“I am called Trewana,” she said as my heartbeat calmed down a little. What kind of name is Trewana? I wondered.
“Nathan Clood,” I told her, “Are you alright?” Trewana looked down as if confused herself,
“I am unsure what has occurred, Nathan Clood,” she looked worriedly at me, “Where are the other Wood Nymphs?”
I told her how I’d found her and that I thought she’d had a concussion so I’d take her to the hospital. She responded by holding up the split log towards me and looking at it while concentrating.
I actually felt my mouth fall open as I watched the dried out wood regain its natural color. A bud appeared on the surface and swelled, exploding like a firework before my eyes and growing into a foot-long branch with leaves, buds and tiny flowers.
I looked at the creature before me with a mixture of fear and wonder. This can’t be real! I thought, before…
“Will you help me, Nathan Clood?” The words sounded distant to my ears. My legs felt like they would give way at any moment as I stared at the piece of wood this (Wood Nymph!) woman had brought back to life.
“I…I…” For some reason, my mouth had forgotten how to work and Trewana stepped forward as if to help. I nearly jumped halfway back through my kitchen, tripping on some crap I’d left lying around and sprawling on the tiled floor.
“Nathan Clood!” Trewana called, “Is something amiss?” Her head entered the room from outside and she raised one eyebrow.
“I’ve hurt my elbows.” I’d spoken these words before I’d even realized I was going to say them. I sounded like a toddler.
I watched her face alter as she tucked her lips inside her mouth, biting down gently on them trying not to smile – and failing. A tiny giggle erupted from her and I felt really, very stupid.
“Come in,” I said after getting back up, “and tell me what the hell’s going on.”
“I need to get to Theildar,” she said in a soft voice, “I need to find out what has happened to the rest of my family.”
“I’ve no idea where that is,” I said, flicking on my laptop, “But I’ll Google it for you.”
“You will do what, Nathan Clood?” Her obvious puzzlement was amusing.
“Google it.” I said again. She shook her head and gazed in wonder at the screen before me as I zoomed in and out over various areas almost matching the name she mentioned.
“Any of these?” I wondered as no perfect match had popped up. She shook her head, “Well, you’re going to have to come up with something else then.”
Trewana’s face fell and she looked down, scratching at Dax’s ears,
“I cannot remember much, Nathan Clood,” the Nymph admitted, “Things have become confused.” She looked so downhearted I nearly hugged her but thought better of it. She closed her eyes.
“Near a border!” she shouted making me jump as I thought she might have fallen asleep, “Near the land of the Picts!” I could only stare at her.
“Picts!” I nearly shouted, “You’re talking about hundreds of years ago.” A brief search revealed it was more like thousands of years, “This is just madness!” I cried.
“Look to your magic box, Nathan Clood,” Trewana told me, “It must be there.” I scrolled along the Scottish border from west to east, almost reaching the North Sea before her hand shot out. “There!” she shouted, “That lake! I know that lake!”
I zoomed in over a place called Kielder Water and we looked at the satellite images. I glanced over to see a mixture of hope and disappointment on her face,
“Where are all the trees, Nathan Clood?” almost begging me to return them.
“Cut down over the years.” I swallowed, “If you can remember the Picts, you might be more than two thousand years out of time.”
“Dax!” I called as my German shepherd growled deeply again. He stood, forepaws braced on a windowsill, hackles raised almost all the way to his tail, venting fury at my empty back garden. “What’s the matter with you?”
“Something is wrong Nathan Clood,” Trewana almost whispered behind me and I nodded slowly, still trying to pick out what Dax had sensed.
Luck saved me. I turned and took a few steps towards the strange creature who had taken over my life in twelve hours when the window behind me imploded, showering me in burning hot glass.
I hit the floor as I saw a shadow shoot past me. Dax! My mind yelled as I heard Trewana’s high-pitched scream.
Fragments of hot glass had sunk into my neck and the backs of my hands, stinging agonizingly.
I turned to see a nightmare movie creature walk through the ragged flaming hole in the back of my house.
Easily seven feet tall, vaguely man shaped but constructed from flames, the thing my sanity shied away from strode arrogantly into my home.
Flame and smoke curled up from where it stood on the carpet and my low ceiling blackened in the heat which leaped from its head.
“At last,” the living flame could speak. Its voice sounded as if it had been electronically slowed, made deeper by some mad Foley artist, while the CGI wizard who had created it must be laughing insanely behind some powerful computer, “You can die, my queen.”
There is a fine line between heroism and being shit-scared. I can tell you now, when that thing pointed towards Trewana and me, I was shit-scared.
My body moved automatically, ignoring the pain from my numerous little cuts and I was sprinting before I knew it.
I grabbed Trewana around her tiny waist, lifting her easily from the floor where she had fallen and, astoundingly, flung us both towards the large picture window in front of my house.
Something snapped painfully inside me as I saw the smoldering remains of Dax curled against the base of a wall, fur singed and burned down to his skin which had blistered in the intense heat.
My only companion of five years was dead.
Glass exploded outwards as we hit the pane at the same moment the fireball hit it too. I’ve never really believed in divine intervention or fate, but I think something must have been watching out for us that day.
We rolled to a stop, the damp grass cooling us both, and I hauled Trewana towards my car. I just about threw her across into the passenger seat as I jumped in behind the wheel.
German engineering made sure the engine in my BMW X5 flared into life the instant I pressed the button and I shifted into drive before stamping on the accelerator as hard as I could.
Trewana arranged herself in the seat and hung on for dear life as the entire car jumped forward with a cough.
I still had my foot welded to the floor and even with the engine bellowing its own angry cry, I heard her.
“Stop, Nathan Clood!” Trewana’s voice, although commanding, wasn’t raised at all.
As if she controlled me automatically, my foot jumped off the accelerator and stomped gently on the brake.
“What are you doing?” I squealed in horror, “Didn’t you see what that thing did to my house?” Trewana looked into my eyes and smiled,
“Believe in me, Nathan Clood. How do I get out of this…” she looked around, as if searching for some descriptive word,
“Car.” I supplied, showing her how to use the handle.
The building which had been my home for the past seven years was an inferno. Orange flames blanketed the majority of the old structure, which had been built from local timber about a hundred years ago. The whistling creak of collapsing timbers provided a counterpoint to the symphony of crackling flames.
I watched as her girlish form walked towards my house, her head tilted to one side, Forrest Gump style, as she lifted her arms slowly to point at the conflagration.
I knew my mind was slipping when I heard Trewana singing. Singing! Her voice was high and sweet, as beautiful as she was herself, but this hardly seemed the time. I was in mid-step, launching myself towards her when she clenched her fists.
A flaming leg, complete with foot, stepped from the fire which still tore at my house, followed by more of the flame-creature. From this distance, I could see shapes inside the flames it consisted of, looking almost like a skeleton with ribs and spine easily visible.
I grabbed Trewana’s arm and tried to drag her towards the car. It was like pulling against stone.
With awful efficiency, the flame-creature crossed the lawn in front of my house. I looked behind it to see what looked like snakes wriggling through the grass. When I finally realized it was ivy, my mind whirled.
Thousands of small tendrils of ivy jumped from the mass behind the living flame, wrapping round its skeleton: ribs, arms, legs and spine. Like sinuous tentacles, they gripped and tangled, wrapped and burdened the thing, seemingly impervious to the flames it gave off.
The thing thrashed and writhed in the iron grip of the ivy, singeing off leaves and blackening the bark but helpless in the plant’s grasp.
There was a moment of silence. I looked into its eyes and saw fear and then watched in awe as it was ripped into hundreds of pieces by Trewana, somehow making the ivy pull itself apart.
An inhuman bellow of pain rent the air and I felt glad, this thing should feel pain for killing Dax.
Trewana bounced lightly over and leaned into me as we watched the rest of my former home burn.
“Will you help me to return to Theildar, Nathan Clood?” Trewana’s voice sounded small, girlish, as I stared at the flames still leaping from my home. I was cut, bruised, singed, my home was gone, my dog had been killed and now she wanted me to take her miles north.
I shoved her away, a little harder than I’d intended. Seeing the shock on her face as easily as I could feel the anger on my own,
“I just lost everything!” I shouted, flinging an arm towards my burned home, “And now you want me to drive off into the wild blue yonder?” I felt a sting of guilt when I saw her flinch.
“Theildar, Nathan Clood.” She specified in her quiet voice. My anger rose, only to be quelled by the expression of abject dejection she wore.
Looking closer I saw cuts and burns on her face and hands, and she held her right arm with her left defensively.
I sighed and looked down before offering her my hand,
“Come on, let’s get you patched up.”
Good old BMW. There was a fully stocked first-aid kit with everything I needed to patch us both up. Trewana gently pulled a few slivers of glass from the back of my neck, her fingers cool as she rubbed anti-septic cream into the skin.
There was no way I was thinking straight. I knew I needed to call someone, let the Fire Brigade know there was no one in the house, go to a hospital, all that stuff. Instead, we climbed into the SUV and drove away.
I stopped to fuel up the X5, grabbing some chocolate and soda for the journey, then made my way onto the M1, thundering northwards.
Listening to the radio, I heard Trewana gasp as she heard the news report concerning my home burning,
“Police are still on the lookout for the writer, Nathan Clood, whose home suffered from a destructive fire in the early hours this morning. Clood is best known for his no-holds-barred scripts and plays, many of which have appeared in the West End. Authorities looking for Clood are asking for anyone with any information to contact them.”
I could see Trewana looking at me as we thundered northwards,
“Are you in trouble, Nathan Clood?” she asked. I shook my head but remained silent, wondering whether I should call the police myself, to let them know I was fine.
Darkness was dropping over the landscape as I stopped on a short bridge crossing a river which led into the massive lake. Trewana stared out at a small island that sat a little way out from both banks of the lake.
“Down there, Nathan Clood.” She pointed to the island.
“Of course,” I sighed, “On a bloody island!”
I spun the car round driving back a short way and turning left towards a dock I’d seen from the bridge.
I parked in front of a boat house and jumped out, looking along the wooden pier.
We must have seemed a ghastly sight looming in the gathering darkness as we walked along the pier. The T-shaped head was occupied by two men securing a boat, one of whom nudged the other as we approached,
“Evening, gents.” I announced, trying to make myself sound friendly and not in fear of my life, “Lovely night isn’t it?”
The pair, possibly father and son, looked at me as if I’d pleasantly offered to butcher and eat them,
“How do?” the older man spoke with a thick accent.
“I’m Nate,” I introduced, “And this is my research assistant, Miss Trewana,” I’d always had a talent for making up identities and characters, aided by my writing career,
The younger of the two leaned sideways to get a better view of Trewana who had hidden behind me,
“Research assistant, eh?” he said suspiciously, “Looks might’ young to be doing that.” His eyes met mine, “What you want?” There was an air of hostility from both of these men and I wondered if it was because I was from the south.
“Well, we think there might be the remains of a Pictish settlement on that small island and wondered if anyone might take us there?”
“Bit late in’t it?” the old man asked, “Where’s all your gear?” He fixed me with a distrustful look now too.
“Back in the car,” I said fast, “We wanted to make sure we could get there first.”
“Well,” said the oldster, “Ain’t no one goes onto yonder island since them boys went missing.” He paused for a beat, “So maybe you should take your research assistant and go off somewhere else.” His sarcasm spoke volumes. My heart fell.
I sighed and started to turn away when Trewana stepped around me and towards the two men,
“Where is the chivalry?” she demanded in an angry tone, “You men should feel shame to deny us passage across this tiny stretch of water!” I felt a smile lift the corners of my mouth as I looked at the pair’s shocked expressions, “I will cross to that island,” Trewana carried on, “If you pathetic excuses for gentlemen will not aid us, we will swim!”
The Wood Nymph sat on the edge of the dock and slid her bare feet into the water, gasping at the chill.
“Now hang on,” the younger man stopped her, “You’ll catch your death like that. I suppose we could lend you a small rowing boat.” Trewana sprang to her feet and beamed at him.
An hour later and with darkness complete, the bow of the boat thumped against the island and we made our way up into the woodland.
“Come, Nathan Clood, let us get to the Sitaloloquan.”
Trewana tied the boat to a thin tree and climbed a small rise to the flatter top of the island. I followed, panting heavily,
“I’m done,” I said, hands on knees as I tried to get my breath back.
“We can rest for a while, Nathan Clood,” she said in that unusual way she had of using my full name, which pleased me for some odd reason.
Trewana leaned against a massive pine and I looked on in awe as it began to move. Roots as thick as my arm pulled out of the ground as the tree leaned away from us. Soil rained down and ferns grew, unfurling their jade fronds to create a soft bed.
The resultant cave was just enough for us to squeeze into and I fell asleep with the earthy scent of her hair in my nostrils.
Dawn had come and gone when I felt a small hand shake my shoulder,
“Time to rise, Nathan Clood,” Trewana told me softly, “We must meet my people.” My stomach growled and every muscle ached as I groaned my way into a standing position.
Casting a coy glance over her shoulder, the slight, two thousand year old girl scampered off into the woods.
In what must have been the middle of the little bit of land was a jumble of rocks, just a pile of rubble someone gathered here for some unknown reason. Around the pile, in a ragged circle about six feet across, the earth was bare.
Trewana stood by the stones with an almost impish grin on her face and one hand held out towards me.
No sooner had I stepped inside the bounds of that bare circle, I felt the world shift beneath me. Initially, my brain screamed, Earthquake! As I hit the floor, however, it became clear I wasn’t in the same place any more.
Massive, ancient oak trees formed a green canopy above my head and the few pine trees I could see were now like interlopers gatecrashing a party. I dragged in a lungful of air, noticing the scents of nature which hadn’t been there before. Looking into the sky I saw the twin lines of a passing jet had vanished and my ears failed to detect the hiss of passing traffic which had been hurtling across the nearby bridge.
“Well, Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.” I quoted sarcastically. Trewana gave me a puzzled look,
“Kansas, Nathan Clood?” she queried.
“Well, it’s about feckin’ time!” A small, high pitched voice piped, “Two hundred years I been sittin’ in dat bleedin’ tree. Me arse looks like the feckin’ bark!”
I cast about, looking for a source of the Irish accented voice. Something like the sound of hummingbird wings reached my ears and I sat back down quickly as a small, winged person flew towards Trewana.
She turned to me as I stared at her and demanded,
“And what the feck are you looking at?”
I heard a gentle rustling in the undergrowth and from the trees around me and saw what looked like people staring at me. Some of them held longbows with arrows pointed at me while others stepped forward with things that looked suspiciously like swords.
Heat broke out in my chest and I looked to the sky,
“Now what the hell’s this all about?” I shouted, letting rage fuel my words. I glanced at Trewana who wore her confusion like a mask. A big male something stepped towards me, arm extended and sword glinting in the sunlight.
“Release our queen, human and prepare to die!” Incredulity washed some of my anger away and I just shook my head.
“My dog’s dead, my home’s been burned to the ground, I nearly got incinerated by some kind of living flame creature, driven four hundred miles and almost got myself arrested for suspected child abuse!” I knew I was shouting but didn’t care. “Now I come here to bring back your queen and you lot want to kill me?” I spread my arms and turned in a slow circle. “Go on then! Fire away!” A flash of fright chilled my chest as I heard the creak of bow strings being pulled back.
“STOP!” Trewana’s voice cracked like thunder, echoing around the clearing, bringing silence to the woods, “Not one Dryad, not one Nymph will do anything to harm this human.” The diminutive little Nymph stood next to me and stared down the creatures surrounding us both. “Nathan Clood has helped me through the human world, which is much changed since I was last there.” Her gaze traveled across her people. “I would never have made it back were it not for him.”
The bulky Wood Nymph who had pointed his sword at me sheathed the blade with a flourish and nodded to me slowly before drawing back. Several tiny little girls shot forward, crowding around Trewana, all clamoring for her attention. I watched as she strode off with them, a massive grin across her face. The gathered Nymphs and Dryads melted into the trees, disappearing from my sight almost immediately. In seconds I was alone, at a loss as to what to do. I heard a buzz, getting louder, in my right ear and turned to see the foul mouthed pixie who had greeted us minutes ago,
“Ye’re called Nathan Clood, eh?” I had no idea whether I’d gone mad or this was all real, her Irish accent and high-pitched voice threw me completely. I nodded, a smile creeping across my face,
“That’s me,” I told her, “How’s your ass?” She tittered a little laugh and landed on my shoulder, making it hard to see her.
“Wouldn’t you like to know, now? I’m Quercus, by the way.” I could feel her wings fluttering against my neck. “Are you going to follow that lot or just stand here like a prick?”
She flitted away abruptly, disappearing into the foliage above my head when I heard a near silent hiss. The Wood Nymph who had pointed his sword at me was back.
“Human,” he spat the word in his deep voice, “Ye have done us a service bringing back the Queen. I will allow ye to go in peace.” He paused for a second, “If ye go now.”
I raised my eyebrows at him and asked, “And if I don’t?” I swallowed when his sword flashed out.
“This world can be a terrible place.” He glanced around, “Ye might find all manner of accidents can befall ye.”
“No need to worry,” I replied lightly, “I’m really careful.” His eyes locked on mine and I stared calmly back until he nodded and slunk back into the forest.
Quercus landed on my shoulder again. “You’re not going to let that little bollix scare ya off now, are ya, Nate?” she piped. I shook my head slowly and walked off in the direction Trewana had taken before.
I heard the celebration before I got to the clearing. I knew I was somewhere else because the little island in the lake on my world was nowhere near big enough for this amount of beings.
Music drifted to my ears from pipes and drums, dancers frolicked in time to the rhythm, food was being prepared over an open fire and the drink was flowing freely despite the early hour.
To me it looked like some kind of weird cosplay event. Males and females of any number of different species wandered in and out of my view.
One willowy girl, with long blond braids, clearly had antlers growing from her skull. Everyone here was basically human in shape, nut nearly all of them had…well, extra bits.
When my eyes found her, she was like a vision of heaven. Trewana had her head back, a wide smile on her face as she spun and twirled, her copper locks fanning out around her, dancing and carefree.
“Oh, fer the love of God! You’ve only gone and feckin fallen for her!” I hadn’t noticed I’d been holding my breath until Quercus piped up in my ear.
Before I could answer, two people with blue tinted skin dragged me into the clearing, a wooden cup appeared in one hand and I was shoved towards the queen.
Ribbons had been quickly woven into her hair and she wore a light green, flimsy dress that she gathered in both hands when she curtseyed to me.
I bowed a little stiffly, not knowing this was an invitation to dance. Trewana took my hand and led me to the middle of a circle bounded by nymph and dryad alike.
The best I could do was stumble after her, trying my best not to fall over. Our eyes were locked as she led me around the edge of the circle and more than a few folk whispered behind their hands.
“Nathan Clood, I…”
Trewana threw herself into my arms, her slight body crashing into mine and leaning heavily against me. I knew instantly something was wrong.
A flash of shocked agony had tainted her perfect face just before she crashed into me and I wrapped my arms around her, stopping her from sliding to the floor.
A high pitched scream cut into my ears, followed by shouts, cries and calls to arms. Some of the beings who had formed the circle rushed towards me and Trewana while others darted into the trees and surrounding bushes.
Nymphs and dryads tried to lift their queen from my arms but I could feel her gripping me with her failing strength. Her breath came in pained little gasps and all I could hear was her broken whisper.
“Nathan…Clood!” she repeated over and over. An old, female dryad with kind eyes told me to bring her to her home.
Trewana’s home turned out to be inside a living oak, probably made with her unique magic. I had little time to study the place, though, because all my attention was on her.
“On her side, man,” the old dryad ordered me shortly. I lay the suddenly fragile queen on a wooden table and the dryad pushed me rudely aside.
Some nasty, alien feeling grew in my chest when she was rolled over and I saw the length of wood jutting from her back. Black feathers had been attached to the end and it was moving!
I realized, with growing horror, I could see her heartbeat. Behind my sternum something the size of a big orange grew, pushing my heart, lungs and stomach aside in its vile attempt to exist.
My mouth worked, jaw flailing around uselessly, but no words came out. My throat had slammed shut, even to my breath and I stumbled backwards as if distance could make this not real.
Some of them must have brought me outside because I found myself sitting on a stump looking at grass like I just woke from an awful nightmare. The cramp-like ache in my throat and chest told me it hadn’t been a dream.
Weeping nymphs and dryads with shocked faces littered the clearing and I watched as they came back from the forest with dejected expressions.
A group of three, including my burly hater, dragged a limp form across to the middle of the clearing and dropped him. They had taken his bow and black-feathered arrows.
Rage burned through me, incinerating the lump in my chest as I crossed to his body, flinging him over to look at the face of this assassin.
It was a woman. She had mousey hair and a round face although she was thin. And she was still alive, her eyes fluttered open to stare at me triumphantly.
As I looked down into her self-satisfied, smugly grinning face, my pain, rage and fear took hold of me. I grabbed one of her black feathered arrows and knelt over her, grasping the woolen cloak she wore.
“Who sent you?” I demanded. Her smile stayed the same although I saw her eyes flick to the arrow so I poked her cheek, just under her eye.
“Need your eyes to be able to kill people, eh?” I said sarcastically, “You tell me everything I want to know or I will blind you.”
The grin faltered and she swallowed hard when she looked closely into my eyes but stayed silent.
I slammed her back into the ground, my forearm across the top of her chest pinning her down. She tried to turn her head as I brought the arrow closer to her eye but it only turned so far and I put the point of her own arrow in the corner of her eye.
The tip must have touched her eyeball because she went still, fast.
“Who sent you?” I could feel the powerful presence of so many magical creatures pressing in on us, some of them willing her to speak, others willing me to stab her in the eye.
The creature underneath me held out until I started to twist the arrowhead, grinding it against her soft eyeball and the wet flesh containing it.
“Brackaden!” She squealed, “It was he who sent me.” A murmur ran through the crowd and I snapped my head up,
“Who’s that?” I asked the first face I saw. It was my best friend, the bulky wood nymph who’d threatened me earlier.
“He leads the fire sprites, human,” His deep voice replied with a little more respect than before, “Our enemies from long ago.”
“Like the one that attacked Trewana and me, burned my house down and killed my dog?” He nodded and the ache in my chest returned as I remembered Dax.
“Why?” I asked, turning my attention back to the woman I held down. When she said nothing, I pressed the arrow into her orb until I could see it dipping in, “I’m not playing games here.” I told her.
I could feel her breaths coming in short gasps as her chest heaved under my arm, sweat beaded on her forehead but still she stayed silent.
It is amazing how easily something can slide into an eyeball. I expected some kind of resistance but the arrowhead sliced cleanly through the sclera, cutting the lens and squirting clear jelly out to run down her nose.
She bucked and screamed in agony underneath me and I got up watching, sickened at what I’d just done, as she curled up into a fetal ball.
“He’s coming!” She screamed through the pain, “Coming for you! Coming to kill all of you!”
I looked at the shocked faces around me and…
“Right then,” I called loud enough for everyone to hear, “Who’s going to tell me what this bastard’s after?”
I pointedly ignored the woman I’d maimed and tried to hold back the vomit threatening to spray from my mouth. They probably mistook my trembling for rage so that worked in my favor.
“Nate!” It was Quercus, “What the feck! I only left ya for a couple o’ minutes and ye’ve gone and blinded some girl!” I felt her little wings beating inches from my face and had to fight the urge to slap her away.
“Come on, now,” she told me. “Come wit’ me an I’ll tell ya all about it.” I heard the whispers as I followed the fairy out of the clearing.
A high-pitched scream cut off halfway through as a Nymph or Dryad executed the would be assassin.
Sensing my mood, Quercus landed on a branch just lower than my head as I slumped to the soft ground. Crossing her tiny legs at the ankles she looked at me and shook her head.
“It’s always like this when humans get involved,” she said cryptically. “The whole bleeding lot of ya go too far.” Her small sigh sounded like a bird chirping.
“Before I go an’ tell ya about Brackaden, you need to know something about him ya won’t like.”
“Something else, you mean.” I grumbled.
“He’s Trewana’s brother.” It felt as if the trees were pulling in tight around me. Claustrophobically squeezing the air from my lungs. I stared at the little fairy, shaking my head in disbelief.
“Some feckin poison grabbed his heart years ago. Infected him wit’ the need for power. A hunger for it. Something happened to him, something he wanted and couldn’t have, sort o’ broke him inside. Since then, well…”
“What was it?” I asked.
“No one ever told me that,” Quercus answered. “None o’ them would talk about it.” Tiny, winged shoulders lifted in a shrug, “But ever since, he’s been trying for the Sitalolaquan.”
“Yeah, what is that?” I asked. “Trewana said something about it this morning.”
“It’s the point where all the Earth’s healing and growing power comes to the surface,” she piped.
“Oh, well that explains everything then,” I spat sarcastically. “How’s that any help to me?”
“Well, feck you, Nate!” She shouted at me. “We’re not the only one who’s hurting over Trewana.” Mention of the Wood Nymph queen brought back the pain in my chest.
“Sorry, Quercus, it’s just all so…weird.”
“Ah, ye’ve no need to tell me, I’m from Belfast,” I laughed.
“It used to be there were three people what could go to the Sitaloloquan. Trewana, Brackaden and their mammy. Realizing humans was gonna take over the planet, they got together to decide what needed to be done. It was at that meeting…”
“That bastard Brackaden went for his mammy and little sister, burning them alive.” Quercus’ face twisted in what looked like hate and suffering mixed, “Trewana only just made it. Their mammy…well, Trewana’s queen now.”
“What does he want though?” I wanted to know.
“The same feckin thing they all do,” she spat. “All the power, all the control. It’s yer typical, male, pissing competition.” I stayed quiet while the little fairy raged against men.
“With her last breath, the old queen put the last of herself into creating the Sitaloloquan, stopping him from getting to her.” I was completely baffled.
“Getting to her?”
“Yeah, Nate, her final act as queen was to become the Sitaloloquan.” Still made no sense to me.
“Come. Eat.” The two best, shortest, sentences I’d heard for a couple of days and surprisingly, said to me by Mr. Angry-Nymph.
I had a bowl of…something slopped down in front of me and a wooden cup of… well, something else.
The porridge-like, gruel-like, soup was fairly filling but the cup had a pretty good beer in it so I spent more time on that.
“Not hungry?” he growled, eyebrows drooping in disapproval.
“It’s not that,” I explained. “It’s just I had boiled grass yesterday.” A deep growl came from his chest and I thought he was going to club me, when he started gurning like a fool.
Laughter rumbled up and exploded from his face, “Boiled grass!” He actually doubled over and held his belly like it hurt. Eventually calming himself he said, “I believe we had a less than auspicious initial meeting.”
Offering his hand he added, “I am Dylath.” I shook his hand and asked, “What’s going to happen now?”
Duluth’s face crumpled like old newspaper, “I thought you might have some ideas.”
I felt my own eyebrows shoot up. “Why me?”
“We are all eminently aware of the human penchant for war and destruction,” he rumbled at me.
“It was my belief you might reveal some new technique we could utilize.” I snorted. “I might have been a bit of a scrapper in the orphanage but I’ve never had a war against anyone. I’m a writer for God’s sake.”
His pale green features shifted in despair. “Unfortunately, it is a war in which we are engaged.” He looked at the ground. “And one, I fear, we cannot win.” Glancing back, he added, “We must convene a war council.”
Trapped flame flickered as we all sat around the pit. Pools of glinting blackness hid their eyes as they looked around the circle. Ten beings of all shapes and sizes had come at Dylath’s call.
“Brackaden is coming.” Dylath’s opening words were met with frantic whispers. ”We are in dire need of a plan.” He paused and looked at me, “Can any of you here gathered offer any advice?”
“Are you completely out of your fucking mind?” I shouted across the crackling fire. The pale green Dryad who’d made the suggestion stared at me in shock.
“Why should you humans not take some action to save your own planet?” a horned Nymph with a light brown and green face demanded. His comment was met with rumbles of agreement.
“I can think of two good reasons off the top of my head,” I told them all. “First, by the time we convinced the world this place exists, you’ll all be dead.” I looked at them. “And second, if you think Brackaden’s bad news, you’ve got no idea what people would do if they got wind of this world.”
“Humans used to live and work alongside us for the good of all,” a blue woman said almost childishly. “Surely they’ll do so again.”
I shook my head sadly. “They’ll come in here and take every last one of you prisoner, try and use whatever powers you’ve got for themselves. You’ll be prisoners. Experimented on and probably chopped up to see what makes you tick.”
“Then we are finished.” Someone said despairingly.
I continued mercilessly, “Some people will probably side with Brackaden as well.”
“Why would they do so? It is madness!” Dylath jumped to his feet, weapons and armor clanking.
“Power,” I said simply, “Greedy, selfish people who want power. They’ll quite happily screw anyone over for power or money.”
“So what of you then?” Dylath demanded, “Are you one who can be trusted?”
I shrugged. “That’s for you to decide. I could tell you I’m reliable but it doesn’t necessarily make it so. But I can tell you this. “That bastard Brackaden burned my house down, killed my dog and shot Trewana in the back and I want to see him pay.” I looked at the mesmeric flames, imagining it was the Fire Sprite and how easy it would be to snuff him out. “Dearly,” I added after a pause.
“Have you got any ideas at all, Nate?” Quercus had appeared from somewhere to land on my shoulder.
“I don’t even know what we’re facing, let alone how to deal with it,” I told her.
A blue figure rose and sat next to me. Without saying a word she cupped her hands in front of my face, the bowl of her fingers filling with water. Images formed in the water like I was looking into a living snow globe. Trees grew, filling out the bowl while a river split the scene. Abruptly flames started lapping at the trees, smoke blackened the air and the few tiny figures that had appeared were incinerated alive. Figures came out of the fire, tall, skeletal things that I remembered burning my house down. Behind the droves of these monsters came other things. Hazy, indistinct living clouds would have been the best way to describe them. Patches of live grayness that sucked any remaining life from the wasteland the Fire Sprites left behind them.
“The burning ones are the Fire Sprites, led by Brackaden,” The female Water Sprite told me, “The gray ones are Chaos demons.”
“What?” I cried, “Demons?”
“Chaos demons are formed from the pure hatred and rage humans direct at one another and the planet.” Dylath grumbled. I stared at him.
“We are weakened when trees are cut, when the water and soil is poisoned, even when you kill one another.” His head dropped in sadness.
All I could do then was shake my head, what could I do? I needed to talk to Trewana. Looking over, I saw the tree I had taken her into had yellowed leaves and looked sickly.
My first though was she had died. The little old healer had allowed me to pass without saying anything and my eyes rested on her still form as I entered.
How could she be even smaller? Paler?
“Trewana?” I whispered, taking her icy hand, “Can you hear me?” She lay on her side, keeping off the arrow wound.
“Nathan Clood.” It was less than a breath from her lips. “The Sitaloloquan.” That again!
“What about it?” I asked.
“Take me.” Could I? Would she survive being moved? After a few moments of indecision, I knew I had to trust her.
She gasped as I picked her up, a ragged sound of complete agony, but weak, so weakly made I thought I’d probably killed her.
“Help us.” I shouted outside, “Dylath.” In seconds we were surrounded by blue, green and brown faced figures, all with questions floating in their wide eyes.
“She told me to take her to this Sitaloloquan place you lot keep on about.”
Not one of them asked the questions I could see they wanted to; they just led me off into the trees with their injured queen in my arms.
My brain wouldn’t believe what I could see. In a ring of the freshest grass and flowers, stood a statue of Trewana. I looked down at the woman in my arms and back to the statue.
No, there were minute differences. But the similarity was overwhelming and I remembered Quercus telling me Trewana’s mother had become the Sitaloloquan. Could this be her?
The statue was ringed by a pale light that faded a few feet above its head. I walked across to it.
“Nate!” Quercus called, “It’ll kill ye.” None of the other creatures followed but I carried on. When my foot stepped on the fresh grass, I saw the statue’s eyes move to fix on mine.
Awesome fear gripped me. This was no statue, this was Trewana’s mother! Still alive and trapped here after thousands of years. I felt pressure and pain building in my head as she stared.
Then her eyes flicked to Trewana and her face shifted, I blinked, trying to stay standing.
My legs buckled as the pressure in my head got so bad I couldn’t see. Trewana dropped to the grass and rolled once to lay, as if dead, with one arm thrown out.
“Nate! Ye feckin eejit, it would have killed ye.” I coughed and laughed at the same time as I listened to the little fairy berate me.
I turned to see Trewana laying with her hand bathed in the lime green light flowing from the earth. And then flow down to engulf her entire form.
I held my breath to see what was going to happen. As soon as the green light suffused her entirely, Trewana’s eyes flicked open and her fingers twitched.
Her mother, who I’d thought was a statue, had an expression of pain mixed with longing plastered across her features.
With an obvious effort, Trewana rolled over and sat up. Puzzled, she looked around and realizing where she was, her eyes widened.
“What…?” Her voice was like music to my ears and I felt magnetically drawn to her, my body started to move forward without my direction until a strong hand clapped down on my shoulder.
“Wait here.” Dylath growled. A silly grin had wriggled across my face and it felt as if something I hadn’t known was there had unclenched in my chest.
Shakily Trewana got to her feet and stumbled across to where we all waited. Dylath and I caught her outstretched arms as she came out of the light, glancing back at her mother as she did so.
Incredibly, the nymph queen went from near death to full health in a few hours and almost immediately started giving instructions. I didn’t react well to what I assumed she planned to do.
“What’s going on?” My tone was quite harsh. Her eyes held mine.
“We must gain help from your people, Nathan Clood,” she told me. “I am preparing to uncloak this land.”
I shook my head. “It’s madness. People will come in here and take everything you have.” I started ranting, “They’ll cut down your trees, find a way to harness your magic, take awa…”
Her cool hand on my lips stopped my outburst dead. “They will not, Nathan Clood.” Her voice was gentle and light, almost soothing. I wanted none of it.
“Well, you might think that but I know different,” I told her, “And I’m not going to stick about here and watch you get screwed over. I’m leaving.” I wondered if that would make her see reason.
“REMAIN.” I’d only taken three steps when her order smashed through me, rooting me to the spot. I felt the color fall from my face with the power of her voice.
“Come with me.” I had no choice as I trailed behind her like a naughty toddler. Outside her tree it looked like every nymph and dryad had gathered.
Trewana raised her arms and everyone copied her, sending a wave of power surging out in a circle.
“It is done.”
The flight from Edinburgh airport to Heathrow in London had only been in the air for fifteen of its approximately ninety minutes flight time when the pilot nearly fainted.
I thought some form of chaos would ensue once Trewana had announced she had opened the magical borders sealing this land from the rest of the world.
It turned out to be much more prosaic with everything seeming the same until we reached Kielder water.
Some of the lake remained and some of the roads which had surrounded it. I could vaguely see a red car which was half buried in a mound of earth and a couple of the sailing boats which had been on the water now jutted from the earth too.
A pair of white-faced men were coming towards us with expressions of complete shock.
“You!” The older of the two jabbed a finger at me, “You…you…you went missing. What’s going on?” His eyes widened further as he caught sight of Trewana and the odd assortment of creatures behind her.
It took me a few seconds to realize this was the pair who had loaned Trewana and me a rowing boat when we first got here. I raised a hand in a weak wave.
Other people were approaching us now, some on foot from cars that had nowhere to drive now that the road had gone and some from the few boats on the lake.
Questions and exclamations were fired from these newcomers, some of whom were more interested in how they were going to get to work.
Trewana allowed it for a few moments as people caught her image on cell-phones. Eventually she raised her arms and called in a clear voice, “Human friends!” I winced as she highlighted her own non-human nature, “We have urgent need of your help. An army of Fire Sprites and Chaos Demons are come to destroy us and take power from the earth.”
As speeches go, it might have gone better. The majority of people carried on with their own petty worries, luckily they had managed to get the whole thing on social media, however.
Broadcast vans turned up covered in dishes and camera crews fronted by a crowd of men and women who jostled to be nearest. Cameras clicked, people called out and one man ran towards us.
Dylath stepped in front of Trewana as the man came with rage in his eyes. The queen motioned for the large Wood Nymph to step aside and with a small gesture, caught him in the grip of an instantly grown ash tree.
A gasp ran through the crowd when they saw his hands were caught through its trunk but they knew he was fine as he swore and struggled against the wood that held him.
“What are you?” someone shouted from the throng.
“I am Trewana,” she called to them, “Queen of the Wood Nymphs, Dryads, Sprites and one fairy.”
A wild idea exploded across my brain.
I managed to make my way over and whisper urgently in Trewana’s pink ear. Her eyes widened as she felt the warmth of my breath on her neck but nodded.
At her command, two pale blue, feminine Water Dryads approached the altered shore of Kielder Water and knelt, plunging their hands into the greenish water.
“Friends!” Trewana called, “This is who and what threatens us all.” She pointed to the lake that was bunching up, like a folded cloth, between the hands of the Water Dryads.
Rising from the surface of the water as if picked up by a divine hand, a sheet of the lake rose to form a smooth surface at least ten feet high.
Shimmering images appeared across the surface as if someone was trying to tune in a TV, resolving themselves into moving figures of flame – Brackaden and his army of sprites.
Gasps and shouts erupted from the gathered crowd from the moment the dryads raised the water, but these fell silent as the Fire Sprites and Chaos Demons were revealed.
Destroying anything in their wake, the army of living flames crawled across the landscape igniting trees and leaving a blackened waste behind them.
“Their leader is called Brackaden,” Trewana announced. “Currently, he is confined in our lands but once he has destroyed us, he will move to take your lands.” A murmur ran through the crowd.
Another idea seemed to jump into my brain and I sprinted across to one of the numerous camera crews, shoving the startled woman on camera aside.
Within three days, we had all relocated to the Sitalolaquan and I found myself facing the eerie visage of the statue bathed in the green light.
Hundreds of people had joined us.
My plea on national TV had generated such a response I was overwhelmed. People believed us and were willing to help.
I had drawn up the most basic of plans to combat the fire sprites and delegated various units to different areas around the Earth’s power source.
Pride swelled in my chest as I saw ordinary people, volunteers, face an army of flames, which burned at such a temperature some of the trees actually exploded.
A group of Fire Sprites emerged, roaring as they saw the lines of humans and the unlikely weapons they held.
Each group, led by a member of the Fire Brigade, held a different colored cylinder and as one, they let fly with the various contents of each fire extinguisher, aiming at the advancing Sprites.
One man jammed the tapered end of his blue fire extinguisher in between the ‘ribs’ of one of the sprites and filled its chest cavity with dry powder.
It paused as if puzzled as to what was happening, before collapsing to the floor all trace of flame gone.
A ragged cheer went up from the various people who carried on bravely shooting the Fire Sprites with fire extinguishers.
It wasn’t going to be enough.
Far from trying to use the creatures for their own ends, the race of man had rallied to their aid and was willing to fight beings of living flame to help, many of them sustaining horrible burns.
A dark gray mass drifted in my direction, one of the Chaos Demons. I put myself in front of Trewana.
It was like a concentrated cloud of smoke and it almost looked as if it was fading. It had an expressionless face, more of an impression in the smoke that looked at me as it got fainter.
I looked at Trewana with a puzzled expression on my face. She just smiled at me,
“It is the humans, Nathan Clood, their love and friendship for us makes these things fade.”
“You knew all along people would help you?” She actually blushed, nodding as she gave her answer.
“Yes, Nathan Clood, I knew as this land would not allow anyone with dark intent to enter.” Her face changed as if she’d been stabbed, “The Sitalolaquan!” she squeaked in a pained voice.
“Brackaden!” Trewana screamed. I caught sight of movement inside the flames and realized he was doing something to his mother.
Trewana came back to her senses and started to move her arms, making roots leap and bunch under the soil. A tunnel of earth and tree roots lifted the curtain of fire, letting us through.
It looked to me like he was trying to reach into the green light that surrounded his mother. I knew if he managed to use that power, we were all finished.
I looked at Trewana, seeing the look of terror that she wore. I would have given anything to relieve that expression and I turned to look at her brother.
“Brackaden!” I roared at the leader of the Fire Sprites, his face turned as if in slow motion towards me, “You want the Sitalolaquan? Then fucking have it!”
“NO!” I heard Trewana scream as I sprinted towards the towering, flame-filled creature. I knew this was going to hurt when I felt the heat coming from him.
I crashed into Brackaden, shoving him bodily into his mother. Pain lanced up through my hands, arms and face. Blisters bubbled up on my skin, the flesh and even bones burning away in the intense heat his body gave off.
I’d managed to push him off balance and he crashed straight into his mother, knocking her out of her imprisonment in the green light. In her place, secured for eternity, Brackaden peered hatefully out at us.
“Trewana?” a confused voice asked. I moaned through the searing agony that slammed through my body as Trewana and her mother hugged.
“Nate,” Trewana said gently as she came over to me, “You did it.” Trewana’s mother knelt beside me and laid a cool hand on my burned face, dulling the pain.
Trewana touched my scorched arm and the same thing happened. I smiled up at her, losing myself in her eyes.
“You called me Nate.” I said.