The three Brothers crested the hill they had been climbing and saw a small valley lay before them. A ridge ran along the western edge of the valley, and they followed the line of the ridge for a distance before carefully picking a path to descend to the valley floor. It was clear that, aside from them, nothing had passed this way in some time. The men had been traveling on foot for nearly three months. Summer solstice was upon the rest of the world, but spring was just beginning to creep upon the edges of the valley, protected as it was by the surrounding mountains and hills. Trees on the slopes were wearing bright green leaves, but below only the evergreens sported more than leafless branches. The dark green stood in contrast to the patches of new, bright spring grass that lay in the meadow beyond.
“Why are we stopping here? I thought we were to serve the Autumn Lady. Surely she doesn’t reside here,” Cormag said and gestured with an arm, “in this forest? Especially a forest on which Winter seems clearly reluctant to release its hold.”
“While I trust you, Barnaby, I also am curious as to why we are choosing to descend here, rather than follow the ridge to the Autumn Lady’s holdings,” added Diarmuid.
They had reached the valley floor and the only thing standing between them and the meadow a wall of imposing evergreens. From here, the trees presented a dense screen that blocked most of the valley from view. Barnaby put out a hand to for them to pause before they pushed their way through the piney screen.
“In fact, we have reached the Autumn Lady. What the Council wished I not tell you, until now, is that she has chosen a very different way to retreat from the world than her sisters may have chosen. When something of this nature last occurred, the Spring Lady chose a grand palace with servants. In that instance, her guardians merely prowled the halls, and found whatever diversions they could, until she was ready to return. Our Lady has opted for something quite the opposite.” With that said, he pushed through the trees, holding the branches back for his companions.
In the middle of what turned out to be a grove of evergreens, there stood a magnificent maple tree. This particular species of tree was not found in this region, and so, was unfamiliar to the men. Cormag and Diarmuid gaped at it as they stood at its base. Perhaps fifty feet high, the tree still bore the brilliant flame colored foliage of the Fall, even with spring attempting to bud around it. What was more, it appeared that not one leaf had fallen away from the branches. It was wholly out of place and time, and yet, it seemed to be holding court in the small clearing in the grove as if it had always been in that exact spot.
“I must confess, I do not wholly understand the craft employed here. This tree is our link to the Autumn Lady, and in some way, embodies her. She will remain in this form, as we perceive it, until she chooses a time to return. I do not know when that will be. She instructed the Council that she could be moved. Only with sufficient warning, however. She can create a sapling which we may take to a new home and plant in a grove like this one. The Council chose this meadow because it is below the ridge trail, and close enough to a village for supplies for us. A few people pass it by on their journeys through the mountains, but they rarely make the trek down as we did. I do not fear being discovered or having to move any time soon. There is precious little magic available to us to flee before any conquering hordes,” Barnaby said and reached up to touch a leaf. The entire tree shivered in greeting. He bowed and said simply, “Lady.”
The two other men started at the tree’s movement in the still morning air, but recovered their wits enough to bow and murmur, “Lady.”
“There will be other duties as we come into Autumn again, of course. The task of receiving the season from Summer will fall to us for the time, in addition to the passing of it on to Winter. As far as I understand, and have observed, she can hear us, and can communicate in a limited form. I truly do not understand the scope of it, and hesitated to delve more deeply because charges of heresy were flying about like flies in summer. Even amongst our own. The level of ritual and, yes, even magic, the Council is privy to is beyond what many people can fit under the heading of Christianity. It is an ugly time, brothers. I do not mind being well away from it.”
“So, it is here will be our home then?” Cormag asked, looking around. He tried to remain surly in tone, but in reality, he was pleased, and no small part relieved. The valley was beautiful, and he had no fear of living rough, especially with the summer coming on. It was as far away from people as he could want, and solitude was what he craved most these days.
“Aye, we will make our home a little away from this grove. No need to draw attention if we don’t have to. The valley is quite large enough, and the more commonly used path in is that direction,” Barnaby said, gesturing to the North, “These lands are holdings of the Brotherhood, and as long as we are mindful, we should have no issues with passersby.”
“Well then, brothers, let’s find our spot. Something tells me we will be here a good while.” Diarmuid was already moving off as he said this. He was already eyeing the surrounding terrain for possible places to build. It was a lovely valley, he thought, and a fine place to build a home.
Barnaby bowed briefly to the tree again and turned to go, as he reached the trees he looked to Cormag, “Are you ready?”
“In a moment, Barnaby,” Cormag said, and Barnaby crossed through the trees.
Alone for the moment, Cormag closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, glad to be at the end of the journey. Once more he looked at the tree, and reached his hand up to caress a leaf. The tree sighed, as trees do when blown by wind, though there was no wind today. Leaves near his hand fluttered across the back of it as though patting it in sympathy. The tree sighed once more and Cormag withdrew his hand. A single leaf had come free of the tree and lay in his hand, glowing radiant orange. He pressed it to his chest and bowed deeply. Tucking the leaf carefully into his vest, he held his hand over the spot as he hurried to catch up to the others.
Soon the men were out of sight of the Lady’s tree, though sounds of camp being set up floated back to her throughout the day. The tree, alone in her grove, swayed in a nonexistent breeze. Eventually night came, and the sounds of the men fell quiet. The valley slept. Eventually even the night bugs tapered off their song. If you had been sitting at the base of the tree that night, however, you would have heard the sound of a woman weeping quietly.
This is part six of a short story/novella. I am posting parts every Tuesday until it is here in its entirety. It is by no means finished, so please share your questions/comments/suggestions.
You can find the previous parts here:
The story continues: