GWYNWOOD, NORTH OF THE TAR’AFEL RIVER
The first sign that something terrible was wrong with the world was birdsong.
The white forest of Gwynwood was a virgin wood, thick with old stands of pale-barked trees that had been growing undisturbed for so many centuries that their upper branches had become entwined, interlacing in a thick canopy through which the sun struggled to warm the ground in the height of summer. Now, in the dying days of winter’s Second Thaw, the warmth promised by a coming spring had caused trees of all heights to bud with new leaves, casting ever-changing patterns of shadow on the mossy ground below.
Melisande Navarne, mere days from her tenth birthday, reined her horse to a stop beneath those entwined branches, watching the patterns of light and shadow dance all around her.
The air of the forest, rich and heavy with life and the lingering scent of old magic, was both sweet and spicy to her nose. The dazzling dance of the sun on the leaves filled her eyes, making her yearn for more innocent times, when she could have taken off her boots and run through the greenwood, playing chase with her brother and the father she had loved to adoration. The sweet singing of birds in the trees delighted her ears, completing the picture of tranquillity of an ancient forest in the advent of spring.
Except that in this place, if things were as they should be, no birds should sing.
All around them the woods were alive with natural music, the rustling of trees’ boughs, skittering and snapping in the undergrowth, and everywhere birdsong, a wild, almost nervous cacophony. The clear water of the stream she had been following joined in the forest song, splashing noisily as it hurried ahead of her. Melisande glanced repeatedly over her shoulder for Gavin the Invoker, feeling less than comforted, even at the sight of him following her, as he had promised to do. There was something looming in the distance, something she had been warned about from the beginning, but was still unprepared for, no matter how good a face she was able to put on.
She clicked to her mount and continued into the greenwood.
Finally, when the noise was all but deafening, she heard a soft birdcall behind her, one she had come to recognize as the Invoker’s signal. Melisande reined her horse to a halt and looked over her shoulder again.
Gavin had halted as well.
“This is where we part company for the moment, Lady Melisande Navarne,” he said seriously, gentling his own mount. “Your instructions from the Lady Cymrian forbid me from going on past this place.”
The little girl nodded, trying to appear brave, but her stomach turned to water at his words. Gavin had found her, lost and wandering aimlessly in the forest after her carriage had been attacked. In spite of his gruffness and his sparse use of words, Gavin had been a comforting presence, a staunch protector and capable guide to this place of unwelcome birdsong and the errant wind in the trees. She had grown to depend on him to keep her safe not only from the dangers that lurked in the greenwood, but from her own doubts and fears.
It appeared both of those protections were about to come to an end.
She glanced into the sky above her. The silver branches of the tall trees reached, twisting, into a sky racing with clouds of almost the same color. Melisande shivered, then dismounted.
“Are you certain, Gavin?” she asked, hating the nervousness that made her voice sound younger than she was. “You are sure this is the place? You said you have never been here before.”
The Invoker smiled. It was something Melisande had rarely seen him do in their brief time together, but she knew immediately that he had seen through her attempt to keep him with her a little longer.
“The instructions you conveyed to me were to bring you to follow the sweetwater creek to Mirror Lake.”
Gavin nodded at the opening in the thicket before them. Melisande followed his gaze with hers, then tremulously ventured into the copse of trees. Beyond it, the splashing stream emptied out into an oval body of water, glistening in the morning light, its surface flat and smooth as a pane of glass. Mist clung to the clear water, hovering above it like clouds reflecting the sky.
Don’t be frightened.
Melisande froze. The words were spoken in her ear, quiet and distinct, as if the speaker had been standing a hairsbreadth away, in the unmistakable voice of Rhapsody, the Lady Cymrian.
I have a mission for you.
The little girl spun around, looking anxiously for a glimpse of the Lady’s golden hair, a shadow of her small, slender form, but there was nothing in the greenwood but the wind in the trees and the song of birds. The words could have come directly from her memory, spoken to her as they had been on a dark night, not really that long ago and a whole lifetime away. But they were not a function of memory; she could hear them as plainly as she could hear the rustling of the underbrush around her.
She thought back to that dark night, to the room in her family’s keep, in the fading glow of the evening’s candles. Melisande could feel the warmth and tingling of excitement now that she had felt then when Rhapsody had taken her hands and had begun to chant softly in the words of an ancient language, taught to her more than a thousand years before by her mentor in the art of Singing, a science known to her mother’s people, the Liringlas, called Skysingers in the common language, and Namers, when they were especially advanced in it.
Melisande closed her eyes, reveling for a moment in the memory.
The air in the room had gone dry as the water within it was stripped, and a thin circle of mist formed around the two of them, glittering like sunlight on morning dew. A moment later, the words Rhapsody was speaking had began to echo outside of the mist in staggered intervals, building one upon the other until the room beyond was filled with a quiet cacophony. Melisande had witnessed this phenomenon before; the Lady Cymrian, the closest thing to a mother she had known, often called such a circle of masking noise into being to protect their words from imaginary eavesdroppers whenever the two of them were whispering, giggling, and sharing secret thoughts. The corners of Melisande’s eyes stung with sharp tears, bitter for the loss of those innocent times.
I need you to do something for me that I can entrust to no one in this world other than you, Melly.
The voice was even closer now, clearer in her ears. At the time they had first been spoken, the words had rung with a clarity that Melisande recognized as the Naming ability of True-Speaking. Now she wondered if, besides magically ensuring their veracity, the Lady Cymrian had been planting them in her head for this very moment, to remind her of her quest, or to indicate that she had arrived on its doorstep, in this sacred place, this untouched ground where only a handful of people had ever trod in all of history.
This night I will send a messenger bird to Gavin asking him to do as you direct him when you arrive. I can only entrust this request to you in spoken word, because if something should happen to the message, it would be disastrous.
Melisande, orphaned by such disasters, had understood the full implication of the Lady Cymrian’s words.
Once you arrive at the Circle, ask Gavin to take you, along with a full contingent of his top foresters and his most accomplished healer, to the greenwood north-northeast of the Tar’afel Riv