The forest grew darker and colder the deeper Raffi and I walked. Wet webs hung over the trees’ branches like matted silken hair and, though there was no wind, there were whispers following us wherever we went. The path had completely disappeared an hour ago, yet we continued in the same direction, bending and twisting over the undergrowth of vines, twigs and bushes that lay in our way.
After another hour of walking, Raffi suddenly stopped in his tracks.
“Do you feel that?” he whispered softly.
“What?” I asked him, also keeping my voice low.
“Someone is watching us.”
I swung around to look about the forest. There was no one there – no one except for a couple squirrels who had stopped chopping on their nuts to stare back at me before stuffing their cheeks and scampering up one of the trunks.
“I don’t see anyone,” I whispered, moving closer to Raffi.
“Your eyes aren’t working,” Raffi muttered between his teeth, “Stop looking for the usual – you are in Quanxi now. Look for something extraordinary or out of place.”
I glanced over my shoulder once more and squinted. For a moment the moon broke through the trees and shone into the glade where we stood. And as I peered through the moon-beams, something shifted. Several black figures rippled through the air, taking the shapes of tall, dark men briefly before disappearing altogether.
I sucked in my breath. “Incarcerates?!” I gasped.
Raffi turned about quickly. Then, to my surprise, he breathed a sigh of relief. “No, those aren’t Incarcerates,” he said, “Such evil has not dwelt in this world ever since the White Warlocks have been bound on Mount Dawn of Perpetual Light, their powers weakened by the sun.” He squinted behind me. “No, those are Queen Malba’s shadow-men.”
“Queen Malba?” I asked.
“Ruler of Quanxi,” Raffi declared with a heavy sigh, turning back around. “Ever since Queen Baema left on her spiritual journey, her counsellor took over the throne at the castle. Now, there is discord and distrust throughout all the forest. The shadow-men are the chief among Malba’s spies.”
I shuddered. “Will they harm us?”
Raffi shook his head. “They will watch us and then report back to their queen. She must be curious about your return.”
I nodded silently, eyeing the corners of the forest suspiciously. I still had so many questions about Quanxi. Yet, I decided to keep most of them to myself for the moment.
We continued on quietly, the shadow-men following a few paces behind. Eventually, I got used to their presence. Raffi was right. The shadow-men never hurt us, and eventually they became used to me as well. They even crept closer to me. I could imagine them tilting their wispy heads and staring at me curiously. Well … I was reassured that they weren’t a danger. But, I did begin to find them irritating.
“Ugh!” I groaned as I swatted one away when I nearly tripped over his shadow foot that was hiding in the bush I had been walking around. “What do they want?” I asked Raffi irritably.
“Why don’t you ask them,” he muttered in reply, also wrestling with some of the forest’s overgrowth.
I turned to the one nursing his foot and sulking at me from among the leaves of the bush. “Sorry,” I mumbled, kicking a twig. “I didn’t mean to step on you. But, would you please stop following us?”
The shadow-man paused, then began to slowly wisp away. I was about to call him back when I realized that he wasn’t leaving but changing shape. Or rather, several figures linked slightly together. When the black swirls settled, I realized that they spelt out one word.
“Why not?” I asked, throwing up my hands desperately.
The shadow-man shifted again and new swirls appeared.
“Your Mistress won’t let you?”
“What does she want?”
There was a slight hesitation, then more swirls.
My mouth gaped open. “She wants me to go to her?”
I began to realize that the shadow-man should only shape-shift one word at a time. “How about, you spell out what it is your mistress wants of me,” I suggested, “I’ll stop asking questions and wait ‘til you are finished.”
The shadow-man seemed to agree to this idea. There was a shift and then the he began to explain himself. It took some time since the shadow-man had to spell out each word, but I sat on the ground patiently and watched, piecing them all together in my head as the wisps continued to change.
My … Mistress … wants … knowledge … Avacë … Quanxi
“Queen Malba wants to know why I’m here?” I translated.
“I need to restore my memory,” I explained, “Only herbs from Quanxi can help.”
Avacë … desires … power
“Power?” I shook my head viciously. “I don’t want power – I just want to remember my mother,” I whimpered with a shiver, hugging my arms to warm them from the sudden cold that coursed through my body. I stood up. “Tell your mistress that. And please leave us alone.”
The shadow-man rose from the bush and gathered with the others that lurked about the forest. They banded together, linking their misty limbs and then began twirling about, faster and faster, till they blurred and were nothing but a dark swirling tornado. Spinning ever faster, the winds of the shadow-men slowly lifted them up above the ground, higher and higher in the air till they rose above the canopy of trees and out of sight.
I blew out a low whistle. “I didn’t know they could do that.”
Raffi huffed. “That’s nothing to be impressed at. Many creatures of Quanxi have ways of getting about, other than on foot.”
I turned to face my companion. “How about you?” I asked, “Are you hiding any secret powers?”
“No,” Raffi scoffed.
I hid my disappointed face behind my hair. “Oh well,” I swung around cheerily, “Let’s not waste any more moon-light.”
We walked, stumbling over and about the forest that seemed to condense and press closely against me from all sides. Twigs scraped at my face, branches clutched at my clothes, and roots threatened to trip me with every step. Raffi seemed to have less struggle, but then he was a dwarf of Quanxi. Perhaps this forest simply didn’t like strangers.
Then, we reached a part of the wood that was so thick that we would have needed a sword to hack through. I bent over in half, clutching my knees and breathing heavily.
“Perhaps we should turn back,” I whispered to Raffi.
“No, we’ve come this far,” the dwarf retorted back stubbornly, “There must be a way through.”
At that moment, the earth rumbled and groaned. Slowly, the branches drooped their arms, the roots disappeared into the ground, the bushes crept back into their corners and the trees parted. I watched with wide eyes, as the entire forest shifted making a direct, clear path that cut straight into the heart of the woods.
“Is this a dream,” I asked, rising and stretching my arms out gratefully. “Thank you!” In reply, a couple of the nearby trees rustled and bent their ancient, leafy heads down in my direction with a gracious nod.
A hush came over the forest as we walked down the open, grassy path. The wings of the beetles stopped beating; the sweet throbbing trills of the birds ended mid-note; the crickets quit playing their fiddles. The only sound that could be heard was the music of the stars that twinkled in the bright sky above.
Raffi and I walked on tiptoe past the trees that guarded the way. Now it seemed as if the woods were no longer keeping us out, but inviting us in. I could almost feel their bark soften as I passed by, their branches reaching out to touch the hem of my gown. However, their touch was no longer harsh like the tugs from the twigs before. It was gentle, almost tender, like the touch from a grateful child to its mother.
We reached the end of the path and came into a circular clearing of a little meadow. Long grass bent and swayed in the wind, and the flickering lights of little light-bugs flitted through and above the sheaves. And in the middle of the glen stood a woman.
She was dressed in a robe of white, its hem falling low till it was touching her bare feet. Her hair, which hung long and loose down her back, was a deep green. The woman’s eyes were bright and sparkled with joy when she caught sight of us.
“Thank you.” Her voice tinkled like the soft ring of a bell. She held out her arms to us, inviting us to approach closer. We did so and once I was standing before her, the lovely woman took one of my hands in both her own and kissed it.
“Thank you,” she said again, tears forming out of her eyes.
“For what?” I asked, astonished.
“For saving my children,” the woman replied, wiping away her tears with the ends of her hair.
“You mean, you are …” Raffi gasped, pointing at the young woman.
She nodded. “I’m Mother Willow.”
Raffi bowed low, tugging my arm to follow his example. I did so, hastily. Mother Willow put a delicate, white hand on each of our shoulders and we raised our heads to look into her happy face.
“Tell me,” she spoke to me, “What can I do to repay you for your kindness.”
Immediately, the reason for my being in Quanxi pressed urgently against my mind.
“Please, Mother Willow,” I begged, “Might I have one of your tears?”
The nymph pulled back her hand and stood back. “Why would you want one of my tears,” she asked tremulously, her body shaking.
Words poured out of my mouth, my voice begging, imploring. “It’s one of the only things that can bring back the memory of my mother.” I fell to my knees before the nymph. “Please, Mother Willow. Help me.”
The nymph put out her hand and gently stroked my cheek. She smiled sadly, her eyes full of understanding and kindness. “I will help relieve your pain, child, just as you’ve aided mine.”
With those words, Mother Willow pulled back one of her sleeves to reveal her bare, white arm. It was covered with little dewdrops, each one glittering and sparkling like pearls when the moonlight shone on them. The nymph took one between her two fingers and plucked it from her skin, as one plucks a berry from the leaves of a bush. She held it out to me.
“Take it, Avacë. It’s yours.” Mother Willow dropped her precious tear into my reaching, cupped hands. “May it guide you, protect you, and bring you happiness.”
The nymph turned away and walked towards the center of the glen. With one last look back at me and Raffi, she waved her hand in farewell. “Treasure your pure heart, my child,” she cried out before reaching her hands up to the moonlit sky.
Slowly a change spread and took over Mother Willow’s body. The tips of her fingers grew and stretched till they became branches. Her hair became a deeper hue of green, fanning out and then drooping slightly with feathery leaves. Bark stretched across her skin, starting from the tips of her fingers, down across her arms and twisted across her body. Her dress disappeared, swirling around her waist till it became one with the bark.
Once the change was finished, there stood the most magnificent willow tree in the very center of the green glade in the woods of Quanxi. Getting up from my knees, I approached it gently. Pressing a hand on the rough bark, I bent my head and kissed it.
“Thank you, Mother Willow.”