Oberon's Children

 

 

Chapter One: Memories

 

I have begun to remember.

The first of the memories came back when I woke this morning, in the same instant that the pain in my chest flared and then began to fade. That constant steady pain that I have known for all my life – it is dying and grows less and less with each passing moment. And as it falls away, in have rushed memories that cannot be mine.

I don’t know how this story ends, only how it begins – on a night like tonight, in the light of a summer moon. I’ve been fighting ever since I came here, a frightened girl with holes in her mind she couldn’t understand, bruises and scars she couldn’t explain; but I’m running out of time – I’m forgetting even the pieces that I managed to hold onto, and I need to get them back. I’m grasping at them even now, but they pain me and I want to shout in frustration at the half-remembered scraps.

Is it even possible? The part of me I’ve hidden, the part I think of as the madness, whispers to me to go on, tells me that he’s still watching.

I came in from the fields tonight scrabbling for parchment, and now I find myself writing these words in a combined paroxysm of agony and ecstasy, reveling in the knowledge that I remember enough to tell the story, and yet, still not enough to know why any of it matters, or even if it’s real. Watching these black marks appear like slim soldiers on the page, marching one after the other in carefully marshaled lines ... my heart races in my breast.

I can’t stop now that I’ve begun – perhaps I never could.

There are some things you go through that change who and what you are – they remap you in a fundamental way; they redraw the boundaries of your soul. They change your purpose, if there is such a thing in the collection of heartbeats we call a life.

He was that thing for me. He was that thing for all of us, all of his children.

I remember … more is coming back. How long has it been? I can feel the fever ghosting over my limbs even now … how long since I’ve felt that? How long has the coldness in my chest kept it back? But the cold is gone now – somehow it’s gone, and the memories are returning.

I have to remember it all – I have to!

His children: that’s what he called us, and what we called ourselves after we knew. I don’t think we ever knew how many of us there were, and I don’t know how many remain behind. But I was one of them. As a girl, as a frightened, urchin girl, I was one of them, and now as I woman I look back and cannot seem to grasp …

Maybe my sanity has finally cracked. Maybe my mind is filling in the gaps with false memories, like water rushing in to fill an empty space, but I do not think so. No – this must be real. I remember it so clearly –

But why? Why do I remember only now?

And why do I feel there isn’t much time? It doesn’t make sense, I know that, and I know too that most of what I do remember doesn’t either. But I will not stop and start over; if I do, it will be lost forever. I feel that in my blood, my heart, my bones. The madness is forcing me on - I can feel its pull, can feel the fever shivering through me, heating my mind –

No more. We begin.

 

Chapter Two: Music of the Spheres

 

It began in childhood. I hate remembering my childhood.

It’s not because something terrible happened – though many terrible things did happen – it’s that barely any of the woman I am is at all a part of the girl I was. But so much of what I remember is extraordinary, and so much of it is something I can’t even begin to believe, that I find myself forced to start there, in the world outside, in the real world. I need to lay the scene – and, hopefully, pull myself out of this world and into the next in as seamless a transition as sea to sky on a cloudless summer day.

Still, life before the madness is as insubstantial as a dream. I spent ten years in the world outside, but those years seem so unimportant – even then they seemed that way. I think I always knew, somewhere deep inside, that I was simply passing time until my life began.

I went through that world in silence. People thought I was touched, which, I suppose, I was. I remember a city – a string of them, actually – full of people and the filth that followed with them. The filth was where I lived, mostly. The filth was where the dregs of society ended up – and I was the dreggiest of dregs.

That life before the Bower was short and brutal. What little I remember I am loath to keep, though, try as I might, I cannot seem to part with it. I was told my mother did not keep me, and I have no memory of a father other than … no, I will come to that later.

The earliest remembered sight I have is of streets, long and wide, some hard and bright with oil lamps or torches, others soft and dark with curtains of shadow. I stayed in the darkness even then, secluded from even the torchlight imitation of day, dingy as it shone through the muffling blanket of night. I remember the smells most of all: the fragrance of rot that comes with warped, refuse-soaked wood hidden from the sun, and the pungent vinegar stink of unwashed bodies.

Someone took care of me; I never knew her name. Perhaps she didn’t have one – perhaps she chose to forget it. Names mattered very little back then, certainly much less than hunger and fear and pain. Those were the forces that guided our lives: we fought hunger, we ran from fear, and we endured pain. I don’t remember speaking a word until two summers before I was taken – and I only spoke then because the laughing men we were begging from wouldn’t give us food unless we pleaded. I think those beggars who were with me were more surprised by my speech than the cruel men were.

The old woman who took care of me treated me as a daughter. She knew many words, though I never answered her when she tried to draw me out. She knew other words, too, words that only she spoke that I couldn’t understand, words the others looked at her askance for muttering, even when she did so far away. She spoke the words every night before she went to sleep, and to this day I can still hear her voice chanting, as if in prayer. The words still make no sense, maybe because the sense of them is lost in the distance of time like the consonants of a far-off shout, but the religious feel of them, the fire they inspired in her dying eyes, was undeniable. Yes … her eyes. I’d almost forgotten that woman, or at least the withered shell of her.

My surrogate mother.

I don’t know why she took me in, or what I could have possibly meant to her, old and withered as she was. Perhaps she did it out of routine; perhaps she did it out of hope. Perhaps she saw in me the struggling girl she might once have been – a girl about to become a young woman with no protection. I suppose the reason matters little.

It is her voice that I remember above all else, a voice that had been scoured and rubbed raw by the arid winds of a long, harsh life; a life that had ruined her, but not broken her entirely. She sang me to sleep with those rasping prayers, or maybe sang herself to sleep, using them to evoke strange half-remembered dreams of an old discarded life. Her voice, no doubt grating and painful even to her own ears, was far from pleasant, but her prayers were the only lullabies a distended tumor of life like me had any right to hope for. I am grateful for that much, at least. After all, I slept soundly through those nights, plagued as they were by hunger and a thousand shades of deprivation. Such reckless ease is not something I’ve been able to repeat since; maybe I owe her prayers more credit than I’ve been giving them.

But one night was different. I woke with a start, which was strange. I don’t know why – maybe it was the first night I could hear the other world, or maybe it was the first night I was old enough to know the sound, to understand it on the level of complexity it demanded. Maybe it’s something you’re born into, or maybe he makes it so that only a few can hear it, only those he wants. It makes mistakes, sometimes, or at least I think so. I don’t know – I can’t remember; there’s something … but it’s almost gone.

I heard it, that’s what matters.

The music.

I can hear it now; I can remember it. It is the sweetest melody, humming and whistling at the same time, soaring through harsh, fiery notes of elation only to dip into the deep, lugubrious waters of melancholy. Even now, thinking about the pale imitation of it filtered through the haze of memory, my hands have begun to shake and I feel weak. It’s always changing, always molding into something new. I don’t even know if it is a sound at all – it’s more of a feeling, one that goes down deep inside you and fills up every empty corner you never knew was there.

I was ten that first night, or so I think. I woke in the middle of a pile of people just like me who had no skills or family ties and thus lived beneath the notice of those who strove for land or power. I don’t remember where we were then – I don’t even remember who “we” were; our group was protean by nature, fluctuating day by day – all I know is that we were in a field outside a town on a warm summer night, and when I heard the music I followed it; followed it away from the sleeping old woman, the wandering votaress that cared for me, who had ceased her prayers when sleep took her. I wonder now what became of her – I never saw her again.

I moved toward the forest that bordered the field, toward the trees where the sounds echoed, my careful silence temporarily forgotten. I shuffled forward, caught up in a waking dream, and stubbed my toe against a rock that cracked along a boulder and bounced against a tall, crumbling, dirt-and-stone wall that ended in a broken crag like some half-finished imitation of a mountain range. Some of the others stirred behind me, but I never even thought to turn around. My whole being was captivated, utterly entranced. I remember realizing that my cheeks were wet, realizing it in the distant way a dying man might realize his clothing is soaked with blood.

I had never cried until then. I don’t know why – my stoicism was unintentional, as far as I can remember – but I had never cried, not even when I was so hungry I could barely see straight. I had tried – a begging girl earns more with tears than words – but none had ever flowed.

Tears do not feed you; what is the use in shedding them?

I had discarded several weeks before the shabby foot-wrappings that had kept me alive through the snow of winter, and as I walked I felt the dirt between my toes as I left the edge of the town, felt a warm breeze against my bare lower legs. My feet scraped against rocks as I scrambled over the ruins of whatever wall had once encircled the town. It crumbling stones left a rough, chalky film on my skin, though I barely felt it at the time – the music was burning in my head, driving all thoughts and sensations away – but now it seems as clear as day. Bits of the world I was about to leave clinging to me, trying to hold me back.

No creature stirred in the field as I crossed it, making for the trees; the stars twinkled down at me, smiling, and the moon beamed full and ripe, like a fruit ready to be picked.

The world changed as I walked. My vision became simultaneously sharp and dim as the world I was in gave way to the world I was being pulled into, and between one step and the next the forest went from clear to fractured. I saw everything through sheets of color: violets and roses blossomed before my eyes in the light of the silver moon, highlighting the lower slopes of the gray-brown tree trunks before me. An arch made of vines – twisting, grasping tendrils – grew even as I watched, and through that arch came the sounds of the music from the depths of an inky blackness.

I should have been afraid, but the music was all I cared about, and maybe that’s its purpose. There was no thought left in my head but the inexorable draw of the sound, and I know now consciously what I knew then viscerally: I would reach the source of that melody no matter the cost.

The vines stretched for me, the thick skin of them a dark forest green that I had never known before, the color of primordial nature in contrast to the cultivated yellow-green of crops or the fresh teal of tame rivers. The air became crisp and invigorating, full of infused vitality and empty of the putrid backwash of humanity.

Words cannot express the depth of my surrender, nor the breadth of the music’s power. I didn’t know him then – didn’t even know it was a he who was pulling me – but, looking back, I can see his touch on all of it. He was one with that world in a way none of the others ever were, and he could command it because he was of it.

Serenity filled my mind as I stepped through the gateway.

I emerged in a forest the likes of which no living mortal has ever seen. I do not say such a thing in hyperbole – I say it in wonder, but with veracity. The whole world was bathed in moonlight, the source itself glowing in the sky, turning the hot, giddy gold of the sun into cool, serene silver. No wind blew, and no cloud obscured the violet night sky, scattered with stars beyond measure, visible through the reaching limbs of trees that threw their hands skyward in praise. My heart thundered in my ears as I walked through the landscape of a dream, my feet dragged inexorably forward by the siren call of the music rushing through my head, invading me.

The cool, dewy grass washed away the chalky residue of my former life that still clung to my bare and clumsy feet, and as it did something in me faltered, perhaps some final remnant of who I’d been. I turned back, ready to retreat, though not sure why. I had no home, no life back there, save for the comfort of the familiar.

I clapped my hands over my ears and tried to drown out the music, but it found its way through to me still, holding me, keeping me from moving. I had managed to turn just enough that I was looking back at the arch that I had come through, the moonlight playing beautifully off the gray stone that lay beneath the thick, encircling briars and vines. It had become hazy for some reason – I couldn’t understand it. My eyes were still watering though my tears had ceased to fall.

I blinked, and the arch was gone.

Nothing else about the forest had changed. It had to still be there – I know it still was – but I couldn’t see it, couldn’t make it out through the thicket of trees clogging the tunnel of my vision.

I scrubbed my palms over my eyelids, trying with all my might to focus back on the spot I knew I’d come from, but there was nothing there. My hands having left my ears, the music came back again, full force, and I felt myself turning back around, heading deeper into the forest, away from the edge of the two parallel worlds where the arch had stood. With each step, the thoughts of returning seemed to fade further and further away, until I couldn’t even remember why I was upset anymore.

All that mattered was the music.

I stumbled through the forest, going step by step with little thought. I remember only flashes of the journey, and nothing at all of how long it took or how far I went. The trees there were enormous, and made to seem even more so by the darkness, the music, and the moonlight shining down in brilliant silver shafts. There was a feel to that night in a way that I’ve not felt since – the night and those shadows that I ran through contained in them something beyond the realm of consciousness.

There are secret paths through the world that mortals are not meant to tread, and I was being blithely pulled through all of them.

My breath caught in my chest as I staggered into a run, compelled to move faster. I passed beneath towering trees, inhaling the clean scent of pine and air freshly washed with rain. My feet were cold from the dew that clung to the grass, and my hands and knees were skinned and raw from the times I’d tripped over the moss-covered limbs of the slumbering, arboreal giants that surrounded me. The air was thick and heavy, full of moisture, and I was breathing in huge gasps. A bead of sweat ran down my face, traced the line of my cheek, and fell, disappearing into the night.

I became aware of the others before they became aware of me. I heard them before I saw them – sounds of heavy bodies crashing through underbrush. I turned my head left and saw a young boy with black hair that glinted blue in the moonlight. He rushed past me without seeing me and I saw that he was wearing a set of well-sewn, embroidered clothing.

I ran after him, heading in the same direction, and from my right came another, this one a girl like me, with blonde hair tied back in a number of small tails. She was shorter than I, and fuller, and she ran gasping through the night, her eyes completely glazed over, staring straight ahead.

The music grew louder still, and I realized the three of us had become a group of five, then eight, then nine, then finally ten.

My lungs were seizing in my chest, and it felt as though hot knives had been shoved into my sides. My eyes could barely focus, and my body was shaking with desire to reach the source of the sound, to find the music maker.

We burst through a final thicket of branches, pushing them aside though they grabbed at our faces and hands, and stopped.

There was already too little air in my lungs, but what was left was pushed out in a wheezing rush. We had emerged in a clearing lined by a ring of ancient trees that speared the sky, all centered on a gnarled, twisted giant of wood, vines, and moss, growing up into the air to touch the sky, bisecting the distant moon and throwing light down around us in haphazard shards. Dozens of gnarled roots rose and fell throughout the clearing like minor hills; hundreds of thick branches, some so big around they looked like smaller trees themselves, flowed out and up from the trunk; thousands upon thousands of leaves that must have been larger than my entire body whispered in the midsummer breeze. It went up and up and up, so high that I couldn’t comprehend it, looking as though it yearned to embrace the sky.

Lights flickered from between the branches and in the trunk itself, lights that glowed blue and silver like captured stars. I stumbled forward, and the lights resolved into colored windows, behind which oddly pale fires had been lit. There was movement too – movement all around us now, and I realized we were far from alone. There were hundreds of figures, forms, and shapes, and all of them hidden by the shadows of the giant tree. They were gathered among its roots, in the tiny hills and valleys they created, and inside the tree as well. As we approached, the gathered figures began to shift and murmur to each other in tongues I did not know. They sounded like sea and wind and settling earth.

We were compelled down the center path the roots had made, a wavy but unbroken line. A strange flickering silver light came from behind those watching us, and though we could see outlines we could not see more. In the minds of younglings as we were, terror warred with wonder at the sight. Huge figures with arms as thick as tree trunks lined the walk, watching us from an enormous height. Others, smaller, flitting back and forth, seemed to hiss as we passed, like cats warning off intruders; and still more, in various shapes and sizes, all watching us, humming and singing and murmuring to each other. I wanted to scream and run, but found I couldn’t.

The tree continued to grow in our vision as we approached, and I felt as though we were floating toward it. My feet had gone completely numb from the chill of the dew, even though the air here was hot and humid. Before us yawned a mouth that led straight into the heart of the ancient tree, and through it could be seen an enormous hall, lined with rows and rows of tables and silver fires burning in metal braziers.

We crossed the threshold into the tree, and I was able to pull away just long enough to look back over my shoulder. The figures that we had seen outside had followed us, our group of ten, and there was no way back through them, if there had ever been one. I stumbled, and a figure caught me before pushing me away as though I’d burned her. I caught her eye, and saw that her pupils were slit long-ways like a cat’s and that her skin was a yellow-green.

The touch of the living tree was warm, and within the first few steps my feet thawed enough to sense the smoothness of the wood. The grains flowed perfectly, like tiny frozen rivulets.

We moved into the center of the hall, now completely encircled. What I had taken for a shining star at the end f the hall was instead a throne covered with gemstones that reflected the silver light of the fires. There were so many stones that the throne seemed to drip with them, glinting like water as the flames flickered and cast moving rays of light through the shining seat.

And on this throne was a man.

His flowing hair was bronze with silver streaks that reflected the light of the moon that streamed outside, and he wore layers of black and green that made him look like a piece of the forest that had come to life. On his head he wore a crown of silver leaves that glowed with an eerie luminescence. I felt more than saw the other children drop their gaze, blinded by the brilliance, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away. The music died down to a low background hum, and a solemn silence descended. I looked around, suddenly aware enough and able enough to turn my head. I saw figures moving across the smooth wood floor, illuminated by the silver fires, and my heart lurched out of rhythm, shocked into missing a beat.

None of them were human.

The first impressions I had were of creatures out of children’s tales, but not the kinds with happy endings. These creatures were from the darker stories, the ones told on the nights so cold that there was no sleep and the fire gave not a shred of warmth. Grim figures, full of strangeness, and all so wondrous that I couldn’t take them in. Some looked as if they’d come straight from the ground, with vines and dirt wrapped around themselves and skin that shone a pale green even in the strange light. Others were thick and wide and moved with the unconscious fortitude that belied power both enormous and careless. Still more seemed to flit from place to place, grinning through mouths full of needle-sharp teeth that clashed and clinked against each other. And there were more, almost beyond count, all watching us, all following us with eyes we couldn’t see, eyes that hid in the darkness.

My contemplation of the lower denizens of the court came to an abrupt end when the man who sat the throne above them stood, unfolding himself to his full height. He moved like he looked – a wild thing, with only an external gloss of cultivation that kept him from appearing savage. Moonlight rode on his brow, and the unpredictability of wind and rain infused his gray-green eyes with chaotic life.

“Welcome to my Bower,” he said, in a voice like falling leaves.

 

 

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Oberon's Children