"Elinora was the light and love of our lives. It was a mercy for Viktor that he Passed before she did, and a curse for me that I didn't." Countess Amelia wore an expression of deep contemplation and even deeper sorrow. "To see such joy and beauty ended before its time is a tragic thing in any case, but for a parent it is the worst kind of agony."
Dreamer Merrik Trammer interrupted her. "Your grief is understandable, Countess, but surely you know that both your beloved husband and your daughter have come to no end. It is well to miss them, but bear in mind that they await you in The Dream."
"I'm well aware of your teachings, Master Dreamer."
"You have doubts?"
"At my age one begins to doubt everything – even one's own mind. Whatever awaits us all on the other side of Sleep, those of us still in the Waking World are probably deeply ignorant of it."
"We are all ignorant until Morpheus guides us to The Dream."
"So say you and your former brethren." Her special emphasis on the word former elicited a slight widening of Trammer's eyes. "However, if you'd allow me to finish, I think we'll come to some understanding."
"Forgive my interruption," he said solemnly. "Please continue." The Dreamer closed his eyes and concentrated on her words.
"As Owerst Nandliss indicated, my Viktor Passed in battle nineteen years ago. Elinora was only seven at the time, but she'd already learned her father's love of nature. She loved horses most especially. From the age of three she sat a horse more confidently than she could walk. The two of them would spend hours riding together, visiting other estates, or seeking out quiet places for picnics. Her favorite place to explore was the Willow Wood."
"I remember one evening when she and Viktor came back from that accursed place very late – after Sol had gone to sleep and the darkness had come – she was so excited to have discovered a faerie circle. The two of them had hidden in a hollow nearby and waited for the pixies to come out and play. For days afterward she spoke of nothing but how beautiful they had been dancing in the moonlight to the music they made with the crickets. Oh mommy, she would tell me, you should have seen their graceful dancing."
"After her father died, she was never the same." The guests all winced at her use of the word died. It was a word that was rarely used of people, and never in polite company. In the minds of some talk of that sort bordered on heresy. In her youth, the Countess would never have used such impolite words, but now she savored them: dead, killed, piss, war, fuck and damned. Such words were direct and to the point. She hadn't time to spare in talking around a subject just because someone's delicate ears might take offense. Of course, she didn't use such words lightly – only when they served her better than other words.
"If anything, Elinora grieved even worse than I did. She never knew of her father's faults and so, to her, he was the perfect man. It was nearly a year before she rode again, but she took back to it as though she'd never left the saddle. Within a couple of years, she began taking these two with her on her expeditions – as soon as they were old enough to ride on their own, really. Of course I always insisted that Rikard go with them, as he was older than Elinora by a year. He was always a trustworthy boy in those days."
This time it was Elinge that interrupted. "You say that as if you believe him to be less than trustworthy now."
"Well, that wasn't my meaning, I suppose, but he's known loss, too. So much loss does something to a man. I don't expect he'd ever allow any of us to come to harm, but he's not as dependable as he once was. He doesn't think I know it, but he drinks too much and he's prone to laziness if not minded."
"How did he come into your service?"
"His mother, Livinia, was my maidservant. She was in my service before I married Viktor, and she came to the manor with me."
"Where is Livinia now?"
"She Passed into The Dream the same year as Elinora. She was still young – only thirty-eight – and Rikard was only fourteen."
"Who is his father?"
"You ask too many irrelevant questions, Mistress Froske. As it happens no one knows the answer to that one. Livinia never revealed his precise identity – only that he was a merchant's guard she'd met at a tavern. It seems she'd drunk too much and didn't take care with whom she kept company at times. That sort of behavior runs in the blood, you know. That's why Rikard's becoming such a layabout, no doubt."
"Please forgive me if I've offended, Countess. Curiosity is in my nature, as you are undoubtedly aware. I don't expect you'd have sent for me otherwise."
"You are correct that I hope your curious nature will be of some use. I'll explain why later."
"I didn't like Elinora going into the Willow Wood, but there was simply no keeping her from it. On one occassion they brought back a number of rusted iron arrow heads and axe heads. It seems they'd discovered the ground where the Orgish raiders had been beaten back by Viktor and his men."
"Another time they found the remains of the camp where the twins were found."
At this, Jessa and Jens, who had been paying little attention suddenly sat a little straighter in their seats. The topic of their origins was rarely discussed in the manor – no matter how often they asked about it.
"That's right, you two," continued Amelia. "Pay attention now, because I don't like discussing these things. It was Livinia who found the twins. This was just a year before Viktor's battle in the wood – when the Orgish uprising was just beginning. As you may know, the whole conflict began with raids into Palonian territory from the Grey Mountains to the north. This being one of the outlying estates, and as one of the main trade routes of the time ran along the western edge of the Willow Wood, we were subjected to some of the first raids. Before we'd come to realize the extent of Orgish plans, we still felt safe in traveling alone or in small groups around the estate and into Lunelton – that's the village you passed through on your way here from Ayrst."
"One day Livinia and Rikard had been in the village, no doubt on one of her dalliances in the Black Horse or some such disreputable place – I never understood why she'd take her boy with her on these trips – when she came upon a terrible scene. There was a merchant's train that must have pulled off into the wood a little ways for a campsite that night, and had been attacked. She said that everyone at the scene had been killed and the wagons burned. Poor little Rikard was traumatized by the scene, no doubt, but he was the one that heard the babes crying. Apparently the children's mother had hidden them not too far from the campsite. It's a wonder the raiders hadn't discovered them."
"She said they'd been curled up together in a hollow tree stump. They looked half starved and were crying out for their mother. Livinia brought them home with her."
"We never discovered who their parents had been, nor could we find anyone who knew anything about the caravan. Judging by their size at their current age – this was twenty years ago – they must have been from some foreign land where the people don't grow as tall as we do here. Or perhaps they were malnourished through their earliest years, or the trauma stunted their growth. I don't recall Livinia ever mentioning the bodies being of small stature, but I don't suppose she took the time to examine them too closely."
"We raised the children here, as they'd nowhere else to go, and we feared they'd not do well in an orphanage. Besides, they took to Elinora like she was their older sister. She used to call them My Little Pixies, and she treated them as though she were their natural mother."
"Viktor took to them immediately, but I was a leery of growing too close, at first. I had hoped for their sakes that some relatives would be found. But as time passed, I came to love them as my own children."
"Of course, it was only a year later that Viktor Passed. Do either of you have any memories of him now?"
Jens said, "I remember you and he took care of us. He showed us how to catch fish from the river, I remember that. But we were very young, so that's about all."
"I remember he was very big and strong," began Jessa. "He used to ride us on his shoulders, and would give us sweets sometimes when Livinia wasn't looking too close. And I remember going fishing, too."
"Yes, the two of you were very young," continued the Countess. "Four or five years old, we expected – though considering your size now, it's difficult to be certain. What do you remember of my daughter?"
"Oh, we loved Elinora, didn't we Jens?" Jens nodded agreement with his sister, who continued: "We'd play together in the fields, and then she taught us to ride. She especially loved to explore in the woods, though that sometimes scared Rikard. He was always telling us it was dangerous in there, though we never came to any harm, so I don't-"
Countess Amelia interrupted Jessa then, a sharp tone in her voice. "You two never came to any harm, but Elinora certainly did!"
Jessa lowered her head. "Yes, ma'am. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to say-"
"I don't suppose you did. But you look to have finished your pudding, so go up and wash for bed now, both of you."
"But, we want to hear more stories, ma'am," said Jens. "We promise to be quiet."
Jessa joined in, "Please let us hear more. I'll even help Nansi with cleaning up."
"No," came the response. "To bed with both of you. I'll not hear another word about it."
The twins stood up and pushed their chairs back in place. They left through the kitchen doors.
Once the twins were gone, the Countess began again. "Now I'll tell you of my dream."
"It began as many of my dreams do: Viktor and I were dancing. The time and place changed, as in the manner of dreams. One moment I believed it was our wedding, and another it was a festival. One moment we danced in a crowd, and the next we were alone."
"Early in the dream he spoke to me, but his utterances were merely sweet nothings. He had a silver tongue, my Count. Between that and his charming smile, there were few in the world who could ever deny him anything."
"It was later in the dream, when we were suddenly dancing on the lawn behind the manor, that he began to speak in a way that he sometimes does in my dreams: in a way which leads me to believe that he is not only watching me from The Dream, but somehow is able to speak to me in my own dreams."
The Countess noted the unease with which Master Trammer sat in his chair. "Some of this will make you uncomfortable, Dreamer, but it is truth I speak. And it was not so long ago that your very brethren would not have been so edgy around such talk. I've read my history."
Trammer responded: "I should be careful discussing any books with that sort of knowledge so openly. The Temple has issued strict orders that the ecclesiastical histories of the Old Gods are to be removed-"
"Calm yourself, Master Trammer," said Elinge. "I think the Countess is quite safe here in her own home. She's hand picked her company for this evening, and I suspect she wouldn't risk such talk if she believed any of us were the type to go running to the Temple of The Invincible Light with tales of heresy."
"Quite so," replied the Countess. "As my Count used to say: 'Faith has its place, but it is not in restricting thought or reason. They must have their places too.'"
"Well," replied Trammer, "I have my own reasons for being cautious. I expect you know my history, Countess?"
"Indeed, I do. This is why you were among those chosen. And you may call me Amelia – all of you. I wish this to be a meeting of friends, and as I said, I don't much stand on ceremony here – at least not any longer."
The company nodded their agreement. Only Owerst Nandliss stiffened a bit at Amelia's suggestion.
"Please, Amelia," offered Elinge, "do continue."
"The reason I persist in beliefs which make our dear Dreamer so nervous, is that sometimes Viktor speaks to me of things that are in no way on my own mind. As such, it is unlikely that I've dreamed up such things for him to say."
Nandliss broke in himself at this point. "I take it you've read the essays of Doctor Jehltsen of Ehronia? He claims to have evidence that ordinary dreams come to us from our own minds rather than as gifts of the Oneiroi." After registering the look of shock on the Dreamer's face, he added, "Of course, they'll allow all manner of heresy to be discussed openly in Ehronia. I'm sure the Countess didn't mean to imply she believes their nonsense."
"Oh, but that is precisely what I mean." Amelia smiled broadly. "I believe Doctor Jehltsen is entirely correct, but not so far as he goes. His work seems to have as its mission to discount the need for any of the Old Gods, and I suspect his ultimate aim may be to disprove any gods at all."
"However, Master Trammer," she said, as the Dreamer began to choke from surprise, "I believe he goes too far, and will likely find himself on a witch pyre, should he publicly make such a claim. Even the Ehronians have their limits, I suspect. Nor would I support such a claim."
"It is my belief that he is right as far as run-of-the-mill dreams go. However, I believe Morpheus may send his Oneiroi to gift us with special dreams – dreams which may carry messages for us in the Waking. And I believe the dream which I'm describing to you now is just such a one."
The others sat in silence. Amelia was unsure whether they were shocked by her words, or merely interested to hear what else she had to say, so she picked up her story.
"Viktor asked after the twins. He told me there was danger surrounding them. He then told me to remember Elinora. Suddenly, I felt myself transported into the Willow Wood. Although I have spent very little time in that place in my life, and I've never gone back in since Elinora's Passing, everything about it seemed so very vivid. So much so, in fact, that for a time I forgot that I was safe asleep in my bed."
"I heard the beating of a horse's hooves on soft ground. When I turned, I saw Elinora in the distance. She was laughing and riding Zephyr – she was her favorite mare, and the one she rode the day of her accident. She approached me quickly: riding far too fast for such precarious ground."
"You are of course, familiar with Willow trees and how their roots twist and wind and create traps for the unwary traveler, yes?"
"Oh yes," Nandliss nodded. "And as they grow best on wet ground, the earth often washes away from under the roots. One must always take care when riding where Willows grow."
"Yes. And my Elinora knew this." Her eyes grew misty at the thought of her dream, and the day of which it reminded her. "But sometimes she was too free in spirit. Oh, how she did love to ride, and the faster the better. Zephyr truly matched her temperament, too. That horse loved to run as much as she loved to ride."
"I tried to wave her down; to catch her attention. But she ignored me, just as she had on that fateful day. As she passed me, she leaned her head back and her peals of laughter echoed throughout the wood."
"I gave chase, but it was of no use. The harder I tried to run, the more slowly I moved. I looked down and saw that roots and vines were growing about my legs. I pulled and strained against them, but as soon as I tore some of the tendrils, more grew in their place. I screamed with all my might for Elinora to stop, but she was paying me no attention whatsoever: a tizzy of fairies had formed above her head, and she was reaching out to them, no longer minding the reins at all. She called out to me, 'Oh look mommy! The Pixies have come back!'"
"And suddenly Zephyr tripped on the root, just as she had in Waking life thirteen years ago. Elinora flew out of her saddle as the horse tripped and collapsed, her forelegs making a sickening snap – I'll never forget that sound for as long as I live." Amelia shuddered at the memory. She dabbed at the corners of her eyes with a silk kerchief which she had drawn from her sleeve and held a closed fist to her mouth.
Elinge rose from her chair and then knelt beside her. "Amelia, please. This is clearly difficult for you to recount. Let me send for some water."
"No. I just need a moment ... and perhaps another glass of wine." She took a deep breath before calling out, "Rikard! Where are you, Rikard?"
The manservant bustled in from the kitchen, red-faced and flustered. "Yes, Countess?"
"Please fill all our glasses, and then go to the cellar and find a bottle – no, two bottles – of Viktor's best wine. I believe we still have several of the Mayrand White of 752."
"Madam? Are you sure you want to bring that out? Its value-"
"I said to bring it! There's no telling how much longer I'll be around to enjoy it, and I may as well enjoy it and share it with the few friends I have left."
Rikard served them what was left of the bottle he had on hand, as Elinge retook her seat. He then bowed his exit.
The Countess raised her glass in a toast, "To happier times past, and to making new friends."
The company saluted and drained their glasses in unison.
"Well, I may as well finish with this dream-tale now." Amelia took another deep breath as she sat her glass to one side.
"Once Elinora lay on the ground, the vegetation let me go. I screamed and ran for her, much as I had all those years ago. I picked her up in my arms. There was blood pouring down the left side of her face. She was limp, but still breathing."
"And then a shadow passed overhead. I looked up, and the sky was turning blacker than any night – moonless and starless. A shadowy hand reached down and caressed Elinora's bleeding head. Her eyes opened, and she looked at me. Her voice was quiet and hollow, and I could barely understand the words."
"'Mommy,' she said, '"You missed them – the fairies. They were so beautiful and they danced so gracefully. And for a moment, they showed me how to fly.'"
"And then her voice changed, and her eyes grew a glassy, far-away look in them, as though she was speaking to the world in general, and barely registered my presence at all. She sounded as though she were speaking with three voices: her own, Viktor's, and another deeper voice. She said, 'Beware the willow and the ash.'"
"And then I woke up."
The company sat in silence for a few minutes while the Countess Amelia composed herself. Rikard returned with two ancient looking brown glass bottles with a faded label on each bearing the blue dragon insignia of the Mayrands – the current royal family of Palonias, whose wineries were known as one of the finest in this or any of the surrounding countries. He popped the cork on the first one and filled their glasses yet again.
"Rikard, if you would, please, open the other bottle now. You may take the first one and share what's remaining with Nansi. You are both relieved for the evening. You can clean up tomorrow. I expect my guests and I may be up late, and there's no need for the two of you to lose sleep over our affairs. Oh, and see to it that the twins are abed."
Rikard did as instructed, and bowed. He left them alone again, this time smiling at the half-full bottle in his hand.
Mr. Insel was the first to speak: "I expect that's why you're having so many trees cut. You're culling the willow and the ash trees?"
"Not only that," she replied. "I'm destroying he whole forest. We'll cut the better trees for lumber and sell them off, but anything that's unsuited will be hacked and burnt. I know how prophecies work – how unpredictable they can be – and I'm taking no chances."
"You believe your dream to be prophetic, then?" asked Merrik Trammer. "It seems to me if it spoke to you about anything, it was the past."
"You are correct, Master Dreamer, but I believe the warning at the end was a warning for the future. After all, the voice said to beware, not that I should have been wary."
Mr. Insel broke in then. "If you don't mind my asking, Madam LaDuce ... what has any of this to do with us? I mean to say, I expect you have a reason for sending for us. The Dreamer I understand: you're hoping with help in interpreting your vision. Owerst Nandless is a skilled tracker, so I expect you want him to search the wood for anything threatening."
The Countess nodded. "Yes, Mr. Insel, precisely so."
"But then," he continued, "that doesn't explain what you'd want with Miss Froske or myself. Unless there's something you haven't told us."
"There is at that, Mr. Insel. Very astute of you to notice."