After a moment of shocked silence, everyone laughed a thank God no one got hurt kind of laugh. Badl’s branch was gone, but Badl stayed good about it. They had plenty of fallen lumber around to make another club. Flern called to her sword and expected it to vacate the tree and fly back to her hand. Like Thor’s hammer, the sword and long knife of the Kairos always returned to the hand when called. But this time, though the sword wiggled, it stayed stuck.
“You must have really done something,” Laurel decided, and looked big eyed at her lady. Flern just frowned a little and stepped up to the tree. She grabbed the hilt of the sword and pulled. It came out a few inches, but then got pulled in again, deeper than before.
“That’s odd,” Badl said
“Someone is fighting you,” Moriah added
“Maybe the Giant?” Elleya suggested.
Wlkn swallowed. “Or maybe the god with the Titan.”
“Loki?” Flern shook her head. When it came to something serious, Loki did not play games.
“Maybe the tree.” Laurel whispered her suspicions and on the mention of it, Badl readily agreed, and Moriah agreed with him, though she was honestly just being agreeable.
“Maybe it’s the tree,” Badl said.
“Oh.” Flern had not considered that.
“Don’t be silly,” Andrea said. “Trees aren’t alive, at least not like that.” And Wlkn and Elleya were inclined to side with her, so the group appeared to be evenly divided. Flern took a step back.
“My apologies Mister Oak,” she said. “This was not intentional. I deeply regret if I caused you any injury.” She paused, and after a time of silence, there came a response.
“I should think an apology is the least you could do. You nearly cut one of my main arteries.”
“I am sorry. I am just a beginner,” Flern said, and she looked sad to think she may have really hurt something.
“You have obviously not made a very good beginning,” the tree said.
“Yes, but that is what I keep trying to tell everyone. I can’t do this. I don’t have it in me to hurt anyone or see them hurt.” Flern found a few tears. Silence followed for another minute before the tree spoke again.
“There, there. No real harm done.” The Dryad came out from within the tree. He stood about eight feet tall and still looked like a tree, but in a human form, with a bark covered but relatively human face. He held the sword in his hands. “Here. Clearly you need practice. That is all it should take.” He handed back the sword and Flern immediately put it away. “I tell my acorns all the time that you must plant your roots deep if you wish to grow tall and strong.”
“Thank you, sir.” Flern wiped her nose on her sleeve. “You are very kind.”
“Think nothing of it,” the tree said, and thus began an hour of company that no one expected. It became a most pleasant lunch, so much so that Andrea, of all people, asked the tree if he would like to travel with them.
“No.” The tree responded honestly. “I thank you for the invitation, but the forest is where I am rooted and where I will stay.” After that, they said goodbye and moved along, and Flern thought of herself as a lucky girl to have gotten out of sword practice that whole time.
In the afternoon, Laurel moved up to ride beside Badl and Moriah. Flern suspected that Laurel began to realize that Moriah might really be a very nice person, but on the surface, she needed to be in front because Badl sometimes seemed unsure about the way. This hill country, the foothills of the mountains, had real hills that were tall enough, so they had to wind their way around and through them, rather than going over them. The ice and snow covered the tops.
After an hour, they began to move away from the mountains, and when Wlkn asked, he got told that the hills became very rocky ahead and full of earth slides and narrow ledges that would be very hard for the horses. They needed to go around that part to reach the Prt River, and then after that came the River Swr, and one village they could not avoid because it lay at the foot of the mountain pass.
Andrea moved up that afternoon to ride beside Flern, and they got to know each other a little better. Andrea did not appear to mind Flern as she had minded Wlvn.
“Of course, I am still not going to marry you,” Andrea said with a grin. “I don’t go that way.”
“Me neither,” Flern said. “That’s just what Ydunna said.”
“The goddess?” Andrea’s eyes got big at the thought, but she started adjusting in her mind to this new land and a whole new set of gods and goddesses, and she probably did not even realize it. Flern just nodded, and Andrea let out a little of that healthy, but nervous laughter. “What is it with you? Every time I turn around you are talking with the gods, cavorting with elves and dwarfs, and them bowing to you like you are some sort of goddess yourself, you are flying and tossing men through the air like they are just little pebbles or something. It is always something; but then I just spent an hour talking to a very nice tree, so what do I know?”
“But that wasn’t me, mostly,” Flern said. “I just got here.”
“Wlvn the man or Flern the woman, it is still just you, and I am not just saying that because you look like him. You can change to a hundred different people, change your appearance and everything, and it will still just be you, the same you as it has been all along.”
That was not entirely true. She was not just the same person living different lives like photocopies of herself. She felt more like different persons in time, with different personalities and upbringings and everything. Clearly, she might be the same consciousness, the same spirit if you will, and maybe she shared the same basic genetic code, the nature part of her seemed nearly identical, outside of some cosmetic changes, and the male-female thing of course, but the nurture part, all of her upbringing, her family, her culture, language and everything was always different, and sometimes radically different. Still, it felt insightful on the part of Andrea, and Flern told her so.
Suddenly, Badl stopped. Moriah looked back while they all stopped. Laurel put her hand down toward her bow, but she did not draw it up. Flern and Andrea heard the distant male voice grow louder as the man came closer.
“Almighty Perun was my grandfather, the god of all the righteous. Vashti the spring was my grandmother who fills the world with life and love. My father was the mighty man whose voice made the mountains tremble, and my mother is the sun, the moon and the stars. Her paps are the great hills of Mara on which I suck my daily milk. And I am the meanest, biggest, strongest man the world has ever seen. I am so big I can stand on the hills and piss into the sea. I turn the rivers yellow with my stream. I am so tall I can sit on the mountain and dangle my feet in the deepest valley. I am so strong I can wrestle the bear and win three out of three falls. I rip the sapling from its roots for my toothpick, and I grab the wild boar for my hairbrush. Women tremble and throw themselves at my feet. Men tremble and get out of my way.” The man came out from the trees, and he certainly looked tall, being well over six feet tall by Flern’s estimate, and broad, though it appeared hard to tell how broad he actually might be given the bear skin coat he wore against the cold. “And here I am, little people, to be your guide through the mountains and beyond. Sweet ladies.” He tipped his beaver hat. “And you men, are you not afraid to cast your eyes on my greatness?”