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air is still (in the fading light)

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No one has taken that path in many a year.

Indeed? So you do see that.

Ah, then you must know why.

In the lands where there used to be a kingdom, where only the blue-bugs fly now, there is a tree. The ancient kingdom had more than one tree, but I speak of the tree that stands in the valley where the blood of Tordi Rivercatcher was spilt.

That tree is older than most things. It is older than the split in the king's throne, older than the Eligor Ravine. There was always wind in the valley. And the tree was alone, for the most part. It liked it that way.

It is a tree, but it is an old tree, and the old trees are wise, in those lands.

Yes. In fact, wiser than you or I. This tree is older than any in this kingdom, but the singing tree in the Courtyard of Mages is nearly as grand. Never as wise; it can barely take requests.

What kind of tree? It is an oak, I suppose. I've never really thought of it before.

Not many travel there anymore, not for any reason. But a wise, old tree can kill or heal better than most physicians, and the buds of the trees are silver, silver as Tordi Rivercatcher's eyes, and when the wild winds run through them, they ring like bells. They are precious things, to be hung in protection on your breast. They turn to dust near sickness, and the powder is effective for eye maladies. Never eaten, except when death is the best option.

And after a time, a mage was born. Not in--well, yes--but the valley would be the last place anyone would ever hear of Gharce. Yes, it is that valley. This is one of those trees.

You know will the curse of Gharce, and that poor soul's last friends were the silver bells.

The oak was not in season when the mage came calling, but Gharce had told it their story. And the oak took pity upon them, but silver bells are valued, relics even then as they are now. There is something about the magic in that valley and the age of that tree, perhaps.

Gharce asked the oak: "Are you the only of your kind?"

The oak replied: "Can you see the valley around me? Nothing but the remains of the field and the occasional bird passing by." Then, after a span of tree's contemplation: "I believe so."

"Do you fear death?"

"Fear, no. But not even a tree likes to think about death."

"If," Gharce wondered. "If there were those who would do you ill, could you protect yourself?"

There was silence, perhaps, or a rustle of leaves.

"Very well," the mage declared. "I might have something to fix that. And it may be a boon for your loneliness."

And so the mage reached into their pocket and produced a seed and planted it.

At first, the oak did not know what to make of this; the mage said it had given it a boon, to ease its loneliness, but mages are capricious. There is not much magic in that valley, not since Tordi Rivercatcher fought with his armies of shades and the feathers of the archon littered the valley. Magic, I'm sure I don't have to tell you, demands much of its users, and it does not live in such places for very long without change.

The tree soon saw that the first sprouts upon its roots were close upon it. It said: "You will be the death of me."

And the sproutling did not reply.

On its second season, the tree said again: "You will be the death of me," for it was still upon the tree's roots, and it, in time, could have threatened to creep upon the tree like a common ivy or moss.

Again, it did not reply. Not all plants are wise, and quite a few will never be wise. The tree did not think this was the answer to its loneliness at all, for even trees die, and they die slowly and painfully.

On the third season since its planting, the sprout had shifted, and it asked, "What is the matter?"

And the oak did not know how to reply. Except: "Do you see how close you creep?"

And trees grow slowly, but they see far into the future. The sproutling said: "I could dare go closer."

"Perhaps." The oak did not know why it agreed, but it did not regret things, as trees do not regret, and it was only near its far roots anyway. There was land in the valley and sun and rain.

A conversation between trees may span years, and so theirs did. The oak spoke of history. The ash, for it is an ash, spoke of magic.

"What sort of being are you," the oak asked, even as it spoke of the mage that planted the ash.

"Of magic and of potential," the ash said. "I suppose you'll learn as I do."

Magic did not survive well in the valley, the oak thought, but it did not say, not when there was much to draw from, and even ancestral memory could not create magic out of nothing.

Do not ask me how trees learn. They are wise, and I am not.

The roots of the ash entwined with that of the oak. And the oak did not mind, not when it was watching life take root in a valley the birds only visited and nary another being came to talk to it.

And the ash grew for many seasons, and in that valley, there are few visitors, even now, as I have said. It outgrew its green and gained its color. Its trunk was light yellow. Its leaves were pale, to which the oak commented: "More magic or more sun? I cannot give you either."

"It is not a matter to worry." The ash rustled, and its roots were well-situated. "I promise."

In the fall, they shimmered golden. "For verity," the ash said, and for a while, it was their own private joke. "Not sickliness."

The oak rustled its bells, and the clear sound was as fond as any there ever was.

Yes, there were a few seekers, like yourself. But the location of the valley was a secret or a forgotten fact at this time. Maybe for good reason. Maybe not; have you seen the price of an intact bell?

No harm comes to that valley.

The only ones who have ever tried--well. The oak was in flower, laden with bells. The ash was shining softly. In that winter, as winter is wont to come, its buds were black. "It is nothing to worry about," the ash assured. And indeed, there was not. There are fewer things as maddening as the truth, and magic does not have much patience nor gentleness. Mages are all a bit mad, and they eased into understanding, but even the occasional bird was affected by these. Each was a tiny source of magic, and many were confused upon nearing them. Of people, it is said that each person is confronted with their true self before nearing the ash.

"Verity," the ash said. "Especially that of magic, that is its own shield."

And the oak worried not about opportunists for many a year.

And so, there are two in that kingdom now; one silver and one golden. Outkingdom, some may call these the Trees of Life and Death, but they are nothing so grandiose. I would not greet them as such.

Only a few know their true names. I do not claim to be one of those.

Well, I suppose you ask, my dear.

And it was under those two trees that Osðryd took shelter when she left the court of Rearric the Dawn upon his passing, and it was there that she spent four days mastering the call of the bird, the howl of the coyote, and the steps of the fieldmouse. She nestled in the roots of the oak, who spoke to her, as sometimes trees do. Very few people listen, of course, but Osðryd had a knack for--

Ah, you know this story.

Of course. You have your mother's ears.

She sought succor, and they sheltered her from the war and the turmoil. Trees are not kind, nor are they unkind, but they exacted from her a promise; I don't have to tell you what she promised. You know. And she swore upon the bark of the ash, and to this day, swearing on that wood is traditional. She swore by blood and magics, and she thanked the trees before she returned to the outside world.

Before she left, the oak gifted her a branch of bells, small and perfectly formed, and the ash had nothing but its buds to give, and so it did, a dozen of them, tiny capsules of magic. She attempted to refuse, but the ash told her: "Take these gifts, for you have sworn to and by me. Keep your promise, and all will be well."

Osðryd returned twice to that valley. Once to give birth and once to give mercy, but upon her first return:

The oak had worried that its companion was quick-growing and fast-dying, and it grew morose. It grew silent in those interim years.

The ash had not answered it in quite some time, though it still budded black and flowered subtly.

The oak implored Osðryd. It feared for its companion.

And Osðryd paled, for she knew she had not quite lived up to her promise, and that she had felt a pull toward the valley for many a year. She begged forgiveness. It was not an impossible thing she promised, but she had not lived up to her entire word.

The oak remained silent, and the bell she wore across her collarbone grew cold as ice.

Osðryd sang a song of growth and loss and of rebirth and change. She sang songs of emotion for two days, and the magics she took with her from the valley those years before began to drain. She had but the single bell as memento left, the others given as payment, as barter, as amulet to heroes. And a mage had told her once to drink the black buds in a tea or to crush them in times of aid.

There are fewer sources of magic so pure and excess as a birth of a mage. Osðryd bound her bloodline to that valley that day, to that ash twice-over.

They forgave her, eventually. The ash easier than the oak.

Yes. A seed and cutting from each, with instructions. For you know, trees haven't any hands, and while the magic in the valley could support them, there would be no others.

That's exactly where it stands today. Have you seen it?

Wondrous thing. In the summer, it smells like rain, and in the winter, it flowers. Small white flowers. I'm told they make a good tea.

Children quite like them in charms. Golden sparks, of course.

So you too shall seek these, young sparrow. A finger-length strip of golden bark of the ash and three silver buds of the flowering oak, no more, no less. And you know where to go, you said?

No need to ask me for guidance; blessed be thy journey, and blessed be thy union.