Interlude I of IX

Childe Rider to the Farthest Tree Came

Author: Rip van Mason

In the hills of Scir Llellod on the borders of the Walking Fields, twenty yards within the limit circumscribed by the ancient stone wall generally accepted to mark the Outside, there is a copse of immense trees, surrounding a hollow tree immense beyond meaningful description. Its branches are sufficiently wide that they have been hollowed into homes for various peculiar characters, and its height is such that those few scholars specialising in the Walking Fields believe it reaches into the Low Outside.

Two mounted figures met in the clear between the copse and the trees. The first, a youth with perfect hair, dressed in a fuligin school uniform with an unknown dragon crest, rides his pearlescent horse through the small gate in the stone wall and canters towards the trees. The second, a squat round-headed figure in baroque and shimmering armour mounted upon an exceedingly irate badger, blocks his path.

The young student clears his throat, and turns his eyes (filled, of course, with night and falling stars) on the squat armoured figure mounted upon a badger.

“Good morning, sir. What seems to be the trouble?”

“I am the defender and champion here. Step forth and be accounted for, Rider.”

“I mean no harm, sir. I am a student of the world, I feel, but I must confess in all frankness that little else seems clear.”

“Your reason for this entrance into the province of the Sylveran Queen? And your name, sir?”

“My name is… secret, or perhaps lost. I can be called the Prince of Ghosts. My business is to pursue my studies, judging from both attire and inclination.”

“Ah, then you are one of the Sixteen Fulcrums of whom prophecy speaks. You have my congratulations and my sympathies. Though less exalted in rank, I too have no name to give, though am called by some the Day-Moon Knight, Sir Round-of-Face or the Shield against the Dark. As befits the rules of hospitality betwixt Seelie and Unseelie courts, you will be kept safe while you parley with the Queen.”

“I am gladdened to hear that hospitality will be recognised even in these times of want and confoundment, as your armour seems most durant and I want no taste of your mount’s wrath. May I see your queen?”

The Lady Fair leaned upon a balcony of the Once-Verdant Fortress (as her rarefied level of the vast tree was known) and airily watched her guest ascend the bough.

She considered her fortune with a frigid detachment. Once, she had been as the other agrarian spirits of the Fields, if perhaps grander in status - fertile, innocently licentious, bawdy and shy in season, and passionate without limit. Now, she was distinct in her transition from waking to dream, frozen with an eerie clarity of vision, acutely feeling only her own unfeeling, aware of her lethargic indifference to the dissolution and ascension from dryad to sidhe. Her tree, which is to say her soul, had become fey.

She had styled herself Queen of the Farthest Tree, a title no more or less pretentious that expected from one of the sidhe. She expanded her embrace to encompass the changelings, great heroes, ancient nightmares, shadowy sorcerers and minor gods that had petitioned to become her subjects and reside in her branches, and wondered if she could ever actually care for them as she had once cared for the owls and squirrels that shared her home. Of those former inhabitants, only the snow-white owl perched beside her remained, and it was as dream-like and wyrd as she.

“You come as guest, beautiful prince with darkling eyes, and receive my protection as you learn the arts of my subjects.”

The young man adjusts his tie and kneels.

“My thanks, oh queen of air and darkness.”

She smiles lightly, and gestures for the boy to stand.

“What manners they teach at your Bleak Academy, alongside the hunting and blood magick. So, what could it be that you seek in my small and sleepy dominions, then? What errand does your bloody-handed tutor wish imparted?”

The boy opened his mouth, and she held up her hand to silence him.

“Since you are of the Fulcrums, let me guess.”

“As you say, your grace.”

“And, to keep such things interesting, if I guess incorrectly thrice, you may and must learn what you seek, I promise by my tree.”

The boy frowns to the point of pouting. The Queen resists an uncharacteristic urge to ruffle his perfect hair.

“Oh, no fair! A fairy bargain is no bargain. If I fail, you will keep me as a slave fed on fairy biscuits and wine for nine by nine years and then feed my darkling eyes to the tree and my bones to the badger. I don’t even like wine!”

“Well, perhaps. But a fairy bargain it may be, but a fairy’s bargain is the only sort I know how to offer. We are all slaves of our nature in this fallen and heavy world. So we play.”

The boy, still clearly put out, nods.

“Your sigil is that of a dragon. Perhaps you are of the College of War and Nightmare and wish to learn to make a monstrous army immune to all weaknesses of the flesh? We can teach the path of eightfold asceticism, there is a fairie monk here who deafens himself by listening to church bells and mortifies the flesh by posing as a tinker to procure all the cold iron of the realms.”

“While all boys like to play with soldiers, ma’am, I have no head for numbers, and engineering and logistics are sadly beyond me. This is not what I seek.”

“Dragons can also stand for magic as well as rage. The Colloquim of the Magi then? My washerwoman was once a highborn Jotun lady, exiled from her kingdom for forbidden witchcraft. She knows the nine true names of Loki, with which you can fly on a broom or washing tub, make potions of love and lust and spite, brew solvents that can clean, cure or kill or learn a man’s secrets from any distance.”

“I am no sorcerer either. I have no head for languages, my singing voice is poorly and even my necromancy is a bit sloppy for a Rider. I remind you that this is your final guess.”

“You are near to outwitting me, child, so you are either from the College of Natural Philosophy or the College of Emptiness and Dreams. That much is certain.”

“Also, ma’am, they are the only two colleges remaining.”

The queen shrugged, and smiled victoriously.

“That too. Very well, the game ends here. You, like Melanie Malakh before you, are here to learn from the Nameless Rage chained within the tree, tied down with its roots, to hone your hatred and your magic until it is powerful enough to destroy the world, and then to learn to pour it into a mortal vessel that can overcome the sun and winds and stars.”

“That is indeed the game. I am not here to try what has been tied and failed. The Bleak Academy is a progressive school under its new administration. That has been three guesses, so I look forward to productively studying here at the tree, your grace.”

The Queen reeled. She was not upset – even now she remained the calm protagonist of her waking dream – but she had not particularly intended to assist the Riders in their apocalyptic ambitions.

“But… then who?”

“Yourself alone, your grace. I must learn how to freeze all the love and hate and anger and hope from my wishing heart and become as eerie and lost in dream as your gracious self. The Academy can teach you to harden your heart, but everyone there cares. For my mission, I cannot be brittle, I must be empty.”

The Queen offered her hand, and helped the youth to his feet.

“You are too young to suffer so. What mission could possibly make you need for such a thing?”

The boy, for the first time, looks shy.

“I, ah, have been summoned. Called for. A boy has wished for a best friend.”

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