Chapter 1

The Heart of the Woods

When I would dream, the trees would sing to me in voices like reed pipes. They sounded haunting and unnatural, like a child's voice under the water of a pool or a dolphin's call to its fellows in the ocean. Even in their oddness, the voices were more beautiful than anything I had ever heard, calm and gentle one moment, raging and powerful the next. The words they sung were as foreign as any other language I had yet to learn, but as they passed into my mind, I knew what they meant. They were calling me.

For the longest time, I ignored them. It was easy in the beginning, but the more of the majestic music I heard, the more I longed to find its source, and the more I longed to listen to it. After three months that felt like years, I broke. I slammed the very pen I use to write these words now onto my desk and hurried from the cabin, not bothering to cover myself in anything more than the sweatshirt and flannel pants I already wore, despite the chill.

The forest outside was gorgeous in its own way, though it was incapable of making the whole sound of the music. Something vital was missing. So I walked among the ancients that towered above me, breathing in the crisp, clean forest air. There was nothing else in the world like it.

I felt damp dirt sliding between my toes and pine needles pushing against the hardened skin of my bare feet, stinging like the tail end of a bee when I put the right pressure on them. But I didn't even think to stop. I could hear the call of the trees growing stronger with every step. The sound filled my ears and I could imagine it swirling around in my head, blotting out everything else until I almost felt it would pluck me from the earth and lift me through the air, drawing me ever closer to its heart in its cradling hands.

All sound stopped when I felt water around my right foot. The silence was so complete that I could only equate it to the feeling in your ears when you leave a room full of loud revelers to step onto a deserted, blocked off balcony. Blinking in surprise, I stared out at a lake. A lake I had never seen before.

The water was completely still, so pale a blue that it was almost gray, and across the surface that seemed to have no end, pale silver trees broke through, their leaves long fallen. A thin mist swirled around the trunks and up through the branches, and as my eyes moved from tree to tree, I was sure I saw movement in the cover of the fog.

I can't be sure how long I stood with one foot in that lake and the other firmly on land. I don't recall how many times I would spot something out of the corner of my eye only to turn my head to be met with empty branches and slithering mist. Once, I even thought I saw a canoe-like boat cutting through the water toward me, deftly dodging trees, the paddler composed almost completely of fog. But the water was never disturbed, and the boat was gone in a blink.

I felt a pressure on the heel of the foot in the lake, and I imagined the water trying to coax me in deeper, wanting me to come closer. I thought that the grass around my left foot was reaching like fingers to stop me from following the water's advice. In the end, it was neither of those things that caused me to do what I did next. The music started up again, calling, taunting me, and promising me something wondrous if only I would remove my last anchor from land. If only I would take that step, it would lead me to where I was meant to go.

So I took the step.

The farther I waded, the more certain I was that I couldn't turn back. I felt the water swirling around my legs beneath the surface that remained unnaturally still. I was up to my knees in moments, and still I walked forward. Minutes after I had entered the water, I was in it to my chin. I hadn't reached the first half-submerged tree yet. All I had to do was keep walking. My mouth went under and the moving water around my ankles and knees kept my feet glued to the lake floor. I hesitated slightly before the next step. I knew that if I took it, I would no longer be able to breathe. But the hesitation didn't last long, and within the next couple steps, not an inch of me could be seen above water.

That was when everything turned upside-down. My feet were above my head, but they were still suctioned to the gooey mud that should have been beneath me. The mud sucked and sucked at my feet until it was around my ankles. I couldn't breathe. Panic set in as the song blared in my ears louder than ever and I felt the mud around my neck, then pressing against my mouth and nose. I shut my eyes tight against the pressure.

And suddenly, it was all gone. The mud, the water, all of it had disappeared. I wasn't even wet, and all that was dirty were my bare feet from my late-night walk. It took a moment for me to get the courage to open my eyes, but when I did, I wasn't sure where I was. All I could see were the thick trunks of trees and a carpet of roots. There was a slight glow, but I couldn't tell where it was coming from. As I turned slowly, I saw that the huge trees were in a circle around me, very little space between them. When I looked down at the roots I stood on, I realized that, somehow, they were all connected, forming an intricate pattern.

"She is here."

I jumped at the whispered words, and spun from side to side as many more voices joined in, whispering words I couldn't make out. "Who's there?" I called, looking for anyone who may have been speaking.

"Shh… We frighten it."

All of the voices stopped immediately.

"Where are you?" I cried, giving up on looking.

"All around you, creature." The deep voice seemed to echo within the circle.

"All I see are trees. Show yourself!" I yelled, impatience finally overpowering my fear.

"We are the Trees."

I couldn't think of anything clever to say to that, so I said, "Trees don't talk."

"But we do. You are in the Heart of the Woods, creature. We have brought you here."

"Why?" I was obviously having an exhaustion-fuelled dream; I might as well get some ideas from it.

"Because we have no other choice. We request your assistance."

"Um… Alright… What do you need my help with?" I asked, wondering why my legs were beginning to shake.

"A woman whose name we do not speak has come to have a great power in this land. She has discovered the secret of the Trees and has locked away our voices to keep us from stopping her."

"Well, that's… wait… Then how are you talking to me?" I asked. There must be some serious holes in my imagination, I thought.

"As I said, you are in the Heart of the Woods. We are the oldest of the Trees, and even so, we cannot keep up this communication much longer. We are using much strength to hold the Queen's curse at bay, and it will soon overpower us. It took hundreds of years to gain enough power for this meeting."

"But what am I supposed to do if she's so powerful? You don't expect me to fight her or anything, do you? I'm just a writer…"

"We need to find her weakness."

"So you need information. Sounds like you should've called a reporter instead." There was silence. "Alright, so how am I supposed to get this information to you?"

"The Trees will convey your messages to us and help you on your way when they can. You must find the source of her power, so we can destroy her."

"I thought you needed her weakness."

"One's power is also one's weakness, once it is lost."

I knew I'd be chewing on that one for a while. "Is there anything I need to know? Like which direction to go or… if something out there's going to eat me?"

"There are many dangers, creature. Many of them. Others before you have not survived. But none before you have been called by the Trees."

"Would you stop…"

"And creature… Our final advice: Believe nothing, overlook nothing, be always alert, and do not fool yourself into thinking this is a sleep vision. For if you do, your first steps in this land will likely be your last."

A million thoughts ran through my head. Could this possibly be real? A dream had never tried to convince me that it wasn't a dream before… And all of that business above the lake had certainly felt real… Just then, the lights around the Trees began to fade. "Wait, I need more info!"

"We have no more time. Ask the young ones; they will do what they can. Trust only the Trees and heed no other advice, and you just might complete your mission."