Mikon turned swiftly on his heels, the rest of the pack falling in line silently behind him. Before they moved off, he turned and looked at me pointedly. It was clearly my cue to join them.
Sighing heavily, I got to my feet slowly and gave a long leisurely stretch. Not being used to following orders from anyone other than my Mistresses, I took my sweet time in joining them. The coyotes parted, indicating my place close to the front behind Mikon. I rolled my eyes and blinked disdainfully but did as beckoned making a theatrical performance of reluctance.
I was flanked by the two young coyotes that had pinned Ezran down earlier. They took their place on either side of me like a pair of Foo dogs guarding an ancient Buddhist temple. I wasn’t about to protest, I’d realized by now that the only way I was going to get through this was to meet with the Emperor as demanded. Besides, with all this pomp and fuss, my feline curiosity had been well and truly piqued. I had to find out what all this was about.
I jutted my chin out in determination as the procession started to move. Some of the spectating fauna and elementals took off ahead excitedly and seemed to be spreading the word that something big was about to happen. I caught the eye of a few curious creatures as they drew in closer to stare at me. Unblinking, I held their gaze intensely, forcing them to look away first in submission. The rest of the forest inhabitants took their place at the end of the procession as Mikon lead the way.
The woods were dense and much of the light from the full moon was obscured by the thick foliage of the trees and undergrowth, especially close to the ground which was just about all I could see. Soon the terrain became uneven with pebbles and started to rise up gently in front of us. I had no idea where we were going other than a vague sense of heading north, going deeper towards the heart of the enchanted forest.
I almost lost my footing a couple of times as the soft earth gave way to hard stone. Smooth moss covered surfaces were exposed between jagged rocks as the vegetation mysteriously glided aside, granting us passage, and eventually revealing a set of worn stone steps.
The procession halted suddenly as a soft green glowing mist materialized low over the ground blocking our path. I felt a cold shiver pass through me as the temperature dropped rapidly in comparison to the balmy summer air around us. The mist shimmered and undulated and rolled slowly forward to confront Mikon. It felt cold and clammy.
Now that it was closer I could see that it was actually an entity or, more specifically, a giant floating humanoid face. Although I was only catching glimpses of it between the bodies of the coyotes, I could clearly see the top of its hairless skull, its heavy bony brow and deep dark eye sockets. A large bulbous nose hung above a wide gaping mouth with full thick lips. The cheekbones were fleshy but well defined. The edges of the apparition were blurry and appeared to resemble foliage.
I smiled to myself in quiet recognition. I knew this face very well. The elusive Green Man. Renowned as a forest deity and symbol of rebirth, his image represents the cycle of growth each spring and summer in many ancient pagan cultures. He’s a protector of sorts too, every Enchanted Forest has one.
“Who passes this way?” demanded the petulant mouth in a deep booming voice that made the fine branches of nearby trees tremble with dread.
“It is I, Mikon and honorable guest. We seek an audience with the Emperor.”
“Really?” it said, the voice dripping with sarcasm, “Just like that. And prey whom might your most honourable guest be?”
I could sense Mikon bristle at the challenge. In a tone of pure mockery of his own he replied:
“You mean you haven’t heard? Why your sources must be slipping. If you must know, it is the Witches’ Familiar Zephyr, summoned by the Emperor himself.”
The dark eye sockets of the face were suddenly illuminated as its heavy eyelids flew open. Bright green eyes pierced the darkness in a cold penetrating stare.
The enormous mouth made a loud sucking noise as it drew in a long breath. A few silent moments passed before it spoke again.
“How can that be?” The heavy brow furrowed, the bright eyes narrowed to doubtful slits as the face drew much closer to Mikon with an aggressive lunge.
“Is this some kind of treachery?”
Mikon stood his ground firmly, barely flinching at the sudden closeness of the face.
Sensing the atmosphere was turning decidedly sour; I slid forward between the coyotes and walked towards the apparition.
“Hello Gwydion, long time no see.”
There was a brief stunned silence, followed by a few fluttering eye blinks of surprise before a colossal smile erupted across Gwydion’s face.
“Dw i ddim wedi dy weld ti ers sbel!”
He exclaimed happily before translating “I have not seen you for a while!” in the broadest Welsh lilt I’ve heard in the longest time.
Gwydion. His name suited him very well. It means ‘born of the trees’ in old Welsh. I purred happily, finally a friendly face I could trust.
“Oh ‘ello luv.” Cooed Gwydion. “Oh I am ever so happy to see you again!”
“Hello old friend, it does my heart good to see you too.”
Now that the huge face was smiling, he didn’t look anywhere near as ominous as he had just a few moments before.
Incredulous, Mikon turned to face me:
“You know the Guardian of the Forest?”
“Oh we go way back … further than you can possibly imagine.” I said with a wink.
“Come in, come in, you are always welcome! How delightful that our paths have crossed again.”
Gwydion was now almost giddy with glee. I felt the same way but fought to control myself. I wanted nothing more than to curl up on a comfy mossy rock beside him and catch up on old times but, judging by the impatient look on Mikon’s face, now was clearly not the time.
“Have you seen Cerridwen since …?” Gwydion’s voice trailed off, his face a picture of concern.
The last time I’d seen Mistress Cerridwen, we were being burned alive for witchcraft, at a time just before the ghastly witch hunt fever swept through medieval Europe. There had been no trial, only spiteful retribution over absurd allegations. Don’t get me wrong, the Mistress was in deed a witch but that had never presented a problem until a love rival was scorned. I reeled at the memory.
Before I could open my mouth to respond, Mikon cut in irritably:
“Well this is all terribly touching but we have business to attend to. Save the reminiscing for another time. Shall we?” Mikon attempted to usher me forward.
I glanced over at Gwydion. I wanted desperately to speak to him but I had no choice in the matter. Now was simply not the time. My heart sunk with disappointment.
“Come back to the forest alone Zephyr … I’ll find you.”
His gentle voice filled my head. None of my companions seemed to notice. Realizing he’d spoken to me telepathically, I nodded my accord almost imperceptibly.
The whole procession was standing face to face with Gwydion. The air was expectant and silent as we waited for passage.
A gigantic gnarly old tree stood directly behind Gwydion. At first inspection the tree looked dead with its tangle of thick and weather beaten roots coiled intricately like a huge nest of writhing snakes protecting a large boulder at its base.
Snakes, I decided, or perhaps snaking was definitely a good way to describe this beast of a tree. The girth of its trunk was vast, a good four feet at least. It distorted in several places forming knots and folds at every twist. The full moon cast an eerie light on its bark, making it look like a tortured soul, like a melting skeletal candle, the embodiment of pain captured for all eternity.
Most of the branches high above were bare and jagged like long arthritic arms and fingers furled into claws as if raised in attack. I’d seen these ancient limber pines before, a symbol of wisdom and longevity to the native people and you could certainly see why. This tree had to be several hundreds of years old based on its size and form alone. Who knew how many harsh winters it had weathered or how many devastatingly hot and dry summers it had endured. It towered rigidly above us unwilling to yield.
Gwydion’s eyes slid slowly shut. He took a deep breath, his lips formed a small round shape and then pressed tightly together.
“Ommmm. Ommmm. Ommmm.”
The long deep note started softly and continued rhythmically with each breath. As it gained in intensity and volume a strange vibration rose through my body, meandering its way up my spine, reverberating around my ribs until it settled deep in my chest within my heart. I felt myself sink into a deep dreamy place. Was this supposed to happen? It felt so good. Don’t resist, I chided myself, just go with the flow.
I closed my eyes. The pitch seemed to alter my state of consciousness. I felt my body sag into relaxation. I could have sworn I was swaying but managed to remain upright with little effort. I was aware of so much in that instant, my physical surroundings, the sounds of the forest, the proximity of the others, but it all seemed so far away and disconnected somehow. The clutter from my mind disappeared as dark swirling colours quickly filled my eyelids and finally merged into a deep dark purple. I sat contentedly in my hypnotic state for what seemed like ages but at the same time, felt oddly as if no time had passed at all. I was in a place where physical time had no value or presence.
Finally a single image appeared before me in my mind’s eye. It was so vivid and clear, I was sure it was real.
I stared at the object in wonder. It was beautiful.
A burnished bronze door knocker in the form of a lion’s head had appeared before me. Dazzling sun rays radiated from its curly mane and a large ring hung from its open mouth. Verdigris had settled into the intricate design giving it the appearance of antiquity.
It looked like a doorknocker to a mystical temple.
Instinctively I raised my arm. Although the image was crystal clear in my mind, the movement came from my physical body. I extended my claws gingerly to touch it and was instantly gratified at the sound of dainty clinks as my nails connected with something firm and metallic. I placed the pads of my paw on the base of the ring and held it there, savouring the cool feel of the bronze, and the tingly energy it was emitting. Gently, I picked up the ring and gave three sharp knocks.
An ear splitting grinding sound snapped me back to the physical world. My heart thundered in my chest at the sound of heavy stone being dragged over stone followed by another sound, like twisting and ripping roots. The ground rumbled beneath my feet. A portal was being wrenched open before me at the base of the old tree.
The portal was framed by a simple stone archway. Dust particles floating in the air obscured the view immediately beyond the opening for a second or two until the grinding finally stopped.
The view beyond the archway was truly spectacular.
We were now standing at the top of a stone stairway that descended into a magnificent amphitheatre.