The Faded Kingdom – Chapter 11

As the Human spoke, a strange thing happened. As the story was told, pictures arose in the air, becoming larger and more solid until it seemed that the Human and the Witch stood as invisible observers, seeing the events unfold before them.

There was a small hut, alone in the woods. It was barely a proper dwelling, and looked to have been patched together out of odds and ends from other homes. The flap of hide that covered the door pulled aside and a younger version of the Human stepped out, blinking against the light. This hut was outside the village proper, and the Human had built it as a refuge. It was a way to avoid having to face the prejudices held by those in the village and the questions as to why the Human was not yet married. The Human’s suitor had been rebuffed a month or so before, and the rumors were still sharp and cruel. The Human’s parents were not so, but they did not understand why such a favored match should be rejected. Gathering bits of scrap from the construction of other buildings, the Human had set up a small home to gain some independence and to think over recent events. A small garden stood to one side, and the Human earned coin by doing odd jobs around the village. It was an austere existence, but it was uncomplicated.
The Human might have lived as a hermit for years if not for a farmer who came from a neighboring town seeking laborers for building project. The Human volunteered and spent a week helping raise a barn. That week was to shape all that followed.
From the first, the Human was taken with the farmer and tried to find excuses for conversation, or even eye contact. This was a new feeling. Excitement, attraction, and a slight touch of nervousness were a sharp contrast to how things had felt with the suitor. The farmer, much to the Human’s delight, seemed to reciprocate the interest. By the end of the week, the farmer asked the Human to share a meal. This became a regular habit, with the two of them taking turns hosting. At first the Human was embarrassed to have a guest in such a small and simple home, but the farmer seemed wholly at ease. It seemed that there could be a real future for them.
And then that future appeared to crumble. While walking in town, the Human met one of the town elders, a woman who was much respected for her love of tradition. The woman marched up to the Human and demanded,
“What are you doing with that farmer?! You know very well that sort of thing is forbidden. I don’t know how they do things in that other town, but we won’t have that here.” She glared into the Human’s face for a long moment. “I should have known something was wrong with you when you turned down such a fine suitor. If you wish to remain in this village, you need to live as we do. I’ll see to it the council evicts you, see if I don’t.” She turned away sharply and marched back down the street. The Human stood, shocked immobile, for a long moment before carefully turning around and walking back home, refusing to give into the desire to flee.
That evening, when the farmer arrived for the usual meal, the hut was dark and the usual smell of food was absent. Opening the door, the farmer found the Human sitting at the small table, staring blankly at the embers of the dying fire.
“What has happened?” cried the farmer, hurrying to the Human’s side.
“I…,” began the Human, but only silence followed.
“Is it your parents? Are they alright?” asked the farmer, guessing at what could cause such distress. At a near whisper, the Human replied.
“I have been informed that I cannot continue to spend time with you if I wish to live in this village.”
The farmer sat down in the other chair, sagging into it.
“While it wasn’t in such clear terms, some in my town have suggested the same. I didn’t want to worry you about it. Maybe we should just leave.”
“But your farm!” protested the Human. “You have put years into building up a wonderful home! Your crops support the town!”
“Something those who whisper should have thought about before they challenged me,” said the farmer, chuckling. “My town has similar rules to yours as to who may marry whom, and it seems that my status will not buy me an exemption.”
“Marry?” said the Human in a small voice. The farmer paused a moment, reviewing that last sentence. Then, straitening, the farmer stood and walked around the table to the Human. The farmer took the Human’s hands and pulled, leading the Human to stand.
“Yes. Marry. Will you marry me?” the farmer asked, looking into the Human’s eyes with a broad smile.
“But, your farm! My parents!” began the Human.
“I didn’t ask about property law or your parents, although you know I like them well enough. I asked about you. Will you marry me?” The Human stood in stunned silence. That same question had come from the suitor, but in that case it had not been a question, but rather an offer. One that the Human was expected to accept, as the terms were so favorable. This felt very different. The Human drew up tall.
“Yes. I will!” The two stood there embracing for a long time until the farmer spoke.
“So,” came a voiced muffled by the Human’s shoulder, “are we going to eat?” The Human’s stomach growled in response and both broke out laughing, holding on to one another for support.
“I suppose we need to survive until our wedding, so starvation is unwise,” said the Human eventually. They worked together to make a meal out of what was on hand and spent the rest of the evening in happy company. For the first time, the farmer stayed the night, as it was far too late to walk home by the time the two of them had run out of conversation.
The next morning, the Human woke and found the farmer was sitting at the table, deep in thought.
“Good morning,” the Human said, rising and joining the farmer at the table. “You seem distracted.”
“I am. I am considering our options. My farm is doing well, but finding someone to buy it who can pay its worth will be a problem. Also, there are few places we will be allowed to live. Well, I am assuming there are _some_ places. None that I know of.”
“Same,” answered the Human. “What will we do?”
The two talked for a time and eventually came to a decision. The farmer would sell their farm for the best price that could be had in a reasonable time. It would not be enough to buy another farm elsewhere, though. There were places not claimed by any town or king where people could live in their own way. It would be dangerous, as that freedom came without protection. The money from selling the farm would be enough for a wagon, a mule, and supplies they would need for a homestead. They would start their own home on their own terms.
On a beautiful evening, as the moon rose through the trees, the Human and the farmer stood in the clearing near their home on the edge of the forest. They held one another’s hands and made their vows before whatever gods cared to listen. They were wed.
A few years passed and a nearby homestead was struck by tragedy. Both parents of that household were gravely injured when their cattle stampeded, leaving them near death. That couple had become dear friends with the Human and the farmer, and they asked that the two of them take in the couple’s baby should they not recover. They agreed. When the ranchers died a day later, the Human and the farmer became parents for the first time. The sorrow of the loss of such friends was balanced by the joy of raising such a child.
Time passed again, and the child was now old enough to follow the Human and the farmer into the garden to pull weeds and pick insects from plants. One morning, the Human awoke and, going outside for the outhouse, found a bundle of rags outside the front door. Upon inspection, it appeared to be a pair of infants! A note explained that the mother was unable to care for one child, much less two, and that word of the couple’s adoption of the rancher’s child had reached her ears. She asked that the Human and the farmer take in these children as well. When the farmer woke a few minutes later, it was to find the Human standing in the center of the cottage, an infant in each arm, rocking quietly with a bemused grin.
“What…,” began the farmer.
“It seems that our blessing,” the Human nodded towards the sleeping child on the other side of the room, “has attracted two more!”
The scene blurred and faded, and the Human was again in the Witch’s house. Although it felt as if hours had passed, the tea still steamed and the fire had not burned down. But then again, time could be a warped as anything else in this strange place.
“Oh, that was a good story,” sighed the Witch. “I shall treasure it.” They held a small, glowing pearl in one hand, which they tucked into a pocket where it joined several others. The Witch patted the pocket happily.
“You have met your side of the bargain, and I shall meet mine. In order for you to save your family, you must get them to the Future. It will not return them to life, as I have said, but they will regain what they have forgotten. They will know you and themselves.”
“I know of this city,” answered the Human. “What I do not know is how to find it and how to bring my family to it.”
The Witch peered at the Human and then laughed.
“I see you have been speaking to Rabbit and the Rock King and the Crow! You already know how to find the city…”
“I do not…” interrupted the Human before the Witch’s glare forced a return to silence.
“You do know, and that is that. What I can tell you to fulfill our bargain is this: Your family will follow you wherever your light may lead.” As the Witch finished speaking, the room began to shrink, rapidly. The Human jumped from the chair in anger.
“But that does not tell me anything! Riddles do not aid me!”
“And yet riddles are what you have!” replied the Witch. The room continued to shrink, and the Human crouched, afraid of being crushed by the walls. Instead, the room faded as it shrank, and the Human was again standing in the clearing in the forest, watching an image of the Witch’s room shrink into a point of light and vanish. The Human could just see the Witch standing in the room waving cheerfully.

The Witch’s house was gone. The only sign it had ever been there was a flattened area on the grass where it had sat, and a line of over-sized avian footprints leading into the dark of the woods. The Human was alone once more.

The Faded Kingdom – Chapter 10

[Note: I start my summer schedule this week, so I’ll be catching up on illustrations. Thanks for your patience!]

As the Human moved deeper into the forest, the trees grew closer together, but not as tall or straight as before. Their branches intertwined, as did their roots, creating the appearance of an immense, many-trunked organism. The sky was completely blocked, and the Human was grateful for the glow that made its way from the crystal through the turtle shell. The Human stopped short. There had been movement out among the trees. Peering, the Human saw lights dancing about through the woods and heard faint strains of distant singing. Having heard enough stories about what happened to travelers who followed fairy lights, the Human remained on the trail and continued on.

The trail made a sharp turn and abruptly opened up onto a clearing. Unlike the one with the great tree, however, this area of the forest was not soft and green. It was dark and full of stones. Standing in the center was a small house. At first it seemed to be a normal cottage, but its shape seemed to twist and none of the corners were true. And every time the Human looked, it seemed have subtly altered those corners. It felt like part of the cottage was always just out of sight. Drawing closer, the Human saw that what had at first appeared to be piles of firewood were in fact crouching legs. The cottage could walk! The Human had heard of such places back in the Present, and had heard many stories of those who dwelt within. A Witch with such a home would have great power, but would also be extremely dangerous. She would be as likely to destroy the Human as help, and would want a high price for any aid. Standing straight, the Human gathered what courage was available and approached the door.
The door whispered open as the Human raised a hand to knock. The doorway was pitch black. The forest had gone completely silent and a breeze, the first the Human had felt in this land, pushed from behind, urging the Human to enter.
“If you’re going to disturb me, it’s rude to be slow about it,” muttered a low voice from the dark. “It is foolish to waste a Witch’s time,” it continued. The Human stepped forward.
In a sudden blink, the dark of the doorway disappeared, and the Human was now standing in the center of a foyer. The cozy entrance room had doors leading off into several directions, including back the way the Human had come. That door, though, was closed tightly, although the Human had not closed the door when entering. Looking around, the Human saw four doors. No, three. No, five. As soon as a door would pass out of the Human’s sight, it could change location, appearance, and size, or disappear altogether. The Human turned with a start as a door to the right, a wooden one coated in worn red paint, opened and a voice called out.
“Wipe your feet and come in,” it called. The Human looked down and a doormat had appeared in front of the red door. Carefully wiping off the dust of the road, the Human entered.
This room was a small library. Shelves of books lined each of the four, no, five, no… never mind, walls. In the center of the room was a small pit in the floor where a fire shimmered. It flickered faster than fires in the Present, and while it was primarily red, yellow and orange, other colors appeared for brief flashes. It gave off an appealing warmth. Over the fire, a tripod held a kettle that was just starting to boil. Next to the fire was a pile of cushions of many colors and styles. Seated cross-legged in the pile was the Witch.
“Have a seat,” the Witch said, nodding to a cushioned stool that had appeared behind the Human. The door the Human had used to enter the room seemed to have vanished. The Human sat.
“Thank you for…,” the Human began.
“How do you take your tea?” interrupted the Witch. “I have quite a variety of options,” the Witch gestured to a wooden box on the Human’s lap. Its lid was ajar, revealing a dozen or more small glass jars with dried leaves of every color, as well as some items that the Human did not recognize. Was that a beetle? The Human found one that appeared to be regular black tea and handed it over to the Witch.
“Sugar? Honey? Lemon? Aether? Ichor?” the Witch cocked an inquisitive eyebrow.
“Um. Plain is fine,” murmured the Human. The Witch gestured, and the Human found that the box had been replaced with a fine porcelain saucer and handleless cup. Both were painted in delicate lines that seemed to have meaning, although they did not have the look of words. In response to another of the Witch’s gestures, hot, black tea appeared in the cup. The Human quickly took hold of the saucer to avoid spilling the cup’s contents. The aroma was intoxicating. Floral, but deep and warm. The Human tried to hide a cautious sniff to see if this was actually tea, but the small smile on the Witch’s face made it clear this attempt was unsuccessful. The Witch raised a similar cup filled with a deep red liquid that glowed slightly, and took a sip. The Human did the same with the tea. It was, quite simply, the best tea the Human had ever had.
“So. You are my guest. I have served you tea. Do your people follow the rules of hospitality? Do you know what this means?” asked the Witch, taking another sip. The cup now contained a crystalline blue liquid that gave off small sparks.
“Yes, I do. Thank you,” answered the Human, bowing slightly. “I must say this is not the reception I expected.”
“I’m sure. I’ve no intent to open an teahouse. The spooky door thing does help keep away traveling salesmen, though,” the Witch chuckled.
“You are not what I expected, either,” ventured the Human.
“You expected something more along the lines of ancient and evil crone? Maybe with a bad eye and lots of warts? Bones in her hair and fewer teeth than fingers, and not a full set of those, either?” the Witch asked with a raised brow.
“Well, the stories,” began the Human.
“Psh!” the Witch waved a dismissive hand. “Don’t speak to me of stories. Tell me how you see me.”
The Human started to reply, and then stopped, unsure of what to say.
“Let me guess, I’m not fitting into any convenient descriptors, right?” prompted the Witch.
“I…” started the Human before giving up. The Witch wore a robe of shifting deep reds and purples, with tiny bones stitched into the fabric, making intricate, whirling patterns, belted with what appeared to be a living vine that reached out tendrils to grasp nearby objects. The Witch was neither old, nor young. Neither light, nor dark. Neither female, nor male. The Witch was not simply in between these extremes, but rather seemed to be shifting along each continuum from one moment to the next.
“You should know that my appearance is just what you can perceive of my nature. How many doors did you see in the foyer?” The Human took a second to follow the shift in topic.
“I am not sure. At first I thought four, but…”
“My house is not fully in this realm, and neither am I. We are a matched pair,” the Witch patted the floor affectionately, “and we have been together for a very, very long time. I am not from this place any more than you are, but I am not from the Present. I extend through all realms and all places. I know your people, but many other peoples consider me to be their own. Your people fear me, and for good reason. I am not to be challenged or annoyed.” The Witch’s eyes became very dark at that last, and the room dimmed although the fire seemed very bright. The Witch sat back into the cushions, appearing calm once more and the room brightened. “I want to hear why you have come to me. I want to hear what you seek.”
“I seek my family. My love and our children. They were lost to me and I am trying to find them.”
“And then what? Throw yourself into Oblivion? Do you wish me to help you destroy yourself?”
“No. I wish for them to remember me and themselves. I want them back. Back as I knew them.”
The Witch shook their head sadly. “That will not be possible. They cannot return to the Present. Neither can you, at this point. Your Moment is long gone.”
“I understand that.”
The Witch leaned forward, leaning their chin on their hand, elbow resting on their knee. “Then what, pray tell, do you want from me?”
“I met a man on the path through the forest. He said you knew how to help my family remember. To regain their true selves and avoid Oblivion.”
“Ah. I see. He told the truth. I extend through time, and can see many paths. I can tell you how to return your family’s minds. I even know how to return them to a semblance of solidity, such as you possess. But, what are you willing to pay me for this knowledge? Is it not customary to pay for such a valuable bit of assistance?” The Witch’s smile had become uncomfortably wide, with a predatory edge. “Keep in mind that I have all that I desire. My home is infinite and I can create what I need. What could a temporary thing like you offer me?”
“I have my walking stick. The great tree said it had power, and it did protect me in the Dark. I have this container given to me by Turtle. It is sturdy and holds more than it appears to. I have these,” the Human took the crystal and mirror from the container, “from the Rock King and the Water Mother. That is all I possess.”
The Witch was suddenly sitting very close to the Human, and leaned in close. Their breath was alternately hot and cold, and the Human saw that the pupils of their eyes were not solid black, but appeared to have tiny lights within them. Lights seemed very far away, like stars.
“Oh, you have much more than that. True, these things have power. That wood is as ancient as I, and nothing evil can bear its touch. Anything placed in that container can never be stolen from you, no matter how deft the thief. That crystal will ever light your way. The mirror, ah, I’ll leave that for you to discover.” The Witch covered the mirror with their palm and placed it back in the container, along with the crystal. “I have marvels that put them all to shame. No, what you have to trade is something unique to yourself. Something I cannot create or call to me.” The Witch reached out a finger and touched the center of the Human’s brow. “You have a soul. Love. Memories. Stories. All unique to you. As brief as you are, you have something I cannot steal, any more than I could take that container from your shoulder. But, if you trade them willingly, then I could possess them.” The Witch licked their lips lightly and sat back, sighing lightly. “What will you trade? What is worth the souls of those you love?”
The Human sat for a long moment, considering. “I can tell you a story.”
“A story. Why would a story be worth what I can give you? You lose nothing in the telling, so it hardly seems fair.”
“You would lose nothing by telling me how to help my family, so I would argue we would be even,” answered the Human, too quickly to have considered the consequences of contradicting the Witch. The room went deathly silent. The fire no longer moved, and the steam from the teacups froze in midair. The Witch’s hair was the only thing that moved. It rose as if in a wind, now long and dark threaded with black. The Witch rose, still cross-legged, a few feet into the air and all the light in the room seemed to pull away from the two of them.
“You seek to haggle for the souls of your family?” asked the Witch is a voice that was barely audible, but yet resonated with great power. The Human nodded slowly, gripping the walking stick tightly and hoping that it might help protect against this being. The moment held for an impossibly long time. Then, suddenly, the room lightened, the fire resumed its dance with a burst of color, and the tea steamed warmly. The Witch settled back on the cushions and threw back their head in gales of laughter. The books on the shelves vibrated, and the Human had to clutch at the teacup to keep it from bouncing onto the floor.
“You know the value of stories, and I like your refusal to sell them cheaply!” laughed the Witch. “It has been many ages since someone thought to strike a truly fair bargain with me. Most cower and offer all that they have or try to swindle me. The first get the deal the offer, while the others,” the Witch’s smile was sharp, “they get a deal of my choosing. You, however, are honest, both in your intentions and in your assessment of your worth. We have a deal. Mind you, the story must be of great value to you.”
“It is. It is the story of how I found my love.”

“Ooh! I do enjoy a romance.” The Witch was now quite young and had curled into the cushions like a child ready for a nap. “Tell me your story.”

The Faded Kingdom – Chapter 9

Note: still working on getting caught up on illustrations. They’ll be back soon!

The Human walked for a short while, and there, winding among the great trees, was a small trail. It looked to be the sort left by animals, rather than by the feet of people. The tree boughs closed over top of the trail, blocking out even more light than was visible on the path. It did not have an ominous feeling, though, but rather one of quiet contemplation. The Human left the path and headed into the dim light.

The trail wound around the trees and the entrance from the path was soon out of sight. The Human was surprised when the trail opened up into a clearing suddenly. There was no sign of a Witch, but instead an immense tree stood in the center of the clearing. Its branches created a huge domed, arched roof above the clear area, creating the feel of a sacred space. The hush of the forest was broken her by the creak of the great bows and the murmur of a breeze that could be heard, but not felt. It seemed brighter here, but the sky did not appear to be any brighter. Instead, the leaves above seemed to radiate a warm, green light. It was dim, but with so many thousands of leaves over head, the clearing glowed. The ground was covered in soft, thick moss, and the Human found that each step sunk in a bit as the moss gave way slightly. Assuming that the trail resumed on the other side of the clearing, the Human made to walk around the grand tree, when a voice rumbled out.
“Greetings traveler,” it said. The voice was so deep as to be more felt than heard. It came from above, but resonated through the very ground. The Human stopped and looked around for the source. “Look up, little one,” said the voice warmly. There was a chuckle that vibrated from the earth up to the Human’s knees. Looking up into the canopy, the Human saw what appeared to be a face in the bark of the great tree.
“Hello,” replied the Human, bowing and hoping the bow would conceal the look of surprise. The Human had heard of forest spirits, but they were more like those beings at the river, personifications of their environment. This was something new to the Human. Even more surprising was that the tree rose up a bit on its roots, the ground around it rippling under the moss, and turned towards the Human. With a great rustling sound, the tree drew down two of its limbs and made a courtly bow in return.
“Very pleased to meet you,” said the tree. “Are you looking for the Witch? Few come this way, and they all seem to be seeking the Witch’s aid.”
“I am,” replied the Human. “This is the right way, then?”
“It is. If I may be so rude as to ask, why do you seek the Witch?” the tree asked. The Human recounted the usual tale of death, grief, and struggle, ending with the advice of the Tinker to seek the Witch. The tree looked more and more concerned and sad as the tale progressed. The smaller branches and leaves drooped, and the tree sank down further onto its roots.
“Oh my. You are the one I felt. I am part of all forests and woods and all of them are part of me. The trees near your home shivered with your grief and the echoes of your travels have reached me through my children who have lined your path. There is a gap in what I could perceive, though. That must have been when you traveled through the mountain. To have braved such darkness,” the tree shivered at the thought. “Do you truly believe the Witch can help you, or do you seek out of desperation?”
“I must believe there is some way of returning my family to me. Otherwise, I shall consign myself to Oblivion with them. There is nothing else for me.”
“Ah, do not say such things,” said the tree as a wind sighed through its branches. “Do not see death and forgetfulness as your only options. There is always hope and always a way forward. Your grief may have pulled you here, but this is not a terrible place to leave grief behind. All things fade into the Past, after all, even our pain. Everything with a beginning has an end, even pain as great as yours. Come, child, sit by me and rest. Put down your burden and think carefully about your choice.” A root flexed under the moss, rising up to create a soft seat that was just right for a tired Human. The Human gratefully sat, laying down the turtle-shell container and the walking stick. As the stick came to rest on the ground, the tree shivered.
“Oh. It has been so long. To think that such a thing still exists… Perhaps some things truly are eternal,” murmured the tree. “Where did you get that?”
“The Fae Queen gave it to me shortly after I arrived here,” answered the Human quietly. The Human had not rested since arriving in this realm, and the quiet, rustling air, the comfort of a soft place to rest, the dim glow of the leaves, all of this was easing the weariness of the Human’s body and soul.
“Ah. It came from a very old tree, did it not?” asked the tree. The Human nodded sleepily.
“Was that one of your children?” the Human asked.
“A cousin, would be a better term. The child of my sibling. I am the echo of all the trees that ever grew in your realm. I am very old. There is another, though. Some call it Yggdrasil, or the World Tree. It holds the realms together and keeps them apart. It is the end and the beginning of many things. My sibling, but much, much older. That stick is a piece of it. It holds great power. I wonder how it came to fall?” mused the tree. “So, little one. Do not sleep. You have not the time, or you will lose your chance to find your family. But instead, think on this: what is gained if you throw yourself into Oblivion? All things end, even suffering, but that place is not a way to end your suffering early. Do not seek Oblivion. Rather, seek hope and do not relinquish your hold on yourself. You do not owe your family the death of all that they loved in you. Keep that alive. For them.”
“I fear I cannot bear the pain of losing them,” answered the Human, sitting more upright. “I have nothing without them.” The tree chuckled again, not unkindly.
“Oh, to be so young. Full of life, but blinded by fear. Those who shared your life loved you, Human. You are still what they loved. You have everything without them, just as you had it with them. You are a piece of eternity itself, and the pain you feel is part of that eternity. To seek Oblivion is to deny the very love you seek. Have you known pain in the past?” asked the tree. The Human thought of the time before knowing love and nodded.
“I was lonely and frightened for a long time before I met my love,” the Human answered. “Now that my family is gone, all I feel is that fear and pain, all the stronger this time, because I have known its absence.”
“So your pain was ended by love. Why do you think it will be different this time? Even if you do not return your family to you, love is not gone from the world. You still carry the love you felt for them and they for you. You can still find love in the world. Look around you. This is place of wonder and beauty. True, there is peril. And no small amount of pain, but that is so very much more than what awaits in Oblivion. Remember that. Mourning those who you have lost does them honor. Forgetting yourself does not. It denies their existence. After all, once you are gone, who will still love your family?”
The Human sat silent for a long moment, unable to answer that question. To enter Oblivion would be an end to pain, but to lose love, too? That seemed a great price. Tears streamed down the Human’s face.
“Thank you for your wisdom and kindness,” said the Human, looking up into the tree’s wizened face. “I had forgotten much when I came to this place, and you have helped me to remember. My love would scold me endlessly for my dark thoughts,” the Human laughed quietly. “If I lose myself, I lose all that is left of them. I shall still try to return them to me, but I won’t enter Oblivion if I am unable to bring them back to themselves.”
The tree reached several limbs down and scooped the Human up to eye level. It used a leaf to brush the tears from the Human’s cheeks. After searching the Human’s face for a moment, the tree broke into a wide smile.
“I see that you speak truly. The darkness I saw in you has receded. Be wary of its return. I shall keep my eye on you as you travel. Wherever one of my children stands, I will be there with you. If you need to remember your strength, just rest a bit with me, and I shall remind you.”
The Human gripped the nearest branch and squeezed tight.
“Thank you. I owe you much,” said the Human.

“Do not think of ‘owing’. I have merely reminded you of something you already knew. Kindness towards all things is the basis of happiness. I am merely showing kindness to the piece of myself I see in you and in all things.” The tree returned the Human to the ground at the spot where the trail left the clearing and stood tall once more. “Now, go see the Witch. My old friend the Tinker is correct, the Witch may well hold the secret to helping your family remember themselves. May light guide your way.” The tree bowed low again. The Human returned the gesture and then headed down the path towards the Witch.