Once upon a time, there was Goldstone Wood, and it is still here today. The Wood was there when Parumvir was just a collection of squabbling duchies, and it has remained through centuries of kings, conquerors, wars, and progress. It has outlasted even the legends said to take place within and around its borders. The stories of Maid Starflower, Bard Eanrin, the Dragonwitch, Akilun and Etanun, Princess Una, Prince Lionheart, Lady Daylily, and even the Prince of Farthestshore himself have all faded from memory, been regulated to myth or religion, or been stripped of anything mildly fantastic and stuffed into history books.
But Goldstone Wood remains, and even today, no one ventures far inside. No one crosses the stream or the bridge that arches over it. And though no one will admit it, all know what holds them back. Somewhere deep inside, all fear that the legends might be true, that history left things out, and that myth and religion are not as far-off as they’d like.
But sometimes no one isn’t everyone. Sometimes a brave soul will come along who doesn’t fear the legends as much as others. Sometimes he or she will stand on the edge of the stream dividing Near and Far, look at the Wood beyond, and hear the call to more than the ordinary. Sometimes he or she will answer.
And that is where our story really begins.
The girl’s violin sang alone in the stillness of Goldstone Wood, as it had every day of the past week. The notes flowed off the instrument and lingered over the quiet waters of the stream. Then they flew away to be lost among the trees.
The girl, Helen, stopped playing and lowered her violin with a sigh. She flopped to the ground under a wide oak. “It’s no good,” she muttered to herself. “It’s just not right.”
She stared dismally across the stream to the Wood itself. It seemed to wait there, so close and yet so far away, like the song she was trying to capture in the strings of her violin. She knew the melody; she felt it somewhere deep within herself. Yet whenever she tried to play it, the notes simply wouldn’t come as they should.
With another sigh, she began to pack away her violin. “Why can’t I play it right? Why, when I can play anything else, if I practice it? I know this one better than any of those others.”
Helen finished putting away her violin and stood, dusting leaves and pine needles from her long, brown skirt. The debris seemed to cling to the sturdy material, and she quickly resorted to picking up the largest bits and hoping no one would notice the rest when she returned home. She was about to turn away when the silvery notes of a birdsong dropped to her ears.
Helen turned back towards the sound in wonder. She never heard birds in this part of the Wood, and this song was not like any she had ever heard elsewhere. It was sweeter, purer, almost matching the song Helen could never grasp. And as she listened, she thought she heard words among the notes, though no human voice could have sung them.
“Beyond the Final Water falling,
The Songs of Spheres recalling,
When the music calls your heart to more,
Won’t you follow me?”
The song faded from Hellen’s ears but lingered in her mind. She stared into the far side of the Wood, searching for the bird that had sung it- if it was a bird. Stories said that strange creatures lurked in the Wood. Surely those stories weren’t real, but no simple songbird sang quite like that.
Won’t you follow me? The song seemed to call to her, ask her to- to do what? Whatever it was, she probably shouldn’t listen. It was her imagination, logic told her, or a trap, Haven teachings said. You didn’t follow mysterious birdsong or anything else into the Wood, and that was that.
Yet Ellen did not move to leave.
A wind sprang up and blew past her out of the deepness of the Far Wood. It carried with it the scent of secrets, waiting patiently to be rediscovered. And it held a whisper of the song she’d just heard.
Won’t you follow me?
Helen slung the strap of her violin case over her shoulder and started walking, not back towards her home, but upstream, towards the bridge she knew was there. She needed to find out where that song came from. Surely it couldn’t hurt to just cross the stream and have a quick look around?
Halfway to the bridge, she paused, recalling something else she’d heard at multiple Havenmeets: “If you must enter the Far Wood, ford the stream but step not on the Old Bridge.” No one had ever been able to give her a proper answer as to the why of that warning, but Helen decided to heed it anyway, just in case.
Lifting her skirt, she scrambled down the stream bank and made her way across the stream. At this point, there were a few stepping stones, enough for her to make it across without completely drenching her shoes. She reached the far bank and paused. Some instinct, long buried but still there, warned her to turn back.
Helen shook herself, recalling her thoughts from earlier: just a quick look around couldn’t hurt. Carefully, she stepped onto the far bank.
Immediately, Helen realized that she’d done something far more significant than cross a stream. She first noticed the change in the light: where it had been cloudy, now bright sunshine filtered though the leaves. The forest itself was different as well: thick pines rather than spreading oaks and silver birch. And where there had been decay, fallen leaves and rotting branches, here the ground was clear of such debris, though not of underbrush.
Helen shivered. Perhaps the stories were truer than I thought. She glanced over her shoulder. The stream remained, though the wood on the far side looked like that which she was in now. Surely crossing back over the stream would return her to her own wood? If so, I have no reason at all to worry.
Straightening her shoulders and clasping the strap of her violin case, Helen called out a cautious, “Hello?” No answer came.
She glanced over her shoulder again, weighing the merits of going back. But, no. She was here. She’d have her look around. Besides, she was one of the Haven- didn’t that mean she was protected? “’For He makes Paths in the wilderness for his people,’” she muttered, recalling one of the many verses pounded into her over the course of her seventeen years, “’and watches their every step.’ That sounds like protection to me.”
Admittedly, the words of a centuries-old book, even one claimed to be infallible, weren’t entirely comforting when one was in a mysterious Wood and possibly in another world as well. Helen hesitated, wondering if, protection or not, it wouldn’t be better to turn around? But then she heard once again the silvery song that had called her over here.
“Beyond the Final Water falling,
The Songs of Spheres recalling,
When doubts shadows every thought,
Won’t you follow me?”
And that was all she needed. Without another thought, Helen set off in the direction of the song. Oddly, though she’d gone in the direction where the trees and underbrush were thickest, there always seemed to be a clear space for her to walk. Every now and then she heard the notes of the song once again, and they pulled her onward, deeper and deeper into the Wood.
As she walked, Helen noticed an uncomfortable sensation: as the trees passed into the corners of her eyes, they seemed to blur somehow. What was it that she’d been told in both childhood stories and Havenmeet lessons? In the Far Wood, a single step could take you a thousand leagues? Or was that only with certain boots? She couldn’t recall for sure.
She noticed something else as well: she seemed to be passing certain landmarks over and over. Surely she’d seen that oak with the gap in its trunk at least twice by now? And that lion’s-head rock, she felt certain she’d passed three times or more by now. Was she just going in circles?
Yet the song still led her onward.
The Wood began to grow darker. The ground beneath her feet became rougher and steeper, and Helen stumbled often. She paused to catch her breath, leaning against an old, gnarled tree. “If this is a path,” she muttered, “it’s not much of one.”
She glanced over her shoulder, and her fingers clenched in fear around the strap over her shoulder. Whatever trail or path she had followed up here was gone; behind her was only a dense mass of trees and underbrush, obviously too thick to push through. And from among the trees glinted bright eyes. Red eyes.
Song and weariness forgotten, Helen took off running. Branches caught at her skirt and blouse now, as if trying to hold her back. She tore past them, heedless. Was that a howl she’d just heard behind her? She didn’t dare wait and find out. She just kept on as fast as she could, scrambling, tripping, running.
Then a pit opened before her feet.
Helen heard herself scream. She backpedaled furiously, falling over backwards in her haste. She tumbled a few feet, her violin case smacking against her.
She lay where she’d stopped for several moments, gasping for breath. Then, with a glance back, she pushed herself to her feet and took off once more, this time away from the pit. She had to get away- had to get out of the Wood- had to get home-
Helen stumbled again, this time on a downhill slope. She tumbled some distance before a thornbush caught her. Spikes dug through the thin fabric of her blouse and into her skin and held her thick skirt fast. She struggled to free herself but only succeeded in tangling herself more in the branches and the strap still somehow slung across her chest. She thought she could hear the sound of footsteps running towards her.
And then they passed her, and after them came deeper darkness than before. Before long, all sound faded, but that pure midnight blackness remained.
Helen finally managed to untangle and unstuck herself. She tumbled out of the thornbush and lay, facedown, on the ground, cheek pressed into the dirt. She was dead. Or about to die. Or going to wander lost in the Wood for eternity. All three came out to about the same thing, didn’t they?
“Dragon’s teeth,” she muttered, “why did I come in here? No song could be worth this.”
She pushed herself to a sitting position. If she was going to die, she refused to do it sprawled on the ground like she had been. And now that she thought about it, wandering lost in the wood for all eternity sounded a bit more attractive than death. After all, if she was lost, there was always the chance she’d be found.
Helen looked around, trying to decide in which direction to wander. With the darkness lurking between each tree, the Wood seemed more foreboding than ever. The absolute silence didn’t help; for some reason, Helen couldn’t help filling it with images of strange creatures lurking ever just behind her, ready to pounce.
Desperately, she tried to recall anything she’d ever heard about the Wood and what one did when one was lost there. Surely she’d learned something? The Wood came up every week in Havenmeet, in every children’s story-
But all she could remember was another of the verses she’d been forced to memorize: “Call on the Prince and He will answer. Seek and you will find. Ask and so you will receive.”
Well, it was better than nothing. “Um,” Helen said aloud, wondering how one called on the Prince in a situation like this. Prayers to Him (and all other religious figures) were generally reserved for Havenmeets and mealtimes, and Helen herself rarely said them. When she did, she usually just parroted what her elders would’ve said. But none of those words seemed appropriate now.
“Um . . .” She tried again. “Oh, Prince of Farthestshore, hear this prayer of your humble servant. Do not abandon me in my hour of need, when I am lost and wandering. Give me a Path or a guide to lead me home.”
She didn’t really expect much of a response, so she wasn’t very disappointed when the midnight didn’t lift, no hero appeared, and no Path spread out before her. She just sighed and carefully moved so she could at least sit with her back against a tree. Maybe once daylight returned, she could find her way out.
So she sat and hummed to herself and wondered why she’d thought a song was worth entering the Wood for. It had been a beautiful song, she admitted, but that was no reason to go gallivanting off into the unknown as she had.
Eventually, Helen thought that the blackness seemed to be lifting. When she could see five trees away, she stood up. Picking a direction she thought might take her in the general direction of home, she set off.
“You know, that’s not a very nice Path to go down.”
Helen whirled around in midstep. “What?” She spotted the speaker at once, a dark-skinned man in a green cloak. “Who-?”
The man, who’d been leaning against a tree, straightened and smiled at her. “Not that you’re not free to go down any Path you like, but you do look rather lost, and you probably don’t want to wander into the Burning Lands. Scratch that, you definitely don’t want to wander into the Burning Lands. I ought to know.”
He covered the distance between them in three quick strides. “But, since you don’t want to go to the Burning Lands, I assume, where are you headed? Not that it’s any of my business, but as I said, you look lost.”
“Um . . .” Helen glanced behind her, then at the stranger. One thing about the Wood she recalled very clearly: you shouldn’t trust everyone you meet in it.
“You don’t need to tell me,” the man said. “As I said, it’s not my business. All the same, if you are lost, I might be able to help. I do know something about finding my way in this place, whatever Eanrin might say.”
Helen blinked. “Wait. Eanrin?” Eanrin was decidedly not real, assuming this man meant the bard of fairy tale fame. At best, that Eanrin was exaggerated. At worst, he was completely made up.
But the man nodded. “Bard Eanrin. Out of curiosity, do they still play his songs in the Near World these days?”
“Um. A few? Not many.” As a rule, Eanrin’s love poetry had passed out of fashion well over a century ago, unless you were a lovesick young man trying to impress a girl. “Eanrin isn’t . . . He’s not . . .” She trailed off. This was the Wood. Who knew what was and wasn’t real?
The man burst out laughing. “Really? They finally gave up on it? Wait until I tell him that!”
“Yes?” Helen decided not to pursue the Eanrin subject. “So who are you?”
“I?” The man clapped a hand to his heart. “Pardon me, fair lady, for my gross breach of etiquette in failing to introduce myself.” He dramatically fell to one knee before her. “I am Lionheart, knight of Farthestshore. At your service, maiden. And you are . . .?”
“Helen.” Perhaps she shouldn’t have said that, but if he was a knight of Farthestshore, surely he could be trusted. Couldn’t he?
“A pleasure to meet you, Maid Helen.” Lionheart stood. “Now, since we aren’t complete strangers, maybe we can go back to my original question: where are you headed?” He winked. “Don’t worry. Knights of Farthestshore don’t lead people off in the wrong direction.”
Helen gaped. “Did you just read my mind?”
For a moment, Lionheart looked alarmed. Then he laughed. “No. I’ve been lost in the Wood before as well. That was before I became a knight, though. So, will you trust me?”
Helen hesitated a moment longer. Then she nodded. “Yes. I’m trying to get home- Sondhold. In Parumvir.”
“Easy enough.” Lionheart looked around and then set off in what seemed to be a random direction. “Keep up. If you get off the Path, it won’t end well.”
Helen hurried after him. “Are you sure this is the way?”
“Positive.” He grinned at her. “Knights of Farthestshore don’t lead people off in the wrong direction, remember?”
“Well, yes.” Helen couldn’t help smiling back. “But I thought that a Path would be a bit easier to see, at least once you were on it.”
“Only if you know what to look for.” Lionheart strode on. “So what brought you into the Wood, Maid Helen? Running from something? Looking for someone?”
“No. Nothing like that. I . . .” Helen sighed. This knight was sure to think she was crazy, running into the Wood after birdsong. “It’s pretty stupid.”
“As a self-professed Fool, I know all about stupid. Go on.”
This wasn’t exactly comforting, as this man was supposed to be a knight of Farthestshore and her guide to boot. Helen went on anyway, feeling her face grow warmer with every word. “Well . . .” she patted the violin case at her side, thankful it had remained whole though all this escapade. “I play the violin, if you can’t guess, and there’s this song . . . I don’t really know how to explain it, but it’s like I hear it and know it somewhere inside, though I can’t play it at all. And I was out practicing in the Near Wood- it’s nice and quiet and private there- and I heard . . .” She paused, wishing for a way to make this part sound just a little less silly. “I heard a bird singing that song. It was like it was calling me. So I followed the song across the stream and into the Wood and, well . . . stuff happened.” She looked down at her fingers wrapped around the strap on her case. “Like I said, stupid.”
But Lionheart shook his head. “Not as stupid as you think.”
Helen frowned. “Why not? I wandered into the Far Wood after a birdsong. ‘Stupid’ is probably generous . . . That goes against just about everything I ever learned at Havenmeet.”
Lionheart had obviously been about to say something, but at the last moment, his expression creased into something between worry and confusion. “Havenmeet?”
Helen stopped walking. Wouldn’t a knight of Farthestshore know about the Haven? “You sound confused.”
“I am.” Lionheart stopped as well and turned to face her. “What’s this Havenmeet, and what does it have to do with the Wood?”
“Havenmeet. It’s when Haven members, well, meet.” Helen wondered if she should run, but she had no idea where to run to. “Don’t you know about the Havens?”
“I know about the Haven, singular, and I’m fairly sure it’s not the same as whatever you’re talking about. Maybe you should explain.”
How did one explain what the Havens were? Everyone Helen had met knew, even if they didn’t go to one. “The Havens . . . they’re where followers of the Prince gather for worship once a week. We sing, a priest gives a message . . .” She trailed off, trying to figure out what else she could say.
Apparently she’d said enough, because Lionheart nodded slowly in understanding. “Ah. Now I remember. I visited one of those, well, some time ago.” A sheepish smile crossed his face. “I haven’t been to the Near World much lately, if you can’t tell.” He started walking again. “I didn’t expect a religion around the Prince to catch on, though. In my experience, humans tend to reject Him.”
Helen hurried after him. “He killed the Dragon, died, and yet lives still. When we see Him for who He is, why not worship?”
“That, I’ll admit, is an excellent point.” Lionheart fell silent, his expression returning to perplexed.
Helen waited for him to say something else. When he didn’t for some time, she asked, “Is something wrong?”
“Maybe, maybe not.” Lionheart ran a hand through his hair. “Look, it’s hardly my place to judge, considering how little I know about these Havens, but the idea seems off to me. The Prince isn’t supposed to be a religion. He’s more than that.”
Now it was Helen’s turn to be perplexed. “But we’re supposed to follow the Prince, aren’t we?”
“Definitely,” Lionheart replied. “The thing is, I’m not sure that building a religion around the Prince is the same thing as following Him. Religions, in my experience, are more ritual and rules than life. But when you follow the Prince, it effects everything in your life.” He grimaced. “I’m not the one to ask about it, probably. Dame Imraldera could explain it better.”
Helen chewed on her lip, considering what Lionheart had said. “So you’re saying the Havens are wrong?”
“No.” Lionheart shook his head. “Wrong’s a bit too strong. I mean, people learning about the Prince is good. I just wonder, how many people at these Havens actually live for the Prince?”
His words struck closer to home than Helen wanted to admit. Did she live for the Prince? No. I don’t. He’s right. Haven was, for her, just what he’d said it was: ritual and rules to follow so she could feel like she was doing right. “You’re right,” she said quietly. “But it’s hard to live for someone you don’t know, and how am I supposed to know the Prince if I’ve never met him?”
“That’s a question I can’t answer.” Lionheart’s face was grave; it did not seem to be an expression he was used to. “I expect there’s a way, though. I’ve heard that there were some, long ago, who heard of the Prince from the Brothers Ashuin and followed Him because of that.”
“Hmm.” Helen could think of nothing else to say now. She walked on beside Lionheart in silence, thinking over his words and wondering how in the world she could change. Did she really want to? Her life was comfortable; did she dare lose that?
Comfortable and empty. It was like her music: the songs she knew just weren’t enough. She wanted something more, that one song she couldn’t quite play.
Thinking of that song brought a question to Helen’s mind. “Sir Lionheart? The song I mentioned, the one I followed in here . . . do you know anything about whatever it might be?”
“I have an idea.” Lionheart glanced over his shoulder, then up into the branches of the trees they passed. “Let me know if you hear it again.”
“I will.” Helen sighed, realizing that Lionheart probably wasn’t going to reveal anything more about what he might or might not know. Why not? Probably he didn’t want to make predictions without knowing more. She wished she could hear the song again. She could imagine the melody, but as always, her recreation fell short of the real thing.
Then, suddenly, as if responding to her wish, the first notes of the song fell from the trees to her left. Helen stopped short, turning towards the sound.
“Beyond the Final Water falling,”
The Song of Spheres recalling,
When your heart yearns for something more,
Won’t you follow me?”
“Sir Lionheart?” Helen breathed out the words, barely thinking about them. “I hear it again. The song.” Just as before, it seemed to call to her. Almost without thinking, she took a step after it.
Lionheart stopped just behind her. “Where?”
“You can’t hear it?” Doubt assailed Helen. What if this was a trick? Things in the Wood are rarely what they seem . . .
“No.” Lionheart paused. He stepped forward, staring intently at the ground at her feet. “But I think I know what it is all the same. Lead the way, and I’ll follow.”
Helen hesitated, just a moment. Dare I? After what happened before? But Lionheart said go on, and her heart said go on, and so she did. She plunged off whatever Path they’d been following, into the trees. Oddly, though she’d left the Path and though the forest had seemed thick a moment ago, there always seemed to be an opening before her and a way through trees and underbrush. So she raced on after the Song.
As she traveled, the Wood grew darker. Rocks appeared beneath her feet, and she stumbled now and then. Lionheart fell behind, though she did not notice. Still the Song guided her on, and she followed, determined not to lose it this time.
Suddenly, the ground beneath her dropped steeply downward in a rocky gorge. Helen stopped at its edge, peering ahead in search of a path. She could see none, just sharp-edged stones and hulking boulders. She bit her lip. Should I look for another way? No. The Song hadn’t guided her wrong before; she hadn’t become lost until she turned aside. I won’t make that mistake again.
Taking a deep breath, Helen began the scramble down into the gorge. As before, a path seemed to open before her feet, guiding her down the steep slope. She reached the bottom of the gorge safely and still the Song led her onward, through the rocks and boulders. The walls of the gorge grew steeper on either side of her until they seemed to close in around her, but she forced herself to ignore them and to focus on the Song.
She stepped through a narrow spot where the rocks seemed to almost join over her head. Then, suddenly, she was no longer in the gorge or in the Wood at all. She stood on a rocky plain beneath a star-filled sky. The Song she’d been following faded away. And she was alone.
Helen clutched her violin case and shivered. “Hello?” she called, though she could see no one. “Is anyone here?”
A rustle of wings brushed her ears. She turned to see a thrush alight on a pillar of rock, looking out of place in this barren world. It spoke in a familiar silvery voice. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
Helen stared. “You were the one singing the Song, weren’t you? The one who led me here?”
“I am the Giver of Songs,” the thrust replied seriously. “I did lead you here.”
“Why?” Halen asked. It occurred to her that she should feel far more ridiculous than she did, talking to a bird. At the moment, she was too curious to really care.
“You have forgotten me.” The thrush sounded so melancholy that Helen thought her own heart would break for it. “All your people have.”
Helen frowned, puzzling over this piece of information. “Do I know you?”
“You have admitted that you do not, though you have claimed to in the past. You have forgotten me and the songs I gave.” The bird fluttered its wings. “Long ago, many heard my song and followed my Paths. Now even those who claim to serve me no longer listen.”
“I listen!” Helen bit her lip, realizing that wasn’t entirely true. “Sometimes. I try to. I’ve tried to play your song, but it never comes out right.”
“You cannot play my song without my help.”
“But I’ve never met you before!” Helen shook her head. “I don’t even know who you are. Won’t you tell me?”
“I am the Giver of Songs,” said the thrush, as it had before. “I know you, Helen, though you do not know me.”
Something clicked in Helen’s mind. She gasped. “You’re Him. The Prince. The Defeater of the Dragon.” She sank to her knees.
“I am.” The thrush was suddenly no longer a thrush but a man standing before Helen. His face was gentle, though she didn’t dare look him in the eye.
“I’m sorry.” The words didn’t seem like enough to fill the measure by which she’d been found wanting. The Prince she claimed to serve had called to her, and she hadn’t recognized Him! She struggled for words. “I- I want to know you and follow you. I want to hear your song always- to play it, if I can. Will you help me?”
“I will.” The Prince took her hands and gently raised her to her feet. “Would you like to hear my Song as it was meant to be?”
Helen nodded, though she wondered what could make the Song better than it had been. A moment later, her question was answered as the Song burst from above, melody and harmony intertwining and swelling as if to fill the entire world. Helen gasped, overcome by wonder and a yearning to join the Song somehow. At the same time, however, the beauty of the Song crushed her. How could she, a dust-bound mortal, hope to play anything so wonderful?
“Only through me can you hope to succeed,” the Prince said. “Do you still desire to try?”
“Yes!” Helen turned to face him. She hastily removed her violin and bow from their case, hands trembling in excitement. “Please! I . . . I think I’ll die without it.” It sounded to her ears like an exaggeration, but in her heart it rang true. Some part of her would indeed die without the Prince’s Song.
The Prince moved so he stood behind her. “Then let me guide your hands and I will teach you.”
She let him. At first he held her hands, showing her fingers where to press down and where to stroke the bow across the strings. Then he let go, but she could still feel him guiding her somehow, just as his Path had guided her steps. And sooner than she expected, the small voice of her violin joined the larger chorus around her.
At last the Song faded, though Helen played on for a few more minutes. Then she lowered her violin and knelt before the Prince once more. “Thank you.”
“Thank you for listening.” The Prince set his hand on her shoulder. “You followed me into the Wood, Helen. Will you still follow me in your own world and walk the Path I have given you?”
Helen nodded. “As long as you guide me, I’ll follow.” She wasn’t sure how she’d know the Path, but surely she could learn.
The Prince touched her violin. “And will you carry my Song to your people and remind them of me?”
Helen nodded again, more firmly than before. How could she not? Her heart yearned to play again, to share the Song with others. “Of course.”
“It will not be easy,” the Prince warned. “Here you speak with me face to face and hear my Song clearly. In your own world, your Path will often be clouded, and many things will try to drown out my voice and my Song.”
“I’ll still follow, as long as you will guide me,” Helen promised.
“Good.” The Prince smiled and gestured for her to rise. “Now, my knight Lionheart is looking for you. He will see you home. Do not forget what you have heard here, Helen Songbearer.”
Songbearer. She had never heard that name before, but it felt right. “Will you come as well.”
“I am always with you,” he replied. “Though you may not always know it. Walk my Path and call on me when you are in need. I will always answer.”
“All right.” Helen placed her bow and violin back in their case and slung the strap over her shoulder once more. She bowed one last time to her Prince. Then she set off back to Lionheart and the Wood and her world, carrying the Song with her.