the short story project


Nathan Stone

Oak and Ash and Thorn 

They met in the middle of a field, north of London in the twilight of the day. Oak could remember when they had been able to meet in the city itself. That had not been so very long ago—he stopped and thought for a moment. It could only have been 175 years ago, when Victoria say on the throne and ruled the world. He remembered they had met in Regent’s Park. The green was there but so was the peace. True, it had been nosier than their usual meeting spots, which was why they had only used it twice before Thorn had absolutely refused to meet their again. Oak sighed, the sound of the autumn wind cooing melancholily through the thinning leaves. The peace of the park then was more than what most could expect anywhere from anytime.
Ash and Thorn were in the field already, standing tall against the void of the age. The blood of the sun fell on them, etching their outlines on the deadening earth behind them.
            Dying like the sun.
            “You’re late,” Thorn said, sharp and quick.
            Oak bowed in the old way and felt the old strength well up in him like it always did when of the old ways were carried out, anchors to the past and beyond that as they were. “My apologies, my friend. I started later then I intended and I stopped to Speak to some little ones. I do not know how they could have slipped my mind but I had never seen them before.”
            “Where were they?” Ash asked, her voice cool and curved, matching her form.
            “What difference does that make?” Thorn asked. For how long have we tried to speak to the little ones? Not just the oaks and the thorns, but the beech and aspen, the spindle and cherry, the pear and rowan, the yew and the willows?” He ground his spindle arms together, producing a small, brittle clap of thunder. A flock of sparrows exploded into the air in a panic, squawking into the reddening sky. “How long have we tried, Oak? How long have we tried, Ash? Circling the island for the last 400 years how many times? And each year, each circle, fewer and fewer voices. Do not tell me it is not so.”
            Ash bowed her head. “It is true. I…I went to the Tor two months ago.”
            Oak started, eyes flashing with alarm and excitement.
            “The Tor?” Thorn repeated. “We agreed we would go there only in the most dire of needs and that we would go only when we were in accord.”
            “True,” Oak said. “You should have told us, Ash. We three need to be in agreement, as Thorn said.”
            “I know. I did not mean to but I found myself only a way away from it and I went up to the top.”
            “Who did you call?” Oak asked.
            “I…I called everyone I could remember: Weylan, Thuron, Grim, Odin,; I even called Them from the West. No one answered. No one ever answers.” She cupped her face into her hands, forming a perfect mask. She stood still for a long moment so that her form, under the new moon’s light, began to solidify, her hair becoming branches, the rings and bracelets on her arms changing into leaves. Her hands dropped and the shadows morphed again.
            You called Them?” Thorn repeated. We three swore that we would never call Them again. When they refused to come after the last war, it seemed sure that they would never come and that They had abandoned us, regardless of what the legends say.”
            “But they will not come until England is in her greatest need,” Oak said. “Perhaps we were too hasty. Perhaps this land has just not reached that dire moment yet.”
            Thorn thrust his arms into the clustering darkness, his thousands of fingers threatening to tear the stars from their circles in the sky. “How can it get worse? The magic has all but left Britain, never mind England! Haven’t you felt it in your travels across the island? I have. A sluggishness of step, a blurriness of the eyes, a wave of nausea so that you do not know who you are anymore. Soon, the winds of this age will blow us away as well and we will go the way of the rest.”
            Oak stood still, the great strength that had upheld him for almost 2000 years seeping into the ground, sucked by a thousand greedy mouths, where the power and magic flowed into the sea to be dissolved by the salt and brine. In the new moon light, he heard Ash weep silently, her old strength washed away as well. They needed a course and that plan would have to come from him, as the oldest one of the them, the first who had come to the island.
            “Perhaps things are not as bleak as they seem,” he said. “It may be that…”
            “It may be what?” Thorn asked, his voice empty, full of dark and space. “It may be what, Oak? We tell ourselves the same thing every year when the days turn cold and the new is reborn from the old. We believe that every midsummer will be the time when our hopes will be paid. And the cycle repeats itself throughout the decades.”
            “For how much longer must we cling to false hope?” Ashe asked, lifting her head up again. “Perhaps we must accept that our time is over. If there is no more magic in England, there is no reason why we should stay. We cannot stay and be truthful to the oath by which we bound ourselves to the island at the beginning.”
            Oak raised his voice to answer but the words fell dead in his mouth faster than the Fall which came to claim the leaves from the little ones. His arms drooped to touch the ground.
            “Let us stay here for the night,” he said. “In the morning, we will start our way to the Tor. From there, we will depart from England and go the way of all the others; whatever and wherever that might be.”
            The three took their places in the ancient circle that they had made so many times before and sank their feet into the soil. Oak closed his eyes. Behind the lids, his eyes saw the replaying of the great dramas of the island: there, the Romans came in their little boats from Gaul; and there, the Saxons, the Angels, the Vikings, and here, again, the ships of the Normans. There was Alfred, blooding the White Horse with Viking blood; there was Harold, noble in death and William, claiming the crown and taking the fealty of the land and everything that was in it; Richard, strong and brave even in his vanity and ignorance; the Hooded Man in the ancient forests in the North. And through it all, tall as a god, bright as the blazing sun in midsummer, was Arthur, Excalibur spewing fire and rays of white gold upon his enemies.
            When the first blush of morning crept up in the East, the three stirred themselves, bending in invisible winds that washed the chill and stiffness of the night away like an old dream. Of one accord, they assumed the shape of people, their bodies and forms molding and shimmering. Oak became a tall man, thin but solid, hair white and wild that overflowed from his head and face; Ash was a woman, slender as a Cavalier’s rapier, her fingers weaving the air into protections for family and herds; Thorn was another man, shorter than Oak but sharper to cut the wind if it proved hostile to the people. No one would see them; no one ever saw them anymore but, even so, travelling under a clear sky, out of habit, they took on the forms of the people they had loved and protected from the beginning of the island’s history.
            They walked across the field to the asphalt road, turned west and began walking. The asphalt was hard and sticky; Oak could imagine the ground crying out in muffled groans beneath it, pressed downward for over a hundred years.
            “I remember the old, cobbled roads from the stone highways the Romans built,” Ash said. They were better. They sometimes still spoke to us.”
            Oak opened his mouth to speak but a car, roaring down the road, twisting and eeling its way through the few curves left in it, stole whatever words he was forming. It flew past them, flying away on invisible wings that made the air lose its breath.
            “It used to be quieter too,” Thorn said. “You could hear the hawk in the sky, the boar in the forest, the mouse in the field. There was one time, I stood on the cliffs for a whole week, speaking to the sea and to the island itself, the two languages washing and crashing over each other in sweet rhythms while the sun and the rain both laughed in turn.” He stopped and shivered. “You could hear the past too. All gone—all, all gone.”
            The road went on and on. The fields became more crowded with cottages that multiplied into suburbs, their walls gleaming with the antiseptic promise of the future, empty and glorious. Cars and motors chocked the road so that the three were forced to walk single file on the narrow strip of grass along the edge. The blue of the sky and the yellow of the sun were choked by the small gyros that flew in hectic patterns.
            Oak turned and saw Ash, her face tight and pale, her eyes in a wild vacant stare as the sounds crowded down upon them. He reached back and took her hand, willing some of his strength to flow into her. Behind her, Thorn did the same.
            Some of the color was pushed back into her face. “Thank you,” she whispered. “It’s been so long since I was so close to it all, I’ve forgotten how to…” She took a step forward and almost fell. Thorn caught her.
            Take her over there, beside the wall,” Oak said. “We’ll rest there for a moment.”
            They stood by the waist high wall surrounded by the cacophony of yells, horns, rings, AI responses, motors, telecasts, and the voices, the millions of voices that rose from the throats and screens, large and small, and twirled through the air, interlocking, ripping apart, clashing, waring, destroying, only to fit again together in another spot on the breeze. The birds, the gurgle of the streams, the whispers of the deer, the owl and the fox, the mute thunder of the earth itself, was dumb before the onslaught.
            Oak closed his eyes. The image of Arthur appeared again, bright as the new born sun. It stared at him with eyes shadowed by sadness and glittered with hope.
            “Where are you?” Oak whispered to himself.
            “Here I am!”
            The voice erupted from the boy’s throat. It pierced the net of harsh sounds that hung over the houses with its golden clarion. The boy followed the voice, a child no older than ten, his head a tangled mess of midnight brambles pierced by two blue eyes from the frozen North Sea, a puny stick clutched in his hand. He stopped when he came upon them. Oak saw his eyes grow wide before his head tilt, flopping the black net on his head to the left.
            “Who are you?” he asked solemnly.
            “I’m Mr. Twelveoaks,” Oak said smiling, “and these are my friends, Miss Bennett and Mr. Mycroft. We’re just traveling through this part of the country.”
            The boy fixed his eyes on Oak. “Is she sick?”
            “She just got dizzy,” Thorn said. “She’ll be right as rain in no time.”
            “The rain is right, isn’t it?” the boy asked, smiling a little at them. “Especially when it isn’t supposed to rain but does. When the machines in the sky don’t work. Then the rain sings. I like it when it does that.”
            Oak caught his breath. He glanced at Thorn, eyes meeting. He saw the same question in Thorn’s eyes, saw briefly the same flash of hope that dared not speak.
            “What does the rain sing about?” Thorn asked.
            The boy screwed up his face. “I don’t always understand it. I usually don’t. But when it sings me to sleep, like Gram used to, it puts the best dreams in my head. There are people and things in them. Funny looking too. But wonderful too.” He looked at them again, his eyes boring into each of them. “Are you some of the people the rain sings about?”
            Ash pushed herself up, the color back in its rightful place in her face. “What do you mean, little one?”
            The boy shuffled his feet, looked down, a small blush blooming on his check. “Well, it’s just that—”
            “There you are!” The little girl appeared from around the corner. “You couldn’t hide from me forever, my knight. I command…” She saw the three and stood still, her eyes moving from one to the other and back again. “Why do you all look funny?”
            “Gwenny!” the boy whispered fiercely. “You don’t say that to people; it’s not polite!”
            “How do we look funny?” Ash asked, a sharpness in her voice, a rust upon it from disuse.
            The little girl hung her head.
            “Don’t be afraid,” Oak said, kneeling down. “How do we look funny?”
            “Well…you’re taller than you look. And your arms and legs are so long with so many fingers and toes. And you look like you have scales on your skin in places. Green scales, almost like the bark we gather underneath the trees when we get to see the trees outside the suburb. And you and you,” she continued, pointing to Oak and Thorn, “have green moss on your head and faces.”
            “Do you see that too?” Thorn asked the boy.
            “I…I guess so yes. But we’re not supposed to say things like that. They say it’s rude.”
            “But you’re not afraid of us?” Ash asked urgently.
            “Oh no!” the children said together. “You’re good,” the little girl said. “I can see it in your eyes. They look like warm stones or stars when we can see them through the Dome.”
            “And you look like some of the people I’ve seen in my dreams,” the boy said. “You’ve been here a long time.”
            “What are your names, children?” Oak asked.
            The little boy and the little girl looked at each other. “It’s alright,” the boy said, “they’re friends.” He looked at them, his eyes glowing. “You are friends, right?”
            The nodded together.
            “Arthur!” The woman appeared around the bend, a well proportioned scarecrow in her aesthetic suit. “You were supposed to be home thirty minutes ago. We’re going to be late for the Clives.” She looked at the three. “I apologize if my son was bothering you but he gets easily distracted.” She turned to the children again. “Come on, Guinevere, we’ll take you home first; I’m sure you’re keeping the supper waiting.” She placed herself between the two and prepared to march.
            “Wait!” Thorn called out. He went to the boy’s side and knelt. “Sword?” he asked the boy, gesturing to the stick. The boy nodded. Thorn reached into himself and pulled from his heart a green, sturdy sprig in which spring and autumn lived side by side. He handed it to the boy who took it. There was a glow of firelight and the sprig twisted and shimmered in the light, molding itself into the shape of an ancient sword that stood straight and tall, ready for war.
            “Do you see it, boy?” Thorn asked. The boy nodded solemnly, his eyes shining, his mouth open.
            “Come on, we’re going to be late!” the mother yelled. Her band beeped and she was pulled into a conversation half round the globe while she dragged the two children down the street.
            They stood there by the wall for a long time. “Arthur and Guinevere,” Oak murmured. “That cannot be coincidence.”
            “The legends never said how they would return,” Ash whispered, her hands weaving in and out together. “All they said was that they would come when we needed them most.”
            “So the sky will grow darker yet and the sea will rise higher,” Thorn said, his usual sharpness back but his eyes alive and kindled with hope. “But, maybe the dawn will come at last in some form or fashion.”
            “It will,” said Oak. “Have you noticed the sluggishness is less, the noise more quiet and the blurriness retreated at least a little from the eyes? I have. And I choose to believe that it is because of those two children. The prophecy is starting its fulfillment.”
            “But there is still much danger,” Ash said. “The world is wide and loud and hungry. It will set its eyes on those two and will seek to devour them. I do not trust them alone here without protection.”
            “I will stay to watch over the boy,” Thorn said without hesitation.
            “And I the same for the girl,” Ash returned.
            “And I will continue the circle,” Oak said. “If the prophecy is beginning its fulfillment, if these two are They returned, Arthur will require all the arms we can raise for him to march against whatever will threaten England in her darkest hour. I must go and wake all the ones I can and call back whoever I can to be ready, be it soon or far. Let us meet again here in a year and a day.”
            The other two nodded. They made the circle again and then parted ways. Oak walked across the road past the sprawling suburbs and back into the country, stopping on the first knoll he came to and looked back. Thorn and Ash were on either end of the suburb, towering over the houses, planting deep roots into the soil.
            He looked into the sky and for the first time in an age, thought he could hear the faint notes of the song of the stars. He smiled and began his journey again.

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