Running. The trees were simply different types of shadow, shadow that sometimes struck Andrew in the face, made the running difficult, made it hard to see Silke's form up ahead, her cloak blending into the shadows that could be trees, could be just shadows. His legs had gone beyond ache, and the burning in his throat was so constant that it transcended irritation. They had run through several shallow creeks, but Silke had told him not to drink any water they found in the deep dark woods.
"How can every stream be poisonous?" Andrew had asked after they crossed the third.
"They're not all poisonous. Some will kill you, for certain. Others cause a lifelong slumber, others make you happy, some make you physically strong, some make you...how would you say it...very excited...sexually. And there's supposedly one that grants eternal life. The trouble is, water looks like water. There's no way of knowing until you drink it."
Now that would make one hell of a coffee blend, Andrew thought. The coffee tastes like a homeless person's clothing, but now I can lift a car over my head.
She gave him short drinks from her water flask from time to time, but it was clear that she was far more used to going long distance running without hydrating than he was. His feet formed blisters, his calves got shin splints, and then his upper thighs started cramping. It was only when he'd fallen asleep while walking and nearly collapsed that they reached Silke's goal.
Andrew was too weary to see clearly where they were going, but he could clearly see a rope ladder descending down through an opening in the foliage. As he descended, the sensation of the closeness of the Tree's dense dark forest gave way to a feeling of wide open space. He tried to see where they were, but it was night here. The moon was a barely present sickle of silver carving it's way delicately into the night sky. Unlike the interior of the Tree though, here there were stars.
Wherever they were, it wasn't the North Pole. The air was warm, like the best summer's nights when it's just warm enough to be out without a coat, and cool enough that you need to wear something longer than shorts. There was a slight wind blowing, and he could hear leaves and boughs rustling and swaying.
When he reached the bottom of the ladder, it was unexpected, and he stumbled a bit. Strong hands caught him, and a male voice filled with warmth said, "Rest easy now son."
Andrew tried to look up, but all he could see was the outline of three figures against the night sky, looking down at him.
"I see you found our lost pup," a deep voice that sounded familiar said as Silke clambered down the rope ladder.
"Just in time," she replied. "Any longer and the Redcoats would have killed him."
"I'm Andrew," Andrew slurred.
"I know," the deep voice said, and Andrew was lifted off his feet.
Andrew fell asleep momentarily, only to awaken at the creak of a door opening, and he had a vague impression of orange light...firelight...the sound of logs crackling in the hearth, then drowsing again, then waking as he was lowered onto a large soft surface...a bed?...and then an encompassing tranquility, a sensation of falling into a comforting oblivion.
* * * * * * * *
He woke to sunlight streaming in through the window of his room. It was a vibrant, quickening light, diffused only slightly by the transparent curtains which blew in a slight breeze in front of a narrow, open window. Andrew rubbed his eyes and surveyed his surroundings.
The bed was an old wooden four poster, intricately carved with images from nearly every fairy tale Andrew could recall. There was Little Red Riding Hood, and Goldilox and the Three Bears, and Rapunzel, and on and on, weaving around the wooden columns. Beyond the bed, the room was done in a half-timbered style, with cream-colored plaster in between the frames, old style wattle-and-daub. The ceiling was high, and steeply pitched. Andrew felt like he was in one of the fairy tales on the posts.
But you are, he laughed to himself.
He moved to get out of bed and groaned at the pain and soreness in his legs. Gritting his teeth, he swung himself out of the bed and stood up. His, coat, shoes and socks had been removed, but he still wore the rest of his clothes, covered in dirt and grime from the race through the Deep Dark Woods. He winced as he looked at the beautiful white sheets he'd been sleeping on, now soiled.
He opened the door and walked into a hallway. He could hear voices and laughter, and followed in their direction. He passed through a large sitting room, where the embers of a fire still glowed in the hearth. More sunlight streamed through multiple windows in this room. The voices and laughter were closer, and Andrew passed through a large wooden door into a world flooded with gold and green.
He was standing in a verdant meadow, surrounded on all sides by sloping hills covered in brush and tree. Tall grass swayed in the light breeze, and warm sunlight fell upon his face, from a sun more vibrant and golden than any he'd ever seen before. And he could see it. He wasn't blinded by it's light, but merely held in rapture at it's beauty.
"Good morning!" a female voice called to him.
Andrew looked to his right, to see a table set with food and drink; seated behind it was an elderly woman who was smiling. "Breakfast is still hot, if you're hungry."
Andrew's stomach reminded him that he was indeed, hungry. He limped slowly over to the table.
"I'm Andrew," Andrew said, holding out his hand.
"I'm Dorothea Evangeline," the woman replied. She stood and walked around the table, not the bent or tired gait of a senior citizen, but that of a woman strong and healthy, in her prime. Her diminutive frame belied such vigor. She took his hand and shook it. "But everyone just calls me Granny. And you'll need to wash those before you eat," indicating his hands. She pointed over to a water barrel at the side of the house.
Andrew turned to survey the house. It was a massive Tudor-style structure, with additions running off in all directions. Andrew could see that further back there was a second floor. He walked to the barrel, washed his hands up to his elbows, splashed his neck and face and returned to the table.
"You can get properly cleaned up once you've eaten," Granny said. "I've got some herbs that added to the water that should set you right as rain."
Andrew looked about the table. It was like someone had taken the photos from a breakfast menu, the photos that made you think a plate piled high with waffles and 'seasonal fruit' would be truly delightful, but the waffles were always slightly burnt, the whipped cream was out of a pressurized can, and the fruit was bruised and sometimes still a little frozen. This food looked like the pictures. The whipped cream was real cream. The waffles were as golden as the sun's light. The fruit was not only in season, but larger than any Andrew had seen before. The bacon was crisp, but not too crisp, with hardly any fat on it. There was orange juice...and the coffee...the smell was delightful.
"It tastes better than it looks," Granny said.
"I find that hard to believe," Andrew replied.
"Never know until you try," Granny smiled.
Andrew started filling a plate. "Where is Silke?" he asked.
"Still asleep," Granny replied. "She'd been out on patrol for several days and was on her way home when the Tree summoned her to come find you."
Andrew stopped chewing the piece of bacon he'd placed in his mouth in surprise. If that's how she ran when she was dead tired...
He looked over the long table, heavily laden with food and wondered at the spread Granny had laid out. Why had the old lady prepared such a feast? Was she expecting more?
"I heard voices and laughter as I was coming out," he said, but was interrupted by a deep voice from behind him.
"A meal fit for a king...or maybe a hobbit, wouldn't you say Tollers?"