A Leap Through the Elder Oak, Conclusion
Once again, Ray found himself dodging arrows as he leapt over fallen trees and ducked behind live ones. Tsealie would say it was a miracle he hadn’t been poked full of holes long before now. The elves were lethal with their uncanny aim and inhuman strength that sent the arrows flying so close, his skin prickled where they passed.
Another missile whipped by his face, splitting a small birch tree in two ahead of him, right where he’d been about to turn. He spun on his heels and changed direction as he cursed his hair that glowed like a silver beacon in the growing darkness of the shortest day of the year. He’d set out wearing a gnome hat Tsealie’s daughter had modified for him. The conical hat was absurd on such a tall man, but it disguised his humanness and used magical camouflage to make him disappear into nature.
It worked until the cap was snatched by a branch about a half mile back as he traversed a dangerous patch of woods. Not long after, the elf prince and his guard picked up his trail. Thwack! Another arrow lodged in a tree, this time taking a piece of him first. Ray reached behind his neck and felt the wetness of his blood. Another inch and the force would have taken his head.
Before this fateful jaunt into the bizarre, Ray had wished for more excitement in his life. Dropping into the realm of a supernatural race who did not welcome the intrusion wasn’t what he had in mind. Was leaving here too much to ask? He considered throwing himself on the mercy of the elf king. He’d meant what he said when he told Tsealie this was the last time he would risk the gnomes.
If he hadn’t broken so many laws when he first arrived, Tsealie might have managed to negotiate a sponsorship with King Seabrin, which might have gotten him home at the start of this venture. But laws were very different here, and the elves had little tolerance for law breakers, even if they were unwitting ones. Attempting negotiations was too dangerous a prospect for the lesser gnome kingdom to undertake. Once Ray learned about his situation, he refused to let Tsealie try.
He stumbled through a patch of thorny brush and almost fell on his face. He’d lost more blood than he realized, and his vision blurred. He didn’t even let himself dwell on the pain. Too many other worries crowded his mind, like making it to the portal before he passed out. He should try to staunch the blood. The elves had gone silent, which meant he had no idea how close they were, but he needed to rest a minute and bind his wound.
An opening between a spot of thick brush and a boulder provided cover while he crouched on the pungent forest floor and listened for signs of his pursuers. An owl hooted. Something skittered through his hiding spot, followed by another skitter. Twigs snapped under heavier steps. The prince was closer than he thought. As he listened, his vision cleared enough to make out his surroundings in the fading light. His heart thumped at what he saw.
He’d made it back to the Forest of the Fire Maidens and was in the middle of the ancient copse of yews Tsealie described. Ray knew what he must search for next, but he stayed hidden a little longer to drink his fill of water from the gourd on his belt. He used some to wash the blood from his hands, listened again, then pushed on in a direction away from the elves.
He only had to go another hundred yards before he spotted the mound of granite towering over a moonlit meadow, his last marker. An ethereal voice echoed between the trees. “If you don’t halt and turn yourself in, human, it will go worse for you.”
Of course, he kept going. He was so close; the sound of his wife’s laughter rang in his head. She was always ready to laugh, and it was the sweetest sound on earth. It beckoned him and hope gave him strength and stealth, so when he sprinted the last few yards, he made no sound.
He leapt over a log and vaulted around the monolithic rock, then stumbled to a halt. Ray had hashed out every detail of the epic solstice battle with Tsealie the past few days, but it hadn’t prepared him for the sight that met his eyes. Two trees, so tall they blocked the deepening starlight, swung their branches at each other as if they were swords. Their clashes thundered across the clearing, and electricity made its own noise as it crackled between them, growing in intensity.
He couldn’t make out faces because there weren’t any, but he imagined their expressions all the same, and it was clear the giant trees engaged in a fierce competition. One minute, they seemed rooted to the ground, the next, they would raise a gnarled root and step forward with another jab.
Movement caught his eye. It was an opening in the hollow of one of the warring trees, the Elder Oak, and it shimmered in an out of existence. His theory was correct. The portal wasn’t fixed in one spot, it moved around to meet certain conditions. And he watched those conditions unfold in a traditional clash that heralded winter. He calculated the war would end in about twenty minutes.
Before he could make his move, a beam of light blinded him, obscuring the snorting creature rearing up and blocking his path. A stag. He had to leap out of the way and barely managed to stay on his feet.
On the stag’s back was a fierce-looking blue-haired elf with a crown on his head that appeared to be made of water. The glowing being spoke in a deep voice. “Where do you think you are going, human? Do you really believe we would let you return without making you pay for your crimes?”
“My only crime is believing I was smart enough to know what I was doing with the portal. I admit conducting my experiment was the worst decision of my life. I only want to return to my family. I haven’t caused any harm here. Please let me go back.”
“It is the harm you might cause when you return that we are concerned with, and none of this is for you to decide. It is up to the king.” His brows drew together. “There is one possibility that might earn you your freedom.”
“What do you mean?”
“The human who seems set on discovering his way here must be stopped. The king will send you home after you help us with this problem.”
“I’ve already been missing for six years. Longer is unthinkable.”
“It is either this or be locked away and never go home again.” Ray decided he had another choice and searched for his opportunity to make a run for the ancient oak.
Then, he got help when a familiar sapphire prism pierced the darkness, and snow began to fall. It fell so heavy it soon covered every surface, piling high. The blanketing quiet brought to the fore the sounds of clashing branches. Only a few feet separated Ray from his family.
An owl flew at the prince, flapping its wings around the stag’s head. The stag reared up, this time in defense, nearly unseating the prince. More owls swooped over the guards.
Ray recognized the cues given to him by a wizened old gnome to point him towards another leap of faith. In the winged chaos, he made a zigzag dash, then dove headfirst at the shimmering hollow while the king of the oak trees dueled with the Holly King, both giants oblivious to the drama playing out beneath them.
As he tumbled through a denser darkness than the one now shrouding Undine on the winter solstice, he sent his heartfelt gratitude to a tiny being who had turned out to be the best friend he ever had.