Those who are new to the story can find the beginning at Chapter One, and those who would like to have the story thus far in a single file can find it in both .pdf and .rtf formats on the Longer Works page.
In Which Lindy There Is a Homecoming of Sorts
The night had become quite cold by the time Lindy left the noise of Khurshid’s camp behind her. The sky was high and clear, and the day’s warmth had fled as quickly as the sun, and Lindy was soon cold even through the wool sweater that Amena had given her for the journey. It was one of those spring nights where winter seems to return again. The temperature fell well below zero, and a cold wind picked up along the road, and Lindy’s breath was soon making puffs of white in the halo of light that Saffi was casting around her.
She tried to remember how long it had taken to walk with Moe and Cleanna from the house to the bridge all those mornings ago when they had set out in search of the cottage. She knew that they had started later than they wanted and that they had reached the bridge when the sun was still very high, so she guessed that it was not more than two or three hours walk now to The Crofts, but the journey seemed much harder on the way back. The road rose steadily up from the river, and she was tired from her long journey, and the darkness made her walk more carefully, even with Saffi giving what light he could.
She kept plodding along the path, not wanting to make camp on such a cold night, especially when she was now so close to The Crofts, but she was shivering quite a lot, hugging her arms around herself against the cold and pulling her sweater up around her face, even wearing the blanket from her pack over her shoulders like a cape. None of this seemed to help much though. She was still cold through her many layers, and she was still so very tired. She could not remember having ever been so tired. Her feet were sore from the hard pace she had set all day, and they kept catching on the cobbles as she dragged them one after the other. It was as if she had spent the last of her energy walking away from Khurshid at the bridge and now had nothing left. She kept promising herself that she would be able to see the lights of The Crofts over the next rise or around the next corner, but she was disappointed each time, and she began to wonder whether she might have to stop for a while, not to sleep, she told herself, but only for a short rest, though she was worried that she might never get started again once she stopped.
At last she sat herself against a tall tree only a few yards from the path, pulling her blanket up over her head and tucking it closely around her. The tree was one of the papery ones that reminded her of birch trees except that its bark was the colour of bronze, looking almost red in the light that Saffi cast around them as he landed on the trunk and hung there above her head. A heavy dew had already formed on the grass, so Lindy sat on her now empty pack to protect herself from the dampness. She tucked her legs up under the blanket against her chest and laid her head on her knees. The blanket now covered her completely, and the trees cut the wind quite well, and she began to feel a little warmer, though the pack beneath her was already a bit damp.
She had promised herself that she would not sleep, but she had underestimated just how tired she really was. Though she could not fall asleep exactly, because she would always begin falling to one side or another and then wake up with a start, she certainly fell into the edges of sleep, drifting in half-dreams that seemed somehow more real and more vivid than dreams. Hours may well have passed while she sat there, though she could not have said how many, and all the while the most startling things filled her mind.
Her mother and Alisdair appeared, their arms tied and their mouths gagged, but somehow they came to her anyway and hugged her and told her how much they missed her and sat down under the tree to talk with her. Lindy’s mother, whose name was Missus Merton, as some of you may remember, was looking all around and saying how beautiful everything was, just as if she was free and was sitting on the grass on a summer day to see the whole forest spread out before her, and Alisdair was saying that this had always been one of his favourite stretches of the road to the bridge, and that he was glad to have some friends along to share it with him. They both seemed perfectly content to sit among the trees and look at the scenery, never giving even the slightest notice to the ropes that bound their arms and legs or to the gags that filled their mouths. It was so very strange to hear the two of them talking like old friends and all the while to see them tied so strongly.
Lindy tried to go and free them, but her body seemed frozen in place, and she could only watch them, feeling more and more helpless and guilty. “I’m sorry,” she cried, “I can’t move. I’m trying to help you, but I can’t move.” Her mother was just remarking to Alisdair about how fresh the air was, and the two of them looked at Lindy in surprise.
“Oh, my Little Lady,” Missus Merton said, which was something that she used to say when Lindy was very small and now said only when she thought that Lindy was in particular need of comforting. “You don’t have anything to be sorry for,” she cried, but the sound of her voice coming from behind the gag in her mouth only upset Lindy still more. She struggled desperately to break whatever it was that was holding her, but she could not move even so much as her finger, and she could only watch as Alisdair and her mother gradually disappeared.
Then it seemed suddenly that she was drifting up above herself, only a little, not even as high as the treetops, and the sun was shining brightly, and she was flying between the trees, chasing something that was always just beyond her. She sometimes caught a glimpse of a brightness now and again, and she thought that she must be following the sun or some other star, but then she knew suddenly that this light was much greater than any star and that it would blind her if she should ever catch sight of it. She tried to stop herself from following, but she kept hurtling faster and faster after the light, and then she could see a dense grove of trees far ahead that was shining with the brightness of a white hot fire. She closed her eyes, but the light seemed to pass right through her eyelids, and the world seemed full only of brightness, but all at once everything was dark, and she was herself again, half-asleep beneath the tree.
Her first thought was that she should get up and begin her journey once more, but she was so tired, and soon she was drifting in her half-dream again, and she found that she had became a great tree. She was looking out across a mighty forest as the rising sun made her red bark glint like bronze, and she could feel how far and how deep her roots went beneath the forest floor, and she knew the secret names of every creature that lived among her branches and beneath her bark and between her roots. Then she saw that far away, at the edges of the great forest, there were great plumes of smoke, and there were also deep tremors in the earth, as if the foundations of the world were being shaken, and with impossible speed she saw a thousand creatures cutting the trees and burning them and leaving them to rot, and she felt fear in the forest itself. Soon the axes were at her own trunk, but the blows would not harm her, and for a moment she felt relief, until she looked around her to see only an unending wasteland from horizon to horizon where not even a single other tree survived, and she knew that she was now alone.
She was filled with a great sadness, and though still more visions passed before her eyes, she could remember nothing of them afterwards, only the feeling of loneliness that hung over everything. Each dream seemed to offer some hope, but it was always a hope that lay just beyond her reach or came at too great a cost, and each dream seemed to be a part of all the others, until they became one long vision of hopelessness. At last, she found herself hovering above the ground in a wide forest not far from an overgrown road, and she saw something lying beneath a tree, lit by a glow that seemed to come from the tree itself, and she knew that this was no dream, that it was her own self huddled beneath the blanket on the cold ground below, and she knew also that she needed to wake herself and continue on her journey. She tried to shake the huddled figure below her, but her hands passed right through her own body. She cried out, but her voice was as feeble as her touch, and the weight of her visions hung over her, and she began to wonder whether things would end as badly as her dreams seemed to foretell.
Just then there was the sudden sound of wings, and then birds were settling all around her, turning into women as they landed. Lindy could see Cleanna among them, and then she was herself again, and she felt hands gently shaking her to wakefulness beneath the warm covering of the blanket. She let herself be bundled and carried along by arms much stronger than her own, and in what seemed like only a few minutes more the hooves of horses could be heard clattering on the road, and a small open carriage drew up with Clinton holding the reins and looking as grave and concerned as his propriety allowed him. Lindy felt herself being lifted into the carriage, and then Cleanna was beside her, wrapping a heavy blanket around them both, and Lindy laid her head on the bird-woman’s shoulder, feeling warmer and safer already.