A Tale from the Waterwood

Previously posted to my DeviantArt page, along with an illustration.

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The Indarin say that when the Wizard of the Waterwood wished to select his heir, he summoned his three disciples, that he might set them a task which would judge between them. On his bed in the mere the Wizard lay, wizened and old beyond count of years, with his gray beard-tangles clambering down the bed and floating out every which way upon the shallow water around his bed, like the very roots of the willows which grew all around his house, bowing their heads and their boughs in protective reverence towards his dwelling. Candles there were upon his table and upon his mantle and upon his hearth; for no fire would the Wizard have of wood, but burned coal only, which gives warmth and heat for cooking, but poor light – and an eels’-oil lamp hung smoking from his low ceiling; by the light of these did his disciples gather, and knelt about his bed.
“Answer me this question,” he charged them, as he had begun oft before – “whence issues the source of the Waterwood?”
For a day and a night the disciples kept vigil together, as was their custom, fasting from all but thought to consider what their master meant by this. Then they made ready as for a journey, each to follow the course suggested by his own mind, seeking the place from which the Waterwood sprung.
After a week and a day the first disciple returned. “I have the answer!” he declared. “I have traveled to the four corners of the Waterwood, by beast and skiff and foot, mapped its secret routes and slept by its hidden pools. I went from the southland swamps, north to the place where the hills bubble like boiling land and the river runs in rills between their steep sides and all the trees are blooming white, east until the land is settled and smooth and floods in the spring between the tall straight trunks, south again to the deep waters where the trees climb like spiders out of the water and tower overhead as if to block out all thought of sunlight, west once more to your house.” Such was his boast, for the Wizard and his disciples know tricks of traveling very fast through the Waterwood.
“And?” asked the old Wizard, raising himself a little on his elbows.
“The source is here, in the mounded earth and flooded vales beneath our feet,” answered the first disciple, stamping his own in the mud. “Out of these do the great trees draw their strength, and give sustenance and shelter to all else in their turn.”
The Wizard sank down upon his bed. “It is a good answer. We will wait.”
After a month and a day the second disciple returned. His skin was very pale, and the scent of strange earths clung to his clothes. His voice was low and he seemed a little wild, as if he had spent too much time away from the company of men. “I have the answer,” he said softly. “I, too, went north and east, and I followed the course of the rivers until they united in one river, the Crouis, which flows through the plain from the mountains. And I followed the river, followed and followed, scenting always which was the young Crouis and ignoring its tributaries. I journeyed high into the mountains, and I found the lake which collects the molten snow and from which the Crouis issued.”
“And is that your answer?” asked the Wizard, knitting his weedy eyebrows together in a scrutinizing glare.
“No,” the second disciple shook his head wearily. “For I traveled around the lake, and I found water from the spring that feeds the lake, trickling from a crack in the rock. And I followed that trickle as deep into the mountain as I could go, until the way narrowed to the size of my hand and I heard the water bubbling out of the dark, out of the living rock.” He swayed, and knelt in the water beside the old Wizard’s bed. “The source of the Waterwood is in the heart of the mountain.”
“Hmm!” returned the Wizard, lying back with a smile.
They waited a year and a day for the third disciple to return. When he did he sat in silence for some time.
“Well?” demanded the Wizard.
“I wandered,” the third disciple answered slowly. “I went home, and found it no longer my home. I broached the edge of the trees and looked out on the plain, and I descried the broad and dry channel through which the Crouis used to run, when the Waterwood was only a wood. I returned, and spent many days and nights punting on the trackless waterways among the trunks of the trees, with none but the the winding eels and dragonflies for company. I went to the Indarin, and sat at the feet of their elders to ask your question, Master. I was told a curious story.
“I was told that, long ago, the River grew very hot from traveling so long upon the Plains. Looking all around, River saw the Forest with its many tall and mighty trees, dark and cool. Surely there, thought River, I will be able to hide from the Sun for a time. And so River turned aside from his course, and came to wander among the trees of the Forest. After a time, under the leaves’ pleasant shade, River began to feel sleepy, and lay down to take a nap. And as he lay asleep, his waters slowly spread throughout the whole Forest.”
“Oh yes, and someday the River will wake, and will return to its path, and the Waterwood will dry up, is that what they told you?” the first disciple interrupted impatiently.
“That is but one version of the Indarin story,” the second disciple interjected, his tone a mild rebuke. “In another, the River woke again, many ages ago, but could no longer remember the way out. And so he wanders here and there among the trees, looking for the One who will show him his way to the Sea.”
They looked at the Wizard, but he did not speak, only gestured for the third disciple to finish.
“I have heard both of your versions of the story before,” the third disciple said. “I have also heard a version in which River woke, but met Kiamadh, the Trickster, on his way home, and it was Kiamadh who led him by confusing ways back and forth among the trees until River was exhausted and bewildered, then vanished, leaving him here. But I was told none of these by the Indarin elders.
“Instead I was told that when River woke, he had to walk the whole Forest to find everywhere his waters had gone. And everywhere he went he saw that the Forest had changed; that many new kinds of trees had grown up, and that the old trees had grown thick, and strong, and tall as mountains. He saw the many strange and wonderful creatures that had come to live there, the winding eel and the dazzler-fly, fishes and frogs and diver-bats, and the beautiful plants, the whitecups and hanging bells and the fiddler grape. He saw how the Indarin people had become a people of the water as well as the trees, that now they wove nets as well as ladders and their children learned to swim and to handle boats as soon as they learned to walk and speak, and that they relied on the eels and the wandering trout for food. And when River had found all of himself, and seen how all things had become in the Forest, he knew he must remain. For while he slept, much life had come to the Waterwood, and much death would come if he left. So River patrols the Waterwood, doing what he can for the life of it, but his secret longing is still for the Sea.
“On the warmest nights of summer, they said, or if ever a seagull enters the Waterwood and its cries reach River’s ears, his sighs of longing rise as mists high into the trees.”
The third disciple fell silent, and the Wizard was silent. The first and second disciples were silent also, fearing to interrupt again, glancing at their master from time to time. At last the Wizard said again,
But the third disciple only shook his head.
At this the Wizard groaned from his bed, as if with his last breaths. “You shall be my heir then,” he declared to the third disciple, “and these two shall be your disciples. For I,” his words rattled in his throat, “do not know the source of the Waterwood, either.”

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