The Tree’s Gossip

“Perhaps it’s time to teach you summoning.”

This was completely out of nowhere, in the middle of lunch, a thin vegetable soup that Yarrow had spent almost the entire morning poking at. Yarrow nearly dropped her spoon; as it was, she could not contain herself from gaping at her teacher like an idiot.

“Summoning? As in, spirits? D-demons?”

“ ‘Demon’ is a very broad term,” the old woman said dryly. “And most of them look on it as an insult, so maybe pick another word to call ‘em by.”

“Alright. But — well — summoning!” Yarrow tried to collect her thoughts. The first truly witchy thing since she’d come up the mountain! “What — can I ask what brought this on?”

Nettle gave a gusty sigh. “Anthracite’s gone and stuck his beak in fey business. It’s only a matter of time until Her Royal Nibs decides to interfere aboveground. And that means getting backup from other places. You might as well learn it now, before you have to.”

It was gibberish, all of it, as far as Yarrow was concerned. But she wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the eye, or however the saying went.

Especially since it looked like some of her questions might finally be answered.

~

“We’re going to start with a tree spirit, since those are sleepy old things,” Nettle told her. They were seated on a moss-covered log, farther up the mountain than Yarrow had ever been before. The air was thinner, the afternoon sunlight a thick golden yellow filtered through the autumn leaves, the loam dark and soft underfoot. A few birds chirped and whistled to each other, but otherwise it was peacefully silent.

Nettle withdrew a small tin from the leather pouch at her belt, then uncapped it and showed it to Yarrow. It was a thick-looking green paste the color of dried sage.

“I’ll show you how to mix this later,” she said. “But you only ever do summonings with this stuff. Different colors for different beasties, and I’ll have you look through the codex later for the whys and hows. But I figured watching me do it would be the best way to learn the basics, ‘stead of reading some dry old theory.”

She leaned down to brush the loam away from the ground, then dipped two gnarled fingers into the tin and drew four twisting symbols into the dirt, describing a square about three feet wide.

Then she sat up and capped the tin.

“It’ll take a minute for the call to go out,” said Nettle. “But you watch those sigils there, child. If you look close enough, you’ll see ‘em glow for just a second.”

Yarrow kept her eyes fixed on the four sigils. Nothing happened; the chirp and call of birds in the trees distracted her; she watched an ant industriously carrying a bit of leaf over a nearby tree root.

Then something did glow, just out of the corner of her eye. She yanked her focus back to the sigils. A pulse of light: there and gone again.

Drat, she’d missed it!

But the light returned, and leaped up into the air like water droplets in a heavy rainfall.

“There we go,” said Nettle.

The light coalesced into the shape of a woman, the same pale blue-green of lichen, yet translucent. Yarrow thought she could see the shapes of the trees through her.

The woman’s bare feet were inside the square, and her gauzy dress shifting in the wind did not escape it either.

Her face was lined, but younger than Nettle’s, and from the steady look that she leveled at the two of them, Yarrow got the feeling that this was someone whose patience could outlast a rock’s.

“Hello, Nettle. Got a new apprentice, I see.”

“Hello, Pine,” said Nettle. “Showing young Yarrow here the ropes, as it were.”

“Just in time for her to get caught up in one of the fey’s designs. You always did have an excellent sense of timing.”

“And how is it you know any of that?”

“Roots grow near to the rock,” said the pine tree spirit. “We hear the cave fey whispering. You’ve not best pleased them, Nettle. The queen is plotting again.”

“You’re not the first to tell me. The psychopomp made it perfectly clear what I was to expect in the next few turns of the moon,” said Nettle. Her wrinkled mouth drew into a tight displeased line. “But I’ve told Anthracite and I’ll tell you now —”

“Anthracite?” said the pine tree. Her blue-green face went paler, more translucent. “She’s got him running her messages now?”

Nettle slowly raised a single gnarled finger, and pointed it at the pine tree with all the deliberate menace of a father sizing up a potential son-in-law, not liking very much what he saw, and laying out his rules for future proceedings.

“I’ll have that out with him later,” she growled. “But it’s no grand matter in the end. The cave queen’s got no power up here, not while I’m keeping watch. I’ll thank both you and him to remember it.”

Yarrow didn’t remember much of the conversation after that, even though she knew she should have paid better attention. She smiled and nodded and made nice enough to placate both teacher and visitor, but said very little; her mind was simply too busy chewing on its latest puzzle. Even after the spirit disappeared again and they traipsed back to the cottage, she was too busy mulling over that first minute’s exchange.

The cave queen. That must be Her Royal Nibs that Nettle had argued about with the crow-man — Anthracite — only a week ago. Yarrow had read a little about the different creatures that lived on the mountain, but even less about the creatures that lived beneath it. At the very least, by the conversation with the pine tree spirit, this cave queen was closer to monsterhood than most.

And Anthracite, the crow-man, the ferryman of the dead, was running messages for her.

What sort of secrets would he hold? How many people had he met — and of the kind, like the cave fey, that could not die of natural means?

Yarrow wondered what color of paint would summon him.