19:29 ST

Chapter 2: The Sacred Tree

Magic made Tamshir’s nose itch.

Oh, it wasn’t an allergy or anything. That would’ve been ridiculous, with her living in a giant cave made of the stuff. It just tickled her throat and made her sneeze a little, which she thought was a small enough price to pay for having been saved from famine and snow. She remembered that last cold, biting winter, and she knew how perilously close to the edge she’d come before the Sorceress saved her.

This flower, though, reeked of magic. It was a beautiful plant, all bright reds and yellows, a rare sight in the caverns and particularly out of place here in this dank, dark tunnel; but Tam was sneezing too hard to really appreciate it. She’d started up when she was three feet away, and she hadn’t stopped for more than a minute at a time. Her nose burned, and her brain felt like it was about to leak out of her ears.

"It’s an unusual specimen," Ambrose said, crouching down by the flower. His lantern threw a long shadow up the craggy wall. "They don’t usually grow this deep in the shadows. They’d be hard to find, which rather defeats the purpose."

Tam sneezed in response.

Ambrose looked over his shoulder at her and frowned. "I thought Ledore made you a filter."

Tam stood still, waiting for another sneeze. When none came, she cleared her throat and said, "She offered. I declined."

"I admire your tenacity," Ambrose said, "but I think in this case perhaps you are being needlessly stubborn. You can’t keep going about sneezing if you intend to explore the cave properly."

"I’m not being stubborn." Tam took a step away from the flower, and the itch in her nose subsided a little. "Ledore’s just running herself ragged. She’s been working without rest to make sure the children come back home. You’d think the adults, at least, would know better than to test the Monster’s patience, but they do it spring after spring. The pups and kittens get all riled up by their stories, and off they go to the cave mouth, too, to sneak outside." She didn’t bother trying to hide her irritation; Ambrose would’ve picked up on it anyways. They’d been friends long enough that neither could keep secrets from the other well. "The sneezing is annoying, but it’s not worth asking Ledore to work another spell on top of everything she’s already doing."

"You shouldn’t fault them for wanting some fresh air and sunshine," Ambrose replied. "The chance for it is rare enough. This place is wondrous, but it can be stifling."

Tam raised her eyebrows, feigning shock. "Do you mean to tell me you’re tiring of the cave?"

"I’d tire of you sooner than I’d tire of Mycena," Ambrose said easily. He looked sideways at Tam, a smile lurking around his mouth, before standing and shifting the weight of the bag slung over his back. He turned away from the flower and peered into the gloom ahead. "I do wonder who this flower was meant for. Not many Ineki live this far into the tunnels."

Tam eyed the magic-doused plant. "Find the next one, and maybe you’ll find the trail to the origin flower."

Ambrose blinked at her. Then he smiled a proper smile, one with teeth and all, and said, "Tamshir, you brilliant creature. You can smell out the next one, can’t you?"

"What?" Tam asked, followed by: "No. Ambrose, you know that was sarcasm. Pretend what you like about your own social ineptness, but I know you’re more aware than that."

"And I know you’re more curious than you let on," Ambrose replied, unfazed. "Whoever the origin flower is meant for presumably lives down these tunnels. Neither of us have been this far down before, which means neither of us has met these Mycenians. You can’t tell me you’re not curious."

"They deserve their privacy."

"And if they’ve maintained their privacy only because they’re not aware of the main settlements?" Ambrose returned.

Tam opened her mouth. Then she closed it again, pulled her ears back briefly in reluctant concession, and ran a paw across her nose. "Fine. Let me see if I can pick up the scent."

—————

The faint floral scent unfurled before Tamshir, a hazy and winding path she could only just follow.

Once she’d given the flower a good sniff—and once she’d gotten over the resulting sneezing fit—Tam had managed to pick up enough of the trail to follow it. She wasn’t sure which way she was leading them; they were just as likely heading towards the origin flower as towards the start of the flower trail. Ambrose didn’t seem to mind either way, but if Tam were being honest, she was rather hoping more for the latter than the former.

No one knew how the Sacred Tree worked. Tam had read all of Ambrose’s notes on it, so she knew as much as anyone else did, but that wasn’t nearly enough. Everyone knew, though, that when a geness was sorted and settled (and if they were lucky), a flower would bloom nearby. The members of a geness somehow always recognized when the flower was meant for them, and that would be the start of a weeks-long journey in search of the next flower, and the flower after that; until many days later, they found their way to the last, and inevitably the most beautiful, of them all. This was the origin flower, and from here, eventually, would rise a new Mycenian, born of the combined hopes and love of the geness.

The trail she followed now, Tam hoped, would lead her to whomever this particular flower was meant for. Tam traveled constantly in search of the lonely and the lost, the bewildered souls who might benefit from a stay in Ledore’s house. She had explored much more of the cave than any other resident, with the exception of Ambrose and perhaps Ledore herself, but even she had never come this way before. These tunnels led into uncharted territory, and Tam wanted very much to meet whoever lived beyond them.

"You don’t have to hold my tail so tightly, you know," Tam said mildly as she picked her way through the dark. "I’m not going to leave you behind."

"I’m barely touching you," Ambrose said, indignant. His grip relaxed, though, and Tam smiled to herself.

Her smile faded a minute later, and she stopped walking, turning her head to the left.

"Tam?" Ambrose asked. He’d dropped his voice to a murmur, but it still echoed around them.

"There’s someone up ahead," Tam said. "Bring your lantern up, will you?"

Ambrose obligingly fell into step beside Tam, and they walked forward together, both of them alert for potential danger. Mycena was a gift to its inhabitants, but that didn’t mean that it was always safe.

The tunnel opened out a few yards ahead, and light crept in from around the corner. Tam moved a few steps ahead of Ambrose, her ears pricked, tasting the air to see if she could figure out what lay ahead. "One someone," she said to Ambrose, who was dimming the lantern. "And another flower, I think. It’s a complicated smell."

Ambrose tucked the lantern beneath his arm and smiled at Tam. "Only one way to find out, my friend."

Before Tam could stop him, Ambrose strode down the tunnel, rounded the corner, and disappeared from her sight. She stared. Then, with a stifled, frustrated sound, she hurried after him, hoping to catch up before he ran into the stranger that waited ahead.

She managed it, but just barely. Tam reached for Ambrose’s shoulder and nearly collided with him when he abruptly halted, his head tilting back. Tam craned her neck, following his line of sight, and drew in her breath sharply.

If that first flower in the shadows had been beautiful, this one was gorgeous beyond words. It grew upon a thick branch high overhead, a riot of colors that swept upward in a neat spiral. Its petals were tightly closed, enclosing the child growing within, its red and gold hues shading into bright, vibrant emerald that seemed to shiver and flow. Tam was fairly certain it was just a trick of the light, but she couldn’t help thinking that the colors pulsed like a tiny heartbeat. She had come across so many wonders in her exploration of the cave, but she’d never seen anything like this.

She ruined it by sneezing.

The leaves of the tree stirred. They parted a moment later, and a pale-furred Ineki padded out onto the branch, moving with feline grace. She walked out to the flower and looked down at Tamshir and Ambrose, her amber eyes unblinking as she studied them. One of her tails wrapped briefly around the flower, as if in a caress; and then she stepped away from it, carefully, deliberately putting distance between herself and the flower, and dropped a soft question into Tam and Ambrose’s startled silence:

"Are you this child’s geness?"

—————

The Ineki’s name was Mae, and she seemed at once disappointed and relieved when Tamshir told her that she and Ambrose weren’t a geness.

Her mate, Mae said, had left for the cave mouth last spring, and she’d yet to come back. Mae didn’t think her geness was broken, but it wasn’t complete, either. Her mate’s absence left a gaping hole in her life, and although Mae believed staunchly that her mate would return if she could, she was beginning to think that perhaps it was time to give up hope. The fox Ineki had never been gone for so long before, and Mae had worn herself thin with worrying and wondering after her.

"I found a flower outside my home last month," Mae said. She knelt with her back to the tree’s trunk, and Tamshir and Ambrose sat facing her. "I was hoping… Well." She smiled faintly down at her paws. "It’s a silly thing, but I was hoping it meant she was on her way home. Then I hoped the Scared Tree had perhaps made a mistake and given me someone else’s flower, but I think I’ve always known it was meant for me."

"The Tree doesn’t make mistakes," Tam said.

Ambrose looked sideways at her. "As far as we know."

Tam twitched her tail, acknowledging Ambrose’s point. Mae, though, shook her head and said, "It doesn’t. The Tree always knows."

Tam and Ambrose both turned to stare at Mae.

Mae ducked her head, looking a little discomfitted by their attention. "Pava studied the cave," she explained. "That’s all she ever wanted to do. She’s fascinated by magic, and she wanted very much to understand what the Sorceress had done, and how she had accomplished it." Her smile turned complicated, somewhere between fond and pained. "It helped, I think, that the magic is so concentrated where our cottage is. Pava always said it let her see parts of the cave’s structure and its history."

"Pava is your mate?" Ambrose asked.

"Pavariell," Mae replied. "Yes."

Silence fell. Just as it started to turn awkward, Tam sneezed, a great, startling sneeze that echoed embarrassingly in the small cavern. She opened her mouth to apologize and promptly sneezed four more times.

"She has a sensitivity to magic," Ambrose said, seizing Tam’s sneezes as an excuse to broach the subject. "There’s a lot of it here, I think?"

Mae gave Tam a sympathetic look. "I’m afraid so. There’s always a lot of magic around the Sacred Tree’s offshoots, especially when there’s a origin flower growing."

"This is an offshoot of the Sacred Tree?" Ambrose glanced up at the branches overhead, and their crown of leaves dappled shadows across his face. "It’s days away from the Tree."

"The Tree’s roots spread all through the cave," Mae said. "Offshoots grow where they’re needed, for those of us who are too far away to reach the Sacred Tree itself. You can feel the Tree’s magic beneath your feet, if you know how to focus on it; it’s everywhere you walk." She looked between Ambrose and Tamshir. "You don’t come out this way very often, do you?"

"This is the farthest from the main settlements either of us has gone," Tam admitted.

"A colleague of mine had a theory," Ambrose added, "that other trees act as mirrors for the Sacred Tree. They reflect the Tree’s magic, and that’s how they’re able to accept a new geness’ oath and support origin flowers." He picked a leaf up from the floor, holding it against the fungal light that glowed from the ceiling, warm and yellow. "I suppose this disproves that."

Mae nodded. "They’re not mirrors; they’re all part of the same web. The offshoots have the same magic that the Sacred Tree does. I don’t understand it very well," she added apologetically. "Only what Pava’s explained to me, and she gets so excited, sometimes it’s hard to understand her. I can trace the magic, though, when I concentrate. It’s very faint, but I can feel it stretching far, far away."

Ambrose waved away Mae’s apology. "It’s still new information," he told her, "and it’s more than we’ve had before. It’s certainly more than I thought I’d find when we came out here."

"Pava says it’s practically another world, when you get far away enough from the cave mouth," Mae said. "Most Mycenians settle near it because the caverns are larger, and it’s so close to what we once knew, but deep in here is where the true magic is." Her voice faltered then, and she tipped her head back, looking up at the brilliant flower directly overhead. "But what’s the use of magic, if it leaves you all alone?"

Tam and Ambrose exchanged a glance. Ambrose leaned back ever so slightly, ceding this part of the conversation to Tam, and Tam turned to face Mae again.

"But you’re not alone," she reminded her gently. "You have a child now." Tam paused, sorting out her next words, aware of the origin flower and all its hopes hanging over her head. "Stories circulate," she continued at length, "about the Sacred Tree, and its purpose. It’s meant to help us repopulate, of course, but more than that, it’s to bring us together and try to heal what was broken. I think you were right when you said the Tree always knows; I think it meant to give you your flower now, for its reasons."

Mae had looked down as Tam talked, her amber eyes settling on her. Now she said, "A kit should grow up with both of her mothers."

"Perhaps she will," Tam replied. "But perhaps she doesn’t need to."

—————

Tamshir told Mae about Ledore’s house. She had been afraid Mae might take the suggestion poorly, but she kept her silence through Tam’s explanation. It was hard to keep track of the passage of time in the cave, but Tam was fairly certain a few hours had gone by when Ambrose finally sat back, his well of questions finally, temporarily, run dry.

Tam wasn’t sure at what point Ambrose had rejoined the conversation. She also wasn’t sure exactly when the tea set appeared, or where it had come from; magic had been involved somehow, but Mae had made it look so seamless and normal that neither Tam nor Ambrose had thought to comment on it. This was a surprise, given that Ambrose tended to comment on anything even remotely unusual.

"You might come stay a little while after your flower blooms," Tam said, bringing the conversation back around to the house. "The others would welcome you, and we’d help you raise your kitten until you find your footing."

Mae seemed to consider it. She looked up again at the flower and at the silver-barked tree that nurtured it, but Tam suspected that her decision was already made; and indeed, after just a few moments, Mae smiled at Tam and said, "I think we’ll stay here." Hers was a very small smile, and tinged around the edges with longing, but it was still genuinely a smile. "Whatever I’ve said about Pava… I have faith in her, and I’d like to be here when she comes back home."

"Of course," Tam said. "If you change your mind, know that our door will always be open to you."

Mae nodded. "Thank you. And if you ever find yourself deep down the tunnels, do come visit. Ours is the cavern with the painted sky and the walls all carpeted with grass." She lay a paw on the craggy floor, her expression wistful. "It sings with magic."

Ambrose laughed. "It’ll be easy to find, if so; Tam’s sneezing will lead us right to your door."

"And doesn’t that just sound like fun." Tam stood, stretching out the stiffness of sitting so long on the cave floor, and returned Mae’s smile. "I do hope we find each other again. I wish you and yours all the joy in the world, and everything else good that comes to a family."

Mae blinked at Tam. Then she seemed to soften and brighten all at once, and when she stood, Tam thought maybe she looked a little lighter on her feet than she had coming down the tree. "Thank you," Mae said, heartfelt. She murmured something else, which Tam couldn’t hear even with her dog’s sharp ears, though she knew Ambrose would ask her about it later. A little ball of white light swirled into being at Mae’s elbow, and she scooped it up with one paw and sent it drifting towards Tam.

"It will light your way through the tunnels," Mae said as Tam raised a paw, wonderingly, and held it up to the floating light. "I’m not a proper practitioner, so it won’t last outside, but it will keep so long as you’re here where the magic is strongest. You can save your lantern for when you leave the tunnels, this way."

"Thank you," Tam said, lowering her paw. The light hovered beside her, waiting.

"I’d intended to come back when I could," Ambrose added, "but you might find me at your door earlier than you’d expected, now. I would dearly love to know how you did that."

"Perhaps Pava will be home, then, to tell you. She’s a much better teacher than I am." Mae glanced up at her flower and placed a paw against the tree’s silver trunk. "And even if she isn’t," she added, looking back at Ambrose, "you’re more than welcome back."

Tam and Ambrose took their leave, then. Mae watched them go, and Tam paused at the mouth of the cavern to wave at her. The light bobbed patiently by Ambrose, its small glow somehow bright enough to illuminate the floor several feet around it.

"So. Magic," Tam said as she rejoined Ambrose, falling into step beside him as much as the narrow passage would allow.

"Who would have thought there would be so much of it here?" Ambrose hadn’t taken his eyes off the light much since Mae had given it to them, and Tam recognized the keen edge in his voice. It meant he was going to be asking a lot of questions of a lot of people soon, and likely hurting his wrist again trying to write it all down. "I never would have imagined the Tree could spread so far."

Tam thought back to Mae, and to the soft smile on her face when she’d looked up again at her flower that last time. "I think the Tree would have found its way to those who needed it, somehow," Tam said. "Magic or otherwise."

Ambrose didn’t respond. Tam wasn’t even sure he’d heard her, lost as he was in his own considerations about magic and how to best apply this new information to what he and his colleagues thought they knew. Tam shook her head slightly, grinned to herself, and followed along beside Ambrose, her footsteps echoing in time to his above the Sacred Tree’s all-encompassing heart.