As always, any comments are welcomed and listened to. I still haven't begun editing the earlier chapters based on feedback, but I want to get the 4 I am confident in out there and hear criticism on them before I start editing and rewriting the rest. Muchas gracias, amigos.
What Comes Next
Shea rose from his bed of feathers early the next morning, having lain with his eyes open all night. This is what one tends to do when one’s parents are petrified like stones out in the kitchen. Without breakfast and without a change of clothes, the boy headed out the door as the sun rose through the trees and high into the cloudless sky. He had no desire to sit down and eat fruit in front of the motionless figures of his parents.
He sauntered along the streets, past the opening shops and wakening homes of families. An old, but lively shywoman, one whom he’d passed numerous times in his childhood, saw him walking with his eyes half-closed and as usual decided she had some advice to give him.
“You shouldn’t stay up so late, Shea,” she said, filling a large stone tub she used for her laundry. There was a strong sense of nagging in her voice, but Shea learned long ago that it was simply who she was.
“I know, Madam Malwether,” he replied, yawning as he spoke. “I just woke a bit too early.”
The chore-happy shywoman eyed him with suspicion, but again, she was only being herself. Shea waived with a sleepy smile and continued on his way. Soon he came upon a place he had only ever been once before with his father when he was very young. A great and climbing aisleway went up through the stump. Hundreds of shymen and women traversed the giant pathway, but moved like ants at work, swiftly and with purpose.
There seemed to be no room for him as he stood staring at the broad trail, and anxiety took over at the thought of being trampled by all those hurried folk. The path’s daily climbers called it the High Road, and however daunting a climb it seemed, the walkway was the only way to reach Shea’s destination. After a deep breath, he slid into the ocean of shymen and was carried away by the tide.
Up the ever-crowded paths he scurried, a face among many, different but unnoticed all the same. He fought off unknowing assailants, dodged merchants pushing carts of wares he could never afford, and slowly but surely made his way past the grand marketplace known as the Promenade of Goods. A detour to the place his father always spoke of would have to wait, and with more important matters to tend to, Shea settled for a passing glimpse through the moving legs of his fellow climbers.
Most of the High Road’s patrons made their exit back at the Promenade, and soon Shea was alone on the last leg of the climb. It appeared not many had a reason to visit the highest point in the Stump. At long last, he came to the Upper Eaves. Whatever weariness he felt from his nimble ascent swiftly disappeared when he saw the marvel that lay before him.
Everything he’d ever known about the Stump, aside from Harver and his iron shop, was plain and boring. All buildings were the same, and all people seemed to strive to be as ordinary as possible. But as he entered the Upper Eaves, Shea found that his opinion was misguided, and that there was nothing simple or ordinary about the shymen who lived closest to the clouds.
Mud and brick were not the only building material of the wealthy folk. Instead their homes were compiled of grass, petals, leaves, twigs, vines, gems, and a great many other things Shea had never seen used to make a house. There were quite a few less homes than on the bottom level, but each one in the Eaves was at least double the size of any down below. Large gardens made up the space between dwellings, gardens filled with fruits and flowers Shea had only read of in his dad’s books.
One house immediately caught Shea’s eye. It was nothing more than a giant acorn, with windows cut into the sides, and leaves as shutters. From the stem streamed a flow of smoke, thick and endless. In the garden, tall and overlooking the nutty house, there stood a mass of tangled vines and grass that looked remarkably like a squirrel.
As Shea gazed in wonder, a short, fat shyman with rosy cheeks, dressed in robes of blue silk, appeared in a window near the natural roof of the acorn. With a heavy and awkward pounce, he slid down the back of the squirrel-bush, flew from its leafy tail, and landed eye to eye with the awestruck red-haired boy.
“Never get tired of doing that,” said the stocky shyman, dusting off his rear, and laughing uproariously. He squinted his eyes at Shea. “Red hair? That’s a first. At least, I think it is. Don’t remember ever seeing anyone with red hair before… I did see an old shywoman with blue hair once, but she was just trying to cover up her gray with berry juice. Blue eyes, too? You’re a specimen then, aren’t you?”
Shea didn’t say a word. He felt his jaw drop as he watched the eccentric shyman make a few slight hand gestures and mutter under his breath. Vines and weeds in the garden began to writhe and wriggle, moving like snakes towards the giant acorn. They wrapped themselves up and around the pip, giving the home an authentic aged look.
“There,” he said. “Gives the place a more lived-in feel, I think. Just finished growing that big nut yesterday. It’s got three floors in it; the old one only had two. A shyman needs a place for his things, you know.”
“You’re a Nurturer?” Shea managed, but still held his gaze on the odd domicile.
“Yep,” the shyman said proudly, “and a bit of an artist, I like to think. That squirrel’s my work. Looks uncanny for being a plant, I’d say.” He looked at his new home with a critical eye. “Needs something else though. Maybe I could use the old nut as an add-on to the side…” He looked to Shea for an answer. “What d’ya think?”
The boy saw a smaller acorn lying on its side next to the newly erected building and tried to imagine the two somehow connected. “I guess you could…”
“Great!” clamored the Nurturer. “It’s settled! But all that can wait. What can I do for you, young lad?”
“My name’s Shea. Harver sent me…”
“Harver!” The artist’s eyes lit up. “How is the old squash-for-brains!”
“You know him?” asked Shea.
“Of course!” The Nurturer yelled, as if to make sure Shea was paying attention or that others who passed by would do so. “He’s my brother after all.”
“You’re Mercer, then?” Shea didn’t know what exactly he expected, but the loon who stood before him was the furthest thing from his mind.
“The one and only,” Mercer bowed. “At your service.” He turned and walked towards the door of his new home, and motioned for Shea to follow. “Come on then, Shea. A friend of my brother is a friend of mine.”
And so, with no real choice in the matter, Shea followed Mercer into the Acornium, as its owner would later come to call it.
The outside of the house was plain compared to the inside. He expected the hollowed acorn to be rather dull, but Shea was learning as of late not to be fooled by his expectations. Four large columns of polished wood rose high through the center of the three-floor building. A staircase clothed in green moss began at one side of the main room and kept to the wall as it made its way around and up the house. Plants for decoration were everywhere, and all seemed to resemble one animal or another. There was a turtle mushroom patch, a porcupine rosebush, and a clover rabbit to name a few. All were scaled down in size so not to take up too much space.
Shea was used to being barefoot, and used to feeling dirt beneath his toes, but like everything else in Mercer’s home, the floor was not commonplace. A woven carpet of cotton and silk, colored to resemble the night sky, stars and all, spanned the ground from wall to wall. At the center of the room, there lay a large, round, wooden table. Around the table sat four high-backed, cushioned chairs, facing one and other for conversation. Mercer flipped his robes behind him, plopped down in a chair, and invited Shea to take a seat in the one opposite him.
“So,” the Nurturer began, “what’s my goofy big brother sent you up here for? To buy some art? The Mossy-Mouse is on sale; I can’t seem to move those things down at the Promenade.”
Shea simply shook his head, still a little afraid to talk. He’d never met a real Nurturer, much less sat down in one’s home and had a chat.
“No? Is this about that fight him and I had last week? Tell the old rat that I’m sorry too. I know he doesn’t want to move up here with me, I was just offering.”
“It’s not that either,” he managed this time.
“Well,” Mercer scratched his chin, “you’ve got me then. What are you doing way up here?”
Shea pulled Harver’s letter from his shirt and handed it to the Nurturer.
“What’s this?” Mercer read the note, and as his eyes moved, his face went from joyous to solemn. When he finished reading, he looked up at Shea and said, “I had forgotten about all that. Been so busy with the house and all.”
“He said you’d be able to tell me more.”
Mercer sighed and snapped his fingers. A tall, muscular shyman, dressed in black robes, came down the stairs carrying a tray with mugs and a pitcher. He set the tray down, and Mercer dismissed him.
“Tea?” he offered.
“No thanks,” Shea replied. “Harver said he told you everything.”
"Yes," Mercer sipped a steaming mug of Elderoot tea. "I didn't believe him for the longest time. He showed it to me one night. Made me stay up to unhealthy hours and listen to the forest. I was getting fed up, ready to go home and sleep, you know? But then I heard what the old boy was talking about. A tree moaned, it actually cried out in pain, and fell to its death. It was then that he got me to believe in this whole Shadow thing. But even so, I kind of thought of it as some spook-tale, just a way for my older brother to scare me. I never truly did take him seriously. Now I know I should've."
“I heard a tree fall last night,” said Shea. “How come no one else hears them?”
“I’m sure they do, Shea. But I doubt they think anything of it other than ‘Oh, listen. A tree’s fallen.’ We’re simple people, boy. We don’t read too much into things.”
“But Harver did,” suddenly something occurred to Shea. “Is he a Nurturer too?”
“Yes… but in a different way. I can make plants and such move and bend like puppets. I can lift a tree from the ground and set it down somewhere else. What my brother does is nothing like that. He can’t grow things with his touch, and he can’t make the trees walk. His gift is the Earthspeak, the ancient language of our world. He can talk to the earth and all that is part of it. When the first tree fell, years ago, Harver heard its cries, its begging to be spared. He hears everything this forest says, and from root to leaf, all are afraid.”
Shea was silent for a minute. “What is it? What’s doing this? Harver mentioned something about a shadow. Do you know what he meant?”
“That’s just what we call it. I don’t really know what it is, exactly. I’m sure he has a better grasp on the topic though. Harver had this theory about the world… how did he put it?” Mercer shifted in his seat and sat forward. His voice became quieter and Shea had to lean in towards him. “Harver called it Nature’s Scale. Meaning that -- where there is up, there is down, night and day, rain and shine, life and death. There are two sides to everything.”
“What does that have to do with the trees dying?” Shea asked eagerly.
“I’m getting to that." Mercer sipped his tea again. “As I was saying… there was a time when Shymen didn’t exist. According to the First Books, when the Great Oak fell, we were born from its remains. It was this Shadow that fell the Great Oak. Harver believes that it was meant only to destroy the old tree, to be the death to its life. But when we were born from the Oak’s spirit, we upset the Scale.”
“But we’ve been here for ages,” said Shea, on the edge of his seat. This whole thing was like one of the stories he read late at night. “How come it didn’t just kill us after the Oak?”
“My brother believes that we are protected so long as we reside in the Stump. For years, the Shadow could not get to us. When night falls, we are all back inside these walls, unable to be harmed. As years went by, the Shadow grew greater, angrier. It began to tear down the other trees in the forest in its thirst for death. And as the life in the forest lessens, so does the spirit of the Great Oak.” Mercer’s face took on a grave expression. “It will not be long before these walls are rendered useless, and the Shadow comes for us all.”
“That explains my parents,” said Shea. “They just sit there like statues.”
“Indeed,” Mercer drained his mug. “They are the first.” The Nurturer was suddenly forlorn, his vigor gone, his face twisted in disbelief. “I can’t believe he was right!”
“But Harver said there was something I needed to do next. He said you would know what that is.”
“He did?” Mercer’s head tilted to the side like a confused puppy’s. “I’m sorry, Shea.”
“My, my memory’s… not what it used to be.”
“You mean you don’t know?”
Mercer shook his head. “I am sorry about your parents, really. But, he told me so much! Always rambled on he did. How can I be expected to remember all of it? There were other important things at the time!”
“More important than your life?”
“I didn’t think all this would actually happen! I mean, how could I know it would come to this?”
“You would’ve, had you listened to Harver.” Shea held his anger from going any further. He too, had once written Harver off as mad. “Well, now what?”
From a drawer under the table, Mercer withdrew a dusty old tome and laid it out between them.
“This is a map my brother and I made when we were younger. It’s old, but it’s a decent sketch of the area outside the Stump.” Mercer dusted the map and pointed to a small blue oval marked the Thinkwell. The small body of water was some distance from the bird’s eye drawing of the Stump, and between the two lay something marked Beazel’s Bog. “Harver and I used to always go here. It’s his favorite place. Says the voices are always calm around there. If he’s left the Stump, that’s where he’s at.”
“And I have to go there, because you forget what comes next.”
Mercer smiled apologetically. “But you’ll have to be careful of that swamp,” the Nurturer laid his finger on the bog. “I dunno if that old tortoise is still alive, but if he is, he won’t be fond of a little shyman cutting through his territory.”
“You’re not going with me?” Shea knew the answer but asked anyway. Again, Mercer simply smiled. “That’s just fine. I’m used to being alone by now.”
“Listen,” the Nurturer hurriedly changed the subject. “You said your parents have been touched by the Shadow, right? While you’re gone, I’ll stay down there with them. See if I can’t loosen them up a bit, get the green flowing in them again. You just head west, straight on through the Bog and keep going until you run smack dab into Mount Rise. Down around the base of the mountain is the Thinkwell. It’s like a summer stroll, really.”
Shea indulged his offer, knowing that Harver’s brother was most likely too much a coward to be any use in the wild anyway. “That would be great. It’s creepy with them just sitting at the kitchen table all day long.”
“Good,” Mercer clapped. It was obvious he was happy the boy didn’t ask him to go find Harver. “Then let’s get going.”
“Shea,” Mercer laid his hand on the boy’s shoulder as they both stood from the chairs, “if your parents are as you say, then it’s started. We have no time to waste.”
“Can I take the map with me?”
“No, you won’t need that silly old thing, it's hardly accurate. Just keep walking, make sure to go through old Beazel’s, and you’ll be fine. Now come on, we’ve got to get a move on.”
As the odd couple left the Acorn Hut, Shea looked over his shoulder to see Mercer’s large and dark browed servant watching them go from the staircase. Shea wished that a shyman of the servant’s size would be going with him, but knew that such luck would only be too good to be true.
The people on the ground level eyed the pair suspiciously as they walked to Shea’s home. It was not every day you could see a red-haired boy pacing along with a wealthy Nurturer clad in silken robes. Shea kept his head low, unused to the attention, but Mercer smiled and waived to those he saw gawking.
“My fame precedes me,” he said to Shea quietly.
“Or your ego,” replied the boy, even quieter.
Shea’s house was just as he left it, but then there was no one to make it otherwise. He didn’t bother warning Mercer about the parent-statues that lie within. Still, he was unsure of what new development he would find, and entered with caution. There could have been a servant of the Shadow, whatever that was, or there could have been some new statue of a person, someone who had come by to see his father and had unknowingly walked into peril. But it was neither of these things that the boy found. There was just the same silence that had been there the night before.
With haste, Mercer found his way around Shea’s home and began packing one of the boy’s knapsacks. Shea watched with interest and confusion as the Nurturer ran from room to room, grabbing food off the shelves and out of the cupboards, stuffing it into the pack without the slightest glance at Shea’s parents. He seemed indifferent to their frozen stares, as though he’d seen this sort of thing many times before.
Mercer then said something about “No time to waste” and Shea found himself being quickly corralled out of the home and down the streets of the Stump. Madam Malwether stared, but said nothing. Many people stared at his burdened back as he passed, but none said anything. Had any of them any idea as to what was happening? Was there anyone who felt afraid as he did? Or were they all like sheep waiting for the wolf, with Shea acting as their shepherd?
In less than a day, his parents had been petrified, he’d gone to the Upper Eaves and enlisted the help of a forgetful Nurturer, discovered his whole world was falling down about him, and now felt suddenly aware that the lives of every shyman, woman and child now rested squarely on his scrawny shoulders. A life that had been so mundane had become unbelievable in the blink of an eye.
They stopped just shy of the Gates. Mercer put his fat hands on Shea’s shoulders. “Keep walking west, find shelter at night, and be swift. I’ll see you soon.” The Nurturer turned and began to walk away, but Shea stopped him.
“Mercer,” he said, “why don’t we just tell them?”
“All of them. If they knew, maybe there’d be an easy way to prevent it. Or we could just leave, leave the Stump and the shadow. Leave all of it behind.”
The nurturer shook his head. “If we told one person, he or she would probably be calm and rational, just as you have been. Two people would probably be just dandy. But if you tell the masses that their death is near, that there is some unseen force beating at the door... everything rational flies out the window.”
Shea hung his head. He knew what Mercer said was true.
“Don’t be afraid, Shea,” the nurturer comforted. “Some paths are only big enough for one. But just because they are narrow, does not mean they come to a dead end. Go on now, be quick.”
Shea nodded, forced a hopeful smile, and was off walking as though it were nothing more than a stroll in the afternoon. He wished he had the map, but wishing is not as useful as doing so he just walked west like he’d been told, barely even turning to keep from running into obstacles. The great expanse of the wood opened as the Stump shrank into the distance behind him. All was quiet but the soft crunch of earth beneath his feet. It was as if every living thing in the forest had turned its attention on him, this tiny creature slowly making his way alone and quiet, away from the only home he’d ever known.