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The Oldest Oak

An entry for the Whispering Woods challenge

By Rachel DeemingPublished 27 days ago Updated 27 days ago 11 min read
Top Story - March 2024
43
The Oldest Oak
Photo by Javier Peñas on Unsplash

"I don't like these woods," Dafydd muttered. They had a presence that unnerved him. It wasn't the darkness; it wasn't the smell of them nor was it the unidentifiable shufflings, rustlings and creakings. It was something more and his instinct was twitching spasmodically in response and transmitting its vibrations to his gut. The air felt thicker and more hesitant to part and whilst his movement was unhindered, he felt enclosed on all sides.

Morwenna was also alert to the fact that this was no pleasant woodland walk. She had never felt like this under canopy before. It was verdant; plush with moss and layered with leafy protusions and thick roughened branches so that it felt like the chinks of light were battling for their space. Many times she had foraged in the woods close to her home for berries, and mushrooms, and nuts. The overwhelming feeling that she had there, seeking and searching for sustenance was one of airiness and light, the leaves a shelter and shield.

But there was more than just foliage here. There was life, trembling and lurking. It was like being watched by gods from afar, as curiosities, and knowing that the opportunity to intervene was, as gods, for the taking, should they wish it.

Her smallness and insignificance felt palpable.

She knew the far reaching prevalence of the gods. She had defied them once. Involuntarily, she shivered. Now was not a time for dwelling on transgressions she had made against otherworldly powers.

Now, her focus was on staying safe within the woods. Her senses were watchful. There was nothing benign here and yet, nothing intent on harm either. Indifference though could be equally as threatening.

"Just be alert, cariad," Morwenna said, looking around her, eyeing the shadows.

Dafydd turned towards his mother, whispering: "It's like we're being watched."

Morwenna nodded and Dafydd was surprised as she was never usually one for uneasiness, shrugging off feelings as mere fancies over which she had no control. She was a pragmatist, had to be but with the fleeing from her village and all that she had ever known, she was constantly being reminded that she did not know as much as she thought.

"Where is he taking us?" Dafydd asked, nodding his head towards Merlin, their rescuer, who had pulled them from a cave to safety after their escape from people who would harm them. He was strolling up ahead, seemingly gliding over the forest floor, of tree roots, hollow branches and leaf mould, his movements smooth and unhindered.

"I don't know, Dafydd. I don't know." Morwenna wanted to say somewhere safe but Merlin's presence, whilst being welcome, did not mean security. There would be a reason he had come for them. She had heard that he had the means to discern all through some magical object; if this were true, she did not doubt that he would have scried and assessed before rushing to their aid.

She focused on where she placed her feet. Despite the fact that she knew it was day, the thickness of the canopy created shadow and every step had to be measured. Tree roots tangled and ridged the pathway, leaving little space for a human foot to tread. Morwenna was constantly having to tiptoe and contort to find purchase. Dafydd was more spry; with his smaller feet and his youth, he was unhappy but managing more efficiently than her.

Up ahead, Merlin was concentrating although showing no sign of it. He did not like these woods and they did not like him but they had a begrudging respect for each other. He was currently conversing, although Morwenna and Dafydd would not have seen his lips move.

"Why are you here, Merlin? What do you want with us?"

It was the Oldest Oak that spoke with him. Merlin was a man of many practices, not all of them known to others. In that mystery, lay the mystery: and that was where he liked it kept. He was powerful but even he knew that he was merely one man and in the face of many intent on doing him harm, his powers would only stretch so far. And so, he kept his unnatural gifts to himself, one of them being that he could converse with the natural world. And manipulate it and the things in it if need be. That is why the Oldest Oak was wary.

Morwenna sensed the whispering of the forest but nothing more. Ripples in the light filtering from a sun unseen showed movement in the branches and leaves and something told her that the ash and the elm and the birch were curious about her. How she knew this, she could not say, but she was as certain of it, as she was the bones in her body.

"I have brought two who need not to be found," Merlin word-formed and visualised the Oldest Oak. Broad, thick, mighty. The Oldest Oak stood at the heart of the woods, its roots firm and deep. From its strength, saplings drew and grew, and the forest was its community, organically dependent, feeding the one off the other. The Oak had grown from death: the rotting corpse of the fox, the badger, the mouse provided nutrients to the soil, for the worms to process and the ground to absorb and the funghi to network. Fallen friends to the Oak who once towered with it had decayed and became bridges for creatures and hides for prey. They were lain down to become the floor, leaves disguising their forms season after season until they were unrecognisable as trees. The Oak knew them and what they gave it to thrive. It was how it was here in the woods. There was a harmony here that was discordant with the footfalls of strangers.

"I sense something in them both," the Oak said.

Merlin felt the tree's probing of his mind but did not allow its twigs of thought to extend into those recesses. Not yet.

"Power."

Merlin did not react. He may have underestimated the Oak. He would need to be mindful if he was to harness the tree's help and use it to his benefit.

"What do you want with them, Merlin?"

Merlin would not tell. His purpose? Unclear as yet but he knew deep in his mystical bones that if harm befell them, there would be a power shift. Morwenna had fled her village to prevent a sacrifice but the impetus for that had not come from her tribespeople: it had been the influence of another, darker force, a need greater than the one for a small boy's blood to be shed to appease. That force had merely propelled Morwenna's people to betray. Merlin was uncertain of exactly what it was but he knew that it was female and had the fire of dragons. That was how she appeared in his scrying stone: as a scaled, scarlet, fire-breathing, yellow-eyed beast. And she was aware of Merlin in ways that made him shiver. He did not know if he could match her but he knew that he could not give her the power that Morwenna and Dafydd contained.

She was in pursuit. He didn't need his scrying stone to tell him that.

But there was something about the forest that halted her approach and Merlin had used his instincts for the earth to guide them here. Was it the lack of discord, the balance that comes from symbiosis, from acceptance that all are working for the good of the other, even in their endings?

This ddraig coch, whatever it was, did not understand the giving derived from death, only the destruction to mete it out.

"I want to protect them," Merlin stated. This was true, although not totally the truth.

Morwenna and Dafydd felt the cool caress of the wind as the forest's heart grew irritated with Merlin. Morwenna reached for Dafydd and pulled him close to her, protective arm around his shoulder as the Oak showed its annoyance through the bullying power of air currents. Morwenna pushed her hair from her face, and wondered at the suddenness of the shift in atmosphere. It added to her unease and she pulled Dafydd closer still.

"I know you, Merlin. I know from where you came and I know to where you can be taken. Do not forget that."

Merlin was motionless physically in the face of the tree's disdain, holding his position while it felt its rage in his head. He remained unmoved by the wind but was pummelled by the Oak's enmity in the turmoil created in his brain. He knew that his final place would be in a tree's belly, encased for eternity in a wooden, sap-sticky tomb. He had seen his immortality in the stone. Rarely did he feel fear, but he felt it now.

Not yet. Not yet!

"You have a purpose. You can hide it from me, as you wish."

The wind ceased. The Oak had no further need for it and so it went.

Morwenna and Dafydd held each other tightly, startled at the forces being manipulated around them without their awareness.

"But I too sense their importance and we will shelter you and them."

Merlin had known that this would be so but was relieved despite this.

"But you must know, Merlin, that the thing that you fear will enter here. You have once more brought danger to our corner of the world. The blood spilled here prior has fed us but tainted us too. We do not like its taste."

Merlin could feel the weight of the Oak's anger towards him squashing his mind like an egg in a fist.

"But we will absorb and rebirth as we are grown to do."

With this, the Oak left Merlin's consciousness and Morwenna and Dafydd marvelled as there was an easing. Merlin was still stopped but there was more motion to his stillness and he turned to face his charges.

Light green. Dappled beams of sun breaking the roof of branches and twigs. Noise. Twitterings and flappings, squeaks and chirps. Morwenna saw colour where there had been dark and the shapes which had spoken of foreboding and ill spiritedness were soft and pliant, waving and dancing like they were welcoming their visitors. Bright yellow fungus, the vibrant flower of the climbing clematis, the vivid green of the fern and the rich blue of the carpeting bluebell assaulted their senses gleefully.

A threat had been lifted. Morwenna gazed around in wonder and turned to look from where they had come. It was still dark, like the trees had folded around them, creating a protective wall of dark yew greenery like a magical, moving labyrinth.

"We will be guarded. The trees have agreed," Merlin said.

Morwenna evaluated that statement but did not question it further. She gleaned from it that the hunters who had tracked them to the cave before their arrival here were only part of the threat and that there was something more, from which Merlin sought their protection. She was grateful, in that moment, for their discovery by him.

"But we need to keep moving, into the heart of the forest. We will only truly be safe when we reach the Oldest Oak."

Morwenna felt the warmth of the probing sun reaching through and resting its light touch on her cheek. She looked down at Dafydd, whose hair shone in the increasing brightness of the wood and she felt the need to express her overwhelming sense of appreciation for a natural force coming to her aid that she could not fully comprehend.

"Thank you," she uttered to the air around her, and she gasped as the tree roots that had previously marred her passage withdrew like snake tails to leave the path clear.

"Did you see that, Mam? The roots just went!" Dafydd exclaimed and laughed in bewilderment, the woods getting lighter and more sunny with every step taken forward.

Merlin smiled in recognition of the change, surprising himself with the way that Dafydd's childish enthusiasm touched him. He had deemed himself impervious to the vacillations of emotion, him having tuned out of these many moons ago. He turned to continue into the woods.

And it was then, in that moment of human weakness that he was once again mind-touched by the tree. His smile dissipated like mist and was replaced with a grimace. Morwenna and Dafydd did not see it but there was a contorting of his features as the Oldest Oak spoke once more:

"You are strong, Merlin. And we will help. Know that we protect them without price. But you, your debt is high. You know to what I refer."

Like a piercing light, the vision entered Merlin's mind.

It was the day of his reckoning, the day where he would be claimed. It showed him grim-faced and resigned walking towards an enormous tree, thick of trunk and wide of canopy, stretching above him, broad and deep green. Branches twisted and writhed as he approached, sinuous and threatening.

With a mighty crack, the trunk split, its glorious, golden, splintered wood parting, sap glistening, the smell of newly exposed arboreal flesh sweetening the air. The lines of age rippled in the grain and Merlin stepped inside to be enveloped in the tree's heart. He made no sounds, despite his terror and his fear, the only noise being the steady creak of the wood as it absorbed its prize for eternity, the crack sealed invisibly so that the rough textured bark reveals nothing about what it contains.

"You will have me, tree, as it is foretold," Merlin said, steel in his tone, "but not yet."

And all three went further into the woods and all three would receive protection as agreed, knowing that it was a temporary reprieve. But there was one, one who knew that the day would come where he would never leave this wood, and that this wood would never let him go.

***

A link to another tale, a precursor, if you will:

Short StoryMysteryFantasyAdventure
43

About the Creator

Rachel Deeming

Mum, blogger, crafter, reviewer, writer, traveller: I love to write and I am not limited by form. Here, you will find stories, articles, opinion pieces, poems, all of which reflect me: who I am, what I love, what I feel, how I view things.

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Comments (25)

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  • M. A. Mehan 19 days ago

    Congrats on top story! I can't believe I haven't subscribed to you yet, but I certainly have now!

  • Andrea Corwin 20 days ago

    Rachel, I have never forgotten the The Once and Mighty King by TH White that I read in 7th grade. Very old book and so good. So references in your story pulled it to the front of my mind again.

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  • Phil Flannery21 days ago

    There are a few very talented storytellers on this site, Rachel Deeming, you are among this group. Tolkien would be proud of your depiction of trees and their hidden power.

  • Laura DePace21 days ago

    I enjoyed your story! I could really feel the woods, the tension building, the life surrounding the characters. Good life or bad life? I'm glad the trees decided to protect them. Your story will be in my mind the next time I walk through a dense wood!

  • Shirley Belk22 days ago

    Beautifully written and frightening, but what tricks does Merlin yet have up his sleeve? Congratulations on Top Story!!!!

  • Cyrus22 days ago

    Congrats!

  • Anna 23 days ago

    Congrats on Top Story!🥳🥳🥳

  • JBaz23 days ago

    what a slow and wonderful build. The walk through the woods was told with such detail of emotion it felt like i was there. Congratulations

  • Farhat Naseem23 days ago

    You are amazing

  • Congratulations Rachel!

  • Call Me Les23 days ago

    Love this! I absolutely adore a fresh take on an old tale. I've written a few twists myself so I feel connected to this style and you've expanded things masterfully. Arthurian legends have always captured my attention. Bucket list is visiting Brittany and The Forest of Brocéliande. The vocabulary and cadence are engrossing. I couldn't stop. Very well done!

  • John Cox23 days ago

    Circled back to say congratulations! Well deserved!

  • Caroline Craven23 days ago

    So glad this is top story! Well done Rachel.

  • Kendall Defoe 23 days ago

    You are pushing me to enter this one and try to come up with something barely as clever as this one. If you don't win after getting Top Story, I will smack someone very hard, drop them in the middle of a forest, and let nature do its worse!

  • Back to say congratulations on your Top Story! 🎉💖🎊🎉💖🎊

  • Ameer Bibi24 days ago

    Congratulations for top story 🎊🎊"Your humanity infuses your writing with authenticity, empathy, and depth. Embrace your unique voice, for it holds the power to connect, resonate, and inspire others in ways only you can. Keep penning your truth, and watch as your words illuminate the path for others to follow."

  • I saw Dafydd and was like "Oh no, I know him from somewhere!" Then I did a Vocal search and found your story. Reread it to refresh my memory and came back here hahahaha. I was so sad that Merlin had a debt. Well at least for now, they're all protected. Loved your story!

  • Caroline Craven26 days ago

    Your writing is always so good Rachel. I get drawn in to whatever you’ve written. Awesome challenge entry.

  • D.K. Shepard27 days ago

    I really like that you chose to revisit the trio of characters from your micro, what an excellent way to build on the narrative and craft an excellent challenge entry. The power of the Oldest Oak was very well displayed and the thread of tenuous alliances was a great source of tension.

  • Marvelously & dreadfully told, Rachel. Please tell me you will continue this.

  • Andrea Corwin 27 days ago

    Ohhh I was reading this and loving all the descriptions and suspense. Describing the probing of Merlin’s mind and the tree splitting… nice work!😍

  • Abdul Qayyum27 days ago

    Well said, Keep up the good work. https://vocal.media/fiction/the-writer-nobody-sees

  • John Cox27 days ago

    Rachel! I was absolutely entranced! You brought the forest to amazing and miraculous life, mixing art and science, and sprinkling Arthurian lore throughout. Simply extraordinary writing. I hope this story wins the challenge. It's hard to imagine a better written one!

  • Well-wrought! This question posed in the story is quite relevant in the real world: "Was it the lack of discord, the balance that comes from symbiosis, from acceptance that all are working for the good of the other, even in their endings?" I've often thought, because I've directly experienced it, that automation of consciousness is the weak point where evil does its nastiest deeds. You'd asked me whether happiness and truth can coincide. Here. Here they can if truth is made the arbiter of conscience, where happiness is free to coexist. But where happiness is made the arbiter of conscience, we tend to wallow and neglect our own watchful eye. I love that this is a Merlin story! The Arthurian legend is timelessly retellable, and Merlin, of all the characters in it, the most elastic. You did a great job of showing his inner world, and this notion of the Druid's Ultimate Price is just cool from a literary and mythological standpoint.

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