There was nothing unusual about the hivehouse that I could see. Everything was in its place, and the footprints soon petered out on the other side of the threshold. I was about to go back outside to check for the intruder there, when I heard a voice. It was weak, yet clear – and speaking inside my head!
I’m over here.
I spun round, scanning the dark interior. My gaze fell on a small figure in the shadows beside the fireplace at the centre of the hivehouse and I wondered how, by Earth and Sky, I had missed him. Yet there he was, curled up in one of my chairs, the oldest-looking creature I had ever clapped eyes upon.
Greetings, he said, the voice still inside my head. He climbed to his feet, slowly and with painful effort. He stuck out a withered hand, which I took. It was like shaking hands with a clammy stick. My name is Woodfish. I apologize for intruding, but weariness overcame me on the trail, and I sought a moment’s shelter in your hive hut…
‘Greetings, Woodfish,’ I said. ‘I’m Hedgethorn. Hedgethorn Lammergyre – and you’re welcome to rest awhile.’
He was short and stooped, with green-tinged, scaly skin and large ears. I recognized him as a waterwaif, one of the many types of waif that once moved to every part of the Edge but, since the founding of Riverrise, tended now to remain in that great city of theirs. Realizing that I was still clutching my studded cudgel, I tossed it guiltily aside.
The Deepwoods are dangerous indeed. You are wise to be cautious, the voice told me. I heard the sound of soft chuckling. Yet I mean you no harm.
Who are you?’ I wondered. He must have read my thoughts.
For a glass of woodgrog, he said, I shall gladly tell you my tale…‘
I poured us both mugfuls of spirit – concocted myself in my sapstill – and handed one to the waif. I sat down opposite him.
Before drinking from it, he pulled a glass vial from an inside pocket of his jacket, unstoppered it with shaking fingers and let a single drop fall into the clear honey-coloured liquid. He took a sip. His dull eyes instantly gleamed brightly, and when he next spoke, it was with his mouth, not his thoughts.
‘Have you heard of a character from the past by the name of Twig? Captain Twig?’
Indeed I had. Quint, Twig, Keris and Rook. Every young’un knew their tales from the golden age of the Edge, some five hundred years earlier. Woodfish nodded.
‘I knew him,’ he said, and ignored my gasp of surprise. ‘He was captain of the Edgedancer, and I was one of his crew.’ He sighed and took another sip. ‘We went through many scrapes together, but the one I aim to tell you about took us to Riverrise, back before the waif city had been founded…
‘There were five of us who ended up there. Myself and Twig; his young friend, Cowlquape; as well a banderbear, Goom, and the Stone Pilot, a trog who never turned termagant, who went by the name of Maugin. A Mother Storm was imminent, and Captain Twig had to get back to Sanctaphrax before it struck that great floating city. He and Cowlquape flew there, roped to the blazing trunk of a skyfired tree, hoping against hope to save the city from certain destruction.
‘They succeeded, that much I know, since the Mother Storm continued her journey and struck the Riverrise peak itself. Captain Twig had promised to come back and rescue the rest of us if he was successful…’ The waterwaif’s eyes clouded. ‘Yet he never arrived.’
Woodfish fell still. I took a sip of woodgrog from my own mug, and nodded encouragingly. ‘And then?’ I prompted him.
‘And then?’ he echoed. ‘Five long years passed. Of course, the rejuvenating waters of the Riverrise spring kept us all healthy and young, but the call of the Deepwoods proved too much for us. Goom was first break. He kept having dreams that he was being summoned to one of the banderbear’s Great Convocations, and one morning he departed. I never discovered whether he reached his destination…
‘For my part, I left soon after. I tried to persuade Maugin to accompany me, but she would not break her promise to wait for her beloved Captain Twig.’ He shook his head. ‘Ibelieve the poor girl died, though the rumours I gleaned on the waif trail were vague and contradictory. As for me, having filled two large gourds that I fashioned myself from a couple of sloughed serpentwaif skins with the potent life-giving waters of the Riverrise lake, I set forth, leaving the Nightwoods far behind me and returning to the Deepwoods that I had learned to call my home…’
‘Five hundred years ago,’ I breathed.
Woodfish nodded. ‘The sacred water has kept me alive,’ he said, and smiled wryly, ‘though scarcely young, as you can see, Hedgethorn. I have witnessed the three ages of flight. Always on the move, I have journeyed to every corner of the Edge – except for one. I have never returned to Riverrise…’ He glanced at the vial, its contents all but used up.
‘And you are on your way there now?’ I ventured.
‘I was,’ he said wearily. ‘Perhaps…’ He paused. I waited for him to speak again, and waited. My mind strayed to my promised visit to my neighbour, Forden Drew. I was keen to discover whether he and the others had managed to rescue Alcestia’s father from the white trogs. I was about to explain this to Woodfish, when he raised a bony hand. He had been eavesdropping on my thoughts again.
‘I shall come with you,’ he said.
[For Woodfish's full story, read Midnight over Sanctaphrax]