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Song Suggestion: Music Box Ballad by Chris Parsons
“Twice now I have heard of this Goblin Tree,” Bethany said to the cat as they left the haunted, lonely village beneath the forest’s shadow. “I wonder what it is.” Where she had come from, there were goblins, but they were nasty, spiteful creatures who had nothing at all to do with trees, unless it was to cut them down and burn them. They certainly liked to live under the ground, but it was in caves or swamps, not in forests, for they did not care for the beasts which lived in such places and poisoned the earth they touched with their foul evil.
The mare trotted on down the road, which soon began to narrow and the cat did not answer her; he was a cat and would speak only when he wished to. Weeds grew up and the track was all but lost before they had gone far at all. “I’d say we took a wrong turning,” Bethany declared as they were slowed to a walk, “if there had been another way to take.”
“Once this was the main way,” the cat said, “and all who walked upon it found their way easily. But then darkness came to the heart of the wood and shadows crept out with sharp teeth and long claws. Things there are which would steal your soul and others that would trick you into their deathless and cursed realms so that you might forever be trapped, singing for their king. Now there are few who will chance to walk here and the road has nearly vanished.”
“My, but we should have gone another way,” Bethany said, breathless with sudden fear.
“Many will say just so when they find themselves on such a road,” said the cat and curled up with his tail across his nose.
They might have turned back, but Bethany let the mare carry on. Sometimes people will do such things out of pride or obstinance and that will lead them often to ruin. But Bethany, though frightened of the road enough that she could not bring herself to sing even one word, thought she might find the child again and help her to escape this terrible, lonely place. Sure enough, the day passed and, when the moon rose pale as milk and fat as a wheel of cheese, she began to hear a crying sound. She might have mistook it for a gull, but she knew that it wasn’t. Then, it might have been the wind, but Bethany knew better. At last, they saw a low, crumbling wall and upon it sat the girl. Beyond her lay the first path Bethany had seen leading away from the road.
“Why are you crying?” Bethany asked the child. She did not get down; this was a wicked land and many things might wander which could look like a child and be evil beneath their skin.
The girl looked up, dark eyes shining with her tears. “All I love is gone, ne’er to walk this way again. No matter how far I search, no matter where I roam, I cannot find what I am seeking, and I cannot find my way home. All I love is gone, ne’er again to be free. Down, down, down beneath the Goblin Tree.”
Bethany climbed down from the wagon. She lit a fire and gave the girl bread and cheese, but she did not put her in the wagon’s soft bed. Instead, she stood and said, “can you take me to the Goblin Tree?”
The girl stood and started down the path, which ran right into the dark forest. The cat followed, but the dog and mare did not. Bethany hoped they would be alright and that she would see them again, but she did not turn aside.
The way grew ever more narrow in the wood, which was dark and pressed close on either side, the trees leaning over, as if preparing to fall on them. In Bethany’s own land, there was a forest which, if it wanted, could get up and walk around. Bethany’s grandmother had always said that it was a fell place, full of malice and anger, for it was a sentient thing, not just trees growing in the earth. Bethany had always wanted to see it – from a distance, of course. Standing in this forest quenched her curiosity at once; the feeling that the trees were watching them, furious at their trespass, was horrible and she jumped at every sound. She could not imagine how much worse it might be if the trees could get up and move like tall, angry people.
A light ground mist swirled around their ankles and, ever so often, the moon peeked through the canopy. The forest was not silent; there was the sound of the wind in the trees and a rustling, as of small creatures moving about, following them. Bethany thought she heard voices whispering just below those natural sounds and she thought that one of them was calling her name.
“Don’t listen,” the cat said to her. “Stay upon the path.”
“Bethany.” Now it was definitely calling her name, though it was still soft, and she thought that she recognized the beloved voice of her grandmother.
“Don’t follow it,” the cat warned once more. “Go chasing phantoms in this forest and you’ll never be found again.”
If you know anything at all of cats, you know they will not offer their advice twice and, if one should do so, then your situation is precarious indeed. Bethany realized she’d already put one foot off the path and drew it back at once. She tore a bit of cloth off her skirt and stuffed it in her ears, so that she might not hear the voices calling out to her. Then on they went, following the girl along the path.
The girl stopped after many more minutes. Ahead of her was a clearing and, at its center, a there stood a great, black tree. Bethany at once wanted to turn around and run. The tree had not one leaf. Its bare, spidery branches traced a black and twisted web against the sky and the moon was caught in its net, as if wrapped in barbed wire.
There were lanterns hanging from the branches.Some silver, some coper. Simple and ornate, they dangled, unlit, strange decorations for this one lonely, hideous tree and they had an air of abandonment, their owners lost. “Well, I guess that we have found the beastly Goblin Tree,” Bethany said, dismayed.