Jeanette was alarmed by the motion, but she identified it as Grandmère’s long powerful arm reaching over her back and feeling for something. The hand tapped along her necklace with a delicate touch, and, finding the proper jewel, tapped it harder. The sound of the battle muffled as a shield covered them all. Jeanette had actually thought of the shielding power, but she hadn’t wanted to safeguard herself only--but the orangutan took the chance.
The arrow that had gone into her shoulder (and torn her beautiful new blouse) burned like fire--and worse, like poison, since she felt like she was getting a fever. She tried to find her father’s hand but he was lying with his back to her. At least she could feel his warmth and his heartbeat through his clothes.
Outside the shield was a lot of noise, predominantly screaming, none of which sounded human. After a while there was a crescendo, then the screaming faded. There was a tap-tap-tap on the shield, and she pressed the jewel that toggled it off.
The first thing she noticed was that there was not so much as a smudge on the four heroes. There was a thick covering of arrows, and a bloody hairy body or three, but not a mark on the three paladins from Broceliande. They were, moreover, grinning as their chests heaved.
While Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone was similarly unmarked, he didn’t share their demeanor. “Look at her! Jeanette’s been hit! Her father’s been hit! Senhor Capoeira’s been hit twice! This should not be considered a triumph!”
One of them--Sir Ogier--at least looked a bit rueful at that. “You have the right of it, Lord Silvertyger. We didn’t think to encounter these vermin so far away from their part of the forest, and in such numbers. But these aren’t ordinary times.”
Sir Huon leaned down, and distributed a small candy to each of them. “Hold this under your tongue,” he said. Then he picked up one of the arrows. “But look at this thing! It’s positively ludicrous!” Jeanette saw that the shaft of the arrow was roughly trimmed, and the arrowhead was made out of stone and attached with some sort of muck. “These heads are daubed with venom--painful but not deadly--and they can’t fire them to hit anything with speed or precision. They might just as well have been casting them by hand, but that they were in such a mob.”
The candies worked amazingly well, and Dr. Ransom was recovered enough to be his usual self. “They. Who exactly are ‘they’?”
Sir Amadis said, “They are called the Guardians of the Transformation, but in truth are just murderous brutes. They inhabit, as a rule, dark reaches beyond Avalon, and prey in packs mostly on the wounded, the diseased, or the mad.”
“Some hand has brought them into our path, ” Ogier said somberly. Then, less so: “More of an adventure then!”
“I can well live without one, ”said Senhor Capoeira Capybara, “but I could use another one of those lozenges.” Jeanette silently agreed with him, because they tasted great and made her feel amazingly better, but she had been taught quite early about good-tasting medicine.
They resumed their walk: upon Grandmère’s suggestion the non-heroes were wrapped in the blankets from Terence’s knapsack, which banished the remaining hurt, although Jeanette was still upset about the tear in her blouse. A gift from the Queen, after all! When they encountered a place where the path at first broadened and then split in two directions, Sir Huon took his horn and blew a long melody.
“Here is where one of the paths goes to Avalon and the other to Ys. I am announcing to the forest that we are for Avalon.”
“Is that required?” The capybara asked. Sir Amadis smiled and said, “If you think that such as we are the lords of creation, it’s good to remember that the trees of this forest have been evolving as long as we have, and it is here that all that is around them has grown to support their existence. It is best to be above-board in our dealings with them.”
The forest grew thicker now as they walked. It didn’t however, seem darker or gloomier. It was as if the abundance of leaves were more and more translucent. It did, however, become harder to tell the time of day, except where, infrequently, the canopy opened and rays streamed down. More flowers of all manner of colors bordered the path.
Evening was beginning to redden the light when they could see the path lead between to massive twisted trees that were festooned with thousands of flowers, each different in color and shape. Sir Amadis nearly cried out in joy, “Here we cross into the Land of Avalon!”
They were quite close to the giant trees when a man came from behind one and stood in the path. The three paladins of Broceliande knelt. “Hail Oberon, to whom we pledge service!”They said in unison.
King Oberon was dressed surprisingly: to Jeanette he was dressed like one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, except that his suit was green and his frilly shirt was light blue. He also had big jeweled rings on every finger and had a big strange flower on his lapel. He had a gold-capped walking stick that fit the ensemble, and bright red gloves. His face was aristocratic if pleasant, and there was no doubt in Jeanette’s mind that he was related to Parise D’Avignon.
He put a red finger to his lips and raised his eyebrows. He reached up and picked flowers off the immense trees, and handed them to each of them. Now that they were up close, Jeanette could see that they were orchids.
Once they had put them on with pins King Oberon supplied, he said, “Now you are mine. You have the freedom of the Land of Avalon.”
“Hey! What about us?” came from Jeanette’s bracelets, and Thyrsis and Antithyrsis alit on Jeanette’s shoulders. “I wasn’t told about you,” said Oberon, as he fished in his pockets. He drew out two red berries like currants, and the crows ate them. “Not bad,” Thyrsis said.
“The city of Avalon itself is another day’s journey, but there is what you might call a toll-house no more than an hour ahead. We can sit down and talk there with a minimum of pomp. I understand you had some excitement on the way here?”
Sir Amadis gave an entirely too cheerful account of the attack by the Guardians of the Transformation, but Oberon didn’t take it in the same manner. “That’s very worrisome, he said. ”Before the Forking Path, you say?”
It was finally gloomy when they arrived at a house by the side of the now-broad path. It was a thick building of stone with a thatched roof, but built up against another giant tree. Branches surrounded it like gnarled arms. King Oberon lifted his hand and the tiny-paned windows glowed with light. They walked in to a house much richer on the inside than it would have seemed on the outside.
None of them were ready for bed quite yet, and there was a large table around which everyone could sit. The seats had cushions, and there was one higher one so that Jeanette didn’t have to feel like she was sitting with her chin just reaching the tabletop. Sir Ogier went behind a folding screen and came out with a silver tray with teacups (not all of which matched) and King Oberon followed with a stone pitcher where he poured out hot cider for everyone.
After they had sipped and drunk and sighed, Terence said, “Could you tell me, your majesty, what Ys is? Is it somehow your enemy?”
“Not so much enemy as opposition, Dr. Ransom. In the broadest terms, Avalon is the embodiment of development, expansion, flourishing evolution; all of which, in the eyes of Ys, is decay, change and loss. They believe in a perfect God and a Perfect First Day, and change as tragedy. Avalon has held that God’s perfection is before Her, and that those things that cannot change are dead. Ys is not evil: many worlds have the legend or myth of the Fountain of Youth that are dim flickers of Ys--and Ys preserves much that Avalon would just as soon have fall away. But although you probably did not get a good look at the Guardians of the Transformation--”
“--except as bloody heaps,” said Sir Amadis.
“Amadis, quiet or I will turn you into a bush,” said Oberon, without much of an intention of doing so.
“--The guardians were once full humans as you and your daughter, but they have regained their supra-orbital ridge and taken once again to the trees, and that is the great work of Ys.”
“That’s awful,” said Jeanette.
“Oh I agree with you completely, Jeanette Ransom, and I think you and I will therefore become good friends--but that is not the only way of looking at things.”
Outside, the wind howled--except it wasn’t the wind.
Oberon’s face grew grim. “Something has followed you here. Something I hadn’t anticipated.”
There was a footstep as heavy as a house. Then another.
Oberon was gone. The knights leapt up, swords drawn.
The windows smashed in.