This post was inspired by both this prompt and this photograph which I took whilst out walking with my friend today.
The clock struck midnight and I could feel the transformation begin. I slung a heavy cloak about my shoulders and pulled aside the dark velvet drapes at the French doors. The handle gave silently under my touch and I stepped into the cool October night. That transition from indoor to outdoor in a matter of seconds gave me the usual instant of pure delight before I turned my attention to the rose arbour and the wicket gate beyond. I hurried to the gate, eager to put the last barrier between myself and the shadows aside. It too gave with no sound adding to the ethereal, dislocated quality of my progress into Fernlea Forest.
Beneath the tree canopy, weaving my way amongst the saplings which formed the outer boundary of the woodland, I strained my senses, searching for any sounds, a scent, a movement, which might indicate life, but none came to me. Deeper I pushed, following paths barely visible in the navy night, paths trodden only by small animals. All about me I could feel the changes, the charge in the air, the sense of bated breath, of expectancy, but no sign betrayed the location I sought. Crossing a meandering stream, I came to a standing stone, long covered in verdant green lichen, whatever it once marked long lost to time and the workings of rain and wind. I sighed softly, knowing my way at last.
I worked further into the forest, now battling tangled undergrowth which had not been disturbed by paw or foot in a twelve-month; not since I had chanced upon the transformation by accident. I only knew, as I battled thorn and sting, tripping root and clutching branch, that I would fight with my last strength to see it again. The moon, slender and flighty goddess, danced between clouds, often darkening at the least opportune moment, several times plunging me into such darkness that I could only reach out a hand before me and wave it blindly to avoid walking into trunks which had grown gnarled and ancient, replacing the young upstarts who had seemed so easy to pass one hour since; an hour in which I had managed sight nor sound of my goal.
I paused to catch my breath, winded from a steep slope which I could not recall climbing on my previous visit, leaning against the bark of a silver birch which seemed to glimmer in the intermittent moonlight. The instant I lay my hand upon the trunk I felt a spark flee through my body, something of such vitality that I was instantly renewed, ready to plunge on, ready to face what might lay in my path desiring to prevent my attaining answers. Realising I had been given the sign I yearned for, I stood for a long moment, silent, still, and allowed my body to attune to the land, to the earth and the trees which grew from her. Opening my eyes I caught the merest hint of movement in the canopy, a barely there motion in the leaves which caused them all to drift in one direction. I took it for guidance and followed.
No more than ten minutes from the birch I all but fell into a circle of trees old beyond my reckoning. I could not decide if I should sit on the great flat stone which jutted from the ground in the centre of the circle or if I should try to creep away, find a less exposed point from which to observe; for I was certain this was where I had seen the transformation and where I hoped to see it again. The choice was taken from me for, with a tremendous shaking of the earth, which deposited me firmly upon the stone, that which I sought began before my eyes.
The circle contained a dozen trees of many species, each so ancient as to have put out no new growth in several decades, and for their leaf canopy to be as sparse as the teeth on a hen. I watched as roots began to haul themselves free of the loamy earth, as twisted trunks slowly straightened. I saw emerge, from beneath its coat of emerald green moss, a bony white spine which elongated and rose tall, lifting the crackling, desiccated branches of a hawthorn into regions it had not seen since before lightning had bent it double in years long dead. When all twelve trees were loose of their moorings, they turned as one to the west and, led by an oak which must have measured a span of centuries, they filed away, vanishing between the trunks of younger trees which, to my lasting astonishment, were already shuffling on roots which inched and grubbed through the soil to transport their mass into the vacated places.
At once, I rose to my feet, wishing to follow, to discover where those venerable trees were heading, but, as I attempted to navigate between these newcomers, branches swept down, and roots rose; my way was blocked at every side and I was forced to admit defeat. I had seen all I was allowed to see and the transformation was finished for another year. Trailing slowly back to the house I could not help but wonder, would I live long enough to be granted the privilege of that knowledge, for I could never hope to rival the longevity of Fernlea, and it had but to wait me out, needing never to share its ultimate secrets with one who was no more than a lone leaf in a single season.