“Anchor aloft!” Captain Briar yelled. The great floating hulk of the Gordian Knot set down into a clearing on a hilltop deep in the woods. Its large anchor, a heavy cylinder of metal, dropped out of a trap door from the center of the keel, shaking the ground when it landed. The sound of cranks and gears, turned by the hands of the crew, revealed three iron-woven legs that unfolded from the bottom of the Knot. Reminiscent of a sea galleon from a few hundred years ago, the ship perched itself on the massive legs as if it were a model on display. Several more crewmembers slid overside on ropes, staking them into the dirt, docking the Knot in the middle of nowhere. The gangway hidden in the top deck slid out and down it came even more crewmembers carrying empty water buckets for the ship’s stores.
The ship was such a beauty. Its rich, dark red wood hull and light blue keel stood out sharply against the gray sky and browning woods. The railing was carved ornately with swirls and spindles, the portholes and windows rimmed in brass. But most astonishing was the flying ship’s sails. Not cloth, but leaf. Not dead, but alive. Two tall, lanky trunks sprang from the middle of the top deck, one at its center, the other further forward. From them grew mammoth wide leaves, still green despite the season, and overlapping on all sides. The crew had dotingly sewn the overlaps together creating full-sized, natural sails. Having landed, they began to curl. Just like a fern, the tips at the very top began rolling in on themselves. It slowly crept down until it reached the bottom branches where it stopped, rolled like a cigar. The rolled sails still sat ten feet above the top deck giving the Gordian Knot the familiar appearance of an old pirate ship out of water. Except, that is, for the full-sized bushy tree that sprang implausibly from the aft deck. The arbor miracle whole reason the ship could sail the skies, and it was where the captain stood.
Captain Briar, a tough middle-aged nymph with a thick gray goatee and not a hair on his head surveyed the clockwork movement of his ship. Everyone knew what to do and when. He turned to his first mate, Tancred, who was joining him up on the aft deck underneath the bushy tree. Tancred was a tall nymph with a ski jump nose and pointed ears who always wore an expression of deep thought. He sported a dark militaristic coat with shiny brass buttons running up the front and flat ovals on the shoulders. A Dryad followed behind him, his graying hair going in all directions, sitting above a gritty scruff of beard. A complicated set of glasses sat on his nose, which he instinctively adjusted. “Captain.”
“Master Kadave,” Captain Briar acknowledged. A fat gray bird with a long, feathery tail swooped down and landed on one of the tree’s branches.
“Do they know we are coming, Phoenix?” he asked the bird.
“Yes, Cap’m,” it replied impossibly.
“Alright, Master Kadave, would you please send a song and let the Dryads know we’ve arrived?”
He nodded first to Captain Briar and then to Commander Tancred. Turning to the woods the old Dryad navigator began to sing a song that one imagined the wind would sound like if it could sing. Several of the crew stopped by its entrance, never becoming accustomed to the haunting overtones of a beautiful Dryad song. Tora, her deep Dryad roots beckoning, began to join the song where she stood near the bow, her high lilting harmony like a bird on the wind. Below decks, where the other Dryads were working, a deep hum began to grow as they entered the song as well. Everyone let themselves be swept away on the sound of the woods speaking to itself.
Logan turned toward the golden sound drifting through the trees. It seemed to thrum in his heart and he wanted to join in. The woods almost seemed to sway to the music. Before he preferred it was gone. He realized when the sound had ended that he had been humming along unaware. Turning around, he found Royel standing there watching him. Her dark hair always looked wet, and never strayed from being pulled back behind her head. She smiled, “Beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” Logan breathed. He picked up his empty water bucket and walked with her to the stream they had found. The other crewmembers were already filling theirs, gabbing on about something, happy to be offship for a little while. Logan dipped his bucket in and began to fill it. He glanced over and saw Royel had already filled hers, uncommonly fast, and was staring intently at the center of the stream.
Logan looked at the rushing water she was so focused on and asked, “What is it?”
“I think there’re some oysters down there,” she said. And before he could comment she dove into the water quick as a frog. The others stared at the water where she had been, waiting for her to resurface. It took about five minutes until her head popped back out, but she acted like it had only been a few seconds. She wasn’t out of breath, and her hair didn’t even look out of place, still slick down the back. Her arms were full of muddy oysters that she proudly dragged onto the bank.
“Naiads,” one of the crew said, “Always showing off…”
Luke followed behind the bear cautiously. It padded along incredibly quiet despite its great size, completely focused on what was in front of it. Luke checked the tautness of his small golden bow again, keeping his eyes on the trunks of the trees. There was no wind, the limbs all around as still as if painted there, the only movement himself and the bear.
And then the bear stopped. Luke stopped too. He quietly came up behind it as it sniffed the cool air. “What do you smell, Samara?” he asked her.
The bear gathered a few more sniffs and whispered quietly. “There’s a deer over in that direction. And over there,” she nodded the opposite direction, “is an elk.”
Luke nodded. “You take the elk, I’ll get the deer.” Samara grunted. He knew she was tired of taking the big jobs, but she was a bear. An elk would be nothing for an oversized Valley Warrior like her. He just smirked as she silently trotted off.
Luke began his trek through the dead leaves. Autumn was losing its grip on the world. It was always a strange time of year. The brilliant colors of fall had begun to fade and brown, leaving an almost depressing age behind. It seemed like life seeped out of the ground and trees, leaving the empty shells of nature. But winter brought something new. There was something about snow, Luke had always loved it. It was such a simple act of the sky but completely transformed the ground. The dead of autumn died away, overwhelmingly covered by a pure white. The world became new.
He had been looking forward to it, but would not be around to see snow take its claim. They would set sail tomorrow and be over the Atlantic before the day ended. He didn’t know how long they would need to be down in Atlantis, but he figured he would probably miss out on snow this year.
He tried to watch his footing, avoiding the deep piles of leaves which rustled like alarms. Then he saw something move. He froze, and watched as the buck munched warily on the little bit of grass it had found. It was a majestic creature, its rack orbiting around its head as the deer slowly panned the woods. Luke carefully pulled his bow string back and took aim with an arrow notched and ready. A tree obstructed the main part of the deer, all the best places to hit. So he gently picked up his foot and silently shifted to his right. At the same moment, a shard of sunlight broke through the grey clouds and bare trees, bouncing off the golden bow in his hands. He could see its reflection dance on the tree trunks in front of him, and across the deer. The buck snapped its head toward the glint of light, and then right at Luke. It paused only a beat, and then darted away into the trees.
“Blast this gaudy thing,” he cursed the old bow. He only kept it because it was something Apollo had had for a very long time. He wished he wasn’t so sentimental.
“I guess we’ll have to do this a wee bit more disorderly,” he said, his Scottish accent ringing in the silent woods.
He whipped off his thick coat and grabbed his shirt at the shoulders. Pulling up, like he was going to take it off, he gathered the cloth until the entire back of his shirt was scrunched in his fists. Two black tattoos shone exposed on his skin, drawn like tribal versions of wings. Then on his shoulder blades two black stumps appeared. They rose out of his shoulders, while the black tattoos seemed to slide up with them. The farther out the black masses rose, the farther the tattoos crept up his back, as if the tattoos were being drawn from his skin into the world. Finally, the two black masses freed themselves from his shoulders and spread out in gleaming oily black wings.
Luke grabbed his bow and shot up into the trees. It wasn’t long until he spotted the deer bouncing to and fro down below. He flew down lower trying to gauge a clear shot. “Losh, it’s cold!” he exclaimed, trying to tug his shirt down over his bare stomach, his wings crumpling it up.
Finally, he saw a spread in the trees where the buck was heading. He drew his arrow back, and swooped in right as they met in the clearing. With one final exhale he let the arrow fly, watching as it stuck itself neatly into the buck’s heart.
Landing down by his kill, he triumphantly pulled the arrow out. “Cook’ll be pleased with this,” he exclaimed. Right as he was about to fuse his wings back into his flesh, he heard a steady thumping coming through the woods ahead of him. It looked like the trees were stomping along, their trunks pounding the ground. He was reminded of the grand Forest Guardian he had witnessed only a week ago in the battle at the Throne of Grace. But then he realized these weren’t trees but legs bounding toward him. A trio of the biggest moose he had ever seen loped over beside his dead buck. On their backs sat tall Dryads clad in animal furs, their hairs speckled with grey.
“Have you seen an airship landed nearby, Boread?” The Dryad in front asked.
“I came from an airship. The Gordian Knot, perched over there,” Luke answered. “You must be the Dryads they sang for.”
“Yes, you will take us to your captain, if you please.”
Luke agreed, cursing his luck at being seen with his wings out. He wouldn’t be able to put his wings away with the Dryads watching without giving away the fact that he was not an ordinary nymph, but something much rarer.
He tugged on the front of his shirt futilely, “Och, it’s cold.”