“Follow me,” said the elf, and without another word, he turned and walked away from us, along a narrow, flowing walkway carved out of more of the same dark wood and leading away towards the tree’s olive-green trunk. I looked at M, who nodded her head after him. I obediently turned to follow.
Suddenly, M’s big hand was grasping my shoulder. I turned abruptly. Her face was contorted in something – hesitant, maternal care, I thought.
“Good luck,” she growled, and there was a spark of – pride? – in her eyes. Then she pulled her hand back. “Hurry up,” she said, gruff again.
“You’re not coming?” I said, surprised, and a little upset.
M shook her head. She almost spoke, but instead she pursed her lips and looked towards the elf. “Other stuff to do,” she said. “You’ll be fine. Hurry up,” she repeated.
“Bye then,” I replied, feeling a little hurt at being hustled off so abruptly.
M smiled, and it was almost warm. “Oh, it’s not goodbye, by any means. I’ll see you again soon.” She gestured impatiently towards the receding elf.
I turned at last toward him. His withered ears bobbed as he walked, and despite his hunch, he moved with grace. With a last uncertain glance back at M, who had turned away herself, I followed him.
Past him and to either side – indeed, in every direction but down – stretched a crystal-clear darkness, lit with pinpricks of pure white lamplight – lines of them, strung like the lights of Winter Veil, lamps lining pathways stretching through the wide-open space beneath and within Teldrassil’s canopy. As I moved, lights winked on or out, passing behind the branches which pierced the space like great, warped skewers. Above were more lights, stretching up until the branches twisted together and blocked my view. Below, there was darkness, and the distant, almost silent hiss of waves. I swallowed nervously and tried not to think about it.
The elf floated on ahead of me. I looked down at the path which we followed. The dark wood was inlaid with coarse patterns of lighter wood, chipped in places and missing entirely in others. Despite its grace at a distance, up close the path looked old and decayed.
In a few minutes, it reached Teldrassil’s trunk and turned left, running along it. The tree, too, looked unhealthy and diseased if you looked too close – it was rough and covered in lichens and thorns, and, periodically, an unhealthy-looking pus oozed out from beneath the bark.
The path rose gently as we moved silently along it, splitting occasionally and sending shoots off, away from the trunk, up or down towards bare platforms or simple, ugly box buildings built against the tree’s enormous branches. The dark-wood lamp posts stood at intervals, casting their bright light on us, on the path, on the wall of lichen-covered, coarse, unhealthy-looking bark that rose to our right, and off and down to the left, into the great sea-smelling pitch-black chasm below. I swallowed nervously and tried not to think about it.
Before long, the path turned into thick stairs, wide this time and ascending gently. They curved slowly away from the trunk, taking us out over the depthless blackness with no apparent support. More paths broke off now, to either side, studded with their own white lanterns.
Even as gently as the stairs rose, my legs and mind began to drag with fatigue. The staircase twisted upwards in great arcs, resting occasionally on the great twisting branches which pierced the darkness, but more often simply floated in space, held up by nothing but itself. A few stray breaths of cool, sea-spray breeze brushed against my face, but for the most part the air was still. Ahead of me, through the surreal darkness, walked the hunched elf, silent and unwavering.
The elf turned left. The staircase rose on without us, and a new pathway, made of dark inlaid wood like the lower ones but more ornate and better-maintained, lay ahead of us. Then it ended, and we were in the foyer of a beautiful, open building, arching up from an unwalled, well-lit ground floor to a high, gracefully pointed upper level, shrouded in waves of dark green cloth.
At the center of the lower level, before me, was a long table draped in a white cloth and laid neatly with a (too-small) fork and knife, and piled high with the most delicious-looking, ornate foods: little two-inch meat pies, and breads, and fruits. I glanced at my guide, but he was moving past the table and up the open stairwell to the second level, and so I sat myself down at the table and dug in.
The food was as delicious as it was beautiful, and at first I ate quickly. Then, as my hunger slaked and I ate more slowly, I began to look around, to observe this beautiful house in which I sat. It was sparsely decorated with wooden sculptures – knots and knobs and gnarls of wood in the shape of faces and figures and animals, but not carved: they looked as though they had been gently coaxed into growing that way. I wondered what manner of power could coax wood. Then I looked closer at the furniture – flowing wooden chairs and thick, knobby end-tables – and they seemed to have grown the same way. As I looked at it, I realized that even the house, its walls and staircase and bowers seemed to be organic, and I suddenly realized that I was sitting inside a perfectly sculpted branch.
The instant after I’d eaten my fill, my blue-skinned, black-eyed guide returned, descending down the stairs from the private upper level. “This is the home of Tyrande Stormrage,” he said airily, “who will teach you what you have come to learn, and whom you will find,” he continued, “at the Drassi’n’drassil – the Crown of the Crown. Go back to the main road,” and the elf pointed back the way we’d come, “and go up.”
“Up,” I said.
“Up,” repeated the elf. “All roads lead to the Drassi.”
I stared. “Alone?” I said.
“Alone,” replied the elf.
“I’m really tired,” I said crossly.
“You will find everything you need when you reach the Crown,” said the elf, with the merest hint of disdain. Then he turned, and walked back up the building’s open stairwell.
“Do you have a name?” I called after him, exasperated.
The elf turned, half way up the stairs. “Of course I do,” he said airily, and then he was gone.
I sighed. Tyrande Stormrage, I thought. The elf who would teach me everything I had to learn. I wondered how I’d recognize him, or how much he looked like the withered elf who had led me this far. You could find out, I thought to myself, if you follow directions and head up. And look for some elf.
And with nothing else for it, I left Tyrande’s beautiful house, turned back to the graceful road, and set out.
The staircase ran on, arching gracefully from dark, twisting branch to dark, twisting branch, for what seemed like miles. I spotted a few dark, hunched figures in the distance, off on brightly-lit side roads, then I was passing them on the stairway itself. All of them were bowed, moving hunched but gracefully, skin a deep regal blue but wrinkled with age or worry. They kept their eyes cast to the ground in front of them, refusing to meet mine, although more than a few of them shot glances of shock, or fear, or caustic curiosity up at me as we passed. I’m sorry, I thought to them. I didn’t ask to come here and scare you. As the staircase rose and the number of sidelong looks increased, my silent apologies turned more annoyed and less sympathetic.
As I ascended, the branches grew slowly, subtly thinner, and the lights and buildings came more often. Soon, I was hiking through a true city, with wide streets and plazas lined with old, graceful shops built – or grown – like Tyrande’s house, intermingled with newer, larger buildings built square and ugly out of planks of wood. Elves bustled in and out of them, some bearing tightly-wrapped brown sacks on their heads, others carrying paper-bags or paper-wrapped bundles under their arms.
My fatigue was beginning to wear on me, and I wondered that the elves were up and – apparently – shopping as the night wore on. Then I thought, They’re night-elves, and then I felt a little silly.
The path before me split and split, and lost itself in the plazas and found itself again on the other side, but my mysterious guide had been right – in this strange city with height as well as breadth and depth, there was always a way to go higher.
The hours wore on and my legs ached and my stomachs emptied themselves again, but there was nowhere to stop, and a measure of pride kept me from breathing too heavily as the night-elves cast me their sidelong looks.
Teldrassil’s branches grew ever thinner, down to the size of normal tree-branches, and they began twisting together to form walls and support beams. Soon it felt as though I was hiking up through great, lofty honeycombed rooms, with all manner of ornate architecture within, but whose distant walls were made of darkened, diseased vines. The vines gave the light an unpleasant green tinge.
And then suddenly a cool wind hit me in the face and the last wide, winding staircase broke out of the last great vine chamber and the night sky, starry and clear, burst forth above me. The white moon, more than half full, hung almost above us in the sky, and the blue moon was half way down towards the western horizon. About me stretched an ornate, beautifully-lit city with wide, crowded, bark-paved avenues tracing circles and spokes, and beautiful wooden statues and ornate wooden buildings, and broad pools, and fountains, and, where the avenue spokes came together at the center, rose a single, beautiful green tree with brightly-lit staircases winding up its trunk. I stared in wonder at the vista, and for a moment I was too entranced to look for Tyrande, or to even wonder how I would recognize him.
A sharp cry pierced the night above me, and I looked up. A dark shape arced across the stairs, circling and falling towards me, and then, a moment later, a magnificent golden eagle landed on the avenue in front of me, folding its golden wings to its side and peering sharply up at me out of piercing, golden eyes. It cocked its head and opened its curved beak at me. Then it turned, and flexed its wings over its graceful neck and face, and then, before my eyes, its scaly legs grew, and its wings lengthened and its feathers shrunk until before me stood a lithe night-elf woman, standing proud, looking as the proud night-elves of legend had looked: no droop in her pointed ears, no white in her hair and eyebrows. Her golden robes flowed about her, and her eyes were the same piercing gold that her eagle’s had.
“You are Ashva,” she said, and her voice was beautiful. She bowed.
“Tyrande Stormrage?” I said. I need to learn my night-elf name genders, I thought.
“I am,” she said. “Welcome to the Crown’s Crown. You have come to learn.” It wasn’t a question, but I nodded anyway. She nodded back, gravely, and peered at me with her piercing eyes. “I am told that there is not much time,” she said after a moment, “so come, and let’s begin.” Without another word, she moved past me, along the bright avenues and towards the tree’s edge and the darkened night.