I have some lunchtime reading for you in the form of February’s Pictonaut Challenge, hooray!  This picture screams fantasy, I’m sure you will agree, so I cracked out some silly names and had at it.  Enjoy.

“Fancy a bit of banana loaf?” Razir said hopefully.  He really wasn’t looking forward to trying to cross the ravine, but the other two were eager to press on.  There again, both of them could swim. 

“It’s got nuts in,” he added lamely.

General Havoc turned to face him, her eyes flashing with hate.

“This is not a quest for cowards,” she hissed.  “Stay here by yourself, for all I care – go back home if you really must, but if you try to delay us any further I swear I will have your third heart on a plate.”

Razir thought back to the incident in the fields of destiny, and that time on the road to Ballachulish, and the thing with the General’s old arch enemy which he’d really rather forget.  He hadn’t meant for any of it to happen, of course – he was naturally clumsy and a little bit too gullible for his own good.  Still, he could see how it might look bad – bad enough to make the General quiver with rage whenever he was in her line of vision, in fact.

With a grimace that worked every muscle in his face, Razir peered out over the dreaded ravine once more.  Nobody knew how deep it was, but there were rumours it went down almost to the earth’s core.  Enormous rocks jutted up from the icy depths, poking out in different directions and glistening with spray from the waterfall like teeth in a salivating, hungry mouth.  Countless people much braver and stronger than Razir had been cut to ribbons on those rocks, for the only way to get across was to swing yourself on a vine from the forest of faces and to do that, you had to seek permission from one of the trees.

Who always said no.

Trees are contrary at the best of times – perhaps you have noticed this yourself.  They tend to grow their best branches slightly out of reach, fall across roads when you’re in a hurry, and shed leaves when you really need them for camouflage.  The trees in the forest of faces, though – well, they took contrary to a whole different level.  Nobody knew just what their damn problem was, but whatever it was they were sure as hell going to take it out on everyone else before they worked through it.

Razir realised the other two were waiting for him to go first.  Havoc might have sworn to protect him when they were still under the watchful eye of their master, but way out here she didn’t have to do any such thing.  Lomb, meanwhile, was as mercenary as they come.  He sat on the edge of the abyss, peering into the darkness with a faraway look in his eyes; wallowing in hunched silence.  Razir hadn’t heard him speak in four days, and frankly he was glad of it.

Taking a deep breath, Razir moved toward the nearest tree and placed his palms on the craggy trunk.  The bark felt moist beneath his hands and as he looked closer he realised it was swollen with water.

“Good morning,” he said politely. 

The tree did not reply.

“My name is Razir.”

He cleared his throat, self-conscious, but the tree still did not speak.  He could feel Havoc’s eyes boring into his back, willing him to fail.

“Might I ask what you are called?”

The tree shifted slightly, then just above Razir’s head it opened one eye and looked at him.  The eye was large and glassy and black, with centuries of stories hidden in the depths.  It made Razir shiver to look at it, but he did his best to maintain his gaze.  For some reason it felt important not to break contact.

“It has been three hundred years since anyone asked me my name,” the tree whispered.  The sound put Razir in mind of a snake, it was soft an hissing and insidious.  “Why do you want to know?”

“Well,” Razir said vaguely, “I thought it would be polite.  What do people normally say to you?”

“They demand I help them safely across the ravine,” the tree said, “but I never do.  Why should I take the time to help those who cannot spare a moment to ask me who I am?”

“No reason at all,” said Razir, thinking it was probably just as well he’d gone first after all.  The likelihood of General Havoc or Lomb taking a moment to pass the time of day with a plant seemed pretty small – they didn’t really do small talk.

“You want to go across?” the tree asked slyly.

“Not really,” Razir replied, “not at all, in fact.  But I have to, if I want to help find the book of spells.”

“I thought that was a myth?”

“So did I, till a couple of months ago.  Apparently it’s real, though.  It was hidden by a King somewhere in the desert lands, but various nefarious characters have got wind of it and there’s going to be a war unless we can bring it to safety.”

Razir, it would be fair to say, was not a secretive man.  Withholding information just wasn’t in his nature, even potentially sensitive information pertaining to very important quests.  A lot of people would be wary of telling the forest of faces anything, given its reputation for getting people killed – but not Razir.

“I appreciate your honesty,” the tree said, “but I can’t possibly allow you to continue with such an adventure.”

There was a creaking sound, and suddenly Razir found himself entangled in the embrace of a mess of twisting branches and vines.  He tried to struggle, but it was a half-hearted attempt at escape because he knew instinctively the more he battled against the tree, the tighter its grip would become.

He wondered whether General Havoc and Lomb had been captured, or if they had been standing far enough away from the woods.  He couldn’t move his head to check, even if he’d wanted to (which he didn’t – the look he would undoubtedly get from Havoc if he caught her eye now would definitely reduce him to tears).

Razir sighed, then realised there was a limb curled tight around his chest that was gently squeezing the breath from his lungs.   He could feel little splinters of living wood poking through his shirt, which would probably leave an unattractive rash on his dead body. 

All in all, he thought, as he began to lose consciousness, this had been a pretty rubbish day.