After a time, the collected Mystics and acolytes began to move away from the circle and started mingling among the crowd. Prue noticed that many of the local townspeople and farmers had arrived, standing at a polite distance from the ceremony. They now joined the crowd, and an air of conviviality overtook the previously somber proceedings. Smiles started appearing on faces. Hands were shaken genially, people shared warm embraces. Prue turned and saw that Timon was not far off, speaking with a few of the younger acolytes. She brushed her hand against his side.
“Ah, Prue,” he said, smiling to see her. “I am speechless; however broken my heart, I am happy we made it in time for this. Regardless of the circumstances.”
“Yes,” said Prue. “Thank you for carrying us so far.” She paused, at a loss for words. Then: “I’m so confused! I’d come all this way, following some weird pull, some calling. I was sure she was the thing, the—whatever—that was pulling me. I can’t believe she’s gone and I’m here. I mean, what do I do now?”
“It will be revealed,” said Timon. “It will be revealed. I have no doubt.”
Curtis appeared at Prue’s side. “Where do we go from here?” he asked.
“A potluck is to be held at the Great Hall,” said Timon. “Even in times of rationing, a wake requires a gathering. Do you suppose it will be safe for you to attend?”
Septimus, who’d been on Curtis’s shoulder, spoke up. “My guess is this is the last place they’d think to look for you. No one in their right mind would’ve done what you’ve done. I mean, you’d have to have a serious nut loose to come to the scene of your own assassin’s crime.”
“Thanks,” said Prue.
“Just telling it like it is.”
“Or it’s a trap,” said Curtis. “They might’ve guessed we would make the journey. But it’s true: It doesn’t totally make sense. They couldn’t know why we came.”
“Exactly,” said Prue. “And that’s something I’m still working out.” She looked past the milling figures in the meadow to the tree. The glow from the torches sent little flickers of pale yellow light along its knobby trunk.
Why have you called me here?
The meadow was emptying of mourners. Those bearing torches were leading the way toward the eastern edge of the clearing. “You guys go on ahead,” said Prue. “I’ll be along in a bit. I’ll find my way.”
The three of them, Septimus, Timon, and Curtis, followed the potluck goers away from the funeral site. Prue watched them leave. A heaviness had lodged itself in the cavity of her chest. She walked around the far side of the tree, away from the burial site, to a little nook made by a particularly large limb of the tree’s exposed roots. Here, she placed both hands on the cold, silent wood and closed her eyes.
What is it? Why am I here?
There was no response; if the tree was now communicating with her, she was unable to register its thoughts.
What do you want me to do?
“You’ve come a long way.”
Prue opened her eyes. The voice was not coming from inside her mind; rather, she heard it behind her. She turned to see a young boy, maybe seven years old, standing there, holding a short lit candle. He wore the brown, hempen robe of the Mystics.
“And you put yourself in tremendous danger,” he said. Prue recognized him to be the boy who’d been at the center of the meditations; clearly, his station must’ve been high to be given that responsibility. As he walked closer, she noticed that he tended to look off to one side of her, as if he were watching something just beyond her shoulder.
“Are you a Mystic?” asked Prue. When the boy nodded, she said, “You’re so young!”
“I’m a Yearling,” said the boy, still looking away. “They call us that. The younger acolytes.”
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Alister. And you are Prue.”
Prue nodded, somewhat unnerved by the Yearling’s bearing. He seemed unconcerned with easing into an introduction.
“You knew the Elder Mystic?” he asked.
“I did, yeah,” said Prue. “She was, well, I suppose she was a friend. I didn’t know her that well, or for that long. But she was really important to me.”
“Me too, but now she is dead,” said the boy. His face betrayed no emotion at this abrupt declaration. His eyes strayed farther afield to look at the tree. He stood for a moment, silent, as he studied the lines in the wood. “It wants to tell you something.”
Prue was shocked. “What? Who?”
“The tree,” Alister said. “It’s called you here, you know.”