Wendell woke up, leaning against the side of a hedge. He must have stopped to rest while walking down the long, straight path, and fallen asleep! Wearily, he got up.
There were some leafy trees hanging over the hedge wall now and then, hanging with bright apples or lemons or oranges, and he stopped and tried to cut some down with the sword, jumping up and slashing at the high branches, but only succeeded in gathering some smashed remains.
But it was very nice to taste something so fresh and juicy, and the stupor of the maze was quickly forgotten. The sun moved in the sky again, and Wendell hurried along at a good pace now, easily forgetting about his sore feet and aching limbs.
The sky began darkening tremendously, and stars glistened out of the twilight, sending a cool chill across the land. Suddenly he realized that the path was gone. He had been walking through a grove of fruit trees for some time, it seemed.
The trees grew taller and taller now and more entwined, until he almost had to feel his way along through the pitchy darkness, full of unseen tree trunks and ground that crunched into the silence all around. Wendell wished that soon he could find a way through to wherever it was he was going, he didn’t even know.
He had heard many stories about such forests, of course, about the horrible things that were supposed to live there, but there was nothing but dead silence around, as if the forest stretched on with unmoving trees forever.
Now a patch of soft light appeared ahead, and he stepped around a tree trunk and looked out into a clearing, more of a huge dirty hole than anything else. And then there was a great, great tree, sitting on a small hill in the middle of a lake of dark morass. Great, stolid branches spread out from a behemoth trunk, frozen in timeless growth. But many of them sank down again, dipping into the fetid pool below, as if reaching for something. The branches all curved about as if trying to form an elegant design, but never quite reaching far enough.
Wendell felt a prick of sadness as he looked at the great tree, as if he saw an undying tragedy. But, he told himself, it is only a tree after all, and can’t actually feel anything. He snuck past it sorrowfully, almost looking back to say he was sorry he couldn’t help.
Slosh, slosh, he went through the muddy lake. Why was this place so dreary? It couldn’t have always been that way, could it have? Wendell tried to imagine it as a bright, happy place, but couldn’t find any clue of how it would have been, no stunted green tufts even, nothing but endless dirt and ooze.
He remembered there was a minstrel’s song about a beautiful forest, someplace called Alehren, a long time ago. But even if there was grass and everything here, it would still look rather ordinary like any other clearing he had seen. In the stories, dreary places always sounded adventurous, but this one was just an empty mud hole.
Something was moving. Wendell looked back at the tree, but it was always the same, stuck in motionless misery. The sound was somewhere ahead, almost like the wind, but deeper. First a rushing noise, then a grumbly whiffling, over and over again, back and forth. But Wendell continued on.
There was a steep rise ahead, featureless, and he was relieved that nothing was up there. Coming closer, he saw it - another door, similar to the one he had found before... slowly he crept towards it, the sound becoming much louder. It must be the wind whistling through some cracks!!
He stopped, suddenly. There was something right there, perhaps an old, fallen tree in the shadow of the slope, and he had almost stepped on its root. Straining with his eyes, Wendell tried to form a shape from the shadows. Now the rushing noise went through, much louder now that he was so close. How very strange!
There was also a bump, and the trunk was somewhat curved, and... Wendell stiffened up into a statue and took a sharp breath. It wasn’t a tree at all. A huge, sleekly black dragon lay curled up underneath the door, breathing peacefully. At least it looked like one; it was hard to see in the shadows...
The wind shivered through Wendell’s feet, making him feel a bit unsteady, and after a long time of staring at the bump of an eyelid, he took a small, small backwards step. He strained his eyes again, trying to force himself to see something else, in the dim light. Perhaps it really was an odd tree trunk; after all, it was so dark! Yes, he thought, squinting one eye open, it does actually look like a tree after all, doesn’t it!!
“What a dunce I am!!” Wendell thought, snickering. Then the tree seemed to stir a bit. The ground smushed under his foot, sounding loudly in his ears. Now he slowly eased his other foot off the ground and turned, turned around, stepping each foot now so gently at a time.
By the time he had gone back to the lake, he couldn’t see the dragon anymore, not that far away. Perhaps he really had just imagined it. Surely it would have woken up, would have smelled him, if it really was...
He sloshed through the waist deep muck around the tree, not sure of whether he was feeling tree roots or some kind of slithering as he passed. Finally, he rested against the trunk of the tree, and felt his breath finally slow down again. Now he rested his head and closed his eyes.
A bit of wind brushed his face, and then again... he looked about, and one of the branches was swaying idly in the breeze. If only this great tree could walk, he thought, then it could surely pick up the dragon. Now the branch seemed to lift up out of the muck a little, and then some more... then the end lifted out. Wendell jumped up on his feet and grabbed the hilt of the dagger, waiting. The branch seemed to kind of mope about, and then finally sloshed back into the mud. Wendell took his hand off of the hilt and watched again, but nothing happened.
After a while, he had almost convinced himself that he hadn’t seen it. Perhaps it was a stronger wind than before that had done it, a sudden gust. But what if the tree did know what it was doing, why did it just give up?
He thought for a long time, looking up at the great, defeated branches. If only there was some way he could ask it something, but he didn’t know how to begin. If I was the tree, what would I be thinking, Wendell asked himself, staring up into the faceless form of the trunk. Perhaps it had lost something in the mud, and was trying to find it again... but how could I know that was truly what was going on, he thought?
It was at times like this that he felt the loss of his companions most keenly. Garim would know something, or the soldier would have some ideas, Wendell thought bitterly. But there was no one to ask, no one anywhere, except a tree that couldn’t hear him or say anything. A tree that needed help but couldn’t tell him what was wrong.
Somehow, as he thought of it, it seemed strange to Wendell that he had gone this far without any help, even though that was what he had set out to do. He didn’t even know how he had found his way so far into the maze already, except by random luck. But he couldn’t think about that now, he had to try and help the tree.
Going down into the muck a tiny bit, Wendell fished around with his hand, feeling some squishy things that he quickly let go of. The tree lifted up a branch ahead of him, almost warily, and then paused. Wendell looked at it.
Then the branch went up higher and unfurled in the direction of the black sleeper, gesturing pointedly. Wendell felt himself growing cold. The dragon? What did the tree want? Perhaps the dragon had eaten something, and Wendell would have to kill it and rip its stomach open... a sharp, icy feeling shivered over him at the thought of waking it... Perhaps he could kill it in one strike, right through its thick skull, but he didn’t think so. Not hardly. A queasiness went through him now.
Wendell stepped closer, right up to the tail of the “dragon”, and looked carefully at it. There was something he had missed before, a necklace around its large neck, dragging on the ground, holding a large amulet with a vile, strange symbol on it. He petrified into place, standing up straight now, breathing stiffly. It was alive, whatever it was. He got down closer and saw rows of scales now, more clearly.
The black dragon gurgled in its sleep, and Wendell started backwards, almost tripping. He needed to get away. Now. Even a wolf could be fought, but not this! Dragons were thousands of years old, and knew everything, and were stronger than steel!! And here was one, sleeping in front of him, and if it woke up and saw him then... Wendell shook his head desperately, clearing his mind. No no no!! He couldn’t leave now!! Maybe there was another way around... somewhere... He looked down again at the powerful form, and seethed in his breathe, closing his eyes tightly...
The door was right there behind... if he jumped onto it, maybe he could open and get through before... no!! It would wake up sometime, he had to just try something. Anything. But then he would be dead, of course. If only this dragon wasn’t... this stupid dragon...
In a fit of outrage he drew the dagger and poised it above the black skin, then froze before it struck. Those scales were harder than steel, surely!! In every story, he heard of how Curdie had faced dragons, and imagined him so sure and brave, sticking his sword into their sides with a mighty swing. But if he did and it woke up then...
He made himself stop and try to think; how did he even get this far, if he was just going to fail now? There must be someone helping me, a far-off wizard was watching him, or a ghost or something else even... but he didn’t feel anything different than ever. Perhaps Garim said something about dragons. He always said that you should stab a dragon through the heart. It seemed like the stupidest way now, and he didn’t even know where the heart would be!! No, this isn’t helping!
“Are you still with me?” he whispered without even a hint of breath, but there was no response at all, not even a tiny whiff of breeze. But he couldn’t just give up now, after going so far!! But he needed a plan. Carefully, he turned and went back through the muck and walked behind the tree. If only the tree could hear him, they could plan something!
But then a smaller tree branch lifted up slowly, out of the muck. It wandered closer to Wendell, and he stood waiting. The branch dropped something by his foot. It was a stone, kind of large. The tree pointed its branch behind itself.
Peering around the edge of the tree, he saw the dragon, sleeping in the shade. It was far away, but he could do it... he sent it flying, then quickly ducked behind the tree again. A howl went through the air, and Wendell quickly went about to the far side of the tree trunk, waiting and hiding.
Something spoke inside him, something sibilant and vengeful, as if speaking through walls of clenching teeth.
“You think you’re clever, don’t you.”
Wendell didn’t move an inch.
“You think perhaps you’re hiding well.”
There was a limping rumble of steps, coming closer, and splashes of water.
“We know where you’re going.”
The splashes grew louder. The voice grew smaller but darker.
“But we don’t care.”
A swarm of water flooded across the dirt.
“We’re not at all afraid - of orphans.”
All the tree’s branches writhed into motion, and Wendell heard thrashing and squealing. He looked up in amazement as the dragon’s black weight was thrown into the sky, and many branches were poking and prodding at it as it fought furiously to break free. Now a branch snapped suddenly, and the dragon fell all the way into the great black lake, twisting and roaring with torching fire. With striking speed it splashed about and leaped at Wendell, but the tree’s branches had already swooped over and caught it again, cradling it up into the sky. Something dropped into the lake.
Now the dragon wrestled free and dropped into the lake again, roiling furiously. But the tree held its ground, branches spurting out into a forest of spines, and the dragon turned and limped away quickly into the forest.
The tree sent uncountable branches diving down, down, deep into the muddy waters, and finally brought up the amulet, hanging on a broken chain. It crushed and crunched it with its powerful boughs, until there was nothing left.
Wendell watched now as the tree spread its branches proudly up into the sky and froze, although everything was still as gloomy as before, and there was nothing more to see. Wendell stood watching and wondering for a long time, before turning to find the door again.
This door was much like the other one he had seen, only with no keyhole. But the designs were much different - somber, less flighty, and they hung on the door with great weight. Wendell almost thought he knew what they meant, but couldn’t tell himself anything about it, other than he wished to go quickly through and not have to hear what they were telling him anymore, things dreadfully wonderful, that frightened him with their beauty.
But he forced the door open and stepped through. Only there was nothing “through” except black space. He felt along for a while, pulling himself along the small emptiness, until reaching another door, which he pressed open on hands and knees. Through the opening portal, fresh air whistled in, and he looked out onto a wide, high hilltop, with wild rushing grass growing everywhere. Then, after he had crawled out, he finally collapsed.