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26.12.2018

The girl was green -flesh green. Rincewind could be absolutely certain about that, because all she was wearing was a medallion around her neck. Her long hair had a faintly mossy look about it. Her eyes had no pupils and were a luminous green.

Rincewind wished he had paid more attention to anthropology lectures at University.

She had said nothing. Apart from indicating the couch and offering him the wine she had done no more than sit watching him, occasionally rubbing a deep scratch on her arm.

Rincewind hurriedly recalled that a dryad was so linked to her tree that she suffered wounds in sympathy.

“Sorry about that,” he said quickly. “it was just an accident. I mean, there were these wolves, and-“

“You had to climb my tree, and I rescued you,” said the dryad smoothly. “How lucky for you. And for your friend, perhaps?”

“Friend?”

“The little man with the magic box,” said the dryad.

“Oh, sure, him,” said Rincewind vaguely. “Yeah, I hope he’s okay.”

“He needs your help.”

“He usually does. Did he make it to a tree too?”

“He made it to the Temple of Bel-Shamharoth.”

Rincewind choked on his wine. His ears tried to crawl into his head in terror of the syllables they had just heard. The Soul Eater-before he could stop them the memories came galloping back. Once, while a student of practical magic at Unseen University, and for a bet, he’d slipped into the little room off the main library – the room with walls covered in protective lead pentagrams, the room no-one was allowed to occupy for more than four minutes and thirty-two seconds, which was a figure arrived at after two hundred years of cautious experimentation.

He had gingerly opened the Book, which was chained to the octiron pedestal in the middle of the rune-strewn floor not lest someone steal it, but lest it escape for it was the Octavo, so full of magic that it had its own vague sentience. One spell had indeed leapt from the crackling pages and lodged itself in the dark recesses of his brain. And, apart from knowing that it was one of the Eight Great Spells, no-one would know which one until he said it. Even Rincewind did not. But he could feel it sometimes, sidling out of sight behind his Ego, biding its time…

On the front of the Octavo had been a representation of Bel-Shamharoth. He was not Evil, for even EVIL has a certain vitality Bel-Shamharoth was the flip side of the coin of which Good and Evil are but one side.

“The Soul Eater. His number lyeth between seven and nine; it is twice four,” Rincewind quoted, his mind frozen with fear. “Oh no. Where’s the Temple?”

“Hubwards, towards the centre of the forest,” said the dryad. “it is very old.”

“But who would be so stupid as to worship Bel-him? I mean, devils yes, but he’s the Soul Eater-“

“There were – certain advantages. And the race that used to live in these parts had strange notions.”

“What happened to them, then?”

“I did say they used to live in these parts.” The dryad stood up and stretched out her hand. “Come. I am Druellae. Come with me and watch your friend’s fate. It should be interesting.”

“I’m not sure that-” began Rincewind.

The dryad turned her green eyes on him.

“Do you believe you have a choice?” she asked.

A staircase broad as a major highway wound up through the tree, with vast rooms leading off at every landing. The sourceless yellow light was everywhere. There was also a sound like -Rincewind concentrated, trying to identify it-like far off thunder, or a distant waterfall.

“It’s the tree,” said the dryad shortly.

“What’s it doing?” said Rincewind.

“Living.”

“I wondered about that. I mean, are we really in a tree? Have I been reduced in size? From outside it looked narrow enough for me to put my arms around.”

“It is.”

“Um, but here I am inside it?”

“You are.”

“Um,” said Rincewind.

Druellae laughed.

“I can see into your mind, false wizard! Am I not a dryad? Do you not know that, what you belittle by the name tree is but the mere four-dimensional analogue of a whole multidimensional universe which – no, I can see you do not. I should have realised that you weren’t a real wizard when I saw you didn’t have a staff.”

“Lost it in a fire,” lied Rincewind automatically.

“No hat with magic sigils embroidered on it.”

“It blew off.”

“No familiar.”

“It died. Look, thanks for rescuing me, but if you don’t mind I think I ought to be going. If you could show me the way out-“

Something in her expression made him turn around. There were three he-dryads behind him. They were as naked as the woman, and unarmed. That last fact was irrelevant, however. They didn’t look as though they would need weapons to fight Rincewind. They looked as though they could shoulder their way through solid rock and beat up a regiment of trolls into the bargain. The three handsome giants looked down at him with wooden menace. Their skins were the colour of walnut husks, and under it muscles bulged like sacks of melons.

He turned around again and grinned weakly at Druellae. Life was beginning to take on a familiar shape again.

“I’m not rescued, am I?” he said. “I’m captured, right?”

“Of course.”

“And you’re not letting me go?” It was a statement.

Druellae shook her head. “You hurt the Tree. But you are lucky. Your friend is going to meet Bel-Shamharoth. You will only die.”

From behind two hands gripped his shoulders in much the same way that an old tree root coils relentlessly around a pebble.

“With a certain amount of ceremony, of course,” the dryad went on. “After the Sender of Eight has finished with your friend.”

All Rincewind could manage to say was, “You know, I never imagined there were he-dryads. Not even in an oak tree.”

One of the giants grinned at him.

Druellae snorted. “Stupid! Where do you think acorns come from?”

There was a vast empty space like a hall, its roof lost in the golden haze. The endless stair ran right through it.

Several hundred dryads were clustered at the other end of the hall. They parted respectfully when Druellae approached, and stared through Rincewind as he was propelled firmly along behind. Most of them were females, although there were a few of the giant males among them. They stood like god-shaped statues among the small, intelligent females. Insects, thought Rincewind. The Tree is like a hive.

But why were there dryads at all? As far as he could recall, the tree people had died out centuries before. They had been out-evolved by humans, like most of the other Twilight Peoples. Only elves and trolls had survived the coming of Man to the Discworld; the elves because they were altogether too clever by half, and the troller-folk because they were at least as good as humans at being nasty, spiteful and greedy. Dryads were supposed to have died out, along with gnomes and pixies.

The background roar was louder here.

Sometimes a pulsing golden glow would race up the translucent walls until it was lost in the haze overhead. Some power in the air made it vibrate.

“Now incompetent wizard,” said Druellae, “see some magic. Not your weasel-faced tame magic, but root-and-branch magic, the old magic. Wild magic. Watch.”

Fifty or so of the females formed a tight cluster, joined hands and walked backwards until they formed the circumference of a large circle. The rest of the dryads began a low chant. Then, at a nod from Druellae, the circle began to spin widdershins.

As the pace began to quicken and the complicated threads of the chant began to rise Rincewind found himself watching fascinated. He had heard about the Old Magic at University, although it was forbidden to wizards. He knew that when the circle was spinning fast enough against the standing magical field of the Discworld itself in its slow turning, the resulting astral friction would build up a vast potential difference which would earth itself in a vast discharge of the Elemental Magical Force.

The circle was a blur now, and the walls of the Tree rang with the echoes of the chant.

Rincewind felt the familiar sticky prickling in the scalp that indicated the build-up of a heavy charge of raw enchantment in the vicinity, and so he was not utterly amazed when, a few seconds later, a shaft of vivid octarine light speared down from the invisible ceiling and focused, crackling, in the centre of the circle.

There it formed an image of a storm-swept, treegirt hill with a temple on its crest. Its shape did unpleasant things to the eye.

Rincewind knew that if it was a temple to Bel-Shamharoth it would have eight sides. (Eight was also the Number of Bel-Shamharoth, which was why a sensible wizard would never mention the number if he could avoid it. Or you’ll be eight alive, apprentices were jocularly warned. Bel-Shamharoth was especially attracted to dabblers in magic who, by being as it were beachcombers on the shores of the unnatural were already half-enmeshed in his nets. Rincewind’s room number in his hall of residence had been 7a. He hadn’t been surprised).

Rain streamed off the black walls of the temple. The only sign of life was the horse tethered outside, and it wasn’t Twoflower’s horse. For one thing, it was too big. It was a white charger with hooves the size of meat dishes and leather harness aglitter with ostentatious gold ornamentation. It was currently enjoying a nosebag.

There was something familiar about it. Rincewind tried to remember where he had seen it before.

It looked as though it was capable of a fair turn of speed, anyway. A speed which, once it had lumbered up to it, it could maintain for a long time. All Rincewind had to do was shake off his guards, fight his way out of the Tree, find the temple and steal the horse out from under whatever it was that Bel-Shamharoth used for a nose.

“The Sender of Eight has two for dinner, it seems.” said Druellae, looking hard at Rincewind. “Who does that steed belong to, false wizard?”

“I’ve no idea.”

“No? Well, it does not matter. We shall see soon enough.”

She waved a hand. The focus of the image moved inwards, darted through a great octagonal archway and sped along the corridor within. There was a figure there, sidling along stealthily with its back against one wall. Rincewind saw the gleam of gold and bronze.

There was no mistaking that shape. He’d seen it many times. The wide chest, the neck like a treetrunk, the surprisingly small head under its wild thatch of black hair looking like a tomato on a coffin… he could put a name to the creeping figure, and that name was Hrun the Barbarian.

Hrun was one of the Circle Sea’s more durable heroes: a fighter of dragons, a despoiler of temples, a hired sword, the kingpost of every street brawl, He could even – and unlike many heroes of Rincewind’s acquaintance – speak words of more than two syllables, if given time and maybe a hint or two.

There was a sound on the edge of Rincewind’s hearing. It sounded like several skulls bouncing down the steps of some distant dungeon. He looked sideways at his guards to see if they had heard it. They had all their limited attention focused on Hrun, who was admittedly built on the same lines as themselves. Their hands were resting lightly on the wizard’s shoulders.