Arlingfant Elessedil sat frozen beneath the broad canopy of the Ellcrys, the words a whisper echoing in her mind.
Child, I have need of you.
Had she actually heard that, or only imagined it? Whose voice was she hearing? Her eyes were still closed, and her presence in the Gardens of Life carried little more impact than the space she occupied and the soft sound of her breathing. Sunrise approached, bringing the new day to life. The world was mostly asleep, and the Elves of Arborlon were just beginning to stir. Dreams still held sway.
She felt again the soft touch and opened her eyes to find its source. A slender silver branch adorned with scarlet leaves rested gently upon her shoulder. It moved slightly, a feather's touch she could feel through her clothing, strange and reassuring.
--Child, do you hear me--
Heart hammering, a flush of fear and expectation rushing through her, Arling rose to her knees to face the ancient tree, rocking back on her heels and looking up. She was aware of the branch that lay across her shoulder moving with her, maintaining contact as she shifted her position.
"I am here, Mistress," she whispered.
All around her, the light was changing, darkness giving way to daybreak, blackness turning silvery with the brightening of the eastern sky. And in that strange, in-between time the world seemed to hold still around her.
--Long years have I kept the faith of my calling, strong against the elements and the whimsies and vicissitudes of nature and Man. Long years have I been true to all expectations and challenges, never once regretting what I gave up to be so. But time wears down all living things, and so it is with me--
It was not her imagination, Arling thought. The tree was speaking to her. The voice she was hearing belonged to the Ellcrys. She could feel a connection between the voice and the branch resting on her shoulder. She could feel the link between them.
Could feel the link to herself.
Arling tried to parse this out, to understand what was happening, but now the tree was speaking again.
--It happens slowly, but there is no mistaking its direction. There remains time to do what is needed, but for that to happen I need you first to understand. You are a Chosen in service to me. Many others have been so. Others besides yourself are so now. But you are special to me, child. You bear the blood markings that tell me no other will serve my purpose so well or so long--
Arling blinked rapidly, aware that the Ellcrys was praising her for something the tree found in her that she had not found in others. But Arling had no idea what that something was. Blood markings?
"I don't understand, Mistress," she blurted.
She felt a wash of shame when she admitted this. She wanted to be helpful, was anxious to serve in whatever way she could. But the Ellcrys was telling her she was failing, that time was taking its toll, and Arling did not know what it was she was expected to do.
--I am dying--
There it was. The truth of things, the words clear and unmistakable. The Ellcrys was coming to the end of her life. Arlingfant felt tears spring to her eyes and found it suddenly hard to breathe. How could this be happening? The Ellcrys was showing no signs of deterioration--no wilt, no shedding, no loss of color or form. All looked to be as it should, yet the tree was telling her otherwise. Telling her! Arlingfant didn't want to be the one made responsible by knowing. She had done everything she had been asked to do and more in the course of her time as a Chosen. She did not deserve this!