As soon as we crested the mountain, we saw it. A tree, one so massive it seemed as though it was catching stars in its branches, the entirety of it coated in a thick layer of frost. Ice-coated branches glittered in the starlight, far above us. We stood in front of the tree’s trunk, insignificantly small in the face of its majesty. A foot of solid ice separated us from the tree’s bark.
Flare walked around the tree, businesslike motions carrying her efficiently to what she sought: a section of the ice with a thin seam marking out the shape of a door. Flare knocked on the ice.
It slid inward, and split apart, revealing a small charm-coated room carved into the trunk of the tree. As we walked in, I could see that not only was the ice impossibly thick on the tree, but the bark of the tree was impossibly thick as well. The sheer scale made me tremble. There was nothing in Scorched Rock like this. The entire town could probably fit under the tree’s canopy.
The door sealed shut behind us, and then the room began to accelerate upwards. I stumbled. Flare remained perfectly still. I made a small noise of shock. Flare remained perfectly silent. I tried to steady myself, to hold my jaw stubbornly shut. Witches, it seemed, were supposed to be unflappable. Flare hadn’t said as much to me over the course of our travels, but I’d gathered it was the case.
The room stopped moving, and I stumbled again. The door opened onto the interior of the tree, and I had to choke down a gasp as Flare tucked her witch-stone into her coat and led me out the short hallway.
The interior of the tree had been hollowed out, going up and up to a domed ceiling painted with intricate designs. Balcony after balcony ringed this open hollow space, and I could see hallways forming intricate warrens into the wood around each balcony. People moved with industrious purpose in and out of these hallways.
Most wondrously of all, the air was warm without any central flame being present. I wandered out into the middle of the massive room, and turned to look up at the domed ceiling and all the balconies. Flare caught up to me at the same time the sole person on the ground floor did.
“You must be the travellers our watchmen spotted,” he said. “I am the Steward Jaokin. Welcome to Crownsbreak.”
Flare nodded. “I am Flare. This is my apprentice.”
“We have beds prepared for any travellers coming our way. Please, follow me.”
Jaokin walked away, towards a hallway containing a staircase. Flare followed. I jogged to keep up. Both of them had much longer legs than I did.
As we walked, I asked, “How come nobody’s on this floor?”
Jaokin didn’t answer. Flare didn’t say anything either. I tried a different question. “Why is it so warm in here? There’s no forge.”
This question, Jaokin did answer. “Forge? We have forges, but the heat here in Crownsbreak doesn’t come from them, primarily. We save our heat, here. Every living body makes heat, and this tree makes sure that heat stays inside.”
I could feel my thoughts dancing through my skull, each one yammering something different and vaguely incoherent about how this setup could possibly work. How thick the tree’s wall had to be, how many people must live inside it, where they got all their food and water from. Enough thoughts that they all drowned each other out and left me silent as we ascended three flights of stairs.
“The rooms for travelers are this way. You will be in rooms six and seven,” Jaokin said.
I blinked. My mess of thoughts neatened themselves up, and asked a new question. “So, do you get many travelers, then?”
“No,” Jaokin said.
“Why aren’t we in rooms one and two, then?”
“They aren’t ready.” Jaokin refused to elaborate. Flare remained quiet. Jaokin pointed out a staircase that would take us to a mess hall where we could eat for as long as we stayed, and where we could take provisions for when the time came for us to resume our journey. Jaokin also pointed out a stairway to a marketplace where we could trade for anything else we might need.
The room I was shown to was small, and plain, save for intricate wooden carvings in the furniture. Flare thanked Jaokin. Jaokin left, telling Flare that if she needed anything else, she could simply ask for directions to the Steward’s office. Flare nodded. Jaokin left.
As soon as Jaokin had vanished from sight, Flare turned to me and said, “Let’s go see room one.”
I nodded, and followed her out. When we got to the door, Flare held up a finger, telling me to wait. A charm leapt from her fingertips onto the door, and I heard a soft click as the door unlocked. Flare said, “Open,” afterwards for my benefit. I nodded, trying to commit the charm to memory.
Flare opened the door and stepped inside.
The mattress was shredded. Straw littered the floor. The bedframe had been torn to splinters. Claw marks marred the walls. The dresser had crumpled inwards. Flare walked in and picked up one of the bedframe-splinters. On the end of it was dried blood.
“A monster?” I asked.
Flare looked at the destruction around her, then continued to pick though it. A large number of the splinters were tinged with blood. There was a piece of a torn-off fingernail, as well. I grimaced.
Flare moved some of the straw aside, revealing dried bloodstains on the floor. “Old,” Flare said. Why hadn’t they cleaned it up?
Flare stood and walked out of the room, closing the door behind her. “Keep quiet. They didn’t want us to know.”
I nodded. Then I said, “What now?”
“Now, we sleep. I’m tired.” With that, Flare walked off towards her room. I didn’t follow her. Flare might have been tired, but I could feel terror and awe and excitement in my limbs. There was no way I could sleep. I headed for the marketplace.