Walk in the Woods

Zander flexed his feet, settling more firmly into his perch between the tree trunks.  He embraced stillness, letting the peace of the forest wipe away the stiffness of muscle and the weariness of travel.  The forest was beginning the transformation from daylight bustle to twilight.  Gone were the birdsong, the cry of insects, even the rush of wind through branch.  Soon, the silence would stretch, connecting with the sounds of night, those nocturnal creatures of the forest beginning to stir, the predators searching for their next meal.  He settled and waited, listening for sounds that did not belong to the forest.

To his left, a stick snapped.  Zander turned his head, his eyes scanning the forest for the offending creature.  Sounds grew, the scratch of a branch brushing down metal, the quiet thunk of heavy feet stepping over something.  A quiet voice spoke, the words a murmur in the growing darkness.

Zander smiled, settling back into his perch more comfortably.  The trees to his back were twisted and old, grown together into a gathering of shadow and branch.  At his feet, the elder tree had given up it’s long duty to reach the stars, and the fallen trunk stretched before him in moss-covered sections.  Between the trees at his back and the large section of green at his feet, two dogwood bushes sprouted, their reddish bark filling the space to his left and right.  Nestled in, Zander blended into the forest, one solid shadow in a thousand twilight shapes.  Only movement or sound would betray him, his brown and dark blue clothing lending to his disguise.  And he was long versed in the game of silent waiting.

Ilyena would be mad, of course.  She was convinced something was wrong, in the forest or in the world she couldn’t answer.  But her sleep had been troubled, and she didn’t feel safe in the forest.  At least, she reasoned, if she went to court she could speak to others who might feel such dark omens as she did, and verify if she were mad or worse, correct in her premonition.  Something was changing in the world.  Zander found the pace the woman and her child set to be maddeningly slow, however.  He was only escorting them to the nearest city, two days march south and east.  The land this far north was far too wild to have the sort of travel arrangements Ilyena desired.  And so, Zander ranged ahead, sometimes as much as a half mile, letting the two catch up and guessing as to their direction and arrival times.  It was a juvenile game, he admitted, the sort of young buck challenge all the forest rangers might play, in their teen years.  Still, it amused him.

From the trees came a small group of bright metal and leather.  Faces dark in the shadows of the forest, they walked forward, staying within arms reach of each other.  With the setting sun, the splashes of leather over chainmail seemed to glow, as the dull metal caught what remaining light could be reflected in the twilight.  The chances that one of them was woodwise seemed unlikely.  That they were soldiers was the best bet.  None wore a pack, and all were armored, armed, and similarly enough dressed to be considered a unit.  There was no chatter, no element of sightseeing as they tromped through the near-dark forest.

The soldiers progressed north, following the curve of the valley.  Zander frowned.  Were they patrolling for a larger force or searching for a place to make camp?  Perhaps they had been sent to deal with the bandits recently seen to attack travelers in the area.  The forest had been uneasy of late, the more skittish creatures moving east, the hardier animals quicker to anger or defense.  Zander hesitated as they continued north, disappearing into the dusk of the trees.  Ilyena and Lily were heading this way, Ilyena hoping to travel a few more hours before bedding down.  But if the soldiers were to circle back, Ilyena might walk right into them.  And she had been very adamant that they not encounter anyone until they were at least a day or two from home.

Even tied to the forest as she was, she was not wood-wise.  Ilyena relied on her senses and magic to alter the forest around her.  The forest spoke to Ilyena, though, and gave her guidance.  Zander, on the other hand, was raised to blend into the power of the forest, using the forest to his advantage.  Their specialties were only linked by the commonality of nature.

He had followed her to the city when she had served as the King’s advisor, his half elven heritage making him stand out in the city of stone, alone among many, humans dominating this Kingdom of Elenia.  His own people preferred to wander the wilds of the North, led by clan and family.  Once a year, the elves held a Gather, and dealt with the matters of the world that an elf might not solve for himself or another.  It was a form of government Zander understood.  Not this figurehead King, who did not even know the names of his peoples, nor the breadth of his Kingdom.  How could one man solve for hundreds?

Worse, his learned hedge magic was useless, so far from the powers of the forest.  While Ilyena had plenty of knowledge to share about the land and the nature of her magic, Zander was far more comfortable under tree, and had left for the forest months before Ilyena returned from the King’s courts.

Slipping from his cover, he followed the soldiers into the valley to the south.  He had left the nature caster and her daughter nearly a half turn past, to scout the path ahead.  Perhaps, if the soldiers continue to turn south, he could sneak through and warn Ilyena without them ever knowing he was here.

The soldiers marched straight through the undergrowth here, the canopy blocking much of the light and the ground cover becoming sparse as they bent and broke whatever grew in their path.  There was much already winter brown in the thickets, and they had no trouble crunching through various plants, though it was still harvest season.  Zander slid behind another tree, watching their progress, and frowned.  Reaching down with silent fingers, he felt the earth with his bare fingers, his half-gloves only covering his palm and knuckles.

Something wasn’t right, the soil was dry and gray.  He thought back to the leaves above, and remembered there was little green to the trees in this grove, having already shed their leaves for the season.  Early for it, truth told, and the ground held few fresh leaves.  Perhaps this strand of trees was blighted, but he hadn’t noted any signs of sickness on his last tour through.  Nor were there any down or dying branches, just a dulling of color and a strangeness to the usual smell of the wood.  He stopped focusing on the soldiers for a moment, and listened.  Zander faintly heard the tinkle of a stream, an inlet or outlet from the larger river to the northwest, most likely.  There was water here.  He scratched at the stubble on his chin, trying to figure out what bothered him.

He was still frowning at the soil when he heard the first soldier yell.  Heart in his throat, he quickly crept forward, keeping to the growing shadows as the sounds of battle began.  But it was not Ilyena he spied, fighting the soldiers off, Lily cowering beside her.

When he rounded the last copse of undergrowth, he didn’t see any familiar faces, in fact.  Instead a blighted tree, roots torn from the earth in jagged chunks, swung stiff  limbs at the soldiers, who scrambled out of its way, weapons drawn.  Zander stared, for the tree was attacking the soldiers as if a thing alive.  It was strangely short, a knot of darkened wood giving the impression of a head, but there was nothing human about it.  Slim limbs were already breaking, and the larger branches were jagged, leaving a splintered protrusion at the end of each limb.

The soldiers were formed up, weapons drawn, as the tree closed with them.  It was slow, it’s steps groaning like a tree in the storms might under a strong wind.  Small groupings of tangled, bending dragged forward seemed to lift the trunk up and hold it, so that the thick part near the roots themselves was on sword level with the soldiers.  The tree swung back, and the soldiers braced for a strike.  A tingle ran down his spine, and Zander darted from cover.

“Scatter!  It is too strong to block!” he bellowed, sliding down the incline towards the valley floor.  Several soldiers near the back of the formation broke off, moving back from the tree, but the front line was too close.  There was a sickening crack as the tree limbs struck the first four or five soldiers, crushing them beneath thick limbs.  The next few were lifted  off their feet as branches stuck through armor and body alike.  Flung, the soldiers and broken wood landed among their remaining fellows.  While they were still recovering, the tree reared it’s branches back.  Zander reached the thing’s back just as it brought those broken branches crashing down on the prone bodies on the ground again, and the soldiers’ screams stopped.

There was a moment of stillness then, as if the living could not fathom what had just happened.  Then Zander was among the tree’s roots, an axe in one hand and his long dagger in the other.  Focusing on those long supportive roots holding the trunk above the dirt, he swung and dug the axe deep.  The tree shuddered, and began to straighten out of its slump, dragging broken limbs from broken bodies as it stood upright.  The slow speed was a help, and Zander hacked at a few more roots before beginning his withdrawal.  The tree began to turn as well, so he darted around it, hacking.  If the soldiers were smart, they would use the opening to check for wounded and start regrouping.

Glancing away from the tree as he back peddled, he tried to find the soldiers, to see what they were doing.  Running along his left was a soldier, her helmet knocked free, her armor caked in dirt and leaves.  She must have been one of those the tree had knocked down.  The soldier was wielding a large sword, two handed and braced over her right shoulder as she rushed the turning tree.  Zander stopped for a moment, surprised at her anger, but then, they were her companions who were now broken and bleeding behind the fight.  He changed his own trajectory to circle the tree as it turned towards the woman.

“Let’s see how intelligent it is.  I will attack it’s back, try to dance sideways as it rears back to strike!” he yelled to the woman, as he raced past her.  The tree had managed to complete its turn and the branches were starting to rise.  The woman screamed something and struck the tree’s trunk with her sword.  The blade stuck to the tree for a moment, and Zander thought she wouldn’t manage to clear before the branches crashed down.  But with a roar, the woman twisted the sword and a large chunk of the tree came away as she dove to the left.  The branches crashed to the forest floor where she had stood, and it was back to Zander.

“Aim for the roots!  Let’s not give it a leg to stand on.” Zander darted in again, and broke another of the supporting limbs with his strikes.  The tree was straightening again, the strange knot on it’s front that Zander thought of as the face slowly turning his way.  He began to dance to the right, to keep the creature spinning, when movement caught his eye.  He ducked a branch swinging down from the canopy, stumbling at his sudden adjustment, and would have gone down, except the woman was there, catching the arm-thick branch with her sword.  She swung her body forward with the sword, and sliced straight through the branch.  The broken end fell heavily to the ground, while the stump continued its forward motion.

Gasping, Zander reached for the woman’s arm, pulling her back as the tree bent backwards, pointing more branches their way.  On the other side of the clearing, the remaining soldiers helped the wounded out of the valley, back the way the group had come.  That was good, Zander thought, for the wounded and the other soldiers.  Not so good for the two remaining.  The tree was moving more slowly, and Zander, his hand still through the woman’s arm, glanced around the valley for some sort of help.

“The hillside!  If we can rush up the hillside, chances are it will follow us.  We two move much more quickly than it, and with the damage to the roots, we only have to get it swinging like this at the incline, and it should go down?”  Zander grinned at the woman’s wary expression.

“You are far too cheerful,” she huffed, hefting her sword back onto her shoulder and eyeing the hillside.  The tree was straightening again.  Her skin was flushed with the heat of battle, and her brown eyes were grim.  “Seems like the best strategy, though.  Might as well try, buy the others some time to get the wounded out.”  Her eyes seemed to rest on the bloody pile of branches and bodies across the valley floor.

“Let’s split up, and see who the tree follows.  The winner rushes up the hill, and we see if the tree follows.  The person who isn’t followed gets to hack a bit more.”  Zander motioned the warrior to the right, while he darted left.

The tree had straightened, the knot looking off to the left, the branches much shorter than when the encounter began.  Zander tried not to wonder if the thing felt pain, for it had shown no signs of either comprehension or hesitation as it drove the branches towards the forest floor.  The tangle of root-like branches at the base of the trunk were broken and oozing sap. At least Zander hoped the clear, wet liquid was sap.  Overall, the tree looked like a storm had caught it after a frost, with limbs exploded, branches bent and not a leaf on the body of the creature at all.

The tree began walking towards the soldier, who took her cue and inched her way up the incline towards the top of the valley. The ground here was uneven, with signs of wash out clearing the hillside sometime recently. This meant large rocks, exposed roots and even downed trees slowed progress up the hill. The woman stopped once or twice, and each time a loud crack caused the tree to sway as she pelted down rocks on it. Zander was afraid to strike, in case the tree might think him an easier target.

After several long moments, though, the incline seemed too much for the tree, who stopped. Zander rushed in, and began hacking at the larger roots, even as the soldier screamed and charged the tree from above. There was a moment when it seemed the tree wasn’t sure who to attack.  Then branches groaned as they came crashing towards Zander’s head.  The nimble man dodged left, his axe biting into a root as he slid sideways on the hillside, only to scramble uphill slightly and resume the attacks.  Sliding downhill was easier, and quicker, and Zander dodged the next branch that way, sparing a glance for the soldier.  She seemed to be holding her own, and had opted to try and chop the branches off as they attacked, rather than scramble up or down hill.

An instinct had Zander turning his head in time to see the soldier take a knee.  He was too far away to see if it was an injury which took her down, but it wouldn’t matter when the tree crushed her.  Luckily, the tree was still attacking them both, and Zander struck once more at the roots, severing another pair before he abandoned his attack and scrambled up the hillside.

It was a horrible idea, but there was no time to think about how horrible.  Three deep breaths, and as the tree reared itself up again, Zander ran full tilt towards it.  A raised tree trunk on the hillside gave him elevation as he picked up speed, and he launched himself feet first towards the tree knot.

For a moment when he landed, it was as if he had shocked the tree.  Everything stopped moving, and then as Zander drew his next breath, two things happened.  Every branch seemed to draw away from him, preparing to crash into his precarious perch on the tree.  And the tree, overbalanced by the force of his impact, continued to tilt backward, gravity helping the thick trunk and broken limbs towards the ground.  There was a loud sound of crunching, which Zander thought must be the broken roots giving out under the pressure of the tree falling.

“Jump!” The soldier screamed at him, her eyes wide as the tree, heedless of it’s impending crash, began to strike with it’s many branches.  Zander turned towards her, and threw himself back up the hill.  He landed in a tangled of limbs, his breath knocked from his chest as he rolled to a seated position.

They watched as the tree crashed and thrashed it’s way down the hillside.  When it finally came to a stop, Zander panted, catching his breath.  But the tree did not rise, even after several minutes.  He turned his head as the soldier pulled her foot out of her boot, which had lodged in a hole in the ground.  Cursing, she reached down and dug the boot out, then sat on a downed tree to slide it back on.

“Are you hurt?” Zander asked, patting his own legs and arms to check for injuries.  The hot flush had mostly left him, though his heart still pounded through his head.  He had many scratches, and dried blood on his knuckles from his attacks on the roots of the tree, but overall he was undamaged.  There were shards of wood in his hair, and he gingerly pulled a few of the longer pieces loose.

“I’m fine.  Nothing that will stop me from marching, anyway.”  She stood, and tested her ankle, grimacing a little.  Then she stepped towards him, her hand held aggressively out.  “My name is Jules.  Marion Jules, call me Jules though.  Thanks for your help.”  Jules seemed nervous, as if she were not often alone with a stranger in the woods.  Zander smiled, brushing his hands down his legs as he stepped towards her.

“Zander.  How could I not help?  That thing came out of no where.”  Her hand was too firm, but he didn’t let it show on his face.  Adrenaline still pounded in his ears, and he hadn’t lost any of his fellows today.  If it comforted her, he could take the pressure.

“Have you ever seen anything like that?”  Jules’ face had paled, and her eyes showed white in the fading light.

“No.” Zander looked grimly towards the broken pile at the hill’s base.  “The forest here has never had a… thing, like that.”  He pulled his hand loose from her firm grasp.  “How did you find it?”

“We were on patrol, and it was just standing in the clearing.  We didn’t realize it was alive, or could move.  We walked right beneath it, and it swung, like a wind drove it alive.  That’s when I noticed the roots were just lying across the ground.  It heaved itself up, and well…”

The sound of a crash echoed through the forest, and both spun to glance downhill.  Zander heard Jules gasp, and at first didn’t see a cause.  In the growing gloom, it was hard to see across the forest.  Zander frowned, wondering where the fallen tree was.  Had they shifted positions that much, that he could no longer see the creature for all the branches in the way?  But no, they hadn’t.

The forest moved around the creature, and Zander was finally able to grasp what he saw.  There were three more creatures in the clearing.

Ilyena part 2

Dusk had lengthened into night as we made our way back to the camp.  My guards kept their grips on my arms, simply lifting me over trouble spots.  I was miserable, my thoughts a jumble of worry for my daughter, my situation, and a roil of political rammifications.  Was I to be ransomed? A prisoner of war?  I shuddered, thinking of the prison built to hold magic users within Elenia.  I had never visited Nimion, but they likely had their own place to deal with magic.

The gag tasted awful, a mix of dirt and leather lingering on the linen.  With the piece in my mouth spread over my tongue, I couldn’t escape the taste, only swallow as the need arose.  I watched as we neared the tents, seeing how many of the soldiers took note of our arrival.  Thinking of Zander, still missing, I looked around slowly.  To my left, I saw a dusty soldier being lectured by a very angry man, and recognized my first guard.  His eyes met mine as we walked past, and anger as well as shame danced across his features for a moment, before he looked away.  White canvas blocked my view of him, and my honor guard pushed me forward after Braxton, who walked with purpose ahead.

The center of the soldier tents was divided between two larger tents.  A circular tent on the right must be Braxton’s personal tent.  And next to it was a large rectangular tent, with the side lacing open to allow entry into the well-lit interior.  The tent was easily 30 feet long, and as we ducked inside, I could see it was at least half again as wide.  The center, between the two upright poles which held the tent’s roof support up, was taken up by benches, arranged in a circle on woven rugs.  At the edges of the tent were chests and tables, with no seeming order to their arrangement.

Braxton had crossed to the left, stripping his leather gloves as he went.  My guards stopped in the center of the tent, and I had a moment to examine the tent’s decoration.  The whole of the room was lit with oil lamps, in iron brackets on the main poles, flickering in the soft wind from the open door.  The chests were all of a similar quality and scattered around the edges of the tent.  The tables were simple slats of wood with four legs, easy to pack in and out, also spread evenly, and some were covered with different items, leather or boxes, scroll cases, ink and parchment.  The rug was utilitarian, brown, and had clearly seen a campaign or two, judging from the darker spots in the center.  It puzzled me, until I thought of why Braxton was here.  If he was a forward movement for the Nimion declaration of war, where were the other soldiers?  Where were the other lords with their tents and strategies?

Braxton had stripped his helm and guantlets, laying them on the table he stood before.  Bending, he retrieved something from the chest beneath the table, before turning back to me.  Something about his look made me uneasy, though it was a useless sentiment. My arms were still bound behind my back, my gag still doing it’s job.  I was essentially at this man’s mercy, and I hated it.

“It is fortunate we found you.  I have much I want to discuss with you, but of course, we can’t speak as you currently are.”  Braxton gestured at me, and I sighed.  “And I won’t insult you with an offer of an oath or your word.  We both know such things pale compared to our oaths to our Kingdoms. I am glad I brought this with me.”  He gestured to a dark wooden box in his hands, polished till it gleamed in the light.  As he opened it, my heart went cold, and fell to the pit of my stomach.  Within the thin box lay two half circles of silver metal, with small petals of gold metal flecked with black all pointing towards the center of the circle. One side was joined, while the other was open, and the half circles each contained a black stone.  Panic shot up my body, and I began to struggle against my bonds.  Braxton laughed softly.  “You recognize it?  I wasn’t sure you would have anything quite like it in Elenia.  Well, best to be done quickly.”

And suddenly there were extra hands holding me still as Braxton advanced with his necklace.  I bucked, twisted, and kicked, yelling the entire time.  I felt bound to trees, so little did my struggles help, as the soldiers merely lifted me off the ground.  Someone grabbed my legs and a hand gathered my hair as terrified, I watched Braxton advance.  The necklace was a null, a way to cancel out a caster’s ability to draw on magic.  I had never seen one up close, but knew of them in principle.  I wouldn’t be able to cast magic, or use my spells.

His hands bore the half metal circles forward, and he began chanting, priming the magic to lock into place.  For a moment, my vision went green, as I tried uselessly to draw on the forest.  There was a sharp pain all around my neck, and blackness descended as I heard the null click into place.

I walked in the shade of a gray landscape.  Dust coated the road, and the trees stood with no leaves, the pale light dissolving all shadows.  The sky was overcast with thin shapeless gray, and no life showed across the hazy expanse.  I was standing atop a rise, overlooking a barren valley of skeletal trees and dust clouds, my hair swept back by sharp, cold wind.  As far as I looked, gray, dead land looked back, lacking the warm green energy of life I normally felt from the forest.  I wept, and the dust swallowed my tears greedily, where I knelt alone in the corpse of the wood.

I awoke lying on my back, furs beneath my fingers.  As my eyes slowly opened, my entire body felt weighed down with the dust of the dream land.  My ears echoed with the sound of the wind as I turned to look about the tent I lay in.  Bright yellow sunlight streamed through the door, and a woman sat  next to the flap, her body aimed towards my sleeping place as she watched something outside the door.  She was in plain clothes, pants and a tunic, but something about her screamed soldier to my fuzzy mind.  I blinked at her, and she turned her head, catching my eyes.

“Oy.  You’re awake.”  She moved from the door to my side, her hands brushing hair out of my eyes as I stared at her.  “Can you speak?”  I opened my dust-parched mouth, and no sound came out.  Frustrated, I tried again.

“Water?”  The woman nodded, her brown eyes serious as she poured from a pitcher near my feet.  I struggled to sit up, managing to turn on my side.  My arm shook as I pushed myself up, and the soldier watched me appraisingly.  I was angry as I gasped for breath after sitting up.  Patient, the soldier waited, and handed me the cup.  It felt like a weighted rock instead of a glass in my hand, and slowly I lifted it and drank.  The water was divine, cool and refreshing as it wet my parched throat.  Handing it back to the woman, I tried to organize my thoughts.

“How long have I been asleep?” I asked her, as she refilled the cup.  Handing it back to me, she rose, standing above me.

“Since dark last night.  It’s mid-afternoon now.”  Moving to the door, she spoke to someone softly just outside the tent flap.  Sipping my drink, I gingerly thought back on the dream.  A barren forest, skeleton trees, no people to be seen.  Did it have meaning beyond the dream, or was it an effect of the null?

Carefully, I set the empty cup on the ground, and reached to my neck.  The null was cold to my touch, a heavy weight on my collarbone.  My fingers began to tingle as I traced the path of the petals, where they seemed to bite into my skin, held fast by the magic of the necklace.  I realized the soldier was watching me, and self-consciously dropped my hand to my lap.  My finger tips continued tingling, even as I rubbed them down my leg.

We sat in silence for several minutes, no conversation blooming between us.  I fought the urge to lay back down, knowing I would return to sleep if I did.  It was hard to tell how I felt, but the steady weakness could only be a part of the null.  I turned my thought inward, and could feel a downward pull, like the edge of sleep, right before the tumble from conscious thought into dream world.

“…awake?  She looks asleep sitting up to me.”  Lord Braxton’s voice echoed through the fog, and I fought to lift sand bags with my eyelids.  The soldier was by the door, and Braxton, dressed in a knee length blue tunic, dark pants reaching the top of his soft leather boots, was kneeling in front of me.  Startled, I blinked at him.  Scowling, he held a hand out over my chest, magic glowing along his fingers.  “I didn’t anticipate the null would affect you this strongly.  It makes no sense.  Previous wearers have only reported a wall between them and their magic.  This lethargy is completely unprecedented.”

“Nature magic is different from arcane.”  My speech was slurred and I scowled.  Now I was weak and helpless, my two least favorite things.

“Yes, yes, I know.  Nature magic is ever present in living things, and directly connected with the natural world.  Arcane magic is studied and learned.  Anyone can learn arcane magic, with time and practice.  Nature casters, however, must have that innate connection to the green energy of nature.”  Impatient, Braxton began pacing the tent.  “The null severs a persons ties to magic, working as a natural barrier between those energies and the caster.”

“Except a nature caster is pulling that energy from within.  If the barrier is a wall, then it is built within me, where my magic comes from.”  I spoke as quickly as I could, barreling on with volume if not speed.  “Your magic is drawn in like a breath, a way to bring magic into your body and use it.  You can store it, in gems or foci, or you can choose to hold it a short time.  In contrast, my magic comes from within my body, connected through the sympathetic ties of life to more magic, which I can draw on for a price.  For me, it is as if I can exhale magic.”  For a moment, tears threatened to fall, and angrily I swallowed them down.  I had more to say on the matter of magic.  “A null, when used on a nature caster, is a constant torment, as it fights against the very magic of life.  Surely, your own people advised you against this…”

“We have no one to advise us in nature magics, as we have no users powerful enough or sane enough to speak with.”  Braxton sighed, and settled himself on the ground across from me.  He looked as tired as I felt for a moment, a swirl of emotions in his blue eyes.  I was feeling more awake, after my impassioned speech, as if the effects of the necklace were lessened by my activity.  “Honestly, we aren’t sure what happened to our nature casters.  We had a small community in the North, and no one has heard from them in several months.  The King sent scouts to find a report, but the scout’s didn’t return.  He is convinced it is the precursor to an attack, and so has put forth decrees to protect his citizenry.  I had hoped to speak to you of these matters, as we head North.”

“North?  Why are you taking me North?  Isn’t the King on his estates to the west?”  My knowledge of Nimion geography might be flawed, but at least I knew where the royal seat should be.  North held very few settled lands, mostly grazing and lumber with a scattering of Noble houses, overseeing common farms.  Elenia was cut off by steep, inhospitable mountains, between the borders.

“North is where the trouble started, and the war.  If your knowledge of nature can help us decipher where the trouble came from, we might save your countrymen a great deal of trouble.  The official declaration of war should reach your King in 12 days time, if my news on the matter is correct.  That gives us precious little time to find answers.”  Braxton met my eyes, his own serious.

“You want my help?”  Suddenly cold, I stared at him blankly for a moment before a thought dawned like sunlight in my dust addled brain.  “You came looking for me!  That’s why you are here, unsupported and mucking about in Elenia’s northern woods.  But how would you even know I was near?  How could you possibly have an idea where we…”  dumbfounded, I halted, staring at him.  He had planned this all along, planned the null even, for me.  For a moment, I wasn’t sure if anger, alarm, panic, or hysteria were going to win.

“We needed a nature caster, someone knowledgeable, and we had no one.  I knew you, by reputation as well as our time together in Elenia’s courts.  I didn’t know you were here, I knew there was a group of nature folk up here, but not that you were here.  I had hoped to find someone, and to save us the time of having to debate it, I brought the null.  I don’t care if I have to drag the King of Nimion to the North to face the facts, I will find answers.  This war will affect my lands first, here so close to the border.”  Braxton smiled wearily, and rose.  One of his guards leaned in the door, and Braxton held up his hand, motioning the man outside the tent.  “My soldiers will pack camp at first light.  We leave for the North tomorrow.  I hope you are more recovered by then, as we will need your expertise.”

“You didn’t even try to ask first.”  My soft words stopped Braxton as he was leaving.  “You planned to use force on whatever poor sop you found, without a thought to asking for help.  Why didn’t you just ask me?”  My tears from earlier were threatening again, though I had no mind to stop them.  Braxton hesitated, then ducked out of the tent without answering.  Weary, I lay back down on the furs, my tears hot on my cheeks, and let the blackness take me.


It was still light in the forest, though the shadows had elongated.  The denser parts of pine and ancient oak were nearly night black, as the rays of the sun lost the power to brighten the thick foliage.  We traveled silently, efficiently, too near hostile lands to be anything but cautious.  Zander was scouting ahead, making sure we weren’t walking into any patrols or ambushes.  Lily, all of 6 years old and serious, was close to my side.

It was dangerous to move my daughter, and yet our last home had been raided.  I was a practitioner of natural magics, and until my daughter was born, had been advisor and weapon to our Kingdom of Elenia.  Then I had given up all those days for the soft life of raising my child.  But the old war between Elenia and our neighbor, Nimion, seems to be returning.  Raiding bands of soldiers have been seen, pressing into the borders and exploring the forests of the Northlands, where I retired to.  It would seem time for my family to return to the King’s court, and what service and safety I could find.

I heard a crack from our left, and froze.  A voice cursed, and suddenly there were many crashes all around us.  An ambush!  Where was Zander?  My heart in my throat, I looked down at Lily’s frightened brown eyes, and nodded to her.  “Remember what we spoke of.  Remember the way?”  And there was no more time.  No time for kisses or I love you or hugs from small arms, only enough time to trigger the premade spell, chant a few words, and watch my heart lift newly feathered wings and take to the sky.  I felt a steel blade press to my side as I watched my world fly southeast, towards the King’s court.

“Not a word.  Hands on your head, slowly.”  The steel didn’t waiver, and I sighed as I obliged the soldier.  I could have fought back.  But Lily was my weakness, and with her in the fight, I would have been at a disadvantage.  Still, it stung to know I hadn’t thrown a single spell as someone tied my hands.  The soldier kept his steel pressed, fearing my spell casting.  Smart, or I might have tried to fight.   Most of my spells required directed magic, nullified by tying my hands, but I had a defensive spell or two that only required a power word and a nod of the head.  I wasn’t completely helpless unless they gagged me.

Hands firmly bound behind my back, I was instructed to stand, and faced my captors.  Six soldiers, clad in leathers with steel plate bracers and chain mail shirts, ranging in age from young to still young surrounded me, and after a short whispered conversation, broke into two groups.  Five of the soldiers continued on to the North, while one took me.  Hope blossomed, as he led me down an embankment.  Quickly, it seemed, we left his fellows behind.

“Where are you taking me?” I asked softly, hoping I didn’t remind him that I needed to be gagged.  He grunted, but didn’t answer.  No information for the prisoner, I guess.  Last I had heard of the border skirmishes, the Nimion’s were piling near the border, still half a day walk from here.  If they were pushing this far in, my news was out of date.  “Are you bandits?”

He snorted.  “Just be patient, lass.  You aren’t harmed, and you can ask your questions to my commander.”  He glanced at me, and his blue eyes swept my traveling clothes.  I had chosen neutral forest tones, a brown skirt that reached mid-calf, my sturdy leather boots reaching to my knee, and a long sleeved tunic in speckled green, a trick of the hunters for blending in.  “Are there more in your traveling party?  What were you and the bird-lass doing in the forest?”

That silenced me.  Information gathering went both ways, and I had no idea where Zander was or if he had also been captured.  Lily, protected by my spells, would fly straight to the rendezvous point I had made with an old contact.  She wouldn’t be completely safe until within the walls of the King’s city.  When I didn’t answer the soldier’s questions, he grunted and went back to walking.

They had tied a loop around my waist, attached to my hands, and my captor now held the length of rope in his hand.  We walked for a quarter hour with no words between us.  I was carefully examining the countryside.  If I was going to make a try for freedom, without my hands, I would need to choose the spot carefully.  The soldier was surprisingly courteous, spending time to let me climb over downed trees or across creek beds.  I suppose it allowed him to watch me closely, but I began to realize he wasn’t keeping a watch on the forest.  He had no worries that we would be ambushed or that I might have an entire troop of hunters looking for me.  Not a good sign for my future.

We scrambled up a steep incline, dense with brush and brambles.  I would have fallen twice, but the soldier steadied my shoulder, staying at my side during the climb.  As I caught my breath at the top, I saw we were on a rise, sloping steeply down to an open meadow with a large river running through it.  And the meadow was full of tents, mostly small individual tents used by soldiers, though a few larger ones were set up in the center of the encampment.  And people moved throughout the camp, hundreds of soldiers, most in armor.  The Nimion army was in our Kingdom.

I had only a second to think before the soldier was starting for a winding path down the bank.  I felt a moment of guilt, but once we were in that ring of soldiers, I wouldn’t be able to win my way free.  At the moment, the strength I had was in anonymity.  As soon as my name was recognized, my contact with the King of Elenia would come to mind.  So I used a wind spell triggered with a word, between the soldier and me, and pushed us both.  He was hit strongly in the back, and jerked 10 feet forward before falling down the embankment, rolling as he hit the ground.  And I was jerked 10 feet backward, my rope going with me, before I landed on my feet and scrambled back the way we had come.

It was my only route.  The army could be set up anywhere, but I knew the way we had come was relatively soldier-free.  I listened intently for sounds of pursuit, but the poor soldier likely had to roll all the way to the bottom of the hill before scrambling back up.  So instead, I ran.  After a few minutes, I stopped to get my bearings and listen.  I knew plenty of travel spells, but none I could do with my hands bound.  If I could get my hands loose, I could travel through the trees, using their root system as a sympathetic road system.  While I listened, I twisted my hands.  The soldiers had done too good a job, and I stopped as my fingers began to tingle.  I heard no pursuit, and so I rubbed my bound hands against the tree behind me.

Starting forward again, I hurried through the forest, heading southeast now.  It felt like an eternity had passed since I had thrown the soldier down the bank, but I knew it wasn’t long.  I hadn’t put much space between us yet.  Any moment he would rouse the other soldiers, and an army would be pursuing me.

“Ilyana of Greenwich.  My, what a surprise.  I haven’t seen you in court for years.”  A man’s voice, cultured and tenor, almost remembered as I froze.  I turned to see a man in a long and delicate chainmail shirt, draped over his long tunic and reaching almost to his knees.  Sturdy leather embossed with a lion rearing showed him to be more than a common soldier.  He stood with arms crossed, grinning at me, and well he might.  My hair had come loose from my braid, I was dressed in the mottled garb of the forest instead of court attire, and my hands were bound behind my back.  With a sinking feeling, I recognized him.

“Lord Braxton.” My voice was breathy, and I paused to swallow in a sandpaper throat. “I apologize, you catch me at a disadvantage.”  One of the Lords of Nimion, and a close neighbor to the border here.  And a wizard, if my wits hadn’t failed me as my luck seemed to.  Soldiers were moving to surround me, at least a dozen.  I seem to have found another patrol.  Braxton’s smile only widened, and he likely understood my situation.  Why else would I be trussed up in the forest?  “What brings you to the Northlands and the splendor of the wood?”

“Well, as you may know, war is brewing.  Since these lands are so sparsely populated, my men and I have begun setting up a forward camp.  The official declaration should reach King Eldwyn by the end of the fortnight.  But please, let us return to my camp.  We have much to catch up on.  I am most interested to hear what you have been up to for the King these years.”  Two soldiers took my arms, and I sighed.

“Nothing of any use to you, I am afraid.  I retired from the courts, some 6 or 7 years now.  I live here, or near here in any sense.  I had not even heard of the war until this morning.”  I dropped the pretense of two acquaintances at court.  “Please, Lord Braxton.  I want nothing to do with this.  I am removed from these politics for my own reasons.  I merely want to lead my own simple life.  Please, release me.”  Braxton narrowed his eyes at me.

“What game are you playing, Ilyana?  You were one of Elenia’s strongest casters, be it of the wild magics and not the scholarly.  Do you really believe I will buy such a feeble ploy?  Simple life, bah!  How could you expect me to believe that a sharp mind like yours would step away from the centers of knowledge and civilization to lead a simple country life?  Do you think me an idiot, to release you if you bat your eyes at me?”  He frowned now, and I knew it was pointless.  “What happened to you this morning?  How did you escape your captors, my soldiers I assume?”  Silence greeted his answer.  “Geoff, gag her.”

He must have seen something in my face.  It was pointless to speak more anyway, but it was degrading as Geoff shoved a length of linen into my mouth, bound round with a bandage.  As his soldiers turned us back towards the main encampment, I closed my eyes and prayed to the forest to guide my daughter to safety.  My own fate was uncertain.  Zander was my only hope of rescue, and what could he do against an army?

The Burn of Scotch

Bentley ducked into the small cottage warily.  No lights were on, and the door was unlocked.  This was a safe place, a place removed from all the shit of the world.  But paranoia had always been a skill to him, to think ahead of the enemy.  Still, there was something weird about this feeling, like there was a presence to the air.

He opened the inner room, the joint kitchen and dining room, and paused.  Two men sat on the floor in the kitchen, one pale and dark haired, the other blond and long limbed.  Both slumped a little, and the dark haired man was chuckling as he tried to clink the mason jar he was drinking out of with the blond.  Shock stopped Bentley for a moment, his hands tightening on his staff.  

“What,” he began, and the dark haired man shot him a sudden look, his eyes serious.  Markus had a reputation for boozing and cruising, the sort of man you warned your family about.  There wasn’t a form of partying he wasn’t familiar with, and he was a huge asset in information gathering.  His heart was good, and his aim deadly.  Slowly, steadily, Markus rose.

“Just a minute, ‘k? I just gotta tell Bentley to take his sober ass home.”  There was a slur to Markus speaking voice, and Bentley sighed.  The younger man pushed past him into the entry room, the dark shadows of the night settling about the second drunk.  Sighing, Bentley turned to follow, glancing back at the blond.  Seams was smiling, and the thought was more of  puzzle than the whole damn scene.  He looked up to meet Markus dark eyes, and sighed again. 

“What the hell, Markus?  We have to move out in just a few hours and the two of you are stinking drunk.”  Bentley felt himself scowling and tightened his lips.

“Don’t be a tight ass, Ben, I needed to know.  Seamus has never even touched a drink in my presence, let alone let himself relax.  I’m trying to get a feel of the man.  Building trust, ya know?”  There was no sign of the slur now, and Bentley found himself staring in bewilderment.  

“You’re faking intoxication?  Is Seamus?” the older man asked, glancing back at the still slouching form on the kitchen floor.  The drunken man was leaning his head back against the cupboards, his eyelids heavy.

“Hell no.  That man has had more liquor than most frat boys down on their 21st birthday.  And still he holds himself back.  I gotta say, I have never seen such self control.”  Markus spoke with awe tinging his voice, and Bentley felt the whole bizarre situation solidifying.  Seamus kept to himself, did his job and that was it.  Not a man for small talk, but a great hand at most things destructive.  Bentley shook his graying braid, glancing back at the drunk.  And froze.  Gray-blue eyes stared at them now, blood shot and heavy.  The old man heard Markus suck in a breath noisily through his teeth as he realized the intense gaze was on them.  

Seamus calmly set the mason jar down, his eyes never leaving the doorway.  Slowly, deliberately, he got his feet under him, and pushed up the counter to a standing position.  He hesitated there, as if gauging his level of mobility before pushing off from the counter to wobble a bit before walking none to steady to the door.  When the blond haired man stood in the doorway, his eyes stared straight ahead, his eyes locked on the front door.  

“Have to,” Seamus slurred, his Irish accent clear and heavier than usual.  “Always have to.”  He started towards the bedrooms, his steps wobbling slightly to the right as he moved.

“Seamus, wait,” Markus started, then gasped as Seamus whirled on him.  

“Fuck you, Markus.”  Spittle flew as Seamus towered towards the other man, anger a force lending strength to his tightened fists.  “Fuck you and your carefree life.  Fuck you and your stupid curiosity.  There are some things that never need to see the light of day, some things that are private, damn your eyes.  And if that isn’t good enough for you, then I suggest you fuck off.  Because not everything in real life is a fucking story you can read, hear all about and pass off.  If I don’t want to talk about myself, then fucking well accept that.”  The man’s anger faded suddenly, leaving Seamus looking sad and teary eyed as he swayed drunkenly.  “Not everything gets better for telling.  And if you can’t think of anything to fucking fit that idea, then good.  It means your life has been better than mine.”  

Silence reigned for several minutes as the blond man slowly turned back to the bedroom.  Before he went through, he turned again, speaking over his shoulder, his eyes shrouded in darkness.

“Thanks for the Scotch.”

The Warrior of Light

The sound of heaving echoed back to her from the white tile of the bathroom. It was a clean one, for a motel room, and if she stopped to think about who else had used the toilet, she might throw up again. Drained, she rested her head against the wall, the tile leeching some of the heat from her face. The day had been unprecedented.

MacKenzie Joan Davenport, Soldier of Light, retired, gazed in the mirror and tried to quell the shaking in her stomach. Blond hair hung in limp sections around her face, and her blue eyes were gray at the moment, the fatigue showing around the edges. It had been almost 5 years since she retired, and pulled out of the war between Light and Dark. There was always a war, as the balance had to be actively maintained. But warriors, they came and went. Her own Jack had passed, and it had been her choice to withdraw from the field. Chancy, at best. Pointless, now.

Flipping the switch, she moved back to the main room of the motel’s suite, and froze. Her daughter slept still on the large bed, curled sideways around the pillows, her pale blond hair covering her small features. As she watched, her visitor ran clawed fingers through those soft locks, brushing the hair from Joellen’s face, gentle and tender in his motions. Her knees went to jelly, and she sank into the chair nearest her, her eyes never leaving his hands. No sword, nor hope, just her and her 4-year-old daughter at the hands of the devil.

He looked the part. Azione, red-skinned leader of a motley crew of… bad. Thieves, murderers, there were even tales that he had converted a warrior of the light to be his soldier. For all she knew, he was exactly as the stories had told him: bold, daring, devoted to the balance, and if that meant dark deeds, well, he wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. Azione was the most frightening of the creatures she could think of, for he followed his own code and the stories showed him to be unpredictable. He had done cruel things, it was true, but he had also gone out of his way to save lives.

They sat in silence for a time. Then, unhurried and deliberate, Azione leaned back against the headboard and met her eyes. There was mirth there, may the gods damn him. And also a kindness that made Mackenzie nervous.

“I hope you are comfortable.” Azione spoke in a mild baritone, pleasant to the ear. His accent could have been upscale in any number of languages, the sounds rounded and polished like someone who practiced speech. Mac licked her lips nervously, her eyes shifting to her daughter, and nodded. “Doubtless, you have questions.”

Questions had begun for her the moment she came home from work, to find the front door ajar and her daughter gone. The woman who watched Joellen on those days Mac had business outside the house had explained, dream-eyed and calm, that her guardian had come while Mac was out. The woman held an envelope with instructions to come here, to this motel. Alone. Terror had lanced through her, and anger. She had stayed away! From it all, sticking to her acres of land and her life and her daughter. Damn the Balance! Closing her eyes to calm herself, Mac gently sighed, and then met Azione’s gaze again.

“Many questions, of course. Why was I… invited here?” Mac tried to keep the anger out of her voice. Azione’s amusement seemed to grow, though, so perhaps she hadn’t done as well as she had hoped.

“I have need of your skills. The Balance is tilted, and must be righted. It is your duty to assist in such things.” Azione folded his long fingers at his belt, his eyes laughing at her.

“Perhaps you had not heard; I have retired. I do not fight for the Light anymore. Nor will I raise a hand for the Dark. I wish to live in peace with my daughter, as far from the battle as I can get.” Mac frowned as his smile grew.

“Oh, I had heard. Indeed, it took me a few years to find you, so well were you off the grid. I tried searching your sword, which I note you no longer have. I also spoke to several of your old acquaintances, who had no idea where you had disappeared to. As I am sure they still do not.” He had her, he meant. Foolish now to regret that decision, to separate herself from all of it. But there were many who didn’t believe retirement possible. Many who would have constantly tried to talk her back into the battle, or would have kept her up to date. Mac had hoped a clean break would truly grant her the time to raise her daughter. The isolation worked against her now.

“I have no sword, nor armor. I have no powers to offer you.” She swallowed in a dry sandpaper throat, her tongue sticking to the back of her teeth for a moment.  “I gave it up, don’t you see? There was to be nothing to draw me back with. My skills are gone. I will be of no use to you.” Mac heard the desperate note in her voice and willed herself silent. Had she fallen so far, as to plead with him, beg him?

“Yes, I do understand. But still you can serve me, I promise. And tomorrow you and I shall begin, by visiting a point of Tilt, and fixing it. Don’t worry about the girl, I have arranged a sitter.” He smiled at these words, and Mac’s heart dropped. He turned back to look at her daughter, one finger tracing a path down her cheek, claw delicately touching Joellen’s fair skin. He rose then, and bowed to her. “Do get some rest. I will return in 8 hours.”

He rose then, and Azione towered about her. His horned head brushed the ceiling, and he walked toward the door with confidence. He glanced back, and smiled toothily at her. “Good night, my dear. I promise, all will be well tomorrow.” He walked through the door then, and the shadows seemed to rise up to meet him, swirling around until even the silhouette disappeared. A moment later, the guard outside the door peered around the edge, and silently closed the door.

Alone, Mackenzie rushed across the room to Joellen. Who slept on, seemingly unharmed. She had been playing with a complex collection of knots when Mac had shown up this evening, her attention wholly on her task. The guard who had let her in had instructed her to put the knot into a drawer, and in a moment Joellen had blinked and sprang up to hug her. Sick in her heart, Mac had held her. Dinner had been delivered, and they had passed the time until bed watching Nick Jr. and snuggling on the bed. Joellen had fallen asleep just a few minutes before Mac’s visit to the bathroom.

She couldn’t protect her. These last years had been magic, peaceful, happy times. And now, her past would cost Joellen. Unless…  But that was stupid.  Wasn’t it?  After all, she would lose her daughter if she…  How could she even be thinking this?  Her daughter was the entire point!  Her safety, her childhood, her smile…  Mac felt her stomach lifting again and breathed in.  Deep, deep, breath touching the calm places in her mind, she sank slowly to the floor, resting her head on the side of the bed.

It was a hard choice. For several hours, she went over the details, over the consequences, over her choices. Over and over. It might work. It might save Joellen. But it would doom her.  Quietly, she gathered the meager supplies from the kitchen.  Salt, a small metal pot, water, and a short silver knife.  She sat for several minutes, staring at the still form in the bed.  Mac would never see her grow up.  But she could call for help.  And that would best serve her daugher.

*             *             *

Dawn broke the darkness in the room. Her tears were long gone, her resolve hard like steel around her shoulders. It hurt, and yet was familiar to take up her mantle once more. Plate clanked as she shifted, and she stilled, facing the door, her steel drawn and planted before her, focus to her thoughts and mind. Power coursed through her veins, elevating her to heights she hadn’t felt in 5 years. And as the first rays of the new sun glinted off her armor, the door opened. The Warrior of Light stood, her hair tied back in her helm, her sword in her hand, her eyes hard. Azione smiled in the doorway, his eyes sweeping a lazy circuit up her body, walking a few steps boldly into the room. She met his eyes, her own hard and calculating, no tremor betraying her. She could face anything, in this armor.

After a moment, the man cleared his throat. “Well, I see our business is concluded. I do hope you will visit me again, Mrs. Davenport. Perhaps your daughter, as well.” His lazy smile was smug, and she hated him for it. She shifted, walking forward a few paces until they were shoulder to shoulder. He had manipulated her. He had used her and her daughter to correct the Balance. A dangerous deviance, created by her own hand. The night had shown her that. Her decision to walk away had left a void in the Light, and no one had stepped forward to fill it. And yet, he had no right to force her to take up the mantle again. No right, but all the power. Mackenzie hated him for it.

“You made a choice for me. Remember, because I certainly will. And next time, the Balance may shift in my favor. I will never forgive you,” Mackenzie coldly informed him, her eyes piercing and angry.

“And the girl? I would never harm a child, you know.” Azione smiled as Mac frowned at him, her grip on the sword visibly tightening.

“My child is beyond your reach, and will remain so. One day, she will take up the mantle of Warrior, and I curse you for it. Azione, master of chaos, I promise you I will repay you someday.” Anger twisted her features, and for a moment it looked as if Mackenzie would raise her sword. The Warrior hesitated, though, and without a backward glance, strode out of the room. The guard ducked inside a moment later.

“Should I pursue her, sir?”

“No need. My goal has been achieved. Let us retire for now, and I will consider our next move.” Azione stared after the warrior, no smile to light his lips. What he had done was for the Balance, but that was a fickle thing, constantly shifting and moving. He had kept a step ahead of the Balance for years. He may have reached too far, with this choice.