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Books by Quantum Muse contributors and friends.
Transdimensional Blues

by
Raymond Coulombe
Hold The Anchovies

by
Harris Tobias
Peaceful Intent--Stories of human/Alien Interaction

by
Harris Tobias
The Dreaming Fire

by
Jeromy Henry

The River Flows On

by

Ross Kitson



What a thing it is to die silently, to stare your killer in the eye as he slides impassive steel through your belly.

 

What a thing it is for a forest to be bereft of all sound—to be like a child silently screaming in disbelief at the sudden pain he has endured.

 

It was as if the forest held its breath in surprise, pausing in its eternal cadence to take stock of the horror perpetrated beneath its eaves.

 

And I ran, flitting from trunk to trunk, mimicking a ghastly game of hide and seek, leaving the staring eyes and lolling mouths of my kin behind.

 

#

 

The sounds had slipped back into the darkness of the Great Forest, hesitant and subdued. I had found a hollow in the base of a great oak where I curled like a vole, trying to strip my mind of the images of the massacre.

 

The Emperor’s elite soldiers, the Shorvorian Crimson Guard, had entered our commune like spectres. They slaughtered every druid they encountered, efficiently and cleanly, as if culling cattle for a feast. I had awoken with one of the contractures in my leg, in time to see the glitter of the red Pyrian moon off the half-helm of a Guard as he ran Arfern, my mentor, through.

 

My instinct was in opposition to the impassiveness of my brethren. A sickening wave of fear cascaded through me—a stark reminder of my cowardice many years before—and I rolled behind a broad elm to hide. My leg spasmed once more, seemingly in mockery of my attempts at concealment, and I bit through my lip to stymie my shout.

 

My reminiscing was halted by the sound of approach—the scrape of metal on wood, the splinter of twig under boot. I pulled my breath into my shivering chest as if it were my last.

 

The Crimson Guard was stocky and muscular, as many from the isle of Shorvor were, and was attired in banded mail armour. The glisten of blood on the metal strips conveyed the appearance of a giant insect tracking its prey.

 

He came so close that I could see etches of scar tissue on his forearms. They criss-crossed the amber flesh like a gossamer net. I recalled hearing as a child that the Shorvorian warriors would draw blades across their own flesh before battle, lest they die before their steel drank an enemy’s blood.

 

My breath seared in my lungs as I quivered and once more my wretched leg sought to betray me. The muscles clenched and twisted, an unheard mocking declaration—cripple, coward, craven.

 

The Guard stalked onwards, hand on sword, the predator of an Empire expunging itself of our blasphemous creed. For the Empire worshipped newer deities, of pride and courage. It had no patience for the old gods, those of the earth.

 

The Goddess, Nolir, stroked her soporific touch across my brow and I slept within the hollow, huddled and safe.

 

#

 

In the dull light of a new day I crept through the Forest, cursing the gnarled leg that childhood polio had left me. My mind was alight with questions, with dilemmas. How could the Goddess have allowed this to happen to us? How could She have watched as her faithful, her Chosen, were slain? How could she do nothing as the tattoos that delineated our eternal faith were cleaved by the grey metal of an Empire, that prayed to the rigidity of iron above the flexibility of wood.

 

We were forsaken. All that we had given up for Her, all that I had given up for Her, was cast into the blood-drenched mud and spat upon.

 

The ground sloped slightly and became rockier. It was challenging moving down the incline with my lame leg, but I realised I had little choice. Crimson Guards were renowned for their belligerence and I feared that this one had my scent.

 

The pains in my leg were clawing my mind towards the past—I had thought my years in the Forest would heal me of those wounds, but they were opening as if fresh, and bleeding their misery. For I had been failed before—by courage and by love—and now by faith.

 

The woodland levelled out and I could discern the echoes of fresh water. This was a path I had never limped along before. The trees became increasingly scanty and the rocks more dominant, and then abruptly I reached a precipice.

 

The gorge was wide, perhaps a hundred feet across, and far below the river frothed with the gift of spring’s thaw. The remnants of a rope bridge hung over the gorge like the skeletal remains of a gigantic snake. The nearest slats to me were twenty feet away and green with moss.

 

“The chase is concluded, it would seem,” an accented voice called out.

 

Terror spun me around. The Crimson Guard descended the incline, his sword drawn and smeared with his own blood.

 

“Your brothers died with pride and honour, yet you scamper away in the dark like a rabbit,” he said.

 

“Please...” I said. “Please, you don’t have to kill me. Let me go. This achieves nothing.”

 

He halted thirty feet away and regarded me. His face was youthful, with narrow eyes and no traces of a beard. There could be only a few years between us.

 

“Druid, I take no pleasure in this killing. But it is my duty to serve the Emperor of Artoria—he gained that privilege many years ago when Shorvor fell to the might of his ancestors. I shall make it swift.”

 

I stumbled back towards the precipice and risked a glance at the chasm. A twenty foot jump with my accursed leg may as well have been two hundred.

 

The Crimson Guard saluted with his sword. “I can sense your fear—it runs deep within you. It is the sign of a weak Goddess that her faithful shy from Her eternal embrace so.”

 

“My fear of death was heavy in my heart before I knew her light,” I replied.

 

He shrugged and stopped. “Then cast it aside—find your courage—and leap for the bridge.”

 

I felt sick. He was mocking me whilst giving me a chance to prolong the chase. Why? I looked at the gap again. It wasn’t so far—perhaps I could make it.

 

The chasm yawned at me, its rocky maw seeming to extend in disparagement at my hesitation. Bile surged into my mouth as my gut jerked.

 

Once more my courage left me, seeping from my craven heart.

 

The Crimson Guard shook his head in disappointment and moved to attack. My good foot stumbled back and found only a crumbling edge of rock.

 

The world tilted and yawed, the impassive grey of the rock alternating with the swirling white of the water below. I had barely time to take a breath before I struck the river.

 

A frigid embrace engulfed me as the water pushed into my nostrils and clawed at my throat. The impact had jarred my chest and my body screamed for air, but all my eyes could see were bubbles.

 

A numb darkness descended upon my mind.

 

#

 

The two boys were chasing me through the woods on the hillside. My head-start has allowed me a good three hundred yards, but the distance between us was diminishing swiftly. I pounded my redwood stick as I hobbled between the thick trees.

 

Why had I done it? I’d endured four years as the village cripple; four winters of watching through the shutters as the strong lads shovelled the thick snowdrifts; four years of catching the pity in my father’s eyes that the polio had left me gnarled yet alive.

 

It had been four years of fury that had driven the rock from my hand and careening off the skull of Erin, the blacksmith’s lad. And now his two brothers, boys who had once thought of me as a friend, chased me into the gloomy chambers of nature that ran up towards the dark mountains.

 

I stumbled and sprawled against a tree, the bark shredding the side of my cheek. Fresh blood dribbled in my mouth as I frantically tried to find my stick. The woodland was too dark; its eaves party to far too many secrets, whispers of the past best left undisturbed. Tears mixed with the blood on my lips as I realised my stick was lost.

 

Voices weaved around the trunks like the morning mist. The brothers were coming and they would thrash me to within an inch of my life. I pressed my face against the rough bark of the tree, feeling every contour, savouring every sensation lest the beating make me insensate.

 

The sounds were getting louder. My breath jammed in my throat. The words were screeching and contorted, like an animal in pain. A torrent of fear invigorated my wretched body and I frantically looked around for a hiding place.

 

There was none. Unless…

 

To this day I am uncertain what power allowed me to climb up the tree. My twisted leg clattered off the branches as I pulled myself up. My ragged breathing seemed cacophonous in my ears; I was convinced I would be found.

 

Six squat figures shambled into view, their flaming red eyes darting around the forest like demonic fireflies. Their stench was discernable even from ten feet above. Goblins — raiders from the mountains, extending their grasp towards our village on the fringes of civilisation.

 

My breath was aching, held in my chest by a giant’s hand. I was dimly aware of something engulfing me, a cold void, a vast numbness that buffeted around me. The past and the present ran seamlessly together for just an eye-blink.

 

There was shouting and jeering and my two pursuers ran around the trees and staggered to a halt. The instant was transfixed, frozen, a scene etched on my mind's eye, as if chiselled by an ethereal hand.

 

The goblins moved in a blur. The eldest brother was turning as the goblin’s sword plunged through his chest and he bounced off the tree leaving a smear of crimson. The younger brother was swifter but stumbled and fell into a bush. A goblin pulled him up, its horrible green face split in a leer.

 

My heart filled with ice as I saw my stick in the bush.

 

The goblin pressed his sword against the lad’s throat. He glanced up, eyes welling with tears, and saw me. Terror pinned me there. My mind screamed to help him, to try and distract them, but my tongue was as limp as my leg.

 

“More... men... where?” the goblin asked.

 

My eyes locked with the younger brother’s. And in that moment I saw all the valour and all the bravery that I could never possess.

 

“Just us, you filthy creature,” he replied.

 

The goblin drew his sword across the lad’s throat and I saw the courage spill in diminishing sputters over the forest floor. And it was fear that kept me in that tree long after the goblins departed, watching the animals of the night snuffling cautiously at the pair of bodies. It was terror that kept me there as the men from the village came to search. It was guilt that kept me there as the cries of the villagers rang around the forest and shame that stopped me calling until I could hide no longer.

 

Craven. Cripple. Coward.

 

And then I could feel water all around me as I slammed into hard rock. It was rough on my face like the bark those years before. My fingers scrabbled for a hold, nails tearing with little needles of agony.

 

My chest was a void, empty, nothing within it. As empty as my heart; as desolate as my soul.

 

#

 

A pressure against my side dragged me from the timeless darkness of unconsciousness. I was sprawled on a flat rock, a beam of sunlight warming my sodden robes. Every inch of me was scraped and sore and for several minutes I could only cough and retch.

 

A doe was skittering around me on the rock, its dark eyes displaying no fear. I eased into a sitting position, trying to control the swirl of the scene around my head. Every iota of energy had been sapped from me by the grip of the river. Its thunder mocked my frailty as it frothed next to the rock.

 

A bush was intruding onto the pale stone and my gut twinged as I saw the bright succulent berries within it. I began to offer my thanks to Nolir, but the prayer froze in my mind. How could I thank Her when she had put me through this? How could I thank her when She watched her Chosen being murdered within her emerald domain?

 

The berries were tart, but their flesh filled me with welcome vitality. Such was my hunger that it took me far longer than it should have to notice the Crimson Guard.

 

He stood as still as the oldest oak on the far side of the river. The light danced off his armour as it did the river that separated us. I changed my position on the rock so as to observe him. A silence bloated the air between us, interrupted only by the welcome slap of the waters on the rocky banks.

 

“You scamper from me like the doe at your side,” he said. “Your Goddess is cowed by the might of steel and iron.”

 

Distance had injected bravado into my voice. “Even steel and iron will rust in time. Nolir’s glory is eternal—nature is timeless.”

 

“You are wrong, Druid,” he said. “One day all things will become spirit and my ancestors will walk the lands again.”

 

“If that is so, then they will hang their heads in shame at how your people have become vassals to the Empire.”

 

I could see him stiffen at the insult to his faith.

 

“You dare,” he replied. “You who know no faith, you who shiver in cowardice, who loves none but his own wretched self.”

 

A fire was flowing in my veins at his words. “You do not know me,” I hissed.

 

“Do I not? Even from this shore I can see a man bereft of honour, a man devoid of love. And without those you are an empty shell—a dead man who still runs from the inevitable.”

 

“You do not know me,” I whispered.

 

“When we meet again it shall be the last time,” he said. “And you will pay for the insult to my ancestors.”

 

The Crimson Guard strode from the far bank, presumably in search of a crossing. The molten blood thumping in my neck was swiftly replaced by the more familiar ice of fear. It made little sense, this pursuit. What compelled a guard of rigid routine and obedience to chase a solitary druid across a wilderness such as this?

 

The doe nudged me again and I stumbled to my feet. Whatever his motivation, his intent was clear. My lame leg was permeated with a gnawing pain. Suppressing a sob I pushed through the foliage and into the Forest.

 

#

 

The gift of the berries’ energy lasted me several hours, but by midday I was flagging. Sweat ran in rivulets down my face, drawing every insect in the Great Forest to me as if I were a fresh corpse turning in the heat of summer.

 

And in a sense I was; for the words of the Guard had bit deeper than his steel could ever hope to. I was an illusion of life, an apology of a man. My courage had left me as a boy, and my love not long after. The memory tugged at me as I ricocheted through the forest, vision blurred by sweat and fatigue. Love had abandoned me, tossed away like a cuckoo casting away eggs from a nest.

 

Faith had come to roost in my soul that day, those years ago. And now She had flown away too.

 

My leg buckled under me and my face slapped against the mud. Brambles snagged at my face and I rolled to the side, whimpering in exhaustion.

 

It came flooding into me then—the memory of her face. I told her once that her smile was like the first flower of spring. And like the flowers it had faded.

 

I met her on the eve of my sixteenth birthing day, as my elder brother took me from the tavern towards our house on the outskirts of the village. The celebration had been muted—my father was ill at the time, the penance for years of easing his sorrows with cider. My brother’s companions had joked and jostled me, enacting an admirable façade designed to conceal my own lack of friends.

 

I cultivated bitterness within me during those years, a sourness. The deformity of my leg had crept within me, mouldering the freshness of my soul until I was like an old tree, decayed on the inside.

 

It came forth that night, an evil humour that spat from my lips and into my poor brother, Seran. He was broad and strong, the perfect son to a village cooper. My father had burst with pride when Seran had brought a goblin head back to the village the week after I had been found soaked in urine up a tree.

 

“How many jars did it cost you, Seran? To make them pretend?” I asked, my face numb from the drink.

 

“Hush, Urman, it’s your coming of age. Just rein in your tongue for this one night, eh?”

 

“Did father give you some of his supply to share out or was it bought with your coin?” I replied.

 

“That’s enough, show some respect.”

 

“Respect? What has he ever shown me but shame? He should have drowned me in one of his barrels when the polio took my leg. Except now he drowns his own self-loathing and...”

 

Seran’s punch sent me skidding across the grass, and into the horse trough by the crossroads. I tried to stand but the heaviness of the cider conspired with my twisted leg to keep me slumped in the trough. The stink of animals was overpowering.

 

“You’re a bitter and twisted little runt,” he hissed in my ear. “Come home when you are in a better state of mind... if ever.”

 

The haze of the cider had removed me from the scene, as if I were floating above myself and dispassionately observing. Time expanded and contracted like bellows in a forge. Then I was vaguely aware of a presence.

 

“Urman?”

 

A light voice, carrying on the breeze like the first sounds of dawn.

 

“Urman? What’s happened? Where’s Seran?”

 

I pushed out of the trough and slid onto the grass, bits of straw and detritus in my long hair.

 

Her name was Prenal. She knew my brother and his friends through her father, the baker. Her skin had a pallor that the boys of the village joked came from flour, but to my eyes she was as perfect as the Goddess.

 

“Left me. Abandoned. Like they all should.”

 

Prenal hesitated and then sat next to me. Her body was warm against my soaked tunic.

 

In time she spoke. “It wasn’t your fault, Urman. There was nothing you could have done.”

 

For an instant I had thought she had meant my leg, and I started to chuckle at the stupidity of the comment. Then it occurred to me—she had been the betrothed to the younger of the dead brothers.

 

“I could have died with them,” I said. “Rather than enduring this decayed life I have.”

 

Prenal looked at me strangely and then said, “When the fires come to the forest and scour them of life there is nought but ash and embers. Yet always new shoots spring forth, Her fingers pushing past the death and the desolation.”

 

I tried to focus on her words without staring at the motion of her wide mouth. She spoke of the creed of Nolir, the secret faith that the Empire had taken from us generations before.

 

“I...I think that each of us must go through such things in our life,” Prenal said. “For some it comes late, perhaps in the final days as Her call becomes so very strong. Yet for some, and I think for you, the desolation, the devastation has come early. Something will happen, Urman, which will draw you through the ash and into the sunlight.”

 

And in that moment she had given me life. In that instant she had given me love.

 

There came upon us an uneasy silence as I attempted to entice my soporific mind into some profound response. Prenal chewed her lip, staring into the night as if reading some hidden message in its depths.

 

In time she spoke. “What thoughts have you on the Empire?”

 

I kneaded the knots in my leg muscle. Such talk was not encouraged in the open.

 

“I have as little time for it as it has for me,” I replied. “Though we sit on the edge of Artoria the eye of the Emperor remains focused on lands afar.”

 

Prenal was silent and unease fluttered like a trapped bird in my chest. Abruptly she stood and tugged my arm. I clambered to my feet, gulping deep draughts of night air to stay the revolving world.

 

She led me through the village in silence. Within minutes we were passing the last homestead on the way out of the village and heading towards Hunters Wood which sat on the trail to the forest at the foot of the mountain.

 

The wood was coated in darkness, its soaring canopy having inherited the menace that arrives with night. Prenal navigated its tracks as if it were day, and frequently paused as I walked into low branches and snagged bushes.

 

And then the density of the woodland was gone and we stood in a clearing. Light from two of the moons illuminated the smooth contours of the wood at the fringes. In the centre a pool shimmered and swirled. There was a density in the air, as if the solemnity of the glade’s interior was pressing upon us.

 

“This is the old place,” Penal said. “This has been our niche of worship for time eternal.”

 

She turned to me. Her eyes burned with fervour and something else.

 

“It must remain a secret from the Empire. They care little for any creed beyond slaughter.”

 

I nodded dumbly, transfixed by her. “Why me?” I asked.

 

“Nolir teaches that all have a role in the world, all have a place. We are part of an inconceivable tapestry, all threads weaved together.”

 

“Even the cripples,” I muttered.

 

“Aye, even those,” she said and pressed her lips against me.

 

We kissed with an almost bestial vigour, intoxicated by the primeval miasmas of the glade. Before the dark eyes of the trees, amongst the leaves and soil and twigs, we made love. And when we were spent we lay bathed in the green and silver of the moons and our breathing whispered the majesty of what we had done.

 

I told my father of my desire to marry a week later. His first reaction was surprise and then curiosity. There was some aspect to the proposed union he could not fathom, but the prospect of joining the wealthier baker’s family suppressed his inquisitiveness.

 

Over the ensuing weeks I came to learn of the dozens within our village who worshipped Nolir covertly. Some were a genuine surprise: the blacksmith and his remaining son; the innkeeper and his wife; the thatcher and his three children. It was as if I had finally become part of a community, albeit one that existed as a reflection of the remainder who nodded allegiance to the minions of the Empire.

 

And through it all I walked tall and proud with Penal at my side, willing this waking dream to last forever. She completed me, both spiritually and within my standing in the village. I had a strange credibility as a man that even led my father to show me his craft.

 

The night before the wedding I saw Prenal strolling though the village with her sister. She blushed as she saw me and I laughed as we neared.

 

“Planning some surprise for the morrow?” I asked.

 

“There’ll be enough without any surprises,” she giggled and kissed me.

 

Her sister chuckled and asked, “Will Seran be coming to the glade tomorrow night?”

 

I grinned. “He will—his first visit. I hope it brings you the same joy it brought me and Penal.”

 

Both girls flushed scarlet and I kissed Penal again before taking my leave. I returned to my house and after a swift supper retired to bed.

 

Sleep did not come easily. There was a weight of trepidation in my soul that jerked me awake every time I tumbled towards slumber. In time, though, weariness overtook me and I dreamt I was a deer running in the forest from a wolf. Every time I had made good my escape the wolf was upon me again, with its yellow eyes glinting in the gloom of the forest.

 

In time I dreamt that I came to a gully bordered on three sides by rock. I turned to face the wolf knowing my death was inevitable, but as I watched the wolf approach I noticed that around my neck was a garland of flowers, one from each ray of the rainbow. The wolf stopped before me and then bowed, before slinking away.

 

I awoke slick with sweat and with my neck furiously itching. On the edge of the table at my bedside I kept a fragment of polished metal that I used as a mirror and I held it up in the candlelight with quivering hands.

 

Around my throat were a collection of bruises, ranging in colour from red to green.

 

Some invisible force drove me from my bedchamber and into the chill night. The cold air avoided me as if I were a leper and the heat of my panic sustained me to my goal — Prenal’s house.

 

The scent of bread loitered around the house like a guard. I cast stones at her shutters until, sleepily, she opened them. Her face melted into concern and within a minute she came down to me, shivering from something other than the cold.

 

I wordlessly showed her the marks. She stifled a sob and turned from me, hiding her face.

 

“What is it? What in the Goddess’s name has happened?” I asked, shaking.

 

Tears smeared her cheeks as she turned back to face me. “That is just it. This... this is the Goddess’s name. It is her mark, Urman. The rainbow mark.”

 

“But why..?”

 

“She calls you. She has marked you as one of the Chosen.”

 

A giddiness came upon me and I tottered as if drunken. Prenal’s hand steadied me. It was intensely warm.

 

“But I can’t... we are to be married... on the morrow...”

 

Prenal’s voice was slashed by tears as she spoke. “There is no choice. The mark will stay until you go to the Rainbow Glade in the Great Forest. It is written thus.”

 

“I’ll hide it, we can...”

 

“No!” Prenal said. “No, my love. It is Her will, Her wisdom. It is to be cherished. It is a great honour... for us both.”

 

And with that she kissed my cheek and to this day the spot still burns with memory of the heat it left.

 

Like a burn on my soul.

 

#

 

The doe was with me again. As I vomited down the waist of an elm tree she appeared, legs shaking in fear and excitement. Exhaustion wrenched my innards with the same violence that it tormented my muscles.

 

“I can’t,” I said, acid trickling down my tattooed chest. “I cannot run anymore. Better to lay and wait for him.”

 

The doe regarded me blankly. I felt stupid — some strange instinct had sought to flatter me that this animal was sent from Nolir to guide me. Yet what would She care for the faithless?

 

“Curse you,” I ranted. “Curse you. You know I can’t. You know I cling onto every damned second of this miserable life. Who was I to think that the Goddess loved me with the love I had for Her... or thought I had?”

 

I was sobbing as I talked to the doe. I had given all for Nolir yet always there was some flaw in my faith, some crack in the armour of my devotion. How can you utterly love another if you have loathing for yourself?

 

The doe moved along the trail, paused and looked back at me. With a sigh I began to follow, stumbling as I dragged my feeble limb. The doe bowed her head and I saw her regarding a thick stick. A sense of unease was upon me as I crouched and hoisted it. The wood was strong; it would assist my walking.

 

The trail was scanty and overgrown and hard-going. The doe remained just ahead of me and hope began to flourish in my heart. Perhaps this was a messenger sent from Her, to guide me, to facilitate my escape. Perhaps I had been selected from amongst the Chosen.

 

Hope drained from me like the blood of the brothers slain by the goblins those years ago.

 

The doe had led me into a small clearing bordered on three sides by sheer rock faces. Fire had scorched the foliage clear such that there was no place for concealment. In the centre of the clearing the remains of several trees jutted like blackened teeth from the ground.

 

I spun to exit the clearing, but through the leaves and branches that hung over the trail I saw the glinting armour of the Crimson Guard. I was cornered, just as I had been in my dream that night before my wedding.

 

The charcoal on the ground crunched under my feet as I stepped back. The wood of the stick felt heavy in my hand.

 

The Crimson Guard advanced into the clearing. He slid his sword forth from its scabbard and drew the edge across his arm. Tiny spheres of blood tumbled like dew drops to the ground.

 

“So our chase has ended, Druid,” he said. “And now you face me with a weapon. Are you to die like a man, or are you to tremble on the point of my blade?”

 

Terror convulsed my body as I saw my death before me. The wolf had come to me and its teeth would be unforgiving. There was no tree to hide up. There was no love to save me. There was no faith to ease my passage.

 

I bowed my head, tears mixing with the snot from my nose. Between my toes, amongst the black desolation of the clearing floor I saw tiny speckles of emerald.

 

Yet always new shoots spring forth, Her fingers pushing past the death and the desolation.

 

Prenal’s lilting voice rang in my mind. I glanced at the stick in my hand then cast it aside. I met the Guard’s gaze.

 

“So you choose the craven way, as all your brethren did too.”

 

I tugged my filthy robe off and threw that to the ground. The doe skittered at the far edge of the clearing. The air felt exquisite on my sweaty body. I traced my finger along the tattoos on my flesh.

 

“These are the marks of the Goddess. These are the ancient teachings etched on our flesh so that even when books and scripts are taken from us we may remember her teaching.”

 

He shrugged, lowering his blade. “And what do they teach you about death?”

 

“They teach us that death is a stone cast in the river. Nolir’s life flows all around us and will flow on past the tiny diversion we make. Yet for that moment we altered the torrent, for that instant something changed.”

 

He tilted his head. “Minutes ago you ran from that end, sought to clamber from the stream.”

 

“And now I am ready. Now I will laugh at your Emperor and the frailty of your ancestors in bowing to such evil.”

 

The Guard’s face darkened. “You shall not insult my ancestors again.”

 

Tranquillity was within me yet a strange energy drew the words into the air.

 

“Their honour is but a memory, a promise lost in the wind of time. You serve a mighty tree, the grandest the world has ever known. But the roots of the tree are shallow, built on treachery and false pride. They cannot sustain its branches, that spread so far across the lands of Nurolia. It rots from the inside, a cankerous shell, ready to fall. And fall it shall, crushing all those spineless enough to serve it. And I shall be within the soil laughing, along with the shamed heads of your forbearers.”

 

Anger contorted the Guard’s face and he roared in hatred. He hurtled towards me and I spread my arms in preparation.

 

Something will happen, Urman, which will draw you through the ash and into the sunlight.

 

I heard Prenal’s voice in my head and my soul and my heart, yet it was deeper and richer and more terrible than ever I recalled.

 

The sword plunged through my chest and out of my back.

 

Incandescent pain roared through me, to be replaced by a numbness, an indifference. My world pivoted and I realised that I was on the blackened ground. A gout of blood poured from the hole in my chest, soaking into the soil. The boots of the Crimson Guard were before me.

 

Yet always new shoots spring forth, Her fingers pushing past the death and the desolation.

 

They began as tiny shoots, like emerald threads, pushing through the black soil where my blood pooled. I was dimly aware of the Crimson Guard cursing, and then praying, as the tendrils swelled and grew at an incredible rate. Within seconds they had snared his feet, and he desperately attempted to slice them loose. Yet for every one he cut, five grew anew, and they writhed up his legs like serpents.

 

My head tilted back, seemingly unaware that my sundered heart should have resulted in death. I watched as the plants covered the Guard, writhing inside his armour with such pressure that it split with a screech of rending metal. His cries were silenced as they entered his mouth.

 

Across the charred glade a column of ants proceeded towards me. I regarded them in awe as they filed into the gaping wound in my thorax. Fire surged in my breast, and an aura of Old-magic enveloped me. My heart was repaired, as was my faith, as was my love.

 

I rose to my feet, reborn. The Guard's hands still twitched as the spark of life ebbed. Through the density of vegetation I could see his eyes. The light dwindled in them, the fear easing into acceptance.

 

“Go to your ancestors and know that one day the honour of your people will be restored,” I said softly.

 

I strode across the clearing naked and knelt before the doe. She brushed her nose against my face and then left my side. The divots from where her hooves had been had tiny green shoots poking through the ash.

 

The Druids were dead. Perhaps I was the last one living. Yet here I was, alive and reborn. I had emerged though the devastation of this fell day. I had rediscovered my faith and my purpose. For surely Nolir has meant this for me all along. The Crimson Guard and his irrational pursuit across the Forest had always been part of Her plan, Her test. He had as little choice in the matter as the leaf that falls into the stream.

 

I would rebuild the Chosen. I would repopulate our forests. I would find new ways to challenge the cold iron of the Empire. And my goddess, Nolir, would aid me in this.

 

For the river flows onwards. And iron will rust in the end.


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2012-08-02 10:46:30
micheledutcher - The thing I liked the most about this story was the last line - it was the perfect ending. I can't say that very often, most of the time the story peters-out in the end, but not this time.




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