Season One, Episode Two
In a dark kingdom, a dark King speaks to darker shadows still…
“There is no mistaking what we felt!” The King’s voice is tinted with madness; he has shrieked the words as much as spoken them. His voice is too high, too strained, for a man of his age, his stature, his reputation that leaves other men, even strong, hardened men, bowed down before him, begging for their lives often before he even has an inkling he might like to take them. Indeed, often it is their servile whimpering that first arouses his annoyance, then his interest, then his… hunger. They are not men when they lie prostrate before him. They are prey. And what predator can resist the enticing wriggling and whimpering of prey?
But he must. There are consequences to gluttony. There are consequences to stealing too much life. It is not for any one man or beast to hold within his maw all the lives of all the kingdom surrounding him. Not even a King.
“There is no – ” He tries again, taking a breath, calming the words and calming himself. “There is no mistaking what we felt.”
“…No.” This voice is a hiss, a bubbling, a whisper, a voice not of this land or its beasts… As if the shadows themselves are speaking. As if the darkness that beats within the darkest breast of the darkest man is its very self speaking. It is hate and madness and blood speaking. “There can be no mistaking what we felt.”
“A ferawicce!” King Réavos exclaims as much to himself as to the shadows. “How could this be?”
“They missed one,” the Shadows whisper.
“Obviously!” Réavos explodes. “But how? They have been so careful these past hundred years. We have been so careful.”
“We must look to history and fables as our guide in this, my Lord.” The Shadows counsel. “There is always a child that is spared. There is always one enemy who would stand against a man who wishes to change the world. There is always a hitch in any plan, a flaw in every tapestry. Not even a God may foresee all that may come to pass.”
“You told me it was time!” King Réavos rages. “You told me now was the time to make my move and now this!”
“You are mistaken.” At this tone, at the dead and death and dying in this tone, even King Réavos steps back, hunches his broad shoulders in what would be a gesture of concession on any other man. “I only told you,” the Shadows hiss, “that you could not wait any longer.”
King Réavos cannot avoid the truth of that statement. It is staring back at him when he glances out the window, it is drifting through the breeze that ruffles through the many yellowed pages on his desk in this tower so very far above the ground. The dead ground. No plant has grown in his kingdom in many years now. The earth is hard packed and dry. Dust billows in great clouds that whistle through every crack in every cranny in every building until the entire population walks ever covered in a dark grey coating. Every man, woman and child coughs up black sludge into their handkerchiefs, and there are fewer and fewer men and women as so, so many of his people have begun to perish before they have truly grown to fruition. Those that survive infancy, there are fewer every year, but those are hardy sorts. They are tough and stringy and mean and they make a way for themselves on this land even if the land resents them for it every step of the way. But even they can’t cling to life here for longer than a quarter century. For all King Réavos has the soul of a predator and for all he viewed even his own men as prey for so many years, he has begun to see his people as not more than lightening bugs. They flash their lives so briefly in the dark before they are gone again. He feels almost… pity for them. There is no reason to strike out, no satisfaction in taking the life of something so ephemeral. Their lives will be snuffed out by circumstance almost as quickly as Réavos could take those tasty lives for himself.
That and they don’t taste very good anymore. Those tough, stringy, mean people of his. They stick in his gullet. All that is left of his nation now are the people Réavos would spit up rather than swallow.
All that is left of his lands are the bare bones dirt, dark and billowing in the sky, and the rock mantle, unforgiving beneath their feet. Even the great Faiiral River that once had so many fingers spreading throughout the plains… All the fingers have been choked off, are only sludge and mires now. Even the very heart of the river runs only an arm’s width across now where it was a mile, the rest of the great river dried up, the shores creeping ever closer inward.
The Shadows are right. King Réavos has put his plans in motion because he simply cannot afford to wait any longer. He makes his subtle moves on his enemies now because if he waits another season, and another, and another… Eventually he will not have a kingdom to expand anymore. Eventually he will not have the strength to lead what is left of his people to a better land and a better life.
He is so very hungry for something other than dust.
So he turns back to the Shadows, and though he is nearly seven feet tall with shoulders full the width of any two other men, he bows to acknowledge that he is weak before the immensity of the power the Shadows commands. He is only an apprentice before his master, here, in this room, with these Shadows. He is a man weak with love before his fierce and beautiful lover.
“So one of the ferawicce babes survived the Cleansing.” He makes sure to speak calmly this time, a low tone, unthreatening. “But how did the child survive? How has it grown?”
They are earnest questions. They are frightened questions. A ferawicce is no trifle. A ferawicce, in fact, might be enough to topple the whole of his very carefully laid plans.
“I do not know,” the Shadows finally… confess. Because –
“How could you not know?” Réavos baffles. The Shadows know everything that affects this tapestry they call life. The Shadows should have been able to feel the ferawicce even as a babe. They should have known of this child long before it grew to adulthood. They should have been able to kill it long before it grew to a point where it might be, in fact, very difficult to kill. Their neighbors in all the kingdoms that surround them should have killed the child for them. On any of the days before this one.
“I did not feel this child.” If it were possible for the Shadows to feel such things, Réavos might say the tone is almost bewildered.
Réavos feels the same. “One so powerful as this?” How could the Shadows not feel the ripple in magic this ferawicce must have caused long before today? The power they felt shaking the earth, and vibrating along their own special web of magic… Perhaps the Shadows have, but Réavos has never felt the equal. Such a shock. Such a thrill, and then a terror.
“The child must not have used its power before now, at least not in any meaningful way,” the Shadows muse.
“Then how could it call upon the very earth to rise? The training – ”
“I know,” the Shadows concede.
Long past in history, far further back than most kingdoms have any record, or any memory, ferawicce were once used in battle, were once loyal to this king or that as circumstances of birth demanded, were once most revered soldiers. The training they went through to learn to harness their most potent abilities was long and brutal. Many died in their years of training. Many more died in wielding their powers, no matter their training.
“I counsel calm, my dear King Réavos,” the Shadows finally speak as something other than darkness, speak even in a voice that sounds a bit like a woman, a bit like whiskey and a bit like languid pleasures. “We should continue our vigilance, of course. But the fact remains that the child had no training,” the Shadows soothe.
“The child had no training,” Réavos repeats to himself, comforts himself, speaks with hope and longs to believe in loyalty, in the closest thing to love his twisted heart will ever know.
There are few who even know of what was entailed in training a ferawicce, hell, few who know the ferawicce were ever training at all! There is not a soul in any of the surrounding kingdoms that would provide such training, even if they knew of it… No. There is only one in all the world who could, and would, train a ferawicce. Only one.
The Shadows sound closer and Réavos can feel the touch of a woman’s hand on his chest, though of course there is nothing there.
“However this power lay dormant for so long, whatever pulled it free this day, whatever the miracle, or chance, or circumstance that allowed the child to hold onto the magic for those long moments when the earth was torn… With no training, it is likely the effort killed the ferawicce. It is likely this northern ferawicce is no threat to you, or our plans, at all.”
Réavos places his hand atop where he can feel even the contours of veins and knuckles and long, tapered fingers, though there is nothing there. The Shadows feel full as real as any woman and the magic he can feel, like small ants of light emanating from that point of contact and crawling across his skin… It’s addicting. The Shadows and the whiskey woman’s voice that counsels him and comforts him. The magic that skitters across his skin before sinking beneath… All of it.
While the rest of their plans must go forward, while they cannot afford to wait any longer… On this particular issue, there is nothing to be done that is not rash, that might not put their plans still further in jeopardy. So for now, as regards only this one particular hitch, this one child fable always spares, this one mis-stitch in the tapestry…
“We will wait. And see.”
The outer city is in ruins. There has not been such a shaking in all the time Garrik has lived in Pöeddae, and disquiet flutters in his heart. Among other things.
What a feeling, what a thrill, despite the terror, to hold his beautiful Queen Kaia in his arms in those moments when the earth writhed and bucked beneath them. They’d felt the first tremors during their afternoon stroll in the gardens. Kaia loves the fountains and seems to revel in sunlight and they often spend many long hours strolling through the many landscaped acres within the castle walls, all the careful paths and secret knolls the King had built for his young Queen when first she came to them in Pöeddae. The gardens have become something of an attraction for visiting dignitaries, so Garrik doesn’t always get to enjoy the exclusive attentions of his Queen during their afternoons in the garden, but always, always, he can look upon her far-fabled beauty, watch her smile at the soft sounds of the water always bubbling through the streams that run throughout the gardens, and the great fountain built in the very heart of the faux-wild lands, and marvel that even the tales of Kaia that many a man whispers in pubs and around campfires throughout all of the twelve great kingdoms… They do not do her justice.
Queen Kaia is a beauty as though set down as example, as though all other beauty should aspire to this. Others call her hair ‘golden’ but Garrik knows on any other woman it would be called straw-colored. Except for its silken texture and the way it shines in the sunlight… No man would think of straw. Rather, white gold, maybe. Not the deep yellows of the flecks as they come rough-hewn from the mountains. But the more refined shade so rare and so valuable because a blacksmith has spent many weeks working the metal to its finest shade and brilliance. Her eyes are a deep ocean blue when she’s sad, a stormy blue-grey when she’s angry, and the lightest sky or white-tipped waves when she’s happy. They are always that shade, always their lightest, when she looks at Boone. And almost never any other time…
Which is why they had fled as soon as the tremors started… Straight towards the castle. Garrik tried to stop her as the ground went from shivering to great heaving breaths beneath their feet, but Kaia would not be dissuaded. She is a woman with a determination as inexorable as her so-beloved oceans. She shook free of even Garrik’s most determined grip and ran straight for the great stone walls, almost as if she didn’t notice the debris they rained down into the courtyard around her.
Prince Boone was in the library for his history lesson. Third floor of the east wing. The Queen fought her way up the staircase against the terrified flow of staff and servants fleeing to the ground floor and the relative safety of the clearing beyond. But Kaia only dove deeper into danger. The Queen publicly complains that Prince Boone’s impetuous nature is the result of King Abelard’s insistence that she drink the water of white, foaming rapids while she was pregnant. Like most, Kaia ascribes to the belief that the water a woman drinks during pregnancy imbues the child with certain characteristics. Various waters from various streams and rivers and lakes and even the ocean… They all have their uses in Waterwei magic and there is a booming trade for practitioner bottles. But it is the drinking of the waters by pregnant women that drives the rarest commodities, the most expensive water exchanges. King Abelard paid three hundred shikles an ounce for the river water Kaia drank while Prince Boone was in her womb. And that desire to have a brave and bold son, Kaia says, is why Prince Boone has indeed turned out to be both brave and bold. Too bold. He is a boy prone to injuries and adventures, the kinds of brash encounters that might kill a lad one day, if he’s not careful. And he is never careful.
…But despite Kaia’s claims that Boone’s nature is a result of river water, Garrik has so clearly seen the same nature in Kaia so many, many times. Like running towards the castle during the greatest earthquake in a generation or more. Like running up the stairs. Like ignoring her sworn protector as Garrik did his best to keep pace with the surprisingly nimble woman, calling out, begging her back to safety and he would retrieve the boy himself!
But Kaia did not listen. All she accomplished was that the three of them ended up huddled together under a strong oak table in the library as the books thumped down angrily around them and Garrik prayed that the walls would not follow. He held his Queen and she held her son. And maybe the latter was all she had hoped to accomplish. Maybe it was enough. Maybe it was a bit like… If Garrik was about to die, he would want the last sensation of this world and this life to be… Kaia in his arms. So perhaps her wish was to hold her beloved Boone in her arms. Whether or not she could save him. Even if it made absolutely no difference in the outcome, they would face the world falling down around them… together.
Garrik supposes that’s the kind of love that troubadours sing of in their many ballads. That Kaia is both a great beauty, indeed perhaps the most beautiful woman in any of the kingdoms and the rest of the world besides, if indeed there is more of it beyond their shores and the oceans that seem to stretch forever past the horizons… That Kaia is both so beautiful and also capable of such love… It makes her only more a creature of reverence and awe. That Garrik has never seen her eyes sky blue when she looks at anyone but Boone… This he believes is one of the great tragedies of their fickle world. Kaia deserves a husband she could love that way. For that matter, for all she is beloved and ‘the most precious of all his jewels’, Garrik does not believe King Abelard loves Kaia that way either. She married him because this was a woman who was born to be a Queen. And King Abelard chose her for the same reason. Because she is the sort of woman troubadours sing of in ballads. Because there is a very real sort of prestige granted a King with such a woman for a wife. There is a very real sort of power granted a nation with such a Queen.
Who would dare attack such beauty? Has not every dignitary who ever visited their castle, and their gardens, and their Queen in Pöeddae left singing their praises?
Yet… Someone has.
Garrik feels sure if it.
It is the disquiet that causes his heart to race though the Queen and Prince are now safely under the watch of the whole of the King’s Guard, though the earth ceased its shaking hours ago, though the pace at which he rides to meet his King is not nearly enough to cause a seasoned rider to lose his breath. But Garrik’s heart is racing, despite all of this. Garrik’s heart remembers the boy who arrived at the palace gates near dawn on a horse ridden lame. Garrik’s heart recalls how Knight Keagan went into the healing chambers to speak with the boy and emerged pale and angry and forbade anyone else from entering on pain of treason. Garrik’s heart can still see vividly how King Abelard and his Right Hand galloped out the gates before the sun had yet fully risen, keeping a breakneck pace all the way to the far walls of the village before the dark shapes of their horses had dotted the hillside, moving rapidly towards the woods beyond.
The boy brought news of danger.
The King rode out to meet this threat.
His city was almost leveled in his absence.
These are all things that happened on a continuum.
Cause and effect.
An enemy and an earthquake.
Garrik doesn’t understand how the last two can be related, but he knows it in his heart to be true. He is only a Knight. Waterwei magic is still a mystery to him in so many ways; the only words he knows to mutter sharpen his blade and clean his armor. It must be that Pöeddae has an enemy that is more proficient than a mere Knight. Perhaps it is a great practitioner who seeks to fell their city, who left at least two dozen inexplicably dead on the far edge of town, a whole family lying still and stiff, simply fallen in the middle of their farming on the furthest settlement near the woods, and then an odd scattering of similar deaths, men just fallen, right where they were standing, with no injury and no cause, in a strange line moving from the far edge of town into the inner city… It’s like the fates stood in the forest and just stretched everyone’s lifelines taut, waited to see whose were brittle enough to snap against the pressure.
Garrik finds the horses first. These two beautiful stallions were bold and battle trained and left the castle this morning screaming a charge across the hillside. Now Garrik finds them prancing nervously in a field where a farmer has kindly penned them after he hiked out to check on his flock of sheep. Garrik thanks the man for his service to the King, and pays him a generous bag of coins, but getting the horses to follow him back out of the pen is near-impossible. Getting them to follow behind his horse as lead is even harder. They don’t want to return to the woods. By the time Garrik finally happens upon the King and his Right Hand, walking back on the main road on foot, the horses are rolling their eyes in terror and Garrik is starting to wonder how much longer he can lead them.
“Halt there!” King Abelard calls out as he sees Garrik on the road, just as though none of his authority has been lost, despite the fact that he lost his horse and he is dressed no better than an average man. No doubt a well-off man, a merchant perhaps, but when he left in his mysterious flurry this morning, he was deliberately without his crown or jewels. Strange, here, to see that he did not leave behind his King’s voice, nor sense of entitlement.
“Your Highness,” Garrik greets, acquiesces to the crown that is currently not atop Abelard’s head. “I am glad to find you well. I had feared the worst, given what we experienced in Pöeddae and your abrupt departure this early morn.”
“All is well, Garrik,” Keagan answers in Abelard’s place when the old King hesitates. “And you have found our horses.”
“Indeed I have.” Garrik agrees. “I must confess I am curious as to how they were lost.”
A Knight does not lose his horse. Let alone a King!
“Garrik – ” the King begins, but Keagan interrupts him.
King Abelard doesn’t even chide the Knight for his impudence at interrupting. He only sighs. “Keagan,” he only addresses him as an old friend, as a dear friend, the sort of man who can get away with interrupting him… “The truth will out eventually. And we have lost the creature. There is no telling to where she has fled or what further havoc she might choose to wreak on our kingdom. Something must be done. Is it to be only you and I in council on such an important issue?”
“It should be a small council,” Keagan argues back, both of them speaking as though Garrik isn’t sitting right here! Feet in front of them! “The truth may out eventually but we want to put it off as long as possible to avoid panic. Better still if the truth remains hidden until the threat is eliminated.”
Garrik has had enough of listening to this conversation as though he is truly only one of the flies that settle on the horses’ flanks.
“It should be a small council, on whatever the issue, the threat to Pöeddae,” Garrik agrees with Keagan. “But I should be included in it. I am sworn guard to our Queen. How can you expect me to protect her if you tell me not what from?”
It’s a dirty trick to get information. Garrik doesn’t really believe that knowing the threat will necessarily impact how he guards Kaia, but he does believe that thinking it will impact his security measures is a sure way to get Abelard to tell him everything he knows. The King may not love his Queen such that he would hold her in his arms at the end of the world and greet the ending with peace, but he does dote on her, worries for her. He will do anything to protect her. Including ignore Keagan’s counsel. Even ignore Keagan daring to lay a hand on his arm now, as though to physically prevent him from speaking. But still King Abelard says:
“It was a ferawicce.”
Garrik does not move, does not speak, does not blink for a long moment.
“It was a…”
But he can’t finish the word. His eyes are wide with surprise, but just as inscrutable as ever. It’s why Keagan has never liked the young Knight, no matter how he has risen through the ranks and earned the confidence of the Queen, and then even Abelard, in turn. Keagan would swear Garrik’s irises are black more than brown, such a dark shade you can never read his thoughts in them. And Keagan has never seen him express an unfiltered emotion. It makes Keagan wary. There is something untruthful about being so measured, so controlled. Why bother guarding your thoughts and your heart so carefully, unless there is something there you would be ashamed for others to see?
“A ferawicce,” Abelard finally has to repeat.
“A child?” Garrik finally seems to recover himself, asks the obvious and hopeful question.
“No.” Abelard does not disseminate. He does not believe in false hope. He believes it does more harm than it cures. People can live off of it for weeks, months even, but the destruction wrought when that hope is finally torn away is like a wound that has been left to fester. It is possible a nation of men so misled… they may never recover.
“How is that possible?” Garrik voices the question, of course, of course, they are all asking. And of course, of course, they do not know the answer.
That answer, that there is no answer, must be obvious on their faces, because Garrik nods as though they have spoken.
“Of course,” Garrik murmurs. “It is a pressing question, but not the most pressing question.” He straightens now, as though a man facing a battle line, and he tosses down the reigns of the King’s horse, and Keagan’s. “You say she was lost? Is that what caused the shaking in Pöeddae?”
“Yes,” Abelard answers. “The Queen? Boone?”
“They are well,” Garrik brushes off the question. What’s more baffling is that Abelard lets him, accepts this bare answer as report enough on his wife and child. His trust in Garrik, Keagan is realizing, must be great indeed. To bring him into confidence regarding the ferawicce. And to accept such a short report on the welfare of his family.
Perhaps, Keagan muses as he mounts his horse, perhaps it is the storybook image Garrik presents. The Knight is only twenty-eight, viral and strong and infused with the glow of youth and the careful strength and crafted physique of one who spends many hours in the training yard every morning before most of the other knights have even awoken. Garrik may not be the fair-skinned ideal of beauty that permeates their land, but his brown hair he keeps long and brushed, braiding his bangs back from his forehead and tying the strands loosely at the base of his neck. Keagan finds his dark eyes full of shadows and secrets, but he has seen the young man charm many maidens in many pubs, using those very eyes to allure them. Sitting atop one of Abelard’s finest steeds in armor Keagan hears the young man clean with Waterwei words every single night… He is a sight to behold. He is perhaps such a reassuring presence because he is so precisely what everyone pictures as the hero in tales. How could this man be naught but true and brave? How could his ventures meet with anything but success? The hero, after all…
The hero always wins.
Abelard even is not immune to the shining charms of reassurance, Keagan thinks. He looks to Garrik now as though he is a wizened Advisor. The King should know better, for he is a truly wise man himself. But perhaps, in this instance, all the many books he has read over all the many years he has read them… Perhaps that makes him only more susceptible to the allure of a man who so fits an archetype.
“We must ride. The creature already has a half day lead on us. Surely you cannot mean to let the beast free? Pöeddae may only be the beginning.”
This is Garrik’s council. Ride off after the creature who nearly leveled a city mere hours before. If storybooks only were the reality of this world, it would be a fine plan. If heroes always did win, then indeed they should be a happy band of heroes indeed, the three of them. And they could ride off into the sun that has passed its zenith, and worry not for what they might meet as the shadows grow long in the woods. They could ride against a beast all of mankind has feared a century and expect victory through sheer chance and the benevolent hand of fate. For the hero never dies.
In real life the hero frequently dies. It’s just that those heroes don’t make it into the stories.
“We should return to the castle and regroup. We should meet with your Advisors, my King,” Keagan advises, argues. “We should consult the library. We should learn how men fought these beasts when they roamed our lands. The creature nearly sundered the very earth mere hours ago! We three cannot hope to overcome her alone and with no knowledge of how such might even be accomplished!”
“It is precisely because she has so recently moved the earth that we must make haste!” Garrik retorts. “The laws of magic are absolute and merciless. No magic is unlimited. The ferawicce has no doubt been weakened by her efforts to shake us to meekness!” He gets in a dig, dressing Keagan’s good sense as cowardice.
“Ferawicce magic is not Waterwei magic,” Keagan bites back. “Unless you are far more learned than I,” he sneers at the boy that he has never seen hold a book in all the years he has lived at the castle, “then we have no knowledge of its laws or limitations at all! It could be she gains strength when she pulls rumblings from the earth!”
“But no creature would gain strength from your sword thrust,” King Abelard finally joins the conversation. As he does so often, Abelard’s interjection is a soft voice, a calm voice, a sound you can’t help listening to amongst the otherwise grating tones of an argument.
“The creature was injured by your own sword and still you hesitate?” Garrik turns to Keagan incredulously.
But Keagan knows better. At the first sounding of Abelard’s whispering tones, it is as good as a direct order from the King to regain your own composure, to speak again as men free from foolish passions.
“I do not know how much I have wounded her,” Keagan reasons. “She shook Pöeddae after she took my sword. She killed the village guard with the same blade. And she was still standing when we left. If we are to hope my sword has weakened her then a day’s delay to think of a strategic approach will make no matter and may in fact increase the wound’s effect. My King,” he implores Abelard now, “I advise you as you have always advised others. Do not make undo haste. Consider your choices carefully. Arm yourself with knowledge. You are knowledgeable in so many areas, my King. But in this regard, we are, all of us, ignorant.”
Abelard usually listens to Keagan’s counsel. But Keagan can see him staring at Garrik’s silhouette in the afternoon sun, can see him caught by the image, by the rash bravery of his young Knight, and maybe an echo of his own less staid youth.
Keagan already knows what Abelard will say, before he speaks the words.
“I value your advice, as always, dear Keagan. But I’m afraid I agree with Garrik on this issue. You and I rode forth this morning to see the ferawicce killed. We have failed. We are not men of honor if we let her escape into these woods and tell none of the danger we have let loose so near the families and loved ones in our city. We must attempt to make recompense for our previous errors and see that the beast is indeed dead before the day’s end. Or indeed, perhaps die trying. It is the only available course for true men.”
Keagan knows most see his King only as a scholar. But Abelard is full as much a warrior. And it is that warrior speaking now. This is not a time to negotiate, nor persuade. A warrior does not bend.
But Keagan tries at least, one more time, for pragmatism.
“At least, my King, let it be Garrik and I who lead the charge. Your Queen and your son are no doubt worried for you and the people of Pöeddae are, in this moment, maybe more in need of your guidance and wisdom than in many years past. Let Garrik and I ride forward while you return to Pöeddae and call to your banner the rest of your Guard to join us.”
Maybe he and Garrik truly can best the beast, or, at least, perhaps they will die in the attempt before Abelard can return with the Guard and then Keagan’s King will see that it is foolish to take on a being of such immense power without the full of his intellect joined as one with his strength of arms.
But he knows he has misspoken when Abelard sneers at him. It is a look Keagan hasn’t seen for many years, and yet it skewers him as poignantly as it did when they were children and the boy that would be his King would taunt Keagan into jumping the creek bed on an unbroken stallion, or running through the woods on a new moon night, or going to the rowdiest pub in the village to duck his way through the fistfight that inevitably erupted when the hours grew wee.
“Since you are so keen on returning to Pöeddae, Keagan, why don’t you rally the Guard to my banner?”
All Keagan has left is the truth.
“I do not wish to leave you, my King.” My friend.
Still Abelard does not budge. Even a wise man has his pride. And even a wise man has a difficult time ignoring it when that pride has been prickled.
“Am I not accompanied by my bravest Knight?” Abelard asks cruelly as his horse steps him slowly to Garrik’s side.
You are accompanied only by the Knight who might well be leading you to your death, Keagan thinks, disconsolate.
But his chance for words has passed, and Keagan has follied it.
Garrik and Abelard ride trotting to the woods, the low tones of their voices in melody with the heavy clopping of their mounts, and Keagan has no choice but to turn his back to the view that might break his heart. There is nothing to do but ride to Pöeddae as fast as he can and bring back to the woods this night as many of the Guard as the castle can spare.
The entire way back he will curse the fact that even as he and Abelard grew together in the confines of the castle, took their classes and explored the library for long hours as Abelard’s lifelong fascination grew… Keagan was never as good with words as his friend: not reading, or writing, or oratory.
Keagan always spoke with his sword.
This day, those steel words have failed him and he wishes he were more fluent in the common language of wagging one’s tongue.
He should have studied harder as a boy.
Or his sword thrust this morning should have spoken more true.
If the ferawicce is still alive…
He fears his King is all but dead.
Abelard knows he has been foolish. It is an odd quirk of humanity that even as a man might recognize his own folly, he feels powerless to stop it. For the alternative is to admit that folly to the rest of the world. And oh how most men cringe back from that truth let loose in the world. If he were being generous with himself, Abelard might allow the excuse that admitting his own foolishness might diminish his stature as King, might bring into question his vaunted reputation for wisdom and might in this way be a folly in itself. He could even try to argue that this would be a kind of subtle danger brought to his door. But he knows, as he and Garrik trot towards the woods, that the truth is only a fault in his character and an old, old friendship that sometimes flares with old, old jealousies.
Keagan is a good and true Knight, a wise voice of counsel, and a fiercely loyal friend. But he was also always quicker, always stronger, always braver as they grew to manhood together. Usually Abelard can see these things now as almost an extension of himself, as if Keagan’s long and loyal friendship has allowed them to grow together like twining trucks of two trees which are now, ostensibly one. Abelard can think that he and Keagan combine their varied strengths, offset each other’s weaknesses, and face the world as a formidable united front. But wisdom is sometimes set asunder by baser impulses. Having been humbled to kneeling earlier this day, to begging, Abelard wants to be the hero now, wants to know he is a man, wants to believe he will never need kneel before another, ever again. As a King, as a boy who would always be King, Abelard is not sure he has ever been humbled in this manner. And the impotence he felt as the ferawicce shook his city? He has never felt the like. He can understand now, perhaps, how some men can be driven to lifelong rage as life deals them a helping of impotent circumstances daily. A man cannot live on his knees.
So Abelard took to his mount, and to Garrik’s side. And now he rides foolishly to face an unknown danger. He knows, in fact, just enough to be terrified. He watched only hours ago as a being that looked like a woman was lifted into the air by the power of her own magic. He watched as glowing, golden eyes fixed on a city miles away and as she commanded, the very earth did obey, and the ferawicce could have taken from Abelard nearly all he loves in this world, with merely the power of her stare. Yet, the creature had mercy. She left the city ostensibly standing. She took her share of blood, no doubt, but she could have taken many more lives. She left even Abelard and Keagan alive…
He has never heard tale of a merciful ferawicce.
Garrik had been filling the silence between them with a detailed listing of the damage to the castle and the mysterious deaths in the fields surrounding Pöeddae, but he falls to silence himself now as they break through the tree line and come across the cage, and the body of one of the guards too foolish to kill the ferawicce while she slept. The Knight pays disconcertingly little attention to the dead man; his eyes are only for the cage and the iron bars torn aside as though they were rice paper.
“The beast did this?” he asks as he walks his horse ever so slowly around the twisted metal that was so recently a cage.
“I do not know,” Abelard admits. It has been some time since he last uttered that statement. But never has it been more true. “It was like she pulled all the air from the sky and all the sunlight to go with it and somehow even my very life seemed pulled from my grasp and a golden haze grew around her form, maybe beautiful in any other circumstance… Maybe beautiful even then,” Abelard has to admit, “though terrible to behold… Her eyes were glowing gold, too bright to look at them directly, and their gaze burned, and her skin was shimmering the same shade, and she reached out a hand, and it was like she didn’t even notice the bars of her cage, pushed them aside like you might push aside the delicate branches of a fir tree to make yourself a new path through the woods…”
Garrik gives him an odd look. Abelard supposes if it’s something you haven’t seen for yourself, it must sound pretty unbelievable. Then again, Garrik can see for himself –
“Even her blood is tainted with gold!” Abelard exclaims. He hadn’t noticed earlier. Too incredulous that he was still alive, that the ferawicce had let them go, that she was still standing, that she had spared his city… There was just too much happening in that moment for Abelard to notice. But now…
It shimmers faintly on the ground. Still red, but metallic and when the light hits it, the hint of a shimmer has an unmistakable hue.
It’s also unmistakable there there is quite a bit of it. Keagan apparently struck her with his sword more soundly than any of them realized, or could have hoped for. Of course, the discouraging remembrance is that she was still standing, despite the blood that Abelard can see now was pouring from her heavily, drips off in staggered puddles into the brush at the western edge of the clearing. Such a wound would have been mortal for any man.
Still Garrik doesn’t hesitate. Perhaps he has read a hopeful tale in the obvious blood trail. He believes they will run across a corpse, or at least a creature on the cusp of death. Either way, he urges his horse through a thin opening in the bushes and keeps the pace steady, though he is careful to keep his eyes to the ground, noting where the ferawicce tried to stem the flow a few moments later, noting again later still that she tried to hide the trail of blood and she almost does lose them, almost would have been successful, if she hadn’t been so clearly staggering at this point. She managed to keep her blood from betraying her path for a good twenty yards or so – maybe she tied off the wound, maybe she packed it with leaves – but at this point in her journey she was staggering and falling to her knees. Garrik picks out the indentations where she has fallen, can track her hazy weaving through the trees. And then… She’s crawling.
Garrik picks up the pace like a hound that’s caught the scent. He’s eager to see the hunt to the conclusion. But Abelard can only feel his trepidation growing. Might she not be still more dangerous: injured, cornered, angry and afraid? She is as much a beast as she is human. Would Garrik look so eager to come across a bear in such bloodied condition? Or would he have the sense to realize many a beast has a last rush deep in his bones? That he will roar and rend the world as he leaves it? No fanged creatures go peacefully from this life. They claw to the very last moments.
As soon as the ferawicce started crawling, the trail she left was as obvious as a deer path. Underbrush crushed flat, long streaks in the dirt where she was pulling her prone form forward. Finally, they come upon another pool of blood at the base of an old, thick fir tree. Garrik exclaims like the horn of the hunt, echoing through the woods with their discovery. But Abelard can see immediately that is is only a pool of blood. The corpse is rather conspicuously missing.
He lets his horse prance a circle around the fir three times before admitting to the obvious question, but then even Garrik has to ask, “Where is she?”
The trail ends here, the pool of blood is here, there’s even a perfect, bloody handprint stark in contrast against the pale bark at the base of the tree…
But no ferawicce.
While Garrik refuses to dismount, walking his horse in wider and wider circles as he searches with increasing desperation for a clue, any clue, that Abelard is growing certain he’ll never find… Abelard rests his old body against the old fir, letting his back rest against a peculiar root, gnarled and as big around as a man’s torso. The sun has warmed the wood and if it weren’t for the blood at the base of the tree, and the bloody handprint like a scream echoing faintly through the forest… This would be a peaceful place, Abelard thinks.
But he swears he can still hear a faint screaming, and there is gold-shimmering blood at his feet, and Garrik is still crashing around in the surrounding brush. So peace remains elusive. He’s prepared to chide Garrik when he crashes back into the small clearing, in fact – If the ferawicce is still alive she has undoubtedly heard all this ruckus and is hiding ever deeper in these woods. – but the figure that finally emerges from all the hoof beats and muttered cursing isn’t Garrik at all.
“My Lord.” Even after eight years, though she has built up hard callouses against all the little iniquities of everyday life here in the southern kingdom, the words still chafe. Every time she speaks them, they are an acknowledgement that Kaia, for all intents and purposes, belongs to this man. And this was not the man she chose. She admires Abelard. She has in fact, over the years, come to love the man in a fashion. He is wise and steady and he treats Kaia kindly. But still, she is his ‘most precious jewel’. He treats her as a lovely trophy he won and admires now on his mantle.
In the northern tribes, the women choose the men. But the Isles wanted to make a match with Abelard’s kingdom, wanted a stronger and more binding alliance with the strongest of the southern lands, and so when the match was struck… Kaia married the man because one does not say ‘no’ to a King. Not when the only reason you have is ‘I don’t want to’ and ‘I don’t love you’. In the northern tribes they still marry for love. The southern kingdoms don’t seem to care much for love. They care about… beauty, it seems like. Coveting it. Possessing it.
As with most things in man’s nature, their ideal of beauty in the southern kingdoms is the exact opposite of themselves. While their skin is a lovely tan Kaia cannot achieve no matter how many hours she spends in the afternoon sun, they marvel at her pale limbs. Where their eyes are dark and fathomless, they all exclaim over Kaia’s light blue gaze. In the Northern Isles they are all pale and blond and blue-eyed. In her own pique of fickle nature, Kaia supposes, she has always preferred mahogany hair, cocoa eyes.
Abelard’s eyes are a dark grey and his hair is quickly growing to match. He says to Kaia, sometimes in teasing, and sometimes in anger, that she is the predominant cause of the latter.
“What are you doing here?!” he’s blustering now.
Kaia is here for the thing she loves very best about Abelard, for the most precious gift he ever gave her and the reason she will always love him, though their personalities, and their situation, do often chafe.
“Boone,” she she manages to gasp out against the panic that has been clawing up her throat the past hour, choking her as she urged her mare ever-faster across the plains and the foothills to get here. “He did not take kindly to being left behind.” She looks reprovingly at Abelard, but also desperate, pleading. “You know he thinks he’s a man now!”
Or at least he wants to be one. He has ever since he was old enough to start to comprehend what the word, in its ideal, encompasses. Her little boy wants to be brave and just and true. He wants to go on great adventures. He wants to do great things. He wants to be kind. He wants to be wise. He wants to be a leader. He wants to be his father and all of his father’s knights, all rolled into one.
He has such aspirations. And such willful determination to get there.
“Normally the Guard know to keep a close eye on him, but during the commotion this afternoon, he must have found an opening. I turned around for a second to discuss the damage to the servants’ quarters and he made a run for it! Luonn is missing too.” His horse. The obvious conclusion: “He followed you out here!” And the question to which the answer is unfortunately equally obvious: “He hasn’t found you?”
“It’s a miracle you found me, Kaia! You should have let the Guard come after him! This foolish dash,” he gestures wildly at Kaia’s horse, “could have as easily ended with both of you lost!”
A rough burning sensation where Kaia’s pride is rubbed raw again. Again.
“I think you forget sometimes, my Lord,” she spits the words this time, “that I grew up in the Northern Isles. Women are not simpering flowers there. We cannot afford to be. Nothing simpering survives on the Isles for long.”
But Abelard ignores the threat in her words, or else he is truly deaf to the hissing hidden in her tone. “When you do things like this Kaia, it’s almost like you’re telling him it’s alright for him to go running off too!”
“You think it’s my fault our son rode off into the woods with his practice sword tied to his belt? He’s a seven-year-old boy who only sees his father twice a week across a formal dining table. He’s desperate to earn your regard! He’s desperate to be the King you’ve been building in his mind since before he could walk!”
“My King! My Queen!” Thank God for Garrik. Always walking right into the middle of their arguments. The man either has no fear, or no common sense. He stares them both down as though they are the misbehaving children here. Maybe they are. “This is not the time for this discussion!” He has clearly overhead the whole of it, or at least enough to know Boone is missing. “How much of a head start do you think he got?” he asks Kaia.
“No more than an hour. It took me that long to slip away from the idiot Guard after they realized he was missing and tried to cut their losses by locking me in a tower!” she glares at Abelard. “But he’s fast,” she adds to Garrik.
Abelard nods his agreement, mutters, “We should have never taught him to ride a horse.”
“Or we should have taught him to track as well,” Kaia counters. She does not believe that withholding knowledge makes the world a safer place for children. Just the opposite. Better to give them as much knowledge as possible so they may face the world as it truly is and be the better of their enemies. Children have enemies just as surely as men do. It does no one any favors to pretend otherwise.
All of this might have been avoided if Boone was capable of even the most basic tracking. Even Kaia was able to make out the hoof tracks into the woods and then follow the blood trail here. Prince Boone hasn’t even had enough tracker training to do that much. Abelard has him in the ring with the squires practicing his riding and his swordsmanship every afternoon, but beyond these most basic skills required of any man, Abelard seems to be more intent on making Boone another of his scholars than his heir to the throne. Already she imagines she can see her son’s skin sallow at the edges; sometimes he squints through the candlelight. She does not want a son who knows only how to wield a book.
“He would have followed the horse tracks at least,” Garrik says as though he’s sure, though Kaia thinks it might just be hope speaking. “From the first clearing, the most obvious path would have been the cart’s tracks coming from the dirt lane. I think that’s where we start our search.”
Kaia wheels her horse about immediately. She refuses to leave a boy who doesn’t even have enough woods sense to follow a blood trail alone on the lane. Not for a single instant longer than necessary. That he is her son is the cause of her heart tripping against its rib cage. But she would be rushing to his aid regardless. No boy should be alone on that lane. Traders travel it in caravans if they can’t get a King’s man to accompany them. Raiders are a reality wherever there are miles and brush to hush a man’s screams.
But her husband cries out again, like he still can’t believe it, though her personality hasn’t changed in eight years, though he says he was so struck by her beauty precisely because she was so ‘wild’ and ‘free’ when he first beheld her during his tour of the Northern Isles. Why marry a wild thing, why admire how free and fierce she was, and then seek to chain her? Why is he still surprised that she’s still the woman he married?
“Kaia! Where do you think you’re going?”
“I’ll go with Garrik. We’ll find Boone. You should go back to the castle. You shouldn’t be on the road. Especially not at night.”
Even two well-armed men will be vulnerable. Most of the raiding parties are small and Garrik is no doubt the equal of any three other fighters, but you never know when you might encounter a larger party. Which is all the more reason Kaia should go. Abelard may see her only as a jewel in his treasury, but in truth what he sees are only the jewel inlay in the hilt of a dagger. Kaia may not have any training, but she has passion enough to make her a notable opponent just the same. And… she has a dagger. Hidden in her left boot.
“If you leave me behind,” she threatens, “I will follow you to the road alone.”
Abelard hates that she is not a creature of reason, Kaia thinks sometimes. He’s looking at her like that now. Like he wants to throttle her. Like he thinks she has no better sense than their seven-year-old. But it’s not a lack of sense, not really. It’s just a different sense, different priorities, different truths. Kaia believes reason and practicality are all well and good, but the one thing she must never, ever do is go against the feelings that pull like tides within her. No man may resist the ocean tides. It’s just that Kaia has an ocean within her.
“My King,” Garrik tries his calm voice, his speaking-to-a-crazed-animal voice, “it is safer for the Queen to ride with us than to ride alone. Even were she willing to ride back to the castle. Night will be on us soon. We should ride together.”
“My son is lost, in the woods, and the sun is setting,” Kaia bites. She’s done. She’s done with calm voices. And she doesn’t give a damn what Abelard thinks. “Either help me find him, or get out of my way.”
She doesn’t wait for sputtering. She doesn’t wait for a response.
She rides for the road.
The dream again.
It’s the same boy.
The same shock of blond hair.
The same rusted sword falling.
The same screaming as she reaches out to save him –
But this time it’s silent.
The ferawicce wakes, screaming to –
She can’t see. She can’t move. She can’t scream.
Panicked moments she wants to rip her hair out and claw at her eyes to make them see something, something, something! But, luckily, she supposes, she can’t move enough to panic that way. She can’t even hear herself breathing. She’s not even sure she is breathing.
She walked away from the clearing, and the cage, with the sword tip trailing in the dirt behind her… Even through the white-hot haze of pain, she realized fifty yards out that she should try to cover her trail, so she ripped at what little remained of her clothing until she could tie the world’s dirtiest tourniquet around the wound in her side. Never had she felt pain before, like she felt pain then. Screaming, she’d always thought, was something of a pressure valve for pain. But in this case it did nothing. She screamed herself voiceless against the agony in her abdomen, but it did no good.
She was staggering drunk then. Trying to remember that she needed to minimize her trail, but it was so hard to care about anything but the pain. And then –
There was a pack. Thinned. Obviously they had lost much of their number to the surrounding farmers, no doubt picking them off when they dared to hunt sheep. As though wolves were to know the difference between a wild animal and man’s domesticated flocks. In a way, a lean pack is always more dangerous. Maybe it’s just that she was in too much pain to concentrate, to communicate, but they were… hungry. They were growling and they kept careful pace beside her, loping out of sight for long moments behind the underbrush, but always circling back closer, closer.
Every time she has ever encountered wolves before, the ferawicce chuffed and scratched and leaned her body into their subtle language of motion and communicated that she was no threat, but no prey either. And the wolves and she… It has always been a relationship of mutual respect, admiration even, one predator for another. But this time the wolves did not heed her breathless barking. Perhaps the pain that caused her to curl around her own stomach and clutch at her sides was muddying her body language too greatly for interpretation. Perhaps it was the smell of blood. Perhaps it was only that they are hunters, and she was wounded and weak. A wolf cannot deny his nature, after all.
But they didn’t listen.
Whatever the reason, they were hunting her.
When she first fell to her knees and one was within reach of her hand, haunches raised, teeth bared, the ferawicce took a deep breath and used the pain of just that, just breathing, to roar at him like a wounded bear. No matter her wounds, that roar said, she was a beast to be reckoned with. If she died, they could have at her corpse. But they would not be getting one bite, not one second earlier.
She made it back to her feet then. But she knew it was only a matter of time. She used the leaves of the müuberry bushes to ask them for their aid, but they turned away from her. Their prickers seemed to grow sharper and they twisted their branches and leaves to hide their berries still deeper in the boughs, leaving her only more bloody in her attempt to reach the cleansing juices. If she could have washed her wounds in the berries’ juice, if she could have sewn shut the gaping skin with the fibrous innards of the bushes’ thinnest branches, if she could have packed leaves beneath her bandages to hold in her blood…
It might have saved her.
But the müuberry bushes were… angry with her. In fact, it was in that chilling moment that the ferawicce had realized… The entire forest was angry with her. Though they have no eyes, she could suddenly swear all the trees were glaring at her. If they could have growled too, the bushes would have joined the wolves.
She’s not sure if the pain had finally exhausted her against any other sensation, or if it was just that enough time had passed, or because she was dying… But finally the last remnants of vengeful magic had fled from her then. What had still been the most disconcerting sensation of madness, like golden ants of magic and lusts and anger crawling around in her brain, when she’d first left the clearing… Finally the last of the little pests of magic faded. And she hadn’t felt angry then, not even at the plants’ anger, not even at the wolves, not even at the whole of the woods abandoning her, now, in her greatest moment of need.
She’d felt… defeat.
She’d felt… emptied.
She’d felt… perfectly free of hope, or expectation, or dreams.
As she’d finally been reduced to crawling, prostrate like a snake before an old fir tree in an old, old clearing…
She’d laid at the trunk of that fir with only the peaceful thought that this might be a nice place to die. She’d placed her bloody hand on the trunk as a tribute, as a gentle thank you for this strong, old tree and its beautiful, thick pine needles keeping her shaded and cool from the harsh afternoon sunlight, here in her final moments…
That’s when she noticed sap on her fingers. Thick, sticky sap. It oozed up through the bark of the tree and she didn’t have the strength left to escape it. For all her peace had been shattered, for all her terror renewed as she felt the cool sap creep up her arm and across her chest, and up her neck to swallow her screams…
She could not move.
Soon, she noticed darkness creeping in at the edges of her vision.
And then she realized it wasn’t unconsciousness beckoning.
It was bark growing over her body.
The tree swallowed her.
She’d heard horror stories about things like this. These are the sort of terrors they say lie in the Red Woods. But the ferawicce had lived in those very Woods for years without ever having any quarrel with the trees.
She cannot stay.
There is a blond boy.
There is a sword.
There must be a reason she has been dreaming the same dream for so many months.
She can feel a new panic, a quickening certainty buzzing through her limbs now –
The time is nigh.
The boy is near.
The moment she has dreamed is only moments away.
She feels deep within herself for that well of magic that waits calm and deep in every man. Though she cannot speak aloud, she gathers great bucketfuls of that magic now and she thinks the Waterwei word for lightening a load with all her might. It’s one of the words they do teach to little girls because little girls will grow up to do hard work just like the men do in the island nations; they will need the word so they might lift things many times beyond their physical strength. So they can encourage a plough. So they can raise a wall. So they can seek out the mussels that live beneath the big boulders in the sea.
She thinks the word with all her might, feeding a bucketful of magic into the word and into her will again, and again. And when she can feel her whole body straining up against the upper confines of her strange wooden coffin, floating up, as it were, within the still hardening sap… That’s when she uses whatever physical strength she might have left to strain her arms, press her hands against the wooden ‘door’ of her cell. She can hear the bark splintering! She can hear the wood creaking and whining in protest! She can feel the tree trying to stop her, the bark trying to grow back where she has cracked its smooth surface, the tree pumping more sap into this new limb, trying to hold her here, trying to keep her imprisoned!
The tree is… frightened.
For all she has always terrified men, it strikes at the ferawicce’s heart now…
This is the first time she has ever frightened a tree.
The woods are her home. The animals, and indeed even the trees…
These are the only friends she has known these long last years.
It’s almost enough to make her falter.
But she knows the heartbreak she faces if she fails in her task is greater than the heartbreak she faces even if every tree she ever meets from here on out turns her away and will not talk. She can live without friends. She has before.
Something instinctive tells her she cannot live without the little blond boy.
So she pushes past sadness, and she pushes past fear, and she pushes past the tree sap and the bark trying to grow thick and impenetrable around her and entomb her forever. Trees, she has learned, might well be as terrible as men.
She is not ready to die.
Not the death of bleeding out at the base of a tree.
And not the death of being alive and entombed within the tree.
So she pushes!
She whispers the Waterwei word so her own body is floating, straining upward by the force of magic as well as her physical strength, and finally –
She pushes through!
She sees the last of the afternoon sunlight, a deep orange glow, breaking through the crack that widens, that she scrabbles wider, that she tumbles through…
She lies gasping on the ground for long moments after she’s free. She is covered in sap still, drying crusty and sticky now, and coated in pine needles but…
There is no pain in her side.
What she can see beneath the clear coating of sap on her abdomen is…
There’s not even a scab.
There’s not even a scar.
The tree has healed her, even as it sought to entomb her.
She doesn’t know whether to be grateful or angry.
She shakes herself, because she doesn’t have time to be either.
There is a blond boy.
And there is a sword.
And there is a blue silk Tokre with a hundred golden charms.
And she can feel it in her bones that she has to –