The Preveza hummed as refugees from the the outer wealds swarmed around it. For once, the rustling of men drowned out the voices of the forest. A single screech echoed above the treetops, and a shadow soared against the sun, but there were only reminders of the life that had fled from the Wildwood.
So many Zikia gathered in one place should have meant celebration, pranks, and laughter. While there was laughter and joy as families were reunited, it seemed too quick, too loud. Their lips rattled with rumor and warning, praise and excitement, often in the same breath.
A huddled mass of grim, ash-dusted faces trudged past Vata-Mira as they made their way to the strange door. The shimmering leaves appeared to remain still as refugees passed through, but that couldn’t be right. That must have been a trick of weary eyes. Before the entrance, the refugees clumped and pressed against the walls, giant ironwoods growing thick and fused at the trunks. Some waited patiently for their turn to disappear within the emerald leaves, but many pushed their way through, sending ripples through the crowd.
Knocked loose from the edge of the refugees, a man staggered toward Vata-Mira. He may have once been a warrior, but now he sagged under his own weight. The edges of his tunic had frayed. Rips and scorch marks revealed puckered flesh near his elbows and shoulders.
“Khudram,” he said, reaching with trembling fingers toward the girl standing with Vata-Mira. The warm, deep brown of his Zikian skin had turned grey. “I told you not to wander off.”
Vata-Mira tightened her grip on her sister’s hand, pulling her closer. She positioned herself between Bija and the displaced man, mustering the sternness she remembered on her mother’s face. She had never approved of their excursions away from the Tangle, but that was the only reason they escaped the Durani.
Peering out from behind Vata-Mira’s skirt, Bija looked out hopefully. “Papa?”
“Hush, Bija.” Then, to the stranger: “Get back.”
He took another wobbly step forward.
“If you… One more—”
He collapsed at Vata-Mira’s feet, shuddering and mumbling. “Khudram?” He called for his daughter repeatedly until the syllables fragmented and slipped from his mouth in a mess of unintelligible murmurs.
She’d felt a burning fever when they first set out, but that passed. Only a lingering shiver seized her now. She pulled her cloak tighter and plunged into the crowd with Bija, leaving the stranger twitching in the undergrowth.
In the crowd, elbows and knees knocked, and heads swiveled. The stench of unwashed bodies and their collective excitement was overpowering. “It’s over,” a young Zikia declared to his friend, another eager youth. “I saw the Untamed. He’s back. He’s really back.”
“Do you think he’ll stay?” His friend asked, eyes widening. “Do you think we’ll see him?”
An ashen face poked out from beneath a hood pulled low, whispering so only Vata-Mira could hear. The stranger’s eyes flashed. “The fire is alive. It seeks vengeance.” Then the stranger plunged further into the crowd.
She masked a shiver as she patted Bija’s head.
Another voice cut through the din. Blossoms sprouted from the arms and neck of this Zikian’s dress, a white-haired elder pressing through the crowd as easily as Vata-Mira had. With a look she silenced the boy, then spoke. “That’s what the Onyx Daggers want,” she said. “They’re drawing out our leaders and striking down our elders. They’re collecting the pieces of the Mahatavi, searching for a way in.”
The second boy countered. “They won’t get far. The Zura ran the Dominion out of the Smota wealds, and they’ll crush the Empire too. Ajin alone brought a Jagara down. They say she jammed her Dryad’s blade into the Jagara’s golden head and then dashed across it. She leapt into the knight’s cupola and smashed the entire crew. You should have seen it, those cowards scurried away after that, leaving everyone else behind.”
The older Zikia snorted. She planted her cane, the branches of a single black tree sprouting out from her fingers. “The Dominion is wise to let us fight it out and wait to see which crippled victor will emerge. You mistake tactics for cowardice. Those same forces regrouped with an even larger raiding party and pressed twice as deep the next morning.”
“How do you know?”
Pushing through the refugees, a newcomer wearing black leather studded with thorns joined the white-haired elder. He planted a bow even taller than himself on the ground. A quiver of spear-sized arrows to match was slung over his shoulder. A sigil of a black tree arching branches stood out, embellished on his chest. It matched the one on the elder’s cane. “Warden Vika,” he said, “I thought we lost you.”
“You did,” she said, gathering the folds of her dress and crossing her arms indignantly.
Another ripple in the crowd interrupted, voices raised in cheer. Hands clapped and waved as the refugees parted for a group of haggard soldiers. They didn’t march so much as mosey purposely forward, appearing quite unorganized, yet showing a swagger that hinted they were no less formidable for their lax appearance. They bore no heraldry, no banners, and their armor seemed assembled piecemeal, scavenged from many battlefields. These soldiers wore a mix of brass scale, fastened with leather scraps, a steel pauldron here, a gauntlet there. They were oddities, orphans, and renegades. They were the Untamed.
A bear of a Zikian with a nettlescamp on his shoulder trailed after a gaunt Urugal with a necklace of bones bouncing against her collar—a strange pair, to say the least. In the center of their group, nobles from each of the wealds had gathered. Some wore garlands of flowers around their necks, while others had woven wildgrass, net-like in appearance, draped over their heads. Though a few looked uneasy as they reached the clasping oaks, they plunged through the leaf-covered entrance all the same. The silver-haired woman and the knight with the black tree sigil joined the procession, sliding in unnoticed by the soldiers.
Perhaps strangest of all was a single knight in golden armor, feathers sticking out from his helm. Two sparrows twittered on his shoulder, seemingly unmindful of the crowd. They chirped and sang, and the odd knight whistled, mimicking their calls.
A boyish figure in a tattered cloak strode near the rear of the procession, locked in conversation with a red-haired warrior. A hammer swung from one of her hips, and the curved head of an axe gleamed on the other. Beneath the slender figure’s rags, hints of deep green plate showed through. Vata-Mira thought she recognized something about this woman, an echo of command or some lost detail of nobility she couldn’t place.
As the procession passed, even the most ashen and empty faces grew animated, their lips trembling joyously as the last figures went by. “Bringer of Thorns,” they chanted, though it was unclear for whom the title was meant.
Bija tugged on Vata-Mira’s hand. The older sister bent down, getting low enough to be face to face with her. “Who are they?” Bija whispered the question as if afraid the members of the motley band might hear her.
“They’re our future,” Vata-Mira replied.
—- —- —-
In the hidden clearing, some elders marveled while the most senior remained stone-faced, though still their collective gaze crept through the entrance of the Preveza to the wall of trees that enclosed them. Through the opening, the light of day flooded into the clearing with a blinding brilliance. Filled with refugees, the ancient and overgrown hand in the center of the open space had all but vanished, its rounded fingers disappearing and reappearing between hurried mothers and children chasing one another through the camp.
If Ajin hadn’t been reminded of the failures she’d witnessed here, she might have taken a moment to regard it with more care. No, this place, whatever magic it might hold, had become another breeding ground for the scheming and political maneuvering she despised. She’d hoped she wouldn’t have to return, but here she was, waiting as the elders found their carved stump seats.
“Follow me,” she said, turning to Vanya. His gaze lingered on a unfurled paper in his hand, a note in familiar handwriting.
“There’s no time,” he said.
She grabbed him by the wrist and pulled, following the markings on the ironwoods. They lead to an alcove hidden in the seemingly impenetrable wall. The low-hanging branches pulled back for an instant, allowing the two of them through. Whatever gave this place its power still mystified Ajin. She didn’t dare mention the vision she’d seen when she entered the Preveza. Had it been the past or the future? Who had allowed such a terrible warlord to bring the Zikia to heel? It was not Jahnu. No, the ruler had looked far too familiar. She shook her head, taking a deep breath. She looked up at Vanya. It couldn’t have been him, she tried to reassure herself. Could it?
From within the hidden room, she could hear the proceedings beginning outside. A deep voice sounded out, accompanied by what could be only be chirping. “The birds no longer sing,” the voice began. “The creatures of the forest, both large and small, have fled. My golem’s nests are empty, for my golem shall not rest, nor shall I. No, I am prepared for war. Through me, the Protector’s will shall be channelled. None who threaten the peace of the Wildwood will be spared. I will not set aside this task until the Wildwood has risen from the ashes and forgotten the memory of flame. Who will stand with me?” A number of voices answered with pledges to his cause, but after the initial affirmations, dissidence followed, and grew as argument resumed as loud as before. Nothing had changed.
Yet Ajin knew that to be untrue. Vanya’s presence here proved that. She began to form her first question, considering what he planned, and what he planned to reveal. As she paused, Vanya tilted his head, unkempt hair hanging wildly. The hint of a smirk played at the corner of his mouth. “You didn’t bring me here just to keep me out of the meeting, right?”
Reflexively, she raised a hand. He arched a brow.
Though he still looked like a boy playing at being a knight, Ajin couldn’t smack him like she had before when he’d been too clever for his own good. Why did he insist on wearing those rags over his armor? She sighed, then bit down on her lip. The parchment in his hand was dotted with the shadows of watermarks. She lowered her hand, then took his into her own, cupping it between her palms.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “It must be difficult being here, of all places, stuck with the remnants of the court you avoided your entire life. I really am sorry, you know. No number of apologies can bring her back. For all of our differences, I loved her too. She had been my mother, for a time.”
Vanya’s smirk wobbled and grew into a genuine smile, though tinged with regret. “She always wanted a daughter.” He snorted. “Though if we had gone through with the marriage, she might have lost a son.”
Ajin laughed, feeling it radiating warmly through her chest. “I didn’t think you’d ever return.”
“You know, for the longest time, I was certain you were a boy. You kept your hair short and pulled back—like it is now, actually—and, well, I don’t think I ever saw you in skirts. You fought harder than any of the boys, always getting into trouble and falling out of trees. Come to think of it, I don’t know how we survived childhood.”
“Remember when we climbed up that silverleafed ancient? The one that stood out from the rest of the canopy. It stood higher than any spire I’ve ever seen. Took nearly the whole day to get up there, but once we reached the top, you could see everything for miles. You could see so far, I was convinced I could see the future.”
“I remember,” Vanya said, squeezing her hand.“No one could hear us up there.”
She grinned. “Were you certain I wasn’t a boy after that?”
He laughed, but he pulled his hands back, folding up the note and tucking it away. “Those were easy times,” he said. “When you could be certain of things, no matter how wrong you turned out to be.”
“To be young,” she said, “is to believe earnestly and fervently in something, even though you know nothing.”
“What do you know of me, then?”
“It matters little,” she said. “But I need to know: do you have the boy? The one called Azas?”
He shook his head. “The Untamed aren’t midwives or maids,” he said. “There are no children among is, unless you count me. What does that matter, anyway?”
Ajin pursed her lips, then rested her hand on the handle of her axe. “I heard Nandanna was fond of you,” she said. “That she took a special interest in recruiting you. Some even say you spent a night in her tent.”
“The only thing as certain as death is gossip.” Vanya narrowed his eyes and looked beyond Ajin and the walls of their nook, toward the meeting where the voices of the elders had finally subdued and returned to orderly discussion. “We should return. They’ll start to wonder what kind of schemes we’re planning all alone.”
“No one is going to assume an alliance between the Samula and the Zura.”
“For good reason, I hear.”
“You missed much in your exile,” she said. “I can’t say if you’re the same man I remember from all those years ago, but I do know the Zikia have changed. We have grown without you.”
“What you didn’t hear was that I tracked down a Zikia woman in a Durani prison camp, and with less than a half dozen men, infiltrated it and set all the prisoners free—despite the danger, despite the lack of strategic significance, and despite the downright foolishness of it all. And you know why?”
She shook her head.
He strode past her, then paused at the opening. The weight of weariness showed as a hard-earned wisdom in his eyes. They regarded her carefully, like two pinpoints of light reflecting off a droplet of dew on a blade of grass in the early hours of dawn. “Well, neither did I,” he said. “I thought I knew. There was something about her I couldn’t place. She reminded me of a few different women I knew; but looking at you now, I know exactly who I thought I was saving.”
Maybe it was just weariness after all. “You saw what you wanted to see. Now see things as they are. We aren’t in need of your saving.”
He slipped his cloak off and headed back into the clearing without another word.
When Ajin returned to the Circle, the gathering’s attention had fallen to Vanya. Their earlier discussion had been pushed aside, their questions quelled. Had they forgotten he was an exile? The Exile. She crossed her arms. They looked upon Vanya nearly as eagerly as the refugees who smiled as if he were an Ancient One.
Next to Vanya, Warden Ranik of the Vimza stood. He had the same petal-like lips of his mother, and he’d inherited her petulant expression as well. “The wealds have been broken. Hattarra’s alive, but wounded,” he declared. “The Vimza stand with the Samula. There’s no question of our loyalty, but I wonder: what of the rest of you? Is it not enough to see tragedy redound upon your people? Must the danger be so immediate as to take your loved ones and burn your very home before you will act? Do not mistake the paralysis of selfishness and fear for prudence.”
He paused momentarily, his mouth working silently as if testing his next words before airing them aloud.“There was one other matter,” he added, casting his gaze toward Vanya, his face softening. “Hattarra wanted me to tell you Ziksana was defiant till the end. The attack would have been much worse if she hadn’t been there. They spoke just before the burning of the Vinewood, and she confided in my mother. She thought of you often. She also—”
“They should be here,” Vanya interrupted.
“Order the Vimza back. Forget the outer wealds you’re trying to hold.” Vanya reached for the brooch on Ranik’s chest. He plucked the amber-glass, from the weeping of the First Tree, from his lapel. “This is what the Empire is after,” Vanya cried, holding the charm aloft. “They are taking the pieces of the Mahatavi. They know the way in.”
“It can’t be,” a flower-wreathed elder gasped from the back of the Circle.
Another voiced echoed the sentiment: “Impossible.” Many more exclamations of disbelief joined the first two as surprise inclined the wise minds of the Circle toward the most basic and instinctual reaction: denial. As swiftly as doubt filled the air, the Circle calmed, denial giving way to the silence of deliberation. With the amber from the First Tree, anyone could enter the Mahatavi.
Ajin’s heart pushed against the confines of her chest, urging her to get up right then, forget Vanya, and bring the Zura to the entrance of the Zikia sanctum—but she steadied herself instead. Not yet, she reminded herself. I will temper this anger, and turn it into a spear that will pierce so deeply through the Empire’s armies that they will forever limp.
The bent and crooked Warden Vika pushed her way forward, moving surely despite her age. “If you thought the Zikia could remain free of spies and treachery, then perhaps we are doomed.”
“They may even be among us,” Vanya said.
“No matter,” she answered. “The Black Bows never miss their mark.”
“I’m lucky to never have been in their sights, then,” Vanya said, then turned to the rest of the Circle. “Open war has never been the concern of the Zikia. We prefer skirmishes and scrapes, but there is no doubt in my mind we can learn, if I lead. Our enemy can only be defeated if we bring all the wealds together. Alone we will each be crushed beneath the heavy feet of the Dominion and the Empire, but under my command, the Great Weald will rise again.”
Shifting in her carapace of petrified ironwood, Warden Yokara gestured to Ajin. “There is already one in our midst who has been fighting fiercely, and defeating the uprooters.”
Then another warden, Devata of the Smota, joined the others. He clutched at his billowing robes of woven vines. “If we want to heal the Wildwood, then we must stop fighting. I fear this coalition of wealds will only tear open old wounds.”
“You’ll take all our forces for yourself then, exile?” Yokara asked. “And if you succeed, you’ll be far too powerful for any of us to oppose. You’ll control the Zikia with unchecked force, no different than a Gudanna warlord.”
“We have no need to cower under the banners of the Untamed,” another voice called out.
Vanya shook his head. “You must remember, the Untamed fly no banners, bear no heraldry, and obey no order they do not respect. If I lead, it will be because you know there is no other way.”
Ajin finally raised her voice. “Though we’ve had a string of successes, it won’t last. The Empire will wear us down, keep us divided, and exploit our rivalries,” she said. “But our differences have always been what made us strong. We will not be lorded over by any one ruler, beloved or reviled. When a great ruler dies, then his mighty empire crumbles in his wake, but the Great Weald can live forever if its power is beyond that of any man.”
“It is by your command that I shall command,” Vanya added.
The oldest warden, shrouded in thick lichen that covered his head, speckled his beard, and even ran down his arms, jumped as if woken from a deep slumber. He exhaled and all eyes fell on him. “If Ajin will accept your terms, then so shall I.” One by one, the other undecided wardens echoed his sentiment.
Ajin considered the Wardens awaiting her answer. “The Great Weald will only be united under your rule for so long as this war lasts,” Ajin said. “Afterward you will relinquish command of all armies other than your Samula. And from this day, the Zikia will never cooperate with the Gudanna again.”
“You’ll never find a man more in agreement,” Vanya said. “Don’t let this crown rest on my head any longer than it must.” He unfurled the tattered cloak in his hands and pulled it back over his armor, slouching very slightly as it settled upon his shoulders. He stepped forward from the center of the clearing and once again Ajin saw the boy she had known standing before her. No, he wasn’t the same Vanya, she reminded herself. His time in exile had changed him, but she hoped enough of the Vanya she had known still remained that he wouldn’t become whoever she glimpsed as she passed into the Preveza. Had it been a warning, or was it the future?
Artwork by Joel DuQue