“Vision is necessary blindness,” Ziksana said, turning toward the Circle. The elders had gathered in the glow of Harrow, her Earthfall. The buds on the golem’s arms and legs had blossomed into wreaths of light. Shimmering petals drifted, catching in mossy hair and vine-woven shawls. The lights reminded Ziksana of the Revel of Kajit-Ura, when summer came and you had to doubt everything you saw, lest you end up doused in honey and chased through the woods by nettlescamps—not that such ever happened to her. But alas, these lights wouldn’t shine all week, and there was nothing to celebrate. She continued: “…but it is blindness nonetheless. ‘To look ahead is to look away.’ Those were my mother’s words.”
The Circle stood between Harrow’s two fists. A cracked and lichen-covered boulder made for one wall, while a crumbling spire made the other. Faded Durani heraldry still clung to the sides of the piece of ruined fortification. The point of the spire dug into the ground, leaving a wide track where it had dragged through the undergrowth. The golem’s stillness set it apart unnaturally among the constant shifting of the Vinewood.
Bird calls rang throughout the forest, some in song, others in warning, perhaps disturbed by the newly arrived golems. Beasts darted through the undergrowth, their flanks and tails flashing for an instant before they disappeared. The foliage writhed, refusing to fade into the background. Ziksana had seen the vines here snag frogs from middair.
As if to remind her that she too could easily become prey, a tangle of slick vines wrapped around her ankle. They curled and clumped in an unkempt mass. The floor of the Vinewood had grown as thick as the canopy, uninhabited for centuries on the remote eastern edge of the Wildwood. As she lifted her foot, the snare tightened around her ankle. Planting her free foot as if she meant to stand in place, she kept the crease of worry from her expression. The two dignitaries nearest her made no sign of notice—one out of ignorance, the other out of wisdom, she suspected.
“Is this supposed to comfort us?” an elder asked.
“No.” Ziksana smiled and shook her head. “It’s simply an apology.”
This gave the elder pause. Members of the Circle shared glances, some whispered in somber tones, and still others narrowed their eyes in suspicion, but what did these minor slights matter? Each had brought hundreds of warriors.
The young scribe, Hatti, dipped his inking stick of carved ironoak, nearly silver, into a bowl of dye, resting on the tall stump before him. A lattice of webs ran down the side of the utensil, the intricate patterns subtle, almost as if the maker intended to hide their detail. As he dipped the point into the crimson dye, bloodberry flesh swirling on its surface. He said nothing, his eyes trained on her words as he committed them to parchment.
“She was an inspiration, truly.” Nava combed his fingers through his mossy beard as he spoke. The warden had the uncanny ability to remain attentive without listening. The skill would have taken him far in the Durani court, no doubt, for even the Zikia were not immune to sycophancy. No, it had been all too easy for Ziksana to surround herself with those who affirmed her beliefs instead of challenging them, and now she wondered if it was too late to correct her mistake.
At least Hatti had remained in the Circle.
Nava didn’t know any better, though she suspected he was more keen than he let on. Ignorance and foolishness often made for the best camouflage. The inking stick paused in the air while Nava droned on, recalling the details of the dinner they had once shared, which involved a number of roasted razor hawks and fen swallows, along with a fruit he couldn’t name, but swore had been the sweetest he had ever tasted.
“Your words are appreciated, but I’m afraid this meeting must come to a close,” Ziksana declared. “I thank you all for travelling with me, but soon I will join Hattarra in the Tanglefort.” She bent her head to the Circle, respectful, if slightly curt.
Nava hushed and the Circle shifted, cautiously, one foot at a time.
“Please excuse the early end to the day’s proceedings, but I promise I will hear each and every one of you, even if it takes all day, or all week, when I return.”
Hatti looked up at Ziksana, but it was the warden who spoke up again, undaunted by the dismissal, and quite possibly unable to remain silent for an extended period of time. Perhaps she had mistaken his inability to keep quiet for engagement, but now his voice only lent itself to the weight of the air, thick with moisture and gnats. Nava said “we should strike out at the Durani at once. They’re busy tending their wounded and awaiting resupply. Unlike the Dominion, they can’t conjure new golems out of will and sand alone. There are consequences to their reckless advances.”
“Reckless at best.” Ziksana waved the plump warden away. “According to the last report, the outer wealds rebuked the Empire with the aid of mercenaries banding together. It seems their allegiance to their home is even stronger than their allegiance to coin. But what that report left out was that their greatest ally was the Wildwood. There is no better battlefield for us to fight on then this.”
Undeterred, Nava continued, speaking as if he were sharing a great truth. “Often, wisdom sprouts in the rich soil of foolishness.”
“And more often it breeds more foolishness. That’s enough. This meeting is closed.”
The Circle broke apart, a procession of white and wizened heads disappearing in the tangle of vines hanging from the canopy. Slowly, Hatti rolled up his parchment.
“Stay,” she said. “I have an urgent task for you.”
He unfurled the parchment, taking a seat back at the stump.
She shook her head. “It’s important you record what I say exactly. If you wish for me to slow down or repeat myself, you must interrupt. This must be preserved as if in amber. I fear I lack the words to explain myself completely, but if the Ancient Ones see it fit, let their voices join mine and guide my clumsy tongue.”
“Should I just write ‘Ancient Ones invoked’?”
She was unsure whether it was insolence or humor Hatti shared with her, but she ignored the question. “Listen,” she said, “it’s likely you’ve heard rumors and whispers that I’ve found something new. As is often the case, this means I’ve simply stumbled into something ancient and forgotten, something nearly as old as the Mahatavi, and undoubtedly connected in ways we may never understand. It’s all true.
“I haven’t been forthcoming. I’ve misled the Circle. This Preveza, you see—it’s not simply a secluded glade—in fact, the place itself hardly matters. It’s the door—well, it’s not a door at all, but you already know that. I’ve had good reason to conceal the full extent of its power. You see, the first time I entered it, I glimpsed what I knew to be impossible. The image confused me, though it burned itself into my memory. In a gray, nearly opaque vision, as if looking through murky water, I saw the door I had just passed through, but there was nothing around it. The forest had disappeared. I didn’t know if it was the future or the past, but I saw the door had become an arch, and the emerald leaves had fallen, scattered, and disappeared. All that remained in this desolate place were the intertwined limbs of the oaks that made the doors, and the shadows, forever shifting. Through the fog I saw tiny lights flickering in the darkness. They fled from me as I pursued them, and as I wandered, they trailed after me.
“I know it sounds like madness, but after I walked on for what must have been weeks, until hunger and exhaustion slowed me, I finally tumbled forward and stumbled out the other side of the door. When I came out, it had only been a few minutes, but that time had been as real as any I’ve known. I don’t know what prompted the vision, nor do I know if any others have seen anything like it. I need you to visit the door that is not a door. I need you to see for yourself that which lies beyond sight and reason. This passage is a link between our world and that of the Ancient Ones—I’m certain.”
Hatti blinked at her and wiped sweat from his brow with smudged fingers, leaving a trail of red dye. He looked as if about to say something, but stopped himself. He simply asked “And to whom shall I address this letter?”
“The exile, of course.” Then she added, “My son.”
“Whom shall I send it with?”
Ziksana smiled. “You spoke out against me before Ajin left.”
He nodded. “I didn’t agree with you.”
“For that I’m glad,” she said. “I need you to take this message to Vanya yourself. The Circle may not be broken, but its boundaries are uncertain. You’re no longer the Circle’s scribe. I fear you have inherited a far more difficult task, but it is vital for our survival.” Ziksana pulled up her skirts and reached out into the mana of the Vinewood. She gently guided the vines wrapped around her ankle with an infusion of power. They shook and released her foot, and she slid it out and stepped free from the undergrowth. Nature did not discriminate, but most forgot it was far easier to work with than against.
Taking a deep breath, Hatti rolled up the parchment. “When I joined the Circle, you struck me as unreasonable, but now you’re making more sense than ever. I’m glad I was mistaken about you.” The briefest tremble of turmoil twisted his lips before he added “I’m sorry.”
She shook her head. “It was I who was mistaken.” She bent down and reached for a disconnected strand of vine, and raised it to Hatti. She laid it atop the letter, and with an influx of mana, the fiber writhed and twisted, tying around the parchment. “You must leave at once,” she said, “but when you return, I promise you the Circle will change, for it must. And you will help me renew the wealds.”
The former scribe looked away, tucking the parchment into his robes. He opened his mouth as if to speak again, then paused, smoothed his robes, and placed a stopper in his inkwell. White-knuckled, he handled the inking stick carefully, as if it were a particularly sharp sword, and sheathed it in a leather case. He stood from the table and excused himself. Then before he passed behind the corner of Harrow’s boulder fist, he added “I won’t fail you again.”
“You never did,” Ziksana said, but he was gone.
—- —- —-
In Turmassa, the Tanglefort, Hattarra stood rooted at the edge of a platform of interlaced branches suspended in a cradle of vines. The platform slowly rotated around the perimeter of the fort, far above the forest floor. From below, it had looked like an impenetrable mass of lush growth, but from this vantage, Ziksana could see the canopy formed hidden viewpoints through which one could see for miles. Platforms like this one were scattered throughout the wood, sentries perched atop them, forming a nearly invisible bulwark.
Thorns sprouted around Hattarra’s temples, though a shroud of blossoms hid the extent of their sharpness in her floral crown. “Kutava worked hard to unite the Great Weald,” she said, her lips barely moving. “You know no one respected your mother as much as I did, yet still the Vimza have retained their independence. She understood there are none better to guard your home than those who reside in it.”
“The Wildwood is the home of all Zikia.” Ziksana joined her at the edge of the platform. “The Samula won’t be stationed here, but I need your help.”
“That must be hard to admit.”
“The Vinewood is yours,” Ziksana said, tightening her grip on the folds of her skirt. “I understand now that guiding the Great Weald means I need leaders like you. The Vimza have much to teach us, but you too can learn from the Samula. Each tribe has much to share, but you need a voice that can raise all others in unity. All wealds of the Vinewood stand to gain a dozen allies.”
“Have we not been allies all along?” Hattarra raised a hand to silence Ziksana. “No, you said it yourself. You come here to offer your support, but when did you decide we were no longer allies? Where were the Samula when the Durani began clearing this land, forcing the smaller wealds deeper into the woods?”
The Matriarch of the Vimza pursed petal-like lips, the folds in her face tightening into ridges. She waved a hand and the leaves ahead shuddered apart, revealing more sentries hidden in the foliage.
“We’re here now,” Ziksana offered.
Hattarra slowly raised her chin, perhaps in agreement. “If honey draws flies, then spiders draw Harpies.”
Ziksana narrowed her eyes, but said nothing.
“Did you prepare for the inevitable violence this would bring? You’ve brought fewer warriors than I expected for one who claims to be uniting the Zikia.”
“Not all share our vision.”
“Good thing,” Hattarra said. “That young firebrand, Ajin, has worked tirelessly to fix this mess you’ve made for us.”
“You should know I only offered the Dominion temporary passage.”
“Perhaps the Zura have seen what you could not. Rudatha certainly saw an opportunity to turn our wealds into his own private supply caches.”
The shout of voices interrupted them as an alarm rang throughout the forest, sending flocks of birds from the treetops, blotting the sky above in a cloud of wings and fear. The platforms all around began moving toward Ziksana and Hattarra, forming larger ledges on which more archers appeared. Branches shifted and interlocked, creating a parapet.
From above, an archer called as his platform descended and joined their own. “The Onyx Daggers have penetrated the wood.”
“The Daggers? Here?” Ziksana whispered. “Impossible.”
“If you had been here, you would know they already attempted to raid the wealds in the Pitchwood, but the Zura were ready. You can thank Ajin for that. They tried to cut off our supply line and intercept our reinforcements before they could arrive. They found thorns where they expected blossoms.”
Ziksana swallowed. “Your sure it’s the Daggers?”
“All we could see was the enemy before us,” Hattarra said, her face still rigid. “We missed the enemy in our midst. Who else could survive the treacherous foliage and deadly spores of the Pitchwood?”
“My forces are yours to command,” Ziksana said.
“Lead them,” the matriarch replied. “This is our home.”
The light of day broke into the Vinewood as a jewel-inlaid scythe tore through the canopy. Ziksana shielded her eyes as the Winged Vanguard dove through the opening, following the blade. Golden wings folded as the Vanguard descended like a gilded idol tossed down from the heavens. The contours of its geometric armor glinted in the light, as if sparks flew from its hide.
No—that was the arc of the Vanguard’s terrible lightning, Ziksana realized. She ordered her forces to spread out. Her Prowlers took flight, landing upon ancient trees larger than most golems, larger than most anything. The Nightshades shifted through the undergrowth, joining the fighting on the eastern front, where the Onyx Daggers continued to push back the line. Harrow pulled one arm back, then released the cracked boulder through the air, tumbling at the Vanguard. The Durani knight veered his golem aside, allowing the boulder to pass harmlessly. Lightning crackled and the bolt shot out, screaming through the air.
Before she could urge Harrow out of the way, she heard the lightning hissing in her ears. Flung from her seat, her head pounded against the bone-like protrusion on Harrow’s back. Every muscle in her body contracted. She spasmed as the lightning spread across her body. The stench of her own burnt hair filled her nostrils. She pushed herself up, pulling the tattered sleeve of her robe free from her arm, exposing raw flesh. It seemed the top layer of charred skin had left with the sleeve. Pulling herself back to the golem’s saddle, she observed the bolt had seemingly missed nearly all her forces but one Bramblehorn, now an ashen husk twitching in the undergrowth.
She could heal her wound later. Now, she raised her hands up and began reciting a prayer to the Ancient Ones, calling upon the mana-rich forest to aid her.
A squadron of Jeweled Harpies darted through the canopy, joining the larger golem. The Vanguard spun, clawing at a Shade on its back. One Harpy dipped through the air, ripping the Shade from the Vanguard’s back and tossing it to the forest floor. Along the southern flank, a pair of Blazing Dervishes broke through the line, working together to bring down a Dryad in an unrelenting barrage. There were just too many fronts, too many enemies for the natural defenses of the Vinewood to slow them.
It was time the Vinewood went on the offense. Ziksana felt Zri magic pulsing through her, more than she had ever grasped before. The warmth she had known when calling on this magic in the past now raged inside her, threatening to consume her if she didn’t release it. She spread her arms wide, and the glow surrounding her expanded and burst through the forest. Trees buckled, branches cracked, and vines trembled as the forest rose to seize the enemies above.
One bough swatted a Harpy to the ground where the undergrowth roiled and writhed. The sinewy limbs of the great trees launched the Dervishes into the air, striking down two more Harpies in turn. Hundreds of grasping vines shot upward. The Vanguard’s wings beat furiously as it ducked and dived, deftly maneuvering through a thickening maze of vines, but it couldn’t escape as the undergrowth rose and the canopy fell, snapping like great jaws on a golden gnat. The vines wrapped around the Vanguard’s wrists, restraining its scythe. The huge golem struggled in the air, falling and spinning as it tried to free itself. It spun faster and the vines wrapped tighter around it, more coiling up to join the first pair. Four golden wings fell, ripped from their sockets on its back. Two stone arms followed. In a screeching flurry, the remaining five Harpies escaped back through the canopy, heading toward the Durani encampent.
“Wait,” Ziksana called. She had revealed herself with her mana-fueled onslaught. She gazed up, her voice catching in her throat. Though she had rebuked their attack, she realized the size of the force and the quick retreat suggested a new danger. They hadn’t defended themselves from an assault, only rebuffed a scouting party—and by her spectacular attack, she’d done their work for them. The mana she summoned would alert any nearby knights with even the slightest magical aptitude.
They could run. She shouted a command, calling for retreat. While the other golems began to fall back, she urged Harrow forward. She wouldn’t leave until all her knights had reached safety. She would be their shield.
Then, through a mass of vines, she noticed the red light trained on her, still focused from the decapitated head of a Sentinel lying in a tangle of thorns. The beam faded, but she realized it was too late. Harrow raised a rubble fist to shield a fleeing Prowler as the air thickened with fire, a barrage of deadly coals pouring down from above. The canopy erupted in a conflagration that quickly jumped through the undergrowth.
The forest hissed and popped as steam rose from the burning foliage. The air boiled. In the shadows and the smoke, Ziksana caught a glimpse of a larger shadow bursting through the flames. Through the haze she recognized a now familiar scene. At last, her vision became clear.
Sifting through the ash, Kopa Vahni uncovered a charred wing. Carefully, he lifted the stalk, but the wing crumbled between his fingers. He searched for more kindling, but he only found embers. The tips of his leather gloves blistered from the heat. Rising, he pulled the gloves off and raised them to his mouth, breathing deeply. Smoke and ash billowed through the air. It was as if he had wandered into the heart of a stormcloud.
His former commander, Mahik, smiled, a thin fold twisting upward at the corner of his mouth. This was as close to a clap on the back as he could have expected. “It’s a shame Raga Dasra plucked you from my command.” He batted at the smoke with his sword, a thin blade that pierced the thickest of armor as easily as the ashy fog. The rubies on the hilt and pommel glimmered, mirroring the embers underfoot. The gems weren’t magic, like many soldiers believed. Kopa had seen firsthand how Mahik tirelessly trained each day. He could have as easily wielded a butter knife and been just as deadly. Actually, he’d seen that too, but that was another story.
Offering his thanks, Kopa carefully stepped over a fallen trunk, flames still feasting inside the hollow. His foot caught on something white in the ash. It reminded him of the snows up in the mountains, where his legs sunk halfway up the shin. He bent down, rooting through the debris. An empty eye socket glared at him.
“What did the Zikia witch say when you found her?” Slick black hair tinged with silver glistened, oozing like oil down Commander Amba’s shoulder. Beneath her hair, her sigil, the fist within the moon, jutted out.
Interrupting on his behalf, Mahik said “Please, she wouldn’t have had time to speak, dealing with the Onyx Shadow himself.”
Hooking his fingers within the recesses of the skull’s eyes, Kopa lifted. “She looked ready.”
Amba shook her head. “Animals are much smarter then men. They run when they are outnumbered.”
His former commander shrugged. “They should have evacuated the villages, but pride…”
Kopa patted ash from the skull’s cheekbones, turning it in his hand. “Warrior or innocent,” he said, “I do not know if we deserve forgiveness for this act.”
Mahik smiled broadly. “They’ll have a parade, maybe even a festival, in your honor. Don’t forget who taught you everything you know.”
“You’ve earned your name,” Amba added. “Believe me, I wish the honor had been mine. If only the Harpies had sent word sooner.”
He tossed the skull onto a bonfire of bones in the middle of the smoldering village. Ruined trunks glowed like braziers, splaying shadows all around him. He bent down to the base of the pyre and blew on the coals, poking them with the edge of his sword. Kopa preferred dependable steel, nothing more. Embellishments drew attention.
“Stop wasting your time on the dead,” Mahik said.
Amba leaned down beside Kopa, thrusting her hand into the pyre. She fished out a cracked bone, still wrapped in tattered cloth and sinew. From around what might have been a wrist she pulled free a strange charm made of root and bone. She wiped soot from the jewel set in the center of the charm, a stone the soft color of dawn giving way to day. “A pretty piece of refuse.”
He’d seen a charm like that before, but Kopa said nothing.
Mahik’s eyes widened. “That’s a key.”
“Where’s the door?” Amba asked.
“What,” Mahik corrected.
“The Mahatavi itself is a riddle, and that pretty thing is part of the answer.”
The smoldering ruins stirred for a moment, this time just the influence of a breeze. Kopa wiped his upper lip. Sweat and ash mingled into an unclean mud on the back of his hand. He rose up, looking toward the Marshalls. “It’s funny,” he said. “Our spies reported she had intended to unite the Zikia, and now she finally will. They’ll surely rise up as one, finally, to avenge their fallen.”
“Then we must continue,” Amba urged. “It’s not enough to maim and enrage our enemy. You must rip out her heart.”
Mahik picked up a burning log with a gauntleted fist, and tossed it into a pile Kopa had started. The wood crackled and hissed. Steam swirled and joined the smoke, until they were indistinguishable. “Fire only dies if there’s nothing left to burn.”
Kopa lowered his head, offering a silent prayer to whomever would listen. “The Emperor’s silent blades go where directed.”
“We have only begun.” Amba smiled, but her pleasure was cut short as the ground beneath them quaked with an explosion from a nearby mana well, its echo rocking through the decimated forest. Recovering from the surprise, the three shared a glance and rushed toward the source of the blast. When they came to the mana well, they saw a shadow lurching through the smoke.
Kopa raised a hand to cover his mouth, and plunged deeper into the haze. As he drew nearer, the flames rose and jumped wildly. Smoke twisted around him, forming a body of soot, fire, and fury that lashed out as it took shape. Kopa jumped backward, reaching for his sword as the burning spirit raised claws of flame. As it rose to strike, a blade darted through the smoke and pierced the burning spirit’s chest. The glinting steel slashed upward, slicing the spirit in half. The two halves swirled and fell back into the billowing smoke.
Sheathing his sword, Mahik cut through the haze. “We need to do a more thorough job next time.”
Amba fended off another spirit with the curved edge of her halberd. “Have you ever seen anything like this?”
“Even in defeat, the Wildwood rises up.”
“A worthy foe.” Amba’s halberd cleaved through the ember eyes of the searing creature. The body burst into a jet of flame, and sprayed gouts of ash overhead as it fell.
Kopa wiped his face. He reminded himself that farmers burned their lands in order to renew them, that clearing the land allowed for new life to emerge. Each act of destruction was an essential part of life. Though he hardly thought of himself as Zikia, he knew that much to be true. He hoped they had not birthed these things into Eretsu, but these creatures, born of malice and cinders, had been no trick of weary eyes.
No, he reminded himself, this was no different than the blazes he’d seen the farmers regularly loose upon their fields. They enlivened their lands with the ash, enriching the soil and encouraging the growth of new crops. This was not destruction; it was rebirth.
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