chapter thirteen (full chapter)

Glaciem groaned and opened her eyes. Something was in her face. She shifted to push it away. It was long and feathery and irritated her skin. 

“Don’t move too quickly, you’ve been asleep for a week now. You’ll faint if you’re not careful.” 

That voice. 

She turned her head. “Alexandros?” 

Alexandros looked up and though she could see the weariness in his eyes, it did not prevent him from giving her a lopsided grin. He was idling stirring something in a small pot over a fire, more interested in her welfare than its contents. 

“Welcome back to the land of the living, Wielder of the Elements.” He said, his eyes warm. 

“Why are you here?” She looked around at the unfamiliar surroundings before trying to raise herself. “Where are we?” 

Alexandros quickly rose to kneel beside her. 

“Don’t move.” He reiterated firmly, gently pushing her back down. “You’re perfectly safe; we’re still in the Forest.”  

She didn’t bother to argue that the Forest was not exactly what she would consider safe. She let the weight of her head settle against her cloak which had been folded up to form a pillow of sorts. 

“In answer to your first question.” Alexandros began as he walked back to the pot, satisfied she wouldn’t try to move again. “Legs heal, and with the Elders’ considerable abilities my leg healed very quickly. In answer to your second question, I am here because I could not wait for your return any longer. A year is far too long a time.” He finished softly as he studied her. 

“A year?” Glaciem asked, incredulous. “We’ve only been here for three days!” 

“That you are aware of and remember.” Alexandros retorted. “Regardless, by my count, it’s been a year and the Trees grew more agitated every day for a year until finally, they began beating at the Village walls.” 

Glaciem looked stricken. 

“I don’t think their intent was to harm us,” Alexandros explained quickly. “I think they were trying to get our attention. As soon as I stepped into the Forest they stopped and formed a path which led me straight to you.” He tilted his head at her. “You weren’t very far into the Forest, you know. Barely more than a day’s journey.” 

His eyes darted from her eyes to the bandages he had wrapped around her multiple wounds, but the look was so quick, Glaciem did not catch it.

Instead, she shook her head and looked at the ceiling. It was earthy, and damp wherever they were, the fire being the only source of heat or light. 

“You followed me.” She concluded flatly.

“I had intended to follow after you as soon as I could, but the Elders were so against it that even as the First I was not at liberty to leave without good reason. Fortunately for me, the Trees provided a very good reason. I was finally permitted a leave of absence. Not that lack of permission would have kept me from leaving the Village.” Alexandros said ruefully, “I would have gone to find you regardless of what they said.” As he spoke, the bright blue gem signifying his position swayed against his tunic. 

“I thought we agreed you would stay put.” 

“I changed my mind.” 

He shrugged and half-grinned at her briefly before letting it fade, his expression turning serious. 

“What happened to you? Where is Bick?” 

Glaciem set her jaw and continued to stare at the ceiling.

Alexandros’ eyes bored into her. “Where is he, Glaciem?” 

“Bick is gone.” She said, her voice tight. 

“Dead?” The shock in his voice was unmistakable.

“I don’t know.”

Alexandros’ eyebrows furrowed. “What do you mean then?” 

“Bick isn’t Bick, or perhaps Bick was never Bick. I don’t know how to put it.” Glaciem said searching the dirt above her for answers. “He’s…Bick’s not human.” 

Alexandros shook his head, not understanding.

“When Bick and I first entered the Forest the Trees immediately knew something was wrong and they tried to warn me, but I was stubborn and wouldn’t listen. I assumed they didn’t like him because he was a foreigner, of the Valley, or maybe because he bore the blood of the Elders. But, as we continued further, something quickly changed, something happened to him. Something went…dark inside of him. It changed him. Took over his body.” 

Glaciem sighed miserably as she closed her eyes, the wretched memories of what had occurred resurfacing against her will. 

“I was a fool for letting him go with me. I should have made him stay in the Village. With you. You both should have stayed in the Village.”

“You had no choice in Bick going with you and you can’t possibly have thought I wouldn’t have followed you eventually.” Alexandros said gently. 

She shifted to her side and stared at him, her lips pursed. “Of course not. Why would I have assumed that either one of you would do what’s best for you?” 

Alexandros sighed. “Stop it. There’s no point in bickering right now. What happened has happened the way it was meant to happen.”

  “Bick said something similar not so long ago.” Glaciem replied bitterly. 

“You should listen to it then. It’s not without good reason.” He paused to study her for a moment before continuing. “You have not yet told me what exactly happened to Bick.” 

Glaciem fell back and stared at the ceiling again. “I needed water to fill my skin. We found a river the morning after we left the village. Something came up from the deep and dragged us down. I could hear a voice in the water, but it was different from the Whispers. I almost drowned. Bick saved my life, but after that, his body began to change. His eyes first and his hands. He was able to see things I couldn’t, and he could hear the Whispers as I could hear them. 

“On the third day of our journey, we found a strange clearing in the Forest. There were seven trees, all tall and narrow. Their bark was black and they felt dead, and there was something…peculiar…about them.” Glaciem slowly lifted a hand, crafting the memories in the air as she spoke. “I didn’t want to come any closer to the trees, but I couldn’t convince Bick to leave. He could feel something, it was pulling at him. As soon as we reached the trees, he changed entirely. His skin was different, and his eyes…” She couldn’t bring herself to speak of the golden orbs that had seared themselves into her mind. 

Glaciem’s turned to look at Alexandros, her stomach dropping as she relived the nightmare. “He could wield the Elements. And he was far stronger than I could ever hope to be. The destruction he could cause would be terrible. I can barely move branches, but he moved whole trees with total ease.”

“You moved a whole forest once, don’t forget that.” 

Glaciem did not respond. She gently pushed herself up to a sitting position, moving slowly, thinking as she did, trying to understand everything that had happened. While she remembered with certainty that Umbra had used Bick to attack her, she knew she was missing something. She remembered feeling confusion and pain, remembered a blinding light and burning sensation pounding through her scar. As she thought about it, her hand involuntarily went to the back of her head, but was blocked by long strands of white thread. 

“What is this?” She asked, pulling at it, the strands tugging against her scalp.

Confused, she dropped her hand and let her fingers run through the length down to the ends gently brushing against the floor. Her gaze idly continued past where it ended. 

She shrieked and bolted from the ground, hitting her head on the ceiling. The shock of standing so quickly caused her vision to fade and she fell heavily back to the ground, white strands of hair falling into her face. 

Glaciem held her hand up to where she had knocked her head, looking helplessly at Alexandros. Her eyes moved back to her legs. Her pants had been rolled up to expose her calves. One leg was as it should be, the skin pale and warm, albeit covered in long scars. The other leg, however, stopped just below the knee and slowly transitioned from skin to wood. The body of the new leg imitated the shape and curve of her real leg, but the end was similar to the hoof of a deer, delicately carved and hard to the touch. The wood was as white as her leg, the polished surface glinting when the light of the fire touched it, intricate designs circling down the length of the limb.

Alexandros could only shake his head, his hands held up in a helpless shrug. “This is how you were when I found you. You were totally unconscious. I was afraid you wouldn’t wake up even if I did take you somewhere safe. I didn’t realize what had happened to your leg until after I had washed the blood and dirt away.” 

Glaciem tore her eyes from it, her memory coming into focus. “He took my leg with a blade of ice, and then he just stopped and walked away. He said we would meet again.” She closed her eyes as she remembered. “We would meet again when I was worthy.” 

“Bick said that.” Alexandros stated with uncertainty. 

“No. It was -” Glaciem stopped, unwilling to speak Umbra’s name aloud. She chose to ignore Alexandros’ inquiry and continued. “After my leg, there was nothing. At least, nothing that I can remember. Eventually, I woke up here. With you.”

The look Alexandros gave her made it clear he still didn’t fully understand, but as she didn’t either, she chose to ignore it. He turned back to the fire and poured what was in the pot into a small wooden bowl before pivoting to kneel before her, setting the bowl down beside her makeshift bed. 

“When I left to find you it was relatively easy.” He said as he checked the cuts along her left leg. “The Forest was kind and made my path for me. After that, the Trees led me to a small cave and inside were tools and blankets, a little bit of food. I was reluctant to use it for fear we were using someone else’s belongings, but I didn’t have much of a choice. I can only assume they were left here by Hunters.”

“How have you managed food then?”

“There’s a birch tree. It brings us what we need.” He said, chuckling a little. “It sounds ridiculous when I hear myself saying it out loud, but it’s the truth. In fact, you should see him in a little while.” 

Him?” She snorted. 

“Oh I don’t know if it’s male or not, but they absolutely have personality. I can’t help but treat them as individual beings. It seemed callous to do otherwise” 

Glaciem hummed noncommittally in response. He continued. 

“The birch brings me wood every day as well. At first, I refused to use it for the fire, but the damned thing kept throwing the branches into the pit so eventually, I relented. The trees didn’t allow me to leave your side for long, and the further I traveled from where you were resting, the more wild and belligerent they became. They’ve made it clear where my place is.” 

As he spoke, Glaciem sat up again, slowly, allowing Alexandros to reach a hand around her back to steady her. She tried to push her hair out of her eyes, the length foreign to her. It seemed to her that it was everywhere and catching on everything all at once. 

“Why is it so long?” She asked, exasperated by the knots. She looked around for something sharp, intent on cutting it all off. 

“Let me.” Alexandros insisted, chuckling as he pulled it all into his hands. “You’ve grown a tree for a leg and you’re wondering at the length of your hair?” 

She pursed her lips as she watched him. “I can’t remember it ever being this long.” 

Alexandros ran his fingers through the mass and carefully untangled it until he was able to weave it into a thick braid that hung well past her waist. Glaciem took the braid from his hands after he had bound it, idly running her fingers down the plait. She looked back at Alexandros with an eyebrow raised in silent question. 

He shrugged. “Rose had long hair. It was yellow.” 

When Glaciem did not answer him, he coughed awkwardly before turning to hand the bowl to her. She let the braid drop, taking the bowl in her hands.

“What do you intend to do now? Your circumstances are not exactly as they were before.” Alexandros asked quietly, changing the subject.

She shook her head. “I’m not sure. My concern now is Bick. If he’s alive, he’s more capable than I am and it is now in his power to do the Valley serious harm. The Forest listens to him considerably more than It listens to me. He has full control of the Elements. I need to stop him.”

“You aren’t suggesting the Forest would obey anyone other than an Elemental?”

“That’s precisely what I am suggesting. I saw it, Alexandros. I know my abilities have grown, but being able to cough up a fireball or turn a rock onto its side is nothing compared to what Bick did.”

“But was it really Bick? It is possible he was possessed?” Alexandros hesitated at the mention of Bick’s mother.

Glaciem paused to consider this. “I don’t know that I would call it possessed. He himself changed, and it was gradual, not something that happened all at once. Whoever else he may have been, he was still also Bick, just darker. Stronger.” She squinted her eyes in frustration, trying to describe what had happened. “It was as if Bick had taken the role of his shadow and his shadow had taken the role of Bick. I doubt he even had control of his own body.” 

“Perhaps he can be saved then, if it was against his will.” 

“I don’t know.” She murmured. “The longer I’m here the more I realize hoping for anything is nothing more than an idle pastime. It’s not helpful.”

Glaciem’s voice stuck in her throat. “I’m reluctant to believe I’ll get Bick back.” She said quietly, tears pricking at the corners of her lids. “If I do hope for it and in the end, it doesn’t happen…” She trailed off, not willing to verbalize such an outcome.

“I didn’t take you for one to who refused to hope.” Alexandros replied, half teasing, half chiding.

“After everything that’s happened you can hardly blame me for being so cautious.” She replied shortly, unamused. 

“I can and I shall.” He retorted, no hint of joking in his voice this time. “You were kept alive, hidden by leaves all this time. We’re being fed by trees. Trees, Glaciem. You could have been killed, but you are here. Alive. You lost your leg in a fight so the Forest recognized your need and gave you another. Yet, for all of these things, you think the possibility of saving Bick is not worth your hope? You might not be willing to see it clearly, but the Forest has given you every reason to hope.”

I am with you.

Glaciem let Bick’s words float through her mind. She remembered the sincerity in his voice and the determination in his eyes. She did not doubt him or question his strength, only the depth of the darkness that had taken hold of him. She idly lifted the bowl to her lips, distracted with her thoughts as she began to sip at its contents. As the liquid hit the back of her throat and tongue, she flinched violently and coughed. 

“What is that?” She spat, pushing the bowl back into Alexandros’ hands. 

“Bark.” Alexandros stated, his grin lopsided. “For the pain. I couldn’t be sure if your leg would bother you and you do have quite a few gashes still healing across your arms and belly. I want you to sleep without waking up tonight. We’re leaving in the morning.”

“And where exactly do you plan for us to go?” 

He looked at her evenly, “Are you able to fully wield all of the elements?” 

“No.” 

“Do you remember more of your past?” 

“No.” 

“Then I plan for us to continue what you started. You have not finished your journey. Bick or no, we need to continue. Nothing has changed that fact. You said it yourself. Bick is more capable than you right now and if you try to go up against the darkness again in this state, you will lose. You need to fully understand and control your own strength and I think that will be best accomplished if we continue forward.” 

Glaciem opened her mouth to protest, but Alexandros held up his hand. 

“You and I know full well you don’t have a better idea. Go to sleep. We’re leaving first thing tomorrow morning.”

Glaciem sighed. She didn’t have the energy to argue with him so she obeyed. Besides, the bark tea was strong. Even though she had only managed to choke down a few sips of the bitter liquid, she could feel it seeping heavily into her limbs.

Almost involuntarily, she shifted back down into the bed, weakly nudging at the folded cloak in an attempt to plump it. The moment her head touched the fabric she began to drift off, and as she did she thought she could make out the silhouette of a birch tree moving to stand at the opening of the cave, its leaves glowing in the golden glow of dusk.

*~*~*~*

Glaciem woke just as the sunlight was creeping into the cave. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes as she glanced around. Alexandros was pushed up against the far wall with his cloak wrapped around his body, his head rolled to the side. His chest rose and dipped with the deep breath of slumber. 

He must be exhausted. She thought. A week of waiting for me to wake up without any reprieve or even the promise that I would wake would have tested the strength of any man. I wonder if that was how Narratus felt when he cared for me.

Her thoughts shifted from Alexandros to her own self. She sighed deeply and summoned the courage to peer down at her new limb. The sight of the wood was so strange to her that as she forced herself to focus on the new leg she had to take a moment to allow the nausea to subside before she could properly study it. 

“This is part of you now. You have no choice but to grow used to it.” Glaciem muttered quietly, hoping the determination of her words would help. 

Slowly, she sat up. Though she felt considerably better than the day before, she was still unsteady. She paused her efforts every few seconds, both to keep herself from collapsing and to make sure Alexandros stayed asleep. She also had no desire to hit her head on the ceiling again. When she did pull herself up to her full height, she made sure to keep a hand firmly planted against the wall of the cave, still unwilling to trust her feet entirely. 

After a moment of experimenting, she discovered the wooden leg felt quite solid when she set her entire weight upon it. It became clear to her almost immediately that the wood was not ordinary. It bent and moved with ease and did not act at all as she had expected it to. She chanced a step, then another, and another. To her relief, she could not feel any pinching or discomfort where skin and wood met at the base of her knee. A small laugh escaped her lips. 

I can’t even tell it’s not my own flesh

Glaciem peered back at Alexandros and, seeing that he was still asleep, walked swiftly out of the cave. 

The cold air cut through her frame and bit at her cheeks, but she welcomed the feeling gratefully, the crisp breeze clearing her lungs of the dirt and damp from the cave. The sudden change in temperature ignited her senses and she stretched luxuriously as her blood began to quicken and course through her veins like thin bolts of electricity. The more alert she became, the more at ease she felt with her surroundings, which she quickly realized were vastly different from the place she had been when Bick had turned. 

How far did Alexandros carry me? 

The Trees swayed in greeting as she walked past, some lowering their branches as if to pat her on the head in congratulatory relief upon seeing her recovering so well. 

“Why were you not so pleasant before? I could have used your help, you know.” She murmured irritably, reaching up to brush her fingers against a few leaves here and there. 

The Whispers hummed deep within her chest. She could not interpret what they meant, but the humming was comforting and warm so she stopped trying to understand and simply allowed the feeling to wash over her. Now that Bick was not with her, everything seemed calmer, more secure. Rather than finding solace in the feeling, however, she felt only the pangs of guilt tearing into her stomach. 

What could have been avoided had I insisted on going alone? I could have snuck out without him knowing. Why didn’t I just leave? Glaciem pursed her lips discontentedly, the brief enjoyment of the morning fading almost immediately.

Not far from the cave was a lake that was covered in steam rising from its still glass waters. She approached it cautiously, unsure as to how safe she was anymore around large bodies of water, but the Whispers did not alter nor did their humming catch. She chose to trust the Trees and kept moving forward. The water was cold, but it felt like silk to Glaciem as she walked unflinchingly into it, ripples floating away from her and into the center. Though she loved feeling the water soak into her clothes, weighing her down as it did, she took great pains to stay as aware as she could, unwilling to chance a repeat of her previous experience with Forest water. 

As she looked intently into the depths below to check for any signs of danger, she cocked her head and let her hair swing around to the front of her shoulders and into her outstretched hand. It took her a moment of fiddling to undo the knotted fabric at its end, but after a moment she managed it and let the fabric fall into the water, watching it float away as she undid her braid. Still seeing nothing, she took a deep breath and plunged into the water headfirst, inwardly sighing with content as it washed away the grime and dirt still embedded in the creases of her skin. Her hair flowed behind her like a silvery veil. 

The water was clear; she could see several hundred feet in every direction, her vision blurred only by the occasional ripple caused by her own hands. She continued to glide further down, even as the Whispers began to pulse in her ears and her lungs began to burn. Rather than resurfacing for air, she pulled little bubbles out of the water and into her mouth, allowing her small breaths. 

If only I had thought of that before, I might not have almost drowned. The bitter thought crossed her mind, but it disappeared almost as quickly as she thought of what Alexandros had said earlier. 

What happened has happened the way it was meant to happen. 

The weight of his words and of the water comforted her, the sounds of the waking Forest muffled and rounded. It was a rare moment of peace, the silence entirely different from when she and Bick had struggled in the river. Clearly, there was no Shadow here, no darkness.

Glaciem reached out a hand and felt the soft spongy mud that inhabited the bottom of the lake, her view immediately marred by black clouds of the stuff. She released a small puff of air and as the bubbles quickly rose to the surface, now feet above her, she settled softly into the black mess below. It was cold and quiet, though not entirely dark. She could still see the light from the rising sun sparkling above her with its ever moving rays of sunshine. 

Small floating bits of foliage rushed away from her as she stretched herself out on the bottom of the lake, clouds of thick dirt swirling away from her fingers. Her hair floated freely above her, dancing with an unseen partner, swaying languidly from one side to another. Here, as she felt free and at ease, a sudden thought occurred to her. 

If she was comfortable here, without the distraction of the world above, perhaps she could actually make something more happen with the Elements. Something beyond a chance occurrence of them obeying her out of pity or as an act of indulgence. She had managed small sparks of fire when Bick attacked, but that had only been out of sheer panic and she still could not explain why parts of the Forest simply chose to obey her thoughts and whims while other parts refused. 

It’s worth the effort of trying. She decided.

Glaciem closed her eyes and let the weight of the water continue to press down on her, allowing the dizziness from lack of air engulf her senses entirely. She wanted her instincts to completely take over. As she felt her heart thumping loudly in her ears, she tried to focus on the way the fire had kindled in her belly, reliving the warmth rushing up her throat and down her fingertips. 

Slowly, but unmistakably, a burning sensation rose up from the base of her torso and steadily climbed up and into the back of her skull. Glaciem’s thoughts began to race in excitement. She felt triumphant, ecstatic, and incredulous all at once.

You have no idea who you’re up against, do you? 

The unpleasant memory abruptly overtook all other thoughts, Umbra’s words sending chills down her spine, breaking her concentration. Glaciem opened her eyes suddenly and gasped as the beginnings of fire tickling at her throat burst unexpectedly out of her mouth.

Mistake. 

Washed rushed into her lungs as she thrashed her legs out wildly to push up from the ground below. She shot up and broke through the surface of the water, spitting and gasping as she fought for air. The same panic she had felt in the clearing with Umbra spread from her stomach to her limbs, her heart thudding in her chest uncomfortably. 

Glaciem growled and grit her teeth in frustration. This is precisely what he wants. She thought, defeated. If I’m so overcome with fear, I’m going to end up killing myself without him doing a thing. How can I expect to properly wield the Elements if I can’t even think of his name without panicking? 

“Has no one ever told you only fish can breathe underwater?” 

Glaciem twisted around to face the bank, about twenty feet from where she was treading water, and groaned. Alexandros was casually leaning against a nearby tree, a bemused look on his face. 

She glared at him. “Don’t say a word.” She snarled between coughs. 

“I wouldn’t dare.” He replied, grinning widely, his eyes dancing with amusement. 

Glaciem swam towards the bank and allowed him to pull her up and back into the trees, silently willing the uneasiness of her thoughts away. Alexandros took a skin he had brought with him and filled it with water while she coughed the last of the moisture from her lungs. He tossed the skin towards Glaciem, who caught it deftly. Silently, they made their way back to the cave, Glaciem in front and Alex in back.  He studied her as she moved, noting the fluidity of her gait with her new leg. 

“It fits you well, then?” He asked, nodding to it. 

She turned around and followed his eyes to her right calf. 

“It does.” She answered simply.

Glaciem spread her arms and legs out, water droplets pulling away from her clothing and hair, leaving her dry. She absentmindedly waved the water away with a flick of her hand and it dropped to the ground, leaving only a faint trace of moisture behind. It occurred to her suddenly that her leg may not have fared as well as the rest of her. She knelt down to feel the wood, noting that it had begun to take on some of her body’s warmth. 

“Do you suppose it will warp?” She asked.  

She ran her hand along the leg, gingerly feeling the patterns beneath her fingertips. It was becoming easier to look at it, the feeling of queasiness less than it had been before. 

“I wouldn’t worry if I were you,” Alexandros answered as he passed her and ducked into the cave. “It’s living wood. The same as the Trees of the Forest. I can’t imagine you would be blessed with so unusual a gift only to have it destroyed by the very Element you possess well enough to wield on command.” 

Glaciem stood up and followed Alexandros into the cave. “I hadn’t thought of it like that before.”

“You don’t give the Forest enough credit. There is magick here and yet you still act as though this place is nothing more than an ordinary forest. I believe you’ve  become quite the cynic.” 

Alexandros hoisted a pack over his shoulder before turning her around to tie her hair back into a braid once more. He finished quickly and tossed a cloak over her shoulder. 

She searched the floor of the cave as she tugged the fabric on, fastening it around her throat. She could not find her dagger and realized with grim acceptance that Bick must have taken it from her.

“You don’t need a weapon. You are a weapon.” Alexandros said, reading her thoughts. 

“A dull weapon.” She retorted.

He only rolled his eyes and gestured for her to take a pack. He had brought two with him. 

“We need to move. Now that you’re awake, the rest of the Forest is too. It’s much more active than it’s been the past few days and I fear the things we don’t like will take notice.”

“Which way do you propose we go?”

“Whichever way the Trees tell us to go.” He replied, pointing. 

Glaciem looked past his hand and although it was not very clear, she could see a narrow trail heading towards the east. She glanced back at Alexandros, choosing to ignore the pointed look he gave her as he grinned and stepped outside. 

She walked behind him in silence, allowing him to lead the way. It was strange to her how different he seemed. In her mind, she had only just left the Village, but to him, it had been a full year. It was only natural that he would have changed. Still, she wondered at him.

“How are the Elders?” She asked at length, half jogging to catch up with him and walk by his side. 

He glanced at her from the corner of his eye, not turning his head. “Narratus is fairing well and he sends you his love and well wishes.” A slight smile tugged at the corners of his lips.

“I asked how they were all doing.” Glaciem protested. 

“Yes, but you did mean to ask about Narratus only.” 

“Not entirely true,” She argued. “Of course I want to know how he is, but I also want to know what all has happened since we left.” 

Alexandros’ smile grew, “The Elders are all well, but especially Narratus. He has become the most sought after Elder, apart from myself. It seems the Tenth is no longer the least in the eyes of the Village UnNamed. As far as the others, their lives have not changed much. The Elders were placed in their positions to endure all things and they have lived up to their purpose entirely.” 

“Have you named others to take the place of the vacant Elders’ titles?” 

“No, not yet. There are men and women who have requested to be considered for the positions, but the Elders believed it to be in the best interest of the Village to wait until you returned to us.” 

“I see.” Glaciem said quietly. 

It had been some time since she had thought about the plan for her to be elected as Second Elder. As she understood it, there was no obligation for the First and Second to be married and it had simply happened by chance that Bick’s parents were both named Elders. Those betrothed or married to citizens anointed Elders were obliged to remain by their side. Any possible future children born of such a union were to be presented as eligible prospects for outsiders, the same as any other child. 

“You’ve strayed.” Alexandros called out to her. 

Glaciem stopped. She had indeed drifted from the path. Trees nestled against her in quiet protest. 

I really must stop letting my mind wander so much. She thought to herself, idly running her fingers along the smooth bark of a sapling who was occupied with curling its branches around her wrist. It was soon joined by its nearby brothers and sisters. It was not before Glaciem found herself almost completely surrounded by the trees, all of whom seemed intent on touching her in some way. 

“That’s enough, you’ll have time to profess your undying devotion to her later.” Alexandros said as he maneuvered around the trees, gently swatting at their leaves. 

The Trees sighed in protest and all but the sapling obeyed. As Alexandros glared at it, it twisted itself firmly around Glaciem and refused to move. 

“You’re making this more difficult than you need to.” Glaciem said to the sapling, chuckling slightly. 

Ignoring them, the tree began to pull at Glaciem’s arm, beckoning her, refusing to relent even as she dug her heels into the ground and barked protests at it. It lifted its shallow roots to the top of the soil and began inching away from the trail. 

Glaciem looked at Alexandros, “Should we follow it?”

She winced as the tree yanked on her arm, its pull becoming more firm as it grew more confident.

“Perhaps it’s been touched by the Shadow.” Alexandros pointed out, uncertain. 

The Tree stopped pulling, recoiling and hissing at Alexandros, clearly offended at his suggestion. Glaciem tried to listen to the humming around her, but could not detect any alarm or malice. 

“I don’t think so.” She said slowly, thinking. “It’s a young tree. It’s small, weak. What use would the Shadow have for it?” 

Alexandros crossed his arms, not convinced. “Well for one, it could lead an unsuspecting Elemental to her doom.” 

She shook her head, “I want to find out what it wants. If I feel the Trees telling me anything different then we’ll turn back at once.” 

“And if I don’t agree with this course of action?” 

“I’m not asking you.” She answered ruefully, allowing the tree to pull her farther away from Alexandros. 

“This isn’t wise, Glaciem. It would be better to remain on the path.” He called after her, firmly standing his ground. 

“I am on the path!” She called back, pointing to his feet. 

He looked down and watched the roots redirect themselves to follow after Glaciem. He sighed and reluctantly jogged after them.

They followed the sapling in silence for some time. At first, the slender tree led them with purpose, its movements swift and without pause, but as they continued, it grew less deliberate. The tree began to slow, winding through fellow trees and shrubberies as though it were trying to find something it had lost on the ground or to perhaps recall a memory. Every time the sapling changed its mind and abruptly turned down a different direction, the larger trees were obliged to move out of its way, their trunks creaking in irritation. Eventually, the sapling arrived at a clearing. As it neared the edge, the little tree stopped and stiffened. 

“What’s the matter?” Glaciem asked, placing a hand on its slender trunk. 

It shivered and would not move, nor would it give her any indication of its feelings. She turned questioningly at Alexandros. 

He only shrugged. “I don’t speak tree.” 

She shook her head in exasperation and unwound her hand from the sapling’s now dormant branches and walked cautiously toward the clearing. Leaves and thin branches gently brushed against her face as she walked. She ignored them until one of the leaves hit her and smeared something wet and sticky across her cheek.

Dew? She thought, bringing her fingers to her cheek to wipe it away. 

As Glaciem brought her hand back, her heart jumped into her throat. Her eyes widened in alarm as she held her fingers out to Alexandros. Upon seeing her hand, he immediately went for the sword at his side as he walked to observe the substance on her hands.

“It’s too dark for blood.” He mused, peering at the liquid closely. 

“For human’s blood, perhaps.” 

The liquid was thick and glossy, its color almost black, but when Glaciem tilted her hand into the sunlight, she could see a distinct red sheen. 

“Glaciem.” 

Glaciem turned as Alexandros stepped away from her to point at the tree beside them. It was pulsing laboriously, as if struggling for air. As it did, deep gashes running through its bark oozed the same black liquid as what was on her hands. 

Glaciem tenderly ran her hand along the tree, which shied away in pain. “I don’t understand.” She said quietly. “I cut into a tree when it attacked Bick, but it didn’t bleed.” 

“Perhaps it’s a matter of who did the cutting.” Alexandros suggested. 

They both looked to the clearing, now only a few feet away from them. Glaciem let her eyes wander and easily picked out the faint path of black running along the sides of the trees and branches, dozens wounded and seeping, all shivering miserably.

Glaciem whispered to the water from her waterskin. It snaked its way over her hands until it crystallized into two daggers, their edges serrated and sinister. 

They slowly entered the clearing, but it was soon apparent the clearing was not a true clearing at all. It had been created by the trees in the immediate area. They had grouped themselves into a tight huddle around something, much like the Forest had done around the Village. 

“What are they doing?” Alexandros whispered to her. 

Glaciem glanced at him. “There is no reason to assume that because I do speak tree I can understand everything about them.” She looked back at the trees. “Regardless, this is what the sapling wanted us to see. I’m sure of it.” 

“By ‘see’ you, of course, mean ‘bother’ and ‘investigate’ and ‘put ourselves in possible unnecessary danger’.” Alexandros replied, his eyes not leaving the trees in front.

“Possibly.” Glaciem took another step towards the trees. 

Alexandros groaned, his displeasure evident. 

“What possible purpose could only seeing serve?” Glaciem argued quietly as she tried to convince herself of the same thing. 

“What possible purpose could irritating them serve?”  

“You yourself said I needed to continue trying to understand what was happening in the Forest. This is what is happening in the Forest and this is what I need to understand.” 

Alexandros pursed his lips, knowing she was right.

“If you’re so unsure, follow behind me and I shall go in alone. They might prefer that.” 

“I’m not about to let you go in there by yourself.” He snapped quietly.

Glaciem ignored him and walked forward slowly in what she hoped would be interpreted as non threatening. The closer she got, the more she could feel the trees’ humming. They were agitated and upset, but she was certain their hostility was not towards her or Alexandros. The trees were covered with the same tears and cuts as the bleeding trees. Their bark was torn and ripped away to reveal the smooth, white wood underneath. As she peered closely, she could see red sap beginning to ooze out of the cuts. 

“These wounds are newer than the ones on the other trees.” She whispered. 

Alexandros did not reply. 

Glaciem gently touched the closest tree. Though they did not move back to their original locations, the trees simultaneously unfurled themselves, revealing a small patch of grass. Glaciem looked at it, confused.

“There’s nothing here.” She said finally, turning her head slightly to speak to Alexandros. 

Her eyebrows furrowed as she ran her eyes over the tiny wildflowers that peaked just above the tall blades of green. She was becoming less sure of their safety, the lack of clear direction from her Whispers becoming more unnerving to her with each passing moment. 

Alexandros walked up beside her and gazed at the empty patch. He tipped his chin towards the very center of the grass. “There’s something on the grass.” 

He eyed the trees cautiously as he stepped forward. They did not move, but remained in their tight circling. Alexandros knelt down and gingerly picked up the object before holding it up for Glaciem to see. It was a crown, delicate and painstakingly carved. The base had been created by a single braid of wood intertwining within itself. Leaves rose from the plait to create the points of the circlet. Within each leaf was a small star cradling a yellow stone. 

Glaciem took the crown from Alexandros and held it up to the sun, letting the light hit the stones. “Do you see anything besides this?” She asked.

Alexandros observed the thick grass, trying to find anything else of value. When he could not, he moved to the outside of the circle and slowly walked around the trees, gently running his fingers along what was left of their bark. It did not take him long to walk the entire circle, the red ooze dripping from his hands when he returned.

“There’s nothing else.” He said as he pointed to the crown. “Maybe that’s what the trees were protecting.”

“But what would have caused such damage for such a little thing?” 

Alexandros shook his head, not knowing.

“Do you suppose it was Bick?” She pressed.  

Alexandros turned back to observe the marred trees outside of the clearing. “These trees here guarding this area knew something was coming. Whatever it was made no effort to hide its arrival. The wounds inflicted on the trees we first saw were clean, deep, and made very quickly. Here, the wounds are much less controlled and focused on the centers of the trees, like it was trying to dig through them. You see these slashes? They’re shallow and erratic. It knew there was something of importance here and it was desperately trying to reach it.”

“Perhaps it did reach it. Perhaps we’re too late.” Glaciem tensed uncomfortably. 

The moment Glaciem had touched the crown, the pain from the wounds the trees suffered had begun to seep its way into her own body, settling most intensely in her false leg. She winced, but didn’t say anything to Alexandros, fearing if she did he would insist on them leaving before she was ready to.

Alexandros paused, thinking. “No. I don’t think so. Why would the trees still be behaving this way if they no longer had anything to protect?” 

“But why would the trees suffer so much for this?” Glaciem peered at the crown. “What could possibly be so special about it?” 

“I don’t know.” 

“And if this is what the trees are protecting, what happens to them when whatever wanted it comes back?”

Perhaps the sapling was a ruse after all.

“That sounds an awful lot like you think it might have been a mistake in coming this way.” Alexandros replied. “It is almost as if I suggested something quite similar only moments ago.” He said as a small, almost bitter grin played across his lips. 

Before she could respond, the ground beneath them began to vibrate and roll. Glaciem tensed in alarm and held her arms out to steady herself. Alexandros grabbed her hand so they couldn’t be pulled apart. The ground beneath them gave way to reveal a dark chasm. They fell, shouting in alarm as they plummeted.

fall

fall 

fall deeply. fall fully. fall.

fall with gusto. fall with angst.

but oh my loves, however done, still fall. 

fall with force of gravity. fall with lift of flight. fall with unrelenting pull and fall with loving push.

but oh my loves, still fall.

fall with weight of falls before and fall with hope of what is new.

but oh my loves, however so, still fall. 

fall as you have not fallen before. fall as you have done time and time again.

but oh my loves still fall. 

fall with purpose. fall with choice. fall with weakness and fall with strength.

but oh my loves, my loves, still fall.

fall with loss and fall with gain. fall with abandon and with control.

but oh my loves, still fall. 

still my loves, do fall. 

fall with sadness and fall with joy. fall with trepidation and fall with expectation. 

but oh, my loves, above all, still fall.

fall together and fall alone. fall without, and fall with. fall as one. fall as many.

but oh my loves, still fall.

fall as leaves and fall as water. fall as air and fall as fire. fall as sleep, and fall as wake.

but oh, my loves. oh my loves. oh my loves.

still fall.

a poetic commentary on nothing

Autumn winds whispering sweet nothings in your ear as you waltz alongside the daydreams of leftover hopes and aspirations.

The melancholy of your solitude has become a comfort and as you sit in the corners of society, you find yourself yearning for the ache that only comes with loneliness.

It is in these moments that the despair of vulnerability tugs at your core, a constant battle between the desire to allow love and affection break down the ever-thickening, ever-fortified walls of your psyche.

It is these moments that the soldiers of your spurn come to do battle with your own self, an unrelenting and destructive war that leaves you undone and utterly ruined. You revel in the ruin, and it is from the rubble that you are elevated.

It is by the pain of survival that you are reminded of what sweetness it is to die.

What irony is there that it was by love you were destroyed, and it is by lack of love that you are still wholly destroyed. What fairness is there in the thing that makes so many whole and yet keeps you broken still?

What justice is there for the wolf? What vengeance is there for the hunter? What graces have been afforded the beast? Who are those, being but a mere sheep, to dictate what is and is not to be gifted to those greater than they?

Gods and goddesses must learn to love from afar, must learn to survive in solitude, for it is in the alone that they are reminded of their deityship. It is in the rejection of the mortal that they are made strong, that they are made mighty.

What rarity it is to see the royals find fulfillment within their fleshly vessel? What mysteries may be discovered when such a joining of celestial bodies occurs upon the planes of the human?

You stand upon the cusp of the planets and galaxies and behold the beautiful rot of the world. The black mold of sickness and plague an artist’s signature upon the green and blue of the waters that bring life to the waning soul.

It is as Death has his way with the body of the earth that you reminded you are but a temporal whisper that dissipates like smoke against the strong currents of air. A single breath and you are naught but the shadow of a memory.

It is in the sweet release of sleep alone that you find the beginnings of solidity and surety of survival. You fall into the dark water of slumber and come into the universe to which you belong. It is the universe of nothings, the universe of emptiness and you burn for it as one burns for the touch of a lover.

In your little bubble of existence, you consider those before you as they complete their menial tasks that provide them with the facade of purpose. They are content, the sheep, but the wolf cannot join them. The wolf can only sleep and wish for the greatness kindling deep within to spring forth as the rushing of water from the rock of Moses.

But the greatness does not come, for the cold reality that screams in your face every moment of every day reminds you that you are the same as the sheep. You are without greatness and only wish for it so as to make your suffering worthful. You force yourself to find some reason behind the what. You must discover the why, or else you shall be unraveled.

But you are not the god. You are not the goddess. You are the sheep. Tiny, insignificant and without value. You are the small one that dreams big, because you live little, and the big dreams only come to kiss you as you sleep.

And so you sleep.

chapter twelve part two

“I’ve already told you I’m not going to do that!”

“And I’ve already made it clear that you don’t have a choice in the matter. Move!” 

Glaciem grit her teeth as she stared down Strong Heart from across the courts. The idiot was asking things she knew neither one of them would be capable of doing. Strong Heart raised his eyebrows as he deftly swung his wooden sword from one hand to the other, his legs wide in a defensive stance. 

“And what do you suppose will happen to me when your parents find out I stuck an ice dagger through your heart because you were too slow to block it?” She asked as she walked toward him, her steps slowed by the sand. 

Strong Heart rolled his eyes. “You know I’m perfectly capable of blocking your throws.” He retorted as he watched her draw near. 

“When they’re controlled and not aimed at your chest.” She snapped. 

She was obliged to look up at him now that he had surpassed her height, the five years that had passed having done much to change the son of the First. Though he was still somewhat thin compared to what he would surely become once he had reached adulthood, he was extremely well built. His muscular frame threw Glaciem’s own lithe body into shadow as his shoulders blocked the light above them.

 “You need to start learning how to take orders.” Strong Heart growled, looking down at her. 

His black hair had come loose from its tie in the back, and it obscured his face, giving him the appearance of being much older than seventeen.

“You need to start learning how to give good orders.” Glaciem replied evenly. 

She knew how to rile him and questioning his authority was by far the best way to do it quickly. 

“Listen, Elemental. Narratus is not here to tell me to stop this time. He put you in my care and it is high time you understand I am an authority figure over you whether you like it or not. You will do as I say and you will do it graciously. I have given you an order. You are obliged to obey it. Now move!” Strong Heart hissed as he bent down to sneer in Glaciem’s face. 

Glaciem let a defiant smile creep over her face. “No.” She whispered.

Strong Heart’s leg moved faster than Glaciem could block it and the kick sent her back several feet. She yelled as the air rushed from her lungs, grunting when she fell into the sand. Strong Heart ran towards her as fast as the ground would allow him, and she was forced to roll to the side before he could bring the sword down where she had been. 

“What on earth is wrong with you?” She snarled as she stood up, holding her side. 

“If you will not obey the commands of the Son of the First, then you will be punished according to the Laws of the Village!” He shouted back. 

Glaciem’s eyes darkened. She had suffered enough of his arrogance. If he wanted to fight with her, then so be it. She stretched out a hand and the water from the bin in the corner rushed up to meet her. As it met her hand, it stiffened and formed into a curved sword. Strong Heart, seeing she had armed herself properly, ran at her again. She ran to meet him. 

Their swords vibrated from the impact of their blows, but both Strong Heart and Glaciem ignored the sharp pangs that wracked their hands and arms as they continued to hack into one another’s weapons. Glaciem grit her teeth, moving as quickly as she could, forcing Strong Heart to block her blows more quickly than he was comfortable doing. She was intent on wearing him down and was well on her way to achieving her goal when Strong Heart threw his sword with such force that it shattered her own weapon. The bits of ice melted and sunk deep into the sand. 

The sand had been put there by Narratus’ request. He knew it would make it not only difficult to walk, thereby strengthening both Strong Heart and Glaciem, but it would also suck away any water Glaciem had been foolish enough to drop. There was no way she would be able to retrieve it from each individual grain quickly enough.

For a moment the two froze, staring at one another, Glaciem poised, but without water, and Strong Heart with a badly splintered training sword. She knew he rightfully didn’t see her as being completely helpless while unarmed. They had both been well-trained in hand to hand combat as well as with weapons and Strong Heart’s actions showed he was not beyond attacking her without a sword to aid her. They had a choice; either stop or continue, though how it would continue would solely depend on Glaciem’s next choice of action. 

She weighed her options. Currently, she was closest to the hall leading to the entrance of the House of Meeting. She could run and try to make it to the stairs before Strong Heart could drag her back down. After that, she would attempt to disappear until Strong Heart had calmed down. The risk would be him overtaking her before she made it to the stairs and forcing her to continue their fight which, without water, would be extremely difficult. The alternative would be attempting to fight Strong Heart without water now. Strong Heart had grown powerful and was just as skilled if not more so than she, let alone the fact that he was stronger simply by virtue of his size in comparison to hers. 

She ran. 

Glaciem bolted towards the hallways and to the stairway that would eventually lead her to the streets of the Village. She would do her best to lose Strong Heart by taking alleys and turning back as often as she could. She prayed she would be able to find Narratus before the son of the First succeeded in his quest to destroy her. 

As she flew down the hall, she could hear Strong Heart shouting in raged protest as he followed. She chanced a look behind her shoulder. For all the speed and advantage she had in being closer to the exit, Strong Heart was catching up far too quickly for her own comfort. She looked forward and pushed her legs as hard as she could, gaining an extra sprint of speed. 

She reached the stairs just as Strong Heart grabbed at her tunic. She yanked herself free, managing to keep her speed and balance as she continued to bound up the stairs in twos and threes, sometimes using her hands to help propel her body forward. Strong Heart was gaining on her. She would have no choice but to lose him in the streets, her original idea of backtracking through side streets no longer an option with him right on her heels. Her lungs were on fire by the time she reached the door, but she had just enough of her wits to pivot and slam the door in Strong Heart’s face as he neared the top of the stairs. She careened through the small courtyard just before the gate that separated the House of Meeting from the rest of the Village. 

“Move!” Glaciem barked at people as she raced through the ever bustling streets of the Village. 

She overturned baskets and knocked roughly into those passing by as she weaved her way in and out of the crowds. She took as many sharp turns as she could, doing everything to make it impossible for Strong Heart to track her. She gave up on the idea of finding Narratus, her goal now was to simply make it to the home of the First. After that, she would get to her room and scale the wall to the library. The library was always locked and there was no way Strong Heart would be able to follow her seeing as he had never been successful in the past. She flipped around a corner and lost her footing, yelping as she rolled across the street and under people’s feet. She settled heavily in front of the large entry of the First Elder’s dwelling. She panted, desperately trying to fill her lungs with air as she pushed herself up. 

A pair of brown boots stopped in front of her face. 

Glaciem looked up and groaned. 

“We’re not finished.” Strong Heart snarled, breathing heavily.

*~*~*~*

Glaciem stared at the stone ceiling of the infirmary. She couldn’t move, nor did she want to. Beside her, Strong Heart looked very much the same. Every part of her body screamed in pain, sharp twinges coursing through bones that had been broken and set and then reset once more when they had failed to set properly the first time. Her throat was parched, but she didn’t dare try to open her mouth to call for water for fear of reopening the deep cut in her bottom lip. It had only just begun to close.

She grimaced and closed her eyes, reliving the nightmare she and Strong Heart had put themselves through. What she thought was a wise decision in trying to get out in the open had turned out to be a grievous mistake. She might have given herself the advantage in resupplying herself with water, but Strong Heart had also been able to find new, deadlier weapons of his own. 

They hadn’t held back; each throwing water and steel with the same intent; to maim. Strong Heart had managed to land the first blow. He had sliced her right forearm when she had misjudged a step that nearly ended with her falling into his blade. By that time, crowds had begun to gather, as well as the First, Second and Tenth Elders. Both Glaciem and Strong Heart had been deaf to the threats they collectively shouted, their rage and hatred for one another too great to listen to reason.

Strong Heart had hesitated when he saw the blood pouring out from her arm, as if shocked by the fact that they were in fact fighting with real weapons. Glaciem had taken full advantage of his hesitation and had thrown ice daggers towards him while somersaulting away from his sword. It did not escape her how ironic it was that she had been obliged to throw her daggers at Strong Heart’s chest in order to protect herself; the very thing she had refused to do earlier.

Glaciem sighed and gently let her head fall to the side, listening to the sound of Strong Heart rustling in his sleep. His face was twisted in pain and she could see his jaw clenching. Much to her surprise, as she studied him she felt a pang of sympathy at seeing his discomfort and though she herself had no desire to move, she shifted to slowly raise herself up to a sitting position, biting her tongue to keep from crying. She lifted an arm and nearly passed out, but still she persisted, breathing steadily to try and manage the pain. 

From across the infirmary, she could see a basin full of life giving water. Glaciem whimpered as she gently called to it, begging it to come to her without too much of a fuss. The water obliged her and gently sloshed out of its bowl, languidly traveling across the open air to meet her hands. She breathed a sigh of relief as she relaxed her arms ever so, immediately tensing them back when the water threatened to drop to the ground. 

As slowly as she could manage, she maneuvered the water to Strong Heart, forming it into a ball that rippled as it floated. He was only a few feet from her, but the effort took every bit of strength she had. She let it hover close to his mouth for a moment before gently grazing his lips with the water. Even in his sleep, he recognized what it was and, with his eyes still closed, slowly swallowed until the ball was half its size. Glaciem pulled the water back to her and sucked down the rest of it. 

“Thank you.” 

She turned to look at Strong Heart. His eyes were open and he was studying her.

“You’re welcome.” She said, her voice cracking. 

Her lip immediately opened and began to bleed, but she didn’t care. She gently lowered herself back down, trying to ignore the spasms of pain in her wrists as she used them to bear her weight before settling back down underneath the covers of her bed. 

Strong Heart looked back up at the ceiling. “What I did was…” He trailed off. 

“Incredibly stupid.” Glaciem finished for him. 

He chuckled. “Yes, it was. But you did deserve it.” 

Glaciem returned his chuckle, oddly content at talking with him. “Yes, I did.” She conceded.

They stared at the ceiling in silence, both lost in their own thoughts. It was a few minutes before Strong Heart Spoke again. “They say we’ve both been out for a month.” 

“Who said that?” 

“The Third, Fourth, and Fifth.” 

“Why was the Fifth Hominem here?” Glaciem asked. 

“Because he’s the Keeper of Death. Apparently they weren’t sure we would make it.” 

Glaciem turned her head to look at Strong Heart. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you that badly.” She said quietly. “It was foolish. It was selfish.” 

Strong Heart let his head fall to the side. His eyes locked with hers. “You should have just listened to what I asked you to do.” 

“What you were asking was unreasonable.”

“No, you were being unreasonable.” 

“No, you were being an ass.” 

“I am in charge of you.” 

“You’re not!” 

“I am!” 

Strong Heart and Glaciem both stopped abruptly as pain shot through their sides from their raised voices. They both grimaced and held their breath, waiting for the agony coursing across their rib cages to subside. 

“Why do you bicker with me about it?” Strong Heart asked, being the first to recover. “It’s not a question of your abilities, it’s simply a matter of positions of authority.” 

“I bicker with you because it’s ridiculous to think that I have to listen to a boy when I am under no obligation whatsoever to stay in the Village in the first place.” Glaciem retorted. 

Strong Heart’s eyes darkened. “I’m not a boy.” He said, his voice was low. 

Glaciem stared back at him. “Neither are you a leader.” She swallowed. “At least, not yet.” 

He studied her before clenching his jaws and looking back at the ceiling. “Regardless, you might just get your wish.”

“What do you mean?” 

Strong Heart pursed his lips. “I overheard quite a bit yesterday, more than offhand comments regarding how long we’ve been asleep.” He looked back at Glaciem. “The Elders must decide whether or not to exile you.” 

Glaciem blinked. “You can’t be serious. Why on earth would they exile me?” She scoffed. 

“Because you attacked the Son of the First. Whether you would believe it or not, I am actually respected more so than you are in this Village.” 

She grit her teeth. “You attacked me first.” 

Strong Heart smiled at her, though his features were hard. “No, I sentenced you first.” 

Glaciem stared at him. “You don’t hold the authority to sentence me by the Village Laws or any other law you can name.” 

“I do.” Strong Heart said quietly, barely nodding his head. He paused before continuing. “Would it really be so bad if they did? You clearly hate me, hate the Village, hate my parents. The only person you tolerate is the Tenth Hominem and he is of no account. To be exiled would mean freedom for you.” 

The thought hadn’t occurred to her before. Glaciem pondered what Strong Heart had said. As she considered the possibility of being exiled, Narratus’ blue eyes filled her thoughts. Could she leave knowing she would never be allowed to see him again? And what of Strong Heart’s claims, that she hated him? Even as she thought it, she realized she didn’t hate him entirely, but neither did she feel any great amount of love towards him. 

“I don’t want you to be exiled.”

Glaciem looked at Strong Heart in surprise. “Why not? You don’t like me any more than I like you.” 

Strong Heart opened his mouth, but closed it again, his jaw clenching. He opened his mouth again. “I think that, had we not been forced together, we might have been good friends.” He said finally. 

“Why do you think that?” Glaciem asked. 

“Because we are both bigger than the realities in which we’re living. We are both warriors. We are both obstinately loyal to those we choose to love.” He looked at her. “We’re too much alike to be considered mentor and student, but that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t have been close companions.”

Glaciem studied Strong Heart. “You’re being uncharacteristically insightful.” She said after a moment, though her tone was not unkind. 

Strong Heart grinned. “Three broken ribs will do that to you, among other things.” 

“I don’t like your name.” Glaciem said suddenly, changing the subject. 

“What?” Strong Heart furrowed his brows. 

“I’ve never liked it. It’s so…pompous.” 

“It bears significant meaning to my parents. My mother especially.” Strong Heart bristled slightly at the possibility of someone criticizing his mother. 

“I understand, but it just doesn’t suit you.” 

He snorted. “Well then, what name would you have given me?” 

She paused and grinned. “I would call you Bicker. No…Bick. I would call you Bick.” 

“Bick?” He said incredulously. “Why on earth would you call me Bick?” 

“It’s as you said before. We bicker all the time.” 

“That’s a ridiculous reason for a name.” 

“I like it. I shall call you Bick forever.” 

“No.” 

“You’re welcome to try to stop me.” 

Strong Heart pursed his lips, but his eyes were more kind than Glaciem had ever seen them before. He opened his mouth to mock protest, but before he could speak the door opened. They both gingerly turned their heads towards the door behind Strong Heart. Narratus entered the room. His eyes were heavy and Glaciem immediately knew something was wrong. 

“Narratus?” She asked cautiously, the very real possibility of exile flooded her thoughts once more. 

He looked at her a long while. “We have much to discuss. All three of us.” He said at length. 

divorce – why I still celebrate my anniversary

For the faithful few who read my blog, and have offered me continued support in my endeavors to become a recognized author, thank you! I realize my posting has been spotty – amazingly enough, I was offered a job that might actually help me achieve my long term goals. Those goals would in effect also allow me to make this book thing happen for real. The catch? The new job is taking up all of my time right now, so posting bits of chapter is going to be spotty for right now. In other, more exciting news, I am knee-deep into the first book of my Trilogy. I happen to be stupid excited about this book – I had a dream about it when I was a child, and it’s been many, many years in the making and I am just absolutely thrilled at the possibility of this being something people will read in the (nearish) future.

OKAY! So, with that out of the way – let’s talk ugly.

As you can see from this post, I was married. I was married for eight years. And because you’re all smart and have read the title, I am married no longer. I’m not going to go into details – that’s for another book I’ll write when I am rich and famous and people want to know how Eli the author started. But what I can say is that it was the most difficult, and terrible, and painful, and heart shredding eight years of my life.

So, pardon the french, but why the fuck do I still celebrate my anniversary? Which, by the way, is on the 17th of this month.

I celebrate it for two reasons.

Before I continue, I do need to clarify that I am not in a place where I yearn or wish or desire for that marriage to have continued. When I say celebrate, I don’t mean it in the traditional sense of celebrating something. I think, perhaps, a better word would be ‘commemorate’.

So, to continue – I commemorate my once-anniversary for two reasons.

The first is that I love the month of October. Those of you who know me, know me to be a bit of a witch bitch (which is a great conundrum for those who also know me as a dedicated Christian. Which I still am, but I’m at peace with my alternative leanings. More on that on another day.)

October. We were on a thought. I derailed myself.

October is when my state gets majestically beautiful. Not just beautiful – my state is naturally beautiful all year round, regardless of the time of year, but when fall really hits my state, something changes. The wind is wiser and the trees talk. The mountains wake up and the skies whisper of the old days when magic still clung to the earth. Something special happens in October in my state, and it’s such a fleeting moment. Very rarely do I feel this mystery for more than maybe a week – it’s incredible to me that, this year, I’ve been feeling it since the beginning of September. It’s a gift, truly. In the wake of the end of the world, I was blessed with the gift of a true fall and a true October.

This year’s October is a lot like the October that I was married in. The air was brisk and refreshing at night, and the sun was accommodating and kind to my stubborn need for scarves and pumpkin spice lattes all day long. It was beautiful, and lovely, and as I write this I am thrown back to a time when I was so naive. Lord, I was so content in that innocence.

I was married on the 17th of October. I tend to associate colors with numbers and letters and for whatever reason, odd numbers in particular tend to be reds and oranges. They’re sharper colors, they’re rich. And the 17th in my mind was perfect. It was also on a Sunday – which I realize is nontraditional because we all want to get lit at weddings and need a day before work to recover, but I wanted to be married on the holiest of days. And so I chose Sunday.

My colors were orange and green – two of my still favorite colors. My dress was….childish….for lack of a better word. I was a child too, when I think about it. But I liked it. My mum took the dress in the night before the wedding because I had lost quite a bit of weight right before and it was far too loose. I had goldfish in my centerpieces, and my flowers were tiger lilies and white roses. I had a sparkly crystal butterfly hair comb and I felt really, really beautiful. Although now, I look back and can see only a child in my mind. What a dorky little child with a dorky little dream of being a dorky little wife with her dorky little husband. Funny how hindsight is so fucking perfect.

There’s so much more I could tell about this day. So much more I could revel in. But really…I like to remember the moments building up to the day. I don’t actually care to re-live the day itself. Not because it’s too painful, or too emotional. I don’t like to remember because when I think back, I remember that I knew something was wrong. I knew that I was not supposed to marry this man. I knew…I knew. I should have run, should have walked away, should have done something to prevent the day from happening, but I didn’t because I was stubborn and I wanted to do the right thing, damn the consequences to myself. And so I did it. I walked down the aisle. I said the vows – and meant them – and signed the contract and celebrated and ignored the little knot in the very core of my being that grew and grew and grew over the next eight years that would be the hell of my life.

But….for all that, I still commemorate it. Because October is magical for me. I refuse to let a day – a mistake of a day – ruin that magical month. I commemorate the day because, at this point it is part of what makes October so utterly and devastatingly lovely to me now. What should have been the best day of my life, was quickly turned into the worst, and yet, my lovely month, my special month, was still lovely. It was still special. Regardless of that bit of black in my lovely month’s world of color. And now I realize that the black actually makes the color more beautiful.

You never know what you really have, or how to really appreciate the good until you throw a little bit of hell into the mix. You need contrast. You need something with which to judge the good. Because if your life is just…good….one – that’s a styrofoam existence, and two – how do you really know it’s good?

The first reason I commemorate my once anniversary is because its ugly makes the beauty of my favorite time of year that much more beautiful and exquisite to behold.

The next reason is a little more introspective, but it’s tied into the first reason. I am an entirely different person today than who I was when I got married. I really was a soft, gullible, impressionable girl. And I look in the mirror today, and I see a well sculpted, intelligent, sharp, unapologetic queen. And the reality of this is that if I hadn’t gone through that trauma, if I hadn’t gone through that pain and suffering, I wouldn’t be who I am today. And I wouldn’t trade who I am today for anything in this world. It has taken many many days, nights, months, years, moments, to be able to say that I love myself. And there are still certainly days when I don’t. But, even during the times that I don’t love myself, I still know that I deserve that love. As all humans deserve it.

I lived for almost ten years with a man who did his absolute best to try and make me forget that simple little truth. A truth that really is simple, but oh so hard to accept. And by leaving, and by growing, and healing, and moving forward, I proved the fucker wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

BUT. Had I not met him in the first place. And I had I not said yes to his proposal that day on the rock in the park where we had our first date, and had I not forced myself down that aisle in the dress that was too big for me, I would not have been forged in the fires that were my marriage. I would have still been the soft, pliable, insignificant, little lump of unrefined metal that I was the day I said “I do”. But I did do all those things. And boy, let me tell you, my friends, God delivered hellfire.

I was purified in that hellfire. I was refined in that hellfire. I was made into a fucking weapon in that hellfire. I evolved and rose and recognized who I truly was and am in that hellfire.

And so, the other reason why I still commemorate my once anniversary is because it was due to that fateful day that I am the entity I call myself now.

I realize this will seem a little flowery to some, and I do not expect, nor want those who have been through their own hellfires to think that they must celebrate or commemorate. Sometimes, the best things for our hearts is to forget. For a long while I did forget, and there is true peace in that path, and I honor those who choose it.

But for me, I’m afraid that in order to continuously be my best self, I have to remember. I have to commemorate. I have to be reminded.

So maybe, if you read this, and it’s the 17th of October, raise a glass with me, and commemorate the things we have all had to endure in order to become who we are today. And know that I admire you for that.

Cheers.

chapter eleven part two

The Whispers urgently hissed the word as Glaciem stared, frozen. Bick raised a hand. The reflection followed suit, though Glaciem could not miss the reflection’s sigh of impatience as it did so, its willingness to indulge Bick waning. 

Protect.

Swirling images and half memories accosted Glaciem’s mind as she tried to understand what she was looking at. The reflection seemed so familiar to her and yet she could not place the face as it distorted and rippled with the movement of the water. She looked at Bick and placed a hand on his shoulder. The reflection tensed at her touch.

“What is this?” Bick whispered, his eyes flitting to hers.

She shook her head. “We should leave.” She said quietly.

Bick nodded his head. The reflection shook its head. 

They turned away and walked slowly from the banks of the river. The river was nearly out of sight when Glaciem abruptly turned back towards it. 

“What are you doing?” Bick asked, stopping. 

“I came into the Forest to understand what was happening. What use am I if as soon as something happens, I run away?” Glaciem asked, her jaw set. 

Bick’s eyes were cautious. “Glaciem, this isn’t a good idea. Let’s move away from the water and talk about it.” 

Glaciem shook her head. “You stay here. I’m going back.” 

“No!” 

She ignored Bick’s protest as she walked swiftly back to the river. As soon as she reached the bank she knelt down to see if the reflection was still there. She raised a hand, intent on running it through the water.
“Don’t!” Bick cried from behind her, running full speed towards her to try and knock her hand away.

As he neared the water’s edge, ropes of water rushed up from the surface to meet them, pulling both Bick and Glaciem down beneath the surface as they shouted in alarm. The river widened and grew deeper as they were dragged down, the waters growing colder with each passing moment. The light above surrendered its warmth and gave way to the black abyss. 

Glaciem struggled against her unseen foe, turning desperately to fight whatever it was that had her in its grasp. As she flipped around in the water, her eyes fell on Bick, who was thrashing wildly. His body curled into itself, writhing and twisting, his jaw clenched in an insurmountable amount of pain. He looked at her sharply, his eyes fluctuating between green and gold. Glaciem watched helplessly as streams of air bubbles escaped his mouth. 

I have to do something. 

Panic and fear seized her. She looked around wildly, trying to discover the source of the attack. She could find none, even as invisible arms pulled hers and Bick’s limbs in every direction. Her only goal was to save Bick and in a moment of sheer will, she closed her eyes and forced all of the air out of her lungs towards Bick, forming a porous block of ice around his body, his arms, and legs pinned to his sides. Relief momentarily flooded her body as she watched the chunk of ice shoot up to the surface, but her relief quickly turned to terror as she felt herself being dragged down further down into the water. She had no air left in her lungs and her sight was beginning to fail her. 

Lilium…Lilium…How I’ve missed you, Lilium…Daughter of Kings…

Glaciem heard the voice echoing through her mind, but could make no sense of the words. Her skull was pounding and her scar throbbed viciously. She was beyond feeling afraid; she could feel nothing at all. Her body began to twitch from lack of oxygen, her mind retreating into a void darker than the black waters surrounding her. She did not feel the hand that grabbed her tunic sleeve to pull her roughly upwards. She did not see the light as her head broke through the surface of the water. She did not feel the earth rising to meet her, tugging her along the ground to the safety of the trees. She did not feel the pound of a fist on her chest to force her heart back into obedience. She did not feel the rush of air forced through her mouth and into her lungs to displace the water. She did not hear the desperate commands for her to open her eyes.

“Glaciem!” 

Fist. 

“Glaciem wake up!” 

Air.

“Get up!” 

Fist. 

A boy with wide eyes grins toothily at her. He holds out his hand, beckoning her to take it. “My Queen.” He whispers, though his voice is made of many. 

Air.

She takes his hand and as she does, he turns away and fades. Behind him stands two figures, a man and woman with white hair and grey eyes. They bow before her. 

Fist.

As they raise their eyes to meet hers, a dark shadow casts itself over them, the light surrounding their bodies is overwhelmed by darkness. They are swallowed by shadow, and she is left with a lone man who holds the moon in his hands.

Air. 

Glaciem gasped and violently flung herself sideways, coughing out water, sucking in air, her chest rising in great heaves. She stayed on her side, curled and choking as Bick thumped her back to help clear her lungs of the last drops of liquid. When her coughing finally subsided, she turned weakly to look at Bick. His hand trembled as it settled protectively on her shoulder. 

“Are you alright?” He asked, his voice shaking. 

“Yes.” She rasped. “Are you?”

Bick’s lips were pressed tightly together and he shook his head, but it was so slight she almost missed it. She raised her head and looked at him in concern and it was then she noticed that, though his left eye was still its usual deep, emerald green, his right was completely different. It was a rich, almost metallic, gold. 

Glaciem’s eyes widened as he held out his right hand to show her his fingers, which had lengthened and were now tipped with sharp, black talons, bits of torn gauze still clinging to their points. His skin had taken on a gray pallor and she could see black veins creeping across the curve of his shoulders.

“What’s happening to you?” Glaciem whispered as she timidly ran a finger across his neck, his heart beating with wild uncertainty. 

“I don’t know,” Bick answered, solemnly. “I can’t see properly out of my right eye either. Everything is,” here he paused, considering his words. “Darker. It feels like I’m looking at everything through a veil.”

Bick stopped and removed his normal hand from Glaciem’s shoulders, standing as he did. “I can hear your Whispers as well.” He said as he held out a hand to help her up.

Glaciem looked at him sharply. 

“I can’t understand what they’re saying.” Bick said, reading her thoughts. 

The human chosen by the darkness. Glaciem groaned inwardly as the words of the Second Elder clear in her mind. 

Bick opened his mouth and closed it again, hesitating to continue. 

“What is it?” Glaciem pressed. 

“There’s something else.” Bick said after a moment. 

She gestured for him to continue. 

Bick raised his taloned hand towards the trees and Glaciem gasped as their branches curled to his whims, whining reluctantly as they did so. 

“When I pulled you from the water, the trees offered their assistance. At first, I thought you were the one controlling them, but I realized soon enough that they were obeying my thoughts, not yours.” He dropped his hand and the branches fell back into their natural positions. He chuckled ruefully. 

Glaciem looked at him incredulously.

“First you breathe fire, and now I sprout claws and make tree branches move.” Bick grinned, but it was a hard smile with very little mirth. 

Glaciem shook her head slowly, loathing the apprehension that had settled within her. She looked at Bick, pained by the wave of love and sadness that washed over her. She wrapped her arms around him tightly, trying to stay the tears welling up in her eyes. He held her tightly with his unblemished hand.

“I don’t remember Narratus ever saying anything about the Children of the Forest being born of humans, or having black talons, do you?” He said quietly into her shoulder. 

“Bick, please.” Glaciem said, her voice muffled by his tunic. 

“We can’t ignore this, Glaciem.” 

“Narratus never said anything about it because it was never brought up in the first place. We don’t know if that’s how the Elementals work or don’t work.” 

“Do you want me to go back to the Village?”

Glaciem looked up at Bick in horror. “No!” She exclaimed. She didn’t want to think about what would happen to Bick if they saw him like this. 

“Then do you want me to stay?”

She was trapped. Glaciem sighed in frustration and pulled away to pace, racking her brain for an answer, coming up with nothing. Even her Whispers had become silent. She turned and looked at Bick, her eyes steady as she studied his.

“What would you have me do?” She asked him. 

Her arms folded around her body as she tried to shield herself from the vulnerability she felt. 

“Continue on the path we both started.” He answered without hesitation. 

“Is that wise?” 

“I don’t care if it’s wise.” 

Bick’s eyes betrayed his feelings as he spoke and for a moment Glaciem could clearly see the depth of the love he bore her. Her heart swelled, filled with both affection and guilt, knowing full well he had not only suffered, but would be willing to suffer a great deal more on account of that love. She walked back to where he stood and rested her fingers against his shoulder, defeated. Bick reached up with his good hand and pressed it against hers.

“Are you still with me, Strong Heart of the Village UnNamed?” She asked quietly, unable to meet his eyes. 

“You and I started this journey together. I would have us finish it together.” Bick nodded, his voice solemn. “I am still with you, Glaciem Ice Child of the Old Forest.”

*~*~*~*

She breaks through the surface of the water, coughing and gasping for air, frantically clawing at anything to help her pull herself up. She spins around wildly. The moon is her only source of light. Disoriented and shivering, she tries to calm her rapid breathing as she looks around. She is in a large lake and the waters are so black one could mistake it for a chasm were it not for the moon rippling upon its surface. She is not in the Forest, but in the mountains above the Valley. Only small dead trees dwell here, their leaves long forsaken and their branch twisted and withered. 

Just beyond her reach is the bank. She trembles as she paddles her way to it. It is rocky and sharp and the jagged edges of stone cut deep into her hands as she hoists herself out of the water. She coughs the last bit of lake out of her lungs and stands, looking for anything she might recognize. She looks around slowly, observing the trees and small bushes and notices the mouth of a large cave. 

She is drawn to the cave and cannot stop her feet from taking her in its direction. She is not alarmed, neither is she afraid. She does not feel anything. She is as void of feeling as the cave is void of light. When she reaches the entrance she peers into it curiously. She is surprised to find that it is not a cave at all, but rather an unnaturally black void without outer edges. It cuts a harsh gash into the landscape surrounding it. She stretches out a hand through the void and as it enters, it disappears from sight altogether. She follows her hand into the void. 

It is dark in the void. There is no light. She holds out her palm and a small tongue of fire emerges from the center. She gently pulls at the flame with her fingers, beckoning it to grow larger, stronger. Soon, it is large enough to light her immediate surroundings. 

She is in a stone tunnel. It is damp and the dripping of water echoes throughout the length. She does not know which way to go; both directions fade into nothingness. She turns to the right and begins to walk, her pace slow and steady, one hand held high with its fire burning brightly.

She shivers as she walks, the cold stone is rough and uncomfortable against her bare feet. There is no end to her tunnel, no turns, only the ever constant dark closing in around her, threatening to suffocate her. 

Lilium…

The voice makes her stop. It is the voice of a man. She knows that voice. She leans forward and peers intently into the darkness and as she watches, a small light in the distance begins to flicker. 

Lilium… 

She runs towards the light, her breathing strained and ragged. 

Lilium…
As she draws closer, the light begins to take shape. It is coming from a torch that has been fastened to the wall. A few feet further is the end of the tunnel. It is covered with chains. There is a person hanging from the chains. It is a woman. The woman’s arms are spread apart, each cuffed to the wall. She wears no clothes, and the chains wrapped around her bare skin are so tight small cuts have begun to form. Her eyes are closed, but her chest rises and falls in the telltale sign of deep slumber.

Lilium. 

She whirls around in surprise and clenches her fist, extinguishing the fire in her hand. The man before her is tall and his height obstructs the light from the torch behind him, further darkening her view, but even in the shadows, she knows who he is. 

Umbra.

“Has it really only been a day since I’ve had the pleasure of your company?” He asks her as he tilts his finger to gently run it across her cheek. She flinches and shies away from him. He chuckles and nods his chin to the woman behind her. “Do you know who this one is?” He asks. 

She turns back to the woman to study her. She is familiar, but she cannot place her face. 

“Perhaps this will help.” 

In Umbra’s hand, he holds a thin, gold chain. From the chain hangs a stone. It is a rich purple and sways as Umbra moves it closer for her to see. She looks back at the woman sharply. 

“She had a name once, but that is of little consequence.” Umbra walks up to the woman and lifts her chin up with his hands. Though her eyes remain closed, her breathing quickens. “She was quite beautiful. Reminds me of your own, lovely mother.” Umbra turns back to look at her briefly before letting his hand drop, the woman’s chin droops back down against the chains around her chest. “It’s a pity, what happened to her. Though one could have known what would happen to a human who bore the spirit of the Shadow. I must say, however, that it was quite the delicious turn of events. Most unexpected.”

She furrows her brows, unable to understand.

“No one could have known the darkness would leave behind such a blight within her womb. No one could have known it would take so long for such a poison to finally claim her life, just like it claimed the life of her unborn children.” Umbra pauses, grinning as he cocks his head thoughtfully. “Her death was so quick…over so fast…such a shame really.”

She feels pressure around her middle and looks down at her arms in alarm. The chains once binding the woman now grow tight around her own arms and legs. She struggles against them helplessly as Umbra holds out his arm, his hand clutching the throat of the woman, whose eyes are now opened and filled with terror. 

His grin grows wider as he stares at the woman. “Would you like to watch her die again?” He asks, his voice acid. 

Umbra plunges his free hand into the woman’s chest. Her eyes widen and her pupils dilate in pain. Her mouth hangs open, but she cannot speak. He pushes his hand further into the woman and her skin stretches and pulls apart, the sound of bones cracking bounces sharply off the walls as blood begins to pour from the wound. Still, Umbra pushes further, his eyes blank, his face betraying nothing of his thoughts. He does not stop until his hand wraps around the woman’s spine, his talons ripping through the skin on her back as his grip tightens.

She pulls harder against the chains, knowing she is powerless to stop him, knowing it is too late to help. Her eyes grow cloudy as she blinks. Blood spills out from both her eyes and nose. She tries to cough the red from her lungs, but she cannot breathe. Her fingers go numb from panic as she begins to lose consciousness. 

Umbra growls. It is the sound of a monster, of something utterly inhuman. He flexes his muscles and pulls the woman’s spine through her body, tearing her nearly in two. Her lower half droops and brushes the ground as the skin connecting her legs to her torso stretches from their weight. Matter falls heavily to the floor in wet, burgundy piles. He laughs in delight as he watches the light in the woman’s eyes fade away. He releases his hands and lets her drop to the floor, the sound of her body thudding against the tunnel floor is both deafening and nauseating. 

She looks at the woman in anguish as blood continues to flood from her own face, her vision going black. The last thing she sees are Umbra’s glittering eyes, molten pools of gold that burn themselves into her mind. The sound of his laughter fills her ears. 

“Did I not tell you, Daughter of Kings, that you were mine? Every night, every moment of your slumber belongs to me.” Umbra pulls at her chains, tightening them around her body, crushing her. “I am the god of darkness and soon you shall bow prostrate before me, broken and torn. I am stronger than you, greater than you, more powerful than you. You are but a splinter amongst trees, a pebble amongst mountains. You are nothing, you are helpless, and I will make you watch as I destroy every single thing you have come to love. And when I am finished with that, I will rip you apart.” 

Her body gives way and she feels the chains cutting deep into her bowels, renting through her bones, and slicing her into bloodied pieces.

chapter ten part two

Glaciem and Bick moved swiftly and quietly. Though the Village was quiet, they dared not risk the open road leading to the outer gates and choose instead to weave their way through the trees still scattered throughout the roads, crops and near houses. They were not so concerned about Villagers, but rather the enemies they could not see.

The bodies of those fallen from the night before had been successfully removed and taken away, but the musk of the corpses still rose from the ground. Near the House of Meeting, spirals of thin smoke wafted through the air before disappearing into the sky. Glaciem shivered, knowing full well the source of the smoke. It had been burning all day and would most likely burn for the next few weeks to come.

It did not escape her that, as they walked, Bick’s head had turned to the House of Meeting several times, his parents having been set there for their final resting place. The guilt plaguing Glaciem all day came back again in full force, painful spasms shooting through her belly. It made breathing difficult enough for her that she tried to distract herself by counting the number of trees within the Village walls. She gave up when she hit one hundred and fifty.

We haven’t even seen the whole Village. Glaciem thought wretchedly. How many more are here? She wondered if the trees would follow her out of the gate or if they would stay where they rested.

From outside the walls, still larger trees loomed over them, as if attempting to cover the whole of the Village with their branches, the leaves obscuring the moonlight. It seemed to Glaciem that this was more an act of protection, an effort to hide the Village from view, but she also knew she would be the only one to share this opinion.

Bick traveled in silence. There were times when he halted and held out his arm to prevent Glaciem from moving forward, his head bowed to one side, listening intently. She wished she could hear what he heard, but knew his skill would always outweigh hers. Still, the closer they got to the gates and to the Forest, the sharper Glaciem’s senses became. She could not see the roots weaving through the ground as she could before, but her sight, hearing, and smell were all heightened, everything pertaining to the earth vivid and sharp.

When they reached the gate, they found branches had weaved themselves through the locks and hinges so completely that all they could see was the suggestion of the door that once opened to the Forest. The limbs pulsed and groaned as steam curled up from the moss covering their bark. Bick pulled at the door, huffing in frustration when the gesture did little more than cause the branches to huff back. 

“This isn’t going to get us anywhere.” He muttered. “Perhaps we can scale the wall instead.”

They both looked up doubtfully. Branches and leaves hung at so many odd angles that, even at Bick’s best, he would not have been able to scale the wall, let alone Glaciem. Besides which, the branches were too far up to reach without the use of water or ladder, something neither was sure the Forest would allow.

“Let me try.” Glaciem moved forward. 

She wasn’t so confident as to assume the trees would just outright obey her, but she did think it possible she could reason with them. As she moved her hand toward the doorway she remembered Narratus’ words of caution.

It is possible that some of the trees have become corrupt.

Uncertainty pulsed through her veins. What if these trees were foes instead of friends? Would they attack once they knew it was her? Her fingers hovered just above the knotted trees. She could feel their humming, even inches away.

“We can’t risk staying in one place for too long.” Bick cautioned, seeing her hesitation.

Glaciem argued internally for a moment before taking a deep breath and gently setting her hand down on the wood.

The branches sighed and unwound themselves, slithering away from the door and allowing Glaciem to yank it open. She grinned in relief and looked back at Bick who only shook his head with a small, tired smile. She peered out from the gate. All around them stood tall trees of every variety, all huddled close to one another and all pushed up against the walls of the Village as far as their branches would allow. 

As Glaciem observed the surroundings beyond the walls. The roots of the trees had knotted together to form a walkway of sorts. It was small and crude, but clearly a path. Gingerly, she took a step forward. 

As her foot touched the ground she was overcome with the hundreds of emotions rising up from the earth to greet her.

Glaciem sucked in sharply as she closed her eyes and tried to understand what they all were. As she did, it occurred to her that the collective sound was the Whispers she had been hearing ever since she woke up.

Could it be the Trees have been speaking to me? Have they been trying to communicate with me all this time?

Another question came to her mind as she untangled the Whispers, trying to catch even the smallest thought.

What of the boy? Who is he? 

After a moment, she gave up trying to distinguish the thoughts and simply allowed the sensations rush over her. It was a whirlwind of feelings, like someone had poured them into a pot and was now violently stirring it with a spoon. They weren’t unpleasant, but there were so many infiltrating her mind at once it was impossible to try and understand them at all.

Suddenly, the thoughts collectively bristled and darkened. She opened her eyes, alarmed. She turned around right as Bick stepped out from the gate to join her. Glaciem started and quickly looked around. She touched the first tree within her reach, a willow, and began to think soothing thoughts, trying to convince the trees.  

“Please, I need him with me.” She said to the willow, feeling awkward.

How does one make conversation with a tree?

“I need him with me.” She repeated quietly.

The Whispers were reluctant at first, but they calmed and subsided to a slight, albeit distinctly irritated, buzzing in her mind. Though less hostile, it was clear the trees were unhappy. Bick joined her and looked at her quizzically.

“They don’t like you.” Glaciem said impishly and turned to keep walking.

“What do you mean, they?” He asked, an eyebrow lifting. 

She pointed up at the Trees. 

“The Trees don’t like me?”

“Can’t say they do.”

Bick glanced around him uncomfortably, “Should I be worried?”

“I don’t think so. They’re listening to me. I think you’re safe so long as you don’t wander off or try anything stupid.”

“You think too harshly of me, Icicle.”

“I’m praising you for the things in which you excel. You can hardly call that harsh.” 

As they walked, Glaciem noted the Forest had not come to the edge of the Village in Its entirety. Large trees of every kind circled the walls, but about fifty feet away from the gate, there was still the large space of field between the Village and the Forest. The field, while much smaller, looked as it always had. The Border Tree still stood alone and unaccompanied by its brothers. She turned to its right to enter the Forest as she had in her vision. It seemed fitting somehow. 

Stopping just outside the Forest border, she peered through the tall trunks. The trees were swaying gently from an unseen breeze as the low humming of the Whispers’ song wafted through their branches. Their bark was warmly colored and creaked and groaned from the movement. Leaves fluttered of their own accord and even with the moon rising above the horizon, the Forest showed no signs of slumber. 

Glaciem turned back to look at Bick. “This is your last chance to change your mind. I fear once we enter we will not be permitted to go back until we’ve completed what we set out to do.” Even as she said it, she already knew what his answer would be. 

Bick lifted his chin and stood tall, unmoving. Glaciem nodded her head in acknowledgment before taking a deep breath. She lifted her foot and purposefully set it down within the border. 

Glaciem opened her eyes, not realizing she had shut them. She was immediately accosted by color as it flooded into her vision, warm light enveloping her every sense. Everything was as she had seen in her vision and yet it seemed so much more so. The noises were sharper, the colors brighter, and the trees larger, the moonlight doing nothing to subdue their movements. Even with her boots on, she could feel the ground shift, wriggling beneath her feet. The humming of the trees rumbled deep in her chest. 

“It’s incredible,” Bick said, his mouth hung open in wonder. “I never imagined the Forest would be like this.”

She nodded her head in agreement and turned to face him. Before she fully realized it, a large branch burst through the surrounding trees and wrapped itself tightly around Bick’s waist. Both Bick and Glaciem shouted in alarm as he was flung sideways, landing heavily on the ground. 

Panicked, she watched in horror as the tree the branch belonged to rumbled into a view. It was a giant oak and the large branch it used to fling Bick swelled and bulged as its trunk shook with unmistakable rage. 

“Bick, move!” She cried as the tree raised the branch high, intent on crashing down on him. 

Bick rolled away with mere moments to spare before the massive branch plummeted into the ground, the force shaking the trees around them. It raised itself again and swung towards Bick, catching his shoulder as he tried to jump away.

Glaciem raced forward and jumped high into the air, her bone dagger already in her hand. As she made to drive it down, the branch twisted unnaturally and hit her square in the chest. The wind rushed from her lungs, leaving her breathless. She landed against a small bush which had hurriedly shifted over in order to catch her. 

“Thank you,” She gasped as she looked around wildly for Bick. 

“Glaciem!” Bick called as he ran past her, turning to aim his dagger at the trunk of the tree. 

His throw was successful and as the knife sank deep into the body of the tree. It roared, consumed with anger and pain. 

Bick grabbed Glaciem and pulled her to her feet. The tree ripped the knife out of its center and threw it wildly back in their direction. They ducked, the blade missing them and slicing into the branches of the tree that had caught Glaciem. She could hear it whimpering in pain. 

“You said they didn’t like me, not that they wanted to kill me!”  Bick snapped at her angrily, digging through the tree’s leaves to retrieve the dagger. 

“They didn’t sound this angry back at the gate!” She protested as she called the water from her skin. 

Bick stopped searching to point at the Tree. “That thing is not going to stop attacking me unless you make it stop!”

“How on earth am I supposed to stop a feral Oak?”

Before he could answer, Bick’s feet went out from under him, his back slamming into the ground as tree roots pulled themselves out of the soil to twist around his legs. 

“You’re a Daughter of the Forest!” Bick shouted, clawing at the roots as they snaked their way up his torso. “Act like one!”

Glaciem turned to the tree, eyes wide and heart pounding. The tree had turned to face them, trembling with terrible strength. 

You are a Daughter of the Forest. 

Glaciem breathed out slowly. “Now act like one.” She growled to herself.

The tree charged towards Bick and as it did she ran to intercept it, the water she wielded now thinning and snaking around her arms. She cried out with effort as she whipped the water through the air, the thin stream slicing deep into the face of the trunk. The tree shrieked and its branches immediately turned towards Its face, pawing wildly at the source of its pain. 

“That is enough!” She commanded, poised to strike again. “He is with me, and I need him to stay with me!” She hoped her voice sounded strong and decisive. “I have no doubt in my mind you witnessed his actions on my behalf the night before. You should not dare to attack the friends of your keeper without expecting such repercussions as these!”

The tree stopped crying and stood silent. Glaciem felt as if she was being scrutinized. She knew, even with having gotten its attention with the water, she was still a far cry from the one the trees had been called to aid less than a day before. Here, she was only her small self, with only a single element to aid her. Still, she refused to avert her eyes, knowing this moment would decide whether she would continue farther into the Forest alone or with Bick.

Finally, the tree relaxed and though it did not move, the large branch it had used as a weapon curled gracefully around its body, signaling its surrender. Glaciem felt her insides unwind, though she didn’t dare show her relief outwardly. She did not want the tree to know how terrified she had actually been.

They have been without a shepherd for far too long. She thought. It’s going to take a while before they learn to respect me once more. 

As she turned to help Bick, he shot her a dark look. She held her hands up in surrender.

“Your trees have gone completely wild.” He snarled from the ground. 

He hand went to the shoulder that had been hit. He felt the bone for injury as the roots around him now sank back into the ground.

“They are not my trees.” Glaciem protested. 

The large tree behind her rumbled, clearly disagreeing with her. 

She sighed and spoke to it directly, “Oh, don’t argue with me. I don’t know the first thing about leading trees, much less how to properly command one!”

The tree’s rumbling subsided slightly as it gently lowered a branch to help Bick back to his feet.

“Thank-” He was cut off as the branch swatted him in the face with a bunch of leaves. “-you.”

“Well, we’ve been in the Forest for only a moment and so many exciting things have already come to pass. I can only wait in anticipation for what might happen next.” Glaciem said sarcastically, looking around for a clue as to which direction they should head. 

Bick joined her, “It looks like the largest trees are here, guarding the borders.” He said, pointing. “Maybe if we move inward we’ll be greeted with less opposition?”

“We might as well. At the very least, we could head in that direction until we have a better idea of what we’re up against. Remember, we don’t know which trees are our allies or enemies.” Glaciem said, stepping forward cautiously. “I’m not even sure they really remember who I am. I certainly can’t recognize them.”

“I can only hope if this is how your allies behave towards a friend, they’ll be even more hostile towards your foes.” Bick said gesturing towards the Oak, which growled at his outstretched finger.

The remainder of the night was spent quietly moving in what they hoped was the direction of the center of the Forest. Bick’s theory proved correct, which was fortunate; their altercation with the tree had turned them around and away from the path created by the roots from before. 

While the trees did indeed grow smaller the farther they walked, they were no less suspicious of him. Occasionally, Glaciem was obliged to argue with them, sometimes with water, sometimes with words alone. None of them were as formidable as the Oak had been, something for which Glaciem was eternally grateful. As the night continued she grew more tired and irritable and the threes less willing to listen to what Bick called “the voice of Elemental reason”.

Eventually, the two were forced to stop from exhaustion and lack of progress. They found a huge knotted tree so ancient it barely registered their presence as they circled it to look for a decent place to rest. 

I recognize you. Glaciem thought as they collapsed underneath the behemoth. 

It was the tree she had seen in her vision, though it was not near as fierce now. The only similarity now between it and the tree in her vision was its immense size, a fact that, under normal circumstances, would have Glaciem relief. Now, in her weariness, she could only muster a half-hearted mental acknowledgment of their good fortune.

They would not risk a fire, not that they needed it. The warmth of the Forest was almost enough to force them to shed their cloaks and the moonlight provided enough light for them to make themselves as comfortable as they could manage without disturbing the ground too much. 

Bick arched his back and stretched. Mild cuts and bruises covered his arms and the gash in his cheek had opened slightly. He absentmindedly wiped away the blood beginning to drip down his chin with his thumb before holding out his bandaged hand to study it. Even with the amount of damage that had been caused, the salve Narratus had applied was working well, which was surprising considering how short a time it had been since he had sustained the injury.

“I must have offended them in another life.” Bick muttered, sore and irritated. 

This was the first time he had sat down to rest since the Great Hall.

“Perhaps they simply don’t take well to strangers.” Glaciem replied sympathetically as she offered Bick water. 

He took it gratefully. She watched him take a long swallow.

“Are you sure it was a good idea coming with me?” She asked as she leaned forward to wipe away a drop of blood he had missed from his cheek. “Perhaps you should turn back.”

“No.” He replied without hesitation. “I will fight every single one of your damned trees while I’m here if it means peace for my mother and father.”

Glaciem stared into the dark trees around them, the Whispers now an ever constant in her mind, the intensity ranging from a mild buzz to a rumbling hum she could feel in her chest. She turned back to face Bick.

“I’ve not had a chance to speak with you privately about everything yet. Now that we’re alone I feel there’s so much to talk about, but I don’t even know where to begin.”

Bick’s gaze lowered to the ground. “Much to talk about.” He mumbled softly as he stared at nothing.

“Do you not think so?” She asked hesitantly. 

“I suppose I do have my own questions about things, yes.”

“As do I.”

She was undecided as to whether or not she should bring up what Bick’s father had revealed to her. The First had forbidden her from speaking, but now that everything had changed, she wasn’t quite sure if such a command still applied, neither was she convinced that it mattered at this point.

“Much to talk about and yet no words from you.” Bick chuckled quietly, teasing. “Very well, I shall begin. Why do you suppose the Elders refused to discuss the things my mother said to us? Why have they not mentioned the sound that came from the coffin?”

Even as he spoke, Bick’s voice cracked slightly at the mention of the strange death of his mother. The sound cut through Glaciem. 

“Would you prefer we not talk?” She asked.

Bick shrugged. “Perhaps not with anyone else, but I think you’re right. Now that we’re alone, we should take some time to discuss things. Presently, I trust you more than I trust the Elders. In truth, I’ve always trusted you more and now, knowing they lied to us for so long…”

Bick trailed off as he considered everything. 

“In any case, I would hear what you have to say on the matter.” He finished. 

Glaciem thought about it for a moment. “I don’t know. Perhaps they didn’t mention it because they didn’t know and were unwilling to venture a guess?”

“Or perhaps they do know and don’t want to tell us the truth.” Bick countered. “We’ve been wrongfully, purposefully, led to believe the Shadow was no longer a threat and yet we now know very differently.”

He paused for a moment before looking up, his eyes searching the heavens. 

“We did not know.” He murmured to himself.

I did not know.

“Your father said the same thing before he passed.” Glaciem replied, the First Elder’s words ringing clearly in her mind.

Bick looked at her. “He did.” He said finally, his eyes clouding over.

“Bick,” Glaciem said softly, reaching out to touch his shoulder, “I am deeply sorry.”

She felt his hand reach up to hold hers. They were silent for a moment, choosing to listen to the creaking trees and the invisible things chirping and whistling in the night.

Bick squeezed her hand before letting it drop. “I’ve already told you. You were not to blame.” He bent forward to lightly kiss her on the forehead. 

Glaciem was not convinced. “But I am. This would not have come to pass had I not been found.”

“It would have happened.” Bick retorted, his voice clipped and tight as he leaned back against the oak. “It might have happened another time, with another Village, or to another Elder perhaps, but it still would have happened. As long as the Shadow is alive, these things will happen. As long as you go on without fully understanding who you are, particularly to the Shadow, then these things will happen. There’s no point in arguing about this, Glaciem. It happened when it happened and I would choose to believe it happened when it was meant to happen. Please don’t lessen the death of my parents simply to ease your own conscience.”

“That wasn’t what I was trying to do.” She said, wounded by his words.

“The reason why I am not angry with you is because I recognize that we have all been living a lie. These past ten years could have been put to far better use preparing you adequately for a threat whose existence should not have been hidden from the Valley in the first place. We’ve all been made out to be who we are because of the lies we’ve been told and not one of us is who we ought to be. Because of that, we’ve acted as we ought not have acted.

“My father did nothing without first considering and weighing the costs of every possible outcome and I know he chose to act in the manner he believed was in the best interest of his family and the Valley. But even for all of that, he chose the wrong path. Now, we must all live with the consequences and do the best we can to make it right.”

Bick paused and lightly tapped Glaciem’s forehead. “That means you need to stop trying to bear all of our sins by yourself and it also means you need to focus on what is to come and what we must do. There is a deadly evil in these woods. We do not know where it is and we do not know how powerful it is. We’ve seen only hints and whispers of what the Shadow is capable of.

“I don’t know why my mother said what she said, nor do I know why that sound came from the coffin, but I’m willing to accept, unfair as it might be, that we are operating with far less understanding than what we are up against. We need to remember that and strive to do our best to figure out whatever we can. I’ve a feeling that, in due time, everything will come to light if we continue to strive for the truth.”

Bick stopped abruptly, his entire body sagging from fatigue. He held a hand up to his head. He paused for a moment.

“I can’t remember what I meant to say next.” He looked at her, frustration evident in his eyes. “I’m sorry if I was prattling.”

Glaciem shook her head, “You’ve nothing to apologize for. And you’re right. Everything you said was right.”

She turned her back and stretched out on the mossy ground. “I’m going to sleep. We haven’t slept in days now. I suggest you do the same. If the trees continue in their distrust of you, we’re in for a weary day tomorrow and every day after.”

She listened to Bick as he quietly settled beside her, his back pushed against hers. Though she was exhausted, she stayed awake long past him, listening to the sounds of his breathing lengthen and grow deeper as he drifted off. It wasn’t until she was convinced he wouldn’t wake that she allowed herself to close her eyes, her dreams full of trees breaking through the walls of buildings, dying men, and a column of fire that spiraled out of her mouth, singeing the faces of those she loved.

*~*~*~*

She is in a room. The room is tall and brightly lit with candles. The sun is shining through the tall windows, bathing every corner with its warmth. She is standing beside two coffins. They are fashioned from wood stained a deep red. The coffins are closed. She runs her fingertips across the top and can feel the knots and grain against her skin. There is laughter behind her. She turns around. Across the room is a man. His hair is black and his skin is pale. He is tall and well built and exceedingly handsome. His eyes are entirely unique; golden irises bearing an inner light from the heavens itself. They are bright and intelligent and flash as they hone in on her. His eyes are a stark contrast to the black cloak resting across his broad shoulders. He opens his arms wide to greet her.

You have returned home at last, sweet one.” He says to her. His voice is deep and it rumbles in her chest as he speaks. “You do not know how I have yearned to see you and here you finally are, at long last. You are home, within the Forest. I have missed you so.” He smiles brightly, his teeth are white and straight. 

Everything about him is clean and perfect, wholly pleasing.

She cannot answer, but this does not alarm her. It does not seem to her that she should speak, even if she could. Instead, she walks towards him, towards his arms, desperately wishing to be embraced by him, a feeling from deep within her aching with the longing.

As she walks towards him and away from the coffins, the room grows colder and darker. The sun has been covered by clouds. She stops to see the candles blowing themselves out one by one. The once pleasant silence becomes uncomfortable and stifling and as she looks, the coffins both unhinge themselves and the lids fall heavily to the floor.

Do you wish to see?” The man asks. 

His voice is still warm and inviting and the sun briefly breaks through the clouds. She nods and he strides casually towards her, fondly placing a hand against her back to guide her back to the coffins.

As they draw closer to the coffins, the room grows darker still and she can see her breath leaving her mouth in cloudy puffs that waft into nothingness. She slows her pace, but the man’s hand on her back is unyielding as it pushes her forward. In the coffins, she sees two men, one young with chestnut brown hair, and one old with a white beard that covers the better part of his chest.

She stands between the two coffins peering curiously at their contents. The men are both dressed in black, both with a single stone around their necks. The young man’s stone is bright blue. The old man’s stone is pure white and almost impossible to see amidst his beard. It takes her a moment to realize they are both submerged in water, their chins tipped upwards to the surface, the position allowing them the smallest amount of air. 

Do you know these two?” The man behind her asks, his voice honeyed and soothing.

She begins to shake her head, but stops. She does know them, but she cannot remember how or why. She leans towards the coffin with the old man and gingerly picks up the white stone. She holds it and studies it intently, trying to remember. She looks down briefly. The water ripples in the coffin and she realizes the man is breathing. She drops the stone and backs away, bumping into the coffin behind her, water sloshing over the sides. She turns abruptly towards the young man and feels a start in her stomach as his eyes open and lock with hers. His eyes are a rich brown, with flecks of gold, but his pupils are so wide with fear she can barely see the color. She backs away and glances at the other coffin, the old man’s bright blue eyes are also open, also full of fear, also paralyzed and unmoving.

Do you still not remember, Daughter of Trees?” The man behind her asks. 

He places his hand heavily on her shoulder and she jumps at the touch. She looks down at his hands and sees his skin is no longer pale, but has shifted to an ashen grey. His nails are as black as his hair and pointed. They begin to dig into her skin.

She ducks and slowly backs away from him. He is no longer smiling, but rather sneers in her direction. His white teeth slowly lengthen into pointed fangs. His golden eyes still flash with heavenly power, but now there is menace in them. His cloak swirls from winds she cannot see and dark shadows dance at his feet, jumping and spinning, growing larger and more wild with each movement.

Perhaps a hint will help you to remember.” The man whispers and raises his palm to her, revealing the marking of the Elements, the lines glowing.

Fire billows from his hand and spirals towards her. She gasps and holds her arms in front of her for protection, but it does little to stop the blast of heat from hitting her full on. She flies across the room and is thrown rudely into the windows behind her, the impact causing them to shatter all around her, bits of glass cutting deep into her skin.

She has little time to look up as another blast of fire shoots towards her. Frantically she leaps to the side, but the man is too quick and the fire singes her feet. As pain shoots through her legs, her eyes open wide and her memories come to her in full. She knows who the men in the coffin are, and she knows who the man in the dark cloak is.

Umbra.

The word floats through her mind, and though she cannot speak it, the man before her looks pleased. She stands and Umbra folds his arms in satisfaction when he sees the recognition coursing through her eyes. 

“Very good, Lilium.” He purrs.

She still cannot speak, but she does not want to. She will not play his games. She opens her palms and two strings of fire from the now burning walls behind her shoot into her hands. She poises herself, ready to pounce at him. Umbra chuckles and waves away the fire in her hands and on the walls. The flames disappear in black rolls of smoke. 

“You never did know when you were up against your betters. In any case, you and I are not here to fight.” He steps casually towards the coffins. He glances down at the men. “I came here to give you a choice.” Umbra looks back at her, his grin sinister. “Which one of these men shall I kill?”

Her breath catches in her throat and she moves to call the water out from the coffins. Umbra sees this and with a quick flip of his wrist binds her hands behind her back with a band of ice. He clucks his tongue disapprovingly.

If you do not behave, I shall be forced to choose for you, dearest one.” 

He continues walking towards her, his cloak billowing behind him, snapping against the stands holding the coffins. As he reaches her, he bends down so their eyes are level with one another. 

“I shall ask you one last time. Which one of these men shall I kill?”

This time, she does open her mouth to protest, but no sound emits. Umbra gives her a pitying look.

Very well.” He says, standing to his full height. “Let us see now.” He glances at the two coffins. “Maybe I should just kill them both?” He asks, grinning as he looks at her, “That way you will not be disappointed if I choose the wrong one? I do so hate to disappoint you.”

She tries to leap at him, but he pushes her back with a single hand, the force buckles her knees and she falls to the ground.

No…” Umbra muses. “It’s not so much fun when both are dead. Why end the suffering so quickly when we have so much time left to play?”

Umbra stands for a moment, pondering before he abruptly and suddenly turns to the coffin with the old man. With his large hand, he covers the man’s face entirely and forces his head under the water.

She struggles and opens her mouth in a silent scream, watching the old man struggle and flail in the coffin, water splashing in all directions, the sounds of his screams muffled by Umbra’s hand and the water he has been submerged under.

Umbra’s smile widens in full as he watches the man slowly die. He pushes his hand further down into the water and turns to glare at her, his expression triumphant. 

“What is most delicious about this, dear sweet Daughter of Trees,” he says, his arm shaking from the struggle in the coffin, “is the fact that, so long as you remain in my Forest, I will be free to haunt you. From the moment you close your eyes to sleep, to the moment you open them back up, I will be there to greet you. And when you and I are together, I will kill your loved ones in front of you every single night, in terrible ways. I will make them suffer and you will be powerless to stop me. I will chip away at your strength, break you down, bit by bit, night by night, and I will do it without you even remembering. You will wake and will not remember. During the day you will continue your pathetic little journey, but during the night, in the light of the moon, you are mine. You will sleep and I will come to you, and I will bestow on you one terror filled memory at a time.”

All she sees now is Umbra’s eyes burning into her. All she hears is his laugh and the coffin rocking on its stand. All she feels is the blood of the old man as it pours over her, choking her, bathing everything in red.