I’m woefully overdue for an update, so to make up for it I’m releasing five chapters at once. happy reading!
Glaciem stared at the sky, the light of the moon and stars shining through the tangled branches that marred her view. It was well into the night and the temperature had lowered considerably, the air crisp and sharp. When she had first walked out of the cave, the trees had regarded her with distrust, so she purposefully gave them their space and avoided looking at them. It was not until a small shrub had tentatively ventured to greet her that the others moved closer to shield her from the wind. She felt like an outcast, a feeling she had grown rather used to in the Village, but not one she had expected to feel now that she was here in her homeland.
“Are you cold?”
Glaciem turned around. Alexandros held out a cloak and though she was not cold she still accepted, grateful for his act of kindness.
“How is he?” She asked.
“He’s well. Still sleeping. About an hour ago he was in a bit of pain, but it passed quickly enough. There’s no need for you to worry.”
Alexandros sat down next to her. “No, I’m not in any pain.” He did not face her, but even in the dark, she could see his lopsided grin.
“I meant, how are you?” Glaciem clarified, rolling her eyes.
“I’m well enough, considering our circumstances.” Alexandros conceded quietly, his grin fading.
They sat in silence and Glaciem went back to gazing at the stars above. The stars had always caused a great stirring within her. Perhaps they knew who she was. Her father had been born of the sky, after all.
As Umbra had been.
The thought left an unpleasant taste in her mouth and she bent her neck forward to stretch.
“Why are you here, Alexandros?” Glaciem asked after a while.
She looked down at the ground, gingerly running her hands along her wooden leg, avoiding his stare.
Alexandros shook his head as his eyebrows furrowed, not understanding the question.
She tried to explain her thoughts. “You and I have only known each other for a short time. A very short time. We were betrothed because we were told to be betrothed, not by any choice of our own, and yet you’ve willingly risked your life on account of me or my actions,” Glaciem paused and counted on her fingers, “close to half a dozen times. When I told you to stay in the Village you refused and came to find me. And again, when I told you to leave when Umbra attacked us, you stayed. Your loyalty is,” She stopped again, unsure of the right word. “Well, it’s confusing. It doesn’t make sense to me. You can’t possibly care about me that much.”
“You assume time or sense have anything to do with love.” Alexandros murmured, turning to look up at the stars once more.
Glaciem hesitated. “I didn’t say love.” She ventured slowly.
“I know what you said.” He replied, turning to look at her. “I said love.”
She stared back at him silently.
“I chose my words purposefully,” Alexandros said, shrugging. “I said love because that’s precisely what I meant to say.”
She huffed. “What about Rose? You said you loved her. Shouldn’t you love her still?”
Alexandros answered without hesitation. “Of course.”
Glaciem raised her eyebrows and motioned with her hands expectantly, waiting for his explanation.
Alexandros paused, shaking his head as he smiled bitterly. “Rose is dead.” He said finally.
Glaciem blinked at him. “I thought she was married to your brother. You told me they had a child together.” She realized she was stammering.
“They did. A son. She died giving birth to him.”
Glaciem groaned and closed her eyes as the heat of shame rushed into her cheeks. “I’m sorry…I didn’t realize.” She trailed off, afraid her words would do more harm than good.
Alexandros rested his hand on hers, pressing it gently. “Don’t apologize. I’m the one who didn’t tell you.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because I didn’t want you to think I was resigning myself to something I didn’t want.”
“Of course not.”
“Because I love you.” He said quietly, studying her. “You may have only been away for a few days by your estimation, but to me, you were gone for a full year. After you…turned me away…I spent a substantial amount of time considering what I wanted. And no matter how many times I tried to convince myself otherwise, I couldn’t escape the truth.”
“What was the truth?” Glaciem asked quietly.
“You were what I wanted.” Alexandros whispered as he ran a finger down her cheek. He took a deep breath before letting it out shakily. “And so, I remained faithful to you and to what I hoped would be our future. I made you a vow, and I’ve chosen to keep it and will continue to keep it because, whether you would believe it or not, I have come to love you completely.”
“How can you know such a thing in so short a time?” She looked at him helplessly.
“Sometimes it takes years to love someone, and sometimes it takes only moments.” Alexandros grinned. “I suppose that wouldn’t make sense to someone who doesn’t necessarily understand the intricacies of the human heart or the concept of a life limited by the inevitability of death.”
“Speaking of which, what of the fact that I’m immortal?” Glaciem retorted.
His grin widened. “How do you know you’re really immortal? Perhaps you simply age slowly?”
Glaciem blinked. “It’s been clearly recorded that my father was immortal upon his creation. Even Umbra has never changed.”
“Even when Bick was a child, I still looked the same.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
“I am Auden’s daughter. That in itself is a fair indication of immortality, and I don’t think there’s a reason to assume otherwise.”
“And if all those things were totally true I would agree with you.”
She looked at him, confused. “What on earth are you talking about?”
“I’m saying your argument is only a half truth.”
“What part isn’t true? My appearance has not changed at all, and it is well known that the Elementals are immortal, and I am a Child of the Forest. I’ve been touched by the Forest, Blessed…”
Only half so. She realized as she trailed off.
“If you’ve not changed, why is your hair turning brown?” Alexandros asked flatly.
Glaciem frowned as she reached for the braid resting on her shoulder. She scanned the silver strands and discovered a few thin strands of chestnut brown swimming throughout the rest of her hair. The vision of her father flashed before her eyes as she remembered his words.
You are becoming human.
Irritated, she turned to Alexandros, but he had stood up and was already walking back to the cave. She stood and folded her arms in defiance as she called after him.
“And what if I don’t love you in return?”
The words came out sounding childish, but she was completely lost as to what else to say, and the subject of love and affection still made her uncomfortable. It was not something Narratus had ever discussed with her in great detail and she now both regretted and hated the fact that she had brought it up yet again.
Alexandros stopped and looked back at her mildly. “That’s the cruel thing about love, Glaciem. The heart, when it chooses for itself, pays no attention to the circumstances surrounding it or cares if its affection is returned. It loves who it loves, and it hates who it hates. There’s very little that can be done to help that.”
He walked back towards Glaciem and stood facing her, his eyes shifting to the ground. “I was not as honest with you as I should have been before. At first, I did hate you. And I hated the elders. I hated my brother. I hate my father. For a while, I even hated my nephew for killing Rose.
“But above all others, I hated myself. I hated how powerless I had been to fight for Rose when she was taken from me. I hated how helpless I felt when I heard that she was dead, and I hated how selfish I was when all turned to comfort my brother over her death instead of me.”
Alexandros’ eyes flitted up to Glaciem’s. “Then, years ago, when I was informed of our betrothal, I hated myself even more than I had before, to an extent that I had not thought possible.”
“Why?” Glaciem asked.
Alexandros gently picked up the blue stone that still clung faithfully to Glaciem’s neck. “Because as much as I hated you, I was rapidly beginning to love you and in turn, betray Rose. She had been completely devoted to me and I thought I had been devoted to her. She married my brother against her will, went to his bed against her will, bore his child against her will…and died for it. And I couldn’t even keep her honor in memory because as I began to observe you, I grew to love you on a level that far surpassed my affection for Rose. I’ve spent weeks without sleeping, suffering the torment of knowing the love she bore me was as real as the Forest itself, while my love for her was nothing more than boyish infatuation.”
Alexandros stopped and looked at Glaciem, his gaze unwavering to the point that she was forced to look away. As she averted her eyes to the ground, she stepped away, gently pulling the necklace away from his hand as she did so.
“I understood well enough what you meant when you told me that I was no longer obliged to follow through on our betrothal.” Alexandros said after a moment. “But what you fail to understand is that there is nothing you could say that will alter my feelings or my choice.”
“You’re a fool, Alexandros.” Glaciem said, still unable to meet his gaze.
He chuckled as he turned back to the cave once more. “I suppose you’re right.”
Glaciem watched him duck back into the cave.
I’m the fool.
Even if Alexandros did love her as he said he did, there was still no point in arguing about it. There were far more important things to spend her time thinking about, Bick being the most important of those things.
Thinking about Bick brought Glaciem’s thoughts back to the Village, to the night of her failed betrothal. She thought about what the First Elder had said to her.
Bick confessed to me his love for you only just this morning.
She had been confused then, but now, in light of everything Alexandros had said only moments ago, she was confused even further.
Does Bick feel the same for me as Alexandros does? Is it possible for two people to love one person? She tried to discern her own feelings. Can one person love two people?
The conviction of Alexandros’ words passed through her mind. It didn’t seem possible that love of that nature and depth could be applied to more than one person. Had she ever felt the way Alexandros said he felt about her? Did she even know what it was to genuinely love or care for another?
Perhaps I’m not capable of it. Perhaps it’s something only humans can do?
Even as she thought it, she knew the thought was wrong. Her father had loved her mother dearly. An uncomfortable realization settled over Glaciem.
Umbra had loved her mother as well, but he was not able to have her and terrible things happened because of it. Is that what love does? Destroys what it cannot have?
“Stop.” Glaciem said aloud, forcing the thoughts out of her head. “There is no point in speculating. It’s only going to divert my attention from what really matters right now. There are real problems that need to be addressed, and thinking about love will do absolutely nothing to solve those problems. I don’t care who loves me or who doesn’t love me.”
She bent down and picked up the cloak that Alexandros had brought out for her. Brushing the earth that clung to it off, she threw it over her shoulders and walked quietly back to the cave. She needed to sleep whether she wanted to or not. Tomorrow, she was going to try and find her father. She fully believed he was still alive, somewhere. If anyone could give her answers regarding how to help Bick and how to destroy Umbra, surely he would be the one who would know.
Did you think you were free of me? I am only just beginning to haunt you, Lilium. You do not know the terrors that will overcome you. You do not yet know the pain that you shall feel in time. Why delay the inevitable? Why fight when you know you cannot win? You will never be the daughter you once were. You are failing. You are dying. I’ve only toyed with you up until now. You weren’t able to stop me then, and you will not be able to stop me now.
Glaciem slept fitfully and by the time she did finally fall into a deep slumber, Bick had begun to shift restlessly beside her. She opened her eyes groggily, and pushed herself up, monitoring his movements.
She looked around and saw Alexandros near the opening of the cave. His head drooped, indicating that he was still asleep. It was still dark, but even so, Glaciem could see the pale light of morning beginning to creep into the cave. They would need to move soon.
“Bick?” She whispered quietly as she gently pressed her hand to his forehead.
There was no sign of fever, which was a relief. The cut on his back hadn’t been so deep after all. She wondered at that; Alexandros was a skilled swordsman, he would not have missed on purpose.
“Where are we?” Bick asked, his voice thick. His eyes were only half open and not yet able to fully focus.
“We’re safe. I think.” Glaciem replied softly.
Bick rubbed the sleep from his face with the palms of his hands, groaning. As he did, Glaciem noted his hands were no longer taloned and his eyes were bright and green, no sign of yellow at all.
Perhaps Umbra has let him go?
“I’m starving.” Bick grumbled.
Glaciem laughed lightly. “Shall I bring you something from the Great Hall then?”
Bick rolled his eyes at her before closing them again, still exhausted. “All humor and no sleep, I see.” He said, smiling faintly.
“I’m in great humor. You’re alive.” She replied earnestly. “Do you remember anything?”
Bick was drifting off again, his hunger not enough to dissuade his body from falling back into slumber. “I remember…” He trailed off, his chest rising and falling rhythmically.
Glaciem kissed his forehead gently and let him sleep.
“Is he alright?”
She turned and saw Alexandros crouching beside her. He looked at her mildly, his expressions betraying nothing of their conversations and his confessions from the night before.
“I believe he is, yes.” She replied. “I think sleep is the best thing we can give him right now.”
“I agree.” Alexandros nodded before sitting against the wall of the cave. “However, his being in this state does change things for us.”
“What do you mean?”
“If an infection settles in the wound, then it could easily take weeks before Bick would be on his feet again. The best possible scenario would be if he recovers in the next day or two. Even so, we can’t both stay here while he heals, regardless of how slowly or quickly that might end up being.”
“What do you suggest?”
“You need to keep moving,” Alexandros said without hesitation. “Umbra is looking for you, not me.
“Umbra isn’t looking for me.” Glaciem argued. “He knows exactly where I am. I think he’s always known. Besides, he’s somehow using Bick as a means to manifest physically, which means Umbra is already here as well.”
“Well then, what would you suggest?”
Glaciem paused. She didn’t have any suggestions that were better than Alexandros’. If she left and Umbra came back, Alexandros and Bick would be in danger. If Alexandros left and Umbra came back, then she and Bick would be in danger. Regardless of who stayed behind, they would be in danger.”
Then, neither of us can stay behind.
Alexandros looked at her quizzically. “What are you thinking?”
“What if we both left?” She asked cautiously.
Alexandros looked at her incredulously. “You want to leave him here like this? Alone?”
“How bad is the wound really? You already told me that it wasn’t deep and this morning he wasn’t feverish at all. He woke up and was hungry, there’s no sign of pain, and even now as I listen to him, he’s breathing easily enough.” Glaciem continued. “If I stay here and Umbra returns, through Bick or otherwise, I’m not so sure I could stop him. If you stay and Umbra comes, he’ll kill you without hesitation.”
“I’m the one who stopped him before.”
“You were lucky. We were both lucky.”
“Glaciem, we can’t leave Bick here by himself!” Alexandros threw his arms up in exasperation.
“He won’t be by himself!” She countered. “If I can convince the Elements to protect him, will you at least consider this as a possibility? There’s no other way. You’re right; we can’t stay here, and I need answers from my father, or I need to at least find his resting place. We don’t have the luxury of time. The Forest is becoming more alive every moment I’m here and now we have a chance to bring it back around to our cause. I’m finally able to use the Elements at will, not the other way around. I remember who I am and if there’s even the slightest chance I can save Bick by leaving now, then I want to take that chance.”
Alexandros sighed, his irritation at the situation clear. “Supposing if you’re able to persuade the Elements to listen to you, which I find very unlikely seeing as they’ve avoided Bick like the plague ever since he fell, where do you expect to find your father? You mentioned a giant oak, but now you’ve no memory of why. We have no direction to go, Glaciem. We’re walking blindly.”
“The trees didn’t know you at all, yet they willingly provided you with food and shelter when I was unconscious. Besides, we do have a direction.” Glaciem reasoned. “There’s no reason to assume the oak isn’t what we should aim to find simply because I can’t remember why I told you to go there in the first place. If you haven’t already noticed, my memory, while more complete than it’s been in a long time, comes and goes as it pleases, but that hasn’t lessened the value of what I do remember. We’re not walking blindly, we simply can’t see the whole picture yet.”
“If something happens to him you’ll never be able to forgive yourself. You know that.” Alexandros said, pursing his lips.
Glaciem paused, clenching her jaw. “I’ll never forgive myself for what I’ve already put him through. I’ll never forgive myself for involving him. There are many things I regret when it comes to Bick. If I hadn’t allowed myself to become so attached to him in the first place, perhaps it would never have come to this. Perhaps he would never have suffered as he has.”
Alexandros looked at her hard and Glaciem found it difficult to hold his pointed stare, hating how ashamed she felt for her inability to protect the people she loved. She felt worthless, incapable. She took a deep breath and looked away, trying to decide the best way to proceed.
You do not have the luxury of indulging in mere feelings right now.
“I feel confident leaving Bick here with the trees is the best option for all of us, and it is my final decision.” She said it with as much determination as she could muster while taking care to keep her voice from cracking.
Alexandros looked torn between being irritated and amused. “Very well. Then you can argue with your Forest while I fill our water skins and make sure Bick is comfortable before we depart. We have maybe an hour to spare.” He stood and grabbed the skins, heading out towards the lake.
Glaciem sighed. She rested her hand on Bick’s forehead one more time before getting up and walking outside the cave in order to turn her attention towards the Forest. She made sure she was a good fifty feet from the cave before she began her work. She closed her eyes and held her palms outward, fingers stretched toward the ground. The Elemental markings on her palms burned brightly, illuminating the soil beneath her feet and as they did, she could feel the humming of the trees and the Whispers of the Spirits within the Elements surrounding her. She allowed them to guide her speech and her movements, her body flowing with the unseen currents of air and wind.
“Harken unto me, all those who served the King, for behold I am his blood, and it is not within my power to accomplish that which I hope to do without your aid.” The words poured unbidden from her lips as she lifted her hands and beckoned to the Elements surrounding her.
A gentle whirlpool of color began to gather around her; the fallen leaves of the trees from the ground caught up by the ever circling breeze. She felt sparks of fire snap and crackle from her hands as they joined the twisting leaves and wind. From behind her, Alexandros returned and her dance pulled a thin stream of water from the water skins he carried. The water weaved its way into the ever tightening circle around her as roots lifted from the dirt to curl around her calves.
We are here.
Glaciem opened her eyes and watched as the Spirits of men and women pulled away from their respective Elements to kneel before her, their figures wispy and white, transparent enough for her to see through them with ease. They moved as one unit, a collective entity made of millions of spirits.
These are my Whispers. Glaciem realized.
You are in danger, Daughter of Kings. The voices sighed as one. It was the first time she had heard them speak in complete thoughts.
“We are all in danger, and have been for many years.” Glaciem did not recognize her own voice.
We are in danger.
“I need your help. I need you to look after my brother.”
Not your brother. Not your brother.
“He is my brother still.” Glaciem did not let her voice waver.
Not your brother. The Whispers repeated themselves once more, their voices urgent and insistent.
Glaciem clenched her jaws. She felt a hand on her shoulder. Alexandros had joined her, the circle of wind of leaves widening to include him. He caught her gaze and nodded for her to continue, his hair ruffling lightly in the breeze.
“Very well.” She conceded. “He is not my blood, strictly speaking, but he is my brother technically speaking, and I’m asking you to watch over him, regardless of either one of those factors.”
We cannot watch that which lies in Shadow. We cannot see in the Dark.
Alexandros leaned over and murmured in Glaciem’s ear. “You need to stop asking them. You are their sovereign. You command the Elements. They no longer command you.”
Glaciem paused and considered this before looking at the Elemental Spirits before her. “I’ve not made myself clear.” She began again. She would not be cruel as Umbra was, but neither would she allow the Elements hold sway over her decisions any longer. “I am charging you with watching over Bick until he heals.”
The Elements looked wounded and held their hearts as if she had hurt them deeply, but Glaciem continued on. If there was no room for feelings regarding her heart, then neither could she allow feelings to interfere with her desire to protect Bick.
“You will ensure his safety, and keep him hidden away until he wakes of his own accord. You will provide him with food, water, shelter and relay to him whatever message I choose to send him when I am able to do so. I trust you understand?”
The Spirits faded back into their Elements, sorrow twisting the features of their faces. They did not like Bick, they did not like what he hosted, but they would not disobey the King’s daughter.
We obey, we die. We obey not, we die. We obey, we die.
The implication was clear enough and it cut Glaciem to hear it. Whether they would die by her hand or in service of it was not known, but what was certain was that they felt they would indeed perish. The rush of Elements that had surrounded her now either faded away with the Spirits or fell to the ground where they belonged.
Glaciem breathed out, her hands shaking. “I never realized they were still people. I only thought the Elements were just…things…to be wielded as I chose. I’m playing with human lives, Alexandros.” She turned to him, grateful that he had not left her side.
“You’re not playing. You’re ruling.” Alexandros replied quietly. “You are the daughter of the King. You were always meant to rule, and that means you must make difficult choices. People die at the hands of their rulers, whether that ruler be good or bad.”
For all the effort she had put forth in trying to ignore the turmoil in her heart, suddenly Glaciem could no longer continue in her facade of pushing her feelings away. In that moment, if only for an instant, Glaciem wished that she had been properly betrothed to Alexandros. She allowed him to pull her close, and took comfort in his embrace, his arms wrapping around her tightly.
“The choice you must make is not whether your people will die, but if they die fighting for you and the cause you believe in, or if they will die at the hands of Umbra, who intends to destroy everything you love.”
“But that’s just it.” She said, torn. “I’ve commanded them to look after the very man they believe will harm them.”
“And this is a risk we’re obliged to take. Bick is in that cave right now, not Umbra. And you made the choice to leave him there in the hands of the Forest and the Forest will, as will I, follow your lead. We trust you. You must learn to trust yourself.”
Alexandros’ lopsided grin made Glaciem smile, but she was still uneasy. “If I recall correctly, you were not so in favor of leaving him here.”
He shrugged and released her from his grip, weighing the water skins to see if he needed to fill them once more. “You’d be surprised how one’s opinions can be swayed when you see the woman you love conversing with tree ghosts.”
He turned back towards the cave.
“It can be quite persuasive.” He said, looking over his shoulder at her.
Glaciem had taken time to further converse with the trees that now, reluctantly, stood watch outside Bick’s cave. They were not to release Bick from the cave until he was able to stand on his own for an extended period of time. Of all the trees present, only the Birch that had befriended Alexandros earlier seemed remotely willing to be there.
As they readied themselves and gathered the last of their supplies, Glaciem thought about the fact that she knew she still did not have the trees’ full trust. They loved her father, however, and were willing to follow her to honor him.
I wonder if the Elements know where he’s been hidden? She quietly dwelt on the thought as she and Alexandros exited the cave and turned back towards the borders of the Forest.
They had decided to head towards the border as Glaciem had instructed Alexandros to do before. The only tree she could remember from the beginning of her journey that seemed remotely viable was the giant oak she and Bick had slept under their first night in. It was indeed a blind shot in the dark, but seeing as it was the only tree that hadn’t blatantly attacked Bick. It was also the best chance they had, seeing as she could think of no other option. The only thing that seemed to be truly in their favor, was that the fact that their journey would be quick. Both she and Alexandros had passed by the unmistakable tree as they had entered the Forest, which, by Alexandros’ estimation, was not even a full days’ walk.
“Are you alright?” Alexandros asked her when they had gone far enough for the cave to be completely out of view.
“Yes? Should I not be?” She asked, trying to feign innocence as she picked her way over roots and grass. She kept her eyes down to where he could not see them.
He gave her a withering look. “Glaciem, whenever you pass a tree it buzzes. You need not pretend you’re easy with this, and you certainly don’t need to pretend for my sake. It won’t lessen your decision in my eyes. In fact, if you didn’t feel some sense of regret, I would think you callous.” Alexandros grinned.
She shot him a sideways look. The trees behind him shied away slightly. “You’re welcome to go back and wait with Bick if you would prefer.”
“I wouldn’t prefer.” Alexandros said simply, ignoring the bite in her words. He knew it wasn’t directed at him.
Glaciem sighed and kept walking, now acutely aware of the Forest’s reaction to her presence. She had not realized it until now, but the water in her skin had begun bubbling and her hands were releasing small wafts of smoke every time she clenched her fists.
“I’m…vexed.” She said flatly, feeling silly for saying it aloud.
Alexandros raised his eyebrows, indicating that she should continue.
She sighed again, not sure how to aptly express her thoughts. “I feel as if during this entire journey Umbra has always been one step ahead of us, always knowing where we would be, always knowing what we would do. What I would do. Remembering my past hasn’t helped me feel any more capable than before. If anything, it’s set me back. Even with all of the Elements, it’s not enough.” She ducked irritably out of the way in order to avoid a branch that had bent down to offer her comfort. “We’ve been fighting for our lives while he’s just been idly toying with us.”
Alexandros paused to duck beneath the same branch before answering. “Why do you bother with regretting reality? Umbra has always been one step ahead of you. That I’m willing to concede and you should too, but why bother with letting it affect you so greatly? Simply accept it as truth and do what you can to counteract it.
“You can’t win this fight if you’re so busy trying to discover a way to destroy him under false circumstances or through impossible scenarios. Even if you did figure out a way to defeat him based on your imagined factors, in reality, it still wouldn’t work because you would be expecting things that weren’t truly in play. You must figure out a way to beat him with the circumstances you’ve been given, not the ones you wish for.”
“But how am I supposed to defeat him when he doesn’t play by the rules?” She asked, exasperated.
“Glaciem, stop.” Alexandros stopped walking and put his hands on her shoulders, turning her to face him. “I overheard what Umbra told you when we were back at the clearing with your father’s throne. He said until you accepted who you really were and until you understood who he is, then you will never be able to stand up to him. You may not like it, but I agree with what he said.
“Remembering everything and accepting everything are not the same things. You’ve lamed yourself before the battle has even begun by refusing to accept the truth. Stop trying to force things to fit into your idea of what that truth should be.”
Alexandros poked her forehead. “Instead, try fitting in with what the truth is. If you can’t focus your efforts on making the most of the situation as it is, then Umbra is going to rip you to pieces. Everything has happened the way it happened, how it was meant to happen. Stop trying to change that. You’ll drive yourself mad, and everyone around you will pay for it.”
Alexandros released her and continued walking.
Glaciem was taken aback. His words stung.
It’s because they’re true.
The voice in her head was unwelcome, but still, she could not ignore it.
“A true leader does not wonder why the chasm he faces has no bridge. He instead looks for a way to fly.” Alexandros called over his shoulder.
Glaciem pursed her lips and continued walking behind him. “A true leader also knows when he is or isn’t a bird.” She muttered ruefully as she folded her arms stubbornly.
Alexandros whirled around and walked back to Glaciem, closing the gap between them quickly. His eyes bore into hers as she tried to hold his gaze. She stepped back, her own eyes wide with surprise. The trees surrounding her growled, unsure of his sudden movement.
He leaned in, his brows furrowed. “Wise leaders also surround themselves with those who would pledge their life in service to them so when they forget, their advisors can remind them that birds aren’t the only creatures with wings.”
Glaciem set her jaw as she raised her chin to him. “And what am I, if not the bird who flies over the chasm?” She challenged.
Alexandros saw the spark in her eyes and nodded in satisfaction. “You’re the dragon who burned down the bridge in the first place.”
He turned back around once more and picked up his pace. Glaciem was obliged to trot in order to catch up with him. “You’re angry with me!” She said when she was by his side.
“You’re displeased then.”
Alexandros kept his gaze forward, unwilling to stop again. “You’re refusing to listen because you’ve become so infatuated with the idea of what could be. You’re slowly becoming incapable of seeing the actuality of what is. You wish for a false existence, one where Bick isn’t wounded and alone in a cave, one where Umbra doesn’t have the upper hand and one where none of this was happening the way it’s happening.”
Alexandros searched the trees as he continued.
“Believe me, Glaciem, I’ve wished for things to be different as well, but there comes a point when you must forsake those worthless wishes. You must open your eyes to see what is before you. Can you do that?” He stopped to look at her. “Can you truly see yourself? Truly see the Forest?”
“Truly see you?” She asked it without thinking, the words escaping her lips before she could stop them. She regretted it the moment they did.
Alexandros clenched his jaws. “Perhaps.” He conceded quietly before continuing to move forward.
It was clear she had wounded him. She could not pretend to be unaware of how he felt. From the moment they had met he had made his love for her evident, and from the moment they had met she had balked. She knew it frustrated him that she would not openly admit to feeling something for him, but there were too many things she deemed more important. Too many things that now required her attention. She brushed the few strands of hair that had escaped her braid out of her face, noting that there were several more strands of brown intermingled with the white.
“Alexandros, please. You must understand the position I’m in.” She said after a time.
“Is it not the same position that I’m in?”
“No, it’s not. Bick’s life is not dependent on your choices right now. The Village’s safety does not rest with you.”
Alexandros snorted. “Have you forgotten that I’m the First Elder? Forgive me, but Bick’s life and the Village’s safety rests on both of us now. I’m following your decisions of my own free will, not because you’ve forced me. If something happens to him, his blood will be on my hands just as much as on yours. If, heaven forbid, I don’t return from the Forest and the Village is left without its First, will that not also be on my head?”
“Then why on earth are you so focused on trivial matters such as love?” Glaciem threw her hands into the air in frustration. Leaves from the ground followed her movements and fluttered into the air, showering them as they floated back down to the ground.
At this, Alexandros laughed outright. “You think love is trivial? Heavens, Glaciem, do you not even remember how the Forest itself came into existence? Do you not remember why King Audens and Umbra were at odds?” He stopped and looked at her, amused. “It was for love. There is nothing greater nor more precious in the world than love, and those who possess it have the power to destroy empires or to build them.”
“Surely not everyone needs love in order to make their way in the world.” Glaciem replied, refusing to let him convince her.
She followed alongside him, her footsteps leaving behind charred grass and leaves, the ashes flitting around her calves as she moved.
“Perhaps,” Alexandros said, nodding slightly. “Though I would never wish such a thing on myself or anyone else for that matter. In my estimation, love and life go hand in hand. There’s no purpose in living if it’s not for the love of someone or something.”
“That’s a bit too romantic for me.” Glaciem retorted.
She quickened her pace as she began to recognize the foliage around her, passing Alexandros in the process. The large oak was nearby, she could tell.
“Love and infatuation are not the same thing.” Alexandros replied, jogging to catch up with her. “Besides, I know what it is to lose love. Now that I’ve found it again, I don’t intend to treat it with anything less than total revere.”
Glaciem ignored his implication. “I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. You’re a fool, Alexandros of the Northern Waters.”
“I don’t deny it.”
Glaciem did not respond. Before her stood the old oak. It was just as large as she had remembered. Its long and twisted branches drooped to the ground from their own weight, their span easily surpassing the span of the clearing where they had found the throne.
“This is it?” Alexandros asked.
“I don’t know.” Glaciem replied honestly as she shrugged her shoulders. “But we can hope it is.”
“Will you tell Bick where you are or do you wish to wait until we know for certain?” Alexandros asked as he walked past her and inspected the circle of char Glaciem had left behind the first time she had been there. He tilted his head at it, his expression one of curiosity. She was surprised there were still remnants of it left.
She took a step forward, studying the oak. “We should wait. There’s no point in sending him here if I don’t know for certain this is where we should be. Besides, I don’t want him to travel any further than he needs to until he’s completely well again.”
“You need not bother yourself with my well being.”
Glaciem and Alexandros turned around at the sound of Bick’s voice, their eyes wide with surprise. He stood behind them, no more than ten feet away. He swayed slightly as he stood, the light of the sun hitting his face at odd angles as it poured down from the branches above him. His skin was pale and his demeanor was dark and subdued, a quiet resignation filling his eyes.
“Bick!” Glaciem choked, shocked at his appearance. “Have you been following us this whole time?”
“I was already here, waiting for you.” His tone was low and tired.
He looked down at his hands and tilted his head as if he did not recognize them.
“How is that possible? We left you in the cave, we watched the trees cover the entrance.” Alexandros asked.
He slowly moved in front of Glaciem, his arm out to protect her. The trees followed suit, curling around her, uncertain.
Bick lifted his head back up, his eyes glassy and unfocused. “Do you still not see what is happening?”
He spoke slowly, his voice ringing with the tones of frustration, as if there was more he wanted to say but could not. He looked around him, noting the trees and squinting in the sun as he let his gaze wander up.
“What on earth are you talking about?” Glaciem asked, bristling. “We left you in the cave to heal, to recover. I told the Forest to protect you.” Her stomach churned.
Perhaps an infection has settled in his wound and he’s become delirious.
“You can’t protect me.” Bick sighed and let his gaze flit back to where the oak was. As he did, his eyes landed on Glaciem and locked with hers.
For a moment Glaciem felt alone in the Forest, with Bick as her only companion. She felt herself being rushed through the events that had passed since their entering the Forest. She was back at the beginning of her journey with him. She remembered when the trees had first alerted her to their distaste of Bick. She saw clearly now the darkness hiding in his heart. The darkness she had been so unwilling to see until now.
She saw the way the trees had desperately tried to protect her from him. The way she had fought with the trees to keep Bick with her, the way she had ignored the Whispers’ constant warnings. Her mind flew to the river they had encountered and saw with sudden clarity that she had not been pulled in by invisible vines, but by Bick himself. She saw now his thrashing in pain had not been to prevent his transformation, but had been a precursor to its inevitable coming.
She saw clearly now how he had walked the Forest at night and had whispered to the trees that hailed the Darkness. She saw him walk silently to her sleeping figure and rest his hand upon her head. Dreams of torture and chaos filled her memory. Silent threats that, up until now, she had not been able to recall.
She considered the night of her betrothal, and watched as his hand passed over the cup of wine his father drank during the night of her betrothal. She saw the way his eyes had furrowed in what she now understood was not an act of deep thought, but an act of contempt satisfaction.
She watched the bitter fight they had engaged in years ago, and understood the reason behind his savage attacks, his attempts to force her to strike at him. He had wanted her to kill him, had wanted her to free what was dwelling deep within him.
She felt herself being taken back all the way to their beginning, ten years ago, their entire past nothing more than a facade to mask what had been churning and growing within his heart, dormant until she and the Forest had awakened once more.
She traveled back to Bick’s conception, when the blackness first entered his body. She saw the Second Mulier’s labor, how she had struggled and how after she had birthed, not her son, but the Shadow of her son. She saw the blight left within her body, a terrible sickness that had grown until it had overcome her entirely and ripped her body asunder.
She saw how the darkness had been awakened in Bick, how it had been waiting until such a time when Glaciem would once again re-enter the Forest and bring back life, not only to It, but to that which had been hiding right beside her in the Village.
Yet, for all the darkness she saw, she could also see her Bick’s bright spirit shining through. He had still been her closest friend, her caring companion. It had not been all darkness. She had still known the man who should never have lived. She had still seen and experienced the goodness in his heart. She had caught glimpses of what he would have been had the circumstances been different.
She watched the future he would never have. She watched him grow to be a man of valor and of virtue, one to whom all would look to in times of tribulation. In another lifetime, he would have fought beside her and for her. In another lifetime he would not have suffered so terribly, his body supplanted for the evil whims of another.
“I would have stayed with you. I would have stayed until the end.”
Glaciem had not realized that she had closed her eyes. She opened them now and looked up into Bick’s face. He had walked up to her, close enough for their chests to almost touch. His breath was sour, small puffs of strained air releasing against her face as he breathed. She could see now the yellow of his skin, and the dilation of his eyes, the green almost completely overtaken by a black too dark to reflect the light of the sun. She could smell his fear.
“Do not weep for me. For this must come to pass, and there is no help for it.”
The voice was Bick’s still and it was Bick still who had been beside her. It had not all been a farce.
“Strong Heart?” She whispered, terror rushing through her veins.
She timidly rested her shaking hands on his chest. His heart was racing, beating almost too quickly for her to feel each pulse. Bick gently brushed her cheek with his fingers and she could feel his tremble of pain and regret.
“Strong Heart was dead the moment he was born.” Bick replied quietly, leaning down to kiss her forehead one last time, his hand cupping the back of her neck tenderly. “I’m sorry.” He whispered as he pulled away.
She drew in her breath quickly. As he stepped back, she searched his face and could still see her Bick inside. She could still sense his pure Spirit, his love for her, his honor, but she also saw the Shadow rising and fighting within him, overcoming him.
He has lost his battle.
“Don’t leave me. Please.” Glaciem said desperately, knowing her plea was in vain.
A slight smile crossed Bick’s lips. “Everything has happened as it was meant to happen.” He whispered as he closed his eyes.
Glaciem watched as her tears fell freely down her cheeks, petrified of what would come next, knowing there was nothing she could do to stop it.
Bick looked beyond her, reaching out his hand to the large tree looming over them. He clenched his fist and as he did the tree began to crack and break, collapsing into itself. Glaciem turned around, her voice catching in her throat as wood and bark shattered. Alexandros turned his back to the carnage and did what he could to protect her from the splinters that flew through the air.
The tree hissed helplessly in fear as Bick blankly stared in its direction, his movements no longer his own. He held both hands in front of him now, his hands extending over Glaciem’s shoulders. He tore through the air with his fingers. The ancient tree shrieked in protest as it was lifted into the air, its massive trunk no longer anchored into the ground by tendrils of roots. Bunches of moss tumbled down the branches as the tree began to tip sideways, too tired and old to right itself.
Glaciem and Alexandros’ mouth dropped in horror as the last bits of roots wrenched free from the soil, the tree now completely sideways as Bick’s eyes rolled back into his head from the effort.
For a moment he paused, waiting, until finally, he dropped his hands. The tree followed and crashed down with tremendous force, the impact sending dirt in every direction, the earth rumbling as it tried to absorb the shock of the now perishing oak.
Bick sighed, the sound muddled by the gurgling of fluid in his lungs. Glaciem and Alexandros turned back towards him. His face was contorted and twisted, the whites of his eyes still showing. A thin line of red shot down the center of his face and down his neck and chest, traveling beyond Glaciem’s sight as it slid below the fabric of his tunic.
The line began to widen, his skin peeling away to accommodate it. Blood poured through the wound and seeped into his clothes, which ripped away from his body. The sound of tearing fabric joined the popping of bone, the hollow cracking of Bick’s body giving way echoing through the trees.
From beneath the skin that stretched and tore away, she could see another face, another body rising up from the shell that has housed it. Golden eyes glinted through the red river seeping into the earth. Gray muscles pulsed and pushed through flesh, renting it as it fell to the ground. Still, the skin continued to tear away, revealing more of the villain who had so poorly abused it.
The trees surrounding Glaciem were rigid with fear, their branches coiled and tensed. The Whispers gasped in terror, urgently warning of her of the danger now before her. Even the large oak rumbled in agitation as it lay dying on the ground, Its final breaths taken in agony as the last remnants of life left Its branches.
Glaciem stood still, unable to speak or move, only able to watch as Umbra rose from Bick’s broken body in his final transformation, finally free of the cocoon that had bound him for so long. Finally, fully, himself.
Umbra stretched luxuriously, watching her pointedly as he did so, relishing her quiet anguish.
“Hello, sweet one.” He said quietly, dots of red freckling his face.
A rush of wind raced between them, Umbra’s black hair danced in the breeze. Drops of blood released themselves from the strands and speckled the branches closest to him.
Still, Glaciem did not speak. Something inside her had shattered and was no longer working. She could feel nothing but a void that ached sorely deep within her, a void filled with nothing but the realization of who she was and who it was that stood before her.
As she gazed at the Shadow himself, everything left of her life in the Village shriveled away under the weight of him. As every shred of her last ten years broke apart into nothingness, she looked at him. Not with eyes of hate, but with eyes of unfathomable regret.
Every emotion she had lacked before now filled every crevice of her soul. From underneath her hair, she felt the scar of her wound slowly peel away from her scalp, the injury done to her years ago vanishing as a new, deeper injury settled in her bones. The sacrifice of Bick’s Spirit in order to keep Umbra’s alive flooded every part of her, and from the scarred flesh that fell from her scalp was born new flesh, soft and no longer marred by past poisons. The puckered and twisted skin floated to the ground, curling into black nothingness as it touched the living soil beneath her feet, the Forest unwilling to accommodate its blight.
Audens may have returned her memory, but Umbra had returned her purpose.
“Oh, Glaciem.” Umbra sighed, emphasizing her human given name, “do you miss your brother?” He leaned closer to her and whispered, his voice dripping with acid as a smile played on his lips. “Are you sad that he is dead?”
He spoke the last word with such emotion as to almost make it sound if he himself was remorseful of his actions. Were it not for the glint of pleasure in his eyes, Glaciem might have once been fooled into thinking he was sorry for the torment he caused her.
She raised her chin, still deathly quiet, still unwilling to speak. Her eyes did not waver as she looked at Umbra. She saw him in new light, in true light, though she could not bring herself to speak of what she now knew and understood. All around her the Elements stood at attention, ready to head the call of their mistress should she hearken unto them.
From somewhere within her reverie, she felt Alexandros’ fingers as they intertwined with hers. She had forgotten he was there beside her. She looked back on everything he had done for her and now finally, fully, understood the depth of the love he bore her. For the first time, she felt her heart swell and pulse in time with his own. She closed her fingers around his and held them tightly. She would not let him go. This man loved her as deeply and as perfectly as one could, and she would love him in return.
Umbra laughed loudly at Alexandros’ act, and kicked away the remains of Bick’s body, now nothing more than a heap of flesh, blood, and bone staining the Forest floor.
“I must insist on chiding you Lilium, for you should be proud of your brother and not mourn his loss. He was elevated beyond his mortal state, deemed worthy to vessel my soul until such a time as this. Surely, these are accolades worthy of the respect of the blood of Audens?”
How strange it is.
Even as Umbra’s mocking tone seeped into her ears Glaciem found she could not hate him for it. Through the shock of his actions, she could feel the deeper mysteries at work. She could feel the profound change happening within her.
Umbra tilted his head, irritated at her lack of response. He pushed his palm towards her and she could feel the rise of the roots beneath her feet. She understood the intent of his actions; to take Alexandros away from her.
She would not allow it.
Glaciem tilted her head towards the earth, her eyes never shying from Umbra’s. The roots subsided immediately, much to his frustration. As Glaciem breathed out, a small puff of smoke wafted through the air. It was a clear and unmistakable threat.
Touch Alexandros, and I will force you to pay dearly for it.
Umbra grinned ruefully as he chuckled. “It seems the great Lilium of the Forest has at last woken up. But now I see she judges me far too harshly. She still fails to comprehend that we are not all that different from one another.”
He walked up to Glaciem, the shadow of his figure billowing towards her. She remained, unmoving, only deigning him worthy of her raising her head to meet his eyes, her expression void of any emotion he could discern.
“Indeed, we are not that different at all.” He continued, searching her. “We are both of the Forest, of the earth. Why, even that insipid human you consider worthy enough to cleave to your side is of the earth.” He leaned in and whispered. “So you see we are all connected.”
“You will not touch him.” Glaciem replied evenly. Her voice low and calm.
The Forest’s Whispers joined their voices with hers as she spoke, the hum of the many lifting up the singularity of hers. She felt Alexandros’ breath catch and his fingers stiffen. She felt the roots beneath her intertwine themselves with her feet, anchoring her down to the Forest she so dearly loved.
The moving of the roots within the soil had not escaped Umbra. His eyes lit as he felt them vibrating and shifting as they hastened to Glaciem. He had waited for her awakening, so had the Forest. Now, as she stood before him strong and unbending, it thrilled him.
Umbre grinned as he looked Alexandros over. “Fear not. It’s of little matter to me if he survives for a while longer. He won’t die today, that I can promise you.”
He shifted his focus back to Glaciem.
“Really, Lilium, you should be relieved that he is of no great significance. For now, he is free, which is to say is he free from me.”
Though his implied meaning was plain, Glaciem felt no threat from his words. Regardless of what he said, she knew with certainty it was not within Umbra’s power to do Alexandros harm.
She felt peculiar. As she gazed at Umbra, she felt her eyes traveling through his cloak, to the skin that covered his body and beyond. She could see right through to his very heart, could see the blackness that caused him so much pain and anger.
“This has never been about me, or my death, or the death of those who love me.” Glaciem said, seeing everything clearly, her memories now coinciding with all that she had experienced.
Umbra snorted, his sneer fading as he gritted his teeth together. “I’ve already told you I had no plans to kill you, at least not until I’ve had my fun.”
“No.” Glaciem shook her head. As she spoke the Whispers filled her mind with the words she needed to finally express what it was she was seeing in his heart. “It goes beyond that.”
Umbra’s expression went dark as he backed away from Glaciem, feeling her eyes probing his soul. “Do you finally see all, Daughter of Kings? Do you see why I will not kill you today?”
“Because you can’t.”
“Because I won’t.” Umbra corrected. “What your father failed to tell you because he feared its implications, was that he is not the Heart of the Forest, nor ever was. How could he be? His heart was not his own. A twin’s heart is never one’s own.” He paced, reliving the memories that tormented his days. “No, Audens is not the Heart, nor am I. But you, Lilium. You are the Heart of the Forest.”
Glaciem did not respond, but let him continue, let him speak the words she already knew.
“Your blood is special. It was your first cries of life, not your father’s final cries of death, that brought about the Elements. If I die, the Forest lives, if Audens dies, the Forest lives, but if you die, the Forest will cease, the Elements will be free, and the spirits of those who dwell within them will at long last be put to final rest. Your father and I will be nothing more than the results of a forgotten union from eons ago, never aging, but without these blessed, cursed, abilities.
“Your father hid you well away from my sight. For years, I found a way to retain my powers outside of the Forest that had fallen dormant along with your slumber, spending generation after generation buried within the bellies of mothers whose children would die as soon as they were birthed. For years, I waited, not knowing if you would ever be found, not knowing if you would ever awaken.”
Glaciem listened to him in silence, noting the anguish in his voice.
Umbra continued. “Imagine my surprise then, when Strong Heart did not die. It was a turn of events that told me many things. It told me the time for you to return to me was near. It told me the time for the Forest to wake was upon us. And here we are now, finally. Now you have come back at long last. I have waited many, many years for this to happen. I do plan to kill you, Lilium, but only when your father can watch from a distance, unable to do anything to stop the inevitable. It’s no fun at all to take away the thing that your enemy holds most dear if he does not know it’s being taken away.”
“But you can’t do that yet, because you can’t reach my father. Only I can do that.” Glaciem replied, searching Umbra’s face.
Umbra’s eyes trembled as he held her gaze, his nod near imperceptible. For the first time, she saw the wild, incomprehensible pain that drove him.
“Those called to service to the king are given a second life.” She continued slowly, repeating the words he had once spoken to her as she thought. “And if I die, the Forest will die with me.”
Glaciem paused and drew in a long breath, meeting Umbra’s stare with new sharpness. “You don’t want to kill me just for the sake of forcing my father to watch. I myself am of no account and you couldn’t care less if I perish. I am now simply a means to an end because I no longer mean anything to you. You want to take everything away from my father because he took everything away from you. He took away the woman you loved.”
Umbra stared at her with unflinching eyes. Smoke billowed from his feet.
She continued, “If I die, then my father will remain, as you said. He will have nothing, as you have had nothing. Now that I am alive and once again bound completely to the Forest, you believe it to be within your power to finally have what you most desire.”
Suddenly Umbra broke out into a wide smile, his golden eyes glinting in satisfaction. He walked close to Glaciem and ran his fingers through her hair, almost lovingly.
“How long have I waited for you to remember everything. To understand it completely. You are truly yourself once more.”
He paused as his fingers brushed against a single strand of brown hair. He held it up to the sun and gazed at it. “Though, it does not seem you will remain so for long.” His voice faltered. “This…I had not expected this.”
Alexandros moved to push Umbra away from Glaciem, but she held his hand tightly, silently imploring him to remain still.
“What was her name?”
Umbra looked stricken as he looked back down at her. “What?” He asked, fire flashing in his eyes.
“My mother. Her name. What was it? My father will not speak of her, and the Elements will not answer me when I ask.” Glaciem looked at him, tilting her head as she did so.
Umbra’s jaws clenched, all traces of tenderness and vulnerability gone. He dropped the strand of hair he had been holding and stepped away. The ground around him ignited. Small flames licked at his robes and traveled quickly across the green grass towards Glaciem and Alexandros.
“Do not come back to me until you’re ready to end this.” He said, his tone ice.
Glaciem nodded and turned away, pulling Alexandros with her.
“What are you doing?” He whispered fiercely. “Why are we leaving?”
“We are going back to the Village.”
“We’re doing what?” Alexandros asked incredulously.
“We’re leaving the Forest.” Glaciem said again, more slowly.
“But what about the tree? He’s destroyed it, what if your father-”
“I was wrong about the tree. He is not here. We will leave now and find him later.”
“You’re surrendering the Forest to the Shadow?”
Glaciem shook her head as she walked. “No. Umbra has wanted this war for a long time, and I intend to give it to him. I will not suffer his spirit blighting my Forest any longer. If he wants to see his brother, then his brother he shall see. Umbra took Bick away from me. I will not allow him to take anything or anyone else I hold dear. We will see him in battle, and it will be the end of the Shadow in this world. I will see to it myself.”
“I don’t understand anything that just happened.” Alexandros said as he walked behind Glaciem.
She had released his hand as they neared the border, her pace quickening with each step, passing him as she did.
“And I don’t understand how you can be so calm when Bick was literally torn in two right in front of us!” He snapped as he grabbed her shoulder to stop her long enough to look her in the face, tears escaping from the corners of his eyes.
Glaciem stared at him, her eyes cold and watery. Alexandros released his grip immediately, his heart thumping uncomfortably. He knew he had overstepped his bounds. She did not answer him as she turned and continued walking. Every footprint she left behind was burnt and black from the heat of her body, the grass withering to nothing as she stepped.
They walked in pained silence. Even the trees had ceased moving, refusing to allow a single leaf to bend in the wind whirling around Glaciem as she walked. Alexandros could not tell if their lack of movement was in mourning for Bick’s death or for the fact that she was leaving the Forest.
“When we reach the Village we will need to gather the Elders and speak with them about our plans. After that, I have several things which I must accomplish before I meet Umbra again.” Glaciem looked over her shoulder to speak to Alexandros.
“And what are our plans?” He cautiously quickened his pace to walk beside her.
“I will tell you when the rest of the Elders are gathered. Remember you no longer speak as yourself, but as a single entity.”
Alexandros shot her a dark look. “Don’t you dare start treating me like one of them. You know full well I was named the First against my will. You will treat me as you have in the past, not as some nameless person with a black robe. No other Elder would have gone to such lengths to protect you as I have.”
“Nobody is named an Elder willingly.” Glaciem snapped.
Her patience and strength were waning and the farther she traveled from the Forest, the less connected she felt to Bick’s memory. She was afraid it would fade entirely as soon as she stepped past the border, a fact that pained her greatly.
“Glaciem, please.” Alexandros softened his tone, willing himself to speak calmly. “I can’t have you pushing me away. Not like this, not now after we’ve found ourselves in this position.”
Glaciem slowed her pace and sighed. “Please try to understand. I have so much to do, and very little time in which I can do it. I’m asking you to let me make this happen as I see fit.”
She clenched her fists as her heart jumped in her chest. She stopped walking altogether and turned to face Alexandros. She forced herself to meet his eyes.
“I understand.” She murmured.
“Understand what?”Alexandros asked quietly.
“I understand…what you were trying to explain earlier…when you said…”
Alexandros rested a hand on her shoulder. “We don’t need to discuss this now. Thank you for trying.”
Glaciem looked down at the soil, her head falling to the side as a wave of exhaustion coursed through her. She sighed, the act of breathing itself tiring.
Alexandros pursed his lips. “You need to rest. I don’t think I’ve seen you sleep in nearly three days, or eaten for that matter.”
“I’ve too much to do to sleep.”
“You’re no good to us if you’re too exhausted to fight.”
“I’m no good to you if I fall asleep. I’ll miss the fight.” The words came out flat and listless.
Alexandros chuckled. “You? Miss a fight? I’m not sure that’s possible.”
Glaciem smiled weakly, but her smile faded almost immediately.
They continued walking and were fast approaching the final row of trees lining the outer walls of the Forest. The small fence marking the border between Valley and Trees was now visible between branches and trunks. Glaciem paused and took a moment to hold onto the last wafts of Bick’s spirit before walking purposefully through the trees.
When Glaciem had passed the fences and saw the walls of the Village, she clenched her jaw and took deliberate steps forward towards the gate. She did not look back. She feared if she did, she would turn around and run back into the Forest and never leave again.
Alexandros followed closely behind her, though he did look back. He could not shake the feeling of being watched, and though he knew who it was watching them, it did little to ease his discomfort. Umbra would not enter the Village, of that he felt certain, but he also knew that, when Glaciem did come out to meet the Shadow, it would either be her last day alive, or Umbra’s.
The walls towered above Glaciem as she walked. She noted the trees that had forced their way into the village before had now retreated back into their homeland. The large clearing of grassy land resting between the Forest and Village was as it had always been, the Border Tree standing tall and alone. The gates themselves were different, however. Men no longer stood at attention on the outside and the gates had been rebuilt with larger pieces of wood. Metal spikes stuck straight out from the doors and glinted sinister and bright in the sunlight.
“We were obliged to change the manner in which we protected ourselves,” Alexandros said, nodding to the reinforcements. “After you left, we had so few men we couldn’t risk putting them outside the walls. My first act as Elder was to call upon the neighboring villages. They gave us as many fighting men as they could spare. After that, we reinforced our walls. We’ve accomplished quite a bit in the time you were gone, and I expect they’ve managed to do more since I took my leave.”
“How did the Village take to your new position?” Glaciem asked.
“Not well.” Alexandros replied. “They were mistrusting and there was talk of rebellion, but we finally came to an agreement that seemed to suit the Valley well enough.”
“What was your agreement?”
“No child born of my blood will be allowed the position of Elder.”
Glaciem looked at him surprised. “Does that not bother you?”
Alexandros grinned tiredly. “Not in the least. As you said before, no one is ever named Elder willingly. I was able to save my own children from that fate and also eased the discomfort of those who did not trust me. I gladly agreed to the proposal.”
“Why did barring your future children from the position of Elder appease them in the first place?”
Alexandros’ grin grew wider. “Narratus may or may not have implied that my blood, since it came from the Northern Waters, was more passionate and wild than others and was the reason for my brash actions against the Laws of the Village. Since the Elders already named me first, they could do nothing to change that as death is the only thing that can release an Elder, but they could punish my future generations for my indiscretions.”
Glaciem looked at him. An amused look crossed her face. “It suits you well then? The Village assuming your blood is tainted?”
“If it keeps my children from being forced into a life they do not wish, then yes. Most emphatically.”
“You’ve suffered a great deal on behalf of those you choose to love. You always have, I see.” Glaciem commented lightly.
“I suppose you’re right.” Alexandros replied as they reached the gates.
A small opening at eye level was filled with the eyes of the watchman. Alexandros held up his stone and waited in silence while the gates began to slowly open in order to allow them passage.
As the gates opened, memories of the last time she had entered the Village flooded Glaciem’s thoughts. She had been with Bick. The night of betrothal now seemed so long ago and everything about her and had changed so completely. She wondered how it might have been different, had she refused to be manipulated by the Laws of the Village as she had done so foolishly before.
So much is different now. She thought as she followed Alexandros into the bustling village.
Her eyes widened the sights and the noises accosted her senses. Women hurriedly crossed the streets with their goods, intent on heading home to cook meals for the husbands that had survived her attack from the Great Hall. Children shouted and ran in between legs and tables, too lost in their imaginary games to hear the adults who protested. Merchants were still selling their treasures, the fading sun doing little to deter them.
While all seemed as it had always been, what she had not expected were the many armed men who were slowly filing through the crowds. Various banners hung high from lances and rested on broad shoulders cloaked covered with steel and fabric.
“How many warriors have you?” Glaciem asked as they slowly walked down the main road.
“Now? Enough.” Alexandros replied. “We gained around a thousand men at the call of the Elders, but you may remember my father is a wealthy man. His money earned us nearly four thousand more.”
Glaciem grimaced. “And what if someone offers them more than what your father did?”
“We’re at war with the Forest, Glaciem. And while your Forest is incredible for many reasons, growing gold leaves and sprouting silver flowers is not among those reasons.”
Glaciem did not argue; his point was valid. Her attention had also been turned by the many dark glares that she received from the various men and women she now passed. Her hair may have been short the last time they saw her, but her small frame and white strands could not be mistaken.
Many of these women are widows on account of my actions. She thought, the realization sending a wave of cold down her limbs.
“Pay them no heed. This is my realm now, and you are safe so long as I say you are safe.” Alexandros said, resting a hand on her shoulder in reassurance.
He too saw the icy stares and hushed whispers. There would be many stories circulating throughout the Village and Valley tonight, not that many of them would be true.
“I need to see Narratus.” Glaciem murmured.
“You will, but first you need to rest.”
“-My realm now, not yours.” Alexandros interrupted, his voice firm enough to make it clear he would not bend. “When you are rested, you will see Narratus and we will meet with the Elders and discuss your plans.”
Glaciem sighed, knowing she wouldn’t win this argument. She looked around cautiously and the longer she remained around other people, the more inclined she was to concede provided it gave her the opportunity to hide away from sight until everyone had gone home for the evening. When it was dark there would only be sentries out, and she could deal with them easily enough.
Her old home stood in the center of the Village as it always had, its tall structures imposing large shadows over the roads that led to it. Bright blue banners, the same color as Alexandros’ stone, swayed in the light breeze.
Alexandros turned to her. “Welcome back,” He said as warmly as he could. He knew these walls would hold no comfort for her with Bick gone.
Glaciem pursed her lips in response, no words coming to her. She walked up the steps, following Alexandros. The guards eyed her suspiciously as she passed, but they did not stop her from entering. She knew full well if she had tried to enter without Alexandros it might have been entirely different. Being regarded with general mistrust was nothing new to her, but it was strange knowing their unease was now completely justified.
If only they knew how dangerous I’ve become. She thought lightly. And yet, I am still nothing compared to the dangers that are to come.
They walked in silence, the sounds of their boots echoing heavily in the empty house. Glaciem looked around, surprised by the lack of servants around to greet them.
“There was no reason for them to service an empty building.” Alexandros said, noting her confusion. “I’m sure now that the guards outside have seen me, there will be servants here soon enough. I’ve no doubt news of our arrival will reach the Elders shortly as well.” He turned around and spread his arms wide. “Until then, you must make do with fending for yourself. A concept quite foreign to you, I’m sure.” His smile was tight as he jested, but he smiled at her all the same.
Exhaustion had begun to set fully in both of them as they parted ways, Alexandros to the master chambers and Glaciem to her own room. As she slowly worked her way up the steps, she was caught between desperately trying to push away her memories and to hold on to them as best as she could. She could not forget her time with Bick, but she could not bear to remember that he was gone forever.
I’m glad you haven’t remembered your past.
His words echoed in her mind as she blindly walked past her own room, not realizing she had done so, so lost in her memories that she did not see the hallways before her. She remembered that night, when they were on the balcony together. They had quarreled over Alexandros.
I would think the years you and I have spent together would be nothing more than a passing moment in your mind. The times we have spent together would soon be forgotten.
She remembered she had called him ridiculous.
Our times together would be nothing more than trivial, little moments that no one would want to remember compared to the wonders you would have seen before.
Tears dripped from her face and onto the wood floor. She had stopped walking and now stood before Bick’s room. A single book lay open on his bed, forgotten in the chaos of the night they had left the Village together. She slowly stepped through the doorway, hoping she would see her Bick, all the while knowing she would not.
Because I want things to be as they’ve always been and I’m desperately wishing all of the things we have worked to make happen wouldn’t happen at all. I’ve grown used to your company.
She looked around the room. It was so bare, so very little of anything that would indicate Bick had once spent his nights in this room. There was nothing that showed his good nature, his honor, his kindness, his affection. It was just a room. A room with four wood walls and a bed with a book resting upon the pillow.
He is called Strong Heart for at his birth a sickness had come over him and stopped his breath. We thought we had lost him and his spirit had passed on, but, quite miraculously, his heart began to beat again, and he overcame the death that had attempted to claim him.
But it had claimed him.
Glaciem let herself fall into Bick’s bed. She breathed in deeply. His scent was faint, but it was still there, still enough to continue feeding her whirlwind of memories, still enough that she wanted to stay awake to breathe him in, if only for a moment longer.
Come! There is much to be celebrated and it is all in your honor!
She closed her eyes, the memories she recalled growing less vivid as she remembered further back into their past together.
I do not slow for icicles.
Her dreams took over, her thoughts floating away in a haze-filled state of half wakefulness and half slumber.
How am I supposed to address her? I don’t know her name.
“My name is Glaciem.” She said, half asleep, speaking now to the wisps of reminiscences flitting across her mind.
It happened when it happened, and I would choose to believe that it happened when it was meant to happen.
Glaciem’s eyes popped open with a start. She sat up from the bed and rubbed her face with the back of her fists. Her throat was parched and she coughed from the dryness.
Glaciem looked towards the sound. Narratus sat on the foot of the bed holding a wooden goblet containing water. His eyes shone with the love he so deeply bore her, the bright blue sparkling brightly.
“Narratus!” Glaciem gasped with joy as she flung her arms around the old man. “How I’ve missed you.” She whispered, burying her face into his beard.
Narratus chuckled and held her tightly, the water he had in his hands spilling out of the goblet in the process. “I have missed you too, my dear Glaciem.”
She held him with desperate ferocity, afraid that she was still dreaming, unwilling to entertain the possibility of him fading away. After a time he gently pulled her arms away from him. Convinced that he was indeed real, she relaxed and took a moment to observe him more closely. He had aged considerably; his head was almost entirely bald and there were bags under his eyes that had never been there before. He had thinned as well, the skin on his hands so delicate she feared the slightest brush against them would cause the flesh to disintegrate.
“Have you been well?” She asked, searching his face.
“Quite well.” He nodded reassuringly.
“You look,” She paused, not sure of the word to use, “tired.”
Narratus nodded again, agreeing with her. “These past months have indeed been full of many difficulties. We have never been without so many Elders before, let alone the First, but Alexandros would not hear of staying in the Village once his wounds had healed. Even when his leg was at its worst, he refused to consider any option that did not involve him finding you. The trees certainly helped convince us of the necessity of his departure.”
He sighed, his shoulders slumping a little. Still, he looked at her with such fondness that Glaciem forgot about her concern for a moment.
“I see you have changed, too.” He added as he gently ran a hand along her braided hair.
“Yes. I’ve changed in many ways.” She held out her palms for Narratus to see.
He gasped and brought his face closer to her hands to inspect the markings more closely. He looked at her with pride. “Your memory is fully recovered, then?”
“It is.” She nodded. “I even remember my given name.”
Narratus looked at her with curious eyes, beckoning her to continue, but she held up a hand. “I shall tell the Elders jointly. It will be easier that way.”
He chuckled and bowed his head in agreement, though she could tell he was slightly disappointed.
“How long was I asleep?” Glaciem asked, standing up to stretch. She sniffed herself and though the scent of earth still wafted from her clothes, she could also smell the tangy musk of blood and sweat.
“A few hours at most. The others will not be ready for you until nightfall. You have until then to prepare. The baths have been prepared for your use. Or, if you prefer, we can bring a washbasin to your old room.”
Glaciem shook her head. “The baths will be fine. I don’t think a basin will hold all of the dirt caked onto my skin.”
“Or the dirt in your hair.” Narratus said, his eyebrows raised to indicate the brown strands of hair framing Glaciem’s face.
She pulled her braid to her side so she could see it. “No.” She said, noting that almost a fourth of her hair was now brown. “It is not dirt you see.”
Narratus frowned, not understanding her. She stepped closer to him and kissed his cheek fondly.
“I will explain tonight.” She moved away before he could protest and turned down the hallway to the stairs.
While the house was still relatively quiet, Glaciem caught glimpses of servants moving in and out of rooms with various items. Some held linens, others platters of food, all moving swiftly in preparation of housing and feeding the Elders later that evening. She recognized their routines well enough. Elders spending the night in the great house with the First and Second was a very common occurrence during times when there would be lengthy meetings and discussions.
As she passed by her old room she peeked her head inside, unwilling to scare anyone who might be in there changing out the bedding. When she saw no one, she stepped through the door and looked around. The room was as it had always been, the basin to hold water was still next to the large vanity mirror to her right and her bed was still to the left against the wall. The old window she used to sneak out of was just beyond the vanity in the corner of the room beside the large wardrobe in which she kept her scarce collection of tunics and cloaks.
The basin of water was the first thing Glaciem was drawn to. It was full, much to her pleasure and delight. She was tempted to duck her entire head into the basin, but refrained, knowing she would sully the water too quickly. Instead, she gently drew the water with slow, fluid movements, forming the water in a ball. She placed her lips against it and sucked at it in large, quenching gulps. She did this three more times before moving to the wardrobe in the back.
When she opened it, she was surprised to find it almost empty. In place of her old clothes was a sleeveless, fitted tunic. It was a soft, olive green and was long, with large slits up the center and sides to allow ease of movement. The fabric ended in points, similar to the petals of a lily flower. The trim of the fabric was embroidered with a wide band of gold. The tunic was laced up the back and richly decorated with a large weeping willow tree that covered the whole of the front. The willow bore leaves of light green, tongues of red fire and rounded blue drops of water. Pale threads of silver indicating gusts of wind traveled from the roots of the trees to the back. The neck was high and bore a deep slit.
The fabric itself, while heavy, flowed beautifully in Glaciem’s hands and was perfect in every way. As she picked it up, she noticed a pair of folded, suede leggings that were a rich burgundy color, similar to that of the flames on the tunic. A pair of supple leather boots and a leather water skin were tucked into the corner of the wardrobe, both bearing the markings of the Elements and surrounded with a variety of intricate designs that weaved and danced within themselves.
Glaciem tilted her head. She remembered these items.
I’ve fought in these clothes. She gathered them up and placed them on her bed. My father had these made for me.
She would put them on after she had bathed; she had no desire to cover them with her grime.
The walk to the bath was uneventful; she had been diligent in using as many of the servants’ pathways as she could in order to avoid being seen by as many people as possible, though it did not stop her from being seen by the servants. She passed several she recognized as having been employed by the former First and Second Elders. She did not dare speak to any of them; their facial expressions of shock and distrust had made it clear that she was intruding.
Glaciem did not care. She would willingly bear the rightful hate they bore her for as long as they choose to hate her. She was responsible for many, many deaths in the Village and there was very little she could do to atone for that. They suffered her presence in their home with as much grace as she could expect.
The volatile reactions of the servants caused Glaciem to ponder her future in the Village. She was not convinced the Elders would ever name her the Second due to her unpopularity as they had previously intended to do. She did not, however, see this as a bad thing. It would bother Alexandros, and he would argue in her favor, but she knew the collective voice of the other Elders would most likely overthrow his personal desires for her election.
Upon entering the large bath pool, Glaciem expected to be overwhelmed with the heat of the spring waters as she had always been, but instead found that she could barely feel the heat at all.
She let her thoughts wander as she submerged herself in the waters while running her hands across her body, idly watching the dirt float away with the currents. Now that she thought about it, she had felt neither too cold nor too hot since her last meeting with Umbra.
Though she no longer felt the overwhelming confusion and uncertainty she had grown so accustomed to, memories of Umbra sent sharp pangs of anger through her heart.
Glaciem ran her fingers through her hair as she revisited the centuries of memories now readily available to her. The first years of her childhood were relatively peaceful. King Audens had become renowned throughout the nations and many flocked to his banner. He had rebuilt his kingdom in the Forest, the Elements there to protect and serve him alongside his human subjects.
When she was a young girl her father had begun training her to use the Elements. He was a gentle teacher and she was a fast learner. The Elements took to her with ease and it was not long before her skills surpassed his. She quickly became more famous than her father. Suitors from all parts of the world came to seek her hand, but both she and her father had jointly refused every offer. They were content with the life they had created and had no desire for it to change.
But it did change. When she was a young woman, Umbra returned, and he brought with him barbarian men from the salted waters, as treacherous as they were skilled in the sword, bow, pike, and poisons. They came by the thousands. Many died within the borders of the Forest that day. Glaciem and her father had met him in the field, the battle going well into the night. Umbra had grown stronger every second he remained under the light of the moon, and she had begun losing ground, refusing to risk the lives of their subjects by sending mortal men to fight the Shadow in the darkness. As her father sent all non-Elemental life out of the Forest to disperse into the safety of the Valley, she had been left with only the Forest. She had been outnumbered five to one.
Glaciem closed her eyes and relived her final moments with her father. He had been on the ground, wounded, but not fatally. She had run to him, in her hand a large whip of fire. As she knelt down to touch her father’s head, she had heard Umbra behind her. He had said something to her.
“I will spare him if you ask it of me.”
She had turned to face him then. Umbra stood before her, his hands at his sides, his guard down. She could have killed him then, but she did not. Why did she not?
“Would you willingly give your life in exchange for his?” There was a look in his eyes she could not comprehend.
“Will you leave the Forest and allow my people to live in peace if I do?” She heard her own voice in her head.
“I will leave. You have my word.”
She had agreed. She would die in sacrifice for the sake of her father, whom she loved above all things, and for the Forest, which loved her above all things.
Umbra had raised his arms, in his hand was a large dagger tipped with something that burned in her nostrils when she smelled it. He would drive it into her heart and she would perish.
But her father had seen what was about to happen. He had known the truth though she did not. He had pulled her down as the dagger neared her chest. She had turned her head in surprise and as she did and the dagger sliced deep into the back of her skull. She heard her father’s cries of anguish and felt the heat of the fire that emitted from his hands and mouth, but she could no longer see anything. Her sight had gone black and she had slipped into a dreamless void, not knowing what was real and what was false.
She knew from her vision that her father had not died that day, but escaped and hid her somewhere safe where Umbra could not touch her. After that, he had been overcome by his brother, who placed him as a prisoner, somewhere, bound to a tree that would not heed him. She knew Umbra had intended to kill her and the Forest that day, and had failed. Though her strength was enough to keep the Elements from perishing entirely, it had not been enough for Umbra or her father to retain their Elemental abilities to any usable extent. Weak and incapable, the Shadow’s soul had left his body and was forced to use the bodies of others in order to survive, his darkness killing everyone he deemed a worthy victim, save one.
Whether it had been by Bick’s own strength or because the Elements had decided he would live, Glaciem did not know, but she chose to believe it had been for a reason. Bick had been chosen for a purpose, and she hoped with everything she possessed that he was now at peace and his Spirit no longer in torment or bound to the Shadow that had murdered both him and his mother.
Glaciem tasted salt on her lips. She did not know how long she had sat in the water. The tears that had escaped her eyes slid down her cheeks and neck, following the curves of her shoulders and torso before finally joining with the springs waters of the baths.
“Bick.” She whispered regretfully. “What might your life have been had I perished that day?” She wished her father had indeed let her die, if only for the possibility of Bick having lived the life he deserved.
She stood up from the waters and put on a robe before making her way back to her room. The time to meet with the Elders would be arriving soon enough and she wanted to be ready. There was much to discuss.
Glaciem looked at herself in her mirror. She had put on the tunic, leggings, and water skin. The gem Alexandros gave her rested against her neck, perfectly centered within the dip of the tunic neck. She let her hair loose from the braid, waves of silver and brown strands falling over her shoulders and back. She rather liked the wildness of it. When she went to put on the boots, she had laughed at herself, her altered leg having been forgotten until just then. After she had pulled on the left boot, she rolled the bottom of the leggings tightly around her right knee and bound it with a piece of leather to allow her right leg full exposure. It served as a reminder.
As she stared at her reflection, Glaciem felt more herself than she could ever remember doing so in the past ten years in the Village.
What would have happened had they not destroyed the coffin that night in the Great Hall?
It was a bitter thing to consider. If they had listened to her, it was possible she and Alexandros would already be married. Bick would be alive, and the Forest would have remained as it always had, void of sentient life, feral and incomplete, hostile; a persistent threat to the delicate balance the Valley had struck with it.
Would Umbra have still found me?
She did not like the sinking feeling in her stomach when she thought about what might have happened had Umbra come across her outside of the Forest with only a portion of her memory and abilities intact.
Before she left for the library, she called the remaining water out of her basin and into the water skin now resting against her right hip. She still liked having the water near, regardless of the fact that she could now wield any Element whenever she wished. The water reminded her of her training days with Bick, when he would chide her for using the Element too often. A new wave of sadness washed over her at the memory.
Glaciem walked down the hallway and to the library in contemplative silence. She had briefly considered using her favorite method of visiting the old room, but did not wish to risk being spotted by the ever present guards outside. Alexandros’ presence back in the Village would have made them extremely vigilant and she had no desire to start the evening with complications. Besides, she wasn’t sure how her new leg would handle the climb.
Glaciem turned the corner. She reached the end of the hall and gently turned the handle of the library door. It was unlocked. She quietly opened it, hoping she wouldn’t interrupt any conversation that may have already started in her absence. She looked around, but was surprised to find there was no one there besides Narratus. He turned when he heard her step into the room.
“You look exactly as we found you.” He smiled at her and embraced her before his eyes dropped down to her right leg. “Well, almost exactly as we found you.” He said, his smile turning a little.
“Thank you for keeping these items for me. My father gave them to me before our last battle with Umbra.” Glaciem chose to ignore his concerned look at the wooden prosthesis.
“Your father? What last battle?”
Glaciem grinned slightly, “There is much your books have kept from you, Old Man.”
Narratus returned her grin, pleased at hearing the old nickname. “I’ve something for you.” He said turning around and taking a small package off of the table behind him.
Glaciem took the package from him and opened it. There were several strips of the bark she had grown to obsessively chew when Narratus had first nursed her back to health. She chuckled at him and set the bark aside.
Underneath the bark was a single blue ribbon made of satin. It was embroidered with silver thread that swirled and twisted in filigreed designs. She recognized it, but could not place it. She looked at Narratus, confused.
“It was the only item left that I was able to salvage from the Second Mulier’s dress. The one you wore on the night of the betrothal. I noticed you had wrapped a piece of it around your wrist before you left. I was not sure if it would make it back with you when you returned from the Forest, so I kept an additional piece aside just in case, as a token of her memory.”
Glaciem ran a finger along the ribbon fondly. She was overcome with emotion and could only nod her head in gratitude before reaching up and unhooking the chain holding Alexandros’ gem. She fed the ribbon through the metal hook that held the gem in place and tied it once more around her neck, the necklace chain lost amongst the ribbon’s own design.
“What was the Second Mulier’s name?” She asked as she raised her eyes to meet Narratus’ gaze.
Narratus hesitated before replying. “Sage.”
Glaciem nodded. “Sage.” She murmured, still running her fingers along the ribbon. “And the First’s?”
“He was called Thrandoras.”
“Who was called Thrandoras?”
Glaciem and Narratus turned towards the hallway to see Alexandros leaning against the doorway. He still wore his typical garb; dark leather tunic and breeches, belt and sword, but around his neck draped a black cloak as well as the stone of the First. Glaciem met his gaze and he straightened, taking in her appearance. His pride for her was evident in his face, though he could not stay the slight blush that had begun to creep up his neck. She was every bit the daughter of King Audens.
“Just a man.” Glaciem replied, answering his question while fighting the small grin that was curling at the corners of her lips.
It was the first time she had seen Alexandros even remotely bashful in any way, and she found the sight wholly pleasing. She held out her hand, gesturing for him to join them.
He walked over to where they were standing and reached out to wrap his fingers around hers. He lifted her hand to his mouth and kissed her palm, letting his lips linger for a moment before gently squeezing and letting their hands drop away to their sides. It was clear the same determination that had been growing within herself was growing in him as well, and as he met her gaze she could see renewed purpose in his eyes.
Narratus, who had been watching their interaction closely, nodded approvingly at them before looking to the door. The sound of the Elders making their way to the library echoed just outside the hallway.
Alexandros looked around the room and watched in silence as the Elders took their seats in the chairs next to the long table that had been brought in specifically for the occasion. He waited until they were all situated before sitting down at the head of the table. Glaciem sat at his right and Narratus, though he was the least of them, sat at his left. The remaining Elders, the Third, Fourth, Fifth and Seventh looked to them in patient expectation.
“Before we begin, I must thank all of you for gathering together.” Alexandros began. “As you’ve all observed, the Wielder of Elements has returned to us well over a year since she and Strong Heart left.”
Glaciem noted his voice and demeanor took on a much more serious edge than what she was used to hearing whenever they spoke.
He fits the part. The Village will do well by his counsel and guidance.
Alexandros continued. “Glaciem has regained her memory in its entirety and now wields the Elements with ease, but her success has also come at great cost to her own person. Were it not for the trees beating at our walls to the point of driving me into the Forest, that cost may have been greater still.”
He paused as the Elders whispered among themselves, no doubt so they would remember to record the new information regarding her memory into their tomes and scrolls at a later date. Glaciem could also pick out bits of pieces of conversation that revolved around Bick’s whereabouts and wellbeing.
They will never forgive me. She thought wretchedly.
Alexandros raised a hand to continue.
“Not only has Glaciem suffered greatly to accomplish this, we as the Village have also suffered a great loss.” Here, his voice faltered and for a moment he did not bear the stiff facade of the First Elder. “Strong Heart, most lovingly known to those closest to him as Bick, has passed from this world and into the next. The circumstances surrounding his death are such that I am unwilling to relate them to you at this time.”
The room went deathly quiet. All eyes landed on Glaciem and though she tried to remain unfazed by their piercing and accusatory gazes, she could not help the tear that rolled down her cheek. Her lip trembled as Alexandros rested his hand on her shoulder, his touch reassuring.
“This cannot and will not be blamed on Glaciem.” He stated firmly, reading their thoughts. “There has been much at work that we have not known about. Much has been hidden from us and from Glaciem. It was only recently that everything had been brought to full light. There was no help for Bick’s death, and it cannot be laid at any one person’s feet save the man who first brought the darkness to the Forest. Umbra.”
“Forgive our ignorance, sir, but are you suggesting that our beloved Strong Heart was in league with the Shadow?” The Seventh Hominem raised his voice in protest.
Alexandros held up his hand, refusing to be accused. “You mistake my meaning entirely.” He replied firmly. “Bick’s involvement with the Shadow was without his consent or will.”
“This is madness.” The Fourth Mulier broke in. “How can you possibly say that he was in league, willingly or not, with the Shadow?”
“Regardless, I still fail to see how the Elemental is not to blame for his death.” The Seventh cut in.
Alexandros raised his voice. “Because Umbra possessed his Spirit when he was but a babe, not Glaciem. You cannot fault her for another’s actions.”
“What on earth are you talking about?” The Seventh and Fourth spoke in unison.
Alexandros turned to Glaciem. She studied him for a moment before turning to the remaining Elders to explain.
“The Elements were born during the first battle between King Audens and Umbra.” She began. “Umbra had cut down the King’s wife, and as she died, she bore a child. It was in this moment that, as the child cried out for the first time in this world, the Elements took pity on her and the spirits of her father’s people were taken into the Forest to bring life to the waters, the fires, the trees, and the winds. That child’s name was Lilium. And you see before you now, that child grown full into a woman.”
Glaciem looked at each of the Elders, noting their changed appearance upon understanding.
She continued. “My father, King Audens, is not the Heart of the Forest. I am, and Umbra returned many years later, well after my childhood. His intent was to kill me as my death would bring about the death of the Forest. It was his false blow to my head, a blow that was meant to strike my heart, that caused my loss of memory until only a few days ago. It was also what caused the Forest to go into such a state of wildness and restlessness for so many centuries.
“If Umbra had managed to kill me properly then the Forest would have perished, but as he and my father were born not of the Forest, they would remain. You could kill King Audens or Umbra and the Forest would live for they preceded the Elements. If you kill me, everyone dies.”
Glaciem took in a deep breath and let it slowly release from her lungs, a small puff of ice wafted from her mouth as she continued.
“But Umbra did not kill me properly. His poison sent me into a deep sleep, and he put my father somewhere where he could do nothing to stop my rest or avenge it. As both brothers’ abilities were now greatly weakened on account of the Forest’s Heart being compromised, Umbra was obliged to dwell in the spirits of unborn children until such a time when I would awaken once again and the Forest was once again available for his use.
“Bick’s spirit was the last he possessed. As I grew stronger, so did the Shadow’s spirit. And Bick,” Glaciem looked down, her tears falling freely now, her voice growing raspy and thick with grief. “Bick was so very strong, stronger than any other babe sacrificed by Umbra’s actions. Bick alone was able to bear who and what dwelt within him. Bick fought that darkness his entire life. Were it not for me and were it not for my survival, he would have lived exactly as you would have imagined it. He would have been a great leader and a kind ruler.”
Glaciem’s trailed off, letting the weight of her words settle.
The Fourth Mulier was the first to break the silence. “If what you say is true, then would we not have discerned the signs of evil within Strong Heart? He was a pure man, innocent and without flaw.” Her eyes flitted towards Glaciem as she spoke, the implication that his relationship with her was the only flaw of note.
“When Strong Heart was born, was he not thought to die young for a flaw of his heart?” Narratus snapped.
Glaciem could see the pain and shock in her dear friend’s eyes at hearing of Bick’s death, but for the love he bore her he spoke firmly against his fellow Elders.
The Fourth closed her mouth tightly. No one could deny Bick’s birth defect, for it was the cause of great sorrow to the First and Second. When he was born he had barely been able to breathe, his heart beating at odd times and without natural rhythm.
Alexandros raised a cautionary hand to Narratus, turning to the Fourth as he did. “It was by Bick’s goodness alone that he managed to survive for as long as he did.”
“None of this would have happened had I chosen my actions more carefully.” Glaciem interrupted, halting Alexandros’ thought.
“Glaciem, don’t.” Alexandros pressed, his hand squeezing her shoulder gently.
For her to admit, even if to do so wrongly, that Bick’s death was her own doing, meant risking the wrath of the Laws of the Village.
She shook her head slightly in his direction and continued. “If you wish to blame me for his death, then I bid you do so. If my being exiled would atone for his death, then I would gladly bear that punishment. I am responsible; his blood is on my head.”
Glaciem could not continue, but her meaning was clear. She felt she rightfully bore the guilt of his death because she had managed to live. How she wished it would have been the other way around.
An unsettling silence filled the room once more. Alexandros looked to each of the Elders as they searched the table for answers. It was well within their rights and powers to exile her from the Village UnNamed permanently for her confession. Narratus’ eyes flashed towards Alexandros and they looked at one another, concerned. Neither was sure what he would do if the Elders did choose to exile her.
The Fifth Hominem, the Keeper of Death, cleared his throat gently before speaking. “Sometimes, death comes to those who least deserve it, and yet never visits those who deserve it the most. It is not our right to burden any living creature with its unyielding nature. Death comes to whom it comes, and it ignores whom it chooses to ignore.
“Death chose Strong Heart, whether by another’s indirect actions or not is not for us to say. What we can do now is decide what our own actions will be, regardless of Death’s choices.”
He stood. The Fifth was younger than the other Elders, and his hair had not yet taken the white and gray sheen that the other’s had. He looked hard at Glaciem.
“I stand beside the Daughter of Trees, the Elemental, and I stand beside our First who, having been in the Forest with her, still remains by her side. I stand beside our Tenth, who cared for her when she was yet too weak to stand.”
He let his eyes rest on each of the remaining Elders, knowing their thoughts. “If we were to exile her, it is possible the Shadow would follow her wherever she chose to go and thus our Valley would remain unmarred by his darkness. However, I am not willing to bet the life of the Valley on such an unknown, nor am I willing to allow the Shadow to remain without a fight. Those who say they stand for righteousness and yet do not fight against darkness when it challenges the good in this world cannot say they are righteous at all. They can only call themselves cowards.”
Alexandros moved to stand, studying the faces of the Elders as he did. “I agree with the Fifth Hominem. Even as your First, I know I can only ask you to consider what Glaciem has said and has yet to say. Whether we want it or not, there is a great battle upon us. We can either stand beside the one person here who has the ability to win that battle, or we can turn our backs on her in her greatest time of need.
Narratus stood with Alexandros. “As your Tenth I, though I be least among you, stand with the First and Fifth, as I stand with the Daughter of the King.”
Glaciem stood to join Alexandros. “I know I have no right to ask anything of you, but you must believe me when I say I have never desired or meant for harm to befall the Village on account of me. As it has happened, harm has indeed fallen on many. Men have died at my hand, as did the First. As did the Second,” Glaciem faltered slightly before continuing, “and as did Strong Heart, beloved of the Village. And now, I must ask you to allow more to die.”
She stopped, and looked at Alexandros, who nodded for her to continue, his hand never wavering from her shoulder.
“I do not have a choice in this matter. I must fight because Umbra threatens the safety of those I love and hold dear. I must fight because Umbra wishes for the death of the Forest.” She searched the eyes of each Elder, imploring them. “I must fight because somewhere, my father is alive, and I want to find him.
“But you, the Elders of the Village UnNamed, do have a choice. You may choose to leave me to my fate. You may choose to let me die, and let the Forest die with me. You may choose for King Audens to remain trapped eternally. You may choose to exile me and pray Umbra follows me rather than leaving the Valley in his hands.
“In truth, very few would blame you if you did not stand with me. I am sure it would be easier to simply allow my death and the Elements bound to my blood to die alongside me. Still, I come before you and ask that you do choose to stand with me, and I ask that you choose to stand against the Shadow, for the sake of the Village, for the sake of the Valley, and for the sake of the Forest.”
Glaciem stopped and waited.
After a short moment, the Fourth Mulier stood. “I think it would be best if the Elders conferred before we decide on a final ruling.” She gestured for Glaciem to leave the room. “As you are not yet an Elder, it is not proper for you to be among us as we speak.”
Glaciem nodded, glancing at Alexandros and Narratus as she made her way out the library, taking care to quietly shut the door behind her. She resisted the urge to press her ear against the door and listen to what they were saying. Instead, she forced herself to walk up and down the hallways, taking advantage of the solitude to think.
It might be better if I did let Umbra kill me.
Glaciem allowed the bitter thought to cross her mind and weighed the merits of such an outcome. Currently, the Forest posed the biggest threat to the Valley. If she died and took It with her, the Valley dwellers would be free to expand as they saw fit.
But then, the entire Valley would be at Umbra’s mercy.
Another thought reasoned with her. It was not prudent to think he would stop at killing her. She and the Forest would be dead, but King Audens would still be alive. The battle would not end with her, but would continue so long as the brothers lived. They were powerful, even without the Elements.
And if my father were to die as well? What then?
While Umbra would have his revenge on Audens and Glaciem, she was certain that he would continue on to savage the Valley, the darkness consuming him too great for any other possibility.
There is no way there can be peace without Umbra’s death. Anything else would only result in further suffering.
She paced back up the hallway to the library door, racking her brain for a way to challenge Umbra without the aide of Alexandros’ men. She wondered how effective she could be by battling him with the Elements alone. She had done it before.
And I lost.
Glaciem sighed. Her father had been there as well and even with his strength, they had not been able to get the upper hand on Umbra. No, she could not risk trying to overcome him without the help of the Village. Besides, Umbra was so bent on revenge, there was no telling how ruthless he would be with his plans having been thwarted twice now. He would come at her with unspeakable strength and determination.
Another thought crossed her mind. She still did not know where her father was. Much of Umbra’s goals revolved around his brother being present. Would he refuse to fight without Audens there? She had no idea where to look for her father, and she very much doubted that even Narratus and the Seventh Hominem, Keepers of History and Libraries, would be able to find information of his whereabouts in time.
Where is my father?
It was maddening not knowing. She knew it had been a blind guess going to the giant oak in the Forest, but it had been the only thing she could think of.
Perhaps I meant a different oak?
Glaciem shook her head. She could not remember seeing any other tree as massive as the old oak had been, and she felt the tree would be quite distinct. The Forest itself was simply too large to think of every possible place. Umbra had hidden her father well.
But he meant for me to find my father, so he must be somewhere I would have guessed or remembered.
Glaciem found herself back at the end of the hallway again. She growled in frustration, once more feeling as though she were nothing more than a simple plaything for Umbra’s pleasure.
She turned at the sound of her name. Alexandros was leaning out into the hallway. He beckoned her to join them once more. Upon entering the room, she could tell the vote, whatever it was, had not been unanimous.
The Third Hominem, the Keeper of Sickness, cleared his throat. “As the Fifth and I will be the ones dealing with what you’ve brought upon us more closely than the others, it only seems fitting that we be the ones to tell you what the Elders have decided.”
Glaciem sat back down in the seat next to Alexandros.
The Fifth broke in, holding his hand out to stay the Third’s biting tone. “What he means to say is that war brings about death. As we are most familiar with death, we will be the first to see the men who do not succeed in their fights.”
Glaciem looked at him cautiously, “Then, you will support me?”
The Fifth nodded solemnly. “Yes, Child. We will support you, for we believe it to be in the best interest of the Village and of the Valley we are called to protect. Umbra was renowned for his cruelty, and it would be unwise to believe he will be anything other than cruel. Even without the Elements, Umbra was powerful, as was his brother. They are not human, and they were magicked long before the time of men.”
The Elders stared at Glaciem, their eyes hard. She could not tell if it was anger at the threat Umbra now posed to them, or because they were afraid of the possibility of her losing.
“Thank you.” She said quietly, swallowing.
The Fifth bowed his head in acknowledgment. “There is much that needs to be done in order to prepare. When will Umbra attack?”
Glaciem shook her head. “He won’t. Not until I come to him, but I fear he is growing more impatient. He has waited a long time for this battle. I would wager we have a few days at most.”
She hesitated, realizing that she had not yet explained the changed appearance of her hair and its implications. She took a strand from her shoulder and looked at it, considering what to say.
“We must make haste, not only because of Umbra’s impatience,” She began slowly, “but also because I am quickly losing my immortality. I do not yet know what that means for anything else and I can only speculate as to why it’s happening. Perhaps because of my time spent apart from the Forest, or perhaps another reason altogether. The only thing I can say with certainty is that it is indeed happening.”
The Elders looked alarmed at what she said, each eyeing her brown hair with horror.
“Then we will waste no time.” Alexandros said, finality in his voice.
Though Glaciem was sure he was also worried about the length of time she had left, he took great pains to not show it.
He stood as he continued. “The Elders will see to their prospective duties. We will do what we can to move as many of the Villagers as we can farther into the Valley should Umbra decide to make the first move and attack the Village itself. I will hold a council and Narratus will accompany me. We will need to prepare our armed men with information about the Elements and how best to combat them.” Alexandros turned to Glaciem. “What will you do?”
“I must go to the House of Meeting,” Glaciem said, after considering. “And I must do what I can to locate my father. I do not know what Umbra will do if his brother is not there when I come to him. If I can, I will also join you in council, though I will rely on your guidance in this matter. The last time Umbra declared war on the Forest, he had been the first to strike, not the other way around. I have little idea as to how I should proceed.”
Alexandros nodded. “Then it is settled. The Shadow has declared war, and we will heed his call. It is time.”
The Elders left the room in single file. Alexandros alone remained, staring idly out the window of the Library as the others left.
“Glaciem, a word.” He said without looking at her.
“What is it?” She asked, turning away from the door to stand behind him, observing him as she did so.
His black cloak, though not entirely traditional, was a clear indication of his authority, but even without it, one could see it in the way he held himself; his shoulders back, head held high. He was a leader worth following.
Alexandros waited a moment before breaking the silence. “With your immortality gone, will you still be able to wield the Elements?”
Glaciem shook her head at his back. “I don’t know.”
“How long do you think you have?”
“Honestly, Alexandros, I’m not sure. It seems as soon as I left the Forest again, my hair’s appearance began to change much more quickly.”
As she spoke she let her eyes travel down the length of the strands, the brown intertwining with the silver becoming more apparent every time she looked.
“Will the Forest still see you as Its Heart once your immortality fades or if you cannot bend the Elements to your will?”
These were not things Glaciem had considered before. It chilled her to the bone. Is it possible Umbra will prevail regardless of our efforts to prevent it?
He turned around to look at her, his jaw tensed from worry. As his eyes met hers, she could see him struggling against the weight of his role as the First, the many concerns of what was to come written clearly on his face.
“Are you alright?” She asked, alarmed.
Alexandros rarely revealed the depth of his worries so blatantly, though she realized it was possible he only did so now because they were alone and felt more at liberty to do so.
As quickly as she had seen the worry, Alexandros’ eyes shifted and though it was not gone, it was less apparent. He smiled lightly and nodded and he walked towards the bookshelves.
“I had something made for you.” He said, changing the subject as he reached for something loosely wrapped in cloth. He held it out to her. “It was meant as a betrothal gift, but I never had the opportunity to give it to you before you left with Bick. I hope it will be of some use to you.”
Glaciem took the cloth and from it pulled out two exquisitely crafted leather and metal forearm guards. The metal was gold and had been polished to a glorious sheen that glinted in the light of the fire beside her. The leather was shaded with a red that was almost deep enough to be mistaken for black. The markings of the Elements had been hammered into the thick metal and colored with enamel that matched the Element it represented. Whoever had fashioned them had managed to create them in such a way that their functional nature was cleverly masked. The untrained eye could easily have assumed them to be nothing more than purely decorative. They were beautiful to behold.
Glaciem looked up at Alexandros. “These are incredible. When did you have these made?”
She marveled at their fine craftsmanship, unable to find a single flaw or blemish on either the metal or leather.
Alexandros smiled, pleased at her reaction. “When I first learned of the betrothal. Even without having met you, I knew enough of your history and your purpose in the Village to have these commissioned.”
“It must have cost you a fortune.” Glaciem murmured.
“The price meant little, knowing the worth they would be in service to you.” Alexandros replied, laughing.
“Thank you.” She looked at him. “I’ve yet to give you something in return for the things you’ve given me.” Her hand involuntarily went up to the necklace around her neck.
He shook his head and held up a hand, forbidding her from continuing. “I do not give you gifts with the expectation of receiving gifts in return.”
She looked down, a hint of red flushing her cheeks. It amused her; receiving a present from him now was just as far beyond her area of comfort as it had ever been, their friendship having done little to lessen that.
“Thank you.” She said again, unsure of what else to say to express her gratitude.
“You are most welcome.”
She looked at the armguards again, her mood turning solemn. Knowing she would be wearing them the next time she saw Umbra brought her back to her present troubles.
“Many people are going to die on account of me.” She said, looking back out the window.
Alexandros shook his head, disagreeing. “No. Many people will die for you, but it will be on account of Umbra’s actions. He declared war on you and the Village. That is by no fault of your own.”
“It is my fault,” Glaciem argued. “Have you ever considered the possibility that I’ve simply been avoiding my fate this whole time? Perhaps I should have died those many centuries ago, when he first meant to slay me.”
Alexandros raised an eyebrow. “Maybe you should consider the possibility that you were meant to survive all those centuries ago. Perhaps this war could not have been accomplished until now.”
“Why? Why could it not have happened long before and not today when so many will suffer pain and death for it?”
“Glaciem,” Alexandros looked at her, a sad smile crossed his lips as he gently chided her. “Many have already suffered pain and death at the hands of Umbra. Where there is evil, there will always be death and wickedness, and there will always be evil.”
He paused and looked back out the window before continuing.
“It’s not all bad though. Where there is evil, there will also always be good. It is not our place to question the way of the world. It is our place to fight against it and on behalf of those who cannot.”
Glaciem looked down. “And what if I cannot fight against it for those who are weaker than me? What if I fail? What will happen then?”
The words came out strained, and she could feel the rush of heat in her face. Her jaw clenched in shame as she answered her own question. “If I fail, then it will have all been for nothing.”
She had refused to admit it for so long, the words themselves bearing as much a threat to her as the possibility of the failure itself. Her eyes shifted back to his as she pursed her lips and folded her arms around her chest, not knowing what else to say.
Alexandros met her look helplessly. He reached out his hand, but pulled it back halfway and bit his lip, as if considering. He paused for several moments before reaching out once more to gently pull her to him. She did not resist him. As she rested her head against his chest, she could feel his sigh of relief before he wrapped his arms tightly around her, enveloping her with his warmth.
She returned his sigh and closed her eyes, feeling his fingers as they ran through her hair, his touch so light at first she could barely feel it. He paused once more before shifting himself and she felt his breath against her skin as he bent down to press his lips against hers. She lifted her chin to meet him, trying to stay the flutter of her heart. He kissed her deeply, and though Glaciem could scarcely breathe on account of how tightly he held her, she found herself clinging to him just as tightly.
She desperately wanted to linger, to forget everything that weighed her down and to lose herself entirely in this moment, but as she felt her heart hammering in her chest she also felt the fear of failure clenching deep in her stomach. It remained, unrelenting and unresponsive to her attempts to push it away.
She pulled away abruptly, involuntarily. Alexandros huffed his disappointment, verbalizing what they both felt. Still, Glaciem could not shake the dread that had settled back into her core.
“What is it?” He asked gently.
Glaciem stared blankly at his chest, searching for words that would not come. “I’m afraid.” She said, finally, flatly, shamefully.
He chuckled, “You? Afraid?” He tilted his head to catch her attention, his grin lopsided.
Glaciem did not return the smile. “Alexandros, what will happen if I die?”
“You won’t.” He said simply, a single brow raised.
Glaciem held up a hand. “Listen to me. If I die, then the Forest dies, which is exactly what Umbra desires. And now, we must consider the possibility that I might lose my abilities entirely, which would mean certain victory for the Shadow.
“If I am still able to wield the Elements by the time I meet him again, there will be no mercy for me, nor for those who seek to protect me from him. This is not a battle of men against men. This is one man with one purpose, one goal. I’ve no doubt your men will do everything they can to prevent him from succeeding, but I need to know if I fail…”
Glaciem faltered, realizing with sudden clarity it wasn’t just the Forest she was afraid of losing. She was afraid of losing Alexandros. She was afraid that if she died, then he and the Village alongside him would be terrorized and tortured until there was nothing left to torture, their bodies abused until they faded away into shadow. She also knew that if she was not the victor, Umbra would take special care in making sure Alexandros suffered the most, punishing him for her failures.
“I cannot let It perish.” She finished quietly.
Even as she said it her eyes betrayed her as they flicked up to his face, her thoughts so clearly written in her expression she might as well have shouted it from the top of her lungs.
As Alexandros looked at her, his lips curled at the corners into the most subtle of smiles, his pleasure at her concern for him too obvious to hide totally.
“You want me to stay behind with the Elders while you face Umbra alone.” He stated, guessing her next request. “You want to give me a chance to run to safety, should things take a turn for the worst.”
Glaciem took a deep breath, intent on pleading her case to him, but Alexandros placed his fingers on her lips, signaling for her to let him continue. He recognized the look that had flashed across her face, understood the fear that could paralyze and drive even the bravest of men to act out in desperation, determined to protect those they loved in whatever way they could. He gently kissed her brow.
“I love you.” He said quietly, his grin fading. “I love you.” He repeated, emphasizing the words. “And it is because of my love for you that nothing on this earth could prevent me from standing by you tonight and hereafter, in peace and in battle, in life and in death. Nothing could convince me to leave you to face Umbra alone.” His grin returned. “Not even your love for me.”
Glaciem’s eyes shot up to his. He was grinning again, widely now, his pleasure at having caught her in her non-verbal confession unmistakeable. She tried to defy his claim, even as he chuckled at her, her chin tilted in defiance. She completely failed to convince him and gave up trying as he caught her lips once more with his own. This time, he took care to not let her cut his kiss short.
“I love you, and will love you with every breath I am given,” Alexandros whispered when he did finally pull away, his voice ringing with utter sincerity. “With every day that I live, until I close my eyes for the last time, I will love you. And I do not doubt for one second everything and everyone you hold dear will be kept safe by you and you alone. I believe that with my whole heart.”
He spoke each word slowly and emphatically, making it clear to her he understood her fears, all former hints of teasing gone.
“Though the Elders stand by you and will give you the numbers you need, you must learn to trust in your own strength, for you are more than I think you know. And you must also trust in those who love you and refuse to leave your side. I am here, and will stay here, regardless of the risk. Learn to trust me.”
Glaciem met his gaze, staring hard. “I don’t see why you willingly choose to put your own life at risk for mine time and time again.”
Alexandros tightened his grip around her. “Yes, you do.” He said quietly.
He’s stood by you through everything, it would be an insult to expect anything less now.
She could not bring herself to answer him. Asking him to stay behind had been easily recognized for the act of fear that it was, but even so, she dreaded the thought of putting him at risk.
Alexandros studied her for a moment longer before releasing her from his embrace and crossing the room to the doorway that led back into the hall.
“We’ve all made our choices regarding where we stand in this matter and you must do so as well. You can no longer afford the luxury of letting the uncertainty of the future affect your decisions,” He gestured for her to follow him. “If you question yourself now, do you not think those who follow you into battle will not also begin to doubt? You must not look back, nor falter in your decisions. If you do, we will all surely perish.”
She took a deep breath. He was right. There was no room left for her to second guess what had happened in the past or what now lay ahead in her future. She had to face it head on and with as much conviction and purpose as she could manage. The Forest was not the only thing dependent on her anymore; the Village, the Valley, and the lives of those who lived there all lay at her feet now. If she failed, the entire Valley would fail, not just the Forest.
Glaciem raised her head and straightened her shoulders. She would not let those who saw her from here on out see anything apart from the daughter of the King, the Heart of the Forest. Umbra could try what he would to stop her from prevailing, but prevail she would, if not for hers and Alexandros’ sake and for Bick’s memory, then for the countless people whose fate now rested in her hands.
I will not fail.
I cannot fail.
Though she passed more armed men than she had ever remembered being present in the Village, it was late enough in the day that Glaciem’s walk to the House of Meeting was without complication. She was blind to the many curious and accusing looks that were sent her way, having been taught by Bick many years ago to ignore them.
It seemed no matter where she would go in the Village, there would always be something that would remind her of him. From the roads, they used to walk in the middle of the night when no one was around to see them, to the marketplace booths where they would see who could steal the most apples. Each thing she passed brought with it a memory involving Bick and the experiences they had shared.
It’s a wonder the Elders still willingly suffer my presence here after being the cause of the death of their Prince.
Glaciem sighed and shook her head as she neared the large walls bordering the ancient building. It did not matter what Alexandros, or Narratus, or any other person had to say on the matter. She would forever blame herself for Bick’s death. Umbra might have used his body to host his spirit, but if Glaciem had not survived that could have been avoided.
And then Umbra would have had control over the Valley and Bick still would have perished. She shook her head, unconvinced. No. Bick would have lived, and he would have prevailed over the Shadow. He should be the one leading men into battle, not me.
She turned the corner and walked through the always open gates of the House of Meeting, raising her eyes to the two white willow trees still curled around the building resting between them. She tilted her head, realizing for the first time that the trees had to be of the Forest. As she drew near they groaned and shifted, but did not move themselves away from their protective positions. She walked towards Truth, the tree to her left, and gently ran a hand against the white bark.
The Elders were right when they said you would protect what they held most dear.
She rested her head against the wood. The Tree responded to her voice by trembling beneath her hand, far too ancient to do more. Glaciem looked to Life and smiled. Its branches quivered and their tips curled ever so, no more able to respond than its partner. She felt a fondness for the trees she had not remembered feeling before.
“I must go.” She whispered before kissing their bark gently and walking through the doors and down the steps to the great maze of tunnels below.
She walked quickly; the sound of her boot and wooden hoof clacking against the stone ground beneath. She knew these walkways better than any other part of the Village above, having spent as much time below the ground as she possibly could.
As she walked, she passed the great sand arena she and Bick had trained in, remembering the years of hard work and exhaustion they had jointly experienced. It had taken nearly two years before she had been able to run the length of the sanded floors without stopping. After that she had pushed herself harder and harder, always striving to get the upper hand on Bick. He had the advantage of height and strength, and it had taken another three years to be a legitimate threat to him. That was when they had both seriously injured the other.
Glaciem chuckled. What a nightmare that had been. They suffered broken bones, bloody noses, bruises and all manner of injury that day. It had been months before they were allowed to train together again, and nearly a year before they had been allowed to train without the supervision of an Elder. Narratus had been instrumental in making sure that happened.
I never thanked him. She realized. I’ve not thanked a lot of people.
There were many things she should have said or done, but Narratus and Bick had always been there to indulge her stubbornness. She would have liked to attribute it to a lack of memory, but now, with her memory intact, she knew better than to try and make up false excuses for it, even if only to herself.
Her thoughts traveled lazily from one thought to the next until they found themselves back at the library. Even though Alexandros had guessed her feelings for him, she had stubbornly refused to admit it. In truth, she knew she had remained quiet as much out of fear as stubbornness.
I still should have told him. She thought, unsatisfied.
Glaciem looked at the tunnel fork in front of her. One would lead to the tombs, the other to Narratus’ quarters. She chose the former. It did not take long for the light from the training arena to fade and when it became too dark for her to see, she held her hand up in front of her and allowed a small spark of light to ignite on her skin. The flame danced across her palm, illuminating the narrow tunnel that would eventually open into the tall, elongated tomb where the coffins of all past Elders were laid to rest.
The tomb itself was simple. It looked more like a long and tall hallway than it did an actual room. The coffins themselves were set within the walls and stacked, forming columns of tens along both sides of the room. The coffins of the First rested in the highest spot, while the Tenth was set on the bottom.
As soon as she entered the room, the first thing she noticed was the glint of hundreds of lines of gold lettering that had been etched into the walls. The lettering served as a label and was set in lines of two directly above every coffin. The first line simply read “Elder”. The second line indicated the Elders’ former name in tribute to the identity they had forsaken for the sake of the Village.
At the beginning of each name was a single gem embedded into the stone to indicate their position. The room glittered with hundreds of sapphires, emeralds, rubies, and spheres of gold and silver. She paused and looked in wonder at the sight. Each letter of gold, each stone, was a star that sparkled by the light of her flame, the room a glorious miniature of the heavens.
For all its majesty, Glaciem could taste the must and feel dryness in the room. Whenever she took a breath, she felt the scent of the heavy spices that had been wrapped into the linens grating against her throat. It struck her as odd that while those who died in the service of her father were given a second life, never to feel the sting of death so long as they remained within the confines of the Elements, those who died in the service of the Village, though their bodies be preserved, were gone forever, their Spirits taken to beyond the realm of mortals.
She walked, her steps muffled by the dirt floor and scanned the names, looking, searching. It was simply a matter of ritual to come here and pay one’s respects Glaciem realized, but still, it gave her peace to do so. She had spent years training a few hundred feet away from this room, yet had never actually entered it. It took her some time to reach the back of the room. When she did finally reach the last columns, she held her hand up high and stood on the tip of her toes. She read the lines belonging to the two highest coffins in the column.
First Elder, Keeper of Knowledge. Hominem, Thrandoras. Second Elder, Keeper of Scrolls. Mulier, Sage.
Glaciem scanned the rest of the names on the pre-carved stones made ready for the other Elders when their time had come. She noted the already filled coffins of the Six, Eighth and ninth Mulier.
To her left was another column of ten spaces made ready for coffins. Though the gems had already been placed in their proper positions, only two names had been written beside the spaces. Glaciem took in a deep breath as she read the names. When she released the air from her lungs, the cobwebs on the previous coffins fluttered.
First Elder, Keeper of Knowledge. Hominem, Alexandros. Second Elder. Keeper of Scrolls. Elemental. Mulier. Glaciem.
So they have indeed named me the second.
Once a name was written in stone, it could not be undone. She would be bound to the Village as much as the Forest was bound to her. She would remain a part of it until her dying breath. Glaciem could not help but smile bitterly; her death could be coming sooner than the Elders had thought. It would be the second time she would be placed in a coffin, this time permanently.
This is not why you’re here. Glaciem thought to herself.
Truthfully, now that she was here, she wasn’t quite sure what to say or do. How did one properly pay their respects to a corpse?
You don’t. You pay respect to the memory of the person.
Glaciem knelt down before the bodies of Thrandoras and Sage. More than anyone, these were the people she desired forgiveness from, and yet she knew she could never have it from them.
“I’m so sorry.” She whispered, immediately jumping at the sound of the words coming from her own voice.
Her words echoed strangely in the tomb, bouncing against the walls. She stood up in alarm. The echoes began to grow louder and did not consist of her voice alone, but also of something greater, something both ancient and young at the same time.
The walls in front of her began to shake. She widened her stance, poised to call the water from the skin should she be so obliged. She didn’t dare use fire; not with the dusty cobwebs and dry bones surrounding her.
An overwhelming rumbling and snapping sound drowned out the echo of her words as it vibrated through the tunnel. Before her, a giant crack began to form against the solid wall that had not yet been hollowed out to accommodate more tombs. Glaciem squinted through the crack as the ground beneath her continued to tremble and shake. She could see white roots curling through the packed dirt, making their way towards her.
“What on earth?” She whispered to herself as her eyes widened.
The roots stiffened and turned towards her, the sound of her voice drawing their attention. For a moment she stared at the roots, half-expecting eyes to pop out from the ends of their tendrils.
Before she realized what was happening, they shot towards her with alarming speed. Glaciem yelped and flung her hands out, fingers wide. Her water sizzled past and wrapped around the roots, intent on boiling them into submission. The roots coiled back into themselves, avoiding the water with surprising agility, the crack in the wall still growing larger by the second.
Glaciem growled in frustration and snapped her wrist, spurning the water on. Still, the roots evaded her, twisting and spinning, yet growing ever closer to her, only feet away. She slowly backed away, trying to widen the space between them, only to have the roots close the gap immediately. She would need to act defensively.
She twisted her hand and called the water back to her, forming it into sharp, ice daggers. She would not be undone in the tombs before her real battle had even begun. Poising herself, readying for the perfect moment, Glaciem waited until the roots were almost touching her raised arms. Just as they went to wrap themselves around her wrists she dove head first into the tangled mess, into the crack that had now become wide enough to fit several men.
As she jumped, she twisted herself around and sliced through the roots, severing them clean with her daggers. They shrieked and writhed as they shriveled into the dirt floor. Glaciem smirked in satisfaction, twisting back around to brace herself against the floor she had foolishly assumed was there.
Her eyes widened when her outstretched arms did not feel floor, but was instead met with black air, the light from the tombs fading away as she continued to fall. Glaciem opened her mouth to cry out as she felt more roots wrapping themselves around her, their grip tightening as they rose up from the depths below to stop her descent.
For a moment she stayed there, roots wrapped snugly around every limb, suspended in black nothingness. She looked around and frantically tried to think of a way to escape. Cleaving the roots from her body was out of the question; they were the only things keeping her from falling.
“You’ve certainly put yourself in quite the predicament.”
Glaciem started. That voice sounded so familiar and yet not so. The roots began to lower themselves down, their grip around her body growing tighter as she squirmed against them. As they dropped, the air began to grow steadily cooler, the scent of their surroundings so earthy she could feel it in her lungs. It was not long before they had gone far enough beneath the surface that Glaciem could taste the damp of the dirt in every breath. Finally, the roots pivoted to her upright and unraveled from around her as her feet hit solid ground
Glaciem groaned inwardly as she looked up at the small light barely visible from the opening in the tomb wall.
I am never going to get back up there without help.
“Do you often jump into giant holes without first considering the consequences of doing so?”
Glaciem whirled around, this time with her hand raised, a large ball of fire in her palm, ready to strike at whatever the source of the voice was. She looked around. It was only as she began to observe her surroundings did she realize she was in what looked to be a large hollow made entirely of white roots. Tendrils interlocked and weaved within one another, ever tightening and loosening, their movements undulating in nature.
“Do you like my home?” The voice whispered, not unkindly. “Or rather, my tomb, more like. I was confined here for heaven knows how long. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.”
Glaciem turned around once more, the voice becoming louder. She squinted in the dark, her fire growing larger to allow her to see more. Something rustled before her, the sound of its footsteps soft and easy.
“I was waiting.” The voice continued, the figure becoming more visible with each step.
A slender man with long white hair stepped into Glaciem’s light. His grey eyes flashed and glinted as tongues of fire reflected within them. His face was stern, but handsome, a small smile playing on his thin lips.
“I was waiting for my daughter.” He said quietly, standing before her. “I was waiting for you.” His smile grew as a single tear ran down the length of his cheek.
Glaciem’s cry came out in a single, incredulous, sob as she pushed her fire out from her hand, the flames wrapping around them in an illuminating embrace. She threw her hands around her father. Her King Audens. Alive, and well.
“How?” She gasped into his chest, the strength of his embrace having knocked the wind out of her.
As he held her in his arms, the sound of his heart’s powerful beat thrummed solidly in her ears, drowning out the sound of the fire crackling around them.
“You woke up.” Audens said gently, simply. “I stayed here, as dormant as these trees. I was kept here in this abyss, beneath the place where my Kingdom once stood. I was powerless, unable to find you, to aid you. I was helpless. These trees are nearly dead and simply did not possess enough of the Elements to obey my commands, even when I felt my abilities return to me upon your awakening. All I could do was pray that I had hidden you well enough. Well enough that my brother wouldn’t find you until you were ready to face him once more, one final time. When I heard your voice above, I saw my opportunity and beckoned the roots to heed me, just once, just long enough to capture your attention, to show you where I was.”
Audens pulled Glaciem away from him and searched her face, looking over her, appraising her proudly.
“If it hadn’t been for the strength you now possess once more, I’m not sure they would have listened to me at all.”
His eyes dropped to her leg as he spoke. His smile immediately soured. He looked up at her sharply.
“What happened?” He asked, anger evident in his voice.
Glaciem held up a hand. Her flames pushed themselves out further, allowing light to wash over the entire cocoon. “I’m well.” She said. “Umbra likes to play with his food before he eats it.”
A hard grin spread over her face, too overjoyed at seeing her father again to be bitter about her leg.
Audens shook his head before embracing her again. “Oh, my dear daughter. How you have suffered.”
Glaciem shook her head. “Many have suffered much more.” She said quietly.
Audens caught the tone in her voice. He tightened his grip on her. “I didn’t know if I would ever see you again.”
She buried her face into his chest once more. Her beloved father. “I didn’t know if I would even be able to find you. I came down to the tombs for silence, to pay my respects to those now dead. I had no idea you would be here.”
Audens rested his chin on the top of her head. “Umbra hid me in plain sight. Within the roots of the two white trees that stood as memorials to my fallen people. ‘A fitting punishment. A hidden treasure for a treasure hidden.’ He had said. I’ve no doubt he knew you would find me eventually. Now that I’ve my strength once more I can end this. Either by my death or his.”
“Or mine.” Glaciem countered.
“No, Lilium,” Audens said sternly. “I will not let him. You are precious. You must remain. Even when all others might fall.”
“Father.” Glaciem protested, pulling away.
“No.” Audens said with more force. The fire surrounding them shivered and waned. “You cannot die.” Auden’s eyes wavered and dropped. “I should have told you before.”
Glaciem placed a hand on his cheek. “I know who I am.” She said quietly. Auden’s eyes shot back to hers sharply as she continued. “I am the Heart of the Forest. The lifeblood. The Elements rely on me. If I die, so will they.”
She released a deep breath, the weight of the finality of the statement pressing against her chest as she spoke.
Audens studied her face for a long while before nodding slowly, his secret a secret no longer. He spoke wistfully, as if lost in memory. “You are so beautiful, so like your mother. Stubborn, strong-headed.” He chuckled quietly. “How many came to me with their offers of marriage? In the end, you turned down every single one. You were so devoted to your Forest, to your people. And you still are”
Glaciem let her eyes drop a moment before she smiled, thinking of Alexandros. “Would it surprise you then to learn that there is someone that I would willingly and gladly marry?” She asked after a moment.
Perhaps I had been waiting for him all this time?
The notion seemed overly romantic to her just then, but even so, after thinking back on everything Alexandros had done for her, it was a notion she was, for once, happy to entertain.
Audens looked at her, curiosity and amusement in his eyes. “Who then?”
“My hope is you will meet him soon enough, though perhaps not in the best of circumstances, seeing as Umbra has once again brought war upon us.” Glaciem said, her voice growing dark.
“And how is my brother?” Audens asked coldly.
Glaciem hesitated, her smile fading as tears filled her eyes. She thought of Bick, remembering the sight of his skin pulling away from his bones, Umbra’s body emerging.
“I am sorry to report that he is indeed well. He’s cost me a great deal more than my leg, which was worth little compared to what else he has taken from me. From all of us.” She looked down, unable to meet her father’s eyes.
Audens gently took her chin with his fingers and lifted her eyes up to meet his. “Tell me everything.” He said gently.
Glaciem shielded her eyes from the light of the dawning sun with her hand. She stood next to her father in the doorway of the House of Meeting. The white of their hair glimmered in the light alongside the golden threads that weaved throughout both of their garbs. The men on guard looked warily towards them, but they remained at their posts; their orders having been clear enough. The First had told them to leave the Elemental alone, and so they would obey. The two stepped lightly across the pathways and to the home of the First Elder. Audens and Alexandros had much to discuss; they would need a solid strategy.
“Umbra will not willingly face you knowing the Forest lays behind him. He might hold great sway over many of the Elements, but he wouldn’t dare risk attacking you with your strongest asset ready and waiting for your word at this back. You will be obliged, I fear, to meet him somewhere in the Forest, where he feels he also has the advantage of the Elements”
Glaciem thought about her father’s words in the tombs as they continued to walk in contemplative silence. He was right. Umbra had attacked them head on both times previous, and with his own company of men, and unless he had more influence over the Forest than she was giving him credit for, he would indeed wait for her within Its borders. It would even out the playing field.
That in itself presented its own set of complications. She could not risk Alexandros’ men in the Forest; there would be too many moving parts for her to properly keep track of them should Umbra choose an ambush.
“What if you and I met him alone?” Glaciem had asked and Audens had merely shaken his head at her suggestion.
“Umbra is powerful, and with you being as valuable as you are to the Forest, he will be merciless and will not fight fairly. I’ve no doubt you and I going alone will be exactly what he hopes for.”
“I can’t risk innocent lives more than I already have.” Glaciem had argued.
“You’re not risking anything if these men do indeed declare for your betrothed. They are choosing to fight for you.”
How many times had she been told that now? Still, it was difficult to accept, and the guilt of the deaths of those who had not chosen to fight for her still weighed heavily on Glaciem’s mind. Her father had seen it, and could only offer his comfort and consolation, insisting it was not her fault.
In the light of day, during the bustle of everyday life, Glaciem and her Father caused quite the commotion as they passed through the now occupied streets of the Village. She could almost hear the groans of those who saw her father: Now there’s more than one of them.
Audens, though unsettled by the harsh reception both he and his daughter received, held his head proudly. In his heart, he was still the mighty King he had been known to be. Glaciem merely shook her head in mild amusement at the people’s discomfort. Upon arriving home, Glaciem softly asked a guard to announce her presence to the First Elder. He went wordlessly, his eyes betraying very little.
She and her father waited in the main entryway; their hair and garb in stark contrast to the muted colors of the servants passing by on their way to their various duties.
Glaciem looked up at the sound of Alexandros’ voice and watched him jog down the stairs to meet her, his black cape trailing behind him.
“Were you at the House of Meeting this whole time? I assumed you returned home late, but when you were not in your room or the library this morning, I feared you might have gone back to the Forest alone. I was about ready to send out a search party.” His voice trailed off and his eyes flitted towards Audens, noting the white hair.
Glaciem shook her head in response as she moved to stand beside Alexandros, gently pressing her hand against his shoulder. “There was an unexpected turn of events.” She nodded to her father. “May I present my father, King Audens of the Old Forest. Father, this is-”
“-Alexandros of the Northern Waters.” Her father gently cut in softly, his gray eyes appraising the man before him.
Alexandros immediately bowed his head, “As First Elder of the Village UnNamed, please allow me to welcome you to my home, humble though it may be. Your daughter,” Alexandros shot Glaciem a fond glance, “hasn’t regaled you with too many of my shortcomings, I hope?”
Glaciem’s smile, while slight, was mischievous, “Oh, he’s been made aware of every single one.” She looked at her father and her grin grew ever so.
Though he remained silent, Audens’ eyes danced, the three of them reveling in the opportunity to forget their troubles, small and fleeting though it was.
Alexandros turned his gaze back to Audens. “Will you join us for the war council? We have need of any and all information regarding our enemy, and I would be most grateful for your insight.”
“Not my leadership?” Audens asked lightly, as Alexandros pointed the way to one of the larger rooms on the lower floor.
Alexandros chanced a sideways glance at the king. “With all due respect, Majesty, I am not sure the Village would honor any rulings not declared by the joint Elders.” He said it as gently and with as much regard as he could manage.
Audens smiled gently at Glaciem, “Your betrothed is not easily swayed from his position, not even in the presence of a king.”
“He is an extreme sort of person.” Glaciem replied, remembering the first time she had said it of Alexandros, now over a year ago.
“Indeed.” Was all the willowy man said in reply.
Their walk was short, the room not being far enough away to allow for further conversation. The three entered the room, Alexandros gesturing with a bowed head for the king to enter first.
“I don’t think he likes me.” Alexandros murmured to Glaciem as she passed him.
“Not one little bit.” She replied, amused.
Though her eyes remained fixed on her father’s back, she leaned up and gently kissed Alexandros on the cheek. Alexandros pursed his lips in mock irritation.
As she entered the room, she was greeted by ten pairs of eyes, all solemn and unsmiling. She recognized their clothes; tell-tale signs of who they were.
“Do we place Hunters in the positions of generals now?” She asked, turning to face Alexandros.
Alexandros gave her a warning glance. “We do when they are the only men who have ever entered your Forest and returned to tell the tale.”
“Need I remind you that these men tried to kill me and Bick and then fled when they realized the extent of my power?” She kept her tone as level as she could, but even so, she could smell the singe of the fire threatening to escape from her palms.
“Glaciem.” Alexandros said, his voice low, “These men are our best chance at navigating the Forest successfully.”
“Then you understand that we will be obliged to enter the Forest before Umbra will face us.”
Glaciem and Alexandros turned at the sound of Audens voice. He stood by the head of the table, the seat left vacant for the First Elder. It was only then that Glaciem realized the other Elders were also present. Narratus’ eyes flashed in shock as he looked up at the tall Elemental King.
Alexandros cleared his throat and gestured for Glaciem to sit at his right, Audens on his left. Narratus sat beside Glaciem, and the Fifth sat beside him. The remaining Elders sat beside Audens on the other side of the table, the Hunters beside them.
Once they were all seated, Alexandros began. “No doubt you all know who our honored guest is, but I ask that you would still indulge me the honor of formally presenting King Audens of the Old Forest and,” he turned to Glaciem to consider before continuing, “his daughter, Lilium, whom you all know as Glaciem Ice Child, the Heart of the Forest.”
Glaciem turned to look at Alexandros. Disputing the First Elder so blatantly was a high form of insult, and she immediately wished she had kept her mouth shut. She silently communicated her regret in questioning him and watched in relief as the irritation left his amber eyes.
She bowed her head. “I ask that you would forgive my impertinence. I am grateful for the allegiance of every man and woman here in this room. I fear our cause would be lost were it not for your efforts.”
The corners of Alexandros’ lips twitched slightly as he reached over and gently placed his over hers. “The circumstances in which we are meeting are not exactly pleasant; we are all uneasy.” He looked over each of the Elders and Hunters, who had all remained silent, waiting for the command of the First. “Which brings us to why we have met.”
Alexandros turned to the Hunter who sat at the foot of the table. He was large with broad shoulders and carried a sword that looked as though it weighed as much as a small horse. His face was riddled with scars and his hair was a wild mess of black peppered with silver. The man’s expression was hard, though not cruel as Glaciem might have expected from a Hunter. He bowed his head respectfully towards Alexandros.
“Briggard answered our call for men.” Alexandros said, nodding both to the man and to the younger man sitting next to him. “Both he and his son, Incen, had heard the rumors of an Elemental returning to the Forest and knew at once they would be needed in the Village UnNamed. They brought with them their best men and offered us their aid, should we need it.”
Briggard and Incen rose. They were both broad men, their eyes as black as their hair. They looked to Glaciem and Audens, bowing deeply.
“Our forefathers hailed from those few who managed to escape the tyranny of Umbra as he laid waste to our lands in the mountains.” As Incen spoke, his voice rumbled in the room. It was only when he gestured to each of his men did Glaciem fully realize what he meant.
Umbra’s warriors came from the salted waters beyond the mountains. He would have completely destroyed every mountain village in his path. She looked at them with new eyes.
“The Forest did not harm you because It saw the injustice of what Umbra did to your forefathers.” She said quietly, ashamed at how blind she had been.
It had never occurred to her these men might have been as much outcasts as she herself was.
“Yes, my lady,” Incen replied. “The Forest recognized our loss as deeply as It recognized the loss of your father’s great Kingdom, and so a lifelong bond was struck, to continue throughout our generations. There are many who do not remember the bond, and alas have used their abilities for lesser purposes, but there are still those who have remembered the legends, those who still swear their fealty to the King Audens.”
The remaining eight Hunters stood at this and bowed deeply to Audens, who nodded in return.
“We stand beside you as your subjects, and will die in service to you.” Briggard’s voice was even deeper than his son’s. “As the first Hunters stood by you in your battles against the Shadow, so we ask you to allow us to stand by you once more.”
King Audens replied. “I accept your pledges gladly. I remember the men from the mountains who fought beside us and who fell for us.”
“Your men will be charged with guarding Glaciem as best they can.” Alexandros added.
“With honor.” Incen and Briggard both replied.
Audens smiled lightly. “I have no doubt you will do your best to keep up with her.” He turned to Alexandros. “You don’t expect her to stay behind the lines of battle and wait, do you?”
Alexandros snorted in indignation, forgetting himself momentarily. “I don’t think I could keep her from fighting even if I put every single one of my men up against her.”
Glaciem bit her lip to keep from grinning as the Hunters chuckled. Audens’ eyes danced and a smile played across his lips.
Narratus cleared his throat. Until now, all of the Elders besides Alexandros had remained silent. “We have yet to discuss our plans for the battle itself.”
Alexandros turned to Audens, his look questioning. Audens took the cue and spoke to everyone at the table.
“Umbra is powerful and he knows the Forest well. He knows the Forest and Elements work together in an intricate and delicate manner. We do not simply wield water and fire. We wield Spirits, we wield Souls and he has used this knowledge to his full advantage.”
He looked at the confused faces of those now looking unabashedly at him. He continued, elaborating, his eyes glazing lightly as he remembered, searching within himself for memories as his hands drew in the air what he described.
“The Forest was always special. Even when my brother and I first came into this world, we knew It was special and It kept us hidden. It was centuries before men even came to know of our existence. Perhaps that is why we chose the Forest as our home, though now that I think about it, it’s more likely the Forest chose us.
“After my daughter was born,” Audens paused to look at Glaciem fondly, who returned his smile. “The Spirits of my people did not pass into the next life, but rather by the grace of the unknown, were allowed a second life in the Elements, which up until that moment had remained free and without a keeper. My daughter was first given the power, and then myself, and in turn my brother. We three alone were given the ability to call upon the Spirits of those within the fires, waters, trees, and winds, and to use them as we saw fit. We bear our abilities outside the Forest, of course, but the Elements shall always remain strongest within Its borders, where Its magick is most strongly felt.
Audens paused, frowning slightly as he searched for the right words. “It is perhaps easiest to think of the Elements, the Forest, and the Spirits of those dwelling within, as parts of a single thing; limbs of one tree.” Again, he turned to look at Glaciem, his gaze thoughtful. “If you cut down the trunk of a tree, it does not matter how strong any of the limbs are, they will all perish.”
He looked away from his daughter. “My brother and I are connected to the Forest, but It does not rely on us, nor do we rely on It for life. We are mere beneficiaries of the power It grants us. Lilium is different of course, as you all well know by now, and the question is not what we shall do if she does die, but rather what we must do to prevent that from happening at all.
“As it stands, we are at a severe disadvantage. Umbra is waiting within the Forest’s territory and he is, therefore, closest to the Elements and therefore has the greater advantage. I cannot think of a way for us to enter Its borders without putting all of our lives at great risk.”
“If the Forest is loyal to Glaciem then surely It will protect us.” The Fourth Mulier countered.
“The Forest is loyal to Glaciem, but the Elements are not.” King Audens cautioned in return. He smiled at her confused look. “As I said before, it’s complicated.”
They still do not see. Glaciem thought as she considered the still blank faces staring back at her.
She called the water from her water skin and fashioned a very small heart of ice and set it aside. Then, she formed the shape of a tree, its body hollow and empty. She spoke to them as she fashioned it.
“I am called the Daughter of Trees because while the Forest Itself as Its own entity will always remain loyal to me, through the Elements now dwelling within It Umbra has been given leave to manipulate the Forest as he sees fit, just as my father and I have been given leave.”
She showed them the ice figurines she created.
“The Heart is me.” She said holding it up. “The tree is the Forest.” She created a hollow sphere that was small enough to fit inside the hollow of the tree. She flicked her finger towards the surface of the sphere and watched as the Elemental symbols carved themselves into its face. She created another hollow sphere, smaller than the last, bearing the shapes of men and women upon its surface.
“The Forest, in order to best serve me,” She began slowly, focusing as she spoke, moving the ice objects into the air for everyone to see. “Tethered to Itself the Elements. As a blacksmith might fashion a sword, so the Forest fashioned the Elements into tools to be wielded.”
The sphere with the symbol of the Elementals fit itself snugly into the tree.
“However, in order to allow these tools to be wielded by those of Its choosing, the Forest was obliged to bind within the Elements, the Spirits – or Souls – of the people loyal to their king and his daughter.”
The smaller sphere fit into the first sphere.
“The Forest then bound these newly created gifts and Its powers to a single person. Me.”
The small heart set itself within the two spheres.
Glaciem sighed. “However, in doing this, the Forest made a grave mistake. It did not consider the fact that when it also granted my father these abilities, It granted them to his other half as well. His twin brother, Umbra, for they share in all things. The very thing that was created to keep me safe has now become that which might be the Forest’s undoing.”
Glaciem lifted her hands and the heart began to melt within the center of the tree. The heat of the heart melting caused the two spheres surrounding it to crack and fail. The tree followed suit.
“Not only must we take this threat into account,” Glaciem continued, letting the ice melt on the table, “we must also remember that so long as I hold sway with the Elements, so does my father and Uncle. The Elements are obliged to obey them just as they are obliged to obey me. The Elements do not have a choice in the matter, regardless of whom they are loyal to.
“A man might own a horse, but even so, if another pulls at its lead, the beast will be forced to follow the one who is not its master.” Briggard said gruffly.
Glaciem nodded. “Yes.” She turned to the Fourth Mulier. “So, in answer to your question, we cannot count on the protection of the Forest for as of now, Umbra holds the lead to the beast.”
Alexandros pursed his lips as they all sat silent, pondering their choices. He looked at Glaciem. “If I understand you correctly, the Forest bound the Spirits of King Auden’s people to the Elements because they would be loyal to you and your father.”
Alexandros continued. “And the reason why Umbra is also able to wield those Elements is because he is Auden’s twin. The Forest never meant for him to have that ability.”
Again, Glaciem nodded.
“Then, we must figure out a way to remove that ability from Umbra.”
Glaciem looked at him, confused. “I wouldn’t even know how to start doing that.”
“But suppose you could.” Alexandros pressed, looking at her intently.
Glaciem looked at her father. Audens looked at the table, thinking. “Umbra wields the Elements because I am able to wield the Elements. If you were to remove his ability to do that then, by virtue of the fact that I am his twin, my ability to wield the Elements would also be taken away. To attempt such a thing would render Umbra useless, yes, but it would also render me useless.”
Glaciem cut in before Alexandros could speak. “I refuse to do anything that will potentially hurt our chances. I finally have an opportunity to do something to bring justice to those lives already lost because of me. I’m not willing to do anything that might take that opportunity away.” Her voice was hard, she would not bend in this matter.
“If Umbra was not able to wield the Elements, would he not be completely useless and therefore easier to defeat?” Briggard asked. “Even with his majesty compromised by such an act, it would still be in our interest because we would still have someone who could wield the Elements.”
“I’m not so sure you would.” Glaciem countered.
Briggard furrowed his eyebrows at her statement. She tried to explain.
“I don’t believe it would be possible to take away the Elements from my father and Umbra without also taking them away from me.”
“Even so, would the Elements be free to act on their own? Would they not still protect you, even if you couldn’t command them to do so?” Incen asked.
Glaciem shook her head once more. “You know how feral the Forest was while I was asleep. That’s the possibility you risk, for a beast to go without a lead. There’s no telling how wild it might become. It could try to destroy everything.” She looked at all of them. “Regardless, I don’t think it’s even feasible to do what you’re asking.”
“I agree with the Ice Child.” Narratus spoke. “You do not lame yourself in order to hurt another. Our strongest asset is that Forest and the Elements within it. Breaking ties with it is a risk I don’t believe we can afford.”
“Then what of the tree ghosts?”
Glaciem blinked at Alexandros. “The what?”
“When we first made for the giant oak, you spoke to the Spirits of your people directly, not just through the Elements.” Alexandros leaned back in his chair. “If you cannot separate the Elements from you or your father, and if entering the Forest is too great a risk, can you bring the Elements by way of your people’s Spirits directly to you?”
Glaciem shook her head. “I only spoke to the Whispers. They’re emissaries of the Elements. I couldn’t possibly call every single spirit dwelling in the Forest to me.”
Alexandros grinned at her, “Have you ever tried? With the Elements at Umbra’s front and the Forest at his back, we would have him completely surrounded, not to mention the forces that I bring.”
“I believe we’ve already explained to you that the Forest, Elements, and the Spirits of our people are all tied to one another.” Audens cut in.
“No. You said they were branches of a tree.” Alexandros argued. He turned back to Glaciem. “And we wouldn’t be cutting down the trunk, we would be cutting off the limbs and fashioning them for a different purpose.”
Glaciem frowned, unsure.
“He’s right.” The Fifth Hominem, as most the remaining Elders, had remained silent until now. “A tree’s limbs can be cut off without killing the tree. Glaciem, can you refashion your ice figures?”
Glaciem did so and handed them down the table to the Fifth. He took the heart and the two spheres and separated them from the tree.
“The Forest bound the Elements to Itself because of the love It bore you, but the Forest Itself existed before you.” He began, his eyes flashing with excitement. “The reason why the Forest would perish if you were to die is because It is bound to you through these.” Here, he held up the Spirits and the Elements. “Now, if you were to relinquish everything to the Forest,”
He placed the Spirits and the Elements back into the tree without the heart.
“Then, you have allowed an extremely powerful threat, namely the Elements, to go wild and unchecked.”
He removed the Spheres from the tree and set the heart back within the two spheres.
“But if you were to only relinquish your right to the Forest’s will, a magick that was not known to be wild on Its own, and take the Spirits and the Elements with you, they would still be bound to you, and able to be used by you. The Forest would be free and would live as Its own keeper once more.”
“But the Forest went savage after I fell.” Glaciem reiterated once more.
“Because of the Elements within It.” Alexandros said, following the Fifth’s logic. “It went savage because you were Its Keeper through the Elements by way of your people’s Spirits. But the Forest does not require a keeper. The Elements do, but the Forest does not.” He turned to Audens and Glaciem. “If we can separate them from one another you could effectively double your numbers.”
“And what of Umbra? What will happen to him if I attempt this?” Glaciem asked, trying to wrap her head around what they were proposing.
Alexandros shrugged. “Possibly nothing. He and your father might be able to use the Elements just as easily as they did before, but the point is neither one of you would hold sway with the Forest any longer and that might very well be enough to flush him out of It and force him to come to you on the field as you want him to. It would place the advantage back into our hands.”
Glaciem chanced a glance around the table. All eyes were on her, and though she could still feel the uncertainty, she could also see the hope. She turned back to Alexandros, and then looked at her father.
“I have no idea how to make this happen.” She admitted.
“Speak to the Forest, speak to your people.” Auden replied gently. “Perhaps we have been wrong to assume they and the Forest were one and the same thing for so long.”
Glaciem stood up and took a deep breath. “If we are all in agreement that this is my best course of action, then I will do what I can.”
Alexandros looked to his fellow Elders. They each nodded their assent. He then looked to the Hunters.
“We will not pretend to understand the ways of the Forest, or of the Elementals, but we will fight as you call us to on the battlefield.” Incen said, speaking for the ten of them.
Alexandros looked up to Glaciem. “We are in agreement.”
She nodded. “Then, my part here is finished. I will leave you and my father to further discuss your own courses of action.”
As she turned to leave the room, all bowed their heads towards her, their respect and faith in her abilities evident. She wished she could feel the same confidence in her own self, doubt coursing through her veins as she walked out of the House of Meeting and back into the sunlight.
She had a Forest to talk to.
Glaciem walked quickly; though she knew she could ignore them easily enough, she had no desire to linger on the streets and at the mercy of Village’s prying eyes. She set her course for the Border Tree just outside the Village walls, the one she used to climb with Bick back when the world wasn’t about to end. It was the only tie to the Forest she could think of without getting too close to Its borders and risking Umbra sensing her presence.
I’m sure he already knows anyway. He always does. She thought bitterly to herself.
It irritated her to no end how fluidly he moved in and out of the Forest and within the confines of her own thoughts and mind. Why couldn’t she do the same?
Because I fight fairly, that’s why.
As she reached the Village gates, there were seven Hunters already waiting for her. Though she did not recognize them, they bowed in respect as soon as they saw her.
Glaciem lifted her eyes up to look the foremost directly in the face, a tall, lanky, woman with bronzed hair. She wasn’t sure whether to pick a fight with this one or not.
The last time you picked a fight with the First Elders’ sworn men, Bick nearly bit your head off.
“Incen sent word for us to meet you here.”
Glaciem pursed her lips. “Word travels quickly among you then.”
The Hunter’s smile was roguish. “We use ravens. He had one fly out as soon as you left the council.”
“Hmm.” Glaciem sighed. “Are you here to stop me or to accompany me then?”
“My lady, we are here to do your bidding as the First of the Village UnNamed so instructed. You will find no hindrance from us, whatever you may choose to do.” The Hunter bowed once more.
Glaciem breathed a sigh of relief. “And you are?” She asked, inquiring after her name as the guards opened the spiked gates for her and the Hunters to exit.
“Gale.” Was the simple reply.
“Well, Gale, how do you feel about ghosts?” Glaciem asked her as they made for the tree, now within sight.
Gale pursed her lips as her brows furrowed. “I’m not sure I understand you, my lady.”
Glaciem grinned slightly. “To be honest, I’m not sure I understand it either.”
Once they were about fifty feet away from the tree, Glaciem instructed Gale and her men to stay back. She didn’t trust the Forest to not react brashly towards strangers, regardless of the fact that they were Hunters. Glaciem walked the rest of the way to the tree, which stood tall and lonely against a field of green and brown grass. She looked up towards the tallest branch.
I do not slow for icicles.
Bick’s voice rang clear in her mind. How often had they climbed this tree whenever they were offered reprieve from their training?
And I do not make haste for asses.
Glaciem chuckled lightly. She was grateful for the pleasant memory. It made what she was supposed to do next less daunting. She took a moment to decide on how to proceed, eventually settling on chancing a light touch against the tree’s trunk. She closed her eyes and focused with her mind only, speaking no words, trying to convey her desire to speak to the Forest if such a thing were possible.
It took several minutes of concentration before she began to feel the buzzing in her hand. It traveled through her arm and as it reached her throat, Glaciem’s breath hitched. The buzzing continued up her throat and through her mouth. Whatever it was traveling through her was leaving through her body and into the clearing beside her.
I’ve found you.
“Our Queen wishes an audience with us.”
Glaciem’s eyes popped open at the voice. Before her stood a young boy with white hair that brushed the ground upon which he stood. His eyes were so strikingly large and bright she was obliged to squint in order to look into them. He was wrapped in a gold and green robe that floated and swirled around his feet.
I know you.
“Hail Lilium, Heart of the Forest.” His voice was so deep it seemed almost out of place to hear it from the boy’s mouth.
“Who are you?” Glaciem asked, breathless, already knowing the answer.
“We are the Forest. You’ve come to ask us something that is not pleasant for us to hear.” The boy hissed. His gray eyes flashed.
“I come to ask you for help in the only way I know how to ask it.” Glaciem countered, trying to stand tall.
She realized that, despite his appearance, the boy was probably more ancient than she, her father and Umbra’s ages put together.
“We have already helped you. We helped you when you were too helpless to help yourself. A tiny, helpless, babe you were, and we took pity on you.” The boy cocked his head.
“I’m asking for your help once more then.”
The boy bared his teeth, white and too sharp. “What more does our Queen command of us? Have we not helped you enough already?”
“I ask you to allow me to free from you the Elements that are bound to the Spirits of my people, so I might wield them apart from the Forest. So they might aid me against Umbra.”
Here, the boy smiled, his tongue flicking out from between his teeth.
“Umbra.” He whispered. “Umbra would not like us to part with the Elements, with the Spirits of the people who love you dearly. For as they love you, so Umbra loves. What do you love, Wielder of Water?”
Glaciem hesitated. All her life she had loved the Forest, fought to protect it. Had living among humans for so little a time shifted her loyalty so completely? Had she altered that much? Even as she asked herself these questions, she knew them to be true. She had changed, had altered. Living in the Forest for so long had kept her from experiencing many things. Things which she had come to understand more fully during her time in the Village, with the people she now knew she loved as much if not above and beyond her Forest.
“I love Bick.” She started, her voice cracking. “I love Narratus. I love my father.” She paused, still hesitating to admit aloud what her heart already told her. “I love Alexandros.” She said finally.
Her fists clenched at the sound of his name leaving her lips, overwhelmingly aware of her love for him.
“I will do what I must in order to protect him.” She looked at the boy, her eyes sharp. “I ask for the Trees to be at Umbra’s back and I ask for the Elements to be with me at the front of the battle to come. You need no keeper. Why do you insist on one now?”
The boy looked at her, amused. “The Queen has remembered how to bite.” He said, his voice dripped with delight. “We do not take sides in petty fights between siblings and nieces. We are wielded because we took pity on a babe, long ago. We are wielded because it amuses us to watch you act like the god you are not. We are wielded because it makes us laugh to watch your failures. We do not know humanity’s good or evil. We do not care.”
“Then stand aside and let us fight this without you. Be as you once were.” Glaciem said through gritted teeth.
Now I know where Umbra gets his sense of humor.
The boy did not answer. Instead, his eyes shifted sharply behind Glaciem. “We see before us a man who is but half a man.”
Glaciem turned and watched her father as he walked up to join her.
“Son of Suns, brother of Moons. Where is the other half of your heart?” The boy asked Audens.
“She has passed from this life to the next.” Audens said lightly.
The boy shook his head. “You may have loved another, but your brother is your other half and he still dwells deep within us and remains faithful to us even after you left us for your human lady.”
Audens clenched his jaw. “I did not leave the Forest first.” He spat, fire curling from his mouth.
“You took what your brother loved most in the world.” The boy snapped back. “You could have lived without her love. Umbra could not. You could have bore the weight of it. Umbra could not. And you knew it. You brought his heart to the darkness. You are to blame.”
The boy’s garb altered from the shimmery green and gold to a solid black, the ends of cloth no longer flowing, but dripping and seeping into the ground beneath him.
“That is enough.” Glaciem growled.
The boy’s eyes widened and he cowered, his garb instantly changing to a pure white. “Do not show us your wrath, Queen of Trees. Show us mercy.”
Glaciem looked at her father, utterly confused by the abrupt change in behavior.
“The Forest was powerful once,” Audens replied, as he stared at the boy, whose large eyes were veiled by white hair flowing about him like a blanket. “It gave you that power, but then you slept and the Forest became twisted, feral. It had no direction, no stability. This is what’s left. The crazed mind of a collective entity with no one to nurture or guide it. It looks to you now that you are awake, but I’ve no doubt that my brother used Its compromised state to his advantage. There’s no question that he has spent much of his time sewing his lies deep within Its roots.”
Glaciem looked back at the cowering boy. “Then it is not the fault of my father, but mine.” She held her hand out to the boy. “Come, do not be frightened of me, I am your Keeper, and will be most merciful.”
The boy’s eyes widened at Glaciem’s words and gingerly he reached out his hand to hold hers.
“Our Queen loves us.” He whispered.
As soon as Glaciem’s fingers brushed against the boy’s she realized she had made a grave mistake. She saw her father reach out in alarm as she felt herself being torn apart from her body, her spirit stretched and pulled as it was sucked into the body of the tree from which the boy had come. She opened her mouth to cry out in alarm, but no sound came forth.
Everything looked warped as Glaciem felt herself speeding down the roots of the tree, images flashing before her. She saw herself as a young girl, her white hair wild and glowing like a halo around her eyes in the sunlight as she ran to her father, who smiled unabashedly at her. She saw herself as a woman, running towards Umbra. She saw a whip of fire held tightly in her hands. She saw herself fall, poison seeping deep into her mind, not only corrupting her own memories, but corrupting and festering the ties that bound the Forest to her. She saw the trees crying out as they mourned and looked for her, unable to find her hidden within the stone coffin that barred all prying eyes from discovering her resting place.
She saw the fury of the Forest as that coffin was destroyed in front of her, the shield that had protected her from both Umbra and hidden her from the Forest now gone, exposing her entirely. She saw herself unconscious in the Forest, her leg bloodied and broken as Alexandros ran towards her, shouting her name with a broken voice. She saw him drop heavily to the ground, holding her tightly, not sure if she was alive or dead, panic written on his face, anguish set deep within his eyes. She saw Bick’s body ripped apart, his blood spilling into the ground and seeping deep into the soil of the Forest. The anguish she felt burned and mirrored itself in the Forest, the first glimmers of emotion they had felt from her in centuries saturating the trees from limb leaf to root.
This is what it looked like from Their eyes. She realized as the images continued to flash before her. The Forest believed Itself to have been abandoned and It acted out in fury and sorrow. The Spirits of my people were left without their rulers, alone and with no one to guide them.
The Forest, had It not been bound to the Spirits of her people, could very well have survived without her. When the Spirits had been cut off from her completely, it had been hard for them. When her memory had been lost and they wiped from all remembrance, it had been painful for them. When they finally saw her and realized she had been attempting to start a new life that did not include them, it had been too much to bear. It had been the ultimate insult in response to the ultimate sacrifice.
It’s no wonder the Forest has behaved so wildly. One moment kind, and savage the next.
The memories began to slow as they flitted past her, becoming more clear with each passing moment. She was in a cave, watching Alexandros as he tended to her unconscious body in the Forest. He waited for her to wake up, his hand on her forehead as he prayed for her to open her eyes, begging the Forest to give her back. As she watched, she could feel the Forest’s love for Alexandros, Its recognition of his place as her protector clear in the way the trees surrounded him. He had allowed her to return to the Forest, had not attempted to stop her out of selfish desire. He had sacrificed for her, as the Forest had sacrificed for her.
He is the key. The key to our survival, should you fail.
The memories wafted away, the image dissipating in curls, as if a hand had passed through them, cleaving them in two. All was dark save for a pale green light that tickled the corners of Glaciem’s view. She turned herself around, trying to find the source of the light, but as soon as she herself moved, so did the light.
We waited for you for so long.
Instantly, Glaciem recognized the voices of her Whispers, her silent mentors and companions. She tried to turn herself once more, as quickly as she could. Still, she could not see them.
You left us, you disappeared. We waited, and we waited. Why did you not come to us sooner?
Glaciem tried to respond, but she still could not speak. She tried again, this time thinking her responses. Because I did not know. I did not remember.
Are we so easily forgotten?
No. Glaciem replied, anguished. You were deceived. Umbra meant to kill me. He failed, but that failure still came at great cost to myself. My memories were taken from me.
Glaciem shook her head. Umbra does not know what love is.
Umbra knows more of love than you do. You cannot love fully until that which you loved has been taken from you.
What I loved was taken from me. Glaciem said, thinking of Bick. Umbra took Bick away from me. I know what it is to lose that which I love. I want your help to prevent that from happening again.
“You want to cleave us asunder.”
Glaciem’s breath caught in her throat. She peered forward, squinting into the darkness. The green haze grew into a blinding light that flashed sharply before abruptly ebbing away. As the light faded almost entirely, the forms of thousands of figures appeared before her. Their appearance ranged from old men with bowed backs to young children that held tightly to the hands of their mothers. They stood silent before her, their eyes locked with hers. Some pulsed with a light that glowed green, some red, some white and some blue. All bore the same long white strands that seemed more like roots to Glaciem than it did hair. The strands were interlocked, each spirit connected to one another, a complicated and knotted tangle of white.
Upon further inspection, Glaciem realized the strands of hair continued behind the collective bodies and were wrapped around an enormous tree. It stood tall and hazed above her and the people before her, their white hair hanging heavily in the tree’s many branches. She felt her mouth drop at the sheer wonder and complexity of it.
The boy walked towards her from the crowd, his hair trailing behind him and tangled in with the rest.
“Hail, Lilium, Heart of the Forest.” He said again in greeting.
Hail, Lilium, Heart of the Forest. The voices behind him spoke jointly, though their mouths did not move, and their eyes did not waver from Glaciem’s.
“You are the Forest.” She said, finding her voice once more.
“We are, and we are not.” The boy replied, his head cocked. “We were not the Forest, and the Forest was not us, yet now we are the Forest and the Forest is us. We are bound as you are bound.” He turned to the people behind him.
We are bound. They whispered.
“We are your Peoples. We are your Elements. We are your Forest.” The boy continued. “We are all one and the same, yet not one and not the same. We are joined to one another because we are joined to you.” He turned and gently placed a thin finger on Glaciem’s chest, above her right breastbone. “It is by your heart alone that we beat and exist as one. We are your birthright.”
“Will you not help me then?” Glaciem asked, the boy’s finger digging further into her tunic, pushing incessantly.
The boy smiled wide, flashing his pointed teeth. “We have already helped you. We helped you when you were too helpless to help yourself. A tiny, helpless babe you were, and we took pity on you.”
Glaciem gritted her teeth and swallowed her irritation at the boy repeating himself. “I’m asking you to help me once again.”
“What more does our Queen command of us?” He said, parroting himself from earlier.
“Why do you call me your queen?” Glaciem snapped, forgetting herself.
The boy drew in his breath sharply, his eyes widening, but whether it was from anger or shock or hurt, Glaciem could not tell.
“Do not question whom we choose to crown.” He hissed.
“You crowned my father.”
At this, the boy threw his head back and laughed sharply, his teeth flashing as his mouth opened wide, great cries of mirth pouring from his lithe body. When his curious gales had subsided he looked back at Glaciem, his eyes still cold and unfeeling.
“Your father was crowned by humans. We do not suffer his rule while you survive. There can only be one.” He cocked his head while he spoke to Glaciem as if she were the child and he the adult, “Can there be one kingdom and yet two kings?”
Glaciem shook her head, ignoring his condescending tone. “I don’t understand. You listened to my father, our Kingdom was here in the Forest until-”
“Your father’s kingdom was built here within your kingdom. We listened to you and you alone. We gifted your father with your abilities because his blood is your blood, foolish though we were to have done so.” Remorse flitted across his gray eyes. “Would that we could change the things which we have done.”
“It happened the way it was meant to happen.” Glaciem said, hearing Bick as he spoke the words to her from within some unknown depth of her memory.
“You have come to ask us that which is not pleasant to hear.” The boy said, his demeanor shifting so suddenly it took Glaciem a moment to bring herself back to her purpose.
Not only a festered Forest, but one under the influence of two opposite powers; myself and Umbra. He is trying to manipulate the Forest for his purposes. She thought to herself. But it is as the Forest said: there can only be one.
“Umbra waits for me in you, the Forest. He waits for me to bring him my father. He intends to kill me, to kill you.” Glaciem began, searching the many eyes staring at her, their expressions blank. “I can’t risk the lives of more men by blindly going into the Forest with him there. I need an advantage over him. I need the Forest to release my people’s Spirits and the Elements that are bound to them. I wish to surrender my power over the Forest back unto Itself, so It might be free of the bonds tying us together.”
The boy looked at her darkly. “You cannot surrender that which you have been born into. The Forest is as deeply woven into the crown as your veins are woven throughout your body.”
“There must be some way.” Glaciem said, desperately.
“What is done should not be undone.”
Glaciem cried out in response. “Why? Why can it not be undone? Why can the Forest not be as It once was, free of outside rule? Why will you not do what I ask?”
Here the boy smiled, his brows raised slightly. “We do not answer questions, it is not for us to decide, it is only for us to obey.”
You need to stop asking them. You are their sovereign. You command the Elements. They no longer command you.
Alexandros’ words rang clear in her mind. Glaciem straightened and tensed. She looked at the boy closely. She realized with sudden clarity that she had been approaching this entirely wrong.
Rulers do not reason with insubordinate subjects.
It was a harsh way to think about it, and she knew the Forest acted as it did because of her own missteps. If she had any hope of righting the wrongs that had happened on account of her, to avenge the many needless deaths, then she was going to have to stop asking questions and start ruling.
It was not a challenge.
“I have come to issue a command.” Glaciem said breathlessly, her voice lowering as her heart began to pound heavily in her chest.
The boy’s eyes sparked and suddenly showed a clarity of mind that had not yet been there. The people behind him all straightened, the colors of the Elements they had been assigned began to glow brightly and the tree behind them rumbled deeply, sending vibrations through Glaciem’s core.
It’s a response, they’re coming to attention.
“What more does our Queen command of us?” He asked one last time, his teeth bared, the sharp points glinting in the light of the Elements, delight written on his face.
Glaciem gasped air in great breaths, her lungs dry heaving at the sudden rush of oxygen. She coughed and sputtered as she rolled to the side. She was in a large bed in the center of a room with rounded ceilings and gauzy curtains that ruffled from the light breeze. She took in her surroundings as she continued to try and catch her breath.
“Lilium!” A cool hand braced her shoulder to keep her from falling off the bed.
She looked around wildly, calming only when she saw Alexandros’ face, his eyes wide with concern and red from lack of sleep. He choked on his relief as he rushed forward and embraced her, knocking the wind out of her lungs as he did. She wrapped her arms around him tightly, trying to stay the swelling in her chest.
“What happened?” Alexandros asked hoarsely.
Glaciem shook her head, not sure how to even begin explaining, especially when her throat was as parched as it was and her stomach just as empty.
“I’m starving.” Was the only thing she managed to rasp out.
Alexandros laughed shakily into her neck where his head rested, the fingers he had buried into her hair tightened, wholly relieved. She heard her father’s own sigh of relief as he gently squeezed her shoulder.
“How long was I asleep?” She asked when Alexandros finally released his grip on her.
“Only a night, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it sleep. At least, not like the way you were not asleep like before.” Alexandros said, helping her to her feet.
Audens joined in. “After the boy touched you by the tree, he disappeared and at first your body collapsed, but then-”
“-Your eyes were wide and your body had twisted into angles I didn’t think possible. You were whispering the whole time, speaking to someone, or something.” Alexandros finished, his voice tight.
“As soon as the Hunters accompanying you saw you fall, they rushed to your side and immediately brought you back here.” Audens finished quietly.
It must have been a terrifying sight. Glaciem thought as she stood between her father and Alexandros, neither willing to let go of her.
It was only as the three walked out of the room did Glaciem realize she had been in Alexandros’ quarters. They were in the house of the First Elder, and as they entered into the hallway she saw dozens of faces looking up from the main floor, Hunters and Elders together. Their eyes all flooding with relief upon seeing her awake and moving.
“Welcome back to the land of the living.” Narratus said as the three made it down the stairs.
“Believe me, it’s good to be back.” Glaciem said, reaching out an arm to embrace Narratus.
She turned and saw that Gale and her men were also present. The tall Huntress looked at her with wide eyes.
She thinks she failed me.
Glaciem held her hand out to the tall woman, a gesture of goodwill. Gale took it and squeezed firmly, still searching Glaciem’s face for any sign of anger or disappointment. Glaciem nodded to her, her eyes never leaving Gale’s.
“You did what you were commanded to do. What happened was not your fault or the fault of your men.” Glaciem said, assuring her.
Gale tensed her jaw and nodded in return. “Thank you, my lady.”
Glaciem turned to her father and then to her betrothed. She heard the Whispers in her head for the first time since she had returned to the Village.
Hey is the key. You must ask him.
I know. She thought back to the Whispers.
She felt them hiss in acknowledgment, her thoughts now flowing freely through a newly established and permanent line of communication between her and the Forest.
He’s not going to like it.
She silently reasoned with the Whispers as she continued looking at the people she had grown to love above all other things, momentarily overcome by the fondness she felt for them.
There is little time left. They argued back.
Glaciem did not answer. Instead, she turned to Incen as he walked to stand beside Gale. “Was the rest of the council meeting successful?” She asked.
“That very much depends on the success of your own council.” Incen replied.
She thought back to the remainder of her conversation with the boy. She had made it clear what her commands had been, and the Forest had been willing to submit as were the Spirits who were faithful to her and her father. She had not, however, taken into consideration the Spirits who had not been her subjects. The men from the salted waters had also been there, also collectively joined to her, obedient by virtue of the Forest’s tethering of their spirits to the Elements and in turn to Itself. Without the Forest forcing their submission, those Spirits would be free to follow whom they chose, their Elemental abilities wielded only by those they would swear fealty to.
“You’ll have your numbers.” Was Glaciem’s only response. She would say no more on the matter, at least not yet.
Alexandros watched her closely, sensing her hesitancy, but he did not say anything, only wrapping an arm more tightly around her, pressing against her.
Glaciem turned to Alexandros. “Feed me.” She commanded flatly.
Alexandros’ brows shot up in amusement, but he obliged her by leading her away from the Hunters and Elders who bowed to her upon her leaving.
They walked to the kitchens, where servants bustled about, stirring food in pots hanging over large fires, turning spits of meat, and checking to see how much their unbaked breads had risen. Glaciem’s mouth watered as she unceremoniously hoisted herself up on the nearest countertop and snatched a hot pastry filled with something steaming from a cutting board beside her, much to the chagrin of the lady who had been fanning the pastries.
Alexandros chuckled as he casually leaned against the countertop, watching Glaciem eat. A servant silently offered him two goblets filled with sweet wine, which he took, nodding his gratitude. He handed one to Glaciem, who gulped down the contents in a matter of seconds, reveling in the feeling of it running down her throat.
“Did the tree ghosts not feed you then? How very ungracious of them.” Alexandros said, laughing loudly.
“Hush.” Glaciem growled. She finished the last bite of the pastry and began scanning the kitchen for more.
“You’re going to make yourself sick.” He cautioned.
“I don’t care.” Glaciem retorted, grabbing an apple from the barrel beside her.
“Well then, I hope I don’t ruin your appetite by asking what exactly happened with the Forest.”
Glaciem finished the small piece of fruit in a few bites and threw the core into the fire, ignoring the yelp of protest from the man next to the fire checking on the roasted game that was slowly pivoting over the flames.
Alexandros chuckled quietly as he handed her his own, still full, cup. She stared at it, pausing before considering whether or not to take another long swallow of the wine.
We are going to make you enjoy this night whether you wish it or not. Dance with me.
She stared hard at the rose colored contents, the memory hitting her harder than the rich wine at the Great Hall had.
I don’t trust my feet.
I don’t care.
Glaciem closed her eyes and gave the cup back to Alexandros and instead held out her empty glass to a servant who refilled it.
But you did care, Bick. You cared too much. I think deep down in my heart I knew you understood what it would cost you to follow me into the Forest, and yet you did it anyway. You gave everything.
Glaciem’s eyes snapped back towards Alexandros, who looked at her curiously. She bit her lip and looked hard at the man standing before her, his black cloak that was draped lazily around his shoulders now as permanent a fixture as the blue gem. Alexandros had understood what he risked going into the Forest too. They had both been willing to give everything for her sake. Swallowing, Glaciem raised her glass, blinking away the tears attempting to spill down her cheeks.
“To those whom we have lost, and to those whom we have yet to lose.” She whispered quietly.
Alexandros nodded and raised his cup with her. They both watched one another as they drank deeply.
As they lowered their drinks from their lips, Glaciem pondered how to begin. She handed the cup over to a servant. There had been one last thing the boy had cautioned her about regarding the Forest, something she had not expected.
You cannot surrender that which you have been born into. The Forest is as deeply woven into the crown as your veins are woven throughout your body.
Will the Forest die with me then? Glaciem had turned and demanded answers after the boy had repeated himself to her as she was leaving.
No. He had replied, but his smile was too wide, too impish for her liking. It was as if she had stumbled upon a secret he was dying to tell her, but wouldn’t until she asked the right questions.
What then will become of It? She asked uneasily, her eyes scanning over the multitude of Spirits watching her.
He is the key. He said, refusing to answer her question.
The Forest! She had snapped in her mind. What will become of It?
He is the key.
The key to what? She asked through gritted teeth.
The key to everything. The boy had replied triumphantly.
Glaciem jumped as she felt Alexandros’ hand on her shoulder, breaking her reverie. She looked at him and took in a deep breath.
“What is it?” He asked, searching her eyes.
Glaciem pursed her lips before leaning over and kissing him lightly. “I need you to do something for me.”
Glaciem could not sleep. She had given up even trying after tossing and turning in her bed for hours. Finally, she had grown so irritated she had flung her covers off and wrapped a cloak around her before quietly sneaking through the halls to the stairs that led to the roof of the house. Hunters had taken the place of the guards per Alexandros’ instructions, and they merely nodded to her as she passed them along the way, unconcerned with her destination.
When she reached the roof of the house, she saw Incen and Gale speaking quietly, no doubt discussing the plans for the morning, which was when Alexandros and Auden had decided they would meet Umbra on the field.
The Village itself was unearthly quiet. There had been a decree issued by the Elders for the citizens to leave to the neighboring villages deeper within the Valley the day Glaciem had gone to speak to the Forest. They had not been sure what to expect when she had fallen by the tree. They were fearful that it had been Umbra’s doing and so took precautions to protect their people as best they knew how without her.
“My lady.” Gale said as she noticed Glaciem walking up to join them.
Incen turned to face her and bowed his head.
Glaciem nodded in return. “Forgive me, I didn’t mean to interrupt you.”
Incen shook his head. “It was of no importance, only idle chatter to pass the time.”
“No battle plans then?”
Incen grinned. “If we were only just now beginning to discuss battle plans we might as well give up as soon as we see Umbra.”
Glaciem chuckled. It was true enough.
“We know what we’re here to do, and we do it most willingly. There’s no point in discussing it further.” Gale replied, less mirthful than her counterpart. She turned to face Glaciem. “You’ve the numbers we need?”
Glaciem nodded. “Yes, though in ensuring those numbers, Umbra will have been given an advantage as well.”
She had told the Elders and Hunters earlier that evening the results of her discourse with the Forest. They could not have it both ways, she had made that clear. Either keep the Spirits tethered and allow both her and Umbra full reign, or separate them and she and Umbra would be given those loyal to each of them accordingly.
This information had been received well enough, though nobody had been very pleased about it, something Glaciem had expected. What perhaps, had been more concerning to everyone, was the fact that Glaciem and Audens were currently rendered incapable of using the Elements, something they had both confirmed after holding out their hands in vain, the Elemental symbols on their hands unresponsive.
It was the very thing they had meant to avoid, but the boy had promised Glaciem it was temporary and would be rectified in the morning when she went out to meet him by the Border Tree. Her father was handling it with more grace than Glaciem had expected. They both held tightly to the conciliatory fact that, if they could not currently wield the Elements, neither could Umbra.
Glaciem idly traced the lines on her palms, the markings dull and dark. She had continued to try and move the water in the basin in the room once she was alone, but after a half an hour of nothing, she gave up and went to bed. That had been four hours ago.
“How does the First Elder fair?” Incen asked, breaking their reverie.
“As well as one might expect.” Glaciem replied.
After everyone had retired for the night, Alexandros had turned to the library, forbidding anyone to go with him, even Glaciem. He had locked himself in the room to study and even when Glaciem had crept up the stairs, she could still hear the shuffling of paper and saw the flicker of the fire underneath the door.
“Who would have thought it would be us to finally see this to its end.” Gale said, sighing as she looked over the empty Village. Incen turned and nodded his agreement.
“I could not have asked for better companions.” Glaciem said with as much earnest as she could muster.
Incen laughed softly and patted the Elemental’s back with his huge hand. “You just wait until you see what my men can do, and then you’ll be truly grateful.”
Glaciem gave him a rueful grin. “Last I recall, your men were easily subdued with a few marbles of ice in a tunnel.” She remembered how well her little trick had worked back then.
Incen barked a laugh. “‘Twas unfair of you. Those weren’t my men, but we did hear the tale of the Water Wielder who rendered thirty warrior Hunters useless in a matter of seconds.”
“How many Hunters are there?”
“A great many. Though, some do not remember their purpose as well as others.” Incen tipped his head towards the valley. “You might notice those who encountered you a year ago are not among either mine, Gale’s, or my father’s men. We do not deal with cowards and mercenaries.”
Glaciem pondered this.
“I apologize for my treatment of you.” She said after a moment. “I wrongly supposed you were all like the Hunters I had known before. Foolish though it was, considering that my own family is no different.”
Gale shrugged. “It doesn’t matter what the Valley thinks. We know who we are and that’s enough.” She said, answering for both herself and Incen.
Glaciem smiled. She rather liked Incen, and she was growing fond of Gale as well, though the tall woman was more reserved. Briggard, who was most likely fast asleep, was more like her father than Audens would have liked to admit, but they both could not hide the affection they felt for their offspring, their eyes lighting up every time they saw them.
She loved each and every one of the men and women who were here for her sake, and while she still felt remorse over the circumstance by which they had met, she was beginning to fully understand their love for her. Their devotion and willingness to fight by her side was such that she was no longer overcome by the turmoil and guilt that had constantly and incessantly plagued her before.
“You should sleep, my lady,” Gale said after another pause. “Much relies on you tomorrow.”
Glaciem nodded and rested her hands on both of their shoulders before she left, her head lifted to look them both in the eye.
“Thank you.” She murmured to them both. “Truly. Thank you, my friends.”
Incen smiled unabashedly at her and Gale even dared to grin in response. Glaciem returned the grin before turning. She crept back down the stairs, her wooden leg the only source of sound on the floor beneath her.
When she had passed the library, she paused, unsure of whether or not she should bother Alexandros. She decided to chance it, knocking lightly on the doorframe before turning the knob.
“Alexandros?” She whispered as she opened the door.
Glaciem swung the door open just wide enough for her to slip in and shut it behind her. Alexandros was in one of the chairs next to the fireplace. He had set the large tome he had been reading aside and was idly studying his palms.
“Are you alright?” She asked as she slid into the chair across from him.
Alexandros nodded and looked up from his hands, his eyes brightening at seeing her. “Are you?” He asked, tilting his head.
Glaciem nodded in response and reached out a hand. He took it and weaved his fingers through hers, smiling warmly.
“I couldn’t sleep.” She said at length.
“No one can.” Alexandros said with a lopsided grin.
“True enough.” She replied, returning his grin.
They both fell silent, their smiles gone as they both silently contemplated what would happen in just a few short hours.
“Do you think Umbra will come?” Alexandros asked after a while.
Glaciem nodded. “I’ve no doubt. If he’s anything like what I remember him to be, then he’s not dealing with his loss of the Elements well. He’ll be there tomorrow, if nothing else to try and kill me with his bare hands.”
“He won’t succeed.”
“Even if he does,” Glaciem said, staring at the fire, “He will not get what he wants, though I’m counting on him not knowing that I know that.”
“Why did your father keep such a thing from you all these years?” Alexandros asked.
She shook her head. “Because he did not know it either. Umbra was the only one who did.” She turned to face Alexandros. “He has a way of keeping secrets. He’s a good liar.”
“What happened to him? How did all of this happen?”
Glaciem shrugged. “It’s as you said before. He fell in love.”
Alexandros gave her a withering glance. “I fell in love too and I’m not planning on killing anyone over it.”
Glaciem grinned and though she did not turn her head, she glanced at him from the side, her eyebrows raised. “Are you not? Shall I call for you when the battle is over then?”
Alexandros opened his mouth to protest, but closed it without responding. Instead, he pursed his lips in mock irritation before kissing the palm of her hand, silently conceding her point before releasing her fingers. He reached over and gently ran his fingers through her hair, now almost half brown.
His grin faltered.
“You don’t have much time left.” He whispered. “Did the Forest give you any information about your immortality?”
Glaciem bit her lip. The Forest had not said anything about it at all.
“No.” She said, shaking her head.
She wasn’t sure if Its lack of acknowledgement was good or bad. She looked over to Alexandros.
“I’m not going to suddenly drop down dead.” When his expression did not alter she added, “At least, I don’t think so.”
At this, Alexandros moved to kneel in front of her, his hands gripping her arms. His eyes scanned over her before he leaned in and tenderly kissed her on the forehead.
He’s afraid of losing me, just when everything is falling into place. She realized, closing her eyes as she relished the feeling of his lips against her skin.
He pulled away and pressed his forehead against hers, closing his eyes. Glaciem rested her fingers against his jawline, feeling it tense beneath her touch. She smiled lightly.
“May I ask you something?”
He hummed his consent.
“Do I call myself Glaciem or Lilium now? I hear both names so often, I’m not sure which one I am.”
Alexandros opened his eyes and studied her for a moment. “I don’t care if you choose you to call yourself Glaciem, or Lilium, or by some other name you have yet to decide upon. What I do know,” He said, kissing her forehead again, “Is that I shall call you mine.”
At hearing this, Glaciem pressed her lips against his, silently offering him her whole self, willingly submitting all that she was, and was yet to be, into his worthy hands. She bared before him her fears and her hopes, her merits, and her shortcomings. Alexandros accepted it all as he readily returned her kiss, their eyes shut to the world around them, even if only for a moment.
“I love you.” Alexandros whispered as he pulled away, having said it with such sincerity Glaciem’s heart swelled and for a moment she forgot how to breathe.
“We should at least try to pretend to sleep.” She said when she found her voice again.
He smiled lightly. “I suppose you’re right.”
Alexandros stood, taking Glaciem’s hands in his own to bring her up with him before he tipped her chin to press one last kiss to her lips, lingering for only a moment before guiding her out of the room.
As they entered the hallway, she turned back to take in the library once more. It could very well be the last time she would ever see it.