what is is, why we see it as a bad character attribute, and why that’s not correct.
Weak. Weakness. Weakling. We’ve used this word and its many derivatives forever to describe something as being found wanting, as not good enough, as inadequate. It is the defining trait of those who fail, of those struggling, of those who aren’t going to or didn’t make it. It is the thing that you say to yourself as you’re staring back at your own reflection in the bathroom mirror while contemplating the entirety of your existence. The existence that is in no way what you thought it would be, what you wanted it to be.
“You are so weak.”
It is the thing you say about yourself when you didn’t succeed. It is the thing that is meant to further break you down. It is the thing you say when, at the very core of your being, you believe you deserve the failure. It is the thing you say when you don’t view yourself as worthy of being lifted up.
In short, it is the thing you say when you don’t love yourself.
Think about it. If you watched another person fail the way you failed, would you speak to them the way you speak to yourself? If they didn’t get the job they applied for, would you berate them and tell them how terrible they were for not succeeding? Chances are, if you’re a decent person, you would be telling them quite the opposite. You would be doing what you could to encourage them.
Why are we so accepting of other’s failures and weaknesses but we refuse to tolerate it in ourselves?
Weakness is not bad. Weakness is, simply put, imbalance. Imbalance is not a matter of good or evil, or moral or otherwise. It is just – just – a part of your life that needs strengthening.
And beating yourself down is the wrong way to do that.
Don’t get me wrong, I know that we all, logically, understand this. And I know that it’s easier said than done, especially if we’ve grown accustomed to a particular dialogue, regardless of how nasty or detrimental that inner dialogue is. (More on this concept at a later date.)
When we train in the gym, we start off with light weights because we are – wait for it – weak. Then, as we grow stronger, we increase the weight. When the weight gets to be even heavier and potentially beyond our ability, we don’t give up and we don’t talk ourselves down. Instead, we ask for a spotter. We ask for help. We ask for the assistance of someone else to make sure we don’t hurt ourselves.
When we start a new job, we come prepared with the skills we’ve learned from previous jobs. When we encounter a thing that we’ve never encountered before, we don’t sit in the corner of the office and tell ourselves how weak we are for not knowing how to do that thing. We – again – ask for help – we ask for training – we ask for support, and in fact, is it assumed that we will need that support. That assumption is not based on the fact that we’re “weak”, but rather on the fact that we are about to undertake a thing that we’ve never done before. That fact is not met with begrudgement. Neither is it met with disdain. It is simply addressed with the understandable expectation that you will need help.
Now, I recognize that not everything we experience weakness in can be fixed with a mere shoutout for assistance, but what I am saying is that when you do ask for help or even simply acknowledge weakness as a healthy part of life and that it is meant to make clear to you the things that you must strengthen, you allow yourself to address said weakness in such a way as to enable and empower yourself rather than beat your probably already low self-esteem even further into the ground.
A little bit about myself: I was married for eight years. To a very nasty human being. I was beaten down – literally and figuratively – I was cheated on, made to feel worthless, threatened, scammed, and manipulated into silence.
I didn’t say anything for years. Because I was weak.
And there were many times during my marriage that I looked at myself in the mirror and absolutely hated the human being looking back. I hated her because she wasn’t strong enough to tell her ex-husband to stop. I hated her because she was too weak to fight back (quite literally too weak, both physically and mentally). I hated her because she was too cowardly to stand up for herself, regardless of the consequences. I hated her because she couldn’t face her abuser and instead would curl up on the floor and bleat like the scared little lamb that she was.
The thing that got me out of this situation? I asked for help. I asked for a spotter. I asked for assistance. The only reason why I’m here today is because I finally admitted my weakness, both to myself and to people who could help.
Weakness can be extremely damaging, but I would venture to say that potential for damage is because we either ignore it or try to hide it – either from ourselves or others. When you’re diagnosed with an illness, you don’t ignore it, you address it and you tell your friends and family so you have help and support. You can ignore it, I suppose, and I know many people who do, but I think it’s generally understood that when you choose to ignore it, you’re also accepting that you’re going to sustain the prolonged and totally avoidable injuries that will result.
When I stopped seeing my weakness as a defining trait and rather recognized it as an imbalance in my life that I couldn’t take care of by myself, it did two things. The first thing it did was allow people who loved me to support me when I didn’t have the strength to support myself and two, it removed the shame that we so often saturate our failings in. When you talk about something and admit it, it does make it real, but it also helps to remove the hold that it had on you and allows others to shed some light on the situation and possibly even help you see it from a different perspective.
This alternative perspective can itself be quite challenging. I still felt the sting of my failures. Rather than accept my life as a failure, however, I have tried and will continue to try and challenge that mindset with an alternative perspective. One that says who we are in our moment of weakness does not define us. How we choose to move forward in light of the weakness is what defines us.
Athletes fail all the time – they lose races, they sustain injuries, they don’t make the team. These are their moments of weakness. What makes them not weak and what makes them athletes, is their choice to continue trying, to continue working towards a stronger self.
Artists fail all the time – they fuck up paintings, they don’t win competitions, they are told what they produce is not art. These are their moments of weakness. What makes them not weak and what makes them artists, is their choice to continue practicing, to continue making art, and to continue working towards a more talented self.
Writers fail all the time (yes we’re getting redundant, but I’m going to beat a dead horse for a little while longer) – they get rejected time and time again by publishers and agents who don’t want to represent them, no one reads their work, they never get published at all. These are their moments of weakness. What makes them not weak and what makes them writers, is their choice to continue writing, to continue putting their work out there, and to continue – you guessed it – working towards a more talented self.
I realize I’m going in circles at this point, but I’m trying to spiral towards the center.
Weakness is NOT bad – weakness is JUST imbalance
Weakness should NOT be ignored – weakness SHOULD be acknowledged and addressed
Weakness does NOT define you – how you CHOOSE to proceed in light of your weakness does
We don’t always have a choice in feeling weak. Sometimes it’s internal, something that hits us again and again, something that we’ve been fighting our whole lives. And it might be something that we’ll always struggle with. The traumas sustained from my marriage caused the weakness of damagingly low self-esteem. That is a major imbalance in my life, and one that I will most likely be addressing for the rest of my life. But, if I choose to treat that weakness as the imbalance that it is, versus treating it like the defining attribute of my life, then I can start moving forward with that new mindset and become stronger and less afflicted over time. And, to be clear, I have not achieved this mindset alone. I have never been able to do any of this alone, and while I will continue to grow stronger and more capable, I shall always choose to surround myself with people who provide my life with love and support.
I used to play racquetball all the time. Once, during a game, I twisted my ankle. Badly. I couldn’t walk on it for months let alone workout. I started doing Pilates to compensate for my lack of ability to properly bend the ankle. While there’s nothing wrong with Pilates, there is a problem with the fact that I didn’t properly address or acknowledge the injury. It wasn’t until 6 months later when I finally went to a chiropractor that I found out I had been limping around on a partially dislocated ankle for half a year.
The result? MAJOR weakness in my right ankle. I still don’t have the flexibility and strength in that ankle that I used to. It is my weak ankle. I acknowledge this imbalance in my life and by acknowledging it I am able to address it and move forward accordingly. It has taken years to undo the damage that was sustained in mere seconds, and in truth, I will probably never be fully healed from it. I shudder to imagine the kind of long term repercussions I would be dealing with had I refused to admit that something was wrong.
Weakness doesn’t have to be an enemy. In fact, it can be a very insightful and useful tool to help you recognize the things you must work on. It’s simply an imbalance. It is not evil. It is not good. It just is.
And it is not the thing that defines you. How you address it, how you move forward, is what defines you.
I’m sure for many this probably seems pandering, redundant, and simple. And if that’s the case, then I am so happy for you. Genuinely, truly and totally happy for you. Because it means you’ve already moved forward and beyond this concept. And I wish you all the happiness that you desire.
But if there is one person who reads it and finds some nugget of truth or help in my pandering, redundant and simple thoughts, then the time it took to write was well spent.
“That is quite the opposite of what you’ve led the Valley to believe.” Alexandros snapped, his voice rising above the indignant cries of Glaciem and Bick.
“That would be because if the Valley understood the true dangers of the Forest and what potentially dwells there, no one would have dared to venture through the Mountains to the Village UnNamed or even to the outer edges of the Valley.”
“You lied? You promised us safety in the Valley and you were lying about it the whole time?” Alexandros raised his voice. “Do you have any idea what some of your people endured in order to get here in the first place?”
“The Southern Waters were being overrun with savages! The Mountains house barbarians who eat their own children! Even your own people are being forced to flock to the Valley. Where else would you have had them go? This is the safest place for them to be!” The Seventh raised his voice to match Alexandros.
“And what did you plan to do when the Shadow decided to start eating away at the Valley? What were you going to do then?” Alexandros snarled, his hands balling into fists.
“She was supposed to protect us when that happened!” The Seventh Hominem shouted, pointing at Glaciem, who backed away, eyes wide.
Silence filled the room.
“She was supposed to protect us.” The Seventh Hominem repeated quietly, his shoulders and head dropping. “We had no idea when the Shadow would return, we only knew he was still alive, hiding somewhere, waiting. There were signs all over the Valley. We knew Glaciem was our safest chance for survival, for the survival of the Valley. Please believe when I say we had no other option, Alexandros.”
The Seventh turned to Bick. “Your father wanted so much more than to simply rule the Village. He dreamed of finding a way to put a permanent end to the Shadow. He was so intent on protecting all of us he was willing to do so at whatever cost. To him, removing the coffin from the Forest and into the Village seemed to be the most logical option. Destroying it would allow her to bind herself to the Valley. He was desperate to ensure she would stay with us forever.”
Bick’s face was hard as he stared at the Seventh. A tear escaped his eye, but he did not brush it away.
“Your father did not exile you because he did not love you. I believe the Shadow finally saw an opportunity to use him and manipulated his mind against you. Your father was a noble man. He never meant for any of this to happen.” The Seventh Hominem set his hands on Bick’s shoulders. “He wanted to protect you against anything that could hurt you. He loved you and your mother above all else.”
Bick turned to Narratus. “You were wrong after all, old man.”
“Yes,” Narratus said, nodding his assent. “And it was wrong of me to not trust our First. Please forgive me, Bick.”
“As far as what happened to your mother,” The Fourth said gently, joining in, “we can only assume the same. The Shadow knew they had the power to harm Glaciem. Your mother’s heart had already been overwhelmed and broken by the death of her husband. Perhaps Umbra seized the opportunity to manifest himself physically by using her as a vessel.”
“You make it all sound so logical.” Bick said through his clenched jaw.
“Perhaps this is not the right time, but why is the Shadow so determined to find her?” Alexandros asked as he glanced at Glaciem, who had retreated to the farthest corner of the room.
“Because I’m the last of my kind.” Glaciem answered quietly. “Or at least, it’s believed that I’m the last of my kind. I suppose if we’ve all been taught Umbra was dead and gone, who’s to say the Children of the Forest are all dead?”
Narratus smiled slightly, “Who is to say indeed?”
“Narratus, who has been controlling the Forest?” Glaciem asked.
“What do you mean?”
“If the Shadow is alive and if the Forest is hostile to mortals, then is it possible the Forest Itself is being controlled by Umbra?”
Narratus looked to the Elders for an answer, but received none. “I do not know, Glaciem.” He said, turning back to her. “It is possible some trees have been corrupted, but there were many trees that came to your aid last night, so I do not believe the Forest in Its entirety has been fully taken by Shadow. That’s not to say you will not suffer opposition in the Forest, but I do earnestly believe you will have allies.”
Glaciem paused to ponder this. After a moment, she let her eyes drop to the floor.
“Do you still believe we should go?” She asked Bick quietly.
“Yes.” He replied immediately.
“No.” Alexandros looked sharply at Bick.
They stared at each other, at odds.
Narratus shook his head and turned to Glaciem. “Bick and Alexandros are both right. You are not obligated to go. You may choose to stay here and protect the people. However, you must consider that the Village has seen your true power and they have seen you attack their own with that power. There is a very real chance they will no longer want your protection. You may also choose instead to go into the Forest and seek out the Shadow. But, as you’ve said before, you do not have complete control over the Elements.
“Ultimately, the choice is yours and yours alone, Glaciem. I do not know which is the right path. What I do know is, you are capable of far more than I have ever been able to teach you. I believe it’s safe to assume Umbra has indeed been looking for you and now, in all likelihood, he knows where to find you. Will you stay here and wait for him? Or will you go out to meet him? If you stay, you risk the Village. If you go, you risk your life.”
Narratus paused to cup Glaciem’s head in his hands. He gently kissed her forehead. “What will you do, Daughter of the Forest?”
Glaciem looked at him steadily, then turned to Bick and Alexandros. She sighed. “Too many people have died because of me. I will not stay here and risk the lives of the Village. I will go. I will find Umbra. And I will put an end to this.”
“Glaciem, are you mad? You have the choice to stay here and you’re still going to go out there instead? What is the matter with you?”
Alexandros tried to reason with Glaciem as he followed her down the hallway to her room. Glaciem had hoped he would give up following her with his leg, but he was bent on talking to her.
“Alexandros, I’m going, and that’s final.” She snapped. “There’s nothing you can say to stop me at this point.”
“And why not?”
She rounded the corner and entered her room. She wasn’t even entirely sure what she needed, having only been told to gather a pack and then meet the Elders back in the library. Bick had been bid the same. She pursed her lips as she turned around and faced Alexandros.
“What happened to the man who fought beside me last night? Where did he go? This man before me is different. I don’t recognize him.”
Alexandros clenched his jaw as he met her stare evenly. “That man is still standing before you. Don’t think for a moment he’s gone elsewhere.”
“Then why are you asking me to stay here?”
“When I said I would protect you I meant it. Right now, you are about to go into the Forest which we now know is possibly hosting an ancient evil whose sole purpose is to kill you. You are ill-armed, with little to no knowledge of what awaits you, and you have absolutely no idea as to what you’re going to do once you get there. Admit it, Glaciem, you’re walking into that Forest blind.”
Glaciem clenched her jaws. She wasn’t sure what bothered her more. The fact that Alexandros believed she didn’t know what she was doing, or the fact that he was right.
“I am not completely unable to protect myself.” She said at length. “And I’m not going into that Forest blind. That Forest belongs to me. It will listen to me. I have been training with Bick for ten years. We’ll be fine. You have only known me for a day. And in that day, you have seen me wield every single one of the Elements. I am more capable than I look and I will not have you second guessing me simply because you aren’t able to go with me.”
She turned back around and grabbed a pack from underneath her bed, trying to believe what she said as much as she hoped he would too.
Alexandros watched her silently before turning around and limping back through the door and down the hall. She assumed he was going to the library.
“I am not yet your wife.” She muttered to herself, not bothering to watch him leave.
Glaciem turned around in surprise. Bick was leaning in the doorway. She turned back around to focus on her pack.
“Nothing.” She said quietly.
Bick grinned ruefully, the glint in his eyes bordering between anger and triumph. “Were you and Alexandros having a lover’s quarrel?”
“We were having nothing of the sort.” She snarled.
“Oh, don’t be so sour. I’m only jesting.”
“I don’t care what you’re doing. This is not the time. This is not the place. We have work to do, so unless you’re ready to go to what is most likely our death, please be quiet and leave me be.”
She rustled mindlessly through her belongings, hating how dramatic she had sounded just then.
“Glaciem…” Bick started, his tone less playful.
“Please, Bick…just leave me be.”
Bick was silent for a moment before he took a tentative step forward towards her.
“You and I are about to embark on a journey where we will be stuck with one another for who knows how long.” He said softly. “Let’s not start that journey badly. Please? Tell me what burdens you.”
Glaciem paused before looking over her shoulder. “Why haven’t the Elders exiled me?”
“What do you mean?”
“I spilled blood, the same as you and Alexandros. Why haven’t I been exiled or sentenced to death?”
“You’re the Valley’s only hope. They can’t kill you. They saw what you did when they threatened something important to you. In truth, I have a feeling they wouldn’t be able to hurt you even if you yourself placed a knife in their hands and told them to strike.”
Glaciem pondered this for a moment. “What about your mother? What about what she said to you?” She asked at length. “About the darkness?”
Bick shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“And what of the horrible noise we all heard when the coffin was destroyed? It didn’t hurt me at all, which I can understand, but you were also able to withstand it. Why was that?”
“I don’t know.”
“But doesn’t it bother you?” She insisted.
“Of course it bothers me!” Bick sat down on the bed and looked up at Glaciem. “I simply don’t see a point in worrying about it right now.”
“What if something happens to you when we enter the Forest?”
Bick chuckled. “Glaciem, something will most certainly happen to both of us in the Forest. We aren’t going somewhere safe. Chances are, you and I will both face our fair share of hardships.”
“How can you be so calm about it?” She threw her hands up in frustration. Water from the washbasin sloshed in response.
She was agitated and the water knew it.
Bick sighed. “I have to be calm about it because if I’m not calm, I fear I shall lose heart.” He looked at her steadily. “Nobody fully understands the risks we’re taking. It could be much easier than we anticipate, but in reality, it’s probably going to be far more difficult than either you or I could even begin to imagine. What I do know, the only thing I am certain of, is that I believe in protecting our Village. And I believe in protecting you. I believe you are worth fighting for and…”
Bick trailed off. Glaciem held her breath as she watched him struggle to find the right thing to say.
“…you are worth dying for.” He finished quietly.
Glaciem exhaled heavily and looked down at her feet. “I think it would be better if I went alone.”
“I don’t care what you think. I’m going with you whether you like it or not, Icicle.” Bick stood up and slapped Glaciem upside the back of her head playfully. Then, more seriously, he tipped her chin with his finger. “I lost my father and my mother tonight. You are my only family now. Don’t force me to be parted from you too.”
“You’re too stubborn for your own good.” Glaciem replied sharply as she pulled her chin away.
She dropped the pack on the bed and pushed him out the door, ignoring his protests as she did.
“I need to change and so do you. We need to leave soon. I doubt the Village will tolerate my being here for much longer and once they find out I’m taking you with me, they’ll tolerate me even less.”
Glaciem shut the door in his face, not waiting for a response. She looked down at her dress, or rather, what was left of it. She pulled at the neck and it ripped down the center and fell off of her body in ribbons.
It had been such a beautiful gown. She shook her head sadly.
She picked up the pile of fabric and set it on the bed, sorting through the torn cloth, looking for a piece that was relatively blood and dirt free. She settled on the silver ribbon which had served to close the back of the dress and pulled it away from the rest of the fabric. She wrapped it around her wrist, tying it off as best as she could. She was not typically the sentimental sort, but still, she wanted to keep a piece of it with her.
She dressed as quickly as she could, choosing her usual tunic, leggings, boots, and cloak. She wasn’t sure what she would need in the way of weapons, nor was she convinced the Forest would even allow weapons to enter Its territory.
How do the Hunters manage it? They enter and leave the Forest with weapons regularly…perhaps they’re all in league with the Shadow? Perhaps those at the Great Hall have gone to tell Umbra what happened?
The thought was uncomfortable. Even though she had read about Umbra in the books Narratus provided her, she still had little to no idea as to what he actually looked like or what he even was. She knew he was King Auden’s brother and was the most dangerous threat to mankind, but beyond that, she could only guess. Not even Narratus knew more than what was provided in the books.
Except for the fact that he knew Umbra was still alive.
Though she understood why Narratus hadn’t told her the truth and knew he would have eventually told her when the time was right, it still bothered her to know he had withheld the information for so long.
“None of that matters anymore.” She said, her voice clipped, as she tried to convince herself she was ready to go.
She took a deep breath and looked over her room one more time before grabbing the still empty pack. She walked out of the room, refusing to look back.
The Village was deathly quiet. Even with their slow progress on account of Narratus being unable to walk quickly, they did not see anyone besides themselves. Glaciem and Bick were kept up front. Their hands were bound and they were blindfolded so as to prevent them from struggling or retaliating. They were not permitted to talk.
Bick stumbled as he walked, but Glaciem found with her eyes covered she could feel the ground beneath her more clearly, as though her feet were seeing for her. She walked deftly across the upturned soil and around determined roots that threatened to trip the others.
The group turned from the fields onto the main road. Here, the ground was less disturbed; the Trees had not bothered to work their way up through the cobblestone. The moment her feet touched stone, Glaciem found it more difficult to walk, but if she focused she could still ‘see’ the ground, even if just barely.
At length, she could sense they were near the Great Hall and soon she could hear the Hunter’s boots clapping against the hardwood floors. They had arrived. Glaciem and Bick were roughly forced to their knees as their blindfolds were ripped from their heads. They blinked away the grime from their eyes before looking around. Tables were upturned and there were still puddles of water everywhere. A gigantic tree had wrenched its way through one of the windows, its branches clinging to walls as it remained frozen. The room still smelled of scorched wood and flesh. The aroma was sickening and it filled Glaciem with dread. She willed her breathing to remain steady.
Perhaps we were fools to come back here.
They saw the living Elders standing before them, the coffin still unscathed behind them on the table as it had been left. The body of the First Elder had not been moved. Glaciem could see the pool of red left by the wounds she had inflicted on him. His face was turned away, but even through the blood, she could see the bright blue stone against his back, its chain having twisted around his neck as he fell. She peered closely, trying to see if his chest was moving, unable to tell one way or the other. Glaciem swallowed hard and glanced at Bick. He was also staring at the body, his eyes locked on the blood seeping out from beneath his father. Even when she tried to catch his eye, he would not look at her.
Alexandros was leaning against the table near the coffin. His thigh had been thoroughly wrapped, the white gauze only slightly marred by a few stains of blood. His hands were also bound, his palms pressed together, tightly wrapped in rope and resting against his good leg. His eyes locked on hers as soon as she saw him. She stared at him intently, but could not read his expression.
On the table next to the coffin Glaciem could see the stones of the Elders who had been killed; the Sixth, Eighth and Ninth. The green stone of the Sixth Mulier shone in bright contrast to the metallic stones of the Eighth and Ninth. The remaining Elders gazed silently at Glaciem.
The Second Mulier sat in the middle, the dead Elders’ stones in front of her. On her right, sat the Third and Fifth Hominem, their stones Red and Grey, and the Fourth Mulier with her stone of yellow. They were the Keepers of Sickness, Death, and Healing. On her left sat the Seventh Hominem, his stone brown, the Keeper of Libraries. Narratus slowly walked forward to join the remaining Elders. The Second Mulier looked at him with surprise, but her expression quickly changed, first to disgust and then to anger.
As soon as Narratus reached his chair he sat down heavily, groaning from the exertion of the walk. The Second Mulier rose to her feet and the Elders, save the Tenth, rose with her. They formed a seemingly impenetrable shield of black, all studying Glaciem and Bick. Glaciem gazed at the Second Mulier, who looked back, unblinking. Finally, the Second Mulier broke the stare and turned to Alexandros. She raised an eyebrow, motioning for him to stand next to Glaciem and Bick. He limped towards them and stood next to Glaciem, towering over her.
All was quiet. Neither Hunter nor Elder said a word. It made Glaciem nervous and she shuffled awkwardly on her knees, which were starting to bother her. Bick jabbed her as best as he could with his elbow, signaling her to stop moving. She ached to jab back, but forced herself to remain, choosing to ignore him instead. After several minutes had passed the Second Mulier cleared her throat.
“Daughter of Elements,” She began, her voice was ragged and cracked, every word filled with pain. “You have drawn blood of the Village. You have taken the life of my husband, the First Hominem. You have led my son and your betrothed down a path that is in direct conflict with the Laws of the Village. You have called the Forest to our doorstep and It has become hostile towards us. What was meant to become a unifying event between us and the Forest has now been brought to complete and utter ruin. These are the charges I bring before you. How will you respond?”
Glaciem looked the Second Mulier in the eye and replied with as clear a voice as she could manage. “I am guilty of the charges you bring before me.”
The Second Mulier’s jaws clenched and she swallowed hard, her eyes narrowing. Glaciem could not tell if her answer had been expected or if it had taken the woman by surprise.
“I am guilty,” Glaciem repeated, louder this time. “I have done these things and it has caused great harm to those I hold dear, and to those with whom I have lived these ten years. I submit myself to both the judgment and will of the Elders according to the Laws of the Village.”
Alexandros looked down at her, confused. The Elders murmured to each other and Narratus nodded for her to continue.
“I only ask that you would hear what the Tenth has to say in regards to the events that have passed tonight, and I ask you to show mercy towards Strong Heart and my intended, Alexandros of the Northern Waters. Their crimes would not have happened had it not been for my actions. They protected what they had been commanded to protect; Me. They should not be punished because I failed to be worthy of their protection.”
All looked to the Second Mulier as she glanced at Narratus. “What have you to say?” She asked him with cold eyes.
Grief and heartache had taken its toll on her gentle spirit and she now spoke harshly towards him, her nostrils flaring ever so.
Narratus bowed his head. “My lady, I must ask your pardon in not rising, I fear the walk here has robbed my legs of their strength.”
“Seeing as you were supposedly on your deathbed I am surprised you are here at all.”
“Mother, please.” Bick begged quietly.
The Second Mulier looked at him sharply.
“Listen to him. Hear what he has to say.” He looked up at her from his knees.
“Your father condemned you with his dying breath, and still you presume to ask things of me?” She asked after a moment.
Tears welled in her eyes, which were tinged with a wildness wholly uncharacteristic of her usually controlled and demure countenance. Glaciem tried to comprehend the torment the Second must have been feeling. It was the Second Mulier’s duty to obey the Laws of the Village, but what her husband had declared was to reject the most precious thing to her and everyone who heard the verdict knew it. Bick was her beloved son; she had almost lost him once in infancy and now she was expected to willingly lose him one more.
“I only ask that you listen to Narratus.” Bick repeated to his mother.
The Second Mulier ignored Bick’s use of the Tenth’s given name. Though mother and son did not speak, Glaciem could see them communicating through their eyes. It was a language known only to she who had borne him and to him who had been born. Bick pleaded with his mother silently as she ran a finger along the coffin, staunchly refusing to listen. At length, the Second spoke, her voice quiet and low.
“To think, all of this on account of an ugly piece of stone.” She murmured wincing slightly, her other arm going to her stomach. “I have never before seen your coffin.” She said, looking at Glaciem, her pupils dilating as she focused on the Elemental. “I was content to let it remain in the Forest, where it belonged, and yet here it is, before my eyes, its very existence the cause of our damnation.”
The Second winced again and clutched at her black robes, her knuckles going white. She closed her eyes and bowed her head as she continued to run her free hand along the smooth stone. The Fifth reached out an arm to stay the Second, but she shook her head, indicating for him to remain where he was.
“My lady?” Alexandros broke the silence, voicing the concern they all felt.
He had remained standing on account of the bandage wrapped around his leg. His face was still white, though Glaciem saw that he looked remarkably stronger than when he had left to return to the Great Hall.
“Silence!” The Second Mulier spat, her head snapping back up to look at Alexandros. “You have no right to speak! The only reason why you are still alive is because you had yet to be sentenced with your cohorts!”
“Mother!” Bick exclaimed, surprised by the foulness of her voice.
The Second did not respond, but rather cried out in pain, buckling as both hands went to her stomach. She turned away from the outstretched arms of the Elders beside her. When she regained herself, the wildness in her eyes was unmistakable.
“I will not listen to this… this treachery!” She seethed. “I have suffered the presence of that thing for too long!” She spat as she pointed an accusing finger at Glaciem’s figure. “I have watched my son grow more and more attached to an inhuman creature who should have died with the rest of her kind when the songs said they died!”
Another wave of pain washed over the woman, taking with it her last bit of reasoning. The grief of her husband’s death, the anguish at seeing her son and the anger she felt towards Glaciem were all too great for her to withstand. She swayed, momentarily unbalanced, before her hands went out and landed heavily on the coffin. She balled her hands into fists and began to beat down on it with every word she spoke for emphasis, using the coffin as both a support and a platform for her fury. Her eyes locked on Glaciem once more.
“Because of your actions I am now a widow! Our beloved Village is lost, and all I have left of my legacy is a traitor son.”
Her voice lowered to a growl, her teeth grit in pain. “I will see to it that you are both made to be public displays of the wrath of the Laws of the Elders! I will see to it that your fool betrothed is sent to the Mountains and his family stripped of all titles and wealth!”
Glaciem sucked in her breath as the Second dug her hands into the coffin, blood seeping from her fingers as she clawed at the stone.
“You will rue the day you were ever discovered, Glaciem, Ice Child, Blessed Daughter of the Forest.”
As the Second Mulier raised her arms one last time, black blood began to drip from her nose, splattering the grey stone beneath her.
“May you be damned in the sight of all men.” She snarled.
She brought her fist down to strike the coffin, screaming wildly. Her hands hit the stone with such force that the bones of her fingers cracking could be heard throughout the entire Great Hall. Glaciem winced as the other Elders backed away, unsure and frightened. Narratus tried to stand as he watched the woman, his blue eyes flashing with alarm.
The Second did not even notice as she brought a broken finger up to point at Glaciem, her index hanging at an odd angle as blood continued to stream out of her nose.
“You think you shall always be protected, Daughter, but you do not know the force you have trifled with. You do not know the pain you shall feel. You do not know the torment you shall cause to all those around you.” Her voice gurgled in her throat as she spoke, a sticky black substance escaping from between her lips in small droplets on the floor.
The Second Mulier pushed down on the coffin with her broken fingers, the sound of her bones scraping against the stone as she dragged her cracked nails against it rang heavily in Glaciem’s ears. Blood began to seep from the woman’s eyes, mingling with the oozing black substance from her mouth as it ran down the sides of the table. The muscles in her throat began to bulge from the strain of her pushing.
“Please, stop this now!” Glaciem cried, trying to push up against the Hunter behind her.
The Second started to laugh wildly as she began to rake her fingers across the top of the coffin, leaving black and red lines in her wake.
The Hunter forced Glaciem back to the ground, but she could feel that his touch was lighter. He was unsure what was happening and she could sense him weighing his options.
The Second continued to laugh, the sound unearthly and wild, her fingers still scraping across the coffin uncontrollably. Her spine curled forward as her eyes began to roll into the back of her head.
“Mother!” Bick shouted, panic evident in his voice.
He began fighting against his captor as well and the Hunter relented. Bick straightened and ran headlong for his mother, his hands still bound.
Glaciem called out in alarm and forced her head back into the Hunter’s knees behind her, trying to catch him off balance. The Hunter smacked her ruthlessly on the top of her head with his fists. Stars shot through her sight.
No! She cried out in her mind. Stop him!
Alexandros was no more able to move with his leg, but shouted all the same for Bick to stop.
Bick would not listen. He ran around the table, fighting past the Elders who were now glued to their spots in fear. He lunged towards what was left of his mother, his hands resting on her back. When she felt him she stopped and stared at the wall across the room, her eyes blank.
“Mother?” Bick asked quietly, swallowing as his gaze dropped to her mangled hands, the fingers little more than broken stubs.
The Second smiled briefly before abruptly ramming her head into the coffin, the sound of her skull cracking against the stone enough to make the Hunter behind Glaciem flinch.
Bick cried out in alarm and tried to stop his mother, grabbing at her wildly, trying to pull her away from the table as she began to ram her head into the coffin repeatedly.
“Stop!” Bick yelled over the sound of the Second’s bones crunching. “Stop this now!”
The Second stopped.
Though there was nothing left of her face, Glaciem could feel the woman staring at her with the caved in bone and cartilage.
How is she still alive? Glaciem wondered, her stomach churning at the sight.
Protect. The boy whimpered in Glaciem’s mind, though she could sense his terror.
The Second opened what remained of her mouth.
“So……” She hissed, drooling blood and bone. “You are the human chosen by the darkness.”
Glaciem looked back at the Second blankly until she realized the woman wasn’t looking at her at all. She was looking at Bick, her hands creeping up to his throat as she spoke.
Without warning, the Second pounced on Bick, gnashing at him with the few broken teeth still intact. Glaciem watched in horror from the ground as the two rammed into the coffin, the force of the Second’s attack far beyond what should have been possible.
The coffin slid from the table, breaking into pieces as it hit the floor, the Elders crying out in fear. Narratus lost his balance and toppled to the ground, groaning as his hip hit the floor. The light Glaciem had seen emitting from the coffin in her vision now floated away from the remains of the broken stone. A shrill scream filled the room, coming from every direction, the echoes of its cry rebounding back into itself, giving the impressions of many voices. The terrible sound grew louder and more piercing with each passing second.
Alexandros cried out in agony and clenched his eyes shut as he tried to cover his ears with his bound hands. He fell to the ground, his back arching against the floor, the sounds permeating through his body. The Hunter who had been holding Glaciem down let go and collapsed, clawing at his ears. Blood poured from his nose. Glaciem watched in wild confusion. Only she, Bick, and the Second remained unaffected from the sound.
As quickly as it had begun, the screaming stopped. Silence filled the room. Alexandros groaned as he coughed up blood. He spit it out of his mouth while pushing himself to his knees. All who had fallen tried to pick themselves up and began wiping away the blood that had escaped from their eyes, nose, and ears.
The Second continued to claw at Bick, his face now red from both his own blood and hers. Bick had gone silent, his teeth grit as he tried to fight off his mother, her lips curled into a grisly snarl. He slipped his foot against her chest and pushed, throwing her body over his and onto the floor in front of Glaciem.
Glaciem gasped as the Second stood, the force of the throw barely registering. Her attention was now on Glaciem. Before Glaciem could react, the Second surged towards her, her mangled hands wrapping tightly around the Elemental’s throat. The Second breathed in wheezing swallows, black ooze pouring from her mouth and onto Glaciem.
“Now you shall see the power of the Shadow’s Forest.” The Second gasped, her grin crazed. “Your time has ended, Daughter of Kings.”
The Second squeezed harder, the bones of her fingers breaking Glaciem’s skin. She leaned closer, her throat gurgling.
“Umbra sends his regards.” She whispered.
Suddenly, the Second shrieked wildly and pushed herself away from Glaciem, releasing her grip to claw at her back. She alternated between trying to grab at her back and hunching over to hack up blood before turning around in shock.
The First Elder, shaking and bent over in pain, held tightly to the now bloodied knife in his hand. The same knife he had intended to kill his son with. The Second snarled and staggered to face the tall man.
“This is my doing.” The First said in a raspy voice. “Let it be me who undoes it.”
He raised the knife high and drove it down into the chest of his wife. She shrieked in pain and dropped to the floor, the knife embedded in her heart.
The Second turned and twisted on the ground, screaming as she flung thick drops of black blood in every direction, spattering those unfortunate enough to be close by. She looked at the First Elder standing over her and with a final cry launched herself at him, sinking her broken teeth deep into the tall man’s neck. The two figures toppled over and were still.
“Move! Go to them now!” Narratus barked from the ground where he had fallen, breaking the stunned silence of all who looked on.
He used the chair to pull himself up before he limped his way over to the figures.
The Second Mulier was dead. Her eyes lifeless and half open, the rest of her face too bloodied and disfigured to see properly. Bick ran to her and dropped heavily to the floor, crying in anguish as he lifted his bound hands around her neck to cradle her head. He wept into her limp body. Alexandros had managed to get himself back up in spite of his leg and limped over to Glaciem, pulling her from her knees where she had remained, still too much in shock to have moved on her own. She stared unblinkingly at the First Elder, his breathing strained and shallow. Blood seeped both from the many wounds he had sustained from her and from the wound on his neck, caused by the creature who had possessed his wife.
“You need to get up.” Alexandros urged quietly. “Glaciem!” He took her arm in his hand and pulled.
Numbly, Glaciem stood up and stumbled over to the First Elder, whose eyes locked on hers as soon as she was in view. She bent down, silent and slack jawed, in a trance. They stared at each other, their eyes never wavering. The Elders were quickly moving around them, pouring water over the First’s wounds, wiping blood from his eyes, desperately trying to save him. Alexandros placed a hand on Bick’s shoulder, knowing no words could comfort him.
The Hunters had left as soon as they were able to stand again, unwilling to insist on payment from such a cursed place. They would have rathered taken their chances with the Forest.
“I did not mean for this to happen.” The First Elder choked to Glaciem between deep, desperate breaths. “I did not mean for this. I did not mean for this.”
Glaciem shook her head, tears spilling unbidden onto her cheeks. She had no words for the man.
“I did not mean for this…” The First Elder’s eyes flickered and moved to his wife’s body beside him, panic spreading across his face.
He tried to move, but his body would longer respond to his commands. Narratus, seeing him struggle, kneeled down and picked up the First Elder’s limp arm. He gently placed it over the Second Mulier’s shoulder.
“Be at peace, Leader of the Village UnNamed.” Narratus whispered. “Go to rest now with your wife and forefathers. We will not let this injustice to your house go unpunished. You are not at fault for these happenings.”
The First Elder looked first at Bick, then Narratus, and then lastly at Glaciem. Confusion and pain clouded his stare.
“Forgive me.” He whispered.
Terror passed over his face before his vision faded and his eyes closed, his life ended.
Soon, they could see the walls bordering the House of Meeting, but somehow in her hurried departure from the Great Hall to get to Narratus, Glaciem had been completely turned around. The field ended along the sidewall. She had intended to go to the front where the gates were. When they reached the small path that followed the wall, she quickly turned to walk it, irritated at how it seemed to go on without end. She began to jog, impatient to reach the gates.
Finally, she was close enough to see the road that led through the center. She broke out into a run, but as she turned the corner, she fell back onto the ground. A hand covered her mouth to keep her from shouting.
“What is the matter with you?” She snapped as Bick removed his hand.
They were tangled in a pile on the ground, just short of the corner of the wall.
“What makes you think it’s unguarded?” He whispered back, motioning for her to talk quietly. “The remaining Elders were leaving the Great Hall when you collapsed. By this time they surely would have sent more guards to the House of Meeting. Everything precious to the Village is within those walls and they will fear you attacking it. You cannot expect to be able to pass through freely.”
Bick was right. In her haste, she had not thought about it. “What would you recommend we do then?”
He hesitated. “I’m not sure.”
Slowly, he moved onto his belly, making as little noise as possible. He pulled himself across the path until he could just see past the wall. He stayed there for a moment, then scooted back.
“There are five guards, less than I would have thought, but they’re heavily armed. My guess is there are guards within the House of Meeting as well.” He whispered, standing up.
“We can deal with five guards.” Glaciem said quietly, her palms glowing as she turned them up.
“No.” Bick said when he saw, placing his hands over her palms and pulling her hands down to her side. “We can’t risk you losing control again.”
“Have a little more faith in me, please.” She pulled her hands free of his, trying to ignore the discomfort of knowing Bick no longer trusted her fully.
She crouched down and opened her palms again, whispering to the fog that had gathered within the Village. She called quietly to the clouds overhead and they lazily moved towards her from over the fields and skies. As the fog began to surround her, she gently blew it away, bidding it to thicken near the guards. The clouds danced across the sky until the moon was so thickly covered she could not see anything save the glow of her palms.
The guards raised their voices in alarm. They knew it was the work of the Water Wielder. She could hear the sounds of their swords being pulled from their sheaths and the sounds of their steps as they walked awkwardly in the dark, their feet landing heavily on the unseen ground.
“Quickly!” She hissed, standing up and grabbing for Bick in the blackness.
She found his arm and pulled him along with one hand while the other ran across the wall, using it as a guide. They stumbled along, occasionally stopping in order to listen for the guards. The last thing Glaciem wanted was to walk right into a blade or trip into the group of men. Pulling the fog was not the safest idea she could have thought up, but it was the first thing that came to her mind and time was of the essence.
When she felt they were close, she slowed to a crawl, moving Bick’s hand to rest upon her shoulder so she could use both hands to feel for the open gates. Just as she felt the rough wood scratch her fingertips, she felt Bick’s lips against her ear.
He said it so softly, even with his mouth as near as it was she had barely heard it. She froze. Standing less than an arm’s breadth away, she could barely make out the form of a guard. His back was to her, his sword poised to strike.
She moved her hand towards the guard as slowly as she could manage, working as quickly as their situation allowed. Her hand was shaking with concentration, and she pleaded inwardly that the guard would not turn around. She closed her eyes, searching, seeking for enough water in order to accomplish what she wanted.
There. She thought.
Glaciem clenched her fist quickly, her hand still pointed in the direction of the guard. The guard’s back bolted upright as he shrieked and dropped his sword. He began clawing wildly at his armor.
“Move.” She whispered to Bick, swiftly passing by the gates and shrinking against the wall.
As soon as they were out of sight she released her fist. The guard crumpled to the ground and ripped off his helmet and breastplate, both covered in blood. His howling grew louder at the sight of the red pouring across his skin and the remaining guards rushed to help him. Glaciem and Bick sprinted their way across the grass, the House of Meeting now within sight.
“What did you do to him? I’ve never seen you do anything like that before.” Bick panted as they ran.
Glaciem released the cloak from her shoulders, the tattered fabric whipping away from her body as she ran. It settled on the ground behind them, abandoned.
“Perspiration on the skin. I used it to pierce every part of his body.” She answered, refusing to look back at him.
“You froze his sweat?” Bick asked incredulously.
Glaciem chanced a glance behind them. Three of the guards were running towards them while one stayed behind with the first guard.
“How could Narratus have shown you something like that?” Bick pressed, not satisfied with her silence.
“He didn’t show me.” She snapped. “I read about it in one of the books in his library; he doesn’t know I learned how to do it.”
“You could have killed him.” Bick retorted.
“Are we too good to kill guards now?” She countered.
It was still too dark for her to see Bick’s face, but she could tell by the silence he disapproved of her actions. She did not care. As they were running, she moved her hands behind her, grabbing at the fog still surrounding the gate. It rushed to meet her. In another fluid motion, she bid the clouds covering the moon to float away, offering them easier passage across the ground.
As they drew closer, Glaciem’s heart jumped a little. Though the two white willows remained as they had always been, the living trees that once bordered the walls had moved closer, their branch weaving up the walls of the old building. She could not decide if they were trying to protect the building or hurt it.
She could feel her stomach tightening with worry as they neared the entrance to the House of Meeting. The doors were open and unguarded. It unsettled her.
Are there more guards waiting inside to ambush us?
She stopped for a moment before entering, trying to catch her breath. From behind them, she could hear the shouts from the guards as they neared ever closer.
“What if there are others inside?” Bick stopped short of the great entrance, having thought the same thing as she.
“We’ll do what we can.” She muttered to him, looking critically at the fog that had followed her.
It would have to be enough. She spread her arms wide and flexed every muscle within them as she moved her hands back together slowly. She growled under the strain of the fog compressing itself into a tiny ball of ice. It was not perfectly round, but it was much more manageable in its smaller form; about twice the size of her palm.
“I’m ready. At least, as ready as I shall ever be I suppose.” She said.
She tossed the ball in the air as she looked behind them. The guards from behind were catching up.
“And what about me?” Bick asked.
“You have fists, don’t you?” She called to him as she rushed through the entryway.
On the inside, the House of Meeting looked like it was nothing more than a long hallway with many doors on either side. Each of these doors, however, led to various underground passageways and rooms. She ran as fast as she could to the last doorway on the left and opened it, revealing a long staircase. She jumped back, her ball of ice ready to fly should there be anything on the other side.
The way was clear, but the guards from the gate had nearly caught up to them. Bick and Glaciem flew down the stairs, shutting the door behind them. It was the longest flight of stars within the House of Meeting and it took some time for them to reach the bottom where there was another very large hallway. It was lit with dozens of torches and, much to their dismay, full of armed men.
These men were not dressed in the traditional armor of the Village guards. They were dressed in plain cotton with only the leather straps and sheaths that housed their weapons as adornment. They were known simply as Hunters. They were the only people known to regularly pass through the Forest and return unharmed. They were especially skilled in the art of war; men and women who had traveled from the Mountains to seek livelihoods from the Elders, who paid them well for their services, which were various in nature. Challenging one would have been difficult enough, and there were at least thirty standing armed and ready.
Glaciem sighed, exhausted. She should have expected this. “Stand back.” She said to Bick quietly.
He did not hesitate.
As the first man came rushing towards her, his sword swinging forward, she flung the ice ball out towards him. She directed it with her hands as it raced through the air. It landed squarely in the man’s chest, throwing him back to the ground as he shouted in surprise. She raised the ball up again and sent it spiraling through the corridor. It slipped under another Hunter’s foot, flipping him onto the floor with a heavy thud. More came rushing towards her and she threw her ball through the air, smacking men hard across their chests, feet, and faces.
This is taking too long!
Glaciem clapped her hands together. The ice ball stopped in the center of the room, levitating. It began to vibrate violently, shaking under the strain of her command until she released her hands, her fingers ripping the air between them in two. The ball exploded into thousands of pebble-sized pieces of ice which, at her bidding, began ricocheting wildly through the hall. The Hunters could do nothing but cover their heads in a desperate attempt to protect their eyes as sharp bits of ice careened into them from all angles. Glaciem ran through the chaos, taking care to keep the ice from hitting Bick as he followed close behind.
“That will only slow them!” Bick shouted as they ran.
“I am well aware of that!” She shouted back.
“I fail to see how you plan to leave this place then! And with an old man who is sick?”
Glaciem looked back behind her down the hallway. The ice was still doing its job keeping the men at bay. They were almost there.
She looked at Bick. “I don’t have a plan. I have a goal, which is to get to Narratus. I’m not sure what to do after that.”
“You’ve led us from one death trap into another. How will this do us any good?”
Glaciem ignored his protest and continued running.
They simultaneously pivoted through a large doorway, the doors themselves long since removed. The doorway led them through a dark entry and into a large training arena. This room was more familiar to Glaciem than any other. She had spent years training here with Bick. The stone walls had been painted white and became painfully bright when the large torches along the walls were all lit at once, their purpose being to force anyone in the room to adapt when under high stress situations. The floors were covered in sand and was meant to slow and strengthen. Now, with only a few torches lit, the only hindrance to them was the sand.
In the corner of the room stood a large basin typically filled with water, but when Glaciem reached it she found it was empty. Next to the basin, however, were wooden training swords. Bick grabbed one. She gave him a skeptical look.
“It may not kill a man, but this is certainly better than having nothing at all.” He replied.
“But there is nothing here of use to me.”
“You have fists, don’t you?” Bick replied pointedly.
She rolled her eyes, choosing to ignore the jab. “We don’t have much time left. I’m certain the Hunters will be here soon. Why on earth were they down here in the first place? Mercenaries, the lot of them.”
Glaciem and Bick walked along the walls where the sand was not so thick to the door about fifty feet from them. They opened it and slid through, shutting it quietly behind them.
“My guess,” Bick said as they walked through yet another hallway, “is that my father expected your struggle tonight, at least in some capacity. It seems to me he was planning for the worst possible thing to happen as best as he could. As it stands, the worst possible thing has indeed happened. You know the nature of the First Elder; he likes to be prepared.”
“But there’s no way he could have known exactly how it would happen.” She replied, puzzled. They took the third door to the left. “And even so, if he knew I would resist him so strongly, why would he still insist on the ceremony, and a public one at that? What benefit could there have been?”
Bick only shrugged in reply.
The door they took opened into a large scroll room and library. Another one of Glaciem’s favorite places, though tonight she had no time to scan the many books before her. She walked to the far wall. There were two doors, one to the right, and one to the left. They took the door to the left.
“Narratus?” Glaciem whispered as they opened the door.
The door led into the old man’s room, the very one where Glaciem had stayed, unconscious, for a year.
*AUTHOR NOTE* – I was recently laid off, so my life has been flipped upside down and I missed my chapter six date release. Please enjoy the full chapter today. Regularly scheduled posts will commence on Saturday.
“What is this?” Alexandros as he slowly stood.
His eyes had not left the coffin as the alarm in his voice cut through the quiet murmuring of the guests.
The First Elder’s lip twitched as Alexandros spoke, clearly irritated at his tone. There was no help for it however; to chastise him in front of the crowds would only cause them to gossip further. It also did not escape him that many in the Great Hall were unfamiliar with Glaciem’s beginnings in the Village. Instead, he chose to smile coldly at Alexandros as he explained.
“This is where we first found Glaciem. She was bound in chains, in a stone coffin half buried in the earth just within the borders of the Forest.”
Alexandros looked down at her questioningly and the uneasy feeling in her stomach grew.
“Why did you bring this here?” She whispered to the Elders.
Their robes created a great wall of black which blocked her view on both sides. She could not see Bick at all.
The Second Mulier spoke, her voice gentle and comforting. “The Elders have come to the agreement that your grave sight is no longer necessary. We wish for it to be destroyed and in doing so, you shall step untethered into your place as guardian of the Village UnNamed.”
At the sound of Glaciem’s breath catching, the Second continued, her hands raised comfortingly as she tried to soothe her concern.
“Your past is your past, Glaciem, and we wish for it to remain in your past. No longer shall you attempt to remember it. No longer shall you strive for the other Elements. No longer shall you focus on what was, for tonight marks your commitment to the newest chapter of your life. A life that protects and sees to the needs of the Village UnNamed. A life centered around the well being of your new people. All who come here forsake their past and join their histories with ours. This is the Law of the Village. It is now time for you to do the same.”
Glaciem stood. Her heart was pounding loudly enough in her chest to make her wonder if anyone else could hear it. Her stomach rolled and twisted uncomfortably, whatever relief she had experienced earlier on the balcony was long gone. The guests were quiet save the occasional whisper. All were waiting to hear what she would say. She looked at the coffin silently before reaching out a hand to touch it. She rested her hand upon the thick stone. She wanted to feel the metal and rock that had bound her for so long, though she could not say why.
Time stopped. Glaciem inhaled sharply as sizzling electricity sparked up from the coffin and through her fingers. Her body tensed and a wave of both frigid cold and blinding heat washed over her, igniting every sense she possessed. All movement apart from her own had ceased, entirely frozen. She looked around the room. Apart from the markings on her palms which were glowing brighter than she had ever seen, all color in the room had grown dull and listless. She looked down at the coffin beneath her hand. The beam of light she had seen in her vision now filled the coffin once more, glowing with such intensity that she was nearly forced to cover her face with her hands. With each passing moment, everything grew sharper and more clear to her eyes.
The Whispers flooded her mind, their voices urgent and rushed, but she could not understand what they were saying to her, no matter how hard she strained to hear. The floor beneath her groaned and when she looked down, she could see all life beneath the surface of the earth, the ground having vanished, the floor a chasm stretching well beyond her line of sight. The roots of plants and trees cracked and snapped as they traveled in and out of her view.
My vision. Glaciem breathed out slowly, unsure if she should be comforted by the thought or afraid.
This time was different, however. The Forest had come to her, she had not come to it. She could see through the walls of the Great Hall and beyond the gates of the Village. She could hear the trees racing towards her, a great tide in the form of wood and leaf.
She began to sway in time with the Whispers’ voices. Her eyes rolled into the back of her head as she desperately tried to understand what they were saying.
What was that word? She thought, clenching her teeth as she tried to make it out.
As she did another voice rang out above the rest.
I found you.
The wide eyes of a boy opened and narrowed as they locked onto hers. He grinned widely, his teeth blindingly white. He whispered a single word.
It came suddenly and clearly to her mind. Her eyes snapped open and the face of the boy faded from her mind. Someone was shaking her arm.
She looked over and realized Alexandros was calling her name, though no sound came forth from his mouth. She moved her hand away from the coffin and the light faded away as all noise and color came rushing back into focus.
“Glaciem!” He said urgently.
She pressed a hand to her forehead, the word still clear in her mind.
“Are you alright?” He asked her, his voice thick with concern.
She did not answer him, but looked at the coffin in alarm, then to Alexandros, and finally to the First Hominem.
What must I protect?
Her heart pounded as her stomach knotted, sick with the knowledge. The Elders would not take kindly to what she had to say. She held her breath as she squinted through the sea of black, searching for Bick.
She caught his gaze, panicked. He watched her with unwavering eyes, leaning forward in his seat, preparing to run to her side at a moment’s notice should she call for him. His silent support provided her the courage she needed and she stared back at him unwaveringly before forcing herself to meet the eyes of the First as she argued with the voice of the boy, still ringing in her ears.
Protect what? She pleaded with her vision.
“I can’t.” She said it with finality.
Though her hands still shook with the shock of her vision, her voice sounded different to her. It sounded older. It was clear and strong. It did not waver.
It was the voice of a Child of the Forest.
The First Hominem looked at her coldly, “Do you defy the decision of the Elders?”
“Forgive me, Sir, but I fear I must in this matter.” She did not hesitate in answering him.
Please. She shouted the words as loudly as she could in her mind. What must I protect?
Though she still did not fully understand, she knew without question that she could not do the thing the Elders were asking her to do. She could not neglect the boy’s words, nor could she ignore the Forests’ anguish. No amount of threatening from the First Elder could convince her to do otherwise. She kept her gaze locked with the First’s, still silently trying to figure out what the Whispers wanted.
The guests immediately began to talk in hushed tones which grew in volume until the whole room echoed with their voices. Never before had someone dared to blatantly disobey the First Hominem, let alone the Elders entirely and especially not during a betrothal ceremony in front of the whole Village. The Elders merely stared at her in either surprise, disbelief, confusion, and anger. They were all too shocked to speak or move.
“I see now that I have failed to make my intentions clear to you, Daughter of the Forest.” The First Elder said after a moment, his voice loud enough to be heard over the noise.
“And what intention was that?” Glaciem asked, not caring for the edge in his voice.
“You will marry into the Village, and you will pledge your loyalty to us.” The First Hominem snapped. “Your coffin will be destroyed. It will be as it has been for all who pass through our gates and seek refuge here. All are required to forsake their past lives and those who do not are thrown out. This is the Law of the Village. I will not suffer the wrath of the Forest by throwing you out, so you see there is no other option for you or us. Do not waste the years we have given you by tossing them to the ground to be trodden upon like refuse. We have all sacrificed much in order for this night to come to fruition, it is folly for you to assume that you should not sacrifice something as well.”
Glaciem stared at the First Hominem, her jaws clenched. She could not back down and knew he could not either.
“Why do you suppose you have never been permitted to go back to the Forest?” The First continued, his lips curling into an ugly grimace. “From the moment we found you, we saw the opportunity you were to us, to the Village. From the very beginning, we have been working, I have been working, to establish your place here in this Village. Not in the Forest.”
Glaciem swallowed as she considered what he said. But I have been to the Forest.
And I found you. The voice of the boy wafted into her mind once more, his words floating lazily through the black of her thoughts like the smoke of a snuffed out flame.
“What have I done?” She whispered to herself quietly.
“Glaciem, you need to think about what you’re saying.” Alexandros said as he placed his hand on her back, his voice urgent. “Do you understand what you’re risking? You will not be allowed to stay here if you do not obey.”
“Then I will not stay here.” She replied, turning to study his face.
She could see the disappointment in his eyes.
“I’m sorry.” She whispered before turning back to address the Elders.
She was filled with regret, remorse, anger, confusion, and sadness. Regret at having gone into the Forest without first consulting Narratus or Bick. Remorse for having allowed Alexandros the false hope that they would experience anything but a difficult life together if they did marry. Anger at the First for his unwavering and selfish demands. Confusion at the words of the boy who she had met in the Forest in her vision. Sadness that she knew now with complete certainty that she would never see Narratus ever again.
“I shall leave by my own choice and in doing so, not incur the wrath of the Forest upon the Village. It will be no fault of yours if I leave willingly.”
Yes. The voice of the boy whispered gleefully.
Be quiet. She growled back.
Alexandros let his hand drop away from her. He was silent, but the sting of her words was evident on his face.
“I’m sorry, Alexandros.” She said again, her voice sincere.
Would that I could make you understand.
She turned and walked past the end of the table. When she reached the crowds of people, they parted quickly to make way for her. She made for the large doors, still wide open.
“You will come back, Daughter of the Forest!” The First Hominem called after her, his voice a solid command.
I will not.
She stopped walking, and turned around to face him. “I beg you leave, First Elder of the Village UnNamed. I cannot allow the destruction of this coffin, strange though this might seem to you. While I cannot explain it, I can only insist that it remain intact and protected within the borders of the Old Forest. You must trust me in this matter. In all other things, I shall obey you and pledge my loyalty to you and to this, my home. Return my coffin to its place within the Forest and I shall submit to you willingly and gladly.”
The boy grimaced at her words and hissed. Protect!
I am trying. She hissed back. I am protecting what I can.
Fire licked at her insides, growing and pulsing within her. She scanned the people in the room, looking for Bick. She could not find him; Narratus’ seat vacant once again. Would he have stood by her, she wondered. She did not know. He had been threatened by the First Elder and therefore may not have been at liberty to defend her at all.
We do not protect the coffin.
Glaciem furrowed at the boy’s revelation. Then what must I protect?
She spoke again, her voice filled with a silent, desperate request for the Elders to understand. “Please believe me when I tell you I am truly indebted to you for the many kindnesses you have shown me during the last ten years. You brought me back to health when I would have died, nursed me when I was sick, clothed me when I was naked, gave me a home when I had none. For these things I shall be forever grateful. For reasons I do not fully understand myself, however, I am not able to abide by the Laws of the Village in the manner you ask of me.”
She held her breath, hoping this would be enough to convince them of the gravity of what she felt, but she knew after her conversation with the First it wouldn’t be. She was signing away her life in the Village in resisting what they demanded. She looked around again for Bick and her heart broke as she bitterly accepted the fact that she wouldn’t be able to say goodbye.
Her eyes shifted to fall on Alexandros. He pursed his lips as he looked back, a look on his face that she couldn’t quite recognize. After a moment, he left the table and made his way towards her, weaving through people. When he was close enough he took her hand in his. He continued to stare deeply into her eyes, searching, seeking, but for what she was uncertain. Finally, he took a deep breath and looked back to the Elders.
“I cannot accept your proposal to betroth myself to Glaciem if it is under a circumstance in which she is forced. You can see she is conflicted, please hear her and grant her the request she is now beseeching of you. She would never disobey the Laws of the Village in so drastic a manner if she did not feel truly convicted of it. You cannot expect her to abide by the rules set by humans for humans when she herself is something entirely different. We do not know how our laws might be in conflict with the laws of the Forest.”
Glaciem squeezed his hand in silent gratitude.
“We have already considered these things, Alexandros of the Northern Waters and the Elders have decided regardless of her race, the Laws will be kept.” The Ninth Mulier replied, her voice cracking as she tried to make herself loud enough to be heard. “Traditions and laws are what bind this Village together in harmony! All who come to us must discard their past in whatever way the Elders require of them, regardless of who they are. This is the Law of the Village! We cannot and shall not allow it to be marred and weakened with compromise and disobedience.”
“This is not a matter of weakness or disobedience!” Alexandros argued, raising his voice above hers, “Nor it is a matter of setting aside her past so she might be in union with the Village. This is something greater and I feel you know it in your hearts to be so. Why do you insist upon it?”
“We insist upon it because we have no other choice. To exile the Daughter of the Forest would be to declare war on the Forest. To allow her exception to our laws would be to declare war upon our conscience! You can see the predicament that has been brought upon us in having discovered her, but to have left her in that grave would have also invited upon us the wrath of the Forest.”
The Ninth Mulier paused, the severity of the situation evident in her eyes.
“We choose to believe these things have happened for a purpose. The Elders have accepted this fate and we now expect nothing less from the creature who brought this burden upon us in the first place!”
“The Ninth is correct.” The First Elder nodded his head in agreement. “You shall not leave, Glaciem. You must accept that your future is now tied to the Village. You may not leave.”
He nodded to the guard standing at the foot of the coffin who bowed briefly before gripping the spiked maul he had been brought to him. He raised it above his head, pausing as he looked to the First for the command to bring it down on the coffin.
The boy looked at Glaciem urgently. Protect!
The First looked back to Glaciem, his voice solid ice. “You shall be married into our people according to the will of Elders. And the coffin shall be destroyed.”
The guard tensed as he took his final aim.
“No!” Glaciem cried.
Protect what? She screamed the words in her mind.
Her entire body was on fire now and it burned and simmered as she jumped forward to stop the guard. As she did, a flash of wood and steel flew past her, cutting through the air with a metallic ring.
The guard swayed heavily, the maul still raised above his head. He looked down at the arrow protruding out of his chest. It had penetrated his armor and hit him directly in the heart. Looking up, he coughed. Blood spattered the coffin and table. His knees gave way as he crumpled to the ground, dead. The maul crashed heavily to the floor, the sound echoing loudly against the walls.
The Great Hall was quiet as all watched the blood seep out from underneath the guard’s body. Glaciem released the breath she had been holding in. Alexandros looked at her, his eyes wide before they both turned towards the direction the arrow had come from.
There, between the open doors of the hall, Bick stood tall and unflinching. His jaw was clenched as he held his bow firmly, still aimed towards the guards, another arrow notched and ready for release.
“Get the people out.” Bick said, his order directed towards his father.
The First Elder looked at him incredulously, his nostrils flaring. He opened his mouth to speak, but closed it again without saying anything. Bick tightened his grip on the bow.
“Get the people out. Now.” Bick repeated, growling quietly, his green eyes flashing.
“What have you done?” The Second Mulier shrieked in horror as she looked over the table at the dead man, a stream of blood now flowing from both his wound and mouth.
“Get them OUT!” Bick barked, the command ringing through the hall this time.
The guests stood almost simultaneously to leave of their own accord, brushing past Bick hurriedly. No one made a sound as they moved, the only noise coming from the shuffling of shoes against the stone floors and the rustle of dresses.
Glaciem watched them, her shoulders hunched in apprehension, the weight of their shock at Bick’s action heavy in the air.
The beloved son of the First has defied the orders of the Elders in defense of an outsider. In defense of me.
He protects. The boy murmured quietly.
She turned back towards Bick. If her conversation with his father was any indication, there was little hope that he would be merciful towards his son, his will as unbending with him as he had been with her. She bit her lip, knowing Bick understood this. He had acted to protect her, had spilled blood, even at the risk of his own exile or worse, death.
When the last guest had vacated the building, Bick walked forward slowly, his bow still aimed at the guards, who now gathered in front of the Elders’ table protectively, blocking them from harm. He stopped when he reached Glaciem and Alexandros. He met Glaciem’s eyes briefly, his nod to her near imperceptible, before shifting to look back at the Elders.
The First Hominem had not spoken since the guard had dropped dead. He was taller than the men before him. He looked at the three in the center of the room, inhaling heavily, his shoulders flaring with every breath. When he did speak, his voice was impeded by his gritted teeth.
“You have killed one of your own.” He whispered in disbelief. “Do you not know that spilling the blood of the Village is punishable by death?”
“The Daughter of the Forest has told you she will not consent to your demands.” Bick said, his voice strong. “You do not have the right to force Glaciem into compliance.” The words rang clear, mighty, resonating against the ceiling and walls.
Do you not plead for mercy from the punishment of your own crime, brother? Will you not also protect yourself?
Glaciem sneered inwardly at the boy’s words. Protects what? She asked once more.
The First Elder’s eyes widened at his son’s defiance before he laughed loudly. “And who are you to tell me what I do and do not have the right to do?” His tone was condescending as he walked around the table and past the guards, challenging his son. “You do not know what it is to rule. You do not know what it is to keep order, nor the sacrifices everyone is required to make so we might keep that order. You have spent your life at play, locked away, deep within the walls. You have been protected because of the Elders you now threaten. You have been protected because of me. Do you think you can just step into a position of authority because your playmate is now old enough to think on her own?”
Bick’s jaw clenched as he kept his bow raised, the arrow still pointing in the direction of the coffin, taking care to keep his mother out of his line of fire. Glaciem could see the tremor in Bick’s arms; he was struggling, a silent war waging just beneath the surface of his skin.
Finally, Bick replied, his voice still level, though not as loud. “Glaciem was always old enough to think on her own. She is older than you, father, and has lived enough of our lifetimes to be worthy of the Elders’ respect in all things, not least being her desire to keep that coffin you have stolen from the Forest intact.”
The First Hominem eyes flashed in anger. Ignoring Bick’s comment, he replied, “You have raised your hand against your own blood, you know the punishment is death.”
“I know.” Bick whispered, his eyes glistening with tears.
Father and son stood, nose to nose, their profiles perfect mirrors of the other. The First gently placed a hand on Bick’s shoulder. There was finality in his voice as he spoke, though it was saturated with sadness and disappointment.
“Lower your weapon, and I shall offer you exile instead. If you do not lower it, I will have no choice but to sentence you according to the Laws of the Village.”
Bick swallowed and slowly lowered his arms, the arrow still notched, though no longer taunt within the strings of the bow. He searched his father’s eyes.
“Please.” Bick’s request was clear; spare the coffin.
Glaciem watched intently, her muscles tensed and ready to spring in between Bick and the First. She shifted her eyes to the Elders’ beyond, watching their reaction. As she looked, she saw another guard silently take the maul from the ground and raise it up.
“Bick!” She shouted, her eyes darting from him to the coffin.
Bick’s training shone through as his bow moved up, the arrow released faster than Glaciem thought possible. It flew straight through the guard’s hand and pinned him against the side of the table. His cries of pain echoed through the hall.
The First Hominem whirled around and looked at the guard in alarm. His wife caught his glance.
She shook her head desperately. “Do not do this thing.” She begged, her voice breaking.
Her plea fell on deaf ears, for whatever pity and mercy the First had felt only moments before now vanished at the sight of his own flesh and blood once more deliberately defying his beloved laws. He turned himself back around to face his son, squeezing his eyes shut and clenching his fists, steeling his resolve. When he opened his eyes, they were ignited with wild anger. His gaze fell on Bick.
He declared his verdict in an anguished voice, his vows to the Laws of the Village outweighing the love he bore towards his child.
“Strong Heart, Son of the First Elder, you are sentenced according to the Laws of the Village, by the authority of your father!” His voice cracked on the last word and he drew a long, silver dagger from his cloak and drove it down towards his son’s neck. “Forgive me.” He breathed, the pain he felt clear in his voice.
Bick watched the dagger fly towards him in silence, neither shifting his weight to avoid the knife or raising his arm to block the blow, relinquishing himself to his father’s will.
Glaciem and Alexandros sprang forward, both crying out in alarm. Glaciem flung her hands forward and from behind her, every cup that held water tipped on its side, spilling the liquid. As the water flew through the air and towards the First Hominem, it stiffened into sharp shards. They tore through his body and cloak as he screamed in agony, the dagger dropping to the floor. Bick, unharmed, turned to Glaciem, his eyes wide.
For a moment, no one moved. Then, as if with one mind, the guards in front of the Elders sprang both towards Glaciem and towards the coffin, intent on exacting justice in the name of their fallen Elder.
“The coffin!” Glaciem screamed at Bick, refusing to think about what she had just done. “Protect the coffin!”
Bick’s lip trembled as he nodded and ran to the front of the room and loosed another arrow from his bow, another guard slumping to the ground in response. The others jumped to the side, avoiding Bick’s bow as he jumped onto the table with the momentum of his speed. As soon as he landed, the guards tried to pull him back down. He kicked at their heads and shoulders, sending them sprawling to the ground, before spearing arrows into those who were too fast for his feet. The Elders behind him screamed as they rushed to move away from the fight. They ran to the sides of the room, seeking refuge wherever they could find it.
Satisfied at seeing Bick by the coffin, Glaciem turned around. Alexandros had left her side and was moving swiftly towards the great doors. Her heart sank as she watched dozens of armed men streaming through, the shouting from within the Great Halls having alerted them to action.
Alexandros swung his fist into the chest of the first guard he came upon. His arm was strong and the impact knocked the unsuspecting man down. He took up the sword the fallen man had been carrying and deftly swung it up to catch another guard, his skill as a Northern swordsman immediately evident. The blow sliced cleanly through the man, killing him instantly.
Glaciem called the water back to her before running to Alexandros to offer him aid. The water elongated into a thick rod that bore spiked balls on either end and together, they began to stave off the guards. She twisted and flipped her staff with ease, worked fluidly as she caught a man in the stomach and then another under the heels. She tried to ignore the sounds of the spikes cutting into their flesh, the ripping sound settling heavily in her ears, but to stop now would mean death for her, Bick and Alexandros.
“Alexandros, move!” She barked.
He jumped away from her as she bent down to the ground and forced all of her breath out of her lungs at once. A jagged sheet of ice covered the ground before her, thousands of sinister spikes rising underneath the men’s feet. As they slipped and fell, she could hear the splintering sound of the ice renting their armor and skin, the sound of cracking bones echoing in her chest.
The ice on the floor had removed a dozen men, but it did little to slow the steady stream of guards forcing their way into the Great Hall. The Village UnNamed was large and the Elders were well-prepared for attack. She knew there would be no way for the three of them to defend the coffin alone.
Would that there was someone else.
She grit her teeth wretchedly as she and Alexandros backed up together, stabbing and hacking, spinning and crying out when they missed their mark and were cut by their enemies’ weapons. She watched Alexandros from the corner of her eye. His abilities were well beyond what she might have thought they were, regardless of his origins from the Northern Waters. He was graceful in his movements, his sword weaving in and out of the men so fluidly many did not even see it enter their sides and leave. It was only after they fell to the ground, clutching at the blood pouring from their bodies did they realize they had been cut down.
“Do you regret me?” She called out to him, flinching as a blade grazed her cheek, a thin red line forming instantly.
She jumped over a dead man and threw her staff down upon another’s head. His head collapsed, and blood sprayed across the skirt of her dress.
“Would it matter if I did at this point?” He asked as he wrenched his sword free from the bones of a guard’s leg.
“Of course it matters!” Glaciem growled. She pivoted towards him and grabbed his tunic, pulling him closer. “I can clear a way for you to leave.”
She peered deeply into his eyes, her own flashing with silver fire. If she could ensure that at least one of them made it out alive, she would do everything in her power to make that happen.
“Do you regret me?” She asked again, breathing heavily.
Alexandros stopped to grasp her hand and pressed it briefly to his chest before pulling away to block the sword of another guard. As the man fell, Alexandros turned and met her gaze again.
They both turned at the sound of Bick calling to them. He was still on top of the table next to the coffin, his arrows long since gone. He had pulled the ceremonial blade he was wearing from its sheath. The guards who had originally been guarding the Elders were the first to fall at his hand, but for every guard he killed, another three had taken their place. He was losing ground, unable to keep them away from the coffin alone.
“Stay here, I’ll go to him!” Alexandros said as he rushed away to join Bick.
Glaciem was about to protest when she crashed into the ground, a guard having taken advantage of her pause in movement to push her down. She grunted from the impact, desperately trying to push the man’s weight off of her, but he was far too heavy. She growled and dug her fingers into his armor.
Glaciem watched the man’s eyes go wide as she felt the impact of the water tear into his back. She stared at him as his mouth opened in a silent cry of pain before his body went limp and fell to the side. She pushed away from him and stood up, turning around, taking in the carnage in the Great Hall. The stench of death was everywhere.
For a moment she stood still, unable to move as she watched Bick and Alexandros fight, their teeth bared, guards falling down before them with gashes through their necks, hearts, and guts. Through it all, the boy continued with his incessant chant, the hiss of his voice burning in her ears.
She clenched her jaw. It was by the boys’ bidding that the night had come to this, she realized ruefully, but she still could not fathom the repercussions of having allowed the coffin to break; the dread sending waves of nausea through her stomach whenever she dwelt on it.
“I am protecting the coffin!” She snarled back.
The fire in her belly began to rise up one more, overcoming her limbs, spreading through her body to the tips of her fingers and toes. The burn grew to an agonizing level and she whimpered from the pain. Her hands went to her chest as her heart began to beat wildly. She tried to move, to continue to fight, but her legs would not listen.
It is not the coffin that we protect.
Glaciem dropped to her knees. She dry heaved once, then twice, before she started coughing so violently she could barely catch her breath. She looked up as panic coursed through her. Everything was slowing, time no longer passing as it should. Bick and Alexandros’ arms were raised, swords glinting above their heads, but from Glaciem’s perspective, it looked as if they weren’t moving at all.
“What then must I protect?” She asked, helplessly, the words leaving her mouth in strained shudders.
Her sight began to sharpen and magnify everything around her. She could see every fiber in the fabric of the tunics of the men on the ground, every strand of hair that had fallen from their heads. Their blood was richer than she had ever seen and even her own hands seemed strange to her, the blue markings glimmering with an almost metallic sheen.
The fire continued to grow hotter within her as it slowly centered itself back into the depths of her belly. Though there was no breeze, the sound of rushing wind filled the Great Hall as trees groaned and creaked. She pressed her hands to her ears, trying to drown out the chaos. The Whispers comforted and soothed her, their gentle words and soothing thoughts in stark contrast to the sounds of the men dying beside her.
We protect you. The boy whispered in her ear.
Glaciem groaned at the words, but even as she did, she could feel herself growing more calm as the smell of moist earth filled her nostrils, the force of some unknown yet known thing overcoming her, possessing her. Her mind cleared as her heartbeat began to slow, beating rhythmically and with ease in her chest. The burning in her stomach still grew, but with every breath she took, she began to gain control over it as the flames curled languidly against her ribs. She took one last deep breath before rising to her feet.
The boy grinned once more as he watched her. We protect you. He said once more, his voice triumphant.
As she stood, time raced back to normalcy before her eyes, the fight still waging in full force. She, however, was not normal. She lifted her hands up, the creaking of trees aching and popping in time with her movements, the fire in her gut a welcome and relished sensation. Its flame brushed gently against the very corners of her Spirit. She could see the air moving before her in great currents and could taste the earth beneath her feet. It was rich, alive, and hers to command at will. It was all hers to command.
Glaciem turned away from Bick and Alexandros slowly and aimed her hands at the men running toward her. She tensed before pushing her hands forward, forcing the air towards them at great speed. The guards flew back, landing heavily and grunting as their backs cracked against the stone floor. No sooner had they fallen, she reached out to grab invisible ropes, pulling them to her with every bit of strength she could muster.
We have found you. We protect you.
From outside the Hall, something roared, loud and horrifying. The sound began to mix with the Village as shrieks and cries pierced the air from outside the Great Hall, the walls doing little to muffle the sounds of terror. Something terrible was outside and it was moving towards the Great Hall. The guards who had not been pushed down by Glaciem stopped fighting and turned around, their swords held tightly and raised to defend themselves from what was coming. Alexandros and Bick also stopped and looked in astonishment at Glaciem.
Glaciem saw nothing but the Forest. She was no longer herself, but rather a part of the earth. The Whispers were her own and they sang and hummed as she pulled the trees closer.
Come. She beckoned. Come and protect.
Come. The boy beckoned in unison. Come and protect.
She swayed with the movement of the trees as the roots traveled closer. They were reaching for her, seeking her, anticipating her commands hungrily. They had yearned to hear her voice, and would delay their master in her desires.
When the sounds outside had reached a near deafening level, Glaciem abruptly dropped her hands to her sides, releasing the tethers that had been pulling her trees to her. All was quiet. Those outside had either run away or were too petrified to cry out. The men inside remained still, poised for whatever horror waiting for them. Glaciem turned around and looked at Bick and Alexandros, her head tilted to the side, her expression serene and relaxed.
“They have come to protect what is Theirs.” She said quietly, her voice low and monotone, her eyes glazed as she spoke. “They have come to protect me.”
She doubled over, the fire in her center now too great to contain. She grit her teeth in pain before throwing her head back. She screamed. The sound was inhuman and all who heard it felt cold dread seeping deep into their bones. Several of the guards dropped to their knees in fear.
A great billow of fire burst from Glaciem’s mouth, the heat blistering the skin of anyone standing too close as it rose to the vaulted ceilings in great plumes. Every window in the Great Hall shattered and giant branches reached through the now empty panes and grabbed at the guards, branches impaling limb, head, and chest. Many of the men chose to escape rather than fight, turning to exit the way they had come, their bravery evaporating with each passing second. The moment they left the building, monstrous trees with twisted roots pulled them into the ground, their cries muffled by the dirt that now buried them alive.
Glaciem turned her eyes to the Elders, to those who had tried to destroy what her Forest considered precious. The branches reached out and grabbed at the Sixth, Eighth and Ninth, who had all three been hiding underneath the table. They shrieked as their bodies were dragged across the floor, their fingernails ripping and cracking as they clawed at the ground, leaving behind trails of blood as they desperately tried to save themselves from the Trees. The roots flung their bodies into the air and let them drop back to the ground. The Elders landed heavily with wet thuds as their bones snapped and their necks twisted, their wide open eyes clouding over as all life left them.
Bick stared in horror at what was happening, his mouth dropped open in dismay. His eyes traveled down to Glaciem, but she was no longer Glaciem. She was instead a creature he did not recognize at all. Her eyes were closed and her palms held out. Long vine-like roots had wrapped themselves around her legs, anchoring her to the ground. Her face was calm, but there was something terrible about the way she looked; neither living nor dead.
The full symbol of the Elementals burned brightly from her hands, but this was not the work of a Child of the Forest. The Blessed People protected, they did not destroy. They did not kill. No, this was not killing, this was murder. This was wild, uncontrolled power, feral and brutal.
Bick jumped down from the coffin. “Stay here!” He shouted at Alexandros, who was also staring at the carnage before him.
He turned and looked numbly at Bick. His jaw was clenched tightly enough for the muscles in his face to twitch, the wind was blowing so wildly it flung his hair in every direction. He nodded.
Bick shielded his face with his hands, and ran towards Glaciem, jumping over bodies and tree roots. The elements were everywhere, accosting him with water, earth, and wind. He moved as swiftly as he could, his eyes focused only on Glaciem. He had to get to her.
“Glaciem!” He shouted, trying to make his voice reach her.
The air was thick with leaves. A funnel of wind was blowing furiously around her, making it impossible for him to see if she could hear him. From her back the beginnings of great, feathered wings stretched outwards, ready to catch the first updraft of air.
“Glaciem, please! You must stop!” Bick begged, not knowing what else to say to her, too desperate to think clearly. “Please, listen to me!”
A root wrapped around his feet and pulled. He landed heavily on his back, the wind knocked from his lungs. He rolled over and tried to breathe as he inched his way towards her. The funnel of air pushed against him, forcing him to lean all of his weight into it in order to keep from being blown back.
“I need you to come back, Glaciem! Please!”
He lifted his hand to reach through the tornado protecting Glaciem. It was spinning so powerfully it ripped at his skin, tearing and slicing into it without mercy. He forced himself to keep pushing, clenching his teeth together and gritting through the pain. Blood poured down his arm and into the tunnel, turning it a deep red as layers of skin shredded away. His fingers brushed against her ankle, her skin so hot he wondered that her clothing had not caught on fire.
At his touch, Glaciem gasped and dropped heavily to the ground, the air around her swirling away into nothingness. Everything she had been controlling crashed heavily into the ground. Bick pushed himself to his knees and caught her as she fell.
He cradled her in his arms. Everything calmed, the trees freezing in place as their roots sank back into the ground. He held her tightly, ignoring the white hot pain in his hand. He pressed his lips to her forehead, refusing to pull away. Glaciem moaned and opened her eyes, looking up at Bick in confusion.
Alexandros rushed to join them, breathless. His face was gashed deeply and he was limping badly. He knelt down next to Glaciem, pausing before cupping her head with his hands. He searched her face intently before moving his hand down to grip her frigid fingers, the heat from moments before gone entirely.
Bick looked at the Great Hall. It was overrun with trees, puddles of water, leaves, and bodies. What wasn’t covered in blood was covered in scorch marks. From the corner of his eye, he saw the surviving Elders silently creeping out from behind chairs, tables, and pillars, fearing they would be seen. He saw his mother, the Second. Her eyes passed over him briefly and he could not bear to watch her as she scanned the room, looking for her husband. Bick looked back down at Glaciem.
She sat up, leaning against him as she held her head with one hand, the other hand still held tightly by Alexandros. Suddenly, she froze in Bick’s arms, looking at him sharply, terror written across her face.
“Narratus.” She whispered.
Back in the Great Hall, the guests had become louder and more lively than before. Many were dancing to the bright music and those who were not dancing were talking and laughing so loudly it made Glaciem want to press her hands against her ears to block it all out.
As she made her way to the table, she saw Bick was no longer in the seat next to hers as he had been before, but rather had gone to the far end of the table to sit in Narratus’ empty chair. She could not help but notice the glances passing between him and the First Hominem as she drew closer.
After the First Hominem had left, she had stayed in the hallway alone for as long as she dared. She could not believe Bick would have asked for her hand. Perhaps the First Hominem had only said it to play a game with her after all. Perhaps it truly had been a test the sincerity of her acceptance to wed Alexandros.
But for him to have done so would mean he would have lied. He would never have lied, not even for the sake of manipulating the circumstances in his favor. It would be in direct conflict with the Laws of the Village.
She realized his bitterness towards her was in all likelihood genuine. The First Elder had never shown favoritism towards his only son and indeed was more strict with him than any other. It was generally assumed that Bick would eventually take his place as First Elder and great pains had been taken to ensure his son upheld the Laws of the Village in all things. Now that Bick had disappointed him in attempting to sway his decision as an Elder, he would be even more strict than ever.
And I will no longer be free to support Bick.
As she was thinking, Alexandros appeared and took the seat beside her. Though he did not speak, he gently pressed her hand with his own as he sat down. She could feel the tremor in his fingers. He was nervous, but she admitted to herself that she was no less nervous. The night was coming to an end, which meant the ceremony would begin. The day she had pushed from her mind so many times before was now standing defiantly before her, and there was no escaping it for either one of them.
The First Hominem stood from his chair and raised his hands for silence. His eyes briefly flashed towards Glaciem, his gaze watchful and imposing.
“Friends.” He began, his voice powerful enough to cut through the noise of the crowds with ease.
Everyone stopped dancing and talking as the music faded. The Great Hall was more quiet than it had been all night. Glaciem’s heart jumped from her chest to her throat. It was time.
“Friends.” He said again, his blue stone gleaming as it swayed against the black of his robes. “We come now to the moment we have all anticipated after many years of preparation. The betrothal of our beloved Glaciem, Blessed Daughter of the Forest, is at last upon us!”
Glaciem snorted. Alexandros looked at her with a raised eyebrow, but she ignored him. She looked around, though the applause came from every corner of the room, it could not mask the reserved looks of some of the guests. Every man and woman attending tonight might have come to congratulate her earlier, but to many, she was still an outsider. Until she had married, this ceremony would mean nothing to them. Probably, they did not believe anything would come of the grand feast and she would remain nothing more than the Elders’ favored oddity.
At the end of the table, she could see Bick. He was not clapping. His chin was resting on a fist and he was looking intently back at her. She smiled weakly at him, desperately wishing she could turn back time to earlier that morning, when she and Bick were alone and climbing the Border Tree as though it were just another ordinary day. Bick nodded back and Glaciem knew he felt the same way.
“This ceremony is one held in honor of any couple soon to be married,” The First Hominem continued, “Though, perhaps not in so grand a fashion. Tonight, in particular, is of great importance both to the Village UnNamed and to the Valley as a whole. Never before has a Child of the Forest and Wielder of the Elements been married to a mortal human.
“This is especially significant because Glaciem is the last keeper of the Forest, she alone is left of her race. For her, to marry is to continue! In permitting her to join with one of our own, I ensure the survival of the People of the Earth, for her lineage shall continue in the children to come. This night is significant for our Village as well because this bond will bring peace between us and the Old Forest, ensuring Its protection over our home forever. This night marks a new era of humanity!”
Shouts of affirmation and approval rose from the crowd, now less skeptic upon hearing their leader’s confidence.
“There is but one thing left to do so that we might form the unbreakable bond between the Elemental and the Village.” One of the Elders spoke, not as loud as the First.
Glaciem leaned over to see. It was the Sixth Mulier. Her stone was green. She was the Keeper of Dynasties.
Alexandros leaned towards her, whispering quietly, “What else needs to be done but to officially announce the betrothal and perform the binding ceremony? Is that not all that’s required?”
She shook her head; she did not know.
The Keeper of Money and Debt, the Eighth and Ninth Muliers, stood up from their seats and leaned forward to speak. They were older and their voices not as strong. The orbs about their necks were the only ones not made of stone. The Eighth Mulier’s was made of pure gold and the Ninth’s of pure silver, both smooth to the touch. The necklaces hung heavily from their necks, the weight of the metals pulling the chains down into the folds of their fragile skin.
Glaciem had never spent much time with them. She distrusted their ever shifting eyes; eyes that always seemed to be carefully watching lest they miss any unpaid transaction. The fact that they were the ones now speaking told her she was obliged to clear her accounts with them. She wondered what exactly it was that she owed.
The Ninth Mulier cried out in her pale, thin voice, “Glaciem will forever be tied to the Forest; It runs deep within her veins. She is the very beat of Its heart and It the breath to her Spirit. Though we know she will always remain a Child of the Forest, we wish for her now to complete the final task that all must complete before they are granted the right to dwell within the Village UnNamed forever. She must, according to our Laws, forsake her past and vow her loyalty to us as our guardian and protector against whatever evils that might befall our Village and Valley.”
They glanced at Glaciem who, though still uncertain, nodded her assent to them, avoiding the First Hominem’s stare. As guests applauded lightly at this, she felt her shoulders curving inwards in apprehension. She did not like the turn of the conversation and felt whatever was left to be said would not be pleasant to hear. She knew, according to the Laws of the Village, she would be obligated to revoke any claim to her heritage, as all had who lived here and were betrothed. She did not think it would have been possible, however, for her to do so considering her race. Nor did she think they would ask it of her in as absolute terms as they had required of others. Her stomach twisted uncomfortably.
The Eighth Mulier returned her nod and continued, speaking directly to her instead of to the whole room, as the Ninth had done. “As a sign of your fidelity to the Village, we require but one thing of you, Glaciem.”
She looked at them and asked cautiously, “What is it you require of me?”
The Elders all stood in unison to join the Ninth and Eighth. The First Hominem raised his arms and gestured towards the doors of the Great Hall.
Everyone turned to look. As the doors were opened wide, eight guards entered, four on each side of a large item they carried between them. People strained their necks to look over each other as the object was slowly brought to the front of the room in front of the Elders. The guards allowed the thing to drop onto the table and it echoed with a great thud that filled the quiet Hall. As it settled, the table creaked under its weight. Chains slid down to the floor, rattling noisily as they did. Glaciem’s breath caught in her throat. She clenched the arms of the ceremonial chair tightly.
It was her coffin.