Talystasia stands divided. An ancient wall runs down the city’s center, and for centuries, the Lorens and Telyras have vied for dominance. But their endless feud is not the only schism that runs through these pages. Here, loyalties are fractured and hearts and minds are divided. Will Andreas Telyra and Roselia Loren triumph on the war grounds within, or will they succumb to the cycle of violence and spiral even deeper into the dark?
The ground was slippery and soft with mud. Droplets of dirty rainfall hung from Seleda's mane like feeble diamonds, mesmerizing in the forest gloom.
She stopped, mud welling around her hooves, ears pricked in apprehension. There was a tenseness in her muscles, a quietness in her demeanour. Someone or something unexpected was here.
Andreas glanced back through the brush, the chill seeping into his bones. In the deepening dusk, he could make out faint patches of the road between the trees. But the path was empty, as were the woods, the silence broken only by the mournful calls of evening doves.
Before him was a clearing, verdant grasses bent flat by rainwater, a few stray twigs littering the ground. A dull grey glow poured in from overhead. The air was saturated with the damp scent of tree sap and the last of the wintergreens and lilacs.
"We've ridden past here thousands of times. So what is it? One of Loren’s brutes?” He laughed softly, stroking Seleda’s sorrel mane. “We’ll spill his blood and make him disappear."
Descending the shallow slope, he dismounted at the trickling stream in the gully, his eyes on the trees. Lowering himself to the ground, he crossed his legs, picking at a piece of grass.
Whatever it was that had Seleda vexed, it could only be a soldier, a civilian, or an animal … or likely as not, nothing. Give it half an hour or so and things back in the city would quiet down for the night.
Then he could go home.
Yet the still paths of the forest felt more like home than the citadel ever would. There were nights he didn’t want to go back at all, that were fraught with unseen dangers. Here there was tranquillity, however fleeting.
The faintest rustle broke his reverie, and his eyes riveted to the undergrowth across the stream. Rising to his feet, he shook off a spell of dizziness and fingered the cold hilt of his sword.
Seleda gulped softly. When he lifted his hand to her flank to steady her, his fingers met with motionless muscle. He allowed himself a slight smile at her composure. Relief was in order, but hardly: The woman materializing from the forest was not an enemy, but neither was she human.
She was difficult to make out at first. The fine mist of drizzle between them was like a watery glass veil, and the woman a liquid sculpture behind it. As she drew closer, he could see why her outlines seemed so fluid: The rainwater collecting on her skin was gliding over her body and into her pores. The details went hazy for a moment with lust: only a thick, wild tangle of capillary vines tumbling over her shoulders like hair obscured her nakedness. Her skin was a creamy silver beryl—the living inner flesh of a tree without bark.
He stiffened, his blood coursing faster—past the initial shock of encountering a dryad in the flesh, he saw only a woman under the quicksilver. The stream of rainwater shimmering over her belly and breasts only made her shine all the more, outlining her in a liquid halo.
"Greetings, Lord Telyra of Talystasia.”
Andreas shivered as her voice filled the clearing like wind creaking through hollow branches, androgynous, low and cold. It was a frightening old voice, immediately deadening the magnetism of her flesh. Had she been human, he could have overpowered her in an instant. But he knew better. The nymph was as strong as an oak, however supple she appeared, and could rip him limb for limb if she wished it. If her savageness matched his own, he’d never stand a chance. On the incredibly rare occasions that one of her kind had appeared to him, they had brought nothing but trouble.
Unease hollowing the pit of his stomach, he bowed carefully at the waist, allowing the controlled movement to steady him.
"Greetings, Emissary," he returned politely, for that was most certainly what she was. His voice sounded indistinct after the resounding clap of her own, but his nerves were solid once more. He looked up, determinedly at her face and not at her body. Her features, framed by a flow of water seeping into the roots of her fibrous hair, were uncannily human. Dark, full lips cracked open as she approached him, her wide green eyes framed by curving brows.
"It's the forest," she said urgently. "Please listen."
"I'm listening," he assured her, glancing up at the darkening sky.
The dryad's emerald eyes narrowed unnervingly. "Let us review geography.”
He didn't say anything.
"Your only real jurisdiction is inside the walls of the eastern half of the city, on your side of the Wall and the territorial dividing line. This mountainside—and the surrounding countryside—is under joint jurisdiction—or shall we say dispute—between you and Lord Loren with respect to your truce."
"Not quite. It’s true that is my only solid holding, but we do have a minimal division between our territories outside the city walls. It's all under dispute, come to that, particularly the bit inside the walls. The truce is a thin veneer. Loren and I both know that. But it's not like we're stealing each others' crops. Nor is it like our borders are completely sealed. And the truce …"
"The details of your conflict do not concern us. Because of your vendetta, no one will come near this place save the merchants to trade—and mostly with Lord Loren, of course."
He would ignore this jab as best he could, though his hand itched to slap her. Thankfully she was out of reach.
"Your feud. It's not ... specifically the cause of our distress. I’m trying to make you understand what this is not about before I attempt to make you grasp what it is about. Human influence on the forest has always been mostly negative, and you have protected us from much of that by making this region so thorny, for which we are grateful and indebted."
"Not on purpose," he said with a shrug.
"Ever the honest man, whatever your other flaws. Of course, the fields used to be forest too, before they were cultivated without consultation. But can we really fault you for the actions of your ancestors?"
He did often enough. The need to reach out and share the burden that weighed on him was almost a physical ache. And with this deceptively vulnerable woman in front of him—if she were a woman—it wasn’t the only one.
Hell with this. He was hungry, and drained There were still the night’s reports to see to. Still work to be done. He shifted from foot to foot, losing his battle with the chill, as he was losing the war with his guilt.
"What," he asked impatiently, "is the problem then? Though ... if you really want to talk about flaws, we could begin with your people sending emissaries undressed to discuss with me."
"Why does it trouble you that we do not bother with your human coverings?"
"Because if you were human, I'd take you for a woman of no virtue. And I don't negotiate with whores."
She was quick. "Not a surprise, as no woman of virtue would choose your company—at least from what I’ve heard."
He flinched, but then smiled.
"Not choose, no. Choice however, doesn't count for a whole lot in my world. Speaking of which—if I had one, I'd not be standing around in the forest outside my city walls chatting, while it's getting colder, and windier ..." he paused, feeling his tone cast a shadow, "... and darker, by the minute. My enemies are on the prowl, because that's my life. And while I could take down five or six tonight, I'm not sure I could take down nine or ten. I’m tired."
"The problem is you," she cut in.
"What?" Andreas peered at her curiously. Her ancient eyes flashed at him, but there was a surprising lack of blame in her voice.
"That is the purpose of this meeting. We didn't think you were exactly ... aware."
"No, I'm obviously not. What are you talking about? I—or we? ... are a problem to you ...? Loren and I, or just me? You just stated our conflict is superfluous to you."
She let out a raspy sigh, the sound of dry leaves rustling.
"Your rationalizations, your politics, the thorny details—those are superfluous, yes. They are surface discourse only. Our complaint is about something far more subtle and specific, underpinning all these things. Come here."
She outstretched her arm. Rain pooled in her upturned palm.
Stepping forward cautiously, he met her at the bank.
"Look down please."
He peered into the rushing waters. At first his gaze met only muddy green stream water, slimy with algae, but then he saw it—a discoloured, bloody stain blooming sickly against the banks to deposit ugly crimson residue on the creek stones.
The back of his neck crawled as if a ghost had breathed on it.
“What is that?”
"Even our water is tainted with blood," she answered with a trembling edge of fright. "No evil may touch the forest, Lord Telyra."
Andreas tilted his head—he was well aware of the Elder decree.
"You know I do my best to keep fighting clear of the woods. I did that even before I called the truce. Hell, these past three years—"
She didn't respond.
"Do you not see the greater import of this event?"
"Of ... blood in the water?"
"I ..." He closed his eyes, but all he could see was what it might mean for him.
He spent plenty of time looking over his shoulder on these evening outings, but part of him trusted the shaky ceasefire that held the violence at bay. He assured himself time and again that his anxiety was merely force of habit, and for three edgy years, that had held true.
And now this. Was this a soldier’s blood? Or perhaps a woman or a child—collateral damage? Where was the body?
He held his head, reeling with uncertainty.
We're in truce ...
"Lord Telyra?" she queried.
"A naiad?" he hazarded, returning to her concerns. "That stream isn't just a stream, right? It is also an Elder’s body, and now she is sick because some human’s blood has tainted her circulation." He broke off, his patience dissolving. “Whose blood is that?”
And why for fuck’s sake wasn’t it diluted? It was unnatural, the way it was coagulating there against the rocks.
"The soul affected is struggling to wash the poison from her body. Fortunately this is just a finger, as you’d see it—she is also the soul of the Ganea River and its three tributaries. That blood came from a citizen of Lord Loren's."
"Will she survive?"
"Yes. Her system is strong, and if necessary, the stream could be … let’s say ‘amputated.’ But there are not many of us left."
"There's something about this I'm not getting. Tell me. The Elder world … your world … is as alien to me as mine is to you."
"No evil may touch the forest," she repeated, this time more emphatically.
He didn’t respond. He just stared at her blankly.
"That isn't just an axiom,” she elucidated. “It's ... the truth."
"I'm ... not sure I get you."
"Evil has never penetrated this forest before. Ever. In the entire history of the world."
Andreas stared at her and then started to laugh. "Plenty of evil touches the forest! Not this one so much, maybe—as you said, foreigners avoid the place—between the bloodshed and the tragic weather, I sure as hell would. And we have our conservation agreement to preserve the hillside. But outside our borders, many, many of you are slaughtered."
"But Lord Telyra—you must understand that we aren't talking about pollution, or lumberjacks, or hunters, or dams on rivers. We aren't even talking about a direct attack on us. We’re talking about collateral damage. And you are entirely missing the subtle distinction I am trying so hard to make. That truth about evil is specific, and now it is being violated, here. Blood from animals and natural events and even human aggression enters our streams all the time; it doesn't make us sick. You see that, don’t you …? In spite of your best efforts, many men and women have died here, not to mention the countless numbers who were killed before you assumed power or were even born. What differs and what matters here is what lies behind the murder—” she knitted her brow— “more specifically, the way it’s changing.”
Murder. There it was.
"You're more concerned about our treatment of each other than our relationship with you? What happened here—?"
"It is ... the thing that drives your violence that concerns us. I am not talking about your politics. None of that matters, and you are a fool if you believe that it does. I am talking about something else altogether. If I were to write this down in your hand … I would capitalize Evil. A very particular Evil."
Andreas assumed an immediate stubborn silence, his frustration with her ambiguity overset by a wave of hatred—and shock. Shock that another living being should mention it to him, this burden he lived with alone.
"You know very well what I'm speaking of." Her mouth quirked with grim acknowledgement, her eyes drifting to his brow. “And even you must know that the unusual situation which afflicts your city should have been unsustainable over such a long time, were it just an ordinary war. Generations of conflict, and no resolution, no fundamental change, in such a small territory? Beggars belief, doesn’t it.”
He eyed her defiantly, but already knew there was no stopping her.
Why shouldn’t I want her to talk about it? At least someone bloody acknowledges it. She may be the only one aside from Rizaq. So why shouldn’t I?
… Because it disgusts me. Because I feel helpless.
"… Something is interfering, keeping you on your present track, and if you try to veer off of it, it will react. As it presumably has many times since the foundation of Talystasia—subtly, imperceptibly perhaps—but definitely. Your war involves more than human forces, Lord Telyra. And I'm not talking about Elder magic either, a dying power."
"It's not something I can help, or stop. Believe me, I've tried, and I’m doubtless not the first. It exhausts me. More than the fighting, which is a positive waste of time, money and lives. But I really cannot stop it. I’ve tried—I’m trying ….”
She was frowning, as if to say she didn't believe him.
"Watch," he insisted, and reached up to the circlet at his brow, feeling the ubiquitous cool metal that forever encircled his head.
"I rarely take it off," he explained. "For good reason. Not because it's a status symbol." Wrapping his hands around the thin band, he tugged until it wrenched free.
Manoeuvring it was work; the vile thing fought his every movement, jerking back toward his skull. Elbows bent with effort, he held it out in front of him.
"I don't take it off ... because it doesn't stay off. There’s simply no point. Take it," he grunted, and with a mighty heave, tossed it across the stream to the elemental.
No sooner did she reach out to catch it than it eluded her and catapulted around. He knew it was coming back fast, so he braced himself to catch it. Then he hurled it as hard as he could downstream.
It vanished into the woods, but he never allowed himself a moment's illusion. He did however permit himself a deep, inadequate breath, savouring the moment’s weightlessness, luxuriating in the gentle caress of the wind in his hair, its coolness against his scalp.
He pointed to the underbrush, where the intolerable thing emerged, gleaming faintly in the twilight. It cut a path upstream, bouncing lightly off the rocks, singing with each contact, coming to rest at his feet, upright on its curving side in brazen contempt for gravity. It was a simple, golden band about the width of his index finger, dull where rain had oxidized it with irregular patterns of rust. Picking it up, he replaced it unenthusiastically on his head.
“I was told the story,” she said, “of the time you tried to destroy it in the lake. That … hurt as well, like an infection. But at that time, we did not guess the connection. Your circlet, like that blood, is poison to us. Maybe the same poison.”
"It demands to be on my head at all times. If I try to abandon it, sometimes it springs back to me; other times, it just sort of rolls back, and follows me if I walk away. It didn't take long for me to figure out that there’s no getting rid of the damn thing. Though every now and again I still chuck it over the city wall.” He smiled pensively. “It always makes its way back by morning. It’s just too depressing to try. So I gave up. I won’t torture myself with a dream of hope. I will live and die with this monstrous thing on my head and the obligations it brings—which trust me, are no less hideous.”
She gave a mortified little laugh. "How do you sleep?" she asked incredulously. “Doesn’t it get in your way?”
He snorted. “It’s always in my way. I stow it under my pillow, once I’m far enough gone. It's not like I'll be going anywhere. It knows. Good thing I’m not a sleepwalker."
"If it was, as you mentioned—a ‘mere status symbol’—it wouldn't be a problem that you and Lord Loren each possess one. You—or your parents, or grandparents before you … or any of your ancestors …”
“… Might have abandoned these damnable things and united the two broken halves of our city and land under a single ruler. That's right—but as you see, they couldn't take them off.” He paused, struggling for words to explain why there was no way out.
“They aren't symbols of power—they're objects of power. Try defying something you can’t understand and can’t control … and can’t get rid of. We don't own them. They own us. I can’t stop wearing this thing so long as I’m alive. As far as I can tell, that’s all it does—cling. Choose, and cling. But believe me, that’s enough. Our ancestral war … well, human nature’s done the rest.”
She nodded mutely, apparently waiting for him to say more.
Did she care? Or was she merely curious? Did it even matter? It was someone to talk to, someone who wasn’t looking to cast blame and call for destruction. Nor was she looking to him for strength and guidance; what a relief.
“But still, why cling to us like parasites all the time unless they’re doing more than simply clinging? There’s got to be more to it than that. Most of their wearers have taken them to be some kind of mystical substantiation of their sole right to rule and avenge their forebears, but that’s it. That’s enough for them. They don’t care why. They’ve passed that myth down to their bloodthirsty progeny, where it’s gathered momentum with each passing generation. It’s a recipe for never-ending atrocity—and here’s me, born right into the middle of it.”
"We do not want them to lord over our forest, Lord Telyra. And however difficult your circumstances, we still find it hard to believe you can find no solution to your dilemma. We know that our people mean little to you—that you keep us alive more out of obligation to history than out of any love of our present being.”
“You’re wrong,” he cut in sharply, “about that.”
“I read once that the appearance of an Elder changes depending on who is looking at her. That a man who loves nature will see a vision of love—that another who despises nature will see something that disgusts him.”
“That is true. To your eyes I appear different than I would to another.”
“You look a bit like someone I know. A woman.”
“And what is that to you …?” she chided. “Something to subjugate.”
Anger flared in him from the soles of his feet, and he wanted more than ever to lunge at her, the heat in his body burning against the cold night air.
She smiled a little, and shrugged knowingly. “Never mind that …”
“—I am the last man in the universe to suffer any voluntary obligation to history. That, I trust, you can believe, whatever else you insist about me. This city is my prison, and history is its mortar. This truce is all I’ve been able to do to stem the violence. I can’t stop the flood, I can only hold it back as long as I can.”
“Your truce with Lord Loren isn’t going to save any of us. We are at a fulcrum.”
“There is old magic in us, Lord Telyra—the only magic left in this world. It used to be the dominant force, but its time has passed. It was strong enough that its truths were strong in turn—but they are crumbling into the dust of the new world, as are we. That ... object you carry isn't magic. When I tell you that the force that influences the situation of your city—and yourself—through those circlets—has not interfered with us in this place in any observable way in all the centuries of your families' conflict—I am not exaggerating. This change will affect us all, human and Elder alike.”
“Where did the blood come from?”
“You don’t know?”
“No!” he shouted. “I’ve been trying to get you to tell me this entire time!”
“A skirmish outside Talystasia's southern wall.”
"Skirmish? We are in truce. You must mean a fight. An honest fight between men—"
"… I am sorry, but I don’t know the details of your politics. The dead man is a soldier. Does that help?”
He stared at her, outrage welling inside him.
Not this, not today …
“The blood should just be blood,” she went on, “but now it is more, now there is Evil in it. I know you see only blood against the rocks, but when one of our own gets sick from a supernatural incursion, that is a serious matter.”
“You said this place … this forest …”
“Correct. These sicknesses have struck before, but never here. They’re rare, but increasing in frequency. We’ve never known the cause, but long suspected a supernatural agency at work. We never thought to connect it to the circlets until now.”
She stepped toward him, her tone pleading, her eyes intense. “Lord Loren persists in his denial. That’s why we’re begging you to do something. There is Evil in your circlets and Evil in your conflict. A force beyond you.”
“What do you expect me to do? You just said it’s beyond me!”
“… I don’t know,” she admitted. “We just thought you should know that your enemy,” she glanced at his brow for emphasis, “is becoming ours.”
He sighed, dropping his hand. Always at an impasse.
Nothing further was going to be achieved here. She knew it. He knew it. They stared at each other fruitlessly, struggling silently and in vain. He turned to go, and paused.
"There are other things. That I've noticed. Other changes. The weather has been picking up lately."
She tilted her head curiously.
"Are there ... wind Elders?" he asked, trying to make a connection to her world.
"Not here. In the north where the winds are stronger. And along the shores."
"I don't know a lot about you," he admitted. "I've only met with your emissaries ... a dozen times, if that, in all these long years. Anyway—the weather. I can't be sure, but I think there's a correlation between the storms and our engagements."
"How can that be?" she asked.
"I don't know. I certainly don't plan my attacks to coincide; there’s no strategic value in it. And I can't imagine that Loren does either. But whenever there’s an engagement, it seems a hellish storm breaks out. I tense every time the wind picks up—"
Even as he spoke, a chilly breeze ruffled his tunic, whispering unhappy tidings. "The rains are heavier and the winds are more bitter than they have been since we signed our accord."
"Have you ordered a study?"
"I'm doing it myself. I have been for years. I've hardly mentioned it to anyone. Nobody wants a mad lord on top of a heartless, violent one. Human beings you see ...” he broke off, and laughed bitterly. “Everyone knows the circlets are unnatural, everyone at the very least has heard the rumours about them … but nobody wants to believe that this war has any motive power behind it other than ours. No one wants to think he's being controlled by something he doesn't understand. Believing that your house has been mystically ordained to rule, and that you have been chosen to lead others, that you have been granted control, is one thing. That’s palatable. But believing that something else is ruling through you, and that your war is its war, that you’re being played and you’re trapped … that’s terrible. There are few things more powerful than self-deception. I—wasn't always like this. Violent tendencies perhaps ... but not ..."
"... I imagine that would wound your people’s pride greatly. And destroy whatever faith they have in you,” she added sympathetically.
Maybe she did care, this emissary of a dying race, this exotic beauty housing a primeval and formidable spirit …
But he knew he’d never find out, because after this meeting, she’d do what the Elders always did—fade away, leaving him to face the world and its trials exposed, human and alone.
"I ... perhaps so. I don't know,” he answered finally. “Certainly whatever faith I have in myself. I long ago had to accept that I was no longer the man I thought I was. But nothing will ever destroy their faith in me. I often wish it would. Then I’d be free from their vengeance and their weakness."
"And what are you now, if you are not the man you thought you were?"
He had to think for a while before answering.
"I'm still a man."