Last Stages of War
Lily half-ran, half-stumbled over the uneven ground of the Northern Forest as she raced to meet the valsings arriving at the refuge.
A few weeks had passed since she’d sent the group to the Soto Forest to find out what had happened to St. Patrick’s Abbey and the zhortas. It was one of the first orders she’d given as their new leader, and she had questioned it every day.
A weight lifted from her shoulders when she saw that the four valsings had returned. “Liam,” she said, breathless, “did you find it? Is everyone—”
She exhaled and stood still. In the past, she had been a messenger, and she’d hated it when her former monarch had ignored her but demanded he be told what she had learned. She looked up at the group again and, in a steady voice, asked. “Are you all right? I was so worried about you all, and if something might have—”
“It was a long trip,” Rusell said without looking at her. “I apologize, your… The abbey is too far away… What we found—”
“We found nothing,” said Agnes, the younger one. “Hune is turning for the worst. I have no doubt about it.”
Then Anha spoke up. “There are so many things changing that—”
“What are you talking about?” Lily turned to the only valsing she had met before. “What happened, Liam?”
Trust wasn’t the problem, but unlike the other three, they had belonged to the king’s community. For years, they’d lived in the Soto Forest, which was why she’d accepted Liam’s offer to go with the group.
“We should talk somewhere else,” he said, looking around. “This goes beyond the abbey, Lily.”
She nodded and led them to her shelter.
It didn’t surprise her how exhausted Liam looked. When he’d left, open wounds had covered most of his body. The memory of his back, bloody with strips of cloth and skin hanging from it, came to her mind. However, the worst part had been learning it was their own community who had done it while forcing him to kill the members of the queen’s people. The human soldiers had to help him because none of the other valsings wanted to be close to him.
She shook her head and brought attention back to the present. At that moment, she became conscious of the laughs from the human children playing with the young ones of her own race. The sound of clashing steel had become as normal as birdsong after the soldiers had volunteered to train any valsing interested in self-defense, proving that the valsings didn’t know everything and could learn from others.
There was harmony in the refugee. The heat from the fires kept the place warm, the smell of food traveled around, reassuring everyone that they would not go hungry, and the comfortable shelters created a barrier to the war outside. It was a lie, and they were in danger, making each peaceful day a treasure. A shiver ran down her spine as she thought of the approaching time when they would lose it all.
Anha didn’t enter the shelter. Not all valsings liked having Lily as their leader. Though they would follow her orders, they wouldn’t do more than was strictly necessary.
Lily hated it the most, though, and couldn’t wait to find Donald. The best decision Queen Vanessa had made was leaving him in charge. He would know what to do and how to unite and protect them.
Rusell, Agnes, and Liam entered the shelter and waited for Lily to show them where to stand or sit. The fireplace’s light increased the fatigue in their eyes, highlighted the tension in their attitude, and showed the lack of color in their skin. It wasn’t because of sickness, though. Lily was looking at the face of fear.
“It was hard to find the abbey, Lily,” Liam said. “I did not want to believe it, but, well, after the reisers, St. Patrick’s Abbey was not going to be—”
“I have no idea what you were expecting,” Rusell said, “but it was a good thing you sent us. That place is cursed! We should mark it as forbidden.”
“I told you it is not jinxed,” Liam said. “The village is, though. The abbey does not have a poisonous mist around it, and the trees are still alive.”
“Barely! We may not have lived in the Soto Forest before, Liam, but that valley is not just disgusting. It is dangerous. No one should go there anymore.”
Lily exhaled, containing her desire to demand an explanation. Instead, she gestured to some chairs and waited for them to sit.
“Please, start from the beginning,” she said. “Otherwise, I cannot understand—”
“You want to understand?” Agnes said. “You should have gone, then! I do not agree with Rusell. Nothing good will come from this ridiculous tantrum of yours. Your personal needs should not be our priority. Why did you send us there?”
“Agnes,” Lily said, “it was not personal. To find out what our priorities are, we need to learn what our enemies have done.”
“I did not have enemies until you came to our community and bewitched the head of our Congress!” Agnes stood. “I despise knowing what is coming, and I hate you for making me see all of that.” She strode out of the shelter.
Lily struggled to contain her tears and hide her trembling hands.
“Please, forgive her,” Rusell said. “I’m old and have nothing to hope for, but for our young ones, this is devastating.”
“What is devastating?” Lily said, staring at the valsing, but it was Liam who answered.
“We walked south, right to the edge of the Soto Forest like you told us. Once we reached the desert, we did the same. Just like we did for years, we planned to walk into the Soto Forest after we passed Reign Mountain, but that is not an option anymore.”
He rubbed his face, leaned forward, and rested his head in his hands. “The trees moved.”
“What you mean they moved?” Lily said. “They are always moving.”
“I have never been inside those woodlands, Lily,” Rusell said, “but the way the roots dug into the sand and the darkness of the branches were not good or normal.”
“They are taking over the desert.”
Lily sat back while her body temperature dropped. “The trees are moving out of the—”
Rusell and Liam nodded.
Many years ago, when the war started, Hune lost its beautiful ocean, creating the desert that now rested in its place. As a result, things changed. The great waterfall in Laconia dried out, most of the Southern Forest died, and the swamps kept expanding into the Northern Forest. But during all that times, the Soto Forest remained the same. It had been the only place unaffected by the war until now.
“Did you even find the abbey, then?”
Liam sighed. Though his gaze rested on the other side of the shelter, his mind was somewhere else. Finally, he said, “It took a tremendous effort, but having lived there helped… The valley is just a bunch of massive branches. Pieces of metal and rocks piled on top of each other. Beyond the view, what shocked me was the missing aroma from the flowers… I do not know if they vanished or died.”
Rusell stood and paced around the room, scratching his head. “What happened to my community here…what Orson did was monstrous, but that… It wasn’t the reisers.”
“What do you mean?” Lily said. “They sent the reisers to attack the abbey. Their leader and the sorcerer were talking about—”
“Rusell is right, Lily. I’m sure it was magic, not the reisers, that destroyed—”
“Destroyed? What they left behind!” Rusell stopped and turned to her. “The zhortas, those poor ones. They engraved their remains on the roots. You can see their expression, full of fear and pain, and even the tree that captured them looks… somehow in torment.”
Lily covered her face with her hands. She had been right to accuse the zhortas of kidnapping Sara, but they’d also protected her, and they’d died because of it. Sara needed to learn what had happened to them, and she had to hide from those monsters. Everyone was at risk, but her best friend was in even greater danger.
“I saw Zhorta Stuart, Lily… I tried—we tried to get them down to bury them, but… it has to be magic and not from Hune. If this is the work of the sorcerer you overheard in the forest, I do not believe we can stop him. Neither can the humans.”
She closed her eyes, afraid of asking something so ludicrous, but it was important. They needed answers.
“The abbey’s library. Is it also destroyed?”
“No,” Liam said, but his tone lowered and he stared at her. “The abbey collapsed, along with the scaffoldings. Most of the roots dropped on top of the valley, and although they looked darker and full of moss, their sprouts are trying to reach the ground.”
“Those things aren’t normal,” Rusell said. “I would love to burn them… all the forest with them, too.”
Liam sighed. “We tried, but it is impossible. But to answer your question, Lily, the same moss covered all the abbey’s ruins. We didn’t dare to touch it. However, the dome of the library, the big vault, and all of its windows are intact.”
“You cannot send anyone there!” Rusell said, shaking his head and walking towards her. “It is a death sentence. He’s right. We should not disturb that thing. It is cursed, I’m sure of it. You can’t—”
“I won’t.” Lily stood and took a few steps away from him. “I understand the danger. I met the monsters who did it, remember?”
Liam put a hand on Rusell’s shoulder. Though it startled him, it helped him stop and breathe again.
A knot formed in her throat, and not for the first time, she wondered how Queen Vanessa had kept her composure while facing the destruction of Hune. Lily’s hate for Orson grew, and not because of the role he’d played in that madness. Thanks to her former king, she had settled for years in the same place. Unlike the queen’s community, she’d had a home, and now it was gone.
“Lily,” Liam said, “what do you want us to do?”
She turned and faced both valsings.
Their sagging shoulders and the lack of life in their eyes were things she had no cure for. She was aware she probably looked the same. They needed help, and she had no idea where to even start.
“Just rest,” she said. “But please, try not… We can’t lie. That’s how we ended up here. If they ask, tell them the truth.” She inhaled and covered her face. “We have to find Donald and… we need to find them. They need to learn about this.”
“Will they be able to help?” Rusell asked.
She lifted her shoulders, and a few tears blurred her sight. “Maybe…but I do not know if anyone could stop the Soto Forest from consuming Hune, our most dangerous threat.”
* * *
“Damn it!” Chris said the second he woke up. Although the image in his head was graphic, it was the sensation of Sara’s blood on his hands that bothered him the most. He took a deep breath and, with relief, noticed the essence of flowers was missing.
He rubbed his face, hoping he would never have to use a sword like he had in his nightmare, and focused on the chilly night of the Northern Forest, the campfire, and the reiser in front of him. Once again, he wondered if he’d made the right choice by leaving Sara with John and Donald. At the time, it had seemed to be for the best, but it didn’t remove the guilt for not talking to her before or for leaving her.
“I guess your conscious is not that clean after all,” Hayden said without looking at him.
Chris stood and wandered around the fire. The idea of joining forces with his enemy to defeat Gemli and Murllen was still strange and grotesque to him.
“I wouldn’t hurt her, you know?” Hayden said while pushing a branch into the flames.
“No. I don’t know,” Chris said, staring at the reiser, “and I don’t think you can be sure of that, either.”
“You don’t think I know myself?” Only then did Hayden raise his eyes to Chris’s. “I would never attack someone who saved my life. Perhaps you would.”
Chris’s muscles tensed, and his jaw clenched, but Sara’s words rushed to his mind. He groaned and looked heavenward. Nothing could change the past, but they needed to find a way to save their future.
“I believe the reiser who asked for my help in the forest wouldn’t, but you are different now.”
Hayden narrowed his eyes and rested his back against a tree. “I am still a reiser, Christopher. I may look more like your race, but I’m not one of you.”
Chris sat by the fire and let the heat warm his hands. “Are you sure about that? Because I suspect your armor protected you from more than the environment. Now you feel—”
Hayden laughed. “That’s stupid. I have always felt! As much as you want to keep looking at me—at us like monsters, we aren’t. Pain, hunger, cold…we get all of it.”
Chris sat back and crossed his arms. “I may not be an expert, but in all the years I fought your kind, I learned stuff.”
“Like what, Christopher?”
“I understand your race protects and fights for the common good and disregards individuals. You don’t fall in love with a particular reiser but give your life for the well-being of the majority. Every member is a soldier, and you fight until you die.”
It pleased Chris to see the surprise on Hayden’s face. “Now you see things differently, and I don’t buy that this won’t affect your priorities, reiser or not.”
He wasn’t making it up. During their walk to the refugee, he had observed the reiser. He didn’t trust him and was ready to attack if necessary. However, the reiser’s behavior seemed off for a soldier.
From time to time, Hayden had stopped to touch the trunk of a tree or the ground beneath them. Their surroundings had distracted him, and more than once, a simple noise from the woods had startled him. Neither the reisers nor his soldiers behaved like that, and it made Chris glad and concerned at the same time.
“What will happen when you have to fight your own?” he asked.
Hayden nodded and leaned forward. “I’ll hate it, but killing a reiser is something I’ve done before…” He gazed into the distance. “The guilt will stay with me for the rest of my life. However, I’m convinced this is the best for my race. I need to save them from an oppressor.” He looked back at Chris. “I hope murder is something I can avoid, but I’m not naïve, and neither you are. We have been fighting all our lives. I am ready to do what it takes to finish this madness. I hope you are, too.”
For the first time, Chris thought about killing Murllen and what it would mean to him. Whether or not Gemli had changed him, he was still human—the worse kind, but human—and Chris had killed no one of his own race.
“Finish this madness…” Chris sighed. “Not in a million years would I have imagined uniting with your race to end this war.”
Hayden nodded and pushed another branch into the fire.
Chris wondered again how it was possible that no one had realized Murllen was an imposter or that the reisers were forced to wear armor that made them look like monsters. He didn’t want to accept that it had all been part of Gemli’s plan, because that made Gemli too powerful and increased Chris’s fear for Sara’s life.
“When did you start questioning Murllen?”
“Not soon enough,” Hayden replied bitterly. He fixed his eyes on the fire and exhaled. “I’m not sure what made me do it, the change between killing and taking prisoners or that he ordered my reisers to murder me.”
“Kill you?” Chris puffed. “I guessed anyone would have to question their leader after that.”
Hayden grinned and nodded. “Yes, but it was what Amanda told me about why Murllen wanted me dead that made me wonder.”
“Or,” Chris said, lifting an eyebrow, “it was Amanda. After all, you saved her more than once.”
Hayden rubbed his chin, stared at Chris for a moment, and then chuckled. “Who knows? It could have been Jean.”
“Jean?” Chris cleared his throat. He’d purposely avoided asking about his soldiers or the civilians from Tundra. He was aware Hayden had taken them prisoner, but he feared the second he learned what had happened to them, any alliance would die—along with the reiser in front of him.
“Oh, that’s right! You know her.” Hayden lifted his hands. “Like I told you, I would never hurt anyone who saved my life, and last time I saw her, she did that…or at least, she tried.”
Chris narrowed his eyes and pressed his lips together.
“You don’t believe me?” Hayden said.
“Oh, no! I’m sure you wouldn’t lie about that. I just can’t picture Jean doing—”
Hayden crossed his arms behind his head. “Then you don’t know her at all. The moment I met her, she sort of impressed me. We terrified her, and still she confronted me, asking if she could help the prisoners and the soldiers. She always argued with me about everything!” A smile spread across Hayden’s face. “She was your best fighter… Such a shame you never noticed.”
Chris sat forward, resting his elbows on his knees. He hadn’t thought about Jean in weeks. The memory he held of her wasn’t a pleasant one.