– – –
THE OTHER TREE
The White Lion acknowledged Fane and the Keys, and then glared at Morgui.
“Give them back,” Morgui hissed.
“Hold your tongue,” the White Lion said.
Morgui made to speak but found his mouth could not utter a single word.
“I made these Keys,” the Most High began. “Adam took them into his own hands. Then you stole them. If anyone should be asking for them back, it is I. You did not have the strength or courage to take them from Me directly, so you took them from Adam. You coward. I, on the other hand, have both the strength and the authority to take them back from you. And now I give them into the hands of My Creation.
“Behold,” the White Lion raised his voice for all to hear. “Today I set before you life and death, the Keys with which to enter each. Choose life. While it is still called Today, I urge you—choose life.
“As for you,” He regarded Morgui with distaste, “you thought you could kill Me? Well, know this: Today I give My power and glory to those I have died for. It is no longer I alone that you wrestle against, but every man and women who calls upon My Name. They will crush your head each day they breathe. They will be a thorn in your side until the day I return, able to resist you whenever they so choose. Such is My power in them.”
While the White Lion spoke, the armies of the Most High were closing around, and the Dairne-Reih were backing away. Morgui was surrounded. The Dibor and all the Lion Vrie were wading through their enemies; even Gorn and those from the east were coming through.
“Kill him now!” Jrio whispered from a little way off, willing the White Lion to finish the job. Li-Saide shot him a stern glance. Jrio shrugged his shoulders. “What?”
The White Lion turned to Luik who now stood healthy and whole beside Anorra. “Luik, son of Ragnar, the time has come.”
A profound silence fell over everyone. Then murmuring.
Morgui tried to yell but found he was still mute.
“You are leaving us alone?” Luik wondered.
“Never alone,” said the Great King.
“But Your Majesty…” Anorra pressed him. Her thoughts were spinning wildly. “Now is when we need—”
“Peace, child,” He replied. “Your fate is in My hands, and My hands alone. Do not be afraid. You do trust Me, don’t you?”
“Aye,” she spoke softly. “I do trust You.”
He then turned to Luik. “Know this: I must go and finish the work that I started on Earth. But you, here and now, must finish what you started. This is your battle, your war. And I will not rob you of the honor of seeing it to its completion. Go and do what I’ve empowered you to do. In my Name.”
“In your Name,” Luik repeated and bowed his head.
The White Lion turned back to Morgui. “And you, enemy of Athera, I leave you in the hands of Luik the Mighty and the peoples of Dionia; you and your kind are theirs to do with as they please. You will remember this day, awaiting another when I will return. And when I do, the Armies of Athera will accompany me.”
Then the White Lion raised his head into the air and let out a thunderous roar such that Dionia had never heard its equal before. All the warriors let out a war cry with Him, shaking their fists and banging their weapons together. Luik shouted with all his might until he thought he would tear his voice from his throat.
Gorn and Cage met up with Li-Saide and Fane, each of them shouting in each other’s faces, victory pumping through their veins. Quoin shook Fyfler by the shoulders, and Kinfen beat his chest like a wild man. They had waited for this moment…longed for this their whole lives. The Great King had come.
All the training—all the work—had come down to this moment. All the heartache, the separation from family and loved ones, and the loss of dear friends, had made them long for this day. The Dibor roared like lions, screaming into the air for those they had lost, for the children who had been murdered, for the families that had been torn apart. The blood that rusted their swords and stained their skin was not in vain. They yelled for Najrion…for Brax…for Gyinan. They even hollered for the taken, knowing that there was still hope for the lost.
And then they screamed simply because they were alive. They exulted that they had breath to breathe, that they had been to Haides and back. And now their Great King had seen death and defied it. If Morgui could not stop the White Lion, then nothing was impossible.
They roared because they could.
With the enemies of the Great God stumbling backward, a dazzling light flooded their faces and made them turn away. Luik was consumed with light as well, shielding his eyes with his forearm. The White Lion was glowing with light…
…rather, He became light.
The White Lion’s roar grew louder and louder until Luik’s ears rattled in his head. He tried to shut out the light, but it permeated his mind. He couldn’t hear himself shouting anymore…
…just the roar of the Lion.
A thunderclap shook the ground, and all at once the light was gone. The roar faded away until all was still.
Luik pulled his arm away from his face and blinked his eyes. At first he couldn’t see anything. All was as night when compared to the Light of the Great King. Then shapes and shadows began to form until he was looking out at the plain full of demons and warriors. Morgui was a few paces away. Luik’s men looked to him as their sight returned.
The White Lion was gone. The Dairne-Reih were confused. And Morgui was…
“I think he’s really angry,” Anorra said.
It was then they realized just how alone they really felt. Morgui and his entire army stood before them, fuming as if a child had shaken a beehive. A breath later the entire plain was transformed back into a nightmarish scene.
Luik’s men formed the battle lines and prepared to face their enemy once again. Gorn, Li-Saide, and Fane stood beside the King as Morgui glared at him.
“So that’s it?” Morgui was incredulous. “That’s all your King could do? Frighten us with a little roar?” He laughed.
“Watch your tongue, Morgui!” Luik countered.
“Fools!” Morgui spat. “You serve a weakling for a King! If he could not kill me, what makes you think you can?”
“Kill you?” replied Luik. “You know He would not kill you here, Morgui. Humiliation is a far better vengeance.”
“I disagree,” Morgui said, and then coughed. The wounds on his face and stomach still bled black. He swung his arm forward, summoning his hordes to action. Within moments the men of Dionia were flung back into war, swinging their swords and blocking a barrage of renewed hostility.
Luik raised his sword and shouted orders. Captains raced to regroup their men, and archers loosed their arrows once more. Luik then turned to Anorra. “Quickly, head to Grandath! Keep the wounded and women with you. Use the stumps for height and help us where you can.”
“Norra, there is no time. Varos!”
She nodded, gave him a kiss on the cheek, and was away.
Morgui retreated back into the folds of his army. He barked orders in his demonic tongue, his generals moving throughout the throng with ease. Luik watched him take up a position amongst his legions and gloat in his opportunity for victory.
While Luik trusted the Most High, he could not see how his departure was prudent. It only gave renewed zeal to the enemy and filled the rest of them with doubt.
Questions filled his head as he engaged the first Dairneag that dared cross him. He ducked under a swinging arm and then lashed out, severing the limb from its host. The creature swung with its other arm only to feel a blade pierce its ribs. When the beast had fallen, Luik looked to Morgui and thought he saw him smile.
Gorn and the others fought alongside Luik, dispensing wrath and making the most of each swing. With the White Lion gone, they knew it would be a long battle.
Perhaps, too long.
• • •
Anger consumed him. What was the Most High doing? Show up for but a moment of the battle only to revive the wounded Luik? And this roaring…was this supposed to frighten him?
Morgui was furious. And frustrated.
If the Most High thought this pitiful army of men was strong enough to conquer him and his Dairne-Reih, he was wrong. Perhaps they were stronger. Perhaps they were braver. But Morgui was more cunning.
He knew what must be done next. It would take all of his strength and concentration. But he had waited for this, plotted long years, and lured many into his service for just such a feat. Hadrian had been instrumental. But he had been expendable, as were all of his servants.
Morgui knelt down and placed his palms on the ground, lowered his head, and closed his eyes. A grim hum came from his chest, and within seconds met with a harmonic drone from somewhere underground. His generals stepped away and watched as every muscle in Morgui’s sleek, black body began to tighten.
• • •
The axmen had wandered into the ruins of Grandath just as Li-Saide had ordered. Still not sure of why he had sent them on such a mysterious errand, they longed to return to the front lines where the real battle was being fought. Their countrymen needed them. This felt more like retreating than following wartime orders.
They continued to walk west, picking through the ash that covered the ground. Everything they saw was black. Black tree limbs, black stumps, black piles of rock. The pungent smell of smoke still permeated the air.
Wispy trails rising skyward marked small, smoldering fires. An intense heat still emanated from the ground, like the stone around a hearth fire long after the meal had finished cooking. Despite Li-Saide’s instructions, the men could not imagine how anything could have survived the fire, let alone continued to grow.
“This is absurd,” one of the axmen complained. “This is a fool’s errand.”
“We should be back with the others,” said another.
The man in charge spoke up. “Then why don’t you go back to the dwarf and explain why you think he doesn’t know what he’s talking about?” No one replied. “We move on until we find the tree he spoke of.”
“And if we don’t find it?”
“Then we wait to be relieved. Li-Saide will not forget about us. He is a dwarf. They do not forget.”
The band of men walked on in silence, searching the horizon for anything above head height. The entire forest had been utterly leveled. It was a horrific sight to behold. Their feet were black with soot and their faces were already dirty, ash mixed with sweat.
It wasn’t long after that the men felt thirst rise in their mouths and knew it had been a while since they had drunk anything. They were reminded that they had entered Grandath without any provisions; this was to have been a short errand. It wouldn’t be long before the all-too-familiar pangs of hunger gnawed at their stomachs.
“Spread out,” the leader ordered, trying to get their minds off their lusts. “Let me know the moment you spy anything out of the ordinary.”
The men fanned out in a long line, picking their way through the dismal setting. The deeper they got, the greater their thirst grew. No distraction could quench it. They desperately wanted to turn back. How long must they be on this feeble exploit?
“Over here!” one of the men yelled. The leader was running toward him in an instant. The rest followed.
“What is it?”
“I tripped on this. Look,” the scout pointed to a thick root protruding from among the cinders. He then took a knife and pried apart the flesh to reveal green meat beneath.
“It lives,” uttered the leader. “How is that possible?”
“It must be very strong to withstand such an intense heat,” said another of the axmen.
“Aye,” agreed the leader.
Suddenly the first man’s knife was pulled out of his hand. “What the—” He stepped back in disbelief as the root moved.
“Stand back!” the leader yelled, unsure of what was happening.
“My knife! That’s not possible!”
All at once the root submerged beneath the soil and was gone.
“It lives,” said a few of the others.
The ground began to tremble, and the men moved away, stumbling over charred stumps as the quake grew worse.
“I don’t know,” said the leader. “I think you disturbed something.”
“Perhaps it’s the tree Li-Saide spoke of!”
“Perhaps,” replied the leader. “Hold on!”
The ground shook more, and the axmen reached out to keep from being knocked down. It felt as though something was moving beneath their feet.
“Look! Over there!” the leader shouted, pointing a finger toward a rupture in the ground not ten paces away. What appeared to be long, snake-like fingers burst from the ground and curled onto the surface, extending from the hole.
“Ready your weapons!”
The roots searched blindly, moving over rocks and around stumps. One man got too close, and two long fingers discovered him. One wrapped quickly around his waist, the other punched a hole through his chest. His life ended with a shriek of terror.
“What is it?” a few of the axmen shouted.
“I don’t know,” said the headman. “But stay clear!”
They stepped back and continued to watch as the long roots moved outward and then all at once drove back into the ground in a circle five paces from the original hole. The ground continued to shake, and the roots snapped taut as if pulling something up from the deep.
From the center hole emerged a slender shoot adorned with small green leaves—a welcome sight in the bleak ruins of Grandath. The greenery rose higher until the men realized it was not a shoot, but the image of a tree. Limbs fully laden with leaves snapped out into the air, feeling the relief from being pinned down below. The roots continued to pull the tree up from beneath until they vanished back into the ground.
Higher and higher the tree soared until the men ran away, the ground breaking apart all around them. The sound was deafening. Rocks split like eggs, and stumps were uprooted and discarded as if driven by a massive plow. The axmen tumbled haphazardly, rolling in the soot, smashing into all manner of obstacles.
When at last the tremors subsided, the headman rolled over and looked skyward…
• • •
Luik and the others tumbled over as the quake shook away their balance. Demons sprawled everywhere, and swords and shields clattered to the ground. The sound of fighting was replaced by grinding rock coming from somewhere within the charred ruins of Grandath.
“What was that?” Jrio finally asked when the ruckus subsided. He sat up and looked around, watching the first of the Dairne-Reih regain their feet.
“Great God,” Gorn said in a hushed tone. “What is that?”
Those near him turned, following his stupefied stare westward. Illuminated from behind by the rising sun stood a massive tree stretching toward Athera.
“The Tree of Life!” Fyfler exclaimed.
“Hardly,” said Li-Saide. “It is—”
“I thought it was destroyed?” said one of the soldiers near them.
“It was,” replied another, one of the Lion Vrie. “I was there when it burned.”
“It is not the Tree of Life!” Li-Saide interrupted, aware that the demons were still hungry for blood. “Do not be diverted! To arms!”
Luik was staring back at the magnificent creation, captivated by its beauty, when the words To Arms! pulled him back. He turned around in time to see Gorn sideswipe a Dairneag that would have caught him by surprise.
“Keep your head in the fight,” Gorn reminded him. “We can’t lose you now.”
“Aye,” Luik nodded, “or ever, I hope.” Gorn smiled and was off again, sword and spear swinging. “Hopefully your axmen are doing their job, Li-Saide.” Luik cast a last glance to the tree.
The dwarf studied the creation and then looked at the King. “Let’s hope so.”
• • •
“Step away!” ordered the headman. “Or I’ll kill you myself!”
The three men just ahead stopped in their tracks and looked back. Their chief held his ax at the ready; he would do as he said without hesitation. But the giant fruit at their feet was so alluring.
The massive red apple had fallen during the tree’s powerful rise into the sky, and had burst open when it hit the ground. The tender white flesh was lined with moisture, adorned with black seeds.
“I’m warning you one last time! Step away!”
The men looked to the fruit once more and then conferred with one another.
“What are you doing?” the leader demanded, now walking toward them.
In the blink of an eye, two of the men turned their axes on the headman while the other one knelt and carved out a piece of the fruit with his hand. He turned and lifted the dripping morsel.
“I told you…”
But the fruit looked so amazingly wonderful. The leader could not resist at least considering if it was good to eat. He was, after all, terribly thirsty, and now quite hungry.
“Let us try it at least,” said the man holding the fruit. “There is enough for everyone. Enough to bring back to King Luik and nourish the men. Perhaps it is what the Great God intended to sustain us during the long battle fought in His absence.”
“Does it not look just like the Tree of Life?” said one of the two bearing their axes. “Perhaps the dwarf was misinformed. He said Hadrian had told him that this tree needed to be cut down. Was not Hadrian a traitor many times over?”
“I sense a great reward for us if we return with such a bounty,” said the one holding the fruit.
Still the leader hesitated.
“Come now, how could something so beautiful be so evil?” the fruit bearer continued. “Are not the most beautiful things in all Creation fashioned by the Master’s hands alone?” With that he brought the fruit to his mouth and bit deeply.
“Nay!” the leader cried. The other two held up their axes.
Juice from the apple’s flesh ran out the corners of the man’s mouth as he chewed. His eyes closed, and he groaned with the taste in his mouth. The other three watched.
“It’s amazing!” said the man. “It is the Tree of Life!”
“You see?” said the other two, lowering their axes and turning for their own share.
The headman remained motionless, still weighing everything in his heart. A moment later the rest of the men were diving into the massive fruit and eating handfuls as fast as they could.
Nothing seemed to be happening to them. No death. No torment. And they certainly weren’t acting as the taken might. He watched as they gorged themselves, admitting that his own mouth wanted nothing more than to join them. He was so thirsty, after all.
“Come!” said the first. “Li-Saide will wonder why you denied yourself if you do not return to him with joy in your eyes.”
“Look into my eyes,” said the head axman.
The first man just stared at him before asking, “What?”
“Look into my eyes.” He remembered something his father had once told him. The eyes…he searched his memory. The eyes are the window to the soul. “Let me see into your soul.”
But the other man went back to his feasting.
The leader reached out and grabbed his man’s arm.
The head whipped back, and his eyes went wild, teeth bared and snapping at the leader.
The headman leapt back and brought up his ax blade. But three men beset him from behind.
“Eat with us,” they said, pinning his arms to his sides and moving him forward.
“Nay!” he cried. “This is not the Tree of Life!”
“O, but it is! Taste and see,” said the traitor. “Taste and see!”
“I will not!” he replied. “I’m going back to Li-Saide!”
“Not eat?” The man scratched his chin and fondled another piece of fruit. “Then you shall die.” He turned to the three men holding their chief. “Kill him.”
• • •
Morgui had been humiliated. And what was worse, none of his plans seemed to be working. It was maddening.
But he still had the Tree.
“We must push the Dionians back,” Morgui said to those few generals that remained. “Get them as close to the Tree as possible. I don’t care how many we sacrifice.”
“But Master, our forces are already dwindling.”
“I don’t care!” he seethed and turned to his generals. “Push them back now!”
• • •
Luik went to work, hacking at anything that resembled demon flesh, and advancing farther into the enemy line. But as the moments wore on he sensed a change in the flow of battle: the demons became more aggressive, pushing forward with a strengthened resolve, albeit carelessly. Luik and his men met the challenge with tenacity and did their best to carve a swath deep into their ranks. Dairneags fell in untold numbers. But despite mortal wounds, they flailed in their death throes, reaching for one more strike. More than one unfortunate soul was undone by a downed demon. Enough men met their end that Luik and Gorn called the warband to stop their advance and defend their position.
The defense, however, only lasted so long.
• • •
Anorra tended to a young lady who had sustained a deep head wound. The quake had tossed all of the women around like puppets, crashing into the wreckage of the broken forest. She tried to stop the bleeding, but try as she might, the cut would not slow the red flow that soaked the fabric she held in place.
“Can you hold it?” Anorra asked the girl.
“I think so,” she said weakly.
“I really need to see if King Luik needs me,” Anorra reached for the bow beside her.
“Go, Princess. I’ll be fine.”
“Very well.” A moment later Anorra was atop the wide burnt-out bowl of an oak, drawing a nocked arrow to the corner of her cheek. She searched for Luik’s form and found him battling one—two—then three Dairneags all at the same time. It was unusual for him take on so many at one time. They swung wildly. Anorra identified the most aggressive and then let her weapon do the rest.
Luik did not seem to acknowledge her signature arrow as before, most likely because the demon Anorra felled was instantly replaced by another. And then another. She saw Luik stepping back.
“Princess!” one of the young women yelled up.
“Not now,” Anorra replied, waving the call off. Luik was in trouble.
“I said not now!”
She had already nocked and loosed another shaft, sending it on its death errand. But Luik still retreated.
“I think you must really see this!”
This girl is relentless! “What is it?” Anorra glared. The young woman was looking off in the distance, staring at something in the west. At first she had no words, and then, “Where did that come from?”
“I don’t know, Princess. Is it—”
“The Tree of Life?” finished another woman.
Anorra hesitated. “Nay—nay, it can’t be.”
“He’s sent it to give us strength!” cried a girl. “It’s a sign!”
“It’s hope!” said another.
Anorra glanced back at the warband and searched for Luik. Her heart stopped. Eyes searched frantically. Where did he go?
“Come, let’s go! We’ll be safe!”
“Nay!” Anorra shouted, turning back to the women. “We must stay and help the men!”
“But Princess, the line is retreating!”
“I can see that,” she looked back to the battle. The enemy was gaining ground. They were getting closer to the edge of the plain.
“We must seek safety,” pleaded the young women with the head wound. “Please.”
Anorra looked down at her.
She looked back to the line. She saw Gorn signaling. Retreat.
“It can’t be,” Anorra whispered. “We’re not supposed to lose this one.” She fought back tears. Luik was nowhere to be seen. “We’re not supposed to lose—”
She watched as an enraged Hewgog swung its arms like a scythe, flinging a dozen Dairneags and men into the air. Another few steps and it burst through the front line and deep into the warband’s center formation. Here it went unhindered, flailing without restraint, turning the bloc of soldiers into a tumult of destruction.
“Princess, we must go!”
Anorra nocked another arrow and aimed at the giant’s bulging head. Its neck was already riddled with spears, yet it still stood, possessed.
“Die,” she whispered and loosed her razor-tipped shaft.
Anorra watched it sail past the black ruins and pass over the heads of the warriors to its mark. The Hewgog glanced up…
…and raised an arm.
The arrow sank into the demon’s flesh, lodging in the bone of its forearm.
Anorra didn’t move. She had never—
The demon lowered its arm and looked across the warriors and into Grandath, right into her eyes.
“Princess! Can we go?”
“Aye,” she said, not looking away from the giant. “To the Tree.”
• • •
The fighting was the most ferocious Luik had ever encountered. Whatever demons could not engage warriors in the front lines simply leapt past, finding targets farther back. Within moments Luik was overrun and separated from the others, demons passing to his left and right, leaving their demonic brethren to finish their deadly work alone.
Luik was pressed backward. When a demon would fall, another behind would leap upon the corpse and jump down at him, barreling ahead at full speed. Head down and arms thrusting, the Dairneags no longer cared about their own welfare; in battles past there was some sense of strategy, some semblance of caution. But now they were careless, driven like a crazed herd of horses. Luik uttered the Tongues of the Dibor unceasingly and dispatched his enemies. But he could not hold out forever.
His arms were growing tired. He could feel the burn in his hands and shoulders. And he was alone, cut off from his men. In addition there was no cover out here, no place to retreat to. Only Grandath behind. Had the White Lion accounted for this? And why had He left if He had known the fighting would only get worse? Perhaps He hadn’t known…
The ground trembled under the heavy footfalls of an infuriated Hewgog. Luik glanced up from his latest kill and watched as the giant flung men and demons high into the air. Despite being riddled with weapon shafts like a porcupine, the overgrown beast charged forward, cutting deep into the center of Dionia’s fighting force. A moment later nearly every Dairneag around him rushed forward, following the Hewgog’s lead.
“Retreat!” Gorn yelled a short distance away. Luik turned, relieved to see Gorn, the black warrior swinging his sword over his head. “Retreat!” he said louder.
“Retreat?” Luik hollered back.
Gorn looked around before spotting Luik surrounded by Dairne-Reih. “Luik! Hold on!”
Luik parried a wild blow at his head, stumbling back from the concussion. Two other demons took advantage of his misstep and lunged. Luik fended off one attacker, but the second was too quick for his blade.
But not Gorn’s.
Gorn’s sword flashed, emanating a dazzling light just before cutting through both of the Dairneag’s wrists. The fleshy stumps rammed up against Luik’s chest but did little more than push him aside and mar him with dark blood. Luik finished off the foe with a slice to the back, the demon sprawling face first in the dirt.
“Come on! We must get back!” Gorn pulled on Luik’s shoulder.
“Aye,” Luik nodded. Neither of them wished to remain in the chaos any longer than need be.
The pair made quick time running just behind the advancing Dairne-Reih. They kept steady pace as the demons pursued the fleeing warriors, never passing, just three steps behind. Eventually the terrain under Luik’s feet turned from trodden grass to black ash and a cloud of heavy soot rose into the air. Up ahead he could see his men fleeing into Grandath. Some took up defensive positions among the rocks and stumps, archers doing their best to keep the attackers at bay. But the Dairne-Reih were hysterical in their pursuit, trampling when they could not hit, tossing aside when they could not skewer.
There was little Luik could do but keep pace with the charging demon horde. The two men needed to get farther into Grandath and turn against the enemy again when rejoined with their brothers. Luik ran hard, pumping his legs and arms. Arrows whizzed by their heads. Suddenly Luik’s foot landed on something soft; he looked down as he stepped through the flattened remains of a man. A brother-in-arms. He thought of Hadrian, pummeled into the soil. But there was no time for grief here.
It was then Gorn called Luik’s attention to the Tree that loomed high above them. The enemy’s pursuit slowed, and both men prepared to engage once more.
“Look,” Gorn yelled, his spear pointing up. “Men in the tree limbs!”
“Archers?” Luik wondered.
“Let’s hope so.”
• • •
“Stop!” Anorra commanded and batted a woman’s hand away. They stood beneath the shadow of the massive limbs above.
The frightened lass coddled her hand and turned from the Princess.
“No one touches the fruit,” she ordered, staring each of her ladies down. “Do you understand?”
Anorra glanced over at the axmen who indulged, almost unaware of their presence. Unaware of everything.
“I don’t care how good it looks!” Anorra’s anger flared. Did they not see? “Do not touch the fruit!”
She waited for someone else to talk back.
Satisfied she had been heard, she continued, “Now, make a place to treat the wounded back there.” She indicated a large flat patch of burned-out grass west of the Tree. “The men will be here any moment, surely taking up defensive positions around us. Treat who you can, invoke the power of the Mighty Hand for those you cannot.”
The women could feel rumbling under their feet; they were coming.
Everyone nodded and was away.
Anorra strode to a large boulder and swallowed her fear. She knew she would see Luik running toward the Tree with all the others. Just one look would put her weak heart to rest. Anorra clambered up the rock face and froze.
The retreat was in full progression, a dark cloud of soot hanging over the host. A sea of warriors rushed toward her, fear in their eyes. And behind them…
…a black wave of death, flowing over the terrain and devouring those farthest back.
“Great God, help us,” she whispered. But He had already come. What help there was has already been given. And then He left…
There was no more help.
The rock shook beneath her as the armies advanced, one after the other.
Anorra turned around and saw a large apple split open on the ground. Three more were shaken from their perch high above, hit and broke open. The fruit was as big as she had ever seen. And so enticing.
She shook her head. This is war! Not time for feasting!
She jumped off her rock and ran around the tempting food, headed back for the clearing. The sound of the retreating line rose behind her as she reached the ladies. They were all huddled together, looking at something between them.
“What are you doing?” Anorra yelled.
Two of the ladies looked to her and blushed. The whole gaggle seemed agitated at Anorra’s presence and moved uneasily as if hiding something.
“What have you done?” Anorra demanded. She strode forward and yanked one of the younger girls up.
There on the ground was a large piece of apple.
“I told you!”
“But they brought it to us!” screamed a girl, pointing to the axmen. “Said it was fine! Said it would help us in the fight!”
“Fools! Have you any idea? This is not the Tree of Life! The Tree of Life is dead!”
“Then what is it?” another woman asked. “Because it makes me feel—”
“I don’t care how it makes you feel. It’s not the Tree of Life! It’s another Tree!” She threw the first girl down and stepped in the middle of them, pushing them away. “Get back, all of you! Get back, I say!”
Just then she heard men yelling behind her. Anorra spun around and saw that the first of the retreating warriors were coming into the shadow of the Tree. Archers.
“To the limbs!” they cried.
Anorra watched as a few of them stopped to examine the massive apples that lay split on the ground.
“Keep moving,” she whispered, willing them not to stop.
“To the limbs, men!” one of the lead archers yelled.
“Aye, to the limbs,” Anorra answered and was off and running to the base of the Tree. Her bow would best be used aloft, so she would join them.
As she drew near the colossal edifice, she noticed for the first time that this Tree did not glow like the Tree of Life. She had thought it had at first sight, but realized now it was just the rising sun. From this angle, the Tree was as bland and normal as any other Tree. That was, until she touched it…
The moment she pressed her hand against the bark to find a handhold, something pricked her fingers. A sensation. Of something leaving her. Of something drawing life…
She pulled her hand back. Uncomfortable. Awkward.
“You there!” an archer called. “We have need of your bow! Come with us! Are you not the Princess of Ligeon?”
“Aye,” she said distantly, still eyeing the bark.
“No other has eyes like you,” he went on. “Help us defend this, our last battle.”
Anorra looked over to the man, placing his bow over his shoulders and preparing to climb. Others were already mounting up, scrambling for the lower limbs.
“Please,” said the man.
“You have my bow, good soldier,” she finally replied. The man smiled wide and started his way up.
“The Princess of Ligeon joins us!” he shouted up the Tree, which brought a rousing cry from those above.
Anorra grabbed the bark again, the prick still biting her hands. Embarrassing her, like knowing something she wasn’t supposed to be privy to. Violating her. But she ignored it and willed herself to climb on. And climb she did, distancing herself from the charred ground below. Every glance she took of the oncoming armies below showed them gaining on the Tree.
She worked each handhold and wedged her toes into the nooks of the bark. Arms pulling, legs pushing, she finally made it to the first enormous branch when a hand reached down.
“Take my hand!”
She didn’t even think and thrust her arm up. Caught around the wrist, she was hoisted up. Another hand caught her belt and a third her bicep until she was standing on a wide limb, surrounded by archers waiting to take their turn to ascend the next route.
“Glad to have you with us, Princess,” one of the captains said.
She wiped the sweat from her forehead and smiled quickly. “Mind if I keep going?”
“Not in the least,” replied the captain and raised his arms. “Have at it.”
Anorra stepped to the trunk again and began to climb, and then stopped and looked back. “Captain.”
“The fruit on this Tree. It’s not safe. I’d advise your men not to eat it.”
The captain gave her a funny stare, but then said, “C’symia, Princess. I had no idea. Is this not—?”
“Nay, Captain. That Tree is no more. And this one is far from safe.”
• • •
When the advance finally halted and the fighting recommenced, Luik and Gorn took advantage of their precarious position and dispatched the unsuspecting Dairneags in front of them. They hacked into their backs without mercy and felled as many as nine demons in the space of a few breaths. But their presence was noted, and the Dairne-Reih behind them grew incensed.
Luik and Gorn turned, their backs once again covered by their brothers in battle. Their faces were spattered with gore, and their swords were slippery in their hands. Out of breath and nearly exhausted, Luik readied himself for another charge. Fight or die, he had no other choice.
The demons charged at him, and Luik made the most of every swing, speaking in the Ancient Tongues and watching his sword turn into a flame of fire. The effects were staggering, and even his winded body gained strength by watching the ease with which his weapon worked. Dairneags were lit ablaze, sent careening back into those behind them, while others were cut in two, falling apart in mid-step. Others simply exploded.
Yet for all his feats, Luik was only a man, and soon fatigue reined him in.
“Come with me!” Fane yelled and grabbed Luik’s arm. “You need to rest! You, too!” he yelled at Gorn.
Both men acknowledged the call and did not resist. They stepped back from the front and were replaced by fresh swords. Fane led Luik deeper back through their lines, a subsequent calm resting on those awaiting the foray. It was then he realized Dionia’s plight was not as hopeless as he had feared. In fact, before they had fled to the Tree, he was sure they had taken out more of the Dairne-Reih than Morgui had taken out men. So the retreat came as a surprise, but not without merit, given the frenzied drive the demons displayed.
Perhaps the Dairneags knew they would lose?
Perhaps it was a final push to thwart defeat?
…perhaps there was another reason.
Fane led onward, Luik grateful for the respite.
“If it’s all the same to you,” Gorn said behind him, “I’d like to remain here. You need more rest than I.”
Luik turned. “Very well,” he replied. “But be wise.”
Gorn nodded and signaled Fane to keep the King moving back.
Men on each side acknowledged Luik’s presence and made the sign of blessing, thanking him for his valiant effort. Luik lowered his head and thanked many of them as he passed. Eventually Fane and Luik came under the leafy canopy of the Tree.
“May I leave you here?” Fane asked.
“Certainly,” Luik answered.
“Your orders are to stay here until you are fit to fight again.”
“And I mean it, Luik.” Fane edged closer.
“I understand. I won’t fight you on this one.” Fane waited. “Away with you! I’m fine,” Luik finally said. Satisfied, Fane smiled and headed toward the army.
“I almost forgot,” he turned back.
“Aye?” Luik looked up.
Fane withdrew a tattered piece of folded parchment from within the fold of his robe. “Li-Saide asked me to give you this.”
Luik reached out and took the strange gift. “What is it?”
“That’s only for you to know. Something about the time you were last in the Library.”
“He said you’d know what it was about. ‘A secret,’ he said.”
The fires. Pursuit. Luik suddenly remembered waiting with Brax for Li-Saide to reappear in the Library during their escape. The flames were devouring the ancient texts and the Dairne-Reih were close behind. Something had delayed him. This? “A piece of parchment?” Luik looked up to Fane. “That’s what he risked his life for?”
“You know as well as I that the dwarf only acts with good reason.” Fane waited a moment, thinking. “Ah, I will leave you to your rest. And to your gift.”
Luik surveyed the area and looked up into the Tree. Archers lined the branches overhead and loosed a barrage of arrows into the distant enemy ranks. While he was convinced this was not the Tree of Life, he was at least grateful for the tactical advantage it provided.
Luik placed his hands on his knees and caught his breath. Sweat poured from his head as he worked his helmet off. He wiped his forehead and looked at the carnage that came away on his forearm. He felt the cramping in his legs and back. While he was grateful for the chance to catch his breath, his body was becoming aware of its injuries. Torn muscles, bruises, cuts.
He looked for a place to sit and spied a rock newly upturned from the Tree’s sudden appearance. He walked over and noticed he was limping, before collapsing on the rock. He situated himself so he could lean back against the hard surface and stretch his legs out. All around him people were scrambling, archers climbing up the Tree, men running for new swords or bundles of arrows; even those attending the wounded searched for skins of water, fresh cloth, and food. What few supplies could be found were in short order, a prized commodity. He closed his eyes, trying to relax.
His mind would not let him rest until it was read. He lifted up the item and gently unfolded it, trying not to mar it with the grime of battle on his fingers.
His eyes met the strokes of a great many words, each crafted with utmost care. The ink was old, the page cracked and dry. The first words seemed as if they were continued from a previous page, a sentence in mid-stride. But knowing for sure was futile, as the page was written in Ancient Dionian. Halfway down, however, the margin was filled with words he recognized, the translation of a sentence in the middle of the page, circled by fresh ink, not more than a few days old. Luik tilted the parchment sideway and read aloud.
“‘In that day I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.’”
Luik paused, considering. But nothing of significance came to him. Annoyed, he looked at the page again, searching for more. He flipped it over, but the back was blank.
“That’s it?” He shook his head. Perhaps he grabbed the wrong page?
“My King,” came a soft voice.
Luik was startled and glanced to his right. An attractive young woman offered him a skin of water.
“Are you thirsty?”
“Here,” she said and knelt close to him, her dark eyes searching his face.
Grateful, he accepted the vessel and drank. “C’symia,” he said, wiping his mouth.
“And some food for you.” She held up a soft piece of apple flesh.
“C’symia,” Luik said and reached for it. The fruit was moist and heavy in his hand. He felt the lump rise in his mouth. He was famished.
“There’s more if you want it,” she said, standing up, her full figure before him.
“O, aye. Please,” he said and was about to eat when she turned and brought a larger piece of apple beside him. Luik paused. “Where did you get that?” suddenly looking at the piece in his hand.
“Why, from the Tree, of course.”
“It fell? From this Tree?” Luik looked up. “And you’ve eaten it?”
“Aye! It’s delicious! And so filling,” said, rolling her eyes. Seeing Luik still hadn’t eaten, she raised the larger piece to his face. “Here.”
It looked so luscious. And this young woman was so beautiful. It was then he noticed her shapely body, and his eyes scanned her frame. He wanted the fruit. He wanted…
If this were the other Tree that Li-Saide had shown him, how could she still be so lovely, having eaten of the fruit herself? She was not taken.
She was amazing.
He dropped the small piece in his hand and opened his mouth for her to feed him.
• • •
Anorra had followed Luik from the re-formed battle line all the way back to the Tree. Watching him skirt two brushes with death in one battle was enough for her. Her heart leapt when she saw him emerge from the Dairne-Reih with Gorn, and only logic kept her from leaping out of the Tree.
She tried her best to get down to the lower limbs but the archers were too packed behind her. “Excuse me,” she pardoned herself. “Excuse me!” But there was nowhere for them to go. They’d have to all move back down for her to get through. And there was no rope or vine to descend on. She was stuck and would have to wait to see him until the battle was over.
“Luik!” She resorted to shouting, hoping he’d look up. “Luik!” But her voice was lost amidst the whoosh of arrows and the din of war. At least he was all right. She blessed Fane for bringing him out of harm’s way and watched them walk under the Tree.
As Fane left, she yelled to Luik again, but her voice was a bird’s song lost in a gale. She was about to turn back and continue fighting when she noticed a young woman—one of her girls—appear next to Luik. She handed him a water skin and then…
“Nay!” Anorra burst out, nearly falling from the limb. Two of the archers caught her as she tipped forward.
“Princess, are you all right?”
“Let me go!” she struggled to get free. The girl was offering him the apple.
“But you’ll fall!”
“I’ll not fall! Unhand me!” She yanked her right arm free and reached for an arrow. Seeing the action, the man on her left released her and Anorra laid the shaft across the bow. A swift pull back—a release—and the arrow was away.
• • •
Luik was about to take his first bite when the apple dropped and the girl shrieked in terror. Luik jerked away as he saw an arrow shaft binding the apple and the girl’s hand to the ground. The girl wailed, trying to pull the feathered end of the shaft out of her hand. But it was held fast.
All at once her face changed, and she lashed out at Luik. Her nails missed his face and nicked his collarbone. Luik rolled to his side and jumped to his feet, body stiff but responsive. The girl made to follow, but the arrow held her in place.
Luik glanced up, searching the canopy of leaves. His heart was racing. What was going on?
There. In a dark spot higher up, he could see a lock of blonde hair.
Of course! He looked to the arrow; her mark was there. The girl continued to thrash about like a caged animal, seemingly possessed. The fruit was vile after all.
It was then Luik had a sickening thought. How many knew about the fruit?
He immediately looked around and saw any number of men carrying the apple pieces into the battle lines to distribute among the soldiers. Others were huddled in groups, consuming the apples like ravenous dogs. Why hadn’t he seen them before?
Then it dawned on him.
Morgui was trying to purposely push them back. It was he who had summoned the Tree to the surface. And Hadrian who had watered it all these years.
Luik picked up his sword and raced back to the battle lines.
“Don’t eat the fruit!” he hollered.
The first few men who heard him shout were incredulous. But when they turned and recognized who it was, they immediately fell silent. “Don’t eat the fruit! Pass the word!”
Instantly the order was carried on, echoed forward through the ranks. Some of those closest to Luik did not speak, however, but kept staring at him. “What is it?” he asked one man. But the look in the man’s eye said it all…
He had eaten.
This was maddening to Luik. By now he wondered just how many had tasted of the wicked fruit. If something were not done soon, his men would soon be fighting one another.
“Great God, I need Your help.”
Luik looked down and saw a piece of apple lying between his feet. His mouth began to water, and it was then he came face to face with the darkest side of himself. There was nothing he could do to change his lusts.
He was utterly powerless.
He knew he shouldn’t eat. He knew it was cursed. Yet he longed for it, even when he didn’t want to long for it!
He looked up. Only those who had eaten were watching him now, the rest of the men were intent on the battle ahead. No one would notice. Just one bite. Just one.
He bent down and reached for the morsel.
– – –