Aishling First-Exalted-of-the-New-Order approaches the redoubt through dirty alleys. Stooped stone homes hunker against the ghost of a blood-moon visible through the roiling crimson storm above. If the dark lords wished, they might hide those brooding clouds with a simulacrum of the skies of old, but instead they choose to keep them red and raw, a reminder of the sixty-years-old Harrowing that brought them dominion.
Despite her age she marches straight and proud—as an Inquisitor should—and her uniform is impeccable. Her old knees and hips, worn through years of training and dedicated service, stab arthritic needles with every step.
It’s a penance, she reminds herself. Let every ache and pain be a life destroyed, and still I won’t have made amends by the time I kill a dark lord.
The dark lords’ redoubt claws at the sky ahead of her, a pillar of distorted minarets and black stone geometry in the centre of the city. Some of the buildings damaged by its arrival decades ago still cower unrestored in its shadow; the redoubt had burst through streets and buildings to impose its will upon the world.
At seventy she is no longer on active duty, but an Inquisitor’s role is for life and the dark lords’ high guard straightens to attention when she steps into sight across the cobblestone plaza. She strives to drive any expression from her face as she approaches, relies on her training to dampen the bone-deep ache of every step that brings her closer.
“I wish to see Dark Lord Rokogogh,” she says. “It is a matter regarding the old forests.” Rokogogh prides himself on having defined the equations that brought down the Elf nation.
If she can only see him she’d need mere seconds to push her worn body into one final solution of sword and dagger and angle thrusts, an avenging storm for the trees.
* * *
Young Aishling stood with twenty of her fellows at the foothills to the Great Elven Forests, now the Great Ash Wastes. They were all earnest, devoted children of the New Order.
Black stumps like broken fangs spread ahead for countless miles over the rolling hills, out to the faint flicker of silver in the distance. The northern sea had never been visible from this place before, not with a thousand centuries of ancient oaks crowding between. The dark lords had only to bring a thousand years of enmity to bear to reduce all those ages to ash.
“Children of the New Order!” the Cult-Sergeant barked at them. He was a Man in his thirties, his bladed plate cuirass strapped almost casually on his shoulders. The Harrowing was over, but the trappings of war lingered on. Aishling was only ten, but she could read and count, and she counted golden leaves aplenty on the Sergeant’s chest. That meant he’d personally killed many Elves in hand-to-hand combat. Elves had been fast, brutal things, all biting thorns and sharp blades and hailing stones and arrows; the Cult-Sergeant was clearly a formidable opponent.
“You’re Forest Wardens now! You will come here every day to tend the trees.” He took a step backward, leaving deep boot prints in the ash and charcoal. He pointed a black iron gauntlet finger at something near his feet, something tiny and pale green poking through the black.
“These new shoots are all that remains of the Golden Oaks of the Variegated Hegemony of Elfkind. Every morning Forest Wardens like yourselves will patrol their territories and will dig up the saplings. You will take your salt-horns and salt the holes from which you dig them. You will burn them root and seed all, at the end of each day.” He crouched down and dug in the black ash at the base of the oak shoot, pulled the tiny green thing free, and threw it onto a pile of rubbish.
“Aishling is your foreman; you will obey her or you will be whipped. Away!” The Sergeant stepped aside with a wide expansive movement. His arm’s sweep took in the vast ashlands and the roiling red clouds on the horizon. Farther to the west, in the centre of the scorched earth, Aishling could make out the lines and shapes of two towering dark lord constructs, Eschatons; they were nothing more than tattered hide and sailcloth and bone and needle legs, twisted, towering spiders. The Eschatons stalked through the ash-stumps, hunting for bones and valuable metals for their masters, unfolding matter at their whim. They were lifeless conduits for dark lord geometry.
Aishling took a deep breath to project her words.
“Move out, Wardens!” She yelled it in her high child’s voice.
They spread out into the ash, groups of two each with a water bladder, a horn full of salt, and a hessian bag to collect the regrowth. Aishling made sure they were all within hearing distance and began her own earnest search for green.
Their square of old forest adjoined old Elf nation ceremonial gates, now driven to dust by the dark lords’ balefire. All that remained of the grand entwined-tree archway were the snapped stumps of their bases. Aishling found several newly sprouting gold oaks and dug them up, salted the holes. Her bag filled slowly. How many Golden Oak acorns were buried in this vast dead forest? Would they ever stop trying to grow back?
Near one of the sprouts Aishling found an Elf helm, scorched black but otherwise pristine where she thumbed a bright smear across its forehead. The Harrowing took most of the Elves by surprise; as news reached them of the advance of dark lord armies on the Dwarf mine-forts, they did not expect an assault from within their homeland. Through vortices spun by the living roots of trees that had betrayed their makers, dark lord Rokogogh marched into the heart of the Variegated Hegemony with his ensorcers and laid the Calymmian Curse. That wave of power cut the heart out of the Elves, and they, too, fell and burned. It was the final curse of the war. Nothing stood now but mankind and its dark lord masters.
Aishling placed the helm carefully at her feet and spotted a breastplate amidst the charcoal. She wiped it partly clear with the edge of her bag and saw more silver, something the Eschatons would undoubtedly salvage given a chance. Each half of the breastplate had been embossed with the most amazing tree she could imagine, fat at the base, slender and holy at the crown. Delicate leaves cascaded in the steel, seeming alive and merely frozen in the moment. The black ash served to bring out the relief in exquisite detail. These were the graven images of the trees she and her wardens were ending.
Aishling delighted in the dead artistry a little longer, then left the breastplate and returned to digging for trees.
On the evening of the third day the Cult-Sergeant rode by and told her they would be tending a different square mile of ash in the morning. With the moon’s light filtered red through the roiling clouds above, Aishling returned to the remains of the ceremonial gates and took the helm and the breastplate with her to their new grounds.
She placed them upright against a blackened stump, and when Esmeralda, Torko, and Sora arrived early for the day’s work, she showed it to them.
“See, this is what the trees looked like,” Aishling said. She tried to keep the awe and fear out of her voice.
Torko ran a finger over the embossed leaves. “It’s beautiful,” he said. “I see why the dark lords wanted to kill them all.”
Aishling didn’t say a thing as each of them touched her discovery. Sora put the helmet on her head.
“They had funny-shaped heads,” she said, laughing.
Esmeralda’s cheeks and hands were marred by fine scars, and she merely placed her palms flat on the armour’s surface, contemplative.
They found only four young oak sprouts that day, and burned them all.
But Aishling found an acorn too. She didn’t know why she put it in a pocket, but over the next few months she collected at least fifty acorns, hiding them in her bunk. When, three years later, no more tree sprouts could be found and the Forest Wardens were disbanded, she gave each of her original Wardens a seed as a reminder and kept the rest for herself.
* * *
Aishling waits, rolling her very last acorn back and forth in her tightly clenched hand, ignoring the silent guards and the arthritic pain deep in her knuckles.
The portcullis groans into movement and rises. The dark lord guards pivot smartly, opening a path directly toward the small wicket door opening in the vast wooden gates.
Inquisitor Lachrim steps through. Aishling instinctively stuffs the seed back into her pocket as he approaches.
“Inquisitor Aishling. Dark Lord Rokogogh is not in attendance. Dark Lord Tanatloch will see you in his stead.” Lachrim has a subtle contempt for his elders, carried in the angle of his head; he stares too long, stands too casually. Aishling had trained the Inquisitor who’d trained Lachrim. It seems this is a generation too distant to earn his respect.
And Dark Lord Tanatloch? He tortured her nearly four decades ago. It will be fitting if she scratches his ageless demeanour with her last breath.
Lachrim raises an eyebrow, waiting for a response.
Aishling clears her throat. “Thank you. I’ll see him now.”
* * *
They surrounded the building quietly. It was an uninviting structure, no more than an abandoned stone hall, but Childfinder Aishling trusted her sources. Twelve hand-chosen shock troops waited in the shadows; a ragged Eschaton towered in the distance, channelling dark lord geometry through its spidery limbs. It waited in the town square, seemingly on regular patrol, but had been seconded to her and was ready to peel aside the walls at her command.
“Mistress!” Abramelech was a good man but tinged with inexperience. Aishling flicked her gaze in his direction.
“Mistress, these old buildings could collapse if the Eschaton tries to unfold it. The children . . . ?”
“I have factored in the probabilities, sergeant.” Her words were terse and she twisted her arm to show him the black geometrics tattooed on the back of her hand. “I’ve studied dark lord mathematics for many years. Their faith in me is projected on my skin.”
Aishling turned back to the waiting doors. There was no sound from the building, but deep below an illegal school met monthly, when the blood-moon was new and the night sky looked almost normal.
Aishling held up a hand to keep the troops in place, advanced slowly to the doors, and marked unfolding wards. Primed, the distant Eschaton wavered slightly on its thin legs. The troops couldn’t notice, but Aishling felt the back of her hands crawling, and then the doors slid impossibly sideways and inward, absorbed into the stone walls. Aishling kept her hand high and stepped forward, past warped hinges and twisted wood-stone edges.
The hall was some sort of workshop; half of the floor space was taken up by long rows of tables, and shelves of hammers and other tools lined the walls.
A cold iron furnace dominated the far wall. Their informants said there was a trapdoor somewhere near that furnace, hidden beneath an old rug.
She advanced on the furnace, spotted the rug, and pulled it aside to see the reported hatch. This close, she heard muffled chanting—a singsong mnemonic—and the voices of children. She didn’t hate children, but the kind of unauthorised education perpetrated by illegal teachers threatened dark lord rule.
Aishling opened the trapdoor and slowly descended the wooden ladder beneath, quietly as she could. She wore no noisy metal armour to betray her approach because she didn’t need it. Her world moved in lines and angles; she anticipated thrust and attack, deflected assault in calculated trajectories. Even naked she was a weapon.
A dim glow illumined the end of the corridor. She headed closer, and suddenly she was engulfed in golden light, rapt before the vision of a mighty tree, a giant Golden Oak, the mirror of the one young Aishling saw on her old breastplate in the ashlands; the Eschatons found that relic eventually and scavenged it. Aishling remembered that afterward their days weren’t quite the same; the daily hunt for ever-rarer shoots was tinged with subtle loss.
Something moved near the vision, as though climbing out of the wall; a figure, human sized. It was a shadow pushing into the light.
She lunged forward, lashed out, twisting her hands just so. Someone grunted. The floor before her twisted and snapped shut with a crack, trapping her target’s leg tightly. Unbalanced, her victim yelled, turned. A man. His leg snapped at the knee as he fell to the ground. She stepped forward, hand to her waist, unsheathed her dagger and grabbed his head, twisted, slit his throat before the pain of his fractured leg translated to screaming.
With her hands warm with blood, her eyes refocused and clawed back sense from the golden vision. There was no glowing oak here at the end of the corridor after all, no admonishing ghost of the forest she had helped destroy. It was just a tapestry that blocked the entrance to the illegal teaching room, and the dead man in her arms most likely a lookout, or perhaps the teacher. The tapestry’s tree motif had been woven from gold and crimson and emerald; it was glorious, but merely another dead image from an age gone by, illuminated by the flickering candlelight in the room beyond.
The children’s song changed to an alien tune, full of melodic sounds that evoked root and tree and leaf. Elfsong? The dark lords’ New Catholic Speech couldn’t produce those ambiguous syllables.
Her bloody hand, raised to sweep aside the hanging tapestry, faltered; she lowered it to her side, dug for the hard assurance of her old acorn in her pocket. Twenty years of nervous spinning had polished its surface to a cool familiarity, a charm to ease her uncertainties.
Aishling gritted her teeth and moved lightly forward, aside and through. The dozen children in the small room had their backs turned and didn’t even notice her entrance, though the old man leading them in their careful song paled at the sight of her uniform.
She didn’t move. Her eyes were locked on his and eventually he regained his composure a little and continued the song. His hand trembled as he turned a leaf of the thick manuscript before him.
When it ended the children remained respectfully silent, absorbed.
The teacher stopped and looked up at her, until eventually the children followed his gaze. There was the soft rustle of shifting cloth, and suddenly the children’s haunted expressions focussed on her.
Esmeralda, she remembered. Torko. Sora. They had all been children not much older than these when the soldiers recruited them into the Forest Wardens.
Aishling glanced back at the oak tapestry, swallowed nervously. Her resolve split like an ancient tree trunk.
“You’re betrayed.” The teacher didn’t react, and Aishling had the barest instant to appreciate the risk she meant to him. “Stay here for now,” she said. “I’m unfolding the building above. Before dawn, return to your homes.”
It was as though a long-dormant hidden force compelled her. She half-turned, lifted her hand, and jabbed a finger at the tapestry, looking the teacher in the eye.
“I will take that.” It was invaluable, almost as rare as the acorn in her pocket. The old teacher’s eyes lit up at something he could understand: a corrupt official, a trade of their lives for a priceless artefact.
Aishling glanced at the children’s scared, hungry eyes. She dug into her pocket with her clean hand as she stepped forward, crouched lithely before a girl no older than seven. How important to her parents was this unauthorised education, that they would risk her well-being so?
She placed her fist on the bench beside the girl. The black tattoos visible on the back of her hand sucked at the dim light. When she opened her fingers and lifted her hand, a single polished acorn remained, a soft golden curve in the candlelight.
“I took this from the old forests myself, when I was a child. It’s. . . .” She was talking only to the little girl now, while the class watched; she struggled to think of the word she needed. There was one, once, in her native tongue. Twenty years had dulled her mind and there was only the New Catholic Speech now. “It’s . . . hope . . . a . . . an expectation of salvation. When you’re safe, when you feel the time is right . . . plant it, water it. Bring it back.”
Aishling never really understood why she’d collected the acorns, but now she realised there was a greater purpose. Maybe these children, one by one, could help bring the trees back. Perhaps they could undo what she’d wrought twenty years ago.
Barely a quarter of an hour had passed when she closed the secret hatch and returned to the troops outside. She carried the Golden Oak tapestry rolled beneath an arm.
The troops had barely moved. Aishling took her prize and handed it to Abramelech as he hurried to her side.
“I found the hidden room as we were told, but it was empty save for this.” She handed the tapestry to Abramelech and turned to the troops. “I’m tearing down this building. The citizens have to understand that the dark lords will not tolerate sedition.”
A hand wave urged the troops to pull back. Aishling approached the wall and primed seams, corners. She felt the distant Eschaton focus its awareness on the hall.
“Back!” she yelled. The troops hurried to reach a safe distance from the building as her tattoos itched into life. Walls bent subtly, stone and mortar fighting reality. The corners and seams of the hall unfolded, curling inward on invisible arcs. The roof sagged, caught on the edge of the Eschaton’s projected geometry. Half of it crashed to the ground in stone dust and the other half spiralled sideways, flinging roof tiles outward while groaning against its own nature.
It took very little time to reduce the hall to a wasteland of fractured debris and deformed stone blocks.
Aishling motioned for the soldiers to attend her and head out. She reached into her pocket for reassurance and found nothing there.
“Are we reporting back to Dark Lord Tanatloch tonight, mistress?” Abramelech interrupted.
Aishling paused momentarily, regathering her thoughts.
* * *
Tanatloch was formless, like all his kind. He was merely a black sentience squeezed from the void between worlds and extruded into a purple Man’s robe. His gauntleted fingers tapped a pattern on the obsidian edges of his throne as Childfinder Aishling stood at attention before him.
Dark lords had no faces, but each craved uniqueness, and so Tanatloch once took a bleached Elf skull and pressed it like a helm onto the black flesh where his head would be. A circlet of silver coils was filigreed into its polished crown, and ruddy veined light glowed through the hollow sockets, appraising her. He glorified in becoming, in part, what he swore to destroy.
(( IT SEEMS YOU ARE SUCCESSFUL IN THE INQUISITION. CHILDREN ARE GLEEFUL AND OBEDIENT. )) Tanatloch’s voice boomed silently; it was no more than a hissed whisper in the vast chamber of his audience hall but deafened like a thunderclap in her mind.
Tanatloch swivelled his skull-head and stared at the wall behind her. Aishling followed his gaze and was shocked to see a large tapestry of a Golden Oak, larger even than the tapestry Abramelech carried into the antechamber.
(( DARK LORD ROKOGOGH MOCKS ME. HE GLOATS OF HIS VICTORY IN THE ASH WASTE BUT MY PACTS SOLVED THE BALEFIRE EQUATIONS TO ALLOW HIS INGRESS. THE CALYMMIAN CURSE WAS FORMLESS BEFORE I CALCULATED IT. ))
Aishling didn’t care for the dark lords’ rivalries but dared not show it. The curse was twenty years old, an eye’s blink to the dark lords.
(( FOR TEN YEARS YOU GIVE OAK SEEDS TO THE CHILDREN. WHY? ))
Aishling froze, shocked alert by the sudden odd accusation. She’d gifted precisely one acorn in the twenty years after her time as a Forest Warden, just the one this very night.
“I . . . I collected them as a child. It’s a . . . reminder of the dark lords’ victory.” Lack of preparation and confusion drained the conviction from her words.
(( THIS WILL REQUIRE A RECKONING. )) He reached for her with gauntleted fingers.
The pain hit her in a wave, invisibly radiating and freezing her in place.
(( LET US COMMUNE, DARK LORD TO SUBJECT. ))
* * *
Aishling paces carefully behind Lachrim, trying to settle her breathing as he leads her through stone corridors. The path forks into larger galleries, stone steps and mezzanines overlooking vast depths. After the redoubt burst from the soil and ushered in the Harrowing, it left fearful gaping voids beneath it that to her knowledge have never been explored.
The throne room is unchanged from when she last stood there, when she retired her services as Inquisitor a decade ago, kneeling before the cuirbouilli scales of Dark Lord Krakatau.
Today it is Tanatloch again. He waits by the throne and stares at her with his glowing Elf-skull eyes as she and Lachrim arrive. Would he even remember her after four decades? Time flowed in strange eddies for the dark lords.
Before she has a chance to determine the best position to strike at him, Tanatloch seems to remember something and strides directly toward her, stopping ten feet away. Lachrim obediently stands aside.
(( FOR TEN YEARS YOU GAVE OAK SEEDS TO THE CHILDREN. )) Tanatloch says. (( WHY? ))
Aishling stammers, once again brought to confusion by the same dark lord. Her heart beats faster, hated memories of pain dragged from her, freshly horrifying. An answer escapes her across all those decades.
(( DO YOU HAVE A SEED HERE, NOW? ))
Aishling can’t muster the will to resist a command from this ancient creature. But can she still draw her sword and carve that Elf’s skull from his head? Lachrim will hardly be a threat, but dark lords are unknowable things.
“I. . . .” She reaches into her pocket and removes her very last acorn, displays it in her open palm. Tanatloch would need to step closer.
(( WHY CARRY THESE DEAD THINGS? IS IT A DELUSION? ))
She doesn’t understand. The dark lord speech booms in her head, dizzying her. Her tired joints stab at her as she shifts uncomfortably.
“It’s. . . .” The time to prevaricate is over, the fire of her life has run its course, and with luck she can make a small difference as it winks out.
She stares directly into Tanatloch’s ruddy eye-glow. “It’s to remind us that the Golden Oaks will return, when the time is right and of mankind’s choosing.”
Tanatloch does not move. After a heavy pause he says, (( THIS . . . WILL REQUIRE A RECKONING. ))
Aishling acts. She jabs a sharp elbow into Lachrim and spins, twists, pushes through her own pain and breaks forward, drawing her sword in the same movement.
Tanatloch staggers backward. She channels decades of guilt and the memory of her last interrogation into a tight slash at his chest, but only splits the cloth. There is a coiling darkness beneath the cut in his robes.
Aishling presses her advantage. She hears Lachrim regain his footing and steps quickly sideways to keep him from flanking her. Lachrim has drawn his sword and rushes forward, but there are few who can match her skill, even slowed by her aged body. She raises her tattooed hand and unfolds the trajectory of his blow. Lachrim curses as his blade arcs in the new geometry of his immediate surroundings; he struggles to stay upright, his footing confused by incongruous planes and suddenly angled stones.
Aishling turns to Tanatloch and screams as sudden waves of agony radiate over her wrinkled skin, threatening to unravel her. Her acorn drops from instantly numb fingers, strikes the stone floor, and spins away. Her sword loosens in her other hand, tumbles free. Her body tires suddenly, begging her to succumb.
(( YOUR ASSUMPTION OF OUR POWERS IN THE TIME OF YOUR BETRAYAL IS UNBEFITTING. )) Tanatloch steps forward, gauntleted hands open at his side.
(( LET US COMMUNE, DARK LORD TO SUBJECT. ))
She grits her teeth at the remembered words, tenses her legs to spring away. This time she will not succumb.
* * *
She was ensorcelled by electric blue, a thousand needles digging into her flesh, contracting it, voiding her youth and leaving it parchment dry. Fresh aches blossomed in youthful joints and black spots flirted with the edges of her vision as she sank to her knees. Beneath Tanatloch’s relentless red gaze she had somehow become a timeless, aged, withering thing. She thought of her newfound tapestry in Abramelech’s care, of the promise of that tree, of the little girl treasuring her acorn, of the other thirty-odd acorns still stowed in a bag in her quarters.
(( IT SEEMS MERELY A COLLECTING GAME. ))
The dark lords often spoke without context.
(( INDEED, EVEN AFTER THIS TIME I EXPECTED IT TO MEAN MORE, BUT IF IT IS AS YOU SAY. . . . ))
Both voices were the same. Tanatloch was discussing her aloud, with himself.
She finally pushed free of the compulsion, fell forward; exhaustion washed away the pain. Aishling felt inexplicably aged beyond her years. Tanatloch laughed, but it was a sound that reverberated behind her eyes only. By the time she looked up and the tightness of her skin had faded back to youth, he was gone.
But she had a sudden compulsion to run—to run back to the antechamber, tear the tapestry from Abramelech’s hands as she went, and go home, to dig through her acorns and find herself a new seed.
* * *
Tanatloch’s piercing laughter pulses in her skull as she regains her awareness, pushing upright against her aches, gathering her footing. The dark lord had faltered when she attacked but it had only been for a moment. Her treachery is for naught.
Lachrim steps closer, cautious, but she lunges at him, hands clawed. When he flinches she dashes past him, runs for the last shreds of her life, against all her plans, against the wishes of her ageing body.
Pain fractures up her shins and she leaps wide down stone stairways, losing her footing once and staggering before regaining her balance. Years of training only go so far; old ligaments scream at her for restraint.
She is First-Exalted-of-the-New-Order, an Inquisitor of the dark lords, but that no longer matters. Her years as Childfinder General lie forgotten behind her. Her last acorn is gone and her hoped-for revenge is ashes.
Something heavy slams into her side, shoving her into a wall. She throws herself sideways, whirls, and puts a hand to her sheathed dagger, searching for her attacker.
Inquisitor Lachrim sweeps forward, blade extended, and she manages to draw her dagger and deflect it as he thrusts past.
“You refuse Dark Lord Tanatloch’s . . . attentions!” Inquisitor Lachrim slashes and turns aside. Aishling has her dagger and forty years of experience. It is a courtesy to him that she hasn’t hamstrung him already.
“Let it go, Lachrim, it’s not important.”
“Stand down, Inquisitor. I don’t understand why you ran, but—”
“The dark lord was torturing me!”
“That is how Dark Lord Tanatloch shows affection.” She sees his eyes flick left and right as he takes a measured pace back.
“How can—?” But as she says it she realises his attacks have been mere diversion, that Lachrim has always known he was outmatched in swordplay by a seventy-year-old woman; he’s been silently calculating and is even now channelling the dark lords’ geometry.
The ground splits open beneath her and she stumbles forward, over. . . .
The stone walls grab her fast. Aishling hangs wedged, upside down, her shoulders grabbed by the very stones that had split and dropped her. A sharp pain cracks across her chest and the dim clatter of her dagger reaches her from the invisible depths below.
She hears Lachrim step closer above her, no more than a few feet away. “You’ll be left trapped here as a warning, Inquisitor. The dark lords have always found you amusing, with your seed-gifting.”
Aishling freezes, despite the pain and the cold of the vast stone chute sucking at her life’s warmth.
“It’s true. Surely you didn’t expect it to remain a secret? They watched you and find this, this. . . .” He struggles for a word that does not exist in his masters’ speech. “They find this expectation entertaining. It placates dissenters, carrying these acorns, and seeing their subjects carry dead seeds close to their hearts is a great source of amusement to the dark lords.”
Aishling closes her eyes tightly.
“Your acorns can’t sprout, surely you know that? Why do you think the Forest Wardens were disbanded after three years? There is no seed, not even the dead race’s Golden Oak, that remains viable for much longer than that; the Wardens were no longer needed. And how long has it been now, sixty years? Does any man alive even remember what the Great Ash Wastes looked like before the Harrowing? Every one of those children who planted your seed was left treeless.”
Tears sting in her eyes.
“I will fetch Kargoth. He will wait here until you are dead, and then dispose of your body. The dark lords thank you for your years of service. Consider a slow demise their gift to you.”
The heavy tread of boots on stone mark his departure. The echoes fade into the distance.
After an interminable wait, with her breathing becoming shallower and the pain in her chest blooming, she hears a new sound. This is a more hesitant shuffle. Kargoth.
She feels a rough hand reaching down past her wedged shoulders, patting her gently on the arm.
“Are you coming to kill me, Kargoth?”
“No, I have to wait.”
“Are you coming to save me?”
“I can’t. It’s the dark lords’ will.”
She sighs slowly, trying to keep her thoughts focussed. After a short pause Kargoth speaks again, more quietly.
“I heard you were the oak planter. My ma had one of your seeds, did you know?”
“Your . . . ? How did she . . . ?”
“Passed down from her ma, Grandam Esmerald. Grandam never planted it, she said they’d just dig it up and salt it.”
Little Esmeralda, eyes wide and terrified, confused, clutching her acorn tightly in a scarred hand. Aishling had never seen her after their years as Wardens. Inquisitors aged well, civilians less so.
“You. . . .” Aishling has trouble breathing. “You have Esmeralda’s acorn?”
“No, Ma inherited it after Grandam died and refused to let it go. Ma was buried with it. She said a Golden Oak would grow from her grave, but it never did.”
“No . . . no, it wouldn’t, they’re . . . they’re all dead. They’ve always been dead.” Her voice cracks.
She feels his hands on her legs. He pulls once, twice, then with another snap of pain she is suddenly, amazingly free, lifted up toward escape.
Kargoth helps her out of the hole and wraps her in a warm blanket. A golden light, like the vision of the Golden Oak in that hidden secret school, fills and warms her chest.
“We need your help. You know the dark lords best of all, and now they think you’re dead.”
She coughs, her head light as the blood rushes back through her body, cradled in his arms. She says nothing, closes her eyes to recover.
“I want you to have this,” Kargoth says eventually. “Inquisitor Lachrim found your acorn and Dark Lord Tanatloch ate it. But . . . but I have this.”
Something hard drops into her palm. Her dry fingers explore its shape, familiar and round, pitted at the top. Is it another golden acorn? It feels too light, too smooth. A coughing fit shakes her and she spits blood. Her lungs ache from the cold air.
“My friend is good with wood, Inquisitor. He carves them. We ran out of real Golden Oak seeds years ago, but it didn’t matter; it doesn’t matter because it gives us the expectation of salvation. There are many acorns now, more than you ever found in the ash wastes; hundreds. And we want you to come with us and plant them all.”
Aishling grimaces through the pain. “But you can’t plant wooden acorns. What’s the point?”
“We do plant them,” Kargoth whispers, closing her fingers tightly around it with his hand. “We plant them in fists.”
Tom Dullemond stumbled out of university with a double degree in medieval/Renaissance studies and software engineering. One of those degrees got him a job, and he has been writing and working in IT ever since. Tom writes primarily short fiction across all genres, including literary fiction, and the occasional poem. He coauthored The Machine Who Was Also a Boy, the first in a series of philosophical fantasy adventures for middle-grade students, and lives in Australia with people who tolerate him despite his many adorable flaws.