Sir Danielle Longbow looked down at the world from high above. She saw the trees of Crann’s forests, the rivers, and streams. She saw the ocean in the east and the kingdoms to the south, the empire to the north.
Carved wooden castles like chess pieces sat on the map. Carved soldiers the length of her pinkie finger stood guard by each one. Crann’s soldiers were green. Imperial soldiers were red.
“Seeing how many there are of them like that,” Danielle said. “It’s a wonder we’re still here, your majesty.” She looked at the queen.
“The enemy outnumber us a thousand to one. That’s just the empire. The southern kingdoms are occupied defending their own borders just now. If it looks as though the fight has been knocked out of the emperor, they’ll look to expand their territory.”
“What do you have in mind, my queen?” Asked Lord Fabian Castel. He’d aged since he’d become engaged to the middle daughter of the southern King of Espadan. His yellow beard was peppered with grey. Crow’s feet were starting to claw at his eyes. Princess Alicia was said to have a fiery temper and hated the cold north.
“I want the southern kingdoms to retake Afon from the empire. I want Afon Fos to mark the south-western border of Crann. I’ll cede the rest to Sliabh in exchange for their help. The groundwork has already begun.” The queen’s brilliant brown eyes glowed with malice. “Our friends the curaduile have been planted across the border, along the southern shore of Border River. We’re going to have to think of a new name for it soon.”
“Elswyth? Did you know about this?” Danielle asked her friend, the curaduile.
The tree avatar nodded and smiled. The curaduile was the living image of Sir Longbow made of wood and leaves. Its spring leaf green eyes were warm as it looked to the queen.
“As Crann grows, we grow.” There was a sinister edge to the tree’s words as it looked at Danielle. For a moment the green eyes were more glittering glass than wooden.
“We made a deal with curaduile,” said Queen Elspeth. “We have both upheld the deal so far. Crann will continue to sponsor the growth of the curaduile. In return the curaduile will be the shield we need to protect us from the world.
When my sister was assassinated, we all assumed it was the empire. Sliabh and my mother’s oldest friend were responsible. We must make every alliance we can, and trust no one.”
Sir Longbow’s brow hurt from pressing together. “My queen, don’t those two things mean the opposite?”
“Consider our alliances business deals Sir Longbow. We need everyone looking at the empire to keep them from targeting us. We’ll shake all the hands we must. We will never turn our backs to them. No one will be given the chance to betray us again.”
Danielle looked at the prince consort, Carl. He’d been an imperial soldier just years before. That her trust was on a low eb as she recovered from bearing his child was an irony for the ages. Carl winked and threw Danielle a thumbs up as he patted the back of a sleeping Princess Fionnghal. The infant princess had the mixed blessing of being named after Queen Elspeth’s assassinated sister.
“Will I be part of the attack on Afon Fos, your majesty?” Sir Longbow asked.
“Not for a while.” Using a long stick, the queen tapped the ocean on the new map that covered the enormous table. “While the empire has been under constant attack along its land borders it has been gaining supremacy on the seas. What happens at the other end of the continent is of little consequence to me. The rapid construction of imperial navy ships along the empire’s north-eastern coastline is troubling.
Our alliance with the cenaga means they are bound to protect their lands, our shoreline. That obligation will seem less worth it if they end up finding it easier to fight us than an endless stream of imperial soldiers.”
“Have they complained?” Danielle realised her mistake and corrected after a pause. “My queen.” She bowed.
“Not in so many words. They requested weaponry in addition to the armour we provided for them months ago. That in itself says that they have been struggling. I visited their lands before I became pregnant.” Over the queen’s shoulder I saw Carl smiling with lecherous pride.
“There are enough imperial bodies swinging from the trees on the shoreline to take Crann twice. Naturally the cenaga gave no hint of their own losses but many I had spoken to previously were missing.
If we do not aid our allies, they will become our enemies.” The queen patted Elswyth on the shoulder. “That is where the curaduile come in again. The fletchers have prepared five thousand red arrows to be given to the cenaga. The next time the imperials land on Crann’s beaches they will become another wall of trees.”
“The queen is right,” said Filis Fronde, another curaduile avatar. “Curaduile trees only grow when they touch human blood or fire, therefore they are no threat to the cenaga. Here again, we are the solution to Crann’s problem.
Soon there will be no borders unguarded by the curaduile.”
“We are also sending the cenaga a shipment of the older fire lances and gunpowder. They will be trained to use them, and we intend to keep them well stocked with black powder. The cenaga wise one likes you. You will be among the six that deliver the weapons. You will show our friends that we do not let them down.”
“My queen, you mentioned the imperial fleet. What will we do about that?”
“Ah. When you deliver the weapons to the cenaga you will bring them my proposal of a land trade.”
“I want to build a port and hire boatbuilders. That is a long-term goal. To start we need access to the sea. We will give the cenaga land in Devil’s wood to equal everything that I’m asking for. It is all in the proposal. I will not force them. We need them as allies. I want you to tell them that a Cranner navy would reduce the attacks on their people.” Queen Elspeth handed Sir Longbow an envelope closed with the queen’s wax seal.
“When do I leave, my queen?” Danielle asked.
“Noon, if everything is as planned.” She looked at one of her servants, who nodded. “Noon. Come to me with their answer as soon as you can.”
“Yes, my queen.” She bowed to the monarch. “Good day to you, Prince Carl.”
“See you later Danielle, have fun.” Carl raised his voice to say, waking Princess Fionnghal, often known as Fi. “Shush now. Pappa is sorry. Shush.” He bounced the girl in her gold swaddling. The crying calmed as Danielle left the room.
Five thousand red arrows were more than she had imagined. Along with the guns it required several horse-drawn carts to carry the cargo out of the north gate. The horses clopped down the thin track to Frogmarsh village, over Frogmarsh stream. The trees of Devil’s Wood swallowed the path. In they went.
Driving the carts in front of her and behind were her friends Anne Hyland, Sir Euan Errol, Sir Aled Cadogan and Lord Fabian Castel. Filis Fronde was driving the last cart, which was a mystery to Danielle. The avatars of the carnivorous trees supposedly couldn’t travel far from their trees. She made a note to ask for an explanation when the chance arose.
At the edge of cenaga territory the six waited for a sign that they could proceed. One of the four legged creatures emerged from the shadows of the forest. It wore armour forged in Leonor. The serpentine eyes glanced down the line of carts. It waved a hand to let them pass.
“NOT EXACTLY CHATTY, ARE THEY?” Anne Hyland yelled.
“KEEP QUIET UNTIL WE KNOW WHY,” Danielle called back.
Takshanta, wise one of the cenaga awaited them as the carts stopped to unload their cargo.
“Wise one,” Sir Longbow briefly covered her eyes with her hands and bowed. “We’re here to help you defend your land. Are you well?”
“No. Ssssir Danielle. I am ssssick. I have been ssssick for weeks now and I fear it will get no better.” The long hissing sounds came with rattled breath. The blue feathers on the mighty creature’s antlers were sorrowful more than resplendent.
“Is there anything Crann can do to help, wise one?” She approached.
“It isss my time.” The serpentine centaur looked at its hands. “Too old. Too weak. Ssshame. I have ssseen hope in the bond between our people. I wanted to know what that bond could become. I am to wither before the flower bears fruit.
I am glad to sssee you. I hoped we would talk again before my end. Will you walk with me again?” The ancient creature gestured with a clawed hand at the path to the cenaga cave.
She nodded. Her pine green tabard flapped as she took long steps to keep up with Takshanta. “Anne, don’t piss anyone off until I get back.”
“What about Sir Errol?” Asked Miss Hyland in a stung tone.
“Just him then, be good.”
“Am I ever?” Anne asked.
The sound of Takshanta’s whispering breaths were painfully loud. Wheezing as he walked, he looked down at her. The slits of his eyes were widening as the light faded.
“Ssshe needs fire,” said the wise one to a soldier in armour by the mouth of the cave. Danielle imagined a man on a horse. Men on horses didn’t have antlers though, or eyes the size of cannon balls.
As a younger cenaga the soldier cupped its hands over its eyes to show respect for Takshanta. It passed a lit torch to Danielle. Light fell upon the columns of skulls again. They were as ominous as they had been the first time. Thousands of human skulls worked into the wall of the cave. On and on.
They took the middle path when the cave forked.
“Wise one, what is down the other paths?” Danielle asked.
“Death, little one. Certain death.” Takshanta showed the glint of his predator’s teeth.
On went the walls of skulls.
“Why do you choose to talk to me?” Danielle asked.
“Becaussse you lisssten. You were ssscared of usss before, but you were open. Our people need to be open to each other to avoid war. That isss my problem now. My successor doesss not like humansss. You mussst win him over before I die.” The feet of the old cenaga were dragging as he walked. His voiced echoed off the skulls and stone of the cave walls. His tail left a trail in the dust and dirt on the cave floor. He smelled as if he was already rotting.
“What can you tell me about him?”
“He isss angry. Many of hisss family were killed by invaders on the beach.”
“Crann is grateful for the sacrifices the cenaga have made. We came today to give your people more advanced weapons to defend yourselves. The empire is a threat to us all.”
“You mussst convince him of that. Bessst to do it today. I don’t know how many daysss I have left.” Takshanta coughed. He spat phlegm onto the cave floor. Danielle avoided the mucus that glistened in the orange light of her torch.
Eventually they arrived at the shanty town where many of the cenaga lived in the darkness. All cenaga covered their eyes with their hands briefly as their wise one passed.
“You are the human wise one Takshanta saysss I am to meet.” A more colourful cenaga gave lip service to the act of respect, flashing his hands over his eyes.
Danielle covered her eyes with her hands and bowed to him. “I am Sir Danielle Longbow, here on behalf of Queen Elspeth. I have come with weapons for the cenaga to use against their enemies.”
Takshanta’s successor sneered. All of the colours of his scales were more vivid than that of the wise one. The greens were deeper. His eyes were fiery gold with onyx slits. His antlers were brown where Takshanta’s were turning grey.
“What if the people of Crann are our enemiesss?”
“Why would anyone break the Peace of the Forest?” She asked, referencing the pact that meant the people of Crann left the cenaga alone and the cenaga defended the coast from any invaders.
“Becaussse there hasss been no peace. Cenaga are dying. We do not breed like vermin as humansss do.” Danielle wondered if he was showing his teeth on purpose as he spoke. His tongue lashed whenever he hissed an s.
“The people of Crann have been decimated by war with the Empire of the Holy Proclamation. Most of our men were slaughtered in the first battle with imperial forces. We know the pain of loss. We have had to rebuild Leonor after it was torched by the invaders. Do not mistake us for them.”
“You? Them? Humansss. There is no difference.”
Danielle’s jaw clenched. The people of Crann being compared to the empire on its path of genocide was bringing a flush of rage to her cheeks. “The empire will kill anyone who isn’t blue eyed and yellow haired. Do I have blue eyes? Is my hair yellow? They kill their own if they aren’t born looking the way they want them to. If they cannot tolerate humans that do not fit their idea of perfection, do you think they will make an exception for cenaga?” Her voice was barrelling off the walls of the cavern as she shouted.
“They come for you and kill usss,” snarled the heir to the wise one’s blue feathers.
“The empire has been waging war with every nation along its borders for decades. Thanks to Crann and the cenaga it has finally come to a halt. My people have sacrificed their lives by the thousand so that there would be another day for their families. We have turned the tide.
Guns and magic are the new weapons against the empire. We have brought you guns. We can teach you magic.”
“WE KNOW MAGIC,” hissed the successor with red feathers tied to his antlers. “WE KNOW BETTER THAN TO USE IT.”
“Magic is the only reason you’re not facing the full might of the empire already. Crann was saved by spells using sacrifice against the enemy. Without that the empire would have poured into these caves. They would have choked you with their numbers and drowned you in their blood.
Do you know of the siaraduile?”
“The trees? What about them?”
“Do you know about the curaduile?”
“The cursed trees. They only attack humans.”
“Exactly!” Danielle smiled, clapping her hands together. “To you, the wood of curaduile is just wood. To our enemies it is a curse that consumes them. We have used it in battle to decimate imperial soldiers. We turned them into a wall of warrior trees that defends us from the invaders.”
“Good for you,” growled the cenaga with red feathered antlers.
“We have five thousand curaduile arrows for you. We have fire lances for you. I’m sure you have faced fire lances in battle. They go bang and shoot metal balls? Now you can return that pain upon our enemies.”
“How can I believe any of this?” Asked the hostile cenaga.
“Come to the surface and see with your own eyes. I will bleed to prove my words to you.”
The wise one and his successor followed Danielle to the surface. She introduced them to Filis Fronde. The curaduile avatar carried a cutting from her own tree in one hand the whole time, the only reason she could be there with them.
Sir Longbow led them to the beach.
Skeletons of imperial soldiers swung from the trees in their armour. Wind whistled through helmets on pikes above the tideline.
Holding a red arrow, she turned to face Takshanta and his people.
“You’ve bled to defend your land. You’ve bled for your people, and for mine. Now I’ll bleed for you.” She pointed to a chip of wood behind the arrowhead. “This is curaduile wood.”
She dragged the point of the arrow along her left palm. Blood dripped from the tiny cut. Red rolled down steel to the red dyed wood.
Her friends gasped.
The wood began to twist. Tendrils of a sapling reached up the arrowhead. Drinking up the blood, the arrow splintered. The shaft fell away.
Danielle dropped the tiny plant into the grasses that marked the edge of the dunes and the start of the forest. Her palm stung as she squeezed the wound. Blood dripped. The plant, lost in the grass, kept growing before her eyes.
“Do you trust me?” Sir Longbow asked.
“Will you bleed for me?”
Anne looked at every face around her as she considered the question. “A little.”
“A little is all I need.” Danielle’s hand waved Miss Hyland over. She gave a knife from her belt to her friend.
Screwing up her face Miss Hyland jabbed herself with the point of the blade and dripped the blood over the lashing plant at her feet.
“I’m next,” said Lord Fabian Castel. He drew his own knife as Anne stepped aside. She gave the chiselled warrior a flirtatious grin which turned to a grimace as she held her injured hand. “For our friends, the cenaga. And our friends, the curaduile.”
Each knight bled until the sapling was knee high.
“Friends?” Danielle asked, offering her bleeding hand to the cenaga who would become wise one.
With one eye on the plant swaying in the sea breeze, the suspicious cenaga shook her hand. “Allies.”
“That’ll do. For now.”