James Ariodontes grinned as he hurriedly carried the potted plant out behind his small stone cottage. An Acralosa tree, all the way from the Eastern seas! James’ father had traded for it during his recent journey to town, some twenty miles distant. The stories said that Acralosa grew to be the oldest, biggest trees in the world, but James had never expected to be able to plant his own!
Once he found a good spot in the meadow behind his home, James began to dig a hole for his tree. It took him all morning, working with his little spade to chop through roots and fling soil, but finally he had a space large enough for the sapling.
Just as he was placing it in the hole, a voice called out.
“Hold on a minute, James!” His father, Gaius, walked up and inspected the hole. “Not bad, but it needs more space.”
“More space! But I spent all morning digging already.” James whined.
Gaius grinned. “I’ll take a turn, if you want. Your tree will suffocate if we squeeze it in that tiny hole, it needs room to breathe.” He picked up the spade, and made quick work where James had struggled. Soon, they had cleared a larger hole, and gently settled the sapling inside it. James hurried to grab some shovelfuls of manure from the goat pen next to their house, and they tamped the soil around the tree.
They stood looking at the little tree for a moment, before Gaius clapped his son on the shoulder. “I was told this type of tree takes lifetimes to grow. Maybe by the time you’re grown up, it’ll be as big as the rest of the forest. Let’s leave it alone, and grab something to eat!”
James grinned and followed his father back to their tiny cottage, but he glanced over his shoulder at the tree. He sure hoped it would grow soon.
“Come on, I want to show you something.” Luca whispered excitedly. He grabbed Gloria’s hand and led her through the manor, away from the large party celebrating another successful harvest. Their feet scarcely made a whisper of sound on the rugs adorning the carved stone, and nobody spied their passing. They hastened through the garden and beyond the stone walls, to where a giant tree shaded a grassy meadow. They walked around behind it, and he patted the rough bark.
“My great-grandfather Eandorus carved his initials here with his wife Juno when they got married. The tree was a lot smaller then, and so was our manor. It was just a simple stone house at that point; can you imagine? Anyway, I think it was his grandfather who planted it. See there, EA and JA? They were the first to put their initials here, way back during the reign of King Randolf, but whenever someone in the family gets married, they get to add their names.”
“That’s really neat, Luca.” Gloria’s eyes shone. “But…why are you showing me this now?”
Luca slowly knelt in the grass, grinning up at her. He pulled a silver ring from his pocket, and held it aloft. “Because, I want us to be the next couple who carves our names here. Gloria Satimo, will you marry me?”
Titus held back tears as he walked through the meadow, forcing himself to not look back over his shoulder. He knew what he would see; the crumbling house, holding the ghosts of his lineage. Through countless generations, the Ariodontes family had expanded and maintained their spacious woodland manor. But now, Titus was the last. He was too old and infirm to keep it on his own, and he had failed to produce children to take care of it after him.
He walked up to the ancient Acralosa tree, patting its bark one last time. He had no family to bury him, so he was going to go walking, and keep walking until he could go no farther. Then perhaps he would finally have rest.
Groaning with age and weariness, he pulled his trusty knife from its sheath and reached up to an empty space in the bark. Countless marks and signs showed where his ancestors had carved their names, pledging themselves to their spouses, or memorializing children who had died. Titus laboriously dug the sharp metal into the bark, and slowly added his initials to the list. When he finished, he scratched three sharp lines underneath, indicating an ending.
The tears came freely now, as he stepped back and gazed for the final time upon his family’s lineage, their history. There would be no more names carved here. Titus turned and fled into the woods, weeping. He never returned there.
Thunder crashed, deafening the men as the flash of light faded. The storm was right on top of them, and rain washed down in torrential sheets. Marcus looked around frantically, but all he saw were more trees. No caves, no overhangs. Certainly no people, not this far out in the wilderness. His brother Zane lagged a few steps behind, trudging slowly through the mud. They needed shelter soon, before their exhaustion overtook them. If one of them got sick out here, this hunting trip would turn from bad to disastrous.
Suddenly, Marcus was blinded by a bright flash of light exploding around them, and he screamed at the roar of energy in his ears. He pitched forward into the mud, and when he stood up groggily several minutes later and wiped his eyes, he saw Zane laying motionless behind him. With a cry, he grabbed his brother, heaving him upright. Zane’s eyes were closed, and he didn’t respond when Marcus shouted, so after a minute Marcus slung his arms over his shoulders and half-dragged, half-carried Zane through the forest.
He didn’t make it far before exhaustion overtook him. Marcus stumbled to his knees, letting Zane slide off his back. Panting, shivering in the continuing downpour, he glanced blearily around him, before suddenly realizing that there was a giant tree nearby, with an enormous crack running up the middle of it. Groaning, he lifted himself to his feet again and dragged his brother behind him. He pulled the two of them into the hollow of the tree, and it suddenly seemed like they were in another world. The inside was dry, if not very warm, and the storm felt like a distant worry.
Zane barely fit inside, but Marcus maneuvered him until he was laying down safely, and crawled in after him. Weariness overtook him almost immediately, and the storm faded completely from his mind.
Marcus knelt in the dirt, tears pouring down his face. Zane had barely survived a day, never awakening before he passed away. Marcus had laid his brother’s body in place as well as he could, resting on his back with his hunting knife grasped on his chest, and his bow and quiver next to him, before blocking the crack with stones. He’d carved a simple message on the bark near the crack in the tree, in case someone else ever saw this tomb.
22nd Year of King Adolphus
Serve the gods in death, as you did in life.
After saying a final prayer, he left his brother’s grave. Nearby stone ruins poked around the trees, and he’d seen other carvings on the tree’s bark, faint and indiscernible. If there were any ghosts here, he hoped they would welcome Zane as one of their own.
Phillip leaned on his walking staff and grinned. This place was perfect. A small, grassy meadow, surrounded by a thick, healthy forest. In the center of the meadow, an enormous tree stretched far above its surrounding brethren. Phillip furrowed his brow as he stared up at its leafy height. It almost looked like an Acralosa tree, like he’d seen in his travels far to the East, but why would there be one here?
Shrugging, he walked over to the edge of the meadow, and tripped over something in the grass. He bent down, and uncovered an old bit of stone, nearly sunk into the soil. Nearby, other stones lay in an odd line, jagged corners poking just above the ground, barely visible now when he peered closely. Phillip grinned as he realized he was not the first who sought to call this place home.
He walked up to the enormous tree, noting that there was a giant crack on one side, partially filled with rocks. Smiling, he patted the rough bark gently.
“You’ve probably seen a lot, haven’t you? Whoever was here before, give them my thanks. I think they planted you, whoever they were, and the sight of you is what brought me to this part of the forest. I’m going to bring my family here, and we’re going to start our life fresh. I hope you’re around to watch over us as well.”
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