Prince Aretas, son of the Ever-Hungry Queen, had gone into the forest. Yarchuse knew the truth even before ae coaxed the story from the prince’s bootprints bruising dry earth. Ae shivered, hand splayed above the trail. Dammit.
Ae heard the prince’s naïve belief etched into his tracks: I can end this war without more death. I will speak to the Heart of the Forest and find peace.
You foolish child, Yarchuse thought, clenching aer jaw against a spurt of panic. The forest would never relent, just as the queen would never cease her war. Yarchuse was weary and yet ae would serve until death or an end found aer.
“He left before dawn,” Yarchuse said, exhaling slow. “He would have reached the forest by now.”
“Did no one witness my son?” the Ever-Hungry Queen said, her voice a crack of stone and air. “Why was he not stopped?”
Yarchuse stepped forward before the queen’s wroth spilled across the soldiers and courtiers who waited in rigid silence along the poet wall. “Majesty,” ae said, “the blame is mine. His Highness asked for his breath to be sung into the barricade.” Ae tilted aer hand at the shimmering wall rising into the dawn-streaked sky around the camp. “I thought it was a precaution should he need to flee—”
The Ever-Hungry Queen’s teeth flashed as her lips peeled back in rage. “Tomeslinger, I want my son back. Alive.”
Yarchuse weathered the queen’s fury easier than her soldiers would. Ae was not one she could kill in a moment’s passion. Ae kept aer expression impassive. “We will get him back, Majesty.”
Ae bowed, spinning a handful of soothing words—ease be with you, let your blood calm, breathe free—between aer fingers. Ae slipped the spell with careful precision around the Ever-Hungry Queen’s ankle, where the magic would spiral up her limb and seep unnoticed into her heart. It was a familiar habit for Yarchuse now, even if it had become more and more difficult in recent years. Since the princess’s death, the queen had calcified herself, allowing only her rage to burn.
“You have until dusk, tomeslinger.” The threat in her voice was expected and yet held far more weight and promise of retribution if ae failed.
Yarchuse straightened, uneasy and masking aer mood with a brush of words: chill lake water untouched by wind.
Kel, aer closest friend, was on the other side of the camp feeding. Yarchuse resisted calling on her for support. Ae would not appear weak before the queen’s anger.
The Ever-Hungry Queen whirled in a blaze of armored silk and tomeslung shield-beads. She stalked through the gate, her entourage at her heels. The soldiers who had been on dark-sky duty exhaled and bowed to Yarchuse in gratitude. Ae waved them back to their posts. Everyone was exhausted from the long, unyielding campaign.
And the prince, though his mother was unaware, was skilled in earth-warding magic of his own. With the poet wall spun to allow him to pass unchallenged, Aretas could have lulled the moors to hide him as he crept down the sloping hill towards the great forest. Yarchuse silently berated aerself. When Aretas had asked for access to the wall, ae had not thought the prince would be such a fool.
“Attir,” Yarchuse said to the chief earth-warden scout, who stood unmoved by the gate. “Take the raptors and see if you can discern where the prince is in the forest. Hurry.”
The woman saluted.
Yarchuse believed the boy lived, for the forest was not subtle when it tasted victory. If Aretas was dead, all in the queen’s camp would have heard the trees’ triumph. How long the prince would survive was not a question Yarchuse could answer, and ae feared it would be too damningly short. If the prince died, so would ae—in her grief, the queen would turn her army against Yarchuse aerself, and even ae could not win such a battle.
Yarchuse D’Maatone, elite tomeslinger in the Tenth Regiment of Acumen Scrolls, Slayer of the White Sorrow, Champion of Urantanadon, was not certain ae would have the courage to submit aerself to such a death. Aer cowardice would mean slaughtering aer own followers in self-defense, until ae were nevertheless overwhelmed and murdered. Ae prayed silently to the Unearthly Library: Grant me courage and wisdom to fulfill my duty. Let this day not end in more blood.
• • • •
The Ever-Hungry Queen first began her insatiable war against the trees after her first-born daughter was crushed under a willow tree while hunting fox. It had been three years ago. Yarchuse had returned from cleansing the city of Urantanadon from the whisper-rot only to attend the heir apparent’s funeral.
“It was an accident,” the princess’s bodyguard said before he was executed. “The tree moved to protect the fox and she wouldn’t back down.”
Yarchuse offered to read the place of the princess’s death, but the queen refused. “There is nothing a plant can tell that will return my daughter’s life. Burn it all,” she ordered. “All the trees in all my lands will pay for what we have lost.”
So Yarchuse had shouldered aer newest mantle and led the wardens and aer fellow tomeslingers on the Great Uprooting. The Worded City was razed of greenery; the gardens burned; the markets were allowed harvested vegetation only if it was on the edge of rotting. Yarchuse still tasted the acrid smoke in aer throat long after. The Queen did not listen to the protests of the gardeners and the alchemists who worried that the purge of flora would harm the people.
When the Worded City was stripped of plant life, the war boiled outward. Trees fled but were cut down and burned regardless. Yarchuse did not relish this work, but ae obeyed. The irony that aer tome’s base elements were made from wood-pulp paper and vellum was not lost on Yarchuse. Ae hoped that when enough forests burned, the Ever-Hungry Queen would relent and turn her focus elsewhere.
But she had not.
And now, on the edge of the moors, the last bastion of the forests gathered in defense. Behind the trees lay the ocean, unwelcoming of earth-born flesh or root. It would end here, somehow.
• • • •
Yarchuse shielded aer eyes with aer hand, squinting against the midday sun. Bone-speared birch warriors and hulking oak berserkers were just visible on the crest of the moor. A thousand thousand trees ready for war. Attir should be back by now.
Beside aer, the apex raptor Kel let out an impatient huff. She canted her head sideways and looked down with a slitted gray eye. Wood burns whether alive or dead, she signed. Her huge foreclaws flashed with silver scrolling. We should attack now!
“The fire wardens are still spent,” Yarchuse said, sharper than ae meant.
Then we go without. The apex raptor stood nearly sixty hands tall at the peak of her skull, radiant with a turquoise and scarlet crest, the plumage about her neck undulating into spilled-oil shimmers. Sling-forged armor protected the contours of her sleek, powerfully muscled body. You and I, she said, we are death.
Ae forced a pinched smile. She would have smelled aer emotion if ae hadn’t limed aer own body with a scentless mask. Kel’s strength wasn’t reading human facial expressions.
Together they had won a dozen battles at the behest of the Ever-Hungry Queen. Yarchuse had ridden with Kel into war, aer flesh arm raised in challenge, coiling and spinning destruction carved from syllables between aer fingers. The exhilaration had always been flush and wild in aer heart: the thrill of victory as enemy soldiers fell before aer and Kel. Ae felt invincible, commanding aer magic and bolstered by the great apex raptor.
Now, ae couldn’t attack without risking Prince Aretas’s life.
The prince was a fool, and to the Ever-Hungry Queen, that fool was worth more than the lives of her entire army. The prince’s spelled armor would protect him for a time, but eventually words would crack under root and bough and thorn.
They stood on the edge of the slope rising to the camp, a dozen paces outside the poet wall. The wall was a practical, unadorned barrier: spun from defensive words, solid and unremarkable, yet strong enough to withstand siege. It was nothing like the elegant arches and spires of the Worded City, the complex algorithmic weaves of architecture slung from Words of creation and strength. Ae missed home with a sudden, sharp pang.
Kel let out a low clicking sound, startling Yarchuse from aer anxious thought-spirals. Ae looked at the raptor.
The scouts are returning, she signed. Look.
The trio of earth wardens galloped across the dip of land between where the forest rose and the next great hill the camp was built upon. The human wardens rode tomeslung raptors—creatures little bigger than ponies, in the shape of Kel and crafted from her essence by Yarchuse’s power, but spun from letters and words of stealth, speed, stamina.
Attir swung down from her spelled raptor and bowed, first to Yarchuse and then to Kel. “Tomeslinger. General.”
Kel lowered her head, jaws wide, and Attir’s mount placed its muzzle on her tongue. She licked the layer of ink from its constructed snout. Kel’s chest rumbled as she swallowed the memory of what the smaller raptor had observed.
“His Highness’ trail leads to the trees,” Attir said. She wiped sweat from her face, still breathing hard. “From what I could feel through the soil, he’s alive but he’s deep. I . . .” She shuddered, a whole-body tremble that made Yarchuse flinch in sympathy. “There’s something old in there, your Excellency. I don’t know what it is.”
Kel suddenly reared back, snapping her head up and clacking her jaws together. The tomeslung-raptors skittered away, silent.
“What’s wrong?” Yarchuse asked, fear sharp under aer tongue. Ae rarely saw Kel in distress, and never outside battle.
She shook her head, her neck raised so she didn’t swat Yarchuse or Attir flat with her might. It wants you, she signed, and her claws moved almost too quickly for Yarchuse to follow. It calls you poison and it wants.
She stamped one hind foot and the ground trembled. Attir’s eyes widened in panic. The other two wardens slid down from their raptors, heads bowed in wary submission.
“Calm yourselves,” Yarchuse said, holding up aer hand. “Kel, show me.”
The great apex raptor snarled but lowered her jaw again and Yarchuse touched aer palm against her heavy lip, the ridge of her teeth sharp against aer skin. She unspooled the impressions she had swallowed in a breath and Yarchuse inhaled sight and weighted understanding.
The residue spins images of burning forests, ax-felled groves, wood broken apart and left to rot unsanctified. Above the carnage looms an astral human figure wreathed in death: Yarchuse D’Maatone, a scion of un-mercy unleashed against nature. The vision is Yarchuse when in war: with radiant ceremonial armor and a flesh-wrapped tome hung from aer belt, words of malice curled between aer fingers. Yet as the forest sees ae, aer eyes are pitted hollows and aer teeth like saws. Ae breaks the boughs of fallen saplings under heel and rips foliage from branch with vicious spells.
Ae yanked aer hand away from Kel’s lip and shuddered.
Ancestral ballads, Yarchuse thought in horror. Is that what the trees imagine me?
“Inform Her Majesty the prince is alive,” ae said, aer voice hoarse. With effort, ae straightened and infused aer tone with confidence and authority ae did not feel. “But do not reveal anything else as of yet.”
“Excellency?” one of the scouts asked, her brows crinkled together in worry. “We can’t lie—”
“I don’t ask that,” Yarchuse said. If it was ae the forest wanted, then it was ae the forest would receive. Ae just needed to buy aerself time to forge a rescue, somehow. “I will see the prince returned alive and unharmed, but Her Majesty must stay within the walls until then. Do you understand?”
The scouts couldn’t, not with so vague a promise, but they were not about to defy Yarchuse’s command. The wardens saluted; the raptors bobbed their heads.
Ae gestured the gate open with a quick-thrown word of parting, and the poet wall rippled open to let the wardens and their raptors through. “Attir, wait a moment.”
Attir remained with her feet planted firm. “Your Excellency?”
Kel huffed in rage, her feathers smoothing down along her ruff as Yarchuse placed aer hand on her flank. Her plumage hid aer trembling fingers.
“Bring me my armor,” ae said. “I am going into the forest.”
• • • •
Yarchuse’s mail coat hung heavier than ae liked, weighted with a construct-arm to give aer a symmetrical appearance. Ae tied the delicately worded strings in the construct, then flexed aer second arm. It glimmered chiaroscuro and the fingers were equipped with retractable knives like claws.
The sunlight dazzled across Kel’s armor and feathers. Her swaying gait devoured the distance between the Ever-Hungry Queen’s camp and the edge of the forest. She’d argued with aer, but only briefly. By the time Attir had returned with Yarchuse’s armor, informing ae that the wardens were on their way to report to the queen, Kel had accepted Yarchuse’s plan.
“Send our demand, Attir,” ae said, looking down from where they rose atop Kel’s mighty back, aer legs on either side of her thick neck at the slope of shoulders.
Kel halted, the vibration of her unsettled growl shivering through Yarchuse’s limbs. Ae gripped the thick feathers at the base of her neck for support.
The warden swung off her mount, knelt, and pressed her hands into the grass. Yarchuse’s demand was simple: Ae would offer aerself to the forest in exchange for Prince Aretas, alive and unharmed. The wind bowed the moorland grass and carried the scent of far-off rain. Time stretched unbearably slow.
Then Attir jerked to her feet, wincing. “It’s agreed, your Excellency. The forest will give up His Highness if you surrender.”
The warden spread her arms and a low grumbling in the soil rippled outward, a new wave through the grass until it reached the trees.
Yarchuse slid down from Kel’s back, steadying aerself with aer hand on her side. Aer heartbeat tripped rapidly against aer breastbone.
You need not be alone, Kel signed.
“I know,” Yarchuse murmured. “But I must. I need you to protect Aretas.”
She snarled. He is not worth your life.
“My life is worth peace,” ae said softly. Ae clung to this conviction, all ae had now. She lowered her muzzle and pressed the bridge of her nose against aer chest. Yarchuse wrapped aer arm around her head in a hug. “You give me strength, friend.”
Kel purred, a rumble through her chest and into her teeth and Yarchuse shut aer eyes a moment as ae held her. Neither of them had ever been able to say farewells.
Yarchuse started and let aer arm drop to aer side. Kel straightened.
The prince stepped out of the forest, naked and glistening with dew. He trembled but didn’t stumble as he walked. His body was whole: pale skin unbruised, hair tangled in golden curls, brown eyes wide and damp and unafraid. Even at this distance, Yarchuse saw no cause for alarm.
Kel huffed. Her ruff flared in anger. She tapped code with her hind toes so only Yarchuse would hear. That’s not the prince.
“What?” Yarchuse pitched aer voice low, muting sudden panic.
Look closer. He smells of not-flesh.
Yarchuse kept aer flesh arm by aer side and inconspicuously wove a mirror between aer fingers. Ae looked into the spelled glass, tilted towards the naked prince, and saw she spoke true.
In the magic, the prince’s bones were willow fonds, his veins sap, his heart a knot of tangled bloodwood. The illusion was unlike anything Yarchuse had ever witnessed. The magic in aer hand cracked, strobing between what was true and what was meant: wood, flesh, leaf, marrow. Ae would have bought into the false prince’s illusion, and even now, ae still wanted to believe this was the Queen-Regent’s son, alive and unharmed, offered in good faith for aer life. The magic in the construct was powerful indeed.
I will destroy this forest, Kel snarled, the thump of her claws nearly overwhelmed by her guttural rumble.
“No!” Yarchuse dissipated the mirror and laid aer hand on her flank. Ae didn’t try to conceal aer own trembling. “Listen. This not-prince is meant as a decoy, but if we show we know it to be false, the boy will die. He must be alive still. Protect this construct and forestall the queen’s wrath. Please, my friend. Buy me time to save His Highness.”
For you, my heart, she said, with the slow, deliberateness of a death knell, I will rip every plant from its roots until the world is naught but stone and kindling.
Yarchuse smiled despite aer knotted stomach and the rapidity of aer heartbeat. “I know.”
Attir pulled a robe from her raptor’s saddlebag and held it ready.
Yarchuse sent a silent prayer to the Unearthly Library, aer spiritual anchor. Ae had entered the ethereal place of wisdom when ae undertook aer tomeslinger trial to be admitted into the Tenth Regiment of Acumen Scrolls. It had been the most beautiful thing Yarchuse had ever beheld, for the Library contained all the souls of every book, and they shone with the incandescent radiance and power only words could display. When ae died, aer body would be composed into a book and aer soul shelved in the Library beside legends. But only if ae died with honor, unbroken, and aer remains returned to the Worded City. Yarchuse did not know what magic saturated the old forest, or how that would taint aer spirit in death.
Yarchuse stepped forward.
The rustle-creak of leaf and bough from the tree soldiers was too loud to ignore. Yarchuse swallowed, aer throat dry and raspy. For all aer power, ae was still human and fragile in comparison to the trees.
Huge birch warriors, white-barked and studded with thorns from their briar kin, shook spears of bone and rust-salvaged iron. The massive oak berserkers, crowned in bloody foliage, rumbled and thumped their roots like drums. The forest peeled aside to create a tunnel into the ranks, the ground flattened smoother than marble. It looked like a great maw opened into the belly of death.
Yarchuse glanced over aer shoulder just before ae was within reach of the trees. Kel stood unmoved, her great form a silhouette under the sun. The false prince bowed to the raptor, who inclined her head in return. Attir wrapped the robe about the boy’s frame. Then the false prince pulled himself up onto Kel’s back, unhesitant and familiar—so like Aretas had done countless times past. Kel didn’t move.
Yarchuse looked forward and stepped into the forest.
The trees did not look at Yarchuse as ae marched deeper into their midst. Towering trunks and canopied foliage let in only the faintest slivers of light, enough for aer eyes to adjust. Deeper ae trod, and ae felt more than saw the trees closing rank behind aer. There would be no retreat.
The air weighed heavy against Yarchuse’s senses. There was age here, wisdom and emotion so deep it was all but unknowable. Aer breath came with effort. There seemed to be no end to the forest. Would ae walk forever and never find what ae sought?
“I know your illusion,” Yarchuse called. There was no echo to aer voice. “I know the prince is still here. Deliver him to me unharmed. We can come to a truce!”
The trees fanned out into a circular grove open to the sky, and Yarchuse stepped into the clearing. The movement of bough and trunk had been so smooth, so subtle, ae was momentarily dizzy at the sudden change in the woods. At once Yarchuse saw the lost prince: still in armor, lying in a bed of soft green moss. Aretas’ chest rose and fell in easy sleep.
Standing to the side and towering over the prince was an ancient tree of no determinate species. Their bark was like the starless sky, their leaves as silver as moonlight, and their branches were limned with runes in the language of trees. The Heart of the Forest.
Deathsinger, the Heart said, their vibration-song felt in bone and soul alike.
Yarchuse gasped, the weight of the Heart’s scrutiny buckling aer knees. Loam and shed bark bit into aer kneecaps. Ae struggled to keep aer construct arm raised, the tomeslung magic flaring out in a domed shield. The Heart of the Forest stood unmoved and unimpressed.
“You offered a falsehood,” ae said. “I’ve seen through your illusion prince. Release His Highness and take me in his place.”
“Do not make me hurt you,” Yarchuse said. Ae readied aer magic, spells of lightning and steel, heat and ice.
You have harmed all my kind enough, the Heart said, and fury thickened their voice until its power crashed upon Yarchuse in a moon-towed wave. Ae flinched and focused on aer shield, fear flaring bright in aer mind.
With a mighty crack like the shattering of the land’s bones, the Heart’s power rent Yarchuse’s asunder. Ae was flung backwards into the moss-sheathed stones. Breath whooshed from aer lungs, and then pain filled aer ribs in place of air. Yarchuse gasped. White and silver bands flared across aer eyes.
The Heart snapped its woody vines like whips, and the flora wrapped about Yarchuse’s arm and waist and throat, lifting aer off the ground. Pressure closed about aer neck and middle, and Yarchuse frantically redirected aer focus to aer armor under the vines’ grip.
“Your illusioned prince will not last,” Yarchuse said, panting. As hard as ae struggled, ae could not even loosen the vines’ grip on aer body. “It is folly—”
Is it? The Heart lifted Yarchuse until ae was face-to-face before the ancient forest. Long have I called to the sapling, and he came. We offered him rest and he accepted. He believes it is his duty to die here so this destruction will end.
Shock jolted through Yarchuse. Ae sensed no lies from the Heart. Ae glanced once more at the sleeping prince, prone and peaceful in the loam. Ae had always thought Aretas idealistic but good-hearted, one who knew what his duty was and was unafraid to uphold it. He had grown bolder after the death of his sister. On his seventeenth year this spring, when he had come of age, he had gone to the fleshsingers, mages who specialized in healing, and requested they reshape his body to minimize his breasts and pronounce his genitals to better suit his chosen gender.
Yarchuse had accompanied Aretas, for ae had always been like an elder cousin to the queen’s children. The joy in the prince’s eyes when he woke from the surgical trance had made Yarchuse’s heart swell in pride. Later, at dinner, Aretas spoke to Yarchuse alone. “I want this war to end,” he declared. “I will accompany you until my mother relents.”
And so he had, challenging the queen’s orders and mingling with the soldiers and the raptors, pleading his views of a better world. It had not stopped the Ever-Hungry Queen’s campaign. Even Yarchuse could not sway her, although ae had never tried—even when the prince begged aer to try.
If ae had used aer voice instead of aer magic, could ae have prevented this in the first place? Spared Aretas from believing he had to die to stop his mother’s war?
“He is not responsible for this,” Yarchuse said.
The Heart threw Yarchuse to the ground, and ae tumbled. A rock bashed aer shin, sending pain flaring up aer leg even through the armor. The padded spells absorbed most of the impact so ae didn’t shatter aer spine on impact.
Who, then? You, deathsinger? Only your saplings seek peace, while your thick trunked elders remain unbending.
Yarchuse swallowed against panic. “Not all of us.”
Your song is empty, singer-of-death. When your monarch embraces the illusion in her court, it will take her life, said the Heart. As she has taken the lives of so many.
“There’s another answer,” Yarchuse said, shakily pushing aerself to aer knees. “We can stop this slaughter.”
When did your queen stop, even after we offered our sibling in sacrifice for what was lost? She burned innocents and younglings who had done no harm!
“I know,” Yarchuse said, and the admission ripped at aer gut, all the guilt ae had repressed for so many years rising like bile. The fight fled aer body and ae slumped back on aer heels. Ae did not try to stop aer tears. “I was wrong. She’s wrong. All of us who participated in this war, we were misguided and I can never atone for the life lost.”
The Heart lashed their vines but did not strike Yarchuse this time. Their anger shook the ground. Speak then, deathsinger.
Yarchuse shut aer eyes and with effort, withdrew all aer magic. Aer armor faded into unfortified cloth. The tomeslung words flaked away like dead scales from aer skin, leaving aer mortal body exposed and vulnerable. Ae shivered as the damp, heavy air from the deep forest chilled the sweat on aer body.
“Keep the flesh prince here and do not kill the Ever-Hungry Queen,” Yarchuse said, and ae felt the Heart’s fury build, mingled with aer own deep guilt. Ae did not wish to leave the prince here, and yet, it had been his choice. Yarchuse could not steal that from him when ae had done nothing to support his cause. “Let your wooden prince be a proxy. So long as it lives, so does the flesh prince. You and the queen will each hold a piece of the other’s heart. As long as there is peace between root and bone, neither prince will come to harm. The queen loves her son and she will relent her destruction rather than hold another funeral.”
Slowly, Yarchuse opened aer eyes and looked up at the Heart. The great being’s vines folded back against their darkened bark.
And how long do you believe such peace will last? Fleshroots do not have the years as the forest does.
“But you do remember, and humans can, too,” Yarchuse said. Each breath ae took felt like a small victory. Ae lifted aer hand in supplication. “I will create mirror robes for your prince, which will show our Aretas, a constant reminder to my queen and my people. I cannot give you back the lives lost under fire and ax. I can pull the words sewn in the earth so that your roots may take hold again and not crumble. It will take time.”
And when it is done, what have my woods gained but fear for our lives if we return to your lands, to your cities? The Heart stretched out a bough, branches tipped and shaped like fingers. Bark paused a breath from Yarchuse’s chin. We cleanse your air and give you sustenance. For ages past we sheltered and harbored your people. We asked for naught, yet you took and took, and when my kin defended our cousins of fur, you turned upon us all. What promise can you make that it will not happen again?
“I have no answer,” Yarchuse said. Ae bowed aer head. “I’m culpable in this destruction and I can’t ask forgiveness for what I’ve done.”
Ae breathed in slowly. The fear had faded into dull heartache. How many lives could have been spared if ae had not been a coward and had defied the Ever-Hungry Queen’s war-lust from the onset? Ae was the most powerful tomeslinger in the land. Ae could have prevented so much carnage, and ae had not. It was a guilt ae would never undo or repay.
“If you require my death, so be it. I ask only that you give me time to unmake the ruined earth and I will return to you when finished and you may do unto me as you see fit.” Yarchuse swallowed. “I give you my word.”
The Heart’s branch-palm lifted aer chin and ae stared up at the great tree. I see truth in your words.
Yarchuse held still, waiting. In all aer life, refusing to fight or defend aerself now was the hardest battle ae had ever fought.
A shallow gasp heralded the prince’s awakening. He sat up slowly, blinking and gazing about in awe.
We will regrow, the Heart said, and perhaps in the seasons that come, your people will as well.
“I hope so,” Yarchuse said.
Your prince will stay, and he will be treated with honor, as one of our kin.
Aretas inhaled and bowed his head. It was as if he had heard the entire exchange. “I accept.”
Go, the Heart said, withdrawing their hand from Yarchuse’s chin. We will agree to this truce, an exchange of princes. Let carnage end. We wish the world to grow.
Shakily, Yarchuse rose to aer feet. Ae looked at Aretas, who smiled brightly. “Thank you.” Ae bowed low to the Heart in respect. “When my work is done, I will return to you—”
No, the Heart said. I will not take your life the way your people have taken ours. Uphold your word and heal our shared lands. Show your saplings a better way.
Yarchuse had no response, aer throat closed off in shock, relief, and overwhelming shame. Ae looked at the prince, who smiled brightly. “I will,” ae said. “My word is yours.”
The Heart spread their branches wide, and the grove parted into a sun-dappled tunnel.
• • • •
Yarchuse stumbled through the woods, aer thoughts strewn afar as the full weight of what ae had promised, what the Heart had offered, settled into aer mind.
When ae returned to the Worded City, ae would erase from aer tome all spells of war. In their place ae would begin crafting words and incantations for healing, for peace. The prospect gave aer hope.
When ae stepped from the trees’ shadows, ae saw the Ever-Hungry Queen’s army repentant and battle-ready covering the moors.
Tension rippled through the front ranks. The bulwark guard lowered spears in preparation, the fresh-painted tomeslung words of defense glistening on armor and steel shields. Attir and her raptor waited halfway between the front line and the forest. And beside them towered Kel, the false-prince still on her back.
Yarchuse lifted aer arm. “Stand down,” ae called. “There is no longer any need for war. The prince lives. Let the trees go in peace. They will not wage war any longer if we will not.”
Behind aer, the forest began a slow, solemn retreat, fanning out as it migrated in majestic waves inland again, parting to either side of the army. The Ever-Hungry Queen stalked forward. The woodland prince slipped from Kel’s back and approached her.
Yarchuse reached Kel’s side, and the apex raptor kreed in relief and curled her neck around aer, her eye level with Yarchuse’s. Ae smiled and pressed aer forehead against her cheek. “It’s done,” ae whispered.
Then ae turned as the Ever-Hungry Queen embraced the prince. He held onto her, and there was no death, no blood. Yarchuse sighed in aching relief.
“Let us return home,” the prince said. “All of us.” He looked over one shoulder and nodded to Yarchuse, who inclined aer head in return.
What now? Kel signed.
Yarchuse smiled. Ae was composing a ballad of this day, one that could be sung across the lands and remembered for generations. The truth: an ode to peace.
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