“It’s a terrible plan!”
“It is the best plan we have.”
“It’ll get you killed!”
“The alternative is getting everyone killed.”
Jaeworl let out a long sigh. It was a good thing the combined herd had left already, for their argument could undoubtedly be heard in most of the settlement. He looked Taral in the eye.
“Tar-lagh, I cannot leave the forest. I am bound to it in ways I cannot begin to describe. It is my home, my life, my essence. Besides, I did not live this long without learning a trick or two for getting out of a tough spot.”
Jaeworl felt a large hand on his shoulder. “Liara’s only giving me the gist of what ye’re saying, but I want to remind ye that he ain’t fighting alone. I’ve spent my life making amends for the lives I have taken by saving those of others. I’ll not let Jaywoll die while I’m still standing.”
Taral took a deep breath as he stared back at Jaeworl, then looked behind the elder. Seeing the big man towering there, his shoulders slumped in resignation. “Fine… But you better be here when we return, Jaeworl. Imaerla will never forgive me for leaving you behind if you’re not there to tell her to.”
“Be at ease, Tar-lagh. Much work has been put into the preparations, by our kin and his. You and yours lead the trolls here and trust in us. Try to bring them a few at a time, but better we get overrun than any catch up to the others. And no risking your own lives! I need you to watch over our kin until they make it to this nest of birds where Imaerla is headed. Protect them and keep them safe.”
“Just try not to poison anyone, okay?” Lyara flitted about the small room, as restless as ever.
The young man shot an annoyed look at the faery before reluctantly nodding his assent. Then he and the others left, Lyara darting out to leave Jaeworl alone with the magistrate.
“Do ye really think ye’ll survive?”
Jaeworl fished out a small pouch from under his robes, emptying out a handful of seeds from it and putting them on a nearby table. “What do your people do with their dead?”
Aziz let out a sigh and sank down on the floor. “If yer asking about the Serenites, ehm the people of Malqish- this region, then they burn them. Something to do with purifying their souls and speeding their journey to the afterlife. If ye mean my people…” He leaned his head back and gazed out the window.
“Our tribe buries them,” Jaeworl said when he realized the man was not going to continue. “With a… heart seed. The resulting plant marks the location and allows the dead rebirth as part of the forest,”
“What kind of seed?”
“Though the seeds all come from the same plant, what they grow into depends on the person who has passed. Bushes, trees, flowers… Some bear fruit, some berries, some nothing at all. They never have seeds of their own, though, and their leaves can be seen through.”
The big man let out a chuckle. “I’ve seen one of them once, deep in the Wood. Locals call them ‘ghost leaves’ and have lots of superstitions about them.” He rose to his feet once more. “Alright, enough talking. I need to go get some stuff from my cabin, and then I’ll meet ye in the square.”
“Square…?” Jaeworl could think of many square things in this village, and was uncertain which one the man was referring to.
“The flat space around the well,” Aziz threw over his shoulder as he disappeared out the door.
Jaeworl shook his head. There was nothing square about that spot. It was rather like a round glade in the forest of square houses.
Aziz took a deep breath to steady himself, then blew it out in a long sigh. He climbed onto the chair and pulled open the compartment hidden in one of the roof beams of his cottage. Part of him hoped it would be empty. The same part that hid the bundle there in the first place.
Dumping the cloth unceremoniously on the table, he stepped down off the chair and stared at it. A little dirty, but mostly it looked like the day he stashed it many years ago. He had spent a lifetime running from his past, from the guilt, and now here he was, about to throw himself right back into the cause of it.
Memories flitted through his mind as he began unwrapping the bundle.
The sensations came first; the scorching heat of twin suns turning a strenuous trek torturous; blistering sandstorms whipping his flesh; wet blood soaking his clothes; the din of battle around him.
The gleam of metal in the sunlight brought deeper reflections than those in its surface.
Images danced before his inner sight; enemy ranks breaking under his onslaught; giant maws closing on him; droplets of blood filling the air like rain; the carnage left in his wake. That last image lingered, the view growing to encompass a battlefield littered with fallen friends and foes alike.
There had been so much death already, and yet it was the unchanging nature of the world to bring ever more. Always another conflict loomed, another fight beckoned. Aziz was not weary of battle; he reveled in the challenge of facing an opponent. He was tired of everyone else always ending up dead, leaving him behind.
He picked up the shield, running his fingertips along the inside of its metal rim. He could feel the inscription, despite its age. The shield had been crafted by the dervish, sages from the days before the Sollim left their plateau during their war with the Ireha. Its wards against magic would be useless in the coming battle, but the enchantments kept the shield strong and sturdy.
Then there was the axe.
Wrapping his hand around the haft, he hoisted the weapon and gazed at his blurry reflection in the matte blade. Despite the spike on the back, it was surprisingly lightweight. He had never quite figured out what metal the head was forged from, but it had never tarnished. The golden tint suggested some alloy of sunmetal, perhaps. The axe had been forged in the heat of Iln-Khados, along with many more just like it; originally made for the Shaitan, vanguard of the Sollim, after their victory…
A monstrous howl drew Aziz from his nostalgia.