Friday, 2 January 2015

The Tall Pines

Here's a free read for Friday! I hope you enjoy it. It's another offering from my packed to bursting, short story files. This is one of several stories which are set on my fantasy world Tjalis Major. It's world of rival gods, outlawed magic and a pending magical apocalypse. One of my Novels (WIP)The Rise of a Dead God, explores this topsy-turvy place in greater detail.

By Ami Hart

Photo: ©Ami Hart 2014, Banks Peninsula, NZ

The morning light cast stripes on the pine-needle strewn ground. Rumi jumped from one golden soaked patch of earth to the next, never lingering in the shadows too long. Her little game of light versus dark took on a life of its own. Shadows equaled death, light gave life. She jumped, always landing upon her sturdy right leg first as her left was still weak from injury. That jittery excitement— which can only come from doing forbidden things— drove her on and she dared to dance deeper in the pine forest, where the light was slowly overcome by gloom.

If he knew I was here, Papa would beat me.
There were worse things than beatings, but Rumi didn’t fear anything, lest of all a few stripes upon her backside.

She’d come to the forest because she’d dreamed of this place, over and over in recent weeks. Ever since she had lost Berick…and her carefree mobility. At first they had been nightmares, but now the dreams had softened. Then, this morning she’d awoken with a sense of purpose. The image of the tall pines fixed firmly in her mind. It was as if something within these depths had called to her from the deep world of her slumber.


Rumi had accidentally mentioned the mysterious forest to her father yesterday.
They had been walking home after the first harvest celebration. She'd felt itchy from sitting on the hay bales and absently scratched her arm as she peered out into the failing light. Her gaze was immediately drawn to the pines, which seemed to crawl from the valley and up a small hill. It was that time of evening when their furred tips were back-lit by the final glow of their largest sun, Halcyon. The effect made the trees look even blacker. She was entranced and stood still and silent beneath an oil lamp —one of the many that lined the village’s main road. The soft light cast from within the lamp's glass, licked the dirt road with a feeble flickering. Her attention, so seized by that indefinable place caused her tongue to become ensnared too. A strange thought came to her as she stood there and she unwisely voiced it. “Sometimes when I look at those pines it almost seems like they look back. Do those trees have eyes Papa?”
Rumi’s question had caused such an expression of shock on his face, that she'd been momentarily shamed to silence. She said sorry, but somehow that word had seemed inadequate and she wasn’t quite sure why?


If you were really sorry, you wouldn’t be here, her conscience prickled at her.

People didn’t speak of the forest, and no-one ever went here?
Except for those people who had moved along it's raggedy black edge two nights past. The ones dressed like shadows.
She wished she had brought her own cape. She could have made it a game, pretending to be one of those mysterious specters.
Yes, she’d peeked out the window— her curious eyes seeking out the source of the strange murmurings that had pulled her to wakefulness. The sound reminiscent of the sound of the sea, when it loses part of its voice to the winding depths of a seashell. The shadow people had walked through the field adjacent her window, their indistinct black forms soaking up the moonlight. Almost as if they were clothed in the rays of the great black sun —the Stygian One—which slid high and ominous in the Tjalis Major sky during harvest season.
The other villagers regarded the Stygian One with fear, just as they did, these pines.
Rumi thought it silly, but then again she was numb when it came to fear.
Black suns, trees and shadow people didn’t scare her.

Maybe the shadow people lived here, because it was the only place where the sun couldn’t get them.

She liked the dark too, people can’t ridicule what they can’t see. One day she caught a conversation between her father and another in town. “That Rumi, always getting in trouble an’ getting hurt. She doesn’t seem to have the good sense that Halcyon gives most people,” he had complained.
The replying whisper had chilled her. “You know what they say about those who are born under the apex of the Stygian One, it’s a bad star, the babes are forever ruled by chaos, or worse, the …Dead God.”
The light became mere slivers through the dense fur canopy. With the swelling darkness Rumi’s mind drifted back to that whispered name, which seemed to speak of things of equal darkness.

The Dead God? Rumi puzzled. Who was this god?
For some reason the name birthed an inexplicable excitement within her.

She heard the distant belch of a toad and paused, looking toward the sound. Rumi briefly wondered if the forest toads were as ugly as those that crept and slithered in the reeds around the village’s duck pond.
Curious, she followed the sound, stepping upon the remains of a fallen tree. The log's surface sagged underfoot. The surface mouldered beneath a carpet of invasive moss, eating at its woody flesh. Dead things bothered Rumi. Things ate other things, death and life were a cycle— yet that cycle seemed spiritually wasteful. Death not only put one’s life to an end but it also numbed all other life around it.
She hated it, probably even before Berick— the emotion born not from experience and observation, but from some indefinable instinct buried deep inside, which had lain mostly dormant until now. When Berick had been torn from her—slashed open by hungry Zebrat teeth, it had left her ripped apart too, not in physical sense, but in a way she didn’t fully understand.

She imagined magic might stop death, but people didn’t talk about such things here. The Empire of the 5 Suns frequently condemned people to death for the vile magic called necromancy. Rumi didn’t know much about it and had never witnessed it practiced. Only the specially trained Clerics in Empire City were given permission to use the arcane arts.

But she had a secret. Sometimes she felt a strange sensation and she imagined it might be magic. It coiled in through her toes from the earth and rushed to her fingertips, making them hot and uncomfortable. Eventually the feeling ebbed away, and she wondered if she had lost something vital. She looked at her hands as they flooded with that familiar warmth and the humming tension corded through her body.

The toad’s ugly, gurgling call ceased and Rumi found herself standing on the bank of a murky pond. Leathery fern fronds bowed down, touching the water. Upon the pond’s surface were scattered colonies of bright green slime, bubbling away, creating a creeping foam. This place smelt like…nature had skewed somewhere unfamiliar. Wrongness saturated the air. Rumi’s stomach tensed and she retreated until a tree pressed solidly against her back. Shadows dominated the ponds edge. Only a few small spots of light cut down through the tall bushy firs, they struck the water, unable to pierce the murky depths. Rumi breathed, a stillness had fallen, the silence was so complete that it seemed to foretell the death of everything. Strangely Rumi felt more alive than she had in weeks.

A sudden heat flooded through her burning away any residue of apprehension. She touched her breast-less chest, sucking in a deep breath as if the damp, cool air could put out the flames that smouldered inside.

"Welcome child."
A voice. Rumi looked around but there was no terrestrial source for it, unless she was to blame the countless shadows cast by breeze-caught boughs. The shadows closed in with soft seeking fingers.
“Heyo” She called, her voice sounded small and insignificant the face of such loud silence.
“Welcome,” it echoed again. “Rumi, what is it you seek?”
She frowned, unable to comprehend the answer, because she had never asked the question of herself.
“Rumi?” Out of the corner of her eye she saw something move. She turned toward it, her breath catching in her throat.
“We know, we know about Berick. We know about your loss, it is ours too,” they hissed. The voice did not belong to any one person, it came from everywhere, as if the trees themselves were speaking.
Rumi stood at the mention of her brother’s name. For the first time since it happened, she trembled, a cold feeling trampled up her back. It was fear, creeping, confining, and suffocating.
“I need to go.”
“Go?” they echoed back, “your soul was called here, Rumi. You belong here.”
She turned quickly and skirted around the tree, returning the way she had come with brisk steps. Suddenly a robed figure barred her way and a very human looking hand reached toward her. “You can feel it, you have always felt it. You were birthed into power, Rumi.”

Rumi looked down at the outstretched hand. The fingers were slender, like that of a woman, perhaps a mother. The bearer’s inky cape seemed to crawl around her wrist and the fabric moved as if had a mind of its own. “We can bring Berick back” The voice promised.

Her mind struggled against the claim. She clenched her hands into fists at her side, “I don’t believe you,” She screamed. The robed figure retreated and so did the silence. Birds squawked, creatures scuttled in the undergrowth and the wind moaned in the trees above. For all the power of her words, they were nothing, because as she uttered them she knew she didn’t believe them, not really.
Yes, magic could bring him back.

She ran and didn’t stop until she reached the light airy grain fields outside the village. There she stopped and stood for a moment, the grain swept gently across her twitching fingertips as if trying to soothe her. The kindness remained ignored, for her mind was now ensnared by the stranger's claim.


Father slopped the stew in the wooden bowl, bits of green vegetable speckled the gravy’s surface and momentarily Rumi was taken back to the pond.
“You’ve been quiet today,” Father gruffed.
“Just thinking,” Rumi replied softly.
He stirred his own bowl of stew then scooped up a lumpy spoonful of meat and vegetable. “About what?”
“If you could bring someone back, would you?”
The spoon stopped its ascent. Rumi saw her father’s beard move as his jaw clenched. Then he dumped his spoon back into the bowl. It landed with a splash and a clatter.
“No, let the dead remain dead”
“Even Berick…”
“Yea, let him dwell with Halcyon above, cos if he were brought back he would shine no more…Your mother might’ve said otherwise if she were here, but that sort of thinking gets you killed…” Her Father’s voice trailed off. He didn’t like talking about mother, or about how she died…Rumi didn’t remember her. She was only a baby when it happened. He always got a scared look in his eyes when he spoke of her. He had that look now.
She drew a deep breath, feeling strong and resolute. I will return to the forest tonight, then she finished her stew.


Rumi watched the dance of the suns from her open bedroom window with increasing impatience. Her face felt chilled by the approaching night. When Halcyon descended to its blessed rest, it left the small red sun in its wake; Little Cerise, the one who watched the close of day wearily from the horizon. The sky turned from orange/gold to blood red.
It was time.
She craned her neck and looked straight up and far above spun the Stygian one, black and vitriolic, left alone to dominate the evening sky.

She slung a cape about her shoulders, took a lantern then scrambled out the window and into the night. The pollen that still clung to her scratchy woolen cape from today’s harvest made Rumi’s nose tickle.
She ran and her feet slid in her unlaced boots— in her haste she’d neglected to tie them. She continued regardless, her loud clomping steps beating noise into the night.


Rumi paused at the threshold, the trees before her with the village at her back. Above her the first stars had begun to light the night. She looked up at them and imagined they were dozens of pair of eyes, waiting, watching, and judging. She butted her lip at them and looked back to the tall pines, lifting her lantern. For a moment her light seemed to chase the shadows away, but no, they were just hiding, waiting for her to make the first move.

She clambered over the decrepit wooden fence and took three solid steps until she passed the treeline.
“You’re back.” The voices whispered. “We can give you what you want.” Then  began a song of sorts, uttered in a language which was foreign to Rumi’s ears. The words weren’t definable and the sound was too strange to come from mere human’s lips. Rumi followed the chorus, until it sounded as if she were walking alongside those who sung it.

I am here, she thought, feeling energy charge the air as she passed the pond.
Just beyond the pond was a tree, it was blacker that the rest, as if it had been burnt. There were no leaves, just bare branches. Scattered about the tree upon the pine needle suffused soil sat piles of white dust. She approached then crouched and took a pinch of the substance, rubbing the dust between her fingers. It was coarse and left her hand feeling unnaturally cold. As if she had just touched death. She buried her hands back in her cloak, moving her fingers against the course material, partly to remove the strange substance, and also to warm her chilled fingertips. When she looked up from the ground she realized she was surrounded, their cloaked forms seemed to swallow the feeble light of her lamp.
“You are so like her.”
“Your mother, our sister.”
Shock swelled inside and Rumi took several steps back.
“Don’t fear Rumi, there is no need to fear death once you are one of us. When he comes, we will be taken beyond death’s reaches.”
“The Dead God. It will not be long now, he will walk this world again, and once he does, the empire of the 5 suns will fall and with it the oppression which has been upon our kind for 500 years.”
“Are you,” she gulped, “necromancers?”
The closest of the shadows reached up and the hood fell back, revealing a woman’s face, yet there was something inhuman about the light in her eyes.
“We are more than that, we are Lich. The true servants of the Dead God, not like those wayward fools that hide in mountains seeking to pervert the art with their mediocre magic and feeble understanding. You were born to be one of us. Your family line bears the blood of the Dead God himself. Your mother’s blood was shed by of the Empire, but you…were worth the sacrifice. You could be powerful, so powerful you’ll never have reason to be afraid again.”

Rumi straightened, the words seizing her, heart and soul, “And Berick?”
“We can bring him back, but not as he was. He will be undead.”
“But undead are terrible monsters, aren’t they?”
“When the Dead God rises, we will be transformed in the twinkling of an eye- it is written, we will all be undead, forever and ever. This land will be cleansed. Will we be monsters when all of us are the same, am I a monster? I am a Lich, yet here I am offering you help?”

Rumi’s mind swam. Her thoughts caught between the fear filled fables of her childhood and a burgeoning desire to smash them as fallacy and see Berick risen. The darkness around her pulsed with possibility. Then the woman raised a hand and upon it spiraled a ball of mist. Within it she saw a picture, it was of Halcyon blazing his glory. Yet the sun unwound, shedding its brilliant mantle, and it quickly took the shape of a snake. The newly-formed serpent’s eyes blazed and her mind was seized by the image, the snake’s gaze blinded her momentarily. “Do you see?” The Lich said.

The revelation made her blink, “We are blinded from the truth.” The words came out if they already pre-existed in her mind. “Halcyon is the home of the serpent, our enemy. He blinds everyone, with his seasons, life to death and His endless cycle of destruction. He makes man believe that they can’t live without his beauteous gaze, yet this is a lie. He holds us back, stops us from realizing the truth. The truth that we don’t need to be part of the cycle, instead we can move beyond it.”
Rumi felt full, for the first time in her life understanding flowed over the confusion and doubt. All she could do was nod.

Underneath the steady gaze of The Stygian One— The Dead God, the pond at the center of the cursed forest gave birth, returning what the vermin had taken. Rumi stood on the edge to welcome her brother. His cold, wet hand took her own cold grasp as he stepped from the mire, eyes dark and filled with something unknowable. They made her speak the words which bound him to her will, for until the Dead God returned, Berick needed a master to guide him. She took him to the edge of the tall pines just before night broke to day and showed him their former home, the village. Her rough, itchy harvest cape now replaced with the soft smooth mantle of her new coven, their new home.
“There was our home, Berick. But it can’t be anymore.”
He let out a deep groan, his words tangled to normal ears, but she heard him well enough in her mind. “I will miss them too, but we won’t have to wait long, The Dead God will come, then everyone will be changed, there will be no such thing as monsters anymore.”


© Copyright 2014 Ami L Hart

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