The Former Warden

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The Former Warden

by Paul E. Olson

Bren carefully settled the heavy basket next to the holly tree and stood. Absentmindedly looking about, he ran a hand through his light brown hair. He stood taller than most and had a barrel chest that heaved as he attempted to control his breathing from the exertion.  Dozens of villagers moved about the clearing, preparing it for the coming night’s festivities. On any other day, he would be with his troop of Lookouts, placing knots of warding and protection on trees around the clearing. But today was different.

He stared at the towering live oak on the northeastern border of the clearing. It stood as the lone blemish in an otherwise perfectly circular clearing. Bren had often wondered why it had never been removed, but questioning Grandmother three Falls before had not provided any clarity.

“Sweetheart,” she began, her tone turning abruptly stern and her smile fading, “It has stood for a thousand Falls. It must never be removed.” Grandmother had thrust a rope into his hands before he could question further and gave a look that told him that they were moving on.

Bren’s reminiscing was interrupted when something thudded into his back. His hand went to his sheathed blade as he spun around. He was nearly of age, and he feared that the forest had deemed him ripe. He was not ready for a life outside the forest.

Or perhaps it was a Briarlock! He began to sweat. Their magic was only cautiously whispered about, as though speaking of them would make one appear. Briarlocks gained their strength from the pain and suffering of others, it was said. An unexplained corpse on the edge of the forest? A briarlock, someone would certainly whisper. An illness spreading through the village? The first to fall ill must have crossed paths with a briarlock. They were a forbidden branch of the Thornwatch, and its order had had no place in the Thornwatch for hundreds of years.

The edge of a familiar green cloak fluttered from behind a nearby tree. Bren sheathed his not-quite-unsheathed blade.

“Ro!” he called out softly. Slowly, a Daughter of the Eyrewood climbed out from behind the tree, but stayed huddled close to it. Ro had seen nearly as many Falls as Bren. She stood hardly shorter than him, but was of a more slender frame. Several flowers, two of which he did not recognize, ringed her auburn hair. He quickly stepped over to her tree as she smiled up at him. He took her in one arm, then pulled a unique snowdrop from the stiff pocket in his bag with his free hand and placed it in her hair. It had three beautifully white petals with a bright yellow center.

“Bren!” she quietly squealed, squeezing him tighter. It was her favorite, and she would know he must have gone to some lengths to find it. Her last had been lost some time that summer. His eye caught a movement in the trees, the tail of a black wolf disappearing behind a tree. Daughters were never far from their beasts, and Ro’s large wolf, Lore, always seemed to be keeping an eye on him when they were together.

“Bren,” Ro whispered as she pulled her head back and looked into his grey eyes. “I know this is a time of celebration…” she started, uncertain of how to continue. “Are you all right?”

It was his turn to squeeze her tightly, but he delayed responding. “This is the way it should be. I’m fine,” he said after a time, not entirely convinced himself.

Ro nestled her head back against his chest. She knew him well enough to know that he was hurting, he was sure. When he was ready he would likely find her and tell her everything, and in more detail than one would think possible. Or necessary.

She took a deep breath and inhaled a great whiff of his musky scent. She coughed and let go of him. “When was the last time you took a dip?” she said, swatting the air in front of her scrunched up nose.

“Not two days ago!” Bren protested. “And anyway, I am heading to the river in a few minutes!”

She laughed, squeezed him a final time, and pulled away, still smiling. “See that you do.”

Bren watched her hair wave as a soft wind kicked up around her. She headed into the clearing to the other Daughters of the Eyrewood where they were finishing their preparations for the evening.

Bren surveyed the clearing. The next step in his participation in the night’s events would require him to be freshly bathed, so he headed to the river.

Bren finished tying on his pine green cloak and examined his reflection in the small pool of still water beside the river. Satisfied, he headed back to the village to assist in the final preparations.

Just as the village came into view through the trees, he spotted Den, the village drunk, sitting on a stump at the edge of the forest. He was of average height and build, but his hair had greyed over the course of his many Falls and his belly had gained some advantage on the rest of him.

It wasn’t a fair title, really, as Den was rarely found drunk. When he wasn’t drunk, he was jovial and was more often found assisting a farmer, or the butcher, or simply singing to no one in particular at the extreme edge of the forest. But when he did drink it was a terrifying sight. It frequently ended poorly for someone—sometimes Den. Usually for someone else’s teeth.

Life was different for Den. No family, no real friends unless you counted Grandmother and the other Elders, and the village remained uncertain as to why he was there so many Falls after unexpectedly showing up at Grandmother’s. If Grandmother knew, she would not say.

“Grandmother,” Bren had asked many times, “if Den doesn’t like it here, why doesn’t he leave? He rarely speaks of his children, yet they never visit and he has never left to see them. Why doesn’t he have his own farm? Why does he fall into his rage?” But Grandmother never explained, and would only say that she and the other elders had decided that Den could stay.

But it never seemed to Bren that Den wanted to stay, or even that the other Elders wanted him there. He had overheard Conter, the youngest Elder whose wife had passed two Falls previously, tell the fletcher that once Grandmother was gone that Den would be too.

Grandmother had simply smiled at that news. She feared little (nothing, as far as Bren could tell). Although each Elder held an equal vote, Grandmother’s had a wealth of wisdom and experience that was unmatched. She often spoke of her past experiences, though some details remained shaded.

Bren’s father, Brand, was in his sixth Fall when Bren’s grandparents joined the Thornwatch. Grandmother and Grandfather’s adventures prior to joining the Thornwatch were widely known in their part of the world, but Grandmother shared little of her experience in the Thornwatch. She had been a Warden, and Grandfather still served as a Blade to this day.

Few outside their village believed that Grandmother had been a member of the Thornwatch. None had ever served and returned, it was said, as it was understood that the service would last their lifetime and then some. No one, not even the other Elders, knew why Grandmother had been allowed to leave the Thornwatch with her life intact.

Grandmother returned to the village in Bren’s eighth Fall. Bren’s mother and father were still alive then. After the initial excitement around the village, Grandmother again proved her worth several times and soon the village selected her as an Elder. As an Elder, her fame only grew. She became beloved by not only her own people, but those of the villages in the area. She had insisted that they help their fellow villages whenever possible in whatever way they could.

“Bren,” he remembered her saying, “what should you remember about the decisions you make?”

“That it’s about people, Grandmother,” he replied.

“What if they are from another village and they are different from your people?”

“Then I should remember that wherever I go, people are people, no matter what they seem like or what they suffer from. They all look for their pain to be alleviated. They are no less deserving of help than are our own families,” Bren answered.  Bren had traveled with his Grandmother to the other villages in their times of need, bringing supplies or the sword, depending on their need.

Their own village had a unique history. In times of crisis, the village Elders selected one of their own as the Judge to have complete authority for a period of three months. At the end of the three months, authority would restore to all of the Elders, and they would vote to either elect another Judge or declare the crisis ended. In the last six Falls, only Grandmother had held the position of Judge. Each time she had resolved the crisis and then returned full authority to the entire body of Elders.

Bren reached the edge of the forest, now only a few feet from Den, who looked up.

“Good day to you, Bren,” Den said. He looked sullen.

“And good day to you, Den,” said Bren.  Bren considered speaking with him for a moment, but, remembering the preparations he still had to make, decided to move on.

“Bren,” Den said before Bren could leave, “thank you for your kindness over these years.” Den stood. “After tonight, I will be leaving the village.” Bren face fell. He knew this was coming, but he had grown to value Den and would miss him.

Den stretched out his hand. Bren took it firmly, then clapped the older man on the back in a quick embrace. “It has been my pleasure, Den. Do you need anything for the road?”

“No, I have all that I need. Your grandmother saw to that.” Den said the last with a hint of sadness in his voice. Or was it bitterness? Den sat back on his stump.

Bren continued on to the village. The village was abuzz with excitement as the villagers had returned from their preparations in the forest clearing and had joined with the remaining villagers at the well that sat between the village and the forest. The sun began to set, and emotions welled up in Bren. It was nearly time, he realized.

He reached Grandmother’s cottage and opened the door. Two Elders and two Daughters waited inside, having just finished helping Grandmother into her cloak.

“Bren,” Grandmother rasped, struggling to hold out her hand only slightly above her body. He knelt by her bed and grasped it.

“May we die in the Forest,” Grandmother whispered.

“May we die in the Forest,” Bren repeated, quietly. She coughed, and he could do little more than stare. When the end nears, what more is there to say? To ask? He did not want anything more than to sit there and hold her hand through her last moments.

But that wasn’t true. He wanted to see her strong again, to have her rough and calloused hands guide his own still-too-soft hands through a new knot. He wanted to see her stand. First she had difficulty walking, then standing, then sitting, until the last few weeks when she had only lain in bed. He had visited whenever his duties with the Lookouts allowed, but still it did not seem often enough.

The door opened again. It was Stak, his older cousin. Stak was a ranger of a similar build to Bren, though Stak was several inches shorter. He wore his bright blonde hair long and braided in the back. He glanced at Bren. It was time. Wordlessly, Bren and Stak hoisted Grandmother into a sitting position between them and headed off towards the woods.

As they reached the edge of the forest and the darkness deepened, Bren looked about at the gathered host. Many had come from the surrounding villages. Bren thought back to Grandmother’s many selfless acts. Tears of pride, and joy, and sadness filled his eyes. He blinked them away. There would be time for that later.

After a short time they arrived at the clearing. Tall torches burned brightly throughout, revealing tables covered with food and drink of every kind, ringing the clearing. The center of the clearing remained open. Near the live oak sat a soft bed. Bren and Stak made their way to it and carefully laid Grandmother on it. She smiled a weak smile.

Bren imagined the Lookouts would be close enough to see the light from the fires but far enough to not clearly make anything out except shapes and noise. And he guessed that they were quite envious, as he had been on several similar occasions. Bren only wished that he was there with them, and that Grandmother was not the one on the bed in the clearing.

Rarely did a villager live long enough to die in the forest of old age. It was especially rare in Grandmother’s case as she had personally fought in so many battles.

As the party finished gathering in the center of the clearing, one of the Elders motioned for everyone to begin eating as the troupe of musicians began unpacking their instruments. The once-quiet party slowly rose to a loud din as many conversations began around the tables. After some celebration, the ceremony would commence.

Ro appeared seemingly out of nowhere in front of Bren and embraced him. The musicians had begun playing and sweet music filled the air. Ro began to sway with the music, still holding on to Bren.

Bren glanced down at Grandmother. She was smiling up at them, and he knew that if she were able, she would be telling him to not let another moment pass him by. This was a celebration, and her celebration at that.

Bren maneuvered his arm into Ro’s and walked with her to the middle of the clearing to join the other dancers. They danced for what seemed like hours, often simply swaying with the music while woven together in a tight but comfortable embrace.

Each time Bren looked over, Grandmother had another visitor. And each time, Bren felt the emotion welling up even stronger. Finally, when he thought he could contain himself no further, one of the Elders, grandmother’s oldest friend, Wen, raised the ceremonial length of rope over her head to signal the start of the ceremony. The music died down and the many conversations ceased. Bren had already woven his way with Ro back near Grandmother to assume his place in the coming ceremony.

The Elder, rope still raised, slowly made her way through the crowd towards Grandmother. But she never got there.

A scream sounded somewhere north of the clearing, followed closely by the sound of branches and leaves tearing against other trees before a loud thud that could only be a tree crashing to the ground.

More screams. The sounds of branches and leaves whipping and crunching sounded more loudly and frequently through the trees, with quieter but still noticeable sounds in even more directions. Bren had already unsheathed his blade before he realized what he was doing.

The Elders reacted quickly and directed the villagers back out the way they had come. Most of the Rangers and Daughters provided an escort, but several Rangers charged straight towards the edge of the clearing to form a perimeter.  The Daughters found their way to several trees and began feverishly tying knots. Ro and Bren shared a look, and Ro started off to help the other Daughters.

Bren first took the last few steps to his Grandmother to make sure that she would be able to get out when he heard the shrieking. He didn’t recognize it, but he was terrified.  Suddenly, he felt a firm hand grasp his wrist that held his blade. He tried to spin free, but stopped quickly at seeing whose hand it was. Grandmother stood beside him, looking stronger than she had in months. She maintained her firm grip and stared intently into his eyes, her own eyes glowing a soft yellow. He noticed Den standing behind her.

“Grandson,” she said, her voice steady and unshaken, “head into the forest and pull everyone back. Gather them just outside the clearing on the path back to the village and await my instructions.”

“Are you well, Grandmother?” Bren asked, uncertain of what he was seeing.

“It will not last. Go, now. I love you.”

“I love you, Grandmother,” Bren said, racing towards the screaming and crashing and shrieking.

Bren had barely reached the edge of the forest when he caught a glimmer out of the corner of his eye. He raised his blade just in time to weakly parry a blow from a long, thick blade, then stepped into the forest, putting a tree between him and his enemy.

His enemy was a man—but not a man. The not-man’s blade flashed down again, and Bren deftly parried it into the tree, where it stuck. Bren quickly thrust and drove his long, thin blade through the not-man’s chest. It fell to one knee as Bren pulled his blade out, but then started to rise again. Bren took a great swing and lopped off the creature’s head. He’d heard stories of them, but never seen one himself. They had grey skin, and he found that he couldn’t quite focus on the face of its fallen head. The more he stared at it the more it blurred and rippled, much like a reflection in a pond after a stone has been cast into the middle of it.

A nearby shriek pulled Bren out of his reverie.

He reached the fight soon enough. The light from the clearing only slightly illuminated the battle, making it a confusing mess of shapes and shadows. This was not his first time in such conditions, though it was his first with the not-men. He quickly looked for the distinctions between friendly shadows and the not-men, which wore no cloaks. In the darkness he set to work.

The first pair he reached was a not-man locked in a furious fight with a Ranger. The not-man’s blade and reach were longer, but the Ranger was quicker. The not-man did not take his gaze from the Ranger, giving Bren an opening to run him through the back. As with the first not-man he had encountered, this one did not perish. The Ranger seemed to understand that need immediately and lopped off its head.

Bren recognized the Ranger from another village, but couldn’t remember his name. “Ranger,” Bren said, “we’ve bought enough time. Should we fall back?” The Ranger agreed, and they headed deeper into the forest to organize the retreat. The main bulk of Rangers, Daughters, and Lookouts had driven the enemy deeper into the forest from Bren.

Bren soon stepped over a root only to discover it was a Ranger. He crouched down to examine the face closely and soon found himself fighting back bitter tears. It was Stak, pierced several times with a blade. He reached down and closed Stak’s eyes, but he knew he could not stay or more would follow. He heard the sounds of a fight and stood quickly, just in time to see a beast charge past him to the assistance of a Daughter. The strange cat with several glowing spots charged into the not-man, and the Daughter retreated while Bren continued on in search of more. He moved towards a great sound of clashing and found several Daughters with many beasts, Rangers, and, much to his relief, a few Lookouts that yet lived. And Ro! She was right in the midst of it, but she was alive.

Bren heard the Rangers sounding the retreat and they formed together, slowly falling back. But the increased noise had brought more and more not-men, and he soon found himself swinging more wildly than he would like as he attempted to parry blows from at least two not-men at once. He was struggling to see where all the blows were coming from when a Daughter fell beside him, her beast already fallen beside her.

A blade sliced into his left forearm a few inches above his wrist. He nearly dropped his blade from the pain, even though it was in his other hand, when a great black wolf leaped in front of him, knocking two of the not-men to the ground. Ro stood above one and plunged her blade through its skull. The wolf worked at the other not-man’s head, leaving Bren with the third not-man bearing down on him. More not-men reached Ro and her beast.

Bren parried the blows of his not-man using only his right arm, but found himself weakened with each blow. The not-man swung his blade with a strong blow that Bren knew he could no longer parry. Bren dropped to the ground under the blade and quickly swung sideways at the not-man’s right leg as he rolled away. He didn’t have enough power to make it clean through, but it was enough to drop the not-man to his knees. Bren quickly sprang to his feet and swung with all his might at the not-man. His blade drove the not-man’s blade back towards its body, and Bren’s sword drove into the neck of the not-man. He pulled his sword free and brought it crashing through the not-man’s neck.

Bren looked up. Ro’s beast had made short work of two more not-men and she had dispatched another. Ro took ahold of his hand and began to run back to the clearing, where their retreating allies were already running back to the path to the village. As Bren and Ro entered the clearing, they noticed that the not-men had stopped at the edge.

Grandmother was at work next to the live oak, where Den was standing and staring intently into the forest. It wasn’t clear what she was doing, but she was muttering and appeared to be tying something around the live oak. Bren and Ro quickly reached them as the shrieking sounds grew louder.

“Grandson!” she said, her voice stronger still, her expression determined and yet softening briefly to show her relief. They embraced.

“Grandson,” she continued, “the wards I placed will not hold, and the strength I feel will fade before the night is through. Return to the rest on the path to the village, and do not allow any to enter the clearing before I am through! We will need each of you. Summon the Thornwatch.” Her face had turned stern and he knew better than to argue.

He had come to terms with this, he thought. But seeing her so well…

But no. She said it was temporary and would not last the night. It was time.

They embraced again and Grandmother kissed Bren on the cheek. Den stayed where he had been, still staring off into the forest. Grandmother turned back to her work, moving closer to Den as she did. Bren and Ro made their way back to the village path.

Bren passed Grandmother’s orders to the remaining Rangers, Daughters, and Lookouts to retreat back to the village and ensure no one was left in the clearing. It would happen soon, they knew. They watched as Grandmother and Den slowly made their way into the center of the clearing. With her back to them, they could not clearly see what she was doing. Den appeared to just be standing there silently, as he had done all night.

The shrieking rang out again, louder than it had been all night. More branches shook, leaves rustling and crunching, before another tree thudded to the ground. It shook the ground even as far away as where Bren and the others had retreated to on the edge of the forest. The Lookouts worked carefully on their knots to summon the Thornwatch.

And then they saw it. A Griffin, but larger than Bren had even heard of, and covered in glowing, purple pustules that looked as though they should have broken open upon colliding with so many branches, but held firm. The shrieking continued. The Griffin jumped, slamming into the ground at the edge of the clearing.

The not-men broke through into the clearing, bearing down on Grandmother and Den. The Griffin took flight, then dove straight towards the pair. Den bowed his head.

But Bren and the others obeyed Grandmother’s orders. Bren’s heart raced as he wondered if Grandmother’s plan had failed.

Suddenly, the light shifted confusingly and the entire clearing seemed to become a jumbled mess of light and shapes and colors.

It happened in a fraction of a second. Grandmother, Den, the not-men, and the Griffin all crashed to the ground. Even the torches and nearest tables fell.

The great live oak groaned, then split with a loud reverberating crack as half smashed to the ground.

Nothing moved. No one seemed to know what had happened. Cautiously, he approached the center of the clearing where Grandmother had fallen.

He could scarcely believe what he saw. Grandmother and Den seemed as though they had simply fallen asleep, but they were not breathing. For the creatures moving near them, it was much worse.

The creatures’ bodies appeared to have moved in sections, separated by anywhere from a few inches to a foot in between each section.  When the spell had ended, the bodies ended up slightly jumbled.

Bren heard footsteps behind him. Then cursing. He turned to see two men and a woman he did not recognize, but guessed to be Thornwatch. A grizzled old man strode ahead and held a yew staff, the weapon of the Wardens. The woman appeared young, not much older than Bren, and bore an Oakenstaff of the Greenheart order. The final Thornwatch member was clearly of the Guard, as Bren observed him unstrapping a long, wide Fullsword from his back. They were followed at a distance by the remainder of the village’s fighters.

“What happened?” Bren asked quietly, hardly keeping his voice from cracking. “What could do this?”

The Warden spoke first, his voice calm. “It is called the Time Rent. When cast, it sends out invisible strands at intervals that start less than an inch apart and grow to over a foot apart as they spread, until the edge of its range. The strands separate everything between them in time, then move the pieces through time at a different pace. Anything within the range of the spell will have sections of its body moved at different intervals and will result in separating each creature into many small pieces. Even if you stand perfectly still, as did these two, your beating heart will still be separated.”

The Greenheart then spoke as the rest of the fighters reached them, her voice more calm and wise than Bren expected of one her age as she leaned on her staff. “This is the work of a Briarlock. It requires a human sacrifice, the life of an ancient creature, such as this live oak, and the caster must perish as well.”

Bren remained silent. Grandmother was a Briarlock.