Chapter I - Out of Place
Jarlen was alone again. The trees were dead. The animals were dead. The entire world was dead because of him. He stood in an endless field of wilted grass and crumbling bones. Dark clouds drifted through the sky, changing their course as they passed overhead. They gathered in front of the sun, slowly forming a gray apparition large enough to block all light.
“I didn’t mean it,” shouted Jarlen as he backed away, his feet barely able to move. “It wasn’t my fault.”
He awoke as he hit the floor next to his bed. He shouldn’t have slept on such an unnatural piece of furniture. Although the pillows were soft and the blanket was warm, he wasn’t used to relaxing anywhere but in a cradle of branches atop a sturdy tree. Thankfully, his vision had only been a nightmare brought on by the foreign surroundings.
Dim rays of light from the setting sun hit the floor in the center of the chamber, casting a warm orange glow on walls of plaster and stone. In the forest where Arboreals had raised him, houses coexisted with nature, grown as part of the trees themselves. The Ferfolk carved dead trunks into tables, chairs, and larger structures—one of the many differences between them and the Arboreals. Jarlen should have felt disgusted by such behavior but found the smooth lines oddly comforting.
He reached over to a young elm tree on his nightstand, a gift from the Ferfolk leader Aiax. Its leaves had turned brown overnight, and the stem was sagging as if it were carrying an acorn ten sizes too large on its tip. He couldn’t help the poor thing. Unlike his Arboreal brethren, he didn’t have the skills to rejuvenate the plant. He yanked the dying tree from its pot and tossed it out the window.
“We’ll have none of that,” a voice said from below, “especially today.”
“I’m sorry,” said Jarlen, leaning over the sill. “I didn’t mean to cause any trouble.”
A Ferfolk guard returned his gaze. The Ferfolk were a race of warriors that had originally come from the desert. Strong and resistant to magic, they’d been lifelong enemies of the peaceful Arboreals until recently.
“Oh, it’s you,” said the soldier. “I’ll get this cleaned up in no time.”
He put his fists together, gave a slight bow, and rushed down the street. His wrinkled tan skin blended seamlessly with the leather armor around his neck and forearms. If it weren’t for the colors of his regiment sewn into his clothing, it would have been difficult to tell he was wearing anything at all.
Jarlen’s own pale green skin was as soft as a tender shoot but nowhere near as silky as a full Arboreal’s would have been. His mother had given him several human traits, including dark hair, brown eyes, and a fuller frame than the rest of his Arboreal peers. These differences had been a constant source of contention throughout his years as a tenderling, but now that he was in the Ferfolk community, nobody saw anything but his Arboreal features. He didn’t belong anywhere—much like the humans, the last of who had disappeared a few decades ago.
Jarlen winced as he moved to the washbasin. The gash on his leg was mostly healed but still felt sore. He couldn’t complain. His friend Tyraz, a young Ferfolk warrior, had almost died during their battle against an evil spirit that was determined to cause another war between the Arboreals and the Ferfolk. Working together, they’d sent the spirit back to the netherworld, convinced their respective leaders that they weren’t enemies, and saved tens of thousands from suffering and death.
A loud rapping of wood against wood was accompanied by a shout from Tyraz.
“Are you ready?”
Jarlen limped across the room and opened the door. The young Ferfolk stood at the threshold, leaning heavily against a walking stick. His wounded arm had been wrapped tightly against his body with bandages. Even buried beneath multiple layers of thick cloth, his pronounced muscles were apparent. His face, battered and bruised, appeared to have seen twice as many years as the rest of his body, yet he still lacked a single hair on his chin.
“You look terrible,” said Jarlen. “Are you sure this is a good time for the ceremony?”
“I’ve felt worse, but maybe not every part of my body at once.” A chuckle turned into a quick grunt of pain. “Let’s go. I don’t want to keep Aiax waiting.”
They entered the ceremonial hall side by side, squeezed past dozens of tables packed with Ferfolk warriors, and took their special seats next to Aiax. Unlike the feast in their honor that had been given after they’d defeated evil spirit, the center of the enormous chamber had been cleared out, leaving behind a circular area large enough to hold an entire Arboreal Gathering Tree.
“Our guest of honor has arrived,” said Aiax, drawing the attention of everyone in the room.
He hadn’t shaved in weeks, allowing a patch of black whiskers to cover his chin and cheeks. His arms were as thick as Jarlen’s legs, and his skin was rougher than the bark of an old oak. Jarlen shuddered in his presence, even though the commander had called him a hero after he helped the Ferfolk defend against the evil spirit.
Aiax raised his right hand, which was missing the middle and index fingers, and summoned Tyraz to the center of the circle. The rest of the warriors crowded around them, forcing Jarlen to stand on his chair for a better view.
Septu stood next to Aiax with a scowl on his face. The tall captain of the guard reluctantly stepped aside as Tyraz hobbled forward. Septu had never accepted the young Ferfolk as a true warrior because he’d come from a cooper’s family.
“We barely avoided a bloody war with our Arboreal neighbors,” said Aiax in a gruff but commanding voice. “Without the intervention of a single man, many of us wouldn’t be here today. Even I found it hard to believe the Arboreals weren’t the cause of those mysterious green fires.”
This was a special day for Tyraz, but Jarlen couldn’t help feeling ignored. He’d done more than Tyraz to stop the impending war. Only by studying human magic had he known about the evil spirit. Without his knowledge of thaumaturgy and necromancy, there would have been no way to convince the two armies that they weren’t enemies.
Jarlen scolded himself for being so selfish. Tyraz deserved recognition from his people for his bravery. The young Ferfolk had believed in peace from the beginning and had risked his life to search for clues in what was deemed enemy territory.
A servant brought forth a long piece of cloth draped over his outstretched arms. Aiax unwrapped the cloth to reveal a sparkling sword with a leather-wrapped hilt. A pair of forward pointing spikes formed the crosspiece, and three silver tines cradled a blood-red gem at the other end of the hilt. The Ferfolk commander lifted the sword and stepped into the circle in front of Tyraz. A pouncing sabertooth had been etched into the blade.
“Allow me the honor,” said Septu with a step toward Aiax.
In a single move, Aiax pushed him back and spread his legs into a defensive stance, holding the bejeweled sword in front of his body. Tyraz leaned on his cane for support and drew his own sword, which was a dented piece of rusty steel in comparison. Barely able to hold the weapon above his waist, he stabbed once at the commander and almost toppled over, wincing as the walking staff bent under his body’s weight.
“This is insane,” shouted Jarlen. “If Tyraz deserves the sword, just give it to him. He obviously can’t fight you for it.”
Septu leapt over the table and dragged Jarlen off the chair.
“I might disagree with this honor,” he whispered, “but you will not interrupt our ceremony. I don’t care how many Ferfolk lives you saved. You can leave this room, test yourself against my blade, or remain silent. Do you understand?”
“I—” Jarlen said but stopped when Septu squeezed his arm.
“Enough,” said Aiax. “Return to the circle, Septu.”
As the captain of the guard released his grip and took his place behind the commander, Jarlen picked up the fallen chair and climbed onto the seat.
In the circle, Tyraz made another feeble swing, which was easily blocked. Aiax countered with a pair of jabs. Tyraz knocked the first one aside, but the second one drew blood from his shield arm when he was unable to move aside in time. He dropped his walking stick and fell to one knee.
“He’s not worthy,” said Septu, a sentiment echoed quietly by several other warriors. “Only a true champion deserves that blade.”
“I’ll decide who’s worthy and who isn’t,” said Aiax. “Unless you’re ready to face me in the circle.”
Tyraz pushed himself up with his sword and lunged forward. The commander stepped to the right and brought his pommel down on the back of Tyraz’s head. Jarlen cringed, expecting to hear a snap from the strong blow. Tyraz was still recovering from significant injuries. Forcing him to fight for the gift was barbaric.
The young Ferfolk collapsed onto the floor for what seemed to be several minutes amid grumbles of discontent. Septu’s negative feelings spread around the circle. Eventually Tyraz returned to his knees, silencing the increasing murmurs around him. He squeezed the hilt of his sword and pointed the tip of the blade at Aiax, converting a few of the crowd’s angry mumbles into words of support. Drawing energy from his peers, he crawled forward and sliced back and forth at the commander.
Aiax lifted one leg after the other to avoid the blade, refusing to yield any ground by stepping backward. He swung downward with enough force to split a mature tree in half, but Tyraz rolled aside just enough for the sword to miss his shoulder and strike the stone floor, releasing a shower of sparks. This was no longer an innocent round of sparring.
Tyraz’s life was at risk, but he showed no fear. Determined not only to live through the battle but also to claim his prize, he sprang upward and latched on to Aiax’s sword arm, nearly pulling the larger Ferfolk to the ground. Aiax shook him twice but he remained firmly attached to the commander.
“I don’t suppose you’ll let go of my arm,” said Aiax, lifting him to eye level.
“Not until you yield,” said Tyraz.
Aiax yanked the young Ferfolk’s sword from his grip and tossed it aside. Transferring the special sword to his free hand, he lowered Tyraz to the ground and presented to him the magnificent weapon, hilt first. Still clinging to the commander’s arm, Tyraz grabbed the new sword.
“This blade has been used by countless heroes throughout the ages,” said Aiax before releasing the weapon.
Septu grimaced but faded back as the commander’s unflinching stare drifted his way.
“May it strike fear into your enemies and color the ground as red as this garnet with their blood.”
The tip of the blade dropped as soon as he let go, but Tyraz didn’t let it touch the floor. He held it in both hands and forced himself onto his feet while the rest of the warriors cheered. Aiax helped him to the table, where he sank into a chair.
“Now, we eat,” said the commander.
The circle of Ferfolk disbanded as they spread out to their tables and dug into piles of bread and meat that had arrived during the violent ritual. Jarlen climbed down from his perch and nibbled on a hard crust. Across from him, Tyraz’s bad hand was clamped on to the edge of the table to keep him from falling off his chair. He should have been in bed resting, but instead he was matching the scores of warriors in their race to tear every bit of flesh from bone.
A dozen servants brought out one course after another, many of which were unidentifiable lumps smothered in rich sauces. The more Jarlen felt proud of Tyraz during this celebration in his honor, the more he felt out of place. He didn’t fit in anywhere. As an orphan, he’d moved from one hamlet to another until he’d met Eslinor, an elder who found him a home in Hillswood. The other tenderlings, led by Yasnol, never let him forget how different he was. They teased him about his human smell, his interest in animals over plants, and anything else that didn’t conform to their accepted ways.
After an hour or so, he excused himself from the table and headed onto the roof, where a silvery half-moon had risen over the treetops. Midnight wasn’t far off, a time when the Arboreals would be snug on their branches and deep in a meditative trance. Arboreals never fell asleep the way humans or Ferfolk did and rarely had dreams, instead communing with nature during the night. If they had the ability to plant themselves in the earth and grow leaves on their heads, they’d happily allow their arms and legs to wither away, giving up any possibility of seeing the many wonders of the world. Maybe that was why nobody accepted him in Hillswood. He was too different to be part of their community.
“The celebration has barely begun,” said Tyraz, leaning against the wall beside him. “You left before the first musician arrived.”
“My appetite was lacking,” said Jarlen. “I’ll return to the festivities in a while.”
Tyraz’s short, wiry hair was darker than the nighttime sky and appeared never to have been combed. Splotches of deep red stained his bandages.
“It’ll take you an extra week to recover from all this, if not more,” said Jarlen.
“Why does it matter? Do you have somewhere to go?”
“I want to speak with the human wizard that administered the Test of Darkness. He might know where the rest of the humans have gone.”
“Is that what’s been bothering you?” Tyraz rested his cane in an arrow slit and faced Jarlen, standing on his own. “We’ll leave for the mountains tomorrow.”
“You couldn’t make it back to your bed,” said Jarlen, “let alone the mountains.”
Tyraz took two steps before his knees buckled, sending him to the stone floor. Jarlen handed him the walking stick and helped him to his feet.
“I can wait the extra week,” he said. “My Arboreal half will just have to convince my human half to be more patient.”
“We’ll leave seven days hence,” said Tyraz. “I guarantee I’ll be ready.”
He limped toward the stairwell.
“How about returning to the party with me? I need someone to take my place in the dances or perhaps prop me up, and I doubt Septu would be willing.”