A fantasy novel by Joan Spilman
The Elyon planted the Tree of life in Casoria, not because he favored the Casorians, who were a no-people then, nor because the earth was rich, for the soils of the Southern Plains were already known for their sweetness. He did not desire the quick growth of the Magic Lands or the rise of Ron Jonna. The Elyon planted the Tree of Life in Casoria because he chose to.
The tree grew tall, ringed by others yet always distinguished by its glossy leaves and delicious scent. The scent came from a single blossom, a white petaled flower nesting among a tree that could have produced hundreds, yet yielded only one. The Outer Flower gleamed like a pearl by day and at night was a star.
The flower and the effects of its scent became legendary. One breath could erase fear, two breaths instill hope, a day spent in the confines of the garden made one young. The flower gained many titles, some poetic, others grand, but the name by which it ultimately became known was simple and common among rich and poor, young and old alike. The Outer Flower, bloom of the Casorian Tree. The Outer Flower, five petaled fruit of the Tree of Life, always with them yet always out of reach. Sarr had told them. But Sarr had not believed.
Sarr was the Garden Skyll. If the Outer Flower was the first fruit of the Tree of Life, then Sarr was the second, a man chosen to pass through the Veils, nurtured in the womb of the Deep, a man who wore the three stripes (scars) of privilege on the flesh of his upper arm. His place was first among the Skylls and it was he who walked in the garden, planted the trees yet refused to count them, and allowed no other paths other than those worn by his own feet.
None of the rest had gained more than two stripes; Ganesan from High North, Tulle of South Waity, Aaron of the Andovers, and Britt from the Burning Wood. Gunther of Ron Jonna and Tiane of waters and seas, beloved from the first. Their names and lives were bright strands against the sky, bright colors against Sarr’s dark vein. All could fly but for Sarr who was tied to the earth.
Progress was rapid in Casoria. A warrior declared himself king and founded a kingdom. A castle was built and called Ursaulis, an impregnable structure of timber and stone that blazoned from a hill slightly lower than the one on which the Tree of Life stood.
The Outer Flower shone, a pearl by day and a star by night. The people became part of her legends. Casorian hands were nimbler, their minds quicker, their children did not die at birth. The land was blessed and so the people sought to include the Earth Skyll in their praises, but Sarr remained aloof.
Envy had entered his heart through a series of small humiliations. He had come to despise the garden he was bound to, the commonplace tasks. He would be bent over, engaged in the ignoble task of transplanting a seedling or, even worse, spreading dung, when another of the Skylls would sail by, causing a wind. He would straighten, the foul taste of compost always in his mouth. His life was bitter. Yes, he had been to the Deep and earned the three stripes of privilege, but he didn’t want to be tied to anything, even the Tree of Life. He wanted to fly.
After they witnessed the birth of a star, he decided. They had come to him then, even Tianne who rarely left her waters, and described the wondrous sight. He didn’t respond, and so Ganesan, sharpest of the winds, complimented him on his carefully tended seedlings. Sarr thought he detected a sneer.
In his anger, he promised the flower to the dark god, Ba’hal. Ba’hal, in return, promised him flight. Sarr would soar among the clouds, shaming the rest, but first he must pluck the bloom. The bargain was sealed.
The tree was sturdy, and its branches tangled, a criss-cross of limbs and leaves that made it nearly impossible to climb. Sarr persevered until he reached the flower. Only then did he pause. He had not counted on its aching beauty, its exquisite scent. The petals quivered, as if offering a lament. Then he remembered Ganesan and the quick look of pity from Tianne, and Sarr stretched for his hand.
The burst was so quick that even as he reached out, Sarr seemed to explode into ashes; no one can hold life and live. His dust drifted downward as chaff, then scattered across the ground. The flower had disappeared.
Nor would it reappear; though the tree remained, it was barren. One by one, the Skylls were called into the Deep, save for Tianne, who in her grief and shame would not go into the Elyon’s presence but asked for a grave in the sea. Touched by her suffering, the Elyon granted her request and made her a promise. The promise went like this: “The Favored One is coming. He will be shadowed by the dark, nearly covered, but when he rises the flower will bloom again. And you will awaken, for his star will trouble your waters again and again.”
Tianne stretched for there hand in supplication. Then, she too was gone.
Time rolled forward. Seven new Skylls hovered around the throne, though none of them could fly and the Earth Skyll was always crippled. Tianne’s position remained unfulfilled. The King residing in Ursaulis was called the High King: some were good, others bad.
Nor was life without surprises.
The power unleashed by Sarr produced a spiritual bedlam. New gods woke up hungry and anxious to be fed. Sorcerers abounded, seeresses prophesied, men with strange urgent callings formed clans. In Glynnis Fen, it was said witch spirits crowded the air at every female birth while in Glarry Glen, the fairies squandered the light fashioning baubles. In the north, a mage rose called the Shatu, by all accounts an enigmatic man. He was said to shun disciples yet formed an order called The Blue Stone, a secret band; he spoke of peace while ministering to the warlike Pentacaucus; he counted his enemies yet feared only the Elyon.
To the northeast, there remained only the Nevers, a dark realm of neither travelers or trade. The demise of the Outer Flower had its effect there as well. Those along is borders felt it power passing, watched it splinter the indigo sky. The stronghold of the Ba’hal remained more impenetrable than before. Rumors from the borders would come, tales of strange cruelties and unnatural beasts. Civilized men would mock them as the exaggerations of lonely men.
The other stories were either forgotten or discounted. Only the legend of the Outer Flower remained and, serving the imagination, was recorded; the white blossom appeared in paintings, pub designs, and stitched on christening gowns. A static image whose name inspired neither hope nor fear, not even a curse. The children of the street used it in a game they played with rocks:
The Outer Flower grows,
Skip, two, three
And none can find it.
The Outer Flower grows,
Skip, three, four,
And none can bind it.
Part One: The Blood Wars
Long after the fall of Sarr, in a space of time illumined by vision, William I, High King of Casoria, began the tradition of Open Court. For six days a year, three before spring moon and three after harvest, those with a grievance would journey forth to Castle Ursaulis to stand before the High King. He received them in the Great Throne Room, a wonderful hall with great oaken beams and leaded windows of ruby and blue. Rank was abolished on these occasions, and so it was not an uncommon sight for young dandies to be confronted by red-faced merchants or landed gentry to argue volubly with farmers over scraps of land. Rank was dismissed in the galleries as well. Fine silks rubbed against coarse wool or burlap as delicate musk and spices were heightened by a barnyard scent. From dawn until dusk, William heard them; from dawn till dusk the royal scepter rose and fell. He reigned for forty years and was known as William the Fair.
His son, William II, continued the tradition but felt no real pleasure in it. His joy was the hunt; he found the cases before him unpleasant and tiresome. He would not decide against his friends.
Under his rule, Open Court took on a circus atmosphere. The Great Throne Room became an arena for coarse villains to bluster and rant to the delight of the crowd. Justice was decided by the loudest voice while lewd fabrications, unspeakable in the first William’s day, drew crude laughter from his son and friends. Even so, the people kept streaming into Casoria for these sessions, if not for justice, then at least to roam the streets at will.
Before he could corrupt his father’s vision entirely, William II, who, by this time, had earned the epithet William the Rash, began what would ultimately be known as the Blood Wars, a conflict that would span twenty years — a dark, bloodstained part of Casorian history that would nearly destroy the city and cost the lives of thousands.
It began over a bird.
The three spotted falcon was a rare bird, not only in the sense of limited numbers but due to the fact that it was seldom seen, having been sighted only a handful of times outside the Eld Forest where it preferred to make its home. In that dense pocket of foliage, the birds flew and mated without intrusion. No one hunted in the Eld Forest as it had been declared sikenta, or sacred to the old god, Elyon.
One morning while riding with his nobles, William the Rash flushed out the bird when his horse stumbled into a thicket. The falcon froze on a low limb, then spiraled upwards, giving off a high, piercing shriek. It all took place in a matter of seconds, but William had time to observe the peculiar pattern on the bird’s wing. It was like none other in his mews.
“What sort of bird is that?” He demanded of Garrion, his falconer, who rode a stout dapple on his left. “And why is it not in my aviary?”
“What bird?” Garrion focused on the pommel of his saddle, rubbing at a spot.
“That bird yonder!” the King roared, and Garrion looked up.
“It’s a small species of falcon peculiar to the Eld Forest,” replied the falconer with a deprecating shrug. “It is of little account. The merest chick in your aviary is far superior.”
William the Rash lifted red-rimmed eyes and followed the bird’s quick, purposeful flight. The image blurred, then sharpened to a perfect V held in stasis before it disappeared from sight.
“I must have it,” declared William.
His noble companions eyed each other uneasily. Lord Dinnisee’s bay abruptly threw back its head and showered them with a series of snorts.
“Pray consider,” began Anjhest, a red-bearded drinking companion. In the taverns, he was a brawler, but now his voice was wheedling and soft. “It is a small bird and the distance to the Eld Forest is great.”
“How far, falconer?” William asked, casting a sharp glance to his left.
“Two days, three at the most, I’m guessing, but it’s a fair guess.” Garrion paused before adding. “One does not often travel to the sacred forest. I myself have only skirted around it and then as a lad.”
“I see.” The King seemed satisfied, then turned to Anjhest with a dangerous glare. “And what if it were two days or twenty? Are there no horses in the royal stables?”
“No, Majesty, that was not my inference, I meant–“
“What Anjhest is trying to tell you, cuz, is that you can’t go there.” Creath, fair as the sun and blood cousin to the King, slapped his reins lightly against his palm as he spoke. “The Eld Forest is sikestra. No one may enter.”
“There are other amusements,” put in Gerlatch, quickly. “Like a giant bear. Or a ruby scaled dragon. I know there is one by Glynnis Fen. It rose out of the swamp and has been picking off children at random. We could find no greater sport.”
“Dragons are worms. I find them sad,” said William, forcing a yawn. “And bears stink. I have a yen for the bird.”
“Sarr’s bones, cousin!” burst out Creath. “The Eld Forest belongs to the Elyon. We can’t go there!’
“The Elyon! The Elyon!” William bellowed back. “All my life I have heard stories of the old god, yet we have never met. He has never come to court. And as for the notion of sikestra? Bah! I am the law of the land! Today, this very day, we begin for the Eld Forest. If the Elyon is there when we arrive, well and good. If not, we begin to hunt.”
“We don’t want to go,” said Creath bluntly. Blond as William was fair, Creath’s bullish expression matched the King’s own.
“Which of you would refuse your King?” demanded William.
One by one, their eyes shifted and dropped to the ground.
It was a subdued party that set out that same afternoon. The King clattered down the cobbled streets of Casoria, chin jutting forth, while the others followed in single file. The entourage consisted of Creath, first cousin to the King by blood and Prince of the Nibban Highlands; Lord Dinnisee, second son of a well connected family; Lord Gerlatch, Duke of Hiffert; and Lord Anjhest, ruler of the Andovers and March Lord of Banescale, a thin strip of land that bordered on the wastes of the Nevers They were joined by Lord Alexy Ondred, a Bornish gentleman of high fashion but not unskilled in swordplay, and Perri, nephew of the falconer, who was in charge of the pack ponies. They had left the hounds behind but had brought nets of every conceivable sort; the smaller pack pony bumbled and creaked with them.
The men broke camp the first night outside Saundry; the second night was spent in an open field. Although the wine was plentiful, none felt inclined toward conversation. The thought of the Eld Forest loomed before them. Only the King and Lord Alexy Ondred seemed unaffected by what lay ahead.
“How far, falconer?” William lounged on one side, cradling a bottle of Frennin White, a tart, potent wine he had had packed especially. “Come now, another guess.”
“We should see the peaks of Ron Jonna, smallest of the High North Mountains, by tomorrow’s nightfall,” replied Garrison, his face moody in the firelight. “The Eld Forest lies directly in its evening shadow to the west.”
William sat up and spat into the fire. “We will bag a bird before noon and ride home directly.”
“My thoughts exactly,” agreed Ondred. “Our prey is neither scarce nor intelligent. It should be a matter of confining several to our nets.”
Despite the general apprehension, it was a mellow night. The air was warm and the bird calls melodious while the crickets kept up a steady, comforting chirp. It was Creath who broke the silence.
“Upon our return, I will be repairing to my country estates,” He stared at his cousin through the firelight. “With the King’s permission, of course.”
William grunted, then belched.
“I, too, have obligations,” agreed Anjhest sadly. “Horses, cattle, peasants. Life is a tiresome affair.”
“I am soon to marry,” blurted Dinnisee. “She is freckled as a spotted pup, but with a large dowry. We will rub well together.”
“Your regard for duty would be commendable if it were not so sudden,” William regarded the three with a sneer. “Begone, if you will. But what of you, Lord Ondred? Have you no pressing matters to attend?”
Ondred replied with a shrug. “I live each day to the fullest, impervious to petty duty, changing fortunes, or the whims of gods. I’m yours to command.”
Creath muttered an obscenity while William beamed. Until now, the King had viewed Ondred in an unflattering light, wary of his caustic tongue and overdress. This outing however, had revealed the true character of the man. William now saw hard intelligence and refined tastes. A ruler would do well to surround himself with such men. The King took a generous swig of wine and mulled over an appointment at court.
They awoke the next morning, tense yet eager to complete the deed. The horses picked up their mood and turned skittish. The pony with the nets broke loose, and a red-faced Perri brought him back.
The falconer’s approximations proved correct. By late afternoon, they passed a looming moutain; a few miles farther and they were gazing at what Garrion assured them was the tree line of the Eld Forest.
Even in the lengthening shadows, it was a disappointing sight. The fabled forest was not large, verdant, or even mysterious. In fact, it looked like the type of spot where one might piss.
“This is the Eld Forest? Ha!” William relaxed, laughing derisively. His laughter was answered by a shrieking bird to their right. “Sacred to the Elyon because no one else wants it!”
“Precisely,” agreed Lord Ondred. “The tale of the sacred forest, as well as this sikenta business, was no doubt invented by a shrewd group of robbers who sought to keep their hiding place secure. It has long been my opinion that most of our treasured beliefs spring from practical necessity or, in this case, simple avarice and greed.”
The men received this in nervous silence but for Anjhest, who gave a laugh. Even so, their mood lightened considerably and that night much wine was consumed; they fell asleep listening to Gerlatch’s misadventures with a prize bull. They awoke bleary eyed and thirsty. Perri was sent to fetch water while the men relieved themselves. The tree line of the Eld Forest was now plainly in view. The morning light did nothing to heighten its appearance. It looked even less promising than the night before.
“I’ve heard stories of the Eld Forest since I was a child,” commented Gerlatch. “Are you sure this is it?”
“Well, there is the rock,” said Garrion, pointing.
A large, white rock stood out clearly against the treelike, indicating sikestra, or sacred spot. Each sikestra was marked by one. After the garden was defiled, it was said the Elyon would not be robbed of more land and so he chose these locations, twelve in all, placing a similar white stone in each. Those who had seen the stones at close range reported dry rivulets coursing over their surface, rumored to be stains of Tianne’s tears.
“The forest appears to be comprised mainly of sycamores and scrub pines,” observed Ondred. “The only remaining mystery is why the bandits would chose such a hiding place.”
William frowned. As usual, Ondred was right, but, dammit, his head hurt. The forest before him was a paltry thing, hardly more than a thicket. A thin light broke through the trees and he fancied he could see through to the field on the other side. William coughed bile from his throat and squinted. The men about him were cowards save for Ondred, whose worth he couldn’t determine. Last night’s profundities now seemed a noisome buzzing in his ears. The bird too seemed negotiable. William remembered its slightness, the loud, undignified squawks. Suddenly, the sun was too bright, the wine sour, and the matter trifling. He spoke sharply to his falconer. “Do you have the nets ready?”
“Yes, Highness,” Garrion replied.
William spurred his horse, and the others followed.
I write mainly Appalachian fiction, but I also write fantasy. The customs presented here might smack of “Merry Old England” but the scenery in my mind is taken from West Virginia, the mountain state, where we build castles in the air. J.S
Another installment of Outer Flower tomorrow, Nov, 22.