Gingerly, Aneirin put his hand to the closest of the strange trees. Immediately, he felt every aspen from here to the headwaters of the Idorion and beyond, moving, swaying, their movements all timed together, almost as if they were breathing…
What in the flatlander hells… Aneirin thought, frowning as he reached further, into the Idorion. Then beyond that, over a thickly wooded mountainside no one had ever explored, then a massive valley of ice, then a primitive village beyond that, a little cluster of men and women in skins gathered around one of the trees, looking up, poking at the trunks with sticks, their eyes larger than normal, their skin strangely hairy…
Aneirin snapped back to himself, gasping. It goes on, he thought, staring in awe. He knew from his histories that the aspen weigh-line had once crisscrossed the continent, and it had been the pet project of the first Ganlin Auldheist. The comparatively short weigh-line of today had been a pale shadow of the web of the past, a remnant that Rees and Wynfor had struggled to upkeep each year.
And yet, when Aneirin gently touched his hand to the trunk again, he again felt his consciousness expand outward, in any direction, as far as he wanted to go…
Aneirin scrambled backwards up the hill, staring.
The trees continued to roll and sway, their leaves fluttering to the nonexistent wind.
Then, as he sat there, staring up at them, a single aspen sprouted from the ground near his right hand, growing up under his fingers, pushing his hand aside as branches extended and reached for the sky with the same speed as a man getting up for his morning stretch. Aneirin got up quickly and watched as a full-sized tree took shape above him.
Aneirin had to back up again as another tree sprouted in front of that, like trickle of a stream spreading outwards, plants growing from its bounty.
No, not just any plants. Aspens. Only aspens.
As Aneirin stepped back to watch, the aspens continued to grow in a line towards the path that led to the spark mines, where barren commoners had worked two miles from Ganlin Hall.
Aneirin was going back for his pack and supplies, intent on leaving the mountain and its eerie, unnatural aspen grove before he could discover it somehow carried a nasty Vethyle surprise, when his foot touched the track of a mining cart.
Frowning, Aneirin paused and lifted his foot from the trail.
The cart had made several trips along the road between Ganlin Hall and the mines, creating ruts in the earth where there should have been none.
Sparks were carried from the mines in pouches and backpacks—there was not enough volume to need carts.
A welling of dread began to form in his chest as Aneirin turned left to follow the tracks across the mountainside, rather than right to return to Ganlin Hall. Behind him, the aspen grove continued to grow, but Aneirin left it, forgotten, his attention consumed by what he knew he was about to find.
The closer he got to the spark mines, the slower Aneirin found he could go, until he was barely putting one foot in front of the other. He had found a ring, a hairpin, and a boot along the path, and these he had carefully gathered into his arms and held them close to his chest as he continued onward. He was having trouble focusing on the road, and the agony within made it a struggle to breathe.
He came to a stop at the entrance to the mines, looking at its collapsed entrance through tears. A hundred booted feet had tromped down the area outside, and mining carts had crisscrossed the dirt there in dozens of tracks, then were discarded haphazardly to one side, buzzing with flies. Standing there, staring at his family’s makeshift tomb, something small and ivory caught his eye exposed from a recent rain. Trembling with the growing agony inside, Aneirin stooped to pull it from the earth. It was a runed, semi-translucent pendant on a rotting leather thong. His mother’s pendant, given to her by her Aneirin’s long-dead grandfather, a double loop of a substance not unlike porcelain that Wynfor claimed was dragon bone, with runed etchings covering its surface that were rumored to be as old as Ariod, yet were as clean and crisp as if it had been carved yesterday.
Until that point, until seeing the pendant, Aneirin had harbored some hope that someone had lived. But standing there on the windswept mountainside, total silence except for the sound of air against stones and wind-twisted brush, knowing that the only way that necklace would have left his mother’s neck was if she were dead, Aneirin experienced an overwhelming rush of grief. He knew they were there. All of them. His entire life, everyone he had ever loved, every dinner he’d ever shared, every story he’d ever told, every smile he’d ever given.
All of it rotting, just beyond that wall of dirt.
Aneirin wasn’t sure when he fell to his knees or how long he knelt there, crying at his family’s grave, but darkness was falling when something brushed his arm, feather-light.
Agonized, Aneirin didn’t care who was there. Ganlin, Vethyle, Norfeld, Auldhund—he no longer cared. His every reason for existing was buried under a mountain of rubble.
The brush came again, gentle. Not bothering to wipe away the tears, Aneirin turned.
An aspen tree had sprouted from the path behind him, one of its branches touching him as it swayed in the wind. When he looked beyond it, the path had become a single line of aspens, every one of his footprints growing a tree.
And now the trees were spreading out, creating a ring around him and the entrance to the mines.
Aneirin swallowed, tightening his fingers on the pendant. “Mom?” he whispered up at the trees.
His mother’s face appeared embedded in the trunk of the tree between him and the mass grave. Kind, loving, strong, as she had looked in life. Not butchered and bleeding, as Aneirin had seen her last.
Aneirin’s heart stopped. “Mom,” he whimpered.
Her visage remained still, not turning to look at him as he wished it would. It continued to look out over the mountainside beyond. Aneirin lowered his head, squeezing his eyes shut, knowing that grief drove men mad.
Yet when he looked again, her image was still there, her face a part of the tree itself. Aneirin let out a horrible sob, looking upon her for one last time. “I’m sorry, Mom,” he whimpered. “I could have stopped it. And now…”
She continued to peer out over the barren Slopes.
“Now you’re all dead,” Aneirin whimpered. The words were beginning to flow as if a dam had burst, finally having someone he could speak the words to. “I had Laelia under a geas, and she told me she was going to kill Ganlins, but I didn’t say anything because I was afraid Rees wouldn’t rank me if he found out I’d wrapped Laelia in—”
Rees’s image appeared in the tree beside his mother’s, grinning, as he often had in life.
Aneirin choked on another sob. He looked down at the items in his hands. “I saw Trytha in the pool, but when I tried to pull her out, she fell apart, so I left her there. I’m so sorry, Mom.”
Trytha’s face appeared beside Rees’s, a girl giggling, sharing a secret with friends.
For long minutes, Aneirin stared at her image, fixed into the tree in front of him, peering out over the Slopes with Rees and his mother. Then, in a whisper, he said, “Icel.”
His uncle’s face appeared embedded in the tree on the other side of his mother’s, his hair unkempt, a devious dimple to his cheeks, everybody’s irresponsible big brother.
Aneirin whimpered and looked away, the sense of loss absolute. “Aunt Nerys.”
His aunt’s face, older than the others, appeared with her grandmotherly smile.
“Agathe,” he managed.
His great-aunt appeared as she had without her illusions, on those rare days she shared just with close family.
Aneirin went down the list, naming every person he could remember. When he ran out of trees, more grew. He named every Auld, every auldling, and every barren commoner who had been killed on that mountainside two horrible months ago. Every man, woman, and child. Every Ganlin that could attend his ranking.
Last, he whispered, “Maelys of the Rockfarmers.”
His friend’s face did not appear.
Aneirin felt a brief flash of hope, thinking perhaps Maelys had somehow escaped—she had a knack for doing that—but then he realized Maelys wasn’t a Ganlin. Every name he’d given the aspens before this were Ganlins. What would the Ganlin trees care about a Rockfarmer girl?
Saddened that he had no way to memorialize his friend—who died alone amongst strangers—Aneirin went back to Maelys’ room, took the dragonsilk blanket that had been folded and left on a table as proof of Laelia’s crimes. It was brown in places where Maelys had been eaten alive by the insects Laelia’s thugs had left there.
Going back to the grove of trees now blocking entrance to the collapsed mine, Aneirin dug a small trench between two trees and lowered the stained dragonsilk into it. He brushed soil over the top, then picked up a big, weathered stone from the mountainside and settled it upon the ground atop it. He found more, creating a cairn slightly in front of the grove.
“Maelys,” he whispered, gently placing his palm upon it.
Aneirin closed his eyes and dropped his forehead to the pile of rocks. Everyone had thought that Maelys would be his end. And Life, in all of its irony, had seen the opposite happen.
Aneirin froze when he realized that his hand had sunk into the rocks in front of him. He yanked his palm back quickly, but the uppermost rock tumbled from the cairn with him, still clinging to his fingers before they slid free and it fell to the ground between his knees. He stared at it a moment, then gingerly picked it up.
He watched, loss and grief bubbling up, when the stone gripped his fingers again, almost like a friendly squeeze.
“Goodbye, Maelys,” Aneirin said, lowering the rock back to the top of the cairn. “Maybe I will see you again in the next life.”
Above him, the round leaves of the aspens took on a sudden fluttering rush, the tops pushing sideways as if being pushed by a non-existent wind, to the south.
Aneirin bit his lip, looking up at the many faces now overlooking the Slopes. It wasn’t that a new Ganlin had emerged that had healed the weigh line, he realized. It was that so many had died.
Support "Shadow of the Spyre"
a.k.a. Sara King, sci-fi/fantasy/thriller writer from Alaska. Check me out on Amazon or Patreon! Email me at [email protected] to get on my beta-reader list for upcoming work, or just to say hi. :)
My Facebook profile is: https://www.facebook.com/kingfiction/