As the south winds blew through the Bolsen Forest, Eros could smell fire. From this branch, high above the forest floor, he could see for miles. Nearest, still under siege, was High Castle. It belonged to King Rivok the Kind, 25th of his name. It was a majestic place, with high walls and a village that was full of happy people. Eros’ eyes traced down toward the front gates. It had been nearly ten generations since they’d last been breached, and that occupation had been when Rivok’s forefathers had gone away to war. The occupation of High Castle had lasted only three days. However, any man who had seen war knew how much destruction could be created in that time.
This attack was different. The farmlands, usually rich and rolling, were scorched bare. They still smoldered, black smoke fighting its way into the sky through a bed of obsidian coals. The gate itself, painted with the green and blue crest of the Rivok lineage, was gone. Eros took a deep breath, summoning the energy from the trees around him. His vision sharpened to that of an eagle’s, the world coming into nigh perfect clarity. With his heightened sense, Eros could see the deep gouges, wood splintered by a hundred hungry maws, each fighting to get at the men, women and children inside.
High Castle had been deathly silent for nearly a month. He knew food was scarce. He’d sent a bird the day before. A fellow nature shaman named Polon, who lived in the city, had responded in kind. The message, tied to the hawk’s claw, was hastily scrawled and very brief. Eros had been in the trees, as he was this day, when the hawk had come. It had come right to him, landing lightly on his outstretched palm. When the sun dropped, the Hellions always came. He’d watched the siege, each night the Hellions rising from the ground and beginning their assault anew, their purpose seemingly fueled by the night. Eros thought about all of this as he unfurled the message. As he read it, he felt nausea rolling through his blood in a river. THE CITY IS LOST PREPARE THE MOTHER.
It was morning. In eight hours the Hellions would strike. It had been this way for what felt like an age. No one knew where they came from. At least, not really. Whispers said they’d descended from the darkest depths of the Morlong Mines. Other men blamed sorcerers in the Wastelands. Men theorized as the Hellions did their damage.
They’d first attacked the slaver city Boba. Even with their vast army, the city had been easily overtaken. Boba’s elite soldiers had felled a few, losing a hundred men for each creature slain. The survivors, fleeing on ships into the Crystal Sea, had spoken of the Hellions as if they were already legends. Maws of fire. Claws sharper than steel. Speed unparalleled. Three nights later, they struck Monastery City. A temple full of monks fell quickly. That’s when the realm learned that magic did next to nothing against the Hellions. Panic spread like flame to a scroll.
Eros closed his eyes, reaching out to the nature around him. At its core, he could feel the beating heart that was Bolsen Forest. It was place of peace and power, with veins of energy that flowed from deep below the ground, roots connecting to roots. All of it met at the apex. The Mother. A tree that took root in the primordial fires of the beginning. Even with his eyes closed and his back to her, Eros could feel her shadow. She reached the sky, taller than any tower man had ever created.
As a shaman, he had devoted his life to the greater good of the forest. His magic stemmed from the dormant power around him. Bolsen Forest was his home. He was its human ambassador and its defender when needed. When threats had come for the forest in the past, High Castle, in all its wealth and power, was always there. They were a rock in bad times. The fact that High Castle was in danger worried him. THE CITY IS LOST PREPARE THE MOTHER. Prepare her. To the men and women in the land, The Mother was nothing more than an enormous tree. As a shaman, Eros knew she was more than that. To him, The Mother was a being of enormous power. Her energy shone the largest, a beacon of light in a sea of it. Eros knew the legends. The times The Mother had been brought to life…
Eros stood, stretching his muscles. He’d been mediating since the dawn. When he’d arrived on the branch, the sun’s fingers seeking out, he’d watched the gates of High Castle open. A horse had ridden out, a rider dressed in emerald robes, headed his direction. It didn’t take the eyes of an eagle to know that an Ironhand was headed his way. Eros looked down, the height from the branch dizzying. On the edge of the forest, he could make out the tiny shape of the rider. Is it Olgund? He may have news.
Eros began to run, the tree branch hard beneath his bare feet. He felt the forest around him, all at once, connecting with him. All at once he could see—
A squirrel, scurrying about. A great bear, the stream opening before it, the copper flashes of fish beneath the churning waters. A cocoon, opening, ever so slowly, into the morning sunshine. The Mother, long dormant. The history of his people, breathing life into their matron. A spark ignited, the sparks filthy against the purity around him. Fire was coming. An old enemy. A—
The air whistled around him as he dropped, his muscles humming with strength. He caught himself on an outstretched branch, swinging quickly forward, his momentum only slowing for a second. Eros dropped again, arms out, a controlled descent. He felt the speed as he fell, pressure spreading through his chest, his arms, his legs. His feet met branch. Birds fled into the thin air, wings flapping, startled at his sudden appearance. He read the atmosphere. The rider was at the edge of the forest. He was weary. He smelled of smoke. Eros took a final leap to the ground below, the bed of pine needles cushioning his fall.
The path crackled. Before him, mounted on a horse, sat Olgund Blackson. He was a small man, narrow shouldered with a head of dark hair that was beginning to thin. From atop his horse, Olgund didn’t seem surprised that Eros had just dropped from the trees. It was the Ironhand way. Stern as stone. They’d been protecting the realm, free of nation and politics, for seven generations. They were ruthless fighters and lived their lives on the road, going where they were needed.
“Morning to you, Brother Eros.” Olgund dismounted, his twin swords moving against his hips.
“It’s nice to see you again Olgund. Even under the circumstances.”
Olgund nodded, taking his horse by the reins.
“Your brother Polon sent me. We need to talk about what lies ahead for this forest. Do you have someplace for us to speak?”
Eros smiled. “I have just the place.”
The trail became slightly overgrown as they neared The Mother, great ferns and flowers reaching into the path. When the trail opened suddenly, the colossal trunk of The Mother coming into view, Olgund grunted. Even at her base, her great roots were taller than the combined height of three men. The sheer size of her trunk was awe-inspiring. You could look straight up, tracing the thick bark with your eyes to the top of the tree and still not get a glimpse of her highest branches. He knew, however, from his visions, that great winged creatures lived among them, nesting, feeding their young with wild colts. And although he’d never seen one in person, he knew them to be larger than nearly anything else in the forest.
Eros climbed onto an enormous root and waited for Olgund to speak. When the Ironhand did, his voice was soft.
“The gate is nearly broken. As of dawn, we’ve begun to evacuate the women and children through the tunnels. By the time nightfall comes, they will be safe.”
Eros found himself nodding. He felt numb. The thought of High Castle’s gate being broken terrified him.
“We believe that Bolsen Forest may be where the Hellions attack next. They seem to hate life. And your forest is full of it.”
Eros reached out, caressing The Mother’s rough bark. He imagined his home burning, besieged by beasts born from some form of evil darkness.
“Olgund. Can they be stopped?”
Eros met the Ironhand’s gaze. The man’s eyes were silver. And cold.
A short time later, Olgund leapt onto his horse, grunting as he threw himself into his saddle.
“I ride for the coast. I have many warnings to give.”
Eros reached into his robes and withdrew the parchment that Polon had sent.
“This message. Did you read it before it left the city?”
Olgund nodded, his mount anxious beneath him.
“What does it mean? Prepare The Mother?”
“Polon and I had a long talk about the forest’s odds of survival. He seems to think it has only one chance.” Olgund turned his eyes skyward, the chords on his neck standing out.
“Awaken the Mother.”
Eros frowned, suddenly feeling very small. “I’m not sure I have the power to do such a thing. The power to bring such a great being to life is-“
Olgund raised a hand, interrupting Eros.
“Fight or die. In times like these, the realm of men may have no other choice.”
With that, Olgund was gone, riding hard. Eros watched him go for a long time. Then he began to climb.
The sun dropped like a stone. Eros watched it from his branch, his ironwood staff in hand. It was a weapon he’d only used a few times. He was a defender, not a fighter. Threats sometimes came to the forest. When he used the magic around him, swords and arrows could not touch him. With the aid of the forest and the might of High Castle, their enemies never stood a chance. Eros could see the steady stream of people coming out on the far side of the city, a stream that had begun to falter. He couldn’t imagine many remained. Only soldiers and generals, ready to die fighting an enemy that seemed nigh untouchable.
Awaken The Mother. Eros’ teacher, generations before, had told him a story. A great sea demon, arisen by dark forces, had slithered onto the land. It’s great tentacles had devoured everything that it came in contact with. The realm had seemed lost. Until the druids of Bolsen Forest had pushed their strength into the The Mother, vivifying the matron. She’d pulled her great roots from the earth and went to battle, turning the great serpent into mush. The story had excited him as a child. He was raised among such tales, when nature had been much more wild and free. Would The Mother arise for him? He was by no means as powerful in the nature magic as his brothers before. Would she awaken at his call?
A distant sound of earth stirring came to Eros’s ears. The city! Eros tapped into the trees around him, sharpening his vision again. He could see them. The Hellions. He watched. And listened. The forest felt it all. When the screams came, the forest mourned for them.
Ashes. The walls tumbled. Smoke once again filled the air, filled with a great grayness that had once been the men of High Castle. Eros collapsed onto the branch, his body shaking. Tears ran down his cheeks. He mourned them. The tales of people slain by the Hellions had reached him. But to see it. A city he loved razed to the ground by a foe that cared nothing for the nature of earth or the organizations of men. The Hellions were done with High Castle. Soon they would be upon them.
Through his tears, Eros whistled. A sparrow came to him, landing deftly on a nearby branch. It turned its head and blinked at him, twitching.
“Go. Gather the forest for war.”
The sparrow flew away, diving out of view. Eros gripped his staff. He felt power fill his muscles. He drew it from the earth, the leaves, and the enormous trees that surrounded him. The world of men had all but fallen. Bolsen Forest held forces mightier than the stones and steel that his kind relied on. Death filled the wind. Eros could see their black mass, a fiery horde, closing the distance between High Castle and the forest. Eros stood and began to run, his eyes trained on The Mother’s branches.
At her roots, Eros placed his hand on her trunk. He could instantly feel the power, the natural wisdom that came from a knowledge steeped into the land. Wake up. Your land needs you. He pushed his thoughts into The Mother, a liquid pressure rising up his spine. They melded.
The Hellions reaching the trees. Beasts that looked like hounds, dozens of feet high, liquid fire pouring from their gaping maws. They came as a wall, hundreds of them, levelling the growth with a single-minded ferocity. “Wake up. Your land needs you.” A bear, who had seen 20 summers collided with one Hellion, striking it with a paw the size of a tree’s trunk. The beast went down, howling, spewing flame. Trees lit. The grasses ignited. Animals fled deeper into the forest. “Wake up. Your land needs you.” Eros’ conscious wandered. He was further than connected. He was one. Some of the oldest trees in the forest pulled loose of the soil, lumbering creatures that swayed even as they fought, sweeping long branches into the countless lines of Hellions, casting them aside. One such tree went down, every branch and leaf aflame. Far below Eros’ feet, the ground heaved and shuddered. “Wake up. Your land NEEDS YOU.” The sound of roots pulling from the deep earth was apocalyptic. Slowly. SLOWLY. The Mother weaved, unstable, as large as a god. Eros stayed by her side as she tore free, a green glow pulsating from his skin. Hellions drove the bear down, tearing out its throat. The trees fell, one after the other, broken and alight. “Wake up. Your land—“
Eros stumbled backward, buried under soil. The Mother emerged, branches flexing into the night, roots holding her steady. She took a step, the ground cracking, sending tremors across the land.
The Mother had awoken.
He tore himself out from under the soil, screaming with joy. You’re seeing this! You’ve brought her to life! A howl rose through the forest. Eros turned around, his eyes taking in the chaos all at once. The Hellions were upon them. The trees that remained continued to fight, though they were vastly outnumbered. One Hellion whipped its head toward Eros. Then it sprinted at him.
Seeing the Hellions up close was terrifying. Muscles coiling beneath tar black skin. Compressed diamonds of roaring flame deep within their misshapen skulls. Claws tearing through the ground. Barbed tails lashing wildly at the air. Eros raised his staff, setting his feet. Strike the beast high in the—
The Mother’s foot crushed the Hellion, sending a shockwave that threw Eros into the air. He landed hard, his body in shock. All he could do was watch.
The rest of the horde, dozens upon dozens, turned on The Mother, sharp teeth gnashing at the air. They belched fire and howled at the enormous tree. The Mother didn’t move. She didn’t have to. The Hellions ran at her, swarming over each other in a profane wave of smoke and fire. The Mother brought another foot down, flattening a chunk of the line with ease. They struck at her leg, bark flying in every direction. Fire roared into the exposed wood, charring it repeatedly. The Mother reached down with one branch, swiping a pack up, sending them hurtling into the air and out of sight. Eros stood slowly, his muscles sore. He was bleeding somewhere. The pain didn’t bother him. Seeing The Mother, fighting for her forest, had exhilarated him.
Eros raced forward, swinging his staff into the jagged teeth of the nearest Hellion. The beast stumbled before snapping back at him. Eros leapt backward, the teeth gnashing on air. He hit the creature again and again, each time aiming for a different body part. The jaw. A joint. The Hellion drew in a great breath and blew it out, sending a fireball into the air. Eros ducked, the flame torching his robes as it passed by. The beast was upon him, its strength seemingly renewed. Eros dodged, each swipe coming closer and closer as he moved. The Mother continued to fight, the Hellions breaking into smaller and smaller groups. She was simply too slow. And he was too weak. If only—
Birds the size of carriages dropped from the sky, purple wings flapping, yellow talons sharp. The first snatched the Hellion nearest Eros, claws spilling boiling blood into the smoldering forest floor. The birds that live in The Mother’s canopy! They were larger than he could have ever imagined. The remaining Hellions turned their fire to the sky, buffeting the enormous birds. Eros could feel the spirit of the forest, joined in a singular hymn of unity, each note aimed at the enemy. Trees stomped all around them, closing in on the beasts. Another bear trampled into the fray, its roar cutting through the chaos. From the surrounding flames, Eros could see everything. Vines lashed from outstretched branches, immobilizing them as The Mother crushed them into the dirt. The enormous birds dropped the Hellions into the earth from sickening heights, the beasts howling as they collided. As the last of them fell, crushed by the might of the forest, Eros rose his staff in salute. We’ve won.
It took a week for the fires to die down. Eros spent most of that week at the roots of The Mother. After the final Hellion had been slain, the tree had once again returned to her rightful spot, the heart of a place that had, hours previous, fought for its life. The sound of her roots returning to the earth was the sound of the earth mending anew. Eros slept hard that night, his body exhausted. The trees of Bolsen Forest followed their mother’s example and also returned to their rightful places.
Eros dreamed of the empty streets of High Castle. He dreamed that he was riding to their rescue, nature at his back. It was too late. Everyone knew it. The sky swirled, crimson thunder lighting the darkness. In the fire, the corpses boiled. They lifted their heads, blinking, ash falling from their eye sockets—
On the fourth day following the battle, Olgund returned.
The Ironhand gave him a weary smile. “The realm will never forget what you and The Mother did for them. The war you fought on men’s behalf.”
Eros clenched his ironwood staff. It was scorched, dark lines stretching down the entire length.
“I did nothing. The forest did what it had to.” A thought occurred to him then, as grey as ash. “Did Polon pass in the Hellion attack?”
Olgund nodded. “They took a small census of the people evacuated. He did not number among them.”
Eros looked at the blood-drenched dirt. He wasn’t surprised.
Before Olgund left, Eros provided him with several bundles of fruit for the surviving women and children of High Castle. Once again, the Ironhand left in a hurry, his horse’s hooves echoing through the silence of the forest.
Eros climbed once again to his branch, looking out over the land. High Castle, walls destroyed and the remaining farmlands burnt. The outskirts of his forest, great pockets of woods missing. It would not take long for the green to return once again. He thought of the Hellions. They had come suddenly, reeking of hell and sulfur. Would they come again? Perhaps in greater force? Eros hoped not.
Bolsen Forest would defend itself. Eros thought of his dream. Of the losses they had suffered. Next time, it will be different. The Hellions would never reach High Castle or any other city.
Eros and his forest wouldn’t allow it.
Logan Noble is a horror writer who happens to include a dash of humor and sci-fi if the literary recipe calls for it. He spends his days thinking about more interesting places from his home in Ohio, reading and wasting time with his wife Elizabeth and his two dogs. His short fiction has appeared in a number of anthologies, most of which can be found on Amazon. A novel should be coming soon, assuming he’s not writing something else at the time.
Follow along his daily adventures on Twitter at @logan_noble, or at his blog firstname.lastname@example.org.