By Stephanie A.
''Tell me the prophecy again, Mother!''The young girl implored, pushing her red-gold hair out of her eyes. ''Please?''
Her mother chuckled, making the wrinkles on her face even more prominent. Though she was barely thirty, constant battle for survival had aged her. ''I suppose, my dear Aris. After all, it is your seventh birthday.'' She cleared her throat.
''The day the Shadow steals the throne
A child will be born, her mother alone.
Hunted and loathed, the two will flee.
The child will be raised among the trees.
And armed with autumn’s sacred flame,
The Blessed One will end Lord Rhenus' reign.''
''Oh, Mother! It's so beautiful! Who do you suppose the Blessed One is?'' Her mother looked troubled for a moment, then turned away.
Suddenly, the sound of hoof beats penetrated the still forest air. Aris' mother gasped.
''Hide, Aris! Quickly!''
''But Mother, you haven't told me the story of Lord Rhenus yet!''
The next day, Aris crept from the hollow tree where she had hidden, and found her mother dead.
The day the Shadow steals the throne/ A child will be born, her mother alone…” Aris chanted under her breath as she crept through the forest, her bare feet making almost no sound in the underbrush. She pulled a handful of sweet berried form a nearby bush and listened carefully as she ate them. Beneath a nearby tree, a pile of dry autumn leave rustled. She spread another handful of berries on the ground, and waited. A small hare crept from its shelter, tempted by the berries. Aris put an arrow to her bowstring and fired.
Before she ate, she thanked the tree for sheltering the hair, so that it had lived long enough to feed her. The tree grew warm under her fingers in response.
“And armed with Autumn’s sacred flame…” It suddenly occurred to her that tomorrow would be her fifteenth birthday. When her mother was alive, she used to tell Aris all of her favorite stories on her birthday. Since her death, Aris had told them to herself.
She gathered a load of dead wood, for Aris would never cut down a living tree, and built a fire to roast the hare. She failed to see the pair of eyes peeking rough the tangle of vines, or to hear the steady rhythm of hoof beats galloping away from her, toward the castle of Lord Rhenus.
* * *
“What do you mean, she’s still alive?” Lord Rhenus roared.
His advisor, Vicario, scowled. “Apparently, our troops were exaggerating when they claimed to have killed her. I will have them beheaded at once.”
“YOU WILL DO NO SUCH THING”
Rhenus took a deep breath. “No, we need them to keep our hold on Argothia. I have heard rumors that he citizens plan to revolt. Brand them with the Mark of Shame, but leave them capable of fighting.”
“Yes, my lord. I assume you will want to join the expedition?”
“But of course,” the king replied, a cold smile playing about his lips. “I wish to deliver the killing blow myself. Where did our scout sight her?”
“In the forests, my lord. In the Argothian Forests.”
* * *
“The Blessed One will end Lord Rhenus’ reign.” Once again, Aris wondered who the mysterious girl was. Her mother had promised to tell her on her fifteenth birthday. But her mother had been killed by Lord Rhenus. Tears filled her sky-blue eyes as she remembered the sweet, loving woman who had been so brutally murdered. No, she thought, I must be strong. Mother would not have wanted me to grieve. She wiped the tears away.
Perhaps if she went through the Prophecy line by line, she could find some clues as to who the Blessed One was. A ridiculous idea, really , since she had never known any other person besides herm other. Nevertheless, it would help pass the time, and perhaps assuage some of her burning curiosity.
The day the Shadow steals the thorn/ A child will be born, her mother alone. The girl must be about fifteen then, like Aris. It suddenly occurred to her that Lord Rhenus had taken over in mid-autumn, which meant that the girl’s birthday must be around the same time as hers. Aris’ birthday was in October. Her mother alone… So the girl’s mother must not have had a husband when she was born, like Aris’ mother.
Hunted and loathed, the two will flee/ the child will be raised amount the trees. The girl must have hidden in a forest to escape the wrath of Lord Rhenus, as Aris had.
As Aris had.
Many miles away, an army of one hundred men on horseback thundered toward the Argothian Forests. Even from such a distance, the bright autumn foliage could be seen at the edge of the horizon. One huge black horse, called Midnight Devil rode ahead of the rest. Astride this grand beast sat Lord Rhenus.
Vicario’s gray stallion trotted beside the King. “My lord, if we do not stop to make camp we will reach the Argothian Forest by noon tomorrow.”
Rhenus smiled cruelly. “How fitting that the Cursed Child will be destroyed on the fifteenth anniversary of my rule- her fifteenth birthday.”
He looked back again at the forest. The leaves were bright as fire; in fact, from that distance it looked almost as though the trees were aflame. Something was nagging at the back o his mind, something about the Prophecy. He pushed the thought away and rode on.
* * *
The trees were on fire! Aris shrieked as the billowing columns of smoke rose into the sky. She could hear the pained cries of the trees as the flames consumed them, eating them alive!
“No!” Aris screamed. She had to save them!
She stumbled to the river, choking on the foul black smoke. With a heavy kettle she had fashioned out of clay, she scooped up the water and flung it into the blaze.
Once…Twice…Thrice…and on and on, desperately, Aris fought the fire down.
Aris shuddered as she fingered the scar on her left hand, a relic of that horrible day three years before. So many trees had died… and yet, because of her, many had lived, too.
She shook her head, ridding herself of the painful memories. It was time to turn to the task at hand, before that woodcarver could destroy a nearby maple tree. Aris took a deep breath. “Leaeaaaveee theee fooreeessstt…” She moaned in a ghostly voice. “Theee treeeesss aarrree uuundeerrr my proooteectiooon…Leeaaave nooowww…”
Apparently, the woodcarver did not believe in tree spirits. He grunted and lifted his ax to strike the tree down. Aris decided that he would need a bit more persuasion. Without hesitation she lifted her bow and shot, deliberately missing him The arrow embedded itself in the ground, barely an inch from the woodcarver’s feet. He dropped his ax and fled.
Only when they were both out of sight did Aris approach the quaking tree. She laid her hands on it and listened. Thank you, the tree seemed to be saying. Someday you will be repaid. Every tree Aris had rescued, particularly those she had saved from the fire, had told her the same thing. It made her smile when she heard it, though she wondered how a tree could repay her.
It had been but a day since Aris had discovered her true identity, and it had not changed her at all. She still defended the trees, still hunted for meat and foraged for berries.
When the time of the Prophecy come, let it come, she spoke silently to herself. Until then, I am not the Child of the Prophecy. Until then, I am Aris.
* * *
“We have arrived!” Lord Rhenus bellowed. The sun was high in the sky, but the army had reached the Argothian Forest!
“Spread out!” Vicario ordered. “Find the girl and surround her- but no one is to touch her! No one save Lord Rhenus has the right to slay the Cursed Child! And,” he added as an afterthought, “beware of the trees. They have long memories, and will certainly remember the fire we started here three years ago. They will harm you if they can.”
Deep inside the forest, Aris heard the dreaded sound of hoof beats.
* * *
The image of her mother’s murder appeared before her eyes again and again. Aris heard a cry and realized that it had come from the own lips. Suddenly disgusted with herself, she straightened up. No, I can’t fall apart now. I am the Child of the Prophecy, fated to destroy Lord Rhenus, the Shadow and take of our lands. I will be strong.
At that moment, one hundred horses thundered into the clearing.
Aris raised her bow and fired arrow after arrow. Years of practice made her aim true, but there were too many of them. In moments she was surrounded.
“Stand back!” Rhenus ordered. “This battle is mine and mine alone!” He sneered at Aris.
“Is this the famous Child of the Prophecy? Is this the one destined to destroy me? This wild girl, skinny and barely clothed, with no weapon save her bow?” He raised his sword.
Aris held up her hands as though to fend off the bow- and saw that the scar on her left hand was glowing. The king stepped back. “What…”
She stared at the brightly glowing mark. And suddenly, she saw it for what it truly was- the sign of the trees’ loyalty to her. Tilting her head toward the sky, she cried, “Trees of the Argothian Forests! I, Aris, Child of the Prophecy, call for your aid!”
For a moment, all was still. Then a whisper of wind rustled the branches of a maple tree a few feet away. Aris recognized it as the same one the woodcarver had nearly destroyed a few hours earlier. Not certain why she was doing so, she walked over to it and held out her hand. A strong, heavy limb dropped off straight into her pal.
“Weaponless, am I, Lord Rhenus?” she stated coolly. “In your own lands, perhaps, I would be. But not here among my friends the trees.” She held the limb in front of her like a sword.
Rhenus struck. There was a sickening thud as Aris blocked the descending sword with her wooden club. She in turn brought the limb down on Midnight Devil’s head. The horse collapsed, and Rhenus jumped down to continue the battle on foot.
For hours the battle raged on, with first Rhenus gaining the advantage, then Aris, then Rhenus again. Aris fought bravely, aided by the spirit of the trees, but Lord Rhenus was stronger. He brought the flat of his blade down suddenly on her wrist. She cried out and dropped the wooded limb.
The shadow advanced slowly, brandishing his sword. “Fool,” he hissed. “Did you think to defeat me? Nay, there will be a death this doay-0 but it will not be mine!” Aris suppressed a scream as he pressed the blade against her throat.
Lord Rhenus grinned as he prepared to deliver the death blow, but suddenly, a strange scent filled the air. He sniffed, and the grin faded. “Smoke,” he whispered.
Aris gasped and looked up at the autumn leaves, bright as fire… except that now they were fire. One by one, each delicate leaf was bursting into flam. The horses reared, throwing heir masters to the ground. The King’s soldiers were screaming, shocking…Lord Rhenus’ sword grew suddenly red hot, and he dropped it with a cry. All around trees were groaning, dying and straining her ears, Aris could hear their final words.
We told you that you would be repaid.
Tears came to her eyes as she realized what had happened. The trees had sacrificed their leaves’ internal flame- and their own lives- to save her. Not because she was the Child of the Prophecy. Not because she was destined to slay their greatest enemy, the one who had sent so many trees to a fiery death in an effort, Aris realized no, to destroy her. They gave their lives not to the Blessed Child, but to Aris, wild girl and friend of the trees.
The fire raged on, but Aris remained untouched. Not one of Lord Rhenus’ soldiers survived.
And armed with Autumn’s sacred flame…
At last, the fire died down. Nothing remained of Aris’ beautiful forest but ashes and twisted stumps. And one man who still breathed, though he lay near death: Lord Rhenus.
The Blessed One will end Lord Rhenus’ reign.
She fired an arrow into his hear.
Aris slowly walked through what remained of her forest, charred and blackened. Dead, like her mother. Her will crumpled, and Aris fell to her knees, shaking with sobs. Through blurred eyes she could still see the dark gray of the ashes... and a speck of green. She wiped her eyes.
A small sprout had pushed up where her tears had fallen. Aris smiled. Death would not last forever. Her forest would grow again, and Aris would be the friend of the trees once more.
Aris shouldered her bow. “Grow well, my friend,” she whispered to the sprout. Then she turned around and walked toward the river, where she would rebuild her home, deep within the Argothian Forests.