The Bright Summer
rating: +5+x

The Royal Mother Tree was just west of the City Under the Sun. To its left and right were the smaller and lesser trees known as the Sun and Moon trees. On their branches hung swinging budlings of all sizes. Each connected by the stem, each giving the tree life and receiving it in return, each waiting for the day they detach and see the world for themselves.

Winter is over, Hammer thought. It will be any day now. The excitement almost made him forget he was only the offspring of the lesser Moon Tree. He had spent three winters attached to his branch. From tiny bud to growing budling, three winters being tutored by the priests that climbed through the branches to educate the youth. I can’t wait to hop for the first time, to see other places… The mountains he saw on the horizon he would one day touch, they would be more than a horizon.

Through that time he got to know his branch brothers. Wagon had grown next to him, though he had the same blue-green flesh and thin spines as Hammer did, he was much bigger, and slower. Warcry was opposite him, skinnier, but louder. In older times it had been custom to name oneself after detachment, in ancient times few even bothered to name themselves. Eighty-one winters after King Spear had united the Kingdom, and names were being picked before even leaving the tree.

Hammer and his branch brothers had known for a long time what they would do.

“I heard the training is tough,” Wagon said.

“They do it to make you stronger,” Hammer replied.

“After they cut me down I’ll be hopping until they beg me to stop,” Warcry half-yelled. “I was grown for training!”

Hammer had been grown on tales of King Spear’s Unification, the battles he fought in Hill and Fire. The final confrontation with the King of the Hill known as The End. Where both went down in blazing glory. And of course the brave Shield who took a torch for his King.


The sound of the drums echoed through the tree. Hammer looked back to its origin. The priest with his skinny, strong, body and hundred green needles, stood near the foot of the tree. Next to him a stranger held a spear, and another held something similar.

“The drums!” Warcry yelled. “This is it! This is the day!”

The priest and the one with the strange spear-like object hopped forward below, Hammer recognized him as a cutter. They’ve come to detach us. Priest and cutter both hopped onto a platform, which was pulled up by a rope slung over a nearby branch. Three winters for this day.

The sun travelled halfway across the sky as the two hopped from branch to branch, cutting those who were deemed ready. And then the big moment arrived. They hopped onto Hammer’s branch. The priest looked at the three, still hanging by the stem from their branches.

“Wagon,” the priest said. “Name the four Provinces.”

Of all the times to not know, Wagon, this would be the worst.

“Sun… Fire… no, wait… yes, Fire… River… Hill!”

A moment of silence followed, the priest turned and gave the cutter a nod. The blade was attached to a long stick, thin and sharp. He lowered it and cut where Wagon’s stem met the branch. Wagon grunted with pain, and fell as he was freed, drifting to the ground below.

“Warcry. Name the three cities.”

Warcry straightened. “The City Under the Sun, capital of the Kingdom and the Sun Province. The City on the River, capital of the River Province. The City of Ash, capital of the Fire Province.”

The priest gave a nod. Warcry was detached with a short yell of pain. The priest now turned to Hammer.

“Hammer,” he said. “Name the positions and holders of-”

“Snowflake, King of the Plant Kingdom. Bark, Root of the Kingdom. Goldflame, Head Priest. And the position of Thorn has been vacant since the recent death of Strongrass.”


The confidence in Hammer’s body was snuffed all at once. He had memorized the politics and history of the Kingdom as he had been taught. He had repeated those words time and again.

“What?” Hammer asked.

“King Snowflake passed last night,” the priest said. “May the sun shine on him.”

“Root Bark is now King?”

“Of course not, Root Bark is not of the Royal Mother Tree. There is a new one, one I don’t know. Rumor has it he might take fire as his symbol.”

He left Hammer to contemplate his words. Giving the cutter a nod, the blade was lowered, and cut. Hammer, unprepared, let out a loud yell as he was detached. As he fell he bumped into several branches. Forty-eight winters. He reigned forty-eight winters…

He landed on the ground, feeling the dirt for the first time. Two treekeepers came to his aid, pulling him up and balancing him on his stem. Hammer wobbled slightly in each direction as he struggled.

“It’s all about balance,” one of the keepers said. “When you get that the rest will come to you.”

And it did. They let go and he stood on his own for the very first time. I’m finally free, he thought. Forty-eight winters, and the King is dead. The dirt stung his raw cut stem. He took a hop forward, and fell. When the keepers came to help he shooed them off. A few moments of squirming later and he stood again.

“You did it!” Wagon said, carefully hopping forward himself, shaking slightly as he did so. Warcry was nearby, spinning in the dirt and hopping circles around them, laughing.

The sun was descending to the mountains on the horizon when the priest and cutter returned. The treekeepers arranged the former budlings in a semi-circle around them. The one with the spear also hopped forward, next to the priest.

“All your lives begin today,” the priest said. “Now that you have left your tree you may do what you will. You may go to the City Under the Sun and find work, or go to other places. All I ask is you remember what you have been taught. And now the Commander will speak.”

The one with the spear, the Commander, hopped forward. “He is right, all your lives begin today. We cannot tell you where to go, but opportunities are all around, one standing before you at this moment. In the King’s army you will have a steady supply of water, we will train you in combat with spears and bows. And teach you skills that will help you until the end of your days. Who will join us?”

WIthout hesitation, Hammer hopped forward. Then Wagon, then Warcry, and a few more. It’s what we always talked about.

“Your first job is to honor the new King’s coronation,” the Commander said. “Let’s go.”

King Snowflake laid on the pedestal in the middle of the temple. Root Bark looked down to him, along with the dark and hard-fleshed Priest Goldflame. Behind them, the new King, flanked by his two guards: Cloudcatcher, his spade-shaped body connected to two arms, one of which held a mace, supported by a long skinny stem. And Sharpaxe, the same teal flesh and thin spines that those of the sun bore. He held his namesake in a ready position.

Two commanders stood to the side, holding their spears, the brothers Strong and Blade. Both from a Sun Tree outside the city, both tutored by the freshly deceased Thorn Strongrass, one of them destined to take the position of Thorn for themselves. Snowflake couldn’t even decide before he died, the New King thought. Now I have to finish his job.

Servants began to wrap the King’s body in woven cloth. As they went up the body Head Priest Goldflame hopped forward. He held a mask, the inside decorated with the great tree and island of the afterlife, and the symbol of King Stone. On the front a simple image of the sun with a royal diamond symbol in the center. He placed the mask over King Snowflake’s face, and soon after it was covered by the wrapped cloth.

The priests picked up the King’s body, setting it inside his coffin. Is this almost over? The new King thought. When will I be crowned? He looked to Root Bark. “May we skip the speech?”

“The sendoff!?” Root Bark said in an angry, but hushed, tone. “King Snowflake reigned for forty-eight winters! He will be sent off properly!”

Properly would be placing a crown on my head, I want this to be over. All the same they sealed up the coffin and Priest Goldflame hopped forward.

“May Snowflake, King Under the Sun, King of Fire, King of the River, King of the Hill, and Ruler of the Plant Kingdom, ascend peacefully to the afterlife and bask under the sun as long as his body remains untouched. May his body remain untouched forever.”

May his body remain untouched forever,” the others echoed. Except the new King, who wasn’t paying attention.

The servants picked up the large coffin and took it out the door. The new King and the others followed them outside. Setting the coffin on the wagon, they took their places, the new King on the royal elk that had once been Snowflake’s. The other leaders were on lesser animals behind him.

As they rode ahead on their mounts, the crowds once again gathered around to see off their beloved King, while they marvelled at this unfamiliar one. The new King looked around at the crowds. When they looked at the coffin they were cheering, when they looked at him they were perplexed. Why aren’t they supporting me? I’m their King.

The palace was in sight. The last stretch of road was flanked by never-ending rows of soldiers standing straight as their spears. He spotted the newer recruits near the palace. The three at the end caught his glare. One was large, one was skinny, and the one between them was more normal. When he moved slightly to meet the new King’s stare his commander gave him a poke with his spear. The King giggled at that.

They dismounted at the entrance. King Snowflake’s coffin was carried to the pedestal in the middle of the throne room. Finally. The new King hopped to the top of the steps, in front of the throne. It’s beautiful.

He turned around. Bark was standing to his right, watching expectantly. Strong and Blade stood to the left. Sharpaxe and Cloudcatcher took their places flanking him. The King took his seat.

“Here, under the light of the sun,” Priest Goldflame said. “I declare King Flame…” YES! “…King Under the Sun, King of Fire, King of the River, King of the Hill, and ruler of the Plant Kingdom.”

He placed a crown of woven grass on King Flame’s head. From the base three blades extended up, one charred by fire, one wrapped in dry sealeaf, and a ring of metal hanging from the center one.

King Flame looked to the crowd in front of him. He did not know what to say, Bark had not told him anything about that. He stood.

“I am now your King…”

Bark gave him that look, the one he gave when he was slipping up. You ‘tutored’ me for moons on end for this! You didn’t tell me this part!

“…and as your King… I promise that my reign will be as strong and as long as Snowflake’s!”

He sat in his throne, no chair ever felt so powerful. The cheers slowly picked up in the crowd. The King soaked them in. Strong and Blade, standing to the side, seemed like they were waiting for something. Suddenly Strong hopped forward, standing before the King, he bowed.

“My glorious King, as you know I am Commander Strong. I have served your position for over twenty winters, dedicated my life to protecting yours. I ask now that you grant me an even more honorable position. I will command your armies, fight for you on the battlefield, and bring you victory. Do you accept?”

“I do.” Because you called me glorious.

Thorn Strong hopped back to where he was standing. Blade bowed and hopped away.

“As we all know…” Root Bark hopped forward. “…King Snowflake loved his songs ever so much. With the King’s permission I believe we should send him off with his music.”

King Flame gave a nod. A bard set his floorharp on the ground, and began plucking it with his stem.

The sun it shines… With warmth and light…

Bark hopped into the doorway to the King’s right, and motioned for Flame to enter. What now? I’m the King, I shouldn’t have to take his orders. All the same he did as bid. Since I have nothing better to do. Standing taller than his Root, Flame had to look down to talk to him.

“I gave a speech,” The King angrily said. “I chose a new Thorn, that was what you-”

“You gave empty promises riding off your predecessor,” The Root said.

“Snowflake? He couldn’t even choose a new Thorn himse-”

“He left that decision to YOU! And you forgot to even make it!”

“I chose Strong!”

“No. He chose himself, he made you look weak, and Blade will not forget what you did either.”

“They will both obey me. I’m their King!”

“A King does not get respect, he earns respect. Neither Strong nor Blade respect you.”

“Do you respect me?”

After a moment of silence, Root Bark said, “I was not grown on the great and shining Royal Mother Tree like you. I came from a dirt-infested village with my branch-brother Moss. You were plucked off and crowned because King Snowflake wanted a flexible successor. I got where I am because our Nobles Seeds and Sprout saw something in us. Moss was tutored by Sprout, and I was taken in by Seeds. They’re both in their graves but they made the two of us what we are now.”

“Where is this brother of yours now?”

“Ruling the village. Without compassion. A ruler should be strong but his coldness will be his undoing. I see him in you, and I strive to make you less of him every day. That starts with getting back on that throne and accepting your responsibility!”

The King reluctantly obeyed. I already like your brother better. He sat on his throne as the bard finished his song. After taking the thanks he began his next.

“This song was another written by our late King. I believe he should hear it one last time…”

He began plucking. The King shifted in his seat.

Goes the wind.
As it plucks the strings of trees.

Goes the birds.
As they echo through the air.

Goes the squirrels.
As they travel lands of branches.

Goes the bears.
As they hunt in sunlight.

the sun will set
Goes the first.
As they fade into the night.

The songs of the forest adore.

What a stupid song. The King thought. I should have a new one written, about myself.

Three days later Root Bark looked to the tomb before him. The walls were decorated with scenes from the long reign of King Snowflake. He saw his crowning by the Head Priest almost fifty winters ago. His opening of the great Temple of the Sun, the intruders that killed the Head Priest. He looked to another wall, seeing Strongrass accept his position as Thorn, next to him Goldflame accepted his own position, proud and young. Currently, Priest Goldflame wobbled in on his stick, talking to a bricklayer.

The rest of the paintings were other things. Root Rain and Root Ice’s deaths to the fire plague. Bark’s own ascension to the same position. Proudest day of my life. I’ll make King Flame a prouder one. King Snowflake’s reign had been long, but it was quiet. He hoped Flame’s would be the same

There were two rooms connecting the main burial chamber. Each was full of objects the King would need for the afterlife. In the smaller one he found a shelf. On one level was a floorharp, one he had seen the King use plenty of times. On the other end a box. He didn’t know what was in it, but the symbols on the outside read Steel-Bark. Between the two a clay pan. It had several ridges to the side, and on the other the symbol of the King. Part of it was missing, replaced by a different type of clay. On top of the pan a small jar. I could glance inside, see what’s in it. He decided not to, and turned away.

Root Bark hopped outside. It was sunny and warm out. Snowflake had told him of the blizzard that was raging the night they buried Stone. The sun has heard your hardship my King. King Flame stood with the priest as servants took the bricks from the wagon.

“Go faster, the sooner he is in the sooner we can go back.”

I will not ruin Snowflake’s burial with more discipline. I’m too tired anyway. Instead he only stood next to the new King as the servants picked up the coffin of the old, dragging it off the wagon.

Carefully, they hopped through the doorway, and sat it down in the middle of the room. Bark looked behind him, to the three sealed doorways leading away on the hillside. The tombs of Spear, Shield, and Stone. One of Snowflake’s last commands had been to cover them in a layer of plaster and repaint them. Now the fourth tomb was dug, and the bricks were being laid.

I will join you on the Great Tree eventually, my King. I will leave with your vision fufilled.

The songs of the forest filled the air. The mountains he saw on the horizon were more than a horizon. The ground was slanted, with occasional outcrops of rock. How do any live here? Hammer thought. The summer forest was in full swing. The sun was beating down yet he still hopped forward with his spear.

Warcry waited at the mouth of the cave for his return.

“Did you see anything?” he asked in his loud voice. “More important did you hear anything?”

“Only the animals and the trees,” Hammer replied.

“You know what the commander said! Hill soldiers hide everywhere. Like little spiders.”

“He said they hide, not that they were spiders.”

They hopped into the cave where the rest of the unit waited. All were from the Sun Province, all used spears, all had only been in the forces for a few moons. There were no fires, all the better to not be seen. Bearbane waited in the center. As second in command behind the Commander, he was the new leader.

“What did you find?” he asked.

“Nothing,” Hammer said.

“Did you see anything?”


“Are you sure? Should I beat it out of you? Naw I’m kidding. Did you leave anything behind?”


“YOU SHOULD CHECK AGAIN!” The Commander’s shout was startling, but one he had heard time and time again. Looking back to the mouth of the cave he stood holding something. He tossed it to the floor and revealed a large piece of tree bark. Across it was a fresh cut.

“I-” Hammer tried to get a word out.

“You became bored and left a scratch,” the Commander told him. “A fresh one with the marks of a Sun Province spear. One that points back here. You’ll be on the ground today. Everybody else ship out.”

“Yes, Commander,” they all said in unison.

As they gathered their belongings to leave Warcry said, “I’m getting tired of these training exercises. They feel fake and we never get to see any action.”

“I like them,” Wagon said. “Like a big game of pretend. We’ll know how to do things if we do have to fight.”

Hammer felt a point poke at his back, he turned to find Bearbane behind him with a spear.

“Thanks for getting us killed, hopper,” he said.

“Heh, hopper,” Warcry repeated.

And while the rest rode in wagons and on deer Hammer hopped behind them, struggling to keep up. The sun slowly fell to the horizon as the party wrapped around a mountain. Between it and another mountain was a relatively flat area, and there they found the village.

It was small, consisting mostly of poor thatched huts. The village elder emerged from one of the few stone buildings to greet them.

“Commander, I see you’re back, how was your training?”

“Let’s just say we’ll try again.”

“Of course, you are welcome to stay as long as you like.”

Hammer, tired, sat on a large rock nearby, looking about. The inhabitants were all of the Hill, with the same long stems and spade-shaped bodies. There was no mother tree here like most villages. Instead it functioned as a place for drifters and wanderers to settle, those with nowhere left to go.


Don’t want to give this stem a rest do you? All the same he rose.

Two Priests brought the large translucent object and set it on the pedestal in the middle of the room. The King took his place on the throne, with Root Bark to his right and Priest Goldflame to his left. The guards Cloudcatcher and Sharpaxe stood at the outer edge of the three. The three Ambassadors of River, Fire, and Hill sat below. The sun emerged from beyond the mountains in the east. Fitting the hole above the doorway perfectly, it shined down onto the crystal. Three rays of colored light moved up and over the King, Root, and Priest.

The sun drifted out of the window. The Festival of the Sun had started. For the rest of the day celebrations were held in the streets, the biggest in the throne room. Occasionally one would go down to dance with the rest. The King did so several times, everyone agreeing his moves were some of the best. Root Bark did once, as did Cloudcatcher. When asked, Priest Goldflame said he was too old, Sharpaxe simply didn’t respond. All the while the song played.

Great shining sun.
Nothing can outshine you.
Nothing can outglow you…

I have heard this song enough times. Flame thought, though he didn’t make a move to stop it. He only sat at his throne, drinking rainwater through his stem and listening. He hadn’t even noticed Commander Blade hop forward.

“My King?” The Commander said.

“Hm? Yes?”

Blade bowed, he held a metal object.

“I must confess something, your appointment of Strong to the position of Thorn…”

“You want the position?”

“No, if any here are worthy, it’s him. But I did want it, and I was hurt when you passed me. But that’s in the past now, I wish to make a new start for us, and so I present you this gift.”

He held up a bladed weapon, a big one, much larger than the common knife. The blade was dark, and the handle was made from stained wood.

“Forged from steel of the ruins of the first. I figured a King should have a Kingly weapon.”

“How sharp is it?”

“I leave the testing to you.”

I could slice Blade in half with a blade, how ironic would that be? The thought was interrupted by yelling outside the throne room.

“Out of the way! Make way!”.

Two covered wagons were pulled in front of the entrance to the throne room. Both were made of wood, though one was lighter and decorated with vines and leaves, the other darker and lined with metal. The inhabitant of the lighter one emerged. He was of the sun province, similar in size and shape to Root Bark, who was the first to identify him.

“Brother Moss… welcome,” Bark said without a welcoming tone.

“Brother Bark, sorry, Root Bark. It has been many winters, you never visit the village.”

Moss hopped into the throne room as a figure from the Hill emerged from the darker wagon.

“I assume you have it under control,” Bark said to his brother.

“Oh I do, but that’s no reason to never see your branch brother. I decided to take myself to you instead, and met one with similar desire on the way. May I introduce the Branch of the Hill?”

The Branch of the Hill hopped into the throne room. “I don’t believe we’ve met, Flame, is it?”

Bark spoke for him. “You are to bow and address him as your King. Both of you.”

“That’s right,” the King blurted. “Bow.”

The Branch bowed. “Apologies, my King, Flame, is it?”

“King Flame. Remember that.”

“Of course, my King.”

Moss bowed as well, but said nothing. The Hill Branch scanned the room.

“Cloudcatcher, it has been long.”

Cloudcatcher gave a small nod. “My Branch.”

The Hill Branch turned to the other guard. “You must be Sharpaxe, on account of your sharp axe,” he turned again to the commander standing beside the King. “And you?”

Blade made no move to show respect. “Commander Blade, I was just gifting our king on this day of celebration.”

“That gift can cut him, I hope you are aware.”

It can cut you. The King thought.

Blade carefully hopped back to his seat as the Branch finished his scoping.

“There are no chairs,” The Hill Branch said. “What do you take us for, commoners?”

For half a moment none responded.

“Ha!” The Branch said in a tone of jest, “We showed up unannounced, I know, but it would be appreciated.”

I will cut your arms off. The King waited for Bark to give the order. After a moment he looked to see his Root gesturing to him. He wants me to give the order. He realized.

“Two chairs!” the King proclaimed, perhaps too loud.

Two servants wandered off to do his bidding. Branch and Noble eyed him.

“Thank you, my King,” the Branch of the Hill said.

When the chairs arrived Moss took a place beside his branch brother, much to the latter’s annoyance. The Branch of the Hill took a place with the Ambassadors and turned back to the servant.

“A cup of water, if you don’t mi-”

“Only I give the orders here!” the King yelled. Bark wants me to show power, why is he looking at me like that?

“Of course, my King, apologies. May you ask your servant a cup of water, it has been a long journey.”

“Hmmm… I will allow it.”

The servant bowed and went off. Normalcy resumed in the throne room. The King accepted gifts from visiting nobles and overheard his council talk.

“Brother Bark,” Moss said. “Tell me, how has the Rootship treated you, you look exhausted.”

“It is an important position,” Bark responded. “The highest in the kingdom I might add.”

“Oh no I was not doubting its importance, it is for that very reason I ask, is it too much?”

“I have made Seeds proud, and I counsel the King. That is all that matters.”

“Oh I’m sure your King needs no counsel, our great King Flame can handle anything…”

Thank you.

“…and I’m sure Sprout is looking down at us for the afterlife as we speak.”

“As is Snowflake. I’m sure they discuss much together.”

“Sprout is likely teaching him how to win a war, rather than avoid one.”

Bark took a moment to respond. Obviously not happy, he leaned forward. “We have not had a war in seventy winters. The Kingdom is as stable and peaceful as it has ever been, none have suffered. I will not let us descend into the barbaracy of battle!

Flame didn’t hear Moss’s response. His focus shifted to the Hill Branch and Ambassador. They were discussing something too far to hear, but occasionally glanced at him. After a bit they both rose and hopped into a nearby hallway. A moment later Bark hopped by, gesturing to follow. What if I don’t? What if I sit? Bark hopped back in view and made a more aggressive motion. The King rose. Together they hopped into another hallway.

“You embarrassed yourself,” his Root said.

“I did what you asked, I showed them-”

“You showed them the opposite of power. Why do you think they wandered off? You don’t think they’re in this palace right now talking about you!?”

“Should they be talking treason I will have them brought out and kill them myse-”

NO! These are not mere servants!”

“I am the King, all are my servants.”

“Until a Branch decides they’ve had enough and gather their army. This is no game. The Branch, the Ambassador, Blade, Strong… Moss… my brother does not play games. He does not miss opportunities. He has no pity for the weak.”

Neither do I. “I am not weak! All of them will know.”

Cries came from the throne room, the cries of an animal.


“We are not done he-”

“I think we are!”

Root Bark moved in front of the King, though much smaller he confidently blocked the King’s path to the throne room.


“You’re going to kill that deer, but not for yourself, for the Sun. And you’re not going to do it now, you’re going to put them on your time-”

“My time says now.”

The King knocked his Root out of his way. Hopping back into the throne room, he saw the deer, now chained to the platform in the center, wailing. Yes, scream for me, sing your song. The King picked up his new blade and hopped towards it while Priest Goldflame gave the blessings.

“Great shining sun, please accept our sacrifice to your eternal brightness. Which our humble King shall deliver, may the sun shine on us, and him most of all.”

Flame hardly heard the words. Root Bark had returned to his seat, he wasn’t looking at him. The King hopped to the position he wanted and raised his blade. He brought it down.

He had no idea how far the red would reach, and how much was in a single animal. The room was covered, the animal’s neck completely severed. Most of the red animal liquid has sprayed on Commander Blade, sitting right across. He looked at the body and the mess with some strange stare, absent of disgust or anger.

The King, however, felt something else. As he looked to the red-covered steel sharpness he held. I feel alive.

The sun was setting outside. That hadn’t stopped the excitement in the tavern. Hammer and his unit were to one side, the Hill escort to the other. The Festival of the Sun was a day of freedom for all, especially soldiers. The Commander had let them go at the city’s edge where other units were being released.

“You have been put through much in the past few moons,” the Commander said as the sun was rising behind him. “As soldiers you are expected to do nothing less. But on the day the Sun gives its light the longest, all put down their spears and bask. Go bask, and return in the morning.”

The unit stuck together, after all who else did they have? They hadn’t had freedom in many moons, and so they simply wandered through taverns and parties.

As they hopped down the path through the city, two covered wagons pulled past, one was lighter and painted in vines, the other dark and lined with metal. As Hammer saw them move towards the tall palace in the distance he knew they must be important, likely nobles. He was half right. News began to spread and by afternoon they discussed the King’s sacrifice of a deer, something about red stuff splattering on a commander, as well as the identities of the two wagons. The one in the lighter wagon was the noble of a village to the north, a friend of the Root. Or was it brother?

The other, the one in the darker wagon, was the Branch of the Hill. Apparently he had a similar attitude towards the day as Hammer’s commander, as he had released his escort to celebrate. It was his large escort that were standing against the other wall.

Warcry sat in front of a circular table in the middle of the room, the Hill challenger at the opposite end. The tavern keeper stood above them, dropping the marble into the spiral groove cut in the table. Around it spun, moving faster and faster. It got to the center and slowed down. There were two holes cut into the middle. It landed in the one closest to Warcry.

“The Sun soldiers get the rainwater!”

“WOOOOO!” Warcry yelled for the block to hear. “Sun beats rock yet again!”

“Good game, may the first return,” the Hill Guard got up and angrily hopped to his side of the room.

“Why would you crave rainwater?” Wagon asked. “You’re all about the ground stuff!”

The Hill Guard turned around. “What’s wrong with a little rain from the afterlife? We have just as much a right to it as you do!”

Warcry broke in as the tavern keeper passed out the cups. “Then maybe stop rebelling against it!”

A few chuckles erupted from his unit, the Hill Guard turned back around. One of his arms curled before he continued his hopping.

“I guess the sun favors us after all!” Bearbane said. We stay together because we’ve chosen to, Hammer thought. Stop acting in place of our Commander.

All the same Hammer ignored him, and tried to savor his day. Dipping his stem in the cup and enjoying the liquid, straight from the ocean of the afterlife. A few moments later he snapped back to reality. The Hill Guard was discussing something with the tavern keeper.

There was a loud noise outside, the sound of wood splitting and screams.

“What was that?” Wagon asked.

Bearbane hopped out to investigate, then leaned back in. “A couple wagons crashed a block away! It’s chaos! You need to see it!”

Warcry hopped quickly out the door, as did the others. Hammer turned back to the Hill Guard and the tavern keeper, both oblivious to the situation, and both now raising their voices at each other.

Warcry leaned back in the doorway. “Are you coming?”

Hammer realized he was the last one in the tavern. Might as well. He caught a glimpse of the tavern keeper being shoved as he left, but continued out the door.

“I let you go because of the festival!” The Branch of the Hill yelled. “Was I wrong to do so?”

The Branch’s escort did not respond. Did we have to do it this early? the King thought. It’s cold and wet. The cloud cover over the throne room was thicker than it had been the day before. Fog still hung outside.

“You murdered a tavern keep,” Root Bark said. “Why?”

Another of the Hill escorts, who had all gathered near their Branch, spoke instead. “We were playing a betting game for rainwater.”

“And you lost?” Bark asked.

The Hill Guard, the killer, nodded.

“Losing is not fun,” Moss said as he hopped in. “That doesn’t mean you kill the game master.”

“Brother,” Root Bark said without friendliness.

“You neglected to invite me, I would very much like to see this killer put to justice.”

“He is no petty murderer,” The Branch of the Hill said.

“He still killed a tavern keep,” Bark responded. “And the only witnesses we have are his friends. Who else was there?”

The petty murderer spoke up for the first time. “A unit of Sun soldiers, on their leave… they won the rainwater. Then something happened outside and they left… that was before…”

“Must’ve been the crash,” Thorn Strong said. King Flame had half forgotten he was even in the room. “Things can devolve to madness during the festival, wagon racing is something that should be outlawed.”

“Has Commander Blade tracked this unit down?” Bark asked. Strong shook his head.

This is taking too long, the King thought. I want this to be over…

“Did you kill him?” the King asked the Guard.

The Guard weakly nodded.

“Then it is done, Strong, bring my blade.”

“My King!” Bark said with a startle before calming himself. “This was a Hill Guard killing a Sun inhabitant, both our leaders should decide how to handle this-”

“I am the King! All will answer to me! Strong, my blade!”

“My King this is madness,” the Hill Branch said.

The King turned to his Thorn, who had not moved. Ready to berate him, he felt a tap on his other side. He turned to see Moss, holding the handle of his own blade to the King. He took it.

Root Bark had disappeared. The other Hill escorts were yelling something, the one in the center of the room only stared ahead. The King approached him, looking down at the shaking killer. One swing later it was done, and the throne room was silent.

“My King,” the Hill Branch gave a slight bow, and hopped out of the palace, followed by his escort. The King hopped back up the stairs where Thorn Strong sat.

“When I tell you to grab my blade, you grab my blade. Or it will be you I cut next.”

“Yes… my King,” Thorn Strong stood, bowed, and left.

The King turned to Moss, who was looking down at the body below. “A good kill, my King, a just one.” Flame gave him a nod as he handed the noble back his small blade.

“Did you know much of our mentors, my King?”

“Seeds and Sprout? Bark has mentioned them, Seeds moreso-”

“My brother does not have a high opinion of Sprout, he only had that weakling Seeds to teach him…”

“Weakling?” Flame repeated.

Moss hopped through the doorway, turning back to his King. Flame followed.

“…Sprout was the true power of the two. He taught me what he knew, molded me into what I am now. The one who truly did what none other would do to survive, no, thrive.”

They came out of the hallway into the courtyard, as it was still early none were out.

“Bark told me Seeds was a fair Noble,” Flame said.

“He may have been,” Moss responded. “But the world is not fair. Have I ever told you how they got so much power so quickly?”

“The gold rush?”

“That is what Bark told you, that is what Seeds taught him, that is all Seeds ever knew. Sprout would tell you a different story, a secret story. Would you like to know his secret?”

“I am the King, I know all secrets.”

“Of course, what’s one more…”

Moss sat down on a stone bench next to the path, Flame did the same.

“…Seeds and Sprout came to the shores in a wagon. Not alone, there were two more, Sprout might have told me their names but I long forgot. One was from the Royal Mother Tree, like you, another from the Hill, one with a floorharp. Seeds made some foolish deal to split their earnings. That is what happens when you grow close, you cannot keep what you reap.”

“What did he do about it?” the King asked.

“Our predecessors struck it rich, but kept it hidden. Seeds wished to share it though, they had made a pact after all. Sprout would not let that happen, that gold would go to the village, to us and us alone. He killed the Hill musician while the sun was setting, and the Royal while the sun was rising. Away they drifted, and away from our gold. Seeds never knew, but Sprout did. It’s that which allows you to reap the summer.”

“Faster!” Bearbane yelled. The other boat was beginning to overtake them. Hammer paddled at a quicker and more steady pace. Warcry was in front of him, chaotically swinging his paddle into the water, spraying Hammer with cold droplets.

Of all the times to practice river crossing, it had to be in the winter? The boat next to them was another unit, also fighting the current to the other shore. An arrow whizzed past. Hammer looked behind him, to the shore where they came from.

His commander and that of the other unit were both laughing with the short and dark river ferryman they had borrowed the boats from. The ferryman held a bow and next to him several arrows stuck in the mud. I suppose arrows would be flying at us if this was real. That doesn’t mean you can have fun doing it.

The rest of the unit was at the other shore. Hammer was part of the last group of five to cross. Once they did they would have to repeat the process back to the other side. I hope they don’t make us go first this time, I could use some rest.

“Faster!” Bearbane again yelled. “Come on! Left… left… LEFT!”

The boat was knocked to a stop. A few shouts later it capsized. The water was like sharp ice, Hammer wiggled through it fighting for the surface. Somehow he found himself laying on the upturned boat, Bearbane holding onto one end.

“May the first return!” Bearbane yelled. “That is cold!”

Hammer stood on the tipped boat and looked around. One of the other soldiers was swimming for the shore. Warcry was under the water, fighting. The other boat had stopped, it’s commander-in-place was yelling something at the others. They pushed him out.

The next thing Hammer noticed was a floating paddle. He picked it up and held it in the water, hooking it around his branch brother and pulling him in. Warcry crawled onto the boat.

“Thank you… a moment sooner and I wouldn’t have to cut off my frozen stem.”

The competing boat had arrived, it’s commander-in-place was yelling from the water further away.

“You need some help?” one of them asked. Wagon was shivering in the back, having already been picked up. Bearbane sighed and crawled in, as did Hammer and Warcry. Their two commanders were not nice upon return.

“That was pathetic!” the Commander yelled to Hammer’s unit. “Bearbane, your command was pathetic! The rest of you, your rowing was pathetic! Hammer at least had some sense helping his brothers! But that still doesn’t excuse poor cooperation from every single one of you!”

The other commander gave a harsher tone, but his words were at least softer, as soft as a commander’s words can get at least.

“When I assign a commander-in-place I expect you to obey him as a commander! Had that been an enemy boat you would let them freeze in the currents… but it wasn’t an enemy boat, it was your brothers freezing in the water. It was wrong of your commander to abandon them, but it was wrong of you to overthrow him. Mutiny is a word I do not use lightly, you will not be rewarded but you will not be punished…”

The village they arrived at later had been abandoned for many winters. Apparently it had been swept up in the gold rush and abandoned when the river shore was emptied of metal. Hammer’s unit stored their supplies in the rotting remains of a tavern, and afterwards sat by the fire, desperate for any warmth from the icy current they had fallen in.

“So what the Hill is mad?” Warcry said confidently. “They get mad at everything! ‘Look at me I’m the Hill I bow not to none!’’”

Another joined in on the jape. “‘You beat us twice but we still gonna brag!’”

“I heard our King stood up to him!” a voice from the circle said. “Cut his guard’s head off!”

Whatever happened, he’s been held up in his palace since summer. I wonder what he’s waiting for…

The King sat on his throne, he looked down the stairs, through the empty throne room before him, outside was darkness. His new flame tattoos in the mid-area of his body glowed.

“A land, a land, of warmth and light…”

The voice came from far away. He didn’t know whose it was. Something flew from the distance, the King ducked. A hill mace hit the wall behind him, where the tree had been carved. It’s metal spikes embedded at the branch symbolic of the Hill.

“A land, a land, of spring and summer…”

A light snow was now falling. It’s summer, he thought.

“A land of green…”

“A land of plenty…”

“A land of a King…”

“Whose name be Flame…”

Flame looked down to the pedestal, on it the Hill Guard he had beheaded, resting formally on the rock. That was three winters ago.

The King woke up at the helm of a wagon. Whatever pulled them, be they deer or otherwise, were gone. A wheel was broken, it’s axle embedded in the ground. The high mountain winds stirred pockets of ash.


The sound came from the forest. Flame rose from the wagon, and began following the path. Past smoking wagons and raided cargo he went, broken spears and shattered armor. He heard the music again.

”The flames they spread…”


”The bark it burns…”


”The moss it kills…”


”The homes they burn…”


”The hills they burn…”


”The trees they burn…”


”The birds they burn…”


”The summer burns…”


”The Kingdom burns…”

Everything went silent. The path led back to the throne room. He journeyed into the palace, to his chambers. There was a hill mace on his desk, he picked it up. There was a shout behind him. He turned to see his Root, Bark, lunging at him with a spear. He swung the mace.

“Ah!” Root Bark screamed. “What is wrong with you?!”

Sunlight streamed through the windows again, it was a bright summer day outside. The mace had imbedded itself in Bark’s flesh.

“You tried to kill me!” the King yelled.

“I came to tell you you’re needed in the throne room!” he took out the mace, and held it menacingly. “But I don’t care about that anymore, just like you don’t! I have held this Kingdom together for four winters! I was Root to our Snowflake, who was a hundred times the king you are!”

The king could feel the rage being released in his voice, he felt his own rising.

“I’m more King than all the rest! And you cannot-”


Something appeared behind the Root, something metal. Sharpaxe nudged his namesake at Bark.

“That is the King you’re talking to,” the guard said.

Another set of hops came from the hall, Cloudcatcher turned the corner.

“Is everything…”

The King looked at his Root, then to his guard. “Sharpaxe, take this traitor to the dungeon!”

Sharpaxe grabbed the Root and dragged him away. The King slammed the door before Cloudcatcher could give his take.

The private audience chamber was assembled when the King wanted it, late in the day. Screams echoed from below, in the dungeons, screams everyone knew. Cloudcatcher stood behind his King. His partner was absent, but he knew where he was.

Thorn Strong sat next to the empty Root seat, completely silent. The Ambassadors looked at each other. Head Priest Goldflame was the one to finally break the silence.

“My King…” for a moment he tried to find words. “Treason should not be tolerated, obviously… but-”

“But what? Do you object to my methods?”

“Did he… my King?”

“He did. I’m sure the rest of you are smarter though. Now, all of you, what are your reports on the Kingdom?”

Thorn Strong went first. “My King… the… the tensions in the city, between those from here and those from the Hill…”

“Our inhabitants are being harassed,” the Ambassador of the Hill said bluntly. “Ever since the tavern incident three winters ago-”

“I am aware of the tavern incident. Why should I care about who the city hates?”

“It affects you, my King. Some have even complained about Cloudcatcher. I believe the words used were akin to…”

The Ambassador was interrupted by a particularly loud scream from below.

“Maybe,” the King said. “If you didn’t want to be hated, don’t kill tavern keepers with maces.”

The Ambassador took a moment to respond. “So can I confirm that you will do nothing to stop this?”

“I don’t need to do anything, because it’s not my problem.”

The Ambassador looked momentarily to Cloudcatcher, then back to him. “As you wish, my King.”

The King turned back to Thorn Strong. “Anything else?”

“I only repeat what I’ve seen… my King it is not exactly my job to know these things, that’s for… well, a Root.”

“Until that seat is sat in again, that will be you. Don’t worry, it won’t be long.” The King rose and began hopping out.

“My King,” Priest Goldflame said. “We still have business to-”

“We will get to it tomorrow,” the King said as he left. He hopped down the hall, to the stairs. Down he went as the euphonious screams became louder. He hopped past several cells. One was occupied by a visitor from the Fire Province who had been stealing rainwater. He made no move to rise, Flame thought about the best way to kill him when the present issue was done. At the end of the row he found the cell he wanted.

Root Bark was strapped to the table. His stem had been skinned and cut off. Sharpaxe had done the same with his flesh. Cutting it into ribbons, mutilating each strip until the Root was begging him to cut it off. Over the past few days the Root’s words had gone from begs for mercy to unintelligible babbling and screams.

“My King,” Sharpaxe said and bowed.

“Sharpaxe,” Flame turned to his Root and gave a mock bow. “My Root.”

“How much longer do you wish to keep this up? I could stretch it out to a moon maybe.”

Bark gave a loud groan.

“You’ve broken him, what’s the point of breaking him further? It won’t be much longer. Now go have fun with the fire thief down the hall. I wish to be alone.”

Sharpaxe did as asked, when he was gone King Flame sat in a seat next to the table.

“Four winters, you’ve kept me down. Told me what to do, I’m sick of it, I should have done this long ago,” he rose, grabbing a knife, and cutting into his Root’s flesh. Bark gave off another scream.

“I hate you. The last thing you will see is fire.”

Screams came from the cell down the hall. Screams and laughter.

Moss’s covered wagon pulled up in front of the throne room. The village noble emerged, hopping with swagger around the pedestal and up the stairs. He stopped and bowed.

“My King. You called me here.”

Cloudcatcher and Sharpaxe stood behind him, Priest Goldflame and Thorn Strong took their usual places. He wanted this to be seen.

“I did. Your brother is dead.”

“I knew when you asked me to bring his coffin. I know what you’re going to ask me now,” he bowed again, and kept his stance.

Everything is coming into place.

“I declare you Root Moss of the Plant Kingdom, to assist me in Kingdom matters when I am unable. Do you accept?”

“It would be my honor, my King.”

“Rise… Root Moss.”

He rose. “Shall we get started.”

“Not yet, come with me, bring the coffin.”

“As you command.”

As they approached the door Root Moss looked to the new construct going up on the palace wall.

“A platform? It’s high.”

“Above the city, above all of them, the view will be breathtaking.”

“Oh I’m sure it will.”

They entered the palace.

“My King?” Cloudcatcher asked. “May I be dismissed?”

“You may.” Coward, can kill with a mace but he can’t look at the dying.

Cloudcatcher hopped off in a hurry.

“And to think he thinks he can use that mace,” Sharpaxe said.

Now we see if our new Root can handle what a hill can’t.

They descended down the steps, the servants had some trouble with the coffin.

“Do not break that!” Root Moss yelled. He doesn’t show anything out of the ordinary, Flame thought. He must be wondering why we are in the dungeon.

Even still he remained expressionless as they went past the cells. The fire thief shrunk away to the wall as they hopped by. Your end will come so enough. At the last cell they stopped. Sharpaxe unlocked the door.

Bark lay unmoving at the table. The King looked to his new Root for a reaction. Moss gave none. The servants carrying the coffin had stopped at the door, looking at the dying and shredded body.

“Bring it in!” the King yelled to the servants. They did so. Root Moss hopped to the table and looked down at his dying brother. “What has he done?” Moss asked. At first Flame thought the question regarded him, then realized it didn’t.

“Insulted me,” the King said. “Kept me from my potential, was a traitor. I trust you will not make that mistake.”

“Of course, my King. Any who betrays you must suffer.”

“Have you brought the paint?”

“I have.”

The King turned to the servants. “Paint my symbol on the lid, the last thing he will see is flame!”

The servants did as told. When they finished the King looked down to his former Root. “This is the end for you, you’re probably too far gone to understand me, but you’ll understand soon enough. Goodbye.”

The King looked up to Moss, who gave his own final parting words.

“Goodbye my brother. I would grieve, but… you must reap the summer.”

Flame gave a nod to the servants. Bark gave a groan as he was picked up and placed inside the coffin. Flame and Sharpaxe each grabbed a side of the lid, and placed it over him.

“Take it to the throne room, let the worthless grieve.”

They obeyed. As the coffin was heard clanking up the stairs the King turned to his new Root and spoke.

“Have them-”

“Killed?” the Root finished his sentence. “You don’t see the Root like that and not tell others. None will notice if two servants disappear.”

The King nodded. “Sharpaxe?”

“It will be done, my King.”

As Sharpaxe left to do his bidding, King and Root ventured through the halls, back to the throne room.

“All in the palace heard the screams, my King.” Root Moss said.

“And?” The King responded.

“You didn’t wish to protect any secrets did you?”

“I wanted to…” the King paused. “Decrease your loyalists, you’re mine now.”

“No you didn’t, you just made that up now. If you want to kill my servants don’t be so dishonest. I will gladly feed your lust. I’m the only one who will let you.”

The way he said the last sentence struck the King. He didn’t respond before Thorn Strong came hopping down the hall.

“My King!” he looked to Moss, for a moment uncertain. “My Root…”

“Just in time, I would like to know where Cloudcatcher has run off to.”

“That’s it my King! Cloudcatcher… he’s gone. The Ambassador too.”

Root Moss spoke for him. “Close the palace! Close the city! Find them! This could be desertion, but the Ambassador too… these are the Branch’s orders.”

Half a moon ago Cloudcatcher left the city and his King. By now the summer was in full swing. The sun beat down on everything under it as the party rode north into the mountains. Flat villages gave way to wandering campsites and rocky outcrops. The deer they rode had been born and bred in the Sun Province, and so they were exchanged for a group that had climbed the mountains ten times over.

“We’re almost there,” the Ambassador said, riding up beside him. Cloudcatcher’s one other companion from the city, not counting the small group of escorts.

“I know.”

“I’d think you’d be glad.”

Cloudcatcher didn’t respond.

“You know our new King values you, we would have died if we stayed. But he didn’t call us back for that, did he.”

“My allegiance is to the Hill,” Cloudcatcher said. “Above all. A King who respects the Hill, in a crown of grass or none at all, is one I respect. Our new one does not respect the Hill.”

“And yet you guarded him. You and your sun partner.”

“I guarded Snowflake with my life, I tolerated this one out of obligation. And I have no respect for Sharpaxe, he may be a bigger threat than the Thorn.”

“It is the Thorn I mean to get to, you talked to him, had conversations, spent time…”

“If… when we meet on the field, you will know where my loyalties lie.”

Cloudcatcher forced his deer to a quicker pace.

It was growing darker when they arrived at the Hill Palace. The surrounding forest was alive with crickets. The Royal Hill Mother Tree stood at the top of the large hill, the entrance to the palace built directly into its side. Cloudcatcher remembered his days attached to that exact tree, wanting to go and see the world, and yet his path had brought him right back. They dismounted and hopped up the steps to the door. The guard recognized them both, and opened the gate. The inside was loud and bustling. The tunnels were well cut, the natural layers of rock that made up the walls were their own decoration. They arrived in the throne room. A large chamber lined with columns. Behind them crevices and the walled up remains of Kings and Branches. The room was filled with nobles and chiefs from all over the Hill Province, so many the view to the throne was blocked. He went the long way, around the crowd and across the side. The End… The Halfwit… The Betrayed… The Hunted… He thought the names to himself as he passed each tiny tomb.

Making it to the back of the room, near the throne, he peered above the heads to see the Branch sitting in the Hill Throne. Carved of rock straight from the floor, misshapen by time. The Branch noticed them both immediately.

“Cloudcatcher! Ambassador! Move, let them come front and center!”

The crowd obeyed, as did the pair, moving in full view of the Branch.

“Is that all? I suppose it is. Let us begin.”

Unlike the priests of the Sun Province, those of the Hill were not so passive. The current Hill Priest had been trained in combat, instead of bowing to the sun, he harvested its energy for strength. He brought the King a mace, a shining mace of steel. The Branch wrapped both his arms around it and held it up.

“I declare myself King of the Hill! I declare that I will protect the Hill. I declare that I will provide for its inhabitants. I declare that I will settle disputes. I declare that I will bow not to none!”

“Hail the Hill King!” Cloudcatcher lead the chant, to keep all certain where his loyalties lay.

The King waited for the chants to die down. “I could throw all the insults I want at our good King Flame to the south. You would like that wouldn’t you? Yes, you would. But I want to sit here and acknowledge what they did right…”

He stood from his stone chair. “…King Spear, now he was a warrior! Even beat one of our Kings, though it cost him his life,” he looked to the wall of bricks with the symbol of The End. “Bask in the afterlife, both of you, you’ve earned it. As have you, Betrayed one. Now Snowflake never gave us problems. We were unified, but the time for unification is over. Snowflake is gone. They’ve lit a torch and piled thatch on it. It’s consumed it’s Root. Cloudcatcher? Ambassador? What did he do to his Root?”

The Ambassador spoke for him. “I don’t know, I only heard the screaming, that’s all I want to know.”

“And all we need to know. He beheaded one of my own guard! Did he kill that tavern keep? Moreover, was it the King’s right to decide Hill justice? No. Finally, our brothers, oppressed in his city, what does he do? Nothing. What does he tell us he will do? Nothing. He told us he will do nothing, that he doesn’t care. I do… Cloudcatcher!”

“Yes! My Bra- King!”

“The title will grow on you,” the King of the Hill said. “Now, I offer you the position of Thorn. When the Sun-King comes, and he will, will you lead our armies, defend the Hill from those who wish it back?”

“I accept… my King.”

“And you,” he turned to the Ambassador. “I offer you the position of Root. To act in the King’s name when the King is unable. To be my successor, should none challenge you, upon my death?”

“I accept, my King.”

“And now!” the King bellowed. “The Kingdom of the Hill is reborn! Now we must fight to keep it alive. The Sun-King will doubtless send his armies upon us soon! When the sun rises again these orders will be carried out: Cloudcatcher! You will gather the majority of my army and go south to meet Thorn Strong, or whoever they send to greet you. Fight them in the mountains, fight them on the plains, fight them in the bogs. Send smaller ambush groups into the mountains. Whatever you must do.”

“It will be done.”

“As for our new Root, I will be travelling east tomorrow. This palace will become the main target for any Sun invasions. I will take shelter in one of our many caves to the east, and return once the worst of the chaos is over. Should I fall this early in our stand, so will we, until I have engraved our independence into the mind of every inhabitant in the Kingdom. And once that is done I will lead our armies myself against the Sun-King to the south!”

He bowed, and began hopping out. The crowd was chanting again.




Never has a King had a view like this. It’s beautiful.

The platform was still unfinished, but sturdy enough to hold his weight. The stairs went up from the palace roof before leveling out into a path leading to a circular flat summit overlooking the city. On it was a carved wooden chair and in it the King sat. Below him the city bustled with activity. He had witnessed a trade, a mugging, and a lost betting game all in the same morning. I could get used to this.

Outside the city dots were moving about, lots of them. He had been unsure when Moss advised him to gather the army. Though it was less advice, more telling, he didn’t mind, the view was worth it. Most he saw were Sun soldiers, either from the city or other villages. He had already told the other Branches what to do. Branch Winds of the River was sending his west bank legion to meet up with them when the march started. Branch Tinder of the Fire Province was gathering his forces to take on his side of the Hill. And if they follow the Hill into treason we will crush them too.

“My King?” the servant was behind him, he knew what for.

“It’s time, I know.”

He hopped down the stairs with his head held high, through the halls of chatter to the throne room. Priest Goldflame and Root Moss were in their seats, the King took his own. In front of them Thorn Strong and Guard Sharpaxe. Commander Blade stood to the side.

“Sharpaxe,” he said bluntly, not wasting any time. “I hereby promote you to High Commander.”

Blade isn’t happy. ‘He couldn’t do what I’m about to ask.’ Moss had said to him the previous night when he brought it up. It was Moss who took over the conversation now.

“Thorn Strong,” the Root said. “You are to take the bulk of our forces north. We don’t know what tactic they will use, I leave that to your discretion, but keep them heading east.”

“It will be done,” The Thorn said. “My Root, my King.”

The Root turned back to the former guard. “High Commander Sharpaxe, you will take three units and strike for the Palace. Make it fall by any means necessary. Any. Send word to other units that might be up there, tell them to group up with you.”

“It will be done,” The High Commander said. “My King, my Root.”

Sharpaxe stared ahead, as if already imagining the worst of it, the best of it. Priest Goldflame stood.

“May we bless these two and all under their command with victory…”

Shut it. The King thought impatiently.

“…May this war be short, and the following peace long.”

The Priest finished and sat again. The Thorn and Commander bowed and left to a celebratory sendoff outside. Blade silently left into the palace.

“And so it begins,” Root Moss said as Goldflame too rose and left.

“So what begins?”

“Chaos, death, fire… all war comes with it, all war allows it to spread. When war arrives all are trapped in its grasp, including us. We contain it by being swift and without mercy. Come with me, we have plans to make,” both rose.

“Another thing, I received word from the River Province. Branch Winds is visiting.”

Hammer could see the river from the top of the mountain, flowing away to the south. He turned back and rejoined his unit. It had been four winters since he was cut. He had officially spent more time moving about on the ground than attached to his mother tree. He had learned all there was to know about being an effective soldier. Now they only trained to keep those skills. Just in case.

Warcry was practicing with his spear, while Wagon sat on a log and watched. The fire was smoking, but the rest had been packed up.

“Let’s go you three snails!” the Commander shouted. Wagon fell behind immediately. Warcry grabbed his spear and did the same, the day’s march began. They took a path down the mountain, to the east. Eventually the sun was beginning to set behind them, while Hammer only had his thoughts to keep him company.

The path is empty, it’s been empty all day. They continued down, even as cliffs loomed above them. There’s often a campsite at least… some traders… groups of hunters… He looked around, none seemed to raise the same questions he had. I’m being paranoid.

Then the sound of a rumbling crash echoed down the mountain. Hammer looked up to see a large boulder coming down the inclined ground. The unit split in opposite directions as it flew off and crashed between the groups. Then the screams, cries of intimidation.

The cries came from three Hill warriors hopping down the path in the mountain the boulder had carved. Two carried maces, one a bow. The three hopped down, one of the warriors landing on Hammer’s side. My training, it’s all for these moments.

He lowered his spear and charged forward. In that moment he looked to his enemy, noting how sharp the spikes on his mace were, and the lack of fear in his body. He’s not going to dodge. Just in time, Hammer raised his spear, catching the mace against it’s shaft. The warrior pulled it back, but Hammer held on as he was swung to the side, then to the ground.

His spear rolled away as the warrior raised his mace. A point appeared at the warrior’s stem, and disappeared just as quick, leaving a mortal wound. The warrior fell to the ground, crippled and dying. Warcry raised his spear again, sending it down into the warrior’s stem, this time closer to his head.

An arrow flew past, the archer was on top of the boulder, stringing a new arrow in his bow. He seemed in his last few seconds to realize just how outnumbered he was. An arrow from behind went through his flesh, then another. He fell behind the boulder where Hammer heard the sounds of the job being finished.

“Who were they?” a soldier asked.

“The maces are bronze,” the Commander said as he appeared from around the boulder. “Made for soldiers, not wild clans. They could have stolen them, but the one that attacked me used a spearpull move. That’s only taught to Hill soldiers.”

“That doesn’t answer anything,” Bearbane said.

“No… no it doesn’t.”

And then they saw it. A figure creeping up from behind. They lowered their spears in front of them but it became clear this figure was from the Sun Province, and riding a deer. Though he was still far Hammer made out the markings of a messenger.

“Hammer, Warcry,” the Commander said. “Take the bodies and bury them, store their weapons in the wagon. Bearbane, take two and go up. If they have a camp search it for supplies.”

He didn’t look at them as he said it, he hopped forward a few paces and turned around.


They did as told. Hammer and Warcry put the maces and bow in the wagon, then picked up the bodies. They tried to kill us, why should we grant them an afterlife? They’d rot in the ground just as fast as the ants would eat them if we left them. All the same they found a patch of ground with few trees.

Digging a large hole, the archer’s body almost blew away in the wind. It was growing dark, and the surrounding trees became less and less visible. They began with the warrior that had landed on the other side of the rock, dropping him to the bottom. Then the archer on top of him. They both picked up the body of the warrior. The image of the mace being raised to bring down on Hammer was still clear and vibrant. As was Warcry’s swift dispatching. Near-victim and killer dropped the body into the hole. The sky was black when they finished filling it in. He hasn’t talked the whole time, Hammer realized.

The two managed to find their way back to the trail. A fire had been lit beside it. Bearbane had returned and, seeing how much more was piled on the wagon, had found success at the enemy camp. The messenger was gone, the Commander sat by the fire, watching as they approached and sat with the rest.

“Is that all of you?” he knew it was, he let the words sit in the air for a few more moments. “We are at war. The Hill has rebelled. We are to go west, and join High Commander Sharpaxe’s forces.”

All around the table were quiet. The chair for the Hill Ambassador was gone, ordered burned by the King. In its place a temporary wooden one, in it sat Branch Winds of the River. It was him who said the first words at the meeting.

“The Ri-”

“Silence,” Root Moss said, softly but coldly. He turned to the King.

“It has been much time since our armies left,” The King said. “Anything new?”

Blade had taken the chair that belonged to the absent Thorn. “Sharpaxe is making his way north. Our Thorn has separated his force and is following Cloudcatcher’s growing army east.”

“Let’s hope Strong reaches him before he’s led into the swamps,” the Ambassador of Fire said. “And let’s hope Sharpaxe will bring a quick end to the war.”

“Mhm… with that raiding parties are being organized in the mountains, some are beginning to strike northern villages and caravans.”

“The King of the Hill?” Root Moss asked.

“We have conflicting reports, some say he’s held up in his palace, others say he’s left.”

“I’m not worried,” Root Moss said. “Sharpaxe will get to him, sooner or later.”

“My Root?” Blade asked.


“The force you sent with Sharpaxe seemed a bit… thin… what is it you expect him to do exactly?”

Root Moss waited a moment before responding. “He has his orders. He won’t need to fight any armed foes. Not a large force at least. I know we have units being trained in the mountains during the summer. By now he’s sent messages to them, they’ll add extra spears.”

“You still haven’t told me anything.”

“You don’t need to know!” the King blurted. “We will have the palace soon enough!”

“Apologies… my King.”

Moss waited for silence to fill the air again. “Sharpaxe is a loyal commander. He will do what we need to win. You want to win, don’t you?”

The room was empty but for the silent agreement.

“Good, anything from the rest of you?”

“I think your strategy is a stroke of genius,” Branch Winds said. “Since I’m sending my soldiers to fight with you I know it is.”

“You’d be sending your soldiers anyway,” Moss responded. “Because that is the promise you gave King Spear.”

“King Spear, unifier, conqueror. I hope our new King is just as worthy to wear his crown.”

The King tensed. I can wear Shield’s if you like.

“You’ve seen what the animals do?” Wagon asked.

“Yes?” Hammer responded.

“When they get on top of each other and go back and forth.”

“I’ve seen them do that, what are you asking?”

“Well why do they do it?”

“Why would I know that? Is this the beginning of a joke?”

“Well no… I was just wondering.”

They were riding west, the sun was high in the sky. A deer pulled their wagon of supplies in the center of their unit. Bearbane had caught two recruits playing a game of how-close-to-you-can-I-shoot-my-arrow-without-hitting-you. The answer was never discovered as Bearbane had put a stop to it and as a reward got a leisurely ride in the wagon while the rest hopped along.

The Commander had been quiet since they had received the orders. Hammer was no more the chatter. During nights when it was risky to move about he would think about the Hill Warrior that almost killed him. The Hill Warrior he buried. The worms and soil are taking him right now. Warcry was the polar. To everyone he boasted about the warrior he killed, as if half of them hadn’t been there and seen it happen.

Past the trees he saw smoke, no bigger than a small fire. A camp, maybe a village.

For another few moments Hammer hopped along in a haze, daydreaming about many things. The warrior he killed, animals moving back and forth on each other, Bearbane up in the wagon while his stem hurt, the warrior he killed…

The Commander stopped, the rest of the unit followed. Hammer saw what he was gazing at. The source of the smoke, the village. We trained here. Was this why they were back? A night’s shelter?

The village elder emerged from one of the few stone structures, and hopped forward. As if meeting an old friend, which, Hammer guessed, he was.

“Commander! Welcome! I haven’t seen you in a winter. Back for a place to stay?”

The Commander stood for a moment, appearing to tense up. He lowered his spear so it was pointed at the elder. “Your village, everyone, bring them out.”

“What?” He asked.

What? Hammer thought.

A short and quick jab later the elder was on the ground, with a new hole in his side.

Everyone. Now.”

The Commander turned to his unit.

“Hammer, Wagon, search the buildings. Weapons, riches, anything we can use. Burn the grass and straw huts, harvest any wooden beams you find. The rest of you. Get all these scum in one place. Kill any who try to leave.”

For a moment none moved. Hammer looked to the Elder staring up at his old friend with shock.


Ironic, Thorn Strong thought somewhere in his mind while the rest was wiggling his body from a thorn bush. Two soldiers had stopped to help him.

“East!” he yelled to his passing troops, as if to remind them of the objective. Drive Cloudcatcher to the river. Corner him, make him surrender, if not, destroy his force. Strong could feel it. He knew what it was from the secondhand stories he had heard. The battlesurge. In this state he felt ready to charge into Cloudcatcher’s force himself. He no longer cared what would happen to him. He thrust himself forward, the thorns ripped gashes in his flesh, finally they gave way and he fell forward into the water. The swampy murk stung at his fresh cuts. He could hardly feel it. His thoughts raced, weighing options, watching carnage, struggling to find his way through the marshland he and his army had found themselves in. So this is war, he thought.

He searched the water and found his spear. Picking it up, he charged forward with his soldiers. Ahead of him the brunt of the fighting was taking place. He found one of his commanders watching his unit just outside the yelling mess.

“To the north around them!” the Thorn yelled. “They can’t reach the mountains!”

“Yes Thorn! Cut off the mountains!”

The fighting was loud. Maces swinging, arrows shooting, spears jabbing. Screams of soldiers of Hill, Sun, and River alike. The water was dark and rose to just above his stem, which sank into the mud if he stood too long in one place. A terrible place to fight. We need to take the battle out of here. I need a better view. He turned around, a dead, twisted, tree rose from the surrounding moss and lily pads.

With help from his spear, he lifted himself through the branches. His mind pushed back the burning thorn gashes. Looking out over the land, he could see the battle raging below. He looked east, where he was supposed to be pushing the forces, only more marshland. He looked to the north, the commander’s forces were blocking off the mountains, or at least attempting to. We need to block off the south as well. He couldn’t have stray enemy forces breaking through to pillage the Sun and River provinces.

He scanned the field for his rival. He didn’t know where Cloudcatcher would be. I served King Snowflake with him for many winters, I should find him. He was hoping their past would push Cloudcatcher towards a surrender. If I have to kill you, I will. You made your choice. He thought about his vantage point, how a good archer at this level could find any target he wished. A good archer wouldn’t leave themselves exposed in a tree. This would be too obvious a spot.

It took a moment to click.



The arrow pinned him to the bark beneath. Another barely missed his head. His battlesurge went into overdrive. I can’t pull it out in time. And so he ripped himself off it. Now standing on a branch, his mind raced with the best way down. ZIP. Another arrow went clean through his flesh into the bark behind him. Losing his balance, he hit branches on the way down as his mind went blank. With a soft splash the water engulfed him. As he drifted down from the fading surface, his battlesurge disappeared. His thorn gashes, arrow wounds, all burned. His distorted screams echoed through the water.

Hammer looked to the flat land stretching below the mountains. The morning light was shining on it from the east. He tried his best to put the past two days out of his mind, all in vain. In the distance he could see a few smoke plumes. Was the war raging on the villages below? Were they simple bonfires? Smiths? Idiocy mixing with thatch? He knew what caused the smoke drifting from behind him, however.

He turned around, hopping back through the remains of the village. The thatch huts he had burned. The stone huts they had used as shelter while the deeds were being done and were now being torn down. In several rows the crucified dead hung. Each nailed to the wooden beams, arms stretched out. Destined to be eaten by beetles and caterpillars in the coming days. They wouldn’t be here to see that. We’re following orders… we’re following orders… King Flame must have had a good reason… the Commander must have seen it too… where is he?

He hopped to where the wagons were being loaded. “Where is the Commander?” he asked Bearbane.

“He went into the forest before the sun rose, probably on a nighttime hop around the forest. Sometimes you need to clear your head with one of those.”

A few moments later he said, “Now that you mention it, he should be back by now, we’re almost ready to leave. Let’s go look for him. Bring your brother Warcry too, his 'quiet' voice may help him find us.”

Into the forest the three went. Spears clutched, just as ready to find their commander as to find a group of Hill raiders. Warcry hopped along, spinning happily and making moves as he did so. We could die at any moment. We just crucified twenty-six villagers and we could die at any moment and I don’t even care if we do. Why… are you dancing?

“Commander!” Bearbane gave a soft yell, repeating every few moments.

“You’ve been quiet,” Warcry said.

“There hasn’t been much to talk about,” Hammer responded.


“Well I killed a bunch of Hill savages and nailed them to wood.”

“I know. I watched you do it. I helped you do it.”


“It’s something to talk about.”

“I don’t think-”

Comma- Will you two not be quiet!? Do I have to make you pull the wagons with the deer?”

After a moment of silence Bearbane said, “Okay.” and continued on. When Warcry spotted a glint nearby, they hopped to it. Their Commander sat unmoving against a tree, his spear in his stem.

As the sun was midway over the sky, Hammer only reflected on bits and pieces of the last half-day. The Commander is dead. We buried him. None have even asked why he did it. Bearbane is the new Commander. We just crucified twenty-six villagers and we could die at any moment and I don’t even care if we do.

“ALL UP!” Bearbane’s voice was thin and loud and stung over the remains of the village. “WE’RE HEADING TO THE HILL PALACE!”

Oh right… we’re doing that. Hammer rose. Before joining the rest he stood in front of the rows of dead. The village elder hung lifeless from the wood, one of his arms had come loose and now flopped in the wind. You once called the Commander a friend. I hope you find each other in the afterlife before the beetles eat you. Hammer chuckled at the thought. Where did that come from? Hmm… at times like this I guess I’ll have to look at the bright side of life.

They hopped west for three days. In that time the forests were quiet, even the birds made little noise. The three days were quiet for the unit too, besides the one of them that started laughing one evening, and didn’t stop until daybreak. On the final morning they spotted a column of smoke ahead, and headed for it. It was midday when they spotted the first war tents, other Sun soldiers. Hundreds, Hammer estimated. Maybe a few thousand. One approached them on deerback.

“Origin and orders?” he asked.

Bearbane stood blankly for a moment before snapping to the question. “Training west of here, ordered to meet up with High Commander Sharpaxe’s force. Pillaged a village on the way, also on orders.”

“You’re that unit… come with me. Sharpaxe has plans for you.”

Bearbane hopped up beside him as the unit followed behind.

“You’re shorter than you were described.”

“Our Commander… he didn’t make it.”

“May the sun shine on him then.”

Hammer heard the chatter of other soldiers, gathered around fires or outside their tents.

“…Coward Hill King’s run off…”

“…It’s his Root that’s fortified the entrance…”

“…I know Sharpaxe gotta get im’ out somehow, but der’ gotta be a better way en’ dat…”

“…for with the Sun shining on you, we cannot lose! Go down with spear in hand and the sun will grant you a special place in the afterlife!”

The last voice was a priest, a pine, preaching to a group of soldiers on top of a large rock.

A tree caught Hammer’s attention, looking to it, he saw it was on top of a hill overlooking the warrior’s camp. The leaves were moving, this was a mother tree. The Royal Hill Mother Tree. At the base of the hill were two large doors, covered in scars and gashes. Sharpaxe’s efforts, he presumed.

They stopped near the center of the camp, at a large tent. The soldier dismounted and led Bearbane inside while the rest waited in silence, around them other soldiers were going about their business. Some carried water, some weapons, others led rows of deer to their units. Most looked new. Straight off the mother tree maybe? Hammer wished he could go back to that day.

A screaming pierced across the tents from the direction of the sealed palace. Hammer and his brothers were startled, lowering their spears to ready level. A few moments passed, and when the surrounding soldiers did nothing, they lowered their spears, confused.

“Prepare for much more of that,” a passing archer said.

The screaming grew louder as they sat in uncomfortable silence. Those around them went on their normal business, talking louder as if the screaming was just a background noise. Hammer thought about inquiring, figuring out who that was and what was happening. Wounded tents? Surgery? It doesn’t look like there’s been fighting here… Please Bearbane whatever you’re doing get done with it so we can move on.

His wish was granted. Bearbane emerged from the tent. Hopping aimlessly forward a few paces, then turning to them.

“High Commander Sharpaxe-”

Bearbane was cut off as another scream went over the tents.

“…has given us a spot nearby to set up the tent. Go do that.”

“Are you coming?” Wagon asked.

“One of Sharpaxe’s will meet you in the morning with… orders.”

With that he hopped into the mess of paths and tents that stretched away. Rather than ask further, the unit found the spot and set up their tent. The sun was setting and the screaming had stopped.

“I’ll go chat with some of these others and find out what’s happening,” Warcry said.

“Just be back before morning.”

“I know, I remember.”

Hammer didn’t remember when in the night Warcry returned, but he remembered him talking with the rest of the unit. Some shouts, yells, silence.

The next morning Hammer stood in line with the others as one of Sharpaxe’s lower commanders arrived.

“Where is your commander? Goes by the name Bearbane I have been told?”

They looked at each other. Where was Bearbane?

“Lost your commander? Makes me wonder why Sharpaxe chose you for this task. But of course we must go on. When Bearbane was here, he gave the name of one who he considered good for this job. Warcry. Hop forward.”

Warcry hopped forward.

“I have been told two must participate,” Sharpaxe’s commander said. “Which of your brothers can you work with?”



Hammer’s face revealed none of the blind chaos in his mind.

“Hammer. Hop forward.”

Hammer hopped forward.

“Follow me. The rest of you, go back to your business.”

Warcry and Hammer followed the commander through the camp, towards the tree-topped hill ahead. Going past Sharpaxe’s tent. They approached the Royal Hill Mother Tree. At the base of the tree soldiers were packing wood and straw. A series of guards had been positioned around, facing inwards. Hammer wanted to hop away. Those attached to the tree were silent, turning their bodies away or hiding behind others.

The commander stopped under the tree, looking around at the hiding faces, pausing on one. Two other soldiers approached. The one on the tree the commander seemed to have picked turned back towards them.


The guards climbed onto the branch, one wielded a small blade.

“NO!” he grabbed his stem and pulled and twisted, painfully ripping himself off the tree. Landing on the ground, he attempted to stand, gave up, and began crawling until he was tackled and brought to the commander.

“You two,” the commander looked at the Hammer and Warcry and gestured towards the struggling Hill budling. They each took an arm, and followed the commander down. At this point the budling was no longer screaming, only shaking in Hammer’s grip.

They approached the sealed door to the Hill Palace. It struck Hammer how big it was, towering at twice his height. The commander approached it, and hit it several times with his spear. Hammer could see the multitude of marks in the same spot where he figured the process had been done many times.

“Root? I have come to negotiate.”

After a few moments a faint voice came from the doors.

“That’s what you said last time… and again I say no,” the voice sounded weak.

“You have to come out of there eventually. We’re simply trying to speed up the process. Bring this war to an-”


“Is that all?”


“I see. Then the singing will continue.”

The commander turned back to the three. Taking them to a flattened rock nearby, he unwrapped a bag containing several sharp blades, and a piece of flint and steel.

“No…” the budling said.

No…, Hammer thought.

“I can’t promise you’ll get him out, but if you go crazy, take him down with you,” and with that he left.

“Hammer,” Warcry said. “Hold him down, I’ll get the tools.”

Hammer only stood and looked at him.

“We have orders, come on.”

Hammer held the budling down. Struggling against his grip, groaning as he did. He finally screamed when Warcry cut into his flesh.

The screams and struggles seemed to blend together as they went on. At midday Sharpaxe visited. Flanked by two guards, Warcry stopped his torture and nodded to the Commander, Hammer did the same.

“The new unit? I can see they’ve taken to the job… Cut the stem longways, he’ll scream louder,” he said the last part as more a suggestion than an order.

Warcry did as told, the budling let out a shriek. Sharpaxe chuckled. “You taking a liking to this?”

“It’s an okay job, Commander,” Warcry said.

“Your friend doesn’t seem to think so,” Sharpaxe turned to Hammer.

“I’m fine… High Commander,” Hammer said.

“I’m sure you are,” High Commander Sharpaxe said. He sat and watched for a bit as they went about their duty. As the sun began to fall in the sky, cool winds blew across the hill. Occasional dark clouds drifted past.

“A storm?” Sharpaxe asked to none in particular. “Better hope we get that hill open.”

“A storm?” Cloudcatcher asked himself. “Better hope we get there soon.”

His army had been heading west since the Battle of the Bogs, as it was now being called. The overall fighting had been a blur. He knew Thorn Strong had been leading the force, of course he was. Both sides had been disorganized, as it was hard to keep a structured army in muddy water. It was after he saw that Sun soldier be sniped out of a tree that the tide began to turn. What an idiot, standing in an open tree high up on a battlefield, something about him seemed familiar, though. Another unit had tried to outmaneuver them, keep them from going back into the mountains, they had been short work. Soon after, they received word of the palace, and they had been going west since.

Over the next several days, the army passed many things. A group of wanderers headed west, an ambush unit headed south, and they spent half a day moving a boulder that was stuck in their path. The dark clouds became considerably thicker, though it never rained. A bad omen?

Not long after, a scout returned.

“Thorn, I’ve found a village west of here.”

“Allied to us I hope?”

“Well… were… I think you should avoid it.”

They arrived later in the day.

Crucified… killed… they weren’t even soldiers… The thatch homes had been burned, those of stone toppled. The entire area raided of any valuables. Swarms of caterpillars and ants were already at work on the bodies. Cloudcatcher personally faced the Elder, hanging lifeless from the wood, one of his arms missing.

“Those entitled sun-freaks will pay for this!” one of the commanders said.

“That they will,” Cloudcatcher confirmed. “But first we will bury them.”

“Yes, under the might of the Hi-”

“Not them,” Cloudcatcher gestured to the rotting bodies.

“That could stop us an entire day.”

A day later they left the buried village behind. Three days later they spotted a column of smoke rising in front of them. Cloudcatcher knew this part of the mountains. This is it, the palace and around it a Sun host with no idea.

The sky was black, not a star to be seen. The moon’s shine was blurry through the black layer of clouds above. The forest was silent. Cloudcatcher carefully prepared himself and his army. He hopped on his deer, his arm curled around his mace. He felt something wet hit him, then another, and another. The rain had come at last. It’s now or never.

“I am the hills from end to end,” he sung softly. “The stone that makes them… the trees that grow on them… the clouds that snag on them…”

His nearby commanders picked it up, in a growing whisper.

I bow not to the sun, not to the flame, not to the stream, I bow not to none…

Cloudcatcher looked ahead, campfires were lit up near tents. Hundreds, maybe a few thousand. The Royal Hill Mother Tree still stood, it was too dark to see much detail.

For I am the hills from end to end! The stone that rises to the great sea above!

Cloudcatcher screamed the final chant.

And I bow not to none!

Hammer twisted his head from the fire. What-


The falling of raindrops, the rustling of trees, and the screams of the enemy came through the dark and through the camp. Soldiers jumped to grab their weapons. The chants continued.

We are the hills from end to end!

It came from the east, a chorus of chanting voices all ready to kill. The army of the Hill is here!

The stone that makes them! THE TREES THAT GROW ON THEM!

Hammer fumbled for his spear, he heard the shouting of commanders rousing their units. What he assumed was the sound of a war drum came from the center of the camp.




The screams of warriors at the edges of the camp were heard. The cries of deer, the fading chants.


“Fall back and fortify!”

…not to the flame!

With Bearbane still missing, they had none to lead the unit. When it was obvious the enemy was approaching, and fast, Hammer looked around for his brothers.

“I’m scared!” Wagon said.

“So am I,” Hammer responded. Half their unit, including Warcry, were gone. “We need to fall back with the rest!”

Whoever remained in the unit hopped as fast as they could towards the center. Hammer saw a tent catch fire nearby. Soldiers running back and forth. Arrows hit the dirt, some hit flesh. Screams were behind him, incoherent yelling, the clopping of deer hooves. Then he heard a voice, the voice he had come to recognize as High Commander Sharpaxe.


The yelling grew louder, a deer screamed somewhere closeby. Hammer looked to Wagon, his branch brother. Then the light, Hammer turned his head. A column of fire rose upwards through the Royal Hill Mother Tree. The shrieks of budlings echoed over the camp. The battlefield was bathed in light. The faces of soldiers, Sun and Hill both, terrified, in awe, determined, Hammer saw it all. It was then that everything descended to chaos.

Hammer found himself in a tent, his head down, trying to shield himself from the hell outside. I can’t stay here, I’ll die. I thought you didn’t care about death? Maybe I don’t, do I? Should I die? Should I fight?

A torch flew through the doorflap. Hammer was out before the tent was consumed. A Hill soldier on deerback rode past, only for the deer to meet the point of a spear, returning the gesture with a spray of red over the Sun soldier who had stabbed it. Hammer only hopped forward, and kept hopping. Wagon, Wagon, where is Wagon? Warcry, Warcry, where is Warcry? A sun soldier flopped in front of him, the flames spreading up his body.


Hammer watched as he turned black and the flames consumed him. He hopped forward, and kept hopping. I’m at the tree now. In the distance he saw Sharpaxe swinging his weapon.

“RETREAT AND REGROUP!” the High Commander yelled.

For a moment Hammer could hear the camp priest somewhere nearby.

"…beg you Sun! Stop this!"

Nearby budlings that had ripped themselves from the tree were struggling to move, having never even stood before. A burning branch landed on one, he let out a scream as the flaming wood turned him to ash.

Ahead he saw a hill warrior. Standing near the top of the hill, a large burning branch had landed behind him. He held a mace in his arm. Hammer looked to the charred remains of the Sun soldier, and nearby, his dropped spear. In a fit of battlesurge he took the spear and charged. Growing closer to the Hill warrior… closer… closer. At the last second the warrior snapped from his gaze to Hammer, raising his mace and blocking the spear aside. His mace is steel, Hammer noticed as he glimpsed the soldier tumble into the burning log behind him, the flames quickly caught to the edges of his flesh, he began to scream and hopped away in another direction.

Hammer was now in the forest. The rain was still sprinkling. I’m on the north side of the mountain. The battle still raged behind him, he knew, though not as loud as it had been. He saw a deer moving against the bushes, it’s empty saddle still strapped on. Take it. Take it and ride and leave. But then you’ll be a deserter. They can have my head for all I care. Can they? Suddenly the deer’s head perked up, it’s tail raised, and it bounded off into the trees. Lightning struck nearby. Then he heard another noise.

Click… click… click…

He was brought before the King by two guards. Root Moss and Priest Goldflame sat to either side of King Flame, Blade stood behind in the doorway. Cool air was blowing through the throne room, overhead a mass of grey.

“This is the deserter?” the King asked.

“Yes, my King,” the guard said.

“What is your name?” Goldflame asked.

The guard began to speak. “Stonecu-”

“Not you.”

“Oh, apologies.”

The deserter lifted his head. “Bear… Bearbane…”

“Why should I care about his name?” Flame asked.

“I concur,” Moss said. “This is a simple case of desertion and must be dealt with accordingly.”

“Is it a crime to bring one before the King, possibly to end his life, and not at least know his name?”

“His name doesn’t matter. You, did you desert?”

“I… Sharpaxe… told me… he was going to make us… Warcry…”

Did you desert!?

“Yuh… yes…”


Blade brought him his sharp weapon. The King stood, and hopped forward. The deserter was shaking, he lowered his head. With one swing he was no more. As they took the body away, raindrops began to fall.

Priest Goldflame looked towards the sky. “Mm…” he looked to the dark clouds disapprovingly.

“Root, assemble another war council. I’m in the mood for an update on our situation.”

“Of course, my King,” He bowed and left.

Flame looked up, the fog was beginning to obscure his high platform. I hope the wind doesn’t blow it over. The wind did, however, sting at his refreshed tattoo cuts. Why must by own symbol hurt me?

All had gathered in the council chamber by the time the King arrived. He sat in his seat and gave a nod to Blade to begin.

“Our messengers have brought back updates from the riverfront. Thorn Strong has died of the wounds he sustained at the Battle of the Bogs, may the sun shine on him.”

May the sun shine on him,” the others echoed.

“His force is regrouping at the edge of the swamp. Cloudcatcher has taken his force and was last seen in the northern mountains.”

“The palace front?” Root Moss asked.

“As you ordered, Sharpaxe is attempting to weed the Hill Root from the palace. The Hill King himself has disappeared, likely hiding somewhere else. That is the last I have heard.”

“Is he weeding him the way I asked?”

“One budling a day. And he has made the preparations should the worst come.”

“Now that is a fine High Commander.”

“Branch Winds of the River has sent several archer battalions to reinforce our forces. Branch Tinder of the Fire Province is fighting skirmishes on his side of the Kingdom. That is all I have of the war for now.”

“If I may speak?” Priest Goldflame said from his side of the table. Flame nodded.

“My King,” he stood. “Simply put, your city is growing dissatisfied, they feel this war is unjust. Taking too many of them into a conflict in which they would rather not be involved.”

“And how would you know this?” Root Moss asked.

“Unlike you I walk through the city, talk to citizens, do business, help priests, be involved.”

“We have a war to fight!” Moss said. “If our cityfolk do not wish us to win then why must we waste our time on them?”

Goldflame looked down at him. “You sent away a good portion of the city guard, a guard that might prove useful to keeping order in the coming storm. I warn you, Root. These problems grow when left unchecked.”

Root Moss rose from his seat. “Then they will be checked on.”

Blade broke the tension. “The city is undefended. What would happen should Cloudcatcher turn south?”

None responded.

“We need to put defense of the city above all,” Blade said. “Wouldn’t you agree?”

Root and Priest both sat.

“I propose we send a portion of Strong’s forces south. I’ll meet them in the City on the River with some of Branch Winds forces, then we return here and set up a guard.”

“Can you order them to do that?” Root Moss asked. “We have no Thorn.”

The King thought for a moment, then rose from his chair. “Blade, front of me.”

Blade silently obeyed.

“Should we not have an official ceremony?” Goldflame asked.

“Our King is right,” Blade said. “We have no time.”

“Commander Blade, bow.”

He bowed.

“For many winters you have served us, and with the loss of our Thorn and our situation, I call on you. You will no longer be Commander Blade. You will command my armies. Fight for me on the Battlefield. And bring me victory.”

“I accept, my King.”

The next day the King looked out the window in his quarters, to the fog and drizzle outside. It’s only getting worse, how bad will it get? There was a knock on his door. He opened it to find Thorn Blade.

“My King,” he bowed. “I came to give my farewells.”

“Every moment you spend here is another you don’t come back with your host.”

Blade stood silent for a moment, then said, “Cloudcatcher won’t come south. I know him. I know Goldflame too, he’s right. The city is ready to riot. It’s a lake coated in ice and until the army is here it’s beginning to crack.”

He looked to the dark weapon sitting against the wall of his quarters. The gift he had given him during the Sun Festival four winters back.

“You’re the King, and you won’t be taken alive, will you?”

After another moment of silence, the Thorn turned and hopped away. The King closed the door. Looking to the weapon. It’s blade of dark metal, the handle of stained wood, he thought about how many lives he had taken with it. He looked to the bed against the other wall. Four Kings died on that bed, I won’t be the fifth.

Cloudcatcher rode forward. Everything around him was black, and yet he rode forward. Darkness stretched eternally around him. What happened? Oh that’s right. Lost focus, Sun soldier knocked me into the flames… that hurt.

“Isn’t that right?” he asked the deer, which walked him forward. Half its face was torn to the bone, and red stuff drained down it’s body to its legs, leaving a trail of red hoofprints on the black ground. One of its antlers was broken off as well.

“That’s right. Good deer.”

They rode along for awhile, nowhere in particular.

Hm-m m-m m-m-m-mm… m-m-m-m-m-m-mm… m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-mm… m-m-m-m-m-m-m-m-mm… m-m-m-m-m-m… m-m-m-m… I bow, I bow, not to none…

I wonder if my army will regroup. Drive them north maybe, out of the Kingdom. Who knows if they’ll survive that… I’m sure they have things handled without me.

They rode along for another while, nowhere in particular.

Cloudcatcher felt like dancing. So he dismounted, and began dancing around his bleeding deer.

“Dance with me!”

The deer stood still.

“Don’t feel it?”

It looked at him with cold, black, eyes.

“Alright… we’ll keep going.”

They kept going, nowhere in particular. Did they burn down the mother tree? Hm… have to give them courage at least. They kept going. Is there a reason to this place? Is this place beyond reason? Then he saw. The golden light of the sun before him. Shining down to the biggest tree he had ever seen. The sky became a lighter shade of blue as the deer brought him closer.

Its beautiful.

The deer stopped.

“Come on there, we want to enjoy the afterlife now don’t we?”

The deer turned around, and began heading the opposite way.

“Well… if you think so…”

They rode until a figure appeared ahead. One from the Sun Province, though that was all he could make out. It hopped ahead, Cloudcatcher and his deer followed. I wonder what this fine one has in store…

A dim white light appeared further ahead. The figure disintegrated, as well as Cloudcatcher’s deer. The flesh and bones turned to dust below him, and he found himself on the ground. Farewell, resilient one. With that he hopped the rest of the journey.

The glowing white object was a coffin. He crawled inside and lay down. Folding his arms over his body, he relaxed. And then he couldn’t move. The euphoria faded. Let me up… LET ME UP! A lid moved over the top, sealing him in darkness.

He could now move again, he jolted up, screaming. His flesh burned against the air. Something moved the lid sideways, revealing dark clouds above him. Slowly, he pulled himself out, his arms felt on fire. They were on fire.

In front of him the figure looked down, the figure from before. He looked from the Sun Province, but around his body was odd bits of metal and cloth wrapping.

“Do not fear, my name is Treetop.”

Cloudcatcher moved himself forward. Looking down, he saw the bandages that had been wrapped around his arms. He touched his body, felt the same. His stem was enclosed in some strange sleeve.

“You were burned good. Probably would’ve died if I hadn’t found you.”

Cloudcatcher looked to the figure calling himself Treetop. He had a similar sleeve on his own stem. Hopping on it, he heard something made of metal in it each time he hit the ground.

“I know, Springs, right? When your stem can’t do its job…”

He hopped up next to Cloudcatcher, who attempted to back away. Instead he fell over the side of the coffin, groaning in pain.

“Burns still hurt? I used as much ointment as I could, and left the inner areas so you could breathe. Let me help you up.”

Getting under the Hill Thorn, he pushed him up where he could grab hold of the white coffin and balance himself.

“What’s your name?”

“Cloudcatcher,” it came weak and muffled through the burned flesh and cloth. “Thorn of the Hill Kingdom.”

“‘Hill Kingdom,’” Treetop repeated. “Not a name I ever expected to hear again. Knew some veterans who fought in the last war of independence.”

“That was seventy winters ago,” Cloudcatcher said.

“And you guys are right back where you were.”

Water began sprinkling from the sky.

“Mm…” Treetop looked to the clouds. “We should get inside.”

Cloudcatcher let go, and regained his balance. Looking down to the sleeve that covered his stem, he felt something hard in the outer part, like a metal chord. He hopped on it, something inside compressing and pushing him as he did. He called it a spring.

“I can’t hop without this anymore, can I?”

Treetop shook his head. “The damage fire does is hard to undo,” he turned and gestured to Cloudcatcher to follow. He did, and for the first time, looked at his surroundings. There was metal strewn through and obscured by the grass. Vines clung to decaying stone and steel. Further were crumbling stone walls, rusting metal beams. It looked as if the sun had brought it’s wrath down on an entire city.

“The first?” Cloudcatcher said. “The legends…”

“Yes. You could call them that.”

Treetop approached an intact, vine-coated, building. Arriving at a rusting metal door, on its front a fading symbol. A circle with three spears pointing inwards. Treetop turned the handle and pushed the metal door inwards. Cloudcatcher followed. Lightning struck behind.

“I was right,” Cloudcatcher said. “The storm was a bad omen.”

Treetop closed the door, and flipped a switch. Glass objects in the ceiling glowed, lighting up the room.

“Nah, it’s hurricane season. They almost never come this far north, those in the south have gotten used to them.”

At a metal table there was a strange white and blue cube. One side was black, and made of glass. Hooked up to it through a red and blue string-like connection was a black object, with faded first writing.

“Don’t touch that, please.”

Cloudcatcher moved away. Around the room were other strange objects, most made of the same strange, hard, substance that wasn’t metal or stone or wood.

“What is this place?” he asked.

“A temporary setup. Scout went west two weeks ago to find more batteries.”

Cloudcatcher repeated the one word he recognized. “Scout? The Scout?”


Cloudcatcher found a rusted metal seat in the corner. Sitting in it, he asked: “What are you doing? Why did you save me?”

“I saved you because I have a job for you. Can you sneak into the palace undetected?”

“Sneak in?” Cloudcatcher said. “I can’t return to the Kingdom. I look like a hopping mummy!”

“You also asked what we are doing. Important work, that is all I can say, and I think you could contribute a lot. There is a threat brewing, the entire Kingdom may be in danger. We can’t fight it if Hill and Sun are burning each other to the ground.”

“Peace? That can’t happen with that King in po-”

“That’s where you come in.”

“Kill the King? That is not how war is meant to be played.”

“Said like you’re playing a game,” Treetop pulled a tarp off an object. It was made of metal, with a long, hollow, tube sticking from the front. “You’ll need to disassemble this and sneak it in.”

“I do not wage war this way,” Cloudcatcher said. “Killing a King outside the battlefield is a coward’s way.”

“I’m not asking you to kill the King… the one pulling his strings.”

Go east? The enemy would kill you. Go north? Nothing but the ruins of the first to greet you. Go South? Risk being executed for desertion. Although separated, most of the force went west. On the first day Hammer found a Hill Soldier, sat on the ground, ready for the “Clicking Bird” to take him. Hammer left him to his fate. On the second day he found one from his own unit, then another, and some more, even Warcry met up. Over the third day, soldiers and entire units slowly found their way back to each other. About one in every three of Hammer’s unit had disappeared, either dead in the chaos or lost in the forest. He still hadn’t even found Wagon. All of this was made considerably more difficult by the storm, all day and night it poured rain, for days the sun hadn’t been seen. On the fourth day they rejoined the main force, led by Sharpaxe.

“Less of you I see?” the High Commander said to them once they met. “Your commander still has not returned.”

“We haven’t seen Bearbane since we got to the palace,” Hammer said.

“He left before even the attack? Never took him for a deserter.”

“He may not be a-”

“He’s gone,” Sharpaxe put it bluntly. “Your unit needs a new command. You have officially been promoted, Commander Hammer. Now keep your unit with the force. I’m done waiting for stragglers,” with that the High Commander hopped away.

Heading south along the mountains, Hammer talked to his fellow commanders as equals. Heard tales of the “Clicking Bird” in the forest, which had reportedly taken several already. They found two villages. Hammer was relieved to find them abandoned, their inhabitants leaving before the Sun force could arrive. It was in the stone hall in the second village that Sharpaxe called the commanders to discuss the future.

“Scouts have reported back,” one of the commanders said. “The Hill force is not following us, and there might be a friendly outpost further south.”

“Some even say Thorn Cloudcatcher is dead,” said another.

“I guarded the King with him for eight winters before he betrayed us,” Sharpaxe said. “He’s not dead.”

“Either way,” a third commander said. “It will be hard to anticipate their next move. The raze- loss of the-”

“The razing of the Royal Hill Mother Tree?” Sharpaxe asked. “Or would you call it the massacre? I don’t care what you call it, I would have done it even if Root Moss had not commanded it!” he rose. “We are at war with the Hill! We have lost the palace and a third of our force and I’ll be the one! ME! To tell Root Moss and the King! The King of the Hill will burn like the rest before the Sun and that traitor Cloudcatcher too!”

Hammer emerged from the stone hall after the discussion. Most of the tents were lost in the attack. A lucky few had kept theirs, setting them up against the constant rain and wind. Others did what they could, skinning animals for their fur, setting up stick and leaf shelters, none seemed to be comfortable. None were completely dry either.

On the eighth day they found a building, not a creation of plant, but of the first. It’s walls were made of brown-red brick, and to the side was a toppled metal tower, the top of which contained yellow panels with black first lettering. Inside they found a shopkeeper, one from the Sun Province.

“I came here a few winters ago with my branch brother,” the shopkeeper said when they found him. “Turned this place into a trading center for, well, whatever you’d want. Rainwater, but I think we got enough of that outside, groundwater, weapons, metal, we traded away all the first stuff we found here.” When they asked him where his brother was he said: “Some Hill soldiers killed him a few days ago, they were not happy. So now I’m here to run it alone. I’m not leaving, it’s a nice place…”

He never stops talking. Hammer thought. Still, it was nice to find an inhabitant that wasn’t terrified of them or wanted to kill them.

Once again, he emerged from the prebuilt shelter into the night. He looked out to the soldiers setting up camp, to the skies, the winds. The storm is only getting stronger. He noticed there was less activity than back at the Hill palace. The priest had somehow survived, and was tending to one of the few injured that Sharpaxe hadn’t left behind.


He turned to see Warcry, standing beside him. “You have to call me commander when we’re out here, I told you.”

“Sorry… commander…” Warcry said, brushing it aside. “I need to talk to you.”

They found a place in the trees, far enough from camp that none could hear. Even through the thundering rain.

“Now what is it?” Hammer asked.

“We…” Warcry hesitated. “You remember… at the palace… what we did?”

Too much. “We did what we were ordered to do.”

“I know. I still would have done it even if we hadn’t.”

Hammer stood silent.

“Hammer I… I enjoyed it… it… fit something in me. Something I haven’t felt before.”

Hammer stood silent.

“And now… I can’t.”

The words floated through the rain a few more moments, then Hammer said, “Every time I have a moment to myself. Every time I’m not giving orders or discussing with the other commanders, I feel that budling struggling under me! I can hear and see you with that knife like it happened this morning!” Warcry began to back away, Hammer was no longer speaking to him. Now he was only a burst dam. “EVERY SINGLE TIME I HAVE A MOMENT TO MYSELF I THINK ABOUT FINDING THE COMMANDER WITH A KNIFE IN HIS STEM! THAT BUDLING THAT DID NOTHING TO US SCREAMING AGAINST ME! ALL HIS BROTHERS SHRIEKING IN THE FLAMES AND ONE OF OUR OWN BURNING IN FRONT OF ME! SO TELL ME! TELL ME NOW HOW YOU CAN POSSIBLY SIT HERE AND TELL ME THAT YOU CAN NOT ONLY TOLERATE, BUT ENJOY-”

Click… click… click…

Hammer silenced his verbal rampage in an instant. He turned his head towards the dark, the source of the noise.

Click… click… click… click… click.

Both Hammer and Warcry hopped for the camp as fast as their stems could take them.

“HAIL THE HILL KING!” they all said in unison.

They were in two rows, some on deerback, others standing, some sitting on broken stems. The King of the Hill rode on his buck through the entourage of surviving soldiers. With the sky still filled with grey, and the rain pouring down, he wanted nothing more than the dry rock of his palace. Even still, he took the time to see the collapsed and burned tents of the Sun soldiers, some re-erected by his own. He looked to the top of the hill, against the backdrop was the charred remains of the Royal Hill Mother Tree. I grew on that tree. I detached from that tree and my heir was to be from that tree. He dismounted at the doors to the palace, a commander hopped to him.

“My King? What is to be done with the corpses? The soldiers and the… budlings…”

“Wait for the storm to pass,” The King said. “I can’t afford to lose any spears trying to collect bodies. Especially with that thing out there.”

“The Clicking Bird appears to have followed the Sun soldiers southwest.”

“Good. Our tree was burned and our Thorn is missing, possibly dead. I’ll relax knowing a monster is being of inconvenience to our friend Sharpaxe.”

“What of after the storm?”

“Burn the Sun soldiers, fair payment for a hundred budlings, I assume? As for our losses, make a cemetery, somewhere close by. I want this crime to never be forgotten… or forgiven.”

“Will be done, my King.”

He headed inside as the doors were opened. The inside hadn’t changed much, apart from the debris scattering the floor, steadily more chaotic symbols covering the walls. Melted wax and ashes, broken weapons, even a rotting body.

“You, guard. get that out of here and put it where the others are,” the King said. The guard obeyed, dragging the body away.

Down the stairs, the King passed into a poorly lit and deep part of the palace. Passing several walled up passages, which he knew were long-empty mines. Or, according to legend, where the worst of the worst had been entombed alive. None remembered, none wanted to check. Even further down he went, to a place he did not like to be.

“Is he still in there?” the King asked a guard, standing outside.

“Yes, my King, his condition has gotten worse.”

As if putting him in a place like this was supposed to help. He hopped past cells. In some were older residents, now rotting lifeless in their rooms. Can’t afford to keep your prisoners alive through a holdout. Then there were the new prisoners, captured soldiers and commanders from Sharpaxe’s army. The soldiers don’t have anything I need. I’ll make a show of them. And when I have what I need from the commanders, I’ll make a show of them as well. The King arrived at the last cell, stopping to listen to it’s inhabitant.

Out the doors the budlings sing, they sing, they sing, THEY SING, THEY SING, they sing…

The King knocked on the door. “Root? It is me, your King.”

Open says the Sun, no says the Root. The budlings sing, they sing, they sing…

“Can you hear me?”


“Mhm,” the King said to himself. Turning around, he hopped past the cells, from one he heard a loud rush to the door.

“Hill King! I mean- My King! I can promise you anything you want on King Flame! Root Moss even! If you could let me out!”

A common soldier, knows nothing. The Hill King approached the guard who stood outside the dungeons.

“The Root is not getting better,” he told the guard. “I think he deserves to see the afterlife, quickly and quietly.”

“Will be done, my King.”

“And that Sun soldier, fifth cell down? I’ll require him later.”

It was later when he had assembled the nobles in the throne room, the ones not off fighting anyway. Like him, a good portion had hidden from the war, and been away during the carnage. A good thing too, we don’t need anymore songs about singing budlings. As servants stocked the center of the room with wood and straw, the King sat in his throne. He grabbed his mace and hit it against the ground, a loud ringing called attention across the room. As the crowd of voices stopped to look at him, he leaned back, silent.

“Where are you taking me?” The voice came from behind. Into the throne room came the Sun soldier, now in a metal cage, being carried by two Hill soldiers. The servants finished stocking the wood as the soldier noticed it.

“What are you doing? Is that…”

They sat the cage down, longways, on the wood.


A servant handed the King a torch, he rose.


He threw the torch into the pyre. The straw burst into flames, and then the wood. The Sun soldier’s desperate ramblings turned into screaming, as his flesh turned black and fell away. Within a few moments, it was over. The Hill King sat back, looking up to where the smoke rose. That soot stain is going to be difficult to clean. He looked back to the nobles, their attention now off the blackened corpse back to him.

“From this moment on, I declare that as long as I stand, there will be no peace. The Sun-King has forsaken his right to end this conflict…”

He rose, and began hopping down the row of closed-off tomb spaces in the wall.

“…I declare this in the name of The Betrayed, whose work I will finish. The End, where he lost I will win. Even The Hunted, the Halfwit, all those to come before me…”

He pressed the end of his arm against the grave of his predecessor.

“…they will fight once more.”

It hasn’t gotten much worse, Hammer thought. That said the storm was still intense as it ever was. For days now they had been camped around the outpost. We need the sun’s energy soon. He could feel himself steadily growing weaker. The Clicking Bird kept all on edge, and few ventured into the forest alone, most not at all. Sharpaxe called his commanders for several meetings, though none could agree on a next move. The one he called early that morning appeared no different.

High Commander Sharpaxe took his seat inside the outpost building. He and the other commanders were seated in a circle. Sharpaxe took a moment before speaking.

“One of our soldiers went into the forest alone today,” he said coldly. “Stumbled on a recently disturbed patch of dirt. He found a body, one of our own, maybe a couple days old at most. He had been stabbed, cut up, and thrown in the hole. Would anyone have any idea as to who could have done this?”

He enjoyed it… and now he can’t…

“Nobody?” Sharpaxe stood. “This soldier will not see the afterlife. His head has been cut off, and his body cut into four more pieces, all so his killer could more easily bury him in a shallow grave where he thought we wouldn’t find it. Maybe it’s a Hill soldier, I wouldn’t know, the scouts won’t go out because of the monster in the forest. But I think the killer is out in that camp, betraying the symbol of the Sun. Maybe even in this room… still nobody? Fine, I’ll send teams to come around your tents soon. I’ll get answers eventually, I always do.”

The next day they found another, then another. Sharpaxe’s teams went around the camp, attempting to get any information from the soldiers they deemed suspects, either verbally or physically. Hammer watched it happen, counting down the days before they came for his unit. Then, it would all be over.

The unit next to him was questioned, and he knew it would be tomorrow. He hadn’t talked to Warcry since the woods. It’s time I get some answers for myself. He bent down and looked into the wood and hide shelter his unit had built.

“Meet me in the woods when the sun goes down. Same spot as last time,” was all he said, leaving before Warcry had a chance to respond. He grabbed his spear, and ventured into the forest. After finding a good tree to sit against, he hid his spear under a bunch of twigs and leaves. Collecting his thoughts, preparing himself. A short time later he heard him.

“Hammer?” Warcry said. Hammer turned his head, and rose.

“Do you know why I asked you to meet here?”

“Yes, it was me. I killed them and buried them. I told you I couldn’t… I can’t control it! I wanted you to help me! You stopped talking to me and I didn’t know what to do and-”

“Warcry,” Hammer said calmly. “Look at me, do you remember our time on the tree? How we talked about the adventures we would have when we joined?”

“Yes, and… Wagon… wherever he is…”

“Yes… Wagon. We’ve had some adventure…” Hammer reflected.

“Why are you asking?” Warcry said.

“I won’t let them take you, you’re my branch brother. You always will be.”

“Well… you are too. Don’t worry, maybe I can control it, I don’t know. But I think someday Wagon might return, this war will end, we can go do something else.”

“I hope so,” Hammer looked up. “The sun’s breaking.”

Warcry turned around and looked up to see a sky full of grey and black. Hammer bolted, grabbing his spear from its hiding place, raising it. One short, quick, and strong jab later it was done.

The rain poured down on the ground. Hammer sat next to his branch brother’s body for a long time, staring at it. A gust of wind almost took it away, and that’s when he snapped back to his senses. Digging a large hole, he lined the bottom with tree bark. Carving the body’s outline and the symbols of the four elements to sustain him. On it he lay Warcry’s body, and covered it in another layer. Finally, he buried his brother.

Hammer stood in front of the wet mound of dirt. Just as quickly he swung around, whacking his spear against the tree until it broke with a sharp snap. He yelled incoherently into the rain as he did, until, exhausted, he sat back against the tree, tossing away the broken end of his spear.

Click… click… click…

Hammer stood. “YOU WANT ME!? TAKE ME!”

Click… click… click…



“Please… I just want this all to end.”

Only the sound of rain and wind came from the forest.

“I’m going to make this all end.”

Hammer laughed.

“I’m going to make this all end!” he said to none but the forest.

Hammer hopped back to camp. Win, lose, either way it’ll end. He allowed himself one last chuckle. Going straight to the outpost, he hopped in on Sharpaxe discussing something with the shopkeeper.

“High Commander,” he said, interrupting them.

“Commander Hammer?” Sharpaxe asked, angry and slightly perplexed. “Why must you-”

“I saw one of our own venture into the forest with a body.”

That grabbed his attention. “What? Let’s go, show us where.”

“I think you and I should go alone,” Hammer said. “We don’t want to alert him.”

Sharpaxe ignored him. “Guard! Come with us!”

This might complicate things. Hammer thought, yet still he asked: “High Commander, shall I grab my spear?”

“No time. Guard! Grab another weapon for Commander Hammer!”

The guard obeyed, handing Hammer another spear. That part went as planned, at least. Sharpaxe grabbed his axe and the three ventured through the camp. Hammer looked to the soldiers, some trying in vain to start fires in the rain. Some negotiating tent rights, others simply sitting miserably in the cold wetness. It will end soon. He was grateful his chuckle couldn’t be heard over the storm. They ventured into the forest. Hammer waited for the moment they were far enough away.

“I don’t see him,” Sharpaxe said.

“I saw him, he’s somewhere around here.”

“This sounds like a ruse,” the guard said. “High Commander-”


Hammer raised his spear. Succeed or fail, it all ends. In one motion he stabbed it into the guard’s stem at the base of his head, killing him instantly. In a lower jab, he cut Sharpaxe at the mid section. His High Commander collapsed, unable to stand.

“Hammer!” he screamed, squirming on the ground.

Click… click…

Hammer slowly began to hop back. All at once the humor in the situation seemed to vanish. Sharpaxe attempted to crawl towards him. Lightning struck down on the horizon.

“Traitor! Guards! GUARDS!”

The thunder drowned out his yelling.

Click… click… click…

“The killer!? You!?”

“Not me,” Hammer said. “The killer is dead. I killed him.”

“You’re a killer! And when the guards find you you’ll be wishing I was a faster one!”

Hammer hopped a few more paces from his High Commander.


It jumped out of the darkness, the bird creature with it’s two spike-arms. Sharpaxe gave a yell as it attacked him, struggling as it ripped his flesh apart, raising strips to its mouth. A gust of wind blew the guard’s body away as Sharpaxe was dragged into the darkness. One last glimpse of the High Commander’s face revealed terror and death before disappearing. Hammer knew his work was done. He hopped back to camp. The wind was now howling as Sharpaxe’s screams faded behind him.

He hopped into camp alone, few noticed. At the outpost a guard intercepted him.

“Where is the High Commander?” he asked.

“Use the drum,” Hammer responded.

“Commander Hammer? Has something happened?”

“The High Commander is dead. Use the drum.”

The guard nodded, and left into the building. Hammer stood in front of the doorway, looking out to the camp. He spotted his unit, still taking turns in the wood and hide shelter. It’s all about to end. The priest was already standing nearby, looking at him as if he knew something was about to happen. Hammer didn’t know much about him, other than that he was a young pine.


The drummer had positioned himself in the doorway, to keep the stretched hide from soaking. Soldiers raised their heads, and began hopping forward. Slowly, they gathered around, all staring at him, wondering why they had been called. Even Hammer’s own unit looked confused.

“THE KILLER IS DEAD!” Hammer had to yell through the rain to reach all in the crowd. None cheered, yet he could feel the small sense of relief all felt.


“MAY THE SUN SHINE ON THEM!” the priest yelled, and a few echoed.

Hammer ignored him, and continued, “THE HIGH COMMANDER IS DEAD. AND NOW WE NEED A NEW ONE!”

“THAT WE DO!” a voice came from the crowd. It’s source hopped forward, it was another commander. “BUT LET ME ASK YOU SOMETHING ELSE! WHO WAS THE KILLER?”

I can’t lie about this.


Even through the rain, he could hear the mutters, the conflicting judgements already beginning to form. Those of his own unit looked at him in shock.




“I HEARD THE BIRD ONLY TAKES ONE AT A TIME!” another soldier in the crowd said.


The commander lowered his spear to Hammer. Win or lose… it’s over.


I fought and I lost. They might as well know. It’s over.


DID YOU KILL THE HIGH COMMANDER!?” the High Commander claimant screamed.


The new High Commander straightened, readied his spear. It’s over. As he moved it back for the killing blow another point appeared at his stem. He dropped his spear to the ground, and soon enough he fell too. Behind him was yet another commander, holding his own spear.

One long moment passed. A moment filled with wind and rain. Lightning struck somewhere in the distance. All were silent. Then the treasonous commander raised his spear to the air.


Thunder broke through the forest as more joined in.


It’s getting stronger, Root Moss thought. The wind was howling outside, he could hear it even as he sat in the council chamber.

“Where is the King?” Priest Goldflame asked.

“I thought it was time we had a one-on-one talk,” Moss said. “Root to Priest.”

“Very well then,” the Priest said. Then without hesitation asked, “Why did you burn down the Hill Mother Tree?”

“Sharpaxe burned down the Royal Hill Mother Tree,” Moss said, confidently.

“On your orders,” Goldflame replied. “He tortured budlings in front of the palace on your orders. He burned a hundred budlings alive on your orders. We want answers.”

“We are doing what we must to win.”

Goldflame sat and looked at him for a moment, then leaned forward. “Our soldiers are scattered through the mountains. Any possibility of peace between us and the Hill has been severed. You have, literally and metaphorically, burned that bridge. All you have done is spawn hatred and suffering in the Kingdom. You have turned the crown of King Snowflake into a symbol of fear.”

“Now you listen here, I do not take treason-”

“I have not insulted the King. I have said nothing bad of the King. I have not insulted you either. I am telling you that sometime, sometime soon, you will burn enough branches and the tree of the Kingdom will come crashing down. It won’t be because of me, or the Hill, not even our King. It will be because of you. I will return to this room when the sun rises again, when the King decides to join us.”

“I am not finished with you!”

Priest Goldflame rose and hopped out the door. No matter, Moss thought. I’ll have his head soon enough. Root Moss himself rose and hopped out the door. I need a better place to think. He climbed the stairs to the Roof, where the rain poured down and the wind howled. He looked to the freestanding path of stairs that led to the raised platform higher up. He hopped up the steps, hoping a gust of wind wouldn’t send him down. It leveled out at the top where he hopped to the edge and found the King’s seat. He wouldn’t mind.

He sat and looked down. Citizens were scrambling, boarding up their windows, securing wagons and other items. Hoping sometime soon the great storm would end. Moss didn’t mind, he had loved the rain ever since he was a budling. This high up, he lost track of time, as well as his thoughts in the storm. Priest Goldflame’s strong words disappeared from his mind. I will do what it takes to win, that is all that matters.

“Don’t move.”

The voice came from behind, it sounded familiar, though different somehow, as if speaking through burned flesh. I have to play this carefully.

“Think you can hit my stem with an arrow in this weather?” Moss asked.

“This isn’t a bow,” the voice said. “Don’t turn around.”

“As you wish.”

“You ordered High Commander Sharpaxe to burn down that tree, did you not?”

“I did.” Must be a Hill. Should’ve known one would come back to kill me. I’ll have the heads of those guards-

“You don’t deny it?”

“I don’t. We can talk more-”


The chair exploded behind him, sending Moss through the air. Face-down, he hit the wet ground of an empty street. His mind raced from one thought to the other. He shot me! With what? Where am I? Who did this? I’ll see heads and flames for this- The pain from his midsection hit him. He gave a low, humming, yell into the night. As rain came down and lightning struck, what sounded like thunder came from the direction of the palace, though the real thunder came a moment later. I can’t feel my lower half! I CAN’T FEEL MY LOWER HALF!

He tried to crawl forward, though weakly. When he finally couldn’t move anymore, the fear began to creep up. Not like this! Not here! My work is not done! PLEASE SUN LET ME LIVE! As the cold darkness mercilessly drew closer, he spoke his final words to the muddy ground. Weak words in a place none could hear.

“I’m… sorry…”

It’s getting stronger, Cloudcatcher thought. The storm raged overhead as he led his deer and wagon into the City Under the Sun. As he hoped, most had fortified their homes from the storm. A stream of water came down the road, while rain soaked his bandages. It didn’t matter, his crispy flesh welcomed the moisture.

He had spent many winters here, guarding the King. He turned at Stone’s Intersection, past the temple, turned again. Through the empty streets he saw lights in the boarded up windows. In one instance he saw a face peering back at him. It’s too dark for them to see me, not as anything other than a shadow at least. He turned the final corner, and arrived at his destination. The Palace.

’I’m asking you to break a cycle,’ Treetop had told him before he left. He had looked down to the scar going across his stem when he said that. “One that took another, like you, and almost took me. One that only causes destruction.”

Dismounting, he secured his wagon, and detached his deer. Smacking it a few times until it took off, he went back to his wagon, and pulled out a large flat bed with wheels, one of two first devices that would help him do what was needed. On the roller he set his zipped bag of parts. He then rolled it forward and into the empty throne room. Looking to the stone throne at the top of the stairs, he thought another time, and pushed his roller up. The new devices in his arms and stem gave him the strength he needed. He pushed through the doorway, corridors, anywhere away from the few servants still hopping around. As he turned the final corner he ran into someone unexpected.

“What is this?” Head Priest Goldflame asked.

Cloudcatcher stood stunned for a moment, unsure of his next move.

“Shall I call the guards?”

Say something, anything! “First artifacts, for storage.”

“You expect me to believe… Cloudcatcher?”

Cloudcatcher only nodded.

“What is this?” the Priest repeated his question.

He saw no more value in vagueness. “Where is the Root?”

Sun forgive me,” Goldflame said softly. “He is at the top of the platform.”

The Head Priest moved to the side, out of his way.

“I never saw you,” Cloudcatcher assured him, pushing forward.

Sun forgive you,” He heard the priest say as he went past.

He arrived at the stairs, where he took the sack off the roller and dragged it up the steps. Emerging at the roof, he again felt the rain pour down. Looking up, he saw the steps leading to the platform, on it a chair containing his target. Cloudcatcher dragged his sack up the wooden steps, slowly and steadily. Praying the creaking in the wood couldn’t be heard over the rain.

Arriving at the top, mere logs away from his foe, he unzipped the sack. Setting the three-legged base on the wooden floor first, he twisted the body into place, then the machinery, then the barrel. Making sure the extra squeaky bits were timed to the thunder, even then he was surprised at the lack of notice. Either he’s deaf or already dead. After he made the final twist, he grabbed hold of the turret and pointed it to the back of the chair. Not yet. I’ll hear it first.

“Don’t move.”

After a short moment he thought, Did he hear me?

“Think you can hit my stem with an arrow in this weather?” Moss asked.

He did. He doesn’t know what I have.

“This isn’t a bow,” Cloudcatcher said. “Don’t turn around.”

“As you wish.”

This is it.

“You ordered High Commander Sharpaxe to burn down that tree, did you not?”

“I did.”

Memories of his burning mother tree came back to haunt him, clear as day. The shrieks of a hundred budlings echoed through his head as he was one word away from pulling the trigger.

“You don’t deny it?”

“I don’t. We can talk more-”

For my brothers.


The shell sent the shattered chair and Root into the darkness. For several moments all he heard was the falling rain. It held Cloudcatcher in a thoughtless trance until the low, humming, yell from below broke it. He saw a lightning bolt strike the horizon, and with it he pushed his gigantic weapon of the first off the platform, hearing it crash below. Thunder echoed across the city as Cloudcatcher finally felt some small semblance of peace. The great burner is dead.

He hopped back down the wooden steps. After a noise like that, they should all be up and about. And so he climbed down the palace wall. Hopping quick as he could into an empty street. He ducked into a black alley when he heard the sounds of hooves and wagon wheels.

It was a wagon full of what he assumed were the remnants of the city guard that had not been sent away. When the wagon stopped, they hopped off holding their spears. Splitting up into several groups, they each approached a different home.

“King’s orders! Open up!”

“Open up! Orders of the King!”

“The King orders you let us investigate your building!”

“In the name of King Flame, we order you to open your door…”

With that they gathered the citizens in the street while soldiers searched homes and buildings. Cloudcatcher watching it all from his dark hiding spot.

“Can you not see it’s pouring!” one of the evicted citizens said. “This is the biggest storm I’ve seen in my life! I know it’s the biggest storm you’ve seen in yours!”

“The Root has been murdered,” one of the guards replied. “We think the culprit went this way. We must do what the King thinks best to bring this killer to justice.”

“Justice? Raiding my home is justice?” the homeowner angrily said to him.

“Wish he would’ve taken the King with him,” another jested.

“WHO SAID THAT!” the guard roared. The crowd before him went silent, some turning to the culprit.

“Take him,” the guard said. “He is now a suspect.”

“What!? You think I did it!? Think I might kill you next?”

“Bind him!”

“Now hold on-” the first homeowner jumped between them. In a fit of uncertainty, the soldier jabbed his spear forward. With that the fire was lit. And through the yelling flames Cloudcatcher hopped away.

’I’ll be waiting here if you want to join me when you’re done.’ Cloucatcher tossed Treetop’s words around in his head as he exited the city. At the outskirts he found a stable with a single deer.

“Let’s go,” he said as he mounted it. Turning it north, and forcing it into a sprint. The balance of power had been changed. Hopefully for the better.

High Commander Hammer took his army east as soon as he had been declared. As they exited the mountains, rays of sunlight began to peek through the dark clouds, then patches of blue.

On the way the priest had given him a new tattoo. Mashing his flesh in lines that made a hammer symbol. “You’ll have to have it reapplied every moon before it completely heals,” the Priest said. Hammer would lead under his own symbol. How long that would last depended on whether the scouts were right.

After three days the sky was a clear sea of blue. None had ever seen something so beautiful. The scouts said they were coming south. And so Hammer had taken his army to meet them. Hopping across the still wet ground. They arrived where the assault would likely be, somewhere north of the City Under the Sun. Grouping his force into a line of ranks, he had them wait for the inevitable assault.

Until then there wasn’t much to do. At one point a commander finally hopped up to him and asked, “What if they don’t come today?”

“They’ll come,” Hammer said. “Riding on anger and vengeance. Thank Sharpaxe for that.”

“Another thing, High Commander. We have received word from the City Under the Sun. Root Moss is dead.”

That was good news, to him at least. One very unforgiving face he wouldn’t have to explain himself to. And after this victory, I don’t think I’ll have to explain myself to anyone.

As the sun was high in the sky, Hammer spotted a lone rider on the horizon. He was of the Hill, riding a deer, and appeared to be wearing something white, now stained grey by the rain. Yet he was coming from the wrong direction to be from the Hill force. Upon seeing Hammer and his army, he turned the other way.

Smart one.

The sun was lower in the sky now. His forces were impatient, he knew. I would be mad myself, standing around for a day. But finally the trots were heard over the horizon. A wave of satisfaction surged through the new High Commander.


He heard the other commanders echo his orders. Hill soldiers began hopping into view, some on deerback, most not. As more moments passed the wave of the enemy grew bigger.

“HOLD RANKS!” he yelled again. “DEFENSE POSITIONS!”

Several deer emerged over the land. Each pulled a wagon, decorated, fanciful. As they grew closer Hammer saw their riders. The End… The Betrayed… The Hunted… and several more Hammer didn’t remember the names of. The Hill Kings had returned.

Root Moss had asked for a special embalming. One of his own design. King Flame saw the body for the first time as it was brought in that night. Whatever hit him had turned the chair to splinters, but only cut his body in two places, one of which happened to be the fatal slice to the stem. He was in my chair. But that was the least of his problems. The second time he saw the body was when it was dipped into the liquid the Root claimed would preserve him better. Once that was done, the King had ordered it seized for his own future funeral, and once that was done, it would be dumped into the dirt, never again to be used.

And now he stood in the temple’s mortuary. Head Priest Goldflame beside him. Thorn Blade, he hoped, would soon return with the new forces. But now two priests brought the body of Root Moss. Setting on him a burial mask, and another flat board over his midsection. Both decorated with spells of healing for the afterlife. They wrapped him in woven cloth, and set him in his coffin. His coffin being a near identical copy of Root Bark’s. I should have found a different one.

Priest Goldflame hopped forward. “May Moss, Root of the Kingdom, servant of King Flame, the Sun on the Land, pass peacefully into the afterlife so long as his body remains untouched. May his body remain untouched forever.”

“May his body remain untouched forever,” all but the King echoed.

With that they closed the coffin, sealing it for the final time. Picking it up, the priests began carrying it out the door.

“Be careful out there,” Priest Goldflame said.

“Why should I?” the King Barked. “I just lost my Root!”

“That is why you must be careful! Your soldiers attacked-”

Were attacked! By ungrateful peasants!”

“Be that as it may, the city is on edge. They are not happy. If Blade does not get here soon, everything may break loose! I’m begging you now, for all our sakes! Please, please, keep yourself together!”

“I’ll keep myself together as I need to be!” the King said as he hopped out the door. Mounting his royal elk as the coffin was set on a wagon behind him. They found a wagon near the palace that night. That and the two first devices that had been left behind. Guards, useless. I’ll have their heads by today, and the Priest can’t stop me.

The crowd was silent as they rode through the street. “What?” the King asked his people. “No mourning for your Root?”

Peasants. I’ll kill them if that’s what it takes. I’ll kill everyone. Everything.

“NO!” a voice from the crowd yelled. “I DON’T MOURN HIM!”

The King stopped, and with him the rest of the party. Heads turned to the culprit, standing in the crowd. Flame looked straight at him.

“You will mourn, peasant! Your Root is dead.”

“Hey!” Goldflame yelled, riding up on his deer. “This is not a day for more fighting! We have had enough death.”

“Yes,” the King replied. “And that doesn’t seem to matter-”

“What is your name?” Goldflame asked the one in the crowd. Dismounting and approaching him.

He is trying to undermine me. I will have his head too, and there will be no mourning for him.

“Silvercrack. And who are you supposed to be?”

Approaching him, the Priest said, “Head Priest Goldflame, though you can call me a friend.”

“Friend?” Silvercrack asked.

“Yes, we want no more trouble.”

“Neither do I,” Silvercrack said as he brought up a knife, and began jabbing. The crowd circled Goldflame as he went down screaming. What was left of the city guard assumed battle stances, and began stabbing as well. The screaming crowd closed around.

Panicking, the King forced his elk into a stride. Getting away from the scene as fast as possible as disorder began to spread. He had never been this terrified in his life. They won’t get me… they won’t get me…

He arrived at the palace, tripping as he dismounted and almost losing his crown. He hopped as fast as he could through the entrance. “GUARDS! PROTECT ME!” Guards closed around the entrance to keep the rioters at bay. As if they would last long.

Into the palace the King went, knocking into a servant as he went. “GET AWAY FROM ME YOU PEASANT!” He hopped down the hall, until he found his quarters. Slamming the door shut, locking it, and blocking it with a shelf. He sat on his bed as he weighed his options. They won’t get me. I am King Flame of the Plant Kingdom, they won’t snuff me. He looked against the wall, to the weapon, the gift from his Thorn, the blade.

“They won’t snuff me,” the King said out loud. The handle was made of stained wood. The blade dark and sharp as can be.

“They won’t snuff me. They won’t snuff me. They won’t snuff me.”

The blade pierced his flesh. Pulling it to the side, waves of pain went through the King’s body.

They won’t snuff me.

With another quick motion his stem was cut. The King gave an “erk” as he passed the point of no return. Falling down on the bed. The blade was still in him, he didn’t have the strength to remove it. The noise outside grew louder.

"I… won't be… snuffed…"

King Flame laughed to himself as the darkness gathered around. Then the fear took his breath. The cold blackness wrapped around and consumed him.

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