The Peaceful Winter
rating: +5+x

Twenty-two winters he reigned. King Stone’s body was small, deformed, and proud. Priests wrapped it in adhesive cloth, covering his face for the last time. They placed a crown of woven grass on his head, and moved him to his coffin. On the bottom of the coffin was the outline of his body, surrounded by the four elemental symbols to sustain him. On the inside of the lid was the afterlife, the great tree on its island, the sun shining above, and the symbol of King Shield waiting for him.

Snowflake held up the last piece of cloth, one he had painted with the simple stone symbol, and placed it on the mummy’s face. Farewell, my stubborn stone. He hopped back to where Root Rain stood. Unlike Snowflake, who had the larger size, bluish green flesh, and thin spines of one from the Province Under the Sun, Rain had come from the river, whose inhabitants were much smaller. Snowflake still remembered when he had met him and his brother several winters back, the way they were so determined to advance themselves. The Branch of the River allowed them to go back with him, and now he is the Root of the Kingdom.

Priest Flowers was several winters in his tomb, the new one had no name, and only asked to be called “Head Priest.” He was a pine, like most priests before him, and like most he had been alive before Spear’s Conquest. That was more than Snowflake could say. He was about to be the first King born after King Spear had unified the four Kingdoms into one. He was alive to hear the aftershocks, but was only a budling at that time. It made no matter, none had attempted rebellion since King Shield. The Kingdom was one.

The Head Priest hopped forward, “May Stone, the King Under the Sun, the King of the Hill, the King of Fire, and the King of the River. Ascend peacefully to the afterlife, and there 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.

The coffin bearers lifted the large box and hopped out the door. Snowflake followed with Root and Priest behind him. They exited the temple, placing the coffin on the wagon. Snowflake took his place on the Royal Elk, Root and Priest again behind him. King Shield’s procession was met with empty streets, he had heard. King Stone had closed them down in fear of the plague that had taken the previous King’s life. This time the crowds could again gather on the streets to say goodbye.

The Royal Palace approached. It’s large walls towered above the rest of the city. They passed into the roofless throne room. Nobles stood to either side as the coffin was set on a pedestal in the middle. One day it will be me on that pedestal. Snowflake hopped up the steps to the throne. Rain stood next to him while the Head Priest went behind him. He knew what he was grabbing. A crown of woven grass, three blades sticking from the front. One charred black for the Province of Fire, one wrapped in sealeaf for the river, and at the center a ring of stone for the Hill.

“Here, under the light of the sun…” Do you see me up there, Stone? “…I declare King Snowflake, the King Under the Sun, the King of Fire, the King of the Hill, the King of the River, and Ruler of the Plant Kingdom.” The Priest lowered the crown on his head. Nobles in the throne room and citizens standing outside cheered. King Snowflake stood.

“And here I declare my good friend Rain, Root of the Kingdom, to assist me in governance and rule when I am unable. Rain, do you accept?”

“I accept, my King.”

The King gave his Root a nod, and sat. “Bard, send our King off with songs of his triumphs.” The Bard obeyed, setting his floorharp down, and plucking at the strings with his stem.

”I bow not to none.”
”The Hunter said.”
”To none but my King.”
”To my unbreakable Stone.”
”And to none else.”

”Not to this bird.”
”Not to this elk.”
”Not to this bear.”

”For this bear is weak.”
”This bear is prey.”
”Her chance is bleak.”
”My mace will fray.”

”For I am The Hunter.”
”And the animals bow.”
”But the bear it did not bow.”

”For am weak.”
”I am prey.”
”My chance is bleak.”
”And I am frayed.”
”For I am The Hunted.”
”Until the end of days.”

I was only a budling when word of that reached me, King Snowflake thought. He left out the cub too, Ash. Ambassadors and nobles each hopped to the throne to congratulate and pay respects to the new King. The bard continued with another song.

It is for you my king.
I dedicate this pyre.
Heretics and blasphemers.
All will be on fire.

I am the wish of the Sun.
That which shines above.
That which is holy.
And that which is fire.

I dedicate this pyre.
This pyre.
For you my sun.
For you my King.

Burn them I will.
Burn them I must.
The heretics and blasphemers.
Burn them I want.
For there is no afterlife.
No afterlife.
For the heretics.
The heretics.

It was for you my King.
You my king.
Condemned I am.
But why my King?

It was for you.

City of Ash. He remembered how the Branch screamed as he burned. The Ambassador of the Fire Province, with his hard, dark, flesh, tensed up as he paid his visit. Doesn’t matter, I will not make those mistakes.

As the bard began another song the King retreated into the palace, accompanied by his Priest and Root. Ice, Rain’s brother and the other who joined him from the River Province was waiting.

“When will we bury the King?” Ice asked.

“We will wait five days,” Snowflake said.

“Five days?” The Priest responded, “He must be placed in his tomb sooner.”

“I will give two days for all the visitors to give a proper sendoff. Then move him to the storage room. They will think he has been buried and will try and follow us to the sacred cemetery. They will give up and we may proceed as normal.”

“I agree,” Root Rain said, “the Royal Cemetery must remain a secret.”

King Stone’s belongings had been placed in storage. The King’s quarters now belonged to Snowflake. He looked down at the bed where three Kings before him had died. I opened the window, he knew it would kill him, he knew it was his time. On the table a half melted candle stood silently, black and dead.

As ordered, the coffin was left to sit in the throne room. When the sun went down a second time, it was carried into the storage room. The King watched as the servants brushed the snow off the lid. Decorated with the diamond of Kingship, along with the four elements in the corners and the sun in the middle. It was an elaborate piece, not as much as it collected dust in the storage room.

King Snowflake only sat and stared. Inside the coffin rested the body of the King he had known, never to be seen again. Around him the objects that had belonged to him, a steel-tipped spear, a floorharp, and some pots. On one table he spotted a round, black object. He picked it up, on it was a strange symbol, unknown to him. Probably an artifact of The First. He revisited the box the next two nights, silently watching over it. It was still dark outside when the time came.

“Goodbye, my King.” He muttered softly as the servants entered, picking up the box and carrying it out the door. Root Rain and his brother, Ice, joined him on the way out, as did the Head Priest.

“Another blizzard is starting outside,” the Priest said, “it will be too difficult of a journey.”

“None will follow us through the storm, and Snowflakes go where the wind takes them.”

The coffin was placed on the wagon and hidden under a tarp, covered again with strips of wood. The King took a seat on the edge while the others followed. Beside them the other wagon was being loaded with bricks, several servants crawled onto it, they would wait for the King to leave the city before they began their journey. This would make a good song… a song about a King in a blizzard. The Royal Wagon Driver cracked his whip.

The inhabitants of the City Under the Sun had shut themselves in. An open window was not to be seen, all the better for none to notice the wagon rolling through the street. The buildings grew smaller as the snow grew higher, until the city was behind them. By this point he could hardly see around him. I would give my crown for a cover over us. Root Rain rummaged through the wood until he found what he was looking for. The snow would make it hard to light, so the King shielded him with his body until it the wagon was bathed in light.

“Be careful with that,” the Priest said, “I don’t want this timber to spark.”

The journey was slow. We’ll be back after sunrise… maybe too long. The snow was silently collecting over the wagon, and the riders silently collected near the torch. When the wagon was stuck it took King and Driver alike to dig it out, as it did the second time, and the third.

“This was madness,” the Priest said after the third time, “we should have waited for a calmer night.”

“I am King Snowflake of the Plant Kingdom, and I have Ice and Rain on my side, a blizzard will not stop us from burying our King.”

As the wagon was taken through the thick forest, the King began to doubt. Will I freeze to death on the fifth day of my reign? We are too close now to turn back.

Closer than he thought, however, as the mountain appeared from nowhere in front of them. The driver yanked them to a halt. When they couldn’t find the tombs, they went north. Until Ice spotted a thin pattern of brick on the side of the face. King Snowflake dismounted and examined it. King Spear’s symbol was gone, a few flecks of paint remaining. King Shield’s was fading, and King Stone’s doorway was still wide open.

“Have the servants arrived?” The King asked, looking around it was obvious they hadn’t.

Rain hopped into the tomb with his torch. The room inside was bigger than the other tombs Snowflake had seen, on the left wall a passageway led to another smaller room, this one filled with objects such as rainwater pots and a floorharp. The walls were decorated with scenes from the King’s reign. Above the doorway The Hunted lay dying as Stone looked down with the bear Ash.

Snowflake remembered Ash, the way they played in the yard together, how the King released him into the forest every winter, and the bear always came back. The way he ripped the Garrison Commander to shreds. That brought up another string of memories, he looked to the right wall, on it Sunswish burned as the crowd looked on. Condemned I am. But why my King?… I can still hear him scream.

Ice brought wood from the wagon and set them in the middle of the room. The driver led his deer in by rope, even though it looked as eager to get inside as they were.

“The wood is dry,” Ice said, “I made sure to get it from the bottom.”

“A fire?” the Priest was in the doorway, “you dare to tarnish our King’s resting place?”

Snowflake was too tired to take any more of the Priest, “You complained of the cold, here we are. Stone would have wanted us warm.”

The Priest reluctantly sat by the fire. The King sat across while Rain and Ice sat to his side, the wagon driver between Ice and the Priest while his deer curled up nearby. There they sat in silence for several moments. Snowflake occasionally glanced back in the other room. The floorharp sat where it would be forever, in the darkness with it’s King. He picked it up and carried it to the fire, “I think our King deserves to hear his songs one last time.”

“Don’t break it,” The Priest said.

The first song was The Hunted. He sang of the animals he killed as The Hunter, and the animal that killed him as The Hunted. The painting above the doorway was covered half in shadow. Next he sang City of Ash. The painting of the Branch of Fire burning shined from the flames. Why my King?

“That was beautiful, my King,” Root Rain said.

“Very much so,” the Driver agreed, “though if it please my king, a goodbye is not complete without three songs.”

The King looked out the door to the snow collecting on the wagon, the King’s body sitting inside, beyond was only blackness. He sat and began weaving words in his head. After some time he had finished what they could call a passable song.

”Under the clouds.”
”Where the sun doesn’t shine.”
”Stone and Snow Rains.”
”The Kings in the darkness.”
”Stone and Snow Rain.”

”Where the snow falls like leaves.”
”No sound to be heard.”
”No sound but the snow.”
”And the crack of stone.”
”No sound but the snow.”
”And the crack of sun.”

”For the sun will rise again.”
”And spring has sprung.”

For several moments none said a word, even the Priest had nothing to say. Rain stood up, “Thank you, my King, for that amazing piece. I’m happy Stone could be here to hear one last song.”

The Snow was piling into the door, but the falling white speaks were growing weaker. The Driver spotted a light in the distance. It grew brighter until a torch could be seen, and wagon wheels could be heard.

The servants unloaded the bricks as Rain and Ice moved snow out of their way. King Snowflake set the floorharp back in it’s room, where it would sit forever in the darkness. The driver took the wood from the fire, sticking them in the ground around the entrance, then snuffing what was left.

The snow was falling less as the wood was taken from the wagon, uncovering the coffin beneath. Rain and Ice helped the servants move it off, and carry it to the tomb. The Priest watched, muttering prayers while it was fit through the door.

King Stone was sat in the center of the room. The servants brushed snow and wood chips off the top as King Snowflake approached. You may rest now, my King, you have earned it.

Snowflake was the last to step out, turning back towards the entrance to the tomb, he gave a small nod. The servants stacked their first layer of bricks on the bottom of the doorway.

King Stone’s idea to add a private audience chamber was one that King Snowflake was eternally grateful for. So much that he had expanded it to include a ten-seat circular table, boards of wood and stone along with sticks and ink. Even smaller passages for servants to come and go, bringing water and whatever else that was required. At present seven seats were occupied. King Snowflake took his place at the head of the table in the biggest seat, on the back of which a diamond was carved, the symbol of royalty. To his right Root Rain sat in the second largest chair, this one carved with the triangle that represented his position. Ice sat to the right of Rain, in a plain uncarved seat, as he occupied no position yet remained a valuable council member.

To the King’s left the Head Priest sat, his chair decorated with a large sun, his faith to which was unbreakable. The other three seats were ambassadors, the small ambassador of the river, his seat carved with the ripples of the water. The dark and hard Ambassador of Fire, his seat carved with flame. And the unmistakable Ambassador of the Hill, his long stem reached the floor while his arms rested on the table, his seat was carved with the four-sided symbol of the Hill.

“The Full Moon council is now in session…”, that had been his idea. Every moon’s turn they all met in one room to discuss the state of the Kingdom, and settle disputes.

“…Root Rain, your report.”

Rain leaned forward as heads turned towards him, listening, “The Province Under the Sun has been thriving all spring, the small damage caused by the winter blizzard has been repaired. Two villages to the south are bickering over the rights to a pond. Should they not settle it, it may require our intervention.”

“A pond?” the Ambassador of the Hill said, “what could possibly be there for them to bicker about?”

“Water…” the Ambassador of the River said, “sealeaf, rounded pebbles, fishbones, turtle shells, things you can’t find in the forest or the mountains-”

“As our Root has said,” the King raised his voice slightly, “we will intervene when needed, moving on…”

“One more thing,” Root Rain said, “a deserter was executed upon returning to a village in the northwest.”

“Deserter?” Ice asked, “we haven’t had war in many winters.”

“This one had deserted during the Hill Rebellion under King Shield, he only came back to his home village recently, and was arrested and beheaded.”

“That was almost thirty winters ago!” The Ambassador of Fire said.

“He is right,” the Ambassador of the Hill said, “few from my homeland are alive to remember, we have moved on.”

The Hill Ambassador looked to King Snowflake, who gave him a nod.

“It makes no difference, he was beheaded, but now many veterans from past wars are protesting, claiming it was unjust.”

“They may not be wrong, but for now we make no stance, keep yourself aware of the situation. Moving on, Head Priest…”

Heads turned to the Head Priest.

“We have been sending missionaries to the Province of Fire, to lead them towards the light of the sun after-”

“I am sick of you bringing that up!” The Fire Ambassador snapped, “Sunswish was a maniac, we agree…”

His flesh blackened as he screamed

“…but he is gone. We will never light another pyre in the City of Ash, not for fire nor for the sun.”

“Both of you, be quiet,” the King said, “Priest, that phase is over, those who will follow the sun will follow, those who will not are beyond saving. Is there anything else I should be aware of?”

“No, my King.”

“Very well then, Ambassador…”

The Ambassador of the River leaned forward, “All is normal, though a River Fisher was stabbed and killed by a Hill Fisher several days ago, his village wants justice.”

The King sighed while Root Rain spoke up, “He was killed by a citizen of The Hill, the Branch of the Hill will take care of it.”

“I approve,” the King said, “Ambassadors, relay the message to your Branches upon dismissal.”

“Yes, my King,” the River Ambassador said.

“Of course, my King,” the Hill Ambassador said.

He turned to the Ambassador of the Fire Province.

“The City of Ash is finishing the last of it’s repairs, it seems a follower of the old way-”

“We have no place for that anymore, your Branch will put an end to the conflict. Relay the message upon dismissal.”

“Yes, my King.”

“Is that it then?” the King asked, he heard no response, “very well, council dismissed.”

King Snowflake sat on the throne, as he did most days. Root Rain was away settling the dispute over the pond, would that I could have gone instead. Ice took his place on the Root’s chair to the right, while the Head Priest took his seat to the left. In front of them a noble from the southwest was explaining a problem with a termite infestation. Then they heard the music. Faint at first.

“…I drift in silence… Broken and dead…”

A couple heads turned to the noise, the noble explained the holes in his mother tree.

”…The battle still raging… In my broken head…”

Now even the Noble’s head turned towards the tunes.

”…And so I drift… In silence far away… And so I drift… Broken and dead…”

Through the doorway, he saw commoners move out of the streets. The singing was a chorus of voices.

”…The spears they cut… the shields they break…”

The crowd had those from the Province under the Sun, along with that of the River, Fire, and Hill. Some had ugly scars, one from the Hill Province was missing an arm.

”…And so I drift… The battle still raging…”

They were led by one from the Sun Province, slightly smaller than the King, the right side of his body was a mass of orange and blackened flesh, peppered with holes and cracks. He held what looked to be a large lump of cloth.

”…And so I drift… In silence far away…”

Their leader led them into the Throne Room. The Noble backed out of the way as guards raised their spears. The King took a second look, realising they were unarmed, he looked to his guards and signaled to them. They lowered their spears.

”And so I drift… Broken and dead.”

They stopped, and their leader hopped up the steps. The Priest was the first to speak.

“You dare to march up these steps unannounced! This is the Royal Throne room-”

King Snowflake turned his head to the Priest, he went silent. He turned his head back to the marcher.

“My King,” he said with a slightly raspy voice, bowing. He handed King Snowflake the cloth.

“I have no name, though my Brothers in Arms called me Sparks. I served our Kingdom faithfully once. I fought in our wars, as did those behind me…”

The King leaned to get a look at the crowd, “You have those from all sides among you…”

“We do, my King. The oldest of us fought through King Spear’s Unification, there are very few left from those wars, yet more from the aftermath. Most of us fought for King Shield, I was one of the first sent into the Fire Province during the rebellion, my first kill was the one who gave me this scar…”

Yet you stand here with those who gave it to you…

“…then the Hill rebelled.” Ice said. Sparks nodded.

“…I was assigned with new recruits, most died, some went their different ways, one went missing some winters later. There was another, named Steelbark. After our first battle… well he killed a soldier, as was his duty, and I never saw him again… until now.”

He looked down. King Snowflake unwrapped the cloth, and found a face staring back at him. The Head Priest looked away while Ice only tilted his head. It was stiff, likely been dead for awhile.

“Where’s the body?” The King asked.

“Being eaten by beetles and caterpillars somewhere else… thirty winters ago he ran away-”

“Deserted.” Ice said.

Sparks turned towards him, anger in his face, “apologies… yes, deserted. Only now did he return to his home village… and then…”

King Snowflake looked into the silent face for several moments, and carefully rewrapped it. He held it towards the burned marcher only to have it pushed back into his chest.

“What do you want?” the King asked.

“The wars broke us all in some way, in body and mind. We will not demand anything, only ask that no more deserters be killed. You have a day to think over what I have said.”


“You think about it for two days, then three, then four. You may throw away the head, I don’t think you will. You may send executioners after us, our days of fighting are done.”

With that he turned and left.

The head sat at his desk, next to his wooden and stone boards, it stared at the King, broken and dead. King Snowflake dipped his stick in the jar of black sap. He drew his symbol in the top left corner, a vertical rectangle, each slice of the long ends boxed off and filled with lines, King, in the center one short horizontal line, and two diagonals going through the center, Snowflake. Next to it the diamond of Kingship, below it a sun. The City Under the Sun.

It’s stuffy in here. He thought, getting up. He hopped to the window. Open the window and leave me… He heard King Stone echo through his mind. He opened the window, the spring air was cool, with a slight breeze.

He sat back down. In the top right he drew a branch, below it wavy lines. The Branch of the River. He dipped his stick again and next to the Branch a diamond, below it more lines. The City on the River. He put his stick down, and picked up another, this one he dipped in a jar of animal blood.

A shadow flew over his desk, and he heard the faintest movement of something wooden behind him.

“Think about what you’re doing for a moment,” the King said. He turned around, the one holding the spear was of the Sun Province, but shorter than he was.

“You make a sound and you die,” he said.

“Plain and simple. What do you want?”

“I fought for you thirty winters ago! Against Fire and Hill and whatever else! I killed for you! I didn’t want to but I did! While you Kings sit in your palaces with everything I’m left hearing screams!”

The King carefully rose, putting his stick down on the desk, “I hear screams too…” he let the words float for a moment, “…whenever I hear the word fire. I hear them.”

He said nothing, only pressed his spear closer.

“What is your name?”

“I… Ironhead.”

“Ironhead… put the spear down and talk to me.”

Ironhead pressed the spear forward.

“They don’t go away!” Snowflake bluntly said as the tip was grazing his flesh. “Do they?”

The spear stopped. The King slowly turned the chair around, and carefully took a seat.

“Sit down, tell me.”

Ironhead hopped to the bed on the other side of the room, and sat, still pointing his spear.

“Do you want to know?”


Ironhead straightened himself. “I came from here, from the city, the outskirts I mean. When I was a budling on my mother tree I used to pick on the smaller ones… I may have picked on them too much… they all hated me, but the commanders didn’t care when they came to take us up. We trained together, we fought together. They sent us into the Fire Province first. There was one I was meaner to than the rest…”

“What was his name?”

“He didn’t have one, I just called him Twig because he was so small and weak. Half my unit died in the Fire Province, the rest when we went into the Hills for one reason or another. It was just me and Twig, against the Hill… no… the screams are in my head again!”

“Tell me what happened, who’s screams were they?”

“We were ambushed! They beat Twig to death with their maces… his screams… they’re terrible… the screams of those Hill troops when I killed them…”

King Snowflake sat in silence while Ironhead bent down, moaning long and broken. After a few moments he said, “I only hear the screams of one. He burned those he considered enemies, even if they weren’t, and so we burned him.” Why my King, am I condemned?

“Burned him?”

“Watched him burn, the King threw the torch. I can’t imagine the screams he heard. Put down the spear.”

He lowered his spear.

“What do you want?”

“I don’t really know…”

“You wanted to kill me? Show me how broken you are? You’ve shown me.”

He remained silent as Snowflake rose. Hopping to the door he opened it and spotted two guards, gesturing them inside he said, “Escort Ironhead safely outside, no harm is to come to him.”

Ironhead rose, and bowed, King Snowflake reciprocated. The guards followed him out and closed the door. The King sat back down at his desk, dipping his stick again.

The sky was black and starless, covered in swirling clouds. A single spear sat on the throne. The King hopped towards it as white specks fell from the air and began to bury the room. He picked up the spear, and a mace swung from the dark, snapping it in half. The pieces fell to the ground while a faint voice called out, “areweoneareweoneareweone…”

King Snowflake kept still, looking around, the snow fell silently in the throne room. A burning shield rolled past, making a turn into the palace. On the pedestal below him a large boulder sat. It let out a loud CRACK under the snow.

The King hopped out of the throne room into the street, tired of looking at the past. He hopped down, and knew this was the future, somehow he knew. Sitting at the side of a building was someone playing a floorharp.

”I drift in silence. Broken and dead.”

Steelbark’s head fell off as the snows buried him. I entombed his head in amber, I made the veterans happy. The windows were all closed, and dark. None were living in them, he knew. Far ahead something was glowing. He hopped towards it. Past the Ambassador of the River, being ripped apart and turning to gold. He hopped faster, but realized too late that the glow was from flames. Why my King? Am I condemned? that voice was no longer a faded memory, but Sunswish did not appear.

Root Rain and Ice stood in front of him, still as flames silently ate away at their flesh. A raging pyre was behind them. Rain and Ice hopped away in opposite directions. He heard the clanking of wheels as several wagons were pulled around the pile. These were different wagons though, these had only two wheels, and were designed for war. Driving them were the rotted corpses of Hill Kings and Branches. All circled the pyre before travelling inward, and burning. At the top of the pyre a tree stretched into the darkness. On it were leaves of all kinds, Sun, Fire, River, and Hill. The fire ate away at the bark, and branches began to fall. As the bark fell a stone core was revealed underneath. On it the shadows of the first. ”Faaaaaraaawaaaaay…” an unfamiliar voice said, “…uuunderancientbannersbannersbannersbanners…” The branches were replaced by long blades, hammers, flowers. The snow thinned out and above the moon was shining bright as the sun. All at once, the city erupted in flames.

“My King?” Root Rain said, “you have been staring ahead for a long time, the sun is growing higher and it is time for you to go out.”

“What happened? You were on fire!”

“My King?”

Snowflake paused, “Apologies, I don’t know what happened, I saw some strange things. I have a festival to lead.”

The King looked to his Root, standing up and hopping out of his quarters. The sunlight was sharp and bright as he hopped into the throne room. A thin blanket of snow had fallen, a light winter, unlike the last one. In the throne room nobles were dancing. Outside the throne room citizens celebrated. The Festival of the Snow he called it. He had come up with the idea several moons ago. “We have one for the sun,” he had said, “can we expect our people to keep going through the winter with nothing to lift their spirits?” The Head Priest had been opposed to the idea, “would you really expect us to celebrate when the sun is at it’s weakest? We should be devoting ourselves to making it come back!”

Likely why the Priest is not here. Not all of the priesthood shared the same opinion though, he spotted several in the crowd who had dedicated their lives to the sun, all dancing with the rest. Even Sparks was there, drinking rainwater to the side. He had arrived as the King’s honored guest, to celebrate the pardon of former deserters. As he had declared in the same room several moons ago, the morning after Ironhead had broken in.

Root Rain hopped in with his brother, Ice. Rain stood near the Root’s chair, waiting for his King, while Ice hopped down the steps into the crowd. King Snowflake hopped to the throne, and stood before it as more noticed his presence. Soon the throne room was quiet.

“I am happy to say that so far, the first Festival of the Snow has been a success. I hope to continue this tradition, giving all those of the Plant Kingdom a day of celebration in a dark time.” A servant brought a floorharp before him, “Now I would like to play something I have woven together for this occasion.” He sat on the throne while Root Rain sat next to him. He began plucking the floorharp with his stem.

”The sun it shines.”
”With warmth and light.”
”The sun it shines.”
”With summer flame.”

”But the summer it ends.”
”Warmth and light dim.”
”Summer it ends.”
”The summer flame dips.”

”The leaves they turn.”
”Red and yellow.”
”Even orange.”
”As the sun grows dimmer.”

”The leaves they fall.”
”To the ground they lie.”
”To the ground they return.”
”To the ground the snows land.”

”Winter it arrives.”
”And the snow it too.”
”For when the sun is dimmest.”
”The rain it freezes.”

”Great shining sun.”
”Thank you for your light.”
”Even in the dimmest.”

”Great shining sun.”
”Thank you for your warmth.”
”Even at your weakest.”

”Great shining sun.”
”Thank you for your life.”
”For when spring arrives.”
”We are stronger.”

The crowd was hopping with applause, Root Rain gave him a nod. The King looked to his left. The Priest had arrived.

“The fire plague has begun to spread again in the north, one village is wiped out and two cut off.”

The others in the private audience chamber listened closely to Root Rain. The bane of Kings returned.

“This plague has taken too many lives, including a King,” Snowflake said.

“I agree,” the Head Priest responded, “keep it contained, at all costs.”

“It is settled then,” the King said, “now is there anything more to discuss?”

“I have something, my King.” the River Ambassador said, “rumors are spreading of a village upstream of the City on the River, it is said they’ve found gold.”

“Gold?” the Hill Ambassador asked, “that likely washed down from the Hill Province, it’s our-”

“I settled that fifteen winters ago!” the King snapped at him. “That gold belongs to the River.”

“I’m afraid the problem is not that,” the River Ambassador said, “word is spreading, and the Kingdom wants gold.”

Treetop. He got that name because he grew at the top of the Royal Mother Tree. The same tree that all the Kings before him had grown on. Now I will grow to the top of the Kingdom. He shared a wagon with three others who shared his ambitions. They were headed east, to the River.

“A river of gold,” Seeds said. Him and his smaller brother Sprout had come from a village to the west.

“A river with gold,” Dust responded, he had come from the Hill, specifically a far western portion. Treetop had gotten to know them all on the ride from the City Under the Sun. Now the marshes were behind them, and they were close to their destination.

They rode in silence a few more moments, then Seeds said, “Hey, how about we go into this together?”

“What do you mean?” Treetop asked.

“We’ve been riding together for almost a moon, we know each other. Could say we’re friends. What do you say? One of us hits something we all get a share?”

“I agree,” Dust said.

Treetop thought for a moment, then said, “I’m in as well.”

Sprout looked to his brother, emotionless. He nodded.

The four bowed to each other. They talked about the best places to strike gold, and what they would do with their wealth. Except Sprout - Sprout was silent.

Treetop had been sifting mud for four moons. Will I ever hit something? Maybe this was a mistake. Sentries stood along the river shores. Each held a spear, watching like hawks. Ready for anyone make the wrong move.

King Snowflake may be soft, but he does know how to strike some fear. Stone lines divided different sections of the shore to different prospectors. To his left Dust searched his own section, to his right was a new arrival. The old one had been caught moving the stones in the night and was killed.

His pan was specially designed, a gift from his friend back at the royal mother tree. It was made of clay, and had a set of grooves worked into one side to better collect flakes. On the other side had been carved the symbol of King Snowflake, and next to it his own name. He spent his days scooping sediment with it, and moving it in the water. By now gold flakes covered the bottom of his small jar.

He hit something hard, putting his pan aside he began to dig, finding a hard stone underneath. As the silt cleared away in the flowing water it appeared orange and shiny. Copper. As the sun went down, he decided he would rest the night. As he hopped by Dust’s section the Hill prospector followed him.

“I found a big one today!” Dust held up a pebble-sized nugget of gold.

“More than what I did,” Treetop held up his larger piece of copper.

“Impressive, you can melt that down into a single arrowhead, get yourself a fur coat.”

“I plan on something else.”

They passed Seeds and Sprout’s section. Instead of the usual river panning others did, they had dug a large hole away from the bank. Hoping to find larger pieces no doubt. The brothers too joined the pair in leaving for the day.

“Find anything in that hole of yours?” Treetop asked.

“Small copper pieces,” Seeds responded, “nothing more.”

“Now I know where this came from.” Treetop held up his own nugget of copper. Sprout tilted his head to get a view. He never talks.

They arrived at the village that had been hosting the prospectors since they first arrived. If anyone has struck gold here it’s them. Many shops had inflated their prices, taking advantage of the traffic. Their revenue will collapse when we disperse. He knew it was inevitable. With everything or nothing, this will not last forever.

The tavern was an old building, towards the center of the village. It was built to hold ten tiny river villagers. Twenty-five prospectors from each end of the valley were crowded inside, there would be no seats. Treetop hopped to the bar, trading his copper for a large jug of rainwater and four cups. Filling each and passing them between the four, they dipped their stems and talked about everything. Gold, copper, the declining health of the Branch of the Hill, even King Snowflake a bog and forest away sitting on his throne.

Treetop’s jar was a quarter filled with the shiny yellow rocks. He came to strike it rich, then he decided he would be satisfied if his jar was full, now he prayed to the sun for half that. The sun was above him in the sky, and he found three flakes of gold in his bowl. An average day. He hopped back to his rented room in the inn, passing Dust’s section.

“Anything?” Treetop asked.

“No,” Dust said, “nothing for five moons. I’ll tell you, I’m about ready to leave.”

“Your choice, I’ll stay longer. If I’m ever in the Hill I’ll know where to find you.”

“I hope you do.”

Seeds and Sprout’s dugout hole now took up half their section. Though work was beginning to slow. Seeds was talking to his river neighbor, Sprout was lifting a heap of mud out of the hole, setting it on the pile next to them. He stared at Treetop with his emotionless stare, and went back to digging.

His inn room was small, it contained a bed and a desk. On which he set his jar of gold and a cup of river water. I share a tree with the King. And yet I am here.

Night came and went. The sky was brightening again when he left for another day of panning. The sun was behind the mountains, but its rays could still be seen in large stripes across the sky. The sentries hadn’t assembled at the river yet. Now that the boom was dying down King Snowflake had disbanded half of them. At this time in the morning few patrolled. As he hopped along the river bank he saw abandoned areas, each a prospector that had thrown down his bowl and spade and given up. He passed the one section with the large hole that belonged to Seeds and Sprout. Neither were present, and so he took a look. The water filled hole glittered in the morning sunlight. Never seen water shine like this before…

Dust’s section was empty. So he’s gone. Could have said goodbye. He went to his section, next to Dust’s newly abandoned one, and began sifting through the mud. Moons of sifting had eaten away the shoreline, and he had little left to work with. I should dig a hole too. After a few bowlfuls he simply sat in the shallow waters of the river, watching the sun rise from the mountaintops. Treetop decided to accept his situation. The day I leave the valley is the day I strike gold… His options were limited. He could return to the City Under the Sun, or travel the Kingdom, learn to play the floorharp. Dust… he could play the floorharp… he can play for parties and me and Seeds and Sprout can join in… no… that’s silly… but it’s not like I have many options, I should find him anyway.

He got up, grabbing his bowl. But where could he have gone? He looked to Dust’s abandoned section. The water peacefully lapped against the eaten shore where Dust had been panning. Something caught his eye below the water. Long and skinny.

Treetop approached it, and pulled. It was a stem. Sand gave way, revealing more. He revealed where the arms, stem, and body came together. When it was free, Dust’s corpse lay on the shore, basking wet, limp, and cut at the central stem by one horizontal gash. Who did this? Leaving the body, his anger and fear took him around the shoreline. I need to find a sentry… a sentry, and Seeds and Sprout too. He thought as he realized he was standing in front of their hole. The water glittered bright under the sun. Never seen water shine like this before. He leaned forward, and saw that the glitter was coming from further down. When he dipped his stem to the bottom he felt something hard. He pulled out a chunk of gold.

We made an agreement… they hid it. His friend was dead, and the others had betrayed him. For awhile he sat at the shore of the river, holding the shiny rock and contemplating his next move. I should kill them… no, a sentry… need to report… The river flowed in front of him. A bird was chirping. A knife pierced his flesh.

Sprout pulled it sideways, chopping his stem. Treetop attempted to turn, but only succeeded in falling over, the water lapping at half his body. For several moments they sat in silence, Treetop unable to feel the lower half of his body, growing weaker.


“We did, Seeds did. My brother does not understand sometimes. You must band together to survive the winter, but you must break away to reap the summer.”


“Seeds will never know, he’ll think you left. I’ll become noble of my home village with what we’ve found. Since you found Dust I’ll have to use an alternative means of hiding you.”

Sprout carefully picked up Treetop’s stem, pulling him into the water. His body was numb against the cold river. Treetop could hardly lift his head.

“Muh… muh…”

“You don’t have the energy to scream, you won’t have any soon. I’ll send Dust in after you, shhhhhh. I will give your gold and pan to one who will appreciate it. I hope the sun shows mercy for you.” His words became softer and more muffled, “It’s for the village… it’s for the village… it’s for the village…

Sprout gently let go. Treetop stopped moving as he looked to the fading sky above him. the water taking him away.

The news of the Kingdom was all the same. The gold rush at the river was dying down, few had struck it rich. Prospectors were returning to the city, some attempting to get back old jobs they had so confidently quit. “The sun gives to the humble,” the Priest had said, “they were not.”

All the same King Snowflake hopped to the throne room. The floor below the steps was sparsely occupied. The Priest was absent, but Root Rain took his own seat beside the throne. “We only have a few appointments today, my King.”

“Let’s get them done with then.” The King said, lowering himself onto his throne.

The first was a commander who asked for precautions to be made against the spreading fire plague.

“It’s popping up in different places, it infects a few, then disappears. It has not hit the city yet, thank the sun. But how long may that last?”

“I see your point,” Root Rain said, “You have our permission to check the comers and goers of the city.”

“With an educated priest to assist you.” The King added.

The commander bowed, “Thank you, my King. You have my word our shining city will never be blotched by plague.”

As he hopped away another came forward. This one was a pine, and a priest too.

“My King,” he bowed, “construction of our temple out west is nearing completion. I have come to ask that you come to bless it’s opening, so that the light of the King may shine on it forever.”

“When will this be?”

“We are uncertain, but within four moons.”

“I will be there then, provided nothing more important happens.”

That was the wrong thing to say. The Priest hesitantly bowed, and hopped away. That was the wrong thing to say, the first curse me.

The last was a new arrival from a village to the west. One of the few that had struck gold during the rush in the river province. He hopped up the stairs, carrying something. His face was emotionless, and hard to decipher. When he was in front of the King, he bowed.

“My King, I am Sprout. My brother and I, with the blessing of the sun, were lucky enough to have reaped the summer by the river. With our riches we returned to our village, and became its leaders.”

“We welcome you to the nobility.” Root Rain said.

“My thanks. I figure if the sun was lucky enough to bless me with wealth I must thank it.”

He handed what he was holding to the King. It was a clay bowl, on one side were grooves shaped into the clay. On the other was Snowflake’s symbol, next to it an area had been scratched out and repaired with a different kind of clay. On top of the pan was a jar.

“I found the pan on the shore. It was etched in your shining symbol and so I must return it. The jar is mine own, inside a tribute to your Kingship.”

The King took off the lid, looking inside, and then closing it.

“My thanks for this incredible gift. I’m sure you will be a great addition to the leadership of the Kingdom.”

“Thank you, my King.”

Sprout bowed, then hopped away, silently.

“Is that it?” Snowflake asked.

“Yes, unless anymore wish to approach.”

After a moment of silence King Snowflake stood, “Then our appointments are over for the day, let us go.”

The King first hopped to the storage room. He opened the door, hopping past the spot where King Stone’s coffin had sat for three days, five winters ago. On one table the black circular object lay still. It made him uncomfortable, and yet for winters it sat there, unmoved by any.

He grabbed a torch from the wall, and caught himself staring into its flames. Why my King? Am I-.

NO!” he yelped aloud. He looked to see if anyone was around, and continued, stopping at a shelf of jars. From the third from the left he pulled out a key. Using it to open a door in the back, he grabbed the pan and gold and hopped inside. The room was full of treasures, all he would need in the afterlife. There was space on a shelf between a floorharp and a box. He set the pan and jar between them, and stared for a moment at the box. It was decorated on the sides with scenes of battle and death, on the top, the tree of the afterlife. Two symbols accompanied it, those of steel and bark. And so I drift, broken and dead…

He left the room, locking the door and returning the key, then out of the storage room all together. Snowflake wandered the halls of the palace, simply trying to clear his head. He passed the new Commander of his Guard, who went by the name Strongrass. He stood to the side, uttering “My King.”

King Snowflake gave a short nod, “Commander.”

In one of the deeper parts of the palace, the King’s pool sat. Above it the large circular hole in the roof fed it rainwater, the King’s water. He dipped his stem, and drank.

“Room for another?” Root Rain asked. He hadn’t noticed him hop in. The King nodded, taking off his grass crown and setting it aside. His Root sat beside him, dipping his stem.

“‘Nothing more important’?”

“I know,” the King said, “I don’t think he liked that.”

They both let out a chuckle, and for the rest of the day they simply drank and talked and laughed.

The Great Temple of the Sun was at the western end of the valley, at the very spot where the sun would dip beneath the mountains at the height of summer. The temple wasn’t as large as the palace back in the city, but it was still an impressive feat to most. A large wall enclosed it from the outside, down a courtyard one found a large stone spire topped with a crystal. Further was the main building. The first level was enclosed, containing rooms for the priests and private offering chambers. A group of square columns sat on the second level in a circle, all supporting a dome with a hole at the top. At midday the sun would always shine down into the room below, where an altar surrounded by a pool of rainwater sat.

King Snowflake stood before it, the Head Priest to one side, Root Rain to the other, Commander Strongrass further back. More priests and several nobles had gathered through the rest of the room. A servant brought out the deer. It had no antlers like most, nor that thing some animals have between their back legs, but it would serve. The animal let out several cries as it was chained to the altar. The Priest hopped forward.

“This day is a momentous occasion, when the sun gifts us with the longest day of the summer. Therefore it is only right to thank it on this day, to commemorate our shining orb above for the gift of life, and give it something in return…” the Priest turned and handed the King a spear, “And to make us strong enough to do the right thing.”

The spearhead was made of crystal, and refracted the light that shined through it. As the sun moved over the hole in the roof, it shined directly down at the struggling deer. The King lifted his spear and approached.

“Thank you sun, for your light,” he chanted, “thank you for your warmth, thank you for your life. Honor this humble King’s gift.”

King Snowflake thrust his spear forward, impaling the creature in the heart. The animal let out a screech as it bled out. It’s blood filling the tiny channels carved into the rock, flowing into the pool and staining it red.

“I decree this great temple for the worship of our shining sun, may it shine on us eternal.”

The others echoed his words, and the party began. From midday until the sun was dipping into the mountains there was singing and dancing and praises to the golden light. The King celebrated with the Priest and Root above, drinking rainwater and singing himself. The Song of the Sun was an obvious choice, and when he finished the crowd demanded another. He picked the first that came to mind, and immediately regretted it. “It is for you my king. I dedicate this pyre…

The cheers began to die down, he knew he had made a mistake, but he couldn’t stop now. A King who stops his song is not one to be looked to. The King pressed himself through the rest of the song, finally finishing. “Condemned I am. But why my King? It was for you.

The Head Priest had disappeared. The crowd was silent, the King lowered his head. “I apologize. That song was in poor taste, it is time we stop looking to the mistakes of the past. This is a day for the future!”

The crowd gave several mutters, and a few went back to their partying. The King sat back down in his chair. “Did I destroy the mood?”

“You dragged it through the dirt and burned it.”

Snowflake couldn’t help but chuckle at that. Would it be better to see me laughing? He didn’t get to finish the thought, a priest hopped over, bowing.

“My King, the Head Priest would like to see you below, in the private chamber.”

He’s not happy is he? All the same he obliged, hopping down the steps and into the first floor of the temple. The celebration outside could hardly be heard. The private offering room was decorated with drawings of different scenes, all involving the sun. The Priest stood to one side, with a bowl before him. “Please, shining sun,” he said, “make me strong enough to do the right thing…”

He rose and turned to Snowflake. “My King,” he bowed.

“Why am I here?”

“Why are you here? Why do you think I have called you down?”

“The song was a poor choice-”

“‘It is to you my King, I dedicate this pyre…’”

He hopped towards the King, repeating the words.

‘Heretics and blasphemers, all will be on fire…’


“‘I am the wish of the sun, that which shines above.’”

A priest blocked the doorway, this one with the body of the Sun Province. He pointed the crystal spear at his King as more blocked off the other exit.

“I have been King Under the Sun for five winters! I have done nothing to tarnish the glory of the sun!”

“‘For there is no afterlife for heretics.’”

The priest with the spear tensed up, preparing to lunge forward. Another, metal tipped, spear emerged from the middle of his body where it cut his stem. The King recognized the assailant as Guard Commander Strongrass.

“Get back my King!”

The King did just that as the room dissolved into chaos. The Head Priest came at him but was knocked aside. Snowflake fell out the door, where he found Root Rain standing above him.

“My King! You need to get away!”

Snowflake picked up the crystal spear that had been dropped and backed away, facing the doorway. More of his guards made their way inside to join the ensuing fight. The King slowly hopped back, his spear raised. Finally everything went quiet.

Root Rain was the first to go inside, looking around, nothing happened. The King followed him. Corpses of priests and guards were scattered against the walls and floor. The Head Priest lay in the corner, needles cut and chopped, he was dead. Commander Strongrass stood in the center with several new cuts.

The throne room was packed with nobles from around the City and the Province, some from beyond. In the front the three Ambassadors of River, Fire, and Hill sat. The three chairs on the altar above stood vacant. Behind them an unfinished mural waited to be carved to completion.

The King entered through the door, flanked by his new guards. Root Rain was behind him, as was an unfamiliar face, this one with the dark hard flesh of the Fire Province. There was another face, that of Commander Strongrass, several long sheets of adhesive cloth had been applied where he was cut. And he still hopped slightly off-balance. The four arrived in front of the chairs, and the King spoke.

“I have gathered you here on this day to discuss the matters that have taken place recently. Several days ago, at the dedication of our new great temple, a group of armed heretics attempted to take my life. They were killed thanks to the help of my Root and guards, most of all Commander Strongrass. Bravely yet tragically our Holy Priest and his brothers interjected without hesitation to save my life, and died in the process.”

He lifted his head to the small coffin on the pedestal between the two groups below. It was decorated only with the symbols of the sun.

“And so we are here to mourn the passing of our Head Priest, and also of those who gave their lives in my defense. To wherever you are on the Great Tree above, I hope the sun shines upon you… and though we must mourn, we must also move forward.” The stranger from the Fire Province hopped forward, the sun was overhead, shining straight down. He had already taken his vows at the temple, it was now time to complete the process.

“King Snowflake, that which the sun shines upon brightest of all. I vow to you my life in service of our great sun, that which gives us light and warmth, that which gives us life. I vow to honor it until my final days.”

“I accept your vow, and so does the sun. What will be your name?”

“Goldflame my name, and Goldflame my symbol.”

Why my King? Am I condemned?

“Rise, Head Priest Goldflame.”

Head Priest Goldflame rose. I made up a story to keep the priesthood from rebelling, will he undo that? The Priest returned to his original position, while Commander Strongrass hopped forward.

“Commander, you have been the head of my guards for only two winters. Yet in that time you have shown me unending loyalty, and willingness to risk your life.”

“I am doing my duty, my King.”

“You are doing it well. But I believe you may do more than guard. I believe we may have need of one with your capacity, and others. Bow.”

He bowed.

“You will no longer be Commander Strongrass. You will command the King’s armies. Fight for your King on the Battlefield. And bring your King victory. Do you accept?”

“I accept, my King.”

“Then rise as Thorn Strongrass.”

Forty-eight winters… I’ve done well. Yet he was approaching the end. He knew that. He sat in his chair in his quarters, something he was doing more and more as of late. He struggled to stand and look from his window. Outside the city was going about their business, peaceful and content. Beyond it flowers were blooming in the spring sun. He went to his door, grabbing his walking stick and pulling open the door. He lost his balance and fell. His guard caught him just in time.

“Thank you.”

“Of course, my King.”

Cloudcatcher was from the Hill, and as such possessed the arms that had learned when the King needed them most. The other was from the Royal Mother Tree, Sharpaxe, silently branding his namesake, ready to use it.

King Snowflake wiggled down the hall, once a small servant from the River Province passed him. Rain and Ice started like them, I gave them the seeds for a future, and they grew a flower-filled tree. The thought of a flower-filled tree made him giggle aloud. The servant glanced in his direction, Cloudcatcher and Sharpaxe said nothing. Rain… if only we had one as bright as you now.

Root Rain had died of the fire plague fourteen winters ago, and took a part of the King with him. He could not complain of Ice taking his place, it was only natural, and he brought good times as well. But Root Ice too had died of the fire plague, and the King had not felt whole since.

The air outside was cool, and the sun shined on the bricks of the empty throne room. Empty but for Head Priest Goldflame. By now he was almost as brittle as the King himself, sporting his own walking stick, tipped with a crystal.

“My King.” He bowed.

“Priest. Are the preparations ready?”

“They are, he will be buried tonight.”

Thorn Strongrass’s coffin rested on the pedestal below them. Decorated with images of battle, and the curved side-facing triangle that represented his position. Two of his Commanders remained to the side, giving their last respects. Snowflake recognized them both, they had the looks of those from the Sun Province. Neither were royal, but had grown up in the city. The taller one was named Strong, and the shorter one Blade. One of the two will be the next Thorn. That decision I will leave to him. Then Snowflake remembered.

“Summon Root Bark to my chambers.” he said to Cloudcatcher.

Cloudcatcher bowed and left. King Snowflake turned and began to wiggle his way back to his chambers. He could feel Sharpaxe hopping behind him, the thought of being alone with him making him uneasy. He was relieved when he arrived back at the door marked with the diamond of Kingship. He gave a nod to Sharpaxe as he hopped in. The guard only took his position to the side.

Several moments later Root Bark entered. He had come from the Royal Mother Tree, yet stood shorter than Snowflake.

“My King.” He bowed and took his seat.

“How goes our prodigy?”

“As much as I try he is still resisting. We should not have told him he would be King so soon. It’s only made him more arrogant and… unstable.”

“Do not worry. He can be fixed. And he will be a good King.”

“Of course, my King. I just don’t understand why you couldn’t have picked a better one? My brother Moss-”

“The Kingdom needs to know that they will never have another King like me, but even the worst Kings can change. The worst can be made into the best. And when they know that, they won’t give up. It’s all for the Kingdom.”

His Root was silent for a few moments, “Of course, my King.”

“You will make him better, because I believe that you can. You cannot replace Rain or Ice in my sight, but my sight is growing weaker. It doesn’t matter, only the Kingdom. There is a bright summer ahead, and you and him will lead it. We can talk more of this tomorrow.”

Root Moss stood and bowed. “Yes, My King.” And with that he left.

The King stood and wiggled to his window. And thought mostly about the past. Why my King? Am I condemned?

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