The wind rustled beyond the distant canopy, leagues overhead, where the leaves brushed the heavens. The rain drummed against it; water trickled down the bark of the Heart-Tree’s trunk to where Iothe’s alcove sat hidden among a tangle of roots twice as wide as she was tall.
Another soft summer storm. Iothe watched the cool mist drift down from the distant canopy and inhaled the glades’ scent: damp moss and bark, ivy leaves and ferns, dark earth and grass.
‘D’you try again?’ Eobin darted from the glade within the root’s coil, ducking the ivy that trailed from the root arch.
The vines fell about her like rain, descending in glossy green clusters.
Iothe smiled, squinting into the shady arch. Eobin clutched her staff in one hand and a thin bronze knife in the other. Dead leaves stuck out of her dark curls and smudges of soil remained of the patterns she’d daubed on her face. The faded patches of dirt stood out against her pale skin as starkly as her bark-brown eyes did.
Iothe studied the patterns of mud. She’s done the same ritual.
‘Ain’t it worked?’ Eobin asked.
Iothe rolled her staff back and forth on her thighs. A hot lump in her throat swelled a little larger each time the plain, uncrowned wood rolled past the hem of her pine-green tunic, warm tears prickling beneath her lashes. Might as well’ve never come if I can’t even unlock my power.
‘I tried.’ She dug her nails into her staff. ‘Didn’t work. Never does.’
‘It ain’t happened for me again, either. Mine ain’t changed a bit since the Heart-Tree first chose me.’ Eobin let out a long sigh. ‘Best get back inside before we’re caught.’
‘It’s that late?’
‘Yes.’ She pointed the end of her staff through the ivy toward the spreading branches of the Heart-Tree. ‘D’you not notice it gettin’ dark?’ Eobin picked the leaves from her dark curls with her free hand and peered nervously through the ivy. ‘Come on, Iothe!’
‘No.’ Iothe pushed herself up. ‘I was listening to the rain; it’s dark in here already.’
‘If they catch us covered in dirt… they’ll all know.’ Eobin snatched Iothe’s arm and dragged her from the alcove into the midst of the ivy.
Behind the green vines the passage into the root arch gaped open.
‘I’m afraid it’s a little late for that.’ A voice drifted through the dark leaves, no louder than the rain, but sharp as Eobin’s little knife.
Iothe craned her neck past her friend’s slim shoulders. A cluster of silhouettes loomed in the passage’s shadows. She swiped at the mud on her face, rubbing at the patterns until her skin stung.
Eobin gulped. ‘Anastagus…’
Caught by a Hand of the Heart-Tree. Shame gnawed at Iothe, chewing deep, and she let her hand drop back to her side. And Anastagus the Truthseeker, too.
Anastagus planted his staff in front of him and steepled his fingers. His head and shoulders loomed over Eobin, his eyes dark and rich as horse chestnuts.
Iothe’s eyes slipped to his staff. Smooth, smoke-grey wood rested beneath Anastagus’s fingers, the same shade as his flowing robes, and at the staff’s top sat a latticed orb like a ball of spider’s web.
A crown. Envy bit deeper than shame; its teeth hotter, harder, sharper.
‘No need to panic yet.’ Anastagus ushered Eobin over next to Iothe with the end of his staff. ‘Now, what were the two of you doing out here?’
Iothe scrambled for an explanation as he looked them over. ‘We—’
‘A ritual, perhaps,’ Anastagus said.
A handful of other druids fanned out behind him. She glimpsed reckless Cogodakus, his scarred face and gleaming spread of teeth standing out at the front of the small crowd.
Eobin whimpered and slumped against Iothe’s shoulder as Anastagus appraised her staff with a critical eye.
Lacking, he will find it lacking. Iothe tried to tuck the plain top of her staff behind her back, but he rested a long finger on its end. They always do.
‘I’m sorry.’ Iothe sagged into the ivy. ‘We just… we just wanted—’
‘I know,’ Anastagus said, quiet and soft as the rustle of the distant leaves. ‘You’re not the first. You won’t be the last. And there are far, far more terrible things you could have been doing than crowning rituals. But finding you does present me with a small problem. We didn’t want anyone to know we were leaving the Heart-Tree for a little while yet, you see.’
‘Leavin’?’ Eobin scrunched up her face and squinted at Anastagus. ‘But you’re allowed to leave whenever, ain’t you? You’re a Hand of the Heart-Tree. Chosen by the Heart-Tree as one of the greatest druids ever.’
‘Yes… Anastagus the Truthseeker, Hand of the Heart-Tree.’ He twisted his hands around his staff until his knuckles turned pale and the wood creaked. ‘What’re your names?’
‘Iothe.’ She kept her gaze on her feet. ‘My friend’s Eobin.’
‘And what desire drives two young acolytes out into the dusk in the hope of coaxing their staffs into quickening?’
Eobin opened her mouth.
Don’t try to lie. Iothe’s tummy twisted itself into a hot knot. Anastagus hates lies and liars.
‘We ain’t happy bein’ left behind.’ Eobin stared at her little bronze knife and rubbed at her sleeve. ‘Been five years since the Heart-Tree chose me an’ grew me this staff. An’ it’s still the same as any other stick. I ain’t know what I’m meant to do. Or what I did wrong.’
Anastagus’s dark brown eyes flicked to Iothe. ‘And do you feel the same?’
Iothe stared down at her feet. ‘I do. I came here to be a druid, to learn powerful spells, to protect the sacred groves of the Heart-Tree, to guard the world.’
To be special.
‘When I was an acolyte, they told us all to be patient and to never give up. If we did, we’d fulfil all the potential the Heart-Tree saw in us.’ Anastagus leant on his staff and smiled faintly up into the rain. ‘So many of those who came here planned their lives as such. It was a truth they clung to. When everything else threatened to crumble, that promise was the pillar supporting their worlds. They were chosen and gifted a staff by a goddess, surely they were honoured for a reason, surely they’d succeed if they just kept trying, surely…’
A low murmur rippled through the other druids and Cogodakus’s grin faded. Iothe swallowed, the hairs on her neck prickling.
A glint rose in Anastagus’s eyes, a spark of incandescent fury so deep and dark and vast, she thought it might swallow the whole world if set free. ‘We all build our worlds on such assumptions. Things we are so certain are true, we never think to question. And yet, they aren’t real at all.’ The latticing at the top of Anastagus’s staff twisted, shifting, curling like smoke in the wind. ‘Now, about this little problem. We need to leave. And we may need a bit of a head start.’
‘We ain’t gonna tell anyone,’ Eobin said. ‘Nobody ain’t listenin’ to us anyway.’
‘Am I supposed to assume you’re telling me the truth?’ Anastagus’s voice softened to a whisper. ‘No. Let me offer you something; something first bitter, then sweet. It will bring down the world as you see it, then set you free.’
Icy fingers curled around Iothe’s spine and lanced through her belly. ‘What?’
‘The truth. It’s not the staff that needs to change, but you. The Heart-Tree has decided not to empower you as you are.’
‘You mean it ain’t ever gonna change?’ Eobin clutched her staff to her breast, her brown eyes wide. ‘The Heart-Tree has given up on us?!’
‘No…’ Iothe whispered. ‘She wouldn’t. Why would she? How could she?’
‘Did it not strike you as odd that after all this time and all your trying, nothing’s happened?’ Anastagus’s voice turned deep and smooth, like the dark loam beneath the grass of the glades. ‘Did it not seem strange to you that children who’d taken up their staffs years later managed what you could not?’
Iothe’s breath came light and fast over the churning in her chest. ‘Luck…’
‘But — but—’ Eobin’s eyelashes fluttered, her mouth opening and closing ‘—but we’re loyal! We’d serve her faithfully if she just let us!’
Anastagus indicated their staffs with a long finger. ”Evidently the Heart-Tree does not care. Ironic that of all the deities, it’s the Lady of Betrayal who is the most honest.’
The Spider goddess?! Iothe stumbled back.
‘Eobin, get away from him,’ she cried. ‘Don’t listen! He’s betrayed the Druids!’
‘Why not listen?’ Eobin thrust her staff out, tears glistening on her lashes. ‘Five years we been tryin’ to awaken them and become druids. Five years. I ain’t wanted much else, anythin’ else. If it was gonna happen, it’d’ve happened. They lied!’
‘They gave you a dream of the stars and such a very short ladder.’ Sadness gleamed in Anastagus’s eyes beside that bright spark of bitter fury; a deep, dark well of it. ‘Can you sever the ties that entangle your heart and free yourself? The Princess of Desire will give you all you were falsely promised… if you can show you’re worthy.’
‘It’d awaken?’ Eobin whispered. ‘I’d be a proper druid, not just some nameless acolyte for them greenhearts to sneer at?’
‘And more, Eobin.’ He gestured at the ring of strangers and they moved back. ‘The Lady of Betrayal rewards those who cast the scales from their eyes. She blesses those sharp enough to pierce through the shadows of her domain. She only asks you prove it.’
The crown of Anastagus’s staff shifted, the smooth grey web of wood unfolding into a nest of long, slim tendrils and curling closed again.
Iothe’s blood ran cold. His staff’s unsealed. He’s using magic!
‘Don’t listen,’ she cried as her friend took a step towards her. ‘He’s cast a spell on you!’
Eobin’s hand flashed up. The bronze knife thudded into the wood beside Iothe’s ear.
Iothe dived under the quivering hilt and shoved her friend backward. ‘Eobin, stop!’ She batted the ivy away from her face. ‘Please!’
Anastagus caught Eobin by the arm. ‘Your friendship runs deep, but it was built on shared failure and sorrow, a feeling born from the lie they told you, Eobin,’ he murmured. ‘It’s no more real than the Heart-Tree’s love for you.’
‘Eobin, don’t,’ Iothe cried. ‘How can a feeling be a lie? You know all my secrets. I know all yours. You said we’re sisters!’
‘Because of a lie,’ Eobin spat, clutching at her sleeve and blinking away her tears. ‘All these years. All those moments. All those words. Lies. It ain’t your fault, Iothe, but I have to prove myself. I ain’t gonna live the rest of my life as a failure. I can’t.‘
The lump in Iothe’s throat returned, threatening tears. Don’t you leave me behind too, Eobin.
Eobin’s staff clashed into Iothe’s; the blow sent them spinning through the ivy vines and into the dark.
‘Stop this,’ she begged. ‘I don’t want to hurt you!’
‘You still believe in a bond built on a lie.’ Eobin drew little flecks of red magic into her palm and bared her teeth. ‘I’m free!’
Iothe dashed the first tears from her face. ‘Flint and tinder struck sharply thrice, give rise to flames not once but twice.’ She thrust her palm at Anastagus.
A pair of white fireballs hissed from her fingertips. The first scorched through the ivy, splashing against Anastagus’sward like a teardrop against a tree trunk. The second fireball twisted away from Anastagus and seared through Eobin’s stomach.
The crown of Anastagus’s staff wriggled its tendrils through the black-seared edges of the smoking hole.
‘No,’ Iothe whispered.
She squeezed her eyes shut and sucked in a deep breath, peeking through her lashes.
A thin red bead trickled from the hole’s charred edge down Eobin’s pale skin.
No. No, no, no, no! Her heart seized and lurched, dashing itself against her ribs like a terrified rabbit against a fence. It’s a trick. A test. It has to be.
Eobin released a long, quiet breath and fell upon her face into the long grass. Little wisps of smoke rose from her back.
Iothe struggled with a tight, hot knot in her throat. ‘That’s not how my spell works. It’s meant to go straight. It always goes straight. Why didn’t it go straight?!‘
Anastagus’s deep brown eyes met her gaze. The trunk of the Heart-Tree towered into the sky behind him.
‘Why?’ Iothe’s eyes turned hot and wet. Beneath her ribs, her heart ached and burnt and screamed. ‘Why make us do this? Why kill her? Why?‘
She stretched out trembling fingers to brush her friend’s sprawling curls. The bumpy scars on her arms stood out over her pale skin, the lowest fresh and raw. Iothe tugged Eobin’s sleeves back down.
Anastagus knelt in front of her. ‘Don’t lie to yourself. Don’t hide from it. Don’t retreat. Don’t run.’ His staff veiled itself behind thin, white mist and fell still. ‘There’s truth to be found through the fog of self-delusion. That is the test of the Lady of Lies, one so few of us ever pass.’
‘You made me kill her,’ Iothe snapped.
Tears burnt her cheeks, their blurs gleaming on her lashes, and anger coiled on her tongue. It welled up from the twist of agony in her chest, searing hot, hotter than her white flames, with a tang of bitter iron.
‘I gave you a choice – die for a friend or fight for yourself. You chose. You killed her.’ Anastagus rested a hand on her shoulder. ‘You did well. You chose truth over lies.’
‘Well,’ Iothe choked out. She ripped his hand off her and reached for magic, but the words of her spell tangled in the anger on her tongue.
‘The desire to form bonds comes from a desire to survive. Two individuals have better odds together than apart. The care you had for her was just a projection of the care you have for yourself.’
‘I don’t believe that. She’s dead because of you.‘ Her belly twisted into a deep, tight knot and her tears came on, dripping from her chin into the spread of Eobin’s curls.
‘It takes time to grasp such unpleasant realities,’ Anastagus said. ‘Either way, you can’t stay here now. They’ll realise who killed Eobin.’
‘Me,’ Iothe whispered, staring down Eobin’s blank, brown eyes. ‘My only spell…’
‘I can offer you freedom from this,’ Anastagus said. ‘I and my companions, we’re going to rip away the veil of lies the Heart-Tree would blind us all with. Come north to the Webbed Pit with us. You’ve proved yourself. I’ll show you magic you’ve always dreamt of casting and some of the true nature of the Lady of Desire. Once you’ve seen her for what she is, you’ll be free, and nobody will ever accuse you of what happened here.’
Iothe smeared the tears from her face. ‘I hate you.’ She tasted it on her tongue, a raw, sour heat. ‘If I had any other choice…’
‘It’s only natural to hate someone who hurt you.’ He offered his hand. ‘It makes it easier when you have to hurt them back. It makes it more likely you survive.’
‘Is that the true nature of the Spider goddess, your deity of lies?’ She let him pull her to her feet by her wrists.
‘No.’ Anastagus gave her a small smile, his grip tightening like a vice. Shadow lanced from between his fingers, a curved, jagged dagger of it. ‘She is many things, but foremost… The Lady of Betrayal is fickle.’ He drove the blade through her ribs with a soft, wet whisper and twisted.
‘Oh.’ Iothe slid to her knees and clutched at the bright red spilling from her chest. A fierce chill spread beneath her fingers, burning like fire.
The other traitors drifted away. Cogodakus’s wide grin and scarred face vanished into the shadows of the glades.
Anastagus rolled Iothe’s staff to her side with his toe. ‘What is left of the Hand of the Heart-Tree is truly sorry, Iothe and Eobin,’ he whispered. ‘But I too must prove myself free from lies and self-delusion and show my desire is strong enough I will leave myself no path back. If I don’t, I will lose the favour of the Mistress of Whispers.’
Iothe watched him walk away. His footsteps seemed to echo out of time with his feet, muddling into the pounding of her heart.
She twisted towards the Heart-Tree’s trunk. ‘Please?’
The blood poured through her fingers and her staff lay still in the grass.
Uncrowned. Unchanged. She pushed it away, batting at it twice with numb fingers until it rolled behind a tree root. Unworthy.
Iothe threaded her fingers through Eobin’s cold ones, clutching them tight to her chest. She closed her eyes and listened to the fading rain until the pain drifted into the distance.