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 so wide you could ride a chariot along them were they only straight enough.
Another soft, summer storm. Iothe watched the cool mist drift down from the distant canopy and breathed in 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 and squinted 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. Even faded, the patches of dirt stood out against her pale skin as stark 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 upon 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 prickled 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 Goddess first chose me.’ Eobin let out a long sigh. ‘Best get back inside before we’re caught.’
‘It’s that late?’
‘Yes.’ She pointed through the ivy towards the spreading branches of the Heart-Tree with the end of her staff. ‘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.’ The voice that drifted through the dark leaves was no louder than the rain, but carried a terse sharpness.
Iothe craned her neck past her friend’s slim shoulders, but only saw a cluster of silhouettes in the passage’s shadows.
Eobin gulped. ‘Anastagus…’
Caught by a Hand of the Heart-Tree. Shame gnawed at Iothe, chewing so deep she couldn’t even find the will to wipe the worst of the dirt off her face.
Anastagus planted his staff in front of him and steepled his fingers. His head and shoulders loomed over Eobin, and his eyes were dark and rich as horse chestnuts.
Iothe’s eyes slipped to his staff. Smooth, smoke-grey wood rested beneath Anastagus’ fingers, the same shade as his flowing robes, and at the staff’s top sat a latticed orb like a spider’s web bent over at its edges into a ball .
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. Iothe knew of none of them except reckless Cogodakus, whose scarred face and gleaming spread of teeth stood out from the crowd.
Eobin whimpered and slumped against Iothe’s shoulder. 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 spoke quiet and soft, like the rustle of the distant leaves. ‘You’re not the first. You won’t be the last. But it 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, a confused glint in her brown eyes. ‘But you’re allowed to leave whenever, ain’t you? You’re a Hand of the Heart-Tree. Chosen by the Heart-Tree Goddess 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 forcing their staffs into quickening?’
Eobin opened her mouth.
Don’t try to lie, Iothe prayed. 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 Goddess chose me an’ grew me this staff. An’ it’s still the same as any other stick.’
‘And do you feel the same?’ Anastagus asked Iothe.
‘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.’
Anastagus leant on his staff and smiled faintly up into the rain. ‘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 Goddess saw in us. 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…’
Iothe swallowed. The hairs on her neck prickled. A glint rose in Anastagus’ 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’ staff twisted while he spoke. The whole piece of wood seemed to shift, curling like smoke in the wind. ‘Now, about this little problem. We need to leave. And we 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’ 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 round 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 Goddess 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 Goddess 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’ voice turned deep and smooth, like the dark loam beneath the grass of the glades. ‘Did it not seem strange when children who’d taken up their staffs years after you, moved forwards when you did not?’
Iothe’s breath came light and fast over the churning in her chest. ‘Luck…’
‘But…’ Eobin’s eyelashes fluttered, and her mouth opened and closed as she groped for words. ‘But we were loyal! We’d have served her faithfully if she’d just let us!’
Anastagus indicated their staffs with a long finger. ”Evidently the Heart-Tree Goddess does not care. Ironic, that of all the deities, it’s the Spider Goddess who is the most honest.’
Spider Goddess?! Iothe took a step back.
‘Eobin, get away from him,’ she cried. ‘Don’t listen! He’s betrayed the Druids!’
‘Why not?’ Eobin thrust her staff out. Tears glistened 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’ 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 Spider Goddess 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?’
‘And more, Eobin.’ He gestured at the ring of strangers and they moved back. ‘The Spider Goddess 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.’
Anastagus’ staff’s crown shifted. The smooth grey web of wood unfolded into a nest of long, slim fingers then curled closed again.
Iothe’s blood ran cold. His staff’s unsealed.
‘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 and the bronze knife thudded into the wood beside Iothe’s ear.
Iothe dived under the quivering hilt and shoved her friend backward into the grass. ‘Eobin, stop!’ She batted the ivy away from her face. ‘Please!’
Anastagus caught Eobin as she staggered. ‘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 Goddess’ 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. She clutched at her sleeve and blinked 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, gathering the magic for her single spell. ‘I don’t want to hurt you!’
‘You still believe in a bond built on a lie.’ Eobin drew little flecks of red light into her palm. ‘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 seared through the ivy but splashed against Anastagus’ ward like a teardrop against a tree trunk.
The second fireball twisted away from Anastagus and pierced Eobin’s stomach. Iothe saw the crown of Anastagus’ staff wriggle its tendrils through the black-seared edges of the smoking hole.
‘No,’ she whispered.
Iothe squeezed her eyes shut, then peeked through her lashes. The hole remained. A thin red bead trickled from its charred edge.
No. No, no, no, no. Her heart seized and lurched, then dashed itself against her ribs like a terrified rabbit upon a fence. It’s a trick. A test. Something like that. It has to be.
Eobin released a long, quiet breath and fell upon her face in the long grass. Little wisps of smoke rose from her back.
Iothe struggled with the clenched fist of feeling blocking 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’ 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 liquid. Beneath her ribs, her heart ached and burnt. ‘Why make us do this? Why kill her? Why?‘
She stretched out trembling fingers to brush her friend’s sprawling curls. The scars on her arms were visible, 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, sealed once more. ‘There’s truth to be found through the fog of self-delusion. That is the test of the Spider Goddess, one so few of us ever pass.’
‘You made me kill her,’ Iothe snapped. Tears burnt her cheeks, their blurs gleamed on her lashes, but the anger coiled on her tongue. It welled up from the twist of agony in her chest, searing hot, hotter than her white flames, tasting 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 still her tears came. They dripped 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 followers, we’re going to rip away the veil of lies the Heart-Tree Goddess would blind us all with. Come 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 Spider Goddess. 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 every time she spoke, 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 tightened like a vice. Shadow lanced from between his fingers, a curved, jagged dagger of it. ‘The Spider Goddess is many things, but foremost… the Mistress of Betrayal is fickle.’ He drove the blade through her ribs. It went in with a soft, wet whisper and when Anastagus pulled it out, her life spilt after it in a gleaming crimson rush.
‘Oh.’ Iothe slid back onto her knees and clutched at the red that spilt from her chest. A chill spread beneath her fingers; so cold it burnt like fire.
The other druids drifted away. Cogodakus’ wide grin and scarred face vanished into the shadows of the glades.
Anastagus lingered and rolled Iothe’s staff to her side with his toe. ‘What is left of the Hand of the Heart-Tree is truly sorry, Iothe, Eobin.’ He spoke so quiet she barely heard him. ‘But I too must prove myself free from lies and self-delusion. If I don’t, I will lose the Spider Goddess’ favour, and I will sorely need it to bring this place down as it deserves.’
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 ran through her fingers without pause. Her staff remained plain; uncrowned, unchanged, and unworthy. She pushed it away, batting at it twice with numb fingers until it was gone from her sight.
Iothe threaded her fingers through Eobin’s cold ones and clutched them tight. She closed her eyes and listened to the fading rain until the pain drifted into the distance.