The Last March
by Matthew T. Acheson
The little people lived in a village at the edge of the valley, where the foothills of the Scythian Mountains met with the great pines and birches of Yawthorne Forest. The murmuring river that snaked through the village was born deep in the snow-capped mountain ranges of the far north. Some of the old folks said that icy vein was older than the valley, perhaps even as old as the Great Ones themselves.
The little people lived happily, fishing the river and planting their crops all along its banks after the spring floods made their annual deposit of black silt. They built their houses and ships from dead wood that had fallen in the forest, or washed up along the river. They loved the forest, and the forest loved them.
So it was when an army of the most wicked creatures in all creation came to the valley to sack the village of the little people, the Great Ones held the first and last war council in the history of their race.
“Men have come to the valley at last,” said Brinsabach, eldest and tallest of the pine titans, great trees that walked on two legs.
“What does it mean?” asked several of the birch titans.
“Outsiders in the valley,” said another, “it’s the end of all things.”
“The little people were outsiders once, and yet we have coexisted with them peacefully for a hundred of their generations.” A handsome, middle-aged titan stepped forward into the center of the Grove of the Twilight, that ancient and holy meeting place of the Great Ones. He was Gaverick, high speaker for the Council of Ash. His words carried much weight among those gathered, but some of the elders considered him a dangerous radical who did not respect the old ways.
“Men are not capable of coexisting with anyone, including their own kind,” Brinsabach said reluctantly. He saw Gaverick’s bait and switch coming from a mile away, but all he could do was let the counselor play his hand. “Still, their presence here is difficult to explain.”
“They must have found a way to pierce the veil,” said a pine titan.
“How clever they’ve become to defeat the old magic!” said Nuffbarle, patriarch of House Laudor, the most powerful clan of all the willow titans. “And not only clever, but numerous. Look at that host, how quickly they’ve bred! If their wizards have learned how to manipulate the old magic, surely there is no hope.”
“There is no danger of that, I assure you,” Brinsabach said in his deep, soothing baritone. The younger tree titans huddled closer to his vast trunk. Some of the others, Gaverick supporters mostly, crossed their arms and grumbled amongst themselves. “Men cannot have learned the ways of the old magic. Only those of us who have lived since the beginning, the fairies, the water nymphs, the spirits of the mountain caverns, and the eldest of the trees can tap into the old ways.”
“That has long held to be true,” Gaverick said. His handsome trunk stood proud as he addressed the hundreds of Great Ones in attendance. “But it doesn’t explain how they’ve come to find our valley.”
“The veil between worlds has worn thin.” Theorless of the birch titans shambled forward. Once he’d been a tall and imposing figure, until he’d been struck by a bolt of lightning during a thundershower over a millennia ago. Now his trunk was bent and broken. “I have felt its threads slowly unraveling with the passing of the centuries. Even the old magic is no match for Time.”
“Then the valley is no longer safe!” Gaverick announced triumphantly.
“What will we do? Where will we go?” chimed a score of tree titans at once.
Brinsabach drew in a great breath and exhaled slowly through his nose. Leaves and branches sang in the breeze. Saplings clutched tightly to the ground with their roots. “We trees have ever lived in the valley. It is true that there are other havens we could go to, but this is our home.”
“Then what are we to do about the coming of man?” asked Nuffbarle.
“The doings of men are not our concern,” Theorless replied.
“You know the ways of men as well as I do, Theorless,” said Nuffbarle. “Their doings are plain to all that are blessed with the far-sight. Today they come to enslave the little people, tomorrow they will come to the forest with fire and axes. Wherever they tread they leave only ash and dust in their wake.”
“It is as I said: the valley is no longer safe for us.” The branches on Gaverick’s head shifted noisily.
“Let them come!” Theorless’s voice boomed above all others. “If they are foolish enough to enter this forest, then we should count ourselves lucky. No army could march on Yawthorne and live.”
“Perhaps,” Nuffbarle said somberly. “But men are many and we are few. If we defeat one army, they will send another, and another after that. It’s a war we cannot win. We have the World Knot; we should use it.”
“I agree,” said Gaverick. “We should use it now, before it’s too late.”
A silence fell upon the Grove of Twilight. Leaves rustled in the wind. All eyes shifted to the great bulk of Brinsabach, eldest of all the pine titans, a race known for their consistency and wisdom. Brinsabach lowered his head and thought for a long while. When his eyes finally opened, he spoke in a slow, sad drawl that none of the other trees had ever heard before. “My heart dies at the thought of leaving the forest. Yet, I must think of all my children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. The valley has become unsafe for us, and we can stay here no longer. There are other worlds.”
“Do all of the speakers agree?” asked Gaverick. A dozen ancient, bearded heads nodded, some enthusiastically, others reluctantly.
“What of the little people?” asked one of the birch titans. “Surely we could hide them in the forest until the men have pillaged and gone back to where they come from.”
“It’s too late for that I’m afraid,” Nuffbarle said, gesturing towards the river. The trees turned and watched in silence as a swarming tide of men overtook the village of the little people. One by one, plumes of black smoke began to rise in the distance.
“Theorless,” Brinsabach said, “have your warlocks prepare the World Knot.”
“Then we’re just going to stand by and leave the little people to the mercy of the savages?” asked one of the saplings.
Brinsabach put a hulking arm around the sapling. “I shall miss the songs the parents sing around the fires, and the dancing, and the scent of the sweet meats they roast on the summer solstice. But most of all, I shall miss the giggling of the children as they skip down the forest paths, and the feeling of their little tickling hands against my bark.”
With great sadness and remorse, the Great Ones turned their backs on the village, and climbed the hill at the center of the forest where the World Knot was. Theorless and his kin wove spells that had not been spoken since the world was young, and the ancient edifice thrummed to life.
Through the archway of the World Knot, shimmering in a blue haze, they saw the thousand Other Countries, and the Million Worlds beyond, and the innumerable Gulfs Further Still. For all of creation is but a great tree whose many limbs are connected together by invisible strands of the old magic.
Just as he was about to step through the portal, Brinsabach turned to look upon the world one last time. He saw the carnage that man was wreaking upon his gentle friends, the little people, and something changed inside him. He felt something he’d never felt before in all of his long days.
Brinsabach took up the trunk of a dead tree and slung it over his shoulder like a club. “Eternity is too long,” he said, “too long to live with what I have seen here today.”
Brinsabach the Old and his nine sons strode out into the great vale separating the forest from the village, and made war upon the army of men. They did not know mercy, and they did not know fear. They slew by the hundreds, and by the thousands. The great host broke in the wake of their terrible fury.
But men are clever, and innately skilled in the ways of war. When they regrouped, they unleashed such a hail of arrows and flaming stones from their siege engines that it seemed to those who watched the battle as if all of Hell itself had been emptied in the barrage.
When Brinsabach finally fell, his sons formed a circle around his lifeless body and protected it with their final breaths. When the last of them fell, there arose such cries of grief and anger from the Great Ones in the forest that the tumult nearly shattered the earth; for their kind had never before known anguish, or death.
Howling and writhing like mad demons, the ancient tree titans charged across the plain and shattered the army of men like a clay pot against stone. They took up those survivors among the little people in their strong arms, and carried them away through the World Knot to their new home.
So it was that the Great Ones made their first and last march against the cruelty of mankind, before leaving our world forever.
Copyright © 2011 by Matthew T. Acheson