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IN A QUIET, cool grove of chestnut trees, heart-leafed lindens, and straight-backed Aremore oaks, a fox knelt at the edge of a shallow spring.
Scars and fresh scratches marred the rich tan of his back and arms and thighs. He had already removed his uniform, weapons, and boots, piling them on a wide oak root. The Fox—who was also a man—poured clear water over himself, bathing and whispering a cleansing song that married well with the babble of spring water. He’d traced this source at the first light of dawn, glad for a forest heart from which to ask his questions.
A breeze came, tightening his skin with cold breath, and the canopy of leaves chattered welcome. Ban the Fox replied, That’s encouraging, in their tongue, shifting his vowels to match the cadence of this Aremore forest. The trees spoke wider and more graciously here than on the rocky island where he’d been born. On Innis Lear the trees tended toward hard and hearty, shaped by ocean winds and the challenge of growing against the bedrock; not green and radiant so much as gray and blue with the coolest brown barks, lush moss creeping around in hollows, and thin leaves and needles. They spoke softly, the spreading low mother oaks and thorned hedges, weaving their words into the wind so their king could not hear.
But in Aremoria there was room and soil, enough for loud trees more concerned with bearing fruit than surviving winter storms or heartless kings. They conversed with each other, sighing and singing to please themselves, to taunt colorful birds, to toy with the people’s dreams. It had taken Ban months to win the trust of the Aremore trees, for he’d arrived angry and corded over by bitter flavors, far too spicy at such a young age. They’d not welcomed an invading thistle, but eventually he charmed them, grew to be as familiar as if he’d been rooted here.
Slipping deeper into the spring now, Ban untied the tiny braids patched through his thick, dark hair. His toes sank into silt as water curled about his ankles; he kept up his idle banter with the nearby linden trees, who had a vibrant sense of humor. Finally, with his hair loose and falling stiffly at his ears and neck, Ban ducked himself entirely into the spring water.
All conversation dulled. Ban held his breath, waiting to hear the pulse of this forest heart. A deep well might serve better, but the spring was natural, built only of the earth. He needed the rhythm under his skin to properly connect, to find the paths of magic he could use to track the loathsome Burgun army and certify their retreat.
Peace and cold solitude surrounded Ban. He parted his lips to allow in a mouthful of water and swallowed it, drinking in the tranquility. He slowly stood up.
Water streamed off his rising form. A small man, with not a strip of comfortable fat, Ban was all tawny muscles and sharp edges. Dark hair blackened by water hung heavy around large eyes, the brown and dark shadow green of forests. He blinked and droplets of water like tiny crystals clung to his spiky lashes. Had anyone witnessed his emergence, it would’ve been easy to think Ban a thorn of magic, grown straight from the spring.
Refreshed and blessed, he crouched at the shore to dig his hands into the mud. He spread it up his wrists like gauntlets, smoothing the gray-brown mud into a second skin over his own. With it he painted streaks across his chest, down his stomach, around his genitals, and in spirals down his thighs. He slapped handprints over his shoulders, splattering them down his back as far as he could reach.
Now, fully a creature of this specific earth, adopted child of these balmy trees, Ban the Fox picked his way back into the forest. Every footstep brought him words whispered up his legs: starwise, starwise, forward, this way, turn here, this way, starwise again, and nightwise now! The trees directed him toward the goal he’d requested, and finally Ban reached the tallest of them, at the edge of the forest, where he might best catch hold of a wind willing to report on Burgun.
A spreading, ropey old chestnut waited, roots buried several horse lengths off the line of trees. Ban glanced all around, at the churned earth of the valley, where days ago the Burgun army had camped. No grass still lived except in scattered clusters, the rest trampled and flattened and gone dry. Abandoned fire pits were scorched scars, and he could see the heaped dirt of covered privy lines.
No men or women remained, and so Ban dashed across the narrow strip of open land, using the speed to launch himself up the trunk of the chestnut. He caught the lowest branch with a grunt, swung up, and climbed high. The tree was sturdy enough that it never shivered with his weight, merely chuckled at his tickling grip.
Three small birds burst away from his intrusion, and the chestnut warned him to mind the eastern circle of limbs, where he’d already angered some brown squirrels.
Ban climbed along the ladder of boughs, up and out, toward the highest northwestern branch. There, a line of charred lightning strike allowed him a perch with a view of the valley for miles ahead of him, and of the rolling green forest canopy behind. He pushed aside long, serrated leaves and gripped a branch at his shoulder, only as wide as his wrist, to steady himself.
Ban stood, balanced carefully.
Wind caught his hair, pulling it out of his face. He asked the tree to warn him if anything approached, animal or person, then opened his mouth to taste the flavors of the air.
Smoke, old death, and the dusty musk of crows.
Ban lifted onto his toes to reach into the air. He caught a feather, black and smooth. In the inky color he saw shifting waves of men and horses; he saw a cliffside and clouds of reddish smoke, sparkling rocks, rotten flowers, and an empty white hand.
He slid the edge of the feather along his tongue, spat onto the back of his hand, and rubbed it against the chestnut bark hard enough to score the skin bloody. The language of birds was full of dreams, and impossible for men to interpret, it was said. But Ban had learned otherwise, these six years in Aremoria, at least if he could use pain, or blood, to facilitate the translation.
His hand throbbed now, and Ban closed his eyes to recall the pulse of the tranquil spring water. Slowing his breath, he brought his heart into alignment with the forest heart, through this focus of tender skin.
The crow’s many images became one: an army dressed in maroon limped far from here, a full day and night’s ride, backs to him and Aremoria, facing the north cliffs of Burgun.
Thank you, Ban said in the language of trees, and tucked the feather into the crook of leaves where it became a gift for the chestnut. He offered to trim the dead branch, but the chestnut was pleased with its storm-gifted scar. Ban rather liked his own scars, too, for how they proved his experiences and belonged to none but him, and he told the tree as much as he returned to the ground.
Ban landed in a crouch, cold suddenly in the shade. The sun sank over the far mountains bordering the edge of Burgun lands, and Ban wished his clothes were nearer. He’d return to camp, report to Morimaros, and then eat, drink, sleep the short summer night away, not once looking up at the glinting stars.
The evening forest whistled and hummed. The trees observed the usual yawning transition to twilight: they watched animals wake for the hunt, wondered if the king of deer would drive off a lone wolf trapped here, apart from her pack, by the armies, or if that most gentle rabbit would neglect to avoid the oak full of owls. Hungry himself, Ban considered joining the fray, stalking that wolf to try his own hand at her. He smelled like the mud of the forest now, and just a slight trail of his dried blood. It would keep their advantages even.
But if he did not return to camp before darkness set in full, the king would worry, though Ban had tried for years to teach him that there was no need to be concerned with the Fox’s safety in a forest.
It made his lips curl in a small, involuntary smile to think on: a man as good and bold as Morimaros of Aremoria concerned for a bastard like Ban.
So distracted was Ban, it took a scream from three young linden trees to alert him to the man who had invaded the heart spring grove.
Immediately alert, Ban crouched low to make his way around from the south, where the canopy was thickest and more shadows would hide him. Listening to the gentle prodding of trees, Ban crawled along, only his eyes gleaming.
At the edge of the grove, he lowered himself onto his stomach and slipped under a rose vine, enjoying the delicate perfume even as the hooked thorns brushed the dry mud on his shoulders.
Seated on the very root where Ban had left his belongings was none other than King Morimaros. A midsize, handsome man with short, practical dark hair and a matching beard, in the regular uniform of the army except for the long orange leather coat and the royal ring on his forefinger. Ban looked about everywhere, confirming with the trees that Morimaros was alone. Casually reading a letter.
Exasperation and a shot of fear made Ban grit his teeth and creep backward. He’d show Morimaros how stupid it was to be alone, even with the war over, even with Burgun fled.
He climbed up an oak, whispering a request that the tree hold still, and then the next, too, as he stepped across to it, so that they would not shake their leaves and reveal to the king his location. Thus, Ban walked gently from tree to tree, like an earth saint, and sank finally into the embrace of the oak under which Morimaros sat. Ban climbed down, and even when the king looked suddenly out at a cracked branch in the west, Ban was invisible to him, directly above.
In one swift motion, Ban dropped onto the king’s back, threw an arm around his neck, and pulled. But Morimaros grasped his arm and bent, flinging Ban heels over head, hard onto the muddy shore of the spring. Ban rolled onto his hands and the balls of his feet, and glared at the king, eyes and teeth bright in his muddy, wild face.
Morimaros had his sword free, knees bent, ready to defend himself again. “Ban?” he said after a slow moment.
Ban stood. “You were very vulnerable, Your Majesty.”
“Not so, it seems.” The king smiled. He sheathed his sword and picked up the fallen letter.
“Why come out alone? I was on my way to returning.” Ban crossed his arms over his bare chest, suddenly too aware he was naked but for mud-scrawled magic.
“I’m not allowed much solitude, and this evening is perfect for it,” Morimaros said. He ran a hand over his close-cropped hair, a sign of slight embarrassment. “And I would speak with you privately on a certain matter, ah, pertaining to this letter.” He brandished it, and Ban could see the deep blue wax of Lear still clinging to one edge.
All his skin went cold with dread, but Ban nodded because he had to: this was his king, his commander, no matter what else they might be to each other.
The Fox strode into the water and ducked down fully into it, allowing his entire body to be enveloped. It was not peace and cool calm he felt as the water brushed away mud, tickled his spine and the backs of his knees. No, it was a roar of suppressed memories: clenched fists and dismissive words; sheer peaks, crashing waves, and a howling, powerful wind; haunting sweet laughter and black eyes with short, curled lashes; tiny iridescent beetles.
Ban, the bastard of Errigal, scrubbed his skin clean and turned over in the spring, spinning once, twice, and a third time. Rising, he wiped his face, spat water, shook his head like a dog.
When he emerged, he desperately thought of his Aremore name, the one he’d earned, trying to will himself back to center.
The Fox. Ban the Fox.
His eyes opened to see that Morimaros offered him trousers. Ban muttered thanks and dragged them on, tied the waist up and used the plain wool shirt to wipe drips of water from his face and neck, chest and arms.
“Now,” Morimaros said, clasping his shoulder, “I have wine in the crook of that root. Read this letter.”
Ban followed the king, reminding himself he was trusted here, he was honored by the grand crown of Aremoria. Whatever Lear wanted, Ban would attack it from Morimaros’s side. Together, the men sat.
Morimaros gave over the letter and uncorked the brown glass bottle of wine with his teeth. The writing was roughly scratched into the parchment. Ban read:
To the honored King Morimaros of Aremoria,
We of Innis Lear invite you to join us at our Summer Seat for a rare celestial occasion. The Zenith Court will commence some two weeks from the writing of this note, on the full moon after the Throne rises completely to mark the ascent of the Queens of Autumn. The greatest of our island shall attend, and we look forward to introducing you to our youngest, with whom you have corresponded these last months, with hope I am certain in your heart. We are eager to set our daughters onto their star paths, and know your attendance will aid us in that desire.
With the blessings of the stars in our words,
Ban managed to remain calm, despite the implications involving Elia Lear. He read through the letter again, and Morimaros swung the bottle of wine toward him.
Trading his thirst for the burn of memory, Ban took a long drink. It was sweet and crisp, very easy to swallow. Not like the wine and ale of Innis Lear. Not like the hard yearning that tugged at him even now to go back. To touch the iron magic of Errigal again. To set things right and show his father and that king what he’d become. A confidant of this king, a renowned soldier and spy. Important. Necessary. Honored.
“Did you know her?” Morimaros asked, interrupting Ban’s sputtering thoughts.
“The youngest princess?” Ban lightly avoided her name.
But the king did not.
“Elia,” he said simply, and then easily continued. “She is the star priest, we hear, preferring this to her title. Though I met her as such, once, a long while ago. When her mother died, I traveled to Innis Lear for the year ceremony. Princess Elia was only nine. It was my first time in another country, acting as Aremoria. Though my father lived still, of course. He didn’t die until I was twenty.” Morimaros took back the wine and sipped at it. Ban studied the king, trying not to imagine him speaking with Elia, touching her fingers. Morimaros was gilded and handsome, a strong man, and one of the only good ones Ban had ever known. Elia deserved such a husband, and yet, he could not imagine her living here, in Aremoria, away from the twisted island trees, the harsh moors, the skies overwhelmed with stars.
Ban shook his head before he could stop himself. He’d thought of her, though he’d tried to forget those years before he’d been the Fox. Thought of the smooth brown planes of her cheeks, her black as well-water eyes, the streaks of improbable copper in her cloud of dark brown spiral curls. Her warm mouth and eager young hands, her giggle, the wonder with which she dug into tree hollows with him, whispering to the heart oaks, to the roots, to the sparrows and worms and butterflies. He’d thought of her most when he was alone in enemy camps, or washing blood off his knife, or cramped and stinking for days in the hiding holes the roots made for him. She saved him, kept him quiet, kept him sane. His memories of her made him remember to stay alive.
“Did you know her?” Morimaros asked again.
“Barely, sir.” And yet more entirely than Ban had known anyone in his life. She once was the person who’d known him best, but Ban wondered what her reply would be, if asked the same question today. In five lonely, bloody years, she’d not written to him, and so Ban had never sent word to her on the wings of these Aremore birds. Why would she want to hear from a bastard now, if she hadn’t before? And now they were grown.
The king said, “I’ll leave next week. Sail around the south cape to the Summer Seat.”
Ban nodded absently, staring down at the dirt beside his toes.
“Return to Innis Lear with me, my Fox.”
His head snapped up. Yes, he thought, so viciously he surprised himself.
King Morimaros watched Ban with clear blue eyes. His mouth was relaxed, revealing nothing—a special skill of this king’s, to present a plain mask to the world, holding his true opinions and heart close.
“I … I would not be a good man at your side, Majesty.”
“Ban, here and now call me Mars. Novanos would.”
“When we discuss Lear it reminds me too keenly of my place, sir.”
Morimaros grimaced. “Your place is at my side, Ban, or wherever I put you. But I know how that old king thinks of you. Is his daughter cut of same cloth?”
“As a girl, Elia was kind,” Ban said. “But I do not know how I can serve you there.”
The king of Aremoria drank another portion of wine and then set the bottle firmly in Ban’s hand. The Fox recognized the low ambition in Morimaros’s voice when he said, “Ban Errigal, Fox of Aremoria, I have a game for you to play.”
Copyright © 2018 by Tessa Gratton