by Michael Kingswood
Once upon a time, far away in the land of Quenith, lived a young man and his brother. Their names were Gideon and Marnik. They lived with their father, Gregor, halfway up the foothills of the mountains on the west side of the kingdom, where they helped their father fell trees and prepare them for shipment down to the keep, there to go into the local Lord’s cookhouses and fireplaces to keep him and his people warm and fed.
It was long, hard work, taking up all of the daylight and beyond every day except for the seventh of the week. God’s Day as decreed by the church and the King.
On God’s Day, the three of them would shed their many-patched work clothes and don their fanciest attire: homespun wool that was dyed blue for Gideon, green for Marnik, and red for Gregor. Feeling like men at the top of their station, they paddled in a canoe down the stream that Marnik liked to call the Redflow, because of how it reflected the sunset and sunrise, to the town surrounding the Lord’s keep.
There they attended God’s Day services and enjoyed a feast with the other people of their little part of the kingdom, and heard the Lord announce the latest tidings, whether new proclamations from the King or local news, both joyous and sorrowful.
Then as the sun was nearing the rooftops in the town, they would get into their little canoe, feeling a bit less high in station compared with the townsfolk and especially the Lord but nonetheless happy and refreshed from the experience, and paddle their way home.
They kept up this routine for many years, and Marnik and Gideon grew to be fully men in their own right, strong and taller even than their father. When they came to the Keep for God’s Day services, Gregor smiled with pride as the eyes of the maidens among the townfolk all zeroed in on his sons, and he knew they would soon start families of their own.
But thoughts of grandchildren reminded him that the boys’—the young men now—mother would never meet those younglings, and Gregor found the joy of the services and the feast much reduced.
Then came the day when that joy fled completely.
At the conclusion of the God’s Day feast, instead of the Lord taking the stage at the head of the lined-up tables that were laid out in the town green for the day, the Lord’s Chancellor stood up to speak.
A murmur of surprise went through the crowd, and Marnik, Gideon, and Gregor traded surprised looks. The Chancellor had never spoken to the people before; in all of memory only the Lord ever took the stage.
If not for the golden chain that marked his station, Gregor and his sons would not have known who the Chancellor even was.
“Lord Kendrick has taken ill,” said the Chancellor. His voice was higher-pitched than the Lord’s and didn’t carry as well, but those words of ill spread throughout the gathered people as if amplified by magic. If there were such a thing.
“The healers and priests have examined him,” continued the Chancellor, “and they have determined that the only thing that can cure his disease is a leaf from the Greenhorn Tree.”
Murmurs of concern had begun circulating through the crowd after the Chancellor’s initial proclamation. This added fact brought gasps of shock and fear, as mothers clutched children close and men’s expressions slackened.
For the Greenhorn Tree was one of a kind, and grew up at the top of the highest peak in the mountain range. No one had gone to the Tree and returned in living memory, for the path to the tree was said to be guarded by ogres and giants that could squash a man between their fingers. And then even if one somehow won through, the tree itself was guarded by a great serpent which lived coiled around the Greenhorn Tree’s trunk and that spewed venom that would burn a man’s skin away at the merest contact.
Gregor got a feeling of deep dread in his gut, but the brothers grew exited as they realized what the Chancellor was going to say next.
“Magister Crowley has volunteered to head an expedition to the Greenhorn Tree. Two members of the Lord’s Guard will accompany him. But,” he paused to draw a breath, “the mountain passes are difficult, and few know the way through them. Magister Crowley will need a guide.”
The Chancellor’s gaze had been sweeping the crowd, but now it came to rest on the table where Gregor and his sons sat And the dread became an icicle in Gregor’s belly.
They alone of the townsfolk knew the ways through the foothills to the mountains. They alone had ventured into the peaks and learned their ways.
They alone could guide the expedition.
Marnik and Gideon’s eyes lit with excitement, and they turned to regard their father with eager grins on their faces.
But Gregor could not feel their youthful excitement; their lust for adventure. The years lay heavily upon him, and he felt them in his joints more and more each winter. This was not something he wished to undertake; not something he thought possible to undertake.
Neither was it a request they could turn down, though.
Sighing, Gregor nodded, and the brothers stood as one.
“We will lead the party,” Marnik said. Of the two brothers, his was the more powerful, more true voice when it came to speaking and singing, and he always took the lead.
Gideon nodded agreement and, with another sigh, Gregor stood to join them.
“Aye,” he said.
But the Chancellor shook his head. “Winter draws nigh, and our wood stores are not yet filled. The town cannot afford to have all of our woodsmen go on this quest.” Eyes narrowing, focusing in on Gregor in particular, he said, “Gregor, you must remain to complete winter preparations.”
Neither Gregor nor his sons had ever suspected that the Lord or his Chancellor knew of them at all, let alone knew them by name. A flush of pride fought against chagrin at being excluded and sudden fear for the danger his sons would be taking without him, and Gregor opened his mouth to object.
But found he couldn’t. The Chancellor was correct. Their work was not yet done, to prepare for winter. And if the wood cutting wasn’t completed before the snows came, many of the townsfolk would likely freeze.
Feeling like he was doing nothing but sighing lately, Gregor closed his mouth, lowered his head, and nodded. Then he sat back down.
“It is agreed,” the Chancellor said. “You leave on the morrow. Go swiftly, and safely, and retrieve the Lord’s remedy.”
Gregor bid his sons farewell, and paddled home in his canoe, his heart filled with trepidation over the perils they would soon face. But also with pride over their willingness to face them head-on, and in the people’s trust in them. But the worry overcame the pride, and he could not sleep that night. He imagined it would be that way every night until they returned.
The brothers, though, thought little of the dangers ahead. They spent a heady evening basking in the townsfolk’s adoration and well wishes—particularly of the maidens among the townsfolk—and then stayed the night in the Lord’s Guard’s barracks.
It was the first time they’d slept anywhere except for their father’s cabin, or in a campsite up in the mountains. So although a soldier’s barracks does not list up among the most luxurious of lodgings, to them it was like being in a whole new world. A good new world.
They awoke early, as was their norm, but found the soldiers already up and about, getting ready for the morning’s exercises, followed by the day’s routine.
Magister Crowley was tall, taller than either of the brothers, but skinny, like a man who had never had to lift anything heavier than a book. Or maybe two. He wore the flowing crimson robes of his office in the Healer’s Guild and he had a small pack on his back, and sure enough a book tucked into his belt. His hair was grey, but long, flowing down his shoulders and halfway down his back, and braided on the sides to run down his chest. His beard was as long as his hair, and braided to match those of his hair. He had a little red headpiece perched right atop his head, and his eyes squinted like he was trying to focus on something directly in front of his nose.
The Magister met them out front of the soldier’s barracks when Gideon and Marnik emerged in company with the two soldiers assigned to the quest. They were Damson and Korald, and they could not have been any more different from the Magister.
Lean with corded muscle, Damson of a height with the brothers and Korald a hand shorter than them, they had the bearing of men who had seen rough business all their lives and would not hesitate to meet it out. Their breastplates were polished to a mirror sheen and the leathers of their greaves and bracers stained purple to match the Lord’s heraldry. Their helmets were open-faced except for a bit of steel that came down in front of their noses, and they each bore a broadsword on his left hip, a long dagger on his right, and a round shield slung on his back.
Gideon and Marnik were not fighting men, but they each had their long knives, and they knew how to use a bow from hunting game for food at home. So the barracks had issued each of them a bow and a quiver of arrows. But next to the two soldiers, both brothers felt naked, when it came to weapons.
The Magister looked over the four of them and nodded, then without a word turned and set out for the western gate out of the town.
There had been talk of taking horses. But Gideon and Marnik didn’t know how to ride. And anyway, a horse would be useless after a couple days when the mountain passes began to grow steep. So instead they walked, each man carrying his own pack and rations, and Gideon and Marnik still in their God’s Day best woolens.
The passage was easy at first, and familiar for the brothers as thy ascended the foothills not too far from where they lived and worked with their father. The forest had begun the change into autumn colors, and everywhere was yellow and red and orange as oaks and maples prepared to shed their leaves for the winter. Pines and cedars mixed in here and there as well, islands of green in the ocean of color.
As the ascent grew more steep and their elevation increased, the evergreens began to dominate over the seasonal trees, and soon the party was walking over a blanket of old fallen needles instead of newly fallen leaves, and the underbrush grew more thin to match.
By the third day, even those trees had begun to thin, bare rock replacing more developed soil more often than not as the winds grew more intense.
It only promised to get worse ahead, as the Magister’s intended track would bring them up through Charlton’s Pass.
Marnik and Gideon had only been up Charlton’s Pass once, but it was not a pleasant memory. Biting, harsh winds and no shelter to speak of. Just a long crawl up a steep rocky ravine that seemed to cut straight through the flanks of two monstrous peaks that still felt the agony of that strike; the shrieking of the wind sounded like screams to the brothers’ ears.
But this time it was less harsh.
The wind still blew, and it whistled loudly. But it was warmer, and the whistling was more like a bad attempt at a melody than a soul-rendering scream that never ended.
Still, by the time they were halfway up the pass, there was not a member of the party who wasn’t more than ready to be done with it, and may they never set eye on the cursed place again.
No one wanted to think about the fact that they were certain to see it again in some days, when they returned with the Greenhorn leaf. It was the only way back down that wouldn’t take them weeks out of their way.
Of course, as Gideon remarked to Marnik when they finally reached the top of the pass, that assumed the ogres and giants didn’t squash them, or the serpent burn the flesh from their bones.
He only partially sounded like he didn’t believe the old stories.
Two more days into the journey, though, they still had not seen a single ogre. Or a giant. No even a trace of anything living except for elk and goats, and spore from a roaming wolf pack.
“Maybe there really isn’t anything to those stories at all,” Markin ventured at the campfire that night.
The two soldiers looked at him for a moment, then Damson sniffed. “Old stories always have some wild creature or other in ‘em. Just exaggeration, to make the tellers seem like they weave a better yarn than they do, or to make the hero look better. Weren’t never any ogres or giants up here. Just a barbarian clan, or a team of bandits.”
Korald nodded agreement. “Nothing we can’t handle, anyway.”
But the Magister seemed unconvinced. “Even if you are right, we are small in number. It wouldn’t do to be overconfident. According to the sources I read,” he patted the book that he kept tucked into his belt all day and was now lying on his lap, “questors for the Tree didn’t start encountering trouble until the second week of their journey.”
“So two days from now,” Gideon said.
The Magister nodded.
Neither he nor his brother got good sleep that night. Or the two nights after.
As the second week of their quest began, the brothers expected some dramatic change, like there ought to have been a great signal fire lit saying, “Now begins the PERIL,” or somesuch.
But the terrain kept on as before: steep, rocky, with few growing things besides the occasional pine and little sign of animal life at all. The wind whistled continuously, and the temperature had dropped. And they could feel the thinning of the air as well, as each step seemed to weigh more than it had just a day or two ago, and it became harder to catch their breathe on the more and more frequent breaks that the party had to take.
But still no ogres or giants.
Three more days passed before anything happened to break the monotony. They rounded a bend in the path. Though path wasn’t the right term. More like a semi-flat mound of rocks that was the closest thing to walkable that could been seen anywhere, and that backed up to a sheer rock face on once side, and as nearly as sheer a drop-off on the other.
It was precarious footing atimes, and more than once Gideon had to grab Marnik to keep him from falling a long way down. Or vice versa.
But finally, the cliff face bent to the left, rounding the flank of the mountain they were ascending. Korald had the lead, and he stopped shortly after rounding the bend. Gideon nearly ran into him, and the soldier shuffled forward a few more steps to let the others through.
Then they all stopped, having seen what brought Korald up short.
“Well,” Marnik said, “I think that’s it.”
There could be no doubt in the matter.
The peak lay directly ahead, shooting off of the mountain they were climbing like an arm that had decided to grow out from the mountain’s body of its own accord, to point an accusation toward the heavens.
It was tall, dwarfing the peak they were on, but thin, seeming more like a needle than a mountain. At first glance its sides almost looked sheer, but upon closer inspection there was a path, of course, that seemed to spiral its way around the spire, ascending resolutely toward its peak.
And at the top…
It was too distant to make out details. Probably five to ten miles as the bird flies. But there was something at the very top. Something stretching further up toward the sky in a way that didn’t look like it was made of rock.
And, wouldn’t you know it, just at that moment there was a break in the overcast that had dominated the sky the last two days, and that break allowed a single beam of sunlight to shine down on that thing at the top of the peak.
“Like God saying, here it is, boys,” Gideon quipped.
Damson snorted out a chuckle, but the Magister nodded more gravely. “It could be that very thing, young man. The Greenhorn Tree is special. I won’t say magic, because there is no such thing. But there is…something about it.” He gave a little shrug. “Perhaps God touched it in some way.” A second’s pause, then he added. “Or perhaps not. It could all be a perfectly natural thing entirely. Just one we don’t fully understand.”
The brothers exchanged glances. Marnik preferred Gideon’s take on it. But he didn’t voice it; there was no point in debating the matter, and anyway it was getting on in the afternoon and they needed to push on if they were going to find a suitable campsite for the night.
That night saw them encamped below the path leading up the Greenhorn Tree’s peak.
It was immediately obvious that the path was unusual, if not mysterious. It wasn’t a staircase; just stones arranged haphazardly in a way that almost but not quite resembled a pattern that almost but not quite looked like it might be a set of spiraling stairs if you looked at it in exactly the right light and after a tankard or two of ale.
Clearly not stairs.
And yet…neither brother could shake the resemblance from their minds, and from the way the other party members eyed the trail as they set up camp and cooked dinner, and the way everyone resolutely did not talk about it around the campfire, everyone else saw it as well.
Saw it, and wondered.
How could such a structure have occurred in nature? And if it hadn’t been naturally made, who made it, and why?
And if someone made it, had someone planted the Greenhorn Tree there intentionally? Maybe created the Greenhorn Tree as well?
Who? And why?
Gideon went back to God in his musings. Why would the divine interject to put such a remedy on the world, and make it difficult to attain?
But Marnik was not so sure. He couldn’t rule God out. But did it have to be Him? Wizards were not real, at least not now. But what if they had been real some time in the past?
Or perhaps there was a more mundane explanation. Someone had discovered the Tree and set about building a path to make it easier to reach, not harder.
Any of those were possibly true, or none of them. And there was no way their little party was going to figure it out either way. So after a brief discussion amongst themselves, the brothers put it out of their minds, then hunkered down for a long and exhausting climb the next day.
And exhausting it was. Past exhausting, to grueling and then torturous into something demon-inspired. The path of rocks that weren’t stairs but were scattered at usually about the comfortable stepping height for a staircase kept spiraling up and up and up and up until it seemed there would be no end.
They must have climbed two thousand feet straight up. Or more.
But at least there still weren’t any ogres.
That was something.
Finally, the little party reached the top, and came to a halt, gasping in the thin air to catch their breaths and knowing it would be futile to do so. But gasping all the same.
The summit was round. Not completely perfectly round. Of course not. But close. It was flat granite, and featureless except for the Tree growing straight out of the center of the rock.
The Greenhorn Tree stretched upward at least another hundred feet, its limbs pointing almost directly skyward. Despite the chill of autumn becoming winter quickly at this altitude, its leaves were fully green: long, tubular green leaves that also pointed upward. Its bark was light brown, almost reflective, and smooth, except for in one area that twisted around It from somewhere high up where it was obscured by the limbs and leaves, until it ended where the trunk entered the stone.
The spiraling feature reminded Marnik of the not-stairs they had just ascended, and where it was the bark was coarse, almost scale-like. And down at the bottom, just above where it contacted the stone…
“Is it just me,” said Korald, “Or does that look like a serpent’s head?”
It did. But only vaguely, and probably only because…
“It only looks that way because we heard the legends,” Magister Crowley said in his most annoying lecturing tone. “The mind sees patterns even when there really isn’t one.”
“Whatever you say, Magister,” said Damson. “Looks like a serpent’s head to me. And I ain’t going near it.”
Magister Crowley looked at the two soldiers and sniffed. Then he stepped closer to the tree and bent forward to look at the spiraling feature of the bark.
After a moment, he hummed softly. “Interesting. It appears that in the raised area, the sap is running, and has forced its way out from the tree’s innards, for some reason.”
“The sap?” Marnik said, and he began to get a crawling sensation of dread. What had the legend said about the serpent? “Magister – “
“I wonder,” said Crowley, as he reached forward to touch the raised section.
He began howling the second his left hand contacted the raised bark. He recoiled immediately, but his scream only intensified as vapor of some kind began rising from his hand, the fingers of which began to curl and blacken.
“The sap!” said Gideon, “It’s burning him!”
He rushed forward, in time with Damson, who was reaching to unstopper his waterskin.
Gideon reached him first and, seeing Damson’s plan, held the Magister by the shoulders to keep his hand outstretched.
The Magister’s howls continued, but his eyes widened when he saw the soldier approaching with the water.
“No!” he began.
Then Damson upended the waterskin over the stricken hand and squeezed.
Marnik only thought Crowley had been screaming before. The instant the water contacted his hand, the vapor began rising all the quicker, and the Magister’s screams seemed to be the only sound in the entire world.
“God!” Damson said, and pulled back, dropping the waterskin to the ground.
“No water,” Crowley managed to get out between screams. “Blot it! Blot it!”
Marnik wasn’t sure what he meant, but the soldiers did. In moments they had cloths from their medical kits out and were dabbing at the stricken hand, removing the water and what of the sap they could without smearing it.
Finally, after what seemed forever, and after many scraps of cloth being eaten away by whatever that sap was, they got the worst of it under control, and they set to wrapping the Magister’s hand in a bandage.
Marnik couldn’t look away; the hand wasn’t charred like it had been burned with fire. It was more melted.
He felt a sympathetic pang in his lower belly and groaned as he saw the wound, and imagined the agony of it.
But Crowley held through better than either Marnik or Gideon would have suspected. After the initial shock of the assault wore off, he was able to keep his wits about him and instruct the soldiers in the proper way to apply the bandage so it would do its job correctly.
Then, after they had seen to him as best they could, the party looked back at the tree, now far more menacing than it had been at first.
“Cutting a leaf off is going to be tricky,” Gideon said.
No one expressed disagreement.
The sap was a big part of the problem. But it wasn’t the entirety. The fact that the lowest limbs on the Tree were high out of reach for even the tallest of the party was at least as big a hurdle to overcome.
Eventually, they went with the old fashioned technique of having Gideon squat down and having Marnik get on his shoulders, then the rest helping Gideon back up to his full height. With the added reach, Marnik was just able to grab onto the lowest limb and haul himself up. Then the others cleared out of the way as he took his long knife to two of the leaves and let them drop to the rock below.
His knife followed, leaving the same trail of vapor as the Magister’s hand as the sap melted its metal away.
The others waited while he squirmed down the limb away from where he’d cut the leaves, then he lowered himself down to his fingertips and dropped to the rock below.
“Easy day,” he said with a grin.
Twenty minutes later, after wrapping the leaves as thickly as they could, they were making their way back down the not-staircase that spiraled the peak.
They made town a week and a half later, to a fanfare of happiness and excitement. After several days of work analyzing the leaves and developing a treatment, the healers gave the Lord a dose that everyone prayed would cure his ailment.
Their prayer’s came true, though Magister Crowley never regained the use of his left hand.
The brothers remained in town for a week, and received accolades from the Chancellor as well as the other members of the party. When they finally left to head back to their father’s house, they each had no less than four maidens waiting breathlessly for them to return and call on them. And, almost as good, large sacks full of silver as reward for their deeds.
But all that was nothing compared to the warmth of their father’s greeting, and the mixture of pleasure at seeing them and utter pride in their endeavors on his face when he embraced each of them in turn.
A collection of Michael Kingswood’s published stories are available here: