The next chapter; thanks to everyone who's commented, it means a lot. I managed to bash this out today while sat in the Barbican, London; it's a really interesting space, coffee nearby and small tables in the carpeted area. Lots of people there today as it's Bank Holiday Monday!
Abruptly, Victor turned and grabbed hold of Trip’s arm. “We should not be here,” he ground out. Trip struggled against the iron grip but could not break free, stumbling as they walked back to the field gate.
Victor was grim-faced as he resheathed his sword.
“What was in there?” Trip asked.
“Dead bodies. All of ‘em, dead.” Victor held up his hand to forestall Trip’s next question. “They’re all dead, not a man of ‘em will be gettin’ up to feed the animals. Most not in one piece, if’n you must know.”
“Maybe it was one of those plant men?”
“Maybe,” Victor replied, “and maybe it wasn’t. Whichever, we’re movin’.”
“We should bury them.” Trip frowned, then looked out over the field. “Then we should free the animals.”
“Now look ‘ere, lad.” Victor was pointing to something further up the valley. “Best thing we can do fer ‘em is go to Deep Round and let ‘em know somethin’ happened. They can come ‘ere, tend to their dead, better’n we will.” He dropped his arm and started to walk towards the settlement.
With one last look back at the farmhouse, Trip walked back onto the road, the pack weighing him down with every step.
Two hours walking brought them to the outskirts of town and, for a short while at least, Trip was able to put the horrors of the farmhouse behind him. He walked down the streets, the huge buildings causing him to gasp in admiration.
Victor looked down at him with an odd expression. “Shut yer mouth, boy, you’ll catch flies. Anyone’d think you’d not seen a town before.”
“I haven’t,” Trip replied. “I was brought to the monastery as a baby and I’ve lived there all my life.” Fire flashed across his memory again and he closed his eyes tightly. “I had lived there, I mean. Until…”
“Victor Junn, as I live and breathe!” An enormous man had approached, unseen, wearing a fur-trimmed robe and a tricorne. “Been a long time!”
“Mmm,” Victor said, then looked more closely at the man. He cleared his throat. “Mayor Johnson,” he said, a little more formally.
“Alf, please; you’ve done so much for us in the past,” the man said, slapping Victor on the back and laughing.
Trip stared up at him, amazed that he was still on his feet. Beneath the golden trimming of his hat the mayor was sporting a black eye and looked like he was missing a tooth; as well as that, one of his arms was held at an odd angle, as if it had been broken and reset badly. The smile on his face seemed genuine, though, and he hobbled around quite happily on feet that seemed damaged beneath the sturdy leather boots he wore.
“You keepin’ well?” Victor asked carefully.
“Never better!” the Mayor replied. “The whole town is doing so very well at the moment!” He swept his arm as if to encompass the entire scene before them.
At first sight the town had swept Trip away with its grand buildings and bustling streets. Now he stopped and looked closer, taking in the many boarded-up windows, the doors off their hinges, the piles of debris being diligently swept up by townsfolk. Broken chairlegs, chunks of table, chipped knives; if the damage to the furniture was widespread, so to was the damage to the people. Every person Trip saw had some sort of injury and he winced as he took a long look around. A man fixing a broken window was missing two fingers; the two women with their brooms out sweeping up the debris had bruises all up their arms and one was walking stiffly; the grocer, laying his wares out in front of his stall, seemed to be missing an eye and the butcher’s head was bandaged with rusty-coloured linen, wisps of hair sticking out at all angles.
“Had any trouble? Bandits, wild animals, the like?” Victor asked, eyes narrowed. Trip tugged on his arm gently.
“No no, no trouble at all,” Mayor Johnson replied. “What can I do for you? What brings you here?”
Victor shrugged. “Takin’ the boy to Rootholme.”
Mayor Johnson peered down at Trip. “Is he… is he yours?”
Jerking back in surprise, Victor said “Mine? What makes you think-“
“Pleasure to meet you, young man,” the Mayor said, holding his hand out. Trip shook it gently, avoiding looking at the scratches that covered the back of the man’s hand.
Mayor Johnson nodded and drew himself up. “I’m sure you can avail yourselves of food at the inn and there’s mounts to purchase at the stables; you’ll want to get on quickly, of course. Night time’s no time to be in town or out travelling.”
“We brought news as well. Whole family dead out at the farm.” Victor thumbed the air back in the direction they’d come. “Not sure what did it; lookin’ like wild animals.”
Frowning, Mayor Johnson said “The… farm, yes, we, we knew about the farm. There was something unusual about it…” He looked up as if trying to remember something, then towards the centre of town. When he turned back, his expression was solemn. “Of course, the farm; we will make the appropriate arrangements. I must be away, gentlemen.” With that, he pushed between them, heading directly for a small group of people trying to remount a door.
“This ain’t right,” Victor murmured, “ain’t right at all.”
Trip looked around at the untidy street. “He said he knew about the farm; if they knew about it, why haven’t they done anything about it?”
“Could be scared. Might not know. Might’ve lied. Who knows? S’not our business, boy. We’re bound for the stable. This town owes me.”
Trip grinned suddenly. “I remember a story about Deep Round! One of yours… you fought a Giant at the top of a huge tower, and afterwards the Mayor of the town promised you riches and you turned him down. You said ‘I could never take from you more than you have to give; your thanks is all that I need,’ and you rode off on your horse.” As he spoke, the scene unfolded in his eye, suddenly given life and colour through meeting the Mayor and seeing the town. “The tower must have been destroyed in the fight,” he finished.
“You remember an awful lot, kid. Anyone ever tell you that?” Victor began to walk towards the centre of town. Ahead, a large building came into view, like most Church buildings U-shaped and partly open to the sky. The walls were the same height all the way around and, through the open section, several branches were swaying in the slight breeze.
“I should go to the church,” Trip said as they passed it. “I’ll only be a few minutes.”
“I’m not waitin’,” Victor replied, barely slowing his pace. “Be at the stables, five minutes.”
Trip watched him go, then took a breath and walked through the church’s archway.
Inside the air smelled like greenery and old books; the room was large, well-lit thanks to the open-air section at the curved end and seemed completely empty. Trip removed his sandals and set them to one side, the stone floor cold at first as he set his aching feet down.
Moving between lines of pews, Trip looked carefully around. Everything seemed normal here; the windows had all their glass, the books were neatly stacked in their shelves at each corner and the tree itself was firmly rooted at the far end, protected by the rounded walls.
It grew out of the earth, the flagstones ending in a circle around it and giving way to bare ground. Uncountable green leaves swayed in the breeze interspersed with pinkish-white blossom.
Trip bowed his head for a moment. It wasn’t the One Tree, of course, just a branch of it; a sapling culled from the Arbour, brought here when the town was founded and cared for since by the Church. Nevertheless, Trip remembered the long history lessons and books absorbed in one reading, each one telling him that the Arbour was a living avatar of life in Lyria, in all Ehrian.
“Marvellous, isn’t it,” came a high voice behind him. Startled, Trip abandoned the prayer halfway through and turned to find a tall thin man in a brown robe. On his brow he wore a circlet of gold, apparently his only adornment.
“Ah, forgive me; I didn’t mean to startle you, young one. Evidently you are part of the Church?” The man raised one eyebrow and came to stand next to Trip.
Trip nodded, then performed a short bow. “Trip, of the Order of the Leaves, Father…?”
“Blessings of the One Tree upon you, Trip of the Order of the Leaves. I am Father Liam.”
“Blessings upon you, Father Liam.” The ritual greeting completed, Trip straightened up and looked back at the tree. “Your branch of the Arbour is strong, Father. I’m glad to see that.”
“You speak as if you’ve lost something, young one. What is troubling you?”
Images of fire leapt up in Trip’s mind again. “You haven’t heard here in Deep Round, then. The Order of the Leaves is gone, attacked by…” Trip began, then suddenly recalled the chaos outside. “…By something. Have you had any trouble here, Father?”
The monk turned to face the tree. “The Arbour keeps us safe. There are wild things on the loose at night; you would do well to stay away from here at night. If you must stay in the town, lock your room at night.”
Trip studied Father Liam’s face. The man had not a scratch on him, no sign of damage at all. Noticing that the man’s eyes had slid sideways, Trip blushed at being caught staring and turned to look at the tree. A few leaves had gathered where a root met another, twisting and twining up to the trunk which soared over his head. Trip bent and picked one up. It was teardrop shaped, fit neatly into his palm and had turned brown, becoming fragile. Trip turned the leaf over and over, certain he had never seen one like it.
“Ah, some small animal has evidently made its nest in the tree again; I will have to chase it down,” said Father Liam, reaching out and taking the leaf from Trip’s hand. “No worry. Vermin are easy to deal with.”
“But animals don’t…” Trip began, then realised that he was talking to himself; Father Liam had already wandered over to a small door near the entrance and was rummaging through what appeared to be a storage cupboard.
“Animals don’t nest in the trees,” Trip muttered, “And leaves don’t fall from them.”
Trip bowed his head and finished his prayer; when his eyes opened, he found himself staring at the small pile of dead leaves on the ground. Despite the sunlight, a chill ran through him.