“I speak for the trees,” the man replied. He wasn’t dressed in the leathers and pelts that most Cedrians wore on their day to day activities. Instead, he was clad in what almost looked like a suit of wooden armor. It fit his form perfectly, and he couldn’t see any links in the armor, which defied what little he knew of how plate was worn. What’s more, he couldn’t see much of his skin, but his face was covered in tattoos. He was too far away to read them all, and indeed some of them he couldn’t even recognize, but on his forehead, the tattoos of identity read ‘Spirit’, ‘Forest’, and ‘Speaker’.
“You can’t be,” the boy drew in a sharp gasp, almost too scared to breathe. “The Whispers of the Forest,” he murmured. “The founder of Cedria. Lord Archon Cedrine!” As he spoke that last honorific he dropped to his knees, bowing as low as he physically could.
“Your respect is falsely won, young Tender.” The man smiled, a warm, gentle sign of respect. “Bow not to a man that has not earned your love.”
“But you’re the King of the Forest! The Walker of Two Paths!” Tasuneke stood tentatively, trying to muster the courage to stop trembling before the man. “You created the Xal Deer Sea during the Archon War! I dare not offend a god such as you.”
“Assuming I am the Archon Cedrine,” he pondered. “But why bow to me? I am not your god, and you are not a patron of Cedrine. You bear the blood of Aluvair, the Blizzard of the North.”
“It is a Tender’s duty to uphold the heritage of Aluvair while retaining the ways of Cedria, Lord Archon,” he replied, eyes to the ground.
“I admire your spirit, but it seems you have already forgotten the lesson I have taught you. Hold your head up. You do not speak to a god this day.”
Tasuneke inclined his head, only making eye contact after he was sure it would put him at no risk. “You aren’t Cedrine?”
“What is your name, child?”
“Tasuneke. What is yours? If I may ask,” he added hastily.
“Well, Tasuneke. You may call me Rell. Allow me to teach you your second lesson.” He lowered Tulu, moving the bird to flutter to the ground below. He walked towards the boy with slow but long, graceful strides, the bird left to wander where it wished. “Your people have a way of forgetting the past and repeating the mistakes without learning the lessons. The Archons were not gods. At least, not at first. They were all ordinary men and women. In their time, the word ‘Archon’ was simply used to describe a council member that advised the king.”
“But they reshaped the world to suit their needs,” he replied, trying his best not to sound contradictory. The two started pacing a leisurely stroll around the glade. There were no vines snaking their way through the grass here, unlike the wild of the surrounding thicket.
“And shape they did,” Rell nodded. “But such words can be interpreted in several ways. But it would probably be more accurate to say that they reshaped themselves to suit the world’s needs.”
“I don’t think I understand,” Tasuneke said, brow furrowed.
“So I see. Perhaps I should present it a different way. Suppose a father wants his son to be great.”
“All fathers want their sons to be great,” he countered.
“Patience, young one. This father wants his son to be great, and gives the boy a path to follow that leads to this greatness.” He spoke, and ahead of them the leaves parted as if blown by a gentle wind, creating a clear path ahead of them as they walked. “The boy, however, didn’t wish to walk this path. He enjoyed his independence, and though the life his father chose for him would be a favorable one, it was not the life he wished for himself.” He gestured to the boy, indicating that he wanted Tasuneke to respond.
“So it was a matter of deciding between what he wanted and what his father wanted.” At that, the man nodded. Tasuneke knew how Rell wished him to respond. “The boy should probably follow the path his father wants him to take. As his elder and a more experienced person, his father would know best.”
Rell smiled. “But what about the boy’s happiness?”
“His son could probably be happy doing what his father wanted, in the end. It is important to respect the wishes of your elders.”
“You seem to have forgotten that when you decided to search for coal nuts instead of speaking with Nashoba first.”
“What?” Tasuneke’s breath caught in his throat, his cheeks flushing red instantly. “How could you possibly know about that?”
“The forest hears many whispers,” Rell laughed. “But that is not my lesson to teach. But in our story, if the boy had chosen the life he desired, he would never have found happiness.”
“For scorning his father’s wishes, his father would have disowned his son and quite possibly locked him away. The boy knew this, so instead, he walked down the path his father laid in place for him.”
“So the boy couldn’t be happy either way? Where is the wisdom in that?”
“You will find that it is a rare circumstance indeed that you are given a choice between the right and wrong. More often you are forced to decide between the more favorable of two distasteful options. Regardless, this is what the son chose. And, in time,” he trailed off.
They came to the end of the path, where the leaves no longer parted for their travel. At the end, there was a sword pointing out of the ground. A trim-blade, Tasuneke realized as he got closer. The guide gestured to it, so he pulled it out if the ground, thrilled to finally know what one felt like in his hands. The sword was heavier than it appeared, so with both hands he twisted the handle as he had seen Tenders do it to pull the sword apart into two, conjoined at the center of the blade like a pair of shears. With another twist, he twisted his wrists again and the trim-blade became two separate blades altogether, just as it was supposed to. It would snap back together if he did it right, but for now the two swords felt comfortable in his hands. He turned back to Rell, who was now facing him, the path stretching out behind them. He noticed as well that the branches of the starfall tree hung low here, some coal nuts just out of reach. He could conceivably use the swords to cut some down, but Rell stood between him and his objective.
“In time, after a long and arduous journey, our boy found the power his father wanted of him. In gaining this power, he was faced with another choice. He could take revenge on his father for denying his son a happy life, he could use this power to make a difference in the world, or reject it and turn back the way he came empty-handed.”
“There is no right choice here, is there?” Tasuneke asked.
“But there is a best one,” Rell said, smiling.
He knew this would be a trick like last time. He had to come up with something unexpected. What had Rell said before? The Archons reshaped themselves to suit the world’s needs. How could he change himself to get what he wanted?
“Yes?” he asked, expectant.
“I came down this path in search of coal nuts. I could force the tree to bend to my will using the trim-blade, but I think that’s a bad idea. Instead, I’ll go a more gentle route and simply ask. May I have some coal nuts for the ceremony?”
Rell thought about that for a moment. He looked up to the trees and the nuts within the reach of an adult’s height, then back down to Tasuneke. Suddenly, he burst out laughing. The three nearest coal nuts suddenly broke from their stems, falling to the ground, but their descent slowed midair, and they floated towards the boy as the swords he held in his hands dissipated. Tasuneke took them in one arm, holding them to his chest.
“You may consider your second lesson taught, and your journey nearly complete. As your reward for choosing wisely, I should like to show you something. Tell me, do you know why your people call this the red starfall tree?” Tasuneke shook his head. The place started to darken, the sky illuminated by the sunset dimming and turning gray. Above him, the leaves of the starfall still shone red, but the spaces in between lost their color.
Then, he heard rain. The soft patter of droplets began to sprinkle to the floor, mostly absorbed by the shelter of the leaves. It rained in his village, of course, but most of the rain trailed down the vines. He had heard once that some villages had to build drainage ditches, but it he had never seen such a structure. Rell was behind him, and he extended an outstretched hand to him. In one palm, he held an open flame. He held it forward, indicating that Tasuneke should take it. Holding the coal nuts close, he tentatively held his free hand out. Rell placed the flame in it. It didn’t burn, and instead it filled him with a comforting warmth. He hadn’t seen a single totem on Rell’s person. If these things he could do were products of magic, it was unlike anything Tasuneke had ever heard of, but this was no time for questions.
The rain started pouring harder, and soon a black drop of water fell in front of him, the reflection of the fire glistening off it and making the drop resemble a shooting star. It was followed by another, then another. Eventually, the water the leaves above had collected became too much for them to bear, spilling out and sending dozens upon dozens of shooting stars down to the ground below. Several water drops landed in the fire he held, but it burned strong. They hit him on the head, too, but he didn’t mind. This was a sight unlike anything he had ever seen. He unconsciously drew in a breath at the spectacle of hundreds of rain drops showering his field of vision.
After some time, the rain slowed. Rell placed his hand over Tasuneke’s palms, snuffing the flame out with a blank expression. “The black of the starfall leaves stains the rainwater,” he explained.
“Thank you, Rell,” he replied, bowing low and nearly dropping the nuts he held in the crook of one arm. “I will remember the things you have taught me. I should go before it gets dark.” Then, he turned to go back the way he had come.
“You seem to be forgetting something,” Rell called after him. Tasuneke turned to see Tulu on his arm once again. “I apologize for my impedance,” he said to the bird, almost too quietly to hear. “You’ll be of more use on your next task. For now, you may have one as well.” With that, he grabbed another coal nut, with his free hand this time, and held it to the faespawn, who grabbed it in its beak before leaping onto the ground and strolling back to Tasuneke.
“Oh! I almost forgot!” he called. “Was that boy real?”
Rell glanced back up to him. “The boy? Oh, yes, quite real. In fact many people must walk that same path. But that boy I referred to specifically was one of the Archons.”
Tasuneke nearly dropped his load again in astonishment. Rell had said the Archons were real people, but it was just so hard to believe. “Was that the real Cedrine?”
“No, no,” he smiled. “But his name isn’t what is important. It is the path he walked that you should remember, Tasuneke. Go now, the sun fades, and the wind speaks to me of an approaching darkness. Make haste.”