Outer Flower, 29

The Message: The Brand

“The flame said: The heavens spill stars while the underworld shakes. Below you, two ancient roads fall into place; soon they will harden into divergent paths. The time is coming, it is here at hand, when the immortal part of you can choose life or death. All those willing can choose life; all those wanting can choose death. Follow your path, but be wise. Life will taste as death, and death will beguile the eyes. And woe to him who seeks harm to the Tree.”

Oren finished and there wasn’t the slightest stirring. Whether he was aware of it or not, he’d delivered the message in exactly the same tone he’d heard it. The effect was mesmerizing. They all looked like they needed relief, but it was Oren who emptied the contents of the pitcher into his cup. He drained it, then rose, his right arm extended. “When the heat seared my hand, I felt my affinity with the forest shattered. I am now sworn to fight the enemies of the Tree as I once battled in forests and fields.”

William directed his gaze to Oren. “It that all?”

“Nearly,” Oren shrugged. “The light spoke one last time, telling me to return to my tribe and follow the instructions of the first man I met. I went down the mountain, dazed and weaponless, and met the Shautu. When he saw me, he said simply, “So it has begun,” and then instructed me to get some rest. Rest? How could I rest after what I’d just seen? But I did as I was told and entered my tent, awaking a day and a night later. Spring passed into summer, and another Protectra rose to take my place. I was at a loss until a few weeks ago when the Shautu came to me with a feather and a rolled parchment and told me to travel to Casoria and present them to the High King. I have done that and more. The story was mine alone to give.” Now, he rose, looking first at William, then at each Skyll. “As is this.”

Oren opened his fist, revealing his palm. William turned even paler, if possible, what little color the wine had given him fleeing from his face. He stared as if seeing a long forgotten brother, a mirror image, or his past. Ondred leaned over and gasped. The others crowded around while the Hunter stood with his palm extended, a great patient mastiff examined by a pack of hounds. Later, they would explain away their behavior, even Elymas, in slightly embarrassed tones.

It wasn’t that they were concerned with what the mark had been. For in the center of Oren’s palm rested, not an object, but a shape. Clearly and unmistakable branded with the same complexity that edged the scars earned in the Deep, was an imprint of the Outer Flower — with one slight variation.

The fabled blossom of the Tree of Life had been sharpened into a star of war.

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