A Vine Entwines Them

A Vine Entwines Them”

by Geoff Gander

Hyrmor pressed the point of his father’s blade against the bound witch’s throat, his face a taut mask of calm. “Dilana, Witch of Lhamar, do you yield your lands to me?” His bloodied and travel-stained men ringed them in weary silence, staring at the tableau with haunted eyes. Hardly a man among them could not count a friend of loved one lost on the long march, or the battle just ended. I may be king, but in this I am like them, he thought.

She held his gaze and smiled. Green eyes twinkled through strands of hair that coiled like crimson vines. “We are born of the Vale and the Vale lives in us. It was here before us, and will endure long after you. It is not mine to give—nor yours to take.”

“So be it.” Hymor twisted and slid the blade. Her life’s blood burst forth and streamed down her pale green robe like a crimson waterfall as she tumbled to the ground. Her dimming eyes settled on a young warrior barely out of boyhood, clutching his unbloodied blade. She smiled, and lay still.

Hyrmor smiled and took another swig of plundered wine. Notes of citrus and honey soothed a throat abraded by the dust of a long journey. “It was a good campaign, my friend,” he said, “and now all of this”—he swept an arm in a broad arc across the camp, the dark forests encircling it, and the hazy, blue hills that overshadowed everything—“is ours.”

Skerrit nodded slowly and sipped his wine. He shifted his weight in his folding camp chair, straightening his bandaged leg slowly. The latest wound added to an already large collection. If Hyrmor’s grizzled aide-de-camp was in pain, he didn’t show it. “The entire vale will fall under the plough. Your father would be proud… and jealous of you for doing what he could not.”

Hyrmor savoured a long pull. He would order his attendant, Kalasun, to commandeer another barrel, and another to ensure the boy took some for himself. Any warrior who survived a battle—even a mere boy fighting his first—deserved plunder. “My father rallied our people when they lost everything, and kept them alive during the years that followed. He was more a king than I am.” But even the mightiest warrior could not hold back an advancing desert. His father had led his wandering people for most of his broken, adult life—their old life, their old world, their old struggles. “Tomorrow we start to rebuild. But tonight, let the men celebrate.” Bubbles of raucous laughter erupted from the fires of his encamped army as they ate and drank their fill from the vanquished witches’ stores.

“Don’t you find it odd that we won so easily?” asked Skerrit. “They seemed to just give up, in the end.”

“They knew their cause was lost. Some escaped, but the Witches are no more.” It was too bad the remaining defenders had poisoned themselves rather than be captured. Hyrmor would never forget coming upon their lifeless forms in the sacred groves, peacefully smiling and surrounded by luscious grapevines. He would have liked to learn how they made their renowned wine, coveted but rarely shared with outsiders. He had never tasted such refreshing sweetness, nor had he felt the aches and pains of travel wash away so quickly. The vines would be preserved, and perhaps someday his dream of putting down his sword to raise grapes, of growing old on a peaceful throne surrounded by grandchildren—something his father had never known—would come true.

“We still need to be watchful,” murmured Skerrit. “The forests are thick and dark, and there’s no way of knowing who, or what, is out there.”

“The forests will fall soon enough,” said Hymor as he tossed aside the empty bottle and opened a second. “Their trunks will become the roof beams of many a hall—including yours.”

Skerrit drained the last of his bottle and waved away another. “I wish I had your optimism. There must be a reason why the Vale of Lhamar endured so long despite its small size, and why your father never took our people here.”

Hymor’s laugh was echoed by the soldiers around the distant fires. “The Witches were powerful and we lost many good men, I grant you that. Dilana’s empty threat that the land would outlast us was a joke. Did the trees stop me from killing her?” He gestured to the small pyramids of felled trees that already ringed the camp. “Old magic is no match for determination and good steel.” He narrowed his eyes. “Or would you have me keep leading our starving people to their deaths?”

Skerrit shook his head. “We have lost so much and did what was necessary. But we know too little—”

Hyrmor stood, glaring. “You worry too much. You served my family well, but it is good that this was your last campaign.” He closed his eyes. Skerrit had been his father’s advisor for more than two decades, and had trained him in the use of a sword. He couldn’t blame the man for trying to look out for him, even now. “I understand,” he said gently. “The Witches drew their power from the land and lived beyond normal spans. We destroyed their altars and felled the central trees in their groves. Whatever ties their spirits might have to the vale, are now broken. We are safe.” He drained a good measure of his bottle.

Skerrit straightened in his chair and surveyed the camp. “The sentries should have changed over by now.”

Hyrmor shrugged. “Probably having a good time like the rest of the men. Or picking a plot of land to settle.”

Frantic stomping in the grass and a muffled curse cut through their conversation. The boy, Kalasun—young man, the warlord corrected himself—staggered into the firelight, whose luminescence glittered in his wide eyes, and made a clumsy bow. His haunted look and quivering frame silenced the gentle jibe on Hyrmor’s lips. “My lord,” sputtered Kalasun, “the sentry post and woodcutters’ camp are…are…” His lips wrestled to form words that would not come.

“Under attack?” asked Hyrmor. “By whom?”

Kalasun blinked and shook his head. “Not people…. things. They were our men and then they weren’t and they all screamed and—”

Hyrmor slapped Kalasun’s face, spinning him sideways towards the fire. Skerrit darted forward and grabbed him before he could fall in. “Speak sense! If this is a joke I’ll—”

Sudden screams from the camp cut through Hyrmor’s tirade. A soldier at the nearest campfire jerked upright—not at attention, but stretched as though being pulled by invisible hooks. Muscles bunched and corded under his flesh and his hands curled like the gnarled branches of an ancient tree. The man tore at himself as though trying to rip out the source of his pain, but his arms swung stiffly and battered companions who tried to help him.

 The man’s scream turned into a blood-curdling wail as something long and bony burst from his side, thickening and darkening in seconds into a tree branch. Other screams began erupting elsewhere in the camp.

 A moan escaped Kalasun’s lips. “It’s happening here! My lord, we must—”

“What was taken, shall be returned.” said Hyrmor. He stopped himself and returned the shocked expressions of the other two. “That wasn’t what I wanted to say.”

The first screaming man was now riddled with branches. His shattered armour fell away and his flesh stretched and tore until it burst open like the peel of an overripe fruit, revealing a bloodied young oak that was already stretching towards the night sky. Other glistening trees were sprouting all over the camp amid a rising din of screams and shouts.

Skerrit clutched his stomach and bolted towards the small chest where he carried a store of healing herbs. He jerked to a halt, rooted to the ground by his left foot. He yanked, and screamed as his foot cleared the ground by a few inches, held fast by bloody roots sprouting from his heel. He unhooked his axe from his belt and drew back, preparing through gritted teeth to free himself. His arm froze in mid-swing, straining against an invisible force. His flesh rippled and split as branches erupted from his elbow and shoulder. “End it,” he gasped, blinking back tears.

Hyrmor nodded. Whatever sorcerous trap the witches had laid, his friend and mentor would not suffer long. He drew his father’s blade, and saluted. “May your next life be bountiful, old friend.”

He swung the heirloom of his house in a broad arc, putting as much strength and focus into the blow as he could to make the cut powerful and steady. Skerrit wouldn’t have time to notice the sword cutting through his neck before he died. The blade closed in and Hyrmor felt his arms and grip shift, as though guided by other hands. He tensed his shoulders and heaved against the burgeoning weight that drove the blade downwards. His hands locked around the hilt and plunged the blade deep into the mossy ground. Hyrmor bit back a gasp of surprise and tugged the sword. The ground held it as fast as stone.

“It has you too,” said Kalasun in a small voice.

Skerrit screamed and exploded in a crimson rain of shredded flesh and bone. A maple sapling stood in his place, growing taller and wider. The stirrings of revulsion faded as quickly as they rose in Hyrmor’s stomach. Why do I feel so calm?

“We destroyed their altars, their trees,” said Hyrmor shakily. He blinked and swallowed. His voice sounded softer. He looked down as his tingling hands. The calluses from years of hard labour and fighting were fading while his fingers lengthened and narrowed. He cautiously reached up and traced a smooth, gentle jawline.

Kalasun backed away, his haunted eyes locked on Hyrmor, and he vanished behind a curtain of red hair that coiled like crawling vines. Hyrmor brushed it aside with a shaking hand and looked at the now-silent camp—forest, now, filled with sturdy oaks, yews, and maples with massive, moss-covered trunks that soaked up the remaining rivulets of blood from their hosts. The Sisters stood among the reborn trees, unbowed and unbroken, shedding the remnants of their bodies’ former owners like insects that had outgrown their carapaces. Warm contentment rose in a breast no longer his.

Dilana stretched her spirit, seized the flickering remnant of Hyrmor deep within her, and doused it. Unbowed and unbroken. Like me.

She released her grip on the invader’s blade, already rusting and crumbling. The land would need it, and more, to heal itself of the wounds Hyrmor and his men had inflicted. She turned to the cowering boy, held his trembling gaze, and smiled. A diminished flame of youthful innocence still burned within in him. She suspected that was why he had not bloodied his blade in the attack, nor joined in the festivities. There was hope for him. “Go back to your people over the border hills and tell them what has happened,” she said gently. “Any who submit to our ways may come and live in peace under the boughs.” She removed Hyrmor’s moss-encrusted helmet and tossed it to the wide-eyed boy.

Dilana turned away as the boy scampered off. The message would be sent. Whether or not his people came on her terms—the terms of the Vale, whose will she and her Sisters served—was left to fate. She entered a grove that had already overgrown the crude campsite the invaders had cleared and caressed a grapevine twining gracefully around a carefully-pruned oak, spared the axe by Hyrmor’s order. She plucked a reddening grape and savoured its tartness. The blood of the invaders would make a fine vintage. As the Vale had given to her and her Sisters, so would they give in return—linked by the vines that were their living sacrament, celebrated in the wine that was their lifeblood.

As it had been for ages… and would continue for ages more.


Geoff Gander is a fiction and roleplaying game writer who lives south of Ottawa, Canada with a lovely stone-carving, editorial witch and her many cats. His horror and dark fiction has appeared in Tesseracts, Exile Editions, Third Flatiron Publishing, and The NoSleep Podcast, among others. His gaming goodness has been published by Gallant Knight Games and Sentinel Hill Press. When he isn’t working a day job (the true horror) or writing, Geoff likes meandering Sunday drives, turning his yard into a farm, playing roleplaying games, and building rustic furniture.

He can be found on social media under the handle “@GeoffGander”.

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