Iron Age Short Story of the week
Iron Age Media put out the call for weekly submissions based on their chosen prompts, and this week I’ve decided to answer the summons!
Once in an age, the rot set in to the bones of our world.
It was our tribe’s season on the vast Plain of Rebirth, and so when the first of Grandfather’s leaves fell from the 3057th bough-line, we knew it was time.
“Time to go! Flatfoot! Come on!” Three Arm, the nightdrummer, called to me.
I had just laid down to sleep the afternoon away in our longhouse, moccasins and shirt off, tossed on the end of the bed. The light was silver with approaching storm and its dimness made my eyelids droop.
“What’s the rush?” I complained. There was no need for either of us at the Unleashing.
“Handheart expects us,” Three Arm insisted. “That’s reason enough.”
The old man’s ire would be troublesome, I supposed. It was worth skipping today’s nap so as not to be punished with extra work during tomorrow’s. I sprang impatiently out of bed to underscore my distaste, but Three Arm just rolled his eyes. Feet shod, I followed the sprightly drummer out the door as I slipped my shirt back on.
Our longhouse was one in a row near the dropoff at Plain’s edge. Its bold red and black painted stripes stood starkly against the grey cloud of the drop. Three Arm had left his drum by the door and snatched it up as we left, slung its strap over shoulder and chest.
“He wants you to play?” I asked.
“Yeah, he thinks it will aid the Growth,” said Three Arm.
Daydrummers should have been enough for that, I thought, but Three Arm was the best in our tribe. We passed the cookhouse and the barracks, the tall Hunter’s Home, and beyond Sky Father’s temple to the empty plain. The short, tough grass was wet and cool with moisture dripped from the boughs above. We had to skirt the longhouse-sized fallen leaf of Grandfather, already browning, and then we were on the path to the tree we called the Child.
Many others were already gathered there - priests and tenders, drummers and gophers like me. All those needed and any who simply wished to attend. The priests sang a song in their many-throated voices, words snatched by the breeze preceding the storm, squashed beneath the pounding drums. The Child’s leaves rustled with youthful vigor. Even I could tell that it was ready for Growth. And none too soon.
“Boys, how nice of you to attend,” called Handheart.
The old priest’s robes were a brighter orange than I’d ever seen them. He must have been excited for the ritual. My more cynical self said it was less excitement and more that after today, he would be allowed to retire to Elder’s Home.
“We wouldn’t dream of sleeping through a moment like this,” I said, and he looked at me askance.
“Join the line?” Three Arm asked, and Handheart gestured him to do so. The daydrummers nodded as my friend came alongside. I couldn’t help but sway to their hypnotic rhythms.
But I stilled when Handheart approached me. There was a conspiratorial look on his face.
“Flatfoot. I sense you wished to sleep rather than attend,” he said near my ear. “Are you unwell?”
“You didn’t have to sense it, Elder,” I said cooly. “You know this is my naptime.”
Handheart tensed and I shut my eyes in advance of the slap. It didn’t come. He let out a growling breath.
“Despite your role in today’s Growth,” he said, “you did not wish to witness it?”
“Oh, I had forg—”
He cut me off. “Don’t tell me you forgot. No one forgets such a thing, Flatfoot.”
I clamped my mouth shut.
“The women approach,” he said, and indeed I heard their ululations now. “Cease your dancing and do not speak until the end of the ritual. Understood?”
Handheart always preferred verbal affirmations, so I merely nodded. His lips went flat but he turned and rejoined the other old men. I spun to watch the girls arrive.
All Leafdew women look good in motion as they weave and bob and sing, but my gaze belonged to Spright most of all. Firefly’s daughter was as hard to pin down as myself - no one’s first pick but mine. Her long red hair fluttered on the breeze and I caught her jade gaze for an intoxicating moment. Did she smile?
I wanted to move with her, dance whatever dance came to me, but I had tested Handheart enough today. If he got fed up with me, I might be ‘witnessing’ the rest of the ritual through my eyelids.
The women’s song joined the priests’ and the drummers led a feverish crescendo. A long wail of extended harmony arose, and crashed down into sudden silence. It was only a moment before Handheart’s dual-throated litany filled the void.
“Long has it been since the Leafdew have drawn our lot on the Plain of Rebrith,” he sang. “Since we released the spirit of one of our own from the roots of a Child to Grow into the next age of our world.”
A heartily sung cheer celebrated his words.
“And the honor of Flatfoot, and Longfoot his father, in meeting again at this Plain is a thing that may never yet have happened to any tribe,” the elder sang.
Green eyes flashed in my peripheral. I caught Spright’s look and smile but averted my gaze.
“Now we sing the song of release,” chanted Handheart. “Now we usher in the birth of the 3058th bough-line!”
The tribe’s cheer rang out and Grandfather’s leaves waved happily to us from above. His mighty growth would finally terminate, and this sproutling before us would carry all tribes ever upward through the next age.
Handheart launched into the song and everyone followed along in vigorous call and response. When the Child’s branches seemed to sway along, I could no longer restrain my own movement. Spright saw me and giggled as she sang. The elders were too absorbed in the ritual to reprimand me with cold looks.
With a crescendo of drum and song, the Child tree shivered, a ripple of golden light ran from roots to twigs and its quiet tension was released.
But no white flowers bloomed, trunk and limb did not stretch and groan. Nothing that lore dictated should happen, did.
The women broke into tense, hushed whispers, the elders immediately began bickering, and the priests rushed to the tree to inspect it. My heart seized up, my hands began to shake, and sand filled my veins.
No, this couldn’t be. Father…
Just as the gravity of the moment crushed my mind, Handheart spun and stomped toward me.
“What did you do wrong!?” he hissed into my ear. His ire couldn’t be hidden, but at least he wasn’t bellowing at me in front of everyone. “Did you skip part of the ritual?”
“No, Handheart, I…” I stammered. His eyes terrified me. If I told him the truth, he would toss me off the edge of the Plain and I might plunge a thousand years or more before I died.
“You never studied!” he growled. “This is why you, son of the great Longfoot, are only a gopher, and a layabout one at that. If you had only paid attention when I trained you —”
“No, elder, I…” I couldn’t tell him. But I couldn’t not tell him. He might kill me either way. And if he didn’t, someone else might. I took a deep breath and willed my stomach not to vomit. “I made no mistakes, I’m sure of it. I followed the ritual to the letter.”
“Then how…” an idea dawn on him and somehow I knew he’d gotten it right.
He left me and rushed back to the circle of elders and priests. Spoke to them in hushed tones. Eyes flicked toward me, then to the tree. When Handheart called for someone to bring shovels, I broke out in a sweat and nearly fainted. He knew.
No time passed, but the shovels appeared. The hole was dug carefully, attempting to avoid disturbance of the Child’s roots. They dug in the right place first, then all around the full circle, wanting to be sure I’d not made a mistake. All the while my jaw was locked shut. I couldn’t have confessed if I’d wanted to.
There were no bones. Longfoot, my father, who I had been responsible for the midnight sacrifice and burial of, was not there.
No man of any tribe in all the ages of our world had failed in their task of fertilizing the Rebirth. I knew this was true now, for Grandfather would not hover so accusingly above me had any previous Growth been cut off.
The elders uttered a dissonant mourning wail and the women joined them. The drummers did not play. Spright’s tearful face regarded me as if I’d betrayed her, and Three Arm would not look at me at all.
Handheart started for me again, drawing a long, sharp bone knife from his belt. He got in my face rather than stabbing me to death right away, and screamed, “What did you do with his body? How did you mess up the ritual?”
I stammered. He still didn’t get it. Only fear of the bone blade’s point awoke my voice.
“I - I didn’t sacrifice him, elder,” I said. His anger morphed into shock and his trembling eyes grew red. “I couldn’t.”
Something hard hit my skull and I crumpled to the ground, conscious but reeling. I didn’t hear Handheart moving away but soon he was speaking with the others elders again. They argued, cursed me, came to a decision. Handheart returned.
He grabbed me by the throat and forced me to look him in the eye.
“They call for your death, Flatfoot,” he hissed. “And they are right to do so. My rage begs me to end you here, for you, alone, have doomed every tribe to a slow fate of starvation and pestilence.”
I started to weep. I couldn’t kill Father, that was all there was to it. They had chosen the wrong sacrifice, the wrong acolyte. I hadn’t believed that it mattered, and I had been terribly, terribly wrong.
“Perhaps,” said Handheart, “if we offer you to the Sky Father, he will have mercy and stave off Grandfather’s decay until a new sacrifice is chosen by the Child. That is all we can hope for.”
But it wasn’t. I could hardly will myself to speak. Yet this was the death of one over the death of many…
“I know where Father is,” I said.
Handheart seemed to ponder this. Would the Child still accept him? He dropped me to the ground and bellowed, “Prepare an expedition! We will retrieve Longfoot, and beg for mercy!”
Everyone launched into motion, without question, without complaint. Without any such fatal flaw as my own.
The trek wasn’t terribly far, all told. After all, the night of sacrifice had been on the Plain those seven years before, and I’d had only the five days of solitude to take Father to his place of rest.
No good Leafdew father would have permitted such a heresy of course, but my father had been simple for years by then, having fallen between bough-lines one harvest and broken his neck. His body healed, miraculously enough, but his mind was never the same. It was an easy thing to convince him to follow me to the hollow I had in mind, and there Grandfather had provided naturally everything even a simple man needed to go on living.
Three times since then the seasons had placed our tribe within range of the hollow during the week of my Heart Journey, and I’d taken advantage of the freedom and solitude to go visit him. He was much the same each time, but quickly aging and perhaps less aware of who I was. It was disturbing, but I consoled myself with knowing he was still alive at least.
The expedition party was made up of several strong young men, myself, plus Three Arm to ward away the night haints. Handheart insisted on coming too, though he did slow us down.
It took half a day to find a vine ford that would take us down to the next bough-line, and two days after that to wind around Grandfather’s trunk to the hollow. Though I’d harbored fears and guilt, I was convinced that the expedition was not cursed when we suffered only one attack by red-eyed hangtails and came out unscathed.
Relief brought a tear to my eye when the gnarled bough guarding Father’s hollow came into view, and there was smoke rising from inside the permanent camp. I ran ahead of the group and reached the hollow first. Father’s attendant gnome had always been shy and distrustful - I saw him flee from the camp and disappear between folds of bark.
“Father!” I cried, and heard a grunt of confusion from within the hole in Grandfather’s trunk. On the flat of bough outside, Father’s carefully controlled cookfire burned in its clay stove. He’d kept up filling the emberguard pool around it, and the camp was in fine shape altogether.
But he squinted at me when he emerged, and it was several moments before the light of recognition lit his eyes.
“Flatfoot?” he said, voice gravelly with disuse.
I ran to him for a hug instead of answering.
“Father, it’s good to see you,” I said.
However confused he might be, the affection was contagious and he hugged me back. When we parted he was smiling.
“What you doing here, Flatfoot?” he asked. My smile melted.
“I… I made a mistake,” I said.
Handheart scoffed over my shoulder. I hadn’t heard him arrive.
“More than a mistake, I’d say,” said the elder. “Longfoot, it’s good to see you. We thought you were, uh, dead.”
Father scrunched up his eyebrows.
“Why dead?” he asked.
Handheart’s visage shifted from awkwardness to concern. He looked me in the eyes but I had to turn away.
“The ritual, Longfoot,” said the elder. “Don’t you remember?”
“Oh is it time for that already?” my father asked. “Who was chosen this year?”
Now Handheart was entirely at a loss for words. He pulled me back from Father and spoke close to my ear.
“I didn’t know he had gotten this bad,” he said.
“It’s worse since the last time I visited,” I whispered. Father watched us sharing secrets, unconcerned. “But even before I… let him go, he didn’t want anyone knowing, so I helped him hide it. Riddles, exercises, memory tinctures - all that.”
Handheart regarded me like he’d never really known me.
“This is why you didn’t —”
I cut him off, “I never could have fed Father to the roots. I didn’t believe. The Child chose wrong.”
Anger flashed over the elder’s face but he mastered it quickly. “The Child does not choose wrongly.” He turned back to Father.
“Longfoot, it’s time to come home,” he said.
Father frowned. “But I so love it here. Uilili keeps me cozy. He will miss me dearly.”
“The gnome,” I spoke sidelong to Handheart. I could sense his patience slipping. His jaw was tenser by the moment.
“Longfoot, the Child chose…” he began.
“Me,” I interjected. “I - I wanted to come say goodbye.”
“Oh, son,” Father breathed. “Well I suppose we Dewleaf must answer the call if it comes. I will miss your visits, Flatfoot.”
“Me too, Father,” I said, reassuring him with a smile. Inside my guts roiled. “But I will be in the tree of the next age, right? So I won’t be far.”
I’d never believed it. I hardly did now. And yet, I had shirked my duty to the tribe, to our world, kept my Father for myself and denied the hunger of the roots, and the Child had refused to Grow. The Tree that sustained us had heard my challenge, and defied me.
My proclamation to Father was more than just a gust of wind. I meant it. Should the Child accept me in his stead, I would pass into the Tree with honor. Had we brought Father back and had I performed the Ritual as intended, I would still be tossed from the boughs. How long would I fall before my body gave up its ghost?
Sudden inspiration lit up Father’s face.
“Wait here!” he said, “I think I have something for you.” He turned and strode easily back toward his comfy hovel.
The elder clamped a hand on my shoulder. “What you propose is not unheard of, Flatfoot, if rare. You know that the Child may not accept you, do you not?”
“I know,” I said.
“And if not you, then —”
“Then my heir,” I affirmed. It was a risk. But if the Child and I were to test each other in this, then let it be a test.
Handheart looked thoughtful. “We will have to linger on the Plain. And we will be years late initiating the Growth.”
“But that’s not unheard of either,” I said. “Saplight tribe was fourteen years late in the fourth age, when a plague took the sacrifice and all but the youngest of his descendants.”
“So you were paying attention in your lessons,” Handheart said.
“Sometimes,” I quipped.
“You will need to find a mother, quickly,” he said.
Father returned. In his hand was a tiny pair of red leather shoes. Most likely hangtail hide.
“Uilili says you can have these for the little one,” said Father, handing me the tiny moccasins. “Lili likes you, did you know that?”
“Yes, you’ve told me before, Father.”
“Have I? Well good,” said Father. “Handheart, will you bring the boy to see me sometime? I would love to meet my grandson.”
The elder gave a sigh of longsuffering. “I will, Longfoot.”
“Will you be staying then? How many years until the Ritual?” Father asked.
“Not many,” I said. “I’d love to stay and visit, Father, but we —”
“We have to get back. Must prepare for Mosshunt tribe’s visit and all - you know how it is.”
Father just smiled as if he remembered. Maybe he did - it was always hard to tell what would stick and what would slip through the boughs.
I hugged Father and we bade each other farewell. Before I turned to follow Handheart out of the camp I caught the gleam of eyes in the shadowed hovel, and a little hand reaching up to wave goodbye.
So the gnome really did like me.
My wooing of Spright was far quicker than it would have been otherwise. Thinking about it on our return from Father’s camp, I had suspected this might be the case. She’d always been a zealot and a true believer. The honor of assisting me and our unborn son in completing the Ritual was not something she could pass up.
Our wedding was beautiful - far more extravagant than what I deserved or had any reason to expect. Spright was an excellent wife, and the love we made spawned new stars in the night sky.
When Uililio was five and I deemed him able to understand, I told him what had to be done. A weight sat in my gut as I watched his face. But he was more Spright’s progeny than mine, and did not balk at his responsibility.
“Okay Papa,” he said. “But… will you sharpen the knife for me? I… I don’t wanna hurt you too much.”
“I will sharpen it,” I told him. And I did.
The fated night came and I felt surety like the call of sleep. Perhaps the Child had foreseen this all in its deep-rooted wisdom. I couldn’t know. Or maybe it all had been as silly and pointless as I once thought, and whether the tree would grow or not was a bit of random chance. That kind of luck was why I never gambled.
At this point it didn’t matter. I was committed to the plan, and I was okay with it.
The priests and elders sang over us and the Child in the deep of night. Women never danced at the ritual, lest a man’s passions alter his mindset. I like to think I would have persevered in my mission even with my wife’s hips under my palms, but I suppose you can never be too careful with the fate of the world.
Handheart looked into me long and hard when the songs were done. What he saw convinced him, or seemed to, and he turned to lead the procession away. I would not have been surprised, though, to learn that he had been watching me and my son from the brush.
Uililio performed his duty admirably - I hardly felt a thing. The cold stars reached out to me, filled up my vision, and after an endless sleep in oblivion, I felt the growing warm embrace of heartwood.