There’s a face in the old oak tree.
Or so they say. All day long the people sneak off and go down to the coast to see it. They come back and gather in the doorways, whispering among one another, smelling of salt and the ocean. After the plague, there are more ghost stories than there are stars in the sky. But no one has an explanation for the face in the tree.
Sotiros has asked Panos to go riding with him down by the sea to look at it. He’s left King Thomas with his tutor for the rest of the afternoon, having already spent most of the morning trying to teach him the proper way to hold a sword. King Thomas, it’s said, abhors learning and shuts his mind to it all. But that’s not true–he just abhors Sotiros, because even at five years old he knows who really has power in Tamaris.
Outside, the air is crisp. Autumn has come and the trees are changing, taking their first blush and shaking off their coats so leaves drift into the streets. On days like these, everything is vivid: the scent of olives on the branches, the sound of the horse’s hooves clomping on the cobblestones, echoing through the silent town.
“We’re not safe here anymore.” Panos. He has come dressed for war. His scale armor is dented and there are gaps where plates are missing, but it still shines like quicksilver in the sun. The ax on his hip is a notched, brutal thing. To look upon it is to feel the unease of its purpose. The horse whinnies and trots off the path a moment, but Panos strokes her mane and she calms. “We can’t keep defending this place. Every day more Thanes show up.”
The words hang in the air a long moment. The empty houses on either side of the road look on, their blackened windows hanging open like hungry mouths, yearning for what we cannot give them: people to call this place a home. The hounds, lean with hunger, chase one another in the streets and tussle, their fur matted with dirt and grime.
“I know.” His voice suggests that no one knows better. A hawk circles overhead, dipping beneath the wisps of clouds, and Sotiros watches it as his horse carries him down the long, sloping path towards the gates. “But the king wants to stay. He wants to fight for Tira, and so do the others. And I can’t blame them.”
“They want to die for what’s left of Tira, you mean. The city is too big to hold.” The horses take the stone steps down into the agora, empty now. The banners tied to the columns flap in the breeze, their colors a faded reminder of how bright this place used to be–green, gold, and garnet silk. “If we go south, we could find more people, we could rebuild. Forget about what the king wants–”
“I swore an oath to him.” The hawk flies off above the clouds and Sotiros looks away, his face warmed from the sun. “I can’t just do what I want. As much as I want to.”
“You and your oaths.” Panos bends across the saddle and spits as is his way, to avoid some evil. “The gods scour the land with plague and we survive so you can throw our lives away for an oath. A bigger fool I’ve never known.”
“Our oaths are the only thing that separate us from the beasts.” This conversation is well worn, and Sotiros is smiling. The two of them are like rams who butt their heads together just to hear their horns thunder. “But we’ll try to convince the king, all the same.”
Panos grunts. There will be no convincing the king.
Out past the agora is the old stone wall. It hasn’t been tended since the time of the king before the last king, if then. In those fever days, we went through so many kings. The stone is in shambles now, and dust is scattered in the wind as pebbles are strewn about the grass. At night, the wind slips through the cracked mortar and howls like a ghost through the streets.
The gate hangs open, swinging listless in the breeze. This gate has been repaired more times than can be counted, but like everything else, it has fallen apart.
“What about you, Panos? Your oath was to King Petros. There’s nothing keeping you here, now.” Sotiros passes through the gate and into the valley beyond. The land rises on either side of him in great mounds of packed dirt and sparse grass, and down the slope the sea can be seen, and the old oak tree. Its face, if there is a face, is turned away towards the sea. “You could go back home to Skarhold if you wanted to.”
“You know I’m not going to leave.” Closer to the sea, the gray clouds sweep in across the sky. The first cold rain falls, plinking on armor and soaking through cloaks. “There’s nothing left for me there.”
“Then will you swear a new oath to King Thomas?”
“I won’t do that, either.” Panos pauses. He spits again, off the side of the road. He pulls up his hood and goes ahead onto the beach, his stone picking a path over the rocky coast to the old tree. He makes a circle of it and stops on the far side. “Come and look at this–”
Before the word is out, an arrow flies from the shadows. In a breath, chaos erupts: Panos’ horse rears on its hind legs, the arrow plunged into her flank, yellow fletching bright against the blood pouring out of her.
“Thanes!” The cry comes from Sotiros and he’s moving on instinct, drawing his sword from its sheath and throwing back his cloak as he gallops down onto the coast. He yells back, “Agapios, away!”
Another arrow soars, but Panos has found his shield and he deflects it with the metal boss.
They pour of the shadows beneath the coral outcropping. Salt and sea spray glistens in the beards of the men and the long, braided hair of the women. Their bodies are shrouded in the hides of animals: bear, deer, and wold. The five of them move as one, run as one, scream as one.
So it appears looking down from the promontory where there is a stone just large enough to hide behind: Madness. Some men will say that battle is art and there is skill, but to look upon it, there is nothing but fear and madness.
One man grabs Panos by the shoulder and raises an ax to cleave into his neck, but Panos snaps his head forward into his nose. The bone cracks and blood pours down their faces. The rain covers the rocky coast and they slip together, crashing, tumbling. The others lunge into the fray and drag Panos to his feet, beating their fists upon his head and clubbing him with the haft of their axes.
His knees buckle and his feet slip out from under him. He falls. But before he can succumb, Sotiros is there, striking from his horse. He falls upon them as a hawk upon prey and his sword cuts through the throat of the first man he sees. Blood sprays into the air and the Thanes howl and beat their fists upon their chests.
Someone catches Sotiros by the heel and pulls him from the saddle. His head hits the ground hard and blood reddens the stone. The Thane raises his ax. Panos bites into the flesh of his own wrist and his mouth comes away glistening red. He spits the gob of flesh into the sand and says a word that sounds like fire.
Flames seer across the coast, red and orange light flaring, there and gone. The Thanes scream, but the fire races down their throats to burn their lungs. Those who try to run are caught by Sotiros, who buries his sword into their bellies and strews the coast with their innards.
In the span of a heartbeat, there is no one left on the coast but Panos and Sotiros, stained with sweat and blood, with sand caked up to their hips.
“Bastards,” Panos says, and he spits upon one of the corpses, skin charred black.
“Panos,” Sotiros calls. He has stumbled over to the tree where he’s doubled over, fighting for breath. His face has gone white, his lips blue. The rain falls harder, spitting down on them. “Agapios, come and see this!”
The coast is wet with blood and sea water. Thanes lay across the stones, foggy eyes staring up at nothing, their innards twisted out upon the ground like wet black snakes, writhing, steaming in the cold. The sight is enough to make the stomach roil. The ground near the tree, at least, is blessedly clear.
In the trunk of a tree on the coast of Tira, there is a face.
It is an old face, as old as the world, as old as time, and it has two eyes that are knots dripping with sap. It has not been carved, for no tool could make so fine a line. It is not natural, for no tree could grow as this one has. It is not mortal, for when one looks upon it, the skin prickles to feel it looking back.
It is chaos and nightmare, for its mouth opens and from its wooden throat a sound emerges like the clatter of a hundred-thousand hooves.
And that sound turns into the cry of a war horn, and then two, and then five.
As one, they turn to look out at the mist drenched sea, where two long ships cut across the waves like daggers. Thanes stand upon the decks in rows, banging fists upon their shields and crying to join the voices with the tree who screams, even now.
“Back to Tira,” Sotiros says, the words little more than a whisper. “Run!”