The Balance

Solstice day two measures done
Sent at season’s rising sun.

Balance cup works toward its fill
Drawing from beholder’s will.

Last it tips the watcher cries
With its voice a curse will die.

Spirit in the tree released
to Queen’s womb or darkest beast.

The veiled path they traveled fled from them, secreting itself beneath the dry coarse brush. Still, they knew their destination and picked their way past grasping thorns and clutching vines toward the sentinel pines shouldered together at the rim of the dismal swamp.  Though now the forest granted freer room to walk, they first explored the space with eyes and ears before they traveled forth.  At least that’s why she reasoned she had stopped.  In truth it was because her will to move abandoned her.

It was his yell that startled her and woke her feet, to move her backward slightly.

“We’ve come for you!” he yelled a second time.  But just as with the first, the rising mist snatched at his words and fettered them beneath the moss.  “If there’s anything in there, it’ll be on its way now,” he said but stayed a step behind her.

“But which way?” she answered, trying to sound lighthearted while she forced her legs to move her forward through the pines.

“Far away from us.  Anything that’s in there is potential for the banquet table. We won’t be attacked by a squad of doe with pikes, and wild pigs are more skittish than you chambermaids when you’re around the Queen.”

“We’re not skittish… just sensitive,” she said.  She looked back over her shoulder to give him a false smile, then silently wished she had just ignored him.

“If she wants the place searched… Fage!” he cursed, stumbling from the vine that clutched his boot.  “…then only sending in two people at a time is a foolish way to do it.”

“Not searched.  Observed.  To see if things are changing.”

He swatted twice at a slender branch that searched in vain for a glimpse of sunlight.  The third time, he simply snapped the branch then took quick steps to catch back up to her. “And how are we supposed to know what’s changed if we’ve never been here before?”

“Like she instructed –we just take note of what we see, and the Queen will compare it to what the others saw when they came.”

She flinched when she heard the first rap of wood and stopped to push away her jitters, then slowly turned to look at him.

He kept beating the sticks together and shrugged.  “Just in case there are some rabbits, in battle leathers, feeling brave today.”

She held an honest smile this time and led the way again.  But when the rapping stopped, she didn’t miss its company. 

The forest pines gave way to tamaracks.  The swamp tree’s sparse needles, borne on spur shoots and spindly limbs, reached like aged and crippled fingers for a touch and quivered as the Queen’s subjects passed.

“Look!” he said.  Behind her, he bounced up and down on the thick, gnarled, green carpet.  He flapped his arms as he moved and the ground around him undulated with his movements.  The tamaracks danced with him; first those closest to him, tossing their spurs as if to copy his arms.  Then others, farther away, joined in, but with less enthusiasm, as if in sadness.

“This whole place is floating, I bet.”

“It’s a bog,” she said.  “Careful or you’ll break through.  I don’t think you’d drown, but you wouldn’t smell very good.”

He stopped abruptly but the trees did not return as quickly to their rest, as if to mock the warning.

Deep now within the swamp, the calmness thickened, hanging heavy like a fog.  It seemed as though no wind would dare caress the trees or stroke the ground with soft warm breath.  Spring, whose kiss of life had long since touched the forest, had not ventured here.  Farther in the swamp the trees stood as if in winter, dark and cold.   Moss-laden branches struggled to lift back toward a grey, featureless sky.

Up ahead she could see the clearing but paused to pick her path.  “Eerie,” is all she said.

“More than eerie,” he said and moved beside her.  “It’s like the whole place is in some spell.  Are you sure the others she sent, all came back?  You don’t think she sent us as some kind of sacrifice or something do you?”

“What?  Not the Queen!  Maybe if this were back in the days when we had kings, I’d worry. The Queen has always been kind to us.  How could you say that about her?”

“Kind, sure –but maybe too kind.  My grandfather said he remembered the time when we used to have kings and things ran a lot better.  Sure, the Kings hanged more than a few workers, but things got done.  The harvests were up, and we had more soldiers than ambassadors.”

“I think it’s fine having queens.  And wasn’t it usually the overseers the kings hanged first if the harvests were low?”

“Not until they ran short of peasants.  If you’re smart, like me, that gives you enough warning to avoid the rope.”

“So that you could starve to death while trying to feed your children when all the grain went to the army?  I’m not one who misses a male heir.  If the Queen has a son instead of more daughters then maybe you’ll need to start guarding your neck!”

“Well, I wouldn’t need to.  I cover both ends.  That’s something my father taught me.”

“How so?” she asked and began following the tentative path she had charted, the anger of her near outburst fueling her pace.

“I hold back a little on my reports then surprise her every harvest.  And, you know how she likes Collets and King’s Double-Nines.  I’ve played more than a few games with her.”

“You’ve played slates with her?”

“Sure, every quarter moon I give her a report.  Then we play a game or two. She asks me about how my workers are and stuff.  I tell her how they like her and how happy they are.  How we’re so happy to work for her majesty.  The normal stuff.”

   “Hmm…” she said, then pointed.  “See the small mounds?  I think they’re a little firmer.  We should keep close to each other and move from mound to mound.”

Water seeped upward here.  Each step crushed the moss and water quickly claimed its place before the moss could push back the footprint. The trees forgot the dance he had taught them and now shuddered in silence.  She took a small hop to the first mound then stopped and looked at the trees.  She felt like they were watching, waiting, holding their breath to detect the smallest sound of those who dared intrude any further.

“The only problem is, that may be why she picked me,” he said as he hopped to the next mound to follow behind her.  “I know she likes you.  That seems to be how it works.”

“How what works?”

“She always sends people that she thinks like and respect her.”

“Well, I… Oh, yuck!” was all she said when her foot broke though the floating carpet.  She braced her hands against the moss and pulled her leg out slowly to keep from losing her boot, then quickly checked her skin.

“Aw, too bad.  No leeches?” he asked sarcastically.

She almost let her anger answer, but sensed the tension behind his laugh and saw a strangeness in his smile. Somehow it helped her understand his mood.

They passed the last scattered trees and stood before the clearing, just on its edge.  Here the stillness reached out, demanding silence, screaming inside their minds and boring deep inside with glistening whispers. 

Before them stood the solitary oak that arched its back and strained its crooked neck as if struggling to rise above its place of rest.  Its coarse skin wound in and out with deep thick folds and heavy wrinkles around its waist.  Farther up, the skin drew taught and thin, barely covering its bony limbs, then split to reveal its raw, pale skeleton beneath.  The ancient limbs bent and twisted searching out in agony, groping at the musty air. 

And on the highest branch it sat and stared at them with ruby eyes.

 He tried to draw in a deep breath to yell and scare the crow away, but pungent vapors swelled in his nostrils and sucked the moisture from his throat.  Instead, he looked for a stick to throw, but the only ones were up ahead, sloughed from the oak and littered at its base.

“That’s what we’ve come for,” she said and picked her way to the large mound held gathered by the massive tree.

“Ok, we’ve seen it, now let’s go.”

“The plaque, remember?”

When she made the last jump to the oak’s mound, he nearly knocked her over jumping so close behind.  They both felt a chill that shouldn’t be.  A hint of mist ventured from the ground and swirled between their feet as they approached the tree.

“What I can’t figure,” he said, glancing nervously at the unmoving crow, “is why she wants us to look at some old dead oak that shouldn’t even be growing in a swamp.”

“It’s not dead,” she said and pointed upward at one of the lower branches.  “At least this side isn’t.  There are some buds on that one, and there too and more up higher.  Some look almost ready to open.”

“Yaa, but the rest is sure dead.  Let’s look at the plaque and get out of here.”

Together the walked around the trunk and found the tarnished brass plate.  She had to clean it with her sleeve so they could read the words.

Solstice day two measures done
Sent at season’s rising sun.

Balance cup works toward its fill
Drawing from beholder’s will.

Last it tips the watcher cries
With its voice a curse will die.

Spirit in the tree released
To Queen’s womb or darkest beast.


“I guess that’s it.  We can head back now,” she said. “What do you think it means?”

“I don’t know, and I don’t want to stay here trying to figure it out.  You can stay if you want to.”

“I’m not that curious,” he said and followed after her.  “Actually, this wasn’t so bad.  Maybe she’ll be thankful enough to promote me into the stables.  Work’s a lot easier there.”

“What?  Sure,” she replied, not bothering to look back at him.  She hurried now, back along the path they had taken here.  She felt as though everything was watching her, staring at her back.

The crow fluffed its feathers and shuddered shaking off the cold.  It didn’t watch them go; their part now done.  Instead it served its role and watched the tree.

Farther down the trunk, a single branch snapped to join its bleak and withered comrades down below.  Then another branch blushed green, pushing forth, to cluster tight with others of its kind. 

The crow fluffed its feathers once again, then smoothed them down and closed its eyes to rest and wait once more.