The Otherworld seemed just out of reach, a flickering image of all which existed beyond the senses. Morcant's mentors had spoken of the realm of primal nature, that which had originally given birth to all life in the world, but Morcant had yet to reach it. At best, he could see it for an instant in his meditations, but his mind remained too cluttered to access it fully.
Morcant's back rested against the trunk of a mighty oak, his smooth and naked torso felt at home against the rough bark, and his hair, entangled with leaves and branches seemed almost an extension of the tree itself. Of course, he considered himself the tree's child, and would not mind becoming one with the powerful plant.
However, the oak Derw Taenau never seemed to offer the clarity Morcant needed, despite their close connection and the oak's offer of mentorship. Derw Taenau remained as cryptic as every oracular tree Morcant had ever met, and she rarely spoke at all unless she had something important to say.
"Derw Taenau, of what do you speak?" Morcant asked, his blue eyes fluttering open. Sometimes he could glance The Otherworld when the oak began speaking, but this time he saw nothing but the darkness of the forest ahead of him.
"He comes. He will be your test of sacrifice," Derw Taenau replied, as cryptic as ever.
"My test?" Morcant asked. "Does this mean you will teach me what I need to know to enter The Otherworld?"
"You are nearly there, my child," Derw Taenau said. "You walk in the footsteps of the ancient creed, your feet like acorns planting the seeds of future generations, like the great trees before you."
The answer pleased Morcant, and he rose to his feet, ready to embark on this mission he hoped would be his final test. "What must I do?" He asked.
"You must find the man who does not belong and give him the fate he deserves," Derw Taenau said.
"I'll do whatever is required of me. Where can I find him?" Morcant said, reverently inclining his head to the oak.
"To the west, at the shore," Derw Taenau said. "You will see his fire. He will know the pain of your soul."
Morcant turned and left without another word. His task was clear; he would fulfill his duty to his land and his people. The man who awaited him would feel the full wrath of the wilds.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Morcant stalked his prey from the trees, watching him move around his small camp on the shore beside a quickly darkening ocean. Dusk approached swiftly, and if Morcant did not act swiftly he would miss the proper hour of sacrifice. Only sunrise and sunset served as appropriate times to spill ritual blood. Times of transition empowered the rituals.
But Morcant had never killed a man before, and the thought made his blood run as cold as the ocean water. His prey was a Roman—his dark hair and olive skin betrayed him as much as the gladius strapped to his belt. A former soldier—a conqueror, a slave-master . . . these were attributes common to all Romans in Morcant's eyes and helped him work up the courage to slay his enemy.
He waited for the proper moment, watching the Roman move between his small boat and the cookfire he'd prepared, shifting supplies and setting to work on preparing his evening meal. He moved methodically, and stepped with the grace of a warrior, though only the sword remained as evidence of his occupation. That same sword remained as the only obstacle between Morcant and the Roman's death.
The sun hung perched above the ocean horizon, ready to descend into sleep, and Morcant stepped into motion. He whispered to the trees and plants beside them, coaxing them to grow before leaving his position, disappearing back into the shadows of the wood.
"Is someone there?" the Roman asked, hearing the whispering. He took a step toward the woods, drawing his sword. He stepped toward Morcant's original position, searching the woods for the source of the noise.
Morcant assumed the form of a wolf, his loose clothing sliding and falling from his body as Morcant's arms became his forelegs, and his body lowered to the ground. Black fur sprouted across his flesh as he moved silently forward, circling around and onto the shore to approach the Roman from behind.
Growling at the Roman, Morcant planted himself firmly behind him. The Roman turned, sword raised as he shouted in fear, "By Faunus, what are you?"
"I am your doom, Roman," Morcant spoke with the wolf's mouth. The Roman took a step back in surprise, which placed in directly inside Morcant's traps. The roots of the trees stretched out of the earth and wrapped around the Roman's ankles, entangling him to the ground. Simultaneously, the green bushes reached out branches to entangle the Roman's wrists, keeping his arms spread wide and leaving him vulnerable to attack. With a simple twitch of Morcant's head, the vines wrapped around the Roman's sword arm forced him to drop the weapon.
But Morcant hesitated, unable to move against the helpless man. He could not deny the human terror he saw within the Roman's eyes, and he would not face him as a wolf. If Morcant intended to kill a human, the human deserved to know his murderer.
Morcant shifted back to his human form, standing naked before the Roman, his blue eyes narrowing with the sharpness of a hawk. He stepped forward, stopping to pick up a fallen branch. Blending his energy with the wood, he compelled it to take the form of a long and slender blade, as sharp as Roman steel.
Upon seeing the transformation, the Roman's fear subsided considerably. "You can control nature itself?" the Roman asked. "Are you god or Querquetulanae? You have the likeness of a man, yet perhaps that's fitting enticement for one such as me!"
Morcant hadn't expected to answer questions, but his hesitation to kill his enemy gave him enough reason to do so. "I don't know all the words you speak."
"Yet you know the Roman tongue, or we wouldn't be speaking now," the Roman observed, eyeing the wooden blade dangerously.
Morcant snarled. "One should learn the tongue of one's oppressors, that it may be used against them."
"I am not your oppressor," the Roman replied solemnly.
"You are in service to the emperor of Rome. That is enough to make you my oppressor," Morcant replied. "And so, as the sun dips beneath the waves, I will sacrifice you to the gods of wood and water, and let your Roman blood consecrate this ground that it may never bear your kind again."
The Roman chuckled, a strange sound for one about to die, yet it stopped Morcant's advance as he considered the face of his victim. "Valerian failed us, and then there was Postumus, Claudius . . .? I don't know who my emperor is anymore. My world was in chaos, and so I came here, to the farthest edge of the empire to escape it all," the Roman explained. "Britannia is my home, and I have no wish to cause harm to it."
"You may consider Britannia part of your empire, but we will have it back," Morcant said venomously.
The Roman smiled and said, "You can keep it, I only wish to live here and die in peace."
"Dying I can arrange, living is another matter."
"Why are you so eager to kill me? I have done nothing to harm you."
"You are a Roman. Rome has no place here, not even in peace," Morcant said, taking another step forward, one hand trailing along the back of his wooden blade. "I am sworn to protect this land, and my people." He paused in front of the Roman and put the blade against his neck. "I am as one with this land as you are with your precious empire. And if you should wish to become part of it, too, your blood will water these trees."
Instead of inciting fear in the Roman's eyes, Morcant's movements only seemed to lessen it. With a curious glint in his eyes, the Roman asked, "One with this land . . . are you of the druidae?"
"I'm a Dryw, yes. I know the seasons of the oaks, dance to the melodies of the spring birds, and sing to the rain. You know of us?" Morcant asked with surprise.
"Not much. Nary a whisper has been heard of the druidae in the last hundred years."
"Your people have slain many of us, it is true," Morcant said, his eyes narrowing dangerously. "Only by the grace of nature have we survived at all."
"It is always by the grace of nature we survive. I believe this is true, same as you. Can we not find a common bond between us?" the Roman asked. "Or are we subject to the same violence of our ancestors?"
"You would ask me that? You would ask me to show mercy on you?" Morcant asked, laughing at the absurd thought. "You must be joking."
"Have you eaten this evening, Dryw?" the Roman replied with a sad smile.
Morcant raised an eyebrow, perplexed at this strange question. "I have not. But how does this matter?"
"If you free me, I will cook for you the finest squid you've ever tasted," the Roman boasted. "A bounty from Neptune. You may have seen them in my boat if you took the time to investigate," he continued. "I'm a fisherman's son from Hispania, and I would love to share my knowledge with you, if you'll but give me the opportunity."
"You would eat with me, your captor?" Morcant asked, then shook his head. "Feeding me will not earn you your life. You will still be sacrificed."
"I am simple man, Dryw," the Roman replied. "I only ask for one more night to live, under the light of the moon. Luna guided me here, that I may die. I wish to dine one more time with her before I pass from this world to the other."
His sincerity shook Morcant to his core, and the look in the Roman's eyes stirred something deep within Morcant's being. His stomach felt empty of both sustenance and will for violence. He could not kill a man in cold blood who had offered him food, not unless he was assured of nature's will.
The thought of the test burned in his memory. The old oak had instructed him to deliver the Roman's fate and called this the test of sacrifice. But the tests of The Otherworld were often puzzles, as cryptic as the masters who assigned them.
Morcant's long twilight shadow stretched across the Roman's confined body, connecting them through ethereal chains of darkness. Whatever crimes this man had committed as a Roman, Morcant had come willing to perform the same, and what difference would he find between them if he succumbed so easily to his lust for vengeance?
The Roman deserved one more night.
Morcant stooped and retrieved the Roman's sword. He hated the feel of such a vile weapon in his hands, one which may have slain dozens or more of his people. With supernatural strength, he hurled the weapon far out into the waves, never to be wielded again by the hands of man.
"You will buy your life and freedom for one night, but only one," Morcant said, turning back to the Roman. "We'll revisit this on the morrow, and I will sacrifice you at eventide." He whispered words of the Othertongue, and the plants released their prisoner.
The Roman smiled, and Morcant once more considered the strangeness of his enemy. Not a trace of fear existed in his eyes, just acceptance of a fate he could not avoid, and a longing for something Morcant could not determine.
"Then I'll make the most of this last day, and spend it in song and feasting, as my forebears would've done," the Roman replied. "I've no fear of death, Dryw, and if you should still deem me worthy of death tomorrow, I will meet your terms. I am at your mercy."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Morcant watched the Roman prepare the squid, keeping a cautious eye on all his movements. He wondered if the Roman would try and poison him, or would otherwise try and fight back against Morcant, but the meal was prepared with exactness and finished cooking quickly.
Despite this, Morcant still waited until the Roman swallowed his first bite before taking some for himself. He regarded the roasted squid skeptically, then pressed it against his tongue. The mixture of fresh herbs added to the dish brought out the natural saltiness of the ocean creature and made it a meal fit for a ruler.
"You weren't boasting," Morcant said, "this squid is delicious."
The Roman smiled appreciatively at the compliment and said, "My father was a fisherman, but I didn't feel the fisherman's life suited my need for adventure. And so, I became a soldier, to travel the breadth of the empire. I was no more than a boy when I began, and I spent two decades fighting for what I saw as the noble cause of Rome. I was stationed in northern Gaul when Postumus betrayed Valerian. I couldn't stay in service, and so I deserted, and made my way here, north of Hadrian's Wall."
Morcant smirked at that and said, "That was your mistake. You should have stayed in Gaul."
"I am not your enemy," the Roman insisted, noting the threat in Morcant's words. "My name is Silvanus. I'm of the wood, just as you are. What is your name, Dryw?"
"Morcant. Though you won't need it when I sacrifice you tomorrow."
The Roman sighed and asked, "You are still set on that?"
"Yes. A meal is not worth the lives of brothers and sisters lost to the Roman sword," Morcant replied. "Someone must atone for the wrongs committed against my people."
Silvanus chuckled. "Spoken like a Roman."
"And interesting insult," Morcant said, and paused with a piece of squid halfway to his mouth. "Whatever do you mean?"
"I've heard recent rumors of a Christian man murdered by Emperor Claudius II. He died a martyr, for what he did on behalf of Roman soldiers," Silvanus said, shaking his head in disbelief. "His crime? Performing marriages, in defiance of the emperor's decree that soldiers live a life free of such attachments. He defied a useless law, keeping the soldiers from finding the fullness of life." Silvanus met Morcant's eyes and added, "His name was Valentine, though I doubt many will remember his name in the years to come. Only despots and villains remain in history for long. We celebrate cruelty, not love, in our histories."
"Do Romans marry for love? Or for property?" Morcant asked. "Or, as they steal from the lands they conquer, do they steal the virtues of their wives, claiming them as spoils of victory?"
"Some do that. Many do, unfortunately. We are not a perfect people," Silvanus admitted. "I won't claim to excuse the Romans or their actions. Rome has a greatness to it, but it also has a deep wickedness, as surely as every land ever has."
Morcant harrumphed. "Not mine. We are only trying to survive."
"In the Roman view, they are the survivors. Who's to say what is right?" Silvanus asked.
"Nature," Morcant replied flatly.
"The gods," Silvanus suggested at the same time. "Are these not the same? We declare what is right by the forces which have shaped our world. Why do we refuse to use our own understanding? Did not the gods—and nature—grant us our understanding as well?"
"If you revere this Valentine, then where is your wife? Where are your sons and daughters?" Morcant asked. "Why leave such things behind and come here?"
"I have no desire for a wife. Women have never been to my taste," Silvanus said quietly. His sadness returned fully, and he met Morcant's eyes with the full weight of his stare, letting him see the vulnerability there. The desperation for connection and the same longing as before.
"You have other desires," Morcant surmised.
Morcant felt the same stirring within him as before. This Roman was beginning to get under his skin. He'd come to the shore thinking to find an enemy, but instead he found a human, one with similar desires to his own. One who understood the loneliness in his heart.
But this was a trick, surely some part of the test Morcant was meant to overcome, and he rebelled against the stirrings in his heart. "Do you think to seduce me, Silvanus?" Morcant asked testily.
"No, Morcant," Silvanus replied solemnly. "Despite your beauty, your hatred of all things Roman would surely prevent it. I know where your feelings lie, and I know you'll likely kill me tomorrow for the crimes of my countrymen."
"You are right, of course. I would never give myself to a Roman," Morcant said firmly, even as his thoughts betrayed him. Even one such as you.
Silvanus smiled and nodded, accepting Morcant's remarks. A silvery light washed over him then, cresting over the trees which lined the shore. Silvanus sighed peacefully and observed, "The moon has risen."
"Yes . . ." Morcant said quietly. "It is beautiful, isn't it?"
"I have always felt at home under the moon. In my home, I would step into the hills at night and walk under the silvery light, feeling it like a blanket against my skin to ward against the chill. I've not done it since I was a boy . . . I've not thought of doing so again until now," Silvanus said wistfully.
Morcant took the remark as a ploy, an attempt to allow Silvanus to run free that he might escape. He quickly finished the last of his squid and said, "I must bind you again. I can't let you escape tonight."
"As you wish, Morcant," Silvanus said, meeting Morcant's suggestion with his usual grin. "I've nowhere to run, and the moon will keep me warm."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Morcant made sure Silvanus was tucked beneath the shelter of several trees, binding him with roots and vines as he'd done before, then slipped into the forest. He assumed the wolf shape again, darting quickly through the underbrush and guided by nothing but the soft glow of the moon.
He rushed to return to the grove of the old oak who knew him and resumed his naked human shape at her roots, prostrating himself before her out of respect. She greeted him with a gentle shake of her trunk; words of wood were not to be wasted on something so simple as greeting.
"Derw Taenau, what have you sent me to do?" Morcant cried, distraught by his encounter with Silvanus. He did not feel murder in his heart, and yet he understood the need for sacrifice. If Silvanus' death could appease the land's thirst for vengeance, he could do so, but he no longer wished to.
"I have said what there is to say. Have you listened to what your nature tells you? There is only one path true for you," Derw Taenau rumbled in reply.
"What is the fate he deserves?" Morcant asked, begging for clarity.
If trees could be said to smile, then Derw Taenau beamed with motherly understanding as she creased her bark in comfort of her darling child. "What is the fate of the wilds?" She asked patiently.
"That one feeds the other, and the other feeds the one. That freedom is inherent in all things, even unto its own destruction," Morcant replied, drawing upon the lessons of his youth.
"Then you know what you must do," Derw Taenau said.
Morcant groaned in frustration. "How is that an answer?"
"This is your test of sacrifice, child. You must decide what is yours to give," Derw Taenau said.
"I do not know the answer," Morcant admitted.
"Then find it."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Morcant stopped to retrieve his clothing and dressed before returning to the shore. He found Silvanus waiting for him, awake and sore, though he assumed his same smile as before. He inclined his head toward Morcant as well as he could, attempting to great him with a proper nod. "You're back. I thought you would've kept watch over me."
"The forest tells me what I wish to know. If you had attempted to escape, I could've found you easily," Morcant replied.
"These vines have held me tight," Silvanus said. "If I had the strength of Hercules, I'm not sure I could break your spell."
"Today, I will feed you. We'll eat the bounties of the forest, as we make our way to the sacred ground where I will kill you," Morcant said, though he wasn't sure he believed those words. He wanted to know more about Silvanus and needed more time to decipher the meaning behind his mentor's words.
"You've decided then," Silvanus said quietly.
"Killing you is the best choice for my people and my land," Morcant said, meeting Silvanus' gaze and forcing his words to be resolute. "I must sacrifice for the good of all."
"Once again, you sound like a Roman," Silvanus said, laughing.
"You continue to insult me," Morcant growled.
Silvanus shrugged as well as his bindings allowed. "No. I want you to understand Romans also understand sacrifice."
"Why are you so willing to die, Roman?"
"Why are you so willing to kill me, Morcant?"
"I call you what you are, and you call me by name," Morcant observed. "You seek to make this personal, while I wish to remain distant." He shook his head and added, "Do you think I enjoy killing, Roman? Do you think I'm like your people in that way as well? Murdering for the sake of murder?"
"No, I know you are not. Perhaps that is why I'm so willing to die, because I can see your heart and know you would never kill me," Silvanus. "I do not fear what will not happen."
"I've told you, I'm taking you to the spot to sacrifice you," Morcant replied, but Silvanus' confidence affected him, and he felt the strength drain out of his statement.
"Then I will die a fool," Silvanus said. "But I don't believe it is my day to die."
Morcant couldn't help but chuckle at the absurdity of that statement. "How can you be so certain?"
"I trust in the gods, Morcant. I believe they sent me here. The days leading to our meeting, I was drawn by the current toward plentiful waters. The winds guided me to safe harbor each night, and the storms left me at peace." Silvanus nodded, as if accepting his own words. "If all have led me to die, then it is a death the gods made for me, and I'll meet death with a smile on my lips as I descend to Elysium."
"Your smile will not save your soul," Morcant said quietly, but the smile had begun to wear through the walls of Morcant's resolve,
"It doesn't need to. My soul is not mine to save," Silvanus replied. "We must be each other's salvation, for we are at the mercy of our own hearts."
"Your words will not save you, either," Morcant said, then released the natural binding from Silvanus' feet. He coaxed the vines surrounding Silvanus' hands to extend and then separate from their parent plants, forming a pair of manacles around Silvanus' wrists. "Be silent. Let the woodlands teach you what it means to be saved."
Silvanus took the lead with Morcant's sword at his back, telling him which way to step. In human form, Morcant had to take a different route than as a wolf, and the traveling took much longer than he would've liked. His earlier claim about taking Silvanus to a sacred spot had been a bluff to stall for time, but he knew they'd never make it to Derw Taenau's by dusk.
Over trickling streams and through narrow ravines they walked, enjoying the silence of nature. Silvanus' willingness to remain silent surprised Morcant the more time they spent together, and he obeyed each instruction without question.
Morcant fed Silvanus on the natural bounty of the woods, teaching him of berries and mushrooms, which provided them sustenance along the way. All the while, Morcant considered the morality of his impending decision. More and more, he hated the thought of killing Silvanus out of revenge, yet his test remained.
Could he kill a man who'd shown no resistance, and in fact offered nothing but kindness in return for Morcant's scorn? Was that the intended sacrifice, to kill a man who didn't deserve it?
The question occupied him until the sun set, and the night sky bathed them in starlight. Not long after, the moon rose overhead as they crossed over a clear spot in the trail. It illuminated Silvanus in its silvery glow, and momentarily held Morcant spellbound by his prisoner's beauty.
"The moon is out again," Silvanus said, not surprised in the least to have seen her beauty again.
Morcant gazed upward at the luminous specter of the night, wondering it her light might illuminate his understanding. "Yes . . ." he said absently, then stepped forward, willing the vines around Silvanus' wrists to loosen.
"What are you doing?" Silvanus asked.
"Walk with me, Silvanus," Morcant asked. "Show me what it's like to be a Roman boy, in the hills near your home." With that, he tossed the wooden weapon aside, leaving himself more defenseless than ever against his prisoner.
"You're freeing me?" Silvanus asked.
"For tonight only," Morcant said. "I may yet kill you tomorrow."
"May? I suppose there's hope then?" Silvanus replied.
Morcant's lips tightened into a frown. "Do not test the limits of my patience, Silvanus."
"No, I suppose I shouldn't," Silvanus replied, nodding once. He turned his back on Morcant and sighed, breathing deeply of the forest air. "This forest is different from the one I loved as a boy. Thicker, more ancient, full of spirits and magic."
He took several steps forward, then removed his tunic, exposing his naked torso to the night air. Morcant studied the taut muscles of Silvanus' back as he stretched, counting the scars in his flesh until they became too numerous. Battle-hardened and strong, Silvanus could overpower Morcant if he struck first, yet he seemed content with his choice to remain at Morcant's mercy.
After everything, Morcant still could not understand why. If Silvanus ran now, Morcant would let him go. He knew that in his heart, and yet Silvanus turned to him, the same aching longing in his eyes, the same smile on his face. Content to remain in this moonlit forest to the end of his life, whenever that would be.
"Secrets fill it, like a cup overflowing with too much wine. It's easy to drown in it all," Morcant replied, almost breathlessly, so taken was he by the perplexing man before him he'd forgotten to breathe.
"Yes . . . a wine fit for the cup of Dionysus," Silvanus said, staring deep into Morcant's eyes. Morcant's heart began to beat in rhythm to the swaying trees as a light breeze teased the edges of the clearing. He longed to bathe in the pools of light caught within Silvanus' eyes, two pools of emerald green. "To consume so much beauty is dangerous for mortal men," Silvanus continued, "and yet we are drawn to dangerous allure, compelled to seek what consumes us, to learn the depths of our own mortality."
"You speak of love again?" Morcant asked.
Silvanus' breath grew sharper, as if running from a fate he knew would slay him. No, not from—to. "It is the province of fools, yet it enslaves me. I can't keep myself from following the forest paths, led by the drumming of my heart, primal and pure, the rhythm of the most ancient ones calling me to my fate."
"Your fate?" Morcant asked. "Your fate is to die. It is the only fate fit for us all."
"You have felt the sting of death a thousand times, haven't you?" Silvanus asked, his eyes moistening from the shared pain between them.
Morcant nodded, his fingers twitching as they ached to reach up and wipe the tears from Silvanus' eyes before they fell. "I wear it every day, like a funeral shroud."
"Why not carry love instead?" Silvanus asked. "I have carried death all my life, but when I decided I'd seen enough of it, I shed the burden from my shoulders. Perhaps it's just as foolish, like Sisyphus it is useless to attempt to stem the tide of death and war with only love as my weapon. Nevertheless, I must do my best, no matter how many times the boulder rolls back against me."
"There is little love in this world. Hardly enough to stop the hatred. Not nearly enough to mend the wounds of us all." Morcant felt the reality of his own words and found some of his earlier resolve. He tore away from Silvanus' gaze, facing into the shadows of the forest as he spat bitterly. "You yourself said most Romans do not marry for love, and Rome is the most powerful empire of all! How do you, as a Roman, hope to make a difference?"
"Maybe most don't marry for love, and maybe that's why I never did. I am an oddity for a Roman," Silvanus admitted, turning after Morcant, wringing his tunic in his hands. "My loneliness has imprisoned me all my days, kept me within myself. I traveled the empire, but never left the confines of my own soul. I never gave myself to anyone." "I never took a woman in conquest. I never loved a maiden, nor courted the daughter of a wealthy merchant. I watched man after man do these things, for the carnal pleasures of the flesh, but I could not. The men and their appetites did not entice me either. For how could I give my heart to one guilty of such terrible things? I could not, and so I have remained alone, with only the sea, the wind, and the moon—my nightly companion—as company."
"Pain . . . loneliness . . . these are things I know as well as anyone," Morcant said over his shoulder. "There are few Dryw left, and though we were once the leaders of our people, we are now too few to lead. We live in the forests, desperately trying to reclaim our lost heritage from the spirits of the wood, but few still speak. Fewer still are willing to teach us." He gestured to the woods and went on, "I spend my days out here, meditating beneath the trees, speaking to the plants and animals, trying to recapture all that was lost. The night is a magical time, where the gates to the Otherworld open up to those who seek it."
"The Otherworld?" Silvanus asked.
Morcant smiled and turned back to Silvanus, nodding. "It lies beyond the senses, the world where all creatures of legend reside, and what gives life to the unseen things of this world. Without it, there would be no mystery, no magic . . . no love. It is the force of nature itself. The place where gods dwell."
"Perhaps, with the powers of The Otherworld, we could make a difference together," Silvanus said, taking a step toward Morcant.
"Together?" Morcant asked. As Silvanus closed the distance between them, Morcant's pulse quickened, his flesh tingling in anticipation of some primal urge he'd denied himself thus far.
Silvanus reached up to stroke Morcant's cheek, pushing the hair back from his face. "I can't keep myself from following dangerous paths nor ignore the drumming of my heart." He pressed their lips together in a kiss filled with longing, a desperate plea for love in a cold and shattered world.
Morcant welcomed the kiss, succumbing to its allure, wrapping his arms around Silvanus and pressing his body up against him. He guided Silvanus down to the ground, their bodies writhing in pleasure as they sought to explore every stretch of each other's flesh.
And then reality came crashing down, and Morcant realized what he'd done. His lips still pressed to Silvanus', he connected with the spirits of the grass and bush beside them, summoning their roots to wrap around Silvanus and entomb him to the ground.
"You will die at sunset tomorrow," Morcant growled, his face inches from his almost lover. He tore from Silvanus grasp, and drifted into the trees, discarding his clothing as he shifted back into the wolf, already running to the safety of his oak mother's branches.
"The woodlands have already saved me. I will die satisfied in their teachings," Silvanus whispered after the fleeing Morcant. "All my life had led me here, my elusive love. Can't you see that?"
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
"How dare he!" Morcant barked.
"Anger has always been your failing, child," Derw Taenau replied. "It clouds your judgment."
"I will kill him for his disrespect!"
"You do not understand, my child," Derw Taenau said, reaching out with her branches to pet the head of the wolf. "You must escape the thoughts plaguing you and find your feelings."
"You believe he does not deserve death?" Morcant scoffed.
Derw Taenau embraced her child with her branches, using much more energy than usual to lift Morcant from the ground and cradle him in her boughs. "I believe you are making this decision from a biased perspective," she explained. "You have listened to the words of your people, and so you mistrust outsiders, for they've hurt you and yours in the past. This is a good skill for survival, and so you've honed it along with the rest of your senses. You have become one with the wild in almost every respect, yet there remains this one final test which you are in danger of failing."
"The test of sacrifice," Morcant replied testily.
"Yes, of your sacrifice," Derw Taenau clarified.
"Mine. Not his . . ." Morcant said, noting the difference at last. "I must give up something of myself. But what?"
"The thoughts of others continue to keep you bound to your image of this world and prevent you from seeing The Otherworld. They prevent you from seeing what could be."
Morcant let out a wolfish whine. "How do I give up the thoughts of others?"
"Stop holding onto them, and they will float away like leaves on the wind," Derw Taenau replied. "Or settle to the ground to be absorbed by the soil which birthed them."
"I'm supposed to just let go?" Morcant asked. "I'm supposed to forgive him?"
"You are to give him what he deserves, but it is up to you to determine what that is," Derw Taenau said.
"I can't help but feel every answer is wrong."
"This is because you are thinking instead of feeling," Derw Taenau replied. "Seek beyond everything you know. Sacrifice is always a risk of the heart."
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Once more, Morcant dressed before meeting his prisoner. He had thought on his oak mother's words throughout the night, and as morning approached he returned slowly to the clearing where he'd left Silvanus.
He picked up the sword as he passed it and perched atop a log near Silvanus' sleeping form, gently fidgeting with the weapon as he waited for Silvanus to wake from his uncomfortable slumber.
As the first rays of scattered sunlight found Silvanus' face through the trees, his eyes fluttered open. He sensed Morcant's presence immediately and turned toward him but couldn't quite angle himself correctly from where the roots held him bound.
Morcant slowly hopped from the log and made his way to stand over Silvanus, keeping his expression neutral as he considered the strange man, who still wore the same aggravating smile.
"It's time," Morcant said.
"I thought you would kill me at sunset," Silvanus said.
"I decided sunrise would be more fitting," Morcant replied. "It's a time for new beginnings. It's time to save those deserving."
"I understand. I believe my gods would approve of your choice," Silvanus replied, chuckling. "Apollo would bless me for being killed by such a magical creature as you."
"You would really die willingly?" Morcant asked.
"I am a prisoner of your spirit. I have no choice but to accept the fate you bestow on me," Silvanus replied solemnly.
"You would die a martyr for love, like your Roman Valentine?" Morcant asked.
"I would die a thousand deaths in the name of love," Silvanus said, tears formed in his eyes, but his smile remained as firm as ever.
"Then perhaps your gods will greet you soon," Morcant said. "Perhaps the Otherworld is not so far off for either of us."
He tossed the sword aside and knelt beside Silvanus, then ordered the plants to release Silvanus from their grasp. They readily complied, and Morcant reached out to massage the places where his bindings had dug into Silvanus' skin.
"Silvanus, the boy who walks by moonlight, the Roman who does not belong among Romans . . ." Morcant said gently, "you will die here, but it will not be this day, nor at my hand." He sighed and offered up more. "To you, I sacrifice my anger, my vengeance, and my hatred, all as martyrs in the name of love. I hold none of these for you, and I find you guiltless before me."
"Morcant," Silvanus said softly, reaching up to stroke Morcant's cheek. "You are the embodiment of life itself, in all its cruelties and mercies. I wish only to remain with you. You are the home I've sought for so long."
"Stop talking," Morcant said, returning Silvanus' smile at last. "Keep your Roman lies to yourself."
"As you wish," Silvanus said. "I can think of better things to do in silence, anyway." He finished his words with a kiss, drawing them into each other's arms once more, this time with no resistance to the pure connection between them.In the distance, the oak mother smiled, the sacrifice appeased, the test complete, and the Otherworld open to her child at last.
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