Kaen breathed in, drawing the puthering smoke deep into his lungs. With each breath he could feel his hold upon the material world slipping further away.
“Close your eyes and focus your mind upon the Tree.” Yeren’s voice seemed to eddy like the smoke. “Follow the trunk up, higher and higher. See how the branches spread out, dividing, reaching out into the sky.”
At first the tree appeared in monochrome, dark and forbidding as it towered over him, but soon it began to shimmer into evanescent colour as he followed his mentor’s instructions.
“It’s so bright,” he breathed in awe.
“Within the Tree can be found all knowledge of the past, present and future. Its roots delve deep into the life-giving Earth. Each member of the tribe who has passed on, each lifetime that has contributed to our current strength, all can be found within the tangled threads that feed into the trunk that is the Ilerai. We all stand tall and strong together. Above us our futures stretch out in branching lines of possibility.”
“The future is not set in stone, my boy,” Yeren said. “As Guides, our role is to choose the best path for the tribe. We do so by using the Tree.”
“What do I do?”
“You find the branch that shines the brightest.”
Carried on updrafts of smoke, Kaen drifted higher until the branches of the Tree surrounded him. He reached out a hand, drawn to a shining bough. As his fingertips brushed against prismatic light, he tumbled into a vision of the future.
He saw the people of the Ilerai cheerily going about their daily tasks within the village. He saw them gathered around the Winter fire; leading successful hunts in the great forest; fighting against woad-daubed invaders, and celebrating great victories. He saw births, unions, deaths.
He saw himself kneeling upon the central altar, his blood flowing freely over the stone. The gods demanded a sacrifice.
He withdrew his hand, reeling backwards.
No, no, no, no, no.
Another branch glimmered nearby. It was thinner, weaker, it’s light dim in comparison to the future that had first drawn him, but when the visions unfurled, he saw himself standing tall, the lone Guide for the tribe. He saw a future in which he was respected, revered. His hair was grey when death finally found him.
But around him the tribe had crumbled. Weary faces hurried through their days, desperate to return to the fragile safety of their homes. Defeat in battle, subjugation, famine – all took their toll upon the people of the Ilerai. And the fault was his alone.
For whilst he would appear to be their saviour, his blade would drip with blood. No matter how many sacrifices he offered, the gods would remain displeased.
He gasped, drawing in another lungful of smoke. There had to be another way!
Branch after branch, he saw the sequence repeated, varied in the detail, but on the larger scale remaining the same: the future of the tribe was bright and strong when he died young, mere faint twigs of defeat if he lived.
“Do you see what I see?” He had to ask. He had to know. “Are these futures the only options?”
“I see them. And you see as much as I.”
“Then why? Why did you bring me here? Why did you show me this?”
He could feel Yeren’s wizened hands upon his own as the smoke began to dissipate and the material world tethered him once more. The Tree towered above him in stark monochrome, blurring into the ether as he blinked his watering eyes.
“Because in the strongest future, your sacrifice is a willing one.”
In the strongest future for the tribe…
The weight of his ceremonial blade, sheathed at his thigh, was a heavy reminder: in the strongest future for him, his mentor’s blood would be the first he offered as an alternative sacrifice to the gods.
That choice of which branch to follow was his alone to make.
Word count: 671 words
This post is for Fandango’s Flash Fiction Challenge. It’s quite a bit longer than the pieces of flash fiction that I used to write, but it really didn’t want to be any shorter. I’d intended to have it completed several days ago, but it just kept on growing – no matter how much I tried to trim it down. I am very out of practice!
I hope you enjoyed the read.