by D.K. Holmberg
Feliran looked out over her garden. What had once been fields of vibrant color were now trampled and destroyed, all slaughtered by the forces of the Conclave of Magi as they claimed her homeland for the king’s road. A few hardy stalks still stood, but even they were twisted and frayed, petals still clinging to the flower now tattered and faded. Even the perfumed beauty of the garden was lost, replaced by the stink of blood and bile from men who had died attempting to destroy her work.
Had she been stronger she might have prevented all of this.
Feliran sighed, sweeping through the ruins. Nothing salvageable remained. She would have to start anew; years wasted because the magi were too arrogant to believe the power of the gardens did not threaten their magic.
Others had lost more than she, some with decades of crossing, plants bred for specific purposes, the colors and flows trapped within their petals carefully tuned over the years to create ever more potent spells.
She felt their loss keenly, but it was the small patch in the heart of her garden she felt most acutely. The patch of rivenswood, all grown from the single flower she long ago named as her own, had been destroyed. The source of her power, the beginnings of everything that she could manage, now gone.
Feliran reached down and plucked one of the trampled flowers. Leaves of violet and yellow, once so vibrant, had withered and faded as if starved of moisture in spite of the loving care Feliran ensured they received. Blood stained the leaves along the stalk, dried and crusted and contrasting with the beauty of the flower. The small thorns running along the edge of the stem were blunted. She squeezed them between her thumb and forefinger and felt nothing.
“Everything is gone.”
Corasin stood overlooking the destruction. Remnants of tears stained her eyes, smearing the dirt along the corners. She kept her hands clapped to her stomach as if steeling herself to look upon the wreckage.
“I am sorry that I failed. That I was not stronger.”
“You did not fail,” Corasin said. “No more than the rest of us failed. How were we to know that the king would not respect the bargain?”
“That was three hundred years ago.”
“Still I remember,” Corasin said. She sighed and looked around at the dead. “I did not prepare for his magi. None of us did.”
Men in long scarlet cloaks lay twisted and broken among the soldiers. Each was pale, as if fearing the warmth of the sun. A look of shock and surprise now permanently twisted their faces, as the ground itself had seemed to attack. Powerful as they were, they died like any living creature.
She took little solace in their death. At least her protections served well enough for that.
“They wielded powerful destructive spells,” Corasin said.
Feliran shook her head. “A shame that is all they know.”
“A shame they did not take the time to enjoy the garden, to enjoy the warmth. We could have taught them much. Now…now there are few of us who remain. Our knowledge withers with us.”
Corasin tottered. It was then that Ferliran realized her ancient teacher had been injured. Corasin moved her hands and blood bloomed around her stomach, staining the bright blue fabric of her dress as it blossomed out.
“What will you do?” she asked.
They both knew that Feliran had not the power to change what had happened, not after the garden had been destroyed and with it, the source of her power. “A bargain was made once,” she answered.
“That was long ago,” Corasin sighed. “You must instead pass on your knowledge. Rebuild the gardens. Do not live with the anger that feeds their magic.”
“We honored the bargain, nurtured it,” Feliran said. She did not look over at Corasin, knowing her teacher would not approve what she would say next. “And it was abandoned by them,” she said, barely able to look at the cluster of dead magi. “What seemed a rosebush turned out to be nothing more than brambles that must be pruned.”
“Oh, Feliran,” Corasin breathed.
And then she breathed no more.
Years passed as Feliran regrew some of what had been lost.
The rivenswood had been the last of its kind, and try as she might, she could not save even a single plant. With the loss of the rivenswood, so too was much of her power, leaving her weakened and fragile, like little more than a seedling. All she was left with were the dried petals, enough to sprinkle among new growth to use whatever remained of her power to give these new buds as a gift.
The king’s road came through during her second season.
It came as a rush of engineers and masons, all trudging forward, pushing the boundary of the wide road across the land like a terrible scar forming atop trees felled by the destructive magi, killing whatever remaining flowers attempted to regrow in the ancient gardens, sending birds and insects and gardeners scurrying for new homes.
By then, she managed to regrow some of the basic plants she needed, moving her new garden away from the sacred earth that for uncountable years had helped grow the flowers her people needed.
Her garden changed from what it had once been. Gone were the bright red roses, the blue listhanis, the delicate lilies, all which filled her heart with joy. In their place were new plants, plants that did not need or want the full sunshine, that cared not for the shade where her garden now grew, plants that seemed to steal her smiles. Spiny loras. Dearthswain. Sicklethorn. With each blossom, some of her power returned…but changed from what it had once been. She felt it blooming deep within her chest and did not turn away from it.
Feliran did not stop the engineers when they came.
Deterring them would only risk drawing attention to her work. There had been enough attention after the king’s magi failed to return. During that time, Feliran and the remaining survivors had hidden, watching to see if the destruction would extend into the Svanth Forest. Instead, the magi found a different path for the king’s road to take, as if afraid the forest itself had caused their demise. The others left, moving deeper into the forest, searching for new lands to create their gardens and rebuild what had been taken from them.
But not Feliran.
Another season came and went, her garden growing more hardy under the muted light along the outskirts of the Svanth Forest. Each season Feliran found new plants, new growth to add to her garden and slowly it crept deeper into the forest. Some of her plants, the ones once felt to be too dangerous to grow and tend, needed very little sunshine.
Tradition held that Feliran should have chosen a student by now, but her garden was not ready and so she could not.
She wondered if she would ever be ready or if the magi had killed off even that. Would she be the last gardener?
Soon another season came and went. And another.
With each season, Feliran receded deeper into the forest, leaving the warmth of the sun.
After five seasons, when she knew her garden would continue to spread and grow without any additional help from her, Feliran left her home. Her garden had returned though not to its former glory, but still Feliran could feel power coming back to her. A few more seasons and she might be able to disrupt the flow of travelers along the king’s road.
Doing that would be like snipping only the newest growth. The roots were still strong and deep. The whole plant needed pruning.
“We have the magi. What use is your magic?”
Feliran made a point of not looking over at the scarlet-cloaked magi standing next to the king in the wide musty throne room. Sunlight filtered through windows too high overhead, making it so she needed to crane her neck for its light. The magi looked upon her with his mouth twisted in a snide expression, his close cropped hair gone grey from the effect of his magic over time. From that alone she knew he was experienced. A few more years and he would lose his hair altogether.
“My lord,” she continued. “Your magi have great experience with their magic. I do not deny that theirs is a power I cannot replicate.”
“And yet you present yourself before your king?” the magi asked. His voice was raspy and worn.
She turned to him, meeting his faded eyes with her own brilliant blue eyes. To his credit, he did not look away, although likely it was out of ignorance of her power rather than a true testament of his will. “I do,” she answered, saying nothing about how this king was not her king.
Her king would have honored the bargain, would have known that it was only through the power of the gardens that the kingdom had flourished, power gifted to the throne hundreds of years ago. Her king had been tainted by the touch of the magi, their seductive magic like a weed sending thin tendrils that surrounded the king’s mind making him forget that it was through the bargain made with the gardeners that his realm flourished, their power taking root and prospering, becoming more than any could have imagined.
Feliran was all that remained to remind him of the bargain.
The magi’s sneer deepened.
Feliran fixed him with a hard gaze, attempting to pierce him like a thorn through flesh. “I came to show him power greater than what the magi can create, power as vast as the sun. The power that helped the kingdom grow strong and prosperous.”
“The Conclave guides the kingdom.”
Feliran ignored him, turning to the king. The decision was his to make. She did not want to have to uproot the whole plant when simply removing the diseased roots would work. But she would if necessary.
The king lounged back in his throne, a chair of twisted wood rubbed smooth through years of service. Feliran recognized the rivenswood and her heart ached. That he sat upon a throne of rivenswood made the betrayal of the gardens that much greater.
Next to him, sitting atop a smaller throne also of rivenswood, sat the queen. She watched Feliran with great interest, her eyes widening as Feliran described her power.
“I have learned a little of magic,” he said, waving a hand toward the magi. A ring of black metal circled his middle finger, the same as the magi wore. “The Conclave of Magi have served me well.”
She tipped her head toward him. “I know that they have aided your conquests, my lord. I will not say the same of my power.”
The magi snorted. “Then there is little use for you.”
The king glanced at the magi and shrugged. “If my advisor thinks there is nothing…”
“Perhaps a demonstration, my lord,” Feliran offered.
She had prepared for this resistance, had heard enough during her months traveling along the king’s road to know that the influence of the magi on the king was strong and deep rooted.
Feliran had chosen this day to present herself intentionally.
The king looked from the magi to Feliran, his face neutral. The queen grasped his arm and he looked over at her affectionately. She mouthed something silently with lips painted rose red as she brushed a hand through golden hair.
“The queen feels that a demonstration would be helpful,” the king announced. “And points out that I would be remiss to shun any source of power that might help protect the realm.” He looked pointedly at the magi, almost daring him to say something. The magi’s smirk only deepened.
She nodded. “For my demonstration, I must request that we move outside.”
The king frowned. “I do not think my lady’s attire will stand up to the elements today. Can you not simply perform your demonstration here?”
The magi watched her intently.
Feliran bowed her head slightly, meeting the queen’s eyes. “I think the queen is hardy enough to manage the weather.”
“My lord,” the magi said, “let me observe this farce. You and the queen need not be bothered—”
“It is no bother,” the queen said, standing from her rivenswood throne. “I should very much like to see this demonstration.”
Feliran’s mouth tightened as she led them to the courtyard behind the palace.
With the large wall surrounding the courtyard stretching out toward the west and the lush grass growing throughout, it looked like a massive garden. Towering elms dotted the lawn, reaching toward the nurturing sun and waving long fingered branches in the soft breeze blowing in out of the north. Heavy black clouds hung overhead, thick and fat. Large droplets of rain pelted down. Thunder pealed distantly.
The magi watched her, his scarlet hood now pulled up over his head.
She sensed the effort of his summoning magic.
Feliran stood apart from the others and looked up at the sky. Even here, this far removed from her garden now growing on the edge of the Sventh Forest, she could feel its power. The garden was not large enough for more than a single demonstration, had not the power stored that once majestic Gardens of Elaysia managed, but Feliran knew there was enough for what she needed.
Drawing on her garden, she focused her energy on the clouds and worked her subtle art. Slowly the clouds cleared, at first resisting her effort. Feliran strained, drawing more of the stored energy of her distant garden, and pushed the clouds from the sky. Where black clouds and raindrops had been now was clear sky and sun.
Feliran sagged, the source of her power depleted. She turned to see the magi watching her with a changed expression, his eyes heavy with distrust, his face taut and drained. Defeated.
The queen, though, clapped and pulled on the king’s sleeve, who looked upon Feliran with an expression of that bordered on respect.
Though his hood was drawn, she did not need to look to see the look on the magi’s face.
The pruning had begun.
Years passed as Feliran cultivated a new garden, turning the courtyard into a large garden. She started simply, choosing flowers that grew well in this region, flowers that might not grant her great power at this time, but with enough focus would serve her purpose. But between the perisals and corinths, she worked strains of vipeslar and taranth, careful to grow them at first under the shade of the great elms scattered around the yard.
With each passing year, her power blossomed.
The connection to the flowers near the edge of the Svanth Forest remained, regenerating slowly after each use, the shade of the forest preventing sunlight from recharging them rapidly. It was the queen primarily who asked her to perform works of magic and Feliran complied, knowing that she needed to feed her connection to the queen.
Feliran used her power sparingly but to great effect. Most often she was asked to alter the weather, but rain nurtured the soil, providing the lifeblood for her power. More severe storms, those with tornados so common near the palace before she came, storms summoned by the magi, she altered to keep the heart of the storm away from the palace. She demonstrated her ability to speed the harvest, spurring the wheat and corn to grow more prosperous than it would. And when there was an uprising on the border of the kingdom, Feliran used her magic to a calming effect.
Over time, the magi became unnecessary. Even the king came to see that.
So it was that the queen came to her with a special request. Train her daughters in the art of flowers, guide them to find their own magic.
“To learn the magic of my people, my queen, they must be able to find their own flower.” Even now, thinking of her beloved rivenswood pained her. “I cannot guarantee they will be able to learn.”
“Will you try, Lira?” she asked, using the name Feliran had given.
She nodded, tilting her head toward the sun. The garden spread out around them, rows of bright color that had turned the palace courtyard into a garden that if properly cultivated would one day rival her lost garden. The perfumed scent of the garden mingled with that of the earth and Feliran inhaled deeply, satisfied with her progress.
Gardeners flitted along the edges, men the queen insisted upon, telling Feliran that she had more important use for her time. Because of these gardeners, Feliran kept her most precious flowers hidden amongst the others. Springs of spiny loras and sicklethorn grew among the roses, the heavy thorny bushes providing enough shade that her delicate flowers could grow. There were others, flowers only found in the heart of the Svanth that she kept more carefully, hiding them completely from the gardeners.
“I will try, my lady.”
The princesses came to her to learn.
The eldest had the possibility of talent, but was too confident with what she knew. She would be of no use to Feliran so she allowed her to choose a striped perisal as her flower. The second eldest had no potential, preferring to spend her time weaving or sewing. Feliran feigned excitement when she brought her a thistlebud and claimed it as her flower. The youngest was simple minded and lovely, so suitable for the lily she selected.
Eris was different.
She had none of the soft features that her sister had and little of the grace. Bold and brash, Eris argued with her sisters, always competing. Within her, Feliran sensed real ability, saw the way the flowers turned toward her as she passed through the garden even if she and the gardeners did not.
Feliran hid her surprise when Eris finally brought a flower to her. It was a unique flower, one that Feliran had cultivated for years, growing it in a small box along the window of her room, only moving it to the garden when she sensed the need for more sun and rain than her small window could provide.
“Is this your flower, Eris Taeresin?” she asked.
It was a familiar question, one she had asked Eris many times over the months. Most of the time Eris brought to her a flower she knew would not succeed. Secretly Feliran understood; it was the garden that appealed to her not the promise of studies that were to come once she succeeded.
Eris looked at her, holding the multicolored flower carefully in her hand. She stood defiantly, with all of the attitude the teary star would require were she to choose it.
Such a flower was rarely bonded. Feliran had grown the flower for her own purposes, not thinking that there would be one that would bond to it. Even among the great gardeners, she knew of none that have ever bonded the teary star.
The look on Eris’s face told her all that she needed to know. “Yes,” she finally answered.
Feliran waited, letting Eris’s worry build. “Then you next task is to learn all that you can of your flower,” she said. “Only then can you begin to understand its power.” She sensed disappointment from her. “You think you should have another task?” she asked.
“You would like to learn the art of arrangement with your sisters?” she asked. Perhaps she had been wrong about this one. Disappointing if true, but better for her to learn now than to waste more of her time.
Eris looked from Feliran to the flower, uncertainty on her face. Slowly that uncertainty faded, disappearing, replaced by stubborn determination. “I would like to know what you know,” she answered.
After all these years, she would have her student. The knowledge of the gardens would be passed on. New seeds planted. New roots formed, these deeper and stronger than the ones that had come before. “Then I will teach,” she said.
The short story was the inspiration for what became The Lost Garden series. If you enjoyed this short, consider checking out book 1 of The Lost Garden, Keeper of the Forest.