Read an Excerpt
The night sky brightened faintly in the east with the approach of dawn as the Chosen entered the
Gardens of Life. Without, the Elven city of Arborlon lay sleeping, its people still wrapped in the
warmth and solitude of their beds. But for the Chosen, the day had already begun. Their trailing
white robes billowing slightly with a rush of summer
wind, they passed between the sentries of the Black Watch, who stood
rigid and aloof as such sentries had stood for centuries gone before the
arched, wrought-iron gateway inlaid with silver scroll and ivory chips.
They passed quickly, and only their soft voices and the crunch of their
sandaled feet on the gravel pathway disturbed the silence of the new day
as they slipped into the pine-shadowed dark beyond.
The Chosen were the caretakers of the Ellcrys, the strange and wondrous
tree that stood at the center of the Gardens--the tree, as the legends
told, that served as protector against a primordial evil that had very
nearly destroyed the Elves centuries ago, an evil that had been shut
away from the earth since before the dawn of the old race of Men. In all
the time that had followed, there had been Chosen to care for the
Ellcrys. Theirs was a tradition handed down through generations of
Elves, a tradition of service that the Elves regarded as both a coveted
honor and a solemn duty.
Yet there was little evidence of solemnity in the procession that passed
through the Gardens this morning. Two hundred and thirty days of the
year of their service had gone by, and youthful spirits could no longer
be easily subdued. The first sense of awe at the responsibility given
them had long since passed, and the Chosen of the Elves were now just
six young men on their way to perform a task they had performed each day
since the time of their choosing, a task grown old and familiar--the
greeting of the tree at the first touch of sunrise.
Only Lauren, youngest of this year's Chosen, was silent. He lagged
a bit behind the others as they walked, taking no part in their idle
chatter. His red head was bent in concentration, and there was a deep
frown on his face. So wrapped up in his thoughts was he that he was not
aware when the noise ahead ceased, nor of the steps that fell back
beside him, until a hand touched his arm. Then his troubled face jerked
up abruptly to find Jase regarding him.
"What's the matter, Lauren? Are you sick?" Jase asked. Because
he was a few months older than the rest, Jase was the accepted leader of
Lauren shook his head, but the frown did not leave his face entirely.
"I'm all right."
"Something is bothering you. You've been brooding all morning.
Come to think of it, you were rather quiet last night, too."
Jase's hand on his shoulder brought the younger Elf about to face
him. "Come on, out with it. Nobody expects you to serve if
youaO(TM)re not feeling well."
Lauren hesitated, then sighed and nodded, "All right. It's the
Ellcrys. Yesterday, at sunset, just before we left her, I thought I saw
some spotting on her leaves. It looked like wilt."
"Wilt? Are you sure? Nothing like that ever happens to the
Ellcrys--at least that's what wea've always been told," Jase
"I could have been mistaken," Lauren admitted. "It was getting
dark. I told myself then that it was probably just the way the shadows
lay on the leaves. But the more I try to remember how it looked, the
more I think it really was wilt."
There was a disconcerted muttering from the others, and one of them
spoke. "This is Amberle's fault. I said before that something
bad would come from having a girl picked as a Chosen."
"There were other girls among the Chosen, and nothing happened
because of it," Lauren protested. He had always liked Amberle. She had
been easy to talk to, even if she was King Eventine Elessedila's
"Not for five hundred years, Lauren," the other said.
"All right, that's enough," Jase interrupted. "We agreed
not to talk about Amberle. You know that." He stood silently for a
moment, pondering what Lauren had said. Then he shrugged. "It would
be unfortunate if anything happened to the tree, especially while she
was under our care. But after all, nothing lasts forever."
Lauren was shocked. "But Jase, when the tree weakens, the Forbidding
will end and the Demons within will be freed . . ."
"Do you really believe those old stories, Lauren?" Jase laughed.
Lauren stared at the older Elf. "How can you be a Chosen and not
"I don't remember being asked what I believed when I was chosen,
Lauren. Were you asked?"
Lauren shook his head. Candidates for the honor of being Chosen were
never asked anything. They were simply brought before the tree--young
Elves who had crossed over into manhood and womanhood in the prior year.
At the dawn of the new year, they gathered to pass beneath her limbs,
each pausing momentarily for acceptance. Those the tree touched upon the
shoulders became the new Chosen, to serve until the year was done.
Lauren could still remember the mix of ecstasy and pride he had felt at
the moment a slender branch had bent to touch him and he'd heard
her speak his name.
And he remembered, too, the astonishment of all when Amberle had been
called . . .
"It's just a tale to frighten children," Jase was saying.
"The real function of the Ellcrys is to serve as a reminder to the
Elven people that they, like her, survive despite all the changes that
have taken place in the history of the Four Lands. She is a symbol of
our people's strength, Lauren--nothing more."
He motioned for them all to resume their walk into the Gardens and
turned away. Lauren lapsed back into thought. The older Elf's
casual disregard for the legend of the tree disturbed him. Of course
Jase was from the city, and Lauren had observed that the people of
Arborlon seemed to take the old beliefs less seriously than did those of
the little northern village from which he came. But the story of the
Ellcrys and the Forbidding wasn't just a story--it was the
foundation of everything that was truly Elven, the most important event
in the history of his people.
It had all taken place long ago, before the birth of the new world.
There had been a great war between good and evilaO"a war that the Elves
had finally won by creating the Ellcrys and a Forbidding that had
banished the evil Demons into a timeless dark. And so long as the
Ellcrys was kept well, so long would the evil be locked from the land.
So long as the Ellcrys was kept well . . .
He shook his head doubtfully. Maybe the wilt was but a trick of his
imagination. Or a trick of the light. And if not, they would simply have
to find a cure. There was always a cure.
Moments later, he stood with the others before the tree. Hesitantly, he
looked up, then sighed in relief. It appeared as if the Ellcrys was
unchanged. Perfectly formed, her silver-white trunk arched skyward in a
symmetrically balanced network of tapered limbs clustered with broad,
five-cornered leaves that were blood-red in color. At her base, strips
of green moss grew in patchwork runners through the cracks and crevices
of the smooth-skinned bark, like emerald streams flowing down a mountain
hillside. There were no splits to mar the trunk's even lines, no
branches cracked or broken. So beautiful, he thought. He looked again,
but could see no signs of the sickness he had feared.
The others went to gather the tools they would use in the feeding and
grooming of the tree and in the general upkeep of the Gardens. But Jase
held Lauren back. "Would you like to greet her today, Lauren?" he
Lauren stammered his surprised thanks. Jase was giving up his turn for
the most special of tasks, obviously in an effort to cheer him.
He stepped forward under the spreading branches to lay his hands upon
the smooth-skinned trunk, the others gathering about a few paces back to
recite the morning greeting. He glanced upward expectantly, searching
for the first beam of sunlight that would fall upon her form.
Then abruptly he drew back. The leaves directly above him were dark with
patches of wilt. His heart fell. There was spotting elsewhere as well,
scattered throughout the tree. It was not a trick of light and shadow.
It was real.
He motioned frantically for Jase, then pointed as the other came
forward. As was their custom at this time, they did not speak, but Jase
gasped as he saw the extent of the damage already done. Slowly the two
walked around the tree, discovering spots everywhere, some barely
visible, others already darkening the leaves so badly that their
blood-red color seemed drained away.
Whatever his professed beliefs concerning the tree, Jase was badly
shaken, and his face reflected his dismay as he went back to confer in
whispers with the others. Lauren moved to join them, but Jase quickly
shook his head, motioning to the top of the tree, where the dawn's
light had almost reached the uppermost branches.
Lauren knew his duty and he turned back again to the tree. Whatever else
was to happen, the Chosen must greet the Ellcrys this day as they had
greeted her each day since the beginning of their Order.
He placed his hands gently on the silver bark and the words of greeting
were forming on his lips when a slender branch from the ancient tree
dipped slightly to brush his shoulder.
The young Elf jumped at the sound of his name. But no one had spoken.
The sound had been in his mind, the voice little more than an image of
his own face.
It was the Ellcrys!
He caught his breath, twisting his head to glimpse briefly the branch
that rested on his shoulder before turning quickly back again. Confusion
swept through him. Only once before had she spoken to him--on the day
of his choosing. She had spoken his name then; she had spoken all their
names. It had been the last time. She had never spoken to any of them
after that. Never--except to Amberle, of course, and Amberle was no
longer one of them.
He looked hurriedly at the others. They were staring at him, curious as
to why he had stopped. Then the branch that rested upon his shoulder
slipped down to wrap about him loosely, and he flinched involuntarily
with its touch.
--Lauren. Call the Chosen to me--
The images appeared quickly and were gone. Hesitantly Lauren beckoned to
his comrades. They came forward, questions forming on their lips as they
stared upward at the silver-limbed tree. Branches lowered to clasp each,
and the voice of the Ellcrys whispered softly.
--Hear me. Remember what I tell you. Do not fail me--
A chill swept over them, and the Gardens of Life were shrouded in deep,
hollow silence, as if in all the world only they were alive. Images
filled their minds, flowing one after the other in rapid succession.
There was horror contained in those images. Had they been able, the
Chosen would have turned away, to flee and hide until the nightmare that
possessed them had passed and been forgotten. But the tree held them
fast, and the images continued to flow and the horror to mount, until
they felt they could stand no more.
Then at last it was finished, and the Ellcrys was silent once more, her
limbs lifting from their shoulders and stretching wide to catch the
warmth of the morning sun.
Lauren stood frozen, tears streaming down his cheeks. Shattered, the six
Chosen faced one another, and in each mind the truth whispered
The legend was not legend. The legend was life. Evil did indeed lie
beyond a Forbidding that the Ellcrys maintained. Only she kept the Elven
And now she was dying.