Title: The Oak Queen (6/6)
Fandom: Star Trek TOS
Characters: Kirk, Spock, McCoy
Summary: Sequel to The Desert Children; Kirk, Spock, and McCoy reunite, but they soon learn an otherworld, while easy to enter, is impossible to leave - particularly when it is conspiring to keep one of them forever.
Parts: Foreword | Where a Tale Begins | A Quest for Three | A Quest for Two | A Quest for One | At the Heart's End
At the Heart's End
The Story-teller sat in a rocking chair. Around her, children formed half-moon rows, their young faces reflecting the gravity of the nightly gathering.
"Not all stories are happy," she began. "Not all stories can end as we want them to. What I tell you now, my children, is a story that will turn the heart cold. It will keep you awake until the darkest hour of the night, trembling in your beds—but I must tell it to you. Silence is the greater evil. Fear will be your boon."
She fell silent and closed her unseeing eyes as if to savor the tune made by her words. The children knew her from another tale as the mumbling old woman collecting twigs on the forest floor for her fire. She alone remembered the names of the monsters in the world when all others had forgotten. They wanted to learn the names of those monsters too, so they waited for her to speak again.
"Once upon a time there were three brothers. The eldest brother was the strongest, the youngest brother was the kindest, and the brother of an age between them was the smartest. Separately, the brothers were respected but together they were truly feared for their formidable power. It is said that once these brothers destroyed and repaired all worlds in a heart beat's time. Though that is a great tale itself, tonight I share with you the story of how they came to lose one another—and how that loss changed everything they held dear."
Some children drew quiet breaths; others leaned together, shoulder to shoulder. They were ready to face what they must, as she bade them, and accept fear. They knew already of their own tragic fates.
The woman in the hut has to be Bones' chicken lady, Jim decides as he slips through the door behind Spock.
The instant he is seen, the woman starts squawking. "Get out! Get him out!"
Spock is the picture of politeness. "I am Mr. Spock. My companion is James—"
"He's the Captain Kirk!" the chicken lady snaps. "Of course I know who he is! Get him out!" She comes at Jim with an over-sized broom. "Shoo, you rascal, SHOO!" Jim dodges like a youngster with years of practice, and the broom narrowly misses his head.
"Spock!" the Captain shouts when the chicken lady has him cornered between a table and a wall and raises her household weapon with clear, violent intent.
She makes a noise of surprise as the broom is taken away from her and deposited in an unoccupied corner of the hut. The woman whirls around, confronts the Vulcan thief, and demands, "What right do you have to steal my things!"
The Vulcan thief merely looks at her.
Jim lifts his hands, palms outward. "Why are you attacking me? What have I done?"
"Done? Done!" But she seems to be calming down, her voice no longer shrill. "It is not what you have done, foolish man, but what you will do!" Her black eyes pin him like a butterfly to a parchment. "I cannot be wooed."
His face flushes. "Excuse me?"
Spock angles away from them and studiously watches a small white hen, who in turn tracks the progress of a black beetle across the dirt floor until it is within range. Then the hen snatches the beetle up and crunches it with a razor-edged beak.
The woman snorts and eyes Kirk warily. "I am not some fluff-brained beauty—"
Definitely not that, Jim thinks.
"—who can be dazzled by your handsome face—"
His ego perks up, interested.
"—and your princely charm!"
It would be completely inappropriate to laugh. Jim tries his best not to.
"There it is!" she shrieks, pulling at her feathered hair. "Stop smiling!" Hurrying to the other side of the room, she digs through a basket in great haste. Having found what she needs, the incensed (and somewhat desperate) woman stomps to a cauldron filled with simmering liquid and flings a root into it. Enormous billows of purplish-black smoke rise in the air; then the smoke shimmers, becoming into a lazy green coil.
Jim hesitates to ask what she is doing.
She cuts her eyes at him as though he had given voice to the question. "Do you know what creature is the antidote to temptation in this universe, Captain Kirk?"
He almost mutters "A Klingon" but decides she isn't likely to have met one.
The woman chants something in the direction of the pot and the fire beneath it explodes in a shower of sparks. Cackling, she retrieves her broom, stirs the murky liquid with its handle, and answers for him: "A frog. Who would risk her virtue over a hazel-eyed frog?" She fills a cup from the cauldron and tells the man to drink from it.
Jim sidles closer to Spock, declining the near-command firmly.
"I said drink it! I can't look at you in that form and think!" She adds as an afterthought, "The spell shouldn't be permanent."
Jim makes an executive decision. "I'll just wait... outside... for the two of you to conclude your business."
Once he is leaning against the opposite side of the closed door, he sighs noiselessly with relief. Surely, promise or not, McCoy wouldn't begrudge him this one act of cowardice. Besides, Jim appeals to his common sense as Spock does to logic, it would be utterly impossible for him to help them return to the Enterprise if he was no bigger than the toe of a boot.
Of course, there is another, small matter which keeps James T. Kirk out of the witch's hut: Jim very much suspects Spock would choose dignity over loyalty when it comes to kissing frogs.
"Hmph," the woman says to the closed door. She takes a sip from the cup held steady between her golden talons.
Clasping his hands behind his back, Spock asks curiously, "What did you add?"
"Ginger-root," she replies, grinning. "I like a bit of spice to my tea."
"Then I assume the tea lacks in magical properties."
"Mostly," she agrees and motions to a chair made of bleached bones. "Have a seat, Spock, and let's—as your Captain said—discuss our business." She settles in an identical chair and levels a stern gaze, almost a glare, upon him. "You seek the firebird. Why?"
"I must," Spock tells her, "if I am to save my friend."
"Friend," she mutters under her breath. As if summoned, the white hen pecks into its way over to the chairs, and the witch bundles the hen into her arms. "You speak of a man who disrespects you when he can get away with it; a man who nettles you with unkind words and expects you not to feel their sting. Why should I lend my help so that you may save him?"
Spock's posture is perfectly straight, controlled, but it is his fingers, which tick lightly against his knees just once, that give away his reaction to her accusations. She smiles knowingly and strokes the hen's glossy white feathers with her talons.
"Let me advise you, Spock: recognize your opportunity. Be rid of this nuisance in your life. Would you not be..." She pauses, cocking her head. "...more efficient without him?"
Spock stands. "I cannot agree with your presumption. Doctor McCoy is not a detriment to the Enterprise."
"When did I mention your starship?"
Their eyes meet; neither yields to the other.
After some seconds, Spock challenges softly, "Doctor McCoy means me no harm."
She clucks. "Liar."
His eyes turn to chips of black ice. "I do not lie. If you know so intimately of our relationship, as you insinuate, then you also know the doctor has saved my life—"
"What do precisely calculated numbers mean to me?" she interrupts.
He leaves his sentence unfinished and turns for the door. "I have no time to spare for a debate with an irrational being."
It is her laughter which stills him before he reaches the door. "Oh, how wonderfully foolish!" the witch cries. "Do you think I am like your friend—that you can walk away and leave me sputtering to myself?" The door disappears. She rises, tucking the white hen under her arm, and chuckles darkly. "I am not your Doctor McCoy, Mr. Spock. When our conversation is done, it will be my word that ends it."
His hands fall loosely to his sides. "The doctor mentioned your rudeness. I see he was correct."
Her body snaps bow-string taut, tense with outrage, and the shadow of her upon the floor loses its shape until it is a large blotch of darkness staining the dirt. Spock watches in silence as the red feathers sprouting from her head melt into hissing snakes.
He waits, interested to see what she will fling at him.
"—CRUDE MENACE! YOU—HOBGOBLIN!"
Swiftly and without fear, the Vulcan approaches her, heedless of the snakes baring their fangs at him. "You cannot use that word. It does not belong to you." His tone is implacable.
The monstrous woman draws back as if to strike a blow but, surprisingly, she deflates all at once. The earth swallows her shadow, and the snakes on her head fade into a crazed nest of dull red hair.
Her mouth makes a wordless shape, and a bitten-off noise escapes from it. "It is not my word," she agrees, groping behind her for the edge of her bone chair. Silently, the witch's chest heaves. "Name your price."
He almost asks her to explain her abrupt change of mind but he recognizes the gem hidden beneath the oddness of her offer. Past experience has taught him not to ignore such an opportunity. "I wish to meet the firebird."
Her eyes grow unfocused as she looks past him, seeing something he cannot. "My hen," she says roughly, "take my hen."
"I wish to meet the firebird," he states again.
"Then you must," she sighs. Long, pale fingers replace her talons. She snags them in the knots in her hair. "I will show you the firebird," the woman says, her voice lighter than before, "but then you will go."
What happens then is not something the Vulcan will recall with clarity. The hut wavers, a desert mirage or a mirror's illusion, and vanishes. He is standing in a clearing among tall pines. Day has fallen into dusk.
"Spock?" The Captain strides toward him, his face still sporting a hint of alarm. "What happened?"
"I am not certain," Spock admits.
Jim lays a hand on the Vulcan's shoulder, tightening his fingers only momentarily as to assure himself Spock is really there. "I thought I had—" But Kirk doesn't complete his sentence, instead pressing his mouth into a thin, unhappy line. "McCoy was right. We can't separate again, Spock. I should have known better the first time."
His hand drops away, and they turn, shoulder to shoulder, to observe their surroundings.
The pine trees are old things crowded together in perpetual silence. Their branches seem to make shadows out of nothing. Occasionally, a squirrel or a small creature changes its location in a tree, causing pine needles to rain upon the forest floor. The snuffling in the underbrush might be a badger. But there is no indication of an exotic bird.
Jim is the first to spot the vague glittering through the canopy; Spock, however, is the first to hear the song.
It drifts into the clearing, lending an ethereal quality to the silence of the ancient pines. Traces of color flicker in and out of the trees, weaving a pattern in harmony with the song's notes. Next to Spock, Jim is completely silent, his gaze transfixed ahead for glimpses of the firebird.
Spock remembers McCoy's warning. He reaches down and brushes the tips of his fingers against the underside of his Captain's wrist, only to jerk them back as if burned—for something has set fire to Jim's emotions but at the same time muted the vibrancy of his thoughts. Instinctively, Spock places himself in front of Kirk. He considers how to combat a spell of song. It could be possible, if he had to, that a carefully shaped barrier around the human's mind would hold against it.
"Captain," he says urgently.
Jim's mouth stretches in an absent smile. "Spock," the man murmurs, "can you hear it?"
"Captain, focus on my voice."
Jim pushes past him, not listening. "I've never heard anything so beautiful. She wants...I must..." As he speaks, he wanders to the edge of the clearing, soon to be lost among the pathless trees.
"Jim," Spock apologizes from behind him, "I am sorry."
The firebird appears in a tree at the same moment Spock reaches for his Captain's neck. A gasp of wonder flies out of Jim like the final word on the subject of his enchantment before he slumps to the ground. With Kirk crumpled and oblivious at Spock's feet, the firebird stops singing and clings to her branch in silence. Her fiery plumage sways in sinuous waves against the gloomy backdrop of the forest.
Spock contemplates his words to her, and a story he once heard from a scholar, and settles on, "I am Spock, son of Sarek. I have traveled here to seek a gift from you."
The silence continues.
He clasps his hands behind his back and waits.
The firebird glides to the forest floor, changing her appearance as she goes, until a lovely woman stands just within the line of trees. Her eyes are golden and her hair is a rich red. "What gift would you have of me?" she asks.
"Any magic you can spare" is his solemn answer.
"Magic must be earned."
"How must I earn it?"
"Give me a gift of greater worth than my magic and I will tell you."
That is impossible for many reasons. "I cannot judge the worth of your magic."
"What is it worth to you?"
The Vulcan answers honestly. "To me, your magic has no value. I ask for it on behalf of another, so that I might help him."
"Then his value to you is of greater worth." She bends her graceful neck and studies the unconscious Kirk. "Give this man to me in his stead."
"I cannot," Spock says, his posture stiffening slightly.
"If you refuse, how will you earn my magic?"
"I will not trade him. If it is a person you wish to have, then there is only myself."
She lifts her face to a sky dusted with warm colors and a hint of moon. "What are you worth, son of Sarek?"
This, Spock can answer and have his heart agree. "I am worth the life of a friend."
"That is great power," the firebird says softly. "I accept your gift, and your selflessness has earned mine." She gives him a single word; it arrows straight into his heart and settles there.
Spock touches the place on his torso where his physical heart lies, almost expecting to feel a heat beneath his skin. "I do not understand," he says slowly. "How will this help me?"
"Wield it when it is needed most."
"I have used the word before."
"It is a word you have said but never truly shared. I have given it the power to be heard." The firebird sings a solitary note then, which spirals toward the treetops and beyond, never to descend until it reaches the farthest star in the sky. She falls silent, and they listen to its echo for an infinite moment in time.
Spock, his name brushes his mind, warm and golden and somehow sad, now I must have your promise. When your life has reached its end and your spirit is unfettered, return to my forest.
"How will I find it?" he asks.
Your heart sings of loneliness, like mine. It will know the way.
With those final words, the firebird turns and retreats into the forest, bird and woman and Other. When she is a dim glow in the darkness, Jim awakens.
"Ugh," he groans, touching the juncture between his neck and shoulder as if he can still feel Spock's fingers pressing there. "My head."
"I must claim responsibility for your condition, Captain. You were enchanted by the firebird, and there was no less violent alternative than... disabling that which had been turned against you."
"My mind," the man hazards a guess.
Kirk climbs to his feet and brushes dirt from his knees. "Thank you, Commander." He rolls his shoulders. Spock catches the fleeting, pained expression Kirk quickly suppresses but the Vulcan does not remark upon it.
"Jim," he says, choosing informality to gain the man's attention. Jim glances at him sharply. "I have what I need. Now we must find Doctor McCoy."
Jim looks around them and looses a grim sigh. "I suppose any direction will do."
It is unfortunate, Spock thinks, that he cannot improve that suggestion. They enter the forest.
After a period of silence and Jim's determined underfoot crunching of twigs, Spock stops walking and remarks, "We might benefit from asking for help."
Jim frowns at him. "Who would we ask?"
"An individual is following us, Captain." Technically, it is a shadow but shadows generally do not move of their own accord.
Kirk half-turns in surprise, his eyes expertly assessing the area. Yet, rather than demanding the person show himself, Jim says shortly, "We need your help."
A fox bounds into sight. "Ah," it says cheerfully, "how lovely of you to ask! I am Red." The fox dips its head in lieu of an introductory bow.
When the fox first began to speak, Spock's eyebrows shot to his hairline. Now they are attempting to remove themselves from his forehead entirely. He approaches the fox. "I have only studied instances where an external voice overlay is integrated with an animal lacking in developed phonation to simulate speech. May I request that you speak again?"
"Ha!" the fox barks, amused. "If I look strange to you, how do you think you look to me?"
"Fascinating. And what is the purpose of the crown on your head?"
"Spock," Jim interjects, laying a hand on the Vulcan's arm as a subtle reminder of what they should focus upon. "Forgive my friend," Kirk tells Red. "We—rarely—encounter talking foxes."
The fox languidly circles Kirk's boots and noses the ground, saying in an imperious voice, "I am greatly offended. You do not remember me, and I gave you some of my best advice!"
Kirk starts. "You're... the man with the lantern?"
"Prince." The fox grins, despite his pointed tone. "Which is what I once was. …But enough of that. You asked for help. What shall I help you with, captain-ly Kirk?"
"We have lost our third companion and must find him."
"I see." Red's bushy tail brushes against a tree trunk as he slinks past it. "You speak of the man with the ring?"
"He does wear a ring," the Vulcan confirms.
"I used to wear rings: gold rings, silver rings, jeweled rings. Wealth meant more to me than all else, even true love. Sadly, a fox has no need of wealth."
Spock wonders, then, why Red is wearing a golden crown. Instead he asks, "Would you know where to find Doctor McCoy?"
"Your companion passed through here. He too wanted help, to find something he had lost, and I took him to the place it had been left behind."
Jim steps forward, hope flashing across his face. "Please show us the way, Red."
But the fox shakes his head, a very human gesture. "You won't find him there. Some time ago, I heard a noise I did not like and hid. Dreadful bracken caught my fur! Never mind. It was the Queen's Hunt and he was with them. My condolences," the fox says, "for your loss."
"Then we want to find the Hunt," Kirk insists.
Red is silent for a full minute, regarding them. At last he turns and agilely leaps ahead into the trees. "This is not wise!" calls the fox. "Not wise at all, and yet here we go! Follow me, gentlemen, for I know the quickest route to the Wood."
How strange, the Vulcan thinks, that the fox seems so pleased.
Then Red adds, "And when the Queen turns you into foxes or bears or toads, I hope you remember to return and visit me!"
As Doctor McCoy would say, mystery solved.
The Wood is the name for the city of trees. Somehow Jim is not surprised this is where they have circled back to. Red, with a jaunty step, leads them straight to a set of stairs built into one of the giant trees. The fox barks a quick goodbye to his future companions (or so he perceives they will be) and dives between two bushes, abandoning them with an ease that suits his fickle nature.
Jim's first foreboding feeling comes when he notices the distinct lack of sentinels guarding the stairs. As they climb, a sensation of disquiet slowly grows at the back of Kirk's neck. The hutches in the trees appear vacant. No curious or disapproving faces watch them ascend into the city. It is like the desertion before the approach of a terrible storm.
Courtesy of a Vulcan's eidetic memory, Spock guides them from platform to platform and across vine bridges. Finally, as they come to the opening of the hall, the sense of aloneness fades away. Jim breathes in deeply, recognizing power from within as he stands upon the hall's threshold. Spock seems aware of it as well and the Vulcan's shoulder, whether by accident or design, briefly connects with his. They enter the long, cavernous room, and immediately Jim knows something portentous has happened. Silvery voices come from everywhere, and steps too, slowing, tapping away in many directions. The hall seems full-to-bursting with Court members who are, Jim realizes, celebrating.
But that no longer matters as Jim spots the person he wants to see most and cries out a name. Instantly, a sentinel—tall, sinewy, gold-haired—appears and blocks their path, staff in hand. Jim pushes past him without thought, saying again, "Bones!"
Some Court members step aside, flustered; others grow very, very still and watch Kirk and Spock weave among the crowd. If Jim knocks into a man and that man flushes pale, adjusting the skewed spectacles upon his nose, Jim does not notice. Jim is focused on reaching McCoy and nothing else.
A very short woman appears at the elbow of the spectacled man and murmurs, "Did I not warn you, Rowan?"
Sir Rowan stares after the two humans, asking weakly, "What have you done to us?"
Gram, her triumph hidden behind a placid expression, merely replies, "This is what happens when you hunt those who are not weaker than you."
McCoy is with the Queen, kneeling before her like a supplicant. He has not stirred since Jim called his name.
The Queen drums her fingers against the arms of a throne made of twisting tree roots. Her words slide coolly toward the interlopers. "Only fools invite themselves into my hall."
Ignoring her, Jim lays a hand upon the doctor's shoulder. As he does so, the wooden throne shifts, like a beast restless in its slumber.
"You come too late. This man belongs to me." As the Queen speaks, an image plays across the minds in the hall, presenting what had been done to him: She had unraveled McCoy's heart, spun it into gold and woven that gold into the metalwork of the silver bracelet adorning her wrist. Every mind feels a sense of how much she enjoys her trinket, and they shudder collectively.
At the Queen's feet lies a remnant of the heart, a hard, blackened stone.
Jim's fingers unconsciously dig into the doctor's shoulder as he stares at it. "Bones," he whispers, "Bones, we found you. You can come away now."
The man remains unmoved, still kneeling. His face, colorless and harrowed with light, is little more than a mask for the nameless. Jim drops to one knee beside McCoy, takes a hold of the man's arms and shakes him once. "Snap out of it!"
"He is mine," the Queen repeats. She lifts her hand and the doctor rises with the motion. "He obeys only my command."
Jim ignores her. "You belong to no one, Doctor McCoy! Do you hear me? You canwalk away."
Laughter echoes, cold and contemptuous. "Do you think you are strong enough to take him from me?"
Jim gathers words to speak, to force McCoy to look at him, but he realizes they will do no good. Instead he demands: "I want my chance to prove my claim. I haven't had my chance!"
Something, a shadow or a dangerous emotion, blankets the Queen and demands silence. There is not a word, not so much as a flash of silver or a head lifted in surprise from the motionless Court. Some of them have slipped out of their human shapes, to come closer to their makings: shadowy forms that cling to the walls, or wraiths wearing old memories like despair.
Jim, unnerved, looks to his Vulcan officer. The air between them speaks, as brittle as it is, and so does the slight incline of Spock's head. I am ready, he is saying. I will help. Do what you must.
Encouraged by this, Jim's gaze seeks one additional person, the one who ultimately led them to the otherworld. Who said she believes they can regain the man they lost.
He asks wordlessly of Gram what he must do for McCoy. Within the crowd, there is a glint of black eyes, a sudden flash of teeth. Gram has heard him.
Hold him fast, the words skate across his thoughts.
Jim doesn't question her, throwing his arms around McCoy and dragging the man against him. In that instant, a lightning rage strikes at the pair of men hard and the doctor changes to reflect it. He is the black-haired giant from the tower, roaring and digging bruises into Jim's arms in a grotesque mimic of a hug. Jim's bones grate together under the pressure.
Kirk is as equally alarmed as Spock. He gasps in pain and struggles out of instinct. The giant grins at him and loosens its hold invitingly. Jim almost pushes away but Gram catches his attention, now standing just behind them. She looks afraid—but not of the monster McCoy has become.
Jim clamps his hands on the giant's wide forearms and looks into the brutish face. It has mismatched eyes, one of a day's clear sky and the other a midnight blue.
"Bones," Jim calls out, hoping the name is enough.
The rage surrounding them presses in, as perilous and binding as a web. The giant wavers, grows, becomes a three-eyed ogre crushing Jim's throat. Jim doesn't fight back. The ogre turns into a dragon; flames boil down Kirk's arms and burn away his skin. He cries out, and his hands slip across the dragon's slick, black scales. Teeth rip at the raw flesh of Jim's arms until his blood runs. Still he does not let go.
There is a shout, not from Jim, and for an instant the dragon seems suspended, different. But the moment does not last. Scales melt, cool and harden into a smooth, unbroken surface.
Suddenly the hall is gone. The rushing noise in Jim's ears and the pain of his body fall away with it. They are alone, in a place caught between existence and a void, and McCoy is no longer alive. In the circle of Jim's arms is a stoneman, nothing but a faceless being meant to endure an eternity. Jim leans against the standing stone, never lifting his hands from it, and tries to conjure living flesh with memory. While he prays, he glimpses the exposed bone of his arm beneath a shredded muscle and turns his face from the sight. His prayer becomes a single, whispered plea: "Bones, come back."
The stoneman shudders, cracks, and lifts a foot. The void trembles under the ponderous step and becomes earth again. But the stoneman moves no more, instead beginning to crumble into dust and rose petals.
Jim panics, feeling the man he once knew literally slipping through his fingers. "No!" he shouts to whatever is listening. "You can't take him like this! I haven't let him go yet!"
He drops to his knees and buries his hands into the earth, desperately searching for what was once his friend. His fingers encounter a nose, slide over a cheekbone. Jim plunges his hands deeper and drags forth a familiar face framed by dark-brown roots. McCoy's eyes open, rounded with surprise and recognition.
Jim's voice splinters. "B-Bones?"
"I've got you," Jim tells the man fiercely. He thrushes his arm up to the elbow into the soil, soft and smelling of peat, and locates a shoulder. Enough tugging brings McCoy fully out of his grave. The man's body is not caught by roots, as Jim thought, but encircled by them. They originate from a cavity in Leonard's chest.
Jim doesn't care. He flings around an arm around Leonard's shoulders, only vaguely realizing his wounds are gone, or perhaps were never real. Tentatively, hands touch Jim's back then spasm and twist into his shirt.
The man sags against Kirk. "Jim, where...? Something happened."
"It's okay now," Jim whispers into hair laden with dirt. "I'm not letting go," he promises.
The ground beneath them shudders. Jim opens his eyes, unaware he had closed them at the moment Leonard touched him, and sees that they are, in fact, somewhere new. Next to them is a dead rose bush, torn out of the ground by its roots and cast aside. Roses lay scattered and ruined.
A shadow falls across the two men—the Queen, eyes angry and hair shedding old spider webs. She wrenches the silver bracelet from her wrist and tosses at their feet.
"I have others for what I need," she tells them and lifts a golden horn to her lips, releasing a piercing note. A summons.
Leonard jumps in Jim's arms. "The children—Jim, she has the children!"
And Jim can see them now, girls and boys of varying young ages, cowering in the shadows of the ancient oak he had once clung to and ridden from a mountaintop. The Tree's Keeper, if he is hidden among the oak branches, does not want to be seen.
Coward, Jim thinks and, a servant of the Queen.
Leonard tries to pull away. Jim snaps "Don't!" and tightens his arms around McCoy.
The Queen, eyes fixed upon the children, beckons two of her huntsmen to her side. Jim, along with Leonard, stiffens when the huntsmen raise long bows, already notched with arrows, and take aim at the group of wide-eyed children.
"No!" Leonard cries but it is too late.
The hunted scream. Two of those screams die abruptly. A boy and a girl drop to the ground, feathered shafts protruding from their chests.
"They must be sacrificed in pairs," the Queen explains, "because they are so young."
Each huntsman pulls another arrow from his quiver. As they take aim again, the Queen focuses on the two men, not the children, as if waiting for their rebellion.
Leonard struggles to stand up. Jim anchors him to the earth, having seen that look of the Queen's on other faces, the faces of enemies who think they need only wait for a fool to act so they can win a war. So he does not let go of the doctor and instead presses his forehead into one of McCoy's bony shoulders, enduring both his friend's clawing hands and an ugly memory returning to haunt him.
"Jim, let me go!" the doctor demands then rages then begs. "Jim! JIM!"
The children aren't simply screaming now, but crying. They're crying in horrible, hiccupping sobs. He is not at all surprised to feel tears wetting his own face.
The doctor moans brokenly, "D-Damn you, Kirk, damn you for this."
Words cannot find their way past the lump in Jim's throat.
The roots wrapped around Leonard's body have withered and retracted and dropped away as harmless moldering bones on the ground. The hole in Leonard's chest has healed itself.
The last of the screaming stops. The huntsmen bow to their Queen, their task done, and retreat. Her eyes linger on McCoy, almost disappointedly, before finally moving away to skim the thirty-two unnaturally still children. She says "You have passed" and without protest—or care—leaves McCoy, Kirk, and the dead where they lay.
In the end, all Jim can do is support a defeated man's weight and hate himself when McCoy turns his face away.
A small creature slowly, hesitantly descends from the Tree. The sickly-skinned troll looks at the bodies scattered among the oak's roots and wrings his hands. "What could I have done?" he asks no one. "What could I have done?"
Equally guilty, Jim closes his eyes and listens no more.
They might have stayed with their limbs entangled forever, Kirk and McCoy, if Gram does not appear and persuade Jim it is safe to let Leonard go.
Jim's hands begin to shake after he releases the doctor, so he folds his arms to hide them until he can regain his shattered control. Since the captain cannot face the sadness in Gram's eyes, he forces a half-hearted question from his mouth: "Where's Spock?" It is a poor substitute for telling her not to pity him.
"He waits at the bridge," the woman replies gravely.
Jim reaches down and offers the still-seated Leonard his hand. McCoy stands up without help and wanders away from them. During the interim, while Kirk and McCoy sat in shock and grief, the earth had claimed the children. The oak marks their grave.
"It was difficult for you," Gram says with a delicate quietness. "I am sorry."
"You lied to me," Jim accuses. "I didn't have to hold onto him. I had to hold him back. He'll never forgive me, Gram."
"You are his Captain. You cannot always act as his friend."
"I already knew that!" He faces her as hateful words suddenly swarm at the back of his throat like angry bees. He chooses to swallow them, painful though the act is, but does not soften his unforgiving tone. "What happened here was not a lesson or a test. It was cruelty—and you made me a part of it."
"I never promised you kindness, only a chance to survive." Gram looks past him and asks Leonard, who is watching them wordlessly, "Will you come now?"
McCoy's throat works soundlessly. "Is this a choice? I didn't remember having one before."
The doctor's eyes skirt to the oak tree and linger there. "I'll come," he says at last, head bowed.
They leave the grove. Jim walks abreast of McCoy but does not touch him, knowing in his heart the doctor does not want him to. Instead, he keeps his attention fixed on the silent landscape, seeing no beauty or exciting mystery in it now. I won't come back here, he might be promising himself. I won't return again.
Spock peruses the horizon for the river, that mysterious boundary they had crossed from one world to the next. Yet there is only the hazy beginning of a stone bridge. He approaches the bridge's edge, stares at the cobbled stones as if they are prone to movement when he does not watch them; then he retreats again. He can do nothing but repeat this action, for his mind refuses to focus until Gram returns with Kirk and McCoy.
If she returns with them.
He considers that possibility for the twenty-third time and draws a nuanced plan of what he must to do should it occur.
Planning, the Vulcan realizes, does not cure his inability to focus. This happens to him so rarely that he thinks he should be willing to ask someone why. The ship's counselor would be the logical first choice but Spock has never been entirely comfortable approaching the individual with a personal inquiry. But he could speak to a man with professional training in psychology, if not a career, and Doctor McCoy, despite his teasing nature, always treats those questions with seriousness.
The firebird's gift flares like a light in the darkness at the thought of McCoy.
Spock catches this random turning of his thoughts and attempts to re-organize them. Again, it does not work. They scatter like misbehaving children. Spock closes his eyes and plucks at the nearest thought.
What kind of power does the Queen have that she could transform McCoy so easily? Had it been illusion?
Jim's reaction, however, had not been an illusion. The memory comes back, sharp and poignant, and Spock lets it replay.
The Vulcan had watched, frozen against his will and powerless to intervene, as one beast after another had struck violently at his Captain. He had felt cold at first, with fear for Jim, then recognized an growing anger deep within himself. That anger had wanted to be acknowledged and released, to drive him past discipline. Instead, Spock put strength into his voice because it was the only part of him which remained unbound. He shouted the word burning in his heart over the dragon's roar.
"He is a friend!"
The dragon had stopped tearing into Jim, lifted his head, and looked directly at Spock. Spock knew it was McCoy who had heard him. In that moment, the Vulcan thought he saw the human standing there, frozen and grayish like stone, and not the dragon. Then McCoy was gone, Jim with him, and the hall fell into chaos.
The Queen had cried out then in dismay. She used her power to fling Spock from his feet. Perhaps she would have done worse to the man who had broken her spell, but in the melee Gram had appeared and snatched at Spock's arm. She had told him to run, so he ran. Outside the hall, at the platform's edge, with her hand still locked on his arm Gram had said to Spock, "Jump!"
They did that too, falling not through the city of trees, the Queen's Wood, but into a new—and old—place. Spock had recognized the landscape immediately and wondered what it is they had accomplished to bring them back to the bridge. He knew he didn't want to be there with Kirk and McCoy. It took Gram threatening him with two choices: let her fetch them or not have Jim and Leonard at all. Even with the only logical choice made, Spock still feels dissatisfied.
He plucks another interesting, scattered thought and examines it. Why had the word friend needed the firebird's magic to be heard? It was clear McCoy understood him when he said it—and that the word held powerful meaning to the doctor.
But "friend" is still a word Spock has said before in reference to McCoy.
What does that imply? Spock had assumed their friendship was a known fact. The CMO is a person the Vulcan associates with frequently aboard the Enterprise, only second to Jim Kirk. Does it matter that their interaction averages approximately 57% debate (or bantering, as the Captain calls it), 38% work-related activities (which can fluctuate if McCoy is arguing with him about attending his semi-annual physical examination), and 5% superfluous conversation? Spock does not maintain a significant debating average with any other individual, which augments his respect for the doctor.
They are friends. And yet, until now, the word was not powerful enough.
Spock goes to the bridge and contemplates it, only to retreat quickly again like an ebbing tide, quite disturbed.
Gram could express her gratitude for what these men have accomplished, but they would not believe her. She could show them her heart, and they would not recognize it as human. There is nothing she can do except what she has always done: guide them.
When the healer sees the wise one and the wise one approaches him in concern, he chokes on his words. The leader, called Jim, speaks for his friend, saying heavily, "She killed the children."
He is also saying, She killed us too. For that is apparent to Gram in the way the healer cannot bear to look upon either of the men who risked much of themselves to save him.
They have so far yet to go, but this path is at its end. As she walks with them over the bridge, she lets her own desire sing to it to shape their destination, siphoning some of the magic she has collected for her own to make it stronger than theirs.
Carry them home, she tells the bridge. The questing is done. Return them home.
Gram's eyes are accustomed to both worlds, seeing them separate and as one, however she must, and she can easily see beyond the mist. There are tents, people milling about, exactly the home these three need. They will be cared for until they can take care of themselves; it will be longer still until they remember why caring for each other is what makes them strong, not what breaks them. Concerning this, she senses a parting, a divergence already, though it may take years to manifest.
But that is a future Gram is not meant to guide them through. She stops at the bridge's end, knowing she needs to go no farther; here is her end. The three men trudge ahead, unaware.
The Story-teller fell silent, having reached an end to the tale of the three brothers.
"What happened to them?" a voice asked.
The children blinked sleepily, reviving from the spell the old woman's story had cast over them, and looked around for the owner of the voice. The Commander, their parents' leader, leaned against a far wall of the room. How long he had been there, listening, none of them knew.
The Story-teller rocked contemplatively back and forth in her chair. "Did you not like the ending?"
"It would have been a better ending if they had died. Less painful that way," the man said gruffly.
"We have faced worse and survived."
"Yes," the Commander agreed very softly, "but not without a terrible price."
She nodded, murmuring, "As it should be." To the children, she beckoned, "Come and listen, little ones. I have another story for you."
"Is this one sad too?" a girl-child asked. "I was sad when the brothers wanted to go away from each other."
Another small child wanted to know, clutching his cousin's hand, "Will they remember they are brothers again?"
"I know no more of the brothers three," the old woman said. "What befalls them next is a story not yet told to me. But shall I tell you what happened to the family they tried to help?"
"Yes!" chorused the children. The Commander slipped away unnoticed.
A mysterious smile played about her lips. "It is said when the brothers returned, heartbroken and unhappy, to console the parents of the lost children, they found the entire village asleep."
"Why were they sleeping?" a child asked around a yawn. "Was it nighttime?"
A little boy curled up in his sister's lap, a thumb in his mouth and his eyelids drooping.
"No," she said, "it was an enchantment. The Evil Witch did not like to share her favorite things, and that village was hers. So she cast a sleeping spell over it which would last for one hundred years. She knew one hundred years would be long enough to persuade other travelers the land was cursed, and so no one else would not want to live there."
Half of the children were already asleep.
One young girl tried her best to fight the Story-teller's story. She asked anxiously, "Did the Evil Witch remember to wake them up?"
"Of course," the old woman said. She watched the child, the murky film over her eyes clearing enough to reveal darkness beneath. "She needed them more than they needed her. She had to wake them up again."
The child rubbed her eyes and frowned at the new face of the Story-teller. "Your hair is funny."
The Story-teller stilled her rocking chair and inspected her long braid of moon-pale hair critically. "What is strange about it, my child?" the woman asked.
The child mumbled something and her chin dropped to her chest. The sleeping spell took her.
The Story-teller plucked a cobweb from her hair and let it drift to the floor. After a time, she rose and went from the room. The Commander was more afraid of the vessel in the sky than the beings the mortals called Them. But he would not remember his fears in one hundred years, as he could not remember his name now. He only knew he had to give the Queen what she wanted—and that was precisely how the Queen crafted her tale's happily-ever-after to be.