A glance over her shoulder, fleeting and instinctive, revealed nothing but trees.
Temati sucked in a steadying breath, trying to strengthen her unsteady legs. The deep shadows between the thick trunks gaped wide as wounds, unknown poison hidden within them.
Her hand did not leave her dagger. She could have sworn she’d heard voices.
The trees rustled their leaves, creaking against one another as they swayed under the influence of a breeze that Temati, caked as she was in soot and dried sweat, could not feel. She was a heavy, sagging, half-dead thing with a frightened animal for a heart; the beauty of the day could not touch her.
The sunlight came down in sharp shafts and lazy pools, shining green-tinted through the leaves. The light shifted and settled in harmony with the swaying branches.
The dagger handle stuck unpleasantly to Temati’s fingers as she released it. The leather of the hilt was still tacky with dried blood.
Nothing was moving through the underbrush after her, Temati assured herself. It was only the trees and the wind. This was not the city, with its hard lines and solid shadows, where any irregularity could prove to be a threat. No one had followed her here.
No one could have.
Another breeze waved the treetops, sending sun-spots dancing wildly across the ground, and Temati’s hand went to her dagger again, her sore muscles stiffening in readiness before she realized that it was—yet again—only the forest. She cursed under her breath.
She missed the city.
She did not, however, miss the city enough to risk the sure death sentence of returning to it. She forged on instead, picking her steps carefully over the narrow path.
Nearer to the Capital, the Kingsroad was a glorious feat of engineering, solid and dependable under the feet of horses and travelers, the wheels of ox-carts and carriages and bright-painted circus vardos. But the further out it went, the narrower the road became—narrower, and lumpier, devolving from stone to gravel and then finally pale sandy mud. By the time it came to the Great Forest, the Kingsroad had become nothing more than a footpath. It wound over and through the thickly wooded hills and valleys, the dirt worn away until it was little more than connecting plaster between the thick roots and dark stones.
Perhaps the change would have been less stark if she had not made the journey from the coastal Capital to the inland forests in one footsore, sleepless scramble. Taken more gradually, perhaps it would have been barely noticeable. Temati picked over the uneven surface and thought fondly of her old familiar rooftops, their dearly-remembered patterns of tile and thatch.
The air around her was still and warm. The tree-trunks creaked like thirsty throats, gossiping secrets; small animals rustled in the leaves, and—
Temati stopped, her ears catching something that jarred against the quiet, natural noises. She had heard a voice.
The cry was pitched and yet low all at once, heavy as a death-wail. It made Temati’s back prickle and her stomach turn gently sour. She could almost smell the sharpness of burning thatch again, the iron stench of blood as it boiled, and the wailing—the wailing that rose high as the black smoke—
The patches of sunlight danced as the tree-tops swayed under another breeze, and she shook herself, pushing the memory back into the past where it belonged.
The voice remained.
Hand on her dagger, Temati ducked low, creeping forward through the shadows, feet falling noiselessly on the smooth roots and stones of the path. The crest of the hill gave way to a steep, jackknifing path down into a narrow valley, the sunlight hazy through the pale-leafed trees.
At the very bottom of the valley, the source of the cry was lying in a crumpled pile on the ground. A taller, boyish figure was bending over her, seeming to be trying and failing to get her to get up. Temati frowned through the branches, trying to get a better veiw of the scene. She could see the boy’s sooty face, the skirts of the crumpled girl’s dress all darkened with singes.
Refugees from the fire. Children. They had traveled fast and far, to get here before her; it was little wonder that one of them had lost the strength to go any farther.
She went silently down the hill, intending to swing through the forest around the tiny mourning-party once she got a little closer. She could sidestep them neatly and leave the already terrified children none the wiser to her existence.
The closer she got, the clearer the words came through.
“She’s gone, Mis,” the boy said. He was still young enough to have a voice that cracked midway through his sentences—unless that was a by-product of the smoke. He knelt over the girl, both hands looped under her torso, and struggle to pull her to her feet. “Come on, we’ve got to go. She’d want us to go.”
“No!” The girl said—and she is a little girl, Temati realizes, unfamiliar as she is with children. Little enough to have wispy yellow hair that barely reached her ears. “No! Mia!”
Children, Temati’s mind supplied for the second time. She’s not sure why it matters. What difference does it make, that they are children?
Adults. Children. The old, the infirm, the proud and the angry and the humble and the kind—all are touched by war. All are claimed by death. She had wet her hands in the blood of too many slit throats to have any right to care, so what did this matter?
Why did this, of all things, halt her in her steps?
She stayed on the verge of the forest, unnoticed by the little group at the valley bottom. Safe in her shadows.
After a moment, she realized she was hiding. From children.
With a flash of indignance at her own cowardice, she stepped free of the shadows and continued down the path.
The boy noticed her first. He set his beardless chin in a stubborn jut, moving in front of the girl protectively.
The little creature looked up at his movement, and when her eyes caught on Temati coming down the path, they widened. In fear, Temati assumed. But before she could say a word, the child scrambled to her feet. It was only the boy’s arm, looped in a restraining hold around her torso, that kept her from barreling headlong for Temati.
“You have to help us!” She shouted with all the power in her tiny lungs, ignoring the boy when he hissed at her to be quiet. Temati took a cautious step backwards, away from this unexpected—exuberance? “Mia’s in there!” the girl pointed towards the thick and quiet forest, squirming in the boy’s grip all the while. “The trees ate her!”
Temati looked at the trees. They had done what?
With a vigorous twist, the girl slipped the boy’s grip like a desperate yellowfin and came racing for Temati. Surprised by the sudden assault, Temati stepped backwards, off the path. The leaves crunched under her ragged boots, and she could feel the fingerlike brush of twigs on her back. The girl halted abruptly, mouth dropping open as she gazed at something just beyond Temati’s shoulder.
She just had the time to recognize the fingerlike brush of something that was not a branch against her back before a cool hand wrapped itself around her arm from behind.
Temati freezes, her stomach plunging deep into the pit of her belly. For one blank moment, she is helpless. She cannot remember what she is supposed to do, how she is supposed to get away. A whispering like rustling leaves sounds, somehow just behind and yet all around her; a series of almost-words, like half a conversation heard across a noisy room. The hand is hard and implacable around her arm as it begins, ever so gently, to pull her into the woods.
The girl-child was motionless, transfixed by the sight of whatever it was that held Temati’s arm, but the boy was not. In one bounding step, he was at the edge of the forest, reaching out to snatch Temati’s wrist. His grip is more bone than muscle, but he tugged with all his might, and the warm, desperate grip on her wrist was enough to make her remember to move. She lashed out at the thing she could not see, and her elbow cracked painfully against something as hard as stone. With a twist and a jerk, her arm came free, and she fell backwards on the path, toppling over on top of the boy. He yelled in protest, but his words hit Temati’s ears like the handle end of a throwing knife, falling away again with hardly an impression left behind.
There is a face in the forest. It stares out at her, pale and narrow, with green-glowing firefly eyes. She blinks, disbelieving.
When her eyes open again, it is gone.
Like a trick of the light.
Heart throbbing in her ears, she stared into the deep shadows between the trees. Nothing there but shadows and sunlight.
“Get off of me, you sack of salmon guts!” The boy griped, jabbing her sore ribs with his knee. She struggled to sit up, wincing at the new pain in her elbow, and he gave a relieved gasp, scrambling to his feet.
Temati couldn’t take her eyes off of the spot where the face had been. Not even to protest being called a sack of salmon guts.
“What,” she asked instead, “Was that?”
The boy, brushing dirt off of his already filthy shirt, scowls at her without replying, but the little girl piped up.
Temati’s gaze snapped down to where the tiny, soot-stained face was looking matter-of-factly at her. “A what?”
“A dryad,” the boy finally supplied, reaching out to press the girl protectively against his side. “A tree spirit.”
That was too much. She turned to look at him.
“Tree spirits aren’t real,” she said. “They’re made up by circus actors to add drama to forest scenes.”
He shrugged irritably at her.
“Alright, they’re made up. Why don’t you just step off the path again, then. See what happens.”
“They took our sister!” The little one said, and turned to her brother. “Tef, we has to get her back. We have to!”
Tree spirits weren’t real, Temati thought again.
But—there had been something there. Something that couldn’t have been her own eyes deceiving her—could it?
“What did they take her for?” Her eyes were drawn to the woods, to the dark and empty shadows. “Why—why did they try to take me?”
“Because you both stepped off the path,” Tef said, and graciously did not add on, idiot. “Thought we’d covered that.”
This exceedingly helpful explanation finished, he turned back to the little girl, whose tears were drying in sticky patterns over her sooty face. He knelt down to be on a level with her, and spoke quietly.
“Mia’s gone,” he said, and Temati can hear the grief in his voice. “they’ve taken her, and we can’t get her back, all right? We’ve got to go on. She’d want us to be safe.”
This, gentle as it is, only serves to stir the girl right up again. Her eyes flash and her hands form into tiny fists.
“I won’t leave her!” The child shouted. “I won’t! You be safe! I’ll die with her!”
Temati glanced between the argument and the woods, growing more confused that before. Was the sister dead, or not? How did a tree—or a tree spirit—eat someone? Curious, she thought back, trying to remember what she knew about tree spirits.
She had not seen many plays. She had always considered them fanciful, frivolous things; in the world she’d lived in—one of blood and stone and shifting loyalties—the melodramatic frippery had never seemed any better than a lie. Now, though, she wished she’d paid more attention.
According to what she’d seen, though, tree spirits lived in forests. They had a habit of derailing young lovers as they fled from their oppressive parents. They were—they were afraid of iron, weren’t they? Or had it been silver?
She found herself fingering the dagger at her hip. It had been an elegant thing once, charred and bloody as it was now; blued steel and black leather, with a boss of etched silver, tarnished with long use.
She had cleaned enough blood off the thing to dye the water of the freshest well red, she was sure. Blood of guilty and innocent alike; politicians and craftsmen, witnesses and rivals. And for what? For money? She had none now. For loyalty? As if anyone had ever shown such faith to her.
All she’d gotten for her trouble was the memory of sparks and screaming, and the scent of burnt blood in her nostrils no matter how clean the air she breathed was.
Perhaps the dagger could see a better use before she died. A plan—slim and strange, but growing stronger—was forming in her brain, and her soul was filling with the impetus to see it through. If the girl was alive somewhere, perhaps she could make up for one of the lives that Temati had taken. And if she was not—well.
These tree spirits would not live to take anyone else.
“All right,” she said. Both children ceased their arguing, looking towards her.
“I’m going to try and get your sister back.”
* * *
It was not, Temati reminded herself, the most pigeon-brained thing she’d ever done. That honor went to the great duck-kidnapping plot from her second year as an assassin.
Still, shouting at trees was not going to be very far down the list.
“Dryads of the great forest!” She called to the waving branches over her head. They were thick enough to block out almost every patch of sky, and glowed beetle-wing bright with the light of an unseen sun.
Tef flicked a glance over her as though sizing up her insanity and judging whether or not it was dangerous. She couldn’t exactly blame him, but she crossed her arms over her chest and raised her head high anyway, determined to see this through to its no doubt embarrassing end.
“You have taken a child!” She accused. “I demand her back!”
Next came the bit of the plan that still made Temati uncomfortable. “In payment for her safe and whole return, I offer myself,” she called. “An exchange.”
That was the whole speech, as far as she’d planned it.
It was received with silence. The trees were motionless, the children holding their breath; for a long and uncomfortable moment, Temati tried to calculate all of the ill-fated decisions that had led her to this moment.
Then it struck her. The trees were silent. Utterly and completely silent. Not a bird stirred, not a branch waved, there was no distant creak of trunk against trunk.
Temati shifted from foot to foot, glancing through the hollows between the trees.
Slowly, she began to discern figures.
It was not that they appeared, so much as they allowed themselves to be seen. A dark shadow in the underbrush, with no visible change, resolved itself into a slim crouching figure with jade-bright eyes. Something that, mere moments before, had been nothing but a quiet sunbeam was now a pale-eyed creature with a hard-set maiden face. Not a thing moved; but in the brief space of a few moments, the empty forest was filled and peopled with nigh on three thousand statuesque figures, all staring impassively at Temati and her shouted demands.
A tall, boxy-figured dryad stepped free of her sisters, not a single leaf crackling under her careful steps as she came up to the path and—just before her toes stepped over the last edge between under-scrub and packed earth—stopped.
Temati had seen many women in her life. She had seen starving old crones in rags and soft-skinned baronesses dripping with ancient jewels. She’d seen light-footed laughing dancing-girls and log-limbed working women with hands all reddened by lye. She had looked in mirrors and seen herself—a scared child, an angry young woman, a grown adult with grey-streaked hair and eyes that were heavy with all they had seen.
The dryad looked like none of these.
Her eyes were a pale, glowing gold, set deep in a smooth, butter-colored face. Her features were sharp and decisive as an eagle’s beak, strong-jawed and solid as a sculpted goddess. Wild, stick-borne leaves made a structure something like hair and something like a headdress on top of her head, carried high and proud like a crown. A dress of olive-tinted lichen and steel-grey bark fit close around her thick torso, dripping with pale moss that swayed and swished around her legs. She moved like a living thing, but when she stood—she might as well have been made of stone.
Belatedly, Temati realized that she was staring.
The woman stared back. Tilting her head thoughtfully, she held out a hand.
“You wish to join us?” She asked.
Temati was halted a little by the mildness of the words.
“The girl,” she said. “You took her.”
The woman nodded slowly.
“We want her back.”
At that, the woman frowned.
“Because—because we do,” she said. The dryad’s apparent confusion only deepened, and Temati decided it was time to move to more relevant details. “I offer myself in exchange.”
The woman’s face cleared.
“You wish to join us.”
This time, it was not a question. Temati’s hand slipped down a centimeter or two, closer to the dagger. Around them, the silent forest burst into a quiet rush of leafy voices, and Temati’s head snapped up to see the thousands of statue-solid maidens, whispering excitedly to one another.
While she was distracted, a cool hand landed on her shoulder. Temati snapped her gaze back to her opponent, her hand slipping down and seizing the dagger by its hilt, but the woman’s grip on her is stronger than any human creature’s.
“Come,” the lady said. Her voice was like wind rushing through the treetops. “Let me show you our peace.”
There was a tug—the strange, panic-inducing sense of imbalance that is always caused by being pulled off your feet—and then Temati was on her back, the roots and thorns separating the path from the forest scraping at her legs and the wide eyes of the two children staring after her for a single split second before she was swallowed up by the dark boughs.
* * *
Tef blinked, and the woman is gone. Devoured, just like Mia.
The dryads are gone too, every last one; it is as if they had never been. Mis, who had clung to his waist when the creatures had appeared, is crying softly into his shirt. It’s a slow, hiccuping sob, wracked from tired lungs. He knows he should be doing something, trying to get them both to get out of the forest, onward to—to somewhere safe. If there is anywhere safe.
He knows he should move, but suddenly, it does not seem worth the effort.
Mis sobs again. Holding her close, Tef sinks to the ground, trying and failing to blink back the dark prickling behind his own eyes.
“I know, Mis,” he said. “I know.”
* * *
As soon as the iron grip on her shoulder let her go, Temati fell flat on the forest floor. The wet leaves slid and slipped under her fingers as she scrambled to her feet. She twisted back, fighting through the branches and the underbrush, expecting to see the patchy sunlight of the path.
It was not there. There was only darkness.
Something crackled behind her, and she spun again to find the woman there. She was a dark figure in a darker landscape, punctuated by two glowing eyes.
Fumblingly, Temati found her dagger and pulled it free, holding it out in front of her like a holy relic to ward off a demon. The woman reached for her, and Temati stabbed with the dagger, keeping her away.
“Iron and silver,” she announced, waving the weapon warningly. “Everything your kind hates. I’ll use it, if you don’t let us go. Me and the girl both.”
The woman’s eyes flickered.
“Let you—“ she began, and then shook her head. With steady steps, she approached, seeming to care little for Temati’s wild dagger-jabs. With her heart rising in her throat, Temati ducked low, lashing out to drive the blade square into the center of the creature’s chest; but the woman caught the blade easily, prying it loose from Temati’s hands as though taking a plaything from a child. The bloody leather peeled free of Temati’s palm, and Temati could only watch, terror pounding in her ears, as the woman held the dagger flat on her palm, considering it curiously.
“Iron,” she said, softly. “It is nursed, even now, deep beneath our roots. Where mankind cannot find it.”
It was only by the glow of the woman’s eyes that Temati can see what is happening at all. She watched, petrified, as the steel blade began to redden and warp with rust. The dark leather dries and cracks and begins to swarm with tiny devouring insects as it, and the wooden handle beneath it, begin to fall away.The silver tarnishes, pitting and peeling like some ancient artifact. “Silver ore, too, runs beneath us. Why would we fear these things? Our roots have found more jewels and precious metals than your human mind could ever imagine. All the things you scramble and scrape, bleed and kill for—you think they affect everything as powerfully as they affect you.”
Temati’s dagger was desiccated to the point of uselessness. The woman’s pale hand closed over it, gently crushing it to dust and scattering it onto the forest floor. One of the tiny insects escaped her fist to skitter up the woman’s arm, and she paid it no mind as it burrowed in the bark that was creeping over her collarbone.
Temati swallowed thickly. She searched through the leaves for any hint of the solid weapon that was there only a moment ago, and found nothing but quietly rotting leaves. When she spoke, her voice was as weak as she felt.
“What do you want?” She asked.
“We do not want.” The dryad said. “We do not hunger, or thirst, or fear. We have feasted on the dead of many battles, and when the battles of this age are done, we will make life of them as well. We have peace.”
Temati is surprised by her own laughter.
“Peace,” she chuckles. It’s a word that belongs to her past, to youthful dreams and idiotic notions that she could somehow change the ways of the world. “Sure. Peace is a nice thing to think about, but—it’s not real.” She shakes her head. “Not for us humans, anyway.”
Thinking otherwise, she’d learned, just led you and led you, dangling hope in front of your eyes until you blinked and suddenly you found yourself looking down at a burning city with a torch held in your hand.
“We would share our peace,” the dryad, unoffended by Temati’s laughter, said.
Temati shook her head, amused. “Really? How would you do that?”
The dryad tilted her head. Reached out with one pale hand.
“See for yourself.”
At the touch of the woman’s fingers, Temati felt—different. She blinked, but her eyes did not want to open again. They felt crusted over, all the immediacy fallen away, as if she’d just had a long night’s sleep with the promise of a quiet day ahead. Her skin was clean. Her spine was straight, without the twinge of pain it’d had ever since she’d slipped and fallen off a rooftop one night and landed in a slops-bucket. She felt clear-headed and proud, as if she could stand as straight and tall as the richest queen.
She was standing tall, as a matter of fact. She could feel it. She was free of the smoke-induced itch in her lungs and the latent travel-stink and the sticky, ugly, unbathed feeling that had plagued her for so long. The sun was warm and pleasant on her cool skin. She swayed in time with the push and pull of the breeze, raising her limbs high overhead, soaking up the warmth of the sun through her leafy fingertips. The birds were singing, and an industrious squirrel was making its nest in her armpit.
A squirrel. Was making its nest. In her armpit.
Her eyes snapped open, and the dryad, who had been holding a statue-soft hand to her forehead, startled back. Temati attempted to do the same, but there was a sharp, grinding pain in her legs and her feet would not move. She snapped her gaze downward. Her legs were slowly being covered in smooth bark. Instead of her own worn and weary feet in old and tattered boots, the thick trunk and roots of a tree stood. She could feel them, as if they were a part of her; she could feel the cool earth pressing, the thin shoots and tendrils of the roots plunging deep in a search for water.
“I don’t want to be a tree!” Temati said, as emphatically as she knew how. She tried tugging herself free again, but felt only the harsh hurt on the edges of her where tender flesh had yet to turn into solid wood. “I’m a human being, not a—a vegetable!”
The dryad looked at her, wide-eyed, holding her hands out as though pleading with Temati to stay still. Temati gave another excruciating jerk, just to spite her, and the woman took a step forward.
“Stop fighting!” She said, sounding panicked. “Why are you struggling? I’m giving you peace—haven’t you fought long enough?”
Temati stopped, breathing hard. The words struck her like a knife in the back, driven in by an old friend. They were unexpected. But she had fostered those words, hadn’t she? Held them in her heart, without ever seeing them for what they were. She had felt those words—before the coup, when she had noticed the streaks of grey beginning to drown out the old brown color of her hair. During it, when her lord had smiled and asked for one more favor, I’ll pay you handsomely, and she had realized that her only retirement would be a grave. Not ten minutes ago, when she, worn and smoke-charred and sweating, had listened to two children weep over a lost sister.
The dull ache in her legs was traveling upward. The flesh hurt, but where she had already turned to wood was painless. There was life there, but it was a life that did not hurt. The mere absence of pain felt like the release of a long-carried burden.
Haven’t you fought long enough?
She had. She had been fighting for years. And what had it gotten her? A lifetime of regrets? An uncomfortable confrontation with a dryad? Her whole body, sticky and smelly and aching as it was, hungered for a rest. Her rapidly growing roots were clean and calm, drinking life from the fertile earth. It felt a lot like peace.
Her flesh was weak and trembling against the solid wood, aching against the slowly encroaching change. Soon it would reach her ribs, her lungs, her heart. One moment of pain, and then—it would be over. All over, all done. She could finally rest.
She wanted, with every scrap of her fragile human want. She ached for this rest.
But still, she shook her head.
“It sounds like you’ve got it nice here, with the sun and the birds and the dirt,” she said, “But I’ve—“ she halted. Thought for a moment. “I have fought too long. For all the wrong things. I’d like a chance to fight for the right ones.”
The dryad blinked at her, slow and uncomprehending.
“You would choose the struggle? You are willing?”
Temati was so, so tired. Willing? Perhaps not. But determined?
“Yes,” she said. “I am.”
The dryad leaned back slightly, considering. Her body creaked as she moved.
“I would not be,” she said. “All we have watched, all we have seen—we did not think that anyone—we did not think,” she continued, taking a step back. “That girl. Would she have chosen this as well?”
Temati was still half tree and all exhaustion. She shook her head again.
“I do not know,” she said. “You’ll have to ask her that, if you still can.”
The dryad nodded.
“I will,” she promised. “You’ve made your choice. I don’t understand it—but you may go,”
As she spoke, a shaft of golden light opened up, spilling past Temati’s feet and slicing into the dark hollow. Suddenly, Temati can no longer feel the slow, life-seeking twists and turns of the roots, the protective hug of the bark. She twists, and the tree-trunk cracks like a burst eggshell, letting her stumble free. She can feel her toes again—her own human toes, untethered to anything but their own aches and pains. She cannot resist the urge to wriggle them. Temati can see the way to the road. She half-turns, ready to make for it, but the woman’s voice halts her.
“If you ever wish for peace,” she said. “You may always return.”
Temati could feel that offer settling in her brain, and half-wishes it had never been made. She knows it will haunt her, this one last glimpse of an elegant goddess hidden in a mossy shadow.
“Thank you,” she said.
The patchy sunlight is calling for her, and she begins to scramble through the underbrush, ignoring the thorns as they rip at her and the branches that smack her face.
As she returns to the path, she finds it almost exactly as she left it. It is still lying in the divot between two high hills, with an arduous upward trek lying upon either side. It is still narrow and lumpy and half-overtaken by thorns.
But instead of two sooty children, there are three, Mis and Tef both wrapped tight around another young girl, who is crying and laughing and clinging to them all at once. Temati halts while she is still several paces distant, not quite able to make herself walk away.
The girl looks up, catches a glimpse of her. There is no recognition there, and she moves protectively between Temati and her siblings. She is a small, delicate thing, all wariness and bruises. Temati would have judged her weak, but she knows—knows the choice this girl had made, if she was here now. She knows it was not an easy one.
She nods, a gesture of respect, and the littlest girl—Mis—notices her. She tears free of her siblings, slamming into Temati’s legs and hugging them, babbling something into the dirty cloth of Temati’s breeches.
Temati stares down at the tiny figure, and cautiously lays a hand on her little shoulder. A feeling flickers deep in her chest.
It is not peace. It is not even happiness—not quite.
But it is something good, all the same.
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