BLADE AND BRANCH AND STONE, by Spencer Ellsworth:
The trees were screaming. Mortars shattered white wood that bled golden sap. The Fei looked down from the ridge with cold blue eyes, raised their muskets and hailed lead onto the human lines. Blood blossomed on white shirts around Lassan, under black-coated Imperial jackets.
“Form a wedge!” Lassan yelled. “Prime and load! One more round before we rush the hill!” Around him men fell to one knee and musket plugs tamped down powder and ball. Lassan looked over his men, memorizing every face. They were good people, settlers and drilled regiment all. They would probably all die today and they would do it under his orders.
Lassan looked back up the ridge against the gust of wind and light rain sprinkling in his eyes. He could see a line of Fei; their immense silhouettes, twice the size of men, their curling tattoos and hard gray skin. Up there was the Fei who killed his son. Lassan might die, but God willing, he’d take Kahirun with him. “Cock your firelock! Present! Fire—”
A musket ball tore through his coat and his arm. Lassan fell to his knees, vision blurring. He clutched his arm. Blood oozed through his fingers, soaking the wool of his coat. Lassan looked up the ridge, through the haze of pain. They could still make it up the hill with bayonets, if they moved fast. “Fix bayonets!”
Lassan recognized the voice. One of the couriers. He shouted, “Aster, I’ll have your scalp! They’re on the run—”
“Sir, Kahirun sued for peace,” Aster shouted. “They’ve been flying a white flag at the main line. The other regiments saw it. It’s only us that haven’t.”
Lassan didn’t answer.
“We must stand down, sir,” Aster said. “Sir?”
The Fei’s dead trees stretched in an open grave for a full quarter-mile beyond the camp, vast, milk-pale whitebarks and black sentry pines and gray-gold minaret trees with their leaves rotting to detritus. The sides of the grave sloped down, rich black earth thick with roots and seeded with vines that would eventually cover the dead trees. It was everything a Fei might want for a memory grove’s burial, honoring trees that had supposedly held stories and histories.
It still looked like a pile of firewood.
Lassan stepped to the edge of the grave. It had been two weeks since the day of peace. He looked behind him at his commanding officer, a fat Imperial sorcerer with a dozen talismans pinned to his ground-scraping black coat and his wig tightly curled. High Faustus Bodwin’s face was thick with blackened veins from years of magic, and his eyes were a pale inhuman white. He wore a fixed smile like a jolly old man.
“Colonel,” Bodwin said, “I’m turning to stone here.”
Lassan didn’t answer. They were at peace. The Fei were beaten, suing for survival and trying to save whatever trees they had left.
But to see trees laid in a great grave… all he could think of was his first son Alvin’s body, jammed into a treehollow by the Fei, cracked and broken and crushed to fit, like rotting meat in a locker. Lassan had burned a thousand trees for his son, and done worse. It should have been enough. It wasn’t.
“I can’t do it,” Lassan said. “I respect your orders, but in this case I can’t.”
Bodwin’s crystal white eyes flickered. Lassan had never liked to answer to the mumblers, but still this was better than facing Fei across a table like they were friends at dinner.
“You’ve got as much choice as a skinned deer.” He chuckled. “This order comes from the Emperor’s Ruling Council itself. We can no sooner disobey it than we can disobey an order from our dark and loving god.”
“I resign, then,” Lassan said.
“You bathed in bull’s blood and said the words,” the sorcerer said. “You can’t resign.”
Lassan turned around and walked away.
Bodwin ran to catch up with him, but Lassan increased his pace. Bodwin stopped behind him, out of breath. “You know the penalty, Lassan! Don’t do this!”
He didn’t answer that, either.
Of course he knew the penalty. Magic couldn’t plow a field, or bring back a loved one, but plenty of men swore it could kill.
Two weeks since the peace. Two weeks of seeing the bloody wreck of his son’s body each time he closed his eyes. Two weeks watching creakers walk in and out of the battle lines. Two weeks of having to look them in those ice blue, alien eyes. Two weeks of smelling them. Two weeks for Lassan to realize that the risk of death by a mumbler spell was better than making peace with Fei.
Having made that decision, it was an easy decision to desert.
Lassan’s farm was a night’s ride away through the guarded lines. There were men shipping out of the camps all the time, and it was no trouble to hop in a cart. Lassan left nearly everything behind that would identify him—wig and boots, fine black wool jacket, even his medals and decorations, a dozen hanging stars and oak leaves. At noon the next day he began the walk to his farm, through clusters of wild ash and birch and pine that settlers had planted, on land that had once been covered with the massive Fei trees. The sunlight was bright but distant in the cold fall wind, filtered through the reddening leaves.
The birches were his favorite human trees. Much better than the cloying black sentry pines he had fought through in the Fei’s lands, stretching so high into the sky they blocked out any light. And watching. Human trees did not watch, or if they did, they didn’t care.
Ruth spotted him when he crested the ridge and ran to him, so fast her bonnet flew off her head in the breeze. She may have been his wife four years and counting, but she was still as giddy as a newlywed.
After a kiss she said, “The summons told us to come to the camp to see you once the peace talks ceased. Why are you here?”
“Plans changed,” Lassan said.
Ruth’s son ran out the door. Orsain was two. He had only been crawling last time Lassan was home. “Son!” He swept Orsain up in his arms, and kissed the little boy’s face, over and over, even when Orsain pulled away from his father’s stubble. “I missed my boy!”
He heard the thumping from around the house, heavy, hard footsteps, and amended, “My boys.”
His instincts, as always at first with Dhar, told him to defend himself. Instead, Lassan smiled up at the figure that towered over him, bursting from the yards and yards of wool Ruth had sewn into clothes. Dhar’s big rough limbs pulled him in tight, like roots on rocks, his skin like old tree bark. He gave one of his rare grunts through his speechless mouth, and embraced Lassan hard enough to make him gasp, “Stop—easy!”
Lassan was a man of one great contradiction. He’d found Dhar growing in a tree’s roots at the end of the same campaign where Alvin died, and never regretted stealing his Fei son.
Lassan held Orsain on his lap and showed him the long scar going down his arm. “And that’s the worst scar of all; where a Fei rammed me with his bayonet.”
“Oooh.” Orsain traced his hand down it, then lost interest and went for Lassan’s beer, which he held far enough away the boy couldn’t reach it.
Dhar flashed something in the sign-talk he had developed with Ruth and Orsain, though Lassan could never follow it. “What?”
“The boy says it wasn’t no bayonet,” Ruth said. Dhar signed something else. “Says you probably tripped on the flowers while you were flouncing through the woods.”
“I did not take lip from my soldiers, and if you think I’m taking it from you, you’ve got a whipping in store.” Lassan didn’t break his expression, but Dhar and Ruth laughed. Whipping a Fei was like whipping a stone.
“Dhar, we’re going to need more firewood tonight,” Ruth said. “You’d better get to it before it gets any colder.”
“Let him stay,” Lassan said.
Ruth started fidgeting with her bonnet, a sign, he remembered, that she was irritated. “Don’t you go telling my house how to run itself, John Lassan. This farm ran plenty smooth without you.”
Dhar signed something, slow enough that Lassan could understand it. You’ve been home one night and already you shirk your chores.
“I was serious about that whipping,” Lassan said.
“Go, Dhar!” Ruth said, and took him by the arm, as if she could actually lift him. Dhar rose. “Orsain,” Ruth said, “it’s far past your bedtime. Get up.”
“Noooo!” the boy shouted. “I want to stay with Pa-da!”
“Let him stay,” Lassan said. He clutched Orsain a little closer, the little two-year old nestling against Lassan’s chest.
“John Lassan,” Ruth said, “this is not going to be a proper homecoming unless you hand that boy over.” She raised an eyebrow.
Lassan hugged Orsain again. He kissed his boy on the head. “Go to sleep, Orsain. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Lassan watched Ruth usher Orsain up the ladder to the loft where the boys slept. The mumblers wouldn’t strike. They would have men deserting by the dozens; they wouldn’t bother with him. And anyway, Lassan had never seen magic used against an officer. Who said they cared?
Who says that they don’t? another part of him asked. He’d won a dozen battles by keeping a cool head, but once Kahirun was involved, he became a madman with a vendetta.
Long after his first wife’s death, before he met Ruth and settled down again, Lassan had spent every moment with his first son Alvin. They fought together. They drank together. On leave home, his face red with cider during a reel, Alvin had urged Lassan to court one of the local girls. “Come on, sir, uh, father,” Alvin had said. “Mam’s been dead three years. Time to taste a girl again.”
Alvin had been the best soldier in a thousand miles, but he followed orders like an irritated mule. Lassan had demoted his own son and nearly court-martialed him over an incident on the Nairhuren river. He had ordered Alvin to pursue the enemy, but Alvin, thinking he would lose too many men, had pulled back. Alvin hadn’t flinched, though he stood before his entire battalion, when he said, “Sir, I know that in my place you would have made the same choice.”
“It’s not for you to question your superior’s words,” Lassan had said, and demoted his own son, right there.
A few days later, in private, Alvin said, “I don’t care if you demoted me, I did right.”
“That’s insubordination,” Lassan had answered.
“Yes,” Alvin said. “Which you have never practiced.” He grinned.
Alvin was as good a soldier, and a better man, than Lassan. And the Fei took that man, tortured him and murdered him for a damn tree. Meeting Ruth, raising Orsain, even raising Dhar, an act that had started as revenge against the Fei—none of it took Alvin’s place. His first son’s grave might as well have been fresh-dug.
“That is far too many mugs of beer for one night,” Ruth said, coming down the ladder.
“Woman…” John answered, and realized he had no idea what he was going to say after that. Maybe a war story? “Look, back in the war, we didn’t get beer. We got piss, was what it was. Anward—he’s gone now, but he was one of the best men ever axed a Fei—he said that his own piss tasted better. He did it, you know. Drank it. For a ha’penny!”
“No more beer,” Ruth said. “You’re starting to think you’re back in the barracks.”
“It’s the best beer in the world,” John said.
“I hope so. With the harvest coming in, it looks like I can make quite a few more batches, and if it keeps selling at market the way it is, we’ll be able to buy some milk cows instead of goats.”
Money. She knows, John thought. She knows I resigned. Which means the money the army owes me won’t come.
“What else was there?” John said. The beer had loosened his tongue. “I ain’t going to face Kahirun across a negotiating table. The only thing that bitch will get from me is a musket ball.” Lassan looked out the window, where Dhar would have been, though he was lost in shadow. “Do you know what they did to Elward’s battalion? They nailed them to trees, tore their guts out, and left them for the wolves. When we found them, some of them were still alive, and we put the balls in them ourselves, for the sake of mercy.” He dropped his voice to a low mutter. “The Empire gave the Fei lands and treaties and every chance for peace. They broke those treaties because some idiots cut firewood.”
Normally, Ruth was silent on this subject, but this time she said quietly, “Pam Hale said the mumblers will cast a death spell on any man that deserts.”
After a moment, Lassan faked a laugh. “Were that true, most homesteaders in the Empire would be dead.”
“What about officers?”
Lassan didn’t answer, just drained the beer.
“That’s mumbler bullshit,” he answered. After a moment, he said, “Dhar’s been gone a while. I was hoping to talk to him.”
“Are we going to ask Harrem Smith if he needs an apprentice?”
“I have a better idea,” John said.
“What is it?”
John stared, puzzled, into his mug. “I don’t remember. Ha! But it will come—ah!”
Something had bitten John. No, it wasn’t a bite. He could smell his own flesh burning, on his hand. He raised it to his face.
A scar in his hand was getting bigger.
He looked at the bandage on his arm and saw a spreading circle of blood. The wound suddenly burned as much as it had when the shot hit him, two weeks ago. He could hear Bodwin. You said the words. You bathed in bull’s blood.
“What is it?” Ruth asked.
“Mumbler… bullshit…” The blood dripped from his hand, spattered across the hard-packed dirt floor. John rose to his feet, shaking, and started for bed, but he didn’t get far before he fell to his knees. God damn them. Already?
He stood among hazy smoke in a graveyard of twisted tree carcasses. Below him a child-sized form curled in the opened roots of a dead tree, little gray body stained with dark earth. Lassan wiped dirt from his forehead and reached in, put his hands around the warm little body, pulled it out. It whimpered and stretched.
Its gray skin was so smooth, without the tattoos and runes carved into the bodies of grown Fei. It was warm, dotted with little hairs and pores just like human skin. Its lithe fingers slipped along his arm and it whimpered again. Its blue eyes opened, bright and alive. They were so bright.
Still a killer’s eyes, Lassan thought, like every other blue-eyed, gray-skinned monster, and he set the child back into the hole between the roots.
It curled back up against a dead tree root. He wondered if any Fei would reach this grove in time to save this child’s life. Well, if it did die, that made one less. Good, Lassan thought, and turned to leave.
He walked by the other trees, charred, branches hacked away, leaving open white spots covered in curling splinters. He couldn’t look at the trees after a moment. It made him think of Alvin, and remember that his son was dead.
God, what did a man have to live for without his own son? What did Lassan have to live for, other than the war?
Alvin had been convinced, when he bought that forty acres, that they would need it once the war ended. “We’ll have a farm waiting for us,” his son had said, “and a place to bring whatever girls we choose to bring home.”
Something occurred to him. Lassan looked back in the direction of the baby. The Farradays could take care of the boy while he was gone—Hyrum Farraday owed Lassan his life, and the Farradays could watch the property as well.
No one could replace Alvin, especially a creaker. But Alvin would have wanted the land cleared, and if a Fei child were to live, better it live clearing woods as an honest farmer than singing in the trees and killing folks over firewood.
And… there would be no better revenge against the Fei than knowing one of their own couldn’t hear the songs of the trees.
Lassan found the baby again, and this time when he lifted the little gray form out of the roots and bundled it against his skin, he spoke. “All right, then.” He imagined, for a moment, that Alvin could hear him, and that Kahirun could, too. “This might be a spit in the creakers’ face, but I’m a man of honor. I’ll raise you right, and I’ll be fair, boy. I’ll never treat you as anything more than my own son. You will be human.”
The baby nestled into his arms.
He woke up under a white canvas roof. Fresh stitches were in his side, where he remembered stitches breaking, and they stretched when he moved. His arm ached as bad as it had the day he received the wound.
He struggled up on his elbow, causing the new stitches to pull painfully against his skin. The tent was empty in the night, oil-burning lamps lit on wrought-iron stands. Lassan recognized it. A week ago, this tent had been crowded with men bloody as fresh-slaughtered pigs, legs and arms sawed off and thrown into a pile outside. Their screams had been thick in the air, like gunpowder smoke in battle. It was odd to see it empty, silent.
Someone had brought him back.
“If all Fei ran as fast as your boy,” came a woman’s voice, “we’d have lost the war out of sheer slowness.”
“Wynn,” he said to the thickset woman who moved between the beds and blankets. “It seems I’m back in your care. Who brought me back?”
“You are god below’s biggest fool, Corporal Lassan,” Wynn, the company nurse, said. “And yes, you are a Corporal now. Running off when the mumblers were here. You might well have slit your own throat. And taking a Fei son!”
“Wait—what? Who brought me back, Wynn?”
“You were carried in by a young Fei naked as the day he was born—well, the day he popped out of them roots.”
“Aye, and dumb as a dead tree, too. Do you know what I speak of or were you out when he found you?”
Dhar. Lassan couldn’t answer. They should have let him bleed to death rather than give Dhar back. How could he put himself in this danger? “Where is the Fei boy now?”
“Probably back with his kind.”
“Why was the boy naked?”
“God below knows.”
Lassan kept his eyes closed, so tight color spots burst like fire across the darkness. Damn him and damn me. I will not lose another son.
And yet again, that other part of him whispered, This is all you deserve, and he knew it to be true.
“Dhar,” his father said, drinking a deep draught from a mug of Ruth’s home-made beer. “We’re going to need more firewood.”
Dhar signed You ain’t been home for one night and already you’re shirking your chores.
As usual, it took them a moment to notice. “I was serious about that whipping.”
All right, but only tonight, Dhar signed. Because I don’t want a whipping.
They didn’t see. He was used to that as well. It was tough for folks used to hearing to always be reading Dhar’s signs, even his family. He didn’t mind it; he just waited and signed again once they were looking.
Dhar went outside to the massive pile of logs he had yet to split. There was a great piece of a fallen pine from the Farradays’ farm, still a little green and in need of curing, but it would do. Dhar set it on the stump he used for chopping and raised his axe.
Things would finally be different with the peace. Dhar might be able to travel. Maybe meet other foundlings. Maybe a girl, he thought, and chuckled to himself. Sure. And a dozen healthy milk cows, and a pile of gold, and a magic flying horse.
He brought the axe down into the pine—and fell backward, his brain shooting stars through him. The pain was so intense that Dhar thought he might vomit. He crouched on the ground, holding his head. It didn’t subside. It got worse, increasing to a throbbing like his head was being squeezed.
I’ll just split a few pieces, Dhar thought, and then go inside and lay down. It was just another headache. He had been getting a lot of them lately.
He raised the axe again. When it came down it was worse. Dhar stumbled and landed on his back, roots and rocks jabbing upward through his thick skin.
When Dhar’s head finally cleared, he felt as though there were still a wedge driven into it. He looked up—and saw the axe in the uncured pine.
It’s my imagination, Dhar thought, and yanked the axe out.
This was a different kind of pain, an opening, air blowing through a fresh wound. He could feel the axe coming out of the wood.
Oh no, Dhar thought. It couldn’t be.
He wasn’t sure how long he lay there in the darkness. It never happened with settler trees, just the old ones, the Fei trees. Never settler trees. Birches and pines and ash were immune. They weren’t like the Fei trees!
Dhar even signed it, as if the universe could see it and answer him.
The universe stayed quiet.
He didn’t remember waiting in the cold, or stumbling into the house, or anything up until the point he stood over the stove, warming his hands. It was then that he heard Ruth weeping, and saw his father lying on the floor in a spreading pool of blood. “They’re all open,” she sobbed. Every scar.”
First thing in the morning, Dhar saddled the horse.
Ruth’s face was blotched from crying all night. “I sewed his arm shut last night. This morning it’s open. He’s lost more blood than a slaughtered calf.”
The horse is ready, Dhar signed.
“You dumb stump, how could he ride?”
As usual, Dhar didn’t fight back. Ruth could be excused for being angry with him this time. We could tie him on.
“It would make the cuts worse,” Ruth sobbed.
Even Orsain, who had been sent inside, had figured it out that something was wrong by now. Their father had been cursed by his Faustus. It would mean as many plagues as the sorcerers could bring, and they would remain until he came crawling back to the army, or till he fell into his grave.
His father called them mumblers and said they were fakers, so Dhar had never thought they were real either. His father must have had some reason to think he would survive the mumblers’ curses.
Dhar’s thick gray legs were as tall below his waist as Ruth’s entire body. He had never tested how far he could run, but he had carried a wounded horse nearly a mile once. He outran the bull in the north pasture every time it charged him.
I can carry him, Dhar signed.
Ruth’s eyes filled with hope, then disbelief. “You can’t carry him that fast.”
Never tried. Dhar tried to grin, though inside he was a storm. He wondered what would happen if he went to the front.
What happens—hell, what happens if I have to stop and make a fire on the way there and I have to cut wood?
If I don’t go, he thought, I’ll see my father die.
He found the words again, somehow, and moved his hands. Better chance than the horse. I’ll cradle him and check his bandages.
“What will they do with you?” For a moment, Ruth’s face held that real concern for him he saw so little of.
I don’t know. He looked at his father and didn’t bother to sign anything more.
Ruth embraced him, though she said nothing other than, “For his sake.” At least that was a comfort if he was leaving. “Take the musket and a knife.”
Orsain was still crying when Dhar went inside to hug his little brother. Dhar held his little brother close. “No hurt,” Orsain said. “Not like Pa-da.”
I’ll take care of Father, Dhar signed.
He ran like a spooked horse. Dhar avoided stands of trees the best he could and struck across the open meadows and cleared fields, great strides eating earth. He had no boots to fit him, but he felt little discomfort. He tore up clods of earth with each step, filled the gaps between his thick blocky toes with dirt. It felt good.
In his arms, his father’s blood soaked through the bandages and wet his neck. As they came closer to the road, and Dhar checked his father, he saw that less blood was coming through the bandages. His father’s breathing was easier now as well.
Dhar had been running along the side of the road—but now, this close, he had no choice but to take it, lest he trip over a battle line, an unfilled trench, or set off a sorcerous mine. Once on the road, a barrel-laden cart appeared, just as light was stealing through the trees and fields. There were two men driving the cart, and they eyed him with undisguised hatred.
One of them reached for a pistol. Dhar’s insides went to water, but he kept running. A Fei bearing a wounded man, heading for the lines from the other side—they couldn’t think badly of that, could they?
After a long, sinking moment, the cart passed. The tightness in Dhar’s chest eased.
Near sunrise Dhar dropped his father to change his bandages. The deep cut across his father’s arm was scabbed over now, the stitches visible. Thank God. Dhar sank against the nearest cottonwood.
The bed of old leaves around the roots was soft on Dhar’s sore legs. The cottonwood seemed warm, soft as a bed inviting him to sleep. Dhar leaned his head back into the crook of its roots. He could almost hear a song, drifting in the air.
Soft as a bed? Song? Dhar lurched forward, to his feet, still out of breath. He picked his father up.
His mind raced faster than his feet. He had cut hundreds of green logs before. Why now? What had changed? As far as he knew, the Fei all awoke to the voices in their tree roots, where their oat-sized newborn bodies were buried. They grew, filled with the voices of the actual trees. None of them changed when they were older, and none of them talked to settler trees. Why now?
He reached the lines when daylight was fading. Dhar’s back was bowed and aching from the weight of his father. His sides ran thick with sweat.
In the valley beyond, below where the road zig-zagged through grassy hills, the camp stretched out, earthenworks and tunneled moats brown and black with dirt around the edges, along with lines of cannon, the sound of men marching from within. Smoke was drifting in a blue haze over the valley. The fringes were dirty and haphazard, the parts reserved for volunteer militia and followers, in contrast with the stretches of neat white tents in the center, marking the Imperial Army.
The hills beyond the human camp marked Fei territory, thick with dark, towering trees.
He could hear them. They were always singing, the stories said, unable to speak more than a few sentences in their language without calling upon an old tale, or an elegy. The dissonant, crackling singing rose above the cacophony of the camp below, soaring high as a firehawk.
The singing vibrated and thrummed, too high and too jarring, Dhar thought, like to cause an earache… but Dhar felt something, almost like the tree he had cut. Where that had been injury, this ached like hunger, or like his tired muscles, a kind of ache that was part of him.
He shoved the thought away. That’s no part of me, Dhar thought.
“Worst noise I’ve ever heard,” a voice carried, under the song.
“Every morning,” another voice agreed. “I figured it would be like a mockingbird after a while, a bit of noise that you hardly notice. But every morning they bellow, and every morning it grates me more.”
There were people on the road, Dhar realized, two men behind him, coming out of the woods. The accents were like his father’s. Settlers then. Not officers of the Empire. Men more likely to hate Fei.
And with that thought, a pistol cocked. He turned.
The face of the man behind him mingled disgust and uncertainty. “You’re out of your camp.”
Dhar’s put on his best, biggest smile, the one that made him look stupid and made people take pity on him.
It didn’t make a difference. “He’s put on some clothes,” the man muttered. “Where’d you get those? Some man you killed?”
Dhar held up his father, making sure to keep his head upright.
“Answer me, creaker.”
“God below. That’s Colonel Lassan,” said another man, standing behind the first.
The first man looked back at his compatriot, then back at Dhar. “We’ll have to take him to the Faustus.”
Dhar shifted his father’s weight until he could get one arm free, and then he pointed furiously at the camp.
“Boy can’t talk,” the second man said. “Someone cut your tongue out?”
Dhar nodded. It wasn’t true—he had never been able to talk, since birth—but it would do for now.
“We’ll take you.”
Dhar nodded, relieved.
“Though,” the man with the pistol said. “I won’t stand to see a Fei in man-clothes. Take them off.”
Dhar stared in disbelief.
“You’re not a man. Stop dressing like one.”
Dhar looked to the other man for appeal, but the other man just nodded his head. “Do it.”
Dhar wasn’t sure what to do, save helping his father as soon as possible, so finally Dhar laid his father on the ground, then pulled his vest off and lowered it. Dhar loosened his suspenders and let his breeches fall. He was left in the linen shirt that served as smallclothes, hanging below his waist.
“Everything off,” the man said. “You can’t go into camp looking like a man.”
Dhar pulled the shirt up, flushing. He let his hands fall to the side of his chest, avoiding the temptation to cover himself.
The man smirked. “Now let’s go.”
The first part of the camp was chaotic and dirty, brown settler tents placed haphazardly with men and women and children running free, most half-dressed. The settlers stared for a half second before the shouts started. “Look at that.” “Bring him over him, we’ll show him a tree branch he can get to know real well.”
A woman—a whore, Dhar realized—called out something that made Dhar flush. Another called out something else, something that Dhar had no idea what it meant. A child threw a branch in front of his feet and shouted, “I killed this tree myself!” A pack of militia men, bandaged and bruised, broke off and followed Dhar. They eyed him with hatred. He shivered, not from nakedness.
“Found him wearing clothes,” the man herding Dhar said. “And dumb as a post. Somebody cut out his tongue.”
“Smart move,” said one of the militia men. “Can’t sing. Best thing to cut off from a Fei. Although I can think of a few more!”
The militia men stared at him with iron-black eyes. A fat, warm gob of spit hit Dhar’s side, then another his arm. The spit gobs were brown and thick with chewing tobacco. One hit his hair.
“You look better in spit than you did in man’s clothes, boy,” the man behind Dhar said, and the other one laughed.
More men stood, until there was practically a line. When Dhar passed them, each one spit on him.
“No, no,” one of the men behind him said. “We’re at peace with them.” He chuckled. “Peace. With the Fei.”
When he reached the main camp, with rows of white tents and stark-faced men in black coats, Dhar gritted his teeth, not just against pain, but against tears.
The men found a commander’s tent. Several soldiers banded together to move Dhar’s father, and another took him by the arm. Thankfully, the soldiers’ eyes didn’t linger on his nakedness, and none of them said anything.
When he was finally alone in a tent, still without clothes, he let it go and wept like a child. I’m not Fei. Not really.
“Clothes. As promised.”
The Faustus showed an eerie smile to Dhar, baring rows of black teeth, stretching the veins in his cheek in the flickering light of smoky lamps. It looked odd under the perfect black curls of his wig. He had only been here for a few minutes, but already he was giving Dhar the creeps.
Thank you, Dhar signed, shedding the blankets from his cot and spreading out the smooth brown garments. They were marked with fine calligraphy on gold ribbons around the neck and the sleeves, black-and-silver tracery shining from the fabric like sunlight on water. He looked up, puzzled, hoping the Faustus could read his expression.
“They are the clothes of a traveler returning home, the Fei courier said. Well, I think that’s what he said. He speaks Impirican like he’s got a mouth full of stones.” The Faustus smiled again. Dhar wondered if the smiles were meant to put him at ease or disturb him further.
Dhar pulled the robe over his skin. It was too smooth, almost slimy. He wished for his linen shirt back. It beat being naked, though.
The sorcerer, who identified himself as his father’s Faustus, Bodwin, stood next to a general, coat bearing stripes across the arms and on the breast. The general, white powder from his wig dusting his forehead, had not said anything yet.
“How old are you?” Bodwin asked.
Dhar held out ten fingers, closed them, and opened two more. His father had always said Fei grow faster, and that Dhar was already an adult. Bodwin confirmed it when he said, “You will reach maturity in winter. You’re more than old enough now for the scarring and your first song, were you among them.”
Dhar pantomimed writing. He had never been good at letters—Ruth didn’t like to spend time teaching him—but he could write enough to let them know what he needed.
“I hoped you could write,” Bodwin said. He called outside to the soldiers. “We’ll have it in a moment.”
Waiting for the paper and pen, Dhar sat under the uncomfortable gaze of the Faustus and the general. They seemed to be examining him like they would a pig for slaughter—eyes up and down, checking haunches and rump and shoulder, deciding if he was fat enough or if they should move on to the next one.
“Forgive me, but I’ve never been this close to one of you for so long,” Bodwin said. “At home, they clamor for news of the ‘creatures of the colonies.’ They think Fei are a hundred feet tall, covered in scales, and mate with trees. I do wish I could take you there. Amazing! Proof that civilization can overtake even the most savage of the darker races.” He looked at the dour-faced general, who didn’t seem to share his enthusiasm.
“Your father pulled you out of those roots too early,” the general said after a moment of silence. “Had he left you in there a bit longer, you would be able to speak.”
Dhar looked at the Faustus, as if expecting to see a laugh or an acknowledgment on the lie. Bodwin just nodded.
Dhar’s father had never told him that.
The paper and pen arrived, and Dhar began scratching out a message. He had to blot out words, but thankfully, Bodwin provided a blotter for him.
He wrote, What will happen to my father?
“Your father is sentenced to death. We haven’t decided if we will let him see you.”
Sentenced to death, Dhar thought? He tried to write faster. He’s come back. I thought if he came back he wouldn’t— Dhar held the paper up.
“By the terms of the truce, what your father did by taking you is a war crime to the Fei. A child raised without trees or songs or any of their ways—we might as well have chopped down a whole grove.” Bodwin smiled again. “I find you rather charming. I wish the circumstances were different.”
“He knew the penalty,” the general said, “when he left. At least this way he dies with dignity.”
But I didn’t know, Dhar wanted to say. Did his father know the penalty? Did he really intend to die? Dhar bit back the anger and began to write again. Will you spare my father if I go back to the Fei?
“You’re going to the Fei no matter what.”
Dhar was too shocked to write.
“We had no choice.” Bodwin smiled. “The truce. From the moment you entered the camp, you were theirs.”
He dreamed of grinding wheat with the Farradays, the neighbors who had taken care of him when he was a child, until his father married Ruth. “There have to be other foundlings out there,” Anne Farraday said. “You’ll find yourself one and make a passel of kids.”
“No, try a human woman,” Hyrum Farraday had put in. “I want to see what the kids look like.”
“I’ll hire one out to help this lazy man with the harvest,” Anne said.
Even when Preacher Harding, in their little church, had preached that their dark and loving god would condemn the Fei to an eternity of gray between lives, he had made sure to say, “save those who are raised in the Lord.”
Dhar’s eyes snapped open again. He rubbed them, got up and looked outside of the tent.
The Fei on the hill had stopped singing.
At the bottom of the hill below their camp, just visible to him with the faint light of a campfire, there was a deep, open pit. He hadn’t noticed it before, on the shameful march into the tent. Ivy crawled down the sides, over thin, stark branches in the firelight. It was full of dead trees, Dhar realized. Trees with twisting spiral branches, different from any tree he’d ever seen. Enormous trees. Some of the cut trunks would have filled the common room of his house.
Next to the massive pit, there was one single living tree. It was nothing special; just a knobby old black oak. The fire danced on the thick black knots of the trunk.
The oak moved.
Dhar fell back into the tent. His mouth felt full of dirt, raw earth and he felt a cool night wind shifting around him, moonlight reflecting through the veins of his leaves and then he was full of the sunlight from the hot day and deep inside himself he churned earth, until the feeling rose up through his branches and his leaves and—
Speak for us.
Dhar felt his head smack against the ground. It was the only normal sensation to intrude on the feeling of the trees.
Speak for us. You must tell the others, the others of blade and branch and stone.
Dhar wanted to scream no, no, leave me alone, but with a mouth full of earth and roots, he could say nothing.
Tell them we are awake now.
He lay there for a long time, until the taste of roots and earth dissipated.
I’m not Fei. Not really.
It had always been a lie, a great deep lie like a pit, covered over with a dozen other lies. Now it stood exposed. He looked into the lie, and saw only that great, knotty black oak.
The songs, the stories, the memories, the names. A thousand times a thousand years the Fei had walked the land here, and each Fei’s song, each Fei’s deeds, each Fei’s heart was locked in the sap and the wood of memory groves, of Fei trees, the minarets, the sentry pines and the whitebarks. The trees remembered everything, and the Fei remembered in turn. Each memory in wet, soft wood, in a thick network of roots, passed through the children of children of trees.
Musket balls peppered the trees, sank deep, boring holes through stories and memories. Cannons tore away the flesh of trees, threw the shards of wood high in the air, set flame to Fei names, burned them away, condemned each Fei to forgetfulness.
“To the line!” she cried. “They can’t reach us here!”
Her Fei ran to the line and raised their oversized muskets to hammer the ragged human lines below, but it did nothing against the mortar and cannon coming from further back, behind the ragged army, and more trees fell—a great minaret tree, shattered in the center, lost its top, the branches cascading down.
She felt the minaret tree’s horror, its fear. It had lost the names. It could not remember who it was.
“I want those damned mortars gone!” Kahirun said.
“We might be able to sustain a charge,” Yatammue said, “sky and earth willing.”
“Order it,” Kahirun said. “We’ll regroup at the western edge of the grove. Perhaps we can lead them away.”
“I will lead the phalanx,” Yatammue said.
Kahirun had only a moment to kiss him, and she made the most of it, passionate and warm. He had volunteered for a mission that would kill him, to save this grove.
“By blade and branch and stone,” he whispered, invoking the three roots.
“Blade and branch and stone,” she replied.
Yatammue stood and shouted, but as he did Kahirun fell over. Her mouth was thick with root-rich earth, and cold leaf-wind rushed through her. Was another tree dying? No—they were speaking. Their thick, collective voice, dark and deep as earth, old and full of memory, resolved themselves in her mind.
Kahirun opened her mouth, by reflex, and shouted the word before she realized what she was saying. “Surrender—”
“What?” Yatammue said.
“The trees said—” Kahirun realized what they had said. To surrender would mean this grove would be lost, and dozens of others. What had they asked? The voice filled her mind again, thick and dark and deep. Surrender.
Why? Kahirun asked.
The trees’ voice was so insistent this time that stars burst across her eyes. Surrender! Then silence.
“Fly a white flag,” Kahirun said, the words escaping her mouth though she would have called them back.
The People sang. The blades turned in her flesh. Kahirun had her eyes closed against the pain.
Sing of us, who remain
Of blade and branch and stone
Bright are our swords, blue our gaze and red our blood
Fate is our foe and fallen our forefathers
Up swords when branches fail
Blade and branch and stone
Up swords when branches fail
As the knives bit deeper, Kahirun saw the groves of her childhood, the twisting fingerpines reaching into the air above the snow of the mountain slopes.
There had been a smell. Her family told her it had been sweet, intoxicating and heady. They told her the air smelled differently there than anywhere else.
She didn’t remember the smell. Not a trace.
In the stillness just after the song, the trees’ silence ached like a wound. They had not spoken since ordering the truce.
The Gardeners’ knives withdrew from the already thick scar tissue of Kahirun’s back. Thirty groves had been lost to humans because of this treaty, and now she would bear five of the groves’ names. The pain was worse than fire, but her anger was worse than the pain, and the anger sustained her.
Around her, firelight spread across the smooth skin of the silent whitebarks and played within the shadows of the drifting fronds from goldfeather trees.
“The dead are carved.” Kahirun said, standing.
“In our flesh is our memory,” the others intoned.
Kahirun walked up the stairs to the rim of the hollow, keeping herself from collapse. While she was still standing, for it was weakness to sit, her men and women spread balm across her back.
The pain sharpened with the balm. Someone was speaking to Kahirun, she realized. Yatammue, by his breathing. Though they had been lovers since childhood, they had not touched each other since the peace, out of their own mutual anger. “What?”
“I had a courier, not an hour ago. It seems that they have a foundling for us. Taken from the roots in the campaign against Neh-rohennoth.”
“Truly? Why would we want this foundling back?”
“They want to sweeten the offer, I imagine. They think that offering us foundlings will make us more amiable.”
“We’ll send them a dog to be baptized,” Kahirun said, “to even the score.”
Warriors laughed and rattled blackwood knives on armor. Only the hardened remained to sing the last song of battle, here so close to where the front lines had once been. Each one had scars where the humans’ muskets and bayonets had found them, and the deep chiseled tattooes bearing the names of beloved groves burned or felled, murdered. Their chestplates and swords were nicked from long use. Bone and branch from dead loved ones twisted in their hair.
“This one was raised by John Lassan,” Yatammue said.
The warriors fell silent. Lassan. A man whose campaigns scorched entire forests, burned vast stores of knowledge in the trees. A thousand dead cried from the black earth for his life. Lassan was one of the commanders Kahirun had wanted at the negotiations tomorrow, just to look the monster in the eye.
“I’m surprised he was able to look at a child without killing it.” Valavie spat.
Kalataana interjected, “As surely as a dog taken by wolves, this boy will be human. He will not know the trees’ voice.”
“We should take him,” Yatammue said. “If he can sing even a note of tree song, he must be scarred. Kahirun—”
Kahirun’s mouth was stopped, filled with moist earth, and warm air drifted past her ears, shaking them like leaves.
The trees spoke.
You killed Lassan’s first son, they said. Take this one back among you.
And then it was gone. Kahirun could taste the lingering earth in her mouth.
“Kahirun?” Yatammue asked. “What is it? Did the trees speak?”
“They told me that I killed Lassan’s first son.”
The scarred gray faces waited for more. “That’s it?” Katerinuén said.
She stopped on the next words. It was the task of a treevoice to repeat each word, portray each emotion that the trees did.
But the trees had given no reason why they wanted peace. If Kahirun had been permitted to speak of such things, she would say they were addled from so much loss, unable to realize how many Fei defended them.
And now they would force her to take this abomination, crafted by a treekiller as an insult, among them?
By blade and branch, Kahirun swore, if you wish me to save this boy, you will have to speak again. She smiled, feeling the scars on her lips stretch. “It will be nice to kill another one, I suppose.”
The human sorcerers’ tent was massive, black and marked with golden dragons’ heads embroidered into the fabric, thick and symmetrical, some large in the pattern, some small, some round and some squared to the sides. Kahirun could smell the burning herbs from outside. Every Faustus in the camp would be in there mumbling their way through some incantation to make sure they kept their advantage over the Fei.
She was surrounded by her own sorcerers, Gardeners in thick robes woven of blackwood moss, goldfeather leaves and wool. The Gardeners had made their own offering, burnt sheep guts on consecrated forget-wood to ensure this meeting’s peace.
It would not be difficult. The human sorcerers thought of this as placating her so the negotiations would go smoothly. As long as she placidly took what they offered, she would be fine.
Yatammue leaned over to her. “Will we let the boy sing?” he asked. The tradition of the scarring ceremony always ended in the singing of the scarred one’s first song.
He had asked this before, and Kahirun hadn’t answered. She exhaled heavily. The trees were still silent in her mind, unresponsive. “If the trees wish him to sing,” Kahirun said, “I cannot stop them.”
“What if he does sing?” Yatammue said. “We cannot kill him then.”
Kahirun was silent. If he sang of a purpose for the trees’ treaty, then she would spare him. If not, he would die as a sacrifice.
Inside the tent, more dragon heads, symbol of the human sorcerers’ order, curled around each other in worked gold-and-iron. The head human sorcerer had golden dragon heads worked into his robe below his crystal eyes.
Amid the sorcerers stood a human warrior, garbed not in an Imperial soldier’s traditional black coat, but in a ragged linen shirt over dirt and bandages. Kahirun had never seen him save across a battlefield, but she knew who he was.
The Faustus spoke. “John Lassan, shamed servant of our dark and loving god, comes before the dragon’s head to treat with Kahirun, by blade and branch and stone the voice of the Fei.”
Lassan stared at Kahirun and Kahirun stared back. Lassan’s anger seethed in his face, she could see, a hot rage to match her own. “Have you anything to say?” she asked. “You burned our memory, and took our songs from us. I could have spent a lifetime hunting you, and it would have been well spent. Now I take your son.”
The rage in Lassan’s eyes changed, wounded by that revelation. It was sweet.
“Bring news of Lassan’s execution to the camp as soon as it has been carried out,” Yatammue said to the head Faustus. “We will want to sing of it in detail.”
Lassan burst out. “My son’s done nothing. He’s never even seen another Fei. Don’t… don’t punish him.” His voice tone spoke for him. He knows, Kahirun thought. He knows I will kill his son.
Good. Now he knew what it was like to be rooted in the earth, unable to move, flames licking at his trunk, stealing names and songs that had been a sacred trust in your own flesh.
“Kahirun,” Lassan repeated, and there was desperation in his voice. “He has done nothing.”
“He lives,” Kahirun said. “That’s enough.”
Lassan growled through his teeth like a dog. “Kahirun!”
She turned from him and left the sorcerers’ tent. Oh, it was sweet.
They came to the little tent where the boy was kept. The boy emerged from between the tent’s folds as they approached.
Kahirun had never seen any Fei this age so unmarked. His skin was cream-smooth, unmarred by the beginning of a knot or a rut. He met her gaze with the same impudence as his father.
“Our business is complete,” Faustus Bodwin said, and took the boy’s hand. “For peace’s sake, I urge you to be kind to him.”
“For peace’s sake,” Kahirun answered, “I hope you bring us no other abominations.”
Yatammue pulled the boy away. “You will remain silent,” Yatammue said.
The boy didn’t answer.
“And you will keep your eyes on the ground. You do not have the right to meet one of the People’s eyes.” Yatammue took the boy by the arm. “Do you understand?”
The boy still did not answer, but he cast his eyes to the ground.
Yatammue cast a look at Kahirun, one that said, Defiant boy. Kahirun raised her eyes in agreement to the sky. If the boy were defiant, that would make this all the easier.
They approached the edge of the lines with the prisoner, near the great open tree grave. The ivy was already beginning to crawl through the pit, embracing the trees in the green they lost in death. The pathway to the Fei camp sloped up beyond them.
A shout and a musket’s report turned their heads backward.
“Dhar!” someone shouted.
Lassan had broken away. Two guards lay on the ground. He ran toward the lines, clearing a ditch with one great leap. “Dhar! Don’t go! Fight them!”
The first musket ball took Lassan in the shoulder, and another in the stomach, and he stumbled to the edge of the lines, in a space between two guards who rushed to pull him up. Blood was thick on his shirt as he stared at his Fei son.
“Dhar,” Lassan said. He reached out for his son, despite the space between them. “I’m sorry—”
He tore himself from the guard’s grip and leapt into the trees’ grave. As if it had been designed for him, a soft bed of ivy caught his fall. Another soldier fired a pistol into Lassan’s back, rendering him forever still.
At their side, the boy began to sob.
Kahirun, to her surprise, couldn’t speak from shock. It was Yatammue who said, “Continue.”
It was three full miles to the first true Fei grove, and all the while Kahirun could not rid her eyes of the sight. Lassan was dead. So fast. In front of his son, no less. She could not have imagined a sweeter death for a treekiller.
The boy’s sobbing had subsided, but they could still hear the whimpers he made, though he did not speak.
He has a name, she thought. Dhar. The father had called him that. Dhar. It was good to know the name of one you killed.
She looked over at the boy, walking behind them. He had been trying to walk like a man for too long to adapt to a proper gait, where he would have toes like roots splayed out and grabbing at the ground; instead, he jerked along like a human. With each jerk he whimpered.
The path wound through a thick stand of the human trees—pines, they called them, but they were a pathetic imitation of sentries and fingerpines, growing barely beyond the height of a tall Fei. The boy slowed, and Kahirun heard his whimpers cease.
The path crossed a land cut clear now, the human trees hewn and burned as no Fei tree would be, to make room for a nursery. Ahead, thin goldfeather saplings marched in rows next to whitebarks, and, in the rocky stands of land around them, massive black sentry pines.
Yatammue drew closer. “I will go ahead and summon the others to the hollow.”
Kahirun nodded. She clenched and unclenched her hands, preparing. If the trees did not give her any answers she would put his eyes out, cut his ears and tongue off, and finally slit his throat.
She could not help but look back at him. Sap-gold tears streamed off his chin and onto his chest.
The boy followed Yatammue and Kahirun down dry, twisted roots, below cut stumps that clung to the edges of the great hollow. A sentry pine, ancient and grandfatherly, spanned the space over them, its roots digging into both sides of the hollow, its center black and reamed out by fire in some bygone age. Fei crowded the hollow’s edge, crouched on the roots and stumps, the fall sunlight rippling over tattooed and carved skin, mail and leather and thin armor alike. Three hundred bright blue eyes stared at the boy. To his credit, he’d ceased crying.
Gardeners waited, dark robed figures in a circle, each holding one shadowy blackwood blade against a chest. Golden fall sunlight filled the hollow, spilling across the rocks and roots, though it did not seem to touch those knives.
“No,” she said, when the Gardeners raised their knives for the tattooing. “I will judge the boy.”
She drew her own knife. Her hand closed around the soft leather-worked-with-moss handle, the blackwood blade shining in its burnished perfection. They handed her duskroot, wrapped in a thick cloth.
“Boy,” Kahirun said. “Chew this.” She unwrapped the dark duskroot. “Dhar. That is your name?”
He did not reply. He took the root and put it in his mouth.
Kahirun raised the knife. If he chose not to speak, he would bear with the consequence. “Bend him over.” She put the knife in the center of his back and sliced down, through the robes and through his back, and she saw his back stiffen, and heard him let a cry—a muffled, grunting cry. The purple robes parted with a smear of dark blood, rising to the thick cut in the skin as if she had sliced through animal fat. The blackwood blade slid from the swathe in his back.
He did not run.
The Gardeners handed her a parchment with the names of the groves on it. Around her, the singing began.
In the days of blood the fathers walked
Feathers of the firehawk twined with skin
Now treeless is the land; stark are the skies
Where once stood my father’s sentries now bones lie
The song filled her, gave purpose to her hand. The names on the parchment were the names of five fallen groves. The last of Neh-heronneth was there, for where the boy had been taken, and Yeh-rehlain, and Faranamié, and two where she had not walked, but she repeated them with the same reverence as the others as the blade sliced into his skin. “Her-rahennal. Neh-haroneikel.” She swept the blade up and down, carving the names and calligraphy with the rhythm.
The songs have shattered,
The flesh of trees is as dry bone on the earth
In our flesh we must remember,
For theirs is cast aside.
The boy screamed. Two Gardeners grabbed his arms and held them at his sides, but it was not necessary. He screamed and wailed and grunted, but he did not move more than it took to shake with the pain.
The blade turned in his thick skin, leaving bloody trails, curved and dotted and swept through letters that bore the names of the dead.
Who speaks for the silent?
Roots bent yet unconquered, in the deepness of earth
Only black blades can speak
Only Fei can tell the tale.
By blade and branch and stone.
The final name curved bloody around the boy’s ribs. Kahirun placed small dashes for the vowels and stepped away.
The Gardeners rubbed the salt and the pigments into the wounds to keep them open and distinct. Kahirun had not the calligraphic skill of the Gardeners, but she had written well, names of the groves twisting and running down the boy’s back, playing with the smooth muscle beneath the surface.
When the Gardeners stepped away, the boy sank to his hands and knees, shaking and sobbing.
This was the moment. And despite herself, Kahirun hoped the boy would sing. She was not a creature without pity; the boy’s father had just died, and he was a weeping child in front of her.
But I must, she thought, and directed the thought at the trees. I will kill every foundling that comes to me unless you give your reason.
The boy did not sing, only made the great grunting, inhaling sobs.
The blackwood knife shone in her hand.
Spare him, the trees said. The same as Lassan had asked, before he died.
Why? Kahirun asked.
Kahirun stepped forward, with the knife. “The sins of treekillers have given us an abomination without the memory of groves and song. They offer him to us, a reminder of their crimes, and should we take him among us…” She paused, to swallow against dryness. The image of Lassan, staring at his son, burned through her mind. “Should we take him among us, his life would be a mockery.” She raised the blade. “Death! What say ye, oh People? Will you speak for the cut, the burned? Will you speak for the silent?”
The audience chanted as one, without hesitation. War-hardened faces stared back at her. “Death!”
The boy looked up at her, and for the first time his wet eyes were shining with the light of passion. He opened his mouth and produced a long grunt, like a wallowing pig.
“What are you saying?”
The boy grunted again, and then he let go of Kahirun’s arm and pantomimed writing.
Could he not speak? Kahirun had never stopped to think that his silence was not intentional. He pantomimed writing again.
“You must sing,” Kahirun said.
“Death!” they called.
He pantomimed again.
Sky and earth, Kahirun thought, I cannot kill a mute for not singing.
The boy rose, faster than she could have thought, and pulled the knife from her hand.
Before Kahirun could collect herself, or the Gardeners come forth, the boy thrust the blade into his own arm. He screamed, a horrible, raw cry, and Kahirun realized that no words had indeed ever come from that throat.
He carved into his own flesh.
The Gardeners paused. Kahirun tore a blackwood blade from one of them and approached the boy.
He sank to his knees and dug the knife into his own flesh, carving something.
Kahirun stood over the boy. The word he carved was in the human language, and sloppy, like a set of drunken bird tracks.
She had never seen the word before. It took a moment to vocalize from the human alphabet, despite her years reading it.
Eyes running free with tears, the boy pantomimed writing again.
Oak. Suddenly she could feel the presence of the trees again, and she knew the word, though she could not say from where. Oak. The tree wanted them all to know the word, and she heard others. Oak. Ash. Rowan. Beech. Pine.
It was so strong that she found herself speaking the words. “Oak. Ash.” Kahirun clutched the blackwood blade, and then dropped it. “Oak. Ash. Rowan. Beech. Pine.” New names, new songs.
The People were singing. Yatammue had translated the song, and was singing in his deep clear voice.
You who dance before death, like fire in snow,
Your songs are heard. Yonng ones awake
They wait for your songs, for your skin, for your scars
They wait for your hearts, and they give you this
No need to dwindle, no more despair
But dawn, and sky and earth again to hear you
Your songs to echo once more
He paused for the rest in the cadences, and for the difficulty of speaking the next part.
The price is peace
The young ones are man’s trees
Of hewers of limbs and spillers of sap
It has been their fate, flame and axe, and they will go
For the price of hope; hope for your songs
If you keep peace, your children shall fill the forests
If you choose death, the trees shall be silent
They knew now.
The human trees had awoken, and they yearned for Fei to come to them and dwell in their roots and sing of their groves, to teach them their memories and the proud heritage of the elder trees. But it could not be done, not in the way the Fei were accustomed. The war with humans would become so vicious if they fought for human trees as well, that the Fei would be all eradicated by the fight. So the human trees sought for a peace that would allow Fei to pass freely into their lands. And in return…
Kahirun shut her eyes. In return, the human trees would allow themselves to be cut and burned by humans. Oak, ash, beech, rowan, maple, birch and all the others would die as sacrifices to peace, without old age, burned merely to keep humans warm, passing on memories and consecration, as long as Fei might one day walk among them. And, for that matter, Fei lands would be ceded to humans, and Fei trees would fall as well, and more memory would be lost in the name of this damning peace.
She turned and walked to the tent.
She could hear the pen scratching before she arrived. The boy had not stopped the laborious process of making the letters even while the wounds on his arm were still wet. Soon he would know the Fei language, and he would write the new songs, thousands of them sent forth from the new trees. Soon the young Fei, the few who were still in the roots of their trees, would come forth to sing those songs and learn the names of oak and ash and rowan and birch, who would die, helpless, with no People to arise to defend them.
For the first time, she sympathized with Lassan, watching her as she prepared to kill his son, unable to do anything.
Dhar was, thus far, the only Fei who had been raised among human trees and could speak for them. Without him, the human trees had no chance. Others of the People would challenge him even if they could not challenge the treaty, and the memory of Lassan raising him would go among the People and sow distrust.
She still carried the blackwood knife.
She brushed through the tent door. The boy was sprawled out, surrounded by parchment, crouched over a writing tablet. He was swathed in bandages, thick on his arm where he had carved the name of the first human tree. He looked back at her and his eyes widened, bright in the dark.
She did not say a word, but knelt beside the boy. He cast his eyes down at the paper.
She raised his chin and gave him the privilege of meeting her eyes, in silence.
The firelight played across his childlike smooth skin. She could, for a moment, almost picture what Lassan must have seen when he pulled this boy from the roots. Helpless innocence in the midst of death.
She had seen so many groves die, and so many memories lost. She would rather have never seen it end. “Do you know what you have begun?” she asked him, in the Fei language, so he could not answer. She thought of Lassan again. How strange, that she might find herself in his place.
She handed him the knife. He looked up at her. Kahirun stretched out her own arm, tattooed and thick with colors, and pointed to a groove that had been dyed yellow.
“Carve it,” she said.
He didn’t ask, but placed the knife hesitantly against her flesh.
“It won’t part for that. Carve it deep.”
He pressed it deeper, and her blood welled out, and he spelled the word out, in great shaking strokes. Oak.
Closing her eyes, Kahirun focused away from the pain, on a field of fresh snow and fingerpines, air crisp with the sweet smell.
Spencer Ellsworth wrote his first novel at seven years old and never recovered. He lives in Bellingham , WA, where he teaches comp and literature and writes a lot. His work won the PARSEC Contest in 2009 and has been published in Brain Harvest, Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Intergalactic Medicine Show. He has also worked in wilderness survival, special education, and at a literary agency. He is married to fantasy artist Chrissy Ellsworth and is the proud father of Adia and Samwise Ellsworth, otherwise known as Monkey Pants McGee and the Waddling Man of the Apocalypse. He lives at spencerellsworth.blogspot.com.