Natural Selection

“Natural Selection”

by Lindsey Duncan

“Why are we stopping?” Pazia Ke’Lieren wondered, pressing her nose against the window as the carriage glided to a halt. “And where are we?”  Massive trees loomed on all sides, their leaves a fiery barricade of color amidst hoary evergreen. They gave the impression of centuries in waiting.

“Black moss and ice weathering,” her companion answered, a flicker from pearl-like, pupilless eyes. Vanchen Oriniel was white as snows, a half-blood Icewalker whose eyes gauged depth, texture and heat as readily as color. “We’re somewhere in the near north.”

“That’s not on the way to Naranvisse,” Pazia said. She tried not to sound nervous, but her voice quavered.

“I don’t understand how traveling by ghostglide works,” he said. “Distances may not align with the physical world. Unless Mylonar changed his mind. . .”

“No,” she said. “We saved his daughter, and he’s a good man at heart. He wouldn’t betray us.” Mylonar had dispatched the enchanted carriage and two guards to take them home. Reaching Naranvisse would take weeks by mundane means. Through the magic of the ghostglide, it would only be two days.

Two days to home! Her heart ached. She had never been away before, even by choice.

“I hope you’re right,” Vanchen said. He reached for the door handle, then added, “If the escort means us harm, I want you to jump out the other side and run as fast as you can.”

She ignored the patter of her heart. “What would give you the idea I’d do that? We’re in this together.”

The carriage door swung open. The scents of the forest flowed in, cloying decay and the smokey bite of autumn. A guard leaned in.

“There’s a problem with the travelstone,” he said. “We’ll need to stop.”

Vanchen shot her a look. She widened her eyes:  See?  Worried for nothing. He shook his head, obviously not convinced. “Can you fix it?” she asked.

“Just needs time in the sun. We’ll be moving before noon tomorrow.”

Vanchen peered dubiously through the shrouding branches at the pinprick of light. Pazia had no doubt he could estimate how much sun the carriage would get. “I see.”

They clambered out. The guards set about making camp. Pazia plopped down on a rock and hugged herself for warmth. Vanchen settled close, the lines of his thin body wary. She was struck by the stillness of their surroundings: bird-song faded fast, sapped into a low-hanging mist, and the animals trod with thieves’ lightness.

The guards said little. To fill the silence, Pazia told Vanchen about her brother, heir to her father’s business as a mercer, and how she had diced for his freedom.

“So even with his safety riding on the rolls,” he said, “you didn’t weight the dice.”

“If I did that, they would abandon me,” she answered. “I’d lose the knack for crafting them – and deserve to. You can’t have luck if it’s predetermined.”

“I see.” And he didn’t, she knew, but she let it go.

Sunset doused the forest in old blood. Dinner was hardtack. Vanchen nudged her, feigning exhaustion; she followed suit.

“We’ll keep watch,” said the taller guard.

“Don’t sleep,” Vanchen murmured in her ear before moving to his bedroll. “At least, not yet.”  She bit her lip and nodded.

Pazia lay curled in the darkness, her left hand clenched around her dice satchel. She felt the facets through the leather:  four-sided, six, twenty. Wish me luck, my friends, she thought.

“Are they asleep yet?” one guard asked.

“Looks it.”  His fellow snorted. “I still think we could have just dumped them out here. They’d never survive. There are stories . . .”

“Oh, and you believe stories?”  Metal rasped. “They’re slippery. I want a clean kill.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Pazia saw Vanchen ease up from the bedroll. Trying to breathe quietly, she worked her arm beneath her and squirmed into a less vulnerable position. Her heart skitter-rolled in her chest. Lost who knew where, with men trying to kill them . . .

“Blast, they’re awake!”

Pazia yelped and flung to her feet, spinning about in search of somewhere to run. The forest swelled around her, impossible choice of paths.

One guard grabbed her, hauling her against him, oblivious to her kicking and twisting. She wanted to howl her head off, but there was no one to hear – no one but Vanchen, who clutched a branch as a club.

“Don’t hurt her,” he said.

The other guard sized him up, obviously looking for an opportunity to knock it from his hand. “Or you’ll what, odd-eyes?”

“You can’t do this,” Pazia protested. “Mylonar said-”

Her captor shook her. “He settled for regaining his precious daughter, but what about us?  We would have been captains in a new empire, had your seer dice worked the way they were supposed to.”

“Then make your own destiny,” she said. “I didn’t-”

He twisted her arm until something popped. The world went queer and loose. She heard herself cry out and saw Vanchen lunge and the other guard step in with his sword, so expert she was certain that . . .

Something black and sleek dropped from the trees. She got an impression of a beast, fur blue in the low light, with an aggressive arch of brush-tail. The guard released her. She dropped to the ground as he backed towards the carriage.

The creature – whatever it was – launched over her and collided with the man. They crashed into the driver’s perch with a shrill of shattering glass.

Vanchen pressed against a tree. His eyes scanned the scene. She knew he saw more than she could in the treacherous light. She clutched the ground, too dizzy to feel pain as three beasts dispatched the guards.

Run . . . her inner voice ordered, but it was too late.

Through panic, Vanchen noticed a detail that changed his appraisal of the creatures. They wore leather straps, covering sensitive parts of the body and holding pouches. Not animals, but an intelligent species. They could be reasoned with.

His attention shifted to Pazia, huddled and shivering. Sweat plastered cinnamon curls to her brow. Her face was child-round, fixed with terror.

The forest’s oppressive silence billowed around them. Vanchen knew something wasn’t right out there. He could smell it, animal fear and – just faintly – rotted meat.

The creatures turned to face them. They closely resembled squirrels, despite their size. They chittered among themselves, but their manner was not hostile. His chest eased, though he didn’t relax.

“I don’t think we can communicate with them,” he said.  “Maybe they’ll just let us go.”

One of the creatures stepped forward and reached a paw down to Pazia. She hesitated, then her eyes fixed on something that dangled from its straps, and she calmed. She took the offered hand and pulled herself up.

“Pazia . . . ?” he asked.

“She’s a disciple of Iphiri, goddess of chance,” she said. “See the charm?”

His gaze picked out the stylized wooden bead looked like a closed eye, one of Iphiri’s symbols. “Can you talk to them?”

“At a guess,” she said, “they want us to come with them.”

Vanchen edged away from the tree, hands spread to show the creatures he meant no harm, and angled towards the carriage. “Maybe it would be better if we took the carriage and left,” he said, “we don’t know anything about these people . . .”

He stopped, holding in a groan. The travelstone had shattered, silver fragments flashing in the shadows.

“Vanchen?”

He turned to face her and the creatures with a cautious smile. “The carriage is broken. We’re stranded.”

“Well, then we ought to take advantage of their hospitality,” Pazia said as if it were perfectly sensible. She turned to the disciple and waved a hand into the forest.

Vanchen wondered at her readiness to trust after the guards had betrayed them. But what choice did they have?  With the right tools, he could make the carriage work, but the magic of the travelstone was beyond him.

The largest creature glanced from Vanchen to the carriage. He made a quizzical sound.

“If you can,” he said, gesturing and hoping it made sense.

The squirrel-people spoke in a flurry of clicks. They whirled away, one taking up station at the front of the carriage and another at the back. A nonchalant heave set it in motion as the third waved for their guests to follow.

The creatures scampered through the underbrush. Even the two burdened with the carriage moved more easily than Vanchen could. Pazia fared worse. He laid a hand on her good shoulder to guide her. She turned a pinched, grey face up to him.

“The arm?” he asked.

“It’s fine,” she said, but her voice was taut.

Even unfamiliar with their language and mannerisms, Vanchen noticed the uneasy way in which the squirrel-creatures scanned the darkness. Whatever they expected did not materialize, however, and a faint green light grew on the horizon. As it intensified, Pazia gasped in surprise.

Twined around a dozen trees, each with a trunk as wide as the carriage, spanned a web of ropes and platforms. It connected two kinds of shelter:  hollows within the trees, and leaf-mold structures anchored in the branches. No ordinary humanoid could navigate this village square. Vanchen found himself lost in the intricacies, the interlace of branches and layers upon layer of natural material. This place had been built, rebuilt, patched and grown more times than he could count.

The creatures guided Pazia and Vanchen to a rock structure beneath, its pentagonal entrance lined with the pale moss that lit the trees. Another individual, fur streaked black, stepped out of the cave. She and the disciple exchanged words.

“What do you think they’re saying?” Pazia whispered.

“Your guess is better than mine,” he said.

The newcomer turned with an expression that consciously, awkwardly, mimicked a smile. “Welcome, travelers,” she said in pipe-pitched but clear newtongue. “I am told you were attacked.”

Relief flushed Vanchen. He slumped, releasing some of his worries – some.

“Your people saved us,” Pazia said. “We’re grateful.” She introduced them.

The squirrel-woman stumbled over their names. “I am Hafsha, high priestess. I see to the spiritual needs of this clan.”

“Are you also devoted to Iphiri?” Vanchen asked.

“Yes, of course,” she said. She must have known enough about human expressions to read his puzzlement, for she continued, “The natural world has no rules except those of luck and chance. There are gods of forests and rivers, but it is for the forests and rivers to worship them.”

Vanchen had a fleeting image of a tree bent on one knee.

“I sensed your arrival in our forests,” Hafsha said, addressing Pazia. “You are a friend to the goddess.”

“I’m just a dicemaker,” Pazia protested.

“Perhaps. Her mark is on you.” Hafsha turned to their escort and exchanged words. “We invite you to join us for the Zhastir feast on the morrow.”

“What’s Zhastir?” Pazia asked.

“A clan holiday celebrating leaf-fall.”

“We have no way to repay you,” Vanchen said.

“We are people of gifts,” the priestess said. “Allow us to present them to you, with no expectation in return.”  Her disciple chirped excitedly, and she laughed. “There is one thing you might offer:  the carriage.”

Pazia shot Vanchen a questioning look. “It’s broken, right?”

“We don’t have any use for it, so may as well. What would you do with it?” he asked more loudly. “This isn’t good terrain for a carriage.”

The disciple squealed, a sound like laughter. Hafsha clicked outsized teeth together. “Perhaps you should come see?”

Their guide scuttled over tangles of roots, leading them behind the largest tree. A hollow lay there, rimmed with the moss . . . and filled with every manner of machine, clock, mechanism and metal toy, many broken, most old and in poor shape, but all polished to radiant gleam.

“Our treasures,” Hafsha translated, though her voice lacked the pride obvious in the disciple’s stance.

“Amazing,” Vanchen murmured, forcing his fingers to his side. He hadn’t worked on a mechanism, except in his head, since his mentor had ruined his reputation and forced him out.

The sight of the “treasure trove” saddened him even as it set his mind to whirling. Clearly, the creatures had no idea how to fix the items even if they would have used them. What good would a mechanical loom do for creatures who didn’t wear cloth?

“What do you do with them?” Pazia asked, echoing his thoughts.

“Do?  They’re for looking at, and for the pleasure of owning.”  Hafsha’s translation was tinged with amusement.

The mechanisms were trophies, and their purpose was permanently unfulfilled. Vanchen swallowed the offer that came to his lips. They weren’t here to stay; it was a detour on the way to Naranvisse, where he could reclaim his craft.

“The carriage is yours,” he said. “Consider it our gift.”

The disciple squealed again. Hafsha bowed her head. “We thank you. But you are tired, I am sure,” she continued. “Come with me.”

He had one more question as they followed the squirrel-woman. “What are your people called?”

“We call ourselves the People,” the priestess said. “Your kind has named us the Kivesh.”

Vanchen was worried about climbing into the trees, but Hafsha guided them into her temple cave and installed them in a chamber elevated above a pool.

“You share a pallet, yes?” she inquired.

Vanchen ducked his head, coughing; bright pink spackled Pazia’s cheeks. She recovered her voice first.

“Err, no. Nothing like that,” she said.

Hafsha looked puzzled. “You are enemies, then, that you do not share warmth?”

Pazia emitted a nervous cough. “Humans don’t do that. Unless they’re mates?”

“Ah.” It was clear the priestess did not understand, but the wisdom of years precluded her from commenting. “Then a second pallet. Let me help you with your arm.”

With expert skill, the priestess popped her elbow back into place. Unsure how welcome the gesture would be, Vanchen put an arm around her shoulder. She leaned into him, sighing, and he felt somewhat less useless.

Finally, they were alone. Pazia curled against the rock wall, playing with her dice pouch. “Do you think they can help us reach Naranvisse?”

“Hopefully, they know the forests well enough to direct us or give us a guide.” Vanchen sighed. “It will be a long journey.”

“I’m not in a hurry,” Pazia said, trying to sound cheerful. “It’s sort of an adventure.”

He smiled wryly. “I think I’ve had as much adventure as I can take.”

“Pessimist,” she chided, then rolled onto the pallet. “I’m exhausted. See you in the morning?”

“Night, Pazia,” he said. This time, sleep came swiftly.

Pazia awoke before her companion and crept into the shrine chamber. Her arm still ached, but she could move it without wincing. Hafsha knelt, turning lengths of bone over in her hands. Pazia hung back, recognizing the ritual casting of morning lots.

Hafsha’s nostrils flared; she looked up. “Pazia. Please sit with me?”

“I don’t want to interrupt . . .”

“You are known to Iphiri. You are welcome here.”

Pazia knelt opposite the Kivesh, hands on her knees. “Thank you.”  She ventured a question, “The people who brought us here yesterday seemed nervous. Is there something out there?”

“The forest is angry with us,” the priestess replied. “It has been this way for months.”

“Are you seeking guidance for that?”

“Among other things. Do you know the language of the bones?”

“Somewhat, but not well,” Pazia said. “I’m more familiar with seer dice.”

Hafsha nodded. “Close your eyes, then, so they might fall as they will.”

Pazia did so, waiting. The tink against stone echoed. Moved by curiosity, she squinted sidelong in time to see Hafsha pass her hand over the bones, changing something.

“You may look,” the priestess said.

Pazia opened both eyes. “What do they mean?”

“They mean . . .”  Her lips rippled. “That good fortune has come to us as a gift from the gods, without expectation of return.”

But before she had invited Pazia to look, Hafsha had removed a symbol:  two crossed bones that indicated a trial or test. Had she and Vanchen tumbled from one danger into another?

“Do you suppose it means us?” Pazia asked.

Hafsha collected the bones with a sweep of her hand. “Perhaps.”  She cocked her head. “Your companion is awake.”

Vanchen stumbled into the arch, blinking. “Morning, Pazia, priestess.”

“I’m afraid there is no breakfast,” Hafsha said. “It is to whet our appetites for the Zhastir feast.”

“We need to leave tomorrow,” Vanchen said.

“We appreciate your hospitality,” Pazia interjected, for Hafsha’s face bore a deepening frown. She would have stepped on his foot if she could have, but settled for glaring. True, she suspected something was up with the casting of bones, but how could he be so rude?

“Of course,” Vanchen said, awkward. “Is there someone we could hire as a guide?”

“There may be,” Hafsha said. “Now is not the time. We shall see to your needs, whatever they may be – tomorrow. For now, I know humans place great value in baths. Fharr!”

The disciple poked her head in. Despite Pazia’s protests, Fharr swept her away to a hot spring with soaps and scented oils. When they returned, the tree cluster buzzed with movement, Kivesh darting and dropping in all directions. Absorbed in preparations, Hafsha told her to wait.

Vanchen returned shortly thereafter, smelling equally pungent. With the two priestesses flocking about the shrine chamber, there was no opportunity to speak privately.

“Our visitors,” Hafsha said finally, “it is time.”

She led them into a cluster transformed. Glass globes filled with fireflies hung from branches. Wooden boards criss-crossed the platforms, forming a series of tables at all heights.

Baskets dangling from vines held the food. The feast moved about with remarkable speed, manipulated by creatures in the upper branches. Pazia heard them laughing amongst themselves.

The scent of pine and flame provided backdrop for a plethora of more exotic smells:  sweet like peach, cutting like mint, herbs that tickled the back of the palette.

Vanchen inhaled. “I didn’t know karflowers grew this far south,” he said.

“Over here,” Hafsha said, beckoning.

Of the board-tables, only one was low enough to be comfortable for the humans. Six Kivesh sat there. Half looked important:  they sat straighter, gestured broadly, and had bangles of precious metal on their straps.

“Pazia, Vanchen,” the priestess said, “this is our chief hunter, our chief gatherer, and the watcher of storms.”  She performed introductions; Pazia put on a beaming smile and hoped it wouldn’t be taken as baring her teeth.

A horn sounded, and the food baskets plummeted to the waiting Kivesh. Service was a free-for-all:  they squealed, called, tossed to the neighbors, grabbed and pulled. Somehow, the baskets stayed on their vines and rarely spilled. Whenever they did, the revelers whooped and shouted, causing the branches to bounce with mirth.

Pazia delighted in the chaos, but Vanchen winced. “Are you all right?” she whispered.

“It’s just so . . .”  he gestured. “Much.”

“That’s the beautiful part,” she said. She took a bite out of an unfamiliar fruit. Syrupy tang overflowed in her mouth.

Pazia could have eaten herself into a stupor twice over and not felt as if she had tasted everything. She slowed finally, lolling on the bench and resting her head against Vanchen.

Squinting up, she guessed he was as stuffed as she. She wondered vaguely if they would even be able to wobble upright tomorrow. Well, one more day might not hurt.

She remembered the bones in her mind, a hazy warning. But surely they had seen their share of danger.

The chief hunter grabbed her by the arm, hauling her upright. Pazia flailed, yelping. Vanchen twisted out of his seat, shouting questions none of the Kivesh understood. The feast went silent, every eye turned towards them. Ignoring Vanchen, the chief hunter made a proclamation that set the trees buzzing.

“What’s going on?” Pazia asked.

The chief hunter barked a gutteral order. Two warriors stepped forward to grasp Pazia’s shoulders.

Vanchen tensed. “Let her go.”

“They cannot do that,” Hafsha said. “We need a sacrifice to the First Tree.”

“Considered using one of your own?” Vanchen asked, sarcasm cutting through fear.

Pazia sucked in a breath. “Sacrifice?  Why?”

“The First Tree made this forest dangerous to us,” the priestess said. “I told you trees have their own gods. The First Tree is theirs.”

The chief hunter spoke; the warriors pulled Pazia backwards. She dug her heels in, but it was like fighting a hurricane. “Wait!” she called. “Why me?”

“The First Tree will not speak to the Kivesh. We need blood beloved of our goddess to appease her.”  The priestess sighed. “I am sorry, Pazia.”

“Tell your chiefs I can fix every device in their treasure trove,” Vanchen said. “Let her go, and I’ll stay as long as it takes.”

Pazia’s eyes flew wide. “Vanchen -”

“Work is work,” he said brusquely. “If that appeases them . . .”

“We are not the ones who need to be appeased,” Hafsha said. “If there were another way-”

The thought darted into Pazia’s mind like a firefly. “You can’t talk to the First Tree,” she said, “but why couldn’t I?  I’m not a Kivesh.”

The priestess hesitated. “I do not believe . . .”

“Leave it to the goddess,” Pazia said hurriedly, reaching for her pouch. Puzzled, the warriors let her, and she spilled dice onto her palm. She stared at the chief hunter, hoping she looked fierce rather than desperate. “Tell him he has to accept my wager. If he wins, the sacrifice continues. If I win, then I get the chance to talk to the First Tree.”

She trusted the dice like friends. Beside her, Vanchen stared, but after a heartbeat, he nodded. They had been somewhere like here before.

“That meets our traditions,” Hafsha said, turning to the chief hunter. A taut conversation ensued. The hunter muscled forward and thrust a paw out at Pazia.

“Four-sided die, for the elements,” the priestess said. “Until someone rolls higher.”

Pazia gulped and nodded. Gingerly, she flicked the correct die into the waiting hand. Pyramidal, it sat with its top point like an accusing finger. The Kivesh chattered, crowding close.

The hunter cast the die. It landed with the number three at the bases. Pazia bit her lip and collected it. She tried not to hold her breath as she rolled.

The pyramid fell with the three down again.

The chief hunter stared as if she had committed some impossible crime, then huffed and took the die. This time, he rolled a two. Vanchen shifted forward as if he meant to defend her.

She rolled to match the hunter’s number again.

He grabbed the die and threw it, a violent bounce. It toppled off the table, and Hafsha gasped.

That, she guessed, her head spinning, was not good news.

Vanchen made out the base of the pyramid. His chest ached with relief. “It’s your roll,” he said, “your win to take.”

“What?”  Pazia peered over, then flushed incandescent with relief. “Oh!”

The chief hunter had rolled a one. She scooped the die up in her hand and dropped it with exaggerated care.

At the four that showed bottom-face, the Kivesh uttered high-pitched snarls. Hafsha stepped forward, speaking forcefully. The chief hunter’s face turned a darker shade of brown, but he silenced the crowd.

“Tomorrow,” the priestess said, “you will be taken to the First Tree.”  Her voice softened. “You’ll have to get among the upper branches to speak with her.”

“Upper . . . I can’t climb,” Pazia protested. “And Vanchen is mostly good at falling off.”

Remembering how they met – she had surprised him, causing him to drop from a clockwork door – he didn’t protest, but he nudged her in the back.

“Then you will have to learn,” Hafsha said. “None of the Kivesh can come so close.”

“It may take a while,” Pazia said, and Vanchen recognized her shift in tone. She was playing for time.

“Not too long,” the priestess warned, then gestured to the guards.

The Kivesh escorted them to the temple. Two stood sentry outside. Pazia huddled on the stone, clutching her legs.

“That was a good move,” Vanchen said. “The die was weighted, right?”

She blinked up. “Of course not.”

He reminded himself not to ask questions for which he didn’t want the answer. He slipped into a seated position. “How are you feeling?”

“I’m still shaky.”

The torpor of the feast had vanished, leaving a sour clench. Vanchen rubbed his brow. “How long do you think you can delay?”

Pazia lifted her shoulders in a helpless shrug. “Not long enough.”

He wanted to shake her back into the cheerfulness he was used to. “There’s a lot of useful pieces in that junk pile of theirs,” he said. “If they’ll let me have access, I might be able to build us an escape route.”

“Really?”  She didn’t sound hopeful.

“I’ll need to look before I can be sure.”  He rose. “Hafsha?  Can we speak?”

The priestess appeared in the archway. “What do you want, Vanchen?”

“My offer to repair your treasure trove stands,” he said.

She nodded. “You may do this.”

She assigned the disciple and a guard to escort him. Vanchen almost asked why he needed to be under guard, then bit his tongue. Whether it was to ensure Pazia didn’t try to escape or to have a sacrifice in reserve, he didn’t want to know.

The mechanical parts of the trove were in better shape than he had expected. The Kivesh had fixed the obvious broken parts – not hard to see a belt went there or those two snaps fit together – and made sure their trophies looked as good as possible. He grimaced when he found two otherwise useful pieces jammed together. Even if he could prise them apart, they would break.

The carriage made a stark monolith amongst the other artifacts. Vanchen was astonished at the amount of technology the creatures had collected. His vague estimates at its worth made his hand itch.

He combed through the detritus, hoping for inspiration. He could build a clockwork beast, with the right resources, but those resources were too scattered here, if they existed.

He was about to give up when his eyes circled back to the carriage. His lips twitched. It might be of some use after all.

Vanchen flinched under the eyes of the Kivesh, but he knew they couldn’t decipher what he was doing. It took until sunset to gather the parts he needed; then they hustled him back to the cave.

“I’ve figured it out,” he said to Pazia softly, when it seemed their flat black eyes were elsewhere. “It will need some time, though.”

“I’ll do my best,” she said. “It’s possible, though, that maybe I can talk to this First Tree. Convince her to leave the Kivesh alone. That would be the best solution.”

“Assuming they keep their part of the agreement,” he said.

“Why wouldn’t they?”  Her scent, warm and cinnamon, never wavered.

“They betrayed us in the first place,” he said. “As did Mylonar’s guards – as did Mylonar, for that matter. Didn’t you say he had you abducted?”

“Well, yes,” she admitted, “but he didn’t ask me nicely first, so it doesn’t count as betrayal.”

Vanchen tried to find an argument for that and finally gave up. “You can’t trust people to hold up their end of the bargain, Pazia. Most of the time, it’s better not to bargain at all.”

She frowned. “I don’t agree with that. People bluff, but we’re all playing the same game by the same rules. It works out in the end.”

He looked at her face, round and soft and surely older than it appeared, and he ached. He couldn’t understand her, couldn’t reach across that gap.

“Even so,” he said, “we should have a plan in reserve.”

“I suppose that makes sense.”  She sighed. “In the meantime, I have to pretend to be a slow learner with climbing. That won’t be hard.”

“I’m the one who excels at falling,” he said, hoping to make her laugh.

She did, bouncing forward to hug him. “Thank you, Vanchen.”

He started his project the next day. Even had it not been for Pazia, he wouldn’t have been tempted to run. The Kivesh were stronger and faster, capable of overcoming him even if he set off an explosion.

Still, he could do it to make a statement, send a warning – and they could return to their original plan and sacrifice Pazia. No.

Even so, he was sure they would suspect something strange with the way he burned plates together and strung gears into mechanical joints. He waited for them to stop him, but it never happened.

One morning ten days later, high-pitched squeals ripped through the trees. A hunting party of Kivesh struggled into the tree-cluster, their bodies laced with thorn-tears. Two limped heavily. One had to be carried.

Later, he learned a fourth hadn’t made it.

“What’s going on?” he asked, but the chittering horde buried the words. He flattened himself against a tree as they streamed past.

He could smell their panic, see the injuries had come from natural sources, if branches stabbed and pebbles reached out hungrily for flesh. This, he thought with some detachment, was what they feared.

Pazia screamed, and he was no longer detached.

He raced to the temple to find a hunter baring his teeth at her, Hafsha poised between . . . and looking like a frail barrier indeed.

But it was an effective one. The hunter subsided. Vanchen hurried to Pazia’s side.

He rounded towards the priestess, but she spoke before he could. “The forest attacked them,” she said, “the First Tree is roused.”

“I’m not ready -” Vanchen started to say, then clamped his lips.

“I don’t think I can do it,” Pazia said.

“You must,” Hafsha said. “There is no more time. Do this, or they will destroy you.”

“Please,” Pazia begged, “talk to them . . .”

Hafsha’s eyes sparked with anger. “One of my clan-folk died out there. You climb now or you climb never.”

Vanchen gripped Pazia’s shoulder. He wasn’t finished; there was no escape route. “I believe in you,” he said, useless words. “Go.”

Pazia took a shaky breath. “I climb now.”

How could she climb when she couldn’t even keep her legs straight?  Pazia clutched Vanchen’s arm for support. To judge by the wary looks the Kivesh cast into the underbrush, the guards were more intended to protect Hafsha than to prevent Pazia from running. The creatures pressed close. She felt buried under fur.

“I’m going to keep working,” Vanchen promised. “If I can finish it . . .”

She heard his doubt and swallowed. “It’s all right. You won’t need to.”

Neither of them convinced the other.

They paused at the base of a hill. Hafsha gestured. “You go this way. We will be watching to ensure you do not turn back.”

“How will I know the right tree?”

The priestess chuckled without mirth. “You will.”

Pazia trudged up. The hill seemed to go forever . . . and then she saw the First Tree.

Like its neighbors, the tree was clothed in the colors of autumn, but there similarities ceased. Blood and ruby leaves wrapped around the trunk in an elaborate gown of tiered leaves, sun-streaks of gold and yellow for trim. The lowest root, age-bleached to silver, delved thirstily into the earth. The First Tree towered, a veil of white branches surrounding the peak. The shape was so reminiscent of human that Pazia would have sworn she felt eyes staring down from beneath the shroud.

“I come in peace,” she called up, feeling very small.

She circled the tree, looking for a lower branch. Once she found one, she froze. She fully expected to be flung airborne when she touched this tree, to land who knew where.

If that happened, she prayed they would let Vanchen go. Iphiri, she thought, must owe her something, for being designated a sacrifice if nothing else.

She folded her fingers around the wood. Nothing exploded. She hauled herself into the branches, scrabbling about for handholds.

Progress seemed so slow she was stunned to discover herself far up. Pazia closed her eyes and leaned her head against the trunk, fingers digging into the wood. It seemed fragile as paper.

In that stillness, she heard it:  a sound easily mistaken for the wind, but its low keen came from within the trunk. A heartbeat or breathing, an organic marking of time. She was not alone.

Pazia forced her eyes open, looking for the strongest branches in the blood-coated expanse. A thousand small fingers quivered. Was she welcomed, tolerated, or not even noticed?

The halo of white branches drew nearer. She reached for the next branch.

It snapped between her fingers. She yelped as her hand swiped down on air and her foot slipped. She landed, hard, on a lower branch, and wasn’t sure whether the crack was wood or bone. She had the presence of mind to grab for a knot, clinging with both hands. The cluster of scarlet leaves that had broken her fall sheared free. They floated down like spring petals.

Succumbing to a wave of nausea, Pazia clung to the trunk. Enough, she thought. Better a quick death at the end of a blade than . . .

Her world moved. After a second of teeth-melting terror, she realized the motion was upwards.

The limb on which she rested bent towards the top of the tree, lifting her. She slid, gracelessly, into the grasp of another, a third, until she found herself facing the veil of white branches at the peak of the First Tree. While she tried to adjust, blinking, the veil parted.

The rich, wine-dark wood expanded into a heart-shaped bulge, its contours fleshed like cheeks, bony lines suggested by the grain. The eyes opened, wide, pools drained from the sky and fixed, with distinct curiosity, on Pazia.

“I do not often see humans in these woods,” said a voice like the crunch of leaves underfoot. “Why are you here, mortal?”

Pazia fought for words. She suspected if she mentioned the Kivesh first, she would be hurled to earth. “Your wood is amazing,” she said. “I wanted to take a closer look.”

“So you climbed this far?”

Now that she had started, Pazia had to come up with the rest. “Well – yes. To talk with you and ask you . . .”  She fumbled for inspiration. “Do you ever allow people to use your wood?”

“What?”

The branches swayed. Her stomach dropped. She tried not to squeeze her body to the tremoring limb. “I make dice,” she said in a faint voice. “It would be an honor to work with such divine substance.”

The boughs shook again. She realized it was laughter. “You are a strange creature, mortal, but I am flattered,” she said. “That small gift, I will give.”

Pazia let out a shaky sigh. “Thank you. I’m honored.”

A branch descended and cracked in half. The length that dropped into her hand was perfect for carving.

“Now away,” said the First Tree. “I have the protection of these woods to attend to.”

“How do you do that from here?” Pazia asked.

Anger shook the leaves, hissing in the wind. “Not well, not with the Kivesh damaging the land above my roots,” the First Tree said, “but I will wither them from the vine.”

Pazia felt her spine tingle. “What did they do?”

“How is this your business?  They blight my forest with artifacts of technology. Your technology, human.”

It was dizzying, the shifts in mood, faster than any human Pazia had ever known, much less a spirit immortal. “What happens to the machines when you’re done with the Kivesh?” she asked.

Silence, then rustling leaves. “They will rust. I have time.”

Pazia tried to understand the being she faced. Decisions made swiftly, and then, like roots, driven so deep there was no dislodging them. “What if there were another way?”

“What way?”

“I could speak to the Kivesh for you,” she said. “Ask them to fix what they’ve done wrong.”

“You think they deserve such a chance?”  The First Tree was contemptuous, twigs cracking.

“I think . . .”  Pazia bit her lip. It should be hard to feel sympathy for the Kivesh with how they had trapped her, but she did. She had seen the faith in Hafsha’s eyes, and she would never forget the merriment of Zhastir. “They didn’t know they erred. They started their collection for the love of beauty. Surely a goddess as beautiful as you can understand that.”

The First Tree did not respond right away. The silence broke in a whispered rustle. “And what can they possibly do to make things right?”

“They can make the machines go away by burning them,” Pazia said. “Now, not when they break down. I know it’s not a long time for a goddess, but it would be something.”

“Ah.”  The First Tree considered – in divine time, now, not the racing tempo of before. Pazia grew cold as she waited, though trickles of sweat formed down her back. “Yes. Tell them. Melt the machines down into the rocks, and I may be merciful.”

It was as good, Pazia realized, as she would get, and probably more assurance than spilling her blood over the roots. “Thank you, divine one,” she said . . . and made the mistake of looking down. “Err.”

The ephemeral keening of autumn winds laughed through the boughs. “I will put you to earth, mortal.”

Down she went, lowered by the sway of scarlet-clad branches. She wobbled when she reached the ground. She tucked the branch into her belt and picked herself up, heading to where the Kivesh waited. She whistled as she went, feeling giddier with every step.

She beamed when she saw Hafsha. There was no mistaking the relief ignited in the priestess’ frame.

“What result, Pazia?”

“The First Tree is offended by the machines you have,” she said. “She wants you to burn them.”

Hafsha didn’t hesitate. “We shall be glad to be rid of them.”

They returned to the tree-clusters in a different mood than they had arrived:  poised, hopeful, purposeful. Vanchen met them, his hands coated in grease.

She bounded forward and hugged him. “It’s going to be fine,” she said. “We don’t need to run now.”

“Pazia . . .”  He pulled back to study her, the doubts obviously thick on his tongue. She wanted to shake him, her euphoria blowing away on the winds. Why couldn’t he accept that sometimes, you had to trust the world and the people in it?  She realized abruptly how little she knew him. Maybe it was growing up as a halfblood that made him wary of those around him. She wished she could let him see through her eyes.

Now was not the time for that argument. Instead, she smiled. “I figure it’s going to need a lot of heat to melt all that metal,” she said. “Can you do it?”

“You can’t just light kindling and expect that to melt everything,” Vanchen explained to Hafsha, who translated. “We can create a crude forge.”

Hafsha paused. “A what?  I’m not familiar with that word.”

“Ah, it’s a specially tended fire for shaping metal,” he said. “It’s how many of these pieces were created in the first place.”

The Kivesh seemed willing to trust him as the expert. He had the carriage set to one side, telling them it was too large to break down easily and would have to be last. He knelt under the left wing mechanism, studying it dubiously. With a few more tweaks . . .

Their captors were far too interested in everything he was doing. If he did anything with the carriage, they would become suspicious. With a sigh, he pushed away.

Even without coal, building a bellows and a covered pit for the fire turned out to be easier than he had expected. There was a heavy wind, and he convinced them it would be hazardous to start that day.

As evening fell, he was alone with Pazia again, the air saturated with her relief. “It’s almost over,” she said, “and then it’s not far to Naranvisse.”

“There’s something I need you to do,” he said.

She blinked owlishly. “What?”

“They’ve relaxed,” he said, “you can sneak out to the trove. I need you to screw in some bolts, run a few tests.”

“But-”

“It’s not difficult,” he hurried on. He didn’t tell her it would need more tests to be sure it wouldn’t overbalance in mid-air.

She sighed. “We don’t need the carriage.”

“Trust me, Pazia,” he said. “Just in case.”

“All right,” she said. She reached out, squeezing his hands. “Tell me what you need.”

He felt an unfamiliar rush of confidence, the sense they could take on the world if they had to. “As I said, it’s simple . . .”

Hafsha had retired, and the guards drowsed. Pazia slipped into the night.

Vanchen waited. The guards stirred and grunted, and he tensed, but neither came to check on him.

Little panting breaths alerted him to her return. Vanchen pulled into a crouch. The guards chattered amongst themselves – too awake, too alert. She wouldn’t be able to sneak back in.

He propelled himself into the chamber. He pointed at them, shouting, “You’re crazy, all of you!  Dangling from trees like oversized pine-cones.”  It didn’t matter what he said, as long as he kept talking. The guards rounded on him, umbrage in dark eyes.

He fell back, hands up. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Pazia slip past and scurry into the sleeping area.

“Sorry,” he said, “just had a nightmare. Carry on, then.”

To their baleful looks, he retreated. “Did you manage it?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she said with a shaky smile. “I think so.”

It was hardly the most reassuring finish to a project, but it was there if they needed it. “Thank you, Pazia,” he said.

“Welcome,” she said, curling up.

Hafsha woke them at dawn. “No more delays,” she said. “The hunters are becoming restless.”

At first, the only Kivesh standing about the troves were Hafsha, a few guards, and the glowering chief hunter. Gradually, others appeared on the branches, observing as liquid metal pooled on the stone. Vanchen had built the forge near the rim so the molten leavings could flow downwards.

He tried not to pay much attention to the things he put to flame, but his memory supplied reminders. A clock that displayed the phases of the moon; a mechanical device for shaping the soles of shoes. Things of small mundane wonder, and they made him sick for the life he had left.

It was sticky, hot work. He was shaking when he took a break. Pazia came over with a beaker of water.

“Guess we’re not feast guests any more,” he said with a cracked smile.

“Couldn’t eat like that again anyhow,” she replied.

A gale whistled through the clearing and slammed his body. He slipped, falling backwards. Pazia yelped.

The cover on the fire-pit collapsed, sending a shower of sparks skywards. The wind caught the sparks, drove them beyond the circle of cleared foliage. Fallen leaves caught like candle wicks. The Kivesh leapt to higher branches. The flames rushed outwards.

It had not been a natural wind. He spun to Pazia, then realized they were at the center of the building blaze.

“Maybe one of them can lift us out of here,” Vanchen started, then bit his tongue. The Kivesh had fled; they were alone, save for Hafsha. “Priestess . . .”

“I can’t lift two of you,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

“Vanchen,” Pazia said. “The carriage!”

“I didn’t have enough time,” he said, “and even with the tweaks, it needs testing …”

“Best way to test something is to plunge in,” she said, taking his hand. “Come on.”

“She’s right,” Hafsha said, wincing as she twitched her tail away from the fire. “Iphiri favors those who take chances.”

They rushed to the carriage. Hafsha twisted about, squeezing inside. Pazia tumbled onto the driver’s box next to him as the world roared red.

Vanchen turned the key mechanism he had stolen from a music box. The carriage made a sound like breaking ice. The wings extended slowly, awkwardly, and hung open. They came down in a swoop, followed more swiftly by an upsurge, then another.

“It’s working!” he shouted. He allowed himself a cry of joy as they ascended two lengths above the ground, three . . . the carriage hit branches with a series of cracks, and leaves rained down on them.

They broke out of the canopy, the mechanisms shuddering as detritus shook free. Pazia craned about.

“The fire only went so far,” she said, “like an invisible hand stopped it.”

“A warning,” Hafsha said, “from the First Tree – not to transgress again.”

“That warning could have killed us,” Vanchen muttered. He pulled the first lever, and the rightmost wing canted inwards, turning the carriage.

With creaking wingbeats, they flew out of range of the fire. Vanchen started to look for a place where Hafsha might jump down. He didn’t intend to stop for farewells. The next time he tried to increase altitude, however, the key snapped. He swore.

“Vanchen, something just fell off . . .” Pazia said.

They hit upper branches with a body-cracking thud. Vanchen tried to steer by angling the carriage towards a clump of shorter trees.

The left wing snapped.

The carriage dropped. Pazia’s fingers clawed into his arm, catching him as he slid. They descended in a shower of branches, each level stopping them short and giving them a heartbeat to prepare for the next fall. The final landing shattered the bottom of the carriage. The driver’s box shuddered, but held.

Vanchen laughed, the sound tumbling out of him in frantic release. Pazia let out all her breath and drooped against him.

He tensed as Kivesh surrounded the carriage. Hafsha must have vaulted free; she stood at the fore, the chief hunter at her side. Vanchen waited, tense, sore and out of ideas.

The chief hunter spread his paws and made a sound of full-throated delight. The rest of the Kivesh echoed him.

Pazia stared. “Why are they . . .”

“The forest has changed,” Hafsha said. “Can you not feel it?”

He could, now:  the scent had changed, the aura of menace vanished. “But the fire . . .”

“Contained,” said the priestess, “by a supernatural hand. It was, as I said, a reminder.”

He sagged with relief, head throbbing.

The chief hunter spoke to Hafsha. “You have our blessing,” she said, “and a guide to take you in the direction of your city. You may keep your carriage.”

“We’d be happy to have a guide – and sorry about the carriage,” Pazia said, then looked at him. “I told you that people keep their promises.”

He slid down, offering her a hand. She took it, swinging after. “Perhaps,” he said, “but we still needed the carriage.”

“Perhaps,” Pazia said stubbornly, “luck would have found another way.”

“I make my own luck,” he responded.

She elbowed him, grinning. “That’s cheating.”

“Chance or invention,” Hafsha said, “we wish you well. Will you leave tomorrow-”

“Right away,” Pazia said. “I want to get home.”

Vanchen squeezed her shoulder. “Home it is.”  He thought that maybe, finally, it would truly become home for him as well.

______________

Lindsey Duncan is a chef/pastry chef (CPC CSW), professional Celtic harp performer and life-long writer, with short fiction and poetry in numerous speculative fiction publications.  Her science fiction novel, Scylla and Charybdis, is available from Grimbold Books.  She feels that music and language are inextricably linked.  She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio and can be found on the web at http://www.LindseyDuncan.com

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