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↤ SURVIVAL ↦
(that is, the road to the Southern Branch)
The day was going to be particularly dangerous. Ilis knew they could escape the treachery of the spores if they were unceasing in their movements, but the small militia surrounding the boisterous and threatening man with the red beard would best be avoided.
The contingent she spotted with her sharp eyes was packed to the brim with supplies, a few of the burlier figures in back loaded with overstuffed cloth packs, so they had no need for their meager rations, but she knew that such men would want more from her than could be carried in a satchel.
She removed a folded piece of torn parchment from underneath her cloak and opened it. A delicate thing, taken from a man that appreciated delicacies in all but making love, it was a fabled and much-speculated copy of Erod’s original map of the Valley. Rendered in great detail, it nevertheless left much to imagine about their journey.
She supposed that a more granular accounting of the land couldn’t exist for the brevity of time people were allowed to walk it. To be found exiting the Trail past the allotment of the Pilgrimage was to be executed, and even the exuberant foolishness of explorers and mapmakers cataloguing places previously unknown had a limit.
The gaggle of warriors trundling behind Kolt appeared to her eyes to be making way on the westerly split of the path not far past their secluded entrance to the cave. She suspected they would venture there, as it led to Vima Canyon — the Vale of Living Mountains — and would avoid many of the Tree’s limbs. Scanning the map, she saw the nor'easter path would intersect one of the main branches, one they couldn’t avoid.
The Great Tree hardly resembled one to Ilis. It was as if a tree had grown upside down, with the roots erupting from the ground like tentacles that bobbed and slapped the surface of the earth, sometimes digging deep before emerging like some magnificent, stony sea serpent. Smaller protrusions grew from its massive core branches and wrapped around themselves or each other as they shot like frozen bolts of lightning. Inevitably each branch or root or whatever they might be called terminated in a sharpened point that could draw blood from even the slightest touch, and therefore death as the hideous poison infected whoever was unfortunate enough to receive the wound. Erod wrote that the final few lengths of a limb of the dead wood god were rougher than jagged glass and deadlier than a lover’s betrayal.
Though there were many branches, including offshoots of the largest ones, the main concerns were the five “heart branches” which were named by the directions they grew. The Southern Branch hadn’t quite grown that way, but it did plunge and rise up through the soils and trees in a southeastern movement that bisected the path they must now be forced to take.
The soft sound nearly made Ilis jump to violence, but the hand moving to her dagger was stilled by seeing Kessa, rubbing the night from her eyes and adjusting to the brightening warmth of the sun’s light. Kessa didn’t notice her companion was a moment from attacking her, and just gave a sleepy smile. Ilis relaxed and nodded to her.
“Is your brother as awake as you?”
“Not yet,” Kessa replied with a yawn, stretching her arms above her head like a cat roused from a dream. Ilis was perturbed that this doe-eyed child managed to surprise her, and unintentionally at that. Perhaps the splash of memories on her shoreline had distracted her enough to be vulnerable.
She made a note to not let that happen again.
“Do we have anything to eat?” Kessa asked, her hands fiddling with themselves over her stomach.
“You have no rations packed?”
Kessa looked at her feet sheepishly, a flush of embarrassment rising up to her cheeks.
“Tey has been kinda stingy with them. He says we need to be smart and not eat too much because… because I didn’t bring anything.” She couldn’t look at Ilis directly, fearing the judgment from her face.
“Why not go out and get yourself a meal then?” Ilis responded.
“I’m not really sure how to,” Kessa said, wanting nothing else than to float away on the wind from this awkward conversation.
“You know nothing of how to hunt or find food in the growth of the forest?” Ilis asked. Kessa could only shake her head, her body turning in on itself.
Ilis surprised her by standing and saying, “Then I must teach you.” Kessa looked up at last to see the sincerity on her companion’s face. The shame of her ignorance fell away into seedlings on air, and she smiled brightly.
“But first — wake!” Ilis barked, kicking up a fuss of dirt into the air as she clapped her hands. Arteo woke as if being ejected from sleep, his whole body jerking into consciousness, eyes wide and confused at the sudden intrusion of noise and color into his dreamless slumber.
“What?” he mumbled blearily, finding Ilis staring down at him.
“You have slept too long, hurry and prepare, you and your sister need more than the dusty pages in your bag.”
Arteo gazed blankly.
Shortly thereafter, at the base of the incline that led to the cave entrance, the three of them crouched behind a coven of dense ferns.
“What do you know of hunting?” Ilis pointedly asked Arteo.
“My father and I have been fishing many a —”
“No, not fishing. Have you pursued and taken the life of a hare or a shriekdeer or even a burrowrat?”
“Not— not as such, no,” he admitted reluctantly. Ilis couldn’t believe such an idiotic thing, and despite her borderline contempt for the skinny, overconfident boy, she gave him enough credit to at least know how to hunt.
“I am confounded,” she spat. “I was not anticipating spending my time here teaching a bookmarm the basics of hunting. How could you come to such a dangerous place without even knowing the most rudimentary way of survival?”
“I felt I could learn by doing,” he said. Though in actual truth he was too impatient to learn those skills fully before the opening of the Trail that spring. Another summer of monotonous pig butchery and shit digging would have driven him mad, or at least he told himself so.
“And you brought her here as well, even less prepared and frailer than you already are?”
“I didn’t bring her, she snuck from home and followed me without anyone’s mind to it,” he said, not quite able to hide the buzz of annoyance in his voice. To Kessa his tone was less a subtlety than a landslide, but he didn’t notice her hurt.
Ilis sighed and rubbed the bridge of her nose, tightly shutting her eyes to the world for a moment to avoid a tension headache.
“Alright,” she said finally. “Let us find a morning meal.”
The bespen was unfamiliar to Arteo, but resembled the hares he’d plucked from the spring traps his father had him set around the farm. This creature was a bit larger, with a face more like a fox — long, thin, with stubby ears that moved with their own intention like two weathervanes in temperamental winds.
It was covered in a dense layer of soft, frizzy fur of green and brown in spotted patterning. He had never seen anything with green hair before, though wasn’t surprised it existed. If not for Ilis pointing out the animal’s head cautiously emerging from the vibrant underbrush at the edge of a small clearing not far from their resting place, he wouldn’t have known it was there at all.
The three of them were positioned but a few bounding steps from it, sequestered in their own coppice to protect them from sight.
“So, great hunter, what would you do to catch this animal?” Ilis asked Arteo with her characteristic acerbity. Arteo frowned at her.
“I never claimed to be a great hunter, but I know how to set traps. We had to use them all the time around the farm to stop the crops from being poached by all manner of thing.”
“Traps are effective, but slow. We haven’t the time to be patient, we must get away from these trees before nightfall.”
“Why don’t we just use the supplies we have and go now?” Arteo countered. “We have enough for the time being.”
“We may,” she replied, “but we cannot yet move on. Did you not see the red-bearded man and his ilk walking the trail ahead of us?”
In the morning haze after waking, Arteo hadn’t noticed much of anything. They had only a few moments to pause on the outcropping of stone that led into the cavern before descending to the ground for this terse lesson.
While in that pause, he saw how the fresh daylight illuminated the Valley and displayed the adornment of colors and places yet unventured. The Tree looked even more massive and indescribable with its gnarled twists and turns erupting from its gargantuan trunk. The largest branches were wrapped with smaller limbs that curled over themselves and ran with the hefty arms as roots throughout the forest, or flayed out into the sky, frozen in their final poses of growth from countless ages before. Not a single leaf or growth from anywhere on it, just the granitic auburn bark, sprayed with the remnants of old fires in washed patterns over the surface. He thought it beautiful and terrifying at once.
“Which way are they going?” he asked.
“The way we can’t,” she said.
“But that only leaves…” He didn’t need to finish. Kessa felt her heart start thrumming in her chest as anxiety rose up.
“Leaves what?” she pressed.
“It’s nothing,” Arteo said, laying a hand on her knee to comfort her. “It’s just a harder road, that’s all.”
Ilis spoke again, explaining the way to hunt the quick, furry creature in front of them, but his mind went to memory.
There isn’t anything to be done.
That’s what he’d said. Arteo heard every word through the cracked door of the room he, until very recently, shared with his other siblings. His parents forbade him entering there, as the space was now a dim hospice for his three brothers to malaise to their final breaths. They said if he was in there for long, he might contract the illness that was making their bodies break out in globby, green pus and cough chunky blood bits into torn pieces of sackcloth that served as sputum rags.
The smell was beyond him. The closest analogue he could muster was once when his father had him help clean the remains of a mother hare and her dozen babies from under the floorboards of the barn. She had died somehow, perhaps from a rupture during birth, leaving her hairless, blind offspring suckling what meager amount of milk they could take from her before dying from exposure and starvation. They were all clustered in a tight pile underneath her bosoms, frozen in a plexus of emaciated gray skin.
Insects had been eating them for some time, tunneling through their flesh and feasting on what remained. Hundreds of maggots undulated in a turbulent boil underneath their skin, making a sickening slushy noise like rotten chunks of meat grinding against themselves.
When his father lifted the mother up with his shovel, part of her organs simply fell out with a wet thud onto the dirt. Apparently the veneer of skin over the body was holding in the worst of the odors, for the layered waves of rot overwhelmed him and he barely had time to turn before vomiting acidic bile onto the ground.
After the last bit of wretch came up, he wiped his chin and turned to see his father’s disappointed face, the shovel held aloft with the remains tittering on the edge, wanting to be discarded in the sack his father tasked him with holding. At once he grabbed the crumpled mass of cloth on the ground and stretched open the top.
Without a word, his father dumped the bits into it, shoveled up further refuse twice— no, three times more, before dismissively waving his hand for Arteo to close it and tie the thread-top together to trap, best as it could, that unrepentant stench.
Yet even that singular, grotesque memory was snuffed by the emanations in their room. Perhaps the tang of it was so revolting because it wasn’t some half-rotted wild animal, but the lingering smell of his brothers being eaten alive by sickness.
But a few days ago, all was well and good and as it had always been. They would wake with the rising sun and work their tasks throughout the day. Rossi, nearly ten summers older than Arteo, was a slab of a man, chiseled by endless labors of rearing and wrestling the pigs for market. He was working the mill the day he took ill, grinding down the rough kernels of grit to feed to the oafish black hogs. He would never feed them again, as he fell into the cushion of dry-mudded hay littering the floor in a series of spastic contortions that he would not remember upon waking.
Just as suddenly and with similar wicked pangs, Volan and Aggi both succumbed to the mysterious sickness. Unlike most afflictions, this struck with pronounced and unexpected intensity — vibrant and healthy in the morning, writhing in fevered agony hours later. The only warning was vague unease, as if being watched in a dark wood.
Arteo, being the youngest and only unafflicted son, was left with the duties his brothers were unable to perform. Kessa had to assist as best she could, but she was young and her body unable to cope with the laborious tasks of the farm. Arteo fared little better, but worked with a tireless intensity that made up for his physical inadequacies. He felt responsible and necessary in a way that he’d never been before.
Yet until he overheard his father speak so hopelessly did he truly appreciate what was happening. He felt that all this work would be rewarded when his brothers were well again. It was a when, not an if, and always had been. After his father’s sorrow was laid in tatters at his feet, he knew there would be no recovery, no renewed connection between them all. It would just be the four of them now and thereafter. His mother was too old to produce another young one, leaving him and Kessa to take on the work, which mostly meant it was him.
“Is it so?” he asked with a withering tone, sounding younger than he had in some time. “Will they all… die?”
His parents turned their tear-stained faces up from the floor to look at their son. They could see the wont for comfort in his eyes, the need for them to say he had misheard or not understood or that hope still stood vigil by their beds. Instead, they looked away, their knees inches from each other in front of the dwindling ruckus of the evening fire gradually decaying in their hearth.
“Aye,” his father said, and nothing else.
Beyond the grim horror of it all, tucked under the grief and longing and want, was the thing Arteo couldn’t bear. Though his father would never say a thing so callous, Arteo knew that neath the untamed scraggle of his eyebrows and behind the implacable dark irises that refused to give up their secrets, was the surety of his father’s complete despair in having only him left to take over the farm.
Not merely in the usual way of losing three of your children, Arteo understood that his father always saw him as incapable. He was too scrawny, too weak, too fragile. Arteo was the figurine glass of the boys in their house, and he’d been so-treated often enough that he finally settled into it with a quiet, grudging assent. He had learned that even though there were enough people in the world all too willing to keep his face pushed to the dirt by his accident of birth, so too would his own family press their boots into his cheeks to keep him where they wanted.
Arteo was roused from the past by a pained squeal. Kessa was shocked, the crossbow held aloft in her hands, nearly in the same position as when she’d fired. Ilis stood up and motioned for her.
“Come,” she said, willing Kessa from her surprise to move over to the wounded animal on the ground just ahead of them. Arteo joined them.
The bespen was lying on its side, an arrow buried in the dense fur of its thigh. Its uninjured hind leg scrambled pathetically for purchase on the ground, wanting to escape but unable to leave the patch of thick grass where it would die.
Kessa wasn’t sure what to do. She fully expected to wildly miss and watch the fuzzy animal run off into the underbrush. Instead here was the worst result — the creature was in pain, mewling in the most awful way, blood saturating its fur.
Arteo was heartbroken for her, she’d never had to slaughter any of the animals on the farm, had never brought harm to another living thing in her life, and now here she was with the responsibility of death delivered to her on a beautiful morning. He was about to say something to protect her from this new painful burden when Ilis rested her hand on Kessa’s shoulder.
“It’s not a kindness to let it suffer,” Ilis said, extending a hunting knife to her. Kessa didn’t look to her eyes, but knew they were soft as she spoke. Arteo stayed silent.
Taking the blade, Kessa crouched and stared into the wavering eyes of the small animal on the ground. It squirmed with the pathetic half-movements of slowly decaying life. She breathed in, reached down with the blade, and stopped it moving forever.
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