Song of the Brethren
The knife hovered over the flesh of the baby's plump little arm. The infant fretted and wriggled, so Kaysha rocked the child gently to quiet him.
"Hold him still," Garran muttered.
The blade flashed with shocking swiftness and Kaysha flinched even though she had promised herself not to. A little bead of blood welled up where the tip had pricked, scarlet against pasty white skin. The baby howled.
At a nod from the priest, the villagers took up the chant. "Blood into bark, bark into blood. Soul into life." Again and again they chanted until Kaysha thought the words would stay trapped inside her head forever. Their voices were thin and frail, much like the gathering, much like the sapling itself that stood in the center of their ragged circle. Those who had come had done so not out of friendship but duty, Kaysha well knew.
Now Garran drew the knife across the stem of the cryx sapling--a long, deep cut that left a weeping V-shaped groove and a sliver of peeling bark. Has he cut too deep? Kaysha wondered. Has he killed the tree before it can even bud its first fruit?
Garran tugged the child closer, squeezing a drop of blood into the open cut in the cryx sapling.
"Blood into bark, bark into blood. Soul into life."
Kaysha felt herself growing lightheaded as the voices swirled around her. She drew the baby back to her breast and shushed him gently until he quieted again.
Garran took the cloth strips blessed by the priest and bound the sapling's wound. His fingers worked deftly enough but she saw there was no care in his work. "There," he said, turning back to her. "It's done."
The truth of it struck her then. She saw it in his face and the hurried movements of his hands. Her husband, the father of their child, had no desire to see either flourish; neither sapling nor baby.
Worst of all, hadn't she known it all along?
As a child, Kaysha had been drawn back to her own tree, time and again. Not just for her regular taste of its seed; more than that. More than was good for her, some had said. Every community member depended on their cryx tree--a need no less important than food or water. The tree of life, some called it but if that were so, Kaysha thought, it came at too high a price. Freedom.
Her tree stood apart from the others, high on the hillside of the valley, bleak and cold in winter. But always she wondered how it would feel to cut the ties between flesh and bark, to leave this valley and--perhaps--never return.
Cryx trees grew best where the soil was rich and moist, but a family must choose the place that seemed right, a place where the soul would be at peace. Later, the ground could be made sacred, blessed by a priest for the appropriate payment.
Her mother's tree was close by, nothing but a scarecrow stump now. They had told Kaysha its leaves had begun to wither the very moment her mother had succumbed to the pains of childbirth. Kaysha's father had not seen fit to stay. Stricken with grief, it was said he'd turned his back on his own cryx tree and just walked away down the long paths out of the valley. No wonder there was a streak of wanderlust in Kaysha's soul.
Clyde Deacon and his puffy-faced wife Hensi, farm-owners and respectable village elders both, had taken her in, raising her after a fashion--until the wildness of her teenage years had been too much for them to contain any longer. Though her basic needs were always attended to, it was never more than that, for in truth, who would lavish love on a child that was not their own, whose tree grew at the very edge of the orchard?
But the cryx tree high on the hillside had prospered as the girl became a woman, roots thrusting deep into the soil. It never bore copious fruit like some rooted in the more fertile soil of the valley, but the crop was reliable year round, even in the coldest winter months, and that was all that mattered. At least once every moon cycle, Clyde climbed the slope and helped pluck her a plump, round fruit. Kaysha grew strong and healthy.
When she was old enough to run free, Kaysha liked to sit, back pressed against the cryx tree's smooth bark, gazing across the valley that was all she had ever known--and all she ever would know. In her mind the tree would rise up out of the ground and she would grip the trunk tightly as together they floated amongst the clouds, the world turning beneath them. What things they would see! Vast ancient walled cities perhaps, or grand sailing ships from the storytellers' myths, traversing vast rivers snaking down towards infinite oceans. The cryx tree would carry her to these far-off places, keeping her safe; keeping her nourished.
Often, as evening flowed down the valley, she watched the shadow cast by her mother's tree creep across the ground, ever closer. But always darkness fell before the shadow could embrace her.
Once, riders had come swiftly along the high trail. They were upon her almost without warning. Twelve-year-old Kaysha scrambled to her feet, a flush of guilt in her cheeks though she had done nothing to earn it, except through her idleness. Travellers were a rare enough sight on the long trails but these wore the unmistakable grey hooded cloaks of Tree-Bringers. Kaysha frowned. Even a child such as her knew it was not their time. The Brethren came in spring. Their visits were heralded by weeks of preparations, an excuse for a community feast, cakes and wine and the choicest cuts of preserved meats. In return, fertile cryx bulbs were presented to any young couple who had petitioned the previous autumn, and the Brethren silently took their payment in coin.
Yet they were here now, and with no word of their coming. And only Kaysha to greet them.
The leader reined up his horse. "Where are your elders, girl?" There were five of the Brethren, but six mounts--the last carrying a loose-slung load covered by a tattered blanket. Not trusting herself to speak, she pointed through the thicket of trees where rising curls of smoke marked the nearer buildings. A mad thought rose into her head. Would they take her with them, if she begged? The journeys of Tree-Bringers were the stuff of legend, free spirits tied to no community. How she longed to share their adventures, even to just travel beyond the valley!
Now came one of the villagers--as luck would have it her own foster father, puffing up the track red-faced, though whether through embarrassment or exertion it was difficult to say. "Your pardon," Clyde gasped. "We did not know--"
The leader of the Brethren waved him into silence, while another drew back the blanket covering the bundle. Beneath, a man lay sprawled across the horse's back; whether dead or alive it was difficult to say. Two of the Brethren lowered him carefully to the ground. Kaysha had never seen a face so grey or so old. And yet his body showed no other obvious signs of old age, still seemingly supple. Old and yet not old...
Clyde took a step back, brows furrowing with anger. "Why have you brought him to us? His needs are obvious. Has he no tree? We have no medicine that will cure what he lacks."
"This one's tree is gone," the leader of the Brethren said. "No doubt burned in the brush fires that have swept the south. We found him wandering the long trails nearby."
Clyde peered again at the curiously aged face. "He is not one of ours."
"Nor ours," the Tree-Bringer replied. He waited, as if his point should be obvious. "We bring him to you not for cure but for burial."
Clyde seemed about to protest.
"Yours is the duty," the Brethren leader insisted. "We are travelling on. We cannot take him."
It seemed as if the man in question was trying to rise. His limbs trembled and he made a sound like an animal mewling, but no recognizable words came. After a moment, he fell back and lay twitching.
A long moment passed. No words were spoken, perhaps because of Kaysha's presence, but much seemed to be said. "Follow me," Clyde said at last, turning away abruptly.
That evening Kaysha spied on the group of Tree-Bringers as they sat alone in the stables with their mounts, using hunks of bread to mop up a simple broth. That and a night's shelter was all they had asked of the villagers. With their hoods raised against the chill night air, she only glimpsed their gaunt faces in the firelight, sunken eyes and sallow skin. They sat motionless in a semi-circle; grey statues. At first she thought the sound was merely their muttering. Gradually, the sound clarified and became a hum, rising and falling with a slow melody until it dawned on her they were singing. The song of the Brethren was both beautiful and haunting, quite unlike anything she had ever heard. When it ended, one of them turned slowly and beckoned her closer.
"Why won't you save that man?" Kaysha asked, trying to sound bolder than she felt. "Everyone knows you have the medicines." Or the magic, but she dare not say that aloud.
The man turned back to the fire, raising hands to warm them, and for a brief moment she saw the lined face clearly in the firelight, skin dappled and grooved almost like the bark of a tree. In the daylight he had not seemed nearly so old. "There is none," he said. "There is only--" he broke off, wracked by a long, hard coughing fit. When he was done, he examined the contents of his kerchief as if expecting to find bloody gobbets of lung, but the cloth was clean. "Best not to believe all you hear about the Brethren. Come, sit."
"But it's true you have no tree?"
"Once. No longer." His eyes seemed to focus on a distant place, his thoughts following. Kaysha's fidgeting brought him back. "Doesn't everyone need a tree?" she persisted.
"Aye. And that is why we cannot help that traveler."
"But you travel! Clyde says you travel the length and breadth of the continent in spring and summer, taking fresh cryx seeds where they are needed."
"Child, did you think the Brethren's sacrifice can cure others whose trees have been lost? No. It takes much more than that to become one of the Brethren. Things it is better that you don't know."
"I want to leave this place one day! I want to travel like the Brethren do."
He laid a gentle hand on her arm. His skin was hard with calluses and barely warm. The hand could have been carved from wood. "You do not choose to join the Brethren. You are chosen."
"I choose," Kaysha insisted.
He seemed about to laugh at her stubbornness and that only made her more angry, more determined. "You're young," he said. "Later you'll learn it's always better to choose wisely than to choose swiftly. To cut oneself off from one's cryx tree is to give up everything that matters. Everything. Stay here, child. Become a valued member of your community and prosper within it. Happiness is never to be found on the long trails." He glanced towards the outhouse where the sick man had been taken. "Only misery and loneliness." He spoke in a whisper almost too low to be heard. "And death."
Kaysha said nothing.
Much later, the Brethren resumed their quiet song.
The youth was hacking at the lower branches of the tree with a short knife, casual slashes like a bored child whittling a branch. "What are you doing!" Kaysha demanded. He flinched but did not lower the knife, turning slowly to look at her with an insolent stare. Stripped to the waist in the summer heat, little beads of sweat trickling down the smooth skin of his chest, he looked almost feral. She realized he was only a year or two older than her. Twenty, twenty-one, no more. She felt a blush spread across her cheeks as she drank in his semi-naked torso.
"Pruning," he answered, voice full of defiance.
Kaysha snorted. The village women would occasionally snip an errant twig or pluck a diseased leaf from a cryx tree but always with the utmost care and love, as tenderly as one might smooth the hair of a lover back into place. This... This was little more than--
"'S my tree," he said, as if reading her thoughts. "What business is it of yours?"
That was true enough. Today's wanderings had brought Kaysha further than ever. It would be long after dark before she made it back to her village, no doubt to face silent, accusative looks from her adoptive parents.
"You won't say that when winter's here and all the fruits have gone." She saw then two or three purple splotches where fruits had been mashed into the ground by his boot, and was shocked anew. Had he never been taught to treasure each fruit as a precious gift? Even the shriveled, diseased ones held some potency.
The youth spun the knife in his hands, point pressed lightly against one palm so that sunlight flashed off the polished blade, whether to impress or intimidate her, she couldn't tell. But the skin on his hands was sun-hardened like the rest of him; no prick of blood appeared.
"I'm Garran. What's your name?" he asked, and she saw no reason not to tell him.
She told him more besides: about the village she came from, about her duties, how she hated weaving most of all for the way it made her fingers go numb, about the foster parents who surely regretted their hasty decision all those years ago. All her stupid dreams came tumbling out on that golden afternoon.
With a quick, careless flick of his wrist Garran sank the blade a finger's breadth into the trunk of his tree where it quivered and held.
"Don't--" Kaysha gasped.
Garren grinned. "Cryx-trees are tougher than you think. Like me." They held each other's stare for an eternity. Something gleamed in his eyes. "Perhaps you'll visit again." The way he spoke, it was a statement not a question.
And she did. She loved the thrill of those long hikes, of leaving the valley and her village and all that she had ever known far behind. Though she always returned by nightfall, she felt a power stirring within her to choose otherwise, cryx tree or not.
And of course, there was the thrill of seeing Garran, even on the days when he was morose and distant.
Kaysha thought she was touching freedom each time she journeyed so far for their trysts. She little dreamed she was only tying the knots that bound her ever tighter.
Clyde and Hensi argued hard against it. She was too young, they said. His home too far away. There was no work for him here, and the village had no need of another mouth to feed. She could find other, better matches in time. But they also knew Kaysha's stubbornness only too well. And when she told them the real reason why she was making plans in such haste, there were no arguments left. Only sullen silence remained to fill the void.
They wed without ceremony. Garran threw together a half-finished cabin on the edge of the village and Clyde and Hensi did not seem sad to see Kaysha move out. Garran found work after all, laboring in the fields.
As for the gossip... No tree for the babe, the whispers said. And it was true. They had not planned, had not saved, only lived in the moment--and no good ever came from that.
Kaysha came daily now after her duties were done to sit beneath the spreading branches of her tree and think. Mostly she just came to wish. She wished for different times and circumstances, different places; maybe a different throw of the dice. This evening the bark felt rough and hard against her back and she couldn't get comfortable. The baby squirmed and kicked. She laid a hand across the taut skin of her belly, wishing there was a way for the child to stay safe inside her forever.
The time for tears had long passed. Now she felt only an empty hollowness inside, and a kind of quiet desperation that she had no means to channel. Though she recognized the truth, she could not accept it.
The baby would live perhaps a year or so--certainly no more than that. The child had no sapling waiting, would never be nourished by a cryx-fruit of its own. Things had moved so fast with Garran and then when she had fallen pregnant... But by then it was too late. They should have planned, saved enough coin to buy a seed from the Tree-Bringers when they came in the spring, nurtured it. Invested in the future.
They had done none of those things. That was hardly Garran's way. Too impetuous--and yes, too self-centered, she could admit those weaknesses now--to ever plan for the future. Kaysha had known that from the start, hadn't she? Brushed it aside under the tumult of emotions that she had mistaken for love. Yet now she saw clearly enough. How badly she wanted this child! To see her son or daughter blossom into a strong young man or a flaxen-haired girl, to hug them fiercely to her and be hugged in return, to know she had done something good in her life for once.
Still just dreams.
Garran had disappeared again. Kaysha was used to his sudden absences, knew he would always return after a few days, sometimes caked with dried blood, hung-over and shame-faced. She had learned to temper her anger, pretending indifference in front of the other village women. She minded more about the money it cost them--meager savings from three or four moon-cycles--frittered away on beer and dream-leaf in some distant town beyond the valley. But the absence of his beatings she didn't mind in the least.
So--when Garran returned sober after less than a day and a night, it was a surprise to Kaysha as much as anyone. He showed her the little bundle wrapped in cloth, and her hands flew to her mouth. "No! It can't be! Is it...?"
Garran pulled away the cloth to reveal a fist-sized tuber. A tiny green shoot was already pushing out from the pulpy flesh. "A cryx tree." He nodded at the prominent bump pushing out Kaysha's dress. "For the little 'un. Wasn't cheap, mind."
Many cycles had gone since the Tree-Bringers had passed by but Garran would not say who he had traded with or under what circumstances. He grumbled endlessly about the price. For weeks they ate a thin vegetable soup morning and night because Garran insisted they couldn't afford meat. The Tree-Bringers had driven too hard a bargain, he complained.
Kaysha pursed her lips but said nothing. Each one of his drunken binges easily cost more than he'd spent on this bulb. It was a poor specimen too: misshapen, blotchy skin, the spindly shoot anemic-looking. And with the child due any day, the planting should have been done months ago. Garran had not chosen wisely at all, had not thought it through. But wasn't that exactly what the village gossips said of her? What possessed her to make such a choice of husband? Why Garran with his fiery temper and selfish, good-for-nothing ways? Yet when he took her in his arms and she felt the animal hardness of him, and his hot skin rasping against hers, she knew why, at least for a time.
The sapling took in a dusty, untended section of sacred ground, which was all their lowly status entitled them to. Even in the final week before the birth, Kaysha still came every day to keep the soil moist and check that the little picket fence had kept away wild animals. Often she climbed the hillside to pluck a fruit from her tree. The cravings were stronger than she had ever known them; that irresistible honey-and-figs taste of its flesh, the slow warmth of its juices spreading through her body. But to take so many was foolish. Her tree had never been particularly bountiful. One bad season could wipe out a carefully hoarded crop. What would she do then? But the cravings overwhelmed her.
And still she roamed far and wide--at least, to the extent that constant fatigue would let her. Her restlessness, at least, had not yet deserted her. One such day, she stumbled across the place she had first come upon her future husband.
Garran's tree was poorly tended. It had grown leggy, the fruits withered and hard-looking. She knew he sometimes skipped whole moon-cycles without so much as a taste from his tree--she saw how his skin would grow pallid, his expression wan, bone-deep fatigue even taking the edge off his temper.
Kaysha poked one of the wrinkled fruits. Hard as a nut. Was it any wonder Garran took no succor from it? She glanced around furtively. Quickly, before she could change her mind, she picked one of Garran's withered little fruits and held it in her trembling hand. A cryx tree was sacrosanct, as much a part of the individual as an arm or a leg. There were rumors of floggings for those who transgressed, but surely Garran would not mind? And she was so desperate for a taste...
The moment it touched her tongue she knew it to be vile, as different from her own fruit as if she had swallowed a dung pellet. She spat the pulp from her mouth, bending double to vomit until her insides ached. It was just as they taught. A cryx tree grew to provide for its keeper; no one else. The bond between flesh and bark was unique. To each, his own.
And for those who had no tree of their own? Then there could be no future.
When the baby came, her world seemed to shatter. The pain of childbirth was one thing, but afterwards the boy cried endlessly, would accept the comfort of Kaysha's breast for only the shortest time, often nipping at her cruelly. Kaysha felt barely alive, perpetually tired. And yet somehow, she found a corner of her heart with which to love the child.
With a baby to care for, the work was endless. Garran only grew more sullen and moody. How would they afford to feed the child once it was weaned? He grumbled. His farm laboring brought insufficient money for the extra food and clothes they needed.
Kaysha drew strength in the only way she knew how, visiting her tree every day. But its branches were almost bare now, and it would be many cycles before new buds blossomed into fruits. She tried to put it from her mind.
With her son's naming day fast approaching, she tended his sapling as best she could. She banked up soil to protect the weak stem, watered the ground in the cool of the evening and offered up prayers to the Brethren for her son's strength and long life. The sapling grew, but in a strange fashion. Perhaps because the soil was so poor, it put out no side-shoots. The stem did not thicken, and it grew ever taller, as if trying to put as much distance as possible between the growing tip and the scrubby soil beneath.
They named the boy Melo. Only a week after the naming ceremony, she give him his first taste--something else to set the village tongues wagging. Better to wait for a sapling to mature--but Kaysha did not have that option. They should have planned better, planted sooner. This poor child stood little chance; it was commonly agreed. Such a shame. Such irresponsibility.
Yet against the odds a single fruit, small and immature, had budded near the growing tip of the sapling. Kaysha plucked it anyway, poking a morsel of its pulpy flesh into the child's mouth. The baby quieted immediately, as though this strange new experience demanded full concentration.
Ten minutes later he was squalling again as if nothing had happened.
That year the winter was harsh and unforgiving, coming hard on a poor growing season. The dismal harvest pushed up prices and many a mealtime passed with only scraps on the table. Garran complained they were living beyond their means: baby clothes they could ill afford, extra fuel to keep the cabin warm. Kaysha would see him look at the baby as he slept in his makeshift wooden cot, and frown.
He came to her one evening. "Kaysha--" He touched her arm lightly, almost gently. But she knew what he wanted to say, knew his unsubtle ways. She refused to listen. Instead, she wrapped Melo warmly and walked in the moonlight until she was certain Garran would be asleep.
As the days passed, Kaysha grew weaker. Motherhood exhausted her. She tended Melo's tree diligently but her own was long bare of fruit. Twice Garran disappeared for a day and a night, staggering home drunk in the pre-dawn twilight. Then Kaysha fell ill and for three days could do nothing but huddle by the fire, shivering under a pile of blankets while Garran glowered and complained about having to do all the work.
The next night, fever took her to strange places. No longer able to tell waking from dreaming, she heard strange cries in the darkness, incoherent bellowing and ranting, enough to wake the whole village. There were curses aplenty: for the gods who took no pity, for the Tree-Bringers who were cheating scum, and for the child that was bleeding him dry.
Just when there seemed no end to it, strangely, Clyde was at her side. Hensi too. Why had they come? She saw tears in the old woman's eyes. Fever or no, she struggled from her bed, swaying as the floor tilted around her. Strong arms caught her. "What is it?" she whispered. "Tell me, please." But somewhere inside she already knew the truth.
They made her wait until dawn. Garran had been sent away to sober up out of earshot of the village though no one would tell her where. Clyde insisted she should rest, that no good would come of distressing herself, but Kaysha had to see. An early morning mist hung in the fields like a damp, smothering cloth as they climbed the little path up the valley-side to little Melo's cryx tree. She kept her mind blank and leaned heavily on Clyde. Perhaps if she did not think of it, she could erase the truth.
When at last they reached the spot, Kaysha saw that Melo's sapling lay in the dirt. Its thin stem had now grown to nearly the length of her own body. A little moan escaped her lips, soft like the wind through bare branches. This was angry, brutish work--the stem hacked through in three or four rough strokes, no more than an inch or two remaining above the soil.
Through a red haze of tears, Kaysha hugged the fallen sapling to her bosom, fingers tracing the fine, silvery bark down to its ruined end, naked wood oozing a syrupy sap. Her tears seemed to burn against her face, splashing down onto the ruined sapling as she mourned its loss, mourned for her child. She mourned for the boy who would never again taste its fruit, never see adulthood or grow strong and tall and hug his mother when she had grown frail and grey.
Why, Garran? Why would you do this? But she knew the answer, knew him well enough. Others might say it was anger fuelled by drink and dream-leaf. Only she knew what really drove him.
She couldn't leave the sapling where it lay so she carried it back to her own tree. Impulsively, she cut a shallow V-shaped groove high in the trunk and pushed the ruined end of the sapling down into it. A burial of sorts, she supposed. And all the while she tried not to think how much time the babe might have left. Such awful calculations. However many months, it could never be long enough. She would hold her precious son close while she could. It seemed fitting that their trees should be bound in one final embrace too.
She felt Clyde's disapproving eyes on her but he made no move to stop her. This was not the way things were done, but what did she care for the old ways? She kissed the stem tenderly, tears flowing down her face and onto the bark. Then when it dawned on her that there was nothing else to be done, she let Clyde guide her back down the path.
It took a week for the fever to fade yet still the strength seemed to ebb from Kaysha's body. She did not visit her cryx tree as the weeks slowly passed. Garran had become contrite, something she never thought she'd see. It was as if he had truly shocked himself. He took care of her without complaint, cooked her steamy broths, and kept the fire fed to ward off the chill winter nights. Kaysha would not speak to him. She turned her head away whenever he spoke so that despite the fire, it could be chilly inside their little cabin. His apologies, his mumbled explanations, fell on deaf ears.
All the while, a tiny, stupid flicker of hope burned inside Kaysha. She prayed to the gods for a miracle though no god had ever answered her prayers before. And yet...
She made the journey alone, choosing a time when Garran was at his work in the fields and Melo slept soundly in his crib. Thoughts tumbled inside her head as she made her slow way along the well-worn path. Didn't the orchard growers sometimes graft young apple seedlings onto stronger rootstock? Why could a person not graft one cryx tree to another in similar fashion? Surely those of a mother and son could co-exist somehow? But cryx trees were not apple trees, she told herself. A cryx was different; sacred--and more besides. Such tampering was strictly forbidden. Yet hope rose within her with every fresh step up the slope.
--And died. She saw at once Melo's broken sapling had withered, turning a coppery grey down most of its length. It hung limply from where the cloth bound it to the trunk, like a strip of peeling bark. Only the tiniest green tip remained where death had not yet reached, but soon would.
That was not all. With numb acceptance, she saw her own tree was sick; upper foliage turning that same coppery grey, the once-smooth bark bubbling with tumor-like growths. She had poisoned her own cryx tree by this final, desperate act. When spring came, would nothing remain but a skeleton? Kaysha had no more tears left; not for this, not for anything.
Garran tried his best to comfort her, but there was nothing to be said or done. They were both outcasts now, he for his drunken vandalism, she for the blasphemous desecration of her own cryx tree. Each morning, fresh insults and curses were scratched into the dirt outside their door, excrement thrown at their windows. None in the village would trade them provisions. Garran had no choice but to trek to the next village for essentials and he did so without complaint, even after a tiring day in the fields. Kaysha knew on some level that he was still in shock, that such contrition was driven by the remorse he felt for a night's drinking and the reckless act it had led to. Still she would not speak to him.
"I can change," he told her. "If you'll give me another chance."
Kaysha turned away from him, refusing to listen.
It was obvious now that Melo no longer thrived as others did. Some babes were twice his size yet half his age. Their mothers gave them a taste of cryx as often as they could but what had Kaysha to offer Melo? He was sickly and crotchety. Garran helped with the child sometimes, spooning mush into the infant's mouth, wiping him clean afterwards, and even bathing him under Kaysha's silent direction.
Why? She found herself wondering. Why did they bother with any of this? It was Garran after all who had wanted the child gone, Garran who had found a way to make certain of it. With each passing day, she felt herself growing ever more distant from the world, as if she was slipping onto some parallel track where the old ways no longer mattered. All she needed to do was close her eyes and she would be there.
Sometimes, in the darkest hour of the night while Garran snored, she clutched Melo fiercely to her. She imagined sitting beneath her tree with the sun dappling through its leaves. Then she would tell the child her dreams for the future. The future was always a better place: the crops thrived, food was plentiful, the people were happy and contented--and Garran...
Sooner or later, the dream always faded.
One day Garran entered the cabin to find Kaysha too weak to move from her bed, Melo crawling fitfully amongst the blankets on the floor. She saw by his expression something had happened, but could detect neither anger nor excitement; just puzzlement.
"Kaysha--" He hesitated, seeing her flinch when he spoke her name. "Come with me," he said, though it was a question not an order.
She was too tired to carry the infant; too tired and too sick. Garran scooped Melo into his arms. Slowly they climbed the hill path, each step a struggle for her.
Why was she letting him bring her here, of all places? So many cycles had passed, now everything looked so different. How long had it been since she had even left the cabin?
"There's something you must see," was all Garran would say as he led her to that familiar, terrible place.
She stared at what had become of her tree, hardly recognizing it as her own, even though the branches and knots of one's cryx tree were engraved upon the heart, winter or summer, as familiar to her as the contours of her own body.
Her cryx was all but dead, leaves withered and grey where new buds should be bursting forth, its branches just brittle, lifeless sticks. It could be mistaken for a tree of the departed, a somber gravestone for the soul resting beneath.
Then there is no hope for me, she thought.
"Look more closely," Garran urged, and she did. On the far side of the trunk, something new was growing. The little sapling had revived, lifting again to grow straight and proud, becoming a branch in its own right. Now it reached skywards, spreading new branches.
"How...?" Kaysha asked, her voice little more than a croak.
Garran shook his head. "It's unheard of." Was that the hint of a smile on his face? It had been so long it was hard to be sure.
The new growth was only a tiny part of the dead tree, not much more than a thicket sprouting from the trunk--but it was green and vibrant and healthy. It was as though all the tree's energy had been channeled to this one place in order to give back life to the sapling, the tree sacrificing the greater part of itself for the benefit of the fledgling spirit.
"Look Melo," she said, taking the child with some difficulty from Garran and holding him up so that his face was nestled amongst the new leaves. Kaysha could smell the scent of new growth, cool and fresh like a distant summer's day. The child stared, reaching out a tiny, curious hand. And yes, look, there were even little buds growing, Kaysha saw. Perhaps a tiny fruit for him come late spring.
She passed Melo back to Garran before the dizziness overcame her. Abruptly, her legs buckled and she found herself on the ground, propped against the trunk of her tree just like so many times before.
Garran laid a rough hand on her forehead and it came away slick. "Burning up," he said.
But no, Kaysha thought, that couldn't be right. She was so cold, her body wracked with violent shivers. "When did you last have a taste?" Garran asked, but Kaysha just shook her head. "You should have kept a few back for the winter," he chided. But there had been no point. There had been nothing to live for.
Garran hovered over her. "What should I do?" he asked. Kaysha felt the closeness of that other place again, the one she could go to if she only closed her eyes and let everything else slip away. "Stay strong," Garran urged. "Summer is not so far away. It will come sooner than you think."
She looked up at him, seeing unfamiliar worry and uncertainty trapped in those pale blue eyes of his. He had grown older these last few weeks, a man ready to face the world on his own terms instead of railing against it. "What should I do?" he asked again.
"Become a father," Kaysha said, realizing these were the first proper words spoken to him since... Since. Garran grew still. Then he nodded curtly, just the once. Kaysha smiled and let her eyes fall closed. She felt bark press into the flesh of her back, soft and warm and welcoming. She imagined the ground falling away beneath her, the cryx tree cradling her as they rose higher. Her throat seemed to constrict and she made a low sound, deep in her chest. There was so much she wanted to say to Garran, so much bottled up these past months. But instead of words, only a hum came forth, curiously deep and resonant. Again she tried to speak but words had fled, leaving these rich, melodic sounds in their place.
And it seemed to her she could hear an answering sound--a song, perhaps--from far away, but growing closer. The song of the Brethren.
Now I understand, Kaysha thought.
And I will choose yet.