Narrated by Bob Eccles
Hemina heard the breathless grunts before she saw the ground dwellers. Their thick limbs weren’t made for climbing. She peered over the edge of the thick branch, catching a glimpse of their sweaty, dirt-smeared faces.
“Get back from there.” Her father’s long fingers wrapped around her arm.
The woven vines of the ladders creaked under the weight of so many ground dwellers. Her ears swiveled, picking up similar sounds from the surrounding trees.
His round, brown eyes narrowed and he shook his head, sending the long fringe of fur along his jawline swinging to and fro. “There are so many. Quick, get inside.”
“Why?” Hemina’s heart pounded. She’d had never seen the ground dwellers up close. “Surely the trees will protect us if we are in danger.”
“Open your mind, girl. You’ll hear them. Now go.”
She calmed her mind and listened, the rustle of leaves becoming a whisper that tickled her ears. Hide.
The fine brown fur that covered her body stood on end. Ground dwellers had nev
er desired her people. The depth of their generations-long relations had only ever reached a wary level of trading, but that happened from the ground where they used a webwork of baskets on long ropes to exchange their goods. They weren’t slavers and they’d kept their warring ways far from her forest.
But now they were here, climbing the trees. Surely if they’d made it up the ladders this far, they’d been invited? Nagea had charged the trees to protect her chosen people.
When she reached the fissure that served as their doorway, she clutched the edge, ready to bolt into the shadows, but curiosity compelled her to stay.
On the tree beside theirs, Hemina watched the men slowly creep upward. Sunshine snuck through the thick canopy high overhead to catch on steel bound to their backs. If they bared their weapons, would the trees attack? Her fingernails dug into the bark.
The eight ground dwellers on the next tree reached the first ledge. They spilled over the top one after the other. The leaves went silent. Hemina sensed everyone had gone silent, waiting and watching.
The ground dwellers scrambled away from the edge, hugging the trunk of the tree. Four made their way over to the next section of ladder, continuing upward. The others spoke in their odd tongue.
“What are they saying?” she asked her father.
He cocked his head and his ears twitched. “They only want the women who are with child. The rest will die.” He backed up, bumping into Hemina and driving her into their home. “Nagea save us, the prophecy the elders have whispered of is unfolding.”
Screams filled the air. Hemina cowered behind her father. The trees began to whisper again. Hide. Hide. Hide.
The air grew thick around them as their home tree’s mood changed. Branches creaked. Leaves wove closer together, blocking out the sunlight. A cloak of darkness fell upon the forest.
The ground dwellers yelled to one another. Bright specks of light burst into being. Fire. Hemina whimpered. She’d seen it on the forest floor when traders came, points of flickering light far below her. Down there, controlled with rings of stone, she’d been told fire was safe. But here, in the trees, it could be deadly.
The fissure narrowed but the tree didn’t swallow them in its wooden embrace. It left enough space for Hemina to see and get fresh air, a hole to the outside world that could have been nothing more than an opening to a bird’s nest.
More screams. A thick thud echoed, keeping time with the vibrations that ran through the trunk that surrounded them.
“Axes,” said her father. He dropped to his knees and pulled her down beside him. He began to pray.
Hemina’s gaze flitted over the items in the room in search of a weapon. Her sewing chest, their table, their food stores, a mound of furs; none of these things would protect her from men with axes and fire. In all the years they’d traded with the ground dwellers, not one of them had ever brought a weapon. The most she had were the long bone needles that she used to weave the cloth her people made from the threads the ground dwellers brought. Cloth her people then traded for furs and goods. Goods made from the dead trees, plants and animals. She bowed her head and joined her father in prayer. The beautiful goddess of her people would protect them.
The stink of burning wood and furs crept through the hole. Smoke tickled her nose. Hemina sneezed.
Orange light flickered outside, filling their room with nightmarish shadows that leapt from one wall to the other. Her father prayed louder and faster.
She crept to the fissure to peek outside. Two of her cousins, their bellies round with child, stood on the branch outside surrounded by six ground dwellers armed with steel. The branch trembled as if the tree were trying to shake off the offending ground dwellers. The shaking grew so violent that the whole tree trunk shook. Wood groaned all around her. Food toppled from ledges and spilled onto the floor, bouncing and rolling underfoot. Hemina shrieked.
One of the men spun around, his gaze meeting hers. She ducked, cowering below the opening. His arm reached through, searching blindly.
“What have you done?” Her father yanked her away from the opening. He shoved her down onto the floor and piled the furs over her. Their weight bore down on her head and back. The smoke grew thicker. She peered through a gap only large enough for one eye.
Her father stood beside the opening with the sewing chest in his hands. A loud thud hit the trunk, again and again, until wood began to fly through the air. Splinters and chips sprayed from the growing opening, littering the floor with shards of Nagea’s tree. A deep shudder passed through the wood.
The torch came through first, then the man holding it. Her father smashed the chest over the intruder’s head. The torch fell to the floor. The man grunted and stumbled to his knees, but as her father sought another weapon, the man regained his footing. He swung the axe, catching her father in the neck. The man grabbed the torch before the fire took to the green wood of the trunk.
Her father clutched his throat, blood running between his fingers. His lips formed the prayer to Nagea, but his voice was silent.
Hemina squeezed her eyes shut. The trees cried out. Fires licked at them, building into furnaces fueled by trade goods and devouring living wood with agonizing slowness. Axes carved out gaping wounds in their flesh. And still, Negea didn’t come. Hemina prayed harder.
Sharp pain tore through her stomach. Hemina lost her breath. She clutched her belly. Something moved within her, writhing, expanding. She screamed as her abdomen muscles ripped and her flat belly inflated to a giant orb as though she were ready to give birth at any moment.
Hemina had seen her pregnant cousins standing outside unharmed. Nagea had heard her prayers.
A hand ripped her hiding place away. The man flashed a blunt-toothed smile and stepped towards her with the torch in his hand. The axe hung from his belt. He yelled something to the men outside.
Hemina lunged for the axe. The man jumped back and two more rushed in, grabbing her. The first man pointed her toward the opening. Though she struggled against them, her captors pulled her past her father who stared up at her from the floor with empty eyes. His lips had gone still. His prayers unanswered.
Tears ran down her face. The trees cried with her, mourning the loss of so many.
Once outside, Hemina spotted her cousins on the lower ladder, making their way to the ground with an escort of armed men. Bile filled her throat. The unclean ground would taint them. They would never be allowed to return to the trees.
Embers rained down as fire took hold in the upper homes, burning the leaves above. The heavy smoke masked the horror that accompanied piercing screams and unanswered cries for mercy.
She glanced at her heavy stomach. She might be saved, but she would also be made unclean. “What have you done?” she cried to her goddess and the men who held her.
The men ignored her, merely guiding her to the downward ladder. A pressure in her head answered, but its voice wasn’t feminine as she had expected.
“It’s more what you have done, sweetling.” The low voice chuckled. “You opened yourself up to your goddess, but sadly she was occupied elsewhere. That was a lot of trouble, I’ll have you know.”
The men pushed and poked at her until she swung her unfamiliar bulk over the edge of the branch and found the first rung with her long toes. Once she had a solid handhold on the rungs, she held on tight, refusing to move.
“Who are you?”
“You asked for help. I answered. Do we really need to quibble about who I am?”
The man above her scowled and yelled at her. When she still didn’t move, he pried at her fingers. Hemina let go with one hand but only to claw at his. The man below her yanked on her feet. She kicked at him, connecting with his face. The weight of her belly pulled her off balance and her one-handed grip slipped. A bloody hand grabbed hers, forcing it back onto the rung. The scowling man yelled again, pointing downward.
“Why are you doing this?” she asked the thing within her.
It rolled again, twisting and writhing like an eel.
“There’s a prophecy among my followers. I’m to be birthed from one of you. There may be a little wiggle room for interpretation, but prophecies need to be fulfilled or people stop believing.”
“What if I don’t want to give birth to you?”
“Let’s call this a partnership, shall we? You give birth, I let you live. I’ll tell you what; I’ll even have them worship you.”
The man above planted his feet on the rung where she held on. His foot ground into the bones of her fingers. Hemina yelped and moved down a rung. He kept coming, driving her downward. When they reached the home below hers, the men paused to catch their breaths but they remained at her side.
“Come now, sweetling. You’ll enjoy it. See how my men protect you? Get to the ground, and we’ll both be safe.”
“Both of us? You’re not much of a god.”
A sharp pain in her stomach took her breath away. Hemina doubled over, clutching her belly. The men muttered, glancing over the edge to the ground still far below.
“Mind what you say, sweetling. I could always have them kill you the moment I’m reborn into your world.”
The blood of her people stained the branch where she stood. “The trees will never let your men reach the ground.”
“Trees, trees, trees. That’s all you people talk about, isn’t it? There’s much more in your world beyond the damned leaves and branches. Not that your kind has ever come down from your trees long enough to see it.” The sharp pain again tore through her belly. “Move it, sweetling. No time to waste.”
The men rushed her to the ladder, three of them going down first before the one with the big feet pushed her to the edge and downward. Hemina cried out to Nagea and the trees.
“They can’t save you. Only I can.”
The pain settled into the bottom of her stomach, building up with intense pressure. A blazing branch plummeted past her, followed by the flailing body of one of her people.
Far below, her cousins stood amidst the ferns, heads bowed and surrounded by men.
Another round of shattering pain built up within her. Hemina’s lips drew tight and her hands shook as she grasped the next rung. She tried to hold it back, but a cry tore from her lips.
“If you don’t get to the ground, I’ll have them kill your friends. They are not chosen as you are.”
“They’re already dead.”
“Serve me and I will allow them to live to serve you.”
The tree shuddered, shaking the ladder and those who clung to it. It was as if the trees had given up hope of preserving her people and just wanted them all gone. Hemina opened her mind, trying to offer the trees comfort but smoke filled her lungs. A wracking round of coughs brought an end to her efforts.
The man below her yelled to those above. They all moved faster. She had no choice but to move with them. The ground grew closer.
“I don’t want to be served or worshipped. I want my father, my people, and my trees back.”
“I want to be born. Get moving.”
“No.” Hemina halted.
The feet of the man above her stomped on her fingers. He waved at her with one hand as if he could shove her downward with the gesture. The man below tugged on her feet.
A huge branch crashed downward through the smoke, smashing the ladder of the tree beside them. The ladder disintegrated, sending those on it shrieking to their bone-shattering deaths on their beloved ground.
Hemina took a deep breath and closed her eyes, blocking out the frantic yelling of the surrounding men and the crackling of the burning wood above her. Her goddess might be silent, but the trees were not. She sought out her home tree, sharing the pain of another contraction with its pain of burning. Together they screamed.
The tree spoke slowly, its voice as rough as its bark. Together. End together.
A tremor ran down the ladder. The babbling grew to a fervent pleading. The man below her deserted his position and started downward.
An ear-piercing crack ran through the tree from top to bottom. Burning wood and leaves rained down upon them. Men cried out as embers scorched their bare skin.
“What have you done?” The god inside her rolled and tumbled.
Above her, one man lost his grip on the ladder. He flailed for a second, his feet still on the rungs. The men near him reached out, but they couldn’t reach him. He flailed all the way to the ground.
The upturned faces of the men on the ground were filled with horror. Her cousins grinned. The dry leaves and branches on the forest floor burst into flames.
The men on the ground scattered.
A horrible shifting feeling passed through Hemina as her home tree lurched sideways. The presence of the tree that had been with her since birth faded as it severed its deep roots one by one.
“No, no, no!” The god pummeled her insides. “We’re not close enough to the bottom. Down, get down!”
“I will never touch the ground.”
The man above her scrambled over her, trampling her hands and body. Her shattered fingers refused to hold on any longer. Hemina let go, taking the two man passing over her with her as she fell.
The trees went silent. Hemina smiled. Men screamed, as did the god inside her.
Leaves fell all around her, reminding her of soft winds blowing through them above her bed at night. The cool rushing air comforted the burns on her arms and back.
Above her, the last of the ladders crumbled. Men flailed and fell. A deep earth-wrenching rumble filled the air. The trees toppled.
Hemina held her arms outstretched, welcoming the embrace of the trees and her goddess. A thick branch caught her in the stomach, piercing her through like the steel the men had carried. The god within her went silent and still.
She caressed the wood, its rough bark comforting her until it came to a jolting stop when the end of it dove into the ground. Her feet dangled just above the ferns.
AUTHOR BIO: Jean Davis lives in Michigan with her husband, two children and rambunctious dog. She writes both science fiction and fantasy. Follow her writing adventures at www.jeanddavis.blogspot.com
ILLUSTRATOR BIO: Eleanor Leonne Bennett is a 16 year old internationally award winning artist. Her photography has been published in the Telegraph , The Guardian, BBC News Website and on the cover of books and magazines in the United states and Canada. See more of her photography at www.eleanorleonnebennett.zenfolio.com