We fell the trees. The heart-leaves grow proud here, despite the cold earth and beating rains that should keep them humble. They rend the skies, and so we tear their thick trunks with the axes the stone shapers bring us each day. They fall and we move on, always north, while the elders dig up the stumps and make ready the ground for our animals.
I lead the axemen. Not because I am strongest or most skilled, but because I can see what the others cannot; the terrible threads of the spinnings that bind the trees together.
“En-ka, what do you see?” the others ask when I stop to survey the virgin forest. “Like a web,” I always reply, “but no spider has made them.” They are frightening and beautiful; great pale strands that shine with a darkness made of more than the absence of light. The birds do not touch the strands, but fly between them. The animals step over the ground they touch, or shy away.
Today we are in a valley. A river once ran here, and the soil is deep and rich. A great heart-leaf stands amidst its family: a king. Its bark is torn and split where the sky has struck it with fire. Next to it stands a brother tree, dead. I wonder if the same fire touched them both, and why one must die while the other lives.
The men watch while I walk to the king. Always the spinnings ask a price, and always we pay it. Then they leave the trees, like frost smoking from morning grass. In the king’s shadow I kneel, stone blade cold against my thigh. I knock the wood once, twice, three times. I place my forehead against the wet bark. I ask what the spinnings desire.
This time, the price is too high.
Ag-ra sits beneath the woven branches and studies the fire. Since I was a boy my brother has led us into this new land, which we have made our own. There are scores of us now, and more on the way.
“Eight children,” I tell him. “Too much to ask.” I crouch before the fire and tease the flames with my hand. Once before we gave the spinnings a child, and I have not been able to make peace with it. The boy’s small shadow stalks me in my dreams.
Ag-ra knows this, but he is stone, unmovable. He nods his grey head and pulls the wolfskin about his shoulders in thought.
“And yet the land must be remade.”
I shake my head. “This is too much. You know this, brother. Eight children.”
He bares the few teeth that are left him. “They need not be our children.”
Later, in the darkness of my own hut, I hear the hunters leave. All the long night I lie awake, for fear of a tiny shadow.
Days pass. The axemen wait and joke, and I walk. I watch the spinnings, talk to them, ask them questions. I return to the broken king to ask again what they desire, what they will accept to give up the land. The answer is always the same.
I do not sleep, but drift between dream and wakefulness. I beg the spinnings to take something else in place of eight little souls, but they are indifferent. I wonder if we have made them bolder, more bloodthirsty over the years. Or maybe they are harder and stronger the farther north we go. I do not understand their monstrous nature, or why I alone can see them, talk to them.
On the third evening the hunters return. They bring six boys and two girls, hands bound with thick bundles of ivy. Some are defiant, others scared; one has gone away inside. My heart is heavy in my chest to see them here, and I admit to myself that I had hoped the hunters would fail, that they would not return.
Ag-ra orders the heart-leaves cleared the next day.
I set out before dawn, walking slowly through the mist that drags itself across the damp earth. The axe is slick in my hand. The children walk with me, a hunter to either side, arrows nocked and ready. Brothers: On-ta and Is-ta. I can feel their mistrust like heat from a fire. Ag-ra sends them because he is suspicious; his doubt trails us in the air.
At dayspring we reach the heart-leaf king and his dead brother. The hunters grip their bows and watch while I drag the nearest child to me. A girl, perhaps seven or eight summers gone. Black hair with animal bones woven through, green eyes cold and hard. No different from our children.
I recall a day years before, when I stood before other heart-leaves and held a blade to another child’s throat. A boy, younger than this fierce girl. I remember the fear in his eyes. A scathing fear that shames me every time I think of it.
I lean down to the girl’s ear.
“I am sorry,” I say softly, because it is true. Then: “To the dead tree and no farther. The far side, and climb.” She looks at me with hate as I slit her bindings and push her, but she runs, and then I am running toward On-ta, knowing I rush to my death and wondering what it will feel like, what these last few moments will bring.
An arrow bites my shoulder, deep. Deep enough that it won’t heal. I know this and keep running. A second arrow strikes the dead tree and Is-ta shouts, curses.
My axe rips across On-ta’s hide and hot blood gouts across us both; he screams fury in my face and holds me tight as he dies.
I let him fall and look for Is-ta. The children point to the great heart-leaf king, and I know the hunter has gone beyond, into the spinnings. Without my sight, he will not return. He will be trapped, and consumed. I almost pity him.
I walk to the king and sit against it, feeling the numbness creeping down my arm. The axe falls to the forest floor. I won’t need it again.
The girl with green eyes and bones in her hair climbs down from the dead tree and stands at my feet, watching. In the branches above I can see threads moving, reaching for me.
The girl looks up and bares her teeth. She can see the spinnings too! Her eyes narrow. She hefts the axe, holds it unsteadily before her.
I shake my head. “It can’t hurt them. We can’t fight them. That’s why we feed them.”
“Little brother!” Ag-ra approaches from the way we came, a handful of hunters around him. He walks proud in the cold morning air. “You betray your family? Your people?” He sighs. “You betray yourself.”
I force myself up, stand unsteadily against the king while the forest slants around me. The children retreat toward me, clinging together in their fear and confusion.
“Lead them into the trees,” I tell the green-eyed girl, “and keep them away from the dark threads.” The children clasp hands and hurry past the heart-leaf king. Under my palm I can feel the bark tremble. Above, I sense the spinnings writhing. A pale shining strand creeps into the sky.
Ag-ra cannot see them. The hunters are blind to the threads. I spit on the ground.
“You’ll need to follow them, if you mean to offer them to the spinnings. One of them has my gift. They’ll be safe.”
The sky creeps full of shining strands, lacing together, weaving a nest over and around us all. The hunters approach, Ag-ra in their midst.
I press my hand against the king. These are our best, our finest men, I tell the spinnings. The elder leads us, and he is my brother.
The knives are dark in their hands, and they are coming now, coming fast, closing the distance.
They are a worthy offering, I say. The children will not be your prey.
All around us the spinnings are beautiful and terrible, a web of glistening darkness. They convulse as one, like a great indrawn breath, and then plunge down to seize the hunters. Ag-ra stops as a strand lashes around his chest, and then starts to scream.
I force myself to watch.
We fell the trees.
I do no cutting myself; my one good arm is not as strong as it once was. Instead, I direct the axemen and talk to the spinnings.
The girl, Es-me, often accompanies me, her green eyes ever sharp and alert. The other children are all with their families again, but she returned, to learn how to speak through the trees, to talk with the spinnings. Each day, I teach her as best I can. She is talented, and will soon know more than me.
Still we ask, and still the spinnings tell us their demands. But I am not Ag-ra. If they ask for too much, I lead the axemen elsewhere. Not all the land needs to be remade. We will learn to live with what we have.
At night I sleep well, untroubled.
Rob Francis is an academic ecologist and writer based in London. He started writing short fantasy and horror in 2014, and since then has had over twenty stories published in various magazines and anthologies. Recent pieces have appeared in Metaphorosis Magazine, Broadswords and Blasters, You Are Here: Tales of Cartographic Wonders and Tales of Blood and Squalor by Dark Cloud Press. He lurks on Twitter @RAFurbaneco