Primaflora’s Journey

Issue #170

Primaflora ran fast, snow crunching under bare feet. She launched herself at the pond’s ice-covered surface at the last moment, laughing helplessly as she slid across it, her sister dryads’ faces whizzing past.

“My turn, my turn!” Rue yelled as Primaflora fought to regain her balance and her breath. Rue pushed off and slid across the ice, colliding with her in a flailing of limbs from which they emerged still standing, clutching each other for balance. The day was brilliantly cold and clear, and their hair was strewn with ice crystals, their skin gone pale with winter’s touch.

A branch snapped in the forest, too heavy to be anything they knew. Primaflora smelled smoke.

The first scream echoed in the distance, even as the humans rushed them with nets and fire and steel.

She ran this way and that, but there was always a human in front of her, shouting, blocking her, torches in their hands blazing with terrible flame, driving her into the net. She thrashed in its inexorable clutch.

While she was dragged away through the snowdrifts, she could hear the sound of axes behind her, harvesting the grove. The dying cries of the trees rang through her as though she were a wooden bell being shaken by a hurricane, clapper battering against her ribs.

At the river, a great steamboat at anchor off shore, a smaller rowboat drawn up moored on the bank. A man stooped and examined her. He was barrel-shaped and smelled foul, like smoke and sweat. She tried to bite him as he rolled her head back to look it over, but he dodged her teeth with practiced ease before releasing her and rising.

“Loose the other one, she’s too young,” he said to the sailor beside him.

“Duke’s bounty, sir. Hate to lose out on all that coin.”

The man shook his head. “We leave some to breed. That way when we come again there’ll be more ready to harvest.”

She was chained with a cluster of other dryads to the railing near the back of the boat. They watched as the logs from her grove were brought aboard, stacked towards the front and oozing thick red sap like her uncontrollable tears. She saw the tree that had borne her, and sorrow doubled her over, gasping for breath.

“What is this place?” she said when she could talk again, but the dryads on either side paid her no mind. They were all weeping, lost in their misery.

She tried to call to a sailor as the woman passed, but the human paid her no more mind than if a bird had twittered. The others couldn’t even manage that. They clung together, weeping, hair mingled, as the boat’s horn gave out a long satisfied blast, as though announcing its victory over the grove.

The deck trembled beneath her feet as the boat got underway. The great steam engine roared, moving the paddle wheel that sped their progress down the river. The chains on her wrists clinked together in a sullen metallic chorus as the boat headed out into the main current.

In the grove, she had thought simple thoughts, of sunlight and the lives of rabbits and nightsingers. Things did not change from day to day except in gradual ways. Here they changed and changed and changed, a progression that was changing her in turn.

She was thinking complicated thoughts now, about things she was not sure that dryads ever contemplated: what it would be like to take an axe to a sailor, to cut a human down as they had cut her tree down. Sometimes they were so close. But there were so many of them, and she was chained.

They treated her with an impersonal air, as though she were only a block of wood. Waterstrand, one of the dryads taken before her, said that at first the sailors had joked about enjoying her until the captain put a stop to it, saying that she was valuable only in her present condition.

What was that, Primaflora wondered. All of them were dryads near Rooting age.

What did it mean, that they’d been harvested? None of the dryads knew, and no sailor would answer the question.

She didn’t like the sound of it.

Not at all.

Primaflora said, “Boy.”

The youngest sailor had been passing, pretending not to look at the dryads chained to the railing. When she spoke, his head bobbed up, awkward as a new fawn’s first leap. She used the trade tongue, the same one the sailors spoke. Her facility in it had increased with every passing day of listening to the sailors’ chatter.

He did not reply, just looked at her. Another sailor tugged at his arm.

“C’mon,” he said. “Captain doesn’t like us talking to them.”

But the boy kept staring at her. She wondered what sort of sight she made. No doubt the same as the other dryads: greenish skin darkened to a cedary brown by exposure to the sun, tangled hair growing, growing in her distress, in their distress, till it cloaked their forms.

Another tug at his sleeve. “We’ve work to do. You’ll get enough of trimming them down fore the trip’s over. Archis said they’d overgrow the ship if they had enough time and we let them.”

The pair moved along past them. Primaflora stared after their backs.

She thought, I’d overgrow it if I could. She imagined the ship overtaken by her hair, of it crawling over them in their sleep, choking them, filling the ship’s chambers and holds, overflowing the decks till it covered the ship to form an island, a floating mass that would root in the water, take hold, resist the drift, and finally make a new grove, tiny but perfect, the trees holding it safe and daughters playing on the deck where they were now chained.

Till more humans came.

Thoughts of the inevitable future wracked her. There would be no peace, only more and more groves cut down, till none remained, till the dryads were only a memory shared by the oldest trees.

The rub of metal around her wrists was what bothered Primaflora the most. Not the standing with the others, chained on the back deck, exposed to wind and cold. Or the catcalls of the sailors, appraising each dryad in terms of beauty and body. Or the pull of her home grove, dwindling with each mile of river the boat achieved. She wouldn’t die of that, at least until she Rooted and became vulnerable. The lack of food didn’t bother her either, as long as there was plenty of sunshine and water.

They all managed to send their hair along the boat’s side, down to the water line to drink there. But when the captain was cranky, he would shout that they might tangle the paddlewheel and would order a sailor to clear it.

The one who was dispatched was often the youngest, who would come with machete and apologies to hack away their hair. It didn’t hurt, any more than cutting his own hair would have hurt, but they pretended that it did, in order to use their reproachful cries to make him wince.

They had little enough to amuse them. The dryads knew they were as good as dead. Dryads and naiads captured and taken to Tabat never returned. If they wanted to escape, they all agreed in their whispered conversation, relying on the great engine’s noise to mask what they were saying, it would be best to get away before the boat reached the city.

She suspected that the Captain, if not all the crew, knew exactly what they were plotting. They were not the first dryads The Swan had carried. The railing was matted with fine, greenish root-hairs, layers upon layers of them in the spots where the crew were too lazy to scrub. All along the side of the boat, on the inside of the railing, pictograms scratched by former prisoners lay beneath the fuzz of rootlets.

Some were easy to decipher: Six Flowers, Sun and Rain, Riverfern. Others were harder, lacking an established alphabet. A clamshell might mean a clam but more likely some other concept, or food, or the sea, and when it was coupled with what could have been a candle or eel or sprout, who was to know the precise name of the former prisoner, her fate as unknown as Primaflora’s, who had scratched that in letters no more than a fingernail high in the space beside the hasp to which Primaflora was secured?

How odd, that the dryads who scratched them could be long gone but their symbols remain behind. That wasn’t the way of the forest. There, fallen trees changed. They sheltered little animals and insects, and all the while mushrooms and roots ate away at them till they were only loam, sinking into the earth, becoming part of the whole.

That was what disturbed her about the symbols. They didn’t decay; they stayed behind in the wood, and were they part of the dryad still or something else, utterly divorced and alone, no longer part of the whole? She couldn’t decide. It perplexed her. She spent hours staring at them.

It was as good a way to pass the time as weeping.

The boat bumped against the dock. Primaflora could feel it through the sensitive soles of her bare feet. They had arrived in Tabat. They had found no clever plan or opportunity along the way. Here they were, until they were killed or else they withered and died.

Tears stung the back of her eyes, and her hands writhed together of their own accord. The boys had reaped a last harvest of hair, despite the dryads’ protests. It had been stuffed in burlap sacks, lashed to the logs stacked along the boat’s prow. She could feel the root-mass, still half-alive, still capable of growth.

The Captain supervised two deck hands as they transferred the dryads’ chains one by one to the topmost log, which had been drilled with holes to form a crude coffle. “You’ll carry that to the castle,” he said. One muttered a protest, and he shifted his weight, touching the whip at his belt. “Without malingering or backtalk,” he added. He indicated a wagon standing near the dock, drawn by a gryphon. “Stand by. When it’s your turn, go fall in line behind that.”

Minotaurs were unloading the bales of dried canes and furs, the barrels of saps and waters and fermented juices. The dryad beside Primaflora, Columbine, stretched her hands out towards them. Her nails had grown yellow and horny from too much water and cold.

“Help me, brothers!” she cried, her voice pitched plaintive and heartbroken.

The minotaurs did not look at her. They simply kept about their business: great rolls of birch bark, as thick around as Primaflora’s waist, smelling of rain and earth. The minotaurs lifted them without effort. They were columns of muscle, vast brown eyes as placid as the river, unmoved by the dryads’ plight. Primaflora wondered how often they had seen this scene before. Columbine began to weep, and another dryad, Falling Water’s Song, rubbed Columbine’s shoulder.

It felt colder now than it had at any point of the journey. Fireworks cracked and spoke overhead. What sort of place was this, to challenge the gods for the very sky? What sort of creatures were these, to take whatever lay at hand, assuming that everything was their right?

She’d had the same thoughts on the boat. And others. She had dreamed of jumping into the river’s cold water, to drift down to the bottom among the ice and stones. But she hadn’t. An ember of hope still burned in her heart.

The Captain went ashore and spoke to the wagon driver, and then the pilot went as well, taking with him the youngest sailor. The boy looked as trapped as Primaflora, standing beside the gryphon, stroking the hatchet-sharp beak capable of taking his hand at the wrist in one snap. As the dryads approached, shouldering their log, the driver gestured them to stand near the rear of the left wagon wheel.

Primaflora looked at the boy.

His face was resigned and wary. He had no more to expect of this city than she did. Like her, his fate had already been decided.

She caught his eye, jerked her chin to indicate the opening of an alley’s mouth; dark shadows leading away.

Surprise lifted his eyebrows.

Did he understand enough? She hoped so.

As the driver brushed past her to speak a last word to the Captain, she fell back against the log, clutching at her chains with her hands while kicking her legs up, catching him around the neck with her calves, supple feet twisting to tighten her grasp, choking him. If he died, it didn’t much matter. In fact, it would make the boy’s escape even easier.

But too soon there were shouts and dockworkers prying at her to release her captive, who staggered away, braying in his frantic gasps for air. Fireworks coughed again, painted their faces vermilion and scarlet. She screamed and flailed, but a part of her was running free, with the boy.

They merely pushed her back into the group of dryads and didn’t bother punishing her, which frightened her most of all. She had become a thing to them, and you didn’t punish things. You either fixed them or discarded them.

The boy was gone.

She hoped he would do well in the city. In another life, as another person—preferably a human one—she would have liked it too.

The logs were loaded aboard the wagon and the end of their coffle attached to the wagon’s back wall. More fireworks punctuated the process. She would have liked to have asked what was being celebrated, but by trying to strangle the driver she had, she thought, gone outside the bounds of civilization, making conversation ironic, if not utterly impossible.

The driver climbed into the wagon and spoke to the gryphon. It huffed and threw its head up but moved forward.

The slick cobblestones numbed and bruised the toes, but it was good to stretch her legs after so many long confined days on the boat. Muscles uncramped and smoothed themselves, cheering her despite her cold and fear and grief.

The lights along the main street, heading up the hill towards the dazzle that she presumed was the castle, shed a blue and unnatural glow over the pines lining the way. Human magic, a sort she’d never seen. Not that she’d ever seen much magic, or expected to be someone who saw much of it. She’d planned on a quiet life in her grove, a likely tree, her own rooting, then decades of contemplative, vegetative existence.

How strange to have that snatched away. It had always seemed the definition of who she was, what she was.

Now she was indeed more complicated. She would become something else, according to the wishes of the Duke. You would have thought she’d have had some warning, some prescient sense of doom clouding her youth, an unlucky omen or two when she first uncoiled herself from the heart of the bushel-sized nuts where she’d slumbered as a baby for thirteen long months.

But nothing had warned her.

Little carts went by their slower-moving procession. Some carts were propelled by pedals or engines; a few were pulled by beasts. Mechanical creatures as well, homunculi as their upper bodies and spider-legged or many-wheeled in the carriage underneath. They traveled with one long arm extended to grasp the wire that ran over the middle of the street, and sparks flew out from the place where their fingers pinched together on the wire, bright as the fireworks that continued overhead. Other hands held knives and cudgels, and everyone shied away from them as they passed.

She could hear the driver speaking to the gryphon, but the wagon-length between them prevented her from hearing what either of them said.

Falling Water Song said, “We will all die in this place.”

“Of course we will,” Primaflora snapped. “What matters is what we do between now and then.”

“Why?” Ria asked. “It’s hopeless.”

Sometimes people or plants gave up and died. Primaflora had seen that sort of slow withering. She didn’t intend to succumb to it.

“Because we can get a little revenge before we die,” she said. “Is that not a thought to hold onto?”

Several muttered affirmations; most sounded uncertain.

Still, she would hold onto it herself and see how far it got her.

Everything was strange here; everything burned the eye with newness. And it was noisy, so many incomprehensible sounds. They passed under a cacophonous tangle of wires. With a roar and series of gritty clanks, an iron basket full of people shuttled overhead towards one of the city’s many terraces. Immense streets ran east and west the length of the shelves, like lines of embroidery, but stitching them together were the wires, linking platforms at the edges between one terrace and the one above or below it.

Now they were on one of those roads, with worn limestone blocks underfoot. On her right an iron fence stretched twenty feet tall, covered with barbed roses and thorny vines and, she could sense, a magic that bristled at her, equally forbidding, keep-off and don’t-touch spells on every iron leaf’s curl.

They had passed statues and fountains at every street crossing. Were the humans that vain, that they must erect so many monuments to themselves?

They came up over a swell in the road and she saw it. The road curved and climbed with ladderish steepness here, but at the foot of the upjutting incline was a plaza, ten times wider than the widest forest grove, floored with green marble. And hanging in its middle a column of foamy white water, hundreds of feet high, spilling down from the Duke’s castle far, far above, to end in a plunge through the circle of metal overhanging the plaza’s bounds, the water inexplicably vanishing there.

The air thrummed with the water’s crash and mutter, and magic edged it, as though the water was trying to speak.

Those hazy voices filled her with dread. She fell in step with her companions. They climbed a slope, then another, the gryphon grunting with the effort of each sharp turn. They came to a landing, and the driver chained their log to the fence there.]

She could still hear the waterfall’s querulous clamor.

“Where are we going, do you think?” Columbine said.

“The Duke’s castle, where else?” Primaflora said.

Columbine’s jaw firmed, even though she was stooped like Primaflora, beneath the weight of the log. Sap oozed from gouges in the tender bark near Primaflora’s hands, enticing and repulsive, like sugar mingled with blood. She bent to lap at the wood near her wrists.

“What are you doing?” Ria exclaimed.

Primaflora licked the sap from her lips, feeling its strength infuse her. “We don’t have many chances or much time. They’ve kept us starved in order to keep us weak; docile. Will squeamishness keep you from accepting the last gift this tree has to give us?”

They all could feel the form trapped beneath the bark. No ordinary tree, but a rooted dryad, who’d taken this immobile form for good and thus been unable to resist when the boat’s crew came with axes and chains. The sap oozing from the holes cut in the log was that dryad’s coagulating blood.

Falling Water Song, Columbine, and Ria followed her example, but none of the rest. That was fine. It trimmed down the number she felt responsible for. If they couldn’t take her suggestions in order to strengthen their chances, then she owed them no effort in return.

Footsteps along the stairway. She straightened. They all did.

The driver. He unlocked the chain secured to the bole’s larger end from the fence and led them on foot.

More stairs. She was glad that this driver seemed in less than prime shape. He climbed slowly, breathing hard, as she did. The time aboard the Swan, chained and unable to move, had not served her well.

A final landing, then archways and a courtyard. Were they there at last?

The gates over the entrance to the Duke’s Menagerie bore words in curling letters, carved of stone so cleverly that they looked like vines that had simply grown in such a pattern.

“They say ‘The wildest heart may be tamed by love’,” Petya informed her.

When they had first arrived three days ago, Petya had attached herself to Primaflora as though they had grown in the same grove. Primaflora wasn’t sure what drew Petya to her, but she didn’t want to pursue these thoughts. Petya had been there in the Duke’s Menagerie three years and was an experiment on the Duke’s part to discover what happened when a dryad’s rooting was thwarted. A Keeper watched Petya wherever she went, and whenever she looked as though she had been in a place longer than a single turn of the gold and glass hourglass the Keeper bore, she was rousted with gentle but ruthless efficiency.

Petya’s hair looked like broomstraws, and strands of it drifted away whenever she moved too quickly. The sparrows looking for nesting material followed her, taking her bounty to weave into their nests, creating soft brown cups dotted with dry flowerets. Her eyes glittered with a feverish cast, and often what she said made no sense.

But she had been here three years. She was Primaflora’s best chance to find out what was going on and how she might flee back to her homeland.

Such an escape was a thin straw at best, she learned. Petya was full of horrific stories of those who had essayed such an attempt and been taken in it. Usually the Duke gave the truant over to the College of Mages.

“They take them to pieces, you know, there,” Petya confided. “They want to look inside us, but the only way they can do that is to cut us open.” She passed a hand down her chest as though envisioning the knife stroke that would do so.

Primaflora shuddered.

“You don’t need to worry,” Petya said. “They want you to root.”

This was evident. They had supplied her with plenty of space to do so, and if she chose to sit and rest a while, no Keeper watched, ready to roust her if she showed any signs of the slumber that presaged rooting.

“Why?” she asked Petya.

Petya giggled, an unexpected and chilling sound. “The Duke has his own forests,” she said. “Will you grow there?”

“I do not seem to have much choice,” Primaflora admitted.

Petya’s stare was sky-wide, edged with delirium. “No,” she said, “no choice at all.”

The sky overhead was blue as Petya’s eyes, but bars of iron lay across it, a grating intended to keep those of the Duke’s creatures that might manage to fly from escaping. There were few of those; most had been treated in the same wise as the dragon that curled in the front hall, the stumps of its wings scabbed over with the hot tar that had been used to dress the amputations. It made Primaflora shudder every time she saw it, and she felt pity for the dragon, although she shouldn’t have. Dragons and dryads held a natural antipathy against each other; a dragon loves nothing more than a good blaze, and a dryad fears such a thing to the same degree.

The menagerie, despite the best efforts of the Keepers, stank. It smelled of the heavy musk from the ancient lion kept in the tiniest of pens, and stale seawater from the tanks of dolphin poets, who were kept there despite their (and the Keepers’) pleas that they be housed in the netted tanks down by the shipyards. The Duke liked his dolphin singers nearby, ready to sing to him in the evenings, and accordingly there were always at least three of them kept in the menagerie, or so Primaflora’s other new friend, Rebekah, told her.

Rebekah was an Oracular pig, and she had the same sadness about her that so many prophetic animals had. When the dryads had first been shunted into the general courtyard, Rebekah had shown them where the food and water and necessaries were. She’d asked about Primaflora’s impressions of the city and said she’d been there at the menagerie twenty years now. They’d tried to breed her, many times, she’d confided, but it had never taken.

She was chatty, like Petya, and ready to fill up whatever silences Petya left empty. She knew all the long-running feuds and alliances and experiments between, and on, the inmates. She showed Primaflora a small copse of dryad trees where Petya was not allowed to go.

The sight of them made Primaflora feel faint with desire. She’d just been beginning to think about rooting when she’d been taken. The rigors of the journey, the dangers it pressed upon her body, had all brought it closer, made her yearn after it, thirst for its restful oblivion to drown in.

She wrenched her gaze from it and said to Rebekah, “Petya is the only other unrooted dryad here?”

When Rebekah dipped her snout in a nod, a pang struck Primaflora. No one to talk to, to advise her, no one who would understand its pull. The dryads who had arrived with her were worthless; they wailed and whined and lamented. Primaflora had never thought herself particularly impatient, but these dryads drove her mad.

Rebekah watched her with sad, long-lashed eyes. Primaflora would not ask. You never asked an Oracular animal what they saw in store for you. But she would have liked to know. She tried to put that in her gaze, but Rebekah ignored any sign of it.

“Most of us are allowed to wander loose within these walls,” Rebekah told her. “If you cause trouble, you’ll lose that privilege.” They looked at the other dryads, who had found the fishpond in the center of the courtyard and were clustered around the shallow basin, drinking as though they had been transported here over the desert rather than a river.

“Primaflora,” Rebekah said, “we’ll be good friends once you let yourself trust me.”

Primaflora stared at her, trying to make sense of the words. What did Rebekah see in store for her?

Life in the menagerie was dull. The denizens entertained the Duke when he wanted, with conversation or singing or even just standing in place, stock still, for appraisal. Sometimes he brought a few favored courtiers with him, but none cared about the plants and dryads of the collection. They might call for the riddling deer and a few ladies for the old satyr that had belonged to the Duke’s great-aunt, but mostly they wanted the dolphin bards or cages of singing birds.

The new dryads were catalogued, each asked name and whatever particulars of their home groves they could describe.

Primaflora lied. It made her laugh to think she was written in their books as the daughter of Cornfragrance, daughter of Neverthistle, or that they thought she’d last flowered in the fall and not put out blossoms in her hair, as all of them had, on the trip. Such a petty revenge, but it was all she had right now.

The Duke looked them all over. He said to the Keeper, “Is there enough room for this many new dryads?”

The man had said, sotto voce, “We will clean out some of the dead wood when the occasion arises, my lord.” Horrified, Primaflora and the others had vowed to stave off rooting as long as they could.

But they couldn’t keep from it forever. The menagerie constantly changed. That was why they were here, fresh flowers to be rotated into the landscape, updating it so it would continue to amuse and delight.

She wasn’t even sure how long they had been here. It was still winter, still cold outside, and the winds that penetrated this sheltered wing of the castle held an edge of ice.

“I wish that spring would come,” she said to Rebekah.

Rebekah said, “In a few days, the Gladiatorial games will decide whether spring comes now or in six weeks.”

There was no end to the oddness of human customs. “They play a game to determine the weather?”

“They fight,” Rebekah said. “A fighting game. I’ve never seen it, but I’ve heard of it. Sometimes beasts fight in the games too. The Duke is always there.”

She stared at Primaflora.

“It’s how you get away,” she said, but then would say nothing more.

Petya was worse that day than she had been since Primaflora and the others had arrived. A Keeper had set their youngest child, who was being trained in the trade, on her, and the child had a little willow switch with nettles wrapped around the tip.

Petya kept trying to rest. The child, out of misplaced kindness or else diabolical instinct, would let her sit just long enough to relax before the prod would land, usually on exposed flesh. The dryads wore only the shifts the Keepers pressed upon them, and even then sought any excuse to discard them.

Petya burned with need, Primaflora could tell. It was cold and crisp weather, which should have held it off, but there was also a sense of magical flux, the swirl of untouchable, unknowable energies hanging in the air. She watched the child as it chivied Petya away from the patch of sand near the fishpond. Petya rose, took a few steps this way, then another; indecisive. The child stood waiting, face unreadable.

Petya saw Primaflora and Rebekah. She started walking towards them.

“Remember how much you like being in the open air,” Rebekah said. Her tone was resigned. She nosed the icy cobblestones underfoot.

“What?” Primaflora said.

“When it comes back to this—don’t worry. You managed it. Just remember the third day.”

Petya was there. Her eyes were glazed, the pupils pinpoints in the bright sunlight.

“Did you hear the thunder last night?” she asked.

“Those were fireworks,” Primaflora said. “Didn’t you see them?”

Petya shook her head, let the unkempt mass of her hair fall forward. Withered flowers studded the ragged strands, buds gone to dust without ever unfurling. She said, “I thought it was thunder and that soon it would rain.”

Primaflora could think of no reply.

Petya swayed on her feet. The child watched her with incurious eyes, placid as the cloud passing in front of the sun, bellied like a fat chicken, features lost in downy white fluff.

Rebekah said, “Stay by the bars on the third day. You’ll need some sort of stick to reach out and snag them, and something to muffle the fall, keep them from jingling.”

Petya was speaking even as Primaflora started to say “What?” again. No, she was singing, a lullaby, a sleep song of the sort you sang to a tree at night. It was a very private song, not what Primaflora should be listening to, and it made her blush. Petya swayed back and forth, the song barely audible, its notes just a whisper unwinding from her mouth into the air, even as her long brown toes flexed over the ground, bent and unbent twice before uncurling further, starting to dig in...

Petya shrieked. The child hit her twice again, on the face this time. The clump of leaves left reddened welts on the birch-white skin.

Rebekah said, “The third day. Say it with me. Will you remember?”

But Primaflora had no time for whatever Rebekah was hinting at. Petya’s torment needed to stop, if only for a little while. She grabbed the stick, snapped it over her knee. The child gaped.

“Rest, dear friend,” Primaflora said to Petya. Petya’s toes flexed in the dirt and she stooped so her fingers could follow. A spot of color in the broom-straw pallor of her hair: a single flower still capable of blooming. The air smelled like mint and carnations and day-old rushes.

Primaflora held her hands in her own, thin and reedy as rolled paper. “I will buy you what time I can. Sleep. Sleep.”

The child shrieked something. A shout answered in the distance.

At this distance, she could feel waves of heat and cold washing through Petya, deep shudders of earth magic helping her send roots down. Already her skin was thickening. Her eyes were closed and the air was full of the smell of her blossoming.

Primaflora could not see how much further Petya got in her rooting before being pulled away, although she scratched and bit and kicked and fought as best she could.

The cell they locked her in was made of stone, and the floors and walls had been scrubbed with salt water, so its touch stung her skin. She sat on the cot and stared at the wall.

She set her hair to growing, thinking she would use it to pad the cot. But the first night, two guards appeared and cut away what she had grown, leaving her with only a finger’s worth of stubble.

After that it became an act of defiance, growing out her hair. Every morning she lay amid the mass of it she had strained to produce over the course of the night, feeling herself drawn thinner, tighter, counting the sweet hay smell surrounding her a victory.

She was not sure that it wasn’t a victory for the Duke as well. She thought that her hair was being sold to the College of Mages, as were the other things Rebekah had told her of: mermaid scales and the long quills from gryphon and hippogriff wings, stony basilisk eggs and certain droppings. And the dryad logs from the trees that would be chopped down when the new dryads rooted there.

A cheeseparing lord, Rebekah had called him.

Had Primaflora bought enough time? Had Petya succeeded in rooting?

She cast her mind back over the day. She froze on a single moment.

“You managed it,” Rebekah had said.

Surely Rebekah had been anticipating this moment of worry.

Primaflora had to find the stick Rebekah had spoken of. At first she despaired of it, but in poking at the cot on the second day, she realized she could detach a leg from its frame. The absence was painfully obvious, but what could be done about that?

She rehearsed it a thousand times in her head that third night.

On the third morning she gathered the mass of hair, rolled it over and over in her hands till it was a thick ball. She set it near the foot of the bars and knelt beside it, stick tucked to lie along her arm. There, she waited.

It wouldn’t work unless something else happened to draw the guard’s attention. What? What had Rebekah seen?

She had to trust Rebekah. It was all she had.

The pair of guards walked past without a second look. An explosion outside shook the corridor, and she reached out with the stick before she even thought about it, rolling the clump of hair out at the same moment using her long toes.

Only her ears heard the muted jingle of the keys falling from the guard’s belt. The guards shouted something and ran ahead.

She shifted her grip on the cot leg and snagged the keys on the second try, pulling them in. She replaced the leg and put the keys underneath her pillow, lying down as she heard returning footsteps.

“It could have been back in the other cells, to be sure, but where were we along here when we heard that noise?” one guard grumbled to the other.

They stared at her and the other prisoners as they passed along the hallway. It would have been easy enough for one of the other prisoners to say something about what she’d taken from the corridor floor. Relief weakened her knees as the guards passed farther and no one said anything.

“They’re not anywhere along here,” the other guard said. “No one had time enough to grab ‘em. You’re safe enough.”

“You and me both’ll be out on our asses if we let any of these beasts escape.”

The other guard stared through the bars at her. She met his eyes, defiant as she had been in every other encounter, but kept her expression blank as snow. This time she had something to lose, and she dared not signal that, dared not hint at the joy it had loosed in her, lest it be taken away as quickly and arbitrarily as fate had bestowed it on her.

What was Rebekah doing right now? Surely she must have sensed this too, must be waiting to leave with Primaflora. They would escape, and with Rebekah’s knowledge of Tabat, its customs and complications, they’d be able to stay one step ahead of any hunters, anyone who might come seeking escapees from the Duke’s Menagerie.

Another bang and crash from somewhere down the hall.

The guard snarled, “What are you looking at?” and slammed his forearm against the bars at face level. He laughed when she flinched back.

When they were gone, she fumbled the keys loose. It was hard to open her door from the inside, easier to open all the rest from the outside. The other prisoners were both beast and human. Very democratic of the Duke’s jailers, she thought, or perhaps it was another means of cutting costs?

Rebekah met her beside the side door. Primaflora rested her palm on Rebekah’s broad back, feeling its solidity. But there was no time.

“They’ll catch you if you go down there,” Rebekah said, snout motioning at the head of the stairs. “You’ve got to hide, and escape after all the hullabaloo is over.” She trotted briskly to the other dryad trees. “This one is hollow.”

“How long...” Primaflora said. Surely she would have sensed this tree’s demise before? The smell of rotting wood reached her nose.

“She did it so you could escape.” Ria stood there. “She willed herself to death and then we removed what was left of her.”

Kneeling to look through the indicated crevice, Primaflora could tell it was true. A hollowed space that might have once been shaped around a dryad’s form had been hollowed out further, enough to admit another dryad.

“Why me? There’s five of us that could do it.”

Ria’s grin was rueful. “We figured you were the only one bitchy enough to keep from rooting, just out of spite. The rest of us, we’re weaker than you. We all know it.”

“When they root, the Keepers will cut down five trees, including this one,” Rebekah said. “They’ll cut as low down on the trunk as they can. They won’t see you unless you call out or move. You usually don’t.”

Primaflora nodded, listening, She stretched her arms and legs. She would be in the tree a day or two at most. She could bear that.

“They take the trees to a central place,” Rebekah said. “It’s not the Palace. I can’t say much beyond that. You’ll see what you’re meant to see, there.”

She hoped it would be a boat that would take her away from here, as easily as she had been brought, Primaflora thought, but the pig’s face could not be read.

The wood’s grip was tight around her. She was too big, too clumsy, for this foolishness. She could hear voices outside raised in anger, footsteps running back and forth, loud conversation, shouts and blame.

Someone leaned on her trunk, testing it, and the weight around her shifted so abruptly she almost cried out.

Then thud and thud and thud again, the tree shuddering under the blows. She thought that her feet might be chopped off. She tried to draw them up as best she could, but there was very little room to do so. She jammed her forearm into her mouth, resolving that no torment could draw a noise from her, no matter what. The world lurched sideways and she screamed into her own flesh, but the crash of the tree drowned out her small, startled sound.

She felt the movement when they lifted the log from the ground, when they tossed it ungently on the wagon bed with the others.

“Aught else to be taken?” one asked.

“Just the wood, that to be cured, that it might be used in the furnace,” the other answered.

The log jostled underneath her, and she wished she’d drunk less or peed more when she’d last slipped outside it. The journey seemed endless, and she was on an incline most of the time, her feet higher than her head, which made her forehead feel swollen and full of blood. Her pulse echoed in her ears, drowning out any sound.

Then level space again. She braced herself and this time was more prepared for the jolt and crash of unloading. The log settled into blessed, horizontal stillness.

“This lot should cure at least a month before it burns,” a voice said.

“Aye, I’ll tag it with that. Good job to have more, there’s been less and less coming in from the North. Too much harvesting. Too bad we can’t domesticate em, grow em outside of town, in those fruit orchards. That’d be a pretty sight, eh, dryads in among all the blossoms?”

“They’d scratch your eyes out soon as look at you,” another voice grumbled. “Don’t let Berta hear ya, she gets all snarly when we speak so, even if they be only beasts.”

“It’s been a deal of work, conveying ‘em,” the first voice said. “If we hurry, we can make it to the Games afore the Duke says his last wherefore.”

They grumbled and muttered off. Primaflora counted five hundred breaths, then another hundred, before she dared to creep from the log.

The air was unexpectedly hot on her skin. She stood in the middle of a vast stone-walled chamber, which stretched up higher than any tree above her. The log she had arrived in was stacked against a wall. With horror, she counted the stacks. Close to a hundred, each holding at least five or six logs, sometimes dozens.

She moved along the stacks, probing, laying her hand flat on the bark, despite the way her flesh flinched away from contact with something so dead. She hoped to find a flicker of life somewhere in among them, but found nothing.

She wondered where Rebekah was.

At the very end of the chamber it was hottest. A belt held logs, ready to feed them into another machine. A basket as high as her hip sat underneath a spout on the opposite side, other baskets stacked nearby. The blocky stone of the roaring furnace was here, flames glimpsed behind thick, wavy glass. Tubes and pipes as thick as her waist led in every direction.

Tabat’s heart. The machine that made the city’s life possible, fed the waterfall and the wires and the lights and all the other human contrivances.

Her gaze fell on the logs. Fueled on her sisters’ bodies.

The thought sickened her, wracked her more than the cramps of staying so still ever had. Beside a stack of dead wood, she went to her knees and retched, bringing up a cup or so of liquid, the last of the precious moisture she had, something she could ill afford to lose like this.

She had thought she could destroy it, but this was all too vast, almost to the point of being beyond comprehension. She had to get away from here.

Then she would work to shut this evil place, this evil city, down.

Slipping out of the city in the chaos hunched her shoulders with fear, sent tremors down legs unused to walking such a distance. She hid herself in the crowds, wrapping herself in a scrap of blanket taken from the furnace chamber.

She tried to stride as though she belonged there, as though there were no question, no pursuit. It was not hard for the beasts that lived there, it seemed. They walked with a stopped and deferential gait, careful to stay out of the way of any human’s path. She tried to imitate that walk, but she could feel her heart hammering in her throat. Just another beast in the crowd, she told herself.

She didn’t know exactly which way to go, but she kept pushing upward, climbing along the stairways that joined the terraces. On the highest one, she went north along the road, seeking the bridge that looped over the river, visible from a distance from the lights hanging from its two arch points. She made her way along it in the pre-morning darkness, hiding in a parapet’s shadow. Across the bridge, she slipped past a high watchtower and found herself on the road outside the city just as pink light began to crawl along the eastern horizon.

After walking so long, so fast, her feet were gnarled and almost withered, dry and painful, cracked, as she kept walking along the road, away from the city, through fields at first, and then canyons, dry and overgrown with gnarled bush that clung to the sides of the shadowed stone walls.

When the sun had tracked hours overhead and she came to the riverbank, she didn’t believe it at first. The dry landscape had hidden it from her, buried it in a twist of rock. Only the smudge of the tree line had betrayed the fact that water lurked there, and she had followed that intimation so long that she had begun to believe it mirage or illusion.

But no. Her bare toes – her gilded sandals had been useless and she’d discarded them once she found the road, along with the remnants of her gown’s hem – protruded over the rock as though determined to see for themselves the water she had set them to seek. Faint spray came from the water to bead on her brown skin, then vanished as she absorbed it. She had lived so long in dryness, parceling out moisture, that her whole body yearned for the churning depths. For a moment, she entertained the thought of just throwing herself in. But her arid body would destroy itself trying to take that much water in. So she sought the edge and began to climb down.

Her progress would have been faster if she had not paused at each crevice-dwelling plant, hoping for some trace of her race. But this far away from the north all leaves were silent, no more intelligent than the ants toiling among their roots.

Rocks clattered overhead.

She looked up to see a silhouette against the sun. Someone stood there.

Primaflora flattened herself against the rock, hoping the overhang would hide her, but the sound of the other woman’s voice told her she had been spotted.

“This is a dangerous place, pretty dryad. Come back to the city. Our Duke will cherish you and set you to bloom in his gardens.”

Primaflora ignored her and continued downward. She would not root herself for them. Anger had allowed her to deny the urge so far, anger like the fire burning in the hearts of the machines that ran the city of Tabat, the machines fueled by the wood of dryads.

“This is a foolish venture,” the stranger called from above. “You will fall and shatter, or be swept away by the waters.”

What did the regret in her voice signal? The stranger didn’t care for her, Primaflora thought, so much as the loss of the Duke’s property.

Once, they said, these plains had been covered with trees. Then, with the coming of Tabat in the south, so many had been chopped down. Chopped down to make houses and furniture and carts such as the ones that bore the stripped boles away.

“Shadows of the deepest caves,” she prayed as her fingers searched for hold. “Keep me safe. Keep me away from the humans.”

Her prayers went unheeded. She slipped. The remnants of the shift they had forced on her fluttered as she fell, like birds accompanying her flight. She fell, and the coldness of the water was a shock as it closed over her head.

Foam boiled around Primaflora as she was dragged downstream, slamming into rocks and grounded logs. Dead wood, covered with cold slickness like touching a corpse. She closed her eyes, curling her arms and legs inward, trying to ball herself up, praying that her death would be quick.

This was not to be, however. She bounced off one last boulder and found herself deposited on a graveled shore edged with ice. The sun shone overhead, clear and cold.

How fast, how far, had she come? Despite her bruises, she felt a glimmer of hope. She paused to revel in the sense of moisture. It would slow her down – she practically sloshed as she walked – but that much water would sustain her for days.

She started up the slope. She was closer to the mountains than she had been, and there they would not be able to find her. Then she could get her bearing and perhaps root. Despite her protests she could feel that urge gathering, starting at the top of her spine like an eager root ball, spreading downwards.

It made her pause. Could she find a hidden place nearby, one where she could elude pursuit? Once she had put down roots, though, she would be defenseless. Since she’d prove useless to them then, they’d chop her down, in order to take her trunk back to Tabat.

Tears burned at the back of her throat as she saw the distance between herself and the mountains that remained. She could run almost as fast as a horse, but sooner or later they would chase her down.

A shout. From behind her? Had they spotted her again, so quickly? But it was not a rider atop a horse but rather a centaur, a fellow beast, galloping towards her. A traitor working for them? But as he approached, she saw his hands were empty. He wore no collar. There was something odd about his eyes.

Without a word, he snatched her up and slung her across his back, and then they were racing forward, towards the mountains and freedom.

Someone was shaking her.

She had been dreaming of drowning, not an entirely unpleasant experience. She had sunk down, down through the river’s waters to the depths’ calm solitude and laid down along the gravel to root. Her toes and fingers had dug down through the stones to the sodden earth below, spreading through it, tangling in it, helping her form the mass that would become her tree, bark enclosing her, making her its heart, its existence...

She was awake.

She lay beside a bonfire that snapped and crackled. Other beasts huddled around her. A cyclops’s unblinking eye regarded her, along with centaurs and apes and several minotaurs.

A dog-woman whined deep in her throat and shook Primaflora again. “Come. There is food, and we will find you a place to sleep tonight. Tomorrow you will meet everyone.”

But it seemed she was already doing that. Hands kept reaching for hers, welcoming her, telling her their names, clouds of words that she could not attach to any of the faces. They pressed a bowl and spoon on her hands, and once she had sat down a cup of water, good clear water that sluiced the bitterness from her throat.

They told her the stories of how they had come there. Autumn, a centaur, had led her mate and colt through the marshes. She had broken a foreleg in the attempt, which they had splinted along the way, but it left her still limping and confined to the camp, unlike the rest of her fellows. Her mate Swiftwind was the one who had grabbed Primaflora and brought her back. He preened beneath her thanks.

The dog-woman, Ava, had been a traveling priest’s servitor. When her master had perished to bad water, she’d made her way towards Tabat and encountered the camp instead.

They all had the look of those who lived roughly, and their supplies were few, possessions scavenged or fashioned from what they could find.

But she wasn’t in the Duke’s Menagerie any longer. Once again her fate had changed, and this time it had been she herself who controlled that change. Now things were even more complicated, but that was all right.

She had become quite complicated herself.

“We’ll take you to Phillip,” Ava said.

“Phillip?”

“Our leader. He and our ally in Tabat are working together to free the beasts there.”

The dog-woman led Primaflora through a row of tents, past a honey-mother giving suckle and a tangle of brawling satyr teens. The camp was not that far from Tabat, Primaflora thought. A few days travel that she’d made unconscious in Swiftwind’s arms. Such a large camp, such a number of beasts. She couldn’t imagine why no Tabatian outriders had found it yet. She asked Ava, but the dog-woman shrugged.

“The Gods watch over their own. They know no one else will protect us.”

This attitude seemed like flimsy armor at best if the humans found them, Primaflora thought. She remembered the thud of axes, the high-pitched screams of trees falling in her grove as she was dragged away, caught in rough rope netting that tore at her skin but not as harshly as the screams had ripped at her heart.

“Are you all right?”

Primaflora realized she’d stopped. The dog-woman stared at her and whimpered, an anxious, involuntary sound.

“I’m fine,” Primaflora said. “Lead on.”

Phillip was the oldest centaur she’d ever seen. He reclined, an awkward position she’d rarely seen a centaur assume. His gray beard flowed together with his hair and mane, palomino coloring giving him the look of a grizzled lion, like the one in the Duke’s menagerie. But older, older still, than that one.

Other beasts stood around, a small crowd. She recognized several of the faces as those that had questioned her about the Duke’s menagerie. Autumn knelt beside Phillip and wiped at his face with a cloth until he irritably shooed her away.

His eyes, rheumy but capable of focus, fastened on her. “The dryad,” he rasped. “Closer.”

His breath smelled of dust and rot, but she warmed to the kindliness of his smile. She saw why Ava had referred to him with a touch of reverence in her voice. He had charisma, the sort of presence that drew the eye, that made you feel he knew what he was doing, that he was the voice of experience.

He patted her hand before releasing it. “You are welcome to our camp. If you choose to join our struggle, you may stay and fight. Otherwise we will smuggle you up to Verranzo’s New City and a life there.” He studied her. “Or will that be too long? How old are you?”

“I feel the urge to root,” she confessed. “But I can forestall it another season or two. Still, sir, I would rather stay and fight than go north.”

He looked pleased.

Life in the menagerie had been dull. Life among the fugitives was just as dull, and difficult for Primaflora. The urge to root was a constant pain. She grabbed it to herself, used its rasp to hone her purpose to a fine edge. She would see the city brought down, chopped as savagely as the trees. She would see her sisters avenged. Instead of the slow green life she had known, a contemplative existence, she would choose one no dryad had undertaken before: a life of fire and vengeance. She would see the city destroyed somehow, see the ravenous maw that had eaten so many of her sisters closed for good.

The question was how.

She watched Phillip. He had escaped from one of the worst humans, the beast trainer Jolietta Kanto. They said he had once been quick and fluent. Now at the corners of his eyes, weeping scars showed how his mind had been tamed. He was still capable of resistance, though. He had been smuggled away from his mistress after she had lobotomized him. Gradually his mind had healed itself from what Jolietta had done. But he was still slow, and there seemed no real direction to life in the camp.

The next closest thing to a leader the escapees had was Aisha, a cyclops who had served as a household guard. She had turned on the family she guarded one night, camp gossip said, and slaughtered every one of them, and then the servants in their quarters as well before escaping. She was a brawny, bald woman with a single bulging eye that would seep tears when she was taken by one of her maudlin, heroic moods, preaching the freedom of all of Tabat’s enslaved, although she had no strategy for it, or so it seemed to Primaflora. She thought she would wait a little while; see if the fugitives developed a plan. If not, she would take things into her own hands.

Aisha had been a gladiator and then a house guard for the Many Cloaks. The goblin who told Primaflora this was reluctant to say more, but she managed to wheedle the story out of him eventually.

“She told me once, when she’d been drinking too much hooch,” he said, under similar circumstances himself. “Thieves broke in, but they turned out to be more than thieves—they were assassins in the service of some Trade War. Killed the whole family. Authorities claimed she’d done it, were going to put her down. She got smuggled out by an Abolitionist who believed in her innocence, went up North for a few years to Verranzo’s New City. But she came back, said she wanted to help others like her.” He belched. “Not so many like her, the way I see it.”

At first Aisha had repulsed Primaflora: the broad, flat face set with a single muddy-brown eye. She lacked hair on her head, or rather it grew in so patchy and odd that the cyclops’s sole concession to vanity was to keep her scalp shaved. In the heat of the sun that bathed the mountains’ flanks, the skin had gone a deep brown, almost the same color as Primaflora’s natural hue under the sun. She had an off way of speaking, almost combative, as though she perpetually felt her presence challenged.

Primaflora watched her where she sat mending the leather wrapping of the huge axe she carried. As though sensing her gaze, Aisha looked up. The great eye blinked at Primaflora, its expression unreadable as Aisha rose and approached her.

“New girl,” she said, pointing at Primaflora. “What will you do, new girl? Hide like most of them? Run? Or fight?”

“Fight?” Primaflora stammered. “You mean fight the humans? But how? They have soldiers and magicians.” How could any beast hope to withstand the humans? No, the only strategy was to escape their notice and work in secret to free the others.

She said as much, and Aisha scowled. “We can fight,” she grunted. “We use the mountains, hide, jump out to attack, hide again.”

“They come into the mountains?” Primaflora asked with a twinge of despair. She had thought herself safe here, at least a little safer than she had been when imprisoned in the Duke’s estate.

“No place far enough,” the cyclops said. “In the North they hunted me because they wanted to make an example of me. So we will make them come here to hunt, by making them think it worth it.”

“How?”

“How else? We will show them that we are here and a danger to them. We will raid the lowland farms until they come to hunt us thinking we will flee before them and then perhaps lead them to our lairs. But they think as though we were animals, and we are more than that. We are something as cunning as they are.”

Sunlight gleamed on her axe.

Wails alerted everyone in the camp to the new escapee. The centaur woman bore a bundle, refused to relinquish it. From where Primaflora stood, she saw a tiny, translucent hoof. She hurried forward, coaxed the woman into giving her the bundle.

The child was dead.

“What happened?” she asked. Tears engraved the centaur woman’s face. Dryads never knew their children. Though Primaflora felt a certain tenderness for the offspring she would produce in her eventual final flowering, she knew it was nothing like the tie between a centaur and its young.

“We were hiding,” the mother said. “They were going to take us back and I couldn’t bear it for him. They were so close, I thought we were doomed.”

Primaflora could see horror in the eyes around her. She took the blanket surrounding the body and pulled a flap up over the face. The legs dangled limply and felt fragile as a bird’s as she shifted the bundle, swaddled it, shut it away from everyone’s eyes.

The mother stared into space, eyes glazed and white and mad. “I put my hand over his mouth. His lips moved against my palm as I smothered him. He stared into my eyes all the while. He understood what I was doing and why. I believe that. I must believe that.” She buckled, went to her knees, something Primaflora had never seen a healthy centaur do, hung her head so her tangled hair fell in a dusty curtain, partitioning off her grief.

Footsteps shook the ground as Aisha lumbered up. She was an ungainly creature, and privately Primaflora thought again that all cyclops looked as though they had been shaped of clay and left half-finished.

“You are free,” Aisha told the woman. “And you prevented your child from falling into captivity, into a life of torment and servitude.”

The centaur woman did not seem to hear the words. She stared off into the distance. Tears striped her dusty cheeks.

Aisha stood there. Primaflora had observed before that Aisha led through strength, rather than diplomacy, as well as the natural inclination of beasts, who had been born into servitude for the most part, to obey anyone who seemed authoritative.

Something about Aisha rankled Primaflora, but she thought it might simply be that the cyclops’s manner reminded her of a human’s attitude, so sure and self-confident. She’d been that way once herself, she thought, before she’d experienced being ripped from her native forest. It had scarred something inside her.

The scar, though, was what allowed her to still resist the urge to root. She stinted herself on water, knowing it would only encourage the urge, and her supple skin thickened and coarsened, looking like the bark of a withered tree. She didn’t care. When the urge pressed her too close, she thought of burning trees, of logs being thrown into the great magical furnaces. The thought of the flames helped her resist.

There were no others of her people here, so she could not ask them what would happen if she went too long. Would she become, like Petra, half mad? It was something that had never been spoken of. Taboo.

The mother refused to rise that night, or when they broke camp.

“I will wait here,” she muttered to the ground when they tried to pull her up. “Sooner or later the beast catchers will come.”

The worst of it, Primaflora realized, was that she was right.

Three days later, Primaflora was one of the six the cyclops chose to accompany her on a raid. The others were Swiftwind, two of the goblins, a selkie named Idalya who had lost the ability to transform, and a fox woman from the Western lands. Primaflora had never met one of the latter before. There were so many varieties of beast in the world! Were they all lesser than humans? It made no sense to Primaflora that the humans said their gods had given them dominion over all. She had never thought much philosophically, but there was plenty of free time in the camp, and she could not help but use some of it for thinking.

She had not thought she would go on the raid, until Aisha asked. The cyclops had clearly expected a “no.” Something about that forced Primaflora in the opposite direction.

She thought, “How complicated is it to kill?”

The humans had found it easy enough.

She refused sword or musket but carried a long, leaf-bladed knife, so sharp it could have severed one of the long shadows. The leather vest she wore was reinforced with leather scales and weighed her down till she could scarcely bear it. She wanted to remove it, but when she started to undo the laces, Aisha had shook her head in refusal.

Farms lay along the river, dark earth smelling of preparation for planting. The heady scent rose to Primaflora’s nostrils, spread through her body, made her feet twitch. Spring was nearing, it was her season. Thoughts tugged at her: she could lay down her weapons and armor, she could spread her arms, plunge her long toes into the soft loam, and become the tree she was meant to be. Here surely she would be safe. Children would play beneath her, and there would be little animals: squirrels and birds and butterflies and bees.

A wave of dizziness swept through her, and she staggered where she walked.

“You all right?” the goblin behind her said.

She shook her head to clear it. “I’m fine.” She needed to focus on what was at hand, not worry about rooting. If she did it here, the humans would find her, would know that it was a dryad tree, and chop it down in order to claim the bounty.

They walked in single-file along the path towards the farmhouse. The first goblin bore things that Primaflora didn’t like to think about: the means for making flame. They would set a few buildings alight and slip away before the alarm was set.

But that was not how it happened.

The humans rushed outside into the fire-lit darkness, shouting. She saw Aisha’s axe fall and rise again, gleaming scarlet in the light.

Her stomach churned, but wasn’t this the justice she’d wanted? Let them fall, as the trees had fallen!

But she was sick at heart by the time they returned to camp. Three bloody scalps rode at Aisha’s hip.

“Battle trophies,” she said. She laughed at Primaflora’s expression. “Do you not understand what this is? We are at war.”

“I cannot do this,” Primaflora said.

“Then there is no place in this camp for you. You complained before of boredom, surely here is excitement enough.”

“I will root soon anyhow.”

Aisha studied her, the great eye bloodshot from torch smoke. Blood still smeared the broad cheeks. “Then I will find some other solution,” she finally said, and turned away.

Primaflora didn’t mind spending her morning fetching water from the river. The motion of walking kept her from thinking about rooting.

The two blocked her way along the path, just out of earshot of the camp: Aisha and an unprepossessing man. She presumed him beast, although he looked human enough to set her nerves ajangle.

“This is Murga,” Aisha said. Her tone held a layer of indecipherable meaning.

Primaflora nodded at him, but he did not speak, studying her.

“Murga runs our cover in Tabat,” Aisha supplied.

“The circus?” Primaflora asked, curiosity piqued. She’d been told of the beasts’ base within the very city itself, hiding in plain sight amid the welter of entertainment lured to Tabat by the promise of work at political gatherings and festivities. Was this what Aisha meant to do, send her there? It did not answer the question of rooting.

“The Circus of the Autumn Moon,” the man said. His voice was low, as though not to startle Primaflora.

This warmed her to him a trifle. “It is a pretty name,” she said.

“All circuses bear names from calendars or holidays. It gives them a reason to put on a grand anniversary show each year.”

Another odd human conceit. She wanted dearly to ask what sort of beast he was, but manners forbid. She noted his unpointed ears, the omnivore’s jaw, the unremarkable eyes.

As though sensing the purpose of her scrutiny, he smiled. “Aisha tells me you are afraid you will root soon, and become useless to the cause.”

Not for the first time, Primaflora cursed confiding in the cyclops. “It is something any dryad would worry about in my position,” she replied, letting chill creep into her tone.

Without asking permission, he reached forward and took her arm, running his thumb along the skin to test its texture. Primaflora pulled away.

As though he hadn’t noticed her reaction, he spoke. “You’re right to be worried. You’re very close. Summer will make it even worse.”

Humiliation burned in her. Fueling it was the truth. If she rooted, she would lose all ability to move, would only be able to wait, helpless, for the axes to come and fetch her to the lifeless piles near the great furnace. “I can withstand it for now.”

“What if I told you there was a way you might remain able to think and act in our cause?”

She glanced at Aisha. The cyclops woman nodded as though in confirmation. “He can work magic,” she said. “He can help you.’

“But to do so, you would need to travel back into Tabat with me,” Murga added. “All my devices and magical workings are there.”

Two centaurs passed on the same errand Primaflora had been on. One glanced at the buckets in Primaflora’s hands and sniffed, long tail flicking in irritation. Malingerers were not encouraged in the camp.

But Primaflora paid her little mind, looking at Murga.

“You could do this?” she said.

“Beyond any question. I’m taking a wagon of beasts back to the city tomorrow. You’ll be just another one, entering Tabat to serve in the circus.”

Doubt crept in like a trickle of water to threaten the coal urging her on. What was he, that he could speak of magic like this? Only a human mage would deal in devices.

“Not all humans wish to see beasts enslaved,” he said, confirming all her doubts. He was one of the axe-wielders, the chain-forgers, the furnace-builders!

The cyclops gripped her arm when she would have fled. “We trust him,” she said. “Phillip trusts him. He would not be here if Murga had not found him and healed him of what the humans had done to steal his mind.”

She wanted to believe that the humans could be like this. But she remembered the faces on the docks and streets of Tabat, watching the dryads pass as incuriously as though they had been furniture loaded on a cart. The jokes of the sailors. The Duke’s eyes, possessive of his things.

Her toes curled and uncurled painfully, dry and withered.

What choice did she have? Every day took her closer to helplessness.

She nodded. “Tell me how.”

While they were still in the drylands far away from the city, Murga let them travel unencumbered and unfettered. When relieved from pulling the wagon, the centaurs ran races alongside the road and the youngest of the three dog-folk chased them, whining because she could not keep up.

Winter still held the landscape in its grip. Primaflora could barely sense the life in the snow-covered trees they passed, so deep was their cold-induced slumber. She hardly felt it herself, the cold, but the two elderly fauns suffered from it, choosing to sit in the wagon wrapped in blankets while Primaflora rode on the top towards the back, watching the road behind them.

They moved southward at the pace set by the centaurs drawing the wagon—an iron-barred box with coin-sized holes drilled in the flooring, through which bits of ice and stones, kicked and bounced up by the wagon’s wheels, would come with stinging frequency. The cold sky was at least clear, stretching overhead in blue indifference to the world below.

The door at the back of the wagon was lashed open at first, but as they got closer and the first traffic appeared on the road, three boys taking a pair of goats to market, Primaflora slipped down and inside the wagon, closing the door as the boys approached. They circled the wagon, gawking till Primaflora felt as though her skin was no longer there, as though their stares had stripped it away.

“Here’s a nought apiece, so you can come see us,” Murga said, tossing each a wooden round. Still wide-eyed, the boys nodded and waved as the wagon trundled on at a speed faster than the goats could manage.

As the miles passed, the road grew busier: a traveling Priest and her servant, farmer wagons, a band of pilgrims. This kind of travel was very different from the steamboat, Primaflora thought, particularly since travelers tended to accrete, collecting to exchange greetings and news, then continuing along together at the same pace. Murga’s brightly painted wagon was a natural gathering point. The beasts sat silent as the humans stared in at them. Primaflora had found a seat near the wagon’s front in the shadows overhung by the driver’s box, and she tried to doze, hoping to while away the interminable hours in that fashion. But sleep eluded her, jostled away by the bump and sway of the wagon wheels rumbling over the icy, rutted road.

Finally, as the sun slanted so the trees’ long shadows clawed at the road, Murga made camp.

“We’ll be there by tomorrow evening if we rise early and make good time,” he told them, but did not join them at the fire.

Primaflora sat and combed out her long hair. Before she had left, Ava had pressed the comb on her, carved from a bit of tortoiseshell. “Remember me,” she had said.

Dryads had little need of belongings, but the gesture had touched her. “When some of us root, we take an object with us, to live at the tree’s heart,” she said. “I will cherish this so.”

The city smelled of shit and iron, as it had before. Every once in a while, doubt assailed her, made her wonder if she was doing the right thing. What could she hope to accomplish here? But Murga had said he could help her.

The Circus was no stranger than anywhere else here. A girl brought her water where she waited inside Murga’s tent for his return.

He came alone late at night, long after the crowds she’d heard outside no longer trampled there, after the calliope’s wheedle had given its last dying gasp, when all was quiet except for the patter of icy rain on the canvas.

“What will you do?” she asked him.

His eyes glittered. “You will no longer need to root. Instead you’ll be able to exact revenge on the humans.”

She bit back a repetition of the question. Clearly he wouldn’t answer.

He led her through the deserted circus. Here and there she saw other beasts, working. A man sweeping up paused to watch them pass, his face bland and incurious. A purple-dyed mouse sat on his shoulder and squeaked as they went by.

She hadn’t expected Murga to lead her into such a vast space. This huge tent must be where the performers entertained the crowds. Everything smelled of sawdust and humans.

“Stand there,” he said.

She wavered. There was time enough to give all of this up, to go somewhere and root. Give up and go back to the whole.

She thought of axes and furnaces, and moved where he directed. Taking a deep breath, she tried to unclench her fists, but they stayed wound tight despite herself for several moments before they finally gave way and opened. She took a deep breath of the tent’s stale air.

He chanted as he drew a chalk circle around her, furrowing the sawdust away from the rough ground. She stood still, waiting.

He set three red candles in a triangle and lit them. They smelled of blood and brine.

He spoke, and the words resonated through her, spread through her like dye in water, coloring her some strange new color. She felt her toes flex. It was too late, she would root right here! Energy rushed through her; her arms extended, became branches. She stretched up and up toward the top of the canvas, leaves brushing it.

When the first axe blow came, she would have screamed, but a tree did not have lips with which to scream.

When she awoke, everything was different.

She looked down in horror and screamed.

“What have you done?” she wailed. “Oh, what have you done?”

Her body was made of rough-hewn wood, so green it still dripped crimson sap on the sawdust around her new, blocky feet. Marks covered the wood, tiny glyphs so fine she could barely see them, but she knew what they were: the names of dryads, scratched on the surface, the names of all of the fallen, all of the dead.

Her fists were massive blocks. She would have smashed something, had anything been in reach from where she knelt, joints like blazing knots of pain, but Murga stood well away, a little smile on his lips.

Now she was no longer part of the whole, no longer a simple thing in the forest but something outside it, alien to it. Now she was a weapon in Murga’s hand.

And while he would use her for revenge, for justice, it would no longer be her revenge, her justice. She was just a thing now, a thing of cabinetry and magic, and would never be alive again.


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Nebula and World Fantasy Award-nominated writer/editor Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches atop a hill in West Seattle. Her over two-hundred fiction publications include stories in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and two previously in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Her most recent novel is Beasts of Tabat, with sequel Hearts of Tabat appearing in 2016. She is the current President of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. For more about Cat, as well as links to her fiction, see www.kittywumpus.net.

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  1. […] when you’re finished reading, check out the giveaway contest and new short story from the world of Beasts of Tabat, over at Beneath Ceaseless […]

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