I found Sister Mauro on the far side of the ridge beyond the barley field. She was kneeling at the base of one of the trees. When I think back on that spring, that is the image I recall: the hunched form of the sister in her black habit, dwarfed by the grey columns.
She greeted me when she rose. “I trust you slept well?”
I nodded, holding myself against the early chill.
She brushed dirt and grass from the knees of her tunic and squinted upward. “How much weight do you think a tree like that could hold in its highest branches?”
“They’re certainly large enough to hold quite a bit,” I began hesitantly, following her gaze upward. Was this part of the morning lesson? I had been Mauro’s apprentice long enough to expect seemingly random questions or instructions at times.
“Are they the largest trees you’ve seen?”
“Yes, Sister. My father grew poplars, but those never grew half as tall.”
She grunted. “Much less, I would think. Taller than the belfry, I’m almost certain. But how much weight?”
“This one, Sister, or any of them?”
There were at least a few dozen along the ridge, each so large I doubted four or five sisters could have linked arms around one. They were battered, the bark scarred and the branches twisted. A few withered leaves from the previous summer still clung to branches.
“Any of them.”
I paused. “I don’t know, Sister. I think that if you could reach the lower branches they would certainly support you.”
“Me alone?” She smiled.
“You and perhaps the entire abbey, I suppose, were you all to spread out.”
“That would be something to see,” Sister Mauro said, the smile widening. She had a hard face, but the smile warmed it. She strode away from the tree and stopped when she was a dozen paces off to scrutinize it again.
“Do you know what kind of tree this is?”
“Oak?” I guessed. “But not any type I’m familiar with.”
“Nor should you be, for you won’t find them elsewhere. Some may still grow in the mountains, but most were felled long ago for the masts of ships or the gates of castles. They are stone oaks.”
I nodded dumbly.
“And now to answer my first question. How much weight do you think a tree like this could hold? Pretend I am Sister Technica and tell me what sort of experiment you would devise.”
I chewed my lower lip. “Stones, Sister. We could hang stones of varying weights from the branches to see how much they could hold.”
She nodded. “Though I certainly would not wish to be one of the novices ordered to climb them with stones and rope.”
“We could use one of Sister Technica’s machines to fling pairs of stones slung together—the way we used to tie the new novices’ boots and throw them onto the wall of the Keep.”
Sister Mauro arched an eyebrow but said nothing.
“Or we could come out during a storm and have Sister Methrodius measure the winds. Then we could tell how strong a wind they could withstand, though I don’t know how to find the weight of a wind.”
“Those are good ideas. Let’s simply say for now that I am confident these trees could hold a weight of one hundred-stone, perhaps slightly more.”
I nodded slowly.
“They are stone oak,” Mauro continued, “and they are not called such without reason. These are the remnant of the original stand. The rest you see above your head in the Hall at dinner. Their wood is nearly unbreakable, though they sometimes seem to grow as slowly as the stone for which they are named.” She gave the trees a sidelong glance as if this were their fault. “But to hold a hundred-stone is not enough. We must have these trees so strengthened by the end of summer as to hold two or three hundred-stone.”
She ignored my certainly incredulous gaze.
“Do you know what day it is?”
I gave the date, and added the listing of minor saints commemorated for good measure.
“Yes. Today is also the first day of spring.” Mauro held up a hand. “I know the calendar says not yet, but I should hope you’ve been my apprentice long enough to feel it for yourself.” She bent down, folding her robe around her. “Touch the ground.”
I did so.
“Close your eyes.”
I knew this bit well enough. As an apprentice I had spent the last seven years learning all Mauro knew of herbology, botany, and the more obscure horticultural arts that had no name.
“What do you feel?”
I bit back “dirt and grass” and forced myself to stillness.
“I feel stirring, Sister,” I finally whispered. “I feel grubs burrowing and worms inching their way back upward.”
She snorted, unimpressed.
“The trees on this side of the ridge seem to be stretching, waking from sleep.”
“The winter leaches the strength from them. I come out here, every spring, to wake them. Then I spend the summer urging them to delve deeper so they will be strong again by the summer’s end. You will too, now. You know what’s beneath the dirt under your feet?”
“Correct. They don’t want to eat stone. They want soil. I have to convince them stone is better.” She knelt and pushed the sleeves of her habit to her elbows, as she did when we went to work in the garden. “Touch the tree here.” Her fingers indicated the base of the trunk where it began to spread like fingers grasping the earth. “Listen.”
There was nothing at first, just the early breezes rustling a few tattered leaves. Then the blood rushing in my ears, my breath in and out. These sounds faded with concentration. Beyond them there was a very faint groaning, as of wood straining in a wind, but nothing more.
“They still sleep,” Mauro whispered. “Now, do as I taught you with the bean stalks in the garden.”
“Sister, you told me to sing to make them grow.”
“Yes, but the songs were not important. It was what was beneath the song.”
“Wouldn’t Mother Superior have something to say if she knew we were casting spells in the garden?”
She snorted again. “These are not spells. They are persuasion. Nothing nature wouldn’t do in her own time. She simply wants for a bit of encouragement. Besides”—she pushed up her sleeves again— “Mother Superior never complains when she’s served the potatoes in the refectory. Now, tell the tree what to do.”
I tried, quieting myself until I was a hunched bit of silence beside the trunk, until I was a scrap of dust and water that had brushed up against it like a fallen leaf. Then I began to whisper, not with words but with images. I thought of warm sunlight, buds opening, and showers falling softly. There was a barely perceptible shudder as the tree stirred.
“Excellent,” Mauro muttered. “Now the roots.”
I moved my attention downward, toward the stone that I knew lay somewhere beneath my knees. The roots were deep, extending far deeper and spreading wider than the trunk and branches above me, a net cast into a murky lake, slowly drifting with the seasons against the stir of rock and soil.
I felt where the roots brushed against stone, where they had begun, over decades, to slowly crack rock and reach inward. I felt the taste of stone as it felt to the tree: tangy, metallic, something harsher than the moist soil around it. I was not sure how to tell a tree it needed stone over soil, but I did my best, focusing on the rock, trying to will the roots to bend that way, to stretch their net tighter around the stone.
“Good. That’s very good.” Mauro stood. “This must be done every morning, at dawn as the dew is settling. The trees will pay more attention then. We will be at it all summer, and eventually we may get one of Sister Technica’s mechanics out here to give your idea a try.”
We visited each of the other trees that morning, and it was nearly time for the midday meal before we were walking the path together back toward the walls of the abbey.
Mauro had said it was the first day of spring, but it is clear to me now that this day—the day I accepted her charge as easily and unthinkingly as I would have a task in the garden or orchard—was the first day of much more besides; the beginning of changes that would sweep over the abbey like a wind through the branches of those trees still bare above me.
And like the trees, when it had passed I would remain—yet be transformed as surely as the seasons draw all things from death to life and back again.
In the chapel that afternoon there was a contingent of knights from the Court-in-Exile. They stood in the balcony, out of view of we novices in the choir, but occasionally we could see the flash of light on armor or hear the thud of boots as they stirred.
We saw them better at dinner. Their blue and silver cloaks needed mending and their armor wanted polish. Their eyes, however, were bright, and they kept the required silence with a reverent if somewhat self-conscious air. They ate apart from us of course, though their captain and his guard sat at the high table with the Mother Superior, Sister Mauro, and some of the other senior sisters. They spoke together up there, though it was low and none of the words reached us.
The Mistress of Novices spoke to us about the knights before we retired for the night.
“They have lately returned from a campaign in the far north,” she began, wiping her eyeglasses absently. “You are not to speak with them unless you are first spoken to, and of course they will be lodging outside the abbey’s walls. During the day they will be allowed within the grounds for prayers and meals, and we will be tending their wounds, mending their garments, and doing what we can to replenish their supplies. Sister Technica, I imagine, will keep many of you busy in the smithy.”
There were of course whispers after she had left, and sighs. Some of the novices had been sent to the abbey against their will, and they saw this as the opportunity to find love, or something like it, and a way out of a life of prayer and seclusion. I rolled myself into my cot and tried to ignore their words and low laughter. I had seen something of the wars these knights had walked out of, and it was clear to me the abbey’s walls were safer than anything the mountains could offer.
I should have paid more attention to my dreams in the weeks that followed. I dreamed of the trees, but I imagined this was simply because my duties brought me to their feet each morning. I would go from tree to tree, urging them to take the strength of stone into themselves as Sister Mauro had instructed. By the time the sun had risen high enough to begin burning the morning mist away, I would be walking back to the cloister muttering my prayers.
In my dreams, though, I was among the trees at night. Sometimes I could see the lowest branches swaying wildly, and I would remember Sister Mauro’s instructions. I would wonder what touched the upper branches to make them shudder so violently, for in my dreams I felt no wind.
Sometimes I would look up, and once I saw that a mountain had fallen from the sky to hang suspended in their branches. Another time the moon, pale as a skull, bowed the trees with its weight.
The knights had been camped outside the walls of the abbey long enough that the novices’ whispered longings in the cloister had turned into sighs of bitterness, when I found one of the knights sprawled in the grass asleep on my morning walk to the trees.
An empty flask lay on the ground beside him. He was at the base of one of the trees near the edge of the grove. I ignored him, and when I had finished I saw that he was sitting up and watching me.
“Good morning,” he muttered, rubbing his eyes. His face was deeply lined, but it was impossible to tell his age. His features were blurred either by sleep or wine.
I nodded curtly.
“What were you doing?”
“For the trees?” His hand groped at the grass beside him until it found the flask, which he lifted and studied morosely.
I nodded again and started back toward the abbey’s walls.
“You’re a nun?” He rose to his feet unsteadily. He was tall, but also so thin as to be almost comical. Whenever the knights came into the abbey they wore their cloaks and armor, and he had his on now too, but even wearing it, he seemed insubstantial. The blue of his cloak was reflected off the silver surfaces of his armor—boots, breastplate, those little plates that fasted onto the shins and wrists that I could never remember the names of. The wrist-pieces ended in tiny plates that covered the top of each finger like the segmented skin of the lizards Sister Boadica kept in her terraria.
“Did you sleep in all that?”
He looked down at himself, confused, and then nodded grimly. “The captain is going to kill me.” He fell into step beside me and asked his question again.
I shook my head. “I’m a novice. This is my twelfth year. In another eight perhaps I will take orders.”
“Gods, twenty years of training?” He laughed. It was a good laugh, but since I wasn’t sure it was meant to be shared, I let it wander off on its own. “We get about a twentieth of that. Though I expect the attrition rate’s not quite as high here.”
After a moment he seemed to notice the flask that was still in his hand. His lip curled into something like a sneer, and he hurled it out over the lip of the ridge and into the tall grass beyond.
I was embarrassed to have come across him at all and irritated at the courtesy his status as a guest demanded.
“Do you need help back to the abbey?”
He stared at me. “Help?”
“You seem a bit unsteady on your legs, Sir Knight.” If there was an edge of sarcasm in my voice, I could confess it to the Mistresses of Novices that evening.
“No, that’s just....” He brushed at his face wearily. “The stones in your castle seemed so solemn. I needed some fresh air. The wine happened to come along for the ride, and I expect I’ve assumed upon your mistress’s hospitality. I should apologize.”
I waited, walking in silence.
“We’re not supposed to be on this side of the walls at all. We’re assigned to duties in the camp itself, but the front side of your abbey looks out toward the mountains, and after a couple weeks it starts to feel like the mountains are looking back at you.” He blinked up at the trees as if seeing them for the first time. “Gods, those are tall ones. I saw them last night but thought it was a trick of shadows.”
“They’re stone oaks.”
“There are khans down south who could fit their whole palace under one of those. How old are they?”
I admitted I didn’t know.
For some reason that made him grin. “I don’t know much at all about this place,” he said.
“It’s a convent. We work and we pray, and when others of the Court-in-Exile—or anyone for that matter—show up, we give what aid and hospitality we can.”
I shrugged. The path down from the ridge was flanked by fields of barley and wheat, and some of the laborers were moving among the rows.
“What’s your name?”
“We have no names, Sir Knight. We are given the name of a departed sister when we take our culminating vows.”
“How do you know when someone is talking to you then?” He continued to match my pace. If any of the other novices saw me approaching through the fields with him, I would never hear the end of it.
“I am the apprentice to Sister Mauro. That usually suffices.”
I walked through the open gate before he could ask more questions.
If anyone had witnessed our exchange that morning, no one said anything. There were no taunts from fellow novices nor questions from the senior sisters. I found an absurd pleasure in the fact that I had not told the knight my name, and I told myself I did not wonder or care what his had been.
Each morning I worked to make the trees pull the stone up through their roots and lace it into their heartwood. I did not see it happening, but I could feel it, and on the stillest mornings I could hear it, a slow groaning like the rafters settling in the Great Hall.
Spring slid into summer, and the knights remained camped outside the walls with vague explanations involving the abbey’s safety. Occasionally I would see the one I had met below the trees. He seemed to enjoy wandering the grounds at sunrise, despite what he had said about his orders, and sometimes he would stand at the edge of the grove and wait while I went from tree to tree.
“I didn’t think your kind prayed to trees,” he said one morning.
“I was not praying to the trees.” I had gotten better at keeping the impatience out of my voice. “I was praying for the trees.”
He laughed at that. “Are they sick?”
Sometimes he would be gone when I was finished, but more often he would wait and follow me back to the walls.
“You can’t trust the reports about the war,” he offered on another morning, squinting back at the line of trees.
He could have been handsome, had his face been less lined. It was a face that augmented his thinness, as though everything about him was oriented vertically and only begrudgingly made an exception for the circumstance of eyes and a mouth, and only then by carving lines into the corners of those eyes.
“The campaigns in the south are done for the season, which is good. There’s peace with the khans, though it came at quite a cost. Our captain—that’s Sir Auden—might tell you otherwise, but it’s good we reached a peace when we did. I don’t know how much longer we’d have lasted fighting on both frontiers.”
“But the Court-in-Exile holds no territory.”
He waved that aside. “The north is where the real war is. Armies disappear into those valleys like stones in the sea. I’ve seen columns five companies strong march into passes and never come out the other side.” He grimaced. “I can’t see it ending any time soon, but I can’t see stopping it either.”
“So why are you here?”
He grinned, and I glanced away.
“You know,” he said after a moment, “you’ve never even asked my name.”
I had not, and I didn’t then. He had stopped asking for mine.
“When Auden was to march back south, he promised us a respite if we would accompany him as honor guard. When we refused, he ordered.” He sighed. “But I don’t know the answer to your question. He should either let us go home or let us go back to the fight. I know he wanted to seek the Mother Superior’s guidance, but I don’t see why he needs an entire season to do it.”
He was lying to me. I would like to believe that had I been listening closer I would have heard it.
Perhaps three weeks before Endsummer Eve, Sister Mauro joined me at my rounds. We walked together in the predawn gloaming to the ridge where the stone oaks grew. The trees always seemed taller in darkness, as though they could stretch their limbs into the dusky spaces between dark and dawn. Now they were retreating, diminishing in the growing light.
“The shadows don’t hold them back as much,” Mauro whispered, as if hearing my thoughts. “We don’t need them larger, though that may help. We need them stronger.” She motioned me to wait and knelt before the first. “Besides, the moon will be nearly full on Endsummer.”
It seemed she meant this morning to check the progress I had made. She asked questions about specific trees, about certain moods and dispositions toward soils. I answered her as best I could.
“You are hurt that I doubt your competence, perhaps?” she asked as she rose from the base of the last tree. When I shook my head, she smiled. “I do not. But the trees can be rather stubborn in own their way, and perhaps it was irresponsible of me to put such a task into the hands of one so young.”
I tried to hide my disappointment. “Have I done poorly?”
“Oh, no. You have done remarkably well. I am impressed.” Her gaze wandered a moment and then fastened on the huge trunks nearest at hand. “We are but weeks from Endsummer Eve. Have you yet thought of a method for testing their strength?”
“Sister,” I began carefully, “perhaps if I knew more about the weight they would—”
“Three hundred weight. That is what you need to know.” Her gaze softened. “And you are making good progress. But the days are getting shorter, and the trees will want to sleep once more. From now until Endsummer you must come three times daily, once at dusk, once when the bell calls for prayers, and again at your normal time in the morning. They must not sleep yet.”
She put her arms into her cowl, and we began walking back toward the abbey. “The trees along the east side seem to be coming along slower. You must concentrate on them. There is a vein of good granite there, if the trees at that end would reach deeper.”
“Other than that though, if you come thrice daily, I feel you will have faithfully discharged your duty.”
“Thank you, Sister.”
We walked through the fields as the day’s color began to return to them. When we were nearly in the shadow of the abbey’s walls she faced me again.
“Have you been alone in your visits to the trees?” She paused, weighing me with her eyes as she had gauged the strength of the trees. “I do not question your modesty, daughter, but I speak of the knights. Have you seen any of them on your visits to the trees?”
I nodded slowly. “There has been one. I do not know his name.”
Mauro looked back to where the oaks loomed at the edge of the fields. “They are looking for something here,” she muttered, “but they do not know what it is or how it would appear if they were to find it.”
For an instant I had the notion that some of the novices’ wilder imaginings were true and the knights were here searching for a specific person—the daughter of some lost duke or landgrave, perhaps, whom they would seek out and return to her inheritance.
“Auden speaks of passes being closed, and he talks of troop movements, but always vaguely and always to imply they must remain longer.” Mauro pursed her lips. “What did this knight want to know?”
“Nothing in particular.” I tried to recall the things we had spoken of. “He wanted to know what kind of trees they were.”
“And what did you say?”
“I told him they were stone oaks. He wanted to know why I prayed to them. I told him I prayed for them.”
Mauro smiled briefly, but there was something strained in her expression.
“What would the knights want with the trees?” I asked. “Do you think they were sent here to cut them down?”
“Yes,” she said quickly. “That must certainly be it. Someone has sent them to see if the rumors are true and we harbor the last stand. They are likely looking for some pretext to hew them and float them down to the sea.”
She spoke too quickly though, as if she was as eager to convince herself as me.
I was pulling weeds beside the wall in the garden when the knight found me.
“Captain Auden wants to talk to you,” he said.
I was so shocked to see him there that for a moment I just stared.
He smiled as though we shared a secret. “He’s waiting for you upstairs.”
“I need to ask the Mistress of Novices to release me. I didn’t think the knights were supposed to be—”
“Inside the convent’s walls?” He shrugged. “He was meeting with the Mother Superior, and then he sent for me. And then they both sent me for you.”
I followed him in a daze. Was I to be punished for speaking to him outside the convent’s walls? The knight didn’t seem worried. He walked as though his passing through the halls of the abbey was as natural as walking down the path with me between the fields.
We went in through the courtyard, past the cloisters, and up a staircase into a part of the abbey I had never visited, then up another set of stairs and finally into a stone chamber with windows looking out over the abbey’s grounds. I realized we were in the High Tower opposite the belfry.
There were two people in the room besides the knight who had brought me and now waited beside the door. The first was a man at the window who turned as we entered. The second, seated behind a simple wooden desk, was the Mother Superior.
“This is the novice you were telling us about, Baiden?” The man by the window, obviously Captain Auden, stepped closer. His face was even more lined than Baiden’s, though they carried the rough white edge of scars. He walked with a limp he took no pains to hide.
“You are Sister Mauro’s apprentice?”
This was from the Mother Superior. I had seen her often, from a distance, as she spoke or read on occasion at mealtime. The only time she had spoken to me directly was when I had taken my initial vows.
“Yes, Mother Superior.” I bowed low and wished I had been able to brush more dirt from my tunic before entering.
There was silence for a few moments, and I wondered if they were waiting for me to say more.
“I have heard much of these stone oaks,” Auden finally spoke. “There were legends in the south, but I have never seen one. I was unaware this monastery boasted a live grove.”
“A holdover, merely,” Mother Superior said dismissively. “I am told they once covered these hills. Most went to build the fleets of the baron who originally held these lands.”
“I would like to see these trees,” Auden said, addressing me. “Will you show me?”
“With the Mother Superior’s permission.”
I looked to the Mother Superior, and it seemed she wanted to tell me something but was hesitant to, in the presence of the knights. They did not give her an opportunity though, for they both waited—Auden with crossed arms—in the doorway.
She nodded curtly.
“You have been a novitiate long?” Auden asked me.
“Twelve years, sir.”
I stood at the foot of the trees with Baiden and Auden. The leaves drank in the afternoon light and bled it back as shafts of vermillion and gold. The oaks stretched above us like the masts of a fleet, their million tiny sails as many shades of green. It seemed on that day you could have hidden cities in their branches.
“I had heard, but I had not credited,” Auden spoke softly. “It is no wonder your order guards this secret so jealously.”
The two men walked among the trunks of the trees, and it soon became clear they were looking for something.
“How long do such trees take to grow?” Auden asked me.
“I don’t know.”
“Are there saplings or seeds?”
“I don’t know.”
His brow furrowed. “I thought you were charged with keeping the trees. I can’t imagine trees such as these need much looking after. I assumed you planted and pruned saplings and such.”
I shook my head.
“It might be better to ask her how long she’s had the charge of this grove, sir,” Baiden suggested.
“How long has it been?”
“I began this season.”
“Which would have been,” Baiden pointed out, “just as we were passing back over the mountains and had sent word to the abbey to await our coming.”
Auden nodded slowly. “And your Sister Mauro had cared for them in all the years before this?”
“I believe so.”
“They are wise old hens,” he muttered. “They put them in the care of a girl, hoping we would take no notice. And they’ve saved themselves the effort of having to lie by giving us someone who knows nothing herself.”
“I know,” I began slowly, “that these trees were growing before your grandfather’s grandfather was a child and that you could hew at them all summer without bringing even a fourth of them down.”
Auden raised his eyebrows.
“You might think because we’re a house of women that you can come in and do what you want, but we’re not weak. The sisters are like these trees.” I felt my face flushing and my throat grow tight. “There are deep roots here, and I don’t care if all the western barons together decide they want to build a hundred ships. Whoever they send, you or anyone else, would have to... would have to....”
I trailed off, the anger leaving as quickly as it had come, to be replaced with an understanding of my own impotence.
“You’re supposed to be in the service of the Court-in-Exile,” I finished weakly, “faithful to the Departed King.”
Over Auden’s shoulder, the lines on Baiden’s face were erased. He was laughing soundlessly.
“Girl.” Auden shook his head. “We don’t want your trees.”
It was my turn to stare, and I felt my face coloring again.
Auden turned away “There is no hidden cavern,” he said to Baiden. “There is no secret passage to the mountains. They will come here, to the trees.”
Baiden was still watching me, though.
When Auden had satisfied himself that he had indeed found whatever it was the knights had been seeking, we walked back. Baiden fell into step beside me, and the memory of the first morning I had found him beneath the trees filled me with a sudden suspicion.
“What kind of wine was it?” I asked him, slowing my steps.
“Red? White? I don’t think you were drunk at all. You were searching the abbey’s grounds, and you needed a reason to be found where you weren’t supposed to be.” The anger was returning. “And then you needed to befriend someone who knew something about the trees, so that whatever suspicions you had could be confirmed.”
Auden snorted but did not turn. From Baiden’s face it was clear I had been correct.
He spread his hands. “You wouldn’t even tell me your name.”
“You couldn’t care less about my name.” I whirled on him now, stopping him in the path. Auden paced on ahead. “I don’t know what you think is happening here that’s so terrible, but you think because we don’t wear armor or carry a sword, because we’ve chosen a different life, you think....”
I was running out of words again, and Baiden was smiling. He seemed to be aware of it, and aware that it was making me angrier, for it would disappear for a moment, reappear in his eyes, and then break out on his face.
“You’re not welcome here. I don’t care what the rest of the novices say or how courteous the senior sisters think they have to be. No one wants you here.”
His lips stopped twitching. “What do you think we’re looking for here?” he asked. “You think we’re woodsmen interested in falling a stand of particularly old trees?”
“I don’t care who you are.”
“Do you know what happens here at Endsummer Eve?”
“We pray,” I muttered. “There’s an all-night vigil to greet the changing of the seasons.”
“Is there?” He seemed genuinely interested. “And the Mother Superior and the rest of the sisters—they keep this vigil?”
“You see them?”
“Well, no.” I was confused. “The senior sisters keep a separate vigil in the Mother Superior’s chambers.”
“And you’ve seen them there?”
“Of course not.” I force a stray length of hair back behind my ear, frustrated. I was angry that Baiden seemed intent on making me some kind of co-conspirator, still angrier that he had feigned friendship. “The novices remain in the main chapel.”
“So you don’t know what happens.” He looked toward the trees when he said this. They stood like gaunt giants, their uppermost branches waving slightly in a breeze I could not feel.
I had seen Mauro’s eyes flash when she was angry with a clumsy novice, occasionally with me. I tried to will my own to do that now. “This isn’t a coven,” I told him. “That is not a pagan grove. Are you here hunting witches, Sir Knight?”
“I know this is not a coven,” he said mildly. “And I would think again before letting Auden hear you believed us inquisitors. But even the best among us have secrets, and at times those secrets can be a threat to even our allies.”
He smiled again.
“Don’t worry,” he said softly. “You won’t see us again after Endsummer.”
He was almost right about that, as he was almost right about other things. He did not leave in the way I thought he would though: in a cloud of dust, the tramp of boots, and scraps of blue cloaks growing smaller on the road. Had he left that way, I would not have seen him go. There perhaps would have been other novices watching from the walls, but I would not have been among them.
But he did not leave that way.
On Endsummer Eve, as I went to take my place with the junior sisters and the other novices gathering in the chapel for the vigil, Baiden caught my arm from a doorway as I passed.
“Can you make some pretext to be outside when the vigil begins?” he whispered, his face close to my ear.
“There’s a garden gate that lets out—” I began, but then pushed him away. “What are you talking about? What do you want?”
He pressed himself further into the arched doorway as a cluster of sisters passed in the corridor.
“Come with me,” he said when they had gone. For a moment a distillation of all the absurd stories the novices had exhausted themselves with all summer passed through my mind.
“With you where?”
“To the trees. You need to see what happens tonight.”
I shook my head stubbornly.
“I know the gate,” he said. “Be there when the service starts. Auden says I’m a fool and that you won’t come.” He grimaced. “I owe him my best blade if you don’t.”
“You need to learn to mind your own business,” I hissed and stepped back into the corridor. If I managed to toss my hair as I turned, I cannot say it brought me no satisfaction.
Yet, preserve me, I found myself making some pretext of forgetting to cover the late peppers against a possible frost—there was, in fairness, a chill in the air—and venturing back to the garden as the final bell for vigil tolled. Beyond the gate Baiden, Auden, and three other knights waited in the shadow of the outer wall. Two carried huge cross-bows.
“It seems to be a night for mutinies,” Auden said when he saw me. “An absent novice, and my own lieutenant demanding we not complete our mission until she arrives.”
Baiden would not meet my stare.
“What is going on?”
“The reason we are here,” Auden said gruffly. “Something you will not soon forget, I assure you. But if you step beyond the shadow of this wall, you are bound to us. You remain silent and do as you are told for your own safety and ours. If you want to go back, go now.”
“The doors of the chapel are locked,” I told him. “I always thought it was just symbolic. It’s too late for me to go back inside now.”
The knights were disappearing as the dusk thickened. Only their hands and faces were visible.
I looked at Baiden. “Why?”
“They’re your trees.” He shrugged. “You’ve been caring for them. You should see what they are for.”
I nodded and stepped forward. It felt for a moment as though I was striding into empty space. When I looked down it was with mild surprise to see that I had only stepped out onto the turf of the field. Baiden fastened a dark cloak around my shoulders. The others were moving across the field in silence. The cloaks mirrored the shade of the darkening evening as perfectly as though they were cut from the same cloth as the sky.
Faintly at my back I could hear songs beginning in the chapel. Heard from outside the walls, they sounded strangely mournful, as though I was not hearing the sisters themselves but instead echoes of songs sung in that place a hundred years before, only audible now through a trick of wind and stone.
The knights stayed off the paths as they made their way toward the grove, circling the trees far to the south and coming up through a thicket at the rear where the abbey’s land began to give way to waste at the mountains’ feet. They walked as though they had been here before, stopping in a clearing far enough from the trees to give a good view of the whole grove. Dropping to the grass, they pulled their hoods about their faces and slipped seamlessly into the night. I followed.
Then we waited.
I would have thought myself alone but for the sound of Baiden’s breath in the grass beside me. After a time even that faded, and the shadows among the trees before me ran together like water as darkness flowed down from the hills.
The trees were pillars, I saw now, and wondered how I had missed it before. They held the sky. Mauro wanted them strengthened because tonight, on the boundary between summer and autumn, the sky was heaviest. If the trees failed—if I had failed—the sky would fall.
They were growing even now in the darkness, expanding up into the black places between the stars.
I stared upward, caught in this fancy, until I felt a light touch on my arm. White-robed figures were coming slowly up the path between the trees from the direction of the abbey. Each carried a small lamp, and though it was too far to distinguish faces, I recognized their forms as the Mother Superior, Sister Mauro, and the other senior sisters. They proceeded single-file, weaving through the mammoth trunks. When they had reached the center of the grove, they extinguished their lights.
The night deepened and the wind shifted so that we could again hear faint singing from the abbey.
Then there were other sounds.
Once as I child I had surprised a flock of geese along the banks of a river. They had risen as one at my approach, and for a moment I had been overwhelmed by the movement of hundreds of wings and the confused rush of air. The noise now was something like that, but not of a sudden. It was slow, coming down from the hills at our backs like approaching footfalls. I thought of the moon in my dreams, tangled in the branches of the oaks, and I shuddered.
The beating of wings grew louder until it seemed a gale raged around us. When I felt those huge wings were right above us, I closed my eyes and dug my fingers into the roots of the grass.
When I opened them again, the moon had indeed come to roost in the branches of my oaks.
I could never recall afterward how many there were, but it seemed there must have been hundreds. Surely there was at least one in each tree, and those enormous trees shook like saplings when they landed among their branches. They fell from the sky like stones, huge claws gripping the branches that seemed now little more than sticks, carving the twisted wounds I had attributed to lightning strikes from years past.
They were lovely, in the way that the funnel of a windstorm on the horizon is lovely—silent and arching. In the darkness, though now the sky was touched by a rising moon, they seemed luminous, shining in gold, silver, blue, and purple. Their scales jutted in spurs and spines from joints of leg and neck. But the wings—it seemed impossible that such gossamer sails, though they were large enough to shade the largest of the trees, could lift the bulk of such creatures.
I found myself straining for the sound of splintering wood, and something warm burned through me in spite of my fear as I saw the oaks quake as the dragons settled to rest among them. No trees failed. No limbs fell. The perches I had spent the summer unknowingly shaping and strengthening held their burden.
Dozens of pairs of lantern-eyes kindled in the trees as the dragons stared down at the sisters gathered below.
The largest perched in the tallest tree at the center of the grove. Its neck wound down around the trunk like a silver serpent, and it was toward this that the Mother Superior advanced. It lowered its head at her approach.
The other sisters and dragons waited. Baiden made small, strangled noises under his breath beside me.
Then they spoke to one another.
It was impossible to hear words at this distance, but it was clear they were conversing, as though between equals. The Mother Superior’s voice came up to us through the stillness of the night, her tone clear and unafraid. The dragon answered in a low murmur that brushed through the leaves. I could feel the sound come down from the tree and through the ground to the grass I still gripped.
They spoke like that for a long time. When the moon was perhaps half a fist higher in the sky and casting long silver bars through the trees, the voices faded. The Mother Superior pulled something from the folds of her robes, and the dragon closed its huge golden eyes and bowed.
She seemed to hold a star in her hand—a coruscant, scintillating fragment of light. It was impossible to see whether it was jewel or the wick of some torch unknown to me. She held it up—it drank in the moonlight and grew even brighter—and it appeared to rise of its own accord until the dragon caught it lightly in its mouth.
Two things happened as that strange exchange was completed: there came a sharp sound as though branches were indeed snapping under dragon-weight, and the central dragon bellowed in anger and surprise as cross-bow quarrels tore into its eye.
The knights had been moving unseen until they were at the very edges of the trees. I knew from his quick intake of breath that Baiden was still at my side. The other knights were rising and drawing their blades, which glinted like pieces of broken glass.
The dragons around them reared, and the trees were bowed again as in a windstorm. I saw Mother Superior shout something and raise her arms, but by then the knights were darting through the trees toward the central pair.
I felt Baiden stand, and I stood as well and gripped his arm.
“Is this what you thought would happen?” I hissed. “Is this what you brought me to see?”
“We weren’t sure. There were rumors, and we had orders to find out.” He looked toward the trees. “I have to help them.”
“You don’t even know what’s happening.”
The sound of screams came from below and what sounded like iron crashing on iron.
“I know what they are.” He pulled away. “That’s enough.” Then he was running.
“Claire!” I tried to shout. Something was tearing at the space between my throat and heart, and I forced myself to speak around its weight. “My name is Claire!”
By some trick of the light, when he turned back I could see his face clearly. His eyes were bright, and I swear he was laughing.
In another instant he was gone.
I waited for fire, but it never came. For several moments I was as frozen as though I was one of the trees myself, as though a part of me was questing backward through the season that had just passed as roots push through soil. I had not given him my name until it was too late for me to hear him speak it.
Then I was running among the trees, and Sister Mauro had grabbed me by the shoulders.
It was already over. I could not see the knights. The dragons waited again in the trees. At the center of the grove the silver mass of the dragon that has spoken with Mother Superior lay sprawled in the grass. It was suddenly clear why they roosted in the trees: its fallen mass carved huge furrows in the turf, and its breath withered the grass around it for yards.
It opened a ruined eye as I approached.
“Is this the girl who brought the men?”
Sister Mauro seemed about to speak, but another voice came from the darkness.
It was Auden, his form pinned beneath one legs of the dragon. He spoke clearly and without labor, as though unaware that the moonlight showed his blood pooling black beneath the silver scales.
“We brought her, and we would have come with or without her. She revealed nothing.”
The dragon rumbled low.
“And what was it you brought her to see, Sir Knight?” Mother Superior asked.
“We feared you had dealings with our enemies.” Auden spoke low and unhurriedly. “There were tales of your abbey and what happened yearly on this evening. I would remind you that the enemies of our lords are your enemies as well, or should be.”
“We are no enemies of these,” the dragon rumbled again.
I looked around as it spoke. The trees were as I had seen them every day, though now the scene was complete, and I wondered that I had never noticed the emptiness before. I would not be able to see them in daylight again without seeing the clear blue absence of dragons. In and among the trunks the sisters stood motionless. In the immense, tangled universe of branches above, argent lantern-eyes waited and watched.
I think Auden had died before the dragon finished, for Mother Superior leaned over him, whispered a few words, and closed his eyes.
“I am sorry,” she said. “They were good men, and they served fair lords.”
The low, troubled rumble came again, but the dragon’s face remained impassive. “Do we have peace for another year?” it asked.
Mother Superior nodded. “Your time is not yet ended, though it grows short.”
“Where are the others?” I asked. I tried to push past Sister Mauro. “Where is Baiden?”
She hushed me, and one of the dragons called from above: “They are ours. They violated the trust.”
The supine dragon repeated his question, and Mother Superior repeated her answer. The words sounded rote, as though part of a ceremony that had been repeated here for centuries.
“We have been here long, daughter of flesh, but we tire.”
“We grant you the peace of the Absent King, whose land you hold in stead.”
“And we grant you the peace of heavy night,” the dragon answered again, “which lingers a time in mountains and forests.”
Mother Superior nodded, and the wings in the trees above extended. I felt beneath them the heavy night of which they spoke, deeper than the brittle blackness between moon and star. Then with a rush of wind that bent the branches of my oaks and sent me to my knees, they were gone.
Last to go was the silver beast who had crushed Auden. It pulled itself back into the tree with labor, leaving long welts on the thick bark, and groaned as it disappeared upward into the night.
“Auden will have made plans for his men in case he did not return,” Mauro said. “We should prepare.”
“How many were with you?” Mother Superior asked me.
I told her there had been five knights.
“There are four bodies here,” one of the sisters called. “Auden and three others.”
Something leapt up in my chest at those words.
“He must have fled to alert the others,” Mauro said, and just as suddenly what had leapt wilted like the grass around where the dragon had lain.
But when morning came, the knights were not holding the abbey’s walls. They had filtered out from the chapel with the sisters who had passed the night in vigil, and as the day progressed it became clear they were breaking camp. By evening their tents were down and they were marching in two long columns back the way they had come.
I was with the Mother Superior in her chambers, watching darkness come to the hills beyond the windows, when Mauro entered.
“Sir Baiden was not among the knights.” She spoke to the Mother Superior but cast a glance in my direction. “We took them the bodies as you asked and told them the truth: that they had been mauled by beasts.”
“And what did they say?”
“They said nothing. They asked no leave to track the creatures. They simply took the bodies and left. But the missing knight was not among them.”
The weight of years seemed to come to Mother Superior’s face like the shadows sweeping over the fields outside. “That they did not claim the right of the hunt means they know the nature of these deaths. And that they know this much means that Auden knew as much as we feared, even before last night.” She sighed. “It may not be possible to maintain the peace after this year.”
“Where is Baiden then?” I asked. “If he didn’t escape and his body wasn’t under the trees, what happened to him?”
“They violated the trust,” Mauro said.
“They took him, didn’t they? They killed the others, but they took him.”
The older women were silent.
“Where did they go?”
“The mountains,” Mauro finally said. “The dragons only come together once a year for congress, and they spread far afield when it is done. But if there is any chance at all of finding him, it will be in the mountains.”
“There is no chance, daughter,” Mother Superior said. “It is not their nature to keep prisoners or barter for hostages. Your place is here with us.”
I looked toward the hills and beyond them, the mountains. They were fading to blue and purple as the sun fell, and at their feet my trees raised their branches in supplication.
Sister Mauro found me the next morning at the foot of the trees. I listened, but they were already falling back into the slumber in which they would pass the winter. I heard winds coming down from the mountains, and in the groaning of their wooden flesh I could still feel the dragons’ grips upon them.
“Tell me where they went,” I whispered. “Tell me what you know.”
I wore my heaviest cloak and the boots I used for work in the gardens, and I carried the very few possessions retained from before I had come to the abbey. Beneath one of the trees I found something else as well, which was now folded carefully in the small bag I carried: one of the knights’ cloaks. I did not know whose it may have been, but it smelled faintly of smoke and earth.
Mauro brought me another bag, this one a satchel filled with dried fruit, cheeses, and hard bread.
“If you cannot reach the passes before the snows come,” she told me, “return to the abbey. You know that you will still have a place with us.”
I nodded and thanked her.
Mauro smiled sadly. “Many serve the Absent King, and many keep the charges he gave the best they know. We keep the peace.”
I bit back questions. If I wanted to question—and if I felt I would be satisfied with the answers I would receive—then the place to remain would be here, behind the abbey’s walls.
“Wherever you go,” Mauro was saying, “listen to the trees, as I have taught you.”
I nodded. We embraced, and I walked out from under the oaks and northward across fields that were heavy with grain and the light of early morning. The road passed the fields at the edge of the abbey’s holdings, and I took it and followed it north, toward the mountains. All around me, the trees were changing.
Summer had ended.
Far away, the mountains grinned like grey teeth.