But I’d still be alive. And the people I loved would go on with their lives. I’d had a glimpse, when the mob seized me, of a far worse future, a future in which Amzil’s best hope was that the gang rape would leave her alive and Spink’s that he would survive having his troops turn on him. My own death paled in comparison. No. I’d made the best choice for all of us. Now it was up to me to move on, keeping whatever shreds of my integrity remained. I wished I wasn’t going into my new life so empty-handed. I looked longingly at my knife and my axe. No. Iron was not my friend anymore. But my winter blanket, folded on the shelf, I would take. One final glance around the cabin, and then I left, shutting the door firmly behind me on Kesey’s rattling snore.
As I came out Clove lifted his head and gave me a rebuking stare. Why hadn’t I freed him from his harness to graze? I glanced at the sun. I’d leave him here, I decided. It was believable that if the big horse had got loose in Gettys, he’d come back to his stall. I couldn’t take off his tack; someone would wonder who had done that for him. I hoped whoever took him over would treat him well. “Stay here, old chum. Kesey will look after you. Or someone will.” I gave him a pat on the shoulder and left him there.
I walked across the cemetery grounds that I knew so well. I passed the butchered remains of my hedge. I shuddered as I recalled it as I’d last seen it, with the bodies jerking and twitching as the rootlets thrust into them seeking nutrients and for a moment I was plunged back into that torchlit night.
It was rare but not unknown for a person who died of Speck plague to be a “walker.” One of the doctors at Gettys believed that such persons fell into a deep coma that mimicked death, to rouse hours later for a final attempt at life. Few survived. The other doctor, an aficionado of the superstitions and psychic phenomena that so fascinated our Queen, believed that such “walkers” were not truly the folk who had died, but only bodies reanimated by magic to bring messages to the living from the beyond. Having been a “walker” myself, I had my own opinions. In my year at the King’s Cavalla Academy, I’d contracted the Speck plague just as my fellow cadets had. Once I’d “died,” I’d found myself in the Specks’ spirit world. There I’d done battle with my “Speck self” and Tree Woman, returning to life only after I had defeated them.
My erstwhile fiancée Carsina had also been a “walker.” In my final night as cemetery guard she had left her coffin and come to beg my forgiveness before she could rest in death. I’d wanted to save her. I’d left my cabin, intending to ride to town and get help. Instead, I’d seen an unimaginable sight. Other plague victims had risen and sought out the trees I’d inadvertently planted. I’d known they were kaembra trees, the same sort of trees that the Specks claimed as their ancestor trees. I’d known that when I’d seen the poles leaf out. How could I not have realized the danger? Had the magic blinded me to it?
Each “walker” had sought out a tree, had sat down, backs to the trunks, and then cried out in agony as the hungry little trees had sent rootlets thrusting into flesh. I’d never forget what I’d seen that night. A boy had cried out wildly, his head and arms and legs jerking spasmodically as the tree claimed his flesh and bound his body tightly to its trunk. I’d been unable to do anything for him. But the worst had been the woman who cried out for help and held her hands out beseechingly. I had clasped those hands and tried with all my might to pull her back, not from death, but from an extended life that made no sense to a Gernian soul.
I remembered well which tree had seized her so irrevocably, thrusting roots into her back, roots that would burst into a network of spreading filaments inside her, sucking into the young trees not just the nutrients in her body, but her spirit as well. That was how the Specks created their ancestor trees. Those the magic found worthy were rewarded with such trees.
As I passed the hacked stump of the woman’s tree, I noticed that it had already sent up a questing new sprout. On the stump next to hers, a red-wattled croaker bird perched, watching me intently. It opened its wings and thrust its ugly head at me. Its wattles shook as it croaked accusingly at me. I shuddered. Croaker birds were the emblem of Orandula, the old god of death and of balances. I did not wish another encounter with him. As I fled from it, I realized that Clove was following me. Well, he’d soon turn back. I entered the forest and felt it take me in. It was like a curtain swishing closed behind me, signaling that the first act of my life was over.
This part of the forest was young, a regrowth after a fire. Occasionally, I passed a blackened stump overgrown with moss and ferns, or strode through the shade of a scorched giant who had survived that blaze. Bushes and wildflowers grew here in the sunlight that filtered down between the trees. Birds sang and darted from branch to branch in the early morning light. The sweet scents of the forest rose up to surround me. Tension drained from me. For a time I walked without thought, listening to Clove’s hooves thud dully on the deep forest soil as he trailed after me.