Sometimes Sarren just had to stop. Inside city walls she felt like she couldn't breathe, but out here...in the forest...she could feel everything.
It was not a force Sarren used to urge the tree branches down to her, or an apple to fall in her basket. She did not make nature do anything. Everything it did for her was out of kindness, out of an understanding that there was very little difference between Sarren and the earth, or the trees, or the wind or the water. This friendship that Sarren and nature had was not without a price, but it was a price that Sarren easily paid.
Sometimes she just had to stop. It was necessary for every breath she took, ever beat of her heart, that Sarren stop. She’d sit on the ground, curl among the roots of a tree and lean against its trunk. Closing her eyes, she’d slow her breathing and simply...stop. Here she was not Sarren. For hours she would not see, would not hear, would not touch or taste or smell. She’d only feel. In this way, as close to nature as she could be, she could feel a blade of grass twitch, a cloud grow larger, a stream gently curve past a stone and the thundering vibrations that sent the earth into jarring, broken images.
Sarren’s eyes snapped open. She dove up the nearest tree. Just as she was out of sight a group of riders passed underneath her. The air around them spoke of tiredness and sweat and anxiety. In seconds they were through the forest and galloping across the plains toward the front gate of Eversea. Slowly, Sarren let herself down. Branches lowered so she could slip from them easily. She watched from the treeline as the riders became smaller and smaller. Her hand on a trunk and her bare toes digging into the dirt, Sarren waited until they had disappeared into the faraway gates to the city.
Turning away, Sarren moved deeper into the forest. It was not good for her to leave the forest. It tormented her, made her itch inside, when she walked on paved roads and felt the high walls around her. The constant noise and crowds in the city as people squeezed through tight roads made it hard to breathe. So she stayed in the forest, where she could talk to trees and play with animals and breathe freely with the wind.
Years ago, at least she thought it was years, Sarren had built herself a small house in the thickest part of the forest. It was hidden in the bows of two weeping willows. A wide creek ran past it, comforting her with its constant whisperings. Along its shores Sarren could find edible plants and in the forest she could find bushes of berries. She ate animals, too, mostly in winter when pickings were scarce. It made her feel ill, having to kill. Whenever something died it ended so abruptly, so quickly, that Sarren would miss it if she blinked. Everything had a heat, a life, that connected everything else and the moment something was dead that heat was gone. Whenever Sarren killed a fish, or a squirrel her own heart would stop as well, just for a moment, in mourning.
That night Sarren curled up in the corner of her small house. Branches and leaves and mud had been woven and packed together to make the one roomed shelter. A blanket of moss kept chill away. As her eyes pressed closed Sarren stopped again. Suspended in the giddy sensation of everything, she felt a wind pass through branches and the scratch of claws on bark as a squirrel scurried up a tree. The flap of a bird’s wing passed overhead and a wolf growled somewhere far off.
Drums echoed in Sarren’s ear as she slept, but her brow furrowed because the beat wasn’t rhythmic at all. It was clattering, as if a bunch of toddlers had gotten hold of some sticks. Frowning, she rolled over and pressed an ear to against the warm earth. Sarren’s eyes snapped open. Riders. She jumped to her feet. Bolting to the door, she tied the a rope around the branches of it and the wall, securing it. She’d never tested how well the lock would hold and, staring at it now, saw that it would do little. The willows covered the house, she reminded herself and backed away from the door. Nobody could see it. She crouched in the corner. The hoof beats grew closer.
Sarren pressed tighter against the curving, rough wall. She wrapped her arms around her legs. Tightly, she squeezed her eyes shut. The riders were very close now, too close. She should run, flee into the woods...but they were so close. Terrified, caught between fight and flight, she hid in the corner and hoped that they wouldn’t see her. A breeze found her through one of the gaps in the wall. It reminded her that she was not just a terrified girl caught in the dark. She had friends, she had people to call to.
Forcing herself to relax, Sarren reached deep into the ground. Roots tangled around each other, insects and worms and bugs and all crawled through the earth. Sarren pushed herself away from the earth, into the air. Carried on the wind, she found the ear of the horses and whispered to them. There were no words to whisper, just nudges and pushes that the horse could understand. He began to slow. The sound of a whip. It cracked the air, snapped against Sarren’s ear. Jolting, she grasped at a branch that made up her wall. Her stomach churned at the thought of that whip connecting with flesh.
The riders were so close, just yards away...and then they stopped. A saddle squeaked. Dirt crunched under a boot. Sarren held her breath. Now Sarren’s eyes were wide, unblinking. She watched the door fearfully. Her heart slammed against her chest. The rope around the door tightened, straining. Grunting, the man on the other side slammed his shoulder against it. With a snap the branches the rope was tied to broke.
Sarren didn’t make a sound. Pulling herself tighter, smaller, she hoped not to be seen. Maybe he’d think the house was empty. The man had to stoop as he entered and, terrifyingly, this brought his gaze directly to Sarren. He stared for a moment, squinting as if he couldn’t decide it was a girl or shadows. Run! Every part of her screamed it! Trembling, she couldn’t make herself get up. The man smiled. He’d decided. It was a girl. His smile said ‘i won’.
Diving down into the earth, Sarren pulled at it, wrenching at stones and roots so everything burst upward. The earth tangled around the man’s boots. Roots caught his arms. Sarren bolted for the door, streaking past the man’s outstretched hands. She passed out of the house and skidded to a halt. Three other men dove at her. They grabbed her, pulled her to the ground. Struggling and screaming, Sarren kicked and bit. A tree bent down, almost cracking, as its branches tangled around one man’s throat. It did not squeeze, did not dare squeeze the life heat from him, but held him still. Rope tightened around Sarren’s ankles and wrists. Squirrels chattered, mad.
When Sarren was hauled to her feet someone tied a gag around her mouth. Her shriek was muffled. She was hauled onto a horse in front of a man. The moment they were on the horse was kicked into a gallop. Birds screeched and wolves growled. Trees bent, slapping the rider across the face. The creak ran faster, leaping up past its banks. All leaned toward Sarren who was one of their own, but none could pull her from the horse. The man behind her had a firm hold, not allowing her to even move.
One other horse rode alongside them, the other two men left behind. Perhaps they had been swallowed by the angry earth. Perhaps the water had drowned them. The horses were pressed faster than they ever had been in their lives, fleeing as the forest gave chase. The night grew hotter and hotter. It was a dry heat that crackled against the skin. Roots tore themselves from the ground and caught the hooves of the horses, but they leaped and ran until they burst from the forest.
The forest had been left behind and the water that Sarren had lived by, but the heat was there, burning, growing hotter, threatening a fire that would wipe out lives and fields and the entire city just to get Sarren back. Eversea’s gate was too close. It hadn’t been this close in years. Sarren was brought closer and closer and the forest tried to rip itself up in an attempt to follow. The heat caught fire to the grass around them and the horses panicked. Nature would take the lives of many for part of itself, would tear the city to the ground, would kill any in its path in its single minded ferocity. Sarren closed her eyes and forced herself down and pleaded with it to stop, to let happen whatever would happen.
Hearing that plea, the forest righted. The night cooled and the fires went out. Animals retreated to the wood and the water continued its usual, worn course, bat it was all saddened. The forest had lost Sarren, had lost one that understood everything in it. Sarren righted herself, forcing her spine straight and her head high as a single note called out into the night. A wolf howling a cry that broke the heart of the forest.
Riding on, the horses galloped with loud, harsh clacks as they streaked through the gate into Eversea. Immediately the lifelessness of the city closed in on her, pressing at her with a cold insistence. A city could not understand. A city could not feel. It had no heat, no loyalty to the people that understood it. The idea of people living inside such a heartless thing brought chills to Sarren’s skin. It was empty now, sleeping. Nobody was around to see a single girl being taken through the winding streets to the castle that crowned the city.
Sarren was not brought into the main castle. She was pushed down a few narrow side corridors and down some steps. Underneath the castle were cells. They were dark and smelled of old waste and fear. Throwing Sarren into a cell, the soldiers slammed the door to it shut and the lock slid into place. All the walls were stone. There were four bars set into the door and that was it. Not even a window. Sarren felt her chest tightening and her skin itching. Pressed against the back wall, she curled up tightly, hid her head in her arms and tried to breathe.
A voice echoed through the stone cells. It bounced off the walls and Sarren’s ears pricked at the sound, but it had been a long time since she’d heard the words of men. The word repeated itself and Sarren dared to uncurl. She lightly crossed to the door and slowly brought her face to the bars. From here she could barely see anything of the underground cells. To the left, the corridor continued, to the right were the stairs up and a single cell beside hers. An arm stuck out of the bars and it waved as the word once more repeated itself.
Even without the meaning of the word Sarren could tell it was kind. The voice that said it was kind, at least. Sarren slid her own arm through the bars. At the sight of the arm the voice started talking again, lots of words, one chasing the other. Sarren did not reply, could not reply. She tried to remember what his words meant, but it made her head ache. The arm in the next cell was from a boy, it looked like. The skin was not as dark as hers. Dirt covered it as well, making it a shade darker than it would normally be, as dirt coated hers. The arm waved again and the voice sighed hopelessly.
Sarren smiled at the sound. Strange that in such a dark place a sigh like that could make her want to laugh. There was life in the sound, as there was not in so many other things here. In one final attempt the voice echoed off the walls. Sarren dug back in her memory and tried to remember.
A joyful whoop bounced around, echoing on and on. Again the boy spoke, but Sarren could only understand a few of his words.
“Slowly,” she pleaded.
“What?” the boy asked back. “No English?”
So the boy spoke slower and the more he talked the more Sarren understood, remembering what she had not needed to use in years. They talked for a long time and eventually the boy got around to asking why she was here.
“I’m different,” she told the boy, not want to explain about the forest. “They want to know why.”
“I’m a thief,” the boy told her. “Call me Eto.”
Sarren smiled and told him her name, though she thought it was a strange thing to hear out loud. The word ‘Sarren’, to her, had become more of a feeling, a thought that had no word.
“It makes me itch, being in here,” Eto sighed at one point. “Nothing but dead stone around us.”
Sarren didn’t say anything. Her fingers scratched at her throat, wishing she could be outside where there was wind and earth and water and the heat of all things. Suddenly the door at the top of the cells banged open, crashing against the stone wall. A man came down te stairs, each boot hitting the floor heavily. He knocked Eto’s arm out of the way and came to Sarren’s cell. Unlocking the door, he grabbed Sarren by the neck of her ragged dress and started hauling her up the stairs, though she gave no protest.
Barely remaining upright, she hurried along through deserted corridors to a small hall. Sarren’s eyes immediately went to the windows. There was glass in them, not allowing for wind, but at least there was the weak morning sunlight. From here she could see a courtyard with trees and grass and birds. The man threw her on the floor and left, closing the doors behind him.
Besides Sarren there were three tall, strong men in the hall. They stood around a throne that stood at the back of the room. A red carpet led from the door to the throne and tapestries covered the walls. A man sat in the throne, straight backed and sharp featured. His black eyes darted up and down Sarren, taking her in and judging her in a single glance. Three men stood around the thrown. Two were the ones that had hauled Sarren here last night and escaped the forest. The third man stood slightly apart. He was smaller, slighter and his straight black hair was slightly messy as if he’d forgotten to brush it. His hands twisted around each other, clenching and releasing each other. He stared at Sarren, not as the man in the throne had done, but with an open curiosity.
Sarren turned back to the man in the thrown, a frown turning her lips. He had that feeling of too much power, of cruelty. With a lazy flick of the hand he told Sarren to come closer. Sarren walked only a few steps and the man flicked his hand again so she walked until she was just two feet from him. Now the man took his time studying her, his eyes moving up and down like she was a prize. It made her skin crawl.
“Do you know what you are?” Even when he spoke quietly his voice seemed to fill the hall.
“Me,” Sarren replied, barely tripping over the word after so long practicing with Eto. “I am me.”
The man smiled like he found this amusing. He would indulge her that answer, because it was so childlike.
“Yes,” he drawled. “You are, aren’t you?”
“Should I bow?” Sarren asked abruptly, her words holding the crispness of someone trying to use them properly. “I think it is a courtesy here, to bow to someone with more money than you, if not more wealth.”
He missed Sarren’s slight, prodding jab as she’d expected, but the slight man who stood apart raised his eyebrows and maybe even smiled a little.
“If you like.” The man on the throne moved his hand idly through the air, welcoming Sarren’s suggesting with a slight laugh. Sarren gave a small bow and when she righted she could see how it affected the man, having someone bow to him. He must it get it all the time but even now, being bowed to by a small, dirty girl, it lit his eyes with greed for more power.
Sarren’s eyes drifted to the two soldiers that stood beside the throne, soaking up what they could. Only the slight man seemed unaffected. There was a pinch between his eyebrows and his eyes studied not just Sarren, but the other men.
“Now I want to know why I am here,” Sarren said, letting her voice whisper through the room, not echo, bouncing from the walls as this sharp featured man’s did. “Why I was kidnapped in the middle of the night, stolen from my home.”
Now the man on the throne stood and suddenly Sarren was looking at his shoulder an inch away from her nose. She didn’t step back, maybe because you did not step back from a wolf, or maybe because she liked getting in this man’s way. Instead she kept her eyes on that shoulder.
“Have you heard any rumors of the forest just outside this city’s walls?” the man asked, circling her.
Sarren addressed the empty throne, keeping her face turned slightly upward.
“I’m afraid rumors don’t reach me, seeing as I live in the forest.”
“People say a witch lived there. Nonsense if you ask me, but I believe there is something special about someone who lives in that forest.”
“Whoever could that be?” Sarren asked, keeping her face straight, but rolling her eyes upward. A tinge of sarcasm bit into her words.
The man stopped just on her left, facing her, not even glancing at the other men.
“I don’t like games,” he snapped harshly. “and I see that you are good at them. So let’s stop this and get to the point.”
Sarren turned to face him, which meant looking several inches up.
“These men,” he jerked his head at the two that stood the throne. “Are two of my generals, some of the finest, and the other man is a philosopher. I am Lord Ander and I have something to request of you.”
Sarren waited patiently and she saw how it got to him that she showed no signs of being impressed by his status.
“You have powers, correct, you can control the earth, the rain, nature itself?”
“It seems only right, Lord Ander, that since you told me who you are I should tell you who I am. I am Sarren. Where you live in a castle I live in a forest. Where you have generals and philosophers I have trees and animals. Where you have guards that kidnap potentially powerful and dangerous people in the middle of the night I have intellect.” Sarren fixed him with a gaze that she fixed wolves with when they threatened coming too close to her home. “You seem to think that nature can be controlled, but what you have missed is the fact that nature is uncontrollable.”
Lord Ander smiled briefly, tightly, obviously annoyed by Sarren’s words, words that she wasn’t sure she’d known a few hours ago.
“But it is controllable. My guards saw it. So I ask you to stop lying, Sarren, and to grant me this request because these lands, this civilization, must be protected and spread, the people that threaten it wiped out!” Lord Ander fixed Sarren with his own dangerous gaze, his dark eyes warning her of the consequences of denying his request. “I want you to have nature fight on our side.”
Sarren stood, surprise churning in her and something else, something she didn’t want to feel. Hate. Her lips rose in a sneer.
“No,” she hissed.
Immediately one of the generals held a sword to her throat and slipped behind her, blocking escape with his body.
“I have researched many myths and legends before calling on you, Sarren. You can’t stand it in here, can you? The moment you entered the city you felt the absence of life, of earth, of freedom. You’re suffocating. So I ask you to make nature help me and you will get freedom back, if not…” He let the threat hang there, having Sarren’s imagination fill in the rest.
“Nature doesn’t choose sides,” she hissed.
“Oh, it does.” Lord Ander grinned. “It chose sides when it tried to protect you.”
Sarren was thrown in a box. A metal box that the top could slide off of. They’d left it slightly open so she could breathe but somehow she couldn’t move it. There was enough space to turn on the spot while sitting down. Apparently Lord Ander had ordered it made specially for her, in case she had refused his command. The box had been brought in, set in the middle of the hall and filled with her.
Sarren’s heart was closing, her soul shrinking. She was panicking, her hands banging on the sides of the box again and again but it only filled the box with a dull ring. She couldn’t feel anything, no life, no warmth, nothing. Her breath came fast, a thousand times louder in the small space. What seemed like hours later someone pushed the lid farther open and peered inside. It was one of the war men.
“Have you reconsidered?” he asked harshly. “Or do you need until tomorrow?”
“You’re killing me!” she screamed and he slammed the lid shut, leaving Sarren with her echoes.
They were killing her. She was cut off from everything, the dirt on her skin all that was left of her freedom. If she couldn’t feel the world she crumpled inside. She fed from the earth as the earth fed from her so they tried to protect each other and it seemed that each one was failing. Tomorrow came slowly and when someone finally opened the lid it was the philosopher.
“Are you really dying?” he asked, seeming genuinely worried.
“Yes,” she replied with a voice quaking in anger, but weak. Too weak. Her voice scraped against her throat from the lack of water and her skin felt dry. Her hands trembled in her lap, clasping and unclasping. Sarren made sure to push every breath against her hands, to imitate the wind, but it was a pour substitute.
The philosopher was shoved aside, replaced by Lord Ander.
“Have you reconsidered?”
Sarren tried to punch his nose but he slid the lid shut again so all Sarren did was hurt her knuckles.
The next day the same thing happened but Sarren put away thoughts of hunger and thirst and cramping muscles and even the feel of death to deny Lord Ander again. She thought of all the things he’d probably done to people. Ripping them apart, beheading, hanging, chopping off hands and fingers. Sarren would rather that he just chop a hand off because when she was in that box she couldn’t believe there was a world out there and she knew that if she didn’t get out in a few hours and meet the earth again she would die, her soul crippled and broken. It took until the third day for survival to kick in. She could figure out what to do later, for now she needed to breathe.
“Will you submit?” Lord Ander demanded and finally Sarren nodded her head, her face hard and sad.
The whole top of the box was off and she was helped out.
“I need to be outside,” she managed in a whisper before collapsing.
The philosopher and two guards helped her out into a garden. She told them to be quiet and collapsed onto the grass. The whole front of her pressed against the warm earth, the blades of grass tickling her skin and the sun warming her back. She took hours to simply close her eyes and feel. Without any sense but that inside of her, she viewed the world. Suddenly there was life again, brimming through everything. Though it was muted and dull inside Eversea’s walls, it was there. Sarren smiled as a bird beat its wings high above them. Tentatively, the philosopher approached and just as he was about to place his hand on Sarren’s back, she rolled out of the way and into a standing position, looking at him blankly.
“You’re sorry,” she said and he nodded.
Sarren glanced at the two guards muttering off to the side. If Sarren and the philosopher whispered they wouldn’t be heard.
“You have to know that what Lord Ander asks is impossible,” Sarren said quietly. “I am but a part of nature, not its mind.”
The philosopher stared at her a moment before speaking.
“How do you…how are you…”
“How do I speak with the trees?” Sarren smiled. “Give me your hand.”
Quickly the philosopher held his hand out and Sarren took it in hers, looking at the palm and the fingers and the small lines on the back. She pressed her palm to his and closed her eyes.
“Calm,” she whispered to him and when he’d relaxed enough she extended herself into the earth, through the soles of her feet and into the roots of the grass, of the trees, into the soil. The philosopher came with her and felt all the creatures there and in the air, too. The birds’ happy lives and the leaves that were carried on the wind. Then he was released back inside his own body, his hand at his side and his heart aching at not being able to understand all that.
“I could teach you,” Sarren told him seriously. “If you helped me escape, but you must know that once you are a part of nature you will never be able to walk into a place like this again and stay there. Even now I am still wasting away, though my feet are pressed to the world.”
“I think that if I understood all that, if I…It’s indescribable, Sarren, but I think I would love it. You would let me come with you?”
“Of course.” She smiled and then frowned. “But I want someone else too. Eto, a thief in the cells. I think he’d like it too.”
So the philosopher, under the pretext of gathering information from the still healing girl in the garden, began to plan. Eto had been caught before and this time it was death for him so they had to move fast, before tomorrow.
At night the philosopher made sure that he accompanied Sarren back to her cell and, with regret, banged the guard that had come with them on the back of the head. Sarren winced but he was alive. She quickly took his keys and let a bewildered Eto out of his cell.
“Come quickly and quietly,” Sarren whispered and he did.
The two followed the philosopher back up the stairs. They used servant passageways to navigate to the front door. This was the tricky part. On the other side of the rather large wooden slabs were guards, four just there and twenty archers patrolling the balustrade. Their entire plan rested on a single, flimsy lie. If they were caught it would mean death to Eto and the philosopher and a fate much worse for Sarren.
Sarren and Eto trailed at the heals of the philosopher as he pushed open a door and lead them outside. Immediately four guards had their swords drawn and the philosopher quickly pulled a letter form inside his cloak.
“We’re meant to be allowed into the yard,” he explained quickly. “Lord Ander has a task for Sarren and this boy.”
The guards doubtfully leaned over the letter and began discussing the seal stamped at the bottom. It had taken but seconds for the philosopher to slip into Lord Ander’s office, use the stamp, and slip out, though he’d almost been caught. Whatever doubt remained, the philosopher was too well respected to be questioned at length and the guards let the three of them pass, watching them warily as they set themselves up on the lawn.
Sarren could see the front gate that would lead them off of the castle grounds and into the town and visualized the path that would take her straight back to the forest. Yet they had to wait. Acting as if they were doing something important that required all of their attention, the philosopher, Eto and Sarren made whispered comments, being sure they carried on the wind to the guards.
Sarren’s mind was not on the comments, not on the charade. Her toes were wiggling, burying themselves in the soil beneath the grass. Slowly, piece by piece her hair was being lifted, tested by the wind. Nature was recognizing her and listening.
The guards began to relax and finally they were no longer paying attention. Sarren and the other two began to drift toward the gate and right when they thought they’d be caught they ran. They dashed through it and were heading down the path quickly, their feet flying. Behind them came the sound of chasers. The guards were after them, their swords at their hips. The ground lurched. Beneath the cobbled, man made roads dirt and rock shifted, throwing itself up for one moment in a movement that threw the attackers off their feet and away.
“Keep running!” Sarren cried to her friends.
They were lagging behind her, the philosopher especially. As the sound of clattering hoof beats from one of the mounted guards that patrolled the city echoed in Sarren’s ears her heart sank. The gate to freedom was still minutes away and the philosopher and Eto were still behind. Risking a glance back, she saw the mounted guard trot out of a street and set his sight on the philosopher. Sarren froze, calling the others on. She locked her wide eyes with the horse and begged it to stop. Somewhere inside him the horse recognized Sarren, recognized the thing he shared with her, nature. He shied, whinnying and rising onto his back legs. The guard’s legs locked around the horse’s sides but as soon as the horse was back on the ground he leaped off and pursued the group on foot, drawing his sword.
Just before Sarren turned to run she saw the guard gain on the philosopher and her friend stumble, just enough for the guard to get close enough to sink his sword through him. Sarren’s heart stuttered, her vision momentarily going black as she saw this vibrant life vanish quicker than a candle flame.
“Sarren!” Eto called and she forced her legs to move.
No one was after them now and when they reached the front gate they catapulted through it, leaving the guards confused as to what had just happened. They flew across the field toward the bowing trees, the rushing creek, the singing birds and the barking wolves.
The next day they traveled long, as well as the next, and the next until they found a new place to build. Eto became as attached to nature as Sarren was and soon it pained him just as much as her to walk into a city. They stayed together, friends with nature, understanding that control wasn’t won with violence or bribery as Lord Ander had hoped, but with friendship.