Treed

Gen­er­a­tor: The story’s pro­ta­gan­ist is female and not human. ‘In a tree’ plays a sig­nif­i­cant part in the sto­ry. The sto­ry is set in a place between worlds in the medieval age. The sto­ry is about fear.

She licked her wounds, blood-salty, and let the sun warm her fur. In the mid­dle dis­tance she could hear a brook whis­per­ing over smooth, worn rocks. The fat branch­es of the tree would hold her up. Even if she drift­ed into heal­ing sleep she would be safe here.

Below her, troops marched by, and she pushed the pain into the old, cold part of her mind so that she could con­cen­trate on the class­es of per­il she might yet face.

Sun­light winked off of a mot­ley assort­ment of armour and weapon­ry. The knights and the high-born wore and car­ried items pol­ished to a high sheen, suf­fi­cient to throw fun­house reflec­tions of the sky and the trees of the grove they passed through. The poor, if they wore armour at all, wore dull met­al plates held togeth­er by leather or cloth, and their weapons had a worka­day look to them, swords of tru­ly awful bal­ance made of infe­ri­or met­al, as like­ly to shat­ter as to defend their own­ers. The cat woman won­dered how many of them under­stood what they’d been pressed into, or even under­stood the Latin that the gen­try spoke. A con­fused gab­ble of speech rose from their ranks, quelled now and then when one of the knights rid­ing out­rid­er shout­ed some­thing or struck a man with the flat of his sword.

They marched on, head­ed south, to slaugh­ter Sara­cens and in turn be slaugh­tered by them.

The cat woman looked with long­ing at the hillock where she’d buried her chord-dri­ven time machine. The riv­er of men flowed over it still, a line reach­ing near­ly to the hori­zon in either direc­tion. This war would be the war to end all wars, she thought sar­don­ical­ly. Till the next one.

#

At night­fall they encamped, some of them direct­ly beneath her. Fires appeared, and she had a brief quiver of fear, watch­ing the sparks dance upwards past her, won­der­ing if they would burn the grove in their fool­hardy igno­rance.

Some sang songs, oth­ers went to the brook to wash faces and hands, oth­ers still skew­ered meats and breads to cook over the flames. The cat woman drift­ed in and out of sleep, her wounds clos­ing, tiny beings in her blood­stream foam­ing out to form dams against sep­sis and air­borne par­ti­cles. She dreamed of home, of caper­ing up car­pet­ed walls in pur­suit of her hus­band and their brood of chil­dren.

In the morn­ing fog had erased the world, and she knew for sure that this was a thin place, a spir­it grove where the walls between worlds was fined down to a papery thick­ness. The men below sensed it too, if she was any judge. They kept their voic­es pitched low;  any echoes were swal­lowed by the soft white mist. She could smell their fear from here, the stink of sweat and the tang of pheromones that rode it.

They were march­ing to com­bat in an ene­my land, and mere mist fright­ened them?

But she knew that thought was crazy brava­do. She was, in her way, as afraid as them.

Things were astir in the mist. Things she couldn’t quite see, couldn’t quite smell, couldn’t quite get a fix on. Were they benev­o­lent? Were they hun­gry? There was no way to know for sure.

Until one of them snared a cru­sad­er, flayed him and ate him. His screams raised her hack­les. She tried to will her­self into a fugue state, a sound­less igno­rance of the world around her, but the heal­ing yes­ter­day after the dog attack had left her reserves deplet­ed. She need­ed food, and soon.

But she wasn’t about to descend while those hun­gry things were abroad in the world.

#

Hours lat­er, the sun had risen high enough to close the gap between worlds. Its ener­gy vibrat­ed the por­tal shut and burned away the fog. There were at least twen­ty dead sol­diers, and a pair of the—things—were stuck on this side. They were immense, and shag­gy, and angry. But their fur already smoul­dered in the light of the sun, and in anoth­er hour, hav­ing killed nine more war­riors, they had burned away into ghosts, ris­ing and flat­ten­ing into the blue sky. Some­day they would fall as rain, per­haps, or maybe they would rise for­ev­er into the black beyond, past the moon, past the worlds, pushed out for­ev­er by the wind from the sun. The cat woman didn’t real­ly care right now.

Food wait­ed in the chord-ship. She had to risk sneak­ing past the war­riors, as they gath­ered their wits and their weapons, as they buried their dead and pre­pared to move on from this cursed thin place. There might be enough cov­er, espe­cial­ly if they were dis­tract­ed.

If they caught her, these Cru­saders would kill her, think­ing her a demon. But if she wait­ed in the tree even anoth­er day with­out her food, she would deplete too far, and the lit­tle helpers in her blood would start to eat her body tis­sues, killing her from with­in.

She wait­ed till some­one screamed, one of the poor sol­diers in his tar­nished armour find­ing the sev­ered head of his broth­er, and then she made a break for it.