Tree of Ages
After a century spent as a tree, Finn awakens into a world she barely recognizes. In fact, she barely even recognizes herself. Dark shadows seem to haunt her every step, pushing her toward a past she’s forced herself to forget.
Iseult claims to be a sellsword, but he seems to know more about Finn’s past than she does. Unfortunately he doesn’t know about the bounty on her head, but two thieves in disguise do, and they plan to act.
In order to survive, Finn must rediscover the hidden magics she doesn’t want. She must unearth her deepest roots to expose the phantoms of her past, and to face the ancient prophecy slowly tightening its noose around her neck.
Release date: July 25, 2019
Publisher: Vulture's Eye Publications
Print pages: 273
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Tree of Ages
Sara C. Roethle
As the first hints of pinkish sunlight crept over the horizon, Finn shivered into awareness. She was glad for the sunlight. Though the solstice had long since passed, winter still hung on, making the days short and dark. She reached her branches up toward the sky, searching for a hint of warmth. What she felt was cold like she had never experienced. She searched down through her roots for the usual heat provided by the deep earth and felt . . . nothing. Then she fell over. She had never done that before. The sunlight winked out of existence.
* * *
When Finn awoke, the sun was halfway across the sky. It was at that blindingly bright point of the day that she always enjoyed the most. Yet her insides were so cold, she barely felt its heat. Insides? Her insides were usually more solid than her outsides. And why was her vision so . . . so, conical? It must have happened in the fall. Oh gods, she had fallen. So why wasn't she dead?
Feeling unstable, she tried desperately to force her roots back into the ground. She tried so desperately that suddenly her trunk spasmed. She folded right in half, and almost lost sight of the sky again at what she saw.
Those things attached to her trunk. Those were not roots. Those were legs. People legs. Finn squirmed frantically in a futile attempt to escape the people legs. She froze, then with terrified slowness moved one of her branches in front of her. She had a great deal more movement than she could ever have imagined. Normally she could only move in tiny increments to twitch her leaves toward the sun. Slowly her limbs came into view. It was as she suspected. Her branches were now people arms, and she only had two of them. How was she supposed to survive with only two branches?
Moisture rolled down what she supposed was now her face. She had seen such a thing happen to a person before, but she couldn't quite remember what it meant. She supposed it meant she was dying, and given what was happening, she welcomed the idea. She curled up into a little ball, tried to dig herself down into the dirt, and there Finn stayed as blackness took her again.
* * *
“Wake up, lassy,” a scratchy voice whispered.
Something shook her, making her dizzy with the movement. She opened her eyes and was once again overcome with a great sense of loss. Her vision was dim and narrow compared to before.
Her new eyes took in a stooped old man. He wore a slouched grayish hat that looked suspiciously like a hempen potato sack. Its frayed ends intertwined with his dark silver hair, which melded with his gray woolen robes. His face was creased with kind lines, and his eyes shone a bright, cornflower blue. The eyes looked strange in contrast to the shimmering flow of his muted silver hair. She had seen the man before. Just as she had seen many men before.
“Yer bound to freeze to death lyin’ there like that,” the old man went on, consternation plain on his face. “Ye best get up and come with me.”
She opened her mouth, oh gods, she had a mouth, and tried to speak. She knew the language from listening to it over the years while she watched hunters and other folk from the nearby farms of Greenswallow in her glen. Yet, she had never imagined she would have a need to speak it.
“Who—” she began, but the words felt sticky in her mouth.
“Who am I?” the old man finished for her. “Àed is me name. I live not far off. Ye best come with me so ye might warm by me fire.”
Finn shook her head. “I'm lost,” she lied. Her voice was much softer than his. It made her cringe, not because of its softness, but simply because she had a voice.
“Dinnae be silly,” Àed replied. “I saw ye turn from a tree. Yer in the only place ye have ever known, at least for a very long time.”
Finn blinked up at him. “You saw?” she asked, the words forming more smoothly. “Do you know why it happened? Can you put me back?”
He shook his head, his vibrant eyes creased with sadness. “I've no such power. Right now I can only help ye to stay warm. Now let's try and get ye up, lass.”
More hot moisture streamed down her face, but she let the old man take hold of her arms. He lifted slowly, helping her to stand. She nearly fell several times, but finally found her balance. It felt good to be upright again, even if she was much shorter than before. She looked down at the old man and realized she could see clear over his head. At least she wasn't that short. With a kind smile, Àed placed her hand on his shoulder so that she might use him for balance, and they began a slow procession toward a small stone hovel in the distance.
“I've never seen that house there before,” Finn commented, the words feeling slightly less strange to her.
Àed gave a slight shrug. “Been there a long time, but it was likely out of sight for ye at yer . . . previous angle.”
She supposed that was true. She thought back to the view she had as a tree. She could see the glen. She'd watched it year after year, as its colors turned from vibrant green, to pale yellow, then back again. She could see other trees, though none of them ever communicated with her, and she could see the distant mountains. Their shape was a vivid memory for her. She had let her sight wander along their edges for so long. They were the only thing in the glen that never truly changed.
As the pair walked farther from the spot where she had taken root as a sapling, she began to look around at all of the other things she couldn't see before. This new form limited the span of her sight, but movement helped to expand it. She realized with a start that she could go see anything she wanted. She could see the distant mountains up close. She could see past the mountains. She wasn't sure whether or not she actually liked the idea.
They reached the small home. It wasn't as shabby as it had seemed from a distance. The front yard was enclosed in shrubbery, obscuring part of the building from view. The walls were made from good-sized stones held together by mortar. She wondered how she knew what mortar was. She hadn't recalled seeing it before. How had she thought the shack shabby, when she had nothing else to compare it to? Surely this new form was causing her to lose her mind. She pushed the thoughts away as Àed opened the house's wooden door and drew her inside.
The first thing she felt was warmth. It was a different sort of warmth than what she usually felt from the sun, sort of all-encompassing. A small, dark-colored, metal stove sat in the far corner of the house, with a metal pipe connected to the low ceiling. She could see flames through the side of the stove's metal hatch. The flames frightened her, naturally, yet the warmth was delicious.
Finn took her hand off Àed's shoulder, then stumbled a little closer to the stove. She stumbled all the way to the floor, thoughts of falling too close to the fire racing through her mind. Instead of ending it all right there in a fiery inferno, she landed on a soft rug covering the majority of the dirt floor. The colors of the rug were plain, and looked suspiciously like the same material composing Àed's raggedy, heather gray robes.
There wasn't much else to see in the small home. The interior walls were the same stone as the outside, and a mat stuffed with straw dominated the corner opposite the stove. There were a few oaken cabinets pushed against the wall with the door, and a few small windows were scattered about the adjoining walls, letting in enough light to see by.
While Finn was taking in her surroundings, Àed draped a deep green cloak around her shoulders. She looked back at him in question.
He cleared his throat, his face burning with a blush. “Not sure if ye realized ye were bare of any clothing. Most folks might think ye mighty improper.”
Finn wrapped the cloak tightly around herself appreciatively. The fabric was much softer than it looked, and felt nice on her fragile skin. At least, she thought of it as fragile. Much more fragile than her bark, at any rate.
With his back to her, Àed faced one of the short cabinets. He took root vegetables from a woven basket and began chopping them with a roughly made knife. Finn was surprised he didn't hack a finger off with the way he was haphazardly cutting into the various bulbs, potatoes, and carrots. She watched him curiously, not sure of what to do with herself.
“I dinnae know if ye eat,” he began with his back still turned, “being as yer previous form was a tree, but we'll give it a shot anyhow.”
She nodded, then realizing he couldn't see her, mumbled, “Thank you.”
She wasn't sure why the man was helping her, but she truly was grateful. Without him, she would still be curled up out in the cold. Instead, she was in an actual house. A house! Who ever thought she'd have the experience of being under a roof?
Finn looked up at said roof, wondering if it was stable. It felt strange being indoors, and she wasn't sure how much she trusted it. After a short while, an eerie sense of loss pervaded her thoughts. Though she knew that soil, grass, and other growing things were right outside the door, she couldn't feel them like she used to. Not appreciating this new sense of melancholy, she stood and exited the house, feeling much more steady on her feet than before. Àed did not look up from his chopping upon her departure.
Outside the air had an even greater chill to it than when Finn had first awoken. She noticed with a start that her breath fogged as she exhaled, and her fingertips hurt with the cold. She made her wobbly way around the small yard, breathing out more heavily than necessary, watching her breath with mild fascination, while keeping the cloak wrapped tightly around her shivering frame.
When she found an open patch of soil, unmarred by large stones or sizable plants, she sat. She dug her toes into the cold hard earth, chilling them with the moisture retained by the ground. A touch of energy settled her nerves, bringing back a shred of the calm she felt when connected to the living, breathing root system, but it was a dull energy. She could feel it, but not quite touch it. Her teeth chattered almost violently with the cold. The cloak, heavy as it was, was still not enough to keep the icy air away from her small, human bones.
As if on cue, Àed appeared from the house with a few articles of clothing in hand. “These were me daughter's,” he began without really looking at Finn. “I doubt she'll ever be comin’ back for them, so ye may as well put them to use.” He held the articles out to her. “There're some boots in the house that might fit ye as well, though ye might want to clean yer feet first.”
Finn looked down at her feet, which were in fact covered with moist dirt. She imagined the rest of her was probably fairly covered in dirt as well. Suddenly, she found herself wondering what she looked like. Not just the dirt, but what type of face she had. She stood and took the clothing from Àed, following him back into the house.
Àed had a large pot of warm water waiting for her inside, with a rough looking cloth draped over the rim. “Fer the dirt,” he explained uncomfortably, then left the house for her to bathe in peace.
The soup on the wood stove smelled divine. Finn had never understood what hunger was. She had known thirst and felt a certain lacking during the winter months when the sun was out less, but it was nothing like the pain she was feeling inside her belly right then. She wondered how humans ever got anything done with such incessant pain.
She glanced at the soup pot again, but it was obvious that Àed wanted the dirt off her before they ate, so she started scrubbing away furiously. Muddy water dripped down her legs and feet to the dirt floor. Luckily, the floor was so hard-packed that it didn't seem to make any extra mud. There wasn't much she could do about the dirt underneath her finger and toenails, but the rest of her skin was soon clean, glowing pink from scrubbing. She dried herself off with the green cloak, then set to the task of dressing, and quite the task it turned out to be.
The dress Àed had given her had many ties and cinches, and her fingers were already tired from figuring out the underpinnings. Roughly five minutes into the venture she considered asking the old man for help, but not wanting to ask him for more, she worked until she had the dress on straight. She did not cinch the black bodice as tight as she'd seen other women do, and the skirt, made out of a charcoal gray fabric, was far too long on her small frame, but at least she was covered.
She went to the door and peered out, looking for Àed. Her eyes found him standing off in the distance, staring at the horizon. She called out to him to get his attention. Hearing her, he hurried inside, rubbing his hands together to warm them.
He observed the job she had done on the dress and nodded, then went to fetch a pair of boots and some woolen stockings from beside the straw mattress. He handed them to Finn, instructing her to sit down on the rug and try them on.
The boots were made of soft, pliable leather, and were far more complicated than the dress had been. Finally, with a little help from Àed, she managed to lace them up. They were a bit big on her feet, but still rather comfortable. Once she was fully dressed, Àed handed her a broken shard of mirror.
“Careful,” he warned. “Them edges be sharp.”
Finn handled the mirror shard delicately, lifting it in front of her face. The glass was foggy, but she could still make out her reflection. Her eyes widened in amazement. Not because she was particularly amazing looking, but because she had a face. A human face. Well, she knew she had one, but seeing it was quite a different matter.
Her eyes were large and dark, and helped balance out a somewhat strong nose. She had a fairly wide mouth, with her lower lip ever so slightly fuller than the upper. Her skin was pale and lightly freckled, and her head was topped with a waist-length, wavy mane of dirty blonde hair that was in need of a good brushing. She supposed she was pretty, but not in an overt type of way. Finn handed the mirror back to Àed, feeling numb and slightly giddy. Something itched at the back of her memory, but she couldn't quite place it. All she knew, was that her face was oddly familiar to her.
After placing the mirror in a cupboard drawer, Àed filled two carved wood bowls with pottage, and handed one to Finn. She took it appreciatively, wrapping her hands around the warm container. Still seated on the rug, she curled her legs to the side and placed the bowl on the floor while Àed seated himself on the straw mat and began eating. He slurped the soup noisily, plucking hot vegetables out with his bare fingers.
She watched him eat, not sure she wanted to do it now, seeing how messy the ordeal was. “I don't remember you having a daughter. I remember seeing you in the glen, but alone. Always alone.”
Àed stopped eating. His heavy brow drooped. He gazed in Finn's direction, but he seemed to be looking elsewhere. Seeing a different place. “I was not in agreement with her on many of her choices. I tried to change her . . . ” He cleared his throat, then shook his head. “She left. Had a yearnin’ for adventure, did that one. I don't imagine I'll be seein’ her again.”
Finn gazed down into her bowl, sorry she had asked. Àed's daughter had been gone a long time. She had seen him trudging through the forest for many, many years, but never with a daughter. Àed set his soup aside and rose to stoke the fire. Finn ate in silence.
“I dinnae know what ye plan to do,” Àed began after a time, breaking the silence as he closed the hatch on the stove. “But yer welcome here as long as ye like. I haven't much to offer, but ye'll be warm and ye'll be fed. Greenswallow ain't along any travel routes, so no one will bother ye here.”
She hesitated, then nodded. “Thank you, I'm not sure what I would have done if you hadn't found me. Although, I'm still not sure what I'm supposed to do now.” She took another slurp of broth, then looked back up at the old man. “What—” she bit her tongue, not really sure if she wanted to know.
Àed smiled encouragingly. “Go on lass. Ask anything ye like.”
“Well,” Finn began again, “I was just wondering what it looked like . . . when I turned into a person.”
Àed's smile faltered, ever so slightly. She thought for a moment that he wasn't going to tell her, but eventually, he spoke. “I was gatherin’ neeps from me garden when this Sgal arose, the strongest of winds. It smelled for the life of me like roses and rain. Like the smell of a summer storm, ye understand?”
She nodded, anxious for him to continue.
“I found meself standin’ and walkin’ away from me home, guided by the wind. It pushed me along, mighty fierce. It led me to the glen where ye used to stand as a tree. There the air started to shimmer and blur, like it do on distant horizons in the middle of a hot spell. One moment ye were a tree, then I blinked, and ye were standin’ there in this form. There was a look on yer face like the world was crumblin’ around ye, and it was the most beautiful thing ye had ever seen.”
Finn was not sure how to take what the old man was telling her. “I don't remember it. I just remember falling.”
Àed smiled, but it was not a happy smile. “I left after I saw ye, and I'm sorry for that. I just left ye lyin’ there in the grass. I've not been around people for a very long time, and I wasnae sure I could do it again.”
“But people are in the glen all of the time,” she countered, not realizing that such a contradiction might seem rude. It was obvious the old man expected her to be angry at his admission, but she was used to people paying her little to no mind. She would never have expected someone to help her.
Àed continued to smile, with perhaps a bit more warmth than before. “No one bothers an old hermit. I saw them, and they saw me, but that was the extent of it. Talkin’ to ye, well this is the first time I've talked to another soul since me daughter left me.”
Finn felt an involuntary smile curve her lips. “If it makes you feel less alone, this is the first conversation I've had in just as long. In fact, it's the first conversation of my life.”
“Ye seem to have grasped the language quickly. It takes most of us many years to learn to speak.”
“I've heard countless conversations,” she explained. “I learned from them.”
He narrowed his eyes like he didn't fully believe her. “Your speech just seems mighty fluid, is all I'm sayin’.”
Her hackles rose at the suspicion in his tone. Her words came out sharper than intended. “I don't understand what happened to me, and I don't know how I am able to speak to you, or why I have the lips that enable me to do so.”
Àed held up his hands, patting the air in a soothing gesture. “I dinnae know either, but yer here now, so ye may as well make yerself comfortable and get some rest. We'll speak more in the mornin’.”
Now that Àed had pointed it out, Finn did feel a certain weariness about her. At the old man's instruction, she curled up on the lumpy straw mat. She closed her eyes, not sure what sleep would be like, and not sure if she wanted to do it at all. It took her quickly though, and she was grateful for the reprieve.
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