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Osoro Kidani sat on a large stone and stared at a mossy patch next to the river. The air was cold but the sun was high and bright, warming him slowly. The occasional gust, cutting through the valley on its way out the other side, pulled away his hard-earned heat with greedy fingers, leaving him shivering as he waited for the sun to warm him again.
He knew he should move. The black pines along the eastern slope were in need of new supports. He would have to make a decision soon about how he wanted to shape them further. And with the sun so clear in the sky, he really ought to see to some of the more exposed mosses. They were such fragile things.
Chinami’s Rebirth was just beginning. The river raged, swollen with snowmelt from the mountains above, announcing the changing of seasons with forceful pride. Osoro smiled for a moment, reminded of Yuko. She loved the river during Rebirth.
Osoro preferred the more subtle blossoming of his plants. The gentle spread of green as mosses reclaimed the hillside from the snows. The coyness of the cherry blossoms, their buds peaking before they stepped fully into the sun.
Osoro sat for a moment longer, feeling the heat emanating from the hard rock beneath him. He let out a shaky sigh and pushed himself off the rock, brushing dirt from his hands. He was tall, with slender limbs and delicate features. As Rebirth came, the dull ochre of his skin was shifting to a verdant green. The vines and leaves that sprouted from his head like hair were returning to life.
He took one final look at the moss beside the river before turning his back on the boisterous waters. Well-manicured woods sprawled before him. Rough-barked pines twisted intricately, held aloft by stilts of sturdy bamboo. Stone pathways crawled between the trees, seeking out the shaded groves and windswept viewpoints that Osoro cherished.
On a nearby tree, a small white-and-black mottled bird stared down at Osoro, its head cocked sideways. He felt a questing sense of curiosity, plucking at his mind. Osoro looked up at the bird, eyes closing in a smile. “I’ll head to the eastern grove, I think. Perhaps you could check the mosses along the riverbank? I’m sorry to be a bother, Bird. Normally Yuko would check but we’ll just have to make do until she returns.”
Bird chirped and took off from the branch. Osoro called after as she fluttered towards the water’s edge. “Oh! Please do land gently!”
Osoro passed the rest of the day caring for the black pines further up the mountainside. They were coming along nicely. Perhaps another 10 or 15 years and their shapes would be where he wanted them. Not too long.
He was a keeper after all.
He checked in a couple times with Bird. Sharing the creature’s sight long enough to note the dryer areas and ensure that she wasn’t rooting around in the delicate mosses for worms. She was incorrigible. Osoro would sleep easier when Yuko returned. Bird was better behaved when Yuko was there to discipline.
On his way back from the higher slopes of the valley, Osoro came across Bear and Monkey. Bear worked to push a large boulder across a clearing. Twice as large as a normal bear, she took care of the more strenuous tasks around the forest. Osoro had asked Bear to move this boulder so that it caught a more gentle sunlight. He had plans for a wonderful sea-blue lichen that would compliment the clearing marvelously.
A deep furrow in the ground marked the path of the boulder, which Monkey was supposed to be filling and smoothing. Instead he slept atop the rock as Bear pushed it. When Monkey saw Osoro approaching, he sniffed in surprise and winked out of sight, turning invisible. Osoro shook his head and continued back towards the river.
Yuko had left her three familiars behind to help Osoro care for the forest. He hoped that she wouldn’t need them or their abilities in the trials she faced.
Yuko was a spark, a shifter who could do more than just take on the form of the animals within her domain. Just as adepts could shape the magic they used, sparks could alter and enhance the creatures to which they were bound, imbuing them with powers.
Osoro was grateful for Yuko’s abilities. They were a marvelous gift. When they weren’t causing problems, at least.
Osoro paused and reminded himself that those problems were nearly over. When Yuko returned a Champion, the gods could no longer hunt her.
The sun was setting as Osoro reached the bottom of the hills. He took the long path home, the one that veered towards the river before continuing on to the secluded grove where he and Yuko slept. Just one more check to see that the spot remained clear. The peace of mind would help him sleep better.
Osoro rounded a corner and the river came into view. His eyes immediately jumped to the familiar spot. The spot that had been empty every day of the last three weeks.
The spot that now had a sapling sprouting at its center.
Osoro rushed forward, unable to believe his eyes. The sapling was small, but growing visibly. Leaves opened tentatively along the branches, like a newborn deer uncertain of the legs beneath it. “Oh.” Osoro dropped to his knees, crushing the fragile moss beneath him. He reached for the small tree, his hands shaking as they hesitated, outstretched.
Then Osoro wept.
Soft, dusty fur beneath his fingers as he held Monkey and buried his face against Bear’s side. Bird chirping a melancholy note as they stood around the newly formed tree.
Shock as he saw their home and realized that it was now simply his home.
Warm rain beating against his back as he wove a roof of grasses to protect the fragile sapling. Water running into his eyes, making a simple task difficult.
The pull of mud between his toes and around his feet as he dragged himself back into the world…
Osoro stood, placing his hands on his hips and arching his back as he stretched. The river’s cool waters swirled around his legs while the warm sun beat against his bared back. Emiko’s Revel was the best time for working on the water features.
Osoro looked at the newly-built bridge with pride. It formed a semi-circle, arcing over the river like a leaping deer.
The bridge was young and raw, out of place amongst the stately elegance of the surrounding forest. But time would fix that. The wind and the sun would leave the wood dark and weathered. Mosses would reclaim the churned earth on either side. Soon it would be at home with its new surroundings.
“What do you think, Tree?” Osoro waded from the waters, making his way towards the beech tree growing near the river. Though it’s growth had slowed after the first few weeks, Tree continued to grow faster than normal. After only a few months, Osoro could no longer wrap his arms around the trunk. The silver-tan bark was littered with knots from the rapid growth that looked like eyes.
Ten feet up, Tree’s trunk split into a web of thick branches. Growing from those branches were what looked very much like pears, glowing with a faint yellow light. The effect was quite striking at night.
Tree did not respond.
“Mmm. You’re right, I think.” Osoro rubbed his chin thoughtfully, taking a seat on one of Tree’s roots. “Perhaps a nice rock arrangement around the base is best. Monkey, I know it’s a bother, but would you mind bringing in some stones today?”
Monkey lay nestled at the crook of several branches, staring out at the surrounding forest blankly. Monkey did not acknowledge Osoro’s questions. He did not do much of anything these days. The poor creature was still heartbroken.
“Not to worry, Monkey. I suppose a bit of exercise would do me good anyways.”
There was so much work to do. The riverside arrangement had not been well suited for such a large addition. Especially one that insisted on increasing its size dramatically every few weeks. But Osoro had plans.
The bridge was just the beginning. There would be a fountain, fed by the river, that would sit in the shade of the tree. He would replace the thick, bright green moss with something thinner and more demure. And of course a bench. It would be a lovely spot to appreciate the cicadas on warm Revel days such as this one.
Osoro sat in Tree’s shade for a moment longer. Delaying the inevitable. As always, he wished that he could stay here. Devoting all his time to improving the clearing. Never leaving the comforting shade of Tree. But these things took time. He had to be respectful of the existing plants as he worked. He could not simply change everything around them all at once. And the rest of the forest still needed tending.
Osoro stood reluctantly. He grabbed his shirt, draped across a tree branch, and pulled it over his head. He placed his hand against Tree’s trunk. The smooth bark was cool against his palm. “See you soon.”
He turned and walked from the clearing.
The warmth of the sun left him as he entered the shade of the surrounding trees. He tried to hold onto the feeling, remembering the heat against his shoulders; the companionable silence resting against Tree’s trunk. He would return soon. He could be strong for just a little while.
But with each step the feeling slipped through his fingers like sand. His limbs cooled. The loneliness returned.
Osoro paused, bending forward and placing a hand against the nearest pine tree. He took a deep breath, trying to steady himself. His body felt feverish and brittle, like the solidness of his limbs had been lost with the sun’s warmth. How could he do this without her? He wanted to crawl amongst Tree’s branches and hide away like Monkey.
At least then she would always be near by.
Osoro felt a cold, wet nose nuzzle against his arm. It was gentle, but insistent. He looked up.
Bear. Dependable Bear. She always followed him when he left the clearing, now. She watched over him and pushed him forward when he stumbled. Bear’s presence gave Osoro the strength to carry on. But her concern made him feel even more fragile. What would he do without her?
Osoro stood and turned to Bear, looking into her sad eyes. “I believe the forest has become a scary place.” He leaned forward, resting his forehead against hers. Her fur was warm. She smelled like dirt and moss. The two stood there for a moment in silence.
“Shall we check on the eastern grove today?”
Leaving a hand against Bear’s shoulder, Osoro continued up the mountain slope. He did not make it far before he felt a jitter of alarm across the back of his neck. He tensed and Bear looked over in concern.
“Bird. Something seems to be the matter.” Osoro closed his eyes and reached out.
He was looking down from a tree branch near the western pass, seeing what Bird saw. A human woman picked her way through the trees. The woman’s black hair was cut short and she wore a mix of close fitting green cloth and brown leathers. A bow was slung across her back. She moved into the valley carefully, but without much concern. She looked around at the well manicured trees and pathways, a faint smile across her face.
Bird followed the woman as she moved further into the valley. She was heading for the river.
Osoro opened his eyes, returning to his surroundings. His hands shook. He knew this moment was coming. It was rare, but travelers found the valley from time to time. With Yuko around to keep them in check, the intrusions amounted to no more than a pleasant stroll through the woods. Osoro would receive praise for his work on the valley. With Yuko around, there had been nothing to fear.
But now the forest had become a scary place.
“We have a… a visitor. Perhaps we should return to Tree.” Bear turned and the two began making their way back to the riverside. As they traveled, Osoro climbed onto Bear’s back and continued watching the woman through Bird’s eyes.
She made her way to the river, stopping to refill her water skin. She looked at the arrangements in awe. She seemed respectful enough. After a moment, Osoro realized that the woman’s path would take her directly to the clearing with Tree.
“Please do hurry, Bear.” He wanted to run and hide away, but he could not risk letting this woman traipse about the clearing. What if she started a fire? Or broke a tree branch to whittle a new arrow?
The woman entered the clearing before Osoro and Bear made it back. Tree caught her eyes immediately. She looked up the trunk, her gaze coming to rest on the glowing fruit amidst Tree’s branches, curiosity written across her face.
She took a few steps forward before Monkey appeared, no longer invisible, hissing protectively from the upper branches. The woman reacted instinctively, reaching for her bow.
Osoro opened his eyes, returning to his own vision. The woman stood with an arrow knocked, regarding Monkey warily. As Bear entered the clearing, the woman started and took several steps back, trying to keep everything in her field of view.
“Ah, I am sorry to startle you. Please, there is no need for violence. Monkey is only protecting the tree.” Osoro gestured and Monkey stopped hissing, though he continued to watch the ranger with suspicion. Osoro dropped from Bear and held his hands up.
The woman kept her bow trained on Bear for a moment longer, eyes narrowed, before she reluctantly lowered the arrow. As some of the tension eased, she took a more careful look at Osoro. “You’re a keeper aren’t you? I’ve never seen one before.”
Osoro bowed his head slightly. “Yes. My friends and I watch over this valley. I am called Osoro Kidani.” His heart beat loudly in his ears. What would this woman do? Did she come to this valley intentionally, or had she simply stumbled upon it?
“You can call me Trailfinder.”
“It is a good name. May I ask why you are here?”
Trailfinder seemed to relax, though she kept an arrow knocked in her bow. “No particular reason. You might not know, but the Tournament just ended.”
Pain shot through Osoro’s heart. “Yes, I am aware.”
“Well, there’s going to be a new crop coming up, now that the old guard is cleared away. They’ll be trying to make a name for themselves early in the new competition. People hire me as a guide to help them find challenges and adventure. I’m scouting for points of interest.”
“You’ll find no adventure here, I’m afraid. Just my gardens and my friends.”
“What about that?” Monkey’s fur stood on end as Trailfinder gestured towards Tree.
Osoro swallowed, his throat dry. “Ah, yes. Well.” It was difficult to speak. His throat was tight and painful. Osoro realized he had not yet said it out loud. “That tree is special. But not in a way that you would find interesting.”
“Why does its fruit glow?”
“Her fruit, not ‘its’. The tree is… she was my partner.” Bear leaned her head against Osoro, offering support. “When a keeper passes away, their spirit forms a tree in the land that they were sworn to protect. A ‘kodama’ is how the other races refer to it, I believe.
“My partner had a powerful spirit. Some of that strength still radiates from the tree. That is why her fruit glows.”
“What happens if you eat one of the fruit?”
“I’m sorry, I have not tried.”
“Aren’t you curious?”
Osoro blinked, taken aback. “My friend Monkey can turn invisible. I do not look at him and wonder what would happen if I ate his flesh.”
Trailfinder waved her hand dismissively. “That’s different. Fruit is meant to be eaten.”
“Not this fruit, I’m afraid.”
The woman huffed. “Come on, there are so many! Can’t I try just one?” The desire was plain on her face.
Bear let loose a low growl, taking a step into the clearing.
“I’m sorry to be a bother, but this tree is very dear to us. Please understand. I wish you no harm, but I believe my friends will intervene if you try to take any fruit from her.” Osoro’s hands were slick with sweat. How had Yuko stood so calmly, laying down the rules for intruders before? He missed her strength so dearly.
Watching Bear, the woman took a step back from Tree. She held her hands up. “Alright, alright. Fine.”
“If you don’t mind, it’s still early and there is much work to be done. Are you able to continue on and leave this valley? If you would like to appreciate the gardens, I can suggest a suitable trail so that you do not disturb the mosses.”
The woman acquiesced, eyeing the fruit one last time as she left along the trail Osoro indicated. Bear escorted her.
When the woman was out of sight, Osoro sank to the ground with his back against Tree. He buried his face in his hands, tears running down his cheeks. Nothing had happened. But what if something had? More people would eventually stumble across the valley. What if they were not so easily sent away?
The garden was supposed to be safe. Protected. Yuko was supposed to be here, smiling warmly as she watched Osoro fretting over a shy bud or a stubborn tree branch.
But she was gone. And the garden, the world he had so lovingly crafted, was now a scary place.
The prick of sweat that jumped to his arms and back as he spun towards the sound of every broken twig or wandering animal.
Bird’s nervous energy bleeding into his mind as she circled the valley perimeter each day.
Looking to the ridge-line with trepidation, fearing the spark of a campfire as Emiko’s Revel ended and the nights grew cold.
A faint spark of hope, quickly tamped down, that they might pass the season without another encounter…
Osoro stood in front of Tree, his back to her. The ground in front of him was a smattering of orange and yellow. Suzume’s Resolve had come almost a month ago and many of the trees had already dropped their leaves.
Most of Osoro’s garden was filled with pines, providing the timeless look that he preferred. But Yuko had insisted there be at least one grove that changed with the seasons.
Osoro remembered that first crisp morning. They had awoken before dawn, walking along the misty trails in darkness to reach the copse before sunrise. They sat together amongst the trees, watching as the early morning light caught the leaves at the peak of their color.
Osoro had smiled the entire day. Yuko was right of course. Since then, he had created many arrangements to highlight the coming of Resolve and the changing of the leaves.
He missed the stillness of that morning. The valley’s quiet serenity felt so far away right now.
“Hey, we said get out of the way.” The man’s harsh voice jarred Osoro out of his memories. Standing at the edge of the clearing was a group of four.
Two of the individuals were large, wearing full armor: a man and a woman. The man had short black hair and a scar across his cheek. He held a large greatsword in front of him. The woman had her hair pulled back into a tight ponytail. A heavy, two-sided axe hung in her hand. They both looked comfortable with the blades they wielded.
The third member of the group was a man who wore little in the way of protection. He was thin and lithe, with clothes that would not impede his movement. He wore two rows of daggers along a strip of leather that went from his shoulder to his hip.
The fourth member of the group, standing at the back with bow drawn, was Trailfinder.
Monkey hissed from the branches above Osoro. Bear stood in the middle of the clearing, blocking the group’s passage.
“Please understand, this tree is very dear to us. We cannot give you her fruit any more than we could have betrayed her in life. Is there not something else we could offer?” Osoro’s voice quivered faintly as he spoke.
“Sorry friend, I promised these three a glowing, mystical fruit. Not a pleasant stroll through gardens. Nothing against you or your animal friends, but I gotta make a living.”
The armored man stepped forward and raised his sword in one hand. He scratched the scar along his cheek with the other. “You mentioned a bear, but you didn’t say how big it was! This beast will make a fine trophy.”
The armored woman came forward as well. “Now, don’t you two get jealous when I’m the one to slay the thing and my ranking goes higher than both of yours!”
Osoro watched in dismay. They bantered with one another lightly, like they played some sort of game. They fancied themselves heroes. Bear was their monster, Tree was their reward. How could he stop them?
The two armored figures began to circle to Bear’s flanks.
Seeing herself surrounded, Bear roared and lashed out towards the towards the man with the scar to her left. He raised his sword in surprise, managing to get the blade in front of Bear’s claw. But his strength was nothing compared to that of the ten foot tall bear. His elbows buckled. Bear’s claw, and the sword beneath, went crashing into the man’s chest and knocked him sprawling onto the ground.
Osoro cried out in alarm and backed towards Tree. He could feel her cool bark against the palms of his hands as he pressed himself against her trunk.
“Hah! Watch how it’s really done!” Taking advantage of Bear’s focus on the man, the armored woman leapt forward with her axe, swinging down against Bear’s flank and cutting a large gash. Bear cried out in pain and turned her hulking frame towards the attack. The woman was careful to step back out of range, avoiding Bear’s snapping jaws.
The agile man darted forward, pulling two daggers from the belt across his chest. He planted one foot on Bear’s shoulder and vaulted onto her back, sinking both daggers into her fur. Bear growled and shook, trying to dislodge the man and his blades.
The scar-faced man brought himself back to his feet, armor clanking as he shook his head and retrieved his sword.
Osoro stood at the base of Tree, helpless. What could he do? There was a large rock between the roots at his feet. Could he hurl it at one of them? Would it do anything against their armor?
Monkey screeched as he leapt from Tree’s upper branches. As he flew through the air, Trailfinder - still standing far back - loosed her bow at him. The arrow missed, embedding itself in Tree. Dark red sap began to seep around the projectile.
Monkey landed on Bear’s back, still screeching wildly. The man crouching on Bear’s back turned towards the noise, drawing another dagger from his belt. The two armored figures looked up. Monkey’s body tensed and his fur began to glow.
Yuko had given Monkey the ability to absorb and emit light, something which he usually used to turn invisible and avoid work. But now he released a concentrated flash of blinding white. Osoro, recognizing what Monkey was doing, closed his eyes against the pulse. He heard the group of intruders all cry out in surprise. There was a heavy thud.
When Osoro opened his eyes, the man with daggers lay on his back to the side of Bear. He was wrestling frantically with an invisible force, scratches opening along his face and arms out of nowhere. Monkey continued to screech as he attacked.
The man with the greatsword was stepping backwards, flailing blindly to prevent Bear from approaching. Trailfinder and the woman with the axe were similarly incapacitated.
The scar-faced man stumbled backwards into a black pine tree. He cried out and spun, fearing an attack from behind. Osoro’s heart sank as the man’s sword arced down on one of the tree limbs. It took only a second to snap what had taken years to shape.
Bear leapt onto the woman with the ponytail, taking advantage of her blindness to pin her to the ground. There was a nasty crunch as Bear’s full weight landed on the arm holding the woman’s axe. She cried out in pain and swung her free hand in a fist at Bear’s face.
Regaining her sight, Trailfinder knocked an arrow and fired. The missile embedded itself in the thick fur around Bear’s neck, causing her to cry in pain again. The armored woman, still pinned beneath Bear, drew a long dagger and began stabbing the blade into one of Bear’s front legs. Bear roared and bit down on the woman’s shoulder, near her neck. The armor resisted Bear’s teeth, but it began to groan and bend under the pressure. The woman screamed in fear.
Able to see again, the scar-faced man hefted his sword and charged at Bear’s back, rushing to help his comrade. Osoro lifted the rock at his feet and hurled it at him. He hardly even slowed as the rock bounced harmlessly off his armor.
He reached Bear and brought his sword down in a heavy two-handed swing, laying open Bear’s back leg. The swing carried downwards, digging a deep gouge through the moss-covered ground.
Bear groaned but did not flinch away. She pressed down harder with her jaws. One of Bear’s teeth punctured the metal of the woman’s armor, sinking into the flesh of her shoulder. Blood poured out. The woman thrashed in a blind panic as she saw her life coming to an end.
At birth, a keeper was given some part of the land to shepherd. Preserving that land against the encroachment of civilization was everything. It was a keeper’s reason for existing. Osoro’s very name - Kidani - evoked the valley around him.
He looked at the clearing in horror. Broken tree limbs, no longer bending slowly towards their ideal arrangement. Delicate mosses with deep furrows gouged and large areas flattened by falling bodies. The wonderful, verdant green mottled with red blood, turning the ground an ugly brown. The bleeding arrow wound in Tree’s trunk.
Osoro watched as the man with daggers got hold of Monkey and threw him bodily against a nearby tree. He saw Bear’s form, prickled with arrows and daggers, bleeding profusely. He saw the armored man rearing up to deliver another vicious blow.
He couldn’t lose the gardens. He couldn’t lose Bear. Or Monkey. Who would he be without these things?
“Stop!” Osoro cried out, screaming with such panic he felt his voice cracking. The cry was so raw, it shook everyone from their fury. The man with daggers paused as he got to his feet. Trailfinder hesitated, an arrow half drawn. Bear released her jaws. The woman pinned beneath was unconscious. Whether from blood loss or sheer terror was hard to tell. The scar-faced man lowered his sword.
Frustrated tears streamed down Osoro’s face as he continued. “If we give you the fruit, will you leave? Please. You are hurt. We are hurt. We will give you the fruit and let you leave. Just go without causing more harm.”
The man with daggers looked across his companions, his face bleeding freely from several deep scratches around his eyes. The woman beneath Bear was nearly dead. She needed immediate medical attention if she hoped to survive. Her left arm would probably never be the same.
The man nodded, sheathing his daggers. “OK, fair enough.” He looked at his comrade and the armored man stepped away from Bear.
Bear limped back to the base of Tree, favoring the leg that the armored woman had stabbed repeatedly.
The intruders regrouped around their fallen comrade, dragging her to the edge of the clearing. They pried off her armor and Trailfinder began wrapping the woman’s shoulder tightly with a bandage. Their previous excitement was replaced by grim shock.
Numbly, Osoro climbed Tree. He extended a hand towards the nearest fruit. He paused with his arm outstretched, feeling the smooth skin of the fruit against his fingers. “I’m sorry, love.” He closed his eyes and plucked the fruit. There was a brief moment of resistance before the stem broke free. Osoro felt Tree shudder faintly beneath him.
Osoro climbed back to the ground. He could not meet Bear or Monkey’s eyes as he walked towards the intruders. The clearing suddenly felt like a great distance, taking an eternity to cross. Osoro flinched as the armored man took the fruit with rough, dirty hands.
Trailfinder picked up the limb that had been broken during the fight. She angled it against a tree trunk and stomped violently near the center. Once. Twice. The limb snapped, loud like bone. They used it to form a litter and placed the armored woman on it.
Eventually, they left.
Osoro sat with Bear’s paw in his lap. He tended to the deep wounds while in a sort of stupor. What were they going to do? His fears had come to pass.
Monkey sat amongst Tree’s branches, staring with contempt at Osoro. His glare was full of accusations. He had betrayed Yuko. He was weak. Unworthy of the gardens around him.
“I do not disagree with you, my friend. But I do not know what I could have done differently.” Osoro felt hollow.
The angry bite of steel, felt for the first time. Burning a line along his cheek.
Dread as Bird warned of new intruders. Bear rising painfully, determined despite her unhealed wounds.
Primal triumph as he knelt over a man’s hateful face, choking the life from him. Fury quickly evaporating as he turned and puked in disgust.
Weariness in his bones. And muscles. And bruises. Rising each day preparing for the worst…
Amaya’s Remorse was always a quiet time in the valley. The snows fell heavily, hiding away the wonderful greens. They slowed the growth of the trees and choked the river’s playful babble with ice.
Yuko had always itched with boredom during Remorse, but Osoro had loved curling by the fire, laying against Bear’s warm fur. They would talk quietly, making up games to pass the time. They only ventured outdoors occasionally, wading through the drifts to knock free the heavy snow and unburden the poor trees’ limbs.
Osoro paused along the slope, screwing his eyes shut as he waited for the panic to pass. His body broke into a sweat beneath the many layers of rough-spun clothing he wore. His heart beat painfully at the back of his throat. He felt like he needed to scream, to run away from this feeling, to let it out somehow. At the same time he felt fragile, like any movement would tear him apart. He felt he should simply crumple to the ground beneath the weight of things.
It was the snow. The way it blanketed the valley in silence. How the heavy flakes falling from the sky blocked his vision, made him feel further from Tree and his friends. The way his footsteps crunched in the ice, loud and alone.
Eventually, the pain in his heart passed. Osoro knew it would return. But he could not stop. The valley needed him more than ever.
Bear no longer accompanied him into the woods. Her scars hurt in the cold and made it difficult to walk long distances.
Osoro traced the thin scar along his own cheek, shockingly pink against the dull brown of his skin during Remorse. The new ache in his shoulder was a constant presence. It had been a trying time for all of them.
He planted the base of his staff deep in the snow and pushed against it, continuing up the hill. The length of freshly carved wood in his hands was mottled brown and crimson. At this point, Osoro could not remember which of the stains came from his own blood.
He so hoped the snows might quiet the tide of intruders for a time.
After a while, Osoro reached his destination. The clearing was empty, save for a fire pit smoldering at its center and an empty tent to the right. Heat from the dying coals of the fire had kept the morning’s snow at bay. The circle of soot stood like an ugly wound in the middle of the undisturbed white surrounding it. The tent was held aloft by stakes driven into the nearby trees.
Yesterday, Osoro had buried the bodies of the intruders who made this camp. A pair of young rangers. He thought they might have been siblings. He tried to make the graves respectfully. If nothing else, he wished for them to be in harmony with the surrounding features.
He wasn’t sure he had done a good job. He was still learning how to make a graveyard.
Osoro sighed as he walked to the fire pit and pushed snow over the coals. When the heat had left it, he would return and fill the pit in.
Next, he approached the tent and began tearing it down. He could not remove the stakes that had been driven into the tree trunks. He could only hope they would not be enough to kill the pines. He bundled the materials he had been able to collect and placed them in a pile.
The easy things done, Osoro turned to the trees surrounding the clearing.
In his mind’s eye, he remembered this place. He remembered shaping the branches so that they pulled back, giving a wonderful view of the river and the valley beneath. It had been a perfect grove for contemplating the changing leaves during Resolve. A gift for Yuko many years earlier.
He remembered the stubborn cedar standing directly in front of him. Working with it had been a challenge, the tree steadfastly resisting his attempts to coax it into harmony with the rest of the clearing. It had taken nearly 10 years for them to understand one another.
He remembered the pride he felt, pulling Yuko by the hand into the clearing. Showing her the cedar, its trunk flowing back on itself like a crashing wave, it’s branches happily framing the view below.
Those branches now lay on the ground surrounding the tree. Some had been whittled into simple totems. Another was in the beginning shapes of a bow.
Over the months, the rumors had grown. Travelers now believed that the entire forest was blessed. Fueled by the mystical kodama at the center of the valley, the wood from any tree was thought to be a powerful material for weapons and charms. When intruders came, the wondrous shapes of the clearing only confirmed the rumors. The other four races could not fathom that the valley had been shaped by nothing more than a patient, caring hand.
Osoro picked up the bow, contemplating whether he could finish it. Could the other fallen branches be shaped into arrows? Could he learn to shoot with any accuracy?
Suddenly, everything became too much. He had spent years coming to know the proud cedar. It had eventually trusted him to guide the flows and turns of its life. He was its shepherd, and he had failed to protect it. Now he stood in its shadow, holding its broken limbs and wondering if they would make suitable weapons.
Osoro dropped the branch and ran from the clearing.
He sprinted through the snow in a panic. Fleeing from everything his world had become.
He tripped, falling heavily into the deep snow banks. He pulled himself to his feet desperately, leaning on his staff. He looked at the blood-stained wood in his hands, revulsion filling him. He threw the staff into the woods and continued his flight.
At some point he heard the nervous twittering of Bird, jumping from branch to branch above him. She reached out for his mind but he flung her thoughts away.
Osoro burst into Tree’s clearing. Chest heaving, his eyes wild. Bear raised her head in alarm. Her fur was now a patchwork of scars. One eye was permanently closed, replaced by an angry red wound. She began to rise, her body moving stiffly.
“No!” Osoro flung a shaking hand in Bear’s direction. He knew that standing pained her. Her wounds never had time to heal. He did not want Bear to hurt any longer. He did not want his gardens to continue suffering. “Stay where you are Bear. Keep resting.”
Bear settled back to the ground, watching Osoro with a mix of concern and confusion.
Osoro rushed to the pile of steel and iron laying at the edge of the clearing. He hadn’t known what to do with the ugly metal weapons. They had no place in his gardens. Now he began to pull pieces away, flinging them carelessly. He tossed a sword into the distance. Then a pair of ornate daggers. There had to be something here.
He found it near the middle of the pile. A heavy metal axe. He remembered the bite of its blade in his shoulder. Osoro would have died that day if not for Monkey, leaping on the man from behind.
Osoro hefted the axe awkwardly and turned towards Tree.
She looked sad, standing there in the snow. She had dropped her leaves, but the fruit remained, glowing like golden fireflies.
They had lost many of the fruit to intruders. More at the beginning, but there were still many powerful people who found their way into the valley. It seemed like every time Osoro found some new strength within himself, the intruders only got stronger, more determined to take away the things he cared about.
Osoro took a step towards Tree. Then another. The ground beneath him became hard and uneven as he began walking along her roots. Bear watched on in silence.
Osoro felt a weight land against his chest and a sharp pain along his face as Monkey’s claws dug into his cheek, pushing him away. He staggered backwards, the axe dropping with a muted thud in the snow. Monkey’s form appeared in front of Tree, screeching at Osoro.
“Do not look at me that way!” Osoro’s voice broke as he spoke, tears falling down his cheeks. “She would not have wanted this!”
Monkey took a step backwards, maintaining his defensive crouch.
“Look at what the gardens have become. Look at Bear! We cannot continue this way. I do not have her strength.” Osoro dropped to his knees, moving his hands through the snow looking for the axe. His hand ran along the blade, opening a cut along his palm. The snow turned crimson as he lifted the weapon again.
Monkey leapt into the air, disappearing as he flew. The small creature collided with Osoro’s face and began scratching. Osoro cried out in pain, falling backwards into the snow. He could feel Monkey’s nails leaving deep gouges across his cheeks. His eyes filled with blood and he could not see.
Osoro yelled, overcome with pain and fury. He grabbed Monkey and flung him away. He heard a thud as Monkey’s body hit Tree’s trunk.
Osoro pulled himself off the ground heavily. He wiped the blood out of his eyes with the back of his arm just in time to see Monkey charging towards him again. Osoro stepped forward and kicked angrily, catching Monkey by surprise. His foot connected with the small creature, sending it careening across the clearing. Monkey rolled to a stop in the snow, whimpering in pain.
Osoro’s shoulders rose and fell heavily, his breath fogging the air in front of him. Monkey pulled himself upright, holding his front paw close to his body. “Monkey… Monkey I’m sorry…” Osoro took a step forward, his hand outstretched. Monkey flinched backwards and Osoro’s heart broke anew.
Monkey turned and ran into the forest.
“She would not have wanted this…” Osoro spoke softly, tears and blood freezing along his cheeks in the cold. Bear moaned sadly beside him.
Osoro bent slowly and retrieved the axe. He turned back towards Tree. His fervor gone, he now stood filled with uncertainty.
He could not carry on like this. The forest was dying. The forest they had cared for together. Walked through together. Laughed in together. It was dying.
But how could it be alive without her?
“Why didn’t you come back?”
The jarring thrum of the wooden axe handle. Pain in his arms and back as he swung with grim determination.
The lurch in his heart that first morning, when he returned and saw the lifeless wood lying in the clearing.
Hope, as a group of intruders left the valley, disappointed and confused. Bear resting peacefully, undisturbed.
Dirt beneath his fingernails, sweat across his brow as he knelt and tended to the mosses that had been so poorly neglected…
Osoro closed his eyes and felt the warm, delicate breeze across his face. It was early in Rebirth and the sun still peeked from behind the clouds self-consciously. Embarrassed it had been gone so long.
Osoro could hear the river calling happily to his right. Beneath its boisterous tumbling was the steady rhythm of the fountain. The bright plok of wood against stone as the hollow bamboo tipped backwards, filling with water. Then the steady gush as the tube filled and tipped forward again, spilling it’s contents into the pool at its base.
Osoro sat on a bench, contemplating his surroundings. The moss was still gouged and barren in places, recovering slowly from the blood-drenched soil. Several trees looked naked, branches broken and trunks badly scarred. It would be a long time before the clearing returned to its pristine beauty. But Osoro could wait.
He was a keeper after all.
He turned his attention to the fountain and the bench beneath him. Both made of freshly carved beech wood. They were raw and light in color, their lines hard and unnatural. But time would fix that, just as it would heal the clearing that was their home.
Osoro looked over his shoulder at the large stump sitting behind him. Seeing it still made his heart wrench, but he tried to shake off the pain.
He had continued to shape the clearing for a large feature. To anyone who wandered through, they might never know. Or perhaps they would notice that something was subtly off. The arrangement may seem out of balance.
But to Osoro, it was obvious in the way the other trees bent. Where the mosses swirled. The way the fountain and the bench pointed. Where the bridge leapt across the river.
In all these things he could see the form of Tree, her branches proud and stretched towards the sun. Still shaping the clearing around her.
The tide of intruders had slowed, then stopped. Bird still flew around the forest, just to be safe. But Bear’s wounds had finally healed. She lay curled at the edge of the clearing, brown fur and white scars absorbing the sunlight.
Monkey never returned, though Osoro hoped dearly that someday he might.
The forest still felt lonely. Leaving the clearing still filled Osoro with pain. Perhaps it always would. But his gardens were beginning to thrive again. They were finding wonderful shapes beneath his careful, guiding hands. The cicadas would be out soon. And then the leaves would begin to change their colors.
Perhaps some day it would feel like enough.
The End. Now that you're done reading...
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