“Borrowing my shelter, boy?” The tree asks.
I start, having thought myself alone. The voice is slow and drawn out, a creaking, cracking monotone, the sound of age and the boredom of a long walk home through the rain. The day has been long and hard and I had not noticed the difference between this tree and its fellows along the avenue.
“You appeared to be offering it freely, do you charge for its use?” I reply with a confidence I do not feel.
The rain falls in sheets on the flooded fields around me; the road is raised to save it from the same fate, but puddles form in the sterry-cart tracks. The red mud of the day's work has mostly been washed from my bare legs. I note with irritation that my sandals will soon need replacing.
“Is conversation a price? So few stop to talk to an old tree these days.” It moans.
The galaflarge of Seven Summits Estate had been injured by a turrifenge, a professional hazard during the rainy season. Runstable had sent me in his stead, pleading that his wooden leg ruled him out of the long walk and it would be a learning opportunity for me. The chance to get out of the reach of his increasingly morose moods and to work alongside Verrita was all the impetus I needed.
“To do so is to risk punishment.” I inform it. “Topiary of the soul was forbidden by the high council, most of your kind were burned after the revolution.”
I lean on my faddystick and inspect the scurriges in my shoulder bag. Swathed in gassa leaves and put into a torpor by the smoke of the same plant they squirm sleepily at my touch, one of them grabs weakly at my finger with its mouth-tentacles. Runstable will chide me for selecting those whose markings I find attractive, but it is prudent to exchange stock between galaflarges to prevent inbreeding.
“And yet you talk to me.” It observes. “Tell me, boy, are you a rebel or just fearless?”
Back at the compound I will wake the scurriges and then put them in the pen with the others. There is much debate about how to tell the sex of the beasts, but if you put unfamiliar ones together you will get eggs by morning. My mouth twitches into a brief smile at the thought of a new batch of wriggling hatchlings.
“We are a long way from suspicious ears.” I tell it. “And I was brought up in the old ways.”
There is a nearby splashing as wild serrits use the newly created lakes to perform their mating displays, jumping high in the air and clashing their long spines together. Soon the workers will gather the spawn to use in the festival of years past. The joy of the serrits during this season of downpours runs contrary to the moods of the humans.
“Would you consider becoming a friend of this poor, lonely tree?” It asks. “Traffic is scarce and these willows are no company to me.”
My stomach gives a growl, I am only half way home and there is still much ground to cover. By the time I arrive it will be dark and I will have to beg the cook for left-overs. Still, it seems preferable to having to endure Runstable's hollow silence over dinner.
“No one would bury the heart of a loved one so far from their home,” I reason. “It strikes me that such placement might be meant as punishment for crimes in life.”
My thoughts turn to the unreliability of my mentor. In the three years since Breta's hanging Runstable has been spending much of his free time wandering alone. I begin to wonder how far a one-legged man might stray and what secret place he might visit.
“Then I withdraw my shelter,” it tells me. “Begone, boy.”