“I don’t want you to do it,” Chalis said. She twisted her foot in the earth and a flat piece of bone came up, dug out of the soil. She thought it might be a shoulder blade, from an animal, maybe. It was dull and grungy from dirt. She looked at her brother and shuddered, but he didn’t see it.
Gavan was standing next to Keta and staring up at the trees. He didn’t answer. The autumn wind pulled his hair across his face and he kept tucking it behind his ears so it wouldn’t blow into his eyes. His hair was too long, womanly. Their mother tsked about it all the time, shaking her head and saying he’d never find a wife if he looked fit to be one. But Gavan would just grin back at her, never caring to cut it.
“Look,” Gavan said. He pointed at the grove of trees and Chalis followed his finger with her eyes. A seed fell with the wind, spinning away from the tree as it drifted to the ground. It was dull yellow, round as a button and thick as the end of her thumb. The wind gusted again and pushed it up onto its side. It rolled a little before finally settling in front of her. Chalis stepped back and glanced at her brother again. But Gavan was still looking at the trees.
“I see them,” Chalis said. She crossed her arms over her chest though the wind wasn’t strong enough to chill. Another seed dropped from the tree as she watched, then three more from the one beside it; dull yellow twirling to the brown earth. “I don’t want you to do it,” she said again. She turned to look at her sister. “Keta, tell him not to do it.”
Keta was sitting on the ground, looking pale and flat as the sky and shivering despite the blanket wrapped tight around her shoulders. She lifted her head and drew breath to speak but then just started coughing, ducking her head and covering her mouth with the blanket.
Chalis waited while Keta gathered her air back, unconsciously tightening her arms against her own body each time her sister’s back heaved.
Keta wiped her mouth with the blanket and her arms were shaking. “Don’t do it, Gavan,” she said. “Please don’t.”
“I can make it,” he said.
“You don’t even know,” Chalis said.
“I do!” Gavan looked at her and pulled the hair away from his face and his eyes were dark like the sky and angry. “Why did you come with me, then, if you’re so sure I’ll fail?”
“We’d never let you come here alone,” Chalis said.
Gavan just scowled. “I didn’t force you to follow! I’m fast enough. More than fast enough! I can make it. You’ve seen me run.”
Chalis nodded. There were many seeds on the ground now, scattered by the wind. She wondered if the ground was too cold for them this time of year, or if the seeds were already sending roots to worm their way among the bones. She took another step away from them.
“No one can outrun the wind,” she said. “Not even you.” But she knew Gavan had stopped listening.
“I’m ready,” he said, then unfastened his cloak and let it drop behind him. He undid the buttons of his shirt, sliding the carved bits of deer bone through the loops of wool until the cloth billowed in the wind. When his shirt was completely off he gave it to Keta, kneeling down so he could put it on her lap. “Keep it for me,” he said smiling, and then pushed aside her hair so he could kiss the damp skin of her forehead.
Keta’s hand darted out of a fold in the blanket and pulled the shirt underneath it like she had to keep it warm. She looked up at their brother with tears in her eyes. “Please don’t,” she said again. “Please. Not for me. I don’t want you to die, Gavan! Not for me!”
Gavan just grinned at them both, proud as a hero in the old tales. He didn’t shiver but the wind had run goose bumps up and down his arms. “I won’t die. You’ll see,” he said. He pointed to the far end of the grove, where the wind had blown the leaves into brown piles. “That’s where I’ll come out, and when I do they’ll have to make you better, just like in the stories.”
“They’re just stories, Gav!” Chalis said.
“No they’re not!” Gavan crossed his arms, glaring at her slit-eyed through the tangled strands of his hair. “You’re saying Tansi’s a liar, then? Tansi?” He jerked his chin at a distant point over her shoulder, where Chalis knew their village would be: warm and safe with the fire breaks and the rough, blood-colored walls nothing living could climb. “Maybe we should go back there now so you can say so to her face.”
“Fine then. Let’s do that,” Chalis said. She drew herself up and crossed her arms as well, purposely mocking him and trying not to show her hope on her face. Yes. Go back. Let’s go back. Back there was the soup their mother had left to simmer over the hearth and a warm pallet where Keta could lie down. Back there was the embroidered cloak she wished she’d thought to wear today, and the wooden box Keta had made for their father’s ashes.
Chalis would have given anything in that moment for Gavan’s need to be right to overreach his pride, but instead of snapping at the bait he just smiled like he knew better than her or anyone.
“We’ll go back soon enough, when I’m through and Keta’s well.” He said it as if there were nothing else that could happen.
“Please, Gavan,” Keta said.
“That’s enough!” Gavan snapped at them both, patience frayed past mending. “Stay or go home, however you choose, but no more arguing! This is my choice to make and I’ve made it!” He turned to Keta. “You should be happy! I’m going to save you!”
Keta just shook her head, eyes brimming. “Please, Gavan, let’s go home!” Speaking so much set her to coughing again.
“Fine, then,” Gavan sneered. “Bawl if that’s how you like it. I’m doing this either way.”
He stalked to the part of the grove where the tree branches met overhead like the entrance to a tunnel. Grey light spilled through the spaces between the leaves, dappling the shadowed ground dark and darker still. The ceaseless wind tugged at the bower with a sound like rushing water; every time, a handful of seeds would come lose and spin lazily to the ground.
Chalis tried to swallow but her throat was thick and hurt. “Gavan!” She ran to where he stood, getting ready to run. “Gav.”
He snapped his eyes to her, furious, but Chalis just stepped close then threw her arms around him and held him tight. Gavan only hesitated for the space of a breath before he hugged her back.
“God’s speed,” she murmured into the chilled skin of his cheek. “God’s speed to you, brother. Run through.”
She felt his nod, then he pulled back from her and she let him go. His grin was fearless and certain as a hero who knows he won’t fail.
Then he tucked his untidy hair behind his ears, crouched low and steady, and then leaped into a run.
Chalis buried the cry she wanted to make then started her own run, darting around to the outside of the copse where Keta was and where the trees grew thick as a wall. “Stay here!” she ordered as she galloped on by, as if there was a question of poor Keta moving by herself.
She ran and ran until she finally reached the far end of the copse. The trees grew thicker here and she hoped that she’d reached it first only because of that, because Gavan had to move farther than she did for having to duck around the trees.
She stayed still with her hands in hot fists, trembling like the leaves and trying to listen for her brother through the fierce, wave-rush pounding of her heart. She thought it was only her wishing fooling her ears at first, until the steady ka-thump, ka-thump sound of someone running was close enough to be real. And then like a miracle Gavan burst into the open, whooping in triumph.
“Gavan!” Chalis yelled while he stood there laughing as he caught his breath. His cheeks were flushed from exertion despite the goose bumps still prickling his arms. His eyes were bright and full of more joy than Chalis could remember seeing in him, not since their father died of the same sickness that was taking Keta now.
“I told you,” Gavan said, still panting but so, so happy. “I told you I was fast enough! Come with me.” He held out his hand for her. “Let’s find out sister so the trees can give me my due.”
Chalis took his hand gladly and they went back down the length of the grove to Keta, running again in their impatience. Keta had her head down and her blanket wrapped around her so tightly that she seemed more bundle than girl, but she looked up when she heard them coming and her smile was like she’d never been sick at all. Maybe the trees had already given Gavan his prize.
“Keta! I did it! I did it!” he crowed when they were close enough for their sister to hear. Gavan stopped in front of her and dropped to his knees, smiling as he reached for her hands. “I did it! I outran them! And now they have to make you well!”
“Thank you,” Keta said. “Oh Gavan, Gavan, thank you!” Her eyes were wet again, but this time from happiness. She coughed and then grinned as if she needed to apologize. “What do I–”
She started to scream.
“What? What is it?” Chalis demanded. And then Gavan turned his head, and Chalis finally saw the single yellow seed caught in the wind-churned mess of her brother’s hair.
“Gavan! Gavan! Stop!” Chalis grabbed his shoulders to keep him from moving. His skin was cold but alive, still alive, and for once he did as he was told and stayed still. “You’ve got a seed on you,” she said, fighting to keep her voice calm despite the terrible pounding of her heart. “Stay like that, just like that–I need to get my knife. It’s in your hair.”
“Get it out. Please get it out,” Gavan said, eyes huge and white with fear. No hero anymore, just a boy all-too aware of how often the stories end badly. He was breathing faster now than he had after running, eyes rolling madly as he tried to find the seed without moving his head.
“Stop it! Hush! Stay still!” Chalis hissed. Her sheath was buckled closed. She couldn’t remember doing that, or why she’d thought she should. She fumbled at it with fingers made thick and clumsy with terror, praying that she’d get the knife out before the seed dropped to Gavan’s shoulder, or warmed from the heat of his body.
“Hurry!” Keta begged, as if Chalis wasn’t doing just that; wasn’t wrestling the strap up so she could finally slide the buckle back and wrench the damned prong out from the notch. Keta fell into another round of thick, wet coughing, hard enough to double her over.
“I’m trying!” Chalis finally yanked her knife free and brought it up with the blade out so she could cut off her brother’s hair. Just in time to see a white tendril weaving out of the seed, like a worm searching for a cozy hole in the earth.
The noise she made was too strangled with horror to be anything like a scream, but Gavan heard it and saw her face and then reached up in raw panic to claw the seed out of his hair. Chalis grabbed his hand before his fingers touched it.
The tendril latched on to a lock of Gavan’s hair and started twirling up it like a rope, so near his scalp now that Chalis couldn’t cut it away without grabbing the seed herself.
She reached for it anyway, trying to be brave, but it was Keta who rocked her sickness-gutted body up onto her knees. It was Keta who curled her hand around the seed and snatched it away, wrapped in a torn nest of Gavan’s hair.
“Keta!” Chalis lunged at her, intending to catch her hand and pull her grasping fingers back, but Keta shook her head and dropped to her haunches in the dirt, clutching the seed to her chest like a talisman and twisting her body away. The blanket slid to the ground.
She coughed and coughed and then started screaming. Her arms shook, and then roots burst through the skin on the back of her hands. They were red-tinged and wet, and writhed like the tails of snakes as they sought out the warmth of her body.
Chalis and Gavan scrambled out of reach of the seedling and stood so they could run, but neither of them did. Gavan clutched Chalis’s wrist so tightly it hurt and she could feel him shaking, but she knew they wouldn’t leave Keta like this. They would never turn away while anything of their sister remained.
The roots plunged back into Keta’s flesh, then weaved like thread out and in and out again until red foam dropped from her mouth and her airless screams faded to nothing. After that the only sounds were the desultory soughing of the wind, and the soft, soft slide and creak of roots as the newborn tree burrowed and fed.
Chalis and Gavan didn’t leave until the twigs started to grow. The first slid through Keta’s slack lips before it curved upwards towards the sunlight; the second pushed stubbornly through the ball of her eye. Keta’s body trembled as if she were cold.
“We need to leave,” Chalis murmured when a slender branch broke through the skin of Keta’s curled hand. It looked like she was clasping it to her chest. “Let’s go, please. Please!” She had to repeat it, then tug at his arms when Gavan refused to move, standing fixed as if he’d been the one rooted.
Finally Chalis just started walking, pulling him along by the hand gripping her wrist. He stumbled after her like a child lost in the dark.
They’d barely crossed the boundary between the grove and the meadow before Gavan bent over and threw up. Chalis rubbed the skin of his back, feeling how Gavan shivered under her palm. He spit a few times into the dirt then straightened and wiped his mouth with his hand. The wind was harsher here away from the trees, and his trembling now was from cold as much as horror. His shirt was still with Keta, as far lost to them as she was, and they’d both forgotten his cloak. Chalis knew neither of them would go back for it again.
“I won, Chalis!” he said to her, desperate and pleading. “I won! They were meant to make her better, like in the stories. Like Tansi said! They were meant to make her better!” He started crying. “She was meant to be better.”
“I know,” Chalis said. She risked a glance behind them as they went up the hill, but she couldn’t even tell where Keta was anymore. Just another small tree among so many.
But she’s healthy now, Chalis thought numbly. Maybe that was what the stories really meant, and Tansi hadn’t remembered or learned them right. Maybe the stories could only ever end badly, no matter what anyone did. No one can outrun the wind.
They crested the hill and walked to the place the path started again, then followed it down to where a cluster of houses huddled behind an iron wall, rusted with water and time; Tall enough to keep out the round, yellow seeds, no matter how hard the wind was blowing.