The boundaries of Bea’s haven were clear, though they remained unseen.
A small shimmer in the air, the smell of sulfur stuffing itself up her nose—these markers told her she was getting too close to the edges. Though she hadn’t seen another human in at least 200 years, she was still wary of getting too close—of seeing something she didn’t want to.
Of being seen.
Since the cliff’s edge, Bea didn’t practice magic much. Her haven provided her the necessities—the clever little spell was one for bounty and boundary; easily confused with the spell for misery and disorientation.
Not that practicing mattered much; her bookshelf was stocked, her pantries full. The only thing she missed, she realized as she stood at the boundary, inhaling the smell of rotten eggs, was people.
The trees provided her cover, offering companionship in the form of listening ears. It really was too bad that they couldn’t talk back. In her head they did. In her head, Bea and the trees had long, rich conversations about the books she read and the animals that crossed the boundary of her haven freely. She’d taken to naming them—the animals—but could never tell if they were the same. They stayed far from her when they came into her clearing—animals didn’t like the sulfurous smell of magic that lingered around her; an after-effect of keeping the boundary spell in place.
She’d been able to feel the trees since she was a young girl, when the entire forest had been her playground. Her affinity for greenery allowed her to feel the roots beneath her feet, to sense the rustling of the highest branches…until she cast her spell.
Now, as she stood at the boundary, the second time already that day, though it was barely dawn, she felt the edge of the boundary like a physical wall between her and the trees. Beneath her feet, the root systems stopped; cut off completely, though she knew it couldn’t be possible.
Like an extension of herself, the spell informed her of the happenings in her haven, which included even the leaves that dropped to the ground in the autumn. She’d know if a trees’ roots had suddenly been cut off, or stopped growing.
No, this was the boundary reminding her that she was like the roots of the trees—a part of her belonged to the rest of the forest, though she couldn’t reach it.
But if I left…
Everyone she knew was dead. Her parents, her aunts…the friends she’d had in the hamlet for a brief time. Bo. After 200 years, there couldn’t possibly be anyone out there who would recognize her. She was so used to not using her magic now…perhaps she’d be just fine to stop using it. Perhaps she could fit in with the rest of the world.
Bea took a deep breath and glanced back at her cottage. The ramshackle house was just large enough for her to be comfortable, but not so large that she worried an intruder might be lurking in dark corners. The spell protected her from that, but everything looked different in the dark.
She was reminded forcefully of the knife that felt like a red-hot poker in her pocket. Bea had almost forgotten she’d slipped it into her cloak when she left the cottage, almost as if she’d planned to leave the moment she’d spotted it on the table.
There’s a way back, she reminded herself. If she didn’t like the world, she could always return.
Bea had walked for hours into the trees, her feet taking her far from the haven she’d created. She’d felt it dissolve as she left the boundary, shriveling up like a worm in the sun. Without her, the haven had no reason to exist.
So far, she didn’t recognize her surroundings. She felt that to be a great comfort. She hadn’t changed much in 200 years, but the forest had. Everything else had.
She’d left her haven just before dawn, when the sun hadn’t even crossed the horizon, but now the sun crept higher, sending streams of bright sunlight through the tree cover above. As the ground began to slope upward and sweat covered her brow, she felt it—like her vision had doubled, just for a moment—she’d flashed back instead of forward, to when she’d stood here, in this exact spot…
She had seen this place before…hadn’t she?
It was strange—the trees were familiar, their towering forms above her one of the only constants she had ever encountered. But there, ahead of her where the hill became steeper, were steps carved into the hillside: great logs of wood laid across them that she’d never seen before. There were also strange markings…words—no, letters—carved into some of the trees. Were they the markings of a path?
Or…had she encountered some kind of magic? She couldn’t smell sulfur, but perhaps a masking spell—she stepped close to the nearest tree, her face inches from the rough bark as she tried to decipher the markings.
She jumped, hand going to the pocket where her knife was concealed. She turned, slowly, towards the voice.
Below her, on a dirt path she’d only just noticed, stood a man.
He was tall and dark-skinned, with a strange red coat and large pack. From here, she couldn’t tell the colour of his eyes, but she knew he was staring at her, his eyes round under the shadow of a dark cap.
“Do you need some help?” He started up the hill towards her before veering left so that he could leave the path. How did he spot me from so far away? She’d never seen these stairs before, so she’d watched them from a distance, but he had picked her out of the hillside before she could mask herself.
She had an inkling of where she was now, the thought making her still with anxiety. People don’t come to this part of the woods, she thought, as he closed the distance between them. When he was five feet away, her limbs unfroze, and she stepped back.
“What do you want?” her voice was harsh with disuse.
He looked surprised, his eyebrows disappearing behind the cap. “I want to know if you need help. Are you lost? I could escort you out of the park.”
“Park?” she echoed. “What park?”
The man’s eyes widened; his steps slowed. He lowered himself, hands placating, and moved towards her more slowly. “This is Butter Pot Provincial Park. Miss, do you know where you are?”
Bea blinked at him, her hand still inside her cloak. The hilt of her knife was cold in her fingers. What is a provincial park?
“My name is Sam,” he said. He was closing in on her now, she felt the squeeze of panic in her lungs. “I’d like to help you get home.”
“Home.” That’s right. I need to get home.
“Wait!” his voice echoed behind her, carrying up the hill before she outran it. Still, she heard his next words clear as a bell…clear as if she was standing on the same hill, 200 years ago: “Where are you going?”
The next part of his sentence was lost to the forest as she climbed, her legs aching. It’d been so long since she’d exercised like this; as her lungs expanded with the fresh air on the hill, she felt a laugh rise to her lips. The noise was hysterical and loud and cut off by a sob.
She missed this—running through the trees, being in nature…it was different in her bubble. The green wasn’t as green, the air not as…fresh. It was too stagnant, too unmoving, too full of sulfur when she reached the boundary.
Behind her, footsteps on the wood told her she was being followed. Icy fear struck her like lightning, straight from her crown to her soles. If I can just reach the top…she’d be safe. Back to her haven.
Her legs were so tired, her lungs filled with fire as each breath sawed in and out of her. She wanted to stop, but the heavy sound of boots on wood filled the silent forest like a death knell. I’ll be safe if I just –
She burst out of the tree line and scrambled for the edge, putting her back to it, just as she had 200 years ago, but this time, she wasn’t surrounded.
Just one man, the one in the red coat, burst from the trees, his hands outstretched towards her. As he took her in, his eyes went wide with fear. He stopped short, taking careful, measured steps toward her like he was trying not to frighten her.
He didn’t know what she could do; about the cliff. About her haven.
I have to get back…She took a step back to the edge, seeing the trees below, but feeling no fear. Not this time. The spell had worked before. It would work again.
She shut her eyes against the familiarity of those words, spoken in an unfamiliar cadence. She couldn’t stop. She needed to get home.
A few more steps back, and she could be there. The man was still a few feet away—he couldn’t make it in time…she twisted her torso towards the drop and stepped out.
For one heart-stopping second, her foot fell into free space and she allowed herself a sigh of contentment—the words of the spell were on her lips, ready –
And then a large hand latched onto her wrist, wrenching her out of the air. His grip was too tight, his momentum too strong, sending her body flying back into his.
In a whirl of red and green, they tumbled down the hill, landing just before the treeline, tangled together in a pile of limbs. Bea’s head hit the ground with a dull thud and the world around her went black.
She opened her eyes to the forest, her hands gripping feebly at the thin trunks of the densely packed trees. She struggled for traction, trying to use anything to help propel her up the hill as rain and mud squelched beneath her boots.
This was not her haven. But this was also not the cliff.
“Wait! Don’t run, please.”
That’s Bo’s voice…She knew it well, though she hadn’t heard it in 200 years.
I can’t stop. The words she’d thought so long ago thrummed through her body like wildfire, setting her legs alight with renewed energy. She was so tired, but she just couldn’t stop.
Another old thought raced through her head: I have to make it to the top.
But what would happen if she simply stopped? This was the past—it had already happened. The trees couldn’t protect her; she hadn’t called on her haven yet.
Still, no matter her thoughts, her feet carried her forward, up the hill. Towards the place she’d first placed her boundary. It had been easier with the steps carved into the slope.
“Where are you going?” Bo’s voice carried on the wind, up the slope, but it was accompanied by other voices. Men from the village, those who’d found out about her…Bo’s pleas reached her too late. She was almost there. And then, she would be free.
But she was so tired. Bone-achingly so. She’d used too much of her magic, too much of herself, to keep her going…there was only strength for one more spell, and only if she reached the top –
She skidded to a stop, the mud nearly propelling her over the cliff. The hill she’d climbed so often with the other children had never seemed so high. Below her, the forest spread out in a rush of rain-soaked green. She could see the sea from here. If she tried hard enough, she might be able to hear the waves on the rock.
If not for the shouting.
She’d never used her magic for anything bad. Never. And yet, here she was. She stepped back, her heels on the jagged edge of the cliff. She’d fall into leaves and branches, likely break her neck and limbs before she hit the ground. If she hit the ground.
Raising her head, she watched as the first face came over the hill, then the next, and the next. She kept her hands fisted around her necklace, refusing to wipe the tears that streamed down her face. The worst part of all of this was that she recognized them. They were all older than her, bigger: Bo’s father, his brothers and uncles and family friends. People who loved Bo.
People who used to love her.
And there was Bo, struggling to get through the burly mass of bodies. Even from here, she could see how pale he was, the sickly off-white of rotten milk.
He was always calling her. Calling her to slow down, to catch up, to wait for him…but now he was asking for one thing she couldn’t do.
She could not stop.
She could not wait for him.
If she did, they’d both be dead.
Putting both heels over the edge of the cliff, she took in his face. He looked just like his brothers, only without their long beards and burly frames. Bo was still in the scrawny phases of adolescence…they both were.
Bea leaned back into the wind, letting it sweep her off the cliff as the men surrounding her fell away, replaced by the dark rock of the mountain.
Her words were ripped from her by the howling wind and she gripped her necklace tighter, the biting metal leaving indents in her palm. The smell of sulfur surrounded her like a cushion, comforting even in its atrocity.
Bo’s face, the only pale spot in the dark sky above her, peeked over the cliff.
Then she fell through the trees and everything went black.
When she regained consciousness, it took a minute for her to open her eyes—something heavy lay across her torso, stopping her from taking a full breath. At least the squeezing around her wrist had stopped. He’d let go of her.
She opened her eyes into round disks of deep brown just as he said, “What were you thinking?”
They’d landed with their legs tangled together, his torso across hers. His face hovered inches away, and she immediately sank back against the earth, pressing herself into the dirt.
He sat up quickly, extending a hand to help her. She ignored it, scooting back from him in the scrubby grass. A sharp pain radiated from her left elbow, just above where he had grabbed her.
“Did I…” at his side, his fingers twitched. He started to move towards her, but thought better of it, giving her space. “Did I hurt you?”
Bea nodded, not trusting her voice. The spell was on her lips, but it could easily be confused for other more dangerous spells. If she pronounced it wrong…worse, if she pronounced it right…he’ll go to my haven too.
They sat there, staring at each other. She’d ripped his coat, but he didn’t seem all that concerned about it. His eyes went from her face to her cloak, then to her shoes, which were worn and patched as best as she could manage. She’d never learned the spell for mending; she never thought it would be necessary. Though her haven had included a cache of spell books, they sat unused on her rickety shelves.
“You’re dressed strangely.” There was a hint of amusement in his voice. “What’s your name?”
“You’re the one wearing bright colours. What did you trade to get such a rich colour?”
His eyebrows shot up his forehead. His hat had slipped off in their tumble, revealing his shaved head. “What did I trade? Do you mean how much did it cost?”
“They gave it to me for training…” he looked puzzled. “Probably two hundred dollars?”
“Dollars? Did you not use pounds?” Now Bea was puzzled. She had been in her haven for a long time—200 years, she thought…had currency changed so much since then?
“I don’t think we’ve used pounds since Canada got their own currency.”
“Miss, do you know what country you’re in?”
Now she stared at him. He clearly thought she was insane. “Newfoundland, of course. What year is it?”
No. There was no way that much time had passed. She glanced down the hill, towards the path with the wooden steps carved into it. The last time she’d run up the hill, there had been no steps. The last time, it had been 1736.
He must have sensed her preparing to bolt, because as she got to her feet, so did he.
“Where are you from?” He asked softly. The meaning was clear, though he looked nervous: When are you from?
“Please, let me go.”
“I’m just trying to help,” he said. At his shoulder, thunder crackled from a little box, the size of a letter. She hadn’t noticed it before. Just then, a voice emerged from it, squawking, “Kane, what’s your status?”
His left arm went for the box—a habit, she suspected—and as his eyes moved from hers to the box, she took off, scrambling back up the hill towards the edge.
She’d get back this time, she’d have to.
She didn’t spare a glance behind her as she reached the edge and jumped—if she had, she might have seen Sam closing the distance between them.
She might have seen his hand close around the hem of her cloak, pulling him down towards his death.
If she’d seen him, though, would she still have spoken the spell?
The words left her lips, pronounced just right, and the smell of sulfur engulfed her once more.
Ironically, falling past the trees and into her haven felt a lot like falling through actual trees.
When Bea awoke, her limbs felt swollen and heavy, her neck stiff. She never thought she’d do this twice. It was a spell that one really only needed once.
She recognized the smell of the boundary before she opened her eyes. Dirt and muted freshness mixing with egg-like sulfur. Sunlight streamed in through the trees above her, searing her eyelids with golden light. It was just before noon and the sun was nearly right above her. She should move, go home –
A groan from nearby startled her eyes open. A few feet away, Sam lay in the grass, his left foot bent at an odd angle. Despite the pain in her elbow, Bea got to her feet and approached him carefully, as if he were a dangerous animal. When he didn’t open his eyes at her approach, she stepped closer, the pain in her elbow growing more noticeable.
She watched the rise and fall of his chest from a distance, just to be sure, and then knelt beside him, careful to avoid his injured leg. He was a lot bigger than her—there was no way she’d be able to carry him…but the books…
Bea had no occasion to use the spell books that her haven provided—with it’s help, she’d never gotten sick, and never injured herself besides paper cuts or nicks when she’d been careless in the kitchen. Now though, her books may actually come in handy.
She got to her feet, dizzy from her tumble on the cliff and falling into the haven—the first time she’d performed the spell, she’d been unconscious for hours, lying in the rain and mud. It still took a lot out of her, especially since she hadn’t done any magic in the last 200 years. No, she corrected. Almost 300. Would she even have enough for another spell?
Bea started off down the well-worn dirt path, made from years of her feet traversing it. It was a miracle Sam hadn’t broken his neck on the way down. The haven didn’t make a cushion for him like it did for her—he had no magic it recognized.
As she entered the little cottage, she felt that something was different. The air was still and musty, as if she’d been gone for a few weeks instead of just a morning. Her bed, which sat in the corner opposite the small hearth, looked dusty. Where she stood, she could see the dust layered on her worn table, but as she turned on her heel, she felt goosebumps rise on her arms.
The bookshelves were empty.
Bea’s fists unclenched as she rushed towards the shelves. Ignoring the ache in her elbow, her hands gathered dust as she swept them over every shelf, searching…
Come on…what had happened to the haven that provided her with everything? Had it turned on her because of Sam? Because she’d brought someone else inside?
She bent to the fireplace, fingers scraping over the stone as she searched blindly for some book, any book, to help her –
Her fingers bumped up against worn leather and she jumped back, startled. Why is there a book in the stone? Bea squinted in the dim light, sweeping her eyes across the stone as she searched for the book she’d missed. Her hands travelled down the rough rock face, searching every nook and cranny until her nail caught on something soft.
Carefully, she wiggled the book free and settled on the hearth to examine it. With her nose nearly touching the page, Bea skimmed the blank pages, her heart in her throat. Sam wouldn’t die from a broken ankle, but she couldn’t get him out of the forest unless she fixed it…and if her haven had stopped providing for her…
The pages were mostly blank, but as she reached the last few, she recognized the wording of a spell, rhythmic and flowing, with twisty words that meant nothing. It was a spell for healing.
Bea blew out a breath and got to her feet. Her heart steadied in her chest, slowing until it was back to a normal pace. She leaned against the fireplace, letting her forehead rest on the cool stone. Her arm ached.
There’s no way I can do both, she realized. Exhaustion was settling in, deep in her bones, and she knew that if she didn’t keep moving, she’d stop for a long time. She needed food, and water, but with Sam to care for now…
She pushed off the fireplace and ran her right hand over the stone, the book clutched limply in her left. “Why are you doing this?” she murmured to the cottage. She imagined her words flowing through the stone, into the earth at her feet where it met the roots of the forest.
Bea held her breath, willing the beat of her heart to slow, just in case trees decided to answer her for the first time in over 200 years.
When the answer did come, it passed through her swiftly, like ripples on the water.
Because it’s time to go.
When she made her way back to the clearing, tear stains wiped carefully from her cheeks, she was startled to see Sam sitting up. He was covered in sweat, his eyebrows scrunched together in pain. His eyes flitted around, taking in the unfamiliar trees—when they landed on Bea, they went wide. “Where are we?”
“This is my haven.” She slowed her steps as she came closer, determined not to spook him. Bo had only seen her work a spell once, in a similar situation…if he reacted the way Bo had…
She tried to throw the thought from her mind. The haven is no longer a haven, she reminded herself. And if he decides to leave, he’ll have to find his way out of the forest first. She still knew the forest well, despite the steps carved into the hill and his strange talking box. She could disappear with or without the haven’s help.
Despite the fact that the trees had decided she wasn’t welcome in the haven any longer, she could still feel their presence, too. They might help if he decided to attack her.
Still, she needn’t worry about that. When she knelt beside him, he stayed still. There was no tightness in his body that suggested fear. In fact, though she hadn’t seen another human in centuries, she recognized the expression on his face: relief.
“How is your ankle?”
“Painful,” he ground out. “Definitely broken. I tried to splint it but with the angle it’s at I don’t think I can reach it.”
“I can help if you’ll let me.”
Sam’s eyes met hers and she noticed flecks of gold mixed in with the deep brown of his irises. “You’re being very cool about all this.”
“My mother and her sisters were healers. I saw a lot of things usually reserved for adult eyes. May I?”
Sam’s chin dipped and she knelt by his foot, careful of her balance as she hovered above him. His toes were pointed almost entirely the wrong way.
“How old are you…?” He trailed off, and she realized he didn’t know her name.
“Bea. I am over 200 years old, according to the year you’ve given me.” She probed his twisted ankle with careful fingers, making sure to be as gentle as possible. Strangely, it felt nice to be of use to someone again after so many years.
“You look like you’re in your twenties –” His words cut off in a yelp. Bea had twisted his foot so it faced forward once more. That was a trick she’d learned from watching her aunts at work. Her mother had been much gentler with patients, but often slower to ease their pain.
Bea laid the book on the ground, pressing the spine open so the pages lay flat. In the sunlight, she saw that the pages were yellow with age. The only spell in the book looked like it had been written ages ago, in thin, curvy lines that she was careful to sound out, lest she get it wrong.
“This will hurt.”
Sam laughed. Or at least, he made a sound that echoed a laugh. “That’s fine. I broke my arm once, during training, and that hurt much worse.” She felt his eyes on her and wondered if he was looking at her arm. “Did you get hurt?”
“What were you training for?” she asked, placing both her hands on either side of his ankle bones. She could feel the fracture, how out of alignment the bones were. The pain in her elbow was nothing compared to what he must be feeling right now.
“To be a park ranger.”
“Is that why you were so far out in the woods?”
“Yes. About six months ago I finished my training and now I patrol the trails and restricted areas.” She felt his eyes on her as he said: “But that area with the steps, that’s not exactly in the middle of nowhere. It’s our most popular trail.”
So if she hadn’t run into him first, she may have met others. Would they have reacted the same way he did? “What does that mean—trail? Is it like a pilgrimage?”
“People travel to this forest and hike. They walk the paths and climb the steps to the peak. They take photos and videos and sometimes they get lost. That’s where I come in.”
Bea’s chest felt suddenly concave. The haven must have been keeping people away from her for a long time…maybe it simply just…got tired. The thought made her stomach turn.
“Stay still.” She pressed her hands to Sam’s ankle. Ignoring his hiss of pain, she started to murmur the words of the spell, just under her breath so he wouldn’t catch them. The smell of sulfur filled the air around them, thick and pungent.
Bea felt it as the bones knit back together, almost like an invisible hand had reached inside and sewn the jagged edges together. The moment the ankle was healed, her fingers began to ache. She pulled back as sweat dripped down her neck and back. She’d been right earlier—she wouldn’t have enough in her for more spells today. Maybe not for a while, even. She was too out of practice, not used to flexing those muscles anymore.
She sat back on her heels and brought her gaze to Sam’s. “All done.”
“Is it…is it better?”
“Does it still hurt?”
“No,” he mumbled. He pulled his leg up towards his chest, rolling his ankle and probing the bone. “Wow. Thank you,” he smiled at her in a way that was familiar—the smile of those who she’d been able to help. She could see the questions in his eyes, but she was grateful he didn’t ask. There were some things that were just too difficult to answer, and right at this moment she wasn’t sure what she’d say.
Sam’s eyes travelled down to her arm, which she cradled in her lap. She was exhausted, the pain growing worse now. “Let me see.”
Bea held her arm out to him before she even thought about why that might be a bad idea. His touch was gentle, his skin warm, and he held her carefully, turning her arm over with expert hands.
“Are you a healer too?”
“Not exactly.” He reached for the pack behind him and started to dig through its contents. “I had to take first aid and CPR, but I really only have the basics.”
Before she could ask what ‘CPR’ was, he withdrew a roll of cloth from the bag. “Can I wrap it?”
Bea eyed the cloth, not sure it would help much, but she held her arm out obediently. He unrolled the cloth with quick fingers, wrapping it just tight enough from her upper arm to her wrist. The pressure helped, but the pain was still sharp. “I think it’s just a sprain, but we should get you checked out by a doctor.”
Bea didn’t answer; her eyes went to the trees instead. High above her, the sunlight filtered down through the leaves; bright beams of light danced on the ground as the branches swayed. They’d told her very clearly she wasn’t supposed to be here anymore. But as a gust of wind swept through the clearing, tangling Bea’s hair and chilling her, she wondered, what will I do outside?
“This is your home, right?”
She peeked at him out of the corner of her eye. “It was. It’s decided it won’t be my home anymore.”
“What do you mean?”
Bea bit her lip, running her fingers over the rough edges of the bandage. Would it be okay to explain it to him? He’d seen so much already, and so far he hadn’t reacted poorly…still, in the back of her mind, she remembered the fear, the horror, in Bo’s eyes when he saw her heal the Farron girl.
“If you don’t want to tell me, that’s fine,” Sam said, his eyes on the grass beneath them. “But this is only the second strangest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Well now, that was interesting. “The second?”
Sam’s eyes met hers, and she had the overwhelming understanding that he was trying not to startle her. Warmth rushed through her at the kindness of the gesture. “I mean, this is the stranger of the two, but the first was more scary.”
“Why?” He spoke as if falling through the sky and surviving was normal.
“When I was younger, the house I lived in backed onto the forest. There was a little creek back there I would fish and explore around. I wasn’t supposed to go in too far, my mom would worry, but that never stopped me. That’s how I met the Good People.”
Bea went still at his words. There had been talk in the hamlet she’d grown up in—superstition, really, but everyone on the island had a story about the Good People—everyone was terrified of them.
She’d seen signs of them too; little flashes of movement here and there when she picking berries with her friends, small caps or snatches of cloth caught on branches too low for them to be human, but…
“What form were they?”
The corner of Sam’s mouth quirked up, higher on one side. “They were lights—like will-o’-the-wisps in old stories. Just lights. I think was seven or eight; old enough to remember, at least. I followed them through the forest and got lost.”
Bea noticed a sharp pain in her knees just then. Looking down, she saw she’d leaned towards Sam, so entranced by his words that her fingernails were biting hard into her skin. She relaxed her hands, pulling herself upright. “And?”
“And then it got very dark and my dad came out and found me. I was at least three hours into the woods by the time he got there.”
“What was it like?” The words were out before she knew it—she’d always wanted to meet the Good People, talk to them maybe, but they’d largely ignored her. Her mother used it say it was because they disliked the smell of sulfur. Since the haven had been created, she’d seen not a one come her way.
“Terrifying.” A strange look came over his face: a cross between peace and fear. He blinked, then shook his head. “And fascinating. I think there was some sort of song, or a melody I was following—it was so calm in the forest that day and I felt so at peace. But then when I heard my dad shouting for me and I finally turned around, it was pouring. I was drenched. Thank goodness I hadn’t wandered too close to one of the cliffs.”
“Yes.” Her voice sounded far away to her ears. She’d heard of the trances that the Good People could put on someone—they were infamous for causing death most of the time…but perhaps that was why it was so easy for Sam to believe her. He was so far removed from her time, when people were terrified of the unknown, of her and her spells—but that was only part of it. He’d encountered something unknown, something otherworldly, and hadn’t been afraid to go back into the forest.
He couldn’t feel the trees, she knew that. But she had a feeling that he’d understand if she ever described it to him. They shared a common purpose, Sam and the trees. It was the reason he became a ranger in the first place: to protect those who were still lost.
Like rushing, a river travelling from deep underground and spreading up the trunks of the trees, Bea felt them then, spreading to the farthest branches and the highest leaves.
They gave her the answer to the question she hadn’t even asked yet.
Could she trust him?
Would he really help her?
Sam got to his feet, rolling his newly healed ankle. She watched him as if from the end of a long tunnel as he slipped the pack over his shoulders and looked toward the boundary he couldn’t see.
The sulfurous smell mixed with the scent of muted greenery, reminding her of safety, of comfort and protection and warmth. There was a reason the spell would only work in the forest—the trees held a special kind of power—protecting life inside their own boundaries, as far as their roots would reach.
Sam turned, his brow furrowed, head tilted to the side. Their eyes met, and he smiled softly. “Should we go? It’s going to take some time to get back to the station.”
He reached out to her with his left hand, his coat a blur of red in the sea of green.
She stared at his palm, rough with calluses, criss-crossed with lines that her aunt would have read like a book. A deep ache splintered through her heart.
Once, Sam had been lost. Once, Bea had been cornered. He ran and so did she, but the difference was this: he hadn’t been afraid to go back to the thing that frightened him.
She looked up at the trees, craning her neck to soak in as much as she could. I’ll age now. It was funny, she hadn’t realized she’d made the decision until she thought that. But yes, year by year, at the same rate as the trees, she would change. Tears welled in her eyes, slipping hot and fast down her cheeks. She’d never be the same Bea, the same version of herself as she was right now…but the trees would change too.
As she’d made her decision, Sam had been silent. In front of her, his hand remained outstretched in silent invitation. Bea reached out and took it, offering a small smile. He helped her to her feet, careful of her elbow, and matched her pace as they started to make their way out of the forest.
At the boundary, she hesitated for only a moment at the invisible line, just long enough to feel the trees around her. Smiling with her, crying with her, being with her.
Then she stepped beyond the boundary and into the world.