24.) As I reached the open area between the orchard and the shed, I stopped running. My people were outside, lined up against the rough planks. The Outsiders were formed in a firing line of bowmen, and Martin was to one side, his hand raised. The villagers surrounded both groups, watching helplessly.
They looked defeated, demoralized.
When I appeared, I saw both alarm and relief in the eyes of my people. I walked confidently up to Martin and Carter.
“I’m ready to tell you what you want to know,” I said.
Martin shook his head. “Too easy, boss. Put a few arrows into his people and see what he says then.”
“If you do that, I won’t tell you anything,” I said. For a few seconds I tricked myself into thinking I’d turned the blackmail upside down.
Carter eyed me. Then he walked up to me and punched me in the stomach. I bent in half and retched. Exposed, he slammed his boot into my face. When the pain faded, I was on my back and the big man was looming over me.
“Too bad you didn’t tell me what I wanted to know last night,” Carter said. “Now I’ve got to make an example of you.” He motioned for a couple of his men to lift me to my feet. “Put him against the wall. Move aside people.”
I saw the will to fight in Marston and Tomber’s eyes. But since their hands were still tied, I shook my head firmly. I was slammed against the loose planks, managed to stay on my feet.
Martin chose three of the bowmen to face me.
Memories flooded my mind as they had when I was falling from the mountain, but instead of being confusing, each image was distinct and yet part of the whole, each following the other, fitting neatly into the story of my life. It should have taken hours, days, or weeks for so many memories to unfold and yet in that time, I saw Martin just beginning to raise his arm.
I’m not sure why I wasn’t afraid except I saw how little my own life mattered.
Not only my own memories were gifted. I was given a true history of this world from its beginning, for the Beginning Tree—or the Being that inhabited it—had been alive from the beginning of life. So I learned everything that had ever happened.
My human mind couldn’t contain it all. But these memories existed outside of me and I could dip into them and see them any time I wanted.
Distantly, I heard a murmuring sound. It was coming from the villagers, who were turning away and looking outward.
Martin hesitated, then put his palm out and slowly lowered his hand. “Form a line!” he shouted. He grabbed several of the bowmen and turned them around to face the new threat.
The villagers parted.
Seed had grown into a tree, tall and broad, branches thick and strong, dark blue green leaves with sharp edges. Roots sprouted from beneath the trunk, and the roots moved as if they were legs. If I had not known Seed perhaps I wouldn’t have seen the eyes far up the trunk, or the knot where his nose had been, or the slash in the wood that would be his mouth.
He walked slowly but gulped up the ground in great strides. Arrows flew toward the brown behemoth, most bouncing off, some managing to penetrate the bark. Seed didn’t seem hurt.
He reached the first of the Outsiders, swept down with a leafy branch and the humans tumbled away, lacerated by the leaves, shouting until they landed and then lying quiet.
Seed stopped and stared down at the Outsiders, many of who were dropping their bows and their swords and backing away.
The villagers had watched with open mouths as Seed approached, nowturned on their imprisoners, who were quickly overwhelmed. Most of my people had freed themselves and were joining the fray.
Carter had neglected to tie my hands, secure that he had me firmly in control. As one of the guards backed away from the carnage, I stripped him of his sword and ran at the big man, who turned in time to ward off my first blow.
Martin was a few feet away, fighting a swirling red dervish. Lady Favory was the best sword fighter I’d ever seen. Marston was in the middle of the melee, using the legs of a chair as a club. Tomber strode amongst the villagers, urging them on.
Carter removed a dark object from his belt and pointed it at me.
A gun, came the memory. There was no chance of reaching him in time.
He pulled the trigger. There was a loud click, heard even above the fighting, and then he threw the useless weapon at my head. My sword pierced him in the middle of his chest. He grunted, grabbed the blade with his bare hands, which slid along the length, leaving a red streak on the metal.
I withdrew the blade and he swayed for a few moments, fell to his knees, and then over onto his side.
Martin was still somehow warding off Favory, but as I watched, her blade swished across his throat, and a crescent of blood sprayed outward.
The rest of the Outsiders were clumped together in the middle of the fight, backs to each other, surrounded by villagers and caravaners.
“Surrender!” I shouted, striding toward them. “Throw down your weapons and you’ll live!”
The Outsiders didn’t hesitate. Overzealous villagers clubbed one or two, but the battle was over. They were rounded up and placed inside the shed. I decided they didn’t need to be tied up. They were completely beaten.
When I stepped out again, the villagers were in a circle around Seed, on their knees, their heads down. Seed’s roots seemed to be firmly planted into the ground. I looked for his eyes, but they were gone. I had the sense that the Seed I’d known was gone, replaced by something older.
Hiemhol rose from the circle and approached the tree, putting his hand on the bark. “Yes,” he said. “I understand.”
Something struck me on the top of my head. Next to me, Tomber cursed, looking up. Apples rained down on us. It stung a little, but it probably served us right.
As one, the villagers gathered the apples and approached the shed.
“What are you doing?” I asked, afraid they were going to hurt the Outsiders, who I’d given a promise of safety.
“As we are commanded,” Heimhol said. “The strangers must forget this place and return from where they came.”
I nodded to Marston and Tomber to let them by, and then followed curiously. The Outsiders were naturally suspicious, but they didn’t have any choice. One by one, they bit into the apples.
Nothing happened at first. But late in the morning, one of them came out of the shed. Marston challenged him, but it was as if he didn’t hear. He went into one of the houses and started packing. One by one, the others emerged, none of them seeming aware of their surroundings, certainly not of the villagers and caravaners who watched.
They put on their backpacks and walked away from Carsan, disappearing into the Shield Mountains.