Emlyn stood with her back to her clan, the stiff breeze sweeping across the tree littered hills and into the coarse collar of her bark woven tunic. The rest of her group was scattered across their camp, packing their belongings in cool, smooth movements. The naked limbs of the surrounding trees shuddered tripping shadows upon the remains of breakfast and several weeks of relative stability. Emlyn shifted the tired straps of her pack on her shoulders and shut her eyes against the barren woods that had fed her family for so long.
When at last they began their wander, it was utterly without compass as there was nowhere to go that wasn’t the same. Their pack had stayed small; they were nine, with only two under the age of fifteen. The other clans they’d met along the way had ranged in the thirties with numerous children, but they were leaner, slower, grimmer, and all but done with the inevitable Stifle that fell upon the planet once a year when the temperatures dropped. Emlyn’s clan had no intentions of falling to the world’s disdain without dragging heels down every neglected inch of that jagged path. Their number reflected grit more than well fed tummies; community was a luxury craved so thoroughly, even sustenance paled in comparison.
Emlyn meandered left of her group somewhere in the third hour of their migration. She scoured the branches for hints of green, the ground for lucky flutters. She knew she’d hear them before she saw them, but the quiet of the Stifle was so thick, she forgot to trust her training.
The steady shuffle of her people faded as she trudged further into the forest, proud trunks now naked across half the planet. She’d heard that in the early days, there was less roaming because the seasons had been predictable. Her family had never known such a time; Emlyn was reasonably certain it was a myth people told each other so they could pretend change was possible.
She had half turned to head back when the humming tugged her ear. She tilted her head, peering from the sides of her eyes, and caught the brilliant kelly of a rare live leaf as it warbled hopefully on its lonely branch. She trotted to its cling and reached, cupping the leaf in her palm as she debated storing it in her pack with the others, or allowing herself the delicious savor found only in the hanging emeralds of trees at their peak.
It wasn’t much of a debate. Emlyn pinched the leaf from its tree and brought it, fluttering, to her lips. It sang softly at her when she placed it in her mouth. The words all green leaves uttered before they succumbed to the grind of human hunger floated past her eager jaw:
“I am like you, I live as you do, in this world, with my life as precious as the tree that bore me and as tenuous as yours while you walk without will, I am like you…”
Emlyn inhaled the vitality that drenched the leaf’s aroma, and shut her lips around its song. The meager moisture from the chewed edges of its form filled her mouth with instant satiation. Her back arched with gratitude.
Emlyn headed back towards her family, retracing her steps as she was taught. She found their path quickly, but could not see or hear them anywhere in the distance. As she analyzed their footsteps, she noticed the change in tread and stride, processed the sudden veering in all directions. Scavengers were loud; an attack would have been heard clear across three hills. Emlyn tried to feel comforted by the stalwart silence. She stood at the center of the recent scatter, and peered intently into the trees. The wind disappeared, leaving Emlyn’s ears bare to a world void of movement. Emlyn stared at her arms as though she could see the stillness squeezing the function out of them.
She ran, ridden by the terror of being alone in ways more thorough than the first night after her mother had withered to dust before her eyes. Her wood-clad feet pounded the crumbling dirt even as her fear banged loudest. She scanned the trees at her sides as she raced to nowhere. She could feel her lungs begin to burn as she hurtled out of the valley and into open plains with far fewer trees. She ran till the light began to change and she couldn’t feel her legs, her feet, her face.
When she finally slowed to a limping stumble, her face was a riot of windburn and dried tears. A knotted stump interrupted her trek, and Emlyn threw herself at its empty roots in relief. She slid her pack off her shoulders, laid her head on it, and waited for exhaustion to take her. Sleep snuck beneath her lids even as her mind filled with images of the Dust Death taking her family one by one while they fled into the trees.
Emlyn awoke with an indifferent stone for a heart. She took a dried leaf from her pack and crunched it, brown eyes blank at the provocative sun. The unrelenting walk that followed a Shedding needed company to make it worthwhile, and Emlyn had barely retained her own sense of self in that screamless run. But she could feel tedium ticking at her temples, so she shouldered her pack and moved her feet. Her face was glass.
Light eventually waned against the barely rolling horizon. Emlyn was prepared to fall where she stood and have her night’s rest with or without the feeble protection of a stump. She dropped to a crouch, and the ground gave beneath her. She tumbled into darkness and roots and earthy damp, coming to a mangled stop on the sodden floor of an immense cavern. Bruised and bleeding, she gazed wearily up at the hole that had deposited her there and could only see a fading dot.
Emlyn shrugged and readied herself to sleep right there.
A low rumble shook the floor. Emlyn blinked through the darkness and made out a giant toe with a long curved nail inches from her face. She scrambled backwards, her stone heart abruptly loud, blood filled, and frantic with life. Muddy claws encased her and swung her high into the air. Emlyn squirmed and twisted, but was so tightly encased, the most she could do was quiver.
When the claws parted, Emlyn could see endless brown eyes, a serious brow, and dirt caked cheeks. As she was carried towards its drooling, parting maw, she felt something tear inside her. The scream ripped through her lips as she slid past its teeth and onto its tongue,
“I am like you! I live as you do!”
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