Trees fall in the forest and make sounds.
The horde moves among them, judging, swinging axes, bowing bass notes from pine trunks with saws. Five years back, none of these warriors had seen such a forest. In their home stand sacred groves were called zuun mod, which means “one hundred trees,” because one hundred were all the trees they thought might be gathered in one place.
Many more than a hundred trees stand here, a quantity so vast no one dares number it. Wet, cold wind spills down the mountains, and branches clatter like locust wings. Warriors creep beneath needled shadows and go about their work.
Icicles drip and snap as the great trees fall, and felled, the trees leave gaps in green that bare the cold white sky. Warriors like those at clouds better than the forest’s gloom, but not so much as they loved the blue of home. They loop the trunks with cord and drag them through trampled underbrush to the camp, where they will be peeled and planed to build the great Khan’s war machines.
A strange transformation, some feel: When they were young, they won their rst battles with bows, from horseback, ten men against twenty, two hundred against three. Then they learned to use rivers against their foes, to tear down their walls with grappling hooks. These days they roll from town to town collecting scholars, priests, and engineers, everyone who can read or write, who knows a trade, and set them tasks. You will have food, water, rest, all the luxury an army on hoof can o er. In exchange, solve the problems our enemies pose.
Once, horsemen broke on forti cations like waves against a cli . (Most of these men have not seen waves, or cli s, but travelers bear stories from distant lands.) Now the horsemen slaughter foes, drive them to their forts, demand surrender, and, should surrender not ensue, they raise up their engines to undo the knot of the city.
But those engines need lumber, so o the warriors are sent, to steal from ghosts.
Red, hard-ridden for days, dismounts within the wood. She wears a thick gray del belted with silk around her waist, and a fur hat covers her hair, preserving her scalp from the chill. She walks heavily. She broadens her shoulders. She has played this role for at least a decade. Women ride with the horde-but she is a man now, so far as those who give her orders, and follow hers in turn, are concerned.
She commits the enterprise to memory for her report. Her breath smokes, glitters as ice crystals freeze. Does she miss steam heat? Does she miss walls and a roof? Does she miss the dormant implants sewn through her limbs and tangled in her chest that could shore her against this cold, stop her feeling, seal a force eld around her skin to guard her from this time to which she’s been sent?
She notes the deep green of the trees. She measures the timing of their fall. She records the white of the sky, the bite of the wind. She remembers the names of the men she passes. (Most of them are men.) Ten years into deep cover, having joined the horde, proven her worth, and achieved the place for which she strove, she feels suited to this war.
She has suited herself to it.
Others draw back from her in respect and fear as she scans the piled logs for signs of rot. Her roan snorts, stamps the earth. Red ungloves and traces the lumber with her ngertips, log by log, ring by ring, feeling each one’s age.
She stops when she nds the letter.
The others gather round: What has disturbed her so? An omen? A curse? Some aw in their lumberjackery?
The letter begins in the tree’s heart. Rings, thicker here and thinner there, form symbols in an alphabet no one present knows but Red. The words are small, sometimes smudged, but still: ten years per line of text, and many lines. Mapping roots, depositing or draining nutrients year by year, the message must have taken a century to craft. Perhaps local legends tell of some fairy or frozen goddess in these woods, seen for an instant, then gone. Red wonders what expression she wore as she placed the needle.
She memorizes the message. She feels it ridge by ridge, line by line, and performs a slow arithmetic of years.
Her eyes change. The men nearby have known her for a decade but have never seen her look like this.
One asks, “Should we throw it away?”
She shakes her head. It must be used. She does not say, Or else another might nd it and read what I have read.
They drag the logs to camp. They split them, trim them, plane them, frame them into engines of war. Two weeks later, the planks lie shattered around the fallen walls of a city still burning, still weeping. Progress gallops on, and blood remains behind.
Vultures circle, but they’ve feasted here already.
The seeker crosses the barren land, the broken city. She gathers splinters from the engines’ wrecks, and as the sun sets, she slides those splinters one by one into her ngers.
Her mouth opens, but she makes no sound.
My perfect Red,
How many boards would the Mongols hoard if the Mongol horde got bored? Perhaps you’ll tell me once you’re nished with this strand.
The thought that you could have trapped me (stranded me, perhaps? Oh dear, sorry-not-sorry) is so delicious that I confess myself quite overcome. Do you always play things safe, then? Run the numbers so precisely that you can reject out of hand any scenario that has a projected success rate of less than 80 percent? It grieves me to think you’d make a boring poker player.
But then I imagine you’d cheat, and that’s a comfort.
(I’d never want you to let me win. The very idea!)
I wore goggles, but imagine, please, the widening of my eyes at your sweet interrogation in Strand 8827. Did my bosses send me there! Do I have bosses! A suggestion of corruption in my command chain! A charming concern for my well-being! Are you trying to recruit me, dear Cochineal?
“And then we’d be at each other’s throats even more.” Oh, petal. You say that like it’s a bad thing.
It occurs to me to dwell on what a microcosm we are of the war as a whole, you and I. The physics of us. An action and an equal and opposite reaction. My viny-hivey elfworld, as you say, versus your techy-mechy dystopia. We both know it’s nothing so simple, any more than a letter’s reply is its opposite. But which egg preceded what platypus? The ends don’t always resemble our means.
But enough philosophy. Let me tell you what you have told me, speaking plain: You could have killed me, but didn’t. You have acted without the knowledge or sanction of your Agency. Your vision of life in Garden is su ciently full of silly stereotypes to read as a calculated attempt at provoking a stinging, unguarded response (hilarious, given how long it took me to grow these words), but spoken with such keen beauty as to suggest a confession of real, curious ignorance.
(We do have superb honey: best eaten in a thickness of comb, spread on warm bread with soft cheese, in a cool part of the day. Do your kind eat anymore? Is it all tubes and intravenous nutrition, metabolisms optimised for far-strand food? Do you sleep, Red, or dream?)
Let me also speak plain, before this tree runs out of years, before the ne fellows under your command make siege weapons of my words:
What do you want from this, Red? What are you doing here? Tell me something true, or tell me nothing at all.
PS. I’m touched by the research e ort expended on my behalf. Mrs. Leavitt’s Guide is a good one. Now that you’ve discovered postscripts, I look forward to what you could do with scented inks and seals! PPS. There’s no trick here, no thwart. Give my best to this strand’s Genghis. We lay on our backs and watched clouds together when we were young.