23.) Hands tied, we were led to a large shed on the other side of the poppy fields, which hadn’t been visible from Carsan. It was crudely built and the slats were loosely fitted. The most work had been done on the roof, which looked sturdy. There were long benches down the middle of the open interior, where the extracted sap of the poppies was being refined.
The sun was falling below the horizon, but it was still possible to see.
As soon as I was pushed to the dirt floor, my back to the wall, Carter and Martin stood over me, discussing our fate. Those who’d sat at my table were separated from the rest of my crew, who where at the other end of the shed. Marston, Favory, and Tomber were tossed down beside me.
It was clear that our captors didn’t care if we overheard. It was probably meant to intimidate. As far as they were concerned I was a coward, who’d given up at the first sign of a fight.
Maybe I was a coward, but there was no way we would have won that battle, and even if by some miracle we’d came out on top, many of us wouldn’t have survived.
“What do we do with them?” Martin asked.
“Put them to work, of course,” Carter said.
“I don’t think these people are like the natives. Look at Evard—he looks like he wants to roast us over that spit.”
“We’ll give them some of the product,” Carter said, shrugging. “That’ll tame them.”
“We do that and they’ll be useless. Have you tried this stuff? It’s got half our own people addicted. I’m ready to send them back over the mountains.”
“They work or they starve. What else are we going to do… kill them?”
Martin didn’t answer. As the truth began to sink in, a third man burst into the shed. He nearly ran to where Martin and Carter were standing.
“Look at this!” he shouted. His hands were trembling as he opened them. With the light slanting through the slates, I saw flashes of red and green. “There are two bags full of this stuff!”
Carter knelt down beside me, grabbed me by the neck and wrenched. “Where did you get these?”
“You can have them,” I said. “Just let us go.”
“Oh, we’ll keep them all right. But there have to be more where these came from.”
I didn’t answer. I wasn’t going to let them find Inhut, nor did I want them anywhere near the Thirteen Principalities. Moregone was a mystery to them, but these men hadn’t quite figured out yet just how far they were from their normal world.
“We are going to find out,” Martin said, his voice calm and measured. “There are twenty-three of you. I don’t think it will take long before one of you gives it up. So why don’t you just save us the time.”
It was Marston who answered. “Even if we tell you, you’ll never enter.”
As soon as he said it, I knew he was right. The Goddess of the Gate was between them and the Thirteen Principalities and she would never let them pass. But that wouldn’t keep them from trying. “Let me think about it. Let me talk it over with my people.”
“You’ll tell us now,” Martin said.
“Let him think on it,” Carter said. “Too late to do anything today anyway. Giving you a chance, Evard. Don’t blow it.”
They left us alone with the guards. No one said anything. Darkness descended and even the flickering light of the campfires faded. Despite the discomfort of the ropes around my wrists and ankles, I fell asleep.
A sharp tug on my leg woke me. Something was crawling toward me. I almost cried out, but the shadow somehow looked familiar.
“Seed?” I whispered.
He opened his mouth in a smile, and his jagged teeth seemed to absorb all the available moonlight. He bent down over my hands and started chewing at the bindings. I realized my legs were already free.
Seed made short work of the ropes.
“Come with me,” he whispered.
I sat up, looked around for the guards. If they were in the shed, they were sleeping. Everything was quiet. Seed tugged on my hands insistently.
From beside me, Marston whispered, “What about me? What about the rest of us?”
Seed shook his head—I wasn’t sure how I knew this, for it was too dark to make out individual movements. I’d have to trust him, especially since my knife had been taken and if my own trusses were any indication, it would be difficult to untie anyone else quickly.
“I’ll be back,” I said. “Lay low.”
I crawled after Seed, who scrambled on all fours, yet didn’t make a sound. I bumped into a sleeping body, and froze, waiting for whoever it was to wake up. The figure didn’t move. I nudged him again and realized it was one of the guards and he would never move again.
Seed pried one of the planks from the side of the shed and slipped out. I squeezed through after him with a bit more difficulty as he waited impatiently.
We were on the opposite side of the shed. The overgrown crabapple orchards were only a few dozen feet away. As we scurried across the gap, I saw a dark figure lying prone on the ground. I couldn’t tell if he was dead or unconscious, but either way, I knew that we’d pay the price in the morning.
I wondered why I was putting so much faith in Seed. This entire mission had seemed preordained, its members selected by someone other than me, the events guided by some higher power. I’d never put much stock in the Mirror God, who seemed to be mostly absent in the day-to-day lives of the citizens of the Thirteen Principalities. Absent, that is, until the God decided to erase everyone’s memories to start again.
The orchard was dark, and I stumbled several times on fallen branches. Seed finally took my hand, guiding me. By the time we emerged into a clearing, dawn was stirring, bathing everything in a ghostly light.
At the center of the clearing was a small crabapple tree, not much more than a seedling. Its top branches were bent, weighed down by a pair of large crabapples.
Seed stood before the tree reverently. He reached out and plucked one of the two apples. He handed it to me. It felt twice as big as a normal crabapple and was bright green.
“Eat it,” Seed said. “Stem and seed.”
I didn’t hesitate but bit into the fruit.
I expected it to be tart, even sour. But instead the sweet flavor burst upon my tongue, coated my mouth, and as I swallowed, it soothed my throat and filled my belly. I closed my eyes and groaned in pleasure.
The memories came. Not like they had in the Cave of Waterfalls, fuzzy and overwhelming, but fresh and clear. These memories were true, clear-eyed, without any of the intervening rationalizations or mythologizing. Everything I had ever known, in both lifetimes, filled my mind.
But one long-ago memory stood out.
I’d recently come to Moregone for the first time. I liked its backwardness, the stalwart ignorance of its people. They didn’t know who I was and didn’t care. I stayed for a time, learning to love all the ways that artichokes and crabapples could be served. Even then I was a merchant, looking for ways to make money.
So one day as I wandered through the well organized orchards I saw a clearing where a single apple tree stood apart from the others. It didn’t appear to be anything special; little more than a sapling.
I was leaving the next morning. I came back with a shovel and dug up the sapling with as much of the roots as I could, and loaded it into a burlap bag. When I drove away that afternoon, the tree was in the back of my wagon, unnoticed by any of the inhabitants.
I never thought much of it, frankly. It was a convenient size and appeared healthy. I thought it would make a good beginning to my own orchard.
Seed looked up at me as the truth washed over me, his eyes sad.
“I’m sorry, Seed,” I gasped. “I didn’t know.”
I had taken the Beginning Tree, from which all the other trees came. Without the Beginning Tree, the orchards had slowly dwindled, become sickly. Each year the harvest had been less, and I had been oblivious to it all. Without it, without the connection to the Mirror God, to the land of its origins, the people of Moregone began to forget.
It had taken years before a new Father Tree sprouted, and by the time it did, none of the Moregoneians noticed or cared.
“Go to your people,” Seed said. “They’ll be waking soon.”
“Who are you?” I asked the boy. “What are you?”
He didn’t answer but reached out and plucked the second of the apples. He brought it to his mouth, then hesitated. He didn’t look like a boy anymore, but a wizened old man, shrunken. How had I not seen that?
He opened his mouth again, which suddenly seemed wider than his face, and swallowed the apple whole. He munched it once, twice, and then it was gone.
“Go, Evard the Just,” he commanded, pointing with a long finger. “Your people need you.”
From beyond the trees I heard shouts, both of anger and fear.
I turned and ran. As I reached the edge of the clearing, I looked back. Seed stood taller than the sapling, and even in that brief glance, he appeared to grow another few inches.
Screams rose from the village and, shaking my head, I plunged into the orchard.