The Grave of the Trees
The rumble of the car vibrated up Bast’s spine. It moved all the way from his toes to the top of his head, sending his teeth clattering and tail bone aching. The jeep careened around corners and sped along dirt roads with a certain gusto reserved for berserkers in battle and water nymphs drowning lecherous young men. It was something one was born to relish.
Bast was weightless for a moment as the car floored it over a small hill, his stomach swooping and body floating like an astronaut caught in orbit. Gods help the shocks on this thing he thought to himself.
They landed with a crash and Bast yelped helplessly, Floria in the front just chuckled to herself at his reaction. An imp was the only person he could get to take him out this far.
The whole vehicle was scented with something like tar and licorice, the imp would sometimes glance in the mirror back at him. Luckily, the engine was so ferocious and feral that it’s noise blocked out any thought of having to make small-talk. That fit Bast just fine.
It was well-past noon by the time the car considered slowing down, skidding across the barely-there gravel road and approaching the thickets of woods. The far west had enormous forests like this covering it’s coast: dark, closely-knit and energy hovering on carnivorous.
The dark between the trunks was absolute and the leaves rustled far above with a threat between their teeth. The forest floor was sparse and padded with leaves and dark moss, there wasn’t enough sun leaking through the canopy above to help anything grow there.
The car gradually hissed to a halt as the lumpy road gave a final rocky wheeze and disappeared altogether. The car lurched violently into park and the engine rumbled thunderously before falling quiet.
Floria took the keys out and turned around, a perpetual smile plastered across her face and two shiny fangs protruding out from her mouth. She had red skin and cherry-blossom pink hair that hung at her cheeks in a bob, her eyes were inky black blots. Little tiny wings flapped on her back as she faced him.
“I’d play a funeral march now, but the radio conked two acres ago.” She commented breezily. “I noticed.” The only thing louder than the engine of the car was the gravely screamo remixes blaring from the speakers for the last four hours.
Floria grinned somehow even more widely, “are you sure you’re up for this, little ranger?” Bast just frowned delicately, “there’s nothing for it.” He whispered, patting his pocket and then reaching for the door, “this is it."
There had been stories, long ago and buried under other frayed memory, of hobbits that talked to the trees. They bonded with them deeper and longer than even the elves and the druids and all the folk in between. Bast owed it to them to keep trying.
That’s what his ancestors would have wanted, however long dead and forgotten they were.
Floria just snorted in return, “I’ll be back in a week. If you aren’t here in a couple hours I’m going back to the town and telling ‘em you died sucking tree bark.” Bast rolled his eyes elegantly, “I appreciate it,” he said dryly, “try not to lose your hearing on the return.” “What?” She said loudly and he met her eyes just in time to see the sparkle there. They shared a very brief chuckle. “I’ll see you Floria.” He hopped out, shouldering on his massive pack and only pausing a moment to glance back at the imp. “Wish me luck.” Floria leaned out of her jeep and threw up a peace sign, “pull some magic out of your ass, Halfling. You’re gonna need it.” Bast just wrinkled his nose and turned around, Floria revved her engine and sped away in a rainfall of dust and small rocks. Bast took a deep breath.
He stared at the trees for a long, tense moment, listening, feeling sweat lick down his neck and the cool breeze beckoning from the depths of the woods. This wasn’t a place for mortals, but very few forests were.
He patted his left pocket in a reassuring way, felt a large lump there, and then began to walk.
˚*❋ ❋ ❋*˚
There was a moan in the wind. It was hushed, barely there, just a shiver under his skin and a soft finger across the back of his neck.
There was, nonetheless, a moan on the breeze. Bast’s ears twitched as he picked up on it, flicking back and forth. He had spent years being teased for their size, called “elf-blood” by peers and worse by everyone else. It was only by irony alone that his ears saved him time and time again.
Bast jumped over a dead tree and weaved back and forth among enormous trunks, following the moan deeper, deeper into the Forest of Saints. The name was a bit of a misnomer since no saints had died here, and since no one lived near there at all. The locals hoped it would call in some divinity to a place most considered generally “cursed to hell and back again.”
It was true Bast didn’t find a lot of holiness here. He just found shadows, spiderwebs, and the prints of animals bigger than anything under the mortal sun. The size of them matched the size of the trees themselves- trees so wide and dark they felt like walls.
It was quiet, no bird songs or bugling of elk, nothing but his own hushed footsteps and steady breathing. It smelled of something wet and green, dizzying and promising head colds every morning.
Bast thought it would take longer to be sucked completely into the heart of the woods, but the pulse of this place ate you whole and brought you into its bloodstream as quickly as any hungry mouth. It was vast and took you exactly where it thought you needed to go.
It led him past berry trees with fruit so red it almost stung to look at and trickles of streams and stone monuments by men and elves that had fled this land long ago. Bast endured it quietly as he saw the same stones and streams and broken shrines again and again.
“Show me,” he whispered to the dense trees, “please.”
The sun hung low and sour in the westerly in the sky when a new noise permeated the silent thickets. Bast stopped dead in his tracks, a growling coursed through the thin empty air, he turned around in circles, “I mean no harm.” He spoke in Common.
The growling was visceral. It was bloody, raw, and filled with things so old it could turn a normal person to dust and mold.
The sound grew with each passing moment, Bast’s skin crawled and his impressive ears perked up with a quiver. “I am a ranger,” he called, putting his hands up in the air. “I am Bast, son of Hemla. I am here for the trees.” The growling seemed to come from all directions, surrounding him and planting itself deep in his chest. He turned around once more, every hair on his body standing on end. Then he stopped. A great green-grey beast stood on a low branch above him.
Bast’s eyes went huge, his whole body taut and breath catching in his throat. It had a massive snout, trailing white whiskers, and two triangle ears, it stood on the lowest branch of a huge mother tree.
The beast’s paws were the size of Bast’s head and her legs as wide as his body. She was covered in dark dappled moss and growing things- like an island onto herself.
Underneath the greenery was grey fur so thick it looked like you could cut your hand on each hair.
Bast stumbled backward when the great beast leapt down, gracefully landing in the place in front of him. He felt the impact in his teeth.
“Forest wolf,” he whispered, but he knew she was something more than that. Much more.
An ancient dire wolf, bigger than any he had seen before. She had yellow eyes like glowing amber and a pelt covered in the very forest itself.
Bast put his hands further in the air, “I am Bast.” He said again, slowly, carefully. “I am a ranger. I can make the plants grow and the waters flow. I am not here to hurt your forest.” The forest wolf twitched her great snout, sniffing the air deeply. Her growling withered away and they were left at an impasse. She watched him through slitted eyes.
“Great guardian,” Bast tried one last time. “I want to save the Ents.” He winced so hard it hurt, “I have something.”
She watched him expectantly. Bast reached into his pocket, heart throbbing painfully. There was nothing for it, he had come so far or there was a high chance the guardian would bite his head off and think nothing of it. He swallowed thickly, cradling his treasure in his hands and hunching over.
“I know what we’ve done to this world,” he looked down at his feet, “mortals are hungry, no matter the species. We’ve hurt many forests.” He shook his head, “but I found this. At the very bottom of the Ashen Well in the volcanic plains.” He held up a single seed, about the size of a baby’s fist, it was a perfect acorn shape, and it pulsed warm in his hand like a tiny beating heart. It was shiny and hard, the throb of it was barely there, but it was still warm to the touch. “I’ve tried everything,” Bast whispered, “but I can’t raise him. I don’t know how, we need… I need to find someone to help, please.” The guardian looked down at the seed of a baby Ent, something worth more than all the gold in the world. It was said hobbits of old had a connection with the Ents, that they talked and listened and grew orchids together.
Perhaps I can do this yet, Bast thought to himself as the great forest guardian regarded him. Perhaps the planet is poisoned, perhaps it’s already over, but I can still do this.
The wolf closed it’s maw and padded closer and closer to him, he could smell the earthy scent of mulch and blood on her. She saddled up next to him and Bast looked dumbly back up, her belly reached the very top of his hat.
She lowered herself, haunches bending in an elegant arc and folding down to his level.
The wolf began to growl again, “okay, okay.” Bast returned the seed to his pocket and slowly approached her, she waited for him to grab onto a handful of fur. Her back was slippery with moss and hair thick as pine needles but he managed to clamber up high on her shoulders.
“Woah,” he was jostled backward the second he swung his legs over her back and had to hold on desperately with both hands. The wolf bounded across the forest floor and her back rolled like an ocean underneath them, they took off toward east of the sun.
Bast held on for dear life and his eyes began to water as the two of them pounded the earth and sped along the forest floor, the scenery becoming a blur of green as they moved.
His already-bruised tailbone ached as they crashed through the underbrush and went deeper and deeper into The Saint’s forest.
Will I be able to find my way back? Will I come back from this at all? A stray worrisome thought entered his head, but he dismissed it. I have to follow the forest spirit wherever she will take me.
It could have been an hour, it could have been five when the breakneck pace slowed.
The she-wolf lumbered to a slow stop and Bast cracked his eyes open, just as he heard the babbling of distant water and bird songs.
He blinked up, squinting into blotches of sunlight filtering in from up above. “Oh,” he hummed, feeling his chest expand.
This was a totally different part of the forest, dappled light spread all across the grassy floor- thick with foliage and animals skittering back and forth. “Thank you,” Bast said slowly, “thank you so much old mother.” The wolf just gave another brief growl and Bast swung off her back, landing with a heavy thunk and shudder felt through his knees. Bast managed not to topple over and firmly righted himself, the forest guardian started walking away the second he landed.
“Wait for me Old Mother,” he trotted along behind her and looked around once more. “Is this where they’ve been hiding?” He asked in a hush, “I’ve waited so long.” It had been five full moons since he had found the seed of an Ent. He was sure others existed but kings and treasure hunters craved them out as well, and then who knew what happened to the other tiny seeds. There was no telling if the one in Bast’s pocket could even still sprout.
The woods guardian led him toward a break in the trees, entering to a damp clearing with birds chirping high above and deer picking their way along the edges of the light. Bast could feel sacred energy of this place, he craned his neck back and took a deep breath.
“Great Ents!” He had to try, “please hear me!” He spun around in circles, “I have brought one of your own.” Nothing but chirping responded to him, Bast kept looking, circling the area and cupping his mouth to call out again and again. His voice echoed and the whole forest seemed somehow much stiller and emptier than it had before.
“Forest shepherds, tree lords, Ents of old,” his spirits began to flag, the sun was wilting into the earth, it was nothing but shadows brewing now. “Speak to me." Bast stopped when the wolf turned from him, facing the center of the clearing and padding away. Bast started to stomp after her, “why did you bring me here Old Mother?” He couldn’t keep the frustration out of his tone.
The wolf turned her massive head and Bast looked past her, the clearing had water running down the roots of a tree and pooling in a small clear pond at it's base. It was the largest tree he had ever seen, fit to house mansions or cities or more.
It breathed old life and the promises of all of time.
Bast ran, “is that one?” He called, a wild smile growing across his face. "Is this where the Ents have been hiding?" And then he looked up, the tree swept tall and larger than life, but the branches were bare, empty and bark ashen, it was only the hollow of a tree.
Bast’s shoulders fell, his heartbeat slowing and chest squeezing painfully. He turned to snap at the wolf, the birds, anyone, “is this some sort of game?” If this was ever an Ent, it was not living anymore.
Then he paused, stopped, eyes growing wide as he looked down. Some of the roots tangled into a shape: a little pocket woven like an uneven bean, filled with water so clear and blue it almost glowed. A cradle shape.
Bast trembled, he softly approached the cradle, fingers trembling toward the clear bubbling water. He could feel the magic there. The wolf followed him, her fangs exposed slightly and ears perked up.
There was still a chance he could lose his head.
Bast just nodded, he reached into his pocket, and he plucked out the little beating heart.
“Dear one,” he whispered to the baby, “I will protect you, we will do all we can, just,” he squeezed his eyes shut, pinpricks of water forming there. He slowly, slowly held the seed over the cradle of water, “come back to us.” He eased the seed into the Ent water. The seed settled at the bottom of the cradle and Bast looked down at it’s tiny pulse, beating hard and fast.
Please little one, he prayed, barely breathing, it’s your turn now.
A tiny, silken, white hair sprouted from the top of the acorn.