This came out super-weird, in part because Æ is for Ash seemed like a complete story to me as was. So it’s… tangential? Sort of? Also, it didn’t want to end.
The Unburnt Tree, it was said, guarded all within Corthwin and protected them from harm, mindful or accidental.
It was a bit poetic, of course. The tree – and the younger ash trees grown from its seeds – did not protect the entire city. People still died. Small fires still burned sometimes, in the city. Buildings fell and fists were raised in anger.
(There were cities whose gods were less wooden and slow, where those things no longer happened. Those cities were terrifying places to visit, and those who could leave did so posthaste).
But, poetic license or not, every child was brought before the giant ash, the Unburnt Tree, to give and receive blessings. Children who for one reason or another were considered especially at risk were given names calling one the ash, thus to invoke even more of its protection.
Æscleah had been brought before the tree, a skinny, sickly, weak and early-born child, when she was just a week old. Her parents and family had hoped to forestall the illness they were certain would kill her, so they had fed to her a paste made of the Unburnt Tree’s seeds, and for a week, they had left her cradle in the roots of the tree, feeding her but otherwise leaving her to the ash’s care.
She had thrived, against all hope, beyond all prayers. She had grown chubby, that week hugged by the Unburnt tree. She had gained color and strength, although she remained a quiet child, not prone to crying. And she had, after her rough start, an amazingly robust and lively childhood.
And yet… (Because even gods who do not terrify with their overbearing control are still gods, are still beyond the ken of mankind) …she remained quiet, this child of a boisterous family. She remained still when others were excited, calm when others cried. She reacted, true, but she reacted slowly and with deliberation.
People whispered. Many children had been set in the Unburnt Tree’s protection; many had been named after the Ash. Many had been blessed — and of all those many, only Æscleah had been so very firmly marked.
“She’s a changeling,” whispered people who had never seen a true change-child.
“She’s cursed,” muttered people who were new to the city, or who were uncertain about the ring of ash trees now growing up around Corthwin.
The tree-minders looked on her, when she was finally brought before them, and shook their heads, not recognizing what was before them. “She is a child,” they declared. “Nothing more, and nothing less. Treat her as a child, and nothing more… and nothing less.”
And so Æscleah’s family did their best. She was not their only child, not by far, and they treated her the same as any other child. When she did her chores, they praised her; when she wandered off to the ring of unburnt ash unbidden and un-permissioned, they punished her.
And she wandered, punishment or not, permission or not, more and more as she grew quicker and quicker with her chores and her schoolwork. If she was missing, she would be in the crook of the Unburnt Tree, or tending the ground or the branches of one of the small scions, or weeding the beds of companion plants surrounding the trees surrounding the city.
As she grew older, the punishments grew harsher and Æscleah’s disobedience grew larger. She would skip all of her chores for a week, only to do them without fail for two weeks. She would vanish for days and nights on end, only to reappear as if no time had passed at all. And she seemed to mind not any punishment her parents or her teachers meted out.
Desperate to curtail her behaviour, Æscleah’s parents finally locked her in an interior room, a room of stone, far from the Unburnt Ash, far from the sun and the sky. “Do your chores,” they told her, “and you may be in the sun for five minutes. Do your siblings’ chores as well, and you may spend an additional five minutes outside.”
This worked for two weeks, as Æscleah grew wanner and quieter, as she seemed to wilt and wither, as a wind whipped up around the Unburnt Ash and its saplings. On the evening of the fifteenth day, Æscleah went outside for her allotted five minutes of sun – and vanished.
Her mother had been watching her. Her little brother had been playing with her. Her father had been by the gate. Nobody had seen her leave. Nobody in the streets had seen her pass. And the tree-minders who watched the Unburnt tree claimed that no, this time, they hadn’t seen her pass.
Nobody could find her. For hours they searched, and then for days, and then for weeks. When two weeks and a day had passed, when her parents had given up hope, thinking that Æshleah had gone to some other city, run away to join the circus, come afoul of some cretin not afraid of ash trees or their vengeance, when they had lain flowers in the bone-yard for her and said their words, then and only then did the Unburnt Ash reveal her.
She stepped from the tree as if she had been inside it, her hair gone white-grey and her skin seeming a bit green. She ignored the tree-minders. She ignored her parents. She spoke with a voice that was not her own to the people who stood by the gate. “Fetch the mayor.”
People muttered, and people complained. Her parents spoke strongly to her. Æshleah ignored them all to look at one young tree-minder, not that much older than she was. “Fetch the mayor,” she told the tree-minder. “Now.”
The tree-minder, who was used to the look of old people ignoring what was in front of them, who herself had been given to the Unburnt Ash as a child, who was not so stupid and willful as her elders thought she was, she ran for the mayor. She ran the whole way, and when she reached said notable, neither explained nor cajoled.
“The Unburnt Tree wants you,” she told him, and dragged him until he, not wishing his dignity to be quite that insulted, came along with her.
There, in the middle of people shouting at her and untouched by all of them, Æshleah stared at the mayor. “This is what I say. Once in a generation, you will give me a voice. You have given me a voice, and this body is it. Once in every generation, you will do as I say.”
Even the most recalcitrant people fell quiet now. The voice was not Æshleah’s. The words were neither Æshleah’s nor anyone else they had ever heard.
The mayor ahemed and coughed. “To whom am I speaking?” Because it did not due to assume, in the Empire. Cities had faltered and died over less.
“I am the Unburnt. I am all those that will not burn. I am the protection of the city. And, for that, I have my price.
The city was silent. Everything had its price. Ever god demanded something. They had been lucky for so long.
But still… they had been lucky for so long.
“What price would you have?” the Mayor asked. The Mayor had not been elected to rock the boat. The Mayor was quite good at not rocking any boats, Empiric or sylvan or otherwise.
“Every generation, you will give me a voice. And this voice… This voice you will mind, when the time comes.” Æshleah, or the body that had been Æshleah , sat down. “I cannot protect you if you do not listen.”
“Protect us from what?” someone in the crowd complained. And “what about the girl?” someone else shouted. It opened up a flood of questions. Æshleah’s body looked here and there, seeming to make eye contact with every single person who shouted a question.
When the crowd silenced again, she answered. “All those who are given to me have a little of me in them. This one required the most healing, and thus has always been mostly me. She is here, your Ash-Meadow-Daughter, the same as she has always been: a sprite within my will. Nothing has changed except your sight and your hearing.
“And your hearing must change more!” Her voice rose to a shout. “Or I cannot protect you. The fire is coming. There is flame even I fear. There are storms even I cannot stand. It is all coming, and you will need to listen.”
Suddenly, the voice changed. It sounded like a girl again, like Æshleah again. “But you won’t, will you?” She shook her head. “Because that’s how people are. Very well. When you’re ready to listen, come to the tree, and it will be explained.” She stepped into the arms of the Unburnt Ash, and was gone.
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