The trees speak with the voices of the living and dying earth beneath their roots. The wind does not sigh without the caress of a lover bough, and raindrops meet leaves before stone. Even fire’s hungry touch may bring life and fresh growth. At the centre of all things there lies a tree, for a tree is the only place where all four elements may make a home.
Basil Vasiliadis had never been a man to dread the sight of a beautiful woman on his doorstep. In fact the dread he felt as the light spilled out into the alleyway was even more a stranger to him than the visitor herself, though this would be their first meeting. He took in her features with a heavy sigh—the sharp angles of her face were higher and more pronounced than the wanted posters had depicted, or maybe she had grown thinner in the years since the sketch had first circulated. The oddly girlish curls had been well-captured except for their bronzy color, which had been rendered on the cheap parchment in only grey and black. The printed alerts he had received years before listed her skin as “somewhat dark.” Basil decided that the writer had fallen desperately short of an accurate description as he studied the rich tones of her complexion. Still, despite the many failings of pen and brush, he had known her in an instant.
“You’re Nenna, then.” he said. He couldn’t bring himself to feign ignorance. His unadjusted eyes fell to her left at the hint of movement in her shadow.
The woman nodded. She snaked one arm back to reach for the movement he had seen, then ushered a much smaller hooded figure forward with a gentle push. “And this is Hazel’s daughter,” Nenna answered, her accent rolling and soft and as untraceable as her features. The light showed a young face beneath the hood as Nenna situated the child between them, blocking the view from the street with her own narrow body.
The little girl squinted up at him, blinking hard at the outpour of light from the open door, and Basil sank to his heels. Her skin was a rosy olive, not pale like her mother’s—Hazel had always needed a hat in the sun—and the hair tangled around her face was darker, almost black. Her huge doe eyes were framed by heavy, thickly-lashed lids. On closer inspection he saw that the pupils were large and oblong; when the light hit them, they cinched inward at the middle to make a blocky figure eight. The irises caught the light from the open doorway to glow amber like the resinous bulbs hanging in the window of his laboratory.
He sat and observed her for some time before he raised a hand and tugged back the hood. He stifled a cry of shock and revulsion, the breath lodged in his throat like a rock. Abnormality he had expected, but the advanced stage of growth, the broken skin, and the sticky seepage of blood and plasma that escaped around the protrusions made his scalp prickle and his stomach turn in response.
But then the girl smiled her mother’s smile and some of the horror of the moment passed. Basil breathed and tried to return the small grin of childish approval with one of his own. He couldn’t have said whether it was a success.
Nenna’s breathing above him was shallow as he touched his hand softly to the child’s crown. Her smile disappeared with a hiss of pain before her hands flew up and knocked Basil’s arm aside. He rocked back as the sound of a low growl reached his ears. Without taking his eyes off the girl, he spoke to the woman.
“Is she dangerous?” he asked. Under normal circumstances he might have been embarrassed to admit fear in the face of a child, but from the moment he had dropped the hood his own appearance had become the last thing his mind.
“Not yet,” Nenna murmured. “Though I would not recommend testing it.” Basil felt the fast-bruising flesh where her hands had made contact with his wrist and made a mental note.
“I’m sorry,” he ventured, sinking a little farther down to the girl’s eye level. She eyed him, still wary, but the growl faded. He motioned to the grotesque, straining ridges on the top of her head but kept his hand well back. “Do they hurt?”
The girl’s small hands traveled up to knead at the base of the growths, both placed in perfect symmetry a few inches above her ears, a short span before the temple line. Close up, Basil could see that her long hair had been braided back to disguise the protrusions as much as was possible.
“She doesn’t speak much yet,” Nenna offered. “I thought she might have been damaged at first, but she’s always shown an aversion to some sounds, even more so when these began to come in.” She nodded at the top of the girl’s head. “Now I think it’s more likely that it hurts her to speak.”
Basil hummed his assent. “Hazel was never particularly talkative, either. It follows, I suppose. Though I imagine she takes after her father more—beyond the obvious,” he added with another hasty gesture. Nenna’s lips pursed just enough to make him feel foolish. He coughed and looked back at the girl. “At any rate, I see little of Hazel in her.”
“Is that your professional opinion?” Nenna asked.
Basil exhaled and reached slowly for the girl’s crown a second time. He parted her hair with his fingertips, careful not to apply any pressure to her scalp, then held the loose strands away from the base of the growths as he thought aloud. “If you really want my opinion, I’d say it’s curious that these should appear between the parietal and temporal bones. Or bridging the cusp of each, actually, though I suppose they would behave differently with a full-blood like her father. I would bet my best shoes that the struts are growing up from between the plates…very painful, I expect.” Basil reached up to gently dislodge the girl’s hands from her head, then peered as close as he dared. In turn, she began to pull and pick at the heavy brass buttons and pins on the chest of his robes as he leaned above her. Her gaze settled on one in particular, a Gothic cross with a thorny climbing rose twisted around it; the single bloom curved around to hang like a head at the center of the crucifix. Basil had to pause his examination to stop the girl ripping the pin completely off his robes. When the silence became uncomfortable he turned his attention back to Nenna.
“Look, I can appreciate that these are problematic, but I’m not comfortable operating on a—,” he gestured as he began to feel cold and shaky with expectation. “Hazel never explained exactly what—I never examined, or met, one of the…other types.” He cleared his throat to stop himself babbling.
Nenna only nodded at the cross from Basil’s robes, which he looked down to find in the hands of the little girl—he had apparently left off fighting her tenacious fingers for too long. “They didn’t tell me you were a Rosicrucian.”
“Any port in a storm, they say,” he offered her a grin that she did not return. He took it back. “But if you don’t know who I am, why are you here?” he asked.
“I was directed to you for your particular area of expertise,” Nenna replied.
“I’m telling you there’s no precedent for an operation of this kind, young lady—,”
“And I haven’t told you she needs an operation,” Nenna cut in. “The Hand wants her bound.”
“Ah.” Basil nodded. The shudders of hesitation gave way to an old anger. “Of course the Hand would send you with an order rather than a request. I guess they’ve forgotten that I resigned years ago and want nothing more to do with their noble struggle?”
“They may have,” Nenna replied, “but Hazel never did.” At her words, the guilt Basil had pushed away for ten years settled on him like a clinging dust. “She tried to contact you when the Golden Dawn came for her. After her bond was broken, they tracked her just like they’ll soon be tracking this one,” she nodded down to the girl. “I won’t allow it to happen a second time.”
Basil shook his head with a bitter laugh but kept his voice low. “A blind operation would be safer than what you’re proposing. Binding her at this age could kill her,” he” said. “Hazel scarcely lived through it at twice this girl’s age. You could run with her instead—”
“I cannot keep her,” Nenna cut him off, her voice as flinty as her face.
“You’ve kept her this long—it’s been almost six years since Bast.”
“Six years too long,” Nenna said. “I should have brought her to you the day Hazel died.”
“Then why have you waited this long if you’re so eager to be rid of her?” Basil asked, his voice almost a match for Nenna’s harsh tone. Nenna smirked then, and Basil wondered if he had perhaps overreached himself.
He had heard the rumors. Granted, they were rumors perpetuated by her enemies—enemies he shared—but the fact remained that she had kept Hazel alive for almost ten years of running from the Order of Golden Dawn. It was not a feat to be sneered at, nor was it a feat accomplished by the soft of heart. Of all those implicated at Bast, she was the last left alive. Every other witness had been silenced.
Except for the girl, though he supposed whether she could be considered a witness was debatable. In either case, Basil knew that if the Golden Dawn caught her scent there would be nowhere on Earth for her to hide.
“I will bind her if you ask it,” Basil consented at last, “but I cannot be responsible for what happens after. Binding is unnatural and traumatic for the body—stress and exposure will provoke a relapse, and the shock can be fatal. Still, I will do it one last time time if I must,” he plucked at the girl’s cheek and she giggled. “For Hazel.”
“Once will not be enough,” Nenna said evenly.
Basil blinked at her. “I beg your pardon?”
Nenna seemed wearied by his need for an explanation. “Do you think she has never been bound before?” she asked. “That she has lived for five years without the Golden Dawn trailing after her purely by happy chance?” Nenna ran a hand through her curly hair. “For five years she was bound, but obviously it needs refreshing.” She motioned to the budding horns as proof. “She will need it again soon, and likely with increasing regularity after that.”
“That’s not possible,” Basil said, shaking his head. “True bonds are lifelong. If her bonds are breaking already, then it wasn’t done properly the first time.”
Nenna’s face drained of expression as she took in Basil’s pronouncement. “It was Hazel that bound her the first time, with her dying breath,” she informed him. “Do you think it likely that she botched the job?” When Basil did not speak, Nenna retrieved her heavy pack from the steps and hoisted it over her shoulder. “You will need to keep her close to ensure that she will be hidden until I come back for her.”
Basil took a deep breath. “How long is your contract?”
Basil stared at her. “Fifteen years?” he repeated, aghast. “Merciful god, woman, I can’t keep her here for fifteen years. At a hospice filled with the mad and dying? It is no place for a child to grow up!”
“I would know well enough where children should not grow up,” Nenna said softy, “and that is exactly why I have brought her to you. She has already seen the other side of Death and barely escaped with her mind intact. Would you have her stay with me and see this side of it as well? You should know what the Hand will expect of me.”
He did know. “And the Hand is aware of her heritage?” Basil asked, one eyebrow quirked.
“As much as they need to be.” Nenna looked down as she eased the hood back into place over the girl’s head.
Basil eyed her, but Nenna’s stony features did not shift. “Then you’re not just their pawn? I saw enough in my time with the Hand to know that they have little use for those with personal agendas,” Basil cautioned.
“The Hand is a particularly single-minded operation. They will not concern themselves with her fate so long as she does not stray into theirs.”
“And you can guarantee that?”
“That’s why I’m here.” Nenna shifted her weight in a way that put Basil on guard by old habit. “You are a cautious man, Vasiliadis. The fact that you could hide even from Hazel assures me of that. But do not presume to hide from me. I will be back for the girl when she is old enough, and we will finish what Hazel started. And do not think that you will do her any favors by sheltering her from her purpose or history. She will be of no use to me soft and simple-minded.”
The little girl, apparently unconcerned with the exchange, reached up for Basil’s hand and smiled. He took her palm between this thumb and index finger with great care, though he already knew her to be less frail than she looked. He looked from her upturned face to Nenna’s. “How can you speak of her like this?” he asked quietly. “She’s just a child. The daughter of your oldest friend. And you would leave her here in the dead of night without a single word of kindness to spare?”
Nenna took a deep breath and looked up at Basil from the steps below. “I gave everything I had left to save her life once already, because I could not save her mother’s. You will save her now because you were not there when Hazel needed you. This is the way you will find atonement.” She pulled a sheaf of papers from her cloak and pressed them into Basil’s free hand.
Basil looked down as Nenna turned, the heels of her well-worn boots muffled against the stone. On the top page and written in a hand he knew well, read the words:
For the care and welfare of my daughter,
my undying thanks.
“And what about you?” Basil called after her. “How will you find atonement?”
Nenna turned at the roadside and looked back to where Basil stood with the girl. She did not look at Basil, but at the daughter of the woman she had sworn to serve and protect unto her own death. Basil could see the tears gathering below her eyes even from where he stood.
“For this?” Her voice was hoarse and tight as she tilted her head back in the cool night air. “I don’t believe I ever will.”