Prologue: The Trees
She knelt down beside the tree, sowing handfuls of compost into its soil. In her heart, she knew it would not be enough. Even though she had created the compost herself, from her own leaves and berries. Even though she had put her heart and love and tears into it. It was the only thing that could help, and still it would not be enough.
Having emptied her bag of compost, she wrapped her muddy hands around the tree’s slim trunk, bent her head against it, and wept further. How could this tree be dying? She had been caring for it since it was planted. And she was not the only one; the people who had planted this tree, the children who lived in the small building beside it, had cared for it too. As they—all of them—cared for all of the young trees that had been planted here, where the agreement made them theirs. These trees had been planted to feed the humans, true, but they were still living beings in their own right, and there was no reason they should fade like this. This might be the college’s land, but more than enough magic had accumulated here over the years to strengthen them.
She straightened her back and dashed the tears away, uncaring for the mud that would streak her face. She would wash it before she saw any humans. A combination of their minimal wisdom and the subtle suggestion of the magic that hung over the college’s land kept them from venturing from their walls at this time of night. All of them slept.
She stood and wended her way through the orchard, touching each tree at least once, silently asking each the same question. Had something been done to them? Was there anything more she could do for them?
Pain, they whispered. Emptiness. Taken away. Pain. Thirsty. Hungry. Pain. Love. Caretaker? Hungry, thirsty, pain. Work. Struggle. Magic. Draining. A feeling of cruelty, laughter, coming from outside. Taken away. Hungry. Thirsty. Pain. Love.
Their voices were quiet and slow, but she understood them nonetheless. And by the time she had gone through the orchard twice, she had her answer. There was something she could do. But she would need help.
She walked through a third time, slower, spending a little more time with each tree. This time she told them to hush, and to sleep well. She would help them. She would be able to save them. She did not tell them that she would likely not save them all… but she would save most, and she would never allow such a thing to happen again.