On a cold, blistering night, two travellers fought wind and rain to reach der Zedernwald. As they arrived at its stump-laden edgelands, the blizzard that had been threatening to form all day took shape, lashing at their backs and faces with hail and snow. Soon even the woods thickened, and great poplars bunched together like the forever-closed fists of dead giants. Progress seemed impossible. Still, the iron-willed travellers marched. They had sworn an oath and accepted a quest of dire importance. So strongly did they hold high that quest in their hearts and minds that even their imminent death seemed inconsequential.
Fate, that ever-unknowable wind, took mercy on these tiring brothers, and for the briefest moment, the white veil of the storm lifted. A little further into the forest, there shone the Northern star of what could only be a fire. Heat, warmth: lodgings.
Renewed, the travellers made their way toward where they saw the light, continuing to wrestle the wood as they went.
They were half dead when they arrived, knocking on the door of the sudden apparition. Upon being granted entrance, the taller, Moritz, fell inside. The other, Reiner, ignored the temptress flames of the fire in the hearth and helped his brother. The man who allowed their entry bolted the door behind them.
“Are you quite alright, lads?” he asked, kneeling to help Reiner with Moritz. “Mighty cold out there I must admit. I’ll fix you both a stew.”
Reiner was too busy with Moritz’s strained whispers to hear the host.
“It’ll be alright, Reiner,” Moritz said. “Get to the fire, get to the fire.”
A while later—only after the two, having made their way, finally, over to the fire, sat covering their frozen hands and faces with the radiating heat surrounding the hearth—their host returned, bowls in hand. He placed one near the puffy- and red-faced Moritz who was sat directly in front of the flames, then handed the other to Reiner who was hovering anxiously near his brother.
“I thought that was it,” Moritz declared. “When that snow came, the wind. I saw in that blank sheet the end, I did.”
“You’re safe now,” the host said, pulling a second and third chair to the hearth so that he and Reiner could sit. He patted Moritz on the back. “Eat, lad. You’ll need it.” He looked at Reiner. “Join us at the fire. Your friend will recover.”
Reiner undid his face covering as he sat down, joining them both. He let the stew warm his now ungloved hands. “Thank you, mister. We have funds, and we’ll pay you right.”
“Don’t worry about that now,” their mystery host replied, taking out a pipe, lighting it with the flaming end of a twig from the fire. “We’ve us a fire for our hearts, a meal for our bellies, and I suspect we’ll have us a mighty fine talk for our heads. There is no hungrier belly than the mind.”
Reiner smiled, surprised at how pleasant the stranger was. “Thanks, Herr,” he said.
“Call me Rodrick, my lad; no officialities in my court. Though, tell me yours and your friend’s name so I can return the honours.”
“I’m Reiner, Herr… Rodrick,” he replied, apologizing with his eyes for being unable to dispense with politeness, “and that snowman by the fire is Moritz.”
The shivering Moritz nodded to them both, savouring the heat from the bowl.
“Great to meet you both,” Rodrick replied. “Now, I bet there’s a tale behind your travelling, ain’t there. Two young lads such as yourselves marching southward to der Zedernwald.”
Reiner smiled, though a little sadly. “There is a tale, you’re right, Herr. But we’re sworn to secrecy, Herr, by our master.”
“Master?” Rodrick replied, puffing out smoke.
“Yes, Herr, he’s not a master as such—”
“He just calls him that,” Moritz interrupted from the fireside. “’Master’ saved our little mouse Reiner.”
“Is that true, lad?” Rodrick asked Reiner.
“Ja,” Reiner replied, “though in much less crass terms, Herr Rodrick. I was a sickly thing, and Master was always fond of sickly things.”
“Didn’t half fill the house up with them,” Moritz added, sharing a glance of fond remembrance with Reiner.
“They are the kindest, souls like that,” Rodrick said. “I have had the pleasure of knowing some myself. Lost now, though.”
A midnight mist of silence rolled over the men. Nothing so much as peeped or creaked but for the flickering of the fire and the whips of wind wrangling the wooden lodgings.
Reiner was about to speak: then Rodrick stood.
“Right, then,” Rodrick announced, lighting ablaze the pall of sorrow, “let me fetch myself a stew, and I suppose I’ll get to thinking on a tale that might befit a celebration of those men fond of sad and sickly things.”
He grabbed Moritz’s empty bowl, to which Moritz nodded a thanks, and went to the kitchen.
Reiner looked around him. “What was that?”
“The house is an old thing,” Rodrick replied, stood over the bubbling cauldron, “and so is my sickly mother.”
“Sorry to hear that, Herr,” Reiner said, casting his eyes upward to where presumably the mother was lying. “She lives here?”
“Ja. She’s quite unwell. Pale as Lady Blizzard herself out there. I’m waiting for her to pass proper before I leave this place, start anew.”
“I’m sorry,” Moritz said, eyes still on the fire. Reiner was quiet.
“It’s alright, lads. I’ve made my peace,” said their host, returning to his chair.
Another lull, another hush. The fire shook, wooden spoons clinked in bowls, and the house shivered and moaned with the wind.
“I know just the stories to tell tonight,” Rodrick said, clapping his hands. “In honour of sad and sickly things!” Rodrick clattered his bowl with Reiner’s. Moritz didn’t react, focussed still on the fire. Reiner shaped a sorry with his face, and Rodrick winked back.
“All my life I’ve lived in these woods,” he started, digging into the stew. “To me it feels as if the world revolves around them. Tell me, lads, do you know where der Zedernwald ends?”
Reiner and Moritz were silent.
“That’s because it doesn’t. And you know what things are like when they don’t end. They’re mad.” Rodrick put his bowl aside. His jovial mood softened —his loudness and cavalier way with words dampened. “There’s no darker black than the midst of der Zedernwald, let me tell you. When you’re deep in its gullet, light doesn’t work the same. You saw yourself how dense and thick the copses can be, and, though you arrived at night, if you arrived by daytime you’d be fighting the same thing: shadows.
“No one knows why the trees grow so tall and so thick and dense. We only know that we grow a lot of em, and quick. As you’d expect, there’s a strong felling trade these parts. It’s a dream, really. A wood that never stays empty. Armies have fought with these woods at their backs for many, many years. There was some old King who might be to blame for half of these stories I’m to tell you tonight. To be a feller back then, you see, you were expected to go deep into the woods for King’s wood; not at the edgelands, but right and far down into it. The further in you go, the stronger the wood is, see. Makes sense, like. The tallest trees and the best wood lives most-centre to this place. But a lot of lives were lost going that far in to those woods. You’d be walking alongside a feller and, poof, gone like a candle in the cold.
“These lords and kings didn’t really care about the cost of that, though. They figured the loss of these lives into their calculations. It was worth it to them. If they’d went in, been there themselves, maybe… Well, it’d never happen, would it?” Rodrick took a big puff of his pipe. “Anyway, there was this feller named Cane, from Wurmrote Village, not far from here. He’s working deep in the woods with his men when they hear crying. Now, if you hear crying deep in the black of the Zedernwald, there are only two reasons. Some parent has lost their head and gone for a stroll with their newborn into that dark place, or worse, a child had been thieved.
“Either way, Cane and his fellers had a duty to search.
“They follow the source of the crying for a while (the echoing plays with your head in these woods), and it wasn’t until an hour later they had found what it was that was crying.”
Rodrick leaned forward to both Moritz and Reiner who were paying a deep, monk-like attention.
“It was a sapling.” Rodrick sized up an inch with his hands. “Tiny little thing, screaming, crying—wanting.” Rodrick leaned back. “Now the lads, they were all a little spooked. They didn’t like that it cried. But they were young. Cane, he’d been a father, his lad having moved away many years ago, and he took a soft spot for the sapling crying like that. He’d noticed something else as well. At its roots: upturned soil. This little sapling had been freshly cut and brought from somewhere else, abandoned to that darkwood dirt.
“Cane did what all lapsed parents would do. He took it home.
“Now, I know what you’re thinking, cause I’m thinking it too. Wurmrote Village would have burned him at the stake bringing a monster such as this. Didn’t happen. The only reasoning for me is that far stranger has come out those woods than a sapling that cries. So Wurmrote welcomed Cane with open arms, coming to his aid with the sapling. You know what people are like with babies. Get excited. Wanna dress them, feed them.
“So Cane plants his crying sapling in his garden and his wife is overjoyed. They were parents again.”
Rodrick went to smoke, but the pipe was empty. He busied himself with refilling it with tobacco.
“What happened?” Reiner asked.
Rodrick smiled like a man with a royal flush. “So that isn’t where it ends?”
“There’s always more,” Moritz replied.
Rodrick filled the pipe, stood, and fetched a flame from the fire. Taking a deep breath of smoke, he exhaled slowly. “So… trees are old things, aren’t they? Live far longer than any of us do, with our flesh, our bones. The maggots eat us quicker. But trees… ginormous things! Old and ancient. And in the Cedar, you’ll find big bastards the size of houses. Cut one (if you can) and you’ll likely see more rings than a jeweller could ever make.
“Well, it just turns out that this sapling was one of the same. Deep Zedernwald wood. It was going to grow to be thousands of years old. That meant it was going to be a baby for a long, long time.
“Cane and his wife had about a month of crying before Wurmrote wanted it dead. But Cane was attached to the poor thing. His wife wasn’t. She hadn’t found it like it was, lost and alone in the woods.
“So the village voted Cane out, even his wife. Turns out she’d been with someone else anyway when he’d be felling, and this was good reason to have him gone.
“Cane left the day after the vote, and the village knew silence once more.”
Reiner shifted in his chair. “What happened to Cane?”
“Story is that he set up somewhere,” Rodrick said as he stood to collect Moritz’s and Reiner’s bowls. “Got a house on some disused land. There was a war going on, and still a need for fellers. And not to mention the orphans pumped out of the war. He adopted.” Rodrick moved to the other side of the room. The house moaned again—Rodrick’s mother stirring.
“How long has she left?” Moritz asked to the noise. “If you don’t mind my asking.”
“No,” Rodrick replied, “not at all. She’s been ill a while now. But I’m hoping it’s not long. These woods aren’t a home. Not for anyone.”
Reiner meanwhile was looking around the room. He paused, his eyes squinting at the penumbra where the fire failed to shine. What was he seeing?
Another moan from above: Reiner followed the noise, stared upward.
“Don’t worry about her,” Rodrick said on his return, handing Reiner a cup of ale. “Sometimes things are just born wrong, you know. Born with death in their heads. That one has had it a long time coming.” He handed Moritz his ale, then sat back on the chair. It creaked. “There was a man who found that out in quite a misfortunate way.
“It started when a trader came to Wurmrote, selling wood to the craftsmen and the carpenters. I know what you’re thinking. A man selling wood to a felling village? Well, it wasn’t just wood from the edgelands. He had, what he called, wood with the seed of God within. He’d turn up and he’d say, ‘Ask it to burn to flames and it’ll pop along to the nearest fire!’”
“No one really saw any use for it, though. I suspect many of them thought the man meant quite literally it’s only good for burning. Simple, you know. All but for one. J, Hoover.”
“Hoover out of curiosity asks where the wood came from. The trader says it came with his land. Now, Hoover’s suspicious at this point. He asks for a demonstration. The trader, with all the flair of a showman, pulls out a strand of wood from his pocket. He hands out his palm so Hoover can see. ‘Jump, little wood,’ the trader says. And sure enough, the strand bops up and flings itself into the pool below it. It shivers wildly in the cold water. Hoover picks it up, drying it, then pays the trader handsomely for his stocks. The trader leaves.
“Hoover’s not seen for a while after that. The only noises people hear from his workshop is this high kind of buzzing sound. Like a hive throttled by fabrics and shook.
“Two weeks after he bought the wood, Hoover announces a show at his studio. At this point, the village is curious what he’s been up to, and they’ve heard of these apparent skills of the wood, so they turn up, all of them.
“The studio doors open, and centre of the workshop, there’s a little stage, curtained by a shaking crimson cloth. Hoover arrives stage-left and welcomes his crowd, thanks them for coming.
Rodrick stands as though he himself were giving the performance. “He bows, then shouts, ‘Behold: A Pilgrim’s Search for Meaning’. And with that, he rags the curtain from its pole on this small scaffolding, and there, standing nude and shaking, is a little puppet. People are still and quiet, looking for its strings. They’d have been better off looking for their own.
“He shouts, ‘Cry for me, Blockhead’. And Blockhead cries. Really weeps. But his weeping is dry, the sound of leaves rustling across a plank. The crowd are confused at first. Sitting still, mouths agape. It’s only when Hoover smacks Blockhead’s bottom and knocks him into the cold dirt that the crowd finally laughs. ‘Thus are we created!’ Hoover shouts.”
Moritz is looking into the fire, watching the wood turn black. Reiner can’t look away from Rodrick. “Why did he hurt the puppet?” Reiner asked.
“Hurt it?” Rodrick replied. “It’s a puppet, lad.”
“What happened?” Moritz asked, tired, voice curt.
Rodrick picked up the terseness. “The chill must have lashed you hard,” he said. “Is your ale fine? Heat bounteous?”
“He just wants to know,” Reiner replied.
Softening his hardened face, Rodrick smiled. “If you must know, Blockhead was getting on just fine. He went through the motions with practiced ease. Did everything commanded of him.
“Until it began pausing, as if confused. During this stillness, Blockhead’s face always faced the workshop benches, or the stage, the door, even the chairs.
“We forget what we clothe and protect ourselves with, don’t we? Our wool from sheep, our stones and metals from mother earth. And wood… well. This puppet had a unique vantage point. Soon it began hugging very tightly any wood it got its hands on, its face calm as an unrippling lake. Hoover had to guide it toward the centre of the stage every time.
“For a while, it complied.
“But soon little Blockhead took to standing completely still whenever Hoover ordered him to move; it looked at something beyond the crowd. Wandering eyes found its focus: the edgelands, the trees of der Zedernwald.
“Blockhead moved its arms gently side to side, mimicking their waving branches. The crowd began leaving, bored of Blockhead’s peacefulness. Hoover didn’t like that. He’d spent a lot of money and time chipping away that wood and creating this obsequious little ingrate who now was content to simply stand still and wave in a non-existent breeze. Hoover wasn’t going to let an investment like that break down so easily.
“So he pulled out an axe, started doing big thumping steps toward the puppet. Blockhead stared at him, unawares, like, of what was going on, still tranquil. The crowd, though, saw the change in the act and stalled their leaving. Hoover affects this kind of low, grumbling tone, but loud enough for the crowd to hear. ‘Little Blockhead and Its Search for Safety’, he said. He pulled the axe back, ready to chop.
“Now, even flies that drink slime know to flee a flying hand. So when Hoover swings that axe, Blockhead sidesteps, watching dumbly as the floor quakes. The crowd gasps. Not because of the miss, though. Because of what was happening behind the pair.
“Hoover had knocked a torch from the bench in his missing Blockhead. The flames were spreading quick. Spooked like cattle, the crowd panicked. Hoover, ever the shepherd, sought to calm them. And no one had chance to pay attention to what was going on in the back of the workshop.
“Blockhead was seeing what fire could do, and maybe this sparked some innate realization about what wood is for. I like to imagine that when Blockhead sees its kin in the fire, it has some grand epiphany about itself. It sees itself, finally, as unnatural, standing there, thinking in its tinderflesh, and so does only what God would intended wood to do.
“The crowd’s clamour has quietened by the time it happens. Quiet all but for the sudden reappearance of the buzzing that droned in Wurmrote for two weeks prior. Hoover turned instantly to its source. He was too late.
“Blockhead had done what all wood ought to do: it launched itself toward a torch and was now aflame, jumping and running across oils and rags on the worktops like some infernal Puck. A formidable blaze ripped through the roof, alighting the straw on the floor. Hoover tried to save his workshop.
“It wasn’t until he caught fire and started wailing that people put together what that buzzing had been for those two weeks. It was Blockhead’s mouthless agony manifest. It was his screams.
“Didn’t take long for Hoover to expire, for his own pipes to burst in the fire. Blockhead’s cries, meanwhile, continued. In the smouldering ruin of the workshop, there was only the drone of buzzing. A ghostly dirge rippling through the Wurmrote air. As soon as they were able, the villagers scavenged for any piece of keening wood and took its charcoaled remains far into der Zedernwald and buried them deep.” Rodrick stopped and let the hush of lodgings blossom. “If it weren’t for the blizzard, I wonder if we’d still hear it?”
Reiner tried to choke out a laugh. Couldn’t. He opted for another method. “These tales are rather heady, Rodrick.”
“Nothing but nourishment in this lodge, my lad. You’ll leave with your heads bursting.”
Reiner nearly fell from his chair as the house rocked from the blizzard. A pained and muffled wail from upstairs.
Mortiz and Reiner winced.
“Was that your mother?” asked Moritz.
“The blizzard might have knocked her from the bed,” Reiner added softly.
Reminded of his duty as a son, Rodrick replied, “I suppose she needs something, aye.” He took a rag from near the cauldron, a cup of ale, and left the two men momentarily to go upstairs.
“Do you think he knows, Reiner?” Moritz whispered, watching the door Rodrick left through.
“If he’s local to these woods as he says he is, maybe. But I don’t like him. The way he speaks of his mother.”
Moritz nodded. “Say, what were you looking at over there?”
As Reiner went to speak, the house quivered, and the two men watched the far end of the room where Rodrick appeared at the door.
“Hello lads,” he said. “Sorry about the wait. I just like eating, is all!” He boomed with laughter as he refilled the bowls and the cups of ale. Back at the fire, he handed the men foods and drinks and sat down on the chair with the same gait as an elephant rolling backward. The floorboards wailed under his weight.
“So how did you hear all this?” asked Moritz. “Have you lived here a while?”
Rodrick drank from his cup and nearly finished it all. “I’d say so, yeah. I run a lodge, so you hear tell here and there. Travellers, merchants.” The blizzard raged still, and was a symphonic ruin whenever conversation lulled.
“You know,” Rodrick continued, blithe to the blizzard’s blare, “you see weather like this and you question what Lordly order there is. Looks more to me the Great Composer is losing His wits.”
“Or just likes a good song,” Moritz added.
“That might be. But I shudder, sometimes.” Rodrick sighed, and leaned forward, toward the two men. “I’ll be truthful, lads. Your coming here has been a difficult reminder.” Rodrick’s eyes hung on the ceiling. “I suppose these stories of mine have been laying the groundwork, if you like.” He coughed, leaned back, downed a pint of ale, and took in a hit of tobacco. “I lost a lot to those woods.”
Rodrick went to refill his ale. Downed it instantly. “The damned place fools us, you know that? It’s a poisoned pawn. I only wish they’d known…
Taking a deep breath, Rodrick tried to unwind the albatross of worry that had coiled around his neck. “Mother had sent me and my brother into the forest. It was under the guise of finding my father. My brother and I knew her motives, though. Clear as unclouded crystal. She wanted more cuttings of that tree. Father, see… He sold them. On his last trip into der Zedernwald, he hadn’t returned. There was nothing for us to do but agree. Damn her. Damn her.” Rodrick’s eyes fell with grey evil on the ceiling. Loathing made mundane.
“It was different then, lads, marching into that place. Sure, the Cedar is still thick and dangerous and difficult to move through, as you men know, but we’ve other means of lighting now. Up north I know they have electric lights in the towns, and I’ve seen a few expeditions into here that made use of such advancements. Nothing scares those men with their rifles and their lights. Back then, with only the little flame of an oil lantern, every step was a herculean feat.
“But sure enough, we’re marching through. My brother, he was like you, Reiner. A sickly thing. And I was sure he’d give up not even halfway in. He’d heard the other goings-on in der Zedernwald. Beetles with the small heads of humans. Bones shaped like cutlery, right down to flowery engravings on their handles. It’s like with no light, there was no sense. The hinterlands of God. But my brother, he never stopped. Never flinched at even the slightest imagination. I wasn’t sure why he was so driven to help mother.
“Soon, we got in so deep that the night was like a smog. The air tasted of mud, and there was always some sound of running water, kind of gushing thickness, as though the river was a stream of blood.
“Even those noises died eventually. It was a silence insulated by ancient and impossibly thick trees. So dense and tall where they that they arched upright like stray rib bones of ancient Leviathans dead in the dry earth. Oftentimes the only way to pass through them was through small lesions and holes.
“And then, just as I didn’t think they could get any bigger, we hit what looked like a wall at first. Both my brother and I thought we’d hit the boundary between this world and the next. It was, with our lighting, endlessly wide. Walking right or left only led to more of its length. So we picked a direction and walked alongside it.
“After a while, my brother noticed that it was sloping slowly left. We were glad to know it was indeed a tree and had some form of circumference. He marched faster after this. It must have taken us a day just to move around a quarter of this thing.
“And as we walked, I started going all, well, not okay. My mind had been getting a little loose, all that walking and to nowhere. Literally marching in circles. And I said this to my brother, but he kept moving, not saying a word. So I kept going, for him. That’s when we heard the first sound that wasn’t the pair of us.
“The shaking of a tree.
“I’d grown so accustomed to it, that deep airless nothingness of der Zedernwald, that this sound was offensive. I thought I was losing my mind because it wasn’t just a tree shaking randomly, it was shaking with reason, finessed purpose. Expression. When the branches moved, it gave off a kind of cry. Deep and guttural and somehow old. My brother ran toward the noise.
“As we ran, the tree’s stump thinned until it gave way to a clearing leading within itself. If it was a tree, it had been hollowed out. Inside this hollow base: a grove. A tangle of six infinitely tall poplars stood equidistant from each other in a circle as wide as two men. In the middle of it all: the weeping tree.
“Standing near it was hard. I wanted to leave, and I hated my brother and my mother for forcing me here. It was odd to look at the tree crying with its branches. Its face was right in the middle. But not as we understand faces. It had two eyes that looked like the wrinkles of unfolded elbows, and they were on different spots, slightly out of line. Its mouth, so to speak, shaped words through the shaking of the branches, and so when it spoke, it was always a sort of soft whisper, and when it cried, it was as though a gale blew, whistling through the spaces between the branches. Its wrinkly eyes were bunched up at first. They opened when we asked its name.
“‘Are you real?’ it asked in between its weeps.
“My brother replied, ‘We are, my friend. And it must have been so long for you.’”
“The tree cried again, whimpering with its branches. My brother asked the tree its name, and it said it was called Edgar. And my brother asked, ‘Why are you sad, Edgar?’”
“It only replied, ‘For I am alone, and I have killed my friends. And every visitor who happens upon me cuts me dry. Will you cut me?’ The tree shook again and I followed its movements. Many of its branches had been cut to the trunk. The nearest branch I could see was at least the height of a church steeple.
“I wanted out. This was enough for me, lads. I won’t lie. But my brother held onto me, wouldn’t let me go. He asked Edgar what had happened. Edgar explained that he was the centre-most tree out of this little pack, and that for many, many years he had been the tallest. He got more light, being the tallest, and so he grew more.
“And when he grew, his roots grew. His friends, the trees beside him, they were tangled up with his roots. And after a while, they became him. They died.
“I looked over the shut faces of those other trees again and wondered if he had their memories.
“My brother hugged the tree and told Edgar he was very sorry. He asked Edgar why the trees were so close together. And Edgar nearly screamed, ‘It put me here like this,’ and my brother asked who, but Edgar was too emotional after that. It had been alone for far too long.
“My brother asked it to wait a second, and Edgar, ignoring him, continued on crying. My brother took me aside.
“‘We need to help him’, he said. I laughed in his face. We’d marched for days on next to no food and supplies and now he wanted us to save it somehow.
“I’d seen and heard enough of all of this. Mother had sent us to take a cutting. That’s all. And I wasn’t even sure how we’d do that. I told my brother as such. He replied, ‘No one will cut this tree again.’
“We’d marched, and survived, into this Cedar and he wanted to, what, bivouac? Live in the woods? The endless wood that God had forgotten? He’d gone mad. I told him I had every right to leave him here and take my cutting. It was only a tree.
“You know what he said? Go. He told me, his only brother, to go.”
Rodrick was up then, screaming. “Go? Go! I’d marched in there with him, scared out my whits! Scared and tired and terrified and he chose a goddamn tree over his brother!” He smashed a piece of wood off of his chair and lashed it into the fire. Upstairs, his mother gave a muffled shout. Reiner and Moritz’s eyes flicked briefly upward.
“He made me leave him there, you understand? I left, okay. I was scared and angry and lost and terrified. Blood rivers? Human-headed beetles? Bone knives? No. I was a boy! I couldn’t take it. So I left him. Yeah, I left my brother in those woods and I started back home.”
Rodrick panted like a tired bull. With new eyes, he saw the mess he’d made.
“I went back, though. Not twenty minutes later, I went back. To my own hazard, I went back. And when I found that tree—my brother was gone. Edgar, crying, crying, crying… ‘He went to find you,’ he said.”
Rodrick wiped his eyes and spat on the floor. “Excuse me.” He left to go upstairs.
The brothers turned to each other. “That’s Master Vogeill’s brother?” Reiner asked. “He will know where the tree is!”
The sound of smashing wood punctuated Rodrick’s roars from upstairs. “Why did you let me go?” Rodrick shouted.
“We need to leave,” Moritz said, standing. “At least we know it’s true. It’s gonna be somewhere here. Forget him—he left Herr Vogeill to die.”
“We can’t leave his mother!” Reiner protested, already on his way to the stairwell.
Moritz fumed at Reiner’s good-heartedness and followed him up.
Reiner was shouting as he climbed the stairs, “Herr Rodrick, stop!”
And as they climbed, the blizzard rocked the house with earth-crumbling quakes. The brothers struggled to steady. When they crested the stairs, recently-fed flames howled through the door ajar. Moritz burst ahead of Reiner and through the door.
They couldn’t believe the scene.
This was no room of a sick old woman.
Chisels pierced the flooring like knives into the back of a gentle giant. Saws were left half-cut through stumps like blades caught in the meat of a human throat; and in various spots of the room, planes with their dusty, wood-covered metals lay in its own debarked waste, where the floor had been planed and planed till it was smooth as parchment, meatless as bone.
In the far left of the room, where Rodrick was shouting and screaming, was the sorest sight. Crippled, stabbed, pierced and planed by tools strange and unknown to the two brothers, was what they could only assume to be the sad, lonely, now branchless stump of Edgar, being ripped apart by Rodrick.
“You took him away and he’s gone and it’s all your fault,” Rodrick screamed at the wood that had its tongue cut, the house shaking with each hit. Reiner eyed the walls again. He knew now what he’d been seeing: the black, stretched faces of Edgar’s dead friends. Reiner’s stomach turned at the bowl he’d been feeding from.
Rodrick had turned to the two brothers now. “If you take issue with a man and his tools, you can leave and go back to your blizzard.”
Reiner couldn’t stop looking at Edgar’s face on the poor, shaven stump. It was so small. He noted how it had a mouth where a human mouth would be, just beneath its eyes, but that it was stretched to ghoulish proportions, stuck in a permanent, wailing soundless scream. Though he knew that this was just circumstance and that Edgar had long lost any ability to speak, and was again just like all trees; alive, but in inexpressible pain.
“Get away from him,” Moritz said, stern.
“Him?” Rodrick laughed. “Him. This thing not only killed its friends, but my brother. My only brother—even my father, I suppose.”
Reiner noticed to his right a can of oil—if he could reach the fire…
“He didn’t,” Moritz said. “You did. You left him in that wood. But it was Edgar who saved him. Edgar told him where to go.”
“Saved him?” Rodrick’s face twisted in calculation.
That’s when Moritz lunged toward Rodrick to push him in the fire.
Moritz clattered against the wall and Rodrick squared on him and—
The house shook and moaned and wailed and Rodrick lost his footing. Moritz sidestepped.
Rodrick’s hand landed in the burning wood. He screamed.
Reiner grabbed Edgar and Moritz and they turned to leave.
Moritz fell and wailed.
A firepoker in his leg. Holding it, a half-charred Rodrick. To Reiner’s right, the oil. He cringed at what he had to do.
He kicked the can and it splashed. Droplets flung to the fire. Heat swelled. Rodrick slipped in pain and fell in the pooling liquid now feeding the frenzy.
Moritz crawled away as the fire ate at Rodrick and at the floorboards. Edgar screamed the only way he could: The house, his bones and his skin and his repurposed-everything, was coming down.
Reiner grabbed Moritz and pulled him up. He picked up Edgar and led them both downstairs.
Rodrick screamed as the house crumbled inward and Edgar, in his hands, shook so hard that Reiner couldn’t help but cry—he wanted nothing more than to stop his pain.
They reached the door as the fire hit its hardest; Reiner left them both outside, running inside as quick as he could to grab their coldwear.
He escaped within seconds. The house fell and erupted into a great pyre.
Rodrick was dead.
Edgar shook hard in the snow, and Reiner tried his best to cover him up, but he knew that his shaking was not from the cold, but from his own burning body in front of him. Reiner hugged Edgar tightly.
Moritz was badly wounded beside them, leg cut to bits. Reiner didn’t know what to do.
“What—what happens now?” Reiner asked, weeping, because his brother and Edgar might die.
Moritz wouldn’t wake when Reiner shook him a couple times. Only stillness. Covering Moritz as best he could, Reiner didn’t know whether to put out the fire to save Edgar his pain or to keep it aflame to keep Moritz warm.
If only the blizzard would end.