Seiian stood on the gentle slope of the hillside and wiggled his toes in the mud. The watery sunlight, shining feebly through the mists, did little to improve the view: rock, clay, and scattered clumps of sickly growth. Somehow he had thought the lands beyond his parent grove would be more hospitable. Several days of traveling had proven him wrong.
He shrugged philosophically. After all, he had not planned to start looking for an ideal location immediately after his heartstone had dropped from his mother tree. Movement was an enjoyable sensation, and he intended to fully experience all the aspects of that before settling down.
He turned away from the barren land he had traveled and continued up the slope. Once he had reached the top, he could not restrain a small dance of joy. Green life stretched before him!
It was not the large expanse of life he was familiar with from his parent grove, but still it was green and healthy. There were trees and bushes and scattered patches of grass and wildflowers, all speaking eloquently of a fierce determination to turn the sad wasteland back toward life.
He heard a slither and rattle of stones as he bounced atop the hill and suddenly the edge fell away, carrying him down towards the cultivated greenness.<
He landed face down in a quagmire of mud.
"Now mudslides!" There came a weary chuckle from above. "I suppose I should have expected something like that after all the rain."
Seiian levered himself out of the clinging mud and clawed dirt out of his eyes. Standing before him was a being so mud-covered that his species was all but indeterminable. Seiian inhaled sharply, forgetting the mud, and almost choked. A human!
The human was more interested in a round puddle at his feet than in Seiian. "Not that I don't appreciate a little help now and then, but there are easier ways of filling up a hole than bringing an entire hillside down. Hey ho."
Seiian froze in fear as the human reached downward, but the being merely unearthed a digging implement from the mound of mud before Seiian and went back to dig in the puddle. Seiian stared in surprise. Perhaps the human didn't know what he was. He absently brushed his muddy fingers on his kirtle, then slowly looked down to see that the front of his new leaf-green kirtle was wholly coated in mud. With a sigh, he began to pull himself out of the grasping mud, thankful that his mother tree couldn't see him now. What a s colding he'd have received, especially for allowing his heartstone to come into contact with--
His fingers brushed the pouch in which he had carried his heartstone and found it open and empty. "Oh no." Panicking, he searched the clods of dirt clinging to his kirtle, then scanned the ground before him. "Oh no!" He fell to his knees and started digging. Not here! He tried to summon the stone back. Not here!
"What's wrong?" the human asked. "Lose something?"
Any help, even human help, was preferable to the alternative. "My heartstone," Seiian moaned. "I must find it!" The hole before him widened as he frantically clawed at the mud.
"A stone, huh?" The human walked slowly toward him. "Several stones came down with you. One almost hit me."
"This is no ordinary stone." Seiian forced himself to calm. Panic would not help him locate the stone.
"I gathered that." Using the digging tool, the human carefully turned over several layers of mud from the mound before Seiian. "The one I saw came down just about...here." He proffered a bladeful of soil. "This it?"
Seiian almost did not see the mud-colored lump held before him. "My heartstone!" Snatching it from the blade, he held it against his chest, belatedly feeling he should guard it from the human's sight.
"Good." The human turned away and went back to digging. "I won't have people moaning near where a tree will be planted. Makes a tree feel unwanted."
Seiian gaped at the human, shutting his mouth only when he caught sight of a curious two-wheeled cart a short distance beyond the being. Small trees, their roots well-wrapped, rested within. So here was the being responsible for this garden in the wasteland. Seiian felt slightly ashamed of his behavior. Perhaps the human would accept his trust as thanks.
Opening his hand, he held out his most prized possession. "It's my heartstone. Don't you think it's a lovely color?"
The human stopped and glanced at it. "Very nice shade of gray."
Gray? Seiian looked at his heartstone and was embarrassed to see that it was still coated with mud. Finding a clean patch on his kirtle, he wiped until the green reappeared. Contact with the ground had caused facets to erupt out of the once-smooth ovoid. Seiian shivered at the change, but then decided that the sparkles twinkling in its green depths made it more beautiful than before.
He held the stone out to the human again. "Look at it now."
This time the human only paused between bladefuls. "Oh yes, a very lovely gray stone."
Seiian looked from the green stone in his hand to the human digging in the mud and generously decided that the human had been digging too long. He would find some other way to repay the human for finding his heartstone. Tucking the stone securely back into its pouch, he strode cautiously over to where the tall being was working. "I'm--"
"No names," the human said quickly. "In a land like this, elementary precautions are wisest. You won't live too long, little one, if you give your name to anyone in exchange for a kindness." He put down his digging implement and strode over to the cart.
Seiian followed, thankful that his flush at the well-deserved rebuke was concealed by dirt. "I only wanted to say--"
The human wrestled a young tree off the cart and staggered unsteadily back towards the hole. Backing hastily out of the way, Seiian slipped and went down into the mud again. He sat there a moment, watching the human work the tree into place, then decided to move to the drier ground by the cart.
The wood of the cart felt odd under his hands: peaceful and contented, with none of the agony he had expected to sense from a human-built device. The small trees inside dreamed of the giants they would become, and he climbed into the cart to better share their dream. He was about to introduce himself when the trees in the garden shrilled a warning. Danger!
He dropped below the edge of the cart side, then cautiously peeked out amid tree branches to see if the human had sensed the alert. The human casually thrust his digging implement into the ground, then straightened and turned to face the undamaged portion of the hillside. A being taller than the human stood there, its form and features encased in armor which glittered like mica.
Seiian shivered, thankful for the concealing armor. One of _them_!
"Human." The voice was deep and cold. "A trespasser has crossed my land."
"Oh?" The human hooked his thumbs into his mud-coated belt. "Tell me, neighbor, have you come to accuse me or warn me of some approaching danger?"
"A young pren, by the signs," the voice continued as if the human had not spoken. "Have you seen the creature?"
"A pren, a pren." The human scratched his head. "I don't think I'm familiar with that word. What does a pren look like?"
"Not too dis-similar from yourself, but with green skin."
"Green skin," the human repeated. Seiian held his breath, wishing he could still hide inside his heartstone. The human had no choice but to turn him over. But the human instead shook his head. "Turn your hunt elsewhere, neighbor. I have seen no greenskins."
Seiian stared in shock. The human had lied to one of _them_! The need to stay hidden battled with the desire to deflect in some way the terrible fate that must fall upon his protector.
Frost chilled the air as the armored being stood motionless. Finally its head turned toward the fallen portion of the hill. "You will allow me to cross your land."
The human laughed. "And kill all my work by your presence? No, the bindings of my father's father's father still stands. This patch of ground is forbidden to you."
"Only for so long as descendants of your ancestor live to hold it. Your work will die with you. You are the last."
"And you have made certain of that, haven't you. Unfortunate for you that the shedding of that much blood tightened the bindings."
"Since that will last only during the course of your short life, it is but a minor inconvenience."
The face of the helmet began to turn in the cart's direction, and Seiian quickly lowered his head. It seemed to him that he could feel its icy gaze through the side of the cart, and, with a shiver, he tried to make himself as small as possible. After a short while, the chill went away, and he slowly looked out to find the armored being gone and the human working once again on the newly transplanted tree.
Seiian sat down once again and tried to think while the small trees dreamed around him. The human was in great danger, and he had possibly made the situation worse. As much as the idea frightened him, there was only one thing he could think of to do to help.
Slipping quietly out of the cart, he glanced at the human, then moved on into the garden. A little further on was an ideal location, with wildflowers nearby and two established trees within talking distance. He knelt and scooped out a shallow hole. Then he took his heartstone from its pouch. He gazed wistfully at it a moment, watching the sparkle and glitter of its facets. Steeling himself, he held it in both hands and concentrated. Slowly he raised the stone.
His wrists were caught and held in a tight grasp. "You may think me rude, but I don't care much for having someone's heart buried in my land."
Seiian stared dazedly up at the human. "I...want to help. You're all alone--"
"And you thought you could stay here and keep me company?" The human shook his head. "Little one, I appreciate the gesture, but I can't allow you to sacrifice yourself for a mistake my ancestor made. Now, if I release you, will you promise to put your heartstone away and listen?"
Seiian looked down and nodded. The human's grasp loosened, and he lowered his heartstone, slowly pulling his full awareness back from its depths. The open hole before him tugged at his gaze, and it was a struggle to return the stone to the pouch.
The human sighed above him as Seiian closed the pouch. The being brushed dirt back into the hole with his foot, then dropped to a crouch before Seiian. "Now, youngster, what you were about to do was very brave and very generous, but ultimately very foolish. You've seen my neighbor, haven't you?"
In spite of himself, Seiian shivered. "One of _them_."
"Exactly. One of those who hates all life. This one managed to get itself bound to one patch of ground, but its influence is still great."
"It caused the wasteland?" Seiian asked.
The human nodded. "It did. I have no great powers. I can protect my trees, but I wouldn't be able to protect you if you rooted here, any more than I can protect those flowers. I plant the flowers only because I wish to see some other color besides gray. But I won't have you stay just to ease my loneliness."
"But--" Seiian started.
"I know, you are not a flower. You have some powers of your own, I would guess. But you would take many years to reach your full growth and be able to withstand all the terrors that my neighbor would delight to send against you. I may not have that many years."
"But who will care for this when you die?"
The human glanced fondly at the trees around them. "I have made plans for my death. I may be the last of my family, but, believe me, my neighbor will not be able to do as it pleases with my garden. Come with me."
Seiian followed the human to the closest tree. "Touch it," the human directed. "See its innermost self."
Obeying, Seiian could not believe what his senses told him.
"It says it's human!"
The being beside him nodded. "Yes. Each tree is bound to my life. When I die, they shall have my lifeforce, my "heart", as you would say. In this way, I will continue to hold the land and keep my neighbor bound."
Seiian struggled to understand. "But each tree you plant shortens your life!"
The human grinned. "Yes. That will please my neighbor. I gather my great-uncle sorely taxed its patience for living as long as he did. Yes, my neighbor will be pleased, until it realizes exactly what I have done." He patted the trunk of the tree. "A short life is a small price to pay to keep one of _them_ captive."
He smiled down at Seiian. "Now, if you wish to leave after hearing all that, that direction would be best. If you still wish to help, just for a short time, I have a small tree that can't decide where she'd like to be planted. Or maybe it's a he. I can't tell at that age."
Seiian smiled back, finding it impossible to be sad when the human was so cheerful. "I will gladly help, although I feel I should do more after you lied to your neighbor to protect me."
"Lied? A lie to that one would be fatal. No, I told it the truth, little one."
"But I have green skin!"
"You do?" The human shrugged, but there was a broad grin on his mud-streaked face. "I wouldn't know. I can't see green. Never have."
Kathryn Sullivan is a librarian in Minnesota where she is owned by two birds. She has had stories published in print zines Minnesota Fantasy Review and Fury, and she writes reviews for The Friends of Doctor Who newsletter. Visit Kathy's web site.