By Kayla Bashe
Nasrin Malus strode into the forest clearing with a warrior’s grace. Glaring at its treebeing occupants, she sat on a fallen trunk.
The treeperson next to her, a tall oak male with braided twig-hair, edged away. Across the clearing, a pale-barked Aspen female sitting on a tree stump pointed at Nasrin. Wide-eyed, she whispered something to her neighbor, a Willow with execrable posture. The two laughed, their hair-leaves rustling with mirth.
Let them pity and mock her; Nasrin knew how she looked.
She didn’t care.
Two rings ago, Nasrin became extremely ill. Fire blight scorched her leaves, turning them shriveled and black. Orange, dark-ringed spots appeared on the few areas of foliage left untouched, and weeping sores opened on her skin.
She’d survived, but at a cost.
“Repulsive,” her mate, Arvid, had murmured upon their reunion. Out loud, he said: “I’m sorry, Nasrin. I could never pollinate someone who looks like...”
“Arvid...” She stepped towards him, confused.
Arvid jumped back. “Get away from me!”
Her hurt hardened into anger. “Fine,” Nasrin told him and left.
“Excuse me. May I sit here?”
A tall, brown-barked treemale — Apple? Cherry Blossom? — stood next to the tree trunk, a small yet seemingly friendly smile quirking his lips. Nasrin tried to imagine herself through his gaze — an apple treefemale of twenty-five rings, wearing a gown of deep pink rose petals trimmed with goldenrod, her former beauty evident in her high cheekbones and dark eyes. On her left cheek, a dark lesion ripped across sage-tinted barkskin. The branches atop her head looked withered and blackened, even though new, spring-green leaves poked from their tips.
“If you must.”
He sat next to her on the fallen tree. “The name’s Topaz Gala. I’m a hunter, from Orange Grove. And you?”
“Nasrin Malus,” she muttered. She’d heard of Topaz; he’d fought off an entire family of beavers by himself.
Topaz’s dark eyes widened. “Nasrin Malus? The Nasrin Malus?” His tones carried a note of excitement over a melody of awe; his trimmed-short branches, rustling with the wind, appeared coarse yet soft. “That kill you made last week amazed me.”
Nasrin had almost forgotten the feeling of receiving praise: joyous, warming, like an unexpected sunbeam through the overhead leaves. Still, he was probably just messing with her. Tormenting the hideous outcast, as so many did. “Thank you,” she said warily.
A breeze rustled the forest’s foliage.
Since interacting with her made most adult treebeings uncomfortable, Nasrin worked in the sapling patch. Alert through the moonlit hours, she guarded the still-rooted young ones with bow, arrow, and unfailing vigilance. Yesterday, at sunset, a deer had nearly gnawed on a foot-high tree-female; her leaves quaked with terror. The rustling sound alerted Nasrin. Whipping around, she shot the deer through the eye before it could touch a single leaf.
Topaz nodded, enthusiastic. “I just moved here a few weeks ago, but I’ve already heard so much about you.”
Could his smile possibly be genuine?
Nasrin regarded him evenly. “Like what?”
“You’re an incredible huntress, very intelligent, and somewhat of a misanthrope. I don’t believe the last one, though,” he confided.
Tilting her head, Nasrin caught a whiff of apple blossoms. Topaz was an apple-treebeing too, then… and a fertile one at that. Unwanted thoughts of pollination slipped into Nasrin’s mind; quickly, she pushed them away. “Really,” she said, her tone wry. “What do you believe?”
He looked at her, serious, intent. “I think… that you’re a talented, persistent, and interesting apple tree who hasn’t been given a fair chance. I’d like to give you that chance,” he added quietly.
Not knowing whether to react with surprise or amusement, Nasrin settled for a mixture of both. A small smile stabbed her lips. “You’re very interesting as well.”
Topaz returned her smile. “I checked the schedule- we both have guard duty on the evening shift. You’ll have a chance to see whether I’m really as interesting as you think I am. I must warn you, most of my anecdotes are about as fascinating as watching grass grow.”
Nasrin chuckled. “We’ll see about that.”
He rose to leave. “Until tonight, Nasrin.”
She did likewise. “Until tonight.”
Nasrin left the clearing and headed into the forest. Happiness and excitement mingled within her for the first time in what felt like an eternity, warming and energizing her, as if the sun shone on her spring-green new leaves.
Kayla Bashe is a student from New Jersey. Her work has appeared in YARN, Raphael's Village, Doctor Fantastique's Show of Wonders, and Yesteryear Fiction. She also is a contributor in the upcoming in Vagabondage Press' Love Notes anthology. Recently, she self-published a children's book, Ivy Gets Healthy. This past summer, Kayla attended the Alpha SF/F/H Workshop for Young Writers. In addition to writing, she enjoys musical theater and curating the extraordinary. You can find her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KaylaBashe .