From a Seed, a Forest

Renn had a responsibility.

Not just a responsibility, the responsibility—the sacred task to retrieve a branch of the Heartwood from deep within the forest, the village’s ritualistic hope to keep the Rot at bay for another year.

On any other day, Renn would have loved the idea—journeying from Waydale to the expansive forest that bordered it to the south was an achievement. Stories were told around the fireplace of the annual volunteers who’d gone inside and found the Heartwood at the forest’s center, who’d solved wicked puzzles and battled verdant creatures made of moss and vines just to protect their people. It was, objectively, a good thing.

But today, of all days?

Renn was missing his own birthday.

“I can’t believe this,” he said to his pony, Marigold, looping her reins over a fencepost. “I didn’t even volunteer for this—Dad made me,” he griped. “It’s not every day your only kid turns twelve, you know.”

Marigold whickered in agreement. Renn sighed and planted a kiss on her flaxen head.

“I won’t be long,” he said. “And if I die, I left your reins loose enough for you to go back home and tell Mom and Dad what a horrible decision they made.”

Marigold munched grass near the fencepost. Renn patted her on the neck and then left the village outskirts behind to ascend the hill.

Trees crowned the hilltop like the pelt of some great green animal, waving and bobbing in the wind. One canopy crested above the others—the Heartwood, looming somewhere in the dense forest. Even if he could see it now, Renn knew from stories past that once he was inside those woods, the branches would block all view of the sky, and he’d have to rely on trails instead of the giant landmark.

Renn stopped at the forest’s boundary. I can do this, he thought. I’ll be back before sundown. It’s just one branch from the biggest tree in the forest. Easy stuff.

He glanced one last time at the sunny hills and the rooftops of Waydale so far behind him. The Rot would eat through everything it could get its jaws on if Renn didn’t retrieve a Heartwood branch. His father had been awfully insistent—and that pressure needled at Renn’s back the longer he lingered outside the woods.

Steeling himself, Renn took a deep breath—

—and slipped into the trees.

The temperature dropped as soon as Renn entered the woods. The trees towered immeasurably high, their canopies so thick they blotted out the sun and dyed the world in shades of green. Even Renn’s own body looked made of chlorophyll—linen clothes, mink-brown hair, sun-weathered skin, all of it turned brilliantly verdant under the leaves.

As he followed a deer trail, Renn kept his eyes and ears alert for the spawn of those harrowing tales he’d heard of the deep forest’s challenges.

But nothing accosted him.

The woods offered no riddles. It revealed no puzzles, conjured no beasts, and spun no spells that deterred Renn from the trail.

Maybe everyone exaggerated, he thought, stepping over a narrow creek below towering elms. Mom always said that stories warp over time. Even Andria, who went last year, said there was a huge wall of thorns that she had to climb to reach the Heartwood.

Renn stopped atop a nest of cypress roots and surveyed the land. Not a thorn in sight.

Was it all a lie? He hopped onto a patch of wet moss and followed it through a grove of willows. Is the Heartwood responsibility just some ‘adult secret’ that you don’t learn about until you’re twelve?

Renn rolled his eyes. Thanks, Dad and Mom. What a great way to spend my birthday.

The trail wound through dips and crests in the earth padded with plants and dirt, and Renn’s leather boots rubbed painfully at his heels the longer he walked. He had half a mind to pick a stick off the ground and bring it home when the trees parted.

Renn gasped.

Circled by a grassy clearing lit by the sun was a tree so big and tall it dwarfed the old-growth woods encircling it. Its trunk was mottled in textures like a quilt sewn from bark; rugged hickory melded into smooth beech and scaly hawthorn without seams. Leaves of every shape and size hung from the boughs: wide magnolia, lobed oak, serrated birch and needled fir; catalpa, mulberry, apple, pine, and too many for Renn to name.

“The Heartwood,” Renn breathed.

Something coughed behind him.

Renn spun around, reaching for a weapon he did not have, brown hair whipping across his neck. His heart leapt into his throat as a great and beautiful elk stepped into the clearing.

Her antlers were black-tipped in gold, arcing in long arboreal sweeps above her head, and her white coat shimmered under the sunlight. Pale gray spots dappled her back and the ruff around her neck. Her eyes, earth-brown and fathomless, fixed on Renn until he looked away.

“…You should not be here,” said the elk.

“My father—the village headsman—he sent me to retrieve a branch of the Heartwood,” Renn replied. “We need its magic to keep the Rot from coming past the bog. It’s tradition.”

The elk sighed again; the leaves of the Heartwood rattled.

“That is what they all say,” she said, “and that will not stop the Rot. You merely delay it. Branches alone do not make a forest, however magical they are.”

Renn’s eyes wandered to her crown, where her magnificent black antlers grew and spread like the ancient trees. But now that he looked closer, Renn noticed missing tines—gaps where a gold-tipped fork should be.

“What happened to your antlers?” he asked.

“Time and mistakes.”

Renn’s brow dimpled in confusion, but the white elk said no more. Weighted silence fell in the clearing. Not knowing how to fill the space, Renn awkwardly cleared his throat.

“My name’s Renn,” he said.

The elk blinked a long-lashed eye. “Hello, Renn.”

“What’s your name?”

“Solterra.” The elk gestured above and below with her chin. “My name means the sun and the earth, the two keys of the forest’s growth.”

“What about water?”

“Water rots when there is no soil to drain it, no sun to leach it from the body.”

Renn chewed the inside of his cheek. The responsibility was to get a branch, but Renn didn’t dare move with Solterra so close. Even if the elk was making polite conversation, Renn knew enough about antlers to know he didn’t want to meet the sharp end of them.

Renn scuffed his boot against his calf. The growing silence pricked at his spine.

“Where are all the dangers?” he finally asked.

Solterra flicked an ear. “I beg your pardon?”

“Every time someone from Waydale returns with a branch, they talk about puzzles and thick forest mazes, living vines and creatures made from bark that tested them!”

Solterra chuckled once, dryly.

“Maybe once,” she said, “but my Heartwood is so weak now it can barely stand up straight. I cannot muster the strength I once had to keep humans from these woods.”

“So…they weren’t tests of valor?” Renn asked trepidatiously.

“No. If anything, they were a deterrent.”

“Andria said there was a wall of thorns last year.”

“My last effort, meant to intimidate rather than withstand force.” Solterra frowned, gazing into the green shadows past the clearing. “That human hacked her way through with a blunt stone. The thorns crumbled at a single touch—and she was free to take her beloved prize.”

She curled her lip on the last words. Renn rubbed his neck.

This isn’t the birthday I had in mind, he thought, glancing again at the Heartwood. Shame hooked into his ribcage, but his father’s missive sat heavy in his head. Returning home without completing the responsibility he’d trusted Renn with would earn him a scolding instead of presents.

Solterra shook her great head.

“Even you won’t listen…” she mumbled. “Go, then,” she added, voice heavy with resignation. “Take the branch. One more will not make a difference—not now, anyway.”

Renn winced. His heart tugged at the sadness in Solterra’s eyes, but the great elk turned her weary head aside as if bracing for an armed blow. Renn wrung his hands together and then approached the Heartwood. Its bark hummed when he came close, its leaves aquiver with nervous energy. Renn placed his small hand on the trunk and closed his eyes.

I’m sorry, he thought to the tree. But it’s the only way I know to keep my people safe.

The tree trembled beneath his touch. Renn exhaled long and slow, and when he opened his eyes he grabbed onto a knot to climb. Hand over hand Renn scaled the tree until he perched in a fork twenty feet off the ground. One of the thinner branches that bent over the clearing was in arm’s reach; Renn snapped it from its trunk.

The Heartwood shuddered. Renn clenched his legs around the branch he’d been sitting on to keep from falling. When the tremor passed, Renn scrambled down, skinning his knee on the grafted trunk and landing shakily on the roots.

“Thank you,” he said to Solterra, holding the branch close to his chest.

Solterra did not reply. Her eyes were closed, her brow creased, and, as Renn turned to leave, he noticed another tine missing from her magnificent antlers.

Renn found Marigold right where he’d left her. He mounted with the Heartwood branch cradled across his lap.

Guilt tailed him the whole way home.

Renn returned to Waydale with a canopy of thoughts cluttering his mind. He boarded Marigold at the stables and returned home with the Heartwood branch dangling in his hand. His father, Shane, looked at him expectantly from the front porch.

“I got it,” Renn said.

Shane smiled, but his pride failed to warm Renn’s heart.

“Thank you, my son,” said Shane. “You are a hero today, you understand?”

He took the branch and laid it across his weathered palms, smiling down at the bark like it was a second child.

“I’ll ring the village bell—we must complete the Heartwood’s return before sundown.”

“And then can we do something actually fun for my birthday?” Renn asked.

“Of course, of course.”

Renn tailed his parents to the village center, where a brass bell mounted to a pole marked the summons for village-wide matters. Shane swung the rope underneath the bell until its tiny peals ached in Renn’s ears. As the villagers assembled, Shane held the Heartwood branch aloft like a spear. The villagers cheered.

Renn accepted hugs and kisses from his relatives, a high-five from his friend Andria, and resigned himself to the hour-long Heartwood ceremony.

Every year went the same. The village passed the Heartwood branch from hand to hand and home to home, just as it had been done for decades, until Renn’s father retrieved it at the end of its circuit. Legend held that passing the branch this way ensured the Heartwood’s magic could touch every homestead and pair of hands so that the Rot could not taint them.

Now, Renn wasn’t so sure it would work.

He and his parents stood below the bell at twilight as the last villager returned the branch to Shane. Renn scuffed his boot against the dirt, the seed of unease burrowing in his chest.

Solterra looked so tired, Renn recalled. Our village has been doing this to her for generations, all to keep the Rot away. But where are her broken antlers? Why is she so sad?

Shane cradled the Heartwood branch and rubbed his thumbs over its patchwork bark. Without a word to his son or wife, he turned towards the family house.

“Dad?” Renn asked.

Shane stiffened. “What is it?” he replied.

“Where do the other branches go? I’ve never seen them planted outside. If they’re supposed to be a boundary…”

Renn trailed off. Shane regarded him with eyes of flint.

“Don’t ask your father foolish questions,” he said. He turned and went back to the house, disappearing as twilight shadows swallowed him.

It’s not foolish, Renn thought, but he held his tongue—his father had a rough look in his eye, the kind of expression that demanded deference.

He’d called Renn a hero.

But Renn struggled to swallow his father’s praise.

I’m not a hero, Renn thought that night, bundled in the wooden house’s smallest bedroom. A hero doesn’t destroy what should be kept safe.

He drifted asleep, the rustle of leaves and the creak of old wood stirring in his brain.


The next dawn, the Rot came.

Renn heard the screams first. He jolted out of bed and rushed to open the window, wincing at the sting of brisk air against his nightclothes. He coughed—the air stank of acid and decay, and each breath burned the hairs inside his nose. Renn tied a scarf around his lower face and peered outside.

Waydale hummed with frantic energy. Creatures of the Rot—beasts with gangly limbs and flesh that sloughed from their bones, things that had once been animals warped and decomposing where they stepped—flooded the air with howls and high-pitched keens from their bog to the north. The creatures struggled to emerge from the peat, but once they were free they’d ravage Waydale until it was in ruins.

“To arms!” shouted Renn’s father.

He was already outside, padded armor strapped around his chest and legs, wielding a spear and round shield. Around him gathered other villagers, people whose faces Renn had never seen bear such fear and fury.

Renn shrank away from the window. Solterra, he thought. She must know why the branch ceremony didn’t work. She knows how to fix this, she has to—

Shucking his nightclothes and slipping into riding gear, Renn hurried through the house and out the back door. Avoiding detection was simple enough for a child as lithe as him—Renn hid behind corners and stacked supply crates, keeping still as adults passed him with weapons in hand. Renn scampered to the stable and coaxed Marigold from her stall. Her ears flicked back and forth as she sensed panic in the air.

“Come on,” Renn coaxed. “We have to hurry!”

He mounted and snapped the reins, letting Marigold canter out of the village towards the forest. She leapt the fence and churned up clods of grass as the sky lightened to a middling gray.

Renn clicked his tongue and urged Marigold into the deep green woods. At first she balked, shying from the shadows, but at Renn’s steady encouragement and the pressure of his knees on her sides Marigold surged over grass and roots.

“Solterra!” Renn shouted to the trees. “Where are you? We need help!”

The forest swallowed his words. Urging Marigold on, Renn rode until he finally found the Heartwood tree in its clearing.

His heart seized in his ribs.

Solterra lay in the grass, her hind legs splayed to one side and her knees bent underneath her chest. Ash drifted out from her wheezing breaths.

Renn tugged Marigold to a stop and leapt off the saddle, stumbling as he knelt at Solterra’s side.

“The Rot!” he cried. “It’s here; it’s in the village, why didn’t the branches work—”

Solterra coughed, hacking ash from her lungs.

Renn sat back on his heels. Solterra’s antlers, once black as the night sky, had cracked and turned pale gray, gold ichor like sap dripping from the cavities.

“What’s happening to you?” Renn asked softly.

Solterra cracked an eye open and regarded him with an eon-deep stare. “Death,” she said plainly.

Renn shook his head, eyes wide, and the elk dipped her nose towards the ground. The Heartwood leaves rustled with her breath.

“I have lived alongside the Heartwood since it took root as a seed. I did not notice the branches breaking at first,” she admitted. “I thought they had fallen off in error—by some gale or passing storm—but, no, they were always taken one by one by human hands.”

“Because we need to stop the Rot,” said Renn.

“But you go about it incorrectly. You believe a symbolic gesture will save you without doing the work. And no one listened to me, year after year, until I gave up trying to explain.”

Renn felt his neck flush with shame. His village—the people he knew and loved—had been taking the easy way out for generations.

“I tried to conjure beasts of bark and wood to stop your people, mazes and trickery to deceive them—and while it worked at the beginning, eventually they grew too brutish and too cunning to fall for my traps.” Solterra winced. “Without its branches, the Heartwood cannot absorb the light it needs to survive. You cannot grow a forest from broken branches. You need seeds.”

A breeze passed through the clearing, sending the leaves and grasses whispering. Renn looked up at the tree. It was hard to see against the green-tinted light and the gray clouds far above, but small berry-like pods hidden under the leaves flashed where the wind upturned them.

Renn stood. His mink-brown hair lifted in the breeze.

He scampered into the Heartwood tree.

The bark scraped his palms as he climbed into the higher boughs. He lifted leaflets, looking under oak and poplar and gingko alike for the Heartwood’s seed pods. Not every cluster revealed them, forcing Renn to climb higher in desperation.

Distantly, he heard the Rot’s howls mingle with human screams.

Please, Renn thought as he leaned out over a coniferous-bearing branch. I want to help make things right. My people don’t deserve to die.

He overturned a fan of cedar needles. A cluster of striped pods blended from every shade of brown peeked out underneath.

Renn picked them delicately, wincing as the Heartwood seemed to sigh beneath him, and retreated to the central trunk to keep searching. Halfway up the great tree, more and more seed pods appeared as he overturned the leaves. Deftly Renn gathered as many as he could into his linen shirt until he had to hold it up past his belly to carry them all. He scrambled down the trunk and landed with a soft thump on the grass.

“I’ll bring these to Waydale,” he said to Solterra. “What else do I need?”

“The branches,” Solterra replied. “I can feel them wilting away under some stone prison… bring them here and rejoin them to the tree.”

Renn nodded. He transferred the seeds to a saddlebag and mounted, gripping Marigold’s reins tightly to hide the tremor in his fingers.

“I’ll come back for you,” he said to Solterra.

She did not reply. She wheezed out another breath of ash, gold dripping down her antlers and across her pale brow.

Renn swallowed the anxiety that threatened to split him and rode home.

The Rot’s stench carried in the wind as Renn arrived. As Marigold’s hooves broke the uncomfortable silence, Renn shivered with goosebumps.

Hardly anyone was outside. The village once full of life was empty, void of human cheer. Wooden houses and thatched roofs had never looked so haunted.

In the distance near the bog, Renn saw movement—the shadows of people fighting the creatures of the Rot, keeping them away from the village proper and those unable or unwilling to take up arms.

Renn tied his scarf back around his mouth and nose to keep the worst of the smell away and stopped Marigold near the storehouse. When he dismounted, a head of fiery red hair bolted from the shelter of a nearby building and raced to his side.

“Renn!” Andria exclaimed. She wasn’t too much older than him—sixteen come the winter—but she had a hefty six inches over him and a sisterly attitude that snapped anyone into shape. She’d tied her own scarf to protect her nose and mouth, and from above the fabric she looked Renn over with wild, protective eyes. “Are you okay? Where did you go, half the village was looking for you—!”

“I need your help,” Renn said.

He led Andria to Marigold and removed the saddlebag. He tugged it open just enough for Andria to peer inside.

“…Seeds?” Andria asked.

Quickly, Renn explained what he’d seen in the forest and Solterra’s words.

“She’s dying, Andria,” he finished. “I have to find the branches everyone took from the Heartwood and bring them back before it’s too late!”

Renn bit his cheek, warm tears pricking the corners of his eyes. Andria looked him over and her expression softened.

“Okay,” she said. “Okay. What do we need to do?”

Renn looked around. Waydale was a ghost without its people—every willing and able-bodied fighter of age had gone with Shane to the front lines, and those who’d stayed behind were so well-hidden they were invisible in their homesteads.

“Plant as many of these seeds as you can along the village border,” Renn said. “I’ll try and be quick—if my dad finds out what I’m doing, he won’t be happy.”

Andria nodded, flame-red hair bobbing behind her head.

“Be safe,” she said.

“I’ll try.”

Renn darted from the corners of wooden houses to his own home, the crooked roof ghostly against the gray sky. He unhooked the back door and crept inside. He listened intently, but no other footsteps creaked in the house besides his own; quickly Renn nicked the cellar keys from his parent’s room and unlocked the door.

The basement smelled of must and old wood.

Renn tightened the knot in his scarf and descended the stairs, eyes adjusting to the gloom. Branches littered the slate floor like bones.

Every missing branch is here, Renn thought, staring in awe. They’ve been under my feet this entire time.

Renn knelt near the stairs and grabbed a burlap sack from the corner. He dumped its contents into a pile beside the stairs and set to work, refilling the sack with every Heartwood branch he could get his small hands on. He worked frenetically, splinters digging into his palms, barely managing to clear a patch of cellar floor from under its blanket of bark.

Light spilled over Renn, casting his shadow in front of him. He whirled around.

His mother, Kasha, stood in the cellar door.

For a deathly moment, the two looked one another in the eye, unspoken emotion branching between them. Renn didn’t dare move, caught in the act with his hand firmly around a Heartwood branch.

Kasha looked from Renn to the branches and back again. She shut the door behind her.

“Let me help,” she said lowly.

Renn almost fainted with relief, and with renewed vigor he shoved branch after branch into the sack. Kasha ferried branches from the farthest reaches of the cellar and finally knelt beside Renn to fill the last of them. The sack bulged with narrow points and knobbed angles.

Kasha helped Renn to his feet and hugged him tight.

“I never wanted to keep this from you,” she said. “Your father inherited the job from the past village head; he was sworn to secrecy and told that this was a sacred treasure, something to hoard and never allow to see the light of day. I only know about it because I was more bull-headed in the earlier years of my marriage—and your father was more lenient.”

“It’s okay, Mom,” Renn said, his voice muffled against her shoulders.

Kasha released him and held him steady, her eyes brimming with concern.

“Andria told me where to find you,” she said, “while she was planting seeds near the border—but you know how fast news spreads here. Your father is fighting the Rot, but if he hears you’ve raided his cellar for the Heartwood branches, he might leave the front line to stop you. You have to hurry, Renn—”

Something slammed in the house above. Renn and Kasha tensed.

“Go,” Kasha whispered. “I’ll hold him off. Whether the Rot takes Waydale or not, I don’t intend to stay with Shane any longer; I’ll find you in the forest when this is through.”

Renn nodded, tears pricking the corners of his eyes. He hugged his mother tight and then followed her to the cellar door, balancing the hefty sack of branches against his thigh. Kasha went in front of him; her footsteps thumped across the floorboards overhead.

Renn waited a few more moments before he lugged the branch-filled sack onto the main floor. He heard voices—smelled the Rot on his father’s clothes—and crept for the back door.


Renn jumped, knocking the sack against the doorframe, and whirled around to see his father in the living room framed by the open front door. His leather armor was stained with putrid black juices, and acid had eaten holes into his clothing through the gaps, but his eyes were aflame with betrayal and fury.

“Shane, don’t,” Kasha warned, but Shane ignored her and started towards his son.

Renn bolted out the back door.

Marigold was waiting patiently near the storehouse, but when she saw Renn she whinnied shrilly.

“Here!” Renn called.

Marigold flung her flaxen head and cantered to him. Renn mounted and managed to tug the burlap sack out of Shane’s reach just as he clawed for the bag. Renn tugged Marigold away, moving in a wide circle to keep his father at bay. Shane groped for the reins, but Marigold kicked a hoof dangerously close to his chest and he backed away, glowering.

Shane pointed at the sack of branches. “Those are the only things standing between us and ruin!” he shouted.

Renn shook his head. Keeping his distance, Renn backed Marigold towards the south road.

“Not the way you and the other leaders did it,” Renn insisted. “The Rot is here because you kept the Heartwood from the earth and sun and took too much of it away. If water’s the only thing seeping into it, it decays, just like the creatures we’re trying to destroy!”

Shane curled a lip in disgust. “You’re making a mistake.”

“The whole village made a mistake!” Renn stuck his chin up. “But I’m gonna fix it.”

He nudged Marigold into a gallop and escaped into the southern fields for the second time that morning, riding over ditches and swaths of amber grass with the wind stinging his skin. Marigold jumped the fence at the base of the hill and cantered into the forest, deeper and deeper into greenery and shrouded canopies.

Solterra lay in the clearing where Renn had left her. Her head rested upon the grass, one ear flicking to catch Renn’s movement as he dismounted and dragged the branch-filled sack towards the Heartwood.

I need to reattach them somehow, Renn thought, staring into the boughs.

He looked about for a way to tie the branches to the Heartwood, but he’d only brought the sack—his saddlebag was back in the village, and he had no string or twine with which to graft.

Something shimmered in Renn’s vision. The gold ichor leaking from Solterra’s antlers dripped like sap onto her brow.

“I’m sorry,” Renn whispered, kneeling next to the elk’s head. He scooped one hand at the base of her antlers and caught the ichor in his palm. The sap was warm as blood and sticky like syrup.

Renn retreated, took the sack of branches, and climbed.

At every junction he could find, he sat on the bough and set a branch from his sack into place, sealing its base with golden sap. As soon as the sap met the intact wood, it glowed sun-bright, and the old branch Renn attached suddenly flourished with new leaves and buds. Renn climbed to the tallest branches where the sky danced between gaps in the leaves, grafting branches at every opportunity, until he stuck the last one to the Heartwood’s crown.

Renn sat back along a fork, letting the thick V keep him upright as his weary muscles slouched. Leaning his head against the trunk, Renn gazed into the open sky, feeling the fingers of sunlight on his face as the cloud cover slowly burned off.

The land stretched for miles.

From the top of the Heartwood, Renn could see Waydale and its surrounding fields, the plots of grass and dirt like squares on a quilt. Northward, red-brown peat marked a scar on the land.

The bog.

Renn stared wide-eyed at the former battleground. A row of saplings had sprouted along the boundary between bog and village land, and the creatures of the Rot visibly recoiled from the new growth. The misshapen monsters howled in frustration and then turned away, returning to the peat from which they came.

Renn breathed a sigh of relief and slumped against the bark. When he climbed down to the clearing, Solterra was still resting, but her antlers—how they shone. The cracks were now gilded like broken pottery, the ebony color returned to every tine, and the whole rack was seemingly twice as big now that its branches were repaired. Solterra’s eyes gleamed with a rim of metallic sunlight around her pupils.

Renn approached her cautiously. The white elk planted her hooves into the soil and stood in one long, fluid movement.

“Thank you, Renn,” said Solterra, dipping her head in acknowledgement. Renn stepped backward to avoid her antlers. “I owe you my life and the life of the Heartwood.”

“I—you’re welcome,” Renn said, trying not to mumble in Solterra’s regal presence. “I’m just glad the Rot’s gone and the folks in Waydale are safe. Why did they steal from you in the first place?”

“Because they thought my word was not enough, that my protection only extended to the boundaries of this forest. They wanted physical proof—a talisman of sorts.” Solterra snorted. “But a forest is not a single leaf, a branch, or a tree alone. The roots intertwine deep into the earth. My forest is not just this glade: it is every tree and sapling from here to the sea.”

The canopy above them sang with the language of leaves, greenery of all shapes and sizes dancing with newfound life. Renn’s heart swelled at the sight.

“I want to make sure the Rot stays in its bog forever,” Renn said. “If I plant more Heartwood seeds, will that spread its magic all around?”

Solterra quirked a smile. “I believe it would,” she said. “And for every new tree you plant, its gifts will bless the earth and its people for generations to come. You’d be a hero.”

Renn grinned. This time, the word filled him with pride instead of guilt.

He bid Solterra farewell and retraced his steps to the forest boundary to wait for his mother. Behind him, towering above the canopy, the Heartwood stood tall and whole, sun and earth, seed and forest united.

Em Harriett