We could still see the old king’s blood in the cracks in the flagstones beneath the new king’s feet when he announced to us all that this was a unification, not a conquest, and that we had nothing to fear from the soldiers that fenced us round. The new king said that my sister the queen would become his wife and that he’d make the old king’s baby son his very own heir. That’s how much he loved and honored our people, he said.
A month later, on a stormy day when the rain blew in at the windows and puddled on the floor, and we were huddled round the hearth, spinning by the light of oil lamps, the king burst in, soaking wet. Eyes a-glitter, he told my sister that he had caught Lele, the wet nurse, down by the stream at the edge of the grove of the gods—
And she’d been drowning the baby prince.
“She said she wouldn’t permit him to grow up under my authority,” he said. “I tried to save him, but I was too late.” He held up his dripping hands. River weed clung to his arms above the elbows.
“She’ll be punished, though,” the king continued, and you could see his whole body trembling like a struck bell as he spoke. It was anger, red anger, that caused him to shake. None of us dared to move. “I’ve ordered her flayed alive in the grove of the gods. It will stand as a lesson,” he said, catching us each by eye, one by one, lingering on my sister. “No one may cross me. I will show no mercy to those who oppose me.”
I bit down hard on my lip, and I saw tears in the eyes of several of the other women. We all loved Lele, and Lele had loved little Fremos more than gold or cream or kisses.
My sister was as still as a figure painted on a wall. She didn’t weep, or speak. Even when the king put a hand on her shoulder, making a dark, wet spot bloom there as he spoke of other children to come, she didn’t stir.
That night, we learned the soldiers charged with Lele’s execution had deserted the king’s service and fled. They were caught and killed, of course, but their deaths didn’t stop their tale from spreading: how, under their knives, Lele had cried out to the gods, accusing the king and calling for justice, and how, as their merciless assault continued, she was transformed into a yew tree.
I’m sure the king wished he could chop down the tree and burn it, but who would dare to assault the gods’ sanctuary, with the gods’ power still resonant within?
In a year’s time, my sister bore Neiros, and the king had a woman from his own country brought in to nurse the boy. We all wished to hate him, but he was a laughing, sunny baby. My sister would bounce him on her knee and sing to him when the nurse brought him to her, so we let go of our hate, though I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt a pang when walking by the stream at the edge of the grove of the gods.
Neiros was barely old enough to walk when the king took him in hand, determined to train him as a proper warrior heir from a young age. Year in and year out, we tried not to listen as he hectored, scolded, and swatted the poor child. Neiros would slip away from his father when he could.
One day in his eighth year, when I was laying out the new linen cloth to bleach in the sun and Neiros was helping, we heard his father shouting for him.
“You’d better run along,” I said. “Come back when you get a chance, and I’ll give you some bread with honey.” Neiros hugged me around the waist, burying his face in my chest.
“If Father hits me, I’ll just run to Auntie in the trees,” he said, voice muffled.
“Oh yes? And who is Auntie in the trees?” I asked.
“She’s my protector. She’s down in the grove of the gods,” he said.
I felt the hairs on my arms rise up.
“You go down there? Someone speaks to you down there?”
“Auntie in the trees. The day I forgot to latch the gate and Father’s new mare got out, I ran away to the trees down there and climbed up into one to hide. The branches held me close, and I heard a voice say, ‘I’ll keep you safe.’ I asked who it was, and she said she was my Auntie in the trees.”
“You must show me the tree,” I managed to say, though my mouth had gone dry and my pounding heart stole away my breath. But the king bellowed for Neiros again, and the boy ran off.
“Auntie in the trees has dark green needles and red berries,” he called back over his shoulder. “Her branches are red and raw, like arms without skin.”
After the cloth was spread, I walked down to the end of the garden, crossed the stream at the bridge, and entered the grove of the gods, a circle of silent oaks standing sentinel over clover, poppies, and bindweed. I hadn’t been to the grove since my sister married the old king, but I remembered it well enough to recognize the newcomer yew, more a thicket than a single tree, several narrow trunks outspread like hands shielding a face, with one great bough flung up and twisted, as if to ward off blows.
I’ve seen spear hafts made of yew; they’re a rich red color. Seeing that same ruddiness on the limbs of the living tree—so much like bare muscle and sinew—I thought of Lele and had to close my eyes.
“You don’t mean to harm the new prince, do you?” I asked, but the words felt like pebbles in my mouth.
How can you question me?
In my mind’s eye, I saw Lele running after the new king, who carried a squirming bundle down to the stream. I saw her wrestle with him, saw the soldiers pull her away. I could almost feel the grip of their hands upon her and the cold rain streaming down her face and hair.
Here, now, a cold wind pulled at my own hair and my skirts. I opened my eyes and saw thunderclouds. The oaks were murmuring now. The yew was whispering too, but not in human speech. Not in human speech, but I could feel the meaning all the same. How can you question me?
It wasn’t until some days later that I was able to give Neiros the bread and honey I had promised him.
“I have a brother,” Neiros announced, breaking off fragments of his bread and feeding them to the king’s dogs, who have a knack for finding people who are eating. “He’s a year older than I am. He lives in the stream at the bottom of the garden.”
The cook’s knife stopped halfway through an onion, and she glanced at me, eyebrows raised. Her little maid, who was scaling the fish, looked at her mistress anxiously.
“A brother in the stream?” I asked, keeping my tone light.
“Yes. He can only eat fish and snails. He never gets bread. And he has to eat the fish raw, because there isn’t any fire under the water.” Neiros bit down on his bread and chewed it slowly. One of the dogs licked Neiros’s free hand.
“How did you find this brother?” I asked.
“Did he call to you?” breathed the maid, but the cook shushed her.
“Auntie in the trees told me about him. She told me his name is Fremos. She said if I stepped into the stream and called him, he’d come. And he did! And we talked.” Neiros frowned. “Fremos is lonely, though. He’s all alone in the river. He asked me if I would come under the water with him, but . . .” Neiros’s frown deepened. “I was scared to. So I asked him if he could come out instead, and he said, maybe if I grabbed his hands and pulled. So I did grab and pull, but I couldn’t budge him. He stayed underneath. Father would say I’m a weakling, wouldn’t he. Do you think Father would say I’m a weakling?”
“No, he wouldn’t say that,” I said. “But I think he would say— He would say you shouldn’t play in that stream. Or by it. Or—”
“I have to,” insisted Neiros. “Otherwise Fremos will die of loneliness, and I’ll lose my only brother. Auntie in the trees says I have a father and a mother and a palace full of people to love and serve me, but Fremos has no one.” Neiros squeezed his remaining fragment of bread between his fingers and thumb, squeezed it and rolled it. Then he threw it onto the floor and looked up at me. “Why does my brother live in a stream?” he asked.
At just that moment, the king walked in.
The cook’s maid hid behind the cook.
“What did you say?” the king asked, in a low, dangerous voice.
“I want to know why my brother lives in a stream,” Neiros repeated, balling his hands into fists as he stared at his father. The two of them wore matching frowns. “Auntie in the trees said you made him live there.”
“Who said it? She said it?” He pointed at me and crossed the room in quick strides. He had his knife in his hand; I think he meant to kill me then and there.
“No! Not her! Auntie in the trees! Auntie in the trees said it.” Neiros’s voice was thin, high, and desperate. He rammed into his father, knocking the knife from his hand and startling the dogs, who jumped up, barking. Then he ducked around him and dashed out of the kitchen.
“The yew tree. He’s running to the yew tree, and she’ll have her revenge on you.” It must have been the gods speaking through me. I would never have dared say those words to the king’s face otherwise. I felt my heart twist as they came out, not for the king, but for Neiros.
The king went as pale as ashes and ran out after Neiros, calling for his men to follow. I ran after, too, stopping only to tell one of my sister’s women what was happening.
“Tell her to come,” I said. Who living had been more wronged than my sister? Maybe she could stop this fate from unfolding.
Neiros had slipped right into the heart of the yew and had climbed up as high as he could go. The yew clasped him tight in her bare, flayed arms. The king and his men were arrayed in a semicircle around the tree.
“Come down! Come down here right now!” the king ordered, and, under his breath, “Let him go, or I will burn you down, and gods be damned.”
“I won’t!” said Neiros, still in that high, desperate voice. “Go pull my brother out of the stream! You put him there. Bring him back here where he belongs. Then I’ll come down.”
My sister and several of the other women arrived while Neiros was speaking. Two bright patches shone on my sister’s cheeks, but the rest of her face was as pale as the king’s. Her chest heaved from running, but her mouth was tight shut and her lips were bloodless.
“Pull him out, or I’ll never come down. I’ll die here,” said Neiros, his last words lost in a sob.
The king stared wild-eyed at the tree and his son, cursed the yew first quietly and then loudly, then strode back to the stream and splashed in. Something made him cry out and leap from the water.
“Don’t be surprised,” said Neiros. “He’s not a baby anymore. He’s big now, like me. But you’re strong. You can pull him out.”
The king growled like a dog and plunged back in. He bent down, and grimacing, he thrust his arms into the water, past his wrists, past his elbows, up practically to his shoulders. We could see the strain of his effort in the cords of his neck, but nothing happened. If anything, the king was being pulled down. I’ve heard the dead are supernaturally strong. Maybe, I thought, Fremos means to drown him.
And then, slowly, the king straightened up. His hands held the wrists of a boy, transparent as glass—or water—who was draped and wreathed in river weed. The boy’s ghost eyes were fixed on the yew tree, and he smiled. Then he turned to his mother, standing just behind the king. He tilted his head, regarding her. And then he disappeared. The king was left holding the bones of an infant.
“That’s very good, my lord. I see you have managed to save my son, after all,” said my sister, putting her left hand on the king’s left shoulder. He flinched, but before he could make another move, she had driven a knife deep into his neck. She lifted Fremos’s bones out of his hands, then took a step back and let the king collapse into the stream. She turned to address his men, fixing the lieutenant, whose hand had flown to his sword, with a hard stare.
“Think before you act. Sometimes the gods must use human tools to mete out justice. But there’s a boy, blood of your master’s blood, who will be king if you’ll support him.”
Then she approached the yew tree, knelt, and laid Fremos’s bones down gently in the clover.
“Here is the little one you suckled, the sweet baby we both loved,” she said. “His murder has been avenged. Now you must send my other son back to me. Neiros, come down now.”
“I can’t come down, Mother,” said Neiros tremulously. “Auntie in the trees is holding me too tightly. She won’t let go.”
It was true. The branches pressed against his face and arms and across his chest.
“Be thin and slippery, like water,” my sister urged. “Slide right out of her arms.”
Neiros twisted and writhed, but only succeeded in scraping his arms and cheeks raw. His blood soaked into the yew’s branches.
“A flaying for a flaying,” I murmured, and again, I swear it was the gods that put the words in my mouth.
“No!” my sister cried. Neiros continued to struggle, in tears now, as the branches held him ever more tightly.
“You must save him!” my sister said, speaking to the oaks. “Please—Lele’s claims are answered now.”
The wind picked up, and the oaks whispered in conferral. Still Neiros wept, but we could not see him now, so close did the yew hold him. The oaks swayed back and forth; the yew hunched her shoulders. And then something changed in the tone of Neiros’s sobs. Out from the branches’ crushing embrace flew a little brown bird with red streaks on its cheeks and breast and wings. It circled the grove and disappeared into the clouds.
Who can understand the gods? They spared Neiros’s life, but deprived us of his presence. Now we paint brown birds with red streaks on the men’s shields, and we hope that my sister’s supporters will outnumber the supporters of the king. We live in a time of miracles, I think to myself, as I scan the flocks of sparrows, looking for Neiros. We live in a time of miracles, and yet still blood continues to be spilled, and it runs into the cracks in the flagstones.