Other Stories

The Tree in the Road

Once there were two lands, connected by a single road. The land in the south was hard, barren, and difficult, and the people who lived there struggled even to be poor. The land in the north was rich and fertile, with abundant springs and deep soils, but the people quarreled and fought so much that in the midst of abundance they imagined themselves poor. And so they sent out raiding parties even to the south, to steal what little the poor southlanders had.
The road that connected the two lands wound through steep mountains, and at its narrowest became a ledge barely wide enough for a single wagon, with a vertical wall of rock on one side and a thousand-foot drop on the other. At the south end of the cliff the road broadened into a meadow, with young woods on the precipitous slopes above and below it, and here the southlanders set the small garrison that was all they could spare to guard the road from raiders from the north.
One spring a weeping boy came stumbling into the meadow from the south. His face was bruised, his cheek recently opened by a sword. He came to where a few scraps of cloth and burnt logs marked the garrison of the southlanders. He wept over the wreckage, and over the trampled, bloodied earth where his kinsmen had fought their last battle, trying to hold back the northland raiders. And there by the edge of the track he planted an acorn, just sprouting. “Guard the road,” he told it, weeping, and went back the way he came.
The little tree took the boy’s words seriously. It grew branches into the road to entangle the raiders, but they swept them aside, or lopped them off, and once the little oak got chopped down for kindling and had to regrow from its stump. As it watched northland raiders return with wagons of booty, leading lines of wretched captives, it felt terrible that it could not stop them, but what could it do? It was just a tree.
One day a wizard appeared from the south. He was a mere youth, but he pulled up the sapling oak as easily as if it had been rooted in water instead of earth and stone, and drove it into the center of the road between cliff face and drop-off, where the road was barely one wagon wide. The tree felt its roots drive a hundred feet into the stone of the mountain. A witchy light encircled it as the wizard cast on it spells to protect it from shovel and blade, fire and lightning, drought and disease. “Guard the road,” the wizard commanded, and went back to the south.
The next party of raiders tried to hack off the tree, and when their blades broke, bent it double and drove their wagons over the top. But when they returned the next spring, the tree had grown too big to bend, and they had to leave their wagons and go ahead on horseback. This limited their raids, but not enough. The tree grew and grew, trying to block their way, until the bandits had to take the packs off their horses to lead them through the narrow way on either side of the tree, and reload the packs on the other side.
In time, the raids ceased. In time, travelers appeared from the south and squeezed their horses past the tree, headed north. They spoke of the richness of the north, of what good lives people had there now that the northerners had stopped fighting. They went north, and few ever returned, and those that did returned smiling, and brought their relatives north with them again.
But the tree still worried about raiders. It grew larger and larger, blocking more and more of the road — and no ax could cut it, no fire burn it, no shovel dig it free. In time only a pony could squeeze through beside it, then only a man, then a man only if he took his pack off and pulled it through behind him. Those few travelers willing to brave the rough track came from the south with what little wealth they had accumulated, and groaned to see the oak larger than the stories they had heard, blocking more of the way. A mound of abandoned possessions grew in the meadow, carts abandoned for rucksacks, treasures of a lifetime left behind with much wailing when their owners could not squeeze them past the trunk. Many people turned back rather than abandon what they valued most.
Over time the travelers grew poorer, and fewer, until the tree only saw a person every few years, and then a long time passed when no one came at all.
It was the autumn of the oak’s 500th year guarding the road. The woods were alight with fall color. The oak’s leaves had turned a wonderful copper-brown. One day a large band of travelers approached from the south. Some pulled handcarts, others carried packs, but it was evident from their ragged clothes and weary faces that life had grown ever harder in the south, and they were desperate to pass. They groaned when they saw the tree, for it had grown so large that only a child could wriggle past between tree and cliff — and legends told of the disasters befalling those who had attempted to pass by other means.
But among these travelers was a wizard. He had been old when the world was young, and grown younger with time, until now he stood before the tree a man in the prime of life. He touched his staff to the oak’s bark, and said, “Who are you?”
“I am the guardian of the road,” the tree replied, astonished to discover that it had a voice. “I protect the south from raiders.”
“I see by your girth that you have guarded the road for a long time,” the wizard said. “In all these years you must have gained the appreciation of countless people.”
“Not one!” the tree exclaimed. “Not once in 500 years has anyone thanked me!”
“Ah,” said the wizard. “But at least travelers are glad to see you, for you are a fine, strong oak,” he said, admiring the mighty branches and copper-brown leaves, “perhaps the biggest and most beautiful I have ever seen.”
“Travelers are horrified to see me!” the tree exclaimed. “They curse me with every breath!”
“Ah,” said the wizard. “But at least you defend the south. Why, you must have turned back countless raiders over the years!”
The tree thought about this. “The last raiders came by 410 years ago,” it said.
“Yes, 408 years ago the north became peaceful,” the wizard said. “It turned into a rich and fruitful land where people from the south could find a better life — but the trail is hard, and a guardian blocks the way.”
“Someone must guard the road,” the tree argued. “What if raiders come again?”
“When you were planted, this was a young wood,” the wizard explained. “But wizards have worked in it, and the wood has grown up, and its magic is strong enough to defend against anything. Have you not noticed?”
“Two hundred years ago, a gang of bandits camped on this meadow with a captive girl,” the tree mused. “A bear chased most of them off that cliff, and a stag bore the girl south on its back, unharmed. One hundred years ago a woodcutter and a witch came to remove my spell and chop me down, and lightning struck them both. Yes, I think you are right: these woods can defend the road.”
The tree looked at the ragged people behind the wizard. “It would be good for these people to find a better life,” it said, “but I was put here by a many years ago by a wizard, and cannot be moved.”
“I can move you,” said the wizard who had been old when the world was young. “Why, there is a spot right over there by that spring that would be perfect for a tree such as yourself. Travelers would picnic beneath you where you could hear their conversation, and children would climb among your branches and tell their children about when they climbed the biggest oak in the world. Furthermore the soil in that spot is deep and rich; you would thrive.”
“That would be a good life,” the tree agreed.
“But there is another possibility,” said the wizard, for he was a good and kind man, and could see into souls, and know dreams. “For five hundred years you have watched travelers pass by, and longed to travel yourself. You have watched friends pass by, and longed to know friendship. You have watched lovers pass by, and longed for love. You have watched adventurers, and longed to go adventuring. And you have watched magicians, and longed to do magic. If I make you a man, you can have all these things — and as a magician, you will live as long as a tree.”
“Yes,” the tree said, rustling its copper-brown leaves. “Yes, I would like that very much.”
Then the wizard laid his hand against the oak, and its trunk opened with a sigh of release. The wizard reached into the tree, and drew forth a young man with copper-brown hair and eyes the color of the sky, and clasped his hands. “Welcome,” the wizard said.
Then he reached into the tree again, and pulled forth boards that assembled themselves into wagons with wheels bound in copper-brown metal. He drew forth harnesses and saddles of copper-brown leather, and great muscled horses with copper-brown manes and hides the color of oak bark. And as he did this, the tree got smaller and smaller, until only a sapling stood in the road.
“What was possible is possible again,” the wizard said, and as he spoke the great pile of moldering junk in the meadow turned bright and new. “We will take these treasures with us, to the people in the north who valued them enough to bring them this far. They will serve us well.” Quickly the band of travelers loaded them into the wagons, exclaiming over their beauty and value.
Then the wizard put his hand around the sapling in the road, and pulled it out of the path as easily as the young wizard had planted it. As he pulled it free, it turned into a staff, with copper-brown metal at the top that held not so much a crystal as a space. Like the space held by a tree’s branches, whose emptiness calls attention to the many other ways the tree might have grown, or might grow still, this crystal held the space of possibility.
The wizard handed the staff to the new man by his side. The man looked through the crystal at the woods, and saw all the ways that the magic woods could now defend themselves and guard the road. He looked ahead at the path, and saw the bright shining land of the north, and the wonderful future that awaited him there. He looked behind him at the travelers, and saw the connections to their many friends and relatives who were afraid to walk the road, and who might never know freedom so long as the way to it remained so difficult.
Then the man who had been a tree thumped his new staff on the ground three times. With the last thump, the mountain moved — and the road that had been a narrow track, with hard stone on one side and a deadly drop on the other, became wide and welcoming, so broad that many wagons could easily move abreast along it with room to spare.
“Very good,” said the wizard to his new friend. “Let us proceed.”
And they all moved forward together.

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