“Come on,” the voice says. “Come with me.”
But there’s no face to go with the voice. I think it’s a tree speaking to us for a moment, before I realize a tree would have a much deeper and slower voice. Like the Ents in that one story, which is almost as illegal as the Bible. Pa told me it anyway.
Mama gets up to her hands and knees and picks a branch off the ground, holding it out in front of her in trembling hands.
“Who’s there?” she says, and she sounds more scared than I’ve ever heard her.
I sit up and wrap my arms around my little brother. He coughs. I hold him tight.
“You’re safe,” the voice says. “Do not be afraid.” Then its source comes out into our grove. It ain’t a tree, that’s sure, but it seems like it might live in one. It’s a woman, who’s wearing all green clothes and has a hat with a feather in it on her head. She’s got a holstered pistol on her thigh, and a bow and arrows slung across her back. Her hair’s brown, her eyes bright, and for some reason she reminds me of the old woman I used to know, the herbalist.
Well, she don’t look like one of the Police, that’s sure.
Mama steps in front of me and my little brother, clutching her branch. “Who are you?” she demands. I’m proud of her for making her voice so strong.
“My name is Birch,” she says. “You’re running from the police, right? We can help you.”
Mama’s arms sink down a little, and I think she might drop the branch. “We?” she asks.
Birch nods. “The resistance. You didn’t think your husband took you this direction for no reason, did you?”
Now the branch does drop from Mama’s fingers, sliding to the ground and falling beside her foot. “Oh,” she whispers. “He… I should’ve… I should’ve remembered.”
How would Pa know these people? Was he part of the resistance? Was he a criminal when he was young? How had I never known? I stood and helped my little brother to his feet, peering around Mama at the forest woman. She met my eyes and gave me a brief smile.
“Come on,” she said again. “We have no time to waste.” She turned on her heel and strode off into the trees, her steps light as a deer’s.
I took my little brother’s hand and followed her, not hesitating for one moment. Ain’t these the people Pa was leading us to? Leastaways, if Birch is telling the truth. I know I’ve got to trust her. Mama follows us a moment later, moving like she’s got a boulder on her shoulders. But she keeps up, even when Birch leads us into a dark part of the forest where the trees are so thick they block out the moonlight. A couple of times I glimpse some people around us, who I think are like Birch: all dressed in green. But they don’t show their faces. I think they must be guards, keeping watch for monsters and Police. They must do a good job, because nothing attacks us. After an hour or so, Birch stops and talks to some men in the trees, saying who she is and who we are. Then we go into a cave, and I want to collapse, because it feels so safe in there.
“Welcome to the Warding Caves,” Birch says, turning to us with a smile. She’s got a nice smile, all straight white teeth. Her eyes seem so bright. She’s got a life to her, this one has, and it ain’t like nothing I ever seen before.
“I’ve heard of this place,” Mama whispers. “Never thought I’d see it.”
“You wouldn’t be seeing it now,” Birch says, “If it weren’t for your husband. Now come on. I’ll find you a room.”
She takes off her weapons and puts them on a rack by the entrance of the cave. There’s a man there, who hugs her when she drops off the weapons. He looks very clean-cut, not like I would’ve imagined a rebel who lives in the forest to look. It seems like he is very fond of Birch.
The green-clad woman takes us further into the cave, and leads us through some tunnels. There’s other people there, also dressed in green, and most of them look tough and dangerous. But they’d have to be, if they want to survive. Birch doesn’t show us much. All we really see is the tunnels, which are cold earth and stone without decoration. I catch a glimpse of a bigger cavern, a really huge one, bigger than any cave I ever seen in my life. There’s a whole lot of people in there, and machines and equipment besides, but Birch ushers us past before I can get a good look. She finally stops in a very dank part of the tunnels, at the end of a long row of scrap metal doors.
“You can sleep there,” she says, pointing to a door in front of us. “It’s not much, I know, but we don’t have much room here. I’m afraid we won’t be able to take anyone else in after you.” She sighs. “It’ll be time to expand soon… but, in you go.” She pushes the door open, giving us a faint smile. It creaks on rusty hinges, showing us a tiny room with a dirt floor. There ain’t nothing much in it, just a chest and a couple of beds.
Well, the beds are the most important part. I go in, feeling a little light-headed, and fall down on the mattress. I’m already drifting off to sleep, as I hear Mama thanking Birch behind me, and then telling my little brother that we’re all safe now and the Police won’t catch us….