Anabeth's new baby had the teeth of a crocodile. It'd been three weeks since she brought him back, so I'd heard the comments, but I did my best not to notice immediately. The light wasn't the best that day, and I made a point of not looking at the infant too closely while I made small talk, poured tea into fine clay cups, and knelt across from my sister, the grass mat cool through the fabric of my skirt. Then the baby turned his bright, pudgy face toward me, and I saw the wrongness of his mouth, all jagged interlocking points.
"Oh, Anabeth," I said on an exhale. What to say? I couldn't pretend the child was lovely or even normal. We both knew he was not. "He does have your eyes."
"You don't need to lie, Viette," she said as she stroked his cap of tight curls. "Not for my sake. The teeth are horrible, aren't they?"
"I wasn't thinking that."
"Everyone's thinking it. But he's hardly the first."
I couldn't stop staring at the boy. He waved his plump fists at me. Were he some other child, I would have given him my finger to suck. "Are you sure—"
"Yes." Her tone held heat, a readiness to fight. "We'd gotten so quiet, Viette. Gerat and I, we need something to love. Someone to care about."
"I know. We want a child, too." It was only weeks now since my last stillbirth. Blood. Small, motionless limbs. My husband's expressionless face. He had been so kind, the first time.
I'd been in bed, most days since. Maryse, the midwife from Eldston, had insisted. Then she'd called me a fool, and said she wouldn't be coming for the next one. Not worth her time, delivering the dead.
"Maybe you and Johen are right, to keep trying. But we had to do something." She stroked the boy's face, and there was love in the touch. "Gerat says the priests are wrong, that the curse will never go away. I don't know. Maybe if we beg for long enough, the gods will forgive us. Maybe Jessa with her little natural-born, Cress, is somehow holier than I am."
"It's not like that," I said.
She took a slow breath and locked her gaze with mine. "I did what I had to do. He's not a monster. He's not."
I touched her wrist and squeezed gently. "No one will call him a monster," I promised. "The teeth will fall out. Remember little Yulie's wings? They fell off when she turned four. Nothing but a few little scars."
"A few scars." Anabeth laughed softly then smiled at me though her eyes were too bright. "Yes, that sounds right."
"Was it difficult?" I asked. "I mean, if I went, even without Johen, could I make it to the trees?"
Anabeth wasn't the only one who needed a child. I, too, was willing to take what the gods refused me.
The priests would say that was the problem. We had dared to cross the boundaries of Godswalk. We had eaten crystal fruit and bathed in rivers of liquid sapphire. But we'd been children. We had known nothing of the Godswalk. Except that it was new. That it was beautiful.
Lucky Jessa, with her watchful parents and her Eldston husband. Lucky Jessa who had never tasted starlight.
"No." Anabeth said, no longer looking at me. "Don't go. Please, Viette. The Godswalk, it's not like it was when we were little. There are costs."
Of course there were costs. Anabeth's fashionably wide sleeves didn't hide the bloodstained cloth wrapped around her wrist. All children come from blood, in the end. Even those stolen from the gods.
I looked at the small, soft body in her arms, the gentle way she held him. "But it's worth it," I said. "To have a child. It's worth anything."
She leaned down and kissed her son on the forehead. "Yes," she said. "But don't go."
"What is it?" I asked. "What's wrong? He's healthy, isn't he?"
"He's fine. He's perfect." She kept her head down. "I should go. Gerat will be missing us."
After Anabeth left, I cleaned the tea things. Neither of us had eaten much. I put the crusts of bread out for the birds and stood looking at the line of tidy stones that marked the remains of too many small, still bodies.
How many times can you mourn before even that becomes a sort of routine? Like making the evening meal and watching as it cools, uneaten. Or sitting up weaving, waiting to see if the man who once called you beloved will come home tonight. Knowing and waiting anyway.
In the Godswalk, trees grow in shining copper and burnished silver. They say such trees feed on flesh. That if you give them a little of yourself, and a little of your lover, they will grow impossible flowers, petals of velvet and lace opening to reveal a bright-eyed infant. Pluck it. Bring it home. The teeth fall out, eventually.
I asked my husband. Sat beside him with a knife and the quartz cup he'd given me as a wedding gift. He didn't come home for days, after. When he finally did, he was all kisses and pretty words. We'd make a child the proper way. We'd pray. It'd work this time. That'd been eight months ago.
What did he want from me? To drive me mad, one small stone at a time? It'd be easy, to put aside a mad wife. And then he could bring home someone younger, purer, and untouched by the Godswalk curse.
No. He loved me. Had loved me. It could still be right again, if he'd only let us try. Look at Anabeth and Gerat.
I was still awake when the sun rose. The meal I'd cooked still sat in the kitchen. Such a shame to let it go to waste. I wrapped the bread and fish in a napkin. I corked the cider and tied everything in an old apron. Anabeth, her son warm in her arms, had told me not to go. But she'd done it. There were more than two dozen Godswalk children in the village. The cost couldn't be too high.
To do it right, I'd need my husband's blood. It was the two of us mingled that would make the child ours. It didn't matter. When I brought back the baby, when he held it, he'd surely love it just the same. If not, well, it couldn't make things worse between us. I would give the trees my blood, and my sorrow, and that would have to be enough.
Anabeth's baby had laughed, when she'd said goodbye. And she had smiled again, that soft, only for him smile. Cursed, the priests said. Maybe. But who could tell after the teeth fell out?
We don't know what brought the Godswalk. The priests who've come to study it speak of secrets and sin, but they know as little as the rest of us. One night, the stars began to swell, growing larger and brighter. Their light outshone the moon, and everything looked dusted in silver. The whole village stood outside that night, staring up at those great, twinkling monstrosities. Anabeth and I huddled together, crying. The stars shattered like glass.
The next morning, the Godswalk stretched to the east, where before there had only been swampland. We stood, clutching our parents' hands and watched as golden lights danced across black diamond sand. Nothing happened. And nothing happened. Until fear became familiarity, and we children dared and teased each other across the border so many times it ceased to be a novelty.
Even knowing what we all knew now, I wasn't afraid of the Godswalk. I stepped from the dense marsh grass to the gleaming sand without flinching. Perhaps I was disturbing a sleeping god just by crossing the border. What did it matter? I already held their curse.
The metal trees with their precious fruit were said to be near the center of the Godswalk. At the border, the trees were rough granite with flowers of basalt. Quartz peaches hung low and tempting, throwing rainbows onto the dark sand. It was a long walk from edge to center, and I was still weak from my recent loss. I settled among the stones to rest, listening to the unfamiliar songs of the Godswalk birds.
I spotted the speaker in the branches of a nearby tree. A doll's head on a lizard's body. Russet skin and ruby scales. The thing was perhaps as long as my arm. Its eyes were so human, set in that sweet, little-girl face. A face no different from any village child's.
"Go or be devoured." She bared her teeth at me. My nephew had the more impressive set.
"I'm only visiting," I said. "I'm Viette. Who are you?"
I did not ask what, though I wondered. There had been no monsters in the Godswalk when I was a child. Some birds, yes. The occasional deer.
"Beast," she said. "Serpent. Monster. I am for you to throw rocks at. Wave knives."
I could see the yellow of a dying bruise on her cheek. I thought of my sister, traveling through the Godswalk with Gerat. Anabeth despised anything with scales. And she'd always had a wicked aim.
"I don't throw rocks."
"Knives then? Arrows? Your kind always has something." She made a hissing, sighing sound. "Go. There's nothing for you here."
I stood, though the pain had not yet left me. "I'm here for the blood trees. Can you show me the way?"
"Show you the way? Hand you a rock? Bash in the babe's brains when it blooms not to your liking?" Her words fell on me in a torrent, as she shivered on her branch, setting the stone leaves to clacking.
"Easy," I said, in the low voice I used when soothing one of the village children. She was no different from our own young monsters, I could see that. A Godswalk child. What had happened? Had her parents been so terrified of her form that they'd left her?
I would take a lizard child. I would polish its scales to gleaming. Sing it serpent's lullabies. I would wait and watch until it shed its skin to show the small, perfect child beneath.
And if it did not? The lizard girl watching me from the trees was older than four and still looked nothing like human. But then, she had grown up in the Godswalk. It took a few years of village life to learn humanity. And I was worrying over nothing. The Godswalk children I knew were not so grotesque as this one. Not enough blood, perhaps. Or the wrong tree. I would be careful. I would pray.
A too-familiar refrain, stained gray with mourning. But that didn't mean it was wrong. I could teach a lizard child how to be human, couldn't I? Children needed love, and guidance. And I could love such a child, with her gem-bright scales. Easier to love a monster than a stone.
But what about Johen? What would he say if I brought home a child with so little humanity? The answer sat sick and heavy in my gut. I pushed the thought away. With or without him, I would be a mother.
"I won't harm the baby," I said. But she was gone. The trees were empty.
I felt her following me, when I began walking again. She didn't speak, even when I called out to her. But I could hear the clatter of leaves as she moved through the trees. I watched for others, looking for strange shadows, but saw none. Perhaps she was truly an anomaly. A lone grotesque, abandoned by the parents who had bled to create her.
By midday, the trees were the dull gray of iron. Their sharp-petaled flowers perfumed the air with blacksmith's smells. Metal and fire. I stopped, unwrapped my bread and fish, and looked up. "There's enough for two," I called.
The leaves sounded like falling coins as the child clambered along the branches. "Your kind travels in pairs. Knife and sword, bare and beard. Where is the one who should eat with you?"
"My husband isn't part of this." The truth of the words made my throat tight. I tried to smile. "I'll have a child, my child. Just mine."
She climbed down the trunk of a tree, headfirst. "Yours and the gods'," she said.
"Is that who makes you strange?" I asked.
She nodded, looking not at me but at the bread I held. I tore the loaf in half, and seeing the way she flinched when I raised my arm, rolled the offering along the ground. It picked up a dusting of black sand, but she bit into it willingly enough.
"Three parents," she said. And then, "No parents."
"I'm sorry." And I was. Who could have left her here? Maybe Elissa and Misha, who'd married so young. They might have come early, when Elissa had only lost one child. She wouldn't have understood yet, how precious any young life was. They still had no children. Perhaps they'd never learned the value of compromise.
"You should go back." The malice had left her voice, and she lay stretched out on her stomach, sunbathing. She was almost beautiful. I wanted to brush out her hair, see what might lie beneath years of wildness.
"I can't," I said.
She made a sound that was as much hiss as sigh. "You must. You won't like what comes. No pretty ones for you. A half-god child. Even the best would be as I am."
"There's nothing wrong with you."
She laughed. "Not with me," she said. "With you. I think you won't do it, once you see what blood buys."
"I have seen."
She pushed up onto her four legs, stretched, and climbed back up the tree. "Follow me. It's not much farther."
I left what remained of the bread and fish. Perhaps she would return for it later. What did she eat? A child needed more than fruit. I didn't know how to judge whether a lizard was well fed.
"You could come back with me." I called to her. Anabeth would have to apologize, of course. She'd grow used to her new niece with time. "Me and the baby."
She flinched against the branch where she stood, setting off a cacophony of clattering and sending leaves raining down like hail. "Never and never and never."
"But you're all alone here."
"Not so alone. Just oldest. Fastest." She started moving again, more quickly now. It was difficult to keep up; my feet slid on the metallic leaf litter. Close, I told my hurts, my heart. Just a little longer. Close, close.
I smelled the clearing well before I spotted my first blood tree. The rancid carrion stench of meat left to bake in the sun. If I had been alone, I might have paused, doubting my path. But, while my guide slowed, she kept moving forward.
"Nearly there," she promised.
I soaked my sleeve in cider and held it over my mouth and nose, breathing shallow. I did not have to hurry, anymore. The trees were thinning, and the child was forced to descend. We walked together, though always out of touching distance.
"There," she said, lifting a claw to point.
The first of the blood trees grew, all bronze and silver, perhaps a market's length away. The king's third son, Prince Ricar, had come to see the Godswalk once. The tree glittered like his hands had glittered, impossible riches on casual display. I remember feeling small and shabby when he rode past. I felt that way again, looking at a tree that ran with the blood of the gods.
As I approached it, the carrion smell grew thicker. The obnoxious buzz of flies filled the air; I had to wave them away from my face.
The infants lay like rotten fruit. Long dead, their bodies crawling with hungry beetles. I saw feline, canine, human, bird, horse, all fine features eaten away by insects and time. Tiny bones. A half-dozen broken skulls.
Another pile lay beneath the next tree, and the next, and the next.
I gagged and turned away. I didn't ask what happened. I could see it. We came to the Godswalk, offering blood for children. And the children grew, whole crops of infants weighing down the shining trees.
"The best ones grow near the top," said my guide. "The ones who look most like you. Your people climb up. Cut them free."
"And they kill the rest." Because who wanted to risk a monster crawling out of the Godswalk some day, wearing your face?
"Most times. Some just leave them. Most are too fragile to last long. A couple, the right sort of monsters, they survive. Like me."
"Four now. Was five. There was a man with arrows. Now, only I come out. Oldest. Fastest."
I stood beside the Godswalk child and stared at the corpses. I thought of my own corpses, my small, smooth stones. It is a desperate thing to want a child. We take desperate action.
"You thought, once I saw this, I would just leave?"
"It happens. The kind ones. The ones who don't throw rocks. They stand where you are, and then they turn around."
She put gentle inflection on its last two words, making them almost an order. I couldn't look away. I wanted a child. I had known there would be a price in blood. A half-dozen monsters for one near-perfect child. A child who would grow out of its teeth. I stepped forward into the blood tree grove.
Anabeth had told me not to come, not to try. But she had come. It was easy to find the tree she'd used. The corpses were fresher. I spotted an infant with the wings of a wren, the body of a snake, and my nose. I brushed the maggots from its downy feathers. This one might have been my niece. I would have sewn wing slits into her dresses and told her bedtime stories about handsome princes who fall in love with brave serpent girls.
I wanted her back. I wanted to hear her speak. I wanted to watch her first, hesitant flights. Girl and monster both, I would have loved her. I ran my fingers over her skull, felt the place where bone had been fragmented by force. Not left to starve.
What would Anabeth say if I asked? Would she admit what she had done? Would she defend it?
"What do I do?" I asked.
And then what? Pour tea in fine clay cups. Admire Anabeth's little crocodile boy and never mention his dead siblings. Watch dinner grow cold and add to my crop of stone.
I left my niece and walked to the next tree. The corpses beneath it were old enough to be mostly bones.
"Why do the gods do it? Kill our children in the womb? Grow forests of monsters?"
"I don't know," answered my guide. "I can hear her sometimes. Whispering."
"The lady beneath. The goddess who fell here. She dreams this place." She reached out, touched my leg with a careful claw. "Please. Go home."
I took my knife from my belt. It was made for cooking, not sacrifice. But the edge was good. "My husband despises me," I said. "My sister murders infants. My children are dead and dead and dead."
"Enough dead, then," she said.
"Yes," I agreed. "Enough have died."
I cut my wrist, deep, drawing the knife up, not across. If it was only me, then I would spill all that was needed and more. Be half gods. Be monsters. But be my monsters.
My blood flowed quick and red onto the roots of the tree. The branches shivered. Above me, the buds formed, tight twists of impossibility. Flowers of feathers, fur, scale, and lace. I wrapped my wrist as tightly as I could in the clean scraps I'd packed. At my side, the lizard child looked upward, young face creased with old grief.
The lace flower began to open. Tiny cloven hooves kicked at the air. Another petal pulled aside. Horn nubs and skin like mine. The baby stretched and yawned. Her teeth were as sharp as her cousin's. My baby. My own little monster.
I plucked my daughter from the center of her flower, and held her, warm and sweet, in my arms. She kicked her little hooves, already strong. Already beautiful. Perfect. A second flower opened. My son had my father's hazel eyes and the ears of a hare. So very like human. He'd need only a hat to pass. He would be the one to bring back. To raise beside Anabeth's boy. They would play together in the garden, where I would add three more stones.
My daughter nuzzled my chest, seeking milk. I traced the shape of her skull. It would be an easy thing to break. One simple action and I would be Viette, village woman and mother, beyond reproach. Johen would warm to me again. Anabeth and I would drink tea and try not to meet each other’s gaze. We would never speak of it, except at a slant. Being a parent means making hard decisions, we'd tell each other.
Some choices aren't choices. Some costs are too high. Let Anabeth have the village. Let that life be my sacrifice. I would remain. Be mother of monsters, of young godlings.
"What will you do?" The lizard girl climbed up to my son and stroked his cheek with her tail.
"Love them." Kiss her hooves and brush his ears. Teach them that danger had dull teeth and sharp knives. Ready them for the fight to come.
And it would come. The trees were too valuable; the villagers, too desperate.
The final two flowers opened. A son of feathers and sharp talons, a daughter of black scales and promising fangs. Perfect, both of them.