The morning sun, filtered through the dense evergreen forest canopy, still hasn’t driven away the dewdrops resting on the undergrowth as Sani races along the narrow trail. As she brushes past ferns and horsetails, tiny sprays of water droplets fan out behind her, sparkling in the mottled sunlight. By the time she reaches the crest of the hill, the bottom of her skirt is damp, too, but she hardly cares. She’ll be out long enough for the summer sun to dry it off, and her parents will be none the wiser. She’s not supposed to come this far into the woods alone, but the best blackberries grow in the valley beyond the guardian’s tree.
Sani shivers, and it has nothing to do with the cool morning breeze. She’s almost at the guardian’s tree now, and she’ll have to walk right past it to get to the blackberry bushes. It’s not dangerous. It shouldn’t be frightening. The tree itself is an ancient nutmeg-yew, uncommon but not exactly rare. An ordinary tree. Just like the spirit who lies beneath it appears to be an ordinary boy. But the roots that twist around him, over him, under him—Sani doesn’t like to think about that. Doesn’t like to think about how every year’s winter buries him in snow and ice, only for spring to leave him looking as peaceful as ever before, the soft rise and fall of his chest visible to anyone who pauses long enough to look. The guardian spirit has lain trapped beneath his tree for longer than anyone in the village can remember. Some stories say that he’s an evil spirit, bound there. Other stories say he’s a god. Sani’s father always said that the truth probably lay somewhere in the middle, and he warned Sani never to get too close—and to always leave an offering, just in case.
She rounds the bend in the trail in time to see a beam of sunlight catch the spirit’s face at just the right angle. Dewdrops cover his soft skin and his dandelion-yellow hair, and they sparkle like diamonds. Sani almost wants to step off the trail and reach out and touch him, but she holds herself back. Instead, she bows toward the spirit and pulls a riceball out of her basket, setting it on the ground near the tree as an offering. Of course it’ll just get eaten by bugs, or maybe squirrels, but it would be bad not to leave anything at all. That taken care of, Sani steps back. A shadow shifts, and the guardian’s face loses its ethereal cast, taking on a colder, haunting shadow. Quickly, Sani turns away and races ahead along the trail and doesn’t look back.
The morning sun is finally starting to warm up, and Sani's basket of berries is half-full, when she hears a voice calling out. Echoes carry it back and forth across the valley and she can't make out any words, but it's definitely a human voice, not a bird or animal. Has her father come searching for her? Sani scrambles up the hill back onto the trail, scratching herself a little on blackberry prickles as she climbs.
“Hello?” the voice calls out again. “Someone’s there, right?” No, that isn’t her father. It doesn’t sound like anyone Sani knows. She keeps to the shadows and inches along the trail. A stranger visiting the village could be exciting, but might also be dangerous. “If I could get…a little help…?”
Sani blinks. “Did you fall and hurt yourself?” she calls, looking around. She’s almost past the guardian’s tree now, which means she’s not that far from the village; she could probably help someone walk that far. “Where are you? I don’t see anyone.”
The voice is right behind her. Slowly, Sani turns around. There, still lying beneath his tree, still wrapped in roots and vines and covered in a thin blanket of last year’s—maybe many years’—fallen leaves, the forest’s guardian spirit looks up at her with wide, bright eyes.
“Aaah!” Sani jumps, falling backwards over a fallen branch behind her, spilling most of her basket.
“Sorry, sorry! Zeno didn’t mean to scare you!” Slowly, shakily, Sani stands up, but she doesn’t step any closer. “Looks like a big tree branch fell, it’s got Zeno pinned down real good! If you could just help shift it…”
Sani bows to the boy and his tree again. “Guardian spirit of the forest—” She remembers one particular story about the forest guardian. “Are—are you trying to trick me into taking your place?”
“…huh?” The spirit blinks. And Sani doesn’t think he’s acting. He really looks confused. “Guardian…?”
Sani takes a deep breath and darts across the trail. “It’s not a tree branch,” she says, brushing away the layer of leaves and dirt so that the boy—the spirit—can see for himself. Hastily she steps back out of reach.
The spirit shifts his head a little—only a little, as the roots that grow around him allow for hardly any movement—and his eyes widen. He tenses within the confines of his prison and his breathing comes faster. He’s trying to move, frantic, but all he can do is twitch beneath the tight coils of the ancient tree. Sani stares in horrified fascination.
Finally, he closes his eyes and takes a few deep breaths. When he opens his eyes again, he seems perfectly calm. “Ah, Zeno must have been asleep for a long time.” He sighs. “It’s a good thing you were close by! Zeno saw that riceball, and thought maybe there was someone close enough to hear. Did the miss drop it?”
“That…it was your offering…”
The spirit closes his eyes. “That thing you called Zeno. Guardian spirit. Zeno isn’t…that.”
Sani takes another step back, shaking. “Then…then you are an evil spirit.”
“Well, one thing Zeno is, is hungry! If that riceball is for Zeno, could the miss hand it a little closer?”
She shouldn’t get that close. But the riceball is his offering, and keeping it from him could be even worse. And she was right next to him just a minute ago, and nothing bad happened. She steps closer, bending down to pick up the riceball. “It’s dirty,” she begins, but the spirit doesn’t object. Sani holds it out, then realizes that she’s going to have to actually feed it to him. His arms are pinned in place. And it’s hard to believe he’s an evil spirit trying to trick her when she’s watching him spill bits of rice down his face as he bites off messy pieces. Somehow, she gets the impression he’d be a messy eater even with hands and utensils. “Um,” she says when he’s finished. “Would you like some blackberries too?”
The whole time the spirit eats, Sani studies the network of roots covering him. Here and there bits of thread peek out from under them, remnants of fabric long since worn away by the weather. A glint of gold catches her eye, too: a necklace she never noticed before, its chain tangled but surprisingly unbroken. The medallion itself is half buried beneath the biggest root. Wider than her leg, that root presses against the side of the spirit's head and crosses his chest and stomach from shoulder to hip. “I don’t think I can get you out,” Sani confesses, when the spirit, his face dripping with purple juice, has eaten the last berry.
“It’s a problem,” the spirit agrees. “But Zeno’s been in worse spots!”
Sani stands up. She’s decided. Setting the spirit free won’t be bad. Won’t be dangerous. “I’ll go get Father’s axe,” she says.
“Ah, wait—” the spirit calls after her, but she’s already running back down the trail towards the village.
After what she saw in the woods, Father's workshop seems far too normal. The forest guardian woke up! How can Father go about his day like nothing's different? He's talking to a customer—the village mayor, actually, who Father is going to build a new house for—which means that he just might be distracted enough that Sani can grab his axe while he's not looking. She tiptoes across the dusty room. The big axe is heavier than she thought! Maybe she should take the little hatchet instead. Or a saw? No, it would take forever to cut through those big roots with those!
But as Sani lifts the axe down from the wall, she loses her balance and drops it. She jumps back as it falls to the ground with a thud. “Sani, what are you doing?” her father turns to ask her.
“Nothing!” He only looks at her. “I—I need this.”
“What possibly for?” the mayor asks.
Father sighs. “Really, Sani, what for? If it's a project you want to make, we can work on it together in the evening. But you should be helping your mother right now.”
“It's not that!”
“Sani…” There's a warning note to his voice now.
“The forest guardian woke up!”
Father blinks. “…what?”
“I know I'm not supposed to go that far in the woods by myself but the blackberries are ripe so I did, and the forest guardian, he's awake, only he's still stuck in his tree and…and I was going to cut him out,” she finishes.
Father and the mayor give each other a look. “Your daughter has quite the imagination,” the mayor says.
“She wouldn't make up a story like this,” Father says, before Sani has a chance to protest. “We’ll go investigate,” he says. “Sani, wait here.”
Everyone in the village knows the path to the guardian’s tree; Sani doesn’t need to show them the way. But she follows anyway, and when they get there, the spirit doesn’t look at all surprised to see the two men. “Hello there!” he greets them. It’s hard to remember how peaceful he looked when he was asleep. Awake, the reclining pose he’s forced to keep looks awkward and uncomfortable.
The mayor makes the sign against the evil eye. Father just looks at the spirit for a long time. “We know you’re not human,” he finally says.
“That’s right,” the spirit admits.
“You’re a monster,” says the mayor. “A demon! I don’t know what you said to young Sani that she would try to set you free!” It’s only then that Sani realizes neither her father nor the mayor brought anything that could cut through the roots that bind the spirit in place. Maybe the spirit expected that—his left hand is free now, and there are scratches in the ground and fresh dirt all around it. But Sani doesn't think he'll be able to dig his whole body free the way he got his hand out.
“I don’t understand,” she says. “Why shouldn’t we free him?”
Father takes her hand. “Sani,” he says. “Don’t be fooled by appearances. It may look helpless, but a spirit like this is powerful.” Sani glances down at his free hand again. Is that really true? “Setting it free would put everyone in the village in danger.”
“Look, Sani. The tree itself has bound him here. A creature like this goes against nature, and even the forest knows it.”
“I…” Sani thinks back to the uneasy feeling she’d always gotten whenever she walked past the guardian’s tree before. Were the spirit’s smile and cheerful words just a trick after all? But he was so happy just to eat a few blackberries!
“Zeno can’t even say you’re wrong,” says the spirit. “But I won’t hurt your village, or anyone else. I swear it. Zeno doesn’t even know where your village is!”
The mayor shakes his head. “We cannot set you free.”
“Ah, that’s what Zeno guessed.” He looks past the two men and into Sani’s eyes. “It’s okay! This tree watched over Zeno for a long time, so it would be a shame to hurt it just to get Zeno out. But things will turn out alright in the end!”
Father turns his back before the spirit finishes speaking. He grabs Sani by the hand, pulling her away, and Sani casts one final glance back at the spirit before she’s forced to follow. The spirit is smiling, but his eyes are scared and afraid.
When they get home, the mayor forbids anyone from approaching the guardian's tree. From even entering the forest. Sani doesn’t understand. Father and the mayor should know what they’re talking about, so if they say the spirit is dangerous…but Sani is scared for him, not of him. That night when she goes to bed, she twists herself up in her blanket and holds as still as she can and tries to imagine what it's like to be held so tight, but she can't do it. She squirms free of the blanket and cries herself to sleep.
The next morning is gray and cloudy, and whispers follow her throughout the day. “I heard you spoke to the forest guardian,” her father’s apprentice, Dae-won says. “Is that true? You’re braver than I thought!” He’s two years older than her and has always treated her like a child, up until now.
“It wasn’t like that,” says Sani. “He wasn’t trying to do anything bad.” She doesn’t think.
“Still,” says Dae-won.
“It was easy to talk to him,” says Sani. “He was nice!” She doesn’t want to think that was a trick. “I don’t know why everyone’s so sure he wants to hurt the village. He was friendly, he really was! I want to go back and see him again,” she confesses.
Dae-won looks away. “Sani,” he says. “The mayor…probably has a good reason to think he’d want to hurt us.”
“…Dae-won? Do you know what it is?”
“Maybe it’s ‘cause you’re only twelve…no one ever dared you?”
“Dared me to what?”
“To try to wake the guardian up.”
“No…” Sani pauses. She thinks about everything the spirit must have slept through, rain and thunder and freezing cold and who knows what wild animals. “But it never worked, right?”
“That’s just it,” says Dae-won. “ Nothing worked.”
It takes a moment for Sani to understand what he means. “Dae-won—you didn’t hurt him, did you?”
“I just poked him with a stick a little!” He pauses. “Garan used a knife. And he bled but then it was like he’d never been cut at all. I don’t know what else…how far back…I mean, all the boys do it.” Sani takes a step back. She wants to ask how could you? but she remembers the mix of fear and fascination she’d once felt—still feels?—towards the sleeping guardian and she wonders, if a friend had dared her—what would she have done?
“They're scared of what he'll do in return,” she realizes. The offerings Father always insisted they leave…were they an apology? “It's not fair! They're punishing him for something they did!”
“It’s not like they mean it as a punishment,” Dae-won says. “They’re just being careful, just until he falls asleep again. Then it won’t matter anymore.”
“What if…what if I dared you to help me free him?”
Dae-won lifts his hands in protest. “No way,” he says. “No way.”
“Coward.” Sani makes to leave, the turns back around to shout “you’re just as bad as them!” before she storms away.
That night, she takes Father’s hatchet (after admitting the axe was too heavy after all) and sneaks out into the woods by herself. She’s never been this way in the dark before—that’s always been against the rules too, dangerous for practical reasons that actually made sense. But the clouds that darkened the day are gone now, and the moon is nearly full, and it’s not hard to find her way. “Guardian spirit!” she whispers as she gets closer. She’s not sure why she’s whispering.
“Zeno’s still here!”
She jumps again, still startled by his voice. “I came to get you out!” she says. By now the spirit has dug both hands free, but that’s as far as he’s come. He can’t bend his arms enough to dig any further. She lifts the hatchet, about to start chopping some of the smaller roots, when the spirit raises his voice to stop her.
“No, wait!” he says. “Zeno meant it, yesterday. If you cut through all these roots, the tree would probably die.”
“It’s only a tree…” Sani frowns. “Or is it? Is it a spirit too?”
“Hah! It’s only a tree! But it was Zeno’s home for a long time, right?”
“Well…you could cut it down and build a house and then it would still be your home!”
“Ah, you’re clever!” says the spirit. “But also…this tree is probably older than Zeno, so Zeno wants it to stick around.”
“Then how do I set you free?”
The spirit casts a hard look at Sani’s hatchet and she thinks maybe he's reconsidering. “Ah, no, Zeno can't ask you to do that.” He sighs. “It'll take a while, but Zeno’s sure to get out eventually.”
“I guess I could help you dig, too…” says Sani. She kneels down beside the spirit and starts working at the dirt underneath his arm, loosening it with the back end of the hatchet's head.
“Say, did the miss bring anything to eat?” the spirit asks as she works.
Sani gasps. “I forgot an offering! I'll bring plenty of food next time!”
“Maybe the miss can bring a blanket, too,” the spirit suggests. “It's pretty chilly out here at night!”
“Well, maybe the miss isn't cold because she's working hard!”
“No, I mean…you were covered in snow every winter…”
“…oh.” The spirit falls silent, and Sani returns to her work. She thinks that if she can just pry a little more dirt out, make a little more space, he'll be able to free his whole arm. Then the hatchet slips in her fingers and the blade cuts a deep gash just below the spirit’s shoulder. He yells, startled, and warm, sticky blood wells up beneath Sani’s fingers.
“I’m sorry!” She jerks back and drops the hatchet, but as she stares at the bloody gash, it closes up on its own. Just like Dae-won said. She keeps staring. Finally, far too late, she asks “are you alright?”
He nods, staring at her like he's waiting for something else. Then, finally, he looks up at the sky. “The moon’s setting soon,” he says. “Miss should probably go home before it’s dark!”
“Oh! Let me just—” A little more digging, finishing what she’d started before…that…happened, and the spirit’s arm is free. “Now you can do more yourself.” She still doesn't really think he can dig himself out. The really big root isn't holding him against the ground, but against the tree trunk. But even so, with one arm free he doesn't have to hold so still. Right away he reaches for his golden necklace, closing his eyes and taking deep breaths as he grips it tight. “Um…I'll come back tomorrow night,” says Sani.
The spirit looks up at her. “Leave that hatchet here,” he says. “Then Zeno can get more done.”
It’s true. With a tool, he could do a lot more than with just his hands. She wishes she could, but she shakes her head. “Father would notice if it was missing. Sorry! But I promise I'll come back!”
Sani stumbles through the next day half asleep, waiting for night to come again. She goes to bed and closes her eyes and pretends to be asleep until her parents have gone to sleep too—but when she opens her eyes again, it's morning. Will the forest guardian think she forgot about him? She gathers up as much extra food as she can sneak away, to make up for both the forgotten offering and her absence. In the afternoon, as she helps Mother chop firewood with that same hatchet, she thinks about how much easier it would be if the spirit just let her chop through those tree roots. She could free him all in one night! And…it’s not like he could exactly stop her from doing it. But she doesn’t want him to be mad at her when he’s free.
“The miss came back!” As far as Sani can tell, the only progress the spirit has made in the past two days is to untangle all the roots and vines from his face, so that he can turn and lift his head however he wants. She thinks she'd want to be able to look around, too. “Zeno thought maybe the miss got in trouble.”
“No, I just…”
“Or…or was scared to come back.”
“I wasn't scared the first time!” Sani protests.
“Well…” The spirit looks down at his shoulder, at the place where Sani cut him by accident.
“I already knew about that,” Sani confesses. “My friend said—” No. If she tells him—but he's looking at her expectantly, and she has to go on. “My friend said it was a game that older kids played. To try and wake you up.”
The spirit closes his eyes for a long time. Sani can't tell what he's thinking. “Please! Don't hurt the village!” she begs. “They didn't mean—” His hand grabs hers. Sani freezes. She didn't realize he could move that far, or that she'd come so close.
“Your village is safe,” says the spirit. He looks up at her and smiles. “Yep! It's better if Zeno stays away from people, right?”
“I—I brought you an offering this time. Dumplings. And apples! Oh, and a blanket, too!” She sets the basket of dumplings where the spirit can reach them, sets the blanket aside for now, and gets to work. But there's not much more digging to be done. Roots have spread out under him, too, and getting the dirt out won't pry their wooden grip apart. “I'm going to have to cut them,” Sani says. “Or you'll be stuck here forever.”
He reaches for her again, a gentle touch. “Miss, I promise. Nothing is forever except Zeno himself.”
Sani looks away. “Father and the mayor and everyone else hope you’ll just go back to sleep.”
“Ah…probably not. Zeno doesn’t think he’ll sleep like that again.”
“How did it happen?” Sani can’t keep back her curiosity. “Were you cursed? Did someone bind you to the tree?” She casts a curious glance at that golden necklace, which lasted all those years unscathed. Does it hold some kind of power?
“No…Zeno just felt like taking a nap. Miss, have you ever wanted to lie down and just never move again?”
She inches back. He won’t let her cut the roots, but he’s sure he’ll get out eventually. Is he trying to trick her into taking his place after all? “No,” she says. “I don’t want to do that.”
“Zeno doesn’t either, not anymore.”
“Zeno’s sure he’ll wriggle out eventually!”
“Even if—even if I can’t do any more to help, I’ll bring offerings every night until you’re free!”
“The miss is so cute! But clouds are coming in, best to get back home before it starts to rain.”
Sani glances up at the sky. The moon is shadowed and nearly invisible. “Right!”
“Ah…maybe this time the miss can leave the hatchet?”
“There’s nothing you could do with it anyway,” Sani says, shaking her head. “And if Father finds out I came, he’ll never let me come back.”
As Sani makes her way back down the trail, she wonders if she really can come out here every night. It might be a long time until the spirit agrees to let her chop through the roots—if he ever does at all. He lay sleeping for maybe a hundred years and didn’t even know it—so maybe waiting like that won’t bother him? But even if her parents never learn she’s sneaking out at night, winter will come eventually. With the snows, the trail is nearly impassable, and if the spirit is still here…he’ll be buried in it again and he won’t sleep through it this time, he said so himself. She squeezes her eyes shut to hold back the tears threatening to flow. If that happens, if it comes to that time, she’ll set him free no matter what he says!
As she opens her eyes again, she pauses as a shadow shifts in the woods ahead of her. The forest guardian is safe and friendly, but that doesn’t mean the forest itself isn’t dangerous. But it goes still, and she takes another step, holding the little hatchet out in front of her. Casting her eyes around the darkness to see if there’s a fallen branch she can wield. It was nothing, she tells herself. Just a shifting cloud.
Then the moon cuts through the darkness and two eyes shine back at her. A scream escapes Sani’s lips. Mountain cats don’t come this close to the village—but men haven’t been hunting in the woods for days now. Maybe one grew bold.
It’s between her and home. Slowly, Sani takes a step backwards. The eyes watch her. Grow closer. She turns and runs and doesn’t stop until she comes to the guardian’s tree.
“Miss!” the spirit calls, as Sani falls to her knees in front of him. “I heard you scream, and I couldn't—”
“There’s—a mountain cat—” She dares to glance back, and sees nothing. But she knows she didn't outrun it. It’s playing with her. You can't outrun a mountain cat.
“Miss,” says the spirit. “I can protect you, but you'll have to help me.”
“The roots—” she begins.
“No time. Now give me your hatchet, and don't look away.” She holds it out and before she can question him he brings it down, not on the thick roots binding him but on his own leg. Sani screams. Another sharp chop and a jerk of his leg and it pulls free, because his foot—because his foot, on the other side of the tight twist of roots, is cut off and spilling blood and—
Don't look away, the spirit said, and Sani wants to but she can’t, and as she stares, the dark night hiding far too little, tendrils of flesh reach out across his ankle, knitting back together. “I'm fine, see? Miss?” Sani realizes she's crying. “Miss, I need you to do the rest,” says the spirit. “I can't reach.”
The undergrowth rustles in the distance. “Miss, do it quickly,” the spirit urges.
Gingerly, Sani takes the hatchet. Lifts it. Swings it down toward the spirit’s shoulder and squeezes her eyes tight at the last second. Afraid to look, she slowly opens them again—only to see a shallow, off-target gash already closing back up. The spirit makes no sound, but he doesn’t hide the pained look on his face, either. Then all that’s left are the warm droplets trailing down Sani’s fingers.
She understands. If she doesn’t do this fast, it’s worse than doing nothing at all. Sani knows how to wield the little hatchet, has known since she was small, working at her father's side. Swing, chop. Swing, chop. But this is a person. She's killing someone, says the blood dripping down her face, say the soft flesh and the snap of bone, nothing at all like cutting through solid wood. Then the spirit twists forward and his shoulder is free, his shoulder is whole again. He's alive. “You did good,” he says, reaching up and patting her head with a hand that moments ago lay dismembered on the ground. “Now keep going.”
Swing, chop. Swing, chop. His thigh, and she has to grab his leg by the ankle and pull to free it. Swing, chop. Swing, chop. She’s past thinking now. Swing, chop. His—his neck. He never stops looking at her. Then finally all that’s left is the great root that snakes across his chest. Swing—
“Keep going,” the spirit commands. “You’re past the worst already.”
“No, I—” She swings the hatchet again. It bounces off his chest like striking iron. His skin looks different, rough and scaled, glittering under the hint of moonlight. What have I done? What is he?
“Ah,” says the spirit. He shifts, stretches, and that great root starts to bend, and for a moment it seems like he'll push it aside as easily as grass. Then his eyes widen. “Miss, get back!” He grabs her by the wrist and pulls her past him just as the mountain cat leaps. Pain shoots up her arm as she falls to the ground. Behind her, there's a thunderous crack amidst the growls and the snarls, which turn to shrieks and squeals, and there's a crash of branches, and then—
“Miss. Miss, it’s safe now. It’s gone.” Sani tries to stand and winces at the pain. “Your arm,” the spirit says. “It’s hurt?”
She falls back to her knees and finally her sobs come freely, the only sound breaking the silence of the night. She's not crying for the pain in her arm, but for the boy trying to comfort her even after—after she—
He gently lifts her chin up to look at him, wipes the tears from her face with rough fingers. Her vision clears, and her eyes meet his. “What are you?” Sani whispers. “How are you—?”
“Better not to ask how Zeno’s still alive,” says the spirit.
“How are you smiling? ”
“Oh! It’s that Zeno was finally able to use his powers to protect someone.” He helps her to her feet, then turns to look mournfully at the tree. That great root is splintered like a twig. “Zeno should have let the miss chop it up from the start,” he says. “It’s only a tree, in the end. Better that than for the miss to carry this with her.”
This is a broken arm and a chipped hatchet and blood-drenched clothing, but it's more than that and they both know it. Sani looks down at the blood on her hands. “Don't think about that,” says the spirit. “It doesn't matter.” He reaches for the blanket—it mostly escaped the bloodbath—and drapes it over his shoulders like a cloak. Then he pulls Sani to his side, supporting her weight easily. “Come on, Miss,” he says. “Let's get you home.”
The sun has just crested the horizon as they leave the forest behind, and as Sani glances up at the spirit’s face, his fading scales catch the light, looking so much like the dewdrops that rested on his skin only days ago. A lifetime ago. Below, commotion fills the village.
“They're looking for you,” says the spirit. “Can you make it from here on your own?”
“No!” She holds on tight with her good hand, panicked at the thought that he’ll leave before she can—before she can what? Make things right?
“Miss, it's a bad idea for Zeno to come to your village.”
“But—I can find you real clothes, and food, and…” It won’t happen. They both know that. “Where will you go?” she asks.
“…north, maybe. It’s been a long time…” He laughs. “It’s been a long time since Zeno was anywhere!”
The spirit stays by her side as they keep walking. Then there are shouts below, and running, and her father stands before them on the path. The spirit stiffens. Father is holding his big axe. “What have you done to my daughter, you monster?” He lunges at them, and the spirit’s scales are gone, and Sani knows all too well what that axe will do.
“Stop! Don’t hurt him!” Then she freezes. Looks down at her hands, still caked with dried blood. Don’t hurt him. “He—a mountain cat attacked me, and he saved my life,” she says. “He’s not a monster,” she says. “I’m the—”
She hears the spirit’s sharp intake of breath beside her. Father has lowered his axe and is reaching out to her, and she runs to him, then turns back to look at the spirit. He’s smiling at her, but he still looks sad. “Mister, your daughter is a very brave girl,” he says. “A good girl. She hasn’t done anything that anyone should punish her for. Miss,” he says, “you set me free. So, because of that…” He pauses, like he’s trying to decide if he should say something or not. “Because of that, Zeno will be on his way!” Then he bows to them both, turns, and walks back up the trail until his bright golden hair is once more lost in the darkness of the woods.
Had the guardian of the forest ever returned to Sani’s village, he would not have found her there. It’s not her home anymore, it can’t be, and after a few more years of pretending it is, she leaves. She heads north.
Zeno does return though, eventually—after all, he returns everywhere eventually. A hundred years later no one remembers him, and the villagers hang white ribbons from a dead tree and tell tales of the heroic maiden who banished the evil spirit of the forest. Two hundred years later, they still tell that story, though the tree and the whole forest have been cut down and turned into farmland. Five hundred years later, the village and all its stories are gone.