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By E.J. Robison
Marilia stared at the beast in front of her, knowing that she had to make peace with it.
Something deep and innate within her trembled at the thought of this thing, this amalgamation of metal and coal that was altogether wrong amid the soft green grass underfoot and the vibrant green trees all around.
She tried not to think about how many of her sisters had been felled to make way for this monstrous contraption. Dormant though they may have been, they had still been alive, and that life had been snuffed out for the sake of “progress.” It made Marilia’s stomach churn to even think of creeping into the monster’s depths with its bloody history written on every inch of it.
And yet, she had to.
Suddenly, Marilia’s hand stung. She looked down and realized that she’d rubbed the bark off the knuckles of one hand as she’d worked her thumb back and forth in anxiety. She let her hands drop instantly and clenched them into fists so she couldn’t accidentally harm herself further.
“Last call for boarding!” A dwarf waved his hand from the front of the train. Steam hissed and curled above the machine like a great dragon awakening from slumber.
Marilia had never liked dragons.
“Be brave,” she whispered. She forced herself to take one step, and then another. In a moment, her feet touched the cold, hard surface of the beast. Her soul knew that she was inside of something that shouldn’t exist by the natural laws of Creation.
The train lurched, nearly causing Marilia to fall right back off. Once she regained her balance, she skittered into an empty compartment and shut the door, curling into the furthest corner of a bench closest to a wide window. At least that way, she could remember that nature was right outside, so close she could nearly touch it.
Slowly, the beast crawled forward little by little. Just as it started to pick up real speed, the door to Marilia’s compartment opened. She jumped and turned to see who had disturbed her solitude. The awaiting old man was clearly a wizard with his long dark robe, grey beard, and expertly carved staff, but he fell into the bench opposite her with all the grace of an ogre—which was to say, none at all. His oversized pointed hat fell sideways on his head and he didn’t care to straighten it, though it covered his eyes as he settled down.
Marilia clenched her fists even tighter as she resisted the urge to run out, jump off the train, and hope for the best. Being on this thing was bad enough, but to have a stranger sitting opposite her? This might as well be her own personal hell.
“Good morning,” the old man said with a voice that sounded too cheery for a wizard.
Marilia forced her gaze away from the window to meet the wizard’s eyes as a proper greeting would require. However, she couldn’t hope to find them, as they were still lost within the shadow of his hat. She looked where she thought his eyes might be and replied, in a whisper no louder than a gentle gust of wind, “Good morning.” Marilia quickly averted her gaze back to the window and let out a silent sigh.
“What brings you here on a fine day like this?”
Marilia had to consciously keep herself from scratching her arms, which would only chip off more bark. “My sister is sick,” she forced out, glancing back at the man. “This is the fastest way to get to her.”
The wizard let out a long hmmmmm, and Marilia wasn’t quite sure what that meant, especially as the man remained silent afterward.
“Rot?” he asked eventually.
The single word nearly made Marilia’s heart stop. All she could do was nod mutely. How had he known?
“Hmmmmm.” He opened up his robe and stuck his hand into an inner pocket. For a moment, Marilia forgot about her troubles and worries as first his hand disappeared, then his wrist, then his whole arm! She’d never heard of enchanted pockets before; the notion was all too silly for a wizard.
With his free hand, the old man finally pushed his hat further up on his head. Marilia got a glimpse of frizzled grey eyebrows as he continued to dig deeper into his pocket, mumbling unintelligibly to himself. Finally, he exclaimed, “Aha!” and pulled a tiny glass vial no bigger than Marilia’s pinky out from the pocket. He extended it toward Marilia, finally looking at her with bright blue eyes.
“Here, take it. Rot is all too common among dryads where I come from; a few drops around the roots will do, but keep the rest in case of further emergencies.”
Marilia couldn’t hope to speak, let alone move. A wizard, offering her free medicine? And so much of it?
“I— I have no money…”
The wizard held up a hand. “I don’t recall that I asked for any. It’s a gift.”
Tears pricked Marilia’s eyes. She’d woken up today thinking she’d go to watch her sister wither away and perish, and now, impossibly, here was salvation right within her grasp.
The leaves in Marilia’s hair trembled as she reached out to take the vial. “Sir,” she choked, “I don’t know how to repay you.”
“You overcame great fear, and probably much anger as well, to climb aboard this train, all just to comfort someone you love.” He smiled, making his eyes crinkle at the corners. “Never lose that determination; that is payment enough.” The wizard’s smile faded and his eyes shone with the light of things yet to come. “It will be useful to you one day, when the time comes to stand for your sisters who fell to bring about this machine.” He thumped his staff hard on the ground, and for a moment, Marilia felt that he hated the train just as much as she did.
Courage surged through Marilia. She had conquered this beast, but there were hundreds more—and who was to say that she couldn’t conquer them, too?
Finally, she met the wizard’s eyes without fear and nodded resolutely. “When the time comes, I will stand.”