The forest grew quiet when the two-legs came.
That was the way of it, always, and Gull - who had seen more than a hundred and fifty winters - knew this quiet was because the young ones were terrified that any noise they made might jinx them, might make them the unlucky member of the Folk this year.
Gull had been the same, all those winters ago, when he had still been slight and pretty enough that he might have made a good prize.
Now he was old and gnarled, and the two-legs barely seemed to see him.
Down the track a little way from him, Gull could feel Lil swaying and trembling, her small, delicate branches restless and terrified.
Well, better her than me, Gull thought. After all, Gull had borne his own years of fear, the winters when he had been sure the two-legs would choose him, bringing out their sharp silver teeth, then dragging him off to whatever lonely and mysterious destination awaited those unlucky members of the Folk every winter.
The two-legs were milling around now, pointing out first one of Gull’s siblings, then another. Occasionally, another two-legs would stroll past, and they would exchange that odd incantation of theirs, the one they recited every winter. Gull did not know what the incantation meant, any more than any of the Folk did. It was simply understood to mean something stark and terrifying, a symbol of the bloodshed the Folk bore witness to each year.
The Folk were thickly seeded in this corner of the forest, and whatever quality the two-legs looked for in their victims, Gull and the others seemed to have it.
One of the smaller two-legs slapped Lil excitedly with a soft, juicy meat-branch, and Gull could sense that the young tree was nearly wild with panic now.
Gull felt a stab of something then, a faint flicker that was almost pity. It wasn’t fair. Gull was something of a recluse amongst the Folk, and rarely joined in their yammering and games. The young trees irked him, with their silliness and wild ideas. They mocked him, too, though he pretended not to notice. But however much he held himself apart from the others, and however much he was grateful that it wasn’t him being chosen, it was still a shame.
Gull has seen Lil grow, watching as she had sprouted one Spring, creeping up from the damp earth with eager, excited little twitches of vegetable movement. Lil had been an impulsive, flighty sapling. She made the other trees laugh, with her funny ideas and odd, childish fancies.
Now three of the two-legs were watching while the forth unslung the long silver tooth they always brought. Gull has seen this done enough times before to know it was as good as over now.
Lil had been the unlucky one. She had been chosen. Not long now, and the sharp silver tooth would start cutting into her soft young bark.
The worst thing was, the two-legs wouldn’t even be able to hear Lil’s screams. Whatever odd things their meaty minds could sense, it did not extend to being able to perceive anything the Folk said. Not even when they screamed.
“No, don’t!” Pleaded Lil at last, breaking the tense silence which had hung over the forest.
It did no good, of course. The silver tooth was soon sawing back and forth, biting deeper and deeper into Lil’s soft flesh. She let out a high, desperate wail.
“Please!” She cried again. “Please, please, please!”
Gull’s branches shook involuntarily. sending a tremor shimmering up, up, up, until every last pine needle seemed to quiver with the horror of it.
Why couldn’t Lil see that this wouldn’t do any good? The Folk had their ways and rules, and chief amongst these was never to waste time or energy trying to talk to a two-legs. It was worse than pointless. If you fell under the spell of thinking they were rational, listening creatures, then what did that lead to? Any creature that could see the terrible pain they inflicted, yet did so anyway...it didn’t bear thinking about.
Far away, as if from a great distance, Gull heard someone whispering something to him. Something was tapping at the thick bark near the bottom of his trunk.
Gull floundered for the tapping, suddenly desperate for something, for any distraction to pull his attention away from Lil’s piteous screams.
It was a two-legs. The smallest two-legs of the little group, so slight and young in fact that Gull hadn’t noticed it until now. There was something odd about this one, though Gull couldn’t have said what exactly. The way it stood, maybe; or perhaps something in the way it juddered its untethered roots, and flapped one of its meat-branches, a tight, controlled fluttering.
All of Gull’s pent up rage and fear and frustration abruptly had a focus, and his branches quivered with anger as he peered at the little creature.
“Oh, won’t you run away, you vile thing!” Gull told it. “Aren’t you satisfied with the damage you’ve done us already?”
He wasn’t expecting an answer, of course. Two-legs never responded to the Folk; to say anything to them was to waste your sap.
But to Gull’s enormous astonishment, the two-legs stopped tapping at once, and answered him.
“I said, can’t you make them stop?” Said the two-legs, and as it spoke, Gull realised that the two-legs had indeed said something of this sort, though Gull had been too distracted by Lil’s screams to pay much attention.
Gull wasn’t sure if he was more surprised by the fact the two-legs had spoken to him, or by the notion that he might be able to make the others stop.
“Me?” He finally managed. “How could I possibly make them do that?”
“Well, you’re a grown-up, aren’t you?” Said the little two-legs, and Gull realised that the creature who was speaking to him must be a young one, a sapling. He found it very difficult to distinguish between two-legs, but he supposed this one was rather small, even for the stunted, diminutive creatures.
“But...but you’re one of them,” Gull spluttered. “How could I make them stop if you can’t?”
“They never listen to me,” said the two-legs. Then it lifted its meat-branches up and rammed them to either side of the highest point of its trunk. “Oh, please make them stop! It’s so horrible!”
Lil’s wailing was indeed horrible, so loud and terrified that Gull was sure even Folk on the far side of the forest would be aware of it.
Part of Gull knew he shouldn’t be talking to the two-legs, knew that it was worse than pointless. But he was answering almost before he had decided to, because a larger part of him wanted more than anything to stop Lil’s screaming; and despite everything, despite all his previous experience, he felt a sudden, desperate hope.
“Tell them to take me,” he said, then stopped short.
Where had that come from?
He should call that back. He didn’t really mean that, he’d managed to get through those early, vulnerable winters; why would he try to undo that now?
“What?” Asked the two-legs.
But instead of calling the words back, Gull repeated them.
“Tell them to take me,” he said.
The two-legs were continuing to sink their silver tooth into Lil’s soft trunk. They were maybe a third of the way through now; a grievous wound, but not too late. Not quite.
“But...but won’t that just hurt you, instead?” Asked the small two-legs slowly. “Won’t you scream just as loud? I can’t stand the screaming. No one else can hear it. They all think I’m being silly, but I’m not! I hate it.”
“I won’t scream,” Gull found himself promising.
“You won’t?” The two-legs asked.
“I’m the oldest here,” Gull went on, forcing the words out quickly before he could change his mind. “I’ve seen the most. I’m the most splendid. There’s the most...the most honour in me. Tell them that.”
The small two-legs looked at him silently for a moment.
“You?” It asked doubtfully. “You’re a bit...well, big. You wouldn’t fit in the house.”
That puzzled him, but he didn’t dwell on it.
“Just my top, then,” he told it urgently. “Just take whatever bit of me would fit.”
The two-legs looked at him doubtfully for a moment, then said something to its fellows. Gull couldn’t understand what the little two-legs was saying - in fact, it was only at this moment that he realised their previous conversation had not be out loud at all, but rather in some kind of internal dialogue that had flowed between them like water dripping between leaves. But he got the impression that the small two-legs was indeed saying the group should take him instead of Lil.
They stopped sawing their horrible silver tooth back and forth, listening. They seemed unmoved at first, and Gull felt a curious sensation, half utter relief, half crushing disappointment.
Then the little two-legs said something else, and the others seemed to reluctantly agree. They stepped away from the quivering, terrified Lil, leaving sap pulsing gently from the cruel tear they had made in her bark. Gull thought about changing his mind, about telling the small two-legs that he had been wrong, but it was too late for that.
He had made his choice.
The small creatures swarmed up his limbs, gripping onto him with their odd, hyper-mobile meat branches. He saw the silver tooth glint in the cold moonlight, and barely had a moment to prepare for the pain before it was biting into him, cleaving through the ancient substances of his body.
All around him, others of the Folk watched as the the two-legs went to work on Gull. He could sense revulsion in their regard, and terror that it might one day happen to them. Yet he sensed something else too, something he had never before received from his kin in all the long years they had grown and thrived next to one another.
Respect, and love. For the choice he had made. For the way he had re-directed the two-legs’ ire, saving Lil and dooming himself.
The tooth bit one last time, and the world tilted crazily around Gull as he came crashing down. There was no pain anymore, just a spreading coldness from the place the tooth had cut him.
“Thank you,” he heard Lil whisper. “I’ll remember you. We all will. Always.”
Gull felt the ground scratch under him as the two-legs grasped him, dragging him away from the lands he had known all his long life.
As the final darkness descended, as the last drops of life bled out of him, Gull heard the two-legs utter their odd, ritualistic refrain, that little incantation they made to one another every winter when they came to slay The Folk.
Listening to it now, Gull felt a strange peace come over him, and he heard those sinister words echo in the dim chambers of his own dying mind. But they did not seem so sinister anymore; and as the last drop of life leeched from him, he repeated the incantation aloud in his own way, calling it out to the Folk - to his Folk, who he had sacrificed himself for, and whom he was now leaving forever - meaning it as a solemn promise and a final farewell, and a last message of love.
“Merry Christmas to you, too,” he said slowly. “A very...merry...Christmas...”