Right where the river bends around the mountain, in between sharp rocks and the stretch of green, wavy hills, a tree stands. Its trunk is thick with age, branches stretching over to one side, as if it grew trying to shelter the patch of ground beneath from the scorching sun.
Mel knows when they're close, even from underneath the scarf wrapped tight around her furless witchmother's neck. Mel can hear her quickening heartbeat where she's nestled against her chest, safely hidden from the world. Soon, though, they stop and sunlight shines over her eyes as Mother pulls the fabric apart.
"Here you go," she says and Mel jumps to the ground.
The tree is… well, old, obviously. Mel rounds it, searching for the spark of life still residing inside the wood. It's difficult, but she finds it, a barely-there whisper.
Almost gone, but holding onto the world with all its might. It wants to survive.
They must hurry, then. Mel flicks her tail, rushing to Mother, and meows her consent. This is it, this is the place.
"Are you sure?"
Mel hisses, impatience crawling in her bones, only adding to the trembling of her muscles. She can't hold on for much longer, either. If Mother doesn't agree, they'd need to find something else, and by then it might be too late.
Mel's power would take Mother instead. She found Mel as a tiny kitten, fed her, kept her warm, told her stories. Mel doesn't want her to suffer for helping.
She bats a paw at Mother's leg.
"Fine, fine, I get it. Hold on."
The candles come out, the herbs and the tiny bowl in which they'll be crushed.
Not long after, Mother chants, sprinkling the powder over the flames. The tension in Mel's limbs fades little by little, until she can curl up between the roots sticking out of the ground like tendrils of another universe.
In a way, it is. A different world. Will be, a different life.
She lets out a long breath, the last for a while, and closes her eyes.
Moonlight shines gray over the land, cast down from between branches. The wind carries shuffling sounds of green leaves swaying, and Mel's ears twitch. The gentle fingers smoothing the fur on her head and back stop as she yawns. Mel growls a bit, showing displeasure, but Mother laughs. She's petting Mel again, so it doesn't matter.
The bark of the tree creaks with another yawn.
"Well, hello there," Mother says. "I hope you don't mind we barged in on you."
The wooden face leaning out from the tree looks a lot like Mother's, and Mel blinks with satisfaction.
The lady of the tree stretches her arms, her back, and her legs as she steps fully out. With awe, she inspects her limbs one by one. Then she looks up, at the new life blooming in the tree.
"I thought my days were counted," she whispers, gravelly and gritty, like branches against each other. "Thank you."
Mel tucks her front paws under herself better, and rests her head down. She could use another nap. Mother's voice drifts in the air above, talking to their new friend about names, and magic, and how to protect against dangers. What it means to be born in this world.
With a sigh, Mel closes her eyes. The power inside her has quieted, even though another spark has already started swirling behind her ribs. When she's older, she'll be able to take Mother with her to visit the worlds growing within herself, hold on to more than one at a time. For now, though, all she can do is gift them and wait. They're safe.