Cord leads me along the wide river on the valley floor. As we near the end of town, a piercing ring makes me jump, and at first I think it's thunder rippling across the valley. But unlike the boom and shake of a storm, this cacophony doesn't stop and start. It's a constant hum of machinery becoming so loud I have to cover my ears. Cord gestures for me to crouch next to him where we are close but hidden in the tall shrubs, rushes and grasses.

At the center of the noise are two creatures as wide as Aspen. They could be giant versions of tribesmen, except for the bland colors they wear and the protruding bulges at their stomachs. Helmets cover their heads and goggles make their eyes even bigger. They shout in deep voices, directing the slaughtering of the pile of Aspen bodies. Each black and white trunk is lifted onto a conveyor belt and shoved towards a menacing saw. Once it hits, a shrill cry emits from the trunk until the slicing is over. I can't watch.

"Wasters," Cord says.

This is the species we've been taught is our God?

He doesn't seem to be bothered by the slaughter; must be the advantage of growing up in a family of healers. He's focused on the corpses as the Wasters lift them onto the belt. Next in line is the widest trunk of them all. Could it be the one we're looking for, the one that holds the Rings of Memory to save Mom?

"There it is." He points to the same trunk. "I'm going to tap into the rings from underneath."

"But they'll see you and then they'll try to decapit – I mean, it's not safe."

"I can do it, with your help." He wipes a stray piece of fuchsia hair from my eyes and holds it. I lean in and we stay like that for a moment, drinking in the possibility of the kiss I want but know there isn't time for.

Cord reaches in his pocket for the vial. "Now, you need to distract them while I get down there."

"And how am I supposed to do that?" He's the only one I want to distract and I reach for his collar and tug him closer for that kiss.

But he's on to me before I can have it. "Save it for after when we celebrate your mom's survival. Use the water and call a Trout; they'll help by splashing the Wasters close to the water and get them to go for the bait. There's not much Waster males love more than easy fishing. That's when I'll run under the saw."

"That sounds too risky." I sneak a hand under his collar. His skin is silky and warm and, despite the horror in front of us, I want to explore this territory more. I don't care if I'm being selfish.

"I'm not afraid, Fuch. Besides, it's your safety that Burnish and I promised your dad we'd ensure."

I kiss him anyway, to give him some motivation not to get killed. He tastes so sweet, like the sun on a perfect day. I wilt into his world until he pulls away and presses his hand on my arm like a dad scolding a kid who wants more candy. "Fuch, we need to do this NOW."

I roll my eyes and bend a blade of grass onto the water to summon the Trout. Cord gets ready to move closer to the buzzing saw only a few feet away from our hideout. I cast the blade and then mend it with a wiggle to tease the Trout. Within a minute, a bubble forms in the water. "Bl-yes?"

"Please to help?" I ask.

The olive fins emit more bubbles. "Blat you to help blith?"

"To help with a decoy for Cord of Arnica tribe."

The bubbles come without hesitation. "Blas you blish." The trout gathers a posse that ripples the water in a frenzy.

The Wasters are wrestling with the largest Aspen now. One of them shouts in their loud language, staring at the foaming water where the Trout are working the crowd like a road show of wholesome but sultry country singers.

The other Waster responds by shouting back. But it's too late. The first Waster has dropped the trunk on the other one's boot and he hollers in pain. Now the shouting is even louder and the two argue as they hoist the thing on to the conveyor belt. Once that's over, they both walk to the water still arguing, until they see the size of the Trout. This is Cord's moment.

He steals across the open gravel and slips under the saw. The whirring blade is as large as Burnish's bike wheel; just seeing Cord's precious head near it makes me queasy. Cord is fumbling with the vial and tapping in. He maneuvers beneath the trunk and it seems his task must be done when he puts the vial filled with amber liquid back in his pocket.

But the trunk jostles on the belt with a mighty roll and snatches his hair. Cord tries to pull away but he's trapped by golden locks under the trunk getting closer to that menacing saw. In a matter of minutes, he will be sliced like the Aspen body parts on the other side. "Cord!" I whisper in a hoarse voice and then yell when I see the Wasters are all still standing by the water. One of them has a fishing pole already in position and is trying to catch dinner. "Cord!"

He's not answering. In the short time I've known him, I've never seen Cord panic but that is exactly the look on his face.

Time slows as I take in the situation.

I push the trunk as hard as I can, but it won't budge. I look around frantically and spy a rusted piece of metal under the limbs cut from the saw. I reach for the blade. There is no way in hell I'm going to lose him.

I position the blade in my palms and crouch next to Cord as the saw whirs in my ear. I try to slice his hair but the blade is dull. Back and forth I work the edge but his hair is too strong. "Fuchsia, get out of here!" he yells.

I ignore him and the fact that in ten seconds that saw will be ripping into the trunk he's attached to. I work the weapon at the golden locks on the belt, focusing on that and not the agonizing look on his face. A few strands of gold are cut and blowing in the breeze but there are many more still in tact.

The adrenaline rushes through me and I cut sharply, willing the rusty blade to free Cord. The trunk divides in half against the saw and emits its eerie wailing. These must be the cries of every hope and dream the tree has saved over the years, all tapped into the Rings of Memory. Mothers and children and lovers and lost tribespeople call out from the wet rip created by the saw.

The sound powers my tired blade to keep going and when the saw is an inch from my hand, several things happen at once: Cord's golden locks break their hold; a deafening ringing echoes all around as my metal tool hits the saw and then whams back at me; I duck as it shaves my ear, leaving a sting; Cord lunges at me to push us out of the way of the saw.

The Wasters must have heard the noise because they're out of their fishing stupor and heading toward us.

Cord runs to me and we tumble into the tall grasses. I hold him until I can't breathe and we are one dense mass of solid matter.

"You slayed that," he says, touching my ear. There's a deep green swab of blood on his hand.

"Nice haircut," I counter.

We run back to town where Mom is waiting and hopefully still alive. We move fast in competition with the setting sun. It spreads alpenglow across the far mountain and over the bridge of Cord's nose. His eyes glow in the light, reminding me of how much I need to look into them as often as I can. There's no doubt that life is a fleeting thing.

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