It was Deck’s first time past the wall, and it was well worth the wait.

Nobody lived in Rian’s Green without knowing about the wall. It was a stone barrier twelve feet high, capped with fence that went higher still, and it surrounded a space five miles across in the middle of the city. All homes, businesses, warehouses, and whatever else were outside the wall.

Inside was virgin land. It wasn’t a park in the sense that most cities knew the word. Those were cultivated, tended, shaped. The Greenwardens, though, maintained only a few rough trails – and even those tended to shift over time. This was wilderness – a small packet of it, to be sure; but it was a place that had been left almost entirely to itself since the day Rian’s Green was first settled.

Nobody went into the Green proper without a Warden. They took small groups in from time to time, carefully managed to ensure they did no harm, left no traces beyond footprints, and took only memories back outside the wall with them.

Some of the more regular visitors – relatively speaking; first priority went to people who hadn’t been in recently – found it a spiritual experience. There was even a temple near one of the gates. Deck wasn’t going in for that; he just wanted a look at how things grew when they weren’t sculpted.

Well, truth be told, it was his girlfriend’s suggestion; but he did have his own enthusiasm for it.

He could have gone in himself months ago, back when Jessi had first brought up the idea, and she’d urged him to consider it; but in the end, he’d opted to wait until he could book a visit with her.  It was her idea, and she was important to him; both those things made him want to have her along the first time he went beyond the wall.

So close to the city still, and already it was like a different world. Gone was the rush of cars and the chatter of people; now there was the rustle of leaves and the calls of who knew how many creatures in the branches.

“Something on your mind?” she murmured to him, slipping an arm around his waist.

“Plenty,” he said back in that same hushed, almost reverent tone, still trying to take in everything at once. “Trying to find words for it, now – that’s tricky.”

She smiled. “Some people would say it’s because this is a space before words, or something like that.”

He smirked back, and shrugged. “More like I’m still trying to sort it out.”

The group came to a halt; a tree had fallen over the path, and the Warden was looking it over, seeking the best way ahead. Deck had a closer look at that fallen trunk, leaning up against its intact neighbours. It wasn’t the biggest tree they’d come across, not by a fair bit, but it had been old and tolerably mighty. Moss had already started to grow over the bark; moss and the beginnings of a shelf fungus. The wood was pitted, home to who knew what.

“It’s funny,” he mused. “Normally, when something breaks and can’t be fixed, that’s it. Trash it, or recycle it. But here…” He gestured along the length of the trunk. “When something dies, that’s just the beginning, isn’t it?”

“The original recycling,” Jessi quipped.

The Warden called the group over, leading them all through the thin brush, and the dead tree passed behind them.

“Do any predators live in here?” someone asked, curious and unafraid. “I mean, it’s big for a park, but as nature preserves go, it’s a bit…”

“It’s too isolated to support anything really big,” the Warden confirmed. “The Corridor connects it to the wilderness out to the east, but it’s a narrow strip compared to the Green itself. Sometimes something wanders in, though it usually doesn’t stay for long – we found wolf tracks as late as a few months back. Mostly what lives here is small – weasels and the like. The biggest predators that stay here are the birds, and some of them nest outside the wall.”

“Has anyone ever been hurt out here?” someone asked, much more timidly.

The Warden snorted. “Only if they weren’t careful of thorns or such. No predator would want to mess with this many people. Unless it was rabid, maybe, but the lack of direct connection to the city helps keep that a bit more limited. We’ve not had to deal with a violently rabid animal in all the years I’ve been working here, at least.”

“That long?” said the one who’d first mentioned predators. “You’d think pure chance would’ve led something in here by now.”

“Maybe there’s something to what those folks at the temple say about it being sacred ground,” the Warden replied. Her tone was dry and cynical, but it seemed to put a stop to the discussion anyway.

“Here we are,” she said a few minutes later, as the trail opened up somewhat. “This is the oldest tree in the Green. We take core samples now and then to be sure it’s still healthy, and by last report it’s still growing strong after seven hundred sixty-four years. Older than Rian’s Green itself.”

Deck could well believe it. The trunk in front of them was mammoth, towering over them, and there wasn’t a man in the world who could reach around it alone. As frequent an attraction as it was, the path formed something of a clearing around it, but it wasn’t enough to let a solid patch of sun down; its canopy covered all that ground and then some. In thatspace, everything felt… peaceful. Serene.

He’d never been big on spirituality, never had much need for it. But if there was such a thing as holy ground… surely it was right here, in this temple to the very world around them.