Recap: The Connarii welcome the sight of land. Exiled from their homes, their very world, lost and wandering in a featureless land of mist, they eagerly rush toward the sight of trees on the horizon. But their journey through the mists has not been without benefits for Crown Princess and recently appointed captain of the First Guard, Edana. Not only has she been recognized for her martial and leadership abilities by her reluctant father, the King Torchan, and granted a command of her own, much to the disappointment of co-captain Camlin, she’s even overcome the initial reluctance of her troops, proving herself in combat and winning some hard-earned trust and respect. And just in time, too; with a strange new land on the horizon, and an ominous one at that, Aislynn’s ominous visions forebode more than just internal struggles on the horizon. What dangers await in the red jungle?
Camlin threw himself down beneath the first tree that he reached, a scant inch behind Edana and still fuming about it. The pair had led the mad rush to the edge of the forest, abandoning dignity as they raced each other, Camlin hurrying ahead of his men to get the first glimpse and a few extra minutes of reaction time. Although, to call the canopy they lay under a forest seemed entirely inadequate – now that he had a closer look, what they were laying under seemed entirely too alien – more a jungle, than anything.
Edana’s troops jogged up, gasping for air, scanning the gloom under the trees suspiciously and eyeing Camlin and his close proximity to their captain. The bulk of the Connarii straggled along behind them, making their way between odd hills and humps of land on the edge of the jungle, towards the first spiky weeds at its base. Both the earth and what should have been greenery were stained with eerie shades ranging from an orange rust to deep, bloody reds. Camlin’s men had formed an unsteady perimeter around the stragglers and were ushering them in, while Edana stationed her troops in pairs to form a shallow crescent just inside the tree line, where they beat down the brush to make a shallow clearing at the edge of the jungle.
Camlin eyed the near-solid grey mass in the distance. The mists closed off the horizon like an iron dome, curving up and inwards, and fading finally into the pale aquamarine of the sky at a juncture many times the height of the tallest mountain he’d ever seen. He whistled, shaking his head at it. “Now there’s a sight to make you feel hemmed in.”
“Have you ever seen the dungeons of the underground halls of the Danaan, Camlin?” Edana scanned her troops and the jungle behind them, sparing a scant glance at Camlin as she spoke. He couldn’t read her tone; it was uncharacteristically subdued, so even it made the hair on the back of his neck raise.
“Of course not! What do you take me for?” Everyone knew nothing escaped those hell-holes but the ghosts of the poor wretches that went in.
“Don’t be an ass. I meant from the other side of the door.”
Camlin bit back a snarky retort, disturbed by her tone. She was too thoughtful. Remote and cold, not the overeager, intense to the point of silliness girl that he was used too. He didn’t like it.
“I have. I even went inside one, for a few minutes. Father and I were visiting the castle. We were being shown the royal defense and justice system. It was part of some lame attempt at diplomacy with those Danaan scum. I went into a cell, and had the guards lock me in – told them it was to inspect their security measures. They were so freaked out at the request, they actually complied.” The shadow of a smile flickered across Edana’s face; Camlin blinked and it was gone. “It was only for a couple minutes, and I had a lighted candle the whole time, but it was terrible. There was no escape. Dark rock hemmed me in on all sides.”
Camlin waited, watching her and resisting the impulse to interrupt. Her tone was heavy, but the story wasn’t all that surprising. Of course it was horrible; what else had she expected from the worst prison in the world? Well, that world. Camlin resisted the urge to turn and scan the shadows more intently.
“I feel like I’m back in that cell, when I look at the sky. I feel like the executioner is coming for me with his axe, like I’m locked in with no escape and nothing to do but wait for the end.” Edana grabbed Camlin’s arm. “This is not a good place for us, Camlin. We need to leave.”
Camlin’s eyes narrowed, calculating. A moment of weakness? Her eyes were wide, her lips parted, the brittleness of her speech washed away in the storm of emotion that played across her face. This was his chance to take charge.
“Ha!” He laughed, louder than he needed to, conscious of the attention of Edana’s guards and the edge of the crowd that focused in on him. He steeled his back, puffed up his chest and continued with self-conscious swagger, “That’s girls for you, no stamina. No vision. Whyn’t you just hand over your sword now, princess? You look better in skirts anyways.”
Edana drew herself up, baring her teeth as she hissed in a breath. Camlin rushed on before she could speak, projecting his words for the benefit of the crowd. “We have an entire world before us. There’s plenty of building materials, must be a good amount of rain, and I’ll bet any number of animals in there to tame or eat. I’d rather return to reclaim our home any day, but since that’s not allowed and now we’re here, we ought to be able to turn this to our advantage. I for one want to get into that jungle there, and find out what we’ve got here!”
This got the crowd rumbling. Bobbing heads and grumbled encouragement bolstered Camlin’s confidence. He paused to gauge the reaction, and Edana broke in. “You’re a fool, Camlin. There’s nothing but death in that jungle. Can’t you feel the wrongness in there? Just look at it! Those plants, the earth stained the color of blood, of death, and yet they thrive in it! We have to leave, now, before it’s too late.”
“She’s right, you know. She isn’t often.” Aislynn had come up while Camlin and Edana were talking. She was leading a child with each hand, to whom she had been telling her stories, and moved to sit them down against a tree before continuing. “I feel the darkness too. We should leave. But we won’t.”
“What is it with you two? It’s just a little wood, and I at least, am not afraid of the “menacing evil” found in a couple of trees. I personally find the vividness refreshing after all that grey.”
Camlin strutted off before Aislynn could continue, wary of her effect on the crowd, and the power of the two sisters united.
Aislynn watched Camlin retreat, taking in the way individuals in the crowd, his troops, and Edana’s own boys watched him. He said the things others didn’t dare to voice, sticking his neck out and challenging the powers that be over and over again. Her powers, the leadership of her people, her family. He rarely won, but it was the points he scored within the ranks, with the commoners, that worried her. Stubborn pride could destroy much before it could be reigned in, and Camlin was not the only headstrong young man in the group.
Without unity, the Connarii might not make it through whatever trials would come. They certainly were nothing like the solitary heroes that had come through the Otherworld before, in the bards’ tales, at least. Aislynn sank into thought, setting her back to one of the alien-looking trees and flicking through the stories, the collective wisdom of her tribe, all she knew of people and the gods. Even as she searched for a way to escape the coming danger, the villagers thoughtlessly wandered into the fringe of the jungle, spreading themselves through the trees, marveling at the strange growths, both beautiful and grotesque, often at the same time. A part of her followed them, recording their discoveries as the rest of her sought for direction, cataloguing brightly colored fruits of strange shapes and comparing the small tree-creature captured by one small boy with all the species, of her own world and those mentioned in the tales. This discovery of a two-tailed squirrel-like creature inspired the rest of the boys to start a small-scale hunting operation, while their mothers began to set up cooking fires, finding that the stained wood burned just as well as the golden and brown varieties they were used to.
Aislynn drew back into herself as she saw Camlin approach and start bickering with her sister again. She opened her eyes and stretched before interrupting the fight.
“Aren’t you two supposed to be working on security?” Aislynn poked Edana, who cursed while Camlin laughed.
“How soon the mighty fall.” He couldn’t resist any chance to get a jab in, could he? “You have first shift, princess – unless you’d like to hand over both watches to me? I’d be happy to let you get your beauty sleep.”
Edana rolled her eyes. “As if. My men are already at work – what’re yours doing? Napping in the soft grass like their captain?”
“Ah, let them rest. We’re home free, I tell you. Not an enemy in sight. You go off and play sentry, if it makes you happy.”
Edana snorted and stalked off to re-station her men. She positioned her guard around the perimeter of the camp as the people settled in for the night. Mothers gathered grasses and constructed beds in the deepening twilight, and young boys set to work constructing vine traps. They quickly caught enough small, unidentifiable wildlife to provision the entire camp, an embarrassment of riches. The creatures seemed to have no sense of self-preservation, approaching without fear or wariness. Food was brought in without a rest for the cooks until darkness fell, and the feast began.
The Connarii were caught, addicted to the dream of an easy life. There was plenty of food and no enemies. What more could any reasonable man or woman ask for?