Recap: Four of Camlin’s sentries were lost to the jungle the first night. Edana wants to go after them, rescue them if possible, identify the threat at a minimum. She’s overruled by her father; they’ll press onward, Camlin and Edana each covering a flank of the camp as they move further into the jungle. Toryn hopes to travel through this land and on to a better place without undue losses; he can accept making a few sacrifices to get there. But without knowing the enemy, will this plan prove prescient or foolish?
Edana and Camlin raced to position their troops as the camp packed up and prepared to march. Edana, fuming and grateful that Camlin’s smug face would be a few thousand souls removed for the day, found her men responsive and alert, for the most part. Apparently the loss of their comrades had shaken them enough that there was no taste to question her right to command. After surveying and instructing her men, encouraging them to keep an eye out for their missing brothers, but not to leave their posts, Edana placed herself at the centre of the forward line, responsible for clearing a path for the Connarii to traverse through the thick undergrowth.
The Connarii moved north, directly away from the mists. The jungle thickened as they went, progressing from the bordering wasteland of stone and scattered shards of metal, covered by creeping plants, to a rust-streaked mess of life. Towering trees of a type unknown to the Connarii dangled creepers and vines to trail over masses of bushes, ferns and flowering plants that grew in heaps, one on top of the other, in the gloom cast by the thick foliage.
The red-hued shadows were eerily reminiscent of dried blood, and the heavy sweet-rot scent that hung beneath the canopy did nothing to dissuade the imagination from dwelling on dark and hurtful things. The leaves seemed to hold in moisture, creating a muggy dense fog that hovered around the Connarii, pearling up on skin and clothes, joining sweat to darken their shirts and chafe the skin.
Small insects swarmed around the Connarii, while larger ones flitted to and fro among the trees. The undergrowth and branches above their heads quivered with the unceasing activity of myriad small creatures going about their business. Edana eyed the unfamiliar terrain and wildlife, unable to identify anything that could have carried off the sentries. So far she hadn’t come across any creature large enough to carry off a full-grown (or nearly so) man. She slashed awkwardly at the greenery in front of her, cringing at this dishonourable use of a weapon and straining to trample down the dense undergrowth sufficiently to allow the Connarii passage. Her muscles ached, but she pushed herself to slog ahead of her men, unwilling to show any frailty and wishing, for once, that Camlin hadn’t had rearguard. He’d be having a pleasant stroll over nicely tamped down turf, after all the feet ahead of him had passed. Edana caught herself picturing Camlin’s self-confident smirk as she hacked at the rubbery vines and wiry bushes. She bared her teeth and hit out harder.
Progress was slow. In addition to the dense greenery that had to be shifted out of the path of the tribe, the strange terrain further obstructed their movement. Heaps of metal jutted out of the soil at uneven intervals. These twisted piles were often overgrown with the multi-toned ground cover and remained hidden from view until an unfortunate warrior made ringing contact with his weapon. The tribe would have to detour around the heaps, which sometimes reached well over the heads of the tallest young warriors, and could dozens of feet wide.
Despite the heavy slogging, the Connarii made their way through the jungle without incident. Whatever had caused the sentries to vanish overnight was either long gone, or doing an excellent job of staying out of range.
At midday there was a brief pause to cook meat from the night before, as well as a number of small and foolishly curious creatures caught on the day’s journey. The complaints and quarrels erupted as soon as the people stopped marching, exhaustion turning to bitterness, irritation to anger.
“Edana,” Aislynn approached as Edana was establishing a temporary perimeter around the halted tribe. “Father requests your presence; Camlin is already with him.”
“This isn’t about last night…”
Aislynn’s expression didn’t flicker. “No. Something else has come up.”
Edana finished positioning and instructing her men, then moved with Aislynn through the resting villagers towards a dense crowd that had formed along the northwestern front. At the centre of the knot, Toryn and Camlin stood facing each other, with villagers flanking. Edana marched right up to Toryn and stood at his right, pointedly, frowning at Camlin.
“What’s all this, then?” Her question was nearly drowned out by the heated cries of the forming crowd.
“The people have made a petition to their chief.” Camlin said. The crowd directly behind him cheered.
“Father?” Edana asked, ignoring Camlin. Toryn sighed.
“A certain portion of the tribe wish to make camp here, a half-day’s journey from the edge of this jungle.” Toryn gestured wearily. “There is a stream nearby that they would like to make a permanent settlement at. They are tired of traveling and wish to spare themselves and the young ones the trial of pushing through this undergrowth.”
“Others wish to further explore the jungle and choose the best location for a settlement with full knowledge of the terrain.”
Edana thought about this for a moment, her brows drawn together. What wasn’t he saying, here in front of the crowd? She cleared her throat and raised her voice, choosing her words carefully.
“We’re staying in the jungle, then? I advise against it, father. It does not seem a good place. I had thought that we would look for someplace more like our previous lands.”
Toryn shot her a look of surprised gratitude, responding, “I had hoped for a better choice as well.”
He surveyed the growing crowd before signaling Edana to step in closer. She leaned in, asking, “So? What’s the problem? Tell them that we travel onwards.”
“It’s not so simple.” Aislynn said, joining in and speaking before Toryn could respond. “The people see only the struggle of the children and the elderly. They care only for their own discomfort; no surprise there. Families are anxious to start building new lives and to settle. They need to be persuaded that it is best for them to continue away from here, and that will not be easy, since I cannot promise a better choice somewhere else; only the hope of a better place.”
“It is foolish to take lands now.” Camlin interrupted loudly, butting forward into the private conversation and hauling it back into the public domain, misunderstanding and pointing it in a new direction all in one go. “I don’t know why you Ffarachs resist this place so strongly, but certainly we needn’t settle at the first spot that some children take a nap. Send my party on ahead as scouts; we’ll explore the terrain and report back with the likeliest areas to establish a new village. It’s the logical thing to do.”
“Have you forgotten so soon?” Edana reared back, nearly spitting with hushed fury. “Four scouts! Four of our warriors, our people, are gone. This is no innocent forest, it is a jungle inhabited by at least one type of creature that possesses the ability and desire to destroy humans. We cannot afford to split up our forces.”
“Then you advocate squatting on this piece of land and ignoring the possibilities that exist beyond? What happened to your ‘conquor all opposition’ attitude?”
“Peace, captains. You quarrel like children.” Toryn said, stepping away from the pair. He waved for the attention of the crowd, who were now debating the points made heatedly among themselves.
“We will not stay here.” He said. A murmer swirled up from the people, of approval or of frustration, depending on their side of the argument.
“I understand the your concerns.” Toryn measured the words, placing each with weighty care. “And we will travel with care, moving at a pace suited to the needs of the frailest of our people, but we will continue on. We need to understand this place better, and I am unwilling to allow the tribe to split in an attempt to satisfy this need. I also prefer to look for some place more familiar to our accustomed way of life to settle in. We continue in one hour. Return to your families and prepare them to journey.”
The crowd wavered and began to disperse, some grumbling as they went, others taking a moment to show their support of Camlin. Edana watched in distaste.
“Sometimes I wonder why I worry so much about what happens to them.” She said to Aislynn under her breath. “Fools. So concerned about their immediate comfort that they’d risk all our futures.”
“It’s our legacy.” Aislynn shrugged, her lips quirking up at the edges as black feathers danced around her. The dampness of the jungle didn’t seem to have touched her. “Duty to the tribe has been drilled into us since before we could walk. Besides, sister dear, you live for the honour and glory of protecting the tribe. What else would you fight so hard for?”
“Y’know it’s really obnoxious when you talk like that?”
“Like what?” Aislynn asked, the picture of pure innocence. Her father, rejoining his daughters after making sure Camlin and his supporters had cleared the area, snorted in amusement.
“Like you know everything. Like the wisdom of the ages is housed in your thirteen-year-old body. Like a druid. It’s annoying.” Edana said, rolling her eyes at Aislynn’s playfulness. “I mean, I’m about used to it by now, but really. You could try being like everyone else. Other people’s sisters limit themselves to helping with the chores, gossiping, and chasing boys. You advise the king and sway the opinions of the tribe, in addition to whatever weird druidic studies you’re into on the quiet.”
“You’re a fine one to talk. If you valued fitting in, why did you just have to become a captain of the guard? Girls your age should be thinking about getting married and having a few kids. It’s not like you haven’t had any offers.”
“Not. Funny.” Edana growled, cutting a glance at their father.
“See what I mean? It’s in our blood to be different; for that matter, it’s in all of the Connarii to challenge the world’s standards of normalcy. It’s not like we came from there, you know.”
Edana relaxed. Toryn showed no sign of reacting to Aislynn’s quip about marriage. She rolled her eyes at her little sister. “This is not the time to delve into your precious myths. I should be organizing the troops, not listening to legends.”
“This is the time.” Aislynn insisted, half in fun, half… not, from the glint in her eye. “You need to be reminded of our birthright. In fact, I think I’d better call a story-circle tonight and remind us all of our own history and being. We were originally more than we have become. Not like the other peoples of the world we left behind. Generations of intermarriage and dwelling alongside the native peoples has weakened and changed us… but I have reason to believe that, released from the influence of tradition, habit and the presence of the other tribes, we may regain much that we have lost over the ages.”
“Eh?” Toryn broke in, suddenly paying attention. “Aislynn, you didn’t say… why would you think…?”
“I feel it already.” Aislynn spoke in a hush, her teasing tone well and truly gone now. “Before, I was merely skilled in the knowledge passed down by the elders and the arts known to all the tribes of that world. Not a druid, not a bard, not even worthy to be called a filidh, an apprentice bard, when it comes to it. I was far less skilled even than those of our ancestors who we still speak of. Since we entered the mists, there’s been an awakening. I’m aware of so much more. So much… There are spirits that watch us as we go. I sense things to come, undecided paths, like the changing mists that we passed through on the way to this jungle. Paths of the future, that may or may not come to pass. I feel the power, in myself, and blossoming in others of the Connarii. You, Edana. We share the same pure bloodline; haven’t you noticed anything since…?”
“’Lynnie, you’d better get some rest.” Edana brushed Aislynn’s eerie tones off, suppressing a shiver that defied the humid air under the canopy. “I’ve got to get back to the troops… but I think you’re hallucinating. Father, make sure she doesn’t over-exert herself. Let me know if she gets worse, and I’ll send a couple of men back to help with her.”
“Edana!” Aislynn said with evident frustration. “There’s nothing wrong with me!”
“Uh huh. Just get some rest. I’ve got to go.”
“I said there’s nothing wrong with…” Aislynn’s eyes opened wide. Her arms dropped limp to her sides as she sagged to the ground. Toryn caught her and held her head up. Edana knelt beside her and waved a hand past her blank eyes. She snapped her fingers in front of Aislynn’s face a couple times before Aislynn started and her eyes refocused, flickering for a moment, before focusing on her family’s worried faces.
Edana sighed and pushed to her feet. “I’ll send a couple men back to help her. Find someone to give her some tea or something. She probably knows what she should take.”
“It’s not safe here.” Aislynn sat up and adjusted her clothes, tension in every movement. “There is danger in the jungle and evil at the borders. Many will die. We must move quickly. There can be no thought of settling here.”
Edana and Toryn stared in stunned silence. Edana blinked first.
“Look, I’ve got to go. I’ll have the men make some sort of sling to carry her in; make sure she sleeps.” Edana rose to her feet and turned away, but Aislynn grasped her wrist and pulled her back.
“I am not crazy, sick, or otherwise incapacitated.” She said, insistent, her nails boring into Edana’s flesh. “Get the people through the jungle as quickly as possible. Do not linger for any reason. Be wary; there are hidden dangers.”
“Look. I know it’s dangerous. I have no reason to spend more time than I have to here. You’re sick and you need to sleep. Let me worry about protecting the tribe. And stop raving. It’s weird.” Edana shook off Aislynn’s hand and strode away.
True to her word, about five minutes later two young men showed up, determined to carry Aislynn, who despite her protests, was bundled up and ordered to stay still. Toryn shrugged at her indignation.
“Can’t hurt you any to get a little rest; and I’m not up to fighting your sister for the moment.” He said. He looked away, his mouth tight.
“You don’t believe me either?” Aislynn asked.
“I always believe you, little one. You have never spoken falsely. Still, with all the changes that you’ve gone through, and with the upheaval ahead that you’re predicting, a nap can’t hurt any.” Toryn put a hand to his youngest’s face. Her skin was hot and dry.
“Fine. I’ll meditate as we travel. Maybe I can find out some details about the dangers ahead. Tell these boys not to walk into any trees while I’m out.” Aislynn sighed and put her head down, slipping instantly into a trance. Toryn nodded to the two guards.
“Take good care of her, boys. And let me know if she says anything.”
“You don’t need to tell us, sir.” One of the guards spoke up.
“Yeah, if anything happened to her, our mates would take it out of us but good. Everyone loves the li’l druid.”