Recap: Four of Camlin’s sentries were lost to the jungle the first night. The Connarii press on through the red jungle with no sign of an enemy the next day, but the people grow tired of journeying. Camlin seizes the opportunity to gain a following, promoting a settlement in opposition to Toryn’s leadership. Aislynn is swept up in another vision and predicts mass deaths in their future.
A wave of heat peaked in contrast to the slowly lowering sun, tangible only as a deepening of shadows as the day’s march progressed through the afternoon. The dense, leafy canopy, layer upon layer, sucked down and held the warmth of the sun while filtering most of the light above. The very earth seemed to sweat.
Toryn sped up in search of Edana, more than ready to call a halt for the day. Apparently she’d gone on ahead of the main body of her troops to check in with her scouts. Camlin burst through the trees to his right in a clatter of swishing leaves and snapping branches.
“There’s something out there!” Camlin barreled ahead, flanked by two wild-eyed guards. “Form a perimeter! Ready yourselves!”
Toryn was not at all impressed by the boy’s urgency. Camlin had been overreaching lately, gaining too much authority among his peers. He might be a useful foil for Edana and a skilled fighter, but Toryn had had enough of his overeager social aspirations. Time to bring him to heel.
“You’ve seen wild animals before, Camlin.” Toryn wiped his face, peering down his nose at the boy. He had to tilt his head back a bit to do it. “What exactly is it that has caused a captain of my guard to make such a spectacle of himself?”
“It- I…” Camlin wetted his bottom lip and swallowed, caught off-balance. “There – there’s something out there! It’s horrible, a monster- a demon! That creature that killed my sentries is coming back for more! Get your spears; get your swords. Whatever it was, it’s coming after us. Look!”
Toryn felt his hair lift as the boy pointed. It might have been the wrong moment to address Camlin’s insubordination, now that he thought of it. He clamped down the temptation to whip around in a panic and turned with magnificent self-possession to stare into the thick underbrush between a close-growing patch of trees.
Toryn’s pulse jumped as he peered through the shifting rust-dark shadows, following the line of Camlin’s outflung arm. There! A deeper darkness, too large and too still for comfort, loomed ten feet above the ground, wedged between two trees. Several feet higher than that, two patches of pure black flanked the larger shadow. A black tail hung down from one, twitching. A low rumble swelled out of the darkness. Toryn’s knees trembled as he drew his sword.
Toryn’s focus snapped back down to the original shadow as a hand extended from the darkness, dirt-stained palm out. Then the leaves rustled and a very tall, very tanned man flipped out of a tree and landed on all fours directly in front of Toryn, knocking the sword out of the Connari chieftain’s hand with a bare foot, before slithering backwards a couple steps. The black shadows leaped from their perches to land lightly beside the stranger, and Camlin raised a spear over his head, his guards falling over themselves to draw. Edana skidded out of the bushes directly behind the stranger and his beasts, poised to attack. She yelled and the creatures – enormous black wildcats, or something much like – howled and spat, whirling to face her.
“Stop!” Toryn flung a hand up in command.
The stranger gazed at Toryn with round eyes, apparently unconcerned with the arsenal pointed in his direction, his gaze open and curious as straightened. He towered at least a foot taller than any of the Connarii men, his intimidatingly muscled and scarred physique entirely and unselfconsciously on display. He stood stone still, watching without fear as Camlin begrudgingly lowered his spear, the other scouts following his lead.
Edana stayed at the ready a beat longer, the point of her sword at the stranger’s back, as she warded off the two beasts at his side with her staff. She withdrew an inch at a time, eyeing the spitting, hissing creatures as she drew back. She edged around to stand beside her father without turning her back on the stranger and his beasts.
“Greetings, friend.” Toryn enunciated each word with care. “You seem to have given us a bit of a scare. Perhaps you would like to explain your actions?” He leaned forward and extended a hand, palm upward, unconsciously mirroring the stranger’s earlier gesture.
The stranger looked confused, cocking his head and shaking it slightly. He opened his mouth an emitted a string of syllables that grumbled and hissed like the beasts that flanked him.
Toryn searched the man’s face, glanced at Edana in clear warning, and stepped forward, ignoring the warning growls of the shadow-beasts flanking the stranger.
“My name is Toryn Ffarach. I lead this people. We had to leave our village. We need to find a new home, but we are lost. Can you help us?”
Toryn stood his ground, smiling, hand outstretched. The stranger’s gaze had been clear and direct throughout the speech. Those eyes had watched him, intelligent despite the clear communication barrier. Toryn saw no hostility in the stranger, though he harboured some concern over the man’s beasts. He held very still as he spoke in a friendly, measured tone.
“Bring me Aislynn,” He said.
It took the guards a moment to realize he wasn’t directing the command at the stranger. Edana huffed and yelled, “’Lynnie!”, provoking an exasperated huff from her father and a sudden tensing on the part of the stranger. The rumbling from the two beasts ratcheted up a notch.
Aislynn melted from the crowd gathered behind her father and sister and paced forward silently, as if in a clear bubble. Her cloak and hair blew back from her shoulders in a soundless gale, feathers shivering in her wake as she approached the stranger from the jungle, and paused, mere inches away. He towered a good three feet above her head, but dropped to his knees to get on a level with her with only a moment’s hesitation. The beasts behind him growled, and he snarled in return. The pair settled back on their haunches without another sound, the only sign of life the twitching tips of their four tails coiling and switching at their sides.
Aislynn reached her hands parallel to the stranger’s temples without a word. Her hair and the feathers of her cloak settled all at once. After a couple of seconds, his eyes went blank and his body sagged back from the young druid. Edana shouted, and lunged for her sister, but Toryn snagged her arm as she passed. The force of the arrest spun her nearly full circle.
“Let me go!”
“Wait. She knows what she’s doing.”
“She’s just a little girl. She’ll get hurt. What if those- those creatures attack?”
“She’s not and they won’t. Stay quiet. Whatever she’s doing, she’ll need all her concentration.” Toryn pulled his eldest back, breathing a remonstrance. “She’s the only one who is even close to knowing what to do right now.”
Edana gave her father a horrified, uncomprehending look, but stilled. She watched on high alert, her jaw clenched, unconsciously mirroring her father’s posture.
Aislynn extended her arms further, rotating her wrists to hold her palms out over the stranger’s prone form. Her hair and cloak swelled again, raying out around her in a spiky globe as the two black beasts cringed back and moaned, rolling their eyes and lashing their tails.
Long minutes later, the stranger groaned and rolled to his feet as Aislynn crumpled to the ground. This time, Toryn beat Edana to her sister, pulling her up and edging as the black beasts snarled. Somebody shoved forward with a blanket, and Toryn wrapped his daughter up, pillowing her head on his knee.
Edana crouched in front of her family, weapons at the ready, eyes fixed on the stranger and his beasts. Her back stiffened when Aislynn moaned, but she didn’t look back. She cut her eyes over at Camlin and he nodded once, edging forward at an angle as Edana stood and slipped forward, gesturing to her guards to fan out behind her.
“He’s alright.” Aislynn’s clear voice cut through the mounting tension, stopping her sister in her tracks. “He’s the only human here; there were others, but they… died, I think,” –Edana craned her neck to give Aislynn a look, and she hurried on-“a long time ago. Something bad happened, and he’s the only one left.
“I tried to wake the memory of language in him, but it’s been a long time since he’s had anyone but his friends over there to talk to, and even then he wasn’t old enough to have learned much.
“He knows this area, but he doesn’t want to help us. He wasn’t sure if we were… safe? No, more like ‘good’. I think that is a no longer an issue now; he’s not afraid of us.”
Edana was speechless, twisted away from the stranger to stare at her sister. Her father had only slightly more composure, sputtering: “He’s… not afraid. Of us.”
Aislynn smiled at him, looking younger and older than her thirteen years at once. Then her brightness darkened. “There’s something else, though. This place isn’t safe for us. He tried to show me, I couldn’t, it’s… there’s something bad in the jungle, something that could destroy us. He wants us to leave; he says it isn’t safe here.”
Toryn cleared his throat as Aislynn pushed aside the blanked at stood up. “Well, all things considering, that was quick,” he said, mildly. “Can I talk to him?”
“By all means.”
Toryn rolled his shoulders back as he stood. He nodded to Edana, and she moved to flank him, waving her guard into a hold position as their king approached the stranger and his beasts.
“Stranger, what is your name?”
The stranger growled, cleared his throat, and coughed out, “Torchan.”
“Torchan,” Toryn tested the name, pronouncing it carefully. “We are the Connarii. We are searching for a home. If this is a good place, we would like to ask your permission to settle here, build a village and carry out our lives and the lives of our children in peace. If this is not a good place, or if others have a previous claim to it, we ask that you tell us, or show us the way out. Can you help us?”
“Go. Jungle is not… safe… for you. Old dangers, new enemies. The Cyrch come.”
“The Cyrch?” Camlin shouldered forward, apparently done providing quiet backup. “What are they? We do not know of these.”
Torchan growled low in his throat, and the dark beasts flanking him echoed him with a deeper, richer rumbling.
“Camlin.” Toryn said. Camlin bristled, but dipped his head in acknowledgement, looking out the side of his eyes to gauge the crowd’s reaction.
“Cyrch. Destroyers.” Torchan rolled his shoulders, hulking, menacing. “Live to kill. Conquer all. Invaders. Demons. Beasts.”
“Monsters? I fear no monsters. We can subdue any enemy. We will not run from these Cyrch. We will fight them for the land, we…” Camlin began to boast in the time-honoured tradition of proud young men, willfully dismissing his fear only a short time before of the ‘monster’ in the trees.
“That is enough, Camlin. We all know of your… courage. Do not burden our ears.” Toryn said, gesturing to Torchan to go on.
“Cyrch greater. Vicious. You not kill, not live with. Follow. I lead you away. Mists in west touch jungle. Escape. Go quickly, now.”
Torchan turned and strode off into the jungle. Toryn moved to follow, but Camlin grabbed his arm.
“Are you crazy, old man?” Camlin hissed into Toryn’s ear. “We follow this stranger – who apparently just learned to talk – wherever he pleases? And you would take us back into those mists, just when we escaped them? There is food here, and shelter. Why should we not stay?”
“It’s a trick!” Edana leaned in from the other side, giving Camlin a shove. “He’s leading us into a trap, baiting us with stories of monsters. We’re not following him into some ambush by the natives. He’s probably the one that took our sentries last night! And even if there are these monsters, these Cyrch, we can fight them. We can find our own way out of here. Do not follow the stranger!”
Toryn shouldered away from the pair. “The last time I checked, I, not Camlin Blyc, was king. Edana, come quietly. This is a time for unity. Aislynn trusts the stranger, this Torchan. I do too. Bring up the rear, Camlin. Edana, order your men to either side of the column. I will take the lead.”
Toryn headed into the jungle, following glimpses of the jungle-man leaping through the trees, though Torchan paused frequently to look back and check on the horde. Edana and Camlin had to race to take up their positions, marshaling the people along as they battled their way through masses of underbrush, hanging vines, crumbling trees, and overgrown metallic mounds that sprang up every couple feet.
Dark fell quickly. Torchan found a perch in the canopy and settled in for the night, leaving Toryn at the base of the tree to sort out the camp. He shut down his daughter’s protests and Camlin’s challenges with a single look. Things had changed. He was in charge. He had a plan.