Recap: A stranger, Torchan, materializes out of the jungle, warning of danger and offering to guide the Connarii away to the far edge of the jungle. Toryn decides to trust him. Camlin, working to build a base of power for himself and draw a force away under his own leadership, and Edana, urging escape from the jungle, aren’t so sure. Edana is fascinated by the man that lives in the trees as comfortably as in a house, but also suspicious. Torchan challenges her, alone at night, intervenes when she encounters an Atarrh, a snakelike inhabitant of the jungle, and offers to teach her to survive in the jungle.
The ground moved so fast, Edana could hardly see where one tree ended and the next began. It was the most amazing thing, like swimming down a river, like the most perfect battle, like riding the summer waves, a dance where she spun and jumped and fell all at once. The ground no longer pulled at her; she rode on the wind.
Does he feel like this all the time?
Edana leaned her head back to smile up at Torchan. He grinned back, not even looking to his next handhold as he swung forward. He had Edana clamped to his side with one arm, while the other arm and both legs shot forward without pause, grabbing vines and branches, swinging both of them through the jungle many feet off the ground. Coming to a small cliff, he let their momentum carry them off the edge into the air. Edana shrieked as they tumbled through the branches of a tree, then laughed with wonder and amazement when Torchan grabbed a fistful of vines and began their forward motion once again. After several minutes more, she could tell he was slowing down.
“What’s the matter?” she asked as Torchan slowed to balance on a large branch.
He removed his arm from around her waist. “Look!” he pointed, and Edana realized that there was only a thin layer of greenery in front of them, and not the dense jungle growth that she had come to expect. She reached out, parted the hanging vines, and gasped. A large, roughly circular clearing wrapped around the most enormous tree she had ever seen, and halfway up the tree was built a platform the size of a house. Climbing up in terraces from that single enormous floor were several smaller platforms that ascended into the waving branches high above the rest of the forest.
“My home,” Torchan said.
He dropped off the branch to the ground, which was now quite close, then reached up to lift her down. They pushed through the thin layer of brush to stand in the clearing. Edana tentatively approached the tree, only realizing as she looked back that one of the wildcat-like cofu had followed them, and was now rubbing around Torchan’s legs, rumbling out a deep, gravelly purr.
Edana trailed one hand along the smooth bark as she circled the enormous tree, looking for lower branches or a ladder. She made it all the way around – over 30 paces - without finding any handhold nearer than twenty feet up, and turned to stare at Torchan. His lips quirked up.
“I’d forgotten. You can’t on your own. Climb on my back.” Torchan knelt and waved Edana forward.
Edana just looked at him, blinking. She’d forgotten, in the elation of flight, that she hardly knew this man, and didn’t mean to trust him. But it was a long way back to the camp, and Torchan waited patiently on his knees, relaxed, non-threatening. Edana stepped toward him and gingerly clung to his back while he stood and adjusted her arms for a firmer grip around his shoulders.
“Try not choke me on the way up,” he said, and Edana felt his laughter through her knees where they clamped to his sides.
She nearly fell off as Torchan sprang an absurd distance straight up, then shimmied along the smooth bark using invisible handholds, until he reached the lowest branch. From there he leaped and swung his way up the tree until he reached the broad lower platform.
Edana tilted her head back to gaze in awe. An upwardly spiraling series of platforms decreased steadily in size until they swayed in the wind on the slender upper branches.
“Did you build all this?” Edana asked Torchan in wonder.
He shook his head, a mischievous smile dancing on his lips: “Only the upper ones.”
“Only the…? But there are so many. That must have taken years! If you only worked on the smaller platforms, who built the main one? Are there others here too?” Edana straightened her back and widened her stance, scanning the surface of the platform she stood on, and the edges of those above for enemies slinking in the shadows.
She now remembered her suspicions earlier that day, and cursed her foolishness in allowing herself to be separated from the rest of the group. Her sentries had been left without their captain. With only Camlin for a leader; they’d be lost in an attack! And what would that silly, power-hungry boy be up to in her absence? Probably weaseling his way into the confidences of her troops while Torchan’s hordes snuck in through the bushes!
Edana pivoted to glare at Torchan, but saw only confusion and hurt in his eyes.
“There are no others. I already told you. They died many years ago.” Torchan’s eyes were dark, the muscles in his face and body tense and defensive. He didn’t need enhanced senses to perceive Edana’s distrust. “They built the main platform before I was born, died soon after. Why do you not believe me?”
Edana stared at him for a few moments longer, took another long look around for movement, and let out a slow breath, her stance relaxing incrementally.
“I’m sorry. I can’t seem to stop angering people today. “
Torchan reached out and took her hand. “Enough. Left one moment alone, you get into trouble. Come with me.”
Startled, Edana stared at Torchan’s strange face, almost missing the subtle look of amusement written on his dark skin. He tugged at her wrist, leading her towards a gently sloping branch. This time, instead of carrying her, he guided her slowly up the network of branches and sturdy platforms, up to the highest point they could both reach without tipping off into the misty air.
This platform was several yards higher than the other trees, so that Edana could gaze for miles in every direction. Even so, she saw no larger clearings; neither did she see the edge of the jungle. She stared at the miles of treetops softly moving in the breeze, at the subtle hints of green and blue and red, always red, among the many-toned grey of the late night. She was just about to ask Torchan if the sky was ever clear enough to see the moon, or stars, when she felt him move away from her.
“We should go back now, before your people get worried,” he said softly.
Edana turned and looked around the platform, then down. For a moment, she felt a pang of sadness for this meager living, with none of the possessions or companions that give colour to life. Then she remembered the sheer joy of racing through the jungle. Torchan’s life, though different, was not without its pleasures.
She let him help her out of the tree and back into the jungle.
This time, as Torchan was picking up speed on his breathless path through the treetops, Edana ducked out from under his arm. He had swung to the next tree already before he could stop and look back for her. She was laughing as she swung ahead of him, alternating branches and vines from arm to arm, using her feet only for balance against trunks and large branches, but moving fast nonetheless. Torchan stared, frozen for a moment, then laughed and raced to catch up.
UPDATED: On hiatus until after April 5 Come back next week for Chapter 16 on Tuesday, March 15. In the meantime, why not check out my other webserial, Things Got Out of Hand or a preview of my upcoming book Blind the Eyes?