By Hannah Christensen
Arioch crouched in the eighth entrance of the tree-stand’s wall. Colors shivered up and down the sword in his hand. Stretched out before the wall’s base Rovers milled. With each step, their pointed feet churned the once bountiful meadow into more of a mire.
The sword flared yellow.
Behind him, Arioch could feel Baruch’s presence. As long as they stood together, this entrance was safe. Seasky would weather this attack.
An arrowhead of Rovers peeled away from the mass and scuttled over. Each set of eight pointed legs gouged the ground as they came.
“Greenblood, give up,” called the leader. He held his upper body proudly erect from where it sprouted out of the lower base. His body armor glowed a healthy rust color, though the sting at the end of his curved tail glistened green-black. “Your little blade cannot hope to touch us all.”
“Return to the crags from which you came,” said Arioch.
The Rover edged closer and spread out the two fingers and claw thumb of his left hand. “The clefts are full, little Greenblood. Surely you can spare one stalk in your tree-stand.”
A warning rock cracked against the Rover’s foremost leg, a leaf’s breadth away from severing a life strand.
“The tree-stand is one! Back, foe!”
The Rovers limbered their stings and advanced.
Rocks sang through the air and rang on the attackers.
The sword glowed yellow.
Arioch met each attacker almost before it moved.
The Rovers fell back. Several lay fallen, but the arrowhead had tripled from a flow of Rovers trickling from the milling band behind.
“You cannot fight forever,” cried the Rover leader. “We will breach your walls sooner or later. Later will only bring grief.”
“Branches stripped,” called one Rover.
“Sap drained,” called another.
“And if you keep resisting, I promise to make a cesspool of every egg-pit.” Cruel laughter flared the leader’s nostrils.
“Throw a branch! Throw a branch!” The Rovers pressed closer.
Arioch sprang forward to meet the leader.
The gateway stood firm.
Then, on an upstroke, the Rover leader caught the sword’s blade. He stretched Arioch up, shaking him.
Baruch’s barrage stopped.
“Throw a branch! You have already lost.”
“Never!” Arioch arched, kicking the invader’s eyes and giving Baruch a clear shot.
The air whistled, and the Rover stumbled. But it was no stone from Baruch’s sling. The Rover held up a withy branch, not yet fully twined and hardened in the tangle of branches that formed the tree-stand. He laughed in triumph and threw the sword from him.
“A branch! Your deed will not be forgotten, Firmblood.” He stamped the branch into the ground and clambered up it and over the wall. A swarm of Rovers followed.
The sword flamed red.
Arioch fought fiercely until he gained the withy branch. In a mighty arc, he cut through the bridging branch. Flames flickered out and raced up into the withy’s stalk. Arioch fought back to his place in the gateway, but no stones rained down to help.
“Breach, breach!” he yelled.
Flames grew around him, and Rovers pressed in, but the sword never stopped moving.
“Breach, breach!” he yelled.
In the growing darkness, he heard his words echoed, as well as the call of “Fire, fire!”
Across the mired field gathered a small group of Greenbloods, Sweetbloods, and Firmbloods.
“We dare not wait any longer,” said Hanani. “We have not the strength to stand against a band of Rovers.”
“What of those still in the tree-stand?”
“What of Seasky itself?”
“Those we leave are either dead or dying, and if we stay, we will be among their number.”
“All?” asked Arioch. A strip of cloak bandaged one shoulder, but his glare had no weakness.
“All. Humbling oneself to oath-service to the Rovers is no less than death.”
Red faded from the sword, leaving it silver and shimmering once again.
Arioch sighed and turned to go.
The group straggled away into the brush. Thorns and reeds filled the way. Occasionally someone paused to wriggle out one of the bitter dew-fruits that formed in the joints of the reeds. They did not compare to the tree-stand’s lush sun-fruits, but would sustain the Sweetbloods. As the horizon turned to gray, the reeds finally began to dwindle and brush gave way to scattered trees. The refugees picked the biggest in area to rest under.
Hanani took the first watch.
Arioch and Elias, the other Greenblood in their group, pulled themselves up into the tree. Elias curled into a lower fork of the tree to sleep, but Arioch kept climbing. Sword slung across his back, he kept ascending until branches drooped beneath his weight and the first rays of sunlight could find his fingers.
A breeze shifted the heavy leaves, and Arioch brushed his hand across moisture forming on the leaves. Back in the tree-stand, it was the branches that produced and collected this moisture, pooling it in sweet, refreshing bubbles of nectar until it fertilized and condensed into a sun-fruit. Here, the claret tasted dry and nearly as thin as water, vanishing almost before it pooled enough to drink.
Arioch scanned the horizon behind their path, but could see no trace of their lost tree-stand. Slipping down to sturdier boughs, he watched morning yellow the leaves until sleep finally wrapped around him.
Not long after the sun left its zenith, the group gathered to discuss where to go. A river ran far to the northeast, mother to the stream which passed by Seasky, which promised to be a good source of reeds and rushes. The Firmbloods questioned the strength of the soil in that area.
“Strength from roots comes from strength in the soil,” Adah reminded everyone.
Arioch bowed his head. Already the seeds for parting ways were sown. Without a tree-stand to bind them together, they would soon lose even the few companions left to them, sheared off from every part of their former life.
“It is a good direction to start,” argued Hanani. “We need only stop long enough to rest and harvest if we need to go on afterwards.”
One by one, brooches were removed and tossed down. Arioch fingered his a long moment before dropping it, face up, among the others.
Hanani sorted through them, pin up and face up, with the shaft of his spear.
“So, it is decided. Face up prevails. We head for the river.”
Elias scooped his brooch up and repinned his tunic. “I travel above. Will you join me, brother?”
Baruch’s face pushed into Arioch’s mind. He pressed his fingers against his temple. “Perhaps in time.”
For three days the company pushed through the wan forest. For three days, the Greenbloods licked up the faint strength of the sun from the leaves and the Firmbloods grubbed the loamy earth for roots which bled only fizzy sap that could not fill while the Sweetbloods fasted.
Arioch lent his shoulder to the weary. Had they only the strength to go faster, this journey would be nearly over.
“Tree-stand! Tree-stand!” Elias crashed down through the limbs. “I saw a tree-stand less than a day’s journey to the south. Surely they would grant refuge.”
The group turned as a body to face Elias. Arioch found himself trembling.
“Have we been walking in circles?” cried Adah.
Arioch pushed aside his nerves to offer her a reassuring smile, shaking his head.
“Could we make it before nightfall?” asked Hanani.
“Easil—” Elias glanced around at the bodies bent in weariness and modified his answer. “Without doubt.”
Hanani looked around for more input. No words were offered. Faces ranged from hopeful to skeptical to tired beyond thinking about it.
“Could you see what type of inhabitants it houses?”
“I did not get close enough. All I could see was the tops of the trees, but they were twined and shroomed.”
“What shade were the leaves?”
Elias shook his head. “It was too far off to make out color, silhouetted against the sky.”
Hanani gave one more look around. Arioch stood straight and looked him in the eye with as much confidence as he could find in his soul.
“Show us the way,” Hananai finally said.
The fugitives turned to the south.
Every step closer nurtured their growing hope. Elias stayed on the ground this time to help those who stumbled.
Before evening greyed the filtering light, the far reaches of the forest began to lighten. Soon afterward, the ground began sloping up.
“It was not on a high outcrop,” Elias encouraged them.
Arioch bit back on the worry that warred with hope. A low tree-stand meant one without much wind. It might not be a rich place, might not have the resources to welcome a band of wanderers. Surely, though, even if there was no place to settle here, there would be enough welcome for a night’s rest and refreshment.
Each step seemed to take longer now, and everyone stretched to break free from the shadows.
As the grey limbs fell away from above, though, the group stumbled to a stop.
With a cry, Arioch shrugged his companion’s arm from his shoulders, and ran forward. At the foot of the tree-stand, he pulled his sword free and screamed into the sky.
It was a tree-stand, indeed, but no inhabitant remained to welcome them. Thick Rover nets swathed every branch, choking it off from sun and wind. Only the dead, empty husk of the tree-stand remained, devoid of any life, even the invading Rovers.
The sword flamed red, then spiraled into deep blue.
Arioch laid his head against a trunk and wept.
Night muffled the world to match his heart.
Elias called, but he did not hear. Not until dawn did he shake off the evening dew and straighten. He laid a hand against the empty trunk, slowly trailing his fingers down it. With a sigh, he turned to join his band.
He walked silently through the Sweetbloods gathering what they could from the grasses. Under the trees again, he leaned against a lean trunk and closed his eyes. No one spoke to him, which fit easily over his grief.
Those we leave are either dead or dying. Hanani’s words echoed through his head. Even the trees! How long would it be until Seasky’s leaves hung limp, until the claret drained and spilled into the earth?
The next three days he walked alone. A few times awareness of a fellow’s stumbling step broke through the fog of his mind, and he offered an arm, but it was never accepted.
When they reached the river, more trouble awaited. The water churned violently at the foot of a cliff, far beyond reach. A few trees clung to the edge, roping their roots through the rock.
The group hung back.
“Looks like an ideal place for Rovers,” someone muttered.
“But the question is, are there reeds down there?” Cassia demanded. She glared around at her companions. “If no one else dare to look, I will!” She turned and stalked to the edge.
Arioch did not wait for Hanani to finish his warning. Dropping his sword, he dashed to where the rocks crumbled away from under Cassia’s feet. He snatched her as that patch of ground disappeared and flung them both onto a scraggly tree’s support.
“Oh!” said Cassia. “Arioch! We thought we had lost you.”
“I feared we had lost you,” he answered. He set her on solid ground and addressed the group. “There are no Rovers here, but neither are there reeds below. It is time to go elsewhere.”
A day’s journey south finally brought them to marshy area. Arioch helped the famished Sweet-bloods gather dewfruits. The marsh reeds held an abundance. The number of dewfruits even exceeded those that grew on the tree-stand’s withy branches and its sections of sky meadow where interwoven branches formed a spongy ground.
No trees tall enough for sunfruits grew here, but the Firmbloods found some scrubs big enough to drink from.
“It is well they taste too bitter to drink much,” Adah said. “Otherwise, I fear we would become drunk from their strength.”
“The earth we just left is strong,” said Hanani. “Perhaps if we swung west a little we would find roots with draughts to meet the needs of our brothers.”
Elias shook his head. “To the west are cavernous mountains. There are roots enough in there, to be sure, and draughts richer than anything a tree may bring to the surface, but naught else. Shall we continue to circle from one food source to another, taking our turns at starvation? It would be better to part our separate ways and live in settlements with a connecting covenant of friendship.”
“Tree-stand is one!” cried Arioch.
“And our tree-stand is breached! Unless you know of another we can enter, or have the secret of dislodging Rovers from their fastnesses, we must come up with a plan rather than wander from starvation to starvation.”
Debate writhed long into the night. As the stars began to fade, decision was reached. Most of the group would journey west. Under the mountains, they hoped to wend their way south again and come out a day’s journey from their overtaken home. They hoped the Rovers would no longer be looking for lingering refugees, and they could watch for an opportunity to at least help those trapped inside. Three Sweetbloods would follow the river south with Elias instead.
As the group worked to pack enough food for the Sweetbloods traveling underground, Arioch and Elias stood facing each other. Neither quite looked the other in the eye. Silence wrapped them together apart from the rest.
Finally Elias spoke. “Come, too, brother.” He laid a hand on Arioch’s arm. “There may not be many sun-fruits, but we will have light.”
“I belong with the group.” Arioch’s voice rasped. The sword flickered in a violent cacophony of colors. “Perhaps we will meet on the other side.”
“Perhaps.” Elias withdrew his hand and stepped back. “May the sun always shine before your eyes.” He smiled wryly. “Even if only in your memory.”
As the two groups pulled apart, Arioch could almost hear the snapping of twigs that would come from any attempt to pull apart twined branches in a tree-stand.
They camped that night in the mouth of a cave. Arioch slept outside, treasuring the open air. There were no trees tall enough to support his weight in the area, so he settled with his back up against the rocks. In truth, he slept very little that night. No moon shone, but the stars glittered more precious than jewels. A watchman returning from his vigil stumbled over Arioch, and he knew that his sword throbbed blue.
When dawn began to break, Arioch walked among the saplings and stunted shrub trees, looking for what sun-fruits he could find. Most were not firm enough to store for later, but he packed what he could and ate the rest.
The sky glowed pink and a breeze curled around his face as though the morning greeted him as a warm friend. Arioch stood still, putting aside all thoughts and soaking in the living sky before him. He felt more at rest than he had for over a week.
Behind, Hanani called for an assembly. It was time to resume their journey.
Arioch turned and walked into the dark.
For days they wandered, groping for passage south with only the light of reed torches. They dared not burn more than two at a time for fear of running out while still inside the bowels of the earth. One torch burned at the front of the group, the other in the rear. Everyone kept closely between the two lights.
Arioch could not tell which weighed on him most, the darkness itself or the black rock squelching out all contact with the outside world. The air itself felt dead, and often where the walls pressed close he would find himself overtaking the others, pulling into the circle of torch light at the head of the column, where his sword glinted purple. He would pull himself up and force his body to match the crawling pace of his companions stumbling along at normal speed.
The worst times were when they stopped to rest. As soon as everyone had gathered, one torch would be extinguished. Often there were roots looping out of the walls or ceiling. When there were not, the Firmbloods cut small holes in the walls to drink what they could from the earth itself while the Sweetbloods sparingly shared the dewfruits they had brought. Arioch’s own food supply had quickly been depleted. He usually placed himself next to the remaining torch holder in case the bearer wanted someone to hold the light while he ate. As soon as everyone had settled and received food, the second torch was extinguished.
Lying in the dark, wave after wave of speed whelmed over him, with no expression open but breathing and heartbeat. Nothing but darkness met his eyes, not even a hint of the vivid purple he knew his sword must be. Any sleep he did find was haunted with panicked flight from dark boulders that always caught him and swelled up until they pressed the upper world out of existence and snuffed out the sun and moon.
Arioch grimly clung to Hanani’s confidence that they were now heading in the right direction. For himself, he struggled to know whether they were heading up or down.
Hanani’s confidence in their direction was so great that when they came to a chasm they did not back off and try to find another course around the obstacle. They huddled up to look for a way across.
Far below water clattered over rock. The chasm was too far to jump, but the roof leaned fairly low in this part of the tunnel, and many roots laced their way through. It resembled the underside of a sky meadow, but no breeze set these bulky roots fluttering.
One of the Firmbloods, Gershom, volunteered to try to cross using the protruding roots. If he could tie the one rope the group had to a central loop of root, the rest could use the rope to swing across. Arioch helped boost him up to where he could get a handhold.
No one spoke as Gershom painstakingly pulled himself across the under surface of the cave. The rope trailed out behind him, one end still fastened on the side with his companions. He could not carry a torch with him, so Cassia leaned out as far as she dared to shed light on his slippery path. Handhold by cautious handhold he approached the middle, where he pressed himself up against the roof to tie the rope to a thick curve of root. When he resumed his journey, twice a hand slipped, almost dropping him to his doom. The shadows nearly hid him when he finally reached the other side and dropped down.
Hanani put a knot in the rope for a handhold and a loop at the bottom for a foothold. An unlit torch was thrust into the belt of the first to cross over, and soon a circle of light warmed a spot on the other side. The swing was sent back with a great spear on the end to weight it properly. Hanani caught it.
“I had best get this over with,” declared Adah, and took the rope.
One by one, members of the party passed over. Only three were left when the attack began.
A cry on the other side first alerted Arioch. He peered over, but could only make out low, dim figures added to the flurry of activity.
“Flaindars,” hissed Cassia.
“Flaindars?” repeated Jochabed. He grabbed the rope as it swung back. “But the only Flaindars I’ve ever heard of living in the Lonely Cliffs are by the salt plains…”
“Which means we’re almost home!”
Something squelched gently behind them. Arioch whipped around.
Just outside the circle of their light, splashes of lighter darkness shifted. Trying to focus on them made Arioch feel dizzy. Soft laughter scraped out of the darkness.
“Creatures who rely on the sun are fools to come here,” a thick voice said.
“Cassia, can you blind them with your torch?” asked Jochabed.
Cassia shook her head. “Only the sun is strong enough to do that. They barely notice firelight.” Flaindars made enough of their own light to easily move by, but a kind of light so foreign that the eyes of other creatures could only dimly see it. “We need to unite.” Cassia thrust the torch into Gershom’s hand and stepped into the swing.
Above, something cracked.
Cassia screamed as the rope plummeted into the abyss, still tied tightly to the now severed root.
Arioch lunged forward. “Cassia!” He reached for her, but she had swung out to far to grab. Darkness swallowed her figure, leaving only her trailing voice. Rough wisps of Faindar laughter rasped above.
“Behind you!” warned Jochabed, yanking him away from the chasm’s edge. He stumbled around just in time to dodge a springing Flaindar. The squat, round creature went over the side of the cliff, but took hold of the rock face with its clingy feet and scrabbled back up again. Triangular teeth lined a smile that stretched across almost a quarter of its body. A fringe glittering with eyelets fluttered around the upper ridge of its body.
Arioch swung his sword, but the attacker skittered away out of direct light. He aimed a blow at the vague glowing blotches. His blow connected, but only glanced off the thick, springy skin.
“Pull back!” cried Jochabed. “We need to get away from our foes!”
“Get to where? Do you have a rope on you? I don’t!”
“One step at a time.”
Arioch retreated into the yellow puddle of light. He brandished his sword, but Flaindar seemed to fill the edges of the shadows. The rock ceiling weighed down on him more than ever. Dark, round foes pressed in as inexorable as the black boulders from his nightmares.
“Steady, now. We’ll have to make a break to the side.” Jochabed held the torch in his right hand and a dirk in his left.
Torchlight caught dark ripples of color flowing over the sword.
“To your side, then,” said Arioch.
They crouched, ready to spring. Before they could launch their attack, more Flaindars swarmed up from the crevice behind them. Jochabed cried out as the torch was torn from his hand and flung into the plunging dark.
Arioch swung about frantically, moving as fast a flying arrow, but he could not push the darkness off. Darkness, darkness all around, he would never see the face of the sun again. The darkness would trap and crush them all. Was Jochabed even alive yet?
A shimmering weight crashed into his knees, bringing him smashing to the ground, then pressed him against the cold earth. A firm, cool waxiness molded around him. He tried to slice at it with his sword, but his arm wouldn’t move .
The waves of fear washing through Arioch drained away as a much greater weight arose. Hope crumbled and sucked away the strength to fight.
The sword spiraled black.
The torch light across the chasm flickered, then the light streaked out toward Arioch. The pale gleams from the Flainders spiraled away to join it. A vortex of light arched toward Arioch’s sword. With one last flare, the sword absorbed it all.
Utter darkness reigned.
Arioch was beyond caring. Darkness was all he could see before him already. He closed his eyes to any possibility of light and his ears to the consternated cries of the Flaindar. Familiar war cries drifted over the chasm, but did not touch his heart. He did not even notice when the crushing weight was heaved from his body. Darkness had too strong a grip, and dragged him down into unconsciousness.
“Arioch! Arioch! Get up, my brother. We need your aid to get you across.”
Elias’s voice filtered into Arioch’s mind. He clung to the pleasant dream, willing to dream rather than return to waking darkness.
“Arioch! For the warmth of the sun, get up!”
No matter how he focused on the precious voice, the ground pushed up harder against him.
Elias cursed. “Someone relight that torch.”
“It won’t do any good,” Jochabed’s voice warned.
“Get up, Arioch! The fight is over and a new rope is up, but if you make me tie it onto your belt to swing your limp form across, you deserve what’s coming to you.”
“Elias?” Arioch whispered.
“A Hutchitt brought word of a rumor concerning Flaindars laying an ambush near a chasm just inside the Lonely Cliffs, and we feared it was for you.”
Arioch opened his eyes. At first, darkness still prevailed, but then a grey to the side gently blossomed into warm yellow.
Elias puffed a sigh of relief and sat back on his heels. “Taking all the light from the Flaindar really unsettled them and turned the tide. Finally got a taste of real darkness, wretched lightbearers! Still, I’m glad to have the light back.” He nodded to somewhere out of Arioch’s sight. “You took down quite a swath yourself before they felled you.”
Arioch pulled himself up. “You came under here for me?”
“Don’t expect me to do it again. I don’t understand how you all didn’t go raving mad before now.”
Arioch looked from his fellow Greenblood to the torch bearer. Jochabed smiled at him, though he stood somewhat slumped with his own set of shadows flickering behind his eyes. Blood dripped from a gouge in his arm.
Arioch smiled fiercely back and gripped Elias’s arm. Truly they were one.
The sword throbbed pink.
Jochabed reached out to help pull Arioch to his feet. A pink shimmer twined around his arm and the wound folded close.
“If you can, let’s go,” said Elias. “I’m more than ready to leave this shade ridden hole.” He nodded at the pink sword. “And I’m sure there are some that need your help just now.”
Arioch could almost ignore the dark the last leg of the journey, his heart was so full as he savored the presence of his companions. Elias walked by his side, relating his own journey. The trip by river had only taken the better part of three days. Building a covert camp, they had spent the rest of the time gathering information.
“At first we feared all the inhabitants were already dead. The walls are only rubble heaps now, and nothing stirred at the foot of the tree-stand. Then we saw some figures perched among the branches. Evidently no one is being allowed down. We don’t know if the Rovers are using them as look-outs or making rescue harder, but Marla thought she saw Baruch on one of the—”
Arioch snapped to halt.
It was he who had taught Baruch to overcome his fear of climbing on the outer branches; it was he who had showed Baruch the secret of catching a sunbeam in a mooluck husk. Together they had grown up climbing, leaping, sunbathing in Seasky, and now Baruch had betrayed the tree-stand. He had betrayed the tree-stand and all its inhabitants to death, but it was Baruch sitting with warm wood beneath him and the wind whispering over his ears.
The sword flared orange.
“What was he doing there?”
Elias staggered as his breastplate jerked toward the sword. A spearhead smacked against the orange sword, and Jochabed’s dirk shot through the air to cling to its blade.
“He doesn’t deserve to sit there. He doesn’t deserve to lay finger on—on the shadow of the tree-stand!”
Sunlight, wind, rain, fruit—longing swept through Arioch as metal items flew through the air to cling to the sword’s orange blade.
“Peace!” cried Elias, struggling to get out of his breastplate and step back from the barrage. “I’m sure he’s being held prisoner like everyone else.”
Now the cavern walls groaned and shifted. Rocks leaped from their places and hurled themselves at the sword.
Hanani pushed himself forward and shook Arioch’s shoulder. “Pull yourself together, man!” Wisps of hair stuck up where his bronze helmet usually sat. “You’re not the only one whose heart breaks for home. Don’t worry, we’ll come up with a plan to oust those Rovers as soon as you’re calm enough to move out into the sunlight.”
Boulders began to rumbled and twitch. Arioch closed his eyes and thought about the other residents of Seasky: his sister, his uncles, the maiden triplets. Yes, the tree-stand was one, and needed its outcasts. Soon they would return to the open air and then they would lay plans for the Rover’s downfall.
The rumbling stopped, and one by one the objects began to fall from the sword. When Arioch opened his eyes, the sword danced in a shimmering shift of silvery colors, and a pile of metal lay at his feet.
Hanani picked up one of the rocks and turned it over in his hands. “And I think these will be very useful in our planning.”
The rocks turned out to be cobbers, a type of rock with a cavity filled with explosive powder. These particular cobbers were also metallic, which Hanani felt confident could be used to provide the spark needed to use them as explosive weapons. One crew prepared cobbers, weakening some, drilling holes in others, to fashion them into powerful missiles. Another crew fashioned a giant, portable sling-shot, and the rest took turns gathering food and spying between council sessions.
It hurt Arioch to see the nets smothering the tree-stand’s branches. Weeping scars ran down many trunks, and the leaves already had a yellower shade than they should have.
“Reaching Seasky will be difficult,” said Hanani. “The walls are only rubble now, but crossing them will take time, and the Rovers cannot help but see. Their main line of defense seems to be at the trunks themselves, not before. Once up, we will have allies. We should at least have a chance to host a rescue at that point.”
“What can we do that they cannot?” protested a sharp-nosed Firmblood. “We are only a handful, not a treeful.”
“We have surprise and a secret weapon,” answered Hanani.
After much debate, it was decided to bombard the crown of the tree-stand where the Rovers seemed clustered, then storm the trunks. The bombardment would hopefully distract the Rovers, and maybe even prevent them from descending into the fight. The rescue party would go armed with smaller cobbers.
The attack was set for daytime. Lack of light did not seem to bother Rovers, while dark gave a disadvantage to all the tree-standers. Four stayed to man the slingshot while the rest crawled through the grass as subtly as possible. In the cover of the rubble mounds, Hanani stood to signal their arrival.
The first set of cobbers sparked, but fell without causing damage. The second set exploded beautifully, shredding nets and leaves alike. Arioch winced. He hoped they would not need to fire many. He wanted to save the tree-stand, not destroy it.
“Go, go, go!” hissed Hanani. The party began to scramble over the ruins.
Another rain of cobbers screamed through the air and exploded just short of the crown.
Seasky writhed with motion among the branches. Arioch braced himself and waited for a swarm of enemies to descend, but instead the Rovers fled to the very top of the crown and disappeared…down into the heart.
He stared. “That’s impossible,” he whispered. “How are they doing that?”
The heart was the very center of the tree-stand, where the oldest trunks grew. There twining there was so thick only the very young could squeeze inside. Adults forbade the young from going near the heart. If a child managed to wriggle in far enough to get lost or stuck, no-one would be able to reach and help. Almost all children of Seasky had taken a turn sneaking close to the heart and seeing how far they could wiggle their way in. Rovers were bigger than even the largest adult Sweetbloods. They should not be able to find their way into the heart.
Wordlessly, Hanani touched the trunk nearest to him. Raw, bleeding gashes ran its length, and the whole tree sagged limply. It was not the only one. Many trunks had taken damage, more so the further in they went. Arioch pulled himself up on a lower branch and leaned in. His breath caught. “Look,” he said.
At the heart, almost every trunk bore weeping sores. The whole complex sagged like an unsteady lattice. Claws and tails were visible through the gaps as Rovers piled in. Around its edge a few trees had been allowed to remain whole to lend support.
“Air flow,” said Gershom, bitterly.
Hanani pulled himself up and motioned for those still on the ground to follow. The branch they were on sagged as though it had been a withy branch. The party moved on until they could plan with no fear of being overheard by the Rovers and they all had a stable perch. Several times on the move a branch gave way, and the climber was saved from a fall only by a quick jump or a friend’s hand.
“We have to move fast,” said Hanani. “There’s no telling how long the Rovers will give us. One party will start the evacuation. Another will climb to the top and empty our weapons on top of the intruders. With any luck, those working the slingshot will pick up the message and empty their arsenal in there as well.”
“But…won’t that kill the tree-stand?” asked Jochabed.
A shadow settled across Hanani’s brow. The branch he stood on began to give way, and he felt for a better support. Someone from above pulled the branch taut again.
“Yes.” Hanani’s voice was soft. “But there’s nothing we can do to save it at this point. The best we can hope for is to rescue our kin and carry away some seeds to try a new beginning.”
“And destroy those roving fiends,” said Elias.
“We must try. Otherwise, they will only follow when they have strangled Seasky to a husk, looking for a new host.”
“You will need a guide,” said a voice from above. Holding Hanani’s branch was one of Elias’s cousins. “There are many paths which will no longer bear weight.”
“A guide is most welcome,” said Hanani. “Is there anyone else who is available to help spread the word?”
As swift plans were laid, Arioch pressed near Hanani.
“Let me go,” he said. “Let me go find some seeds.”
“Your search will be a hard one,” warned Elias’s cousin. “Much fruit has dropped as the tree-stand ails. Food for the Greenbloods runs low. We have begun to supplement sunfruits with virgin claret. If there are any seeds left, they will be near the heart. The Rovers do not allow us to come near the heart.”
“Then I should begin immediately.” Arioch looked over at Hanani, who nodded and continued to break the party into two groups.
Arioch did not look for one of the paths, but climbed directly over brush and tangle, testing each step. He avoided the Rover nets where he could. They shadowed much of the way. When he started to slow down and look for wizened sunfruits, their shade made the search difficult.
Several sunfruits were perfect for eating, but many had started to soften. Many times Arioch found a pock mark on the bark where a sunfruit had begun to dry down, but all were empty. He could hear the the clatter and barking voices of the Rovers now. The heart was very near. He walked as softly as he could, not wanting them to notice him.
Spiraling upward, Arioch could feel worry take root. Surely one seedpod still existed. They could not all have perished in just a few weeks. He only needed to find it before cobbers reined into the tree-stand and destroyed it all.
Halfway up, he finally spotted the brown curve of a wizened sunfruit peeping through the fork in an almost straight treestalk. It was broken; only a third remained. If it still had two seeds, though, two seeds were enough for a new start.
The seeds lay a mere armslength from the tumultuous outer tangle of the heart. Arioch looked for a branch from which he could lean over and take it the fruit. He would rather not get as close as climbing the treestalk itself. The openings here in the heart were not large enough for a Rover to come through, but with a little bending could easily allow a claw or sting to pass.
Just above the fork was a promising looking loop. Climbing up, he dropped down into the belly of the curve—and the branch gave way like a gouty withy.
Arioch snatched at the nearest treestalk. His hands found hold, but the stalk itself bent weakly under his weight. Arioch found himself swaying toward the heart. Rovers cried out angrily and pressed their claws out, ready to meet him. Arioch looked hastily around for a solid perch. Nothing was near enough to reach.
His support lurched, then slowly began to straighten to the side from the top down. Arioch looked up. Someone had caught his treestalk and had looped a rope around it. Tying it to his stronger stalk, he moved down, pulling it in and fastening it as he went.
Arioch frowned and looked harder. He knew that figure. Baruch!
The sword flamed red.
One might count it odd that where others did not dare to go even for food, this traitor seemed at ease.
Baruch dropped down, closer and closer, until one more pull would bring Arioch over to a sturdy branch. Only then would Baruch meet Arioch’s eyes. For a moment they stared at each other. No words were spoken.
Arioch gripped his sword until his knuckles ached. His lips pressed grimly together.
Baruch reached out and pulled the treestalk in one more time. Arioch stepped over to solid footing, sword half raised. It crackled, and the cloth nearest the blade began to singe.
Baruch licked his lips. “The sapling there should give you solid footing to the crook you want.” He waited, his face gaunt and white.
His face was as white as the day when, as boys, they had rescued a fledgling from the heart of Seasky and carried it back to its frantic mother. He had braved talons and tearing beak that day to do what must be done. What had changed this one-time friend?
“Seasky is dying.” Baruch’s voice rasped on the last word. “Do what you need to finish this.”
Arioch shifted his sword higher. The tree-stand was one, and this traitor had struck a rift so great—
He was suffering, too. The gauntness bore witness of how little he had eaten, confined to the branches as he was. Up here, he could not so much as tend to the egg pit he had prepared, even if his betrothed would still have him.
Those we leave are either dead or dying.
Arioch closed his eyes. No, the tree-stand was one, and those who betrayed it betrayed themselves. Baruch was not a former friend, but an estranged brother. Slowly, he shoved aside thoughts of vengeance and forced out the words he knew he must.
“Brother. Come with us.”
Baruch did not answer. When Arioch looked, tears streamed down the other’s face. He lowered his sword and tentatively stretched a hand out. “Come.”
“Anything,” Baruch whispered. “Anything at all…”
The red seeped out from the sword.
Memories flickered through Arioch’s mind of racing and exploring and adventuring through these branches with Baruch at his side. Inside ached, but underneath he was glad not to have lost this friend as permanently as Cassia.
The sword blushed pink.
“Will you take this venture with me?”
Through his tears, Baruch smiled. “Always.”
Together, they leaped to the sturdy sapling and over to the fork. Arioch gently scooped up the dried pod. Inside, three seeds rattled. There would be a tree-stand yet. He cupped the precious bundle for a dozen heartbeats, then passed it to Baruch. They shared a look as though they two owned the best secret in the world.
Pink swathed the sword.
When Arioch reached out to slide down a withy branch, pink erupted upward. Swirling around the branch, a pink glow shot out, following the criss-crosses of the tree-stand in all directions. Tree-stalks straightened, leaves bushed out, gashes closed over. Tendrils sprang out every which direction.
The heart of Seasky straightened and swelled. Tree-stalks pulled back together and new withy branches twisted through, binding it even tighter. Yells of alarm and pain broke from the Rovers.
“I think we should leave,” said Baruch. Running, sliding, jumping, they sped to the outer branches and then down to the ground. Arioch kept his hand against the tree-stand. Pink continued to swath the tree-stand until silence fell and Seasky stood taller and lusher than before.
“As long as we stand together,” gasped Arioch.
“We will stand firm,” answered Baruch.
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