by C Scott Gray
4 tribes of protectors within the kingdom, striving for perfect balance. Then comes Chaos.
Fall, of the 37th year of the reign of S'aarth|
Ai'Liel (Walks The High Boughs) was always the most daring of the Branchrunners. He would range farther from the heart of the Homewood than any others. He dared climb higher, leap farther, and to less solid branches, than any other of the warrior.
It was said that he was more comfortable leaping tree to branch to leaf to twig, than even the small, nut and seed gathering chitter sailers
It was truth, too. Ai'Liel always felt a special thrill when he had to move as lightly and quickly as he possibly could, to maintain support and speed from the leaves of mother forest. He delighted in the wind in his hair, when he leaped and sprang above the crowns of trees. Flying farther, taking longer drops, swinging along the vines, branches, even flexible tops, through the trees.
None could match his shooting, either. On the run, flying tree to tree, branch to branch, at breakneck speeds, he was still able to pick a budding spicefruit off of its stem along a clinging vine, with a single shaft. He was just as deadly accurate with the pocketed flexible shaft of the oh'ona strapped crosswise on his back, used to launch rounded river stones, or heavy balls made of the ch'ai'ira wood, then charred for hardness.
Children who had no hope of being accepted, or who had once had hope, but had been passed for inclusion in the Runners, often played with these same weapons. They were scaled down versions, with stiffer shafts, used in a semi-organized team activity. Passing the toh'ahk, usually made of bound rags of woolbark fiber cloth, from teammate to teammate, until one would see an opportunity to whip the "ball" into their chosen scoring target.
Ai'Liel, however, had never had any real opportunity to join these hijinks. Both of his parents had been Runners, which meant that he had to demonstrate unworthiness in order to be removed from the order. So he'd trained to be a forest guardian, a warrior, from his third new-leafing.
Now, Ai'Liel was in the summer of his 20th new-leafing, one of the area's cs'cutiates, or senior Branchrunners. Acknowledged as the best example of a high demand, high performance population. He was sure to be announced soon as an heir to a tribe. That tribe's warrior representative amongst the Runners.
Today, though, Ai'Liel had roamed as far as even he considered to be on the edge of acceptability. Right to the edge of the mother forest from which he could see, if he climbed to the topmost branches, the plains rolling far into the distance. There was a fairly strong wind kicking up off and across those flat expanses, and the sky above was darkly brooding. He could smell the rain coming in the air, and felt the electric tingle that was the tell tale of a storm sure to be accompanied by the booming, cracking sky fire.
He began to move lower down the levels of the trees, while also making his way back towards the motherwood. He knew there was slim chance of making it, but the closer he got, the more protected from the storm he would be, sheltered by the thickening armor of the boles of centuries-old forest giants.
The rain began to fall, as expected. Fat drops, hitting with a palpable force on the top layers, even having some fair strength driving them, fat and pounding, to his height. The winds were strong enough to be felt all the way down at his level, causing whole trees to sway, not just the crowns and upper boughs. In very short order, it became clear that this was more than the normally destructive storms that came off the plains, this time of year. This was going to be a rage of nature, an act of violence on a scale rarely experienced by his people. A tree-killer.
He just hoped he could make it into the deepwood before the worst of it caught his fleeing self.
The winds picked up, the rain became a constant fall of water, no longer separated into drops by leaves and branches, and the first rolling sounds of far off sky fire could be heard, at fairly close intervals. Ai'Liel just hoped he could make it far enough into the forest to be protected from the brunt of the anger of the powerful storm. But, since he was still far enough away from the motherwood to be considered "in the outreaches", he knew the chances of that were slim, and getting more so by the moment.
When the storm was so close to him that even the thicker branches able to support a woodcutter's weight, standing solid, were weaving and shaking to the point he was having trouble finding footing along them, much less purchase enough to allow his normal fleet run. Ai'Liel came to a decision. He didn't like it, but he had no other choice.
He took his scythethorn blade from its sheath, and began to cut hanging greenmantle vine. Even with his blade of sharpened thorn, impregnated by the sap of the homewood tree, then dried to make it harder than most stones, the greenmantle was tough to cut. But he managed. As the sky fire was cracking so close that the flash and the bursts of sound came almost simultaneously, he began lashing himself to the tree, hampered by the cutting winds. This was the best he could do, to defend himself against the storm's maddened assault. He hoped it would be enough.
The wind gained fury as the storm raged on, gaining such power that it was whipping branches, and forcing the rain to fall almost horizontally, even this far below the tops of the trees. Ai'Liel could feel the whole tree he was lashed to thrumming with the power transferred to it. The branch his feet were on was creaking and bending, twisting to the wind's beat, while the massive booming explosions accompanying the sky fire were falling one after another, almost a single, rolling, sound. He felt his exposed skin was being cut by the impact of water, then flayed from the bone by the force of the wind.
For an interminable time, Ai'Liel rode the storm, in this manner, whipped, flayed, scoured by wind and rain, and the small debris carried on each in its maddened rush. The storm seeming to draw more and more on the pure and raw energy of the Brown Father, from whence all life grew and to all returned, in some form, to be born again, anew and different.
What had already been a storm of generations built upon itself, many times over. Green leaves were ripped from their branches, even this far down, and all about him thin, weakened, or damaged branches were wrenched from their moorings, to fall in a complex and clattering pattern, through the trees' living arms, to the ground below. There was an incessant thrumming throughout this part of the forest, born of the complicated and ongoing vibrations of living wood strummed by the violent fingers of the wind, playing its strings on that which withstood its onslaught, and percussion with skyfire and falling branches, Water making various accents to the dramatic, and brutal symphony. Ai'Liel found himself a sole audience of this concerto...from the focus of all of its massive pressure, it seemed.
As ever though, a man with the freedom to make his choices also has the necessitated freedom to face the consequences. For Ai'Liel, the consequences had seemed dire enough, already. The Mother and the Father liked to heap humiliation upon those who expose more than is their wonted share of pride, however. Ai'Liel had come to the conclusion that he had displayed just that, and wondered just how much meekness would be forced upon him, before this was over.
He hadn't long to wonder about this, as just moments after he started reflection on the idea that hubris was the reason for his current state, the sky herself, opened and loosed a bull-throated roar. A flash of light, and a concussion of sound, all together stopping the small part of the world around him with its focused act of retribution.
The sky fire had struck his own tree. Ai'Liel felt the fire of it run through him, as it grounded itself in the Father through its bole, and screamed in agony as the edges passed through his body. Only to be silenced as a shattered piece of the crown of his stanchion against the storm, fully the size of his leg and coming with a speed born of both gravity and the force of the shattering impact of the fire, crashed against his head and body, in its tumbling path to the ground.
He vaguely heard an ominous cracking creak, and felt a wider sway, as he was lost to the void of dreamless unconsciousness.
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