"You're lost, aren't you?" he asked, pushing himself off the low ledge, which was still enough of a height to wobble his stance as he landed. He straightened himself and popped his hands to his hips, cocking his head to the side and raising an eyebrow.
"I am quite aware of my baring's, thankyou" she replied, and pulled the faintly glowing orb to her chest before turning and continuing down a narrow path between two cottages. The buildings of this town were tightly packed and cobbled together, stacked and leaning on each other for support like drunkards at sunrise. Before she reached the next intersection she heard his squat feet padding on the ground behind her. She took the path to her right, frowning as she stepped into the soft orange haze of the overhead sap lanterns.
"I know my way around here real good, Miss," he said, drawing her to a stop as he tumbled into her path, gazing up from below his mushroom cap at her. "Really, it's no trouble."
She looked down her nose and straightened her shoulders, towering over him at twice his height.
"I am an apprentice of the Mahonia Conjunction, I need no assistance from any Morel child." She moved past him, the leaves on her head shivering and turning yellow as she made her way down the street, leaving the ring of light that the lanterns cut through the dark.
"Excuse me! I am Russula, and I am not a child!' he huffed, 'I turned eight two weeks ago." He plodded after her, small legs struggling to keep him in pace with her stride. "And you might be in the Conjunction, sure, but you're just a Neophyte Apprentice, aren't you!?." She stopped in place and spun on her heel to tower over him.
"How did you know that!?" She demanded, the bark on her back bristling and extending like the scales of an opening pinecone. He looked up at her, wringing the hem of his baggy tunic with stubby hands, avoiding her glowing yellow eyes.
"I was in the marketplace when you and your mentor arrived the other day. Those bracelets around your feet were blue. That means you've just started your training, right?" She frowned sending a soft pulse of yellow light in a wave through the gaps in her bark.
"You know an awful lot about our customs, Russula." She folded her arms and scowled down her nose at him.
"I have a lot of spare time and I like hanging out in the market." He straightened his shoulders and looked up at her through long eyelashes. "There have been a lot of Dryads showing up lately. Ooh! And I really like that thing you do where you walk out of the tree.' He held his hand up flat and mimed someone walking out of it with the other. 'So cool!!" He grinned and gathered up his arms like he was trying to put a lid on his excitement.
She chuckled and shook her head, mostly to herself.
"Well, I'm glad someone finds our work as interesting as I do." She looked over her shoulder at the dark street she had been walking.
"You are lost, aren't you?" He asked, pointing his feet in at each other and peering up from under his cap.
"I...' she began to defend, studying him, bobbing up and down with big brown eyes. She sighed and her shoulders sagged. 'Yes, I have no idea where I am." A faint moss crawled up her cheeks and ears.
He smiled and for a moment he reminded her of one of the poppy children from the Academy.
"That's ok. This place is like a maze, and we're probably lower down than most of the other towns you've been to.' he shrugged. 'It's harder to navigate when you can't see the canopy.' He turned and started walking down the road behind them, and she followed. 'I've lived here my whole life. Know this place like my own gills" he said, running a doughy hand over the corrugated underside of his cap.
She let out a breath and her leaves began to fade back to green.
"You're interested in us then?" She asked as they walked to the edge of the short road and began to climb a ladder to the next tier.
"Are you kidding!? Dryads are awesome!" He heaved himself up onto the landing of what was the 'Wood-Row Tier', according to a nearby inscription. "You guys are like superheros!"
She couldn't help but laugh. Shaking her head with a twist at the corner of her lips, flexing her ankles instinctively.
"That's awfully flattering. I wouldn't say the same myself but I appreciate the notion."
He extended a hand to help her up and she took it, though his short stature and soft build provided little more than moral support. She cradled the orange orb to her chest.
"You speak awful fancy. How old are you?"
"I am 87, this wind cycle." His eyes grew wide and his mouth fell agape.
"Holy moly, lady! 87? That's wild!" She laughed in an exhalation and studied him for a moment.
"Dryads have long lifespans, Russula. By our standards I am not even an adult yet, technically."
He rubbed his temple, transferring dirt from his fleshy fingers to his forehead.
"So we're like, the same age, but you're already more years than I'll ever be. That's...' he put his hands to his indistinct waist and huffed, 'that's kinda awesome!"
They walked across a pair of planks to a platform holding three small terraces, beyond which was a rickety bridge. Across the bridge was a gathering of shops and workshops, bug stations and towering apartments. They wandered through the darkened town, up winding staircases of tiered fungus, over temporary scaffolding made of sticks and sap, and under archways of hanging moss. Up and over, around and across, further and toward. She asked him how the lanterns worked, and he told her about the sap pipelines. He asked her about other towns and other trees. She told him about Heartwood and how they built their homes inside the bark, not just on it. He marvelled at her stories and she quietly contemplated his. They walked past darkened windows and quiet marketplaces till his pace slowed and crawled and stopped all together.
"Russula, what's wrong?" He frowned, facing the wall of fungus, hands on hips.
"I don't, hmm, I don't want to dink up the vibe,' he jutted an outstretched arm at the wall, 'but I swear to Chaffinch this wasn't here yesterday." He scratched his chin and tilted his head like he was analysing a painting.
She couldn't believe it. Lost again.
She tightened her jaw, closed her eyes, and let a quick breath out of her nose, like one would when going to use a voucher to be told it expired a day ago.
"Like your gills, you said." She pinched the bridge of her nose.
"Well, I know the Agaric district at least. I'm not really supposed to go much further than that." She pulsed a wave of a yellow glow and he saw the leaves along the back of her neck start to harden and splinter.
"Oh I burn!!" She cursed, planting a foot in the floor. "Veris is going to have my bark for this." She curled her hands around the orb and began to forge back the way they came.
"Wait, don't lea-"
Before he could stop her retreat a rush of orange light illuminated their path, and as a voice began to boom in their direction, the young mushroom recognised in the newly born light, the gravity of their surroundings.
The walls towered above him, smooth, featureless, and gold. At their top, polished carapaces refracted light from blazing sap hearths down onto them. It was silent, as he had heard it would be, but he felt heat radiating from its slanted walls, enough to brown his cap.
"Uh, dryad!!" he called after her and ran to where she had been making her leave. He reached high to grab her hand and pulled her with a start to follow and run.
"What are you-"
"This is the Sun Corral!"
Her eyes went wide. She knew what that meant. She held his hand tight, fingers growing into an unbreakable grip. As shouts echoed behind them and heavy footfalls rained down on what they could now see as a polished wooden floor, they ran hand in hand. He pumped his short legs, wheezing and falling behind. She felt his pace slow and in a quick movement, pulled him up and carried him like a sack of potatoes as she slid down a ladder, darted down an alley to the right, and sprinted between the dark cottages. Tucking him under an arm and holding an enoki banister with another, she swung herself over the edge of a platform and landed with a roll off a polypore awning, onto the floor of the tier below. She stretched out a long wooden arm and held them tight to the wall of a shambled terrace, holding a finger to her mouth to quiet him as he attempted to regain his breath. They held their silence till her instincts told her the guards had passed and the two of them collapsed under the weight of their exhaustion.
"That was.." he trailed off miming an emotion with his hands that she took to mean 'absolutely crazy in a good and bad way'. They laughed through heavy breathes and trailed off to silence.
And the quiet reminded her.
Her eyes went wide and she put her hands to her chest, to her waist, and then began to pad the ground around her, spinning in circles on her knees, searching desperately.
"What's wrong?" He asked, seeing distress mounting in her.
"The amber! Where is it!?" He faltered, realising the orange orb was gone.
"I... I must have dropped it while we were running." She pulled herself to the edge of the platform to crane over, hoping to gauge its faint glow in the distance. "Maybe I left it at the Corral."
"I'm, I'm sorry, If I could've run a little faster..." He tried to stretch out a hand but hesitated before he touched her.
She let out a huff, and frowned for a moment, gripping her thumbs like they were emergency jettison buttons.
"Better it than you" she muttered nearly inaudibly. She sighed, long and tired, and leant herself up against the wall of the building, knees to her chest and head in her hands.
"Veris is gonna just love this..." she trailed off and ran her fingers through the short leaves on her head. He kneeled beside her, raising a hand, reassessing, and lowering it again.
"Let's go find it." She raised her head slowly and looked at him like he just asked her what a tree is.
"We can't go back up there, you know that, and besides,' she looked down at her hands, 'Veris wanted the amber like two hours ago now. I'm already burnt."
He pulled in his lips and shook his head, before pulling himself to his feet.
"We got outta there once, we can do it again.' He lowered a pudgy hand to her. 'And if you're burnt anyway, might as well give it a shot." She looked from his hand, four fingers waggling, up to his face, toothy and soft.
"You don't need to put yourself in danger for me." He dismissed her with a wave of his hand.
"Are you kidding? Walking right up to the Corral!? Twice!? With my new Dryad friend!?' he put his hands to his hips. 'They're not going to believe this at Show and Tell next week".
She laughed and wiped a bead of dew from the corner of her eye. She took his hand and stood to her feet.
"My name is Lephice.' she smiled, 'I'm glad I have a friend as brave as you." He grinned and shook her hand.
"And I'm glad my new friend is a ninja! Nice to meet you ninja friend! I'm Tawny, Tawny Agarsulabug."
They looked out from the ledge of the platform, out into a dark void of vague silhouettes. Below, trunks and bark twisted and fell to roots never seen. From where they stood they saw darkened windows, and towering apartments, rickety bridges and twisted cottages, cobbled together stretching up towards a canopy that they knew was up there, somewhere.