Big Trees - Traders Passage
Tarren pulled hard on the lever, sending the bolt soaring through the branches to sink its point into the thick red bark, the rope firm between it and the wagon. Wenna shot another out of the back of the wagon, forming a cradle of support between the massive trees.
In the dappled light that filtered down from the canopy, Tarren could just make out the distance. “Some 400ft,” she called to the others. “It’ll make it, but just barely.”
Sola sighed and slapped the reins, “C’mon, you big brute.”
The wagon groaned as the yoke was pulled forward by the black beetle lashed to its front. It lifted one carapaced leg after another, stomping right up to the edge of the branch. It opened its armour-like elytra and extended its wings.
The tack pulled taut between the beast and it’s cargo, and the whole mass lurched off over the deep abyss between the trees. A slap rang out through the silence as the ropes pulled taut, stretched, but held in the ancient wood. The sound of Sola’s reins mixed with the rhythmic thrumming of massive wings and the groans of the wagon, while Wenna cackled from the back.
They edged across the gap, Sola offering supportive words to the beetle while Tarren’s eyes studied the gathering darkness. Their sap lanterns shed a small halo of green light, flickering gently with the swaying of the wagon. Ragged breaths wheezed out of the beetle as it clawed its way through the air, wings beating hard.
The beetle gave a hacking cough, a high pitched whine, and then faltered.
The short fall before its wings started again was enough for the full weight to drag on the ropes. The snap from the front rope sent a twinge down Tarren’s spine as the wagon swung back towards the tree.
Sola screamed, “Up! Stupid animal, up!”
Tarren fumbled another reel from her satchel. She snapped it onto the mounted crossbow and, cursing, pulled back the string. The bolt snapped its way toward the tree, but when it hit it issued a sickening squelch. The wagon jolted to a stop, it’s passengers jostled and barely holding on, with all eyes towards the far off oak.
The section of bark that the bolt had found purchase in was coated in thick moss and had begun to tremble. Huge sheets of it began so slide away from the trunk, but not to fall. They lifted, twisted, and craned around towards the wagon, swinging freely over the abyss.
The moss covered capace of this insect vibrated with the deep screech it set loose in the silence, it’s eyes glowing golden beneath twitching feelers.
“Titan!” Tarren screamed over Wenna’s laughter. Swiftly, she cut front cord and the wagon plunged once more. She fumbled in her bag for a new reel but found only rations as the wind screamed in her ears. “Here comes the splat!” Wenna cackled as the wagon flew toward the red bark.
“Toss me your spare, you old hag!”
Wenna stopped laughing long enough to slide the reel over the roof of the cart, and Tarren loaded it in a practiced motion. She aimed far off to their right and, grunting, pulled the trigger. The bolt struck, and the beetle whined again as they rocked from the impact.
The crack of branches thick as houses preceded the Titan as it wend its way towards them. With glowing eyes just feet away, it issued a screeching roar.
The beast pulled itself closer by its massive foreclaws, while the wagon crawled feet at a time. Sola was slapping a crop against the beetle’s shell, reins in one hand.
With another scream, the Titan leapt towards them. Enormous branches gave way beneath it’s massive form, spiked legs spread wide.
There was a flash of light and a bang that shook the branches. The Titan jolted as if it had hit a wall in mid air. A hole opened in its face and ooze sprayed from the back of its head into the depths of the forest.
It fell inches from Wenna. She almost reached out to touch it, but Tarren pulled her back by her shawl.
“By Chaffinch, what was that?” Tarren asked.
Sola pointed up and to their right, “Ask them.”
A trail of smoke curled from the front of a grey vehicle, brindling with spikes, high above them on a branch. As they watched, four more rolled out onto other ledges, encircling them. Each had one of these strange cylinders built into the front of the angular cart, glowing with a violet fire.
Tarren and her crew pulled the wagon onto a shelf of fungus, the beetle wheezing heavily, and cut the back rope free. Tarren reached for a crossbow but Wenna hissed.
“Not with these folk, girly. Lest you want to end up like ol’ bug down there.”
“So what do we do, old hag? Are they like to shoot us if we leave?” Tarren felt odd with Wenna calmer than herself.
“Movement.” Sola pointed towards one of the grey carts. A hatch had been flung open and a figure moved with ease out onto the moss coated branch. In a smooth motion, they leapt out into the open air.
They fell for a moment, down towards the wagon, then thrust their arms out wide.
Cloth unfolded in the wind with a snap and they began to glide, circling slowly towards them. Two more followed from other carts, each dressed in these loose cloaks that could ride the wind.
The three slid to the ground in formation a dozen feet away. They were helmets of twisted bark, like sickly crowns, and their folded cloaks made them look like withered trees.
Tarren looked to her two companions. Sola smiled meekly but Wenna had her eyes locked on the lead figure. Tarren leapt down onto the branch to meet the strangers.
“That’s plenty close and no closer,” She could feel her pulse in the palms of her hands. “We’re not here to make trouble.”
The figure in the centre raised a hand and the other two stopped. As they did, the cloak drew back to reveal a scabbard at their hip. It glowed with a faint violet light. “Nor are we, if it can be avoided.” This leader’s voice was high but stern, like a mother’s. “You’re traders, where have you brought your cargo from?”
Tarren glanced back to the closed wagon. Sola had moved from the front to on top, crouching in wait.
“We’re from Heartwood, making the long trek out to Deltalarch.” She kept her own voice even to match the stranger’s. “Never seen wood like that, you must be from far off.”
“Yes, we’ve travelled quite a way for this. What do the good people of Deltalarch need so desperately that they wouldn’t trade it somewhere closer?” The figure had begun to move closer, while their two companions fanned out to either side. Tarren put a hand to the hilt of her own blade, a dagger only a quarter as long as the stranger’s blade. “Now what did I say about distance?”
Sola slipped in beside Tarren, her wooden spear unslung.
“Where I’m from, it’s considered impolite to ignore a question.” Their own hand was at their hip now, and the calm of their voice faltered. They took another step.
Tarren pulled her dagger, holding the green sap blade out before her like a shield.
“Nothing in this cart to interest the Greybarks.” Wenna sounded almost angry, spit flying with the final words.
The stranger stopped again, cocking their head. “Well, I never. That’s a voice I haven’t heard in a long time.”
Wenna leant forward over the railing of the wagon. “And yours is a voice I’d hoped not to encounter again, Captain.”
The figure barked a laugh and pulled the gnarled helmet from their head. A long, red braid fell to their side, hair pulled back to show a burn down their left cheek. “It’s General now, Aldwenna.”
Tarren looked from the old woman on her cart, face sullen, to the smirking warrior with the longsword. She took an unconscious step back toward the cart.
“Greybark pomp doesn’t impress me, young one. Take your butchers and go.”
“Open the cart, old crone. No one needs to get hurt.”
“We can’t!” Sola raised her spear. “Their tree is sick, we-” “Quiet, child.” Wenna spat. “There’s only one cure for that.” The General raised her hand again and the two others moved forward.
Sola stepped between one and the wagon, spear outstretched. The cloaked figure placed a hand on the hilt of his sword and the two locked eyes. Feeling the thrum of her heartbeat, Sola lunged.
In a fluid arc, the man slashed his violet sword clean through Sola’s spear and into her shoulder. She stumbled back, the haft clattering to the ground.
“No!” Tarren leapt toward him, but the General rammed the pommel of their sword into her gut. Winded, she dropped to the ground.
The General stepped over her body to where Sola was slumped against the cart, clutching her wound. Blood soaked her tunic and ran down her forearm.
“That wound will fester unless it’s cleaned. You won’t last the night. I suggest you tend to it instead of wasting your time with us.”
Wenna slammed her staff onto the roof of the wagon, the resounding boom echoing out into the darkness. She swung it out into the empty air between her and the General, held loosely in her gnarled fingers.
“Grandmother, don’t be foolish.” The General smirked and slid the longsword from their belt. Extended in their powerful arm, the crystalised sap shed of the blade spread a violet halo around them. “Stand back before I run you through like your friend.”
“Take it!” Tarren had climbed to her knees, her eyes wide and watery. “Just take the damn thing.”
The General looked from Wenna, eyes burning with rage, to the weeping Tarren.
“Now there’s a clever girl. You heard the woman!”
The taller guard shoved Sola out of the way to open the cart door. Wenna only watched as she pulled out bundled rugs and sacks of moss, tossing them with little regard.
The guard barked a laugh and hefted out a large sphere, a barrel sized seed pod bound with vines that sloshed as she dropped it before the General.
They jammed their sword under the lid and pried it off with a pop. Within, thick liquid gave a faint green glow as it shifted. Gently bobbing at its centre was a spiraled red plant with needle leaves.
They smirked, jabbing a toe into the seed pod. “Your compliance will be remembered. The people of Heartwood have done a great service to-”
Tarren’s hand trembled on the hilt of the dagger, its point deep in the General’s lower back.
The General stumbled forward, the dagger slipping from Tarren’s hand, then turned in a flash of violet that caught her across the chest.
As Tarren fell to the ground, the wounded warrior let out a roar and plunged the purple sword into the ground. The bark where the blade touched began to shrivel and blacken.
“Stupidity!” Their face red. “Sheer idiocy.”
Sola crawled to Tarren’s side, biting back silent sobs. Wenna dropped her staff and made a move towards her wounded friend, but the General pointed a finger that stopped her in her place. “That’s enough!” They drew the sword back out of the branch, its sap blade glowing brighter, and waved it out towards the old woman. “You will live to tend to their wounds.”
The shorter guard let out a whistling bird call and a long vine was lowered from the grey carts high above. He slung the seed pod over his shoulder and tied himself to the vine. Two more vines fell from other carts and the taller guard tied herself to one.
The General sheathed her sword with a sigh. “This didn’t have to end so viciously,
Aldwenna. Every Precept was followed, your lack of compliance required discipline.”
The old woman spat yellow mucus. “Piss your Precepts.”
“Very well.” They tied themself to a vine and echoed the bird song. The three began to lift back up through the branches. “Luck of the bark,” they said.
“May the sap flow,” Wenna spat in reply.