Chapter 9 — Just Beneath the Canopy

Lew spent the rest of the day in her room, desperate to catch up on her studies. As if she was not put upon enough already, now she was sure this stranger would translate to some new unreasonable demand on her time. The whole system seemed designed for her to fail. She ground her teeth at the injustice as she approached the hippogriff pen.

In the waning light, the hippogriffs crowded her and tried to nip at her hair and ears. She batted them away as she fumbled her key into the lock to the feed house. Biffy stuck his blotched beak into the doorway as she cracked it open, and she pushed it back shut on his face until he pulled out. He still wore his reins, and her stress fell away at the thought of another ride. Zad was almost as careless as a hippogriff himself, putting him away without undressing and cleaning him, but that wasn’t her problem. After another minute of chaos, she had a pile of dried meat and a pen full of happy, feasting hippogriffs.

When Biffy had eaten his fill and slumped in a corner with a satisfied quork, Lew approached him. Francis loved to hitch rides with her, but he was nowhere to be seen. It was his loss. She took Biffy’s reins, urging him to stand. Biffy chortled in complaint, rustling his wings and pulling back. Hippogriffs were nothing if not easygoing, however, and in moments, he stood ready to be mounted. 

Lew looked all around her for Kallen to emerge from a solid wall or descend from the sky. When he did not, her smile broadened. She put her foot in the stirrup and leapt onto Biffy’s back. He cawed and hopped from one hoof to another, eager to get moving. Lew patted his soft head feathers. “Ok, Biffy, let’s go!”

Biffy spread his wings and bent his powerful hind legs, and they launched into the sky.

They flew together to the heights of the great orange trees of Pando, approaching the thick branches resplendent with green leaves, dressed in drops of sunlight shining in the early evening gloom. Lew pressed forward and sent Biffy into a nosedive, letting her stomach rise in free-fall and her long hair blow out behind her. Then Biffy opened his wings to catch the wind. She shrieked and giggled as they launched forward, weaving between the widely-spaced trunks. She pulled up for another climb and looked down at the tiny village of Candon. 

The crowd from the morning had dispersed, and now it was just the usual smattering of miniscule people wandering to and fro on their little paths to achieve their diminutive goals. The River Candor wound through it all, underneath the bridge at center-city and through the metalsmith’s hut. A serving girl brought a baked cassava to the great hall, looking like little more than a doll traveling to a round toy chest bearing a white seed. 

Her eyes followed the Candor upstream, and she could see Candon’s closest neighbor, Zalatha. She never had time to visit as it was nearly an hour’s walk away. A crow cawed and took off from a branch below her towards the town. She watched it beat its black wings and realized she didn’t have to walk.  She leaned to nudge Biffy to the left until he faced Zalatha and urged him forward. As they glided forward, she picked out Zalatha’s landmarks. Nothing drew attention like the Great Hall of Candon, but Lew could spy Zalatha’s orange lumber stacks rising just above the thatched roofs of the buildings. The town sat in one of the oldest parts of Pando, and His great trees reached the end of their natural lives and fell around it with regularity. Whittlers flocked here to craft beautiful sculptures, which stood outside the entrances to the town’s humble shacks.

The greatest sculptures stood in the town center, on a small island created by a brief split in The Candor. From this distance they looked like figurines one might use in a game of table war. In wood stained deep brown with only a tint of orange showing through, each depicted one of three great figures in Pando’s history. On the left, Pychis the Worthy wore his traditional heavy robe and carried the seven staves of the Greenwardens on outstretched hands, offering them to all the people of Pando in return for sanctuary, becoming the only stranger ever to earn a place in the great forest. Legend holds that when Pychis passed, Pando himself accepted his body, reaching up his roots and dragging it gently beneath the earth.

On the right stood Wyn, the ancient hero of Pando from decades before the Greenwarden Staves were ever invented. In his simple shift little different from Lew’s own, his hand resting on the beak of a demure gryphon, Lyncado, and a night-black rat Derry and crow Blade on either shoulder. Together with a small band of other heroes, these four helped free all good people from the thrall of the Demon King.

In the center, in his iconic rumpled hat and beard whose very tip extended all the way to his feet, The Wizard stood with his hands high above him. He splayed his fingers in a power stance as if magic emanated directly from his person with no need for staves or other artifacts. 

Lew watched the Zalathans wander their promenade, talking, eating, whittling. She watched a little girl skip under the statues through the shifting glow of the sunlight-filled moat that surrounded them. It must be nice to live away from the capitol. What if she were just a simple Zalathan girl instead of the High Elder’s daughter and the youngest ever Greenwarden? 

As she pondered, Biffy’s head perked, and he looked back to Candon. Lew strained her ears, and she heard the whistle. A two-tone sound that Zad had used many times before. Biffy turned and opened his mouth in an earsplitting screech. Lew pulled on the reins, but he jerked his head and she let go rather than be pulled off his back to fall to the ground far below. He entered a nosedive.

As her stomach rose once more, Lew’s shrieks were no longer joyful. She couldn’t dismount this hippogriff, and he had received a command that outranked her own. She could only hold on and hope that Zad wouldn’t mind finding the answer to why Biffy took so long to come to his call riding on his back. The hippogriff extended his wings and she hugged his neck as they rocketed toward Candon.

Lew glanced at the grass falling away behind her as Biffy pumped his enormous silver wings and skimmed the ground. Could she jump off? If she rolled through the grass she might not get too hurt. She took one hand off of Biffy’s neck and shifted her weight.

But it was too late. Before she knew it, she was holding on for life once more as he climbed, rising up the side of one tree, the whistling coming down from above. The sound stopped, and one strong arm wrapped around her midsection and pulled her off. She gasped as it drew her to a hard, leather-armored chest.

Zad helped her out of his arms and onto the thick branch, where she seated herself and watched Biffy fly down into the distance. This high up, the canopy was so close that they would hit their heads if they stood. She turned back to Zad. When she looked into his brown eyes, she saw a nameless dread, but it was gone as soon as it appeared, and he flashed the easy grin that set her heart aloft. He didn’t seem surprised or even concerned to find her riding his hippogriff. She couldn’t explain it. “Did you know?”

“No,” said Zad, shrugging. “I just want’d to go home, but now yer here and that’s bett’r.”

“Oh.” He liked that she was riding Biffy without his permission. Lew’s heart pirouetted in the sky. She had so much work to do down below, but that’s where it was. Not up here with Zad. Her face felt hot, and she stumbled over her words. “I… I guess I c’d stay a bit.”

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By Sam Munk

Science fiction and Fantasy author with a focus on philosophical inquiry and character-driven drama.

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