Chapter 10 — Above the Canopy

Lew’s father Alisair High Elder Greenwarden had led several sessions in Candon’s rock-enclosed fire-pit on fire detection. He burned one object after another inside a steel box and passed it to the children to smell and note what plant was burning. Lew was eight years old, and had put all her attention to the task. Dry wood meant someone was cooking. Cassava or meat meant someone was cooking poorly. Barkcloth smelled like dry wood, but it burned fast and hot and dumped smoke out of the little hole in the top of the box. Evacuate the house and alert the nearest adult. She had achieved perfect recognition on her third try, making a point of identifying each smell precisely even though she only was required to report what action to take. The slightest smile curled Father’s lips, but he said nothing. In response, Lew’s stupid smile stayed pasted on her face the rest of the week. When she returned to the next lesson to try to earn his approval again, Father told her she’d completed it and shooed her away.   

Now that the shock of being so close to a man with no one else around was done, Lew’s trained nose detected another scent beyond his alluring musk. The sweet, slightly rotten smell of burning seven-leaf meant that she was to skip the nearest adult and report directly to an elder. The lesson did not include why she should do this or what would happen to the bearer of the smell, but anywhere that adults left gaps, children would fill in the answers.

Mommy says he’s sick an’ he’s tryin’ to take care of himself when he needs help from somebody that knows bettr’n him. 

Ain’t no big deal. He’s fallen into a patch of the stuff and maybe he don’t know, so you’re just helpin’ him out. 

Daddy says he ain’t hurtin’ nobody. Just leave him alone. He’s been summonin’ demons and when you tell the grownups they’ll make him disappear.

Lew wished she had Francis here to tell her what to do. He’d probably do what he’d always done and tell her to turn him in and that he can’t say any more until she’s twenty anyway. In any case, she couldn’t report Zad while she was trapped here on a tree branch, so she set it aside, the transgression making her heart beat all the faster. It continued to flutter as Zad smiled down at Candon.

“Everythin’ looks so small from up here, don’t it, Lew?”

She nodded.

“Yeah, even if a gryphon came up, I ‘spect it’d look like a little rat.”

“… Yeah,” she agreed.

Zad’s grin grew broader, showing off his white teeth. He laughed as if acknowledging the humor of something that had only happened in his head. Then the laugh grew longer and louder and more forceful until he clutched his sides and rocked back and forth so hard Lew feared he would fall off the branch to the ground below. “Ha ha ha,” she said.

When his giggled died down, Zad sighed. “This is probably the highest you’ve ever been, huh?”

“I ‘spect there ain’t much higher to go,” Lew glanced up at Pando’s green leaves, performing their usual lightshow of catching big drops of green-yellow sunlight and sucking them inside. She reached and touched one, a splash of sun falling and hitting her shift, glittering as it soaked inside.

Zad guffawed at this like it was the funniest thing he’d ever heard, and Lew bit her lip and forced a few laughs along with him. Zad nodded, agreeing with himself on a course of action. He reached for Lew.  “Come on, up we go.”

Lew didn’t understand what was happening and she shrieked when suddenly Zad’s strong arms were around her again, lifting her, pushing her up. “Ow, ow,” she complained as little branches and twigs scraped her face, “stop.” Her bare feet found his shoulders, and she stood on rippling muscle. She opened her eyes. Then, despite the glaring sunlight brighter than anything she’d seen before, she drew them wide.

All around her was a sea of green. Above her was glorious purple, blue and orange, one brilliant shade blending into the other. White fluffy shapes floated in the colorscape like globs of mashed cassava. She spun her head and saw the sun at the edge of the horizon. She’d never seen more than the shine from between the leaves, and the whole thing was incredible, an immense glowing circle just beginning to dip behind the endless ocean of green. She squinted and turned away, looking up in the direction of Zalatha, and saw a massive triangle. Blue-grey and white-capped, it rose high above even the incredible trees of Pando. So high that she could see it far in the distance despite the waning light. She turned around the other way and strained to look.

Out beyond the edge of Pando was a red-brown path with a strange texture. It wasn’t dirt, but she was too far to see what it was. Beyond it was a hill made of the same substance. No, it was several hills, like trees with no leaves or branches. Tall, but not round. Flat like shafts of lumber.  She couldn’t describe what it was. A giggle escaped her, though it was the wrong sound for the occasion.

Before she knew it, she was back in Pando again, Zad’s smell overwhelmed her. She decided she loved the burning seven-leaf as much as she loved the rest of his aroma. With one shove upward, he had overturned her world like it was nothing. 

Zad grinned and held her close. “It’s ok, it’s a lot. Sit with me.”

Lew said nothing for a long time, trying to process her vision. “What is the brown?” she managed.

Zad shrugged. “I dunno a damn thing about it. Pretty cool, though, huh?”

“Oh,” Lew mumbled, disappointed. She looked down at the ground.

“Don’t go yet. Hey, there’s a whole world out there. Ain’t that cool?”

Lew tried to shake the fog out of her head. “Of course there’s a world out there. If there weren’t, what would Kallen be defending us from?”

Zad grinned and let out another manic guffaw. “I never did think about it that way.” As the sun set, Lew’s euphoria passed and she again remembered all the work that remained down on the ground. She wondered if it was rude to ask Zad to summon Biffy again to take them home.

Before she could ask, though, his look changed. “Hey, Lew. Ya think Kallen High Greenwarden knows what he’s doing?”

Finally, an easy question. Lew shook her head emphatically. “No. He’s stupid.”

Zad laughed so hard he started to cough. “Ok, that’s enough for me. Does that mean Alisair High Elder is stupid, too?” 

Lew pressed her lips together and furrowed her brow. “No, he’s smart.”

Zad shook his head and looked into the darkness. “Is it smart to kill all the gryphons?”

Lew pouted and made sure to emphasize Zad’s low rank in her response. “Yes, Zadyn Rider.”  She called up one of her father’s speeches. “They bring violence. They bring chaos. Some, I assume, are good protectors, but we don’t need them. That’s what we have people like you for.”

Lew half thought Zad would laugh again at that, but the haunted look came back into his eyes, and he looked away. Lew would be happy if she never heard the word “gryphon” again and she lost all interest in being polite. She spoke in a monotone, “I’m ready to go home, Zad.” 

Zad put his hand to his head. “Gimme a spell.”

Lew scooted closer to her tree trunk and sighed while Zad continued his monologue. “It’s just – we’re twelve riders. We’re the biggest defense force in all a Pando. Other towns are lucky if they got two riders. Zalatha ain’t even bothered to train one. We had to fly all the way out there when those two strangers invaded.”

Lew said nothing, and Zad went on.

“You’ve seen Biffy. Does he look like he can fight like a gryphon can?”

“Yes.” Lew glared at Zad.

“Does he look like he would?” Zad countered, and Lew thought about the dancing, chortling bird-horse that was so gentle no one even bothered to fence him in. 

“Yes,” she snapped, furrowing her brow, eager to dip her head into whatever dusty old book would get her away from here. 

Zad shrugged. “I dunno. We seem to do nothing but help Meden kill gryphons. We ain’t killin’ em so fast, but they’re disappearin’ just the same. When I was little they were all over the place, but now I barely see ‘em. Kallen put a stop to it, but maybe it’s too late.”

Lew’s breath came short. “They killed my mother,” she snapped. “Didn’t you say that was bad?”

Zad’s mouth fell down, and his voice cracked. “I dunno. It was just one, but what if it happens again? It doesn’t seem like there’s any right answer.” He caught Lew’s eye and looked away, putting his hand to his chest and taking long, deep breaths. During the silence that followed, Lew revised her opinion of Zad in a direction she hoped she’d remember.

“I do know the wrong answer,” Zad whispered without looking back. After another pause, he turned to his captive audience, his face nearly drained of color. “Why did we take one tragedy and visit our revenge on a whole species? I couldn’t kill one myself. But I threw the net. Every day I went out there and threw the net. Is that any better?” 

Zad stared through watery eyes, as if Lew might have an answer for him. Lew knew the feeling of wrongness. She had felt it with her father, deep inside her heart. In her soul, like the Grpyhon squawked in terror, and her ancestors reaching back a thousand years cried out for it to stop. But then Father wrapped his arms around her, and she trusted him. Father is right. Father knows best. Don’t be afraid. When Zad broke eye contact, she bared her teeth. “Can we please go now?”

He nodded absently and put his fingers to his mouth. Lew covered her ears as he belted out Biffy’s two-tone whistle.

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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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