Chapter 13: Nighttime fears

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Recap: A stranger, Torchan, materializes out of the jungle, warning of danger and offering to guide the Connarii away to the far edge of the jungle. Toryn decides to trust him. Camlin and Edana aren't so sure. Edana is fascinated by the man that lives in the trees as comfortably as in a house, but also suspicious. She hopes to convince Camlin to stop agitating for a permanent settlement, but fails to persuade him of the dangers of the jungle. Aislynn affirms her concerns, indicating that it's an early sign of ancient power returning to the people.

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Edana stomped through the jungle, done with sisters and magical doings and mysteries in general. This was supposed to have been simple. She was supposed to finally have been getting what she'd always wanted – a chance to prove herself, to fight, to lead. But everything was going wrong. With no enemy to strike out at and dissension from within as Camlin divided the people's loyalty, her dreams of glory were taking a real beating.

Edana blew out a breath, kicked a tree, and turned around, shoulders set. That was it. That was all the time she could afford to feel sorry for herself. Time to get back to work.

She made a mental note to take a turn scouting ahead tomorrow, despite her overwhelming response to the jungle being ugh. It would be good for the men, she thought, to see her leading the way, fearless and unflinching in the face of, well, general misery.

Not that Edana was about to go around admitting it, but she was completely creeped out by the dark, slimy-damp jungle, so unlike the bright forests and friendly streams of her lost home. She couldn't see more than a few feet ahead even in the daytime, with all the vines and bushes in the way, and the heat made struggling through the growth a constant trial even at night. It smelled weird, too; rotting things and growing things and, now, hordes of sweating humans who hadn't had a good wash in far too long.

Edana swatted aside yet another vine, skipped sideways around a rusted clump of metal half-grown over with slime and then had to backtrack around a clump of bushes with suspiciously bright, speckled fruit. She made a mental note to circulate a warning against sampling the local vegetation when she got back to camp; they had enough problems without poisoning themselves.

Then she proceeded to worry about the sentries that vanished their first night on the outskirts of the jungle. Maybe they'd gotten bored and lazy and sampled something toxic, wandered off in a stupor and got lost – or got dead. Or maybe something just up and ate them. Or maybe the enemy the stranger spoke of got them. Or maybe the stranger had a whole tribe of cat-loving tree-climbing brown-skinned killers waiting in the shadows.

It wasn't in Edana's nature to indulge in futile worrying, so it was just Torchan's bad luck that he chose that moment to drop down from the branches in front of her. He landed quite a bit closer than she'd have been comfortable with under any circumstances, and given her train of thought and the late hour, he was lucky the she didn't gut him.

Or perhaps it wasn't luck. Edana finished at full extension; the tip of her dagger glittering in the vicinity of Torchan's neck, hilt braced for extra thrust. Torchan's neck, however, was suddenly a good four feet above its last observed location. He hung upside down from a vine, regarding Edana and her dagger mild interest.

"You are angry with Ashn. You argue over me. Why?" he asked, moving to crouch on a tree branch.

"What? You... Ash- you mean Aislynn? What are you talking about?" Edana skipped back a couple steps, unnerved by the suddenness of Torchan's entrance and subsequent relocation. She lowered her dagger to a guard position designed for mounted attackers, shifting a little further from Torchan's tree.

"Ashh-linnn," Torchan repeated with exaggerated care, "You argued with her, ran into the jungle. You should not wander alone. You do not understand."

"What don't I understand? I can take care of myself perfectly well."

"You don't know the jungle. You don't know... me." Torchan rolled forward off of his branch, landing in an easy crouch.

"I know you could use a pair of trousers," Edana shot back to cover the squelch of her feet as she edged back. It was proving a challenge to keep a close eye on his movements without getting an eyeful. Edana put on her captain of the guard face and toughed it out.

She adjusted the angle of her dagger to Torchan's new position and wondered if she dared reach for the sword strapped to her back. He took in her stance with narrowed eyes, then tilted his head and gave his shoulder a casual lick, almost but not quite looking away in the process. Then he stretched, both hands kneading the earth in front of him, the long muscles of his back shifting as he rolled his shoulders, looking like a great naked housecat. Then he lounged, there among the underbrush, forcing Edana to adjust her stance yet again as he settled himself comfortably. She flushed hot with anger at his casual dismissal and reached for her sword. A rumbled warning from the shadows above froze her in place.

"Voc," Torchan spat, rumbling in return, and the thing hidden in the tree silenced itself.

Edana held her breath. One or more of Torchan's catlike companions, no doubt. Now she knew they were there, she might – might! – be able to fend off an attack from above. But against one or both of the beasts and the man himself?

She eyed Torchan, lounging at the foot of a tree as if he'd forgotten she were there. He yawned hugely. Corded muscle stood out on his neck. He wasn't some barely-trained almost-warrior, overconfident and easy to trip up. Edana's heart sped at the thought of fighting him, fierce anticipation speeding her breath. It would be a real challenge, to overcome not only such size and apparent strength, but to meet his unschooled and beastlike movements, fluid and unpredictable.

Torchan seemed to catch something of Edana's excitement, raising himself up on his elbow, alert, to watch her. She let the thrill fade, reluctantly. It was neither the time or the place for such a match, not if she could help it. It wouldn't be fair to indulge and leave her family, her people, wondering what had happened to her. Though, she didn't feel bloodlust from Torchan or his beasts – and it was no foregone conclusion that she'd lose the match.

Edana met Torchan's eyes, then sheathed her dagger, holding both hands up to show she held no weapon.

"Fine. I was about to head back anyways."

Torchan made a sound of approval, a sort of rumbling hum. "You are not afraid?"

Edana held his gaze as she backed away. "I have better things to do than play games with you, stranger."

"You think I am dangerous," Torchan rolled to one knee in an easy crouch, showing teeth in an ambiguous expression that Edana thought could indicate amusement or impending violence. There was a tree at her back, and she moved to put it partly between her and Torchan, reasoning that she could use the solid barrier in the event of an attack. Not that she thought one was likely, but it paid to be prepared.

"That I will betray you," Torchan continued, rising easily to his feet. Edana slid further behind the tree as he continued, "that I put no value on a man's life."

He bounded forward and Edana braced herself, sliding into a ready stance, a dagger in hand as quick as thought. He was quicker, one hand pinning hers to the tree, her long knife scraping moss from its bark, the other catching her wrist and pulling. The tree was too close to try a kick, and though she pulled and twisted, his grip was unbreakable.

Torchan turned Edana's free hand palm-up and examined it, leaning down to peer at it in the dark, putting his neck too close to her. She considered going in for a bite; she probably couldn't kill, or even incapacitate him, from this angle, but he might let go in surprise.

From so near, she could tell he smelled different than the jungle; clean and wild like some large animal, and raw and green and alive. His hair was long and knotted in heavy ropes that swung around his shoulders, showing grimy skin at the nape of his neck. Silver-white scars twined through the deep treelike tan of it, vanishing under his hairline and curving down over his shoulders.

He looked up quite suddenly, so that Edana had to jerk her head back or risk colliding with his face. He was too close, close enough that she could see the thin tracery of scars over his high cheekbones, the narrow gold ring around his wide pupils. His breath on her face was another shade hotter than the warmth of the jungle at night.

"You fear that I kill without a thought," Torchan whispered, and Edana held her breath, fearing something she couldn't name. "You are wrong."

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