Chapter 14: Finding your balance

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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, working to build a base of power for himself and draw a force away under his own leadership, and Edana, urging escape from the jungle, aren't so sure. Edana is fascinated by the man that lives in the trees as comfortably as in a house, but also suspicious. Torchan challenges her, alone at night.


***


Torchan was back in the tree before Edana could catch her breath, or her balance, and she sat down in the decaying jungle muck without meaning to, dizzy. It took her a moment to recognize the deep purring high above her head as the great cats' amusement, rumbling even louder as she hissed in response.

Edana whirled away from Torchan and stomped off through the forest, her heart pounding. What was the matter with her? She really had to get it together, but all the tension lately hadn't been helping. And this conflict – power struggles with that upstart Camlin, diplomacy with beast-men, magical doings and her sister going mad – this was not the kind of conflict she thrived on... or at least, not the kind of conflict she could stick a sword in and call done.

It was easier to be mad at Torchan for making a fool of her, than to deal with her inability to solve the Camlin problem, or the whole lost-in-a-jungle problem, or Aislynn's ravings, or... how dare he berate her for going off on her own! How dare he follow her! And his claims to be so innocent; for all she knew, he could have been sent as a decoy. He could be leading them into a trap, or waiting to pick her people off one by one. He could eat humans, for all she knew!

Edana stormed through the jungle, squirming through curtains of dangling vines and crushing broad, squishy leaves. Mud and decaying plant matter splashed up onto her clothes and bushes caught at her arms and legs, snagging the hilts of her weapons as she thrashed her way through.

An unusually large and knobby root caught her toe, and Edana seized a thick vine to stop her fall. The vine gave, and she fell to the ground with a muffled cry as it tumbled down beside her. The vine twitched. Then it unraveled from its heap on the ground to reveal four eyes staring unblinkingly at her.

***

"Don't move. The atarrh will attack." A voice whispered from above.

Edana breathed slow and deep through her nose and tried not to look at the glowing eyes of the creature- two eyes to each head, on what otherwise looked like a normal, if unusually large, snake.

She took another breath, and tried not to stare at fangs gleaming from weaving heads. From above and behind the atarrh's head, a tri-forked branch emerged and sunk lower, to within an inch of the softly hissing beast as it reared back to strike.

"Just hit it already!" Edana screamed, throwing herself back as the atarrh flashed forward and the branch whipped down to arrest the reptile's movement. Then the creature was thrown up and back against a gray trunk. In the same moment, a gleaming spike of metal grew from the spot where the atarrh's two heads converged.

Edana looked up to see Torchan clinging upside down with both feet and one hand to a handful of vines, the other arm still extended from the throw. He looked down at her, ignoring the writhing remains.

"The jungle is not safe for you. Atarrh are not the most dangerous of its creatures, and if you are not prepared even they..."

"I can handle a little snake, thanks." Edana interrupted, shoving up off the ground and taking a few hurried steps back from the corpse and Torchan, who was once again too close for comfort. "I didn't need your help. I was just surprised."

She brushed ineffectually at her tunic, only managing to smear mud and slimy green fungus further. Edana twisted her hands around the leather straps to still their trembling. She was furious with herself. Pride of the Connarii indeed! Captain of the guard, warleader – she couldn't even stay on her own two feet. If Camlin had seen!

Edana heard the thump of Torchan's feet hitting the ground a split second before he grabbed her shoulders and shook her.

"You-are-not-safe!" he gritted out, giving her a bone-rattling shake with each word. Startled, frightened, embarrassed, and not a little angry, Edana tensed and snapped her head back to stare directly into Torchan's face. She immediately regretted it. Tears stood out in his eyes, his scarred face twisted in anguished terror. He let go and turned away so quickly that she stumbled and nearly fell again.
Torchan strode to where his rough weapon still pinned the atarrh to the tree and wrapped his hand around the end of it.

"You are the first I have seen since I was small," Torchan wrenched the shard out of the trunk and caught the atarrh's remains as they fell. He remained facing the tree, a primitive weapon clenched in one fist, a dead snake dangling from the other. "Every other one like you is gone - destroyed by this place. This is home; I do not fear it- but it. Will. Kill. You. You must be careful until I can lead you out. I can't... I won't let there be any more deaths. Do you understand? Not one of you can die- your lives are too precious. You must not be hurt."

Edana swallowed, at a loss. His emotion seemed genuine, if uncomfortably raw. It could be a trap, a clever show of vulnerability to earn her trust. It could be, if this uncivilized creature had the acting skills of a great storyteller. So, probably not.

Edana reached to her hip and grasped the long knife sheathed there. She pulled it free and held it up between herself and Torchan. He turned at the whisper of the blade leaving its sheathe.

"I have carried this with me always," her voice was quiet, but not soft. "I have trained from the time that I was barely taller than the length of this blade to wield it against all foes, man or beast. This,"-she extended her staff-"and this, and these,"-brushing the hilt of her sword and fingering the coiled ropes around her arms-"these weapons I am well able to use against any enemy. I was wrong to be angry with you for helping me; it was kindly done, and I thank you, but it is no idle boast when I say that I can protect myself."

Torchan glanced rapidly from weapon to weapon, his chin low and his eyes dark and unreadable.

"It is my duty and my joy to protect myself and my people from harm." Edana said evenly. This was not a time for boasting. "I respect your fear and desire to help us, but you must also allow us the freedom to protect ourselves, or we will lose our strength. We will leave this place as soon as possible, and we would be grateful for your assistance in that, as we do not know the terrain."

She was using the measured tones and cultivated speech of her station. She felt it suited the situation, putting space between her and the man of the jungle even as it calmed his emotion. It also made her deeply uncomfortable, as Torchan wrinkled his forehead and shifted his weight, frowning.

"Look," she said with a heavy sigh, leaning back slightly and grimacing. "Formality aside; I'm not used to people helping me. I never need help. I'm strong enough and fast enough to take care of myself."

Torchan let out a huff at that and raised an eyebrow. Edana hurried on over his scorn, "It's not easy knowing how to act when your whole world changes, ok? I can't trust anyone or anything right now. My senses, my intuition, my instinct, these help me to react accurately and appropriately to stay on top of every situation. Right now I can't even trust myself. So I'm sorry for lashing out at you, but I can't promise not to do it again."

Torchan's dark face slowly softened as Edana went on, growing thoughtful, then pained.

"I will help you to find your balance," he said, reaching a hand out to her. "This place may be dangerous, but it is not as unnatural as it may seem. Come with me."

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