"I see it! I just have to go a little higher! Hold on!" Raina shifted her grip a few inches to the left and tapped one of the ropey branches with her toe to test its strength. The dead wood was flaky and brittle, but weaker boughs had held her weight before. With a firm grip on the tree's trunk, she chanced the shift. The crumbling tree swayed and shed a rainfall of dead leaves, but the branch held.
"Don't go any higher! I don't think you should go any higher!" Ibli's worried voice called from below. Raina ignored her little sister and hauled herself a few feet closer to her prize.
"I'm fine, Ibli! Relax! Look, it's right there! I just need to have a look!" She shook a mist of wood shards out of her curly brown hair and glanced up at the weave of the branches above her. Dozens of branches had all grown together into a knot, looping over, then under, then over again to form what looked like a nest big enough for a person. Raina had seen the living trees deeper in the wood grow together like this, but never so many in such a thick pattern. The weave was just so regular and intricate. It looked crafted.
"Are you sure you won't fall? This is a very dead tree." Ibli sounded skeptical, and Raina couldn't really blame her. She was stronger and more agile than her ten-year-old sister, but this tree was coming apart in her hands. She squeezed the spongy wood with one hand, then nodded.
"It will hold, Ibli. You have Bone-Bottles, right? If I fall, we'll just Cast me better again. Anyway, I'm perfectly safe." Raina was answered with silence. She could imagine Ibli down there on the forest floor, weighing the evidence in her slow, thoughtful way. She was thinking, no doubt, what Raina knew perfectly well: that Bone-Bottles wouldn't be enough if she fell from this height. She'd be lucky to be conscious enough to Cast them. But Raina wasn't interested in reviewing her Casting lessons just then. She was climbing.
The nest was just above her eye level, attached to her tree by the thick branch in her hands. She grunted as she pulled to a chin-up, scrabbling to find some purchase on the tree's trunk with her feet. She got high enough to tuck the branch under one armpit and swung her left leg over, struggling awkwardly to straddle the V in the trunk. The tree swayed and shook with her movements.
The wood of these dead trees was so dry and hollow that it was lighter than driftwood and weaker than woven straw. The trees of the North Wood used to be so entwined and tangled that even if something broke, a dozen arms of the other trees would hold the loose branch aloft. Now that the swamp had been drained out of this part of the forest, many trees had crumbled and fallen, but enough remained. The network was still so big and so mixed up that Raina couldn't even imagine the whole thing collapsing. There was always another tree, another branch.
"I can see it! It's... it's..." Raina craned her neck and tried to take in the whole structure of the growth. The platform was woven out of six different trees, each lending three branches to the tangle. Each branch had grown over, then under, then over its neighbours until it emerged out the other side of the tangle and ended abruptly in a broken stump. "It looks like a cradle." she muttered to herself.
The weave was filled with dead leaves, broken branches, and something else too. Something dark and glossy was mostly buried by forest detritus.
"There's something in there." Raina called to her sister. "I'm going to try to reach it!"
"I could just Cast a Longarm, Raina. Would that help?" Raina almost paused to consider the suggestion. Ibli was a strong Bazza'Caster. She just had to pop a few LongLimb grains in her mouth and, pssht, there; she'd have a Longarm to stretch out and grab those things out of reach. Raina had a much harder time of it. Even if she had the right Baz with her up here in the tree, it would take her a handful or more grains to Cast anything useful. She might just barely be able to reach into the nest. Ibli could Cast a better Longarm from sixty feet away from a single grain. But Raina was already up here, and she wasn't going to have done all that climbing for nothing.
"Don't bother Ibli, it's right there. I'll just be a minute."
Raina inched along the trunk on her bum until she was at the first intersection between this tree and the branches that crossed it. She guessed that she could just reach the dark object now if she lay down along the strongest of the three branches from her tree. Raina was tall for a thirteen-year-old and glad of it today. She crossed her legs around the trunk and stretched, plunged her hands into the litter lying in the nest and pawed around. Her fingers finally brushed against it as she cleared the leaves away. It was soft, silky, and obviously once alive. Raina jerked her hand back instinctively.
A dead animal, maybe? Now that the leaf litter had been mostly cleared away, she could make out its sleek, furry texture, but its shape still wasn't clear. She could make out no limbs, no head. Instead, she was pretty sure she could see a stitched seam running up the long length of the hide, breaking the mottled black-and-grey pattern.
Raina considered her options and came to a quick decision. She carefully pushed herself into a front support and stood on the trunk, one foot at a time. There was another, thinner branch above her head that might not have borne her whole weight, but could be used for balance.
"Watch out below!" she called, and drove the heel of her shoe into the branch under her foot. The wood gave away more quickly than she'd expected. The branch crumbled like paper mache and she slipped, her foot tearing right through the desiccated wood and exiting into the empty air below. Raina yelped in surprise and held tight to the branch over her head, but it too started to crack under the full dangling weight of her body. She hung there in shock for less than a heartbeat before coming to her senses. She pulled hard on the tendril of tree and swung herself towards the tree's core. The thin branch fell to pieces in her hands but she had the momentum to reach the trunk and to catch it in a huge bear hug. The entire tree lurched to the left but held. The forest did not fall down.
Ibli yelped as the last few branches holding the woven platform collapsed under its weight and ricocheted towards the ground over her head, breaking off twigs and splinters as it fell. It landed with a hollow whump like an exhaled breath. The whole ordeal lasted less than ten seconds, followed by five more seconds of silence as Raina panted and held, wide-eyed, the tree that had not dropped her.
"Raina?" Ibli's voice finally broke the still air. "Raina, are you there?"
"I'm fine, Ibli!" Raina's face exploded into a huge, excited smile. "How's the nest? There was something on it - have you got it?"
"Just a second." Raina tried to spot her sister through the mass of branches and dangling vines but only caught a glimpse of her white hair. "Yes, it's here. Are you coming down?"
Despite the shaking of her adrenaline-soaked muscles, Raina shimmied a little higher up the tree and strained to look out over the Baz fields that bordered the woods. She spotted their house in the distance, a stark white block topped by dirty yellow tiles that stood just a little higher than any of the homes of their neighbours. People still swarmed their yard and carriage strip, unloading unwieldy crates that looked as tiny as fingernails from here.
"Yah, in just one more second," she conceeded. She was anxious to investigate whatever treasure she'd knocked out of the tree. She paused a little longer to enjoy the overhead view of her home town. Fort Arnisson looked like a trunk's-worth of children's blocks upended on a hill surrounded by a deep ocean of trees. She liked this view, being able to take in her whole world at once. "I'm coming down. Let's have a look."
YOU ARE READING
It begins with a plant. It begins with Baz. In the old days of the Empire, only talented Casters could eat the Baz grains and tap the power that lay in the seed. Bazza'Casters were powerful, legendary figures with abilities that were limited only by...