How Zantheus Fell into the Sky

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THE QUALITY OF DREAM

Zantheus took some time to move on from his reluctance.

Was that it? Was it just time to move on? Was he going to be consulted no further in the matter? He had not given his permission. His pride wounded, it was a little while before his right foot moved forwards, seemingly of its own accord, and he started following Anthē, Tromo and their new acquaintances.

Just keep putting one foot in front of the other, he decided, that was all he had to do, no need to think about anything else. Soon you’ll be back in Qereth, in Aythia.

Only it was so difficult not to think about anything else. How long would he have to spend in this forest? How long would it be until he got home? The event of losing Leukos had taken his mind off things temporarily, but now that he was moving again it sank bank into its old patterns. He was almost completely consumed by a desire to be somewhere other than where he was now, to get back. How he longed to get back. For a while he trailed behind the others, gripped by these thoughts, but in an effort to alleviate them, after some time he moved ahead to talk to his new guides and ask them some questions, a trick he had learned on board ship with Tromo.

“How long have you lived in this forest, then?” he said, coming up behind them.

“Don’t be so rude, Zantheus,” chided Anthē, “you interrupted me.” She was feeling very irritated by him. “Conn and Feanna were just telling me that they’ve lived here for about four years now.”

“Why would you choose to live in a forest?” Zantheus went on with condescension, undeterred by Anthē’s telling off.

“I was just asking them that, actually,” said Anthē said.

“Is it that strange to you that we live in a forest?” asked Conn.

“Well,” said Zantheus, “normal people live in houses in villages and towns, do they not?” Anthē flinched when he emphasised the word ’normal’. Was he deliberately going out of his way to insult these people? She shot him an angry look.

“Yes, I suppose that’s what most people do…” said Conn, altering Zantheus’s word. “But not everyone.”

“Why did you decide to live in a forest then?” Zantheus carried on in his patronising tone. He was not so easily taken in by these careless wastrels –they clearly knew nothing of discipline and hard work.

“One thing is that we thought it would be good for Ethall,” said Feanna.

“Really?” said Zantheus. “How could it possibly benefit a child to grow up in a forest away from civilised society?”

“Oh, there are benefits,” said Feanna patiently. Anthē was amazed that she and Conn had not lost their tempers with Zantheus yet. Admittedly she did find the trio a little odd herself, but that was no cause for such behaviour.

“Such as what?” said Zantheus.

“Well,” said Feanna, “there are a good deal of things that the forest has to teach to those who are willing to learn. How to listen, for one. How to find your way if you’re lost, for another. The power in letting go... Many things.”

Zantheus did not think he had ever heard such nonsense in all his life. Perhaps these two had gone mad, like everyone was saying could happen in this forest. Was he only capable of finding mad guides? He sighed.

Just at that moment Tromo and Ethall decided to take a break from playing tig. Ethall took her mother’s hand. Tromo fell into step alongside Anthē, but he didn’t take her hand as usual; he wanted to show off how grown-up he was. Anthē continued to ask the pair questions about their life in the forest, and for a while Zantheus remained silent, listening to them. She asked them whether they had met any of the strange creatures Leukos had mentioned, about the most comfortable way to sleep at night, how often they met other travellers. Eventually Anthē came to ask “So what do you do all day?” Though she had thoroughly hated her own profession, she had some sense of a work-ethic.

“We’re wayguides, like my husband mentioned,” Feanna said.

“What does that mean?”

“We find people who are lost in the forest and help show them the way through.”

“And you really don’t ask for any money?”

“Of course not. We can live perfectly well off of the forest, we have no need for money.”

Zantheus could not believe his ears. Preposterous. Did they really expect her to fall for that?

Apparently Anthē had no problem falling for it. “Well, it’s lucky we found you when we did then!” she said happily.

Zantheus was unimpressed. How could Anthē swallow these lies so easily? Nobody just did things for other people for free. Except maybe Leukos...but he was mad. And a lot of help he had turned out to be anyway... Or there was the woman running the orphanage at Ir, Merimina... No, she was an exception. This couple were lying. They had to be. He decided he would leave them later when night fell, and Anthē and Tromo could come with him, or not. That was up to them. If they wanted to follow these strangers, that was fine.

The conversation continued for some time. Anthē asked them about the other people they had helped show through the forest, all the while commenting on how lucky it was for them to have chanced upon one another. When their stomachs started to grumble, it was decided it was time for dinner. Anthē was not a very experienced cook, so she jumped at the chance to pool resources with Feanna. The end result –on this occasion, soup– was delicious. This started to thaw Zantheus’s mistrust, if ever so slightly. People who cooked as well as that could not really be that bad, could they? Maybe he would carry on with them a little further, if only to keep enjoying the cooking. They were very odd, but perhaps they really were ‘wayguides’ like they said. An idea occurred to him.

“Conn and Feanna,” he said to the newcomers, “may I ask you a question?”

“Of course,” said Feanna.

“If you really do know Leukos…what does he look like?”

Feanna laughed.

“Are you still so slow to trust us?” asked Conn. Without leaving time for Zantheus to answer, he continued “Leukos is tall and thin, and these days has taken to usually wearing green. He also has red hair.”

Zantheus waited a moment. That was all true, but something had been missed.

As if reading his mind, Conn went on, “And, the most important thing to know about him, I suppose, is that he never stops writing. Ever. He is always writing on parchment which he carries around with him.”

“Oh. So you do know him.”

“I am sorry that you deemed us so untrustworthy.”

This seemed to placate Zantheus. As the conversation with Anthē resumed, he pondered the situation. The newcomers had been able to describe Leukos accurately, so they probably did know him. Of course, they could have heard a description of him from somewhere else, but it did not feel as if they were lying (although Zantheus did not know how to recognise a liar). At the same time, even if they did know Leukos, that did not entirely recommend them to him. And yet, he was loath to admit, Anthē was right: at the moment they were the best that he had. He decided that he would not abandon them all just yet, but stay with them a bit longer to see how things turned out. So Zantheus went to sleep that night in tacit acceptance of his new temporary guides, Conn and Feanna, and their daughter, Ethall.

*

Choresh forest grew denser over the next few days so that it really became more of a jungle than a forest. The trees, more numerous, grew taller and closer together. It became wilder too. Strange creatures started peering out at them from cracks in trunks, or scampering away when disturbed by the travellers. Daylight arrived with unfamiliar birdsongs, and Feanna would harmonise her wandering melodies with them, trying to imitate their various calls on her flute. Night was spent in the company of the incessant cheep of some insect that made its home in this part of the forest. This did not really bother anyone, except for Zantheus, whom it drove half-mad. He found it increasingly hard to get to sleep at night with the irritating sound of the crickets, if that was what they were, filling his ears. In other places he would have slipped easily into sleep. Now instead he lay awake thinking, mulling over his situation. Often his thoughts would turn to Leukos. Why had he abandoned them? Where was he now? At times Zantheus felt so angry at Leukos for leaving him behind, and he would work himself up into more and more of a fury before eventually falling asleep, so that he would inevitably wake up in a foul mood. At other times though, Zantheus felt sure that Leukos had not left him behind at all, and had a sense that he was still close by somewhere, watching over him. More than once when he was lying on his side he could have sworn that he saw him only a short distance away, sitting writing with his back to a tree, just as he had seen him on Avarah. But on tilting his head to a new angle he would convince himself that it had merely been an arrangement of shadows and foliage playing tricks on his eyes. Because the forest was so much thicker here it was even darker at night and so easier to invent shapes as he looked out from the place where he lay on the ground. He came to dread the night, with its noisy insects and deceptive darkness and missing stars.

By contrast, the daytime journey became much easier. Their new guides raised their spirits with bursts of sweet, tuneful music, and Feanna continued to cook wonderfully, able to supplement her recipes with the things that grew in the forest. Tromo as ever stayed close by Anthē, but now and again he would peel off to join Ethall in a round of her favourite game, tig. Conn and Feanna filled the day by telling Zantheus and Anthē the secrets of the forest, their names for the trees, what they could and couldn’t eat. They were much better company than the distant and elusive Leukos. Feanna gave Tromo ocarina lessons, showing him how to coax new sounds and even some tunes out of the small instrument. Zantheus found that while the sun shone his daymares of the endless hills came into his head less and less, and he had to remind himself far more infrequently of Awmeer in order to spur himself on. The journey had become almost...enjoyable. It was only on the afternoon of their fifth day with Conn and Feanna that anything happened to alter this opinion.

That morning Conn had explained that they were coming to a part of the forest where there was a very wide, almost ravine-like gully. He told them that it would take a very long time to go around or through it, that it was much quicker to find a certain place where one of the enormous trees had fallen, or been pushed, across the gully, to serve as a walkway over it. A couple of hours after lunch they then arrived at the gully. They could see the sky again. But where the world above them had suddenly opened out, so had the world below them. It was as if someone had decided that this place in the forest should be lower than the rest and scooped a big hole out of the earth. The ground simply dropped away from them all of a sudden and fell very steeply a few hundred ammahs down. They could see the tops of trees growing far beneath them, and the bottoms of those growing over on the other side. It was an incredible sight. And indeed it was clear that it would be much faster to cross over the gully than to attempt a descent. They began to make their way along the edge of the drop, though not too close to it, making sure that Tromo and Ethall kept safe to one side.

After a while they caught sight of the tree Conn had mentioned. It was massive, even for Choresh. It had fallen from the other side, and the splayed branches invited them onto a walkway along its trunk. On the other side they could see that it still had some roots in the earth along with the gnarled ends that stuck up in the air and those that crept down the far side of the incline. So they climbed cautiously up the branches on their side and began their crossing. Atop the felled tree they had about three paces’ width of trunk to walk on, though they had to stay right at its centre as it curved away at the sides. Conn went first, then Feanna carrying Ethall, then Anthē carrying Tromo. Zantheus took up the rear.

Conn uttered the obvious advice, “Don’t look down.”

Walking very slowly and carefully, it took them about ten minutes to get near to the other side. During this time, Zantheus had noticed that in one place below them the trees disappeared. In fact, a whole section of the side of the gully running down to where the ground flattened out was covered not by trees but by some peculiar overgrown mass, a continuous mess of leaf and vine. It looked it like it was all part of the same organism, one enormous sprawling plant. It even seemed to seethe slightly.

Don’t look down, Conn’s words echoed in their minds.

But Zantheus could not resist. It was not that great a distance to the canopy down below. He reasoned that were he to fall he would probably be able to survive. There were probably enough branches and leaves to slow him down enough before he hit the ground, though it would still be a painful fall.

“Conn, what is that?” he asked.

“I thought I told you not to look down, Zantheus,” said Conn soberly.

“I could not help myself. What is it?”

“That,” said Feanna, “is a Hamartia plant.”

“What is a Hamartia plant?” was what Zantheus was about to ask, but before he could speak he was interrupted by a terrible screeching sound. All of them looked to their left to see where it had come from. Flying towards them unsettlingly fast was a flock of birds.

“Get down!” yelled Conn.

In front of Anthē, Feanna knelt down at once and leaned forward, sheltering Ethall and holding her secure in place. Anthē copied her without really knowing why she needed to assume this position. The reason soon became apparent. She shut her eyes as she felt the birds rush past her, still screeching as they went. A few of them buffeted against her shoulders. Tromo pressed himself close against her in terror. Had they remained standing they would not have been able to stay balanced for long.

The rush of feathered screams subsided. Anthē released Tromo and got to her feet. “Stupid things,” she turned round to say to Zantheus. But he wasn’t there. “Where’s Zantheus?”

“Oh, no,” said Conn. “He’s fallen in.”

“What?!”

“Don’t worry, I’m sure he will have survived.”

“We’ve got to go down there and find him!”

“Let’s get off this tree first, in case those birds come back round for another pass. We’ll be no use to him if we get knocked in too.”

They shuffled the remainder of the way to the end of the tree and slid down the roots back on to the ground. Anthē was expecting Conn to start making his way down the slope so he could go and retrieve Zantheus. But instead, he, Feanna and Ethall merely sat down a little way from its edge.

“Well, we might as well make ourselves comfortable.”

“What?” said Anthē. “Shouldn’t we go down there and help him out?”

“Don’t worry,” said Feanna. “He’ll find the way out. Though I suspect in Zantheus’s case it may take longer than most...”

“Come again?” Anthē was confused. “What do you mean, ‘in Zantheus’s case’?”

“Have a look for yourself,” said Conn.

Anthē took his advice and peered over the lip of the slope. The same green mass that Zantheus had been enquiring about grew close to them here, and made its way up most of the side of the gorge, stopping only a little way away. It was like someone had taken a ball of wool, only one that was made out of leaves, vines and shoots, and strewn it without care in the middle of the trees below. Presently there was a tremendous rustling down there in the wild green. She could hear Zantheus’s muffled grunting, but the foliage concealed him from her sight. After a while the grunting grew quieter, then subsided altogether, and the rustling stopped.

“Here we go...” said Conn knowingly.

A gauntlet-clad hand appeared, thrust forth from the vegetation. Then an arm, then a head, then another arm. Zantheus began climbing up the slope towards them.

“That didn’t take too long,” said Anthē.

But Conn just said “Wait.”

When Zantheus had gone about an ammah, suddenly a green tendril shot out from below him and coiled around his leg. His immediate response was to try to wriggle free, but this only made it constrict more tightly around his leg so that he cried out with pain. He struggled all the harder, and at once the vine dragged him back into the leafy pit with another cry of surprise. He disappeared from view once more, lost in the overgrown mass.

“What happened to him?” said Anthē.

“The Harmatia plant cannot be struggled against,” said Conn. “It can sense movement. The moment it entangles you, the only hope you have is to play dead, to let yourself become perfectly still. Keep watching.”

Under the mess of green, the grunting resumed as Zantheus fought with the Hamartia plant.

“While he battles he cannot free himself, the plant only wraps itself tighter around him. It is only when he is still and the plant thinks he is dead that it relaxes its grip. At least until it next senses his movement, that is.”

This time the grunting stopped slightly more quickly, though it took longer for the hands and arms to emerge a second time. Zantheus began to climb again, and got to about the same place up the slope as he had before, when another vine extended itself and wrapped around him.

“Zantheus!” shouted Anthē from her vantage-point up high. “Wait!”

But she was too late. Zantheus jerked his head up to look at Anthē, and at once the vine tightened and dragged him back down the slope. More grunting, then silence again.

“What is it?” bellowed Zantheus from the depths of the Hamartia plant. He sounded angry.

“Conn says you have to relax! You have to play dead when it catches you!”

“That is an easy thing for you to say!” was the frustrated reply.

“Just try it! He seems to know what he’s talking about!”

A pause, and Zantheus resurfaced for the third time. Sure enough, he had covered about an ammah when the plant sensed him and stopped him in his tracks. But this time, completely against his instincts, Zantheus managed to stay completely still. After a few moments, the vine loosened and he was able to slip his foot out from it. Elated, he made a mad dash upwards. Two more ammahs and another vine shot out and gripped him. Since this time he responded by being everything but perfectly still he was pulled all the way down again.

“Stupid plant!” said Anthē. She went and sat down with the others. “What a horrible thing!”

“Yes, it is horrible,” said Conn. “But it teaches a lesson we all must learn...” he added quietly.

They watched as Zantheus continued making little journeys up the slope, making different amounts of progress before he inevitably found himself rushing towards the bottom again.

“It was those stupid birds that did it!” said Anthē. “Why did they have to rush past us like that?”

“Oh, they did it on purpose of course,” said Conn.

“What?”

“They are in league with the plant.”

“What do you mean?” Anthē suddenly came very close to doubting the sanity of her guides, which before she had been relatively sure about.

“Don’t look so puzzled,” said Conn. “They are symbiotic.”

“What does that mean?”

“They have a mutually beneficial relationship,” said Feanna.

“They benefit from one another? How?”

“The birds try to trap large animals in the plant. Then, when they fail to escape from it, they eat them. At the same time, they also prey on smaller animals which feed on the plant, protecting it in the process. So they each benefit from the other. They are ‘symbiotic.’”

“So you’re saying they’ll come back and eat Zantheus if he doesn’t get out?”

“They’d try. Though I’m not sure they’ll be able to open up his case to get inside...”

Anthē did not find this joke amusing. “I wish they hadn’t knocked him in...”

“Don’t worry, Anthē, he will get out,” said Fenna.

“I just hope it happens soon, so we can carry on.”

A pause.

“Let’s cook something,” said Conn after a while.

“May we share some more of your food?” asked Feanna.

“Be my guest,” said Anthē. “Just so long as you’re willing to prepare it again. If I have to cook another meal for that pompous...” –her tone softened as she heard Zantheus being sent to the bottom of the slope for the umpteenth time– “Well, let’s just say I’m tired of cooking.” She took off her pack and took out some food and utensils according to what Conn wanted. She was surprised when on this occasion he did not pass them to Feanna but set them down, started building a small fire and began to cook a stew using what he had chosen.

“You cook for your wife?” Anthē asked.

“Sometimes. I’m not very good at it really...”

“He does his best,” said Feanna. Anthē suddenly became slightly envious of the pair. “In any case,” Feanna went on, “he can’t stop me from helping him.” She stuck in a spoon to extract some of the bubbling mixture and tasted it. “Hmm. You know what would spice this right up? Desheh. Ethall, do you think you could find us some Desheh?

“Can Tromo come with me?” asked the girl.

“I don’t see why not,” said her mother. “As long as it’s ok with Anthē.”

“Fine by me,” said Anthē.

At this Ethall marched up to Tromo, who was still peering over the edge of the drop watching Zantheus’s slow upward climbs, and grabbed his hand. “Come on! I’m going to look for some Desheh! If you don’t want to help...say nothing!” She sped off, laughing at her own joke, dragging Tromo with her. They watched the two of them career out of sight, leaving them alone.

“What’s Desheh?” asked Anthē, for want of anything else to say.

“A kind of herb,” said Feanna. “Ethall knows what it looks like. It has a nice flavour to it.”

They watched Conn busy himself with the stew. Then, he and Feanna took the conversation in an entirely new direction, and an odd one, even for them.

“So tell us Anthē,” said Feanna, “what are your dreams?”

“Dreams?” said Anthē. What a bizarre question. “What good are dreams for? Dreams never got anyone anywhere.”

“Oh, but everyone dreams, Anthē,” said Conn, stirring the pot. “Dreams are what carry us from one day to the next.”

“I suppose...” Anthē agreed reluctantly.

“So tell us,” said Conn, “what are your dreams?”

Anthē knew that they were not going to give up until they got some kind of answer. Shyly, cautiously, she gave them one. “Well... there is one thing...”

“Go on,” said Feanna.

“Well...” said Anthē, “one day... I would quite like...to get married.”

Feanna smiled. She reached over to clasp Conn’s hand next to her. “That’s a good dream to have.”

“Is it?” said Anthē, with a tinge of resentment. “Where has it got me? Dreams never got anyone anywhere.”

“So you keep saying,” said Conn. “But, to my mind, that all depends on the way you dream.”

Anthē laughed. “What do you mean by that? How—”

Anthē stopped mid-sentence. She had heard something. It was one of Zantheus’s grunts, but no longer muffled and far-off, now it was close by. She rushed to the lip of the gully. Sure enough, there was Zantheus, about ten ammahs away, so close to escaping from the plant. “That didn’t take too long!” She started calling out encouragement to him. “Come on Zantheus! You can do it! You’re nearly there!” Conn and Feanna spoke too, but more solemnly.

“Careful, Zantheus,” said Conn. “Not far to go now.”

“Just remember, you can’t fight it,” said Feanna. “Stay still when it grips you.”

The part of the plant that was currently coiled around Zantheus relaxed, and he made a rush for the top, thinking this was the last stretch, aiming for Anthē. Just as his hand reached the edge of the slope and Anthē took hold of it to help him up, one last vine jerked up and wrapped itself around his torso. He cried out in pain, but instead of letting go of Anthē he gripped her hand more tightly and tried to use her to wrench himself up and over the lip of the hill. She responded in kind by trying to pull him up.

“No!” shouted Conn, and he pulled Anthē back just in time to stop her toppling down in to the clutches of the plant along with Zantheus. Anthē herself stumbled backwards over Conn. She let out an angry cry.

“Arghh! He was so close! I nearly helped him out!”

“No, you didn’t,” said Conn, dusting himself down. “None of us can help him out, least of all you. His strength may not be any use in getting him out, but still it is only he who can find the way.”

“Stupid, cursed thing!” said Anthē. “Now we have to wait all over again.” She sat back down. Slowly her anger subsided.

Conn went back to stirring the stew. “What were we talking about before?”

“Dreaming,” said Feanna.

“Oh yes,” said Anthē. She recalled the question she had been about to ask. “How many different ways to dream are there, then?”

“Two, by my reckoning,” said Conn.

“Oh? And what would they be?”

“Do you really want to know?”

“Of course.”

“Well,” said Conn, “the first way is when you care more about how the dream makes you feel than the dream itself.”

Feanna elaborated. “The first way is where you fix upon your desire for the dream, instead of fixing upon the dream.”

“What do you mean?” asked Anthē.

“Take your example of a marriage,” said Conn. “The first way means caring more about how marriage would make you feel than the marriage itself.”

“Alright...” said Anthē. “I think I can guess what the second way is.”

“Of course you can,” said Conn. “The second way is when you dream for the dream alone, not for how it will make you feel.”

“No, I don’t really see,” said Anthē. “How you can separate the two? Whoever dreamed of something that wouldn’t make them feel happy?”

“Quite right,” agreed Feanna. “There is nothing wrong with being happy. But the second way is where you fix on what you are dreaming instead of fixing on your desire for the dream, on your own happiness.”

Anthē laughed. “As far as I can tell, all we’re interested in is our own happiness.”

“Quite right again,” said Conn. “I completely agree. We need to be taught. We are slow learners. But we are learning all the time.”

“Well, no-one ever taught me there was a best way to dream.”

“It’s not just a quality of dream,” said Feanna.

“How so?” asked Anthē.

“Well, it’s like we try to teach Ethall: If you dream, don’t dream for how it will make you feel, learn to dream for the dream. If you sing, don’t sing for how you will be heard, learn to sing for the song. If you fall in love, don’t love for how you will be loved, learn to love for your lover.”

“What is life, anyway,” said Conn, “if not a long drawn-out dream?”

Anthē nearly dismissed this outright, but something made her think about it for a bit longer. “Maybe...” she said. “But dreams feel different to the rest of life, don’t they? I don’t know. They just seem lighter... fainter...”

“But the two ways are always there, aren’t they?” asked Conn. “You can dream for how the dream makes you feel, or you can dream for the dream.”

“...maybe,” said Anthē, still skeptical.

“Have you ever woken up from a really good dream,” asked Feanna, “so good that it made all the hurt and pain in the ‘real world’ seem unreal? I find that as soon as I focus on the good feeling, it leaves. As soon as I try and catch it, it slips out of my grasp. But if I focus on the dream, on what it was actually about, the feeling stays. It is a strange thing.”

“Perhaps I will try that out...” said Anthē. Then she remembered something. “Actually, I did have a very strange dream recently, about being in a beautiful garden. And…no, it’s silly.”

“Go on,” said Feanna.

“Well, Leukos was in it. But it was before I met him. In fact it was the night before I met him.”

“Interesting,” said Fenna, glancing at Conn.

“Do you think I’m crazy?” said Anthē.

“No, we don’t,” said Conn. “Stranger things have happened. We believe you. What happened in the dream?”

Anthē reached back into her memory. She didn’t have to reach very far. The dream had never really left her. “We were in a beautiful garden. But part of it had been damaged. And Leukos told me that it could be repaired, and that I needed to find the other person the garden belonged to, to discover the rest of it. What do you think it means?” To her surprise she found herself opening up to Conn and Feanna, asking for their advice.

“Hmm,” said Conn. “Well to my mind your dream of the garden and your dream of marriage aren’t really very different. In both, you want to discover something new with one other special person, and share it with them. I think the garden is like your heart.”

Strangely enough, Anthē could understand that. “But what was Leukos doing in my dream?”

“I couldn’t say,” said Conn. “He is an odd one, isn’t he? The best way of understanding it might be that sometimes when we dream about something important, our dreams can skip forwards in time a bit. That might have to do with Leukos turned up in your dream.”

For some time Anthē thought about this, without saying anything. Then she said, “How do you think I can make my dream become true?” It felt like a foolish thing to say, but she said it all the same. It was what she wanted to know.

“Well,” said Fenna, “it’s like we mentioned. We would say: Keep on dreaming for the dream, and not just for how it will make you feel.”

“But how do I do that?” said Anthē.

As she was saying this Tromo and Ethall retuned, sooner than expected, each with huge clumps of some red plant in their hands.

“Oh!” said Feanna. “We won’t need that much.” She took a pinch from Tromo’s proud bounty and sprinkled it into the pan. “Thank you, sweetie.”

“Ethall,” said Conn to his daughter, “why don’t you play with Tromo some more, while Daddy gets this ready? Just make sure you’re back before dark.”

“Ok!” The girl needed no further encouragement. “Tig!” she said to Tromo, with a wallop, and shot off, trailing Desheh in her wake. Tromo however stayed where he was and looked at Anthē, as if waiting for permission.

“Well go on then!” said Anthē, reluctant to acknowledge her authority, and he dashed off after her at once. “I wish I could be a child again,” she said wistfully as she watched them go.

*

Tromo ran behind Ethall for a little while, who made it as hard as possible for him to catch her by sprinting as fast as she could and running in and out of trees at random. Her long dark hair flew out behind her and if Tromo lagged behind he would be able to catch a wisp of it disappearing behind a tree to aid him in his pursuit. If he missed this as well, somehow Ethall would sense it, or notice the absence of the sound of his footsteps, and invariably let out an ecstatic shriek of excitement to alert him to her latest trajectory. Eventually though she must have tired of this game, because Tromo followed the sound of her latest giggle to find her standing quite still with a thoughtful look on her face.

“I’m tired of tig.” This was a rare occurrence. “What game shall we play instead?” She turned to Tromo. “Oh! I forgot!” she exclaimed half-playfully, half-cruelly, “You can’t talk, can you?”

“I can talk!” said Tromo indignantly. His voice was stubborn and sweet at the same time, just as a little boy’s should be.

Ethall giggled again. “Oh, so you can! Have you been playing a big trick on your parents? It is a very good one. I should never imagine how you’ve kept it up so long!”

“They’re not my parents,” Tromo corrected her.

“Oh, I forgot that too. Why are you with them again?”

“…They’re taking me to find my family. Or a family…” he added quietly.

“Well, why don’t you speak to them, whoever they are?”

Tromo generally waited a long time before he said anything, so accustomed was he to his habit of silence. When he did speak, he stumbled over his words slightly, his mouth not used to forming them. “I think you got to learn to think properly before you can speak properly.”

“That’s silly,” Ethall objected immediately. “Whoever thought of thinking without words?”

Tromo’s brow furrowed. “What d’you mean?

“I mean, when you think, you can’t think without speaking inside your head, can you? Thinking is just saying things to yourself.”

“Well, maybe...” Tromo said. “But I think it’s much more dangerouser to say things out loud than to say things to yourself.”

“Why?”

“’Cause when you say things out loud people can hear what you’re saying.” Obviously.

“What’s wrong with that?”

Tromo thought for an extra long time before answering this question. “You might hurt someone with what you say.”

For once Ethall’s reply was not instantaneous. “That’s true,” she said eventually. “But you might help someone with what you say. You might say something beautiful.”

She had a point. But Tromo was unmoving. “It’s not just that...”

“What is it, then?” said Ethall.

“Grown-ups talk too much. They try and catch stuff in words.”

Do they?”

“Yes. I seen it all the time. And then they just get stuck up in a lot of words. Too much talking. They mix up everything with everything what they say about...everything.” He concluded, slightly hesitantly, “I mean, they mix up stuff with what they have to say about…stuff.”

“That depends on the way you speak,” said Ethall. “Anyway, isn’t it just as easy to do that when you’re speaking in your head as when you’re speaking out loud?”

Ethall’s questions were annoying Tromo. He wanted to go back to keeping silent. But from the way she looked at him eventually he was forced to respond.

“How many different ways are there to speak, then?” he asked her.

“Two, of course,” said Ethall authoritatively. “Everybody knows that. Don’t your pare– I mean, don’t Zanthē and Antheus teach you anything?”

“Anthē and Zantheus,” Tromo corrected her again. “I don’t think they know more than one way. They’re always arguing. Go on then, what are they?”

“It’s simple. One, you can speak for yourself. Two, you can speak for other people.”

“Well, speak for yourself, but I don’t like speaking for other people.”

“No, not like speaking on their behalf. Speaking for the sake of other people, I mean.”

Tromo pondered this dichotomy at length.

“But how can you speak for other people when you’re speaking to yourself, like when you’re thinking?”

Ethall had not considered this. Tromo had located a gap in her doctrine. “I’m not sure....” she said. “I’ll have to ask Mum.”

“I don’t think you can. And if you can’t even think for other people, how can you talk for other people? Talking’s a waste of time. It’s better to keep quiet, out and in.”

“Maybe you’re right... So, are you going to carry on with your trick when we go back to the grown-ups?”

“It’s not a trick. Yes.”

“Alright. I won’t give you away. It can be our secret. I suppose there’s only one thing left to say anyway.”

“What?” asked Tromo.

“Tig!” said Ethall, and they were away.

*

At the same time as Tromo and Ethall had been having this philosophical discussion, somewhere below, Zantheus had started to hallucinate. He was back on Awmeer, not in the heights, but on the lower slopes, running through the early training exercises as a boy again, learning to climb with rocks tied to his arms and legs. There was Rhemeus’s face looking down on him, goading him on:

“Come on Zantheus, if you can’t handle this little ridge how will you ever hope to conquer the whole mountain?”

He gritted his teeth, scrunched his eyes up, and tried harder, expending every ounce of his willpower on forcing his body up the training run. If he just tried that bit more, if he just put in that bit more effort, he would make it to the top. Discipline and hard work, that was all it required. Only...only that wasn’t working any more. All the will power he had amassed, all the strength he had built up was useless to him now. Each time he tried to wrestle free of the plant’s grip with his own strength it would only draw him straight back into it. He was having to violently unlearn everything he had been taught in the Order. Getting free from the plant took something other than willpower –it took a strange power of...stopping that wasn’t really a power at all. Just when Zantheus thought he had learned its trick, certain that this time he would get to the top and be free of the plant, a vine would constrict particularly tightly around him and he would jolt back into his old way of behaving and into the leafy depths once more.

This happened.

He gave up. It was impossible to escape. Instead of moving again, he lay where he was, in the clutches of the plant. He heard Rhemeus say in his mind “You’ve got to try harder, Zantheus, you’ve got to push yourself.”

“No, no...” he murmured. “I cannot. I cannot do it. My strength is useless to me here...”

Now he saw Anthē’s face. He saw how it had looked when he was nearly out. “You can do it, Zantheus, you’re nearly there!” But not even this picture could get him moving again. Down here in the plant, it twisted and contorted and mocked him.

“You can do it, Zantheus, you’re nearly there!” rang out the words again, now tainted with sarcastic malice.

“No, I cannot!”

“Try harder!”

“I cannot do it!”

“Try harder!”

“No! That does not work. That does not work!” He realised he was crying. He could not remember the last time he had cried.

“You’re right, that doesn’t work.” This was a new voice. Though it spoke in a whisper, it was musical and gentle. “You can’t get free for yourself, or for anyone else.”

“How can I go further?” he asked the voice.

“Here, take my hand,” said the voice.

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