Chapter II - Jarlen’s New Home
Jarlen climbed through the trees toward a few young Arboreals in the distance. Most wore traditional green tunics, loose pants, and belts of braided twine, but the tallest of them, Yasnol, covered his shirt with a hardened cloth vest normally reserved for adults. Jarlen ran a hand over his favorite blue shirt, made from orb weaver silk. His mother had embroidered a pattern of light and dark waves across the chest, but time had faded the colors and frayed the edges. Even so, his outfit was brighter than anything the others were wearing. He continued closer to the group of friends, losing his footing only once.
“Let’s see who’s fastest,” said Yasnol. “Circle the Gathering Tree, touch the topmost leaf, and return to this spot.”
“No singing allowed,” said one of the others.
“What about human magic?” asked Yasnol.
His friends grumbled but became silent when Jarlen landed on a nearby branch. In contrast to the other young Arboreals, the newcomer had pale skin with only a slight greenish tinge, and both his hair and his eyes were dark brown instead of the typical green. With a fuller face, hairier arms, and rougher skin, he looked more mature even though he was the youngest of the group. He approached them from below with a tentative smile.
“Go back to the wilderness,” said one of the Arboreals. “Don’t humans need more sleep in the morning?”
The others laughed at the joke. Jarlen searched the crowd for a single friendly face but found none.
“We don’t want the scent of a human tainting our treetops,” said Yasnol. “Leave before you scare away the defenseless animals.”
As his look of hopefulness faded, Jarlen hid behind a dense patch of leaves. When the other tenderlings disappeared into the canopy, he followed their movement by watching the tiniest motions of the branches. There was nothing special about them. Anyone could climb a tree.
Not surprisingly, Yasnol returned first, with the rest of the pack following closely behind.
“I see you crouching there,” he called out. “You can’t hide like an Arboreal. If your awful smell and constant noise didn’t give you away, your clothing would.”
“Look at that horrendous shirt,” shouted another tenderling. “It could blind me from across the hamlet.”
“He couldn’t hide at the bottom of Hivil Bog.” Yasnol covered his eyes with a dramatic flair, prompting another round of laughter from the tenderlings.
Grinning mischievously, Jarlen grabbed a nearby creeper vine and sang a cheerful tune. A couple of leaves near the end of the vine grew larger. He focused his thoughts and chanted louder, but nothing else happened. The laughter around him increased in volume, and a few of the tenderlings almost fell off their branches.
“Humans can’t control plants,” said Yasnol.
He copied Jarlen’s chant. Although the words were the same, his voice had subtle variations in its tone, causing the vine to grow longer. As it extended, it curled around the branch toward Jarlen.
The young Arboreal backed away, but behind him an offshoot of the vine wrapped around his waist and pulled him against the tree trunk. He struggled to free himself but couldn’t move.
“Toss him to the ground,” said one of the tenderlings. “He doesn’t belong in our trees.”
“I have a better idea.” Yasnol waved his hand in front of his nose. “Let’s bring him to the pond for an overdue bath. We might be able to rid him of his awful smell.”
“Please don’t throw me in the water,” said Jarlen.
“That’ll be enough teasing,” a soft yet firm voice called from below. “Jarlen isn’t the only one of us with human blood flowing through our veins.”
Eslinor was standing below the tree. “Please come down, Jarlen. The elders have an important task for you.”
She placed her hand on the trunk and sang a few words. When the vine released its prisoner and returned to its original position, Jarlen dropped to his feet. The others gathered above him, whispering.
“Zehuti would like a new apprentice,” said Eslinor. “Please gather your belongings and prepare to move to the northern spiral. You’ll live with him and Otha in their baobab. They expect to see you at sunrise.”
The tenderlings moved to lower branches with nervous giggles.
“Zehuti’s a crazy old Arboreal,” said Yasnol. “If you’re lucky, he’ll turn you into a monkey like his last apprentice.”
“Farewell, Jarlen,” said another. “We’ll never smell you again.”
“You tenderlings should return to your studies,” said Eslinor. “Jarlen will enjoy his apprenticeship and learn more than we can imagine.”
The others remained rooted to their spots in the tree.
“Be glad I don’t punish you for your disrespect of an elder. Zehuti’s gentle and wise. He’d never hurt anyone. Begone!” Eslinor shooed them away with a flick of her hand.
Jarlen leapt onto the nearest branch and headed west. He glanced back at Eslinor, appreciative of her kind words but apprehensive about his new master. There were many rumors about Zehuti, each one more disturbing than the next. Eslinor wouldn’t lie to him, but there was bound to be some truth behind the strange stories.
The sun hadn’t yet broken the horizon, and Jarlen stood at the base of Zehuti’s home, the only baobab in Hillswood. He was glad he hadn’t passed any Arboreals on the way here, especially the other tenderlings, but his stomach turned as he stared up at the forbidding sight.
The baobab’s trunk was crooked with large knobs every few feet, and there were no branches or leaves along its entire length—only on the distant crown. Atop the tree, the leaves overlapped, covering the outer branches as if to keep away spying eyes. Jarlen circled the massive tree, gazing upward. There were only two tiny openings in its armor: a pair of circular windows, one facing north and the other south.
Jarlen was too nervous to begin his introduction. Instead, he climbed to the top of a neighboring oak and stared at the towering baobab. Although he couldn’t see through the thick veil of leaves, he detected movement within the house when the branches shook almost imperceptibly. A fruity scent drifted past his nose. Otha must have been preparing breakfast, but Jarlen remained cradled within the oak’s sturdy branches.
Soon, Zehuti appeared in the northern window, apparently lost in thought. Jarlen froze, hoping the old wizard wouldn’t notice him, but when the first ray of golden sunlight touched the top of the baobab, Zehuti turned to him and shouted, “I see you in the treetop, young one. Come down and introduce yourself.”
Jarlen climbed down to the base of Zehuti’s baobab. As was Arboreal custom, he placed both hands on the trunk and prepared to sing a traditional introduction. Before he began, he attempted to commune with the tree. If he were a true Arboreal, he’d feel the sap running through the trunk and know if the tree were healthy or ailing. He shifted his hands a few times, but the bark felt like rough wood against his skin. Was the human side of him so overpowering that he’d lost all feeling for nature? His head dropped as he chanted softly.
Jarlen’s song started with his name and an extensive description of his personality, continued with a list of his accomplishments, and ended with numerous verses about his ancestors. After completing most of the introduction, Jarlen hesitated when he came to his mother’s lineage. There were no words in the Arboreal language to describe his mother’s family. Frustrated about ending his song early, he invented new words as he went along. He combined syllables, phrases, and sounds from both the Arboreal and human languages to express his thoughts.
Zehuti scrambled down the tree with Otha close behind. The two stood beaming by the time Jarlen had finished his improvisation.
“Welcome to your new home,” said Zehuti. “I’ve been seeking a new apprentice for many springs, and I agree with Eslinor. You’re the perfect candidate.”
“What happened to your old apprentice?” asked Jarlen. “Did you turn him into a monkey?”
Otha scowled at him, but Zehuti chuckled. “I couldn’t have hoped for someone more appropriate. Your human side is apparent in your behavior. I trust you’re as curious and motivated as you are forthright.”
Jarlen’s face remained frozen with concern.
“Do the tenderlings whisper those silly rumors about me?” asked Zehuti, still smiling as the young Arboreal answered with a tentative nod. “I wish I could perform such a feat, but I haven’t studied transmutation yet. It’s one of the most difficult forms of magic. Besides, the humans had frowned upon the transformation of living beings.”
“Is your apprentice still alive?” asked Jarlen.
“You have nothing to fear,” said Zehuti. “The young tenderling had difficulty understanding the intricacies of spellcasting. Human magic doesn’t come naturally to us.”
Otha stepped closer. “After being shunned by his peers, he became morally opposed to resurrecting ancient magic. There are many in Hillswood who disagree with our opinions about the humans. If this causes you concern, let us know forthwith.”
“The tenderlings already tease me every day. I don’t see how this could make things worse, unless you’re lying to me.”
“My former apprentice chose a new profession and moved deeper into the forest,” said Zehuti. “When we last spoke, he was researching some of the lesser-known animals of the jungle. You’re welcome to visit him.”
The old Arboreal seemed to be telling the truth. Maybe the rumors about him were false. Jarlen relaxed slightly.
“May I leave at any time?” he asked. “If I so choose?”
Zehuti gave him a comforting nod. “This is neither a prison nor indentured servitude. If you stay with us, my wife and I will provide a comfortable home, delicious food, and as much knowledge as you’re willing to learn.”
Otha turned her head toward Zehuti with a slight upturn of her mouth. He responded with an almost insignificant up-and-down motion of his brow. Jarlen knew about the silent form of Arboreal communication and noticed something pass between his hosts, but he didn’t understand what they said to each other. His eyes shifted between them.
“I was merely showing Zehuti my appreciation of his compliment,” said Otha in a gentle voice. “If it pleases you, we’ll use words in your presence.”
Jarlen turned up the corners of his mouth, copying her silent gesture. She smiled back and reached for the nearest knob on the tree. Footholds appeared in the trunk as she climbed toward her house.
“I’ll show you to your room now.”
The young Arboreal followed her to the crown, where a doorway of leaves separated to let him pass. Jarlen paused in the entryway, an oval room that appeared larger than it should have been. It was almost as if the branches and leaves of the tree expanded when someone was present.
Otha disappeared through the far wall, forcing Jarlen to scurry after her. They continued deeper into the tree, passing through branches until they came to a cozy room on the northern side. Mosaics of colorful flowers decorated the walls, and several tree limbs extended into the room to form a pair of chairs and a bed.
“This will be your room if you choose to stay,” said Otha. “As you’ve seen, there are few windows in this house, but Zehuti thought you’d enjoy the view.”
On the far side of the room was a small opening facing north. Jarlen stared out at the forest. He imagined the Pensorean Mountains in the distance, a sight his mother had often described but he’d never seen for himself.
“I trust this space is sufficient for your needs,” said Zehuti, poking his head through the leaves on the floor.
Effortlessly, his body rose into the room.
“It’s a nicer home than I’ve seen in many years,” said Jarlen, turning away from the window. “You have a spectacular tree and I appreciate the brief tour, but where’s your infamous laboratory? Neither of you have shown any sign that you’re anything but an Arboreal couple living on the edge of town. Will you keep secrets from me even after I agree to stay?”
Zehuti smiled and disappeared into the floor. “Come this way.”
Jarlen stepped onto the exact spot from which Zehuti had vanished and let his body sink into the floor. Directly below his new room was an amazing library filled with thousands of books. Beside the northern wall was a small section of Terun scrolls about mining, smithing, and dirt classification. To the south were dozens of Arboreal tomes, none of which focused on plants. Dominating the rest of the library were human books, each one encased in a protective layer of hardened leaves. Excited to see such valuable artifacts, Jarlen reached out to grab one of the books, but Zehuti stopped him.
“You’ll have time to read later,” he said. “Let’s continue downward. There are a few more rooms to explore.”
The two sank into the floor and arrived in a circular laboratory. Charred leaves covered a large section of the back wall, and the acrid smell of smoke permeated the chamber. Jarlen wrinkled his nose and tried not to breathe in the disturbing odor. A minute later, he inhaled deeply and gagged.
“I’ve had trouble with some elemental spells,” said Zehuti. “They’re tricky to learn, but I’ve already mastered earth.”
“Show me,” said Jarlen, his face brightening despite his fit of coughing.
“We’ll begin your training after you’ve settled into your new home. Shall we collect your belongings now?”
Jarlen glanced around the room until his eyes rested on the floor.
“What’s below here?” he asked. “There’s space for one more room.”
“Would you believe I have six more laboratories below this one?” asked Zehuti.
“If they were small enough for a mouse,” said Jarlen.
“They’re nearly the size of this room,” said Zehuti. “I modified a few Arboreal songs to force the branches to expand when necessary. Let’s take a quick peek at the rooms before gathering your possessions.”
Jarlen nodded vigorously and followed his master downward.
By early afternoon, Jarlen had returned to the tree house with the last of his belongings. He sat beside Zehuti at a table of branches while Otha arranged the midday meal: breadfruit slices covered with fig paste, fresh mango chutney, and a plate of tricolor pole beans for snacking. Jarlen licked his lips. He’d been eating raw nuts and berries for so long that he had forgotten how appealing real food could be.
“I don’t understand why everyone in the hamlet fears you,” he said. “Unless this is all an act to lure young Arboreals into a trap, you’re friendlier than anyone I’ve met in Hillswood, except Eslinor.”
Otha placed a curved leaf full of nectar in front of him. “It upsets me that you’re so suspicious. Do you believe what you’ve heard about us?”
Jarlen crunched on a red bean. “Since my parents died, I’ve learnt not to trust others. There’s less disappointment that way.”
“Perhaps they fear us because we’re different,” said Zehuti.
“But you’re not different,” said Jarlen. “You’re Arboreals like everyone else. Why don’t you show them how kind you are? The tenderlings spread false rumors throughout the hamlet.”
“Let them tell their stories. I enjoy my privacy.” Zehuti slapped two slices of breadfruit together. “The elders realize the importance of my work, and as long as they honor my requests, I require nothing else.”
Otha pushed more food toward Jarlen. “For many springs, I’ve been trying to convince him to participate in social events. There’s no reason for us to live in isolation from the community.”
“Some of my experiments could be dangerous, and I’d be unable to concentrate on my work if every Arboreal in town were at my trunk. Would you have me turn them away?” asked Zehuti. “Then I’d truly be the monster they claim.”
“So you prefer to scare your neighbors rather than be impolite,” Otha said with a smirk. “What would you do if you were in our position, Jarlen?”
“I dislike being an outsider, but I understand your need to be uninterrupted.” The young Arboreal copied Zehuti’s method of eating the breadfruit. “Couldn’t you make a rule that you should be left alone when you’re busy? Perhaps you could use one of the windows as an indication of your desire. An open window would invite others to visit, and a closed one would request privacy.”
“Jarlen has only just arrived and already he’s thought of a compromise,” said Otha, shifting her eyes to Zehuti. “Will you suggest this at the next meeting of the elders?”
“I suppose I enjoy being alone,” said Zehuti.
Otha furrowed her brow.
“With you by my side, of course,” he added.
Zehuti turned to Jarlen as soon as he had finished his meal. “Why don’t we take a peek at those books?”
“Let the boy relax,” said Otha as she cleared the dishes. “You can start his training tomorrow or the next day. There’s no need to rush.”
“I’m rested enough.” Jarlen gave Zehuti a questioning look. “May we begin?”
The old Arboreal grinned and sank through the floor, followed by his curious apprentice.