It was dark, and it felt like everything on the forest floor was prodding or scratching her, just to make it totally clear she shouldn’t be there at all.
Toma had lost the path quite some time ago and was beginning to despair of finding the place before it was too late. But, here she was, and there was no point in giving up now.
She battled on.
Forcing her way through a thick swathe of thorny branches, Toma’s eyes finally lit upon something familiar. Not only was the sky lighter from the rising moon but the overhead branches had thinned dramatically and she could see the twisted base of one of the two enormous trees situated in the centre of the forest.
She’d found them.
Now for some magic.
Toma took a moment to stand and take a breath. She stowed her machete in its sheath on her back and pulled out the glowstones that Preto had given her before he died. Hopefully they were what he’d said they were, or she was about to die a horrible death.
Holding the five pale stones flat on her palm, she spat on them. Using the rounded stub of skin at the end of her right arm, she smeared the spittle about until she was sure all the stones had some on them.
A deep breath and then the words:
“Praydum gelim thalis.”
There were a few, nerve-wracking moments of nothing and then Toma’s eyes widened as a barrier of seething, undulating light appeared before her, almost filling her field of vision. It curved around on her left and circled the roots, disappearing as it wound back on itself behind the grand old tree. To her right, it writhed on in a straight line until hidden by the forest undergrowth.
The other tree must be that way. It didn’t matter. She could climb either of them.
Now—would it let her through?
As she squinted at the barrier, she began to discern that it was made up of shapes. Like letters, but none she’d seen before. They, in turn, were strung together in words—perhaps. There were gaps, but they were small and the lines moved so quickly, there was no chance of passage there.
The stones in her palm then pulsated. She felt them press down and back, though they remained in her hand—just. There seemed to be a corresponding forward push as the words that span and danced menacingly before her began to bow away, finally stretching, separating and forming a hole in the impassable wall.
Around the doorway, the symbols seemed angry at being disturbed. The edge of it glowed as if hot and throbbed, eager to get back to its proper place.
She’d better get through quickly.
Toma stepped forward, praying it wouldn’t close as she passed through, and tear her limb from limb. As she stepped over the threshold, she could even hear a frantic hum as the runes whipped overhead, beneath and on each side of her.
Once through, she turned and, facing the reluctant entrance once more, she spoke briefly:
“Namu belicidas. Tay mana.”
The gap closed so fast, Toma jolted in fear as the runes snapped back into place, buzzing irritably against the interruption. There had even been a little puff of wind as the air was shoved aside.
The barrier faded from sight.
Putting the glowstones back in their pouch, she turned towards the base of the tree. It was a few moments before her eyes readjusted to the dim light.
It seemed the barrier even kept out seeds, as there was little undergrowth in front of her She darted over the empty ground but stopped again to survey her best route up. It was going to be difficult as the lower branches were high and far apart. But that was what all the training had been about, though her instructor—not knowing why she wanted this skill so badly—hadn’t been able to answer all the strange questions Toma had asked.
She took her backpack off. Extracting the ropes, she laid them carefully on the ground so she could put the bag back on.
Strapping the protective sheath onto her right forearm so it wouldn’t get rope burn, she slung both ropes over it and took a firm stance under the branch she’d chosen.
It took a couple of tries to get the guide rope over the branch but then she pulled the climbing rope to its position, settled the familiar harness around her body and began to climb.
Fortunately, each branch after that was closer and she quickly got into the routine of throwing the guide rope, pulling the climbing rope over the branch and shinning herself up to it. Only having one hand to pull herself up meant she had to use a foot sling.
Once she cleared the canopy, Toma stopped momentarily to look around.
The huge bole of the tree she was climbing rose above her in the moonlight. Its twin loomed up nearby, and, each end lying suspended in the forks at the top of them, perched a third enormous tree trunk, bare of branches.
She could see all this because neither of the two supporting trees sprouted any foliage. Again she wondered how this incredible structure came to be. How could anyone have put this together? Impossible.
Very like the moon that was filling the sky.
Toma, sitting on a sturdy branch, held up her hand and spread her fingers.
Usually the moon would fit tidily between her thumb and little fingertip. Now it loomed over half the sky, from the tops of the mountains nearly to the zenith. Even though she knew about the historical records of it happening before, she still found it alarming. She could understand the portents of doom being passed from household to household and taking hold like a disease in the community.
And because it was so close, it made the night darker. Less light could get through to reflect off it. And it blocked out more of the stars. It just felt wrong.
Toma checked the angle of the moon again and her heart lurched. If she didn’t get a move on, she wouldn’t get to the top in time.
Her rhythm continued at a renewed speed: throw-pull-secure-climb, throw-pull-secure-climb. By the time she was three quarters of the way up, her muscles were screaming at her to stop. But, aside from the occasional brief shake or stretch, she kept up her breakneck speed.
Her concentration kept her focus on what was before her. It was only when she was nearly at the top that she thought to look around again.
That was a mistake.
The view was incredible, but she’d never been that far up before and her body betrayed her. Her stomach dropped while her head reeled. She froze, clinging insanely to the immense trunk before her. For what seemed like an age, she pressed her cheek against the rough bark, her eyes screwed shut, her whole body trembling.
“No, no, come on, Toma!” she whispered to herself.
Deliberately taking deep breaths, she forced herself to relax. She couldn’t give up now. There was so much at stake.
“Nearly there,” she cooed to herself between breaths, “Nearly there.”
Once she got to the top, it’d be fine. It’d be alright. She’d be safe.
Gritting her teeth, Toma relaxed her grip on the tree, collected her ropes again and looked up—only up.
Two more and she would be there.
The last was the most awkward. Toma had to find some purchase on the crossbeam to inch herself onto the top of it with the fingertips of her left hand. At least the sheath on her right forearm also meant she could push from the other side.
She finally clambered up to safety. Securing the ropes for her descent, she sat and took a moment. Her muscles were sore and there was more than one place where there were blisters forming.
Sitting there, she felt reasonably secure so she took the chance and looked out again over the land far below. She couldn’t even hear the crickets.
There was her home on the edge of the forest and its neighbour a few miles further. They looked so much closer together than she’d expected. Crossing the river made the trip feel longer, perhaps. The river gleamed in the faint moonlight, curling and turning constantly around and between hills until it disappeared entirely.
Looking the other way, her attention was caught by the moon. It now almost completely filled her field of vision as it cruised its relentless path towards her. Not only was it approaching the centre of the sky, but it was descending towards her and what seemed now to be the flimsy wooden construct she sat on. It could easily hit it and then what would happen?
But that was not what the records said. They said that somewhere along this top trunk was a place where she could lie safely as the moon passed overhead.
But she’d better find it quick. The moon was nearly here.
On all fours, her stump still protected by the climbing sheath, Toma scrambled forward, skittering her way along the massive shaft suspended over nothing.
She assumed the depression was about halfway across. If she didn’t get there in time, would the moon sweep her off her perch?
The thought motivated her to move faster.
She found it sooner than she thought, however, and she threw herself into it and wriggled around until she faced upwards. It wasn’t that deep and quite a lot of her remained above the surface.
The moon was already above her. All that remained was for it to descend far enough and for the middle of it to arrive at her position.
The surface of the moon bent down slowly as if to kiss her. How close would it get? Would she have to sit up to reach it? How long would she have?
She studied its surface as it approached. From the ground, the moon looked perfectly smooth, with no blemishes. But closer to it, she could see rises and falls, wrinkles and lines. One spot even looked like the ripples on a pond after a stone was thrown in.
Eventually it got close enough for her to try and touch it. She propped herself up on her elbow and tentatively reached towards it. It was too far away, but she could feel an odd sensation in her fingers—a tingling.
A few minutes later she tried again. Along with the tingling that travelled down her hand and into her wrist, she could see a sparkle. It reminded her of the barrier down below.
It was magic. Was it magic that brought the moon so low? There was a strange pull as well. Was that magic, too?
She still couldn’t touch the surface. She had to wait.
She lay as long as she could stand as the moon slowly approached and inched past. Finally, she tried again.
This time, after breaking through the magic field, her hand stretched towards the surface—and then disappeared.
Toma jerked her hand back, frightened. She only had the one, she couldn’t afford to lose it. But it reappeared and she realised that it had passed into the surface itself. Reaching out once more, this time she felt when her hand entered the fine dust that lay upon the surface of the moon. It was cool.
And then her hand touched the more substantial surface a couple of inches beneath. It felt like rock. She could also feel that weird sucking on her hand. It was trying to make her stick to the moon.
Unnerving though it was, the experience fascinated her. The moon got closer still and she could lie back now.
She fiddled with the sheath’s ties. Undoing them, she slipped it off and lifted both arms up towards the moon.
The tingle and then the cool, smooth dust whirled around her stub. It was soft and it tickled a little.
She smiled in wonder.
But this time the pull, the sucking sensation, was stronger and both her hand and stump stuck to the rock underneath. Once again she pulled back, afraid. It was harder, this time.
As she withdrew her arms, some of the dust came with them. When it passed through the magic field, the dust fell on her face. It changed direction. The dust that didn’t pass through the field slowly floated back up to the moon.
A sudden rush of bravado filled Toma. Could she? Could she go to the moon?
She thrust her arms back up through the magic, but this time she used the sucking pull of the moon to raise her upper body and she put her face through the magic field. She took a breath.
She could breathe.
The moon was still moving sideways to her and she suddenly remembered what she was there for. It had to be coming up soon. She turned her head to the side and it hit her in the forehead.
It’d been in the middle of the ripples she’d seen. Perhaps it’d been the cause of them.
Toma wrapped her hand around one side of the globe and wedged her stump under the other side. It came off the surface easily. But, once it passed the magic field, it plummeted towards her wooden resting place, yanking her out of the moon’s influence.
It hit her painfully on her shoulder and nearly rolled off before she grabbed it. She hadn’t realised it was going to be that heavy. But it hadn’t been that weighty on the moon. How odd.
She lay next to the orb, staring at it. Rubbing away some of the moon dust that had collected on its shell, she could see colours stirring underneath. Light and mist eddied lazily within.
She’d got it. Now they had to see—she wasn’t useless.
Toma looked back at the moon. What a strange place to hide it.
That’s right—she’d been going to visit that strange place.
Making sure the orb was secure, she once more reached up to the surface of the moon. Pulling her head past the magic field, she pushed with the back of her legs and felt the moon’s pull lift her away from her home. Her feet landed with a light thump.
Shuffling herself around, she faced the place she had been. It was much easier to turn and, in fact, she bounced a little as she did so.
She expelled a short laugh, “Ha!” She was lighter on the moon. And so had the orb been.
Toma looked around at herself, partly submerged in moon dust. And then she looked up.
Up. Up at her own world, suspended above her, stretching out on both sides. Her new resting place was so small, in comparison, disappearing behind her. The land above stretched from horizon to horizon. She could even see the sea. She’d never been there. She lay and looked at it.
She lay too long.
The forest floor appeared above her as she realised her mistake. She felt the blood drain from her face.
She had to think quickly. She couldn’t just jump up. She’d fall to her death. She had to get back to the tree.
Toma rolled sideways. Her movement kicked up the moon dust and she got a mouthful of it, making her cough, but she kept rolling. At one point she hit something long, slender and cold. But, grabbing hold of it and clutching it to her, she continued to roll until she was once again above the depression in the suspended tree.
It was a lot further away than it had been. She had to make sure she wasn’t going to slide off after she landed.
Lifting the long, slender thing she’d found, she whipped it around until it was at right angles in front of her and, using her stump and feet, she pushed off from the surface of the moon and felt the pull of home take over.
When she landed, the long slender thing kept her steady until she could curl up safe in the depression and cough the rest of the moon dust out of her lungs.
Recovered, she took a look at what she’d found. Striking it a couple of times to knock the dust off it, she discovered it was the colour of the glow worms in the caves. Slightly curved and thicker at one end, it reminded her of a rib bone in a carcass but it was nearly as long as her.
That and the orb were going to be a challenge to carry down. But what treasures they were.
She got on her way.
Halfway down, she stopped to rest. The glow of the sky was starting to herald the arrival of the sun in about an hour and that made the moon glimmer brighter, too.
As she looked at it, Toma noticed a thick line on the moon’s surface that hadn’t been there before. It was where she’d rolled.
“Ha!” she laughed.
She’d left a mark on the moon.
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