This is the ninth chapter in Forest of Flames and the second in part two, Forest.
Iris's thoughts were a tornado of emotions. She was glad to see Caw again - but now she knew what was different about him. He was shadowborn, only possible in a brief interval around midnight. He shouldn't be alive; should have been long killed before he was even one day old - and yet he was standing here before them, alive, with a companion ... and with magic. Three insane impossibilities he still managed to defy.
It was ridiculous what she managed to reply. "Hey."
"Do you know each other?" Sedna asked.
Iris looked at her friend in surprise. "Don't you?"
"Yeah! I told him to find you and tell you I'm fine." For a moment she was still confused, then she understood. She turned to Caw. "You didn't look for them at all!"
"I did," the boy defended himself. "I just didn't find them. Then I thought you'd be fine... and I see I was right."
"Of course she's fine," Geb said. "She's Iris, after all. She always makes it somehow."
Yeah, somehow. She herself didn't know how she was still alive after all she had been through. But that wasn't just about her. "Why are you still alive?"
Nergal scoffed. "Geb wanted me to spare him."
"That's not what I mean." She remembered that her friends had no idea of the customs of her tribe. How should they? "We are killing Elmen like him on the first day. He shouldn't be here. It's impossible."
"He certainly looks possible," Karzelek said cautiously. "Is he dangerous?"
"No," Caw assured them before he approached Iris and pointed to the free space next to her. "May I?"
"Of course," she replied, still distracted by him. His sheer existence, which alone promised danger. Excitement... the adrenaline she loved so much.
"Maybe he should introduce himself," Sedna distracted her from her thoughts.
She nodded quickly. "Guys, that's Caw. Caw, these are my friends: Geb, Sedna, and Karzelek." And Nergal, she sighed in her head. "And Nergal."
"A pleasure." He ran his fingers through the feathers of the raven close to him, just like he'd done at their first encounter. "This is my companion, Midnight."
Sedna looked at the two with an interest that Iris rarely saw with her. "How did you survive - and how did you find each other?"
The boy smiled. "As far as I know, I was thrown from the top of the mountain, as is done with shadowborn Elmen like me. In my case, I landed right on top of a bird passing by, but instead of hurting us, we bonded. She grew from the magic immediately, took me to the wildling settlement where she lived, and that's where I grew up."
"Until you heard of us and decided to follow us," Iris added.
"Exactly. I'm not a Shadow, even if I look like one." His glance at Nergal didn't escape Iris, but no one mentioned it, not even Nergal himself. He stared at Caw in bitter silence as he spoke. "I want to protect my village. My family. Helping you is the least I can do."
"We can make it just fine without you," Nergal replied. "The more Elmen we are, the harder it gets. And there is nothing we cannot do without your help."
"How well do you see in the dark?" Karzelek suddenly asked.
"Not any better than anyone else. Like I said, I have nothing to do with the Shadows."
"We won't cross Wildfire Hill in the dark," Nergal said.
Karzelek nodded. "I know. I just thought a sort of scout would be good."
"I can't see in the dark," Caw repeated. "But as a scout, I could still be useful."
"And how?" Nergal asked, not at all convinced.
Caw scratched the neck of his companion. "Midnight may be blind, but that makes her even more helpful in the dark."
Iris didn't believe her ears. "Midnight is blind?" But she had seen the bird fly!
Caw didn't mind the question. "Like I said, she was raised at the wildling village. They helped her to get by without eyes."
Now Iris noticed that the eyes of the raven were indeed unusually pale. Like two little moons, they were glowing in the pitch-black darkness of her face.
"Her senses really are amazing," Caw assured them. "She can make out the slightest movement on the ground, even if she's fifty feet in the air."
"Let him help us if he insists," Sedna said. "It can't hurt to know what awaits us on this hill."
"Thanks." Caw rose again, looking at Iris. His eyes were not bright like those of his companion, but dark and unfathomable. "I'll be back as soon as I have enough information."
"The hill is south," Nergal said, as if they all didn't know that already. "The clan here are the Kindling Asps; one of the clans that never liked my father. They wouldn't let me pass even if I weren't half a Shadow. So look for a place where we can get as far as possible to the top without being seen - from there up we are safe."
"Because there's a river there," Sedna nodded.
Iris looked at her in surprise.
"What? The Zesto runs there." She paused for a moment. "You should know that."
"I just thought -"
"Alright," Caw interrupted the two. "A way up the hill. We should manage that."
When, after some farewells, he finally disappeared with Midnight into the night, silence prevailed.
"And?" Nergal asked.
"And what?" Iris replied.
"What's going on between you?"
"What? Nothing!" How could he even think about that? By Aricel, she was thirteen and he wasn't much older. "There's nothing."
"Even a fish would have noticed," Sedna said, amused. "There's no minimum age for such things. Just look at Zephyr."
"Leave him out of this!" It was true, in the last few days she had thought far more about Caw than about her best friend. Suddenly she felt guilty again. "Let the whole subject be. Just give me the last watch."
"Don't worry about it," Geb said as the shifts were divided and all of them but Nergal went to sleep. "Nergal and Sedna are older than us. We don't have to understand what they're talking about."
That's the problem, Iris thought. I know exactly what they meant. And they were right.
As dawn set in and the sun cast the first light upon the wide landscape in the east, Iris was leaning against Shimmer's back, staring up into the southern sky. Caw just had to return. He had to.
He had already abandoned her once when he hadn't told her friends about her. What if he did that again?
But this time he hadn't just promised it to her. Her friends had also been there. They all counted on him, he wouldn't dare not come back.
She saw his big dark eyes in her mind. His smile, which he had given her more often than any other of her friends. He liked her just like she liked him, she was almost certain.
Then she saw a rapidly growing black spot in the sky. Soon she recognized wings, a bird; and it wasn't long before it landed near her, a familiar Elm on its back.
When he greeted her, Iris didn't say a word. In the twilight, he stood before her, for the first time in more than just the flames of a campfire. She could see him; his tiny pitch-black feathers, glimmering reddish in the rising sun, the white dots that were his markings and shone on his skin like stars. And the plain black clothes that were no comparison to the jewelry Iris had been able to afford since last year. Caw was so different from her, and yet...
"Hey," she said at last, feeling as stupid as at the fire a few hours ago. She knew a lot of guys, so why was everything so complicated when Caw was around? "Did you find anything?"
Caw nodded - and the fact that he didn't mock her behavior made him a hundred times more fantastic. Autolycus and certainly also Zephyr would have reacted differently. "If you go right, you'll get to the spring of the river Zesto. On the slope there live a few Fire Elmen, but not too many, I think. You should make it."
The disappointment hit her like a violent gust of wind. "You aren't coming?"
"I would," he frowned. "But Midnight and I have been awake all night, not to mention that we could be seen and I'd like to spare us that." He put his hands around hers and smiled his wonderfully sincere smile. "We'll follow you tomorrow night, don't worry. You won't have to get along without me for long."
"I hope so." The words escaped her mouth faster than she could prevent it.
"You're strong, Iris. You can do it without me." Caw hugged her - briefly, but that was already enough to make her heart race. "See you again as soon as you can."
"See you soon," she nodded, watching as Caw climbed back onto Midnight's back and disappeared as quickly as he had come.
It was not long before the others woke up; only Geb and Boulder needed some support, as always. Iris repeated everything Caw had told her, in the shortest possible time. The conversation in the morning had been embarrassing enough for her - she felt that the mere mention of his name would amuse Nergal and Sedna. Instead, she concentrated on what lay ahead.
It was a hill that wasn't as special as Iris had imagined. On the left it extended to the horizon, but it wasn't very high. Six hundred feet, if at all ... she'd already seen better. They all knew higher mountains. But of course she wouldn't mind; Boulder would have it easier to get to the other side.
The settlement of the Fire Tribe was also better to recognize the closer they came to the hill. Compared to the city at Mount Ember, this one was clearly smaller, and the buildings didn't consist of black volcanic rock. Iris suspected bricks, but she would have to get closer to be absolutely certain.
Nergal led them obliquely to the hill, his eyes looking for places where they could get up. In the distance, Iris recognized higher mountains whose names she didn't know; there must be the spring Caw had mentioned. To go there all the way was a detour, she knew: That was precisely why Nergal was looking for a faster way.
At some point he changed direction and rode straight towards the hill. In her raised position on Shimmer's back, Iris also spotted what Nergal had discovered. A path led up the hill, and no Fire Elm could be seen far and wide.
Except for the one who blocked the path.
Instead of halting, Nergal even accelerated. "Don't stop!" He shouted to the others. "Geb, take care of the returnee!"
Iris realized in horror what was happening. The companion of the Fire Elm was a massive four-legged reptile, the entire back armored. They would by no means be able to pass it like they had done at the time of their escape from Sunstone, unless Geb used his earth magic.
"I can't!" She heard him scream. "My magic isn't strong enough!"
"Of course it is!" The foreign Elm and his companion were still standing in their way and stared at them resolutely. "They won't go away! Use your damn magic!"
Iris couldn't look. She knew that Geb had as good as no control over his magic - and that he did't like to use it for other reasons, too. If he hurt anyone now, he would never be able to forgive himself.
Instead, she let Shimmer rise, as far away from the earth's magic as possible. The last time, Shimmer had lost a toe...
The crash reached her ears anyway. Iris dared to look down. She couldn't tell what Geb had done, but she saw the returnee, shifting on its flat back. Its clubbed tail whipped around, but the way up was free. The friends stormed up the hill and across the bridge that crossed the river. Nergal shouted at Geb again, and it wasn't until the Earth Elm made the bridge crash behind them that they came to a halt.
Iris made sure that no one followed them, and then landed by her friends.
"Not bad," was the first thing Nergal said. "Pretty impressive."
"He's fine, isn't he?" Geb asked nervously. "Did anyone see if he's okay?"
"Don't worry," Iris nodded. "The companion's on its back, nothing else. Someone's going to lift it up again."
"And the Elm?"
She had to admit that she couldn't help him there. "I'm sure he's okay."
"Did you see him?"
Nergal lost his patience. "Pull yourself together! Even if you did something to him, you don't know that guy. You don't need to care about him."
"But I do!" She had never seen Geb this angry. "You shouldn't have done that. I shouldn't have done that. We would have found another way."
"We can't take any risks, and you know that."
"Maybe I'm the risk! I can't control my powers."
Nergal growled. "Then it's about time. I'll teach you personally if I have to."
That's going to be fun. But maybe someone like Nergal was actually exactly what Geb needed to get his magic under control.
"Discuss the whole thing later," Sedna commented. "Preferably when we are at the Forest Tribe. It's not much farther."
Iris apparently wasn't the only one who had completely suppressed their real goal. They all looked at the landscape that stretched on the other side of the hill: a dense, lush green forest as far as the eye could see.
It was an impressive sight, and yet Iris didn't feel a great desire to enter this forest. It was better than the caves of the Ore Tribe, of course, but every place without the sky was a pain. The only consolation here was that a forest, unlike caves, couldn't collapse. She hoped...
They folowed the path down the hill. There, just at the edge of the forest, Iris's anxiety intensified. The forest was dense, without any way that Boulder could go, and almost no light was reaching the ground.
There was a flame on Nergal's hand, but Sedna glared at him. "If you do that, the whole forest burns."
Frustrated, he let the flame disappear. "Then what else do we do?"
"Boulder can clear the way for us," Geb suggested. "Trample a few bushes or so. Or does anyone have a better idea?"
He hoped for a suggestion in which he didn't have to destroy nature, but he was right. There was no better way.
Boulder and his riders took the lead, while Spitfire was last in line. Iris was glad to be in the middle; she couldn't suddenly get lost. After a short time, however, she had completely lost her orientation.
"At least we can always follow Boulder's traces," Karzelek said. Relieved, she turned around, for it was true: with all the bushes he had stepped on, it wouldn't be a problem to just turn around.
Then she froze: the traces had disappeared.
"Guys..." she raised her voice. Something was wrong here. She had the feeling of being watched from all sides. Was the Forest Tribe following them?
When she briefly stood still, her surroundings continued to move. No wonder only her own sharp eyes captured that:The branches of the trees, the vines on the ground ... everything around them moved, albeit infinitely slowly. The forest was alive.
Iris looked forward again. There, Boulder was on the verge of stepping on a particularly large one of these vines.
"Wait!" She shouted to the rhinoceros.
But it was too late.
The second Boulder set foot on the vine, innumerable others shot out of the undergrowth. They wrapped themselves around his legs, faster than Iris's eye could capture. Geb, Karzelek, and Four-Leaf only barely managed to jump from his back in time, before the vines also got a hold of it and dragged the screaming rhinoceros into the darkness.
|Forest of Flames Chapters|
|One: Fire||1: Into the Unknown • 2: The Gift • 3: Travel by Snake • 4: Scorch Lines • 5: Wars to Be Won • 6: Impure Business • 7: Dark Fire|
|Two: Forest||8: Smoke and Feathers • 9: Midnight • 10: Heart of the Forest • 11: The Ones We Love • 12: Shadow Dance • 13: Makeshift Solution • 14: A New Beginning • 15: Eye of the Storm • 16: Traitors • 17: The Return • 18: Wildfire Hill|
|Three: Water||19: Answers • 20: Ancamna Falls • 21: Against the Flow • 22: Starry Night|