So, a challenger appears!
This year's National Novel Writing Month seems like the perfect excuse to come back to Poisonroot. Now, I know it's supposed to be a new piece you start, but the story of Trip and Victor is just too wonderful, and the world is just too rich, to let lie. So I'll be finishing Poisonroot during NaNoWriMo.
Here for you today is Chapter 7!
His heart pounding, Trip crept through the lines of pews as silently as he could. Every one carried the signs of some sort of struggle; discarded hymn books, torn clothing, a small purse that jingled when he picked it up. Feeling a pang of guilt, he put the purse inside his habit. Maybe he could find the owner.
The further he crept to the front, the more uneasy he felt. The church was a long rectangular building with a half-circle at the end, open to the sky at that end to allow the One Tree light and rain. Of course, Trip thought, it’s not the real One Tree. Just the local branch of it. He glanced up at it, then took a second look. A chill ran down his spine.
“Victor,” he murmured, “The tree is… dying?”
“Not possible, lad,” the man grunted, but then he too looked up from the pile of rags he was searching through. “Looks… sickly, though.”
Sickly was an understatement. The branches, which normally carried a healthy silvery sheen, were dark and hanging low, their leaves golden or red. Even more worrying where the small black orbs hanging from some of the branches.
“Is that fruit?” Trip said, reaching for one of them. Victor’s hand shot out and grabbed his hand.
“Aye, lad, and a queer thing it is. But let’s not touch it, yes?”
Trip stared at the old man. His face was hard and set into a scowl as always, but at the corners of his eyes Trip saw the faintest tinge of worry. He nodded.
Suddenly one of the fruit dropped to the ground. It rolled between Trip’s feet and he turned to follow its movement; bouncing along, it came to rest next to a small wooden trapdoor. Victor let go of his wrist and walked over to the small hatch, kicking the fruit to one side as he did so.
“Down here, I reckon,” he said as he opened the trapdoor. It hid a short ladder leading down to a dirt floor. “Wait here.” He climbed down and took a long look around.
“Can you see anything?” Trip whispered. Victor shook his head and waved a hand at Trip, then loosened his sword and walked off into the tunnel.
Trip rocked back on his heels and looked around. The church was silent, oppressive. That silence seemed to beat down on him, fill the entire space, threatening to suffocate him. He began to pant, feeling a watery feeling in his stomach.
A whisper to one side made him gasp and turn; paper blew across the floor, almost unheard as a stray gust of wind carried it around the trunk of the tree. Trip stood and walked over to the black fruit that was lying unobtrusively under one of the pews.
It was soft in his hands, warm; he held it for a moment and felt a sort of ripple running through its skin. It pulsed, suddenly alive, as if he’d picked up a beating heart. Trip yelped and dropped it.
Suddenly Victor was there at his side. “You ok?”
Trip nodded, took a deep breath and let it out. “I’m fine. I picked up the fruit; it’s like it’s alive, Victor.”
“Mm. Tol’ you not to pick it up. Guess you’ll have to stay with me, eh?” Victor sighed and moved back to the trapdoor. “Stay behin’ me. Follow this instruction, boy, or it’ll be the last I gives ya.”
He was a huge comforting presence, and Trip nodded, grateful for the company. Together, they went down the ladder.
By the time Trip was standing on the dirt floor Victor already had his sword out. The blade seemed to glow slightly silvery in the dim light from the trapdoor, allowing them to see the details of the corridor. It was mostly dirt and tree roots; they seemed to wind all around the tunnel, presumably out from the tree itself. The walls were perfectly flat, though.
“This isn’t something natural,” Victor muttered, “’tis a made thing.”
“Made by who?”
“This a Church thing, boy?”
Trip shook his head. “We worship the tree from its base. We worship the branches. I’ve never heard of anything related to its roots.”
They crept along the tunnel, which wound around to the left. “Father Liam, you know him?”
Trip shook his head, then remembered that Victor couldn’t see him. “No. He’s probably a researcher though. The Church is interested in the Tree; there was a report I copied… hang on.”
Trip allowed his mind to go blank and, like it always did, his memory began to race until it found the thing he sought.
“Report 253, Thirdmonth. Father William Baron, Oakedge. I have possibly succeeded in finding the propagation vector for the One Tree, a simple method really. It is almost a parasitic organism, reliant on its human counterparts to reliably and safely move its branches from one place to another; however, the increased-“
“Stop,” Victor hissed. Trip closed his mouth and the stream of words ceased. “What does all that mean?”
“No idea,” Trip replied, then blinked and let his eyes refocus. “Church researchers have to send regular reports.” He looked at Victor, frowning. “It was a report I was set to copy out at the Library; all I’ve never really known what it meant, or needed it.”
“Oakedge, that’s way down to the south-west.”
Victor grabbed Trip’s arm and put his face close to the boy’s. “You mean you don’ know? Why’re you holdin’ it in yer head if it’s useless?”
Trip struggled against the man’s iron grip. “I… I don’t know! I just remember things. It’s always been like that. One of the other monks called it an eidetic memory.”
Victor held his gaze for a moment more, then relaxed his grip. Trip rubbed the spot where his fingers had pinched with a frown.
The path continued to curve round to the left and a warm light reached in to the tunnel. Victor held out a hand as he stopped. “Quiet now,” he whispered. Every inch of him seemed to be made of iron, every muscle ready for action. He moved with catlike grace into the light, keeping against the wall.
As Trip followed him, he tried to take in the chamber in front of them. It was a large space, probably as large as the church which Trip realised they were still under. The walls were the same as they had been in the tunnel, dirt intermingled with roots, and those same roots seemed to reach a sort of meeting point in the corner of the room, lining the walls impenetrably thickly. Trip gasped; A tall shaft of wood in that corner, reaching from ceiling to floor, had what looked like a face moulded into it, Father Liam facing it.
The face said something. Trip gasped; Victor clamped a hand over his mouth, but it was too late. Father Liam turned and frowned.
The face said something else. The minister sighed. “I understand.” He began to walk towards them and, with a horrible sound of creaking wood and slimy things moving against each other, the face seemed to disappear back into the wood. Trip felt as if he were encased in stone as the man, weaponless, unarmoured, walked steadily towards them.
“Stop,” Victor said, raising his sword. Father Liam carried on walking. “I said, stop, or I’ll cut you down where you stan’,” growled the mercenary. Father Liam took another step, holding Victor’s gaze, then stopped.
“Why are you here?”
Trip licked his lips, his mouth suddenly dry. The man’s voice had some odd harmonics to it, nothing that a human could produce.
“What ye’re doin’ with the townsfolk needs to stop.”
Father Liam chuckled and shook his head. “Why? They’re happy enough. I’m happy. Can’t you hear the sound of their merry tramping feet?” He gestured off to the tunnel and, sure enough, the sound of footsteps moving in perfect step echoed into the room.
Victor slowly backed away, sword raised, until he was next to Trip. “See, I’m thinkin’ maybe I should jes’ knock you down now. Save me the trouble later.”
“You’re welcome to try,” said the thing that held Father Liam’s shape. Even as Trip watched, that shape broke down; his arms extended with a horrific crunching noise, fingers becoming claws; he seemed to crouch in on himself, hunching over to bring his freakishly long arms to bear. His - its? - eyes turned golden and, with a horrifying scream, it leapt across the intervening space.
Victor stumbled backwards as the creature battered into his sword; Trip screamed as, with eerie precision, five villagers swarmed into the room and raced towards them. Father Liam seemed to have becoming a whirling slashing tornado of arms and claws, each one barely blocked by Victor’s sword.
Trip crawled out from behind Victor, keeping close to the wall, and ran into the corner. The villagers, their faces blank, moved around the fight and straight towards Trip, still in perfect step with each other. Their arms were outstretched as if they were going to embrace him,
Looking wildly around for an escape route, Trip felt the memories rise up in him, overwhelming him…
- It is a hot day; he watches, from the tower where he works, the combat training that he will soon be given. The monks are stripped to the waist, sweat on their bodies. -
- He watches two fighters practicing a move, over and over. One comes at the other, hands out for a choke or grab. The other puts his hands here and here and suddenly the attacker’s balance is gone, his reach overextended. He falls. Trip feels a sudden painful smack against his knuckles, still resting on the table. “Stop lollygagging, boy, there’s work to be done.” He turns back to his work, copying out endless parchment… -
Almost without thinking about it, Trip allowed himself to fall into the memory, putting his hands there and there on the nearest villager. The villager fell into two others, a tumbling mess of cloth and flesh. Trip felt the first seed of hope take root in him.
Then the remaining villagers grabbed his habit, his arms, his neck. Their hands pinched and squeezed and, try as he might, Trip could do nothing but claw desperately at their fingers. His vision started to go black at the edges.
He looked over at Victor; even as he watched, the old man sliced through one of the long arms that was attacking him, then turned a full circle, crouched, sliced the other. The sword swept up, round, through the creature’s midsection.
‘At least we got one’, Trip thought, then he was falling into a darkness which was icy and empty of hope.