Part 4: Canopy
26th day of Maia, 1456 AA
Undaunted by the possibility of whatever made that nest, I pressed onwards and write this now from a point which is perhaps my limit, the highest I can hope to climb. It is now so cold that the water in my bottle, which I have thankfully been able to fill via rainfall, snowmelt and finding small pools nestled in the bark, is freezing solid. Little chunks of ice come to my mouth whenever I take a sip, and it cannot be long before it completely freezes.
The wonders have not ceased, though, and they warm the glow in my heart. Several new insect varieties have been observed over the last day, all of them relatively tame. I suppose, never having seen a human before, they have no preconceptions about danger from me.
One, its carapace as green as the leaves, had somehow managed to take its camouflage technique to a new level; during the day I observed a phosphoric light shining from its underbelly as it knelt its long, many-jointed legs to chew on a leaf. From both above and below it would blend in seamlessly, though from directly in front it was clear to see. Black chitin sandwiched between those layers of disguise, quite unlike anything at ground level.
Another discovery was a small rodent-like creature, but incredibly light; It pains me to say that I crushed the first one I tried to pick up, completely by accident. Its tiny body is apparently completely used to living at higher altitude and I observed one of them taking a running jump off a leaf, only to spread odd furry wings and land on a higher branch thanks to an updraft. These tiny creatures have front teeth designed for gnawing and long tails for balance, and their brown fur is a similar colour to the bark.
There is no fruit, of course, even up here; the Arbour is ever in bloom but that beauteous spring and summer never passes into autumn and winter. The flowers are enormous but they are merely larger versions of what we see below; a golden-sheened flower with five petals, like a trumpet, and several stamen waving inside. There is worth even here though; should we find a use for the flowers, and overcome our reluctance at performing sacrilegious acts, we would have a massive supply of them here.
This evening I sheltered near the trunk with several leaves pulled around me, still connected to the Arbour. They seemed most willing to move and stay without springing back. Even now, I feel, the Tree wraps its protective arms about me and lulls me to sleep. I shall say my prayers and write no more this evening.
I have seen it! Oh, Tree, root, branch, it was… I have not the words. I cower in a small opening, waiting.
27th day of Maia, 1456 AA
In a better position now, I can write more. I feared for a while that, when future explorers found my bones, they would never know what ended my journey. That hurried scrawl, I almost wish to tear it out of my journal. But that would be unscientific. I shall leave it there and build instead upon it.
The creature is enormous; a bird, but unlike anything down below. Imagine, if you can, a bird made entirely of wood. Long mahogany talons at the end of wicked wooden claw feet, themselves attached to legs ringed around like tree trunks. The body, covered in leaves rather than feathers, and the immense wings. Long branches, each covered in many hundreds of leaves of different sizes, and then its head. Its eyes were like polished parquet orbs, several different colours and grains of wood, each one moving against the other and the whole rotating in its socket. Its beak, long and cruel with a sharp hook, the only part of it not covered in a fine bark.
It swooped around the canopy, thankfully apparently not seeing me, for a bird with those features can only be predatory. Its beak is made for ripping into things and its claws for tearing meat. What, then, does it feed on? Is this to blame for the reports of dragons and similar rubbish we receive down below? Or does it feed on adventurers climbing the Arbour?
It circled once as I cowered, then around again before shooting up through the canopy. I must follow it, even though it may mean my death, for such a wonder must be recorded as much as possible. Dangerous, yes, but this could be the most important thing I do in my life. I do not wish to be found wanting.
But its wings, when it flapped, like the wind blowing through a tree’s branches. The rustling. Sleep will not come easy this evening.
28th day of Maia, 1456 AA
This is… hard. Air is thin. Have reached canopy’s top; view is staggering. Blue skies, a mile in every direction of green. And, just a few hundred feet away, a man. I see him. Am I alone? Am I dreaming? So hard to get my breath. Left my gear two hundred or more feet below, needed to drop the weight. Had to climb leaf to leaf to get this far.
I go now to meet him, whoever he is.
1st day of Apris, 1456 AA
Has it really been three days? The meeting is still so hazy in my mind. I am told I slept for over a day and a half. But I get ahead of myself.
Where to begin?
I am lying in a bed at Rootholme. The monks here have made me welcome and they say that the High Father will be returning tomorrow. I must have a report ready by then. But what to say?
I made my way from where I had broached the canopy’s top to where I saw the figure of a man. I can only hope that I was not hallucinating, for that would make what followed nothing less than the ravings of a madman. We shall see.
He was made of wood, is the easiest way to describe him; like the bird had been, his skin was bark, his fingers gnarled twigs; he had a sort of twisted crown of small branches sprouting from his forehead and his eyes were solid wood. He even had a beard made of leaves, the smallest around his mouth and the longest dangling down nearly to his stomach.
He had been watching me approach, waiting.
“You had travelled far,” he said as I staggered near to him. “Come, sit.”
I felt a stump of wood rise up beneath me that had certainly not been there before. It appears that this being could summon and shape the Arbour at will.
“I am Yal,” he went on. “I am a… guardian, I suppose. Your language is ill-suited to describing my role. I care for, protect, nourish, guide the Tree.”
“Brennan,” I gasped out, finally getting a little breath. “My name is Pieter Brennan.”
“Why have you come, Pieter Brennan?” His voice was gentle, deep.
“I seek knowledge.”
“Can it be true?” he said, his face creasing into a smile. The motion of his wooden skin moving like any person’s skin was most unsettling. “Has your race finally come out from under the shadow of Church teachings? Are you once again ready to walk with the ancients?”
My vision beginning to blur at the edges, I shook my head. “Father Pieter Brennan,” I managed. “I am from… the Church.”
The worst thing to a child is when they see disappointment on a parent’s face. It is worse than anger or frustration. I felt myself regressing back to that child at the look on Yal’s face, such was the sadness in him.
“Know this, Pieter Brennan,” he said. “You are not the first Church researcher sent up here, though you are the first for many a generation. It is as if you periodically forget that I am here, have always been here,” and then with a distant, hollow voice, “will always be here. Every time I expect more to follow; I suspect that, as in days of old when the communication lines were open between us, your leaders suppress the information and will suppress what you bring back. I can hope, but not too hard.”
“Things will be…” I wheezed, pinpoints of light dotting my vision, “different this time…”
Yal turned his back and looked out across the canopy. “Perhaps,” he said, “and yet-“
I heard no more as I fell, consciousness flickering off and on like a candle in the wind. I saw Yal turn, watch me fall with no more expression on his face than I might have watching a squirrel suddenly drop from a tree. I heard him call out “Dizmael! Catch him!” and then heard the immense rustling, like the wind blowing through the trees. Something arrested my descent and I passed into unconsciousness.
I awoke to find myself back on the Foothills, a short journey from Rootholme. I was not in my right mind; eyewitnesses say that I staggered in with none of my equipment and raving about some giant creature, but no-one had seen it and it was some time before anyone even recognised me.
I can feel a great tiredness upon me, but I will write up my report for the High Father and give it to him tomorrow.
How much of what I saw was an hallucination? The air was thin, difficult to breath; I could have taken leave of my senses, and certainly, reading it back, it seems like the writings of a madman. Creatures made of wood, a Guardian of the Arbour; it baffles my scientific senses. Just this once, though, I find that I am prepared to put faith before my scientist’s principles. Faith, after all, merely requires one to believe in something, whether one has proof or not.