Kymrei had never heard of anyone descending below the canopy, that shadowy underworld of mysterious dangers. Much less had she ever expected to do so herself.
It all began on that year’s Day of Flight, the day she had been eagerly anticipating for most of her life. So much had been leading up to this point—the early rides behind her father or mother on the avyars’ backs, her first lessons in how to sit the saddle and work the harness with her feet, her solitary flights for the last couple of years among the branches of the Western Arbor. In the few months before this day, she had practiced with particular industry, flying in all the permitted areas and reviewing every tactic and trick she knew. Then, in the last couple of weeks, she had made her own riding garb, light and comfortable but strong, in the deep blue and white that marked her family. For her emblem, she had chosen a sunburst surrounded with stars, the only image that seemed to convey properly the excitement that she felt.
Now, at last, the day had come. Summer had arrived, and for Kymrei and all the Western Arbor’s youth in their fifteenth summer, it was their Day of Flight. After today, she would be a woman, free to do all the things grown men and women did. Her avyar, Aino, she would no longer have to borrow from the Keeper and ride only in a few places—he would be hers, and she could fly on him wherever she pleased. After this morning . . . they had only to follow the Keeper of the avyars all around the island, showing that they had mastered the art of flying the creatures and could overcome the tricks of land and sky.
Though the day had seemed as if it would never come, the sun rose over the forest as it always did, filling the Arbors with its light before it touched anything else. Kymrei woke early and scrambled up, gazing out at a world that seemed to be permeated with her joy. The mist that hung about everything glowed, filled with the dawn’s light, like sunbeams dissolved into vapor. Birds whistled and warbled brightly, the gardens blazed with color, and the air felt fresh and sweet. Even the canopy’s roof far below shimmered like a sea of bright green, so that she could not believe anything foul lurked beneath it, or indeed anywhere on earth.
Of course, the light filled the inside of Kymrei’s home too, as did the excitement. Her brothers and sisters chattered wildly, speculating about the rite and wondering when their turns would come. Her mother asked questions, making sure one last time that Kymrei was quite ready, especially that she had her horn for blowing the signals. Her father simply smiled and said, “The sky is open to you; fly up to meet it.”
Now, at last, the hour had arrived. With drums beating below, the youth were processing up onto a platform high in the branches of the Western Arbor, where the Keeper and the avyars awaited them. A lively breeze from the sea flowed around them. The avyars sniffed the air and pawed the wood, eager to fly. To Kymrei they seemed more beautiful than ever, their bright eyes and dark skin gleaming, their tawny-feathered wings ready to sweep the air. Her blue-black avyar, Aino, stood near the edge of the group, his tail twitching. She smiled, thinking how she and this old friend would share the day’s achievement.
The Keeper raised his hand, and the drumbeat stopped. “Sons and daughters of the Western Arbor,” he called out, “prepare yourselves for flight.” Promptly they scrambled to mount their avyars and fasten themselves to the saddles. Kymrei climbed astride Aino and patted his mighty neck, whispering, “Ready, lad?” Two young men, the Keeper’s assistants, began moving through the group seeing that the harnesses were properly fixed.
“For us, on the island of Iurua,” the Keeper proclaimed, “the Great Arbors are the safeguards of life, and flight is our freedom. Show yourselves masters of flight, and you will come into the freedom of our people.” As he spoke, Kymrei turned and glanced at her family, watching with the other families from a neighboring platform. Her parents’ faces were glowing solemnly; her siblings were jumping and waving. She smiled. Surely, right then, there was nowhere better to live than the Western Arbor, and no better time in life than the fifteenth summer.
At last, the assistants finished inspecting all the harnesses, including Kymrei’s. They hastened back to their master and whispered something to him. He nodded, then lifted his hand again. The drums resumed their pounding, like a tremendous heartbeat, while the Keeper signalled that the riders should be ready to take off. The assistants raced to the back of the group, where they too had avyars waiting.
Then the Keeper lifted his horn and gave a sharp blast. Her heart leaping, Kymrei spurred Aino upward. All the avyars leaped from the flet at once, powerful legs and wings unleashing a great burst of pent-up strength, and soared up into the air.
The noise of the drums and the cheering families grew softer, overwhelmed by the air rushing in Kymrei’s ears. The Keeper and his mount, with the others following, swooped down around the branches, as the flight began with a single course around the Western Arbor. On other, more carefree rides, Kymrei had watched the dwellings of the great tree pass alongside her—the homes like her own, carved into the wood and built up with care; the gardens; the walkways; the Hall of the Assembly; the glorious branches framing and overhanging them all. Today, however, she had no leisure for admiring the place. She had to be alert, to focus all her mind on performing well.
After circling the Arbor, the group shot up higher, and the drumbeats faded away. The Keeper withdrew to the rear, while one of his assistants flew to the leading position; the master would keep watch over the learners. Kymrei knew where they would go next—they were making for the cliffs between them and the Southern Arbor.
No challenge presented itself until they came within sight of the cliffs. Just as Kymrei noticed the great gray masses rising ahead of them, she noticed that Aino seemed to be stiffer. A few moments later, she heard the Keeper’s horn blasting a signal—the sign for a strong wind approaching.
She wasn’t worried. She knew how to ride out a gust. She was prepared to prove her skill. When the blast did strike, she tightened her grip and steadied her mind.
And then it happened. At the time, she could not quite comprehend it. Aino began to tilt; and for barely long enough to feel horror, she felt herself slipping. Suddenly the ecstasy of flight had turned into a nightmare of falling. She had lost her seat and was falling, plummeting straight down through the air to the forest below.
Too stunned even to cry out, she thought she heard Aino screech, and someone call her name, from what sounded like far away, from an irrelevant world. Everything had vanished; existence had suddenly collapsed; nothing was comprehensible.
Then she struck the branches—and more below them—and more still. Crashing and tumbling down through a rough tangle of branches, Kymrei felt that she was being torn and beaten to death. The bewilderment was too great for her to think about the pain. She was hardly aware by the time she hit the water.
The next thing Kymrei knew was a light, a dim, soft, pale glow, like moonlight. But then she saw that there wasn’t just one of it—there were many of these lights; they seemed to be scattered all about. There couldn’t be many moons. Perhaps she was feverish and hallucinating?
Shadowy shapes were moving around before her. Were they people? It was hard to tell. The light was so dim, and her eyes struggled to focus. Then with a sickening rush of panic she remembered that she had fallen through the canopy. She gave a weak cry and struggled to get up.
The nearest shape leaned toward her, and Kymrei felt a recognizably human hand gently restrain her. “There is nothing to fear,” a soft voice said. “You are safe. Nothing can reach us here.”
She blinked and looked harder, and saw that the shape was an old woman, her face sharp like a rock but bearing a gentle expression. The other forms were also people, and while she couldn’t see them well, they looked like men, women, and children of all ages, enough to make up a few families or a small clan. They were all in the same plain, rough garb, and all very pale and thin. Or was that only the light making them look pale? For some reason Kymrei thought not.
Then she noticed that she herself was lying, in a sort of half-sitting position, under a blanket of what looked like the same stuff. What was under her felt like leaves or something. She ached all over, especially her left arm and leg; the arm felt like it was wrapped up in something. And she was wet . . . yes, she had fallen into water. She could hear a strange rushing noise close by, something like the wind blowing strongly through branches, or perhaps like many distant voices speaking at once.
She relaxed and let out a soft moan. “Where is this?” she murmured.
“You are in our cave,” the old woman explained. “No Ungari nor any beasts can find its opening. It is hidden among the rocks, and covered by the river falling.”
Cave. Yes, that made sense. The walls were made of rock, though here and there it looked like tree roots were reaching down through it. There, too, were the sources of light—why, they looked like mushrooms, some sort of pale glowing fungi, clinging to the roots. River . . . she turned her head toward the rushing sound, and could just see, in the dimness, a great, wide, thick curtain of water crashing down past the cave’s opening. She had never seen so much water moving all together.
Still, this seemed hardly an answer. She had fallen through the canopy, and must still be under it, as this didn’t look like any place in the Great Arbors—after all, there would hardly be a cave up there. She had always understood that the people of Iurua lived in the Arbors because the world beneath the canopy was too perilous for them. Thus, it had seemed to follow that no people did live there. Who, then, were these people? Had some been surviving down below after all?
Kymrei searched her muddled thoughts for some way to voice her questions. “So . . . if I went outside the cave . . . what would I see?”
The old woman frowned in surprise, and the people behind her muttered to each other, as if this were a strange question indeed. “You would see the earth, stones, the river, trees, vines. If you were unlucky, you might see fierce creatures or Ungari, and then you would see no more. But why should you go out? Only the men go, to hunt.”
There was that word again, Ungari—what did it mean? Some sort of nasty thing that lived down under the canopy, no doubt. Only the men go out . . . and only to hunt, while women and children stayed always here in this cave, hiding. So that was how they survived. This was starting to make sense. A small knot of mankind, surviving laboriously by stealth in a shadow-world. But better first to make sure that this was the shadow-world below the canopy. “I wouldn’t see the sun?” she pressed.
Even more surprised murmurs arose at this. “The sun, child?” the old woman exclaimed softly. “Why should you look to see that?”
“Perhaps her head is wounded and she speaks half in dreams,” a man suggested.
At least that was a clear answer.
“Where are you from?” a child inquired.
“From the Western Arbor,” Kymrei replied reflexively. Wondering a moment later if they would even know what that meant, she added, “It’s a great, giant tree, reaching high above the canopy—above all the trees of the forest. There are four of them. That’s where my people live. Have you ever seen them?”
This aroused gasps. The old woman’s eyes widened in something near astonishment. “Above the trees?” she repeated, as if Kymrei had claimed to live above the stars. “What . . . what sort of place is that?”
Compassion, delayed a bit by surprise and confusion, now welled up strongly in Kymrei’s heart. What kind of life had these people known—never to see the sunlight, or feel the wind, or walk freely outside this cave without fear of death? How could they bear it? And how could she explain to them what another sort of life was like? Their past was so different from hers . . .
Or was it? Suddenly she remembered the story she had known as long as she could remember. “When the World-Builder first made all things, he made the island of Iurua to be a place of great abundance and beauty, where all living things could thrive,” she recounted slowly, repeating the words she knew so well. “But after the world became darkened, foul things took root here, and the forest grew wild and filled with perils, so that men could no longer live in it. So the World-Builder gave them who lived here the choice to go or stay. For those who would go, he appointed great turtles to bear them across the water to the broader land. For the rest, he raised up the four Great Arbors. He delved deep springs of water in the earth to sustain them, put strength into their wood and protection against fire and weather, made their branches surpassingly fruitful to bear life for all who would dwell in them. They stand high over the tangled canopy, so that their dwellers enjoy the light of the sun and wind of the sea, and so are safe from the creatures below. The World-Builder promised the people of Iurua that the Arbors would always stand to be their homes.”
Yes, that had come out rather well. She hoped they would understand. Looking around at them with a little smile, Kymrei added, “That’s where I come from. And you should come live there, too. This is a terrible place for you to live. Come live in one of the Arbors, and you can be safe and happy.”
For a long time no one spoke or responded. The silence was so complete that she began to grow very nervous that she had said something wrong, but she hesitated to speak again. At last the old woman rasped out, “Child . . . you have seen the sun?”
Kymrei blinked in startlement. “Why, of course I’ve seen the sun! I told you the Arbors reach high up into the sunlight. I’ve always lived there.”
“She is mad,” another woman pronounced flatly.
“If the World-Builder raised up these trees so that all might live in the sunlight, why do our people still live here in the forest?” a man demanded.
“Silence,” the old woman ordered, holding up a bony hand. Turning back to Kymrei, she said slowly, “You come to us as from the deeps of legend. Mostly we have held the sun to be no more than a tale.”
“What? Oh, no, the sun is warm and shining over the trees every day!” Was there no end to the strangeness of these people’s world? “You can see it if you just get out over the trees! We have to go there, and then you can see!”
“You must rest,” a man told her. “Lie still and wait till your head is healed.”
“No, it’s true! I tell you I’ve lived in the sunlight all my life,” Kymrei protested in mounting frustration and dismay. “I can tell you all about it . . . it’s a sort of golden white, only sometimes at morning and evening it looks pink or orange; the sky is a bright blue, and at night it’s filled with—“
“Child,” the old woman interrupted gently, “we could not go to your tree even if we set out now. We cannot travel through the forest. The perils are too great. Even the men who hunt for us have died in that work. None who go far ever return.”
“And how did you come here? Do you know a safe way?” a boy asked.
“I . . . I fell. From a flying creature I was sitting on.” Kymrei had nearly forgotten about the Day of Flight, that which had dominated all her thoughts not long ago. Now, remembering, she began rapidly sliding into anguish. How could she have fallen? She had fastened the harness just as always. Now was she not only to fail the greatest test of her life, but to be stranded in this world of darkness and death, with no way home?
Then a kind of fighting desperation took hold of her, and she looked hard at the old woman. “You really have no way of traveling anywhere?”
The woman shook her head. “Here we are safe. Our enemies cannot break stone and cannot abide water. The land and all who go upon it are under their power. Do you not know of the Ungari? They are dark and swift like shadows, and of great size and strength. Arrows and spears do not harm them. They climb among the branches with their many limbs, and their spittle burns. They have devoured many of our people.”
As this grim picture unfolded, the description began to sound familiar. Yes, Kymrei had heard her elders speaking of some such creatures, but the discussion had not been meant for her. What did one do in a world ruled by such monsters? Suddenly a new thought came to her. “They can’t abide water . . . so can you travel on the river?”
The old woman paused, thinking. “Yes, that is a way we may take. We have some floating crafts to use if we must ever leave this place. But what use are they to us now? Where could the river bear us?”
Kymrei’s first thought was that getting anywhere would be better than being holed up in here. But that wasn’t very likely to persuade these people. She took a moment herself to think now. Where would the river take them, if they simply followed it? “The sea,” she answered aloud. “If we ride the river to the sea, we’ll be out of their reach.” Her thoughts racing on, she added, “And I could call some of my people to help us. I have a horn with me, made for calling signals. Probably someone will hear if I blow a call on it from the water.” Her thoughts now pounded an urgent chant as forceful as the drums that morning. Please heed me. Please trust me. Please say yes.
Another long moment of silence followed. Suddenly the old woman rose and gestured around. “Men, elder women, come follow,” she ordered, and strode briskly into a fissure in the cave’s wall, with most of the adults following.
“Where are they going?” Kymrei asked worriedly.
“They will hold council and decide what is to be done,” replied a woman. This one looked younger and was holding a baby. In a lower, earnest voice, she added, “Truly I long to believe what you say. This is my third child, and once more my milk is near dry. The others are thin and weak. I have seen no better way to care for them, but I think this is not how their life should be.”
Sadness again stabbed Kymrei’s heart, and she didn’t know what to say. But she was not left to wonder for long, for soon the children gathered around her and began asking all sorts of questions about the sun and sky and the Great Arbor. Their innocent curiosity made her smile and almost forget her desperate situation. One of them even inquired whether everyone who lived in the brightness wore a picture of the sun as Kymrei did. She was in the midst of telling them about dye-flowers when the men and elder women came back.
The old woman, looking very solemn, spoke clearly. “For all our days, this cave has sheltered us well,” she proclaimed. “No devouring beasts nor Ungari have ever troubled us here. When we step forth from it, they may find us, and they may kill us. So we have lived in great fear, and not foolishly.
“But this also is true,” she went on. Kymrei’s heart, which had sank, began to lift again. “We have seen that, even with our best success, we hardly live. We gather little food, and it gives us little strength. Our children do not grow whole and well. We fall ill or are hurt, and can scarcely recover. We have forgotten with time, but we are like fish lying on a bank, hardly in the wet.
“We have seen, too, the gray light by which creatures see in the forest in day. Tales have told us that this comes from the sun. Still, we have thought them only tales, because never had we known one who saw the sun—until this girl came to us, one who tells us of a great home for men high in the sunlight, safe from the devouring things. She also tells that it is true that this land where we dwell is but a small piece of land, with a great sea of water all about it, and that the river will take us there.” After a moment’s pause, she declared, “Sun-woman, our council believes your word!”
“Sun-woman” remained their name for Kymrei, though she told them her real one. Well, after all, she reasoned, it made sense that they should think of her that way.
The council had resolved that at least some of their number, following Kymrei’s advice, would ride the river and hope to reach the sea; but some dispute ensued as to who and how many of their people would go. Some argued that only a few stronger men should set out, and, if their journey was successful, come back for the others, rather than risking everyone’s lives on what might be a fool’s errand. Others, however, were quick to point out that even if those few made it to safety, they had no certainty that they would be able to complete the same trip two more times.
In the end, despite persistent misgivings, it became apparent that no one really wanted to stay if the old woman was going, as she insisted she would. Her name, it turned out, was Ula, but most called her simply “the Elder.” Growing curious about this person whose mere presence seemed to exert such power, Kymrei learned from the children that Ula was the only woman to have gone outside the cave; she had been hunting with the men ever since she lost her parents in her youth. Later, she had been “united”—which seemed to mean married—to the group’s chief. When he was killed by Ungari, his wife had, from their accounts, more or less inherited his authority. Watching Ula give directions and make plans, Kymrei scarcely needed to ask how.
The boats were simple frames of wooden bars, under which the people stretched coverings made of some kind of leather-like hides. Once these were set up, preparing for the journey was a quick process, as no one had anything to pack. There was only a small supply of food stored in the cave; there were also spears, bows and arrows, and some sticks and flint stones, though Ula warned that fire was not to be used if it could be helped, as the light would draw attention to them. All these things could be quickly gathered into small bundles. The chief difficulty, it seemed, was in moving the sick. The more able-bodied supported or, when necessary, carried the weaker and those who could not walk. Kymrei, still aching all over—especially in her arm, which she suspected had broken—from her fall, needed to be helped up, but was able to stand.
Once everyone was ready, two men, armed with spears, slipped outside to look around and make sure no dangerous creatures were about. After a few moments of silence, a bird-like whistle came from just past the falling water, whereupon all the assembly proceeded toward the hidden opening, between the water and the rocks.
What met Kymrei’s eyes when they emerged was the ugliest view she had ever seen. At first she thought it must be twilight, but then wondered if there was really any difference down here between twilight and noon. All around were trees, black or nearly so and crowded thickly, their branches twisted and tangled with each other and with groping vines. They were, of course, much smaller than the Arbors, but still shot up high above into a darkness formed by their own mass of tops. Their trunks were not broad cone-shapes like those of the Arbors, but straight like pillars. Looking up, she could see no sunlight, only faint outlines of matted leaves and branches. The ground—yes, she was on the ground now, wasn’t she? well, it didn’t look like much—was covered with what seemed to be a mess of countless scattered leaves mixed with the dirt or crumbling into it. A world without color, almost without light . . . how utterly different from all she knew. She noticed some of the party also looking around, their eyes wide with wonder and fear, if not with the disgust that she felt, and remembered that many of them must also be seeing the forest for the first time. After all, only the men, and Ula, ever left the cave.
The falling water, and the river running ahead from it, lay in the bottom of a sort of long ditch in the earth and rocks. The people were now climbing down the rocks with the boats, down to where the river ran smoothly. As they assembled on the bank, Ula gave directions about the distribution of weight and passengers in each boat. She saw to it that each boat had at least two capable paddlers, none held more than three adults, and no more than three small children were placed between two paddlers. Kymrei was assigned to Ula’s own boat, in the lead, along with a young man who sat in the back. Getting in proved a bit tricky, especially since her arm was injured and the very simple craft seemed eager to capsize. With the young man’s help, she carefully clambered into the little makeshift vessel, struggling not to upset it.
Once all were set in the boats, Ula climbed into her own, raised her hand and gave a signal. At once, every craft slipped off the shore and into the current. The loud rush of the waterfall began to fade into the distance, replaced by the quieter sound of the river running and the soft, rhythmic splashes of the paddles.
As they sailed on, though, Kymrei began to notice other sounds. Sitting very still in the boat’s center, she heard some rustling and scuffling noises, two low whistling or hooting noises as of some outlandish birds or frogs, and once something like a growl or a roar. Once, too, she noticed a sort of thumping, tapping sound from up in the trees, followed by a sort of splatting noise, like a rotten fruit being smashed, but a giant rotten fruit. At this, it sounded as if some of the others had ceased paddling. Ula gestured urgently at them, and the paddle-strokes resumed.
A more troubling moment came later, though this time no one put down his oar as far as Kymrei could judge. She saw, and could not doubt that the others saw, a great dark shape high in the branches, with a monstrous, swollen body and what looked like jutting legs. From its direction she could hear a faint but hideous squelching noise, and she reluctantly guessed at what it meant. If—no, she knew; this was one of the enemies Ula had described, but apparently it was busy with some other unfortunate creature.
For most of the ride, however, they saw and heard little of any other living things, and simply paddled on in silence. No one felt like talking, not even the children—perhaps they were too frightened, the poor little things, Kymrei thought sadly. She could not tell how long they had been traveling, but the sunken path of water running under the dark trees seemed to go on for ever and ever, and her yearning for the sun, sky and wind soon grew from deep to nearly maddening. And what if this river never did make it to the sea? What if it simply foundered in wet ground, and they all died here in this horrible forest?
But then she looked again at Ula, at the bony arms paddling no less firmly than before, at the aged back showing no sign of slumping. Earlier that day, this woman had not even known that the sunlit world existed, yet here she was pressing ahead to find it with enough determination and confidence for her whole clan—or whatever they were. Couldn’t she, Kymrei, keep up her courage for such a goal, she who knew the sun’s splendor so well? Besides, it was she who had first told these people about the better life that could be theirs, and urged them to seek it despite the danger. Now that they were taking her advice, she had to keep being brave for them, to show them that escape into her world would be worth such efforts.
She was holding onto this thought when soft gasps from the boats behind brought her attention back. Before them yawned a dark opening, framed by more rocks and earth. The river was running into a cave or underground passage. What was ahead looked like the most utter darkness yet. Well, at least in here they would hopefully be safe from the Ungari. It would be strange to find them here, if they didn’t like water.
The young man behind Kymrei leaned forward and whispered the first word of the journey. “Lights?”
“Not yet,” Ula replied. In a slightly louder low voice, she called, “Have your stones ready. Set your light when you are in darkness.” A moment later, the lead boat itself was engulfed in shadow. The young man hastily fumbled for the flint, and a moment later held a sputtering torch, which he handed to Kymrei. She held it up with her good arm. The glow of flames behind them steadily increased, so that the group was soon traveling in a wide bubble of hot light, floating through the dark.
At first Kymrei thought the tunnel uncomfortably narrow, but it soon grew to the height and width of a large hall. Streaks of brownish-red, green and white mixed in with the gray stone. Random lumps and ripples in the walls cast sprawling, wild shadows in the torchlight, shadows that flung themselves about wildly as the boats passed. Jutting rocks and thin pillars of stone stuck out from the water or down from the passage’s roof like great misshapen teeth. The passage sometimes wound or twisted, and now and then sloped a little downhill, but most of the way was fairly straight. That part of the journey felt something like wandering through the innards of an immense monster. Still, Kymrei felt a bit better that there were no Ungari to be seen.
Just as she was pondering this bit of comfort, however, a voice from another boat moaned, “The heart of the earth will swallow us. We will never come out from here.” The words were spoken softly, but the echoing stone walls magnified every noise.
“Say not so,” Ula ordered firmly.
Suddenly Kymrei felt a burning urge to fight this despair. “If you had seen the sun,” she exclaimed, “and lived under the bright sky, and felt the fresh air and heard the wind, you would do anything, anything, to get out from here and back to there.”
“Tell us of them, then,” urged another voice, that of the woman with the baby whom she had met before. “What is it like, this world of the sun?”
A jumbled myriad of thoughts and images rushed through Kymrei’s mind, but feeling that she had better not keep her audience waiting, she began. “The sun is like a great fire, high, high above everything, only much steadier and whiter and giving more warmth and light than any fire on earth. When it rises, everything shines in its light . . .”
She went on to recite every detail she could think of concerning the world where she had spent her whole life, feeling that if only she kept talking she could hold the darkness and fear at bay. She could not tell how well she was succeeding, but all was silence in the other boats, which hopefully meant that they were at least listening. Propping up her torch-arm with her knee, she continued to fill out the images in their minds, and began to feel herself how wonderful were the things she described. How lucky she was to have lived always in such beauty and peace—and how terrible that not everyone had the same good fortune.
As they rounded another bend, however, another woman’s gasp interrupted her. “What is that?”
Kymrei looked up in alarm, but then her heart leaped. “That’s the outside!” Ahead of them, still faint and small but clear, was a small patch of light, the strong, white light of day. At her cry, a cacophony of voices broke out at once into a jumble of cries and questions.
Ula gave a sharp whistle, and the noise subsided. “Calm yourselves! If the Sun-woman is right, we are nearly free. But we are not yet there. Be calm and keep to your paddles.”
As they drew nearer the light, she saw beyond doubt that this was an opening to the outside, sunlight beaming onto sea water. The small, jagged silhouettes of branches hung into its bright blue-white glow. A chorus of wondering murmurs arose from the boats behind her, as the people caught their first glimpse of the sunlit world. A tremendous rush of joyous excitement began to flood through her heart.
Suddenly that rush was choked in a shock beyond screaming. The stone walls dropped away and there, in the branches right above them, was one of the monsters, its black, bloated bulk more huge and horrible than Kymrei had imagined. She fell backward, dropping her torch in the water and struggling not to faint.
“Ungar!” shouted Ula. “Back to the cave!” Even as she spoke, the creature spun itself around with dreadful speed on its many great limbs—it had at least six, Kymrei was sure. The paddlers, gasping and screaming, struggled to reverse their momentum and keep from leaving the cave. Ula and the young man behind her had succeeded in pulling back a little distance from the passage’s mouth, but the Ungar, if one was called that, now seemed to be clinging with some of its limbs to the opening’s entryway. Could it hold on to the rocks, climb along the sides of the passage? If so, there seemed to be very little hope. They couldn’t row upstream for very long, certainly not faster than this monster could climb. The men hurled a volley of spears, but these glanced off as uselessly as sticks.
She could hardly see anything like a face on it, but she could dimly make out a few lightless lumps that might have been eyes. They seemed to be swiveling, following something . . . Then in dismay she realized what it was. Every torch had been extinguished, except for one near the group’s edge, in a boat very near her own. A trembling young boy had forgotten to extinguish his torch, and the Ungar’s eyes were fixed on the light. A reeking, dribbling mouth opened beneath the eyes, and what looked like a filthy stream came flying out. Wails of pain came from more than one passenger in that boat—their spittle burns, Ula had said.
The next moment the monster’s legs suddenly stretched and it grabbed at the boat, snatching, not the torch-bearer, but his older brother. The boy’s mother screamed and clutched his legs, while the father hastily loosed an arrow. That must have been a lucky shot, for the creature suddenly released its prey and recoiled, giving a dry, creaking hiss of pain. Kymrei guessed that the arrow had struck one of its eyes.
This seemed to be the signal for the other men, and Ula too, to release a shower of arrows toward their enemy, but none of them had the same good fortune. The pain seemed to have done little to the Ungar besides confuse and infuriate it. The beast hissed wildly and shot more blasts of spittle in all directions, met with scattered gasps or groans. Once or twice it lunged out again, but never quite managed to catch anyone. Most likely it was not accustomed to a handicap like hanging from a rock ledge. Still, it could move with horrible speed and stretch almost within reach of them, and the current, though not terribly strong, was continuously drawing them toward it.
Between paddle strokes, the men continued throwing spears and arrows, as if even useless fighting would be a better way to die than simple panic. They had been paddling for a long time, though, and clearly they were tiring. In the faint trickle of light from the distant opening, she could hardly see their faces, but she wondered now if they were regretting that they had ever heeded her urgings and left the relative safety of their cave. Suddenly she could not bear the thought that their bid for freedom should end this way. “Ula,” she whispered, “let it eat me. I’ll light another torch, and then it will eat me and you all can escape.”
The old woman, firm determination still in her paddle stroke, turned halfway toward Kymrei and spoke in the tone of one addressing a simpleminded child. “You cannot control the Ungari. Your light will draw it to you, but it may also strike at me and Oto and any one near us. Its thirst for blood is greater than any we know.”
A moment later, though, she suddenly caught her breath. She caught a spear in her hand and ordered Kymrei, “Light your torch!”
Puzzled, the girl took up a flint rock and began to scratch for a spark—and as she did so, she suddenly understood. With a wild flicker of hope, she managed to catch the little wooden bar alight. As the flames swiftly climbed all around it, the Ungar’s hideous lumpy eyes fixed on the glow. Voices behind her murmured in shock and horror, but Kymrei held up the light and waved it in front of the monster.
Again its hissing, noisome mouth, dripping with venom, opened under its eyes. Then in a heartbeat, with speed and force to rival the creature’s own, Ula hurled her spear straight into the open maw. The shaft flew in, mostly vanishing, and stuck fast.
The Ungar gave a gasping shriek of agony that reverberated throughout the cavernous passage. Its long legs beat the air and its swollen body thrashed about, as if trying madly to dislodge Ula’s weapon. A stream of what sounded like a viscous liquid ran burbling and splashing down from its mouth around the spear shaft. Suddenly it released its grip and fell to the water, with a terrific splash and violent waves that rocked all the fragile little crafts.
For a long moment, no one spoke. Kymrei could not see them well, but she clutched at the side of the tossing boat, and imagined the others must be doing the same. Soon the waters began to subside; and, as if this were the signal to speak, a child’s voice whispered, “Is it dead?”
A woman, her voice shaky with terror and wonder, slowly answered, “Yes. It is dead. The Elder slew it.”
“And the Sun-woman,” added the youth behind Kymrei.
Murmurs of amazement quickly rose into cries and cheers. Ula, who had been sitting silent and stunned as the rest, quickly recollected herself and gave a sharp whistle. “Let us fly before more arrive,” she barked. Already their boat was drifting back out of the cavern, and she grabbed her paddle again, while Kymrei dunked the torch. Suddenly recalled to the urgency of the moment, the people promptly quieted down, and the splashes of rowing began again. She felt a slight shudder as they passed the place where the monster had fallen, as if it might somehow reach up from the depths to seize them, but then the spot was behind and they were swiftly gliding nearer the gap in the branches.
The opening was only wide enough for a few boats to fit at a time, but as they had been riding in a narrow formation anyway, this posed no problem. Their exit happened so quickly that she hardly had time to grasp fully what was happening. The light was close . . . she could feel the wind . . . and at last the glorious moment came and they sailed clear, from the thick air and shadow into the brilliant splendor of noon, all white and blue and gold, and the free, fresh gusts of the sea were rushing around them.
Kymrei blinked in the brightness, which overwhelmed her eyes after all that darkness, but it was a happy struggle. A loud laugh of sheer bliss, of relief and joy such as she had never known, burst from her heart, as the sunlight and wind seemed to embrace her like old and dear friends. They had made it . . . the nightmares were behind . . . they were free and would soon be home.
For that one moment, her ecstasy kept her from noticing what everyone else was doing. Then she saw that Ula’s eyes were squeezed tight shut. Of course . . . her eyes had never been exposed to sunlight; what must this sudden dazzling shock of sun be like for her? Still, the old woman had continued rapidly paddling, not only to get farther away but to make room for the others to come out. Looking back, she saw that not everyone else had had the same good sense. Some had dropped their paddles and thrown their hands over their faces, and were now floating freely in the water. Others, squinting as they tried to come out, were bumping against these drifting vessels. Shouts of frustration came from the opening. “Move! Let us out!”
Kymrei straightened and said urgently, “Hi, stop rowing a minute. The others are having trouble getting out.”
Instantly Ula put down her paddle and said, “What trouble?” The young man behind them also stopped.
“Well, the ones in front have dropped their paddles, and they’re blocking the rest from coming out.”
Ula jerked her head and gave another loud whistle, but in the open air, against the noise of the wind and waves, it didn’t have quite the same force that it had in the cavern. She called out, “Come! Take up your paddles! You must come away from there!” A few looked like they were taking notice, trying to find their paddles, but most seemed to be missing their Elder’s summons amid their own shouting. Ula’s voice had dominated the atmosphere before, but here, it seemed, she couldn’t really be loud.
Seized with an impulse, Kymrei leaned forward, took a deep breath and cried, “Stop! Everyone! Please listen!” Startled by the Sun-woman’s voice, the knot of befuddled rowers by the opening quieted and turned toward the shout. “You’re safe now. This is the sunlit world,” she called to them. “You’ll be all right, but you have to paddle away from the trees. Just come this way, toward Ula and me. You need to get out into open water, and you’ll all be all right.” Ula looked surprised too, but gave a little nod of approval.
The people still seemed confused and overwhelmed, but obediently began fumbling for their paddles. One called back as he took his, “How will we live in a world so bright that we cannot see?”
“You’ll get used to it,” Kymrei replied, trying to sound confident. Would they, after all? Were these people’s eyes permanently damaged by their lives spent in the dark? Well, even if they were, they would be better off now than they had been before. They would find ways to manage somehow.
Soon the boats were all out, but they were making their way laboriously, and not only because the rowers were now blinded. Scattered through the group were those wounded by the Ungar’s deadly shots. These now lay moaning; their skin and clothing gleamed with what seemed to be a mix of the foul spittle, which she now saw was greenish, and water, which those near them had scooped with their hands to try to alleviate the burning. The filthy excretion and the burns already stood out against their pale skin—these people really were so pale, as Kymrei could see clearly in the daylight, which also made their rags look shabbier than ever.
Ula, her eyes still shut, said softly to Kymrei, “Have they all come out?”
The girl looked quickly around the group. “Yes, they’re all here,” she answered. “Every last one of them.”
Slowly the old woman’s pale, weathered features relaxed into a look of serenity. Then she whispered, “Summon your people.”
With a start Kymrei remembered what she had to do. She had forgotten the horn at her side. Hastily she fumbled with her one good arm, unbinding the horn from her belt. She lifted the shining instrument, breathed deeply, and blew three loud blasts with all her might—two long calls with a short one between, the signal for help. Many people, especially children, covered their ears, but she blew again and again, reasoning that any Arbor-dwellers within range of the signal would need many sounds to follow.
She lost count of how many times she had played the sequence, but at last, she was about to blow again when a distant blast answered her. Her heart leaped as she looked up to see silhouetted avyars and their riders streaking across the bright sky.
That evening, Kymrei sat at the table in her home, gazing out at the amber glow that was now spread all across the western sky. The avyars that had found them had come from the Northern Arbor. Their riders had carried back there as many as they could, and had swiftly dispatched others to bring the rest. Kymrei went with the first group, but Ula flatly refused to go anywhere until each one of her people was safe. That first group consisted mostly of the injured. At the Arbor, these were quickly given the treatment they needed, and Kymrei’s broken arm properly bound and placed in a sling.
The physicians seemed deeply troubled to learn that the fugitives had been living in the forest for many years. “We believed that the land under the canopy was a world without man,” one of them murmured. “The Assembly will want to hear of this.” When Kymrei asked why, he only gave her a queer look, as if the answer were obvious. She decided not to press him further.
In the meantime, of course, messengers hastened to bring word to her family and others looking for her. She was delighted, though not surprised, to look up and see her parents rushing into the healing house. They had clearly been just as frantic as she had known they would be, though they were showing their feelings rather differently—her father had simply an exhausted smile of relief, while her mother burst into tears upon entering and kept struggling in vain to say something for the next several minutes.
Kymrei laughed a little as she returned their embraces with her one good arm. Likely, she thought, nothing was so sweet as coming back home from the edge of death. As she told them her story, they too were amazed and disturbed to learn of a people living under the canopy, horrified at her description of the Ungar’s attack, and, when her story ended, half-smiling in relief and wonder and saying how proud they were.
“I-I didn’t really do anything,” she mumbled, meaning every word. “I just fell . . . and then tried to make it out.”
“Well, you did make it out!” her mother exclaimed. “That’s cause enough for pride!”
Her father nodded and added, “You gave these people courage to seek a freedom they had never seen, despite the danger they knew was there; and you helped to lead them out. So, well done.”
Kymrei smiled a little, looking down. “I don’t think they ever would have listened to me if Ula hadn’t been so brave.”
To this, her mother shrugged, and her father nodded and said, “Ula is a remarkable woman. She’s more than earned the peace she has now.”
Her parents were willing to let her stay longer if she did not feel recovered enough to fly, but Kymrei felt all right, except for her arm, which didn’t seem likely to be a problem. The sun was now beginning to climb down into the west, and she was eager to be home.
On their way out, they crossed the healing house’s outdoor balcony, where Ula and the others who were not hurt were sitting, not knowing what else to do or where to go. Now that they were no longer in direct sunlight, most could manage by a sort of squinting, and many were peering around in amazement at the new world of light and color that surrounded them.
Passing near the old woman, Kymrei stopped. “I’m going home now,” she said. “But I wanted to say thank you, for everything. I never would have gotten here if it weren’t for you.”
Slowly Ula raised her scarcely-open eyes. On her face was a look of absolute, fathomless peace. “The World-Builder sent you to bring us here,” she stated softly, with a certainty that left no room for doubt. “Go with joy, Sun-woman. May he always bring this much good to your ways.” She raised her hand in what might have been a cross between a gesture of farewell and a blessing.
Kymrei smiled, gave a little wave in reply, and added, “I’ll come see you again.” Ula simply nodded. Then she and her family took their leave.
They descended a flight of steps from the balcony. At the bottom, her parents’ avyars were waiting. Kymrei mounted in front of her father, and they took flight.
On the way home, she learned what had happened after she fell. The Keeper had immediately attemped to see if he could help her up out of the branches, but when his efforts proved futile, they all returned to the Western Arbor, and the Day of Flight was postponed. A team of well-armed men had been sent to search the area where she had fallen, through the trees and even down to the ground; fortunately, they had seen no Ungari. From their report, they had also not seen any river, much less thought that she might have fallen into one. Perhaps, Kymrei thought in wonder, the river was hidden in that area by tricks of the land, and her descent had been an unlikely slip through some narrow open spot. She was also rather pleased to learn that she had fallen because part of her harness had rotted, a flaw that the Keeper’s assistants ought to have detected.
When the three finally arrived at their own house in the Western Arbor, the minutes that followed were a happy blur, as Kymrei’s brothers and sisters and friends all scrambled to hug her, squealed, asked if she was all right, lamented her arm, and cried to hear the story in detail long before they were done shouting and asking questions. Once they finally settled down, she told her story yet again. Her third audience proved to be the most excitable yet, with gasps and exclamations rising almost constantly. When she had finished, they still seemed full of remarks and questions, but her mother gently urged them, “Come, let her get some rest now.” Accordingly, the remainder of the evening was quiet and peaceful. Kymrei felt a bit awkward about not helping with dinner, but her mother insisted. “You’ve had a hard day and you should rest! Llara and Nimene will help me. We’re quite all right.”
So now, while her mother and sisters cooked dinner, she sat watching the sun setting beyond the trees and the sea, casting out its overflow of golden glory as if in celebration of that happy day. She wondered what Ula and the others were thinking as they saw their first sunset, and what they would think of the night sky full of moonlight and starlight, so different from the filthy, oppressive darkness below.
Her father came and sat down beside her. “I’ve just received word,” he informed her, with a gentle solemnity, “that, if you’re feeling well enough, the Assembly would like to hear your story tomorrow.”
Kymrei jerked to attention. “Really? One of the healers said almost the same thing. Why is that? Why would any Assemblies want to know?”
“Well, many ages ago,” he replied, his voice taking on its storytelling form, “there was on Iurua a dark sorcerer who tricked some of the Arbor-folk, luring them down below the canopy with promises to teach them powerful secrets. Of course, what they found there was quite different—I won’t burden you with details, but once they followed him, they were entangled in his schemes and his power. Some of their brethren in the Arbors called on the aid of benevolent powers and defeated the sorcerer, and led back his victims, who had been scattered.”
He paused a moment, then added gravely, “Only, from your account, it would seem that some remained lost, and have continued to live in the darkness ever since then. If one such group was found, there may be others like them. There’s talk of sending missions into the forest, to see if that is so.”
Kymrei gaped. “What? But . . . but if there are, how will anyone ever find them? They’ll be hiding where nothing can find them. Like Ula’s people. And how can anyone search through that whole terrible forest?”
Her father nodded. “We would have to send ambassadors to seek help from the broader lands. They have creatures there with senses keen enough to find the hidden, and some even powerful enough to challenge an Ungar. There may also be a good wizard or two willing to help us. But first the Assemblies must consider everything carefully. That’s why they wish to hear the tale from you. Likely they will want to speak with your friend Ula as well.”
Kymrei stared at her father, his face lit golden in the sunset’s rays. She had never thought that her misadventure might have such far-reaching consequences. “I . . . I don’t know what to say.”
He shrugged and smiled. “Let the World-builder build his world, one bit at a time—and give us a hand in it as he wishes.”
At this, she smiled a little in return. “The World-builder . . . he’s still building?”
“All the time,” he replied with warm conviction.
Kymrei looked back out at the western sky, letting its fiery beauty sink into her heart. A strange courage and peace quietly welled up in her, and she smiled to think that she had been given some small part in the building of the world.