The day was cloudy and cold, but the sun was above it all and shone as a pale reflection of itself. The women walked in single file, Ludyrr at the lead, Elynir second, next the mother and daughter and lastly Ibagghi and Afiruk. At first, the path was wide because they were next to the village. As they traveled, the path narrowed to where only one person fit. Elynir wondered if the others were afraid of seeing such open vastness to one side. She was accustomed to the view, could run up and down that path if she didn’t have so much extra weight to carry along.
After an hour’s walk, Ludyrr reached a wider path and stopped. It was too early to stop, Elynir felt, when they still had such a long way to go. Endieve and her daughter were close behind, but Ibagghi and Afiruk were not seen for a while, until their laggard forms finally appeared. The smaller woman nearly walked sideways, so afraid was she of falling. Her pack kept bumping against the wooden barrier behind her.
They all lowered their arms and removed their packs, sitting down with their backs against the wood. All except for Ludyrr.
“Can we speak now?” Afiruk asked.
Immediately, Elynir, Ludyrr and Endieve shushed her.
Ludyrr leaned in closer, hissed like a snake. “Whisper only! Do you want the curse to follow us down to the bottom?”
Afiruk said nothing. She only shook her head.
“Why did we stop?” Elynir asked in a quiet voice, since two of them had already spoken.
“We are nearly to an up-climb.” Ludyrr whispered. “I want to go up to see the top of the tree. I want to see it once before we are gone.”
Elynir looked up, seeing nothing but rough bark. “You would risk a half-day’s climb?”
“It was half a day one hundred years ago. I think the rot must have reduced the height of the tree by now.”
“Stump, you mean.” Endieve said.
“I’ve never seen a dragon.” Ludyrr said.
“I have.” Ibagghi said. “And I never want to see another.”
“Tell us.” Ludyrr replied. “What was it like?”
“A great big fowl with no feathers. People from above said they breathe smoke and fire. I did not see that. I did see a dwelling with its walls ripped apart, after a dragon perched on the side of the tree and use its claws to dig the people out and eat them. The witnesses claimed the dragons have two large claws, one on the end of each wing, that they used to pry into the wood and snatch us out like birds do to termites.”
“When we reach the up-climb, I will go up to take a look.” Ludyrr decided. “The rest of you can go on down the path. I will hurry to catch up to you.”
“Do you want a dragon to see you?” Afiruk asked. “So it can swoop out of the sky and devour you in a single gulp?”
“Don’t speak so loud.” Endieve whispered. “You can speak as loud as you want once we are at the bottom.”
“I don’t care if a dragon can see me.” Ludyrr decided. “I am still climbing up.”
Up-climbs were vertical cracks in the bark, just wide enough for people to fit in. Long ago, their ancestors had gone into the cracks and carved out handholds and footholds on the walls, and in wide enough places, ledges for one to sit and rest. If someone from above or below was in dire need of medicine, they could simply travel through the cracks, as opposed to walking the entire way around the tree that could take months. A few of the more intrepid would use the up-climbs for commerce, moving a scant amount of merchandise at a time. The ancients, Elynir was told, had used axes of stone to chop into the wood, stone brought up from the bottom, but she had only rarely set her eyes on any stone.
Elynir couldn’t say what possessed her to follow Ludyrr up. Perhaps she was tired of the taller woman looking down at her, making Elynir feel she had to prove herself. Whatever the reason, she had left her weapons and pack behind, save for her dagger strapped to her leg, and followed Ludyrr up the crack. The irony of the situation came to her later, when Ludyrr did in fact look down on her from above.
They could look forward to a long climb of lifting their bodies with their arms and perching their legs on grips just wide enough for their shoes, followed by short rests to catch their breaths and reduce the ache of their limbs, followed by more climbing. They paused frequently from the start, stopping more and more the higher they went. They grew so exhausted they used every rest nook they came to, with Ludyrr always thirty or forty feet measures above Elynir’s head.
In three hours, at about noon judging from the frail sun, they reached the path of the next level. Both women stretched out on the ground, panting next to each other.
“How much higher, do you think?” Elynir asked.
“Not much higher.” Ludyrr replied. “The wood feels drier here than below. Are your fingers well? Can you continue?”
“I can, but my arms are strained.”
“Why did you come?”
“I came because I wanted to.” Elynir said. “What you said, about seeing a dragon, I want to see one myself. As you said, this could be our last time to see one.”
“I want to travel far.” Ludyrr said. “I want to travel so far away that I will never see this cursed tree looming in the distance. Do you think the world is so big?”
Elynir did not know. To her, the entire world was the tree, from wherever its highest branches had once ended to where its roots sunk into the true ground. She could imagine the tops of mountains because she’d seen them piercing the ocean of clouds sometimes, but she could not visualize what true ground looked like.
Ludyrr sat up, staring at the long crevice they’d climbed out of, a crevice Elynir was beginning to hate. “That’s enough rest, wouldn’t you say so?”
Model for character Ibagghi.