Tales Untold: Meet Lady Tree Climber
Published 12:00 pm Wednesday, June 22, 2022
By Dylan West
Editor’s note: The Suffolk Public Library, in conjunction with its annual Iconicon fandom convention, sponsored a writing contest. Contestants were asked to write a short story under 1,000 words about what heroic fantasy characters do in their “downtime.” Here’s the winning entry.
Knights shouldn’t climb trees. We ride horses and swing swords, of which I do plenty by day. But come evening, while the men carouse in taverns, I shimmy up these towering trees. Bartenders serve nothing so sweet as criffel nectar, and this is the only place to find it.
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From 90 feet up, I should see clear across Esenval, but neighboring trees fill my view in this dense forest. Perched in a tangle of branches, I reach for the red fruit that seldom falls. A pigeon swoops down and snatches it away. It settles on the tiny limbs above and scarfs it down. I groan. But then sunlight glints off its leg.
A message canister.
The other pigeons bear the same. I whistle, and the nearest flaps over and lands on my outstretched hand. I slip out the scroll from the thin metal tube and grin.
It’s a sappy love letter from a Gromalti nobleman to an Esenvali seamstress. Romance between our rival kingdoms is forbidden, so they should’ve encoded this. I return the message and shoo the bird away. Their secret’s safe with me.
My fruit lust forgotten, I call other birds and read more juicy secrets. Who knew those militant Gromalti cared about more than fighting? I expected battle plans, but these are only personal notes. Still, I can’t help myself.
“Lady Koriet, have you been climbing again?” Sir Vonerin looks up from his maps. “Recklessness is no way to win yourself an armor bearer. And you’ll need one to drag your broken bones back to the castle if you should fall.”
Vonerin’s my mentor, not my father, so he can’t forbid me. “Climbing makes me strong,” I say.
He swats away my words. “Go perform a deed of renown. Earn your armor bearer before the summer campaigns. I vouched for you. Show me you were worth it.”
I perch high in the forest again, this time deeper in where more birds gather. The familiar clink of metal draws my eyes downward. Two knights in chain mail lounge on fallen logs while two others spar in full plate. Their armor and guttural speech are distinctly Gromalti. I inch my way behind the tree trunk, praying they didn’t see me.
The larger knight sends the smaller onto his back with a flurry of sword strokes. Their spectators clap.
“That maneuver never gets old, Sir Jines!” one calls out.
The other men cycle in to face this Jines, and he overwhelms each one. He even bests two at the same time. His technique is fast and clean, but I come to predict his moves. I could beat him.
But let’s hope I never have to.
This side of the tree has a fruit I overlooked earlier. I reach out, and a large, black bird lands beside me. Never saw one this big. I almost miss the leg canister because its dark finish blends in with the feathers. With a shaky hand, I fish out the scroll, unsure if this predator will peck my eyes out. Thankfully, it attacks the fruit instead.
Like the others, this writing is Gromalti. But unlike the others, it’s encoded.
“Where’d you get this?” Spymaster Analof says.
I tell him.
His head snaps back. “But criffel trees have no branches until the very top!” He squints down at the parchment, eyes calculating. “The bird you describe has never carried messages before, so we never thought to check it. Clever.” His lips part in a smile. “I’ll set my men on this at once. Meanwhile, bring us more. That’ll help us break this new cipher. Our enemies are plotting something.”
A week passes, and I send the spymaster five more scrolls. Today will make six. The four who usually camp below are now gone. Odd. On my perch, I whistle for a black bird when an arrow thuds into the branch above me. I jerk my gaze down and freeze.
The Gromalti have returned, and one holds a bow. He reaches back for another arrow as the other three swagger toward my tree, eyes squinting up. But then the archer collapses to the forest floor with a crossbow bolt stuck in his breastplate.
The swordsmen turn and charge at a stranger who leaps from a thicket. The man drops his crossbow and draws a sword I recognize from way up here.
He slices down on one man’s helm so hard I think it breaks his neck. But the other two close in, and Vonerin stumbles.
I slide down the tree in a panic, almost losing my grip. On the ground, I draw my poniard, sneak up behind the nearest foe, and ram the fine tip through a loop in his mail. While he sags to the dirt, I pull out my war hammer to face Jines, who knocked Vonerin down and bounds my way.
“Run, Koriet!” Vonerin shouts.
Jines lashes out with his usual lunging swipe, and I duck at the last instant. As momentum carries him past, I rise and slam my hammer down on the back of his helm. The metal dents into his skull with a crunch. He crumples flat, limbs splayed. I step over his body and lift my mentor. With his arm slung over my shoulder, I help him limp away.
“How did you beat him?” Vonerin rasps.
I shrug. “Climbing made me strong.”
He laughs, which becomes a racking cough. “Made you clever, too.”
“No. I endangered you,” I mutter. “I should’ve heeded your warnings.”
“Bah! I was a fool. Your climbing saved us,” he says. “Analof decoded the messages. Gromalt marches on our capital next week. Because of you, we’ll be ready. You’ve earned your armor bearer and much more, and His Majesty knows of your work here. Today, He appoints you to His war council. Your unconventional thinking will aid us in the battles to come.”
After a long pause, he adds, “You were worth vouching for, Lady Tree Climber.”
Dylan West, a Chesapeake resident, is a web developer, video game developer, Navy veteran and self-described foreign language nut. He is in the process of releasing a video game version of Scribes Descent.