Batefimba had already been up for some time when a weary Mazimba wandered into the kitchen.
“Good morning, Umamba,” he said, staring hopefully at the stove, where a pot of corn porridge was indeed cooking, “how did you sleep?”
“Not too badly, my boy,” she replied, a little untruthfully. She had no desire to worry him.
Her rest had been disturbed, her subconscious bringing back troubling memories of the arrival of the stranger from Towering Pine, decades earlier, and the division he had sown in the community.
She and Lazarn had already been good friends at the time, and she could remember the elf’s fascination with the mysterious visitor, Everarn. Though she’d not shared in the attraction, she had been forced to admit that he stood tall and proud like his home pine, and his flashing green eyes were captivating.
Perhaps in part because she resented the impact of his presence on her time with her friend, she had been cool towards Everarn, and a little suspicious of his intentions. In time, her intuition had been shown to be uncannily accurate, and it had played an important role in saving the community from disintegration.
In her sleep, those recollections had flashed into her mind randomly, and her subconscious had amplified them into a terrifying sequence of conflict and mayhem, and she had woken in fright in the early hours, the anxiety of that difficult time long ago back in the forefront of her mind.
She and Lazarn both knew only too well that her caution then had been a key to the community becoming aware, in the nick of time, that Everarn had a hidden agenda.
Lazarn was by no means the only resident of Mighty Pine to fall under his spell. However, she was emotionally vulnerable, as long-held plans for her marriage to another popular elf, Trevarn, had been dashed only a year before. Her heart was still bruised, which meant the new arrival’s apparently kind intentions provided some comfort, and quickly attracted her to him.
Such had been the traumatic nature of the split from Trevarn, which had stemmed from a fundamental disagreement over the peaceful coexistence of the species living under Mighty Pine, that he had abruptly left the community, apparently never to return.
Trevarn had kept his strong distaste for the capanguta, who filled most of the leadership positions in the community, from Lazarn until their wedding was just a few weeks away, but then, as they were planning some of the final details for the big day, he’d made a hateful comment she simply could not ignore. When questioned, he had admitted he despised the apes they lived alongside, even though the capanguta treated them as equals and full members of the community.
“If enough of the other pine elves support me, I will find a way to drive them out!” he had declared, his cover now blown.
This had shocked and infuriated Lazarn, who had many close capanguta friends. “How could you?” she had yelled in frustration. “You’ve lived among them for as long as I have! You’ve been a recipient of their incredible generosity for all that time! And now you want to drive them out! How on earth do you think we could have spent our lives lived together with you holding such bigoted beliefs?
“I’m sorry, if that’s how you feel, you simply can’t be with me. The wedding is off. If you feel so strongly about this, I suggest you find another community that’s more to your taste!”
Batefimba knew that was the last time Lazarn and Trevarn had been in the same room together. The revelation had been shattering for her friend.
She paused in her reverie to look across at her grandson, worried that her preoccupation might have been noticed, but Mazimba was himself day-dreaming as he ate his second bowl of porridge, perhaps thinking about the mysterious visitor who had walked into their lives the night before.
Batefimba retreated again to the events of long ago, remembering just how upset Lazarn had been at Trevarn’s betrayal.
“He can’t possibly have forgotten the capanguta community’s generosity to all of us!” she had told a nodding Batefimba through sobs of frustration and heartbreak.
The pine elf community she and Trevarn had both spent their formative years in, Leaning Pine, had been torn asunder by a power struggle that had seen the chieftain, Matexan, overthrown and imprisoned by a rebel group led by one of his closest confidantes, Breavarn.
Both Lazarn and Trevarn’s parents had been staunch supporters of the benevolent Matexan, and so their families, along with seven others, had been banished from the community.
Though she had been young at the time, about eight, and in school when the families arrived at Mighty Pine, Batefimba felt she knew the course of events intimately, as Lazarn had described them to her many times over the course of their long friendship.
After wandering, lost and hungry, for several days, a group of 43 tree elves, carrying their meagre worldly possessions, had found their way, by sheer good fortune, to the settlement. Lazarn’s father, Philavarn, who had become the de facto leader of the refugee group, put aside his fears and approached the packolver Captain of the Guard who patrolled the community’s perimeter, Tallovine, to see if they might find shelter there, even if only temporarily.
Tallovine had sent a messenger to summon one of the community leaders, an aide to the chieftain, but when the message had been delivered, the chieftain himself, Masikazumba, had decided to investigate the situation, and marched down to the settlement’s main gate to greet the strangers.
Philavarn and the exhausted group from Leaning Pine had encountered neither packolvers nor capanguta before, and there was some nervousness among them about the wisdom of pursuing this contact, but Philavarn’s primary concern had been the welfare of a number of members of their party, five elderly elves who were finding the going tough, and three only a few weeks away from giving birth, who badly needed to rest. There were also several youngsters in their group, Lazarn, the apple of her father’s eye, among them. She had handled the difficult journey without complaining, but he worried about her nonetheless. For her, and for the other vulnerable members of their band of travellers, he summoned up all his courage as he prepared to greet the chieftain of this community.
Tallovine looked up as he became aware of a commotion nearby and was surprised to see the fearsome-looking chieftain striding purposefully in his direction.
“Behold, our chieftain, Monkeybreath!” The words rushed from his mouth just in time to beat Masikazumba’s arrival at the sentry post. Tallovine stood smartly at attention, focused on his leader’s every word.
Philavarn was unable to speak for a few panicked seconds as he briefly studied the face of the impressive creature now before him, and then, in a sudden fit of reverence, bowed his head.
It was an understandable move. Masikazumba, with his dark fur, turning silver in places, and flashing dark eyes, was certainly an intimidating figure. But his response belied his imposing appearance. Stepping towards Philavarn, he said, gently: “Please, don’t be afraid. You and your group are welcome here.”
With relief, Philavarn looked up and began to speak, hesitantly at first. “Thank you … chief … we seek only shelter to allow some of the members of our group to rest for a while. Unfortunately there was unrest under our home tree and we have been banished following an uprising that has seen the chief we were loyal to deposed and imprisoned. We have been on the road for some time.
“However, we do not wish to impose on your community, or to endanger it in any way.”
“You are welcome to stay for as long as you need or wish to, my friend,” replied Masikazumba. “And there is no need for us to agree how long that will be now. It is much more important that you and your party are able to rest for as long as required.”
Spotting one of the heavily pregnant elves, Trevarn’s mother, Saverarn, he added: “If I may be so bold, it appears your party will soon be increasing in size. You cannot possibly go any further until the new additions have arrived safely and their health is stable. Please agree to stay for at least that long.”
“You are most kind, sir.” It was Saverarn. She was near the front of the group and had heard Masikazumba’s generous words. Her response was heavy with emotion.
“It is the very least I can do,” replied the chieftain who, despite the tenderness he had displayed, had grown in stature in the eyes of those in the weary group who had observed the exchange closely.
“Thank you, sir. I have been remiss in not introducing myself. I am Philavarn,” said Lazarn’s father. “Your generosity is beyond anything we had expected. Rest assured, we will not forget your kindness.”
“Please, think nothing of it, Philavarn,” replied Masikazumba. “We have a tree with ample room for those in need of shelter. We would be honoured for you to stay here. Tallovine and his charges will see to it that you have adequate accommodation. When you have all had some time to rest, we will invite you to a feast to celebrate your arrival.”
Hearing his welcoming words, the group began to edge forward, all except Lazarn.
Though she was not quite eight years old, she had watched and listened to the respectful exchange between her father and Masikazumba intently.
Now she stood and watched the chieftain of the community that, it seemed, would be their home for some time, as he greeted each member of their party individually. Eventually Philavarn called out to her to follow, and she hastened forward to the gate. Masikazumba bent and shook her hand, smiling as he did so, and she could only mouth “Thank you” in response, but his graceful, generous leadership had left an indelible mark on her young, impressionable mind.
Batefimba had first heard that story from Lazarn in their days as teenagers and newfound friends enjoying the carefree lifestyle that living within the spreading branches and on the needle-covered ground below Mighty Pine offered them. The recollections had accompanied them through their entry into adulthood, and the story had been recounted several more times since the momentous events that had threatened and reshaped the community they loved.
She knew what had happened that momentous day had cemented Lazarn’s loyalty to the capanguta and indirectly spelt the death knell of her engagement the moment Trevarn’s irrational hatred had been revealed.
In many ways, although the arrival of Everarn, and her initial infatuation with him, had threatened to destroy the Mighty Pine community, it had been Lazarn’s firm stand in the face of Trevarn’s betrayal that had highlighted the diversity in the community and ultimately proved its salvation.
The last syllable registered with Batefimba, pulling her out of her reverie.
“Yes, my boy?” she answered.
“Are you all right?”
This time her preoccupation had been noticed. “I’m fine,” she said. “Why do you ask?”
“You looked like you were day-dreaming. Is anything the matter?”
“No, I was just thinking about the things I need to get done today,” she responded, not entirely untruthfully, given that assessing Fevan’s trustworthiness was on her list.
How much could she tell her grandson, she wondered. She didn’t think the situation would be particularly upsetting for him, at the age of 14, but she knew he was likely to discuss anything she said with his friends, as teenagers will. They’d naturally be interested in his assessment of the unexpected visitor staying under their roof. She didn’t want it somehow getting back to Fevan that she was being scrutinised.
“What will happen with Fevan?” Mazimba got right to the point.
“We’ll have to wait until she wakes up and see how she is,” Batefimba played for time. “She was terribly tired last night. We may not see her for some time.”
“But are you worried about her?” persisted Mazimba. “Do you think she could be like the visitor who came here many years ago, the one Monkeybreath had a crush on?”
Batefimba blinked in surprise. Her grandson must have overheard one of her many conversations with Lazarn over the years. He had always seemed to be in his own world and neither of them had ever kept their voices down due to his proximity.
But though he had never raised the subject with her before, Mazimba had clearly been aware for some time of one of the most significant episodes in Mighty Pine’s history. She would have to be frank with him.
“I owe you an apology, grandson. Clearly you are much more astute than I gave you credit for.
“Do you think she could be like the visitor who came here many years ago, the one Monkeybreath had a crush on?”Mazimba
“I will discuss the situation with you, but please, you must promise you won’t tell your friends what we have talked about, at least not until we have made a decision about whether or not it is safe to allow Fevan to stay.”
“Of course, Umamba. I realised immediately when Monkeybreath asked me to bring Fevan here that she wanted you to watch her. I would not do anything to endanger our community.”
“You are a good boy, Mazimba. So tell me, what do you think of Fevan? Is there anything about her that has made you suspicious?”
“Nothing, grandmother. When I brought her here last night she seemed to be listening to what I was asking her, but she also stared wide-eyed on a couple of occasions as she looked at our surroundings on the way here. Perhaps Mighty Pine is just a much more impressive tree than the one she has come from. Did you ask which tree was her birth tree?”
“I didn’t think to, though I should have,” Batefimba replied.
“She may have mentioned it to those who were first to meet her yesterday. I arrived when she was already in conversation with a group, but I didn’t hear her mention it. But don’t feel too bad, Umamba. I don’t think even Monkeybreath thought to ask. She may have been too surprised at the arrival to think of it.”
“We will ask her today, when she wakes up. In the meantime I ask you please to be on the lookout for anything about her that seems suspicious,” she said, “while still helping her to feel welcome, for as long as she is here.” She picked up a mug of rosemary tea and headed towards the door. “I’m going to sit on the veranda.”
(Copyright, Grant Shimmin, 2020)