As Monkeybreath turned back from the place where light and shadow met, on the quiet western edge of the settlement, where the sun was setting, she was still deep in thought.
Thinking was why she had gone to stand in one of her favourite late afternoon spots, on a platform that afforded a view of the open grassland beyond the community’s high wooden wall, and, at this time of day, of the sun’s descent. It had seemed so peaceful out there in the evening’s fading light, but she realised that the twilight hid dangers the residents of Mighty Pine were shielded from.
Now, with darkness rapidly closing in, she headed back towards the eastern side of the settlement built around the great tree. That was the heart of the community, where businesses and the offices of the council she headed were located around the large town square.
She set out purposefully. There was work still to be done before she could call it a day. The break and the fresh air had done her good and, despite her tiredness, she felt refreshed as she walked back towards her office, enjoying the fragrance of fallen pine needles lining the path. However she had not got far before she was intercepted.
Approaching the trunk of the soaring pine that was home to the motley collection of creatures she led, she encountered one animated villager after another, capanguta and elves, and the occasional young packolver too.
“Monkeybreath, Monkeybreath,” they said excitedly, eyes shining. “Come and see! There’s a new arrival!”
Immediately on high alert, Monkeybreath quickened her stride. Visitors were certainly welcome at Mighty Pine, but usually their visits had been arranged in advance. On the rare occasions when they arrived unannounced, she was invariably informed by her Captain of the Guard, and when she was able to, she was in the habit of greeting them herself.
Sometimes the prospect of meeting the chieftain caused would-be visitors to hesitate, and some thought better of their visits. However those who had legitimate reason for wanting to enter the village invariably stayed, and Monkeybreath welcomed them with such grace that they never suspected she was assessing them as security risks.
It was a policy she made no apologies for. Visitors who turned out to be trouble-makers could upset the hard-won harmony of the ancient tree’s thriving residents.
So she was intrigued as to why this one had been allowed through the gate, and all the way under the spreading branches of the Mighty Pine, apparently without serious interrogation.
Why hadn’t the guards rushed to alert her, she wondered. Why was there widespread excitement, rather than alarm?
Then she saw the visitor, and the tension in her shoulders eased somewhat as she covered the last few strides of the journey.
The new arrival was a pine elf, like herself, much younger, certainly, but otherwise reassuringly familiar. From a distance she showed signs of exhaustion, perhaps of an extended period away from the shelter, and safety, of a protective pine tree.
The stranger was unaware of her approach, engaged in conversation with a group of several elves and capanguta, but she looked up as Monkeybreath drew level with the group surrounding her.
“Welcome, young elf,” Monkeybreath said. “What brings you to the shade of the Mighty Pine?”
“I found you by sheer luck,” the stranger said, bowing slightly. “There has been no peace under my birth tree for some time. Finally I felt I could no longer remain there and I fled.
“I have been travelling for some time without any clear sense of where I was heading. Last night I came upon a furriensis who said he lived not far away from your tree. I told him I was lost and he brought me here. He said I would find this to be a community in which kindness is widespread.”
“Ah yes, that would be Rupertonix. He belongs to the giants who live in a nearby castle. He has been a good friend to us,” said Monkeybreath. “What is your name, young elf?”
“I am Fevan, but many know me as Twinkletoes.”
“Welcome, Fevan, you must be tired, and hungry. We will find you food, and a place to sleep, and we can discuss your situation when you are rested.
“I am Lazarn, but as you have probably realised, everybody here calls me Monkeybreath.”
Scanning the steadily growing group, her eyes landed on a young capanguta.
“Mazimba,” she said, “do you think your grandmother has a pine needle stew on the fire? Could she feed our guest?” she asked, choosing the word carefully, “and perhaps find her a bed for the night?”
Mazimba nodded. “Yes, Monkeybreath. I’m sure she will be happy to help.”
Fevan’s plight seemed to her to be genuine, but she needed to make sure she was no threat to the community before committing to allow her to stay. The harmony of the diverse settlement under the Mighty Pine was precious and delicate.
That was one of the reasons she’d swiftly decided to bring the wise, trusted Batefimba into the picture. Mazimba’s grandmother would be quick to spot any telltale signs that their guest’s story was not as believable as it seemed at first glance.
She and Batefimba were two of the last remaining handful of Mighty Pine residents who remembered the last time an unexpected visitor had been allowed into the community unchallenged. It had happened many years ago, a long time before Mazimba’s birth, and their memories of the discord it had caused within the community still lingered, passed down by word of mouth.
Batefimba would know, without Lazarn having to spell it out, that the reason for her request was to allow her to assess Fevan. Was this unexpected arrival a potential asset to the community, or was she a threat, perhaps an infiltrator from another settlement whose residents had somehow come to learn of the prosperity enjoyed under the Mighty Pine?
Between them, she and Batefimba would be able to screen Fevan without her even realising it. Though if she was indeed an infiltrator, she would have come expecting to be scrutinised.
Batefimba would know, without Lazarn having to spell it out, that the reason for her request was to allow her to assess Fevan.
Monkeybreath waved Mazimba and Fevan towards the stairs that climbed around the trunk of the Mighty Pine, and as they strode away, beckoned two packolver guards, who had been watching the scene warily, to approach, instructing them to follow the pair at a distance.
“And watch Batefimba’s home tonight, please,” she added as they departed.
With Fevan taken care of as best she could, Monkeybreath suddenly felt her own weariness weighing heavily on her. Despite the paperwork that waited in her office, the need to rest was suddenly irresistible. It was the start of the weekend, and the idea of working while others enjoyed themselves outside her office window was not appealing.
Besides which, it was a tiring walk, up many stairs, back to her own treehouse, the grandest under the Mighty Pine. She started out, stopping occasionally to chat to villagers who greeted their popular leader as they headed into the centre of the village for the evening.
Eventually she arrived at the sprawling house where she lived alone, and after a quick snack, made herself a mug of fortifying pine flower tea, and sat down, wearily.
She had been carrying a heavy mental burden already, but the events of the early evening had only made her load heavier.
Though she had been relieved to see that the visitor was a fellow pine elf, the possible reasons for her presence here worried her.
She hoped fervently that Fevan’s arrival did not signal the start of any kind of conflict with pine elves from other tree settlements. The nearest pine tree was a considerable distance away, and contact between this community and others was rare, but certainly not unheard of.
Monkeybreath was not getting any younger, and she doubted she would have the strength to rally her followers, as devoted as they were, in the event of conflict.
The life of the community had been peaceful in the decades since the arrival of that previous uninvited visitor. He had been a pine elf too, engaging and friendly, and the much younger Lazarn had been quite taken with him.
She still shuddered at the thought of her own naivety, going along with the shameless flirting of the charming outsider, who had turned out to be a spy from Towering Pine. She hadn’t been the only one sucked in by his cheeky smile and rakish good looks, but that did nothing to lessen the sense of shame she still felt, even though she had done more than anyone to atone for the mistake.
As she had stood at the edge of the settlement earlier, looking out at what lay beyond, she had been worrying about what might happen to those who looked up to her when she was gone.
She had never forgotten that there were those who did not appreciate the peaceful coexistence of elves, capanguta, and packolvers. Without any reason except, it seemed to her, their own irrational fears, they had tried to drive a wedge through the harmony of this peace-loving community.
There were other painful memories too, even more distant, but just as she began casting her mind even further back, her weariness finally overtook her and she slept in the armchair where she had spent so many hours, over the last 35 years, deciding on the best way to keep her valued subjects and their precious way of life safe.
(Copyright, Grant Shimmin, 2020)