Title: Speaking Trees

Rating: G

Summery: Qui Gon is sent to bring an unorthodox Ithorian Jedi back to the temple. (The Council really should have known better, shouldn't they? :)

Disclaimer: I do not own anything recognizable from the Star Wars universe. This story is written without permission and not for profit.

Dedicate to my Botony class, because Eugleana are our friends.

Dawn on the planet Ithor. Moisture came out of the sky and dripped through the forest into the earth. Thick silver mist draped over everything, pooling in the canopy of the rainforest, spilling in waterfalls down through the shadowy, cool, green spaces between the trees, flowing over the mossy, leaf carpeted ground. Dew beaded up in glittering prismatic spheres on the broad furled leaves of cupvine, catching the weak sunlight and making it flame. Shaggy green moss with glinting ruby tipped leaves grew like fur on the roots of trees. Terraces of translucent phosphorescent fungi circled the trunks. High up in the leaves singing lizards trilled a cry like the rattling of tiny rodent bones. It also sounded like a prediction of the noonday jungle heat. Vines crept through the soft hazy air, warp threads binding the trees in a wild green cloth.

The trees, to the Ithorians, the bones of mother jungle. Stormwood. Kujazz. Drumtree. Terqualla. Thornbark. Pala with squat trunks, long, wildly undulating branches, blue leaves, and pale green, velvety bark. Ancient moss covered tula trees, armored like thorny Degobah mire turtles. Umbrella-like twisting jall, their trunks mottled and patched in earth toned blue, green, purple, and red.

The Jedi moved with the easy grace of cloud tigers, unknowingly appearing and disappearing in the forest as they made their way through it. Faces hidden by the hoods of their robes, they emerged from the mist and green into a faint clearing. Shafts of sunlight like long white crystals fell through the brake in the canopy and lush clumps of shrubs with cercinate leaves grew in the hollow below, taking advantage of the extra light. They paused for a second, absolutely motionless, alert, the bigger dark robed one standing a little ahead of his apprentice, scanning the Force for something special amid the rich life of the forest. None of the jungle's large predators, the six legged howler, the mantisnake, or the guana that hunted ground dwellers from the treetops, had challenged them, but even more miraculously all the tiny creatures that bit, stung, sucked blood, and stars know what else, also left them untouched.

Ithorians held the mother jungle too sacred to allow for much invasive research of it. They tended parts of it diligently from above and knew more about ecology than almost any other species, but much of the jungle grew and lived and died in complete secrecy. When asked if they did not love their forests enough to learn about them completely, the response usually boiled down to an old Ithorian saying: mother jungle will be. They did not feel it needed anyone's knowledge to make it magnificent. Because of this, the Jedi had occasionally come across natural phenomena unknown to sentient beings in their travels. If the Jedi never spoke of them, they might go unknown forever. On the first day of their journey, a stream that was a constantly shifting swirl of vibrant rainbow colors. On the fifth, some kind of floating leaved water plant that made a noise like a roaring gundark. And yesterday, a rootless clump of vines that crept and slithered kilometers through the canopy in one
day, scattering its seeds as it went.

As they paused at the edge of the clearing, darkness fell over the forest as if dawn had been canceled. The jungle was cavernous with green and black shadows. Qui Gon looked up through the small window of tree branched above, lifting his face to the sky. A moment after its heralding shadow, the gray floating bulk of a herd city loomed overhead. The metallic curve of its hull slowly covered the blue like a storm cloud. There was a quiet, unearthly hum, all the more eerie because so much machinery was making so little sound. The light had the spectral indigo quality it takes on during a solar eclipse. For a moment, the sky was replaced by the herd city's wide disk shaped hull and the glowing repulser lifts that kept the floating city aloft. Then the full light returned, and the herd city, like a lone cloud that would never drop rain, drifted off over the treetops towards the horizon.

The Jedi's robes made good enough camouflage, and after the herd ship passed they crossed the clearing and vanished into the undergrowth again.

That night the sun went down in a clear red flash among the green. Qui Gon and Obi Wan sat on thick winding roots in the middle of a web-like grove of trees, husking leafy green seedpods for the seeds inside. They could not possibly have carried enough supplies for the whole journey, so the Ithorian government had grudgingly given the permission to forage for wild food, along with a crash course in what jungle plants were edible.

They ate their evening meal in silence. They had spoken less and less to each other on every day of their long trek into the Ithorian rain forest. It wasn't a cold or acrimonious silence, though. In the forest specific words had slowly been replaced by the rhythmic flow of emotions, sensations, and wordless elemental ideas through the Force between them. No exact thoughts were passed, but in a greater way they were more in tune with each other than they had ever been.

*Perhaps the Ithorians are right to want this place completely untouched*, Qui Gon thought. In the gathering dusk bats on cloak like wings were beginning to swing through the understory. Qui Gon took one of the soft purple kernels from the seedpod and tossed it high in the air. A bat snatched it in flight with one handwing and swooped into the branches of a nearby tree to eat it. Qui Gon smiled.

*Are sentient creatures such a purely wonderful thing that there should be nowhere outside their reach and knowledge?* And yet his travels in the forest had given him so much. He had temporarily given up the disciplined cycle of meditation that sustained him during the hardest times of his service as a Jedi; it was enough simply to live each and every step through the jungle fully and to soak the essence of it into his soul.

As at peace as he was now, he knew he would feel odd when he returned to the floating capital city of Rampa, no matter how the mission ended. Almost like a ghost. One of the humans who had walked in the jungle. The Ithorians had been almost in mourning over the Knight Jezzack's self imposed exile, pitying him for being moved by whatever spirit had inspired him to slip away and live in the jungles, actually on the earth itself. And at the same time they mourned in iron moral outrage. It would be eerie to experience the taboo Jezzack was facing, from the inside, as an outsider. Mother jungle was sacred. To set foot on any one of Ithor's continents went against went against the very basis of the native Ithorian religion, and the environmentally based secular morality of Ithorian culture.

The planet's elders had found Jezzack's actions intolerable, so they had gone to the Council and demanded the Jedi retrieve one of their own. But just before they had boarded the skimmer to take them down into the green, one of the elders had told Qui Gon that they thought Jezzack's actions had sprung from some sort of confused reverence. There was more bewilderment and sadness than anger. Yet Jezzack would pay for his transgression. When they found him and brought him back out of the jungle he would be banished from all Ithorian civilization. Because compassion was also at the core of Ithorian culture, there would be no other punishment, but they wanted nothing more to do with one that would go down into the jungle. Not as deep a wound to a Jedi as to other Ithorians, for the Jedi were a culture onto themselves and would accept Jezzack, but most Jedi kept and valued ties to their home world as well.

No Ithorian, not even Master Tash, the only other Ithorian Jedi living at the time, would consent to break the taboo against entering the jungle and go look for Jezzack. And yet they had not exactly treated the human Jedi summoned to find him as sinners or future outcasts. It had been haunting; all the time they were at Rampa they had carried the aura of beings about to undertake something forbidden and sacred. The Ithorian leaders had sent the two of them off with soulful dismayed silence, and treated them with an odd and very deep dignity, but they also seemed detached, as if they had decided the Jedi weren't quite real. Strange that they would let outsiders into the heart of their valued planet rather than go themselves.

He and Obi Wan had been searching for a long time, long enough for Qui Gon's gray streaked beard to get decidedly shaggy, an for Obi Wan to grow a scruff of coppery brown stubble himself. No one knew why Jezzack had decided to go to ground in the forest, so no one had any idea of exactly where he might have gone. There was nothing for them to do but go into the jungle, start walking, and listen intently to the Force for any echo of Jezzack's presence, or try to track the energy resonance he left in his path. Even that would be difficult, since the mighty chorus of forest life tended to drown out and conceal even the blazing essence of a Jedi Knight. That was why the Council had summoned Qui Gon to find Jezzack. It was well known in the Jedi order that where logic could provide no solution, Master Jinn's intuition could often ferret one out. But then again, it was equally well known among the Jedi that that answer was often most certainly not what one had in mind.

After two more days Qui Gon and Obi Wan came across the stands of strange trees. Growing alone or in little groves, they looked almost crystalline, pale prismatic blue like the blue corusca gems Obi Wan had used to make his lightsaber, with deep green leaves to absorb almost the entire visible spectrum. They traveled for one more day in the shadow of the strange trees, the groves becoming larger and more common, before they found anything.

Afterwards, Qui Gon could never quite tell whether it was the trees or Jezzack that had drawn the wild, underground part of him. Perhaps the distinction didn't matter that much. His questing mind caught the Force sense like flickers of flame only minuets before they came to another cluster of crystal trees and saw Jezzack standing in front of it. Ithorians placed great merit in strict nonviolence; even Ithorian Jedi did not carry lightsabers. Jezzack stood in front of the grove fearlessly, both body language and Force sense the complete antithesis of threatening, but he somehow managed to look protective, like a sentinel carving in front of an old temple. He watched them silently, his feet like small buttress rooted trees themselves, planted in the moss and tall grass. His eyes glittered deep dark brown, kind, wise and somehow ancient.

Qui Gon called out to him, "Jezzack Thanerran!"

Jezzack said nothing, and the noises of frogs and insects buzzed around them. Finally he answered, "You came looking for me. You just don't understand what you found." Jezzack's two voices echoed off each other like the reverberating sound of drums. When he spoke, Qui Gon realized from the sound of his voice that even though his eyes looked old, Jezzack was actually very young, a couple years into knighthood, no more.

Qui Gon took a step forward and said softly "Then explain it."

Jezzack looked first at Qui Gon, then at Obi Wan, evaluating, sounding the upper layers of their minds. "Very well." He said, shaking his head. "Come with me back to my home. I think this will take a while, and I think it's important." Without another word Jezzack turned and headed off into deeper into the forest, weaving between the trees and they followed him.

There were no trails through Jezzack's home territory. He must never use the same path twice. Qui Gon though. Only a Jedi or a master tracker would know anyone was here, if he chose not to show himself. But Qui Gon didn't understand how completely Jezzack had blended into the land until his saw his house. Qui Gon had been expecting a well camouflaged hut, a dwelling deep in a natural cave, maybe even a platform hidden up in the canopy, but he was wrong.

They came to a huge old pala tree, its graceful, snakey branches reaching up crazily into the air. There was a gap between two of its spreading roots, and in that gap was the dark, weather beaten wood of . . . a door. Jezzack opened the door and disappeared inside. Qui Gon followed, ducking so he wouldn't hit his head, but once inside he could stand up strait. He looked around the room, amazed. The tree had been decaying from the inside out. Jezzack had carved out everything but the still healthy sapwood and made his home within the trunk. There was a bed in one corner, and what must have served as a kitchen, with jars of river clay filled with water and seeds, in another. Herbs and fungi were hung up to dry from the ceiling, and there were potted plants everywhere. Some of them had reddish gold clusters of bioluminescent cells on their leaves. They illuminated the comfortable little hut with a glow like firelight. The room was filled with the clean, warm scent of cut wood
and the clinging, green, oxygen heavy smell of growing things.

It was a snug fit for the three of them, but not so much different from meeting in the private cell of a lone Jedi back at the temple. Or it wouldn't have been if the walls of the Jedi temple were actually alive. Qui Gon drew up a rough hewn wood stool that was in a corner, Obi Wan sat on an old durasteal supply crate, and Jezzack perched on the edge of his bunk. He began to cut shoots from a nearby plant, setting them in a jar of water to root, and continued doing so while he spoke.

He shrugged as he began to explain, as though he didn't quite know what to make of things himself. "I felt the call of the jungle. Or the Force, I'm not sure. Maybe one speaking through the other. I just slipped away and started walking."

"And what have you done now that your here? What made you stay?"

Another shrug, but at the same time Jezzack gave Qui Gon a look of genuine surprise that such a question was even necessary. "I listen. I grow. I take care of the forest, when it needs it. Mostly it doesn't. In one way or another, it keeps its balance, like the Force. There is *life* here Master Jinn. I learn about myself, the plants, the animals." He reached out and ran one of his hands through the leaves of the nearest plant, the way one would affectionately ruffle the hair of a child. The patterns of light and leafshadow on the walls shifted and flickered like a tapestry in a faint breeze. "There are more life forms on this planet than we could ever know, even if we all lived on the continents."

"Like those blue trees that grow all around here. You'd think we would have heard about such strange plants."

Jezzack smiled wide. Qui Gon noticed he tended to do that a lot. Then he nodded slowly at Obi Wan. "They're called bafforr trees. They're not unknown to science, just very rare." He paused for a moment and went on. "I know I shouldn't have come. I live a life that respects mother jungle, but others who may not will follow my example and come into the forest. Look, I've already brought the two of you down onto the earth. You seem to understand the jungle, respect it, but still, you are here. But I couldn't not go. I belong here. And I found the trees. They are aware. They have been for thousands of years."

"Are they sentient?" Obi Wan asked.

"Almost sentient." He finished with the jar of cuttings and put it on the floor. "Or maybe sentient in a different way that I don't understand yet. I'm still learning from them. A Jedi seeks knowledge and my people seek to honor and protect the forest. Where else do I belong? The Force flows in them, not like it does in us, but not like in everything else, either."

"Those trees are Force sensitive?"

Jezzack seemed to consider this carefully for a second, but then his two mouths smiled, and he stood and gestured for Qui Gon to follow him out of the tree hut. "Truth lies beneath words like roots under a plant, Master Jinn. Come see for your self!"

As they followed Jezzack to the grove, the twining undergrowth parted before them and closed up after them as if no one at all had ever come that way. Jezzack's lanky gnarled legs moved in long gawky strides and between him and Qui Gon, Obi Wan had to hurry to keep up. Jezzack seemed to know exactly where he was going. As they reached the grove of bafforr trees and began to move among them the vegetation thinned out. The undergrowth was mostly scattered bunches of delicate, trailing vines. Most of the forest floor was covered in dry leaves that shuffled and crunched around the Jedi's boots. The leaves had turned a pale rust red when they fell and dried, and had a smoky, spicy smell like incense. Now that Jezzack had pointed it out, a Force resonance did seem to hang in the warm air around the trees, pervasive but subtle. Like a sound you couldn't quite here or a corona of light you couldn't quite see. The trick seemed to be not to concentrate on one tree, but on the whole

Qui Gon walked slowly, very open to the Force, and let his gaze wander up into the dark leafy canopy. "You're right." He said. "They are Force sensitive. They are . . . different."

"Is it my imagination, or were the trees paler before?" Obi Wan asked, looking around.

"Yes. They change color slightly. Reacting to the locus we create in the Force, I think."

Qui Gon turned his attention back to Jezzack, intrigued. "What happens if I touch one?"

Jezzack gave him another wide double grin. "Try it."

Qui Gon walked up to the base of the nearest tree. It was not a sapling, but not as ancient as some of the others. Vines grew at its roots and crept over its trunk. Curiously, Qui Gon reached out and put one big, worn hand flat against the crystal blue bark. The bark felt cool and smooth, and a radiant pulse of light briefly flashed around his outspread hand. Qui Gon felt the rhythms of the Force they had first sensed while entering the grove more strongly and shut his eyes to focus on absorbing them. Then he felt an unexpected answering energy from within himself. Strange, very old, but still powerful and delicate energy and sensations began to germinate in his heart. Lines of shimmering fiery green energy twined through him, from the soles of his feet to the tips of his fingers. Glowing tendrils painlessly transmuting him, mixing his pulse and breathing with the rhythm of a cool and vital alien life. Otherness wove around Qui Gon, wrapping him in senses that were not quite
sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch, altering his inner rhythm. It became the sustaining frequency of sunlight flickering over leaves, water coursing upward through wood from the dark earth, dynamic exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen. Anchoring roots spreading out far below in the earth and branches far above in the sky. Rain and wind over branches, tinny creatures in symbiosis with root and bark and leaf, supporting and sheltered. Slow but continual growth, until death came as storms crushing boughs, tarring up roots, and toppling trunks; parasites invading and devouring from inside. Blighted, senescent old trees falling and vibrant but fragile sprouts growing from the blasted roots. Long, long memory of linked, subtle minds building on each other. Each seed falling to the earth holding some of that memory of light and water and time as it sent up new shoots.

Obi Wan watched his Master standing beneath the bafforr tree, eyes closed, head slightly lifted as if he was listening to something. There was a look on his face Obi Wan had never seen before, something wild, tender and mystical. After a moment Qui Gon came back to himself and then turned to Obi Wan. He smiled, his blue gray eyes shining with awe.

"Obi Wan," He said, taking his apprentice by the wrist and pressing his hand against the tree. "touch it. Feel it. *Be* it."

And then, for the next few seconds, Obi Wan became a tree.

"You see why I want to learn from and honor these trees. And you see now why they need to be protected."

Obi Wan dropped down to sit on the forest floor, and Qui Gon soon did the same.

He felt relaxed, but so tired. It occurred to him that he just might have done something foolish and dangerous, that he might have hurt himself. When beginning to commune with trees it might not be at all safe to start with one so powerful. The trees, being many and ancient could take more of this child Qui Gon Jinn than he could take of them. *Maybe I should have practiced on my little rajo plant back at the temple first* he thought with a slow smile. But this did not feel like damage. All that alien life force rushing through him hadn't really weakened him, but it had shaken him up. His thoughts had their usual clarity, maybe even more than that, but his mind seemed to be moving very slowly, like rock being shaped by water.

Jezzack seemed to understand the slightly altered state the two other Jedi were in and patiently waited for them to speak. After a few minuets Qui Gon said,

"This is a gift that you have discovered, but what do the trees think of it?"

"I'm not sure they're enough like us to think, or to actually want things. But

I think they're glad I'm here. I'm part of their psychic environment now, maybe a part that was missing before."

"If you heard the call, others will to. But I don't think your civilization will ever really stand for it."

Jezzack sighed heavily, an eerie echoing sound, and lowered his stalk-eyed head.

"Maybe it's for the best. My wishes should not endanger the forest. I've already come to know it better than any Ithorian alive. Maybe that's all that's needed."

"What good is having eco-priests when no one has lived on the earth? You are not harming or stealing from anything. If you felt drawn strongly enough to come here against everything in your culture, then you will stay here, where you belong."

Obi Wan obviously objected. His face tensed in irritation as he tried to rush the tranquil pace of his thoughts and only succeeded in confusing himself. Finally he managed to get out, "But how many can the jungle stand before its balance is disrupted? You said yourself Jezzack, that others might not come with motives as pure as yours."

Qui Gon closed his eyes and anyone who couldn't sense how deeply he was thinking might have thought he had fallen asleep. After a long time he said, "Then it probably is for the best that the Ithorian people will never really stand for it. But that doesn't mean I've changed my mind. We're not taking you back, Jezzack. This is right."

Night was falling when they left the grove of bafforr trees, and Qui Gon and Obi Wan were in no condition to start walking back through the rain forest, so Jezzack offered them shelter for the night. By the time they came to the pala tree hut it was dark. The stars came out, magnified by the pristine atmosphere, like a thick scattering of tiny blue crystal chips in clear black water. Through the shifting lattice of leafs three of Ithor's moons poured down pale translucent light. One was full and faintly golden. One in its first quarter, green tinted like phosphorescent jade. One glowed like a crescent of white hot silver.

That night, as he lay on a folded blanket stuffed with dry grass, in front Jezzack's door, Qui Gon's normally dreamless sleep was filled with the cool green of leaves, the moist nurturing darkness of earth, and the flashing of sunlight. The memories of trees would continue to echo in his sleep for weeks, and would never really leave him. The dreams became very rare, but would reoccur when he least expected them throughout the rest of his life.

When he woke the next morning the weariness and the feeling of deep running stillness had worn off. Obi Wan apparently felt back to normal, too, and proved it by once again protesting Qui Gon's decision to leave their mission purposely unfinished.

After Obi Wan had finished arguing, Qui Gon said, "Obi Wan, your will is good, but think, do you really believe the forest is in danger, or do you think it is wrong for Ithorian society to change?"

Obi Wan thought for a moment. "I don't know. Perhaps. But you have to admit Master, once you open a door, you often can't close it."

"I know, Obi Wan, I know. But sometimes if you *don't* open a door, you'll never get another chance to. I can't shake the sense that this is just another way to take care of this planet. I don't think the Ithorians living on the planet's surface will ever be more than an underground, but they will serve a purpose."

Obi Wan sighed. He had hoped against hope that Qui Gon would change his mind once the effects of communicating with the bafforr trees wore off. No such luck.

Jezzack had been up and gone since before sunrise, off tending 'his' patch of forest and monitoring its health. He returned from his patrol with a new seedling, a pink and vivid green carnivorous plant, for his house. As he walked out from between the massive old trees he said, "You're returning to the cities now?"

Qui Gon turned to face him and nodded. "Yes. We will tell the elders that we found you, and you were doing no harm to the jungle, but you escaped us. That's near enough to the truth, isn't it?"

"It would have been the truth, if you had tried to take me with you." Jezzack said, with determination that reminded Qui Gon how stubborn and fierce a completely passive being can be.

Qui Gon folded his hands in front of him and bowed. "Thank you, for helping us to understand."

"Thank you for listening. I think the jungle will always welcome you. Goodbye, and mind what you walk on."

Then the two jedi turned and left the clearing, melting into the understory of scaly rana saplings.

An artificial storm was moving through the government sectors of the herd city Rampa when they returned. They met with the Ithorian elders, who seemed even more like majestic old trees than Jezzack had, in a small stone pavilion, with the rain pouring down like a crystal curtain from the eves. The pavilion stood in the middle of a field of shaggy, wirery, red gold feather grass. A forest of mixed fire palms and imported Talgonian bantha pines encroached on its margins. The whole habitat was enclosed in a transparasteel dome at the heart of Tampa, but the dome was so massive that you didn't necessarily notice it while you were in it.

Qui Gon told his story of how Jezzack had chosen to live on the earth without harming it, and said he doubted even another Jedi could bring him back from the jungle. He told them about the bafforr trees, as much as he could without reveling that Jezzack had given them the information. The elders asked questions for almost an hour, deliberated, and then agreed with Qui Gon's suggestion to let Jezzack be. He would never be accepted back into the herd cities if he returned, but they would not hunt for him. Then they left into the soaking rain and a gathering of white robed eco-priests came to hear what the Jedi had to tell about Jezzack and the trees.

The priests were a little less formal than the politicians. They came in, shook the rain off themselves, and sat on the dirt floor or gathered in close as if Qui Gon and Obi Wan were tribal storytellers. As he spoke, his voice blending with the sound of the rain drumming down and streaming away from the pavilion in little rivers, Qui Gon felt something distraction him, gently but persistently nudging at his senses. It didn't take long for him to realize what it was. One of the priests, a short, older one in the back leaning up against a pillar, was Force sensitive. Not much, not enough to even be considered for Jedi training, but the light was there nonetheless. And, Qui Gon realized, looking into the priests eyes, so was a keen fascination. What she was hearing had lit a fire in her mind, Qui Gon didn't need the Force to tell him that. Qui Gon didn't think the fire would dim, either. She wouldn't be able to forget about the free living forest, the trees that could feel and
think. Though she just listened thoughtfully now, there would come a time she would follow the call she heard and go down to the earth to see for herself, to tend the jungle hand to earth. And, Qui Gon though, she wouldn't be the last.