Part III: Minore's Roses.
After the Red Prince had presented the village with a gift, the villagers were busy for quite a while. Their days were filled with burning and burying their dead, blessing the graves, and tending to the wounded. Some badly injured warriors died, and some recovered. The Chosen One, Karantar, and his wife went to visit the wounded often, and discussed the way to bury the dead with Father Darren. They also decided that the village houses needed to be reinforced, and the smith made new tools so more people could help in the work.
As for our days, they were filled quite differently. Thentro, Treesong and I made our rounds through the woods. Though Treesong often accompanied us, he often as not disappeared in the undergrowth and left us to eachother.
I quickly learned the paths in the woods, and always could feel the remote safe haven that is our grove. Our days were filled tending the forest. Whenever we encountered a disturbing influence on the forest, we would persuade it or make it cease whatever it was doing to disturb the balance. We also found wounded animals if we were lucky - for a wounded animal will crawl away into a hiding place if it has the strength - and tried to heal them. Thentro was a very skilled healer in those days, and Treesong showed us the druid ways. While I did not learn the herbs he could use for healing - that kind of lore has been very hard to study for me - I did try to understand the balances in the forest, always trying to look at the bigger picture. Killing a wounded animal could upset the balance, and we never would take a life lightly. When one of the animals in our care would die, we mourned it's passing, and returned its body to the earth to return to the circle.
The forest itself got our attention too. Treesong gathered and replanted herbs in the grove, and distilled some for daily use. Trees that were uprooted we tried to upright, or at least support with dead branches from the forest floor. When Autumn came over us, we gathered some mushrooms and berries - never enough to upset the balance of course - and made our food from that. We needed little from the village, and I only appeared there for the mages' guild. Treesong met with Karantar and his wife at times, and kept a close eye on the building activities, making sure the lumberjacks never chopped down trees where they were not supposed to or would upset the balance in the forest.
Our way of life continued day after day, but made little change. After all, two elves and a half-elf dryad could not repair the damage many evil minds have done. But each bit was welcomed and thanked. We had little to fear in the woods.
We also visited the Archdruid, who referred to us as 'his special children'. He enjoyed our company, and guided us where we needed guiding. He had hours to think on things, and his answers were well-considered. Treesong visited him, and I think the Archdruid may have taught him some things. After all, everyone can use guidance from a master. Sometimes I mourned my wise Master of the Arts, Kyros o Lysander. The mages' guild in Hawkspire were toddlers compared to Kyros' wisdom, and I believe that if Kyros was here with us, he would have taught them a few lessons.
In the library I learned little about the Darangu. Treesong and Thentro had told me all about the Darangu, and told me many times of when they had met it. In the library, however, all I could learn was that the mages didn't know exactly what the Darangu was, and that they feared it. I knew, by then, it was a spirit of the forest. The Archdruid said the Darangu only showed itself when it was needed. I must say I became a little obsessed with it, for its goals and that of ours were the same, and though other mages feared it, I wanted to help.
During those months, when summer turned to Autumn, I felt my strength flow slowly away. It was not a sickness, that much I knew thanks to Thentro. In retrospect, in the first frightened weeks I could hardly have known what it was, unless I would use the Arts of Magic often. I barely did, for Kyros always told me that 'the art of magic is to know when not to use it'. After all, when I started studying magic, the first few weeks I could hardly notice the increase in strength. And so, the first decrease of the ability to cast spells was barely noticeable. When more and more of my spells failed to work and I felt weak even as I just started my day, it also dawned on the mages in the guild that the ability to do spells decreased. Each and every mage then noticed the weakness, and of course these children in the Arts of Magic had no idea what hit them and how they could counter it. They just sat in their libraries and their comfortable chairs. It was like they didn't care, shrugged, and read on like it would go away on its own.
I must say that at this point I was amazed by their blind stupidity. If you can't do any magic, how could you study it? How could you develop new spells? You can't test your theories and you're just stumbling in the dark without candle or brimstone.
In the end as the last leaves had left the trees, even the simplest spell didn't work for me any longer. My magic was gone, and nobody knew how this came to be. The mages of the guild just sat in their stuffy library ignoring the obvious, Joral the firemage became a professional drunk, and I continued my work with Thentro and Treesong, though I felt very vulnerable and a bit useless.
I had been without my magic for almost an entire mooncycle, and the winter solstice approached. Thentro and Treesong accompanied me in the village. Treesong had decided it was time to grow Thentro a new staff, but we would have to go to some lengths to get the information we would need. I remember talking to Joral and another fire mage named Philippe, and they decided to accompany us, together with Bern and Micheal, a friend of Bern's, and an ranger archer like him. Joral was a bit unsteady on his feet, and I suspected he had had some drinks already. When Treesong, Thentro and I got ready to leave the village, they had probably overheard we would be travelling quite far from the village.
"What if;" Joral had mused, "this turns out to be a local thing? We walk far enough from Hawkspire and everything suddenly is fine. That'd be nice. That'd be, I'd just, just, I don't know."
"It's worth a try;" Philippe had said, and immediately volunteered to accompany us.
In the forest, Joral started softly humming to himself. Thentro looked sceptically at Joral, and took his head in his hands, pausing for a moment. Only a few moments later, Jorals' eyes were much brighter, and his pace was more steady.
"What did you do?" I asked Thentro.
"Well, there's a trick I know, supposedly called 'cure poison'. Apparantly, it works on alcoholics."
We walked on in silence, and I recognized the paths we were taking. Slowly but surely we traveled towards the Archdruids' grove. But before I could ask Treesong about this, we saw some large creatures crawl out of the undergrowth. They were accompanied by a man.
"Have you got it!" the man shouted, and an arm pointed at us in an accusing manner. His creatures milled around us, and sniffed my sides before moving on.
"What do you mean with 'it'?" we asked, but the man was beyond reason.
"I know you have it! Give it to me! Give it to me! I need it! I know you have it!"
Cautiously, I moved away from the man and his creatures, edging towards the safety of the bushes and undergrowth. I could not run fast through the wild forest, but I would hardly be visible after I'd walked a couple of paces, and I knew how to shake someone following me before returning to the safety of our grove.
Treesong tried to reason with the man, and Joral and Philippe clearly didn't know how to handle this situation.
"Hey mister, if you would tell us what 'it' is, maybe we can help you out, eh?" Joral tried. The man was almost foaming at the mouth.
"You know what I mean. You know! Just give it to me! I know you have it!"
When we didn't appear to be willing to give whatever 'it' was, the man turned to his beasts. They were furry, and had some animal features that vaguely remembered of bears and wolves, but I could not clearly discern what they were. The man spoke to them and they turned on us with a fiery light in their eyes.
I immediately circled through the undergrowth, away from the animals, but not losing sight of Joral and Philippe, who tried to stand their ground with their swords raised. I heard Treesong shout that Bern and Micheal shouldn't hurt the poort animals.
"Treesong, these are as unnatural as I've ever seen them!" cried Bern, before releasing his arrow.
After a short fight, the man and the beasts were slain, and I returned to the group. Treesong and Thentro had also left the path, but Joral and Philippe had stood their ground, backed up by the archers that had retreated also. I knelt at the creatures' slain bodies, and softly touched their flanks. I looked at Thentro, but he could not help them any more. As skilled a healer as he was, not even Thentro can cure death.
As Treesong turned away from the bodies, and wanted to continue our journey, Joral gripped his arm.
"How about next time we encounter something hostile, you don't leave us? I don't know my way around this forest, I can't just leave the path."
"Sure." Treesong shrugged, turned, and continued his journey.
"Treesong;" I called, and I hurried forward to him, making sure the rest were a little way back and couldn't overhear. "You're not thinking to introduce all of them to the Archdruid?"
"You have a point;" Treesong mused and stopped. "Joral, Philippe, listen. Thentro, Xantara, and I have some important and delicate things to talk about. We're going to need some privacy when we get there." Treesong threw a suggestive glance at the two archers. "I'd appreciate it if you'd grant us that."
Treesong turned again, but this time it was Joral that caught up with him. "Hey, listen. I've travelled out here, I've battled beasts. I think I deserve to know what's going on here."
Micheal, Bern and Philippe didn't seem to mind, and while Thentro spoke to them about keeping their distance, Treesong and I came to the conclusion that Joral could probably be trusted.
"Allright," Treesong told Joral, "you can come. You are sworn to secrecy, and you will forget where this place is."
Micheal and Bern stayed with Philippe at the path, while Treesong, Thentro and I disappeared into the undergrowth to the entrance of the Archdruid's grove. Joral hesitantly followed us.
Thentro stepped to the left as we stepped on the long yellow grass, while I veered off to the right. I picked a spot and kneeled, facing the ancient tree that held the spirit of the Archdruid.
The branches of the tree softly stirred, as if a gust of wind touched them lightly, and the voice of the ancient Archdruid spoke to us.
"Ah, my special children. You so please me if you come to visit. My days are long and lonely." He paused, and then continued. "You have brought a friend."
I looked at Joral, who sat most toward the path, next to Thentro.
"Hi. I'm Joral. I'm a firemage. Er. I like trees. I don't just torch them at random."
"Welcome Joral the Firemage, to my grove." Joral looked a bit uncomfortable, but the Archdruid dismissed him and adressed us again. "You've not come for a courtesy visit."
"No;" Treesong answered, "We've got a few questions, if that is allright."
"Please, do ask. Let not my knowledge go to waste."
It was here that I asked the Archdruid for information about the Darangu, and I learned the most important thing about the Darangu: that it only appeared in times of natures' greatest need. I thought on this, and the Archdruid asked if we had any other questions. Treesong opened his hand to Thentro, who sat to his right.
"I am wondering about my sister, Itia o Paratolmi;" Thentro asked, "I have not seen her for a long time and I was wondering whether she is allright."
"Your sister is fine. She has moved on to a place where she is more at home, and she is happy."
"She is happy. I am glad that she is happy." Thentro said, and looked up at Treesong, who had remained standing. Treesong gave the slightest of nods, and Thentro continued with his next question. "I wish to grow a staff from the hardest wood, without damaging the tree. I come for advice."
The Archdruid hummed and thought for a while. "You will want ironwood, that is the hardest I know of. You can only find it in one place though. In the grove of Minore, the grove of the Roses. Do you know where to find this?"
None of us knew.
"There is a goblin. She knows. She likes to make castles out of earth."
"A goblin?!" Treesong, Thentro and I exclaimed.
"Not all greenskins are bad, Treesong. Surely you must know this."
"They disturb the balance of nature." Treesong curtly stated.
"At home, any greenskin we find will be executed on sight." Thentro explained.
"Nevertheless, this one you need, for she knows the way to Minore's grove. She is known to be seen a little way off southwest from here." There was a tone of mused humour in the voice of the Archdruid. "Now, if there was nothing else you wanted to ask, lay your hands on my trunk. You too, mister Firemage."
The blessing of the Archdruid flowed over and through us. "This might not be too pleasant for you, Joral the Firemage."
We thanked the Archdruid, and retreated from his grove. Joral was rubbing his hand vigorously, as if to massage the life or warmth back into it. "Come here." I grabbed his hand, and rubbed it. "None too pleasant for you, it seems."
We all had a sense of direction planted into us, and we rejoined the others.
"This way." Treesong said in his curt manner, and we followed him over the paths.
Sure enough, thanks to the Archdruid, we found the goblin. She was indeed making a castle out of sand and earth, twigs, and pinecones and bits of moss she could find. We tried to get her attention, but she ignored us, focusing merely on the castle. My hands itched on the dagger I wear at my belt.
We tried to offer her food. We tried to help her build the castle, but all we got was a slap on the hands. We tried pushing her, and we tried talking to her, all to no avail. Bern and Micheal kept watch, as they usually do, while we tried everything we could think of.
"Maybe we should smash the castle." Philippe suggested.
"We want her to help us... not turn her against us."
"Treesong, someone's coming." Bern pointed at the path. In the distance we could see a man with some beasts.
"Them again." moaned Joral. "Let's get rid of them first, and then try to resolve this."
"Xan, you stay here with the goblin." Treesong ordered. "You're not much good in a fight, right now, and I don't want to risk you getting wounded."
I nodded, and tried to look lively, keeping an eye on the goblin. The men walked down the path, approaching the dark shapes in the distance. I looked at the castle the goblin was building, and looked at the men in the distance. A fight had started, and I could clearly see Joral dancing wildly through the fray, his red robe shining brightly in the distance. I could see Thentro leaning heavily against a tree, and then him falling over. Treesong and Phillippe lost their footing - or their consciousness - next. Joral went down fighting.
The goblin forgotten, I lifted my skirts and ran. I saw the animals retreating into the woods with the man, and I stopped in a shower of earth at my heels, near the fallen Treesong.
"Treesong! Treesong! Oh, Earth Mother, no!"
I knew nothing of healing, my spells were of no use, and with Thentro being down, things really looked bad.
Behind me, I heard a soft swishing and a high-pitched voice. "This looks like a fun slumber-party!"
I looked over my shoulder and saw the small body of a nymph hovering a little unsteadily behind me.
"Flaky! We need your help. They are wounded. Can you heal them?"
The nymph looked at me for a second, and then exclaimed "Sure I can! Let's see..."
"Start with Thentro;" I interrupted him, before he could start, "He's a healer and can help."
"Allright." Flaky acceded, and hiccuped before starting his incantation. "By all the booze, and alcohol, and fizzy drinks with long straws in it and a rim of sugar on the glass and a rainbow of colors of cocktails, I heal you!"
It certainly was the most peculiar incantation I had ever heard in my life, but from the spasmic shaking of Thenro's body, it appeared to work.
Flaky and Thentro slowly made their way about the wounded, and after a while the men were standing again, though most were swaying. Joral looked strangely happy, and started singing a song.
"After-effects of Flaky's healing. One moment." Thentro muttered, and cured the hangover he had.
I precariously avoided the subject of storming head-first into battle, without knowing for sure how strong the enemy was. I didn't speak a word of their stupidity, nor of their thirst for fight, nor of my fears that maybe the goblin ran off, leaving her castle, and us guideless.
Luckily she was still there, and still unwilling to speak to us. Frustrated as he was, Treesong trampled her castle, and looked at the goblin in a way as if to say 'try to stop me'.
"Now why did you go and do that for?" the goblin looked up.
"You're going to show us the way to the Grove of Minore." Treesong said, pointing out Bern and Micheal, who stood ready to loose two arrows at the greenskin.
"Well, I don't know what you want to go there for. It's not a nice place."
She was shoved away from the castle, and eventually led us down a path, and then another path, deep into the heart of the forest, muttering all the way.
This part of the forest we had not ventured in. Indeed, there are many places Thentro, Treesong and I have not visited yet in the woods. Micheal told us of other elves, living deep in the woods, a few days' travel away - whom we have never yet met.
The forest seemed to grow darker here, and at last we came upon a wall of thornbushes, as high as an elf stands tall.
"Here." said the goblin.
"What here?" we asked.
"Well, here's Minore's Grove. You just have to get to the other side of the thornbushes. Hey, you wanted to go there, so go there."
"We have to go through here? That's going to be hard..." Joral mused, and gripped the hilt of his long sword tight. He slashed at the thorns furiously for a while, and then stopped, panting. The progress he had made was small, and as we stood watching, the thornbushes grew back, weaving even closer than they had been before. "Well, that's not an option."
"It looks like the bushes grow less thick here. I can see the ground." Thentro ventured, and indeed, the bushes seemed to make a small path, with step-stone like qualities, and prickly thorns in between. Just how sharp the thorns were, we would soon find out.
Joral sheathed his sword, and pushed Thentro aside. With a cry, he plunged forward through the thorn bushes, stepping precariously fast on in the open spaces, at break-neck speed. Within moments he was gone behind the high bushes, and we could no longer see him. We heard his progress well enough though; a great crashing and the ripping of clothes, and then the sound of him falling over or rolling. After a few silent moments, he cried out. "I'm o-kay! I'm through, at least. Ow..."
Treesong was next, and after murmuring to himself for a moment, he went through too, disappearing from sight soon enough. His clothes also tore and caught on the branches, and we could hear him mutter something foul from the other side.
Gripping my skirts and pulling them close around my legs, I tiptoed over the first few steps. I picked my way carefully, lifting my legs high enough not to tear skin nor clothing on the thorns. After a few steps I could no longer see the rest of my friends, nor could I see the other side. I got nervous, and this cost me dearly. A twitch of my right leg and it cought a thorn, ripping my skin. The wound pulsed meanly, and I lost my balance as my right leg gave way under me. I fell down, not to the touch of the Earth Mother, but to the prickly embrace of thorns and roses. I cried out in pain as my side, arm, cheeks, and back were pierced by thorns.
"Xan!" Thentro shouted.
"I fell. I can't move...thorns everywhere...aaah!"
I heard Thentro move, and heard him fall to...a scream of anguish escaping his lips. From the other side Treesong shouted our names. "Are you allright?"
"I can't get up" I replied. Treesong was silent for a while. Black clouds of smoke suddenly appeared above me, and a coughing fit overcame me.
"Treesong! Stop with the fire! You're choking us!" Thentro shouted, in between coughs.
"It's no use anyway." came the voice of Treesong ahead.
Meanwhile I heard Bern and Micheal softly whisper. Bits of conversation drifted my way, but my mind wandered. Where the thorns had scratched me, a throbbing pain claimed all sense, and I could hardly keep my head up, away from the thorns. I could not move, except for my left arm.
From behind me I heard sounds; Bern telling someone - Thentro - to grab his arm, and then sounds of ripping and breaking branches. Later, they came for me. Extending my left arm, Bern grabbed me and together with Micheal carried me out of the thorns.
Thentro looked bad. His arms and legs, his back, and face - all were scrached, clothes torn in places. He was leaning against a tree, looking miserable and feverish. I could only guess what I looked like, I did not feel much better than he looked.
While Bern and Micheal softly put me down, the goblin, which they had pestered about showing them the way and showing them what was the safe route, darted through the open spaces. Within seconds, she was out of sight, and we could not see what the safe path was. Treesong apparantly intercepted her, and called out.
I dozed in fever for a while, and when I returned to the here and now, Thentro healed my wounds. "Joral says there's an affliction called 'mummyrot', he's had it before and recognizes it in his wounds." He must have seen the look in my eyes, because he quickly added, "don't worry, we'll find a cure."
Micheal stood looking at the bushes, and Bern spoke to Thentro.
"Xan, we must leave you here, I'm afraid. I don't have the strength to heal you and we don't want to risk you to the dangers in Minore's Grove. Not in the state you're in."
I nodded. "All right. There's a patch of dry leaves a little way back, on a rise. You can leave me there. I'll cover myself in leaves and wait for you to come back."
"Will you be allright?"
"I'd worry more about you and Treesong. I'll be fine."
They helped me a little hole in the rising hillside, where the leaves were dry, and I had a view on the hedge and the nearby path, and left me there. Though my wounds stopped bleeding, thanks to Thentro, I still felt the dull throb of mummyrot where the wounds had been.
I must have passed out then, because I remember waking up with a dizzying lurch at my stomach. It was dark all around me, and somehow I was standing - swaying - in a vast circle of candlelight. In front of me, hardly visible in the barely illumined room, was a man, robed in black. His chin was barely visible under the cowl of his robe, but I saw white flesh. His head moved a little, and then he started speaking. I was mesmerized by his chin, a white blob moving in a room of black, and hardly heard the dilemma he told me, and the three answers I could choose from.
Only after I answered the second question did my head clear more. "Who are you?" I asked. His mouth stopped moving, and the cowl seemed to focus on me. "I am Tarot" he spoke thoughtfully, as if every word had a very special meaning.
I thought quickly, my head cleared of the fogs and a sense of alarm rising in me. The Archdruid had said Tarot was a kind of magic, taking over in this world. "What happens if I don't answer the questions?" I asked.
"Then you will never be able to perform magic again for the rest of your life" Tarot answered, in his thoughtful manner. "Will you answer my questions?"
"Yes. Yes." I said, and listened carefully to his question. The questions were confusing, and had no meaning other than to test and judge. One was about if I would have a daughter, and if she would fall ill, what I would do. Finally, I had answered all the questions, and Tarot raised his arms to his side.
In front of me, a sword appeared, inked onto a parchment. The piece of parchment slowly drifted down, until it disappeared. Then, a chalice appeared, and drifted away, and disappeared. Then, two staves, also disappeared. And finally, a five-pointed star appeared, and drifted a little closer to me. I looked at Tarot, but he just smiled, thoughtfully and cheerfully, and moved a hand.
The same lurching tug at my stomach, the room swam in front of me, and then I was back in the forest, still hidden under my branches and leaves. The sun was setting, and my head felt much clearer. The throb in my limbs persisted. I opened my trusty spellbook, and looked up the page with my basic spells.
But the letters writhed before my eyes. I can not explain what happened, but the five-pointed star, the pentacle, drifted into my vision for a moment. My spells....changed. I could not remember this being their effect, nor ever learning them, but they were as trusty as the ones I learned in the top branches of the ancient tree we lived in and with back home. I could do every one of them, I was confident, as if I learned them from the start.
I did not want to think of home, and pressed the palms of my hands to my eyes to banish the faces of Kyros, and my mother, Betha, and my father, Calum.
So I passed the test of Tarot, it could be the only explanation. Carefully, I stood up from my hiding place, and started pacing in front of the hedge. I was no longer of no use, no longer a dead weight. But now I could not get to my friends. I had no idea which path was safe, and what places to step in.
All I could do was wait.
I did not have to wait for long. The bustle of men approaching from the other side was clear enough, and a moody silence fell between them as they stepped through the safe patches in the thorn hedge.
Treesong looked positively ablaze with anger, and he ignored me being up and about and marched on past me, back towards the village. I fell in next to Thentro as we marched to the village, glad to see him as well as Micheal and Bern still alive.
Thentro quickly told me what had happened in Minore's Grove. They had had to fight against priests and followers of Minore, and in the end, Treesong was cursed after having a shoutingmatch with one of the trees in the Grove. What the curse would entail exactly, he did not know. I told Thentro about the Trial of Tarot, and how I had been able to heal my wounds. My magic was changed, but it was back .
That night, a sign appeared on our foreheads, the sign of Nastria. A message was given: "If he turns against you, call on Nastria." But that would be for another day. First we would rest.
Continued on Lands in Exile III >>