Posted August 12, 2019
The young elf lass looked up. Her father, Dornan, was bearing down on her, his face stern. She returned her attention to the archery butt thirty yards in front of her and loosed the arrow that she'd just drawn. It sailed unerringly into the butt, splitting an apple she'd affixed as a challenge -- she was trying to split it in half with multiple hits along a vertical line, but this first shot had split it completely, and the halves fell to the ground.
"Father?" Her face was serious, out of character for most elves, but Taedryn had always been oddly staid.
"That scamp, Florin!" He waved his arm in the air, evidently unhappy.
"What about Florin, father?"
"He's just gone and stolen the horse again!"
Taedryn stifled an urge to roll her eyes. Florin was as unconcerned with ownership as anyone she'd ever met, and her father knew it. He hadn't stolen anything. He'd simply needed a horse and mounted the first one he came across.
"Florin has done no such thing," she said. "He most likely simply needed a horse. You know he owns nothing, and assumes no one else does either."
"What rot! I need her, I have to ride twenty miles today. You go and retrieve her back, and tell that... that lackwit! to leave things which are not his where they lie!"
Taedryn considered for a moment, looking back at the butt with its single arrow placed neatly in the center. The spray of apple juice had already dried in the hot sun. Her father was not normally prone to insulting language. "Very well," she finally said, unstringing the bow with a deft movement. Her fine, black, ruler-straight hair glinted reddish in the sun as she picked up her archery practice. "I will go retrieve her. You may rest your head."
"See that you do! I fail to see the sense of grabbing at any animal you pass..." his grumbling receded as he re-entered the house.
Taedryn shook her head, unsure whether to feel fond or annoyed. She and Dornan disagreed frequently, and his annoyance at his daughter's un-elvish manner was doubtless part of his peevish reaction. He still loved her, of that she was sure, but that love was too often tested.
Her bow, quiver, arrows and bracers in hand, she returned to the house to see if she could find out Florin's movements.
As it happened, following Florin was simple. He had not troubled to conceal his tracks in the slightest, and she found him sitting astride Tratashiela the horse. Tratashiela was casually cropping the grass not a three minute walk from their house, while Florin sat on her back, staring into space.
"Trat!" Taedryn made the knickering sound that would draw the horse's attention. Tratasheila looked up and took a few steps toward Taedryn. "Here, girl," she said, reaching her hand out for the bridle. Once she had a firm grasp, she looked up at Florin, who was still staring into space and seemed unaware of her presence.
"What are you doing, Florin?" Her flat face was turned up to the young elf, smooth olive skin pulled taut across her unremarkable cheekbones. She was not particularly attractive among elves, being rather too plain about the face, with her jaw too prominent and her eyes too small, so that she reminded most elves of a human.
Florin's face, on the other hand, was the height of elvish beauty. With swooping, architectural cheekbones, a sharp nose, and the graceful jawline his family was famous for, his face was remarkably well-set. Unlike Taedryn's darker coloring, his skin was lily white, contrasting starkly with the nearly blue black of his hair. He finally seemed to snap out of it. He turned his brilliant green eyes on her.
"Oh, hello Tae." He absently considered her face for a moment. "Why are you here?"
"I should ask you the same thing. My father's called you a lackwit again, and I can't say I disagree. Why are you sitting on our horse, staring at the trees as if you expect them to start speaking to you?"
"The trees? Oh, no. I was considering something I saw earlier. You know the big oak by the bend in the creek? There was a, a dryad there. Have you seen the dryad of that tree before? That is, I think she was that tree's dryad."
"What are you talking about, Florin?" She gave Tratashiela's rein a little jingle to indicate her impatience, and said, "Why are you on our horse?"
Florin gave a start, and looked down at the horse, which was starting to fidget. The grass was so near, and so appealing, but these elves insisted on her attention. If they wouldn't give her leave to eat, perhaps they would let her run. Ideally very, very fast. Running, she thought, would be her first choice, but eating was second best. It had not been an exciting day for her so far. She gently stamped a hoof at the thought of flying along a forest path, the trees blurring past, the wind whipping at her nostrils, a being of pure, glorious speed.
"Your horse? Is this your horse? Hello horse. I didn't realize I was riding." He looked honestly boggled at the thought.
"Are you alright, Florin? This is absent-minded even for you. How could you not understand that you're atop a horse? Surely Tratashiela moves, and is warm, unlike a stool, or a rock." She patted the horse's long face lovingly. Tratashiela tossed her head lightly with a clink of bridle hardware. "Surely she smells like a horse."
"Taedryn," said Florin, suddenly looking quite serious and not at all like his normal flighty self. "There's a dryad at the big oak tree by the bend in the creek."
"So you said. Why does this concern you so? Have you not met dryads before?" Taedryn casually glanced around to see if she was being set up for a prank of some kind. It wouldn't be the first time.
"No," said Florin, suddenly leaping off the horse's back. "That tree. Its dryad hasn't been seen for a hundredyear or more." His face was concerned now, trying to make his feelings clear to this obviously addlepated girl. She was only a few years younger than him, but even at the age of 95 he felt that difference keenly. Certainly more keenly than she did; she considered him to be the same age, and didn't give the consideration much weight.
"But," he said, leaning in to speak in a conspiratorial whisper, "that tree..."
"Florin." Taedryn looked him square in the eyes. "That tree has been growing in that spot for the last four hundred years. Whether it has a dryad or not makes no matter. What has gripped you?"
In answer, he grabbed her hand and half-dragged her toward the tree in question. Tratashiela ambled after them, sensing that something interesting might be afoot.
Florin and Taedryn arrived at the oak tree. She looked at it. It was an oak tree. She spied the mistletoe that was growing in its branches, a cleft in the bark from some ancient lighting strike, and a summer's growth of broad green leaves.
"What about this tree, now, Florin?" She freed her hand from his and waved it up at the tree, which was clearly in the bloom of health. No dryad was in evidence, though she frequently missed them unless they wanted to be seen.
He leaned toward her and said in a low voice, "This tree had a dryad. When she left, two hundred years ago, she swore the tree would not have another in its life. An elf from the village," he meant Treyvont, their village, of about 300 elven families, a total of perhaps 900 elves all told, "loved the dryad, but offended her so by his lovemaking that she left to live in peace elsewhere. She placed an enchantment on the tree so that no other spirit would be tortured by his clumsy affections. It was an effective punishment, and they say he died of a broken heart. Do you not know this story?"
Taedryn looked at Florin in exasperation. "We have thousands, tens of thousands, of stories. I don't know them all. Why does it matter if the enchantment has been removed? Perhaps that dryad passed away. The tree might have developed a counter-enchantment, perhaps it liked having a dryad. Stranger things have happened, Florin."
Florin started to respond, but both elves' eyes were drawn to the tree as it made an unnatural ripping, splitting noise. There was a frightened whinny from Tratashiela, still up the path toward the village. Branches peeled back strangely, sweeping toward the ground, exposing jagged, spiky splinters from the heart of the tree's trunk. They both leapt nimbly backward, avoiding a branch which came crashing down between them, clearly aimed at where they had been standing. "Florin!" she shouted as a smaller branch whipped across the back of his knees, dropping him flat on his back. She looked around at the mass of greenery, trying to see all directions at once. "What is this?" Her concentration was torn between defending herself from the bedevilled tree, and concern for her friend.
Florin popped upright in a way which would have been comical under normal circumstances. He looked about him, apparently bewildered by what was happening.
"Florin, what is happening!? What is this thing?" She couldn't reach him across the writhing mass of branches between them. Her dagger, always on her belt, was now in her hand, though it was faint defense against a several-ton angry oak tree. Florin didn't answer her question, but looked at her, seeming to come to himself. "Run?" he said, almost in a conversational tone.
"Yes! Can you move!?" She suddenly wondered if he'd been enchanted as well. He was behaving very oddly. She backed away from the tree's base, looking behind her, alert for attack from the still-writhing tree.
As quickly as it had happened, it un-happened. The tree was upright and whole, its boughs squeezing together into their former shape as if nothing unusual had occurred. Yet it clearly had: the dirt for fifty feet around the tree's base was ripped and furrowed from the splayed branches. Taedryn skipped back behind another tree, outside the circle of destruction.
She called quietly, "Florin, where are you?" He was nowhere to be seen. She stepped out, and looked more carefully.
Florin had disappeared as if he had never been there.
"Father! Dornan!" Taedryn rode toward the house calling her father's name. Taetra, Taedryn's mother, looked out the open kitchen window. Her brown hair was bound back in a casual, wispy plait, and the apron she wore was dusted with flour.
"What is it, girl?" she called. "Your father's gone to the smithy. I see you found that horse."
Taedryn leapt off Tratashiela's back, tore up to the door and tugged urgently at the latch, which always stuck when she most wished to get the door open quickly. "It's Florin! He's been taken, enchanted, I don't know. Curse you!" she shouted the last at the door, which finally unlatched with a creak.
Taedryn ducked through the door, her urgency compelling her into motion, though without purpose now that she'd reached the house. She fidgeted while her mother calmly wiped her hands on a cloth and turned around.
"What are you dancing for? Calm yourself, girl. Speak clearly now."
Taedryn tried to speak, but the words came out in a hurried jumble. "Florin, at the tree, branches, baff! a dryad, it was, at the old oak, he's, he's gone!"
Taetra looked at her daughter quizzically. "What? Take a breath, lass. Stop your hopping around and tell me clearly what has you so upset."
Taedryn made an effort and stopped hopping from foot to foot, convinced her hands to settle at her side. She took a deep breath, and said, still rushing her words, "Florin saw a dryad at the oak by the creek. He dragged me down there, something about an enchantment, an elf from the village made love to the dryad years ago, the tree was bewitched. Then it exploded, boughs everywhere, nearly smashed us. When it pulled itself back together, Florin was gone!" Her hands had unconsciously started flapping again as she spoke.
"Now..." her mother maintained the quizzical look, "wait, who is Florin?"
At this, Taedryn, shocked, came to a complete standstill. "What do you mean, 'Who is Florin?' Florin. We grew up together. Good friend. Flighty, forgets that other people own things. Plays the flute and sings beautiful songs with horrible lyrics. You know, Florin. He took the horse."
Taetra maintained a quizzical look on her face. "You've no friend named Florin, girl. Are you sure he's not someone from one of your books? You're always reading so. Your father was asking after the horse, apparently she'd gone missing."
"Yes! That was Florin!" Taedryn's exasperation burst through. "Florin took Tratashiela. Florin! How can you not know who Florin is?" They stared at each other, incomprehending.
At this point, the door opened (Taedryn noted with a detached part of her mind that the latch released without a fuss) and Dornan walked in. His composed, olive-skinned face, a near-double to Taedryn's, looked back and forth between the two women. "Hullo lass, did you find my horse?"
"Father," said Taedryn, rounding on him with a fierceness that caused him to step back involuntarily, "do you know Florin? My friend?"
He looked down his nose for a moment, then up again. "Florin? No, is he new come to the village? I haven't heard of any newcomers, though I should like to meet any friend of yours."
Five minutes of terse conversation later, the facts had been established.
"So, your friend, Florin," said her father.
"Who we've never heard of," interjected Taetra.
"And who you say we've known his entire life, has disappeared in some kind of a dryad incident. But you didn't see the dryad. The big oak by the bend in the creek. I passed it not two days ago, and it looked just as it always had." Dornan passed his hand over his brow. "This is passing strange, girl. I've not heard of trees wriggling like tentacles, nor of elven-folk disappearing into them. Or near them, as I should say."
"Aye, that's where we stand. It would seem he's been enchanted away. He's still in my memory, but you know nothing of him." With a certain dread spreading across her face, she continued, "And I'm sure if I asked in the village, none other would know him." Taedryn leaned her forehead into her cupped hands, elbows resting on the table, and looked down at the ancient rock-hard wooden surface. "What magic would do this?"
"There's none I can think of, but magic and enchantment are not my line, as you well know," said Dornan, looking at his daughter with concern. "You know, lass, that magic and enchantment are not the only reasons..."
"No!" Taedryn cut him off. "I know what is true, and Florin was in our stable not an hour ago. He rode off on Tratashiela, and you bade me retrieve her from him. This is not some girlish weakness on my part." She glared at him, eyes blazing.
"Well, girl, I cannot gainsay that. Knowing this as you do, what will you do now?"
"Sure, she will stay here and continue her training," interjected Taetra, who had been looking back and forth between father and daughter. "She is not yet fit to wander the lands, which I can see from your face you want to do." Mother faced daughter, each equally intense.
Taedryn faltered a moment. Her mother was right; her training was not done. She was, she knew, fit to go into the world, but it would be as an incomplete elf, not as skilled as elves rightly expect to be. She calmed herself, then replied, "You are half in the right: my training is not done. But I can't let Florin suffer whatever fate has come upon him without aid. He may be a beautiful cloud-headed lackwit, but that doesn't consign him to his doom. He is my friend, and I will follow in his steps to help how I may."
"You feel strongly about this, daughter," said her father, wonder in his voice. He knew his daughter as a woman slow to come to decisions, who spent much time weighing factors. For her to resolve so quickly on a course of action impressed him greatly.
Again, Taedryn paused, considering. "I do," she finally said. "Florin is my friend. I cannot abandon him."
Mother and father exchanged a glance. Taetra put her hand on her daughter's arm, care in her eyes. "You mean to do this." She was explaining to herself as much as to her daughter. "I... We, that is. We have something for you. I had hoped we would give it to you on your majority..."
"Mother, are you sure?" interrupted Dornan. "She is young yet." Taedryn felt herself bristling at the implication.
"No, father, I'm not sure!" said Taetra, vexed. "But I'm thinking this is beyond our control at this point. I would give her what advantage I can. She is still our daughter, and I love her as you do."
Dornan, subsiding, said, "No, you are right." He stood with a hint of fatigue, and walked out of the room for a moment. When he returned, he held a leathern parcel in his hand, which he set on the table in front of Taedryn. It smelled strongly of cedar. "These belonged to your great-grandmother Aetra. As you know, she wandered far and wide across the lands, bringing glory to her name. They were retrieved from the dragon Targil's den after he killed her."
Taedryn opened her eyes wide. "You never said she was slain by a dragon."
"No, the end of her story is not one we speak of often, and now is not the time for it.
"I have seen how you hold yourself, and I know that you would follow in her footsteps. I pray you don't hew too closely to her path, however." He gave a solemn wink, oddly jarring in this moment of seriousness. "Now, look what I have given you. What we have given you," he corrected, looking up at Taetra.
The young elf untied the hemp holding the parcel together. The outer wrapping was of dark brown leather, which revealed a mottled blue and green woolen cloth underneath. She unfolded the cloth, and it showed itself to be a hooded cloak in some need of repair. Something clattered to the ground as the cloak unrolled, and she picked it up. It was a dagger, the scabbard worn with use, the bone handle gouged by some past mishap.
"There is one more thing," said Dornan, reaching into a pocket inside the cloak. He retrieved a string with loops at both ends, which Taedryn saw was a particularly fine flaxen bowstring. It was dyed black, and had flecks of metallic green thread picked out in the whipping at the ends. He handed her the string, and she folded the cloak over her arm to free her hands and receive it.
"What is it?" Taedryn knew that it could be no ordinary bowstring, nor any normal cloak or dagger, to be treated in such a manner. Her parents were careful enough with their possesions, but there was an air of reverence about these objects that was beyond normal.
Taetra, her eyes shining with restrained emotion, brusquely draped the cloak over Taedryn's shoulders, and said, "This cloak will help you pass unseen. It will turn arrows aside, but cannot help you against blades." She looked into her daughter's face, tears now freely rolling down her face. Her businesslike manner belied the strength of emotion she felt. She pressed the battle-scarred dagger into her daughter's hand, and said, "The blade is called Greybeard, and it will warn you of danger."
Dornan put his hand on his wife's shoulder, gently, and stood in front of Taedryn. He held up the bowstring, taking it from her limp hand. "Like you, your great-grandmother was an archer of reknown. She never told where it came from, but this bowstring will not break, ever, and it will guide your arrows with uncanny accuracy. Never give it to another, for it will cut their fingers when they draw, but it will not harm you." He closed his eyes and drew a shaky breath. "I pray that you will return to us, soon, to finish your training. And... and to be with us." He glanced back at Taetra briefly. "We will miss you." He gathered Taedryn in a hug, and Taetra joined them.
At some unseen signal, all three elves stood back from each other, and dried their eyes. Father and mother shared a glance, apprehension and pride warring for dominance in their faces. "Now," said Taetra, breaking the moment, "Will you stay for this bread I've just put in the oven, or will you go this very moment?"
Taedryn looked back and forth between her parents' faces. "I must gather together a few things, and speak with old Yeetryn in the village, who I think knows of dryads and their magic. I will come back and we will break bread together."
Yeetryn was sweeping the front step of her cottage when Taedryn walked up. "Oh, hello young Taedryn," she said, smiling, leaning on her broom slightly. She was ancient by elf standards, nearly seven hundred and eighty years old. Her long, wavy hair was bright white, and her eyes were clear. Taedryn felt the age radiating from the older elf, not as weakness, but as a kind of contentedness with the world.
"Greetings, Yeetryn." She paused, not entirely sure how to phrase her question. Finally, she said, "Do you remember young Florin, my friend?"
"Florin? No... is he newly come to the village?"
"No matter. No, he is a friend of old, and I am hoping that you can help me to find him again. He has been stolen from all of us, by what I think may be dryad magic." She described her encounter with Florin acting strangely, the attack by the tree, and the suddenness of it healing back into a normal-looking oak tree again.
Yeetryn looked into space for a minute, resting her hands on the broom. She then looked down at Taedryn (for Yeetryn was not only standing on the step, but taller than Taedryn by several inches, unshrunk by age), and said, "Why don't we sit down to some tea?"
With tea steaming on the table, Yeetryn stared into her cup, pondering. "I think what you saw was not dryad magic." She looked up into Taedryn's face. "You say your Florin told of a dryad at the tree? I recall when that tree's dryad cursed it to spite that Dotil after he made his clumsy love to her. He died later, you know, some said it was for lost love, though I say it was because he trod on a bee's nest and they stung him to death." A twinkle entered her eye, and she said, "Lost love don't raise welts like that, girl.
"Still, this Florin, you would trust him to know a dryad from a naiad or other fey beastie?"
"Well," said Taedryn, considering. "I would have thought he's met dryads before. But, now you mention it, I don't truly know what he saw. He called it a dryad, and I didn't think until now he would be wrong."
"It's not that he was wrong," said Yeetryn, sitting back in her chair, which creaked with the shifting position. "He may have seen a dryad. But dryads love their trees, and would never see harm come to them. No dryad would split her tree into pieces to attack another creature. If he saw a dryad, she was not in control of what happened next, and it may have broken her heart when it happened." She considered for a moment, fingering her chin. "This is new to me, and that is saying something, let me tell you, girl. What I've seen..." She didn't follow up on the thought.
"If it wasn't a dryad, what would do such a thing to an oak? Why would it want to take an elf?"
"Well, sure it can't have been a dryad," said Yeetryn, clearly remembering something. "That enchantment is still on the oak, I seen it this last sennight. No." She considered again. "I havenae heard of such a thing as this. The tree splitting and re-forming. Disappearing happens all the time, girl, though magic is rarely involved." She continued, her eyes twinkling, "He'd done you no wrong, I trust?"
Taedryn flushed. The implied impropriety had never occurred to her, though she was no blushing virgin and hadn't been for decades. "N-no," she stammered, the heat rising. "He was a friend. An honorable friend. He had done me no... no wrong."
Yeetryn gave a barking laugh, "But maybe you wish he had, eh!?" She slapped Taedryn on the shoulder, mirth dancing about her eyes.
"No," said Taedryn, confused at her own reaction. "No," she repeated, grasping for what to say next. Yeetryn chuckled.
"Well, be that as it may, you consult your own heart. I recall a young elf, name of Draysin, back, oh... four? five? hundred years back. He caught my eye, I can tell you. Pecs you could cut cheese with, if you follow me. Very well-built youngster, and we..."
"Please," said Taedryn, cutting her off, her face flushing again. "Do you know anything else about this tree? Anyone who might know? Perhaps the dryad who enchanted the tree caused this?"
Yeetryn reeled herself back in from her lascivious memories, and made an effort to compose her face before she continued. "Apologies, girl, I shouldn't taunt you so. It's so easy, though, you're so serious!
"Now, as to who might know about the oak, that would be Ueshil, he's Dotil's brother, Dotil who died from lost love, or bees, that is. He made some study of the tree, trying to find the dryad who killed his brother, as he says. I may have mentioned that bees is what actually killed his brother, but he maintains it was the dryad who spurned him. So don't raise the subject of bees with him, there's a good girl. But he may know what you seek.
"Damned odd behavior for a tree. Reminds me of the tree-folk to the west, have you seen a tree-folk before? Most passing strange, with their deep voices and slow thoughts..." She reclined again in the creaking chair, her mind running on the subject of tree-folk.
"Yeetryn," interrupted Taedryn, when it became clear the old woman was lost in her thoughts again. "Would tree-folk stand for four hundred years as an oak, and then split so to defend themselves?"
"Hmm? I don't think so," she said, leaning forward again and taking a sip of tea. "They generally move by the time several weeks has passsed. Four hundred years would be unusual, though I suppose an elder tree-folk might rest for a few years at a go.
"Oh, but I have never heard of a tree-folk splitting itself as you said. They would die of their wounds, was they to do that. Fire and splitting, those are death to tree-folk, though they're most uncommon unaffected by arrows and blades, I'll give you that. I saw a band of tree-folk wipe out a camp of unwise humans who had come with some idea of cutting trees of the forest for firewood. Bristling with arrows and gashed most roughly, the tree-folk didn't notice. Those humans never did cut their firewood, being as they were crushed to a pulp. That was only over by Rivervale, out Og way, have you been out that way? No sign of the battle now, of course, nature has a way."
"No," said Taedryn, trying to stem the flow of words. "I haven't been past Rivervale yet. I.. thank you for your help Yeetryn, I will look in on Ueshil. And thank you for the tea, it was delicious." She stood abruptly, her normal reserve flustered by thoughts of Florin-as-lover and the confusion of her own mind, which she had thought she knew well.
"Of course, girl. I'm sorry I can't help you further. I hope you find your friend." She also stood, and pulled Taedryn into a brief and somehow unwelcome embrace. Taedryn bore it, but separated as soon as she could, and bustled her way out of the little cottage.
"Thank you again, good day, Yeetryn," she said as she hurried away, trying and failing to cover her own confusion.
Ueshil was nowhere to be found. Several people said they'd seen him two or three weeks ago, but not since. His dwelling was dark and lifeless, and showed signs that he'd gone on a trip, intending to be out for a while. She tried asking at the Treyvont, the village pub, but no one knew what might have happened to Ueshil. One of the older elves, who was sipping on a slender flute of something extremely strong, had a vague recollection of Ueshil speaking about Waterdeep, the huge city far to the west.
It was weeks and weeks of travel to reach Waterdeep, so she ruled that out as an avenue of casual exploration. Perhaps her search would take her there eventually, but it appeared to be the end of that line of questions. No one knew anything special about the oak tree by the creek, beyond the well-known story of its enchantment after Dotil had angered its dryad.
No one knew Florin's name.
Taedryn packed her few necessaries for the trip: her best bow, now strung with the unbreakable string ("Mind you don't try to use this string on a non-elven bow," her father had explained later, "it'll snap right in half and you'll have no bow when you most need one"), a small knapsack with an oilskin, waterskin, salt and spices, her old dagger as well as Greybeard, a quiver packed with as many arrows as she could reasonably fit in -- she counted 26 by the time she had finished -- and a tiny arrowmaking kit with silk thread, powdered glue, a dozen bodkin heads (for they were small and easy to carry, even if they were the wrong thing except against armor), and a special fletching knife. If she had to make her own arrows, she would have to content herself with fire-hardened points once she'd exhausted her supply of bodkins. She had a feeling that where she was going, blacksmiths would be few and far between.
She bid her mother and father farewell, and they shared another embrace, her mother pressing a few small loaves and a hard cheese into her hands. "You come back soon as you can, right?" said her father. She said she would, shouldered her knapsack under the cloak, and set out.
It had occurred to Taedryn more than once that she didn't actually know where she was going. Her initial thought was to investigate the oak tree, though she didn't know how. She was very familiar with oak trees generally speaking, but had never seen one that would split and re-form before, and was not more than generally knowledgeable about magic.
As far as her magic knowledge, she could form a disembodied hand which would do her bidding if it didn't stray too far, or have to lift too much weight, but she didn't understand the ability. She just knew how to make it happen from within her. She had learned it, with much repetition from her instructors, because she thought it would be good for paying back other children for their pranks, for which she seemed to be a distressingly common target. It was, as she reflected on it now, a particularly immature reason to spend years honing a skill. She'd never even had a chance to use it for that purpose, though it came in very handy for any number of tasks where she needed a third hand and no one else was around.
She came to the tree, and paused, considering it. It was an oak tree. It had leaves and branches and mistletoe, with its white berries. There were squirrels and chipmunks and birds using it as a home. Mushrooms grew at its base. There was, in short, nothing extraordinary about it.
The torn-up soil was already growing over with new ground cover, taking advantage of the uncontested area. The path wound by, on the opposite side of the oak from the creek. As she looked, Taedryn was able to spot Florin's footprints where he'd trod off the beaten path, when the branch came down between them. She realized she'd been holding on to some anxiety about her own mental state, and felt relief when she spotted the footprints. He had definitely been there. She was simply the only one who remembered him.
She walked up close to the tree, and reached out to touch it tentatively. If it split again with her this close, she certainly couldn't get out of the way in time. But it remained resolutely solid and tree-like.
She moved back, beyond the range of the torn soil, and nocked an arrow. She'd selected a particularly dull one. It flew to the oak and buried itself an inch into the bark. The oak made no reaction. She frowned, and retrieved the arrow.
Frustrated, she exclaimed, "Florin!" without giving the word much premeditation. There was no response, and she realized that some part of her had actually expected to hear his voice or see the tree change in some way. She leaned back against an elm, mind sunk in melancholy thought.
Suddenly, she had a feeling that was unlike any she'd ever had before. It suggested that something was wrong, and getting wronger by the moment. She had a flash image of a large, grey, gangly humanoid, which reminded her of a troll. She realized, upon a moment's reflection, that it didn't just remind her of a troll, it was, in fact, a troll. She found her attention attracted to her right by this odd feeling, and turned her head accordingly.
There, a hundred yards away and moving quietly for such a large creature, was a troll. It was weaving its head back and forth, scenting the air. She melted back into the trees, her years of training in the forests of home allowing her to almost completely disappear.
She watched as it made its way slowly toward her. She knew that the only way to kill a troll (and generally speaking the best condition to find a troll in was dead) would be fire. She had no time to kindle a fire, and even if she did, no way to use it as a weapon beyond a burning branch, which the troll would shrug off effortlessly. She could shoot it full of every arrow in her quiver, and it would still come at her, the arrows pushed out of its body by some devilish force.
As it moved toward her, Taedryn realized that it was also moving toward the village. She held a high opinion of her village-mates' abilities at repelling trolls, but so much better if it never got there in the first place. She thought she could flit through the forest faster than it could, and she knew just what to do.
She leapt up, and said, "Hi!" at the top of her lungs. The troll stopped and looked in her direction, but didn't seem to see her. She knew they couldn't see well, so she waved her bare arm above her head, and said, "Over here, lummox!" Now it saw her.
She darted off away from the village, glancing back to ensure it was following her. She easily kept a hundred feet ahead of it, running through a forest she'd known since she'd been old enough to walk. She darted this way and that, careful to keep ahead, but not so far ahead that it couldn't follow. The troll grunted with exertion as it ran, its flat, oily black hair flopping about its head. Its low forehead started to bead with perspiration as it ran, stumbling over underbrush.
Soon she came to what she sought: a ravine with a little rivulet of water running along the bottom. A fallen young tree had been spanning it for the last few weeks after a rainstorm had loosened the soil. She shouted, "Yee!" with fierce determination on her face, and danced across the improvised bridge. It bowed and sprung under her slight weight, but her footing was sure, and she passed over the chasm easily. "C'mon, big boy!" she called to the troll as it came closer, snuffling and breathing heavily from running through the resisting wood. She jumped up and down and waved her arms until it was close.
In an instant, her bow was in her hand, a wicked barbed broadhead arrow nocked and ready. Just as the troll reached the edge of the ravine, she loosed her arrow. It sailed home even better than she'd expected, lodging in the creature's head, piercing the left eye and sinking deep into its skull. That wouldn't hold it for long, but it did the trick: it had been preparing to jump the gap, but instead it stumbled and fell, cracking its head on the rocks in the streambed below. It went still.
She knew it wouldn't last, and that even beheading the beast wouldn't stop it regenerating and being after her again in a few minutes. She kicked the tree bridge off the near edge of the defile, and flitted off into the woods, tracking away from the village all the while.
Taedryn had been through the nearest dozen villages. At each, she would follow the same pattern: stop at the village public house, order a drink, and ask if anyone had heard of an oak tree splitting itself and re-forming. No one had. Several elves had suggested people she might talk to, but she either couldn't find them, or they were touched in the head, or they said they'd never heard of such a thing.
She was starting to doubt her recollection of events. No one else remembered Florin, no one else had seen the tree split and heal, she had received no lasting proof that any of it had happened. She had to remind herself regularly that she had seen Florin's tracks near the tree the day she's found the troll. After everyone else had forgotten. There had truly been physical proof that she wasn't going mad.
Tracking down her friend (and she was half-convinced at times that he was her lover, such was the swirl of her mind when it was without stimulus) had become an obsession. Every time she received a negative answer to her questions, she simultaneously felt a desire to give up and return home, but also to search ever harder.
Her wanderings had put her past many new sights and sounds, many new dangers. Her quiver was now entirely full of arrows she'd made on this voyage, though she'd managed to find better heads along the way, so she was well-supplied with different types of shafts. Her original set had been lost in beasts who ran away, or been broken, or disappeared into the woods on the gratifyingly rare occasion when she missed her shot.
She had learned the danger-sense that Greybeard gave her, and it had saved her life many times over the months that her journey had spanned thus far. She also learned more of the capabilities and limitations of the concealing cloak. She wasn't invisible, but became incredibly hard to spot if she simply kept still. If she made a good effort to hide herself, she was effectively invisible. It had come in handy.
One day, she'd been travelling in company with a human, Dorian, who had been walking the same path. They talked companionably as they walked, and agreed to set up camp that night together. As they talked around the fire (a rare luxury that Taedryn didn't usually allow herself, but Dorian had insisted), they talked of her quest.
Taedryn's heart had leapt when Dorian said that he'd heard of an oak tree splitting and attacking as she had seen. He'd seated himself next to her and held forth on the subject, gesticulating over the fire, explaining that it was a lesser demon called a Dortrip who had possessed the tree, and snared souls who wandered too close, slurping them down to its nether realm as food. Florin was certainly dead, as he told it. She listened with a sinking feeling.
Upon the conclusion of his tale, with night's darkness fully established, Dorian had drifted into silence, gazing at the fire. He put his hand on her knee, then with increasing fervor and with eerie silence, he attempted to grapple Taedryn down to the ground and rip off her trews, his intent belatedly obvious. Fortunately Greybeard had warned her just in time, and she left him on the ground with a dagger wound to the gut that would probably kill him, writhing in agony, over the course of about three days if he didn't get help before then.
When he begged her for aid, she declined in a fury, gathered her few things, and strode off into the night. For all she knew, he'd died in that spot. She felt remorse about that afterwards, feeling that it was an unjust punishment for the attempted insult, but she also couldn't see how she could have done anything differently. They were several days' travel from any help and her modest healing abilities wouldn't have done anything for the toxic wound. He had brought the injury on himself by his attempted rape, she had simply defended herself. A wound to the gut was not her intention, it had simply been what occurred in the struggle. Even so, it didn't sit well with her. She found she had become wary of men, tensing for an attack when they came too near.
Eventually, she had spiraled so far away from her own village that she came to Cragkeep, a large fortified town that was as close as the area elves got to a seat of political power. Despite its name, it was a graceful, beautiful town, perched improbably on the side of a mountain, seemingly nearly floating in the air in parts.
She had arrived on a market day, so the city had more people milling about the streets than she had ever seen in her life. Taedryn had travelled, but never to such a large population center. She spent more of her time alone in forests than she ever did among crowds of people. As she walked along, she found her personal sense of danger, unrelated to any warnings from Greybeard, to be ringing like a plucked string. This was too many people.
However, she also realized that Cragkeep represented a good chance of finding someone who knew more about what she now thought of as her quest. Out of sheer force of habit, she stopped into the Dragon's Den, the first public house she came across.
The Den was not crowded at this hour, early in the afternoon, but it was also not empty. Scattered through the room, hidden behind a haze of smoke and odd, partially-concealed booths, there were at least 20 or 30 people in the pub. To her complete surprise, no one looked up when she entered, not even the innkeeper.
She moved up to the bar, and paused there, uncertain what to do next. In every village inn, everyone would turn and stare at her: she was the first new face they'd seen in a while, usually months. Here, she realized, they must see a new face every time someone walked in the door. She also realized that although they had not shown obvious interest in her entrance, the inhabitants of the pub were paying attention to her. She had no idea if it was a normal attention or not. The temptation to go imperceptible inside the cloak was strong, but she resisted it.
Finally, the innkeeper came over and asked her what her pleasure was. Uncertain what people in cities drank, she asked for a cider, her usual choice. The innkeeper looked at her directly for the first time.
"Right, I think what we have here is a lass from the country come to the city for the first time." His voice was weary, as if he had to give this speech often. "Here at the Dragon's Den, we have beer, and we have whiskey. There are rooms upstairs if you need a place to... spend the night." He leered, his eyes dropping pointedly to her chest.
The memory of Dorian's duplicity flashed through her mind, and she stood up to her full 5'6" height. She was as tall as most humans, but not quite to the bartender's height. She looked him full in the face. "I will have a beer, and you will keep a civil tongue in your head, or I will remove it for you."
She got the danger-sense from Greybeard instantly as she uttered the word "civil," and thus had a moment's warning as two very large human men appeared to either side of her at the bar. Her hand was resting lightly on her dagger, the threat implicit without being overt.
The bartender smirked. "I will say what I like, wench. This is my house, and you will follow my rules. Now, these gennulmen beside you," he nodded to the two thugs, "are my way of makin' clear that my rules is definitely my rules, and you will play by them. Do you catch my meaning?"
Faster than the two thugs could react, she turned and fled from the bar, already out the door as they started to move toward it. She walked hurriedly away, hearing the sound of raucous laughter erupt from the still-open door of the Dragon's Den. She got no danger sense from Greybeard, so felt she could stand to walk away without glancing over her shoulder. The last thing she needed was to be arrested, a thing she'd only heard about in tales from travelers.
The market-day traffic swirled around her. Hundreds, no, thousands of people. Elves, humans, dwarves, halflings, a cacophony of beings. She felt her temples throb with the tension of it all. There was a stirring at her belt, and as she reached down to brush it away, she felt something much more substantial than an insect. She looked to see a little halfling fading back into the crowd, holding something up and grinning at her. It took her a moment, then she realized that her purse was gone. With it was gone her entire collection of coins, an ornate gold button she'd found, and several interesting stones she'd plucked from streambeds on her travels.
"Hey!" She plunged after the halfling in the crowd, but it was too late. Wherever she had gone, the halfling had completely evaded Taedryn. The swirling crowds thwarted any attempt at tracking she might have made, and she realized that the cobbles here were unreadable to her in any case.
Feeling overwhelmed by the sensory overload of the city, Taedryn backed against a wall and threw the cowl over her head, the only thing she could think to do. As she faded, the few people in the crowd who had been looking at her turned away, and went about whatever business they'd previously been on. She tried to breathe, but found it difficult, and found herself dropping partway into her sleeping trance simply to cut off the noise and chaos in front of her.
In the trance state, Taedryn kept her eyes open, and realized that she was starting to see the pattern, or perhaps the lack of pattern, in the crowd. The crowd reminded her of fish in a school, which she had seen once from a boat on a lake crossing. They moved each with their own intention, but also as a group. Each group moved within the greater crowd, forming pockets of similar intention, moving up and down the narrow street.
Her surprise was complete when she saw the halfling again. The little humanoid woman was not part of the crowd at all, and as Taedryn watched, her awareness of the patterns made the halfling stand out clearly. There, she made an attempt at the purse of a fat burgher, but missed when he suddenly swerved around a slower group. There, she successfully removed something from a human who had stopped to mop his forehead in the heat of the sun. The halfling worked her way closer to where Taedryn stood against the wall.
The little thief came tantalizingly close several times, weaving distinctly through the crowds. Finally, she came to within an arm's length of Taedryn. The elf lunged forward and pinned the halfling's arms to her sides, picking her up in the process. Oh, she was strong! The halfling landed a thumping kick on Taedryn's leg in her struggles. Taedryn whispered in her ear, just loud enough to hear over the noise of the crowd, "Give me my purse back and I'll let you go," as she pulled back to the wall where she'd been concealed before.
"Where the fuck did you come from!?" The halfling kicked some more, but Taedryn had arranged their bodies such that the smaller woman couldn't land any more telling blows.
"Calm down. Give me my purse and I let you go. It's as simple as that."
"I don't have anybody's purse. I don't know what you're talking about. Put me down or I shout for the watch!"
Taedryn hugged her tighter so that the halfling's breath was forced from her body.
"No," she said, still whispering quietly in her ear. "You will give me my purse, or I will turn you over to the watch for pickpocketing. I think they'll be fascinated to see what comes loose if we turn you upside-down and shake hard enough. Do I make myself clear?" She loosened her grip enough that the halfling could take in a breath.
"GUARD-ghhhhh" erupted from the halfling's mouth as Taedryn squeezed tight again.
"You may have misunderstood me." She gave a tiny further constriction to empasize her point. "I will get my purse back from you whether you give it willingly or I squeeze the life from you and find it myself. Do you understand me now? Nod yes and I'll let you breathe again." The halfling, looking red in the face, nodded yes. She released the pressure and the halfling gasped for breath again.
"Now," said Taedryn, shifting her grip so that she was grasping the smaller woman's hair firmly in her right hand and setting her down, "will you please give me my purse?"
The halfling feinted as if she was going to run away, but gave up before it was more than a thought. "Fine," she said, looking fiercely into Taedryn's face. As if by magic, Taedryn's purse was in her hand. "Take your fucking purse, and I hope you choke on it." When Taedryn grabbed the purse, the halfling elbowed her in the gut and ran off. She'd been ready for something like that, and so wasn't badly hurt. She faded back against the wall as she re-tied the purse more securely to her belt.
Taedryn found lodging at a different inn, the Ladies' Rest. She was drawn by the name, hoping it would be friendlier than the Dragon's Den, which it was, after a fashion. It was in fact a bawdy house, but once they determined she she was there for a room and not a tumble, she was whisked to the back. Plain furnishings replaced the ornate gold-and-burgundy theme of the front entrance. Up the stairs were a set of five plain rooms, each with a narrow cot, a wash-basin and a chamberpot. The innkeeper was an elaborately dressed but very plain elvish woman named Harleigh, whose face made Taedryn's look glamorous in comparison.
"I know you only want the room tonight," she said with a wink in her voice, and shortly in her eye, "but if you're needin' work, we can accomodate you. Fine lookin' lass like yourself..."
"Thank you for the offer," said Taedryn, stiffer than she meant to be. "I only need the room."
"We have mutton stew for supper, come down after the town bells ring, that's close of market. Normal bells are daybreak, midday, and evening meal except on market days, then it's close of market." She looked Taedryn up and down again. "We got a bathing room at the end of the hall if you want to get cleaned up. Hot water's two copper, cold is free but you gotta haul it up yourself. Grab one of the girls if you want hot, we'll get you sorted." She smiled, obviously pleased with her guest. "See you downstairs for supper."
Taedryn closed the thin plank door and sat on the cot. "What have I got myself into?" she muttered to herself.
She had of course been aware of the burly men, including one so big she would have hesitated to call him human, who casually inhabited the opulent front room of the Ladies' Rest. Obviously Harleigh cared for the girls in her employ, some of whom gave her a glad eye as she'd walked in. She assumed there were others who were, well, busy.
Taedryn had no qualms about sex, but it wasn't very important to her. She'd tried it and found the experience generally more comical than she thought it was probably supposed to be. Her partners had seemed very engaged in the process, and the faces and noises they made nearly made her giggle. The first time, she had actually giggled, and her partner had become angry at her for laughing. She briefly wondered what it would be like to lay with a woman, then dismissed that as a distraction she didn't need to explore right now.
In light of the obvious security on the place, Taedryn felt comfortable leaving her knapsack in her room, and, mindful of the recent pickpocketing experience, carefully secreted several coins around the room so she wouldn't be completely destitute if it happened again. Her door had a lock on it, and she'd been given an elaborate-looking key which fit in the lock.
Feeling slightly more prepared with a home available to her, she walked back out into the heat of the day. She regretted the weight of the cloak, which was of sturdy wool, but was unwilling to be without its protections, particularly in the busy city.
She spotted one of the city watch, plainly marked by their gold chains and heavy black sticks, and approached him to ask a question.
He eyed her with some suspicion. He was a trim and neat elf, as she would learn all the watch were. His hair was silver-white, and lighter than his skin, which was halfway to the olive of Taedryn's own skin. "Yes madame? How can I help you?"
"I am looking for a school of magic, or magical beasts. Or a place where magicians might gather. Is there such a place here in Cragkeep?"
"Certainly," he said, his chest swelling a bit with pride. "We have Aeonid's Magic Academy, and there's the Guild of Thaumaturgists, Wizzards and Sourcerers. I think you'll find many magicians at Howdni's, a public house along Dravus way. That's off there," he pointed vaguely to the north, along the main road she'd been following from the south gate. "But probably not until after dark. Them magicians can be a weird lot." His eye wandered to the crowd for a moment, then he said, "Pardon me, miss," and dashed off with an "Oi!" as someone suddenly fled.
"Well then," she said to herself. The sun was nearing the edge of the mountain that Cragkeep was built on, which she judged meant there were quite a few hours until dark. A lot had happened today, and it was only mid-afternoon. Perhaps the guild first? She hadn't gotten directions from the watch officer.
By asking directions of random people every turn or two, and ignoring the conflicting directions that came from every third person, Taedryn was able to find her way to the Guild.
The Guild of Thaumaturgists, Wizzards and Sourcerers was an impressive edifice, sweeping up high into the sky, typical of carefully executed elven architecture. Tall, graceful doors opened into a grand front hall which was scattered with comfortable-looking furniture occupied by figures smoking, or sipping tea, or reading scrolls or even bound codex-style books. Taedryn stared for a moment, having never seen properly upholstered furniture up close before.
"Can I help you, miss?" An elaborately coiffed elf approached her, solicitude and distrust mixing oddly in his face. His clothing was sparse but very fine, some kind of shimmery grey fabric adorned with gold and burgundy accents that reminded Taedryn suddenly of the front room at the Ladies' Rest.
"Um, yes," said Taedryn, struggling against the overwhelmed feeling that had been with her since entering the city's gate. "I am looking for anyone who knows about... Well, about trees?" His face registered disapproval. "I mean," she continued, "magic which might affect trees. A friend was stolen by what can only have been some kind of magic that split an oak tree like tentacles, then healed it back to normal like that," she snapped her fingers. The elf jumped back very slightly, his eyes fixed on her hand. When nothing happened, he relaxed into his supercilious manner again.
"I see. I think you have come to the wrong place, miss. This is the Guild of Thaumaturgists, Wizards and Sourcerers. We do not accept... tree magicians... in this guild." His disdain was evident.
"I don't know what caused it. Is there... is there anyone I could talk to for a minute or two? I may not be explaining myself clearly." She found herself pleading, suddenly aware that she was standing at the gates of the answer she sought, but those gates were being closed.
The elf in the grey silk wasn't interested. He gently but firmly steered her back to the door, saying, "I'm sorry, miss, you have been misled as to the nature of our business. We have no time to discuss arboreal magic with rustic bumpkins such as yourself. If you find yourself in need of a real magic-worker, we would be happy to match you with a suitable practicitioner, and until that time, please have a pleasant day." The door closed with a refined and final-sounding click behind her.
Taedryn stood for a moment, wondering what had just happened, anger starting to brew at being called a bumpkin. She turned, half-prepared to hammer on the door, then thought better of it, and walked off.
Howdni's pub was not actually very hard to find. It was only a few winding streets from the Guild, and when she pushed the door open, was satisfyingly full of bodies. No one appeared to be overtly magical, but she knew from her years thus far that someone's mode of dress or accoutrement was not necessarily indicative of anything more than their mood when they'd most recently dressed themselves.
She walked to the bar and sat on one of the stools along its length, looking expectantly at the bartender. After a moment, she looked up and came over. "What can I get you?" she asked, in a pleasant low voice. Up closer, Taedryn could see that she was not elven or human as she'd first assumed, but something else, with catlike slitted yellow-green eyes and a very smooth, dangerous-looking way of moving. Her dark hair was braided tightly to her head across the top, then exploded in a mass of tightly curled frizz from the base of her tawny, graceful neck.
Taedryn, wary after the Dragon's Den experience, asked, "What do you serve?"
"Most things," said the innkeeper with a smile.
"Do you have cider, or peary?"
"Certainly, which would you like?"
The bartender grabbed a mug with a clink and filled it from a small keg mounted to the wall behind the bar. She set it down in front of Taedryn with a smile. "Three coppers, please." Taedryn dropped the coins on the bar with a few extras.
"Perhaps you can help me," she started. The bartender smiled again. "I'm trying to find an expert on magic."
"You're in the right place. These reprobates all claim to be experts on magic." Her voice was loud enough to carry to the room, and it took an effort of will for Taedryn not to look over her shoulder to see what reaction had been provoked. The noise of the room didn't change, though.
"That's well, as far as it goes. I saw an oak tree split itself into tentacles, steal my friend, and re-form again. It looks now as it did before, with no hint of what happened upon its bark. Who would know of such powers?"
The bartender only nodded over Taedryn's left shoulder. She turned to find a tall male human with long salt-and-pepper hair and a trim beard walking toward them. He was dressed like a burgher, but was not fat like a burgher.
"Greetings, miss..." he raised an eyebrow inquisitively and held out his hand for hers. She shook it heartily, which clearly surprised him, though he adapted quickly enough. "I am Gondrin, the Wise." She heard a suppressed snicker from somewhere in the big room. He either didn't hear it or completely ignored it. "I couldn't help overhearing your question. Did you say an oak tree?"
"I did, sir, I'm pleased to meet you. Do you know of a magic which would cause an oak tree to split and re-form without damage?"
"What is your name, miss?"
"Oh, I apologize. I am Taedryn. Taedryn Naïlo."
"Thank you, it is so much easier to converse when one knows with whom one is conversing, don't you find?" He smiled, though his face stayed serious. "Will you join me at my table? I'm sure my friends would enjoy hearing your story as well."
She looked where he'd indicated, to a table of three other similarly-attired men. She waited for the warning tingle from Greybeard but it didn't come. She made a pretense of adjusting her tunic and brushed her hand past the dagger to make sure it hadn't been stolen by a more skillful thief. It was still on her belt, and she nodded, trying to match his refined manner. He led her to the table, holding her hand delicately at elbow height.
"Gentlemen," he said, turning to Taedryn, "may I present miss Taedryn Nailo." She nodded her head slightly to a chorus of greetings. "This is Christopher Trinn," a squat looking man with a fringe of black hair outlining a completely bald crown, "Tybon Wildling," a medium man in every way, with medium brown hair, a mild expression, and of middling height, "and Troilus Dunn," a grey-haired man well progressed in years, with a long grey beard and large paste-jewel rings on his fingers, though she suspected that he meant them to look like real jewels. He'd clearly paid well for them, but they weren't actually precious stones.
"Now," said Gondrin, "tell your story from the beginning."
Taedryn took the seat that Gondrin pulled out for her, and arranged her cloak to eliminate an uncomfortable crease. "Very well, thank you for taking the time to hear me, gentlemen. I am from the village of Treyvont, several days' travel to the east. My friend, Florin, had encountered a dryad at an oak tree which had been enchanted against dryads by its original inhabitant, who was persecuted by a local elf. He bade me investigate with him, and when we got close to the oak, it split itself as if into tentacles. It tripped Florin, and had tried to smash us both, but we avoided the strike. As suddenly, it re-formed, sealing itself back up so that the closest examination revealed nothing unusual except for torn ground where it had raged. Florin was gone, and I haven't seen him since. No one, to now, as been able to offer any explanation based in experience, though I've heard every theory, both plausible and fantastic."
She paused, looking around the faces to see what effect her oration had had. They all looked at her intently, clearly waiting for the story to continue. "Have any of you heard of such an occurrence? I tire so of telling the story, it sounds now to me as completely normal, I have recited it so many times."
The men around the table looked at each other. She couldn't tell if they were deciding who would speak first, or if they were as unknowing as her. Gondrin was the first to speak. "What theories have you heard? I suppose treants and dryads have been suggested? I thought so. Obviously not plausible, if the tree split so violently as you claim. That would kill a treant, and a dryad would never treat her tree so. Even the unhappy dryad from before would not willingly sabotage her tree as you describe." Taedryn sensed that he was just getting wound up.
"Now, an infernal creature could cause such an effect, though they are extremely rare, and why one should choose to infest a tree near your little village is puzzling. There are a number of other creatures of various origins which could affect matter in this manner..."
He was interrupted by Tybon, who said, "A polymorphic incantation..."
"Yes," said Christopher, his eyes twinkling oddly, as if pondering death and destruction gave him pleasure. "It could be..."
Gondrin shook his head, "No, no. Wait, possibly. Girl, when this tree split, did it split as if with an axe, or did it flow as if it were suddenly made of animate clay?"
"It split, as if it had been torn asunder. There were splinters of heartwood sticking straight up like spikes while it was trying to attack us."
"Ah, gentlemen, that rules out any polymorphic effect. No, I think..."
Troilus interrupted this time, his jeweled fingers twined and tugging in his beard. "I would favor a demonic or infernal explanation for the phenomenon," nodding at Gondrin, who seemed to be the de facto leader of the table. "This would account for the violent nature of the split, as well as the disappearance of the... What was your friend's name, m'dear?"
"Florin," she said, starting to lose track of what they were saying as the ponderous, erudite words flew around her.
"Yes, this Florin chap. Infernal manifestation frequently leads to inexplicable disappearance of individuals. It was documented clearly in Donnelly, you recall, Tybon?" The plain-faced man nodded, looking serious. Gondrin nodded as well.
"That," he said, "requires a motivating factor though, gentlemen. The typical infernal manifestation (which we may take to include demonic, naturally) does not present without a precipitating event." He turned back to Taedryn, saw her face, and visibly reduced the complexity of his vocabulary by several steps. "Do you know if anyone from the village had done anything which would, er, invite in a devil or demon? Typically this involves human, er, in your case, of course, er, elven, sacrifice. No? Well, I suppose that doesn't prevent such a manifestation, and of course, you, er, something may have happened that you were not privy to, I suppose? Yes, I should think that would be the case, you appear to be young for an elf, though, ha, I wager you're older than any of us, no, no, don't tell me, I'm happier not knowing." He laughed, pleased at his own wit. "I dare say we are as brief flickers of a candle to such a long-lived person as yourself. Still, age does tell, and age as a proportion of lifespan may be taken as important regardless of lifespan, though I dare say a mayfly who is in the twenty-third hour of his one-day life and who may be wise by mayfly standards would not stand up to a human child, much less an elven child, dear me, no."
With a sharp intake of breath, Taedryn was able to break into the torrent of words. "If, pardon me for interrupting, sir, if this were a demonic effect, what can be done to return Florin to us?"
"Oh my," said Gondrin, his face breaking into a smile which was echoed on the faces of the other men arond the table, "why in that case the individual is most likely gone, consumed on the infernal plane moments after the event. Why, infernal creatures only rarely take individuals from our plane for any other purpose. I should say the chances are excellent, at least eleven in twelve, that he was consumed on the spot, practically no chance..." He petered to a stop when he realized that Taedryn had stood abruptly.
"Florin is not an, an... individual! He is my friend! He's not some abstract chess piece to be moved about the board at a whim, he's a living, breathing person, who I care about!" Her voice had started with some reserve, but by the end, she was shouting.
"Was, I think you'll find."
"What!?" In her distress, Taedryn couldn't tell who had spoken.
"I think you mean, 'was.' The past tense, you know. Your friend almost certainly doesn't exist at this point in time except as a memory." Far too late, Gondrin exercised the least amount of empathy, and said in a considerably less jolly tone of voice, "I'm so sorry. Your friend is gone. But," he said, his tone raising again as if he had no control over himself, "with that knowledge, you can now proceed, and quit your questing for an answer which doesn't exist, a solution that cannot be enacted."
He was not prepared for the backhand slap which stung his face a moment later. Taedryn hadn't meant to do it, though in truth the movement had started with her fist clenched, and it was only by extraordinary strength of will that she flattened her hand just before impact.
He raised his hand to his cheek, which was already bright red. When he looked at Taedryn's furious face, his reproachful response died on his lips. The other men at the table shifted, preparing in whatever ways they thought they had available to them for things to take a more violent turn. Though they didn't frequently deal with what they thought of as "adventurers," they all knew stories of the violence with which a typical adventurer might choose to answer insult.
She turned without a further glance at the men seated at the table, and walked out the door of Howdni's, a black storm cloud as good as visible above her head. Christopher looked at Gondrin, and said, "You're a fathead. Gondrin the Wise? Could 'av gotten us all killed."
Taedryn returned to her village. The trip only took four days, thanks to her direct route, and her furious walking speed. The anger at the wizards faded before long, but she found that her desire to spend more time in the wide world had also faded. She wanted to go home, to resume her training, and take her place among the scouts as she had been planning for the last forty years.
It was as well that no misadventure attended her return trip, for her reaction would either have been so slow as to surely perish, or so furious as to utterly destroy whatever had waylaid her. By the time she'd arrived at the storied oak tree by the bend in the creek, her heart had hardened.
The months of travel, always looking and hoping for an answer, had wounded her. In that time, she had come to think of Florin as her intended partner, the passage of time having smoothed over the negative points of his personality, and indeed smoothing away the fact that she had never thought of him in that light at all, until after his disappearance. She remembered him with a rosiness that had little bearing on reality. To have found an answer at last, and for that answer to be that there was no chance of bringing him back was more than she could bear. Rather than bear it, she shut away that part of her heart, letting the wound scar over so she would never have to feel this way again.
By the time she'd returned to her parents' house, her manner was steady and unemotional, though the turmoil in her breast would be months in settling. She rejoined her previous life, training in arms and wilderness techniques until her archery was flawless, her swordplay nearly flawless, and her passage through a forest glen would not disturb the least bird or beast of the glen.
In time, she volunteered as a cartographer-scout, having learned the secrets of accurate mapmaking alongside her more standard martial and wilderness training. She relished the scouting missions. The opportunity to get away from everyone and spend days or weeks at a stretch without speaking to anyone was the least unpleasant use of time she could imagine. It amused her on these trips to speak with birds and beasts as if they could understand her.
Her parents received her story, accurate in fact if not in emotion, piece by piece, over the months after she returned. However, they never really understood the full impact of what had happened in their daughter's heart. Her previous seriousness was positively playful compared to her new standard of behavior, and they quietly despaired of having somehow raised the most un-elven of elves they had ever met.
Taedryn was extremely good as a scout. Her maps were excellent, rivaling the best cartographers in the realm, all the more remarkable for the fact that she produced them in the wilderness, with never a drafting table or ruler in sight. Other elves found her moodiness off-putting, though, and she contented herself with isolation rather than suffer the subtle, benevolent rejection of her peers.
Of course, still under 100 by now, Taedryn's story is just starting.