Chapter 3

Saturday morning, Esti woke Darius up. Siofra pretended she’d been awake all along. “Darius? I have a favor to ask.”

Darius opened the door the rest of the way and let her in. “Can it wait until later? Like when the sun’s up and I’m awake?”

“It’d really be best not to. We don’t want to draw too much attention, and sunrise is best anyway.”

“Ok, get out and let me get dressed.”

That took longer than normal, but eventually Darius was dressed, and becoming more awake. “Ok, Esti. What do you want.”

“Come. I need you to meet some people.”

He wasn’t quite awake enough to ask who. Which is how he found himself following her down the stairs, out of the dorms, and into the woods around the University.

“Um, Esti? Where are we going?”

“Almost there.”

“I suspect she’s taking you to meet the forest, liege.”

The idea startled Darius, and Esti glared at the shadow where the cat must be. “It would have been better if he didn’t know.”

“Ah, sorry. You need to prove he has not controlled you.”

“What are you two talking about?”

“Ignore us, liege. She means you no harm, and she is right. It is best that you are unprepared.”

“Besides, we are here.” She stopped in a clearing. “I could never get too far from my tree.” She looked around, slowly, then walked to the bare dirt in the center of the clearing, and smoothed it out a bit with her hand.

Darius entered more slowly. “What’s going on?”

“Do not worry. Just be yourself, and know that I will speak for you if need be.”

“Speak for me? To who?”

Esti laid a hand on his shoulder. “It’s almost dawn. Just wait a moment, ok?”

He looked from one girl to the other. Or from one girl to a cat, and back. “Ok. I trust you two.”

Esti lead him into the center of the clearing, and faced east.

Darius did the same.

The dawn light brightened, and the sun peaked over the trees, finally dispelling the shadows. Esti spread her arms and closed her eyes.

There was a rustle of leaves, and Darius heard a breeze he didn’t feel blow through the trees.

“You’ll have to speak human. Darius doesn’t speak our language.”

“We are not all as good with the human tongue as you are. You promise we are safe?”

“I promise.” She turned to look at Darius, who was awake enough to get the hint.

“I promise you are safe from me.”

You alone are not a threat to us, human.” From every side, tree nymphs entered the clearing, forming a solid ring. “But we take your promise as it is meant.”

“Thank you.” He said, trying to show confidence.

The speaker turned back to Esti. “So, what brings you here? When your tree was taken, we thought you’d be gone for good.” She glanced at Darius. “Those who magicked it away were what we had warned you about. Nor has it been returned.”

“My tree… Is safe. It was damaged, and needed healing. Healing I could no longer give it.” There was a move to interrupt. “Wait. Let me put this tale in order. Yes, the humans who took my tree were exactly what I had been warned about. But I had found an ally, which is why I left. He helped me find my tree. And, when that led to a trap, gave me chance to change my fate.” She took a deep breath. “You are right to be scared of me. I have been unbound, and bound again. But I have found that being human-bound doesn’t always have to be what it was, if the human respects the nymph, and if the nymph agrees to the binding. I am rebound, but I not unmade. I am a new whole, and I come to my old home so that my new center can learn from the trees.”

“So you come to tell us that being rebound isn’t so bad, is that it?”

“No. Or, not the way you mean that. Darius has promised to do everything he can to rebind me to a tree, so that I can be what I was. And he made that promise before I was unbound.

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