“Esti, I’ve told you that you don’t need to do that.” Esti was cleaning Darius’ room. Again. He kept telling her she didn’t need to, that whatever the eﬀects of the spell he’d cast to keep her from a worse fate, he was not going to order her around, or make her serve him.
She stopped, and came over to where he was working. Studying, really. “Darius, I’m not cleaning your room because I love you. I’m cleaning your room because I’m a meliae.”
A meliae was a form of what most people called ‘dryad’. Esti had pointed out that her tree was an ash when he’d ﬁrst called her that. Darius kept meaning to look up the diﬀerence.
“What does being a maliae have to do with cleaning my room? You never cleaned it before.” ‘Before’ was before someone had stolen her tree, and Darius had gone along to help her retrieve it, which led to him casting the spell the people who had stolen the tree had wanted to cast…
Which led to her being in love with him. Or bound to him. Or enslaved by him. Or something; what happens when you modify high-level coercion spells wasn’t something they taught second-year students at The University.
“No, I didn’t, but I cleaned the area around my tree every day. That’s what meliae do: we tend our trees.” And one of the eﬀects of the spell was that Darius was now her ‘tree’.
“But I don’t need tending.” He’d learned he couldn’t push her too hard: apparently it was actually possible for a meliae to be rejected by her tree, and the result wasn’t pleasant for the meliae. Pushing too hard when she needed to do something was a good way to really hurt his friend.
And Esti was still his friend; she laughed at his tone. “Given the mess you live in? Yes, you do. And I need to tend. So, please, let me clean up every once in a while?”
“Ok.” He reluctantly replied, knowing that she wasn’t lying: This was something she actually needed to do.
There was a knock on the door. “Am I interupting anything?” Satu ﬂitted through the crack on the half-shut door.
“Nope, come on in. What’s up, Satu?” Darius leaned back in his chair. Esti pulled a pillow oﬀ the bed for the fairy to sit on.
“Actually, I was hoping you could help me catch something…” He looked at the way Esti was sitting relative to Darius, and said: “Are you sure I’m not interupting anthing?”
Esti replied to his smirk. “Yes. What do you need to catch?’”
Satu rolled his eyes. “A cat. We told the school about it, but they can’t seem to ﬁnd any traces of it. I was hoping you’d help me get enough evidence that they’ll do something. Or just help us catch the damned thing.”
“A cat? What’s the problem with a cat?”
“In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m bird-sized.”
“So this cat is hunting you? Why don’t you just zap it or something?” Anyone at The University should be able to defend themselves against a basic physical attack, after all.
“It’s not hunting us, not yet at least, but it’s hanging around the ground-level fairy dorms. We just don’t want it to start hunting us: if it pounced before someone noticed it, all the magic in the world won’t help. Besides, cats are often resistant to direct magic, at least a little.” He looked uncomfortable. “Look, we don’t want to kill it or anything, just get it away from fairy dorms.”
“Ok, ok, what are friends for. What, exactly, do you want me to do?”
“I was just hoping you could come ‘round the dorm and watch for a few nights. If the cat shows up, try to catch it or something.”
“Nothing like a detailed plan, eh, Satu?”
“Come on, it’s just a <em>cat</em>.”
Esti broke in. “Satu, what did The University do?”
“The staﬀ? Oh, they set a couple of mage-alarms in places where the cat had been seen. When it didn’t trip them for a week, they declared it a ﬁgment of our imagination and took down the alarms.”
“So it avoided the alarms?”
“Yeah.” He shrugged. “They do that sometimes. Either just by accident, or the cat might be able to see magic.”
‘Too bad’ Darius thought: that had been his plan. Esti wasn’t done yet though. “Did they try nature-magic?”
Satu paused. “No, I don’t think they did. Not that I can think of how to set an alarm using nature magic.”
“I can do it.” Of course Esti could do it: she was a nature spirit. But Satu didn’t know that.
“Yeah, Esti’s really good with nature magic. She’s been helping me out a bit.” Both in theory and by giving him a stronger link to it… “When do you want us to come over?”
“How about this evening? Unless you’ve something else planned.” He leared at Esti a moment to make his point clear. She threw a pencil at him. He dodged, expecting it. “Well, I’ll just let you two get back to whatever you were doing…” He darted out.
Darius sighed. “I think we’re going to have some rumors starting about us.”
“Satu won’t say anything, he was just teasing.”
“I know, but if he saw enough to decide it was worth teasing…”
The two of them had gone over this conversation before. They both knew that Esti’s feelings were magically induced, and she didn’t mind that. She didn’t even mind that Darius didn’t return them, or that they weren’t a couple.
On the other hand, she did need to hang around her ‘tree’, and her magic-induced love-slave status meant Esti enjoyed Darius’ company, and pushed her to make him enjoy hers. Predictably, they had been spending a lot more time together.
“I know.” She laughed. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to take over your love-life.”
He considered a moment. “Actually, I’m impressed at how well you are taking this.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just that, well, you actually mean it when you said that. That we both know you are madly in love with me, and can’t help it, but you don’t want to impose.”
She laughed. “Actually, Darius, I’m having more trouble not saying ‘I’ or even ‘we’ when I refer to you. I mean, you are my tree. I mean, I know you are a seperate person and all, but…” She obviously didn’t have the words. “Anyway, let’s just say being in love with you is kinda secondary ok? I feel it, but meliae don’t normally fall in love. We care deeply for our trees of course, but we don’t expect them to care back.”
“So you are in love with your ‘tree,’ but that doesn’t mean anything special.”
She winced. “Well, it’s not exactly the same, and we have naughty words for dryads who… ‘go a little too far’ in caring for their trees, but it’s how I’m handling it. I think it helped that you haven’t treated me as a girlfriend, or anything close. If you did, I’d have to face that section of my imposed feelings, and I haven’t had to.” She blushed. “I’m sort of avoiding them, and using the fact that nature spirits don’t normally feel them to help that.”
“Ah, ok… Well, thanks anyway. So, see you tonight?”
“I’ll be there.”
The fairy dorms had some spells at the doorways so more normal-sized people could enter on occasion. Which was how Darius found himself waiting in their lounge. He could have just gone to Satu’s RA apartment, but Esti wasn’t here yet, and he felt like he might as well wait.
Besides, Satu knew he was here, and was heading over. They were going to be outside most of the night anyway.
Esti managed to arrive just after Satu made it. Darius wanted to head oﬀ any more comments, so he opened the topic at hand: “So the plan tonight is to have Satu take us around to where the cat’s been spotted, and Esti to lay some alarm spells as undetectably as possible. Then we’ll all stay out for a while, and watch. If the spells work, great, but otherwise hopefully we can spot it directly. Right?”
“Right.” This way. Satu led the way out the door. Darius was always a little disorented leaving; suddenly he went from the same size as Satu (and walking next to him) to normal human sized and having to watch where he stepped, at least until Satu ﬂew up.
Probably why many of the normal sized students never bothered to visit the fairy dorm.
Satu and Darius had to admit: Esti’s alarms were good. She didn’t actually use any magic at the point of the trigger: she just linked the plants in that area so that if something disturbed them it would cause a rustle someplace else, where the three of them would be waiting. Seeing what she was doing, Darius suggested a further reﬁnement: He placed a true-magic spell that would glow when the rustle occured, so they would be sure that what they saw was based on her trigger. His trigger, however, was not magically linked to hers at all, but rather linked to the physical eﬀects of hers.
If this worked, it was going to be one amazing alarm system.
Darius and the rest settled in to wait. Hopefully it wouldn’t be long: Most cats were active in twilight, but not actually all that active in full night.
This one, however, didn’t set oﬀ any of the alarms until nearly midnight, when the trio were just about ready to call it a night.
It wasn’t from the outer ring, which didn’t mean much. As they had pre-arranged, Satu and Esti went one way and Darius went another. The hope was for the other two to distract the cat while Darius got close enough to catch it.
The plan worked perfectly: the cat was hiding from Esti and Satu, and didn’t see Darius sneek up behind it. Darius had a moment to notice how big the black cat was before he pounced and grabbed it.
Which was where things went wrong. Darius, admittedly, wasn’t particularly well protected from a normal cat, and it quickly evidenced that this one was not normal. It knew precisely where to best bite and scratch, and when it slipped from his hands…
Well, Darius learned ‘it’ was a she. And that she wasn’t a cat. She was a sídhe. Also known as ‘Elf’, to the uniformed. ‘Oh shit’ was the thought that looped through his head.
“You think you can catch one of the cait sídhe? You think you can trap one of the wild ones? Well — mortal — Siofra is here to see you try.” She smiled, enjoying Darius’ predicament. “I challenge you to a duel of traps, young one. Standard terms.”
Darius was ﬂashing through everything he had ever learned of the sídhe. He couldn’t remember what ‘standard terms’ were, but he did recall that it would be a very bad idea to turn the duel down.
Of course, it would be almost as bad to loose?
“If that means you will leave these fairies alone, I accept.”
She laughed. “I only came to play, I was out of toys? You will do nicely in that role.”
Darius gulped, and noticed Esti signaling behind her. “My I confer with my friends before we begin?”
“You may say farewell, if you think it will help.” Her eyes hardened. “But you may duel with no resources but those that are your own: all must ﬂow from you alone.”
Darius nodded, and his friends headed over. He took them out of sight of the sídhe, behind a bush.
“Sorry I got you into this. It was nice knowing you. Maybe she’ll let you go in a few hundred years.”
Darius ignored Satu. “Esti, you had an idea?”
She nodded. “She won’t be expecting you to know nature magic. Or not very well at least.”
“All well and good, but even with your power boost, I’m still not that good with it yet.”
“Just? Think ‘tree’ for a moment, ok?” Esti stepped hesitantly up to Darius, and embraced him closely. Darius hesitantly patted her on the back.
Satu took in the sight. “Looks like you will be missed, bro.” He did a double-take. “What the??”
Darius could feel it too: Esti was ‘merging’ with him, sinking into him. He panicked, then realized what she was trying and tried to think tree-like thoughts.
Satu just hovered and stared until Esti was completely gone, absorbed into Darius. “What was <em>that</em>?”
Darius answered: “It’s complicated.” :Esti?:
:I’m here, Darius. It is? odd.: Darius realized he was getting more than just the words; he got feelings and meanings behind them. ‘Odd’ was ‘strange-weird-uncertain’. ‘Darius’ was ‘happy-pleased-adoring-?’.
:Please, Darius, don’t.: Follow that thought, she meant.
:Ok, sorry. I don’t mean to intrude. You sure this will work?:
:I can help you in this duel. And this way she cannot separate me from you.: There were multiple ways to take that, but Darius didn’t want to follow those thoughts right now either.
:What about the ‘no aid’ rule?:
:My life-force comes from my tree. From you. At this moment, all that I am ﬂows from you.:
:And she won’t be expecting this.:
Darius nodded, and looked up at Satu. “Wish us luck.”
“Good luck. If you can, you’ll have to me that trick to me sometime.”
“Sorry, I don’t think it is one that can be taught.” Darius stepped out to face Siofra. “So, how does this duel work?”
She rose from where she had been sitting. “Each of us will try to trap the other in turn, with each turn ending when the trapped breaks out of the initial hold. The ﬁrst to fail to break free in two minutes, looses. As a courtesy, I’ll even let you go ﬁrst.” Her tone suggested it was not courtesy that guided her actions, unless it is the courtesy of a cat in allowing a mouse a few more moments of freedom.
Still? “I thank you for your courtesy.” :Esti, do you have any nature holding spells? Something big and ﬂashy?:
:That I do.: She saw his intent. :And I can cast while you cast.:
:Good.: They started in unison.
Esti’s spell was spectacular: she was growing the plants around Siofra into a literal cage. The grass shot up, entwining with both itself and the bushes that grew out to strengthen the structure. A nearby tree extended branches to form the top.
Darius was done ﬁrst, and he quickly switched spells to enhance the cage further: placing spells of strength, of holding, and of protection upon the still-growing cage, managing to weave them into the cage’s structure itself, instead of just placing them on top as he would be forced to if he’d waited until the cage completed.
Siofra waited until he was done before responding, though she might have been able to disrupt the spells as they were cast. Obviously, that was beneath her. “Not bad, mortal. This is an excellent plant cage for one as young as yourself.” She gestured and a couple of his last additions failed.
But not as many as she had been expecting, obviously. “You have high-magic integrated with nature-magic?” She grew claws, and took a swipe at a section of the wall. A few bits of grass fell, but that was for eﬀect: the cage itself wasn’t harmed at all. “You have!” She shrunk back into a cat, then shrunk further, to the size of the holes in the cage wall, only to ﬁnd her approach triggered the walls to close those holes.
:Nice job, Esti.:
:Thank you, Darius.: Darius caught a quick glimpse of the strong emotions his praise brought before Esti damped it. They returned their focus to the trap.
Siofra had returned to her normal size, and was obviously starting to take this challenge seriously. She dug down a moment, only to be blocked by a mesh of roots beneath the ﬁrst layer of dirt. “Sorry, Siofra. That’s not going to work either.” Darius said, replacing the spells she had banished. She tried levitating to the ceiling, and found it just as hard to penetrate as the walls.
She still wasn’t reacting as if she though she could actually loose this contest, but she did have to stop and think a moment for her next action. When she did, she smiled, and — making a sign with her hand — drew a sword from the air. She grinned, and swung it through the wall.
That worked, for a moment. The sword itself passed through the wall, cutting the plants, but they grew back together almost immediately. Darius could feel Esti enhancing her spells, and the woody bushes and trees extended their hold through the cage. The sídhe’s next swing was slowed by the branches, and her third was caught in one. Only for a moment, but it was long enough for the cage to cover the blade. Siofra barely managed to draw it out before the cage drew the sword into itself.
“Enough. You will make a fun toy, but I tire of this game.” Siofra started into a longer spell-casting, taking the time to pace the full dimensions of her current enclosure. Darius could hear her murmuring under her breath, and considered trying to block her spell-casting, but they had held her about long enough, and Darius did not want to anger her at this point.
Darius felt the recoil as his spells failed, and the cage went up in ﬂames. Siofra walked calmly through the heat, untouched. “An excellent eﬀort, mortal. But not enough to save you.” She said, conversationally, as she put her sword away and the ﬂames ﬁnished their work behind her. “Are you ready to be captured by me?”
“Are my two minutes up?”
“One moment.” She paused, just a few seconds. “Now they are. And I am outside your cage. My turn.” She got ready to cast.
“Not so fast, Siofra. I still have a hold on you, that you have not broken.” Darius’ voice stopped her. He tugged on the thin strand of true-magic he had laid in a spell known as ‘cat’s collar’.
It wasn’t much. Just a light leash, designed, as the name implied, for a cat. Cast, it was unnoticeable to the subject until they tried to get further than a certain distance from the caster, or until the caster ‘tugged’ it. It allowed people to take a cat out into the park, and keep it from running away.
“What’s this? I can break this easily.” And she did just that; the spell was not meant to hold anything with actual power, after all.
“Yes, but you wore it for the two minutes without it breaking.”
“You can’t fool me; your ﬁrst trap was that cage. I felt the magic.”
Now it was Darius’ turn to grin. “You are both right and wrong: I cast both this spell and the cage as my ﬁrst trap. At the same time. You may check, if you wish.”
“But that’s not possible! No one can cast two spells at once!” She was panicking now; she had checked, and believed him.
:Esti?: “Normally you would be right, sídhe. But in this case…” Darius trailed oﬀ, as Esti emerged from her ‘tree’.
“I had an advantage.” Esti was the one who ﬁnished the statement.
“A dryad!” She drew back, calming. “Then you forfeit, for you had help.”
“She’s meliae, actually. And bound to me, as if I were her tree. Her life force ﬂows from me alone.”
Siofra gaped a moment, then laughed. “So. I’m not sure the technicality applies anymore, meliae. But you have bested me, you and your master, together. I faced one who is a pair, and did not know it. May I have your names?”
“You may, use-names at least. I am Darius. This is Esti.”
The sídhe bowed. “Thank you.”
They all stood for a moment, until Darius thought to say. “You are welcome. And I am honored to have bested such a worthy adversary. Go now, and leave the fairies alone.”
“As you wish.” She morphed back into a cat, and padded oﬀ.
Satu ﬂew up from where he had been watching. “You beat her! The guys will never believe this. And… Meliae?”
Darius blushed in the darknes. “Um, yeah…”
Esti broke in. “I enrolled surreptitiously. We had a, um, mishap, recently and I got unbound from my tree and bound to Darius instead.”
“Which means perhaps you shouldn’t tell the guys about this. No one knows what she is, and I will thank you for keeping her secret, understood?”
“Uh… Right. I understand.”
“So, can we just tell everyone that Darius helped you take care of the cat, and leave it at that?” Esti asked.
“Sure. But… man this would be a good story.”
“Well, how about this: You keep our secret until we graduate, ok? Then you can tell the story. And we’ll back you up.”
“Got it.” He yawned, and looked up at the night sky. “Well, I suppose I need some sleep before class.” He laughed. “Thanks for taking care of the ‘cat’!”
“You are welcome. And… You owe me one!”
Satu indicated his acceptence, and headed for his dorm.
“Well, see you tomorrow Darius.” Esti started to head oﬀ.
“Wait.” She stopped. “Esti, I think we need to talk.” Darius looked at her half-shadowed face. “But let’s do it inside, ok?”
“Esti, you weren’t being completely honest earlier.” They were in the hallway, almost back to Darius’ room. “And you are hiding from yourself.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, I could feel what you meant when you were talking to me from ‘inside’. And it didn’t match what you said earlier.”
“Darius, I don’t feel feelings the same way you do. Yes, they are there, but…”
Darius took a moment to think over what to say next, and opened his door. He lost his train of thought at the sight of Siofra standing in his room, waiting for him, black hair ﬂowing and wearing not much else.
“What are you doing here?” He gaped, shutting the door behind him. Esti just made it in.
“I am here to pay my forfeit for the duel. Standard terms, as agreed.”
Darius sat down. “Please, take a seat and get dressed. I… What are the standard terms, exactly?”
The sídhe conjured clothes for herself (not that they were much help) and sat down. “You dueled without knowing the terms of the duel?”
“I… Was fairly sure that the terms for not dueling were worse.”
She grinned. “That they are. Standard terms are service: the winner may command the loser for a year and a day. Admittedly, we sídhe usually take advantage of time not ﬂowing the same under the hill. But I am yours to command, for a year and a day.”
She shrugged. “We are not allowed to take revenge. Beyond that, each of us is free to do as we wish, with no further ties. Your next question has the answer that there are no limits on your command, but that it is possible to anger my family.”
“At which point they can seek revenge.” She nodded. Darius sank his head into his hands. “Great. Now I’ve got two girls bound to obey me.”
Esti laughed. “Well, at least she doesn’t love you as well. I think.” She turned to Siofra. “May I ask why you were waiting as you were?”
“I… Of course. You also were a part of the duel. I hoped to control our relationship: Most men, once thinking with their lust, think of little else.”
“And you thought you could get some power over Darius that way.”
Siofra shrugged and nodded. “You are in love with him, as well as bound to him?”
“It’s complicated. He? modiﬁed the spell to bind me to him, and cast it with my consent. We’re still working on how that aﬀected it.”
“You agreed to be bound by him? To be severed from your tree?”
“Long story. It was the best option at the time.”
“I shall have to hear that story.” She bowed slightly to Esti. “Another time, perhaps.”
“Ok, enough. Esti, we’ll talk later. I still think we need to understand what we did tonight. Siofra, do you have a home you can go to? Can I release you from my service?”
“If you wanted to release me from the terms of service, you should have done so when I acknowledged you had won. To release me now would either be saying I am incapable of serving you or <em>unwilling</em>.”
“And that would disparage either your abilities or your honor. I get it. Ok. But you can’t stay here. It isn’t allowed.”
“I cannot go to my family until the term is up. Would you have me stay outside?” The question was polite. She would if he asked. But she wouldn’t like it.
“Darius: Does your dorm allow familiars?”
“Yeah, of course. Mages and warlocks often keep them. Why?”
Siofra grinned, then morphed into her cat form. “Cats are common familiars, yes? Esti, this is what you had in mind?”
“And you are not worried your man will take advantage of having me here? Trusting, you are.” Her tone indicated she would try to take advantage.
“He’s not my man. He’s my <em>tree</em>. I have no hold on him.”
“So trusting! Well, it seems we have consensus. Assuming the man in charge agrees.”
“I have a say in this?” He joked. “Sounds like it should work. At least, to my sleep-deprived mind. I say we adjourn further discussions until the morning.”
“As you wish.” Siofra curled up on the foot of the bed. Esti left, and Darius ﬁnally slept.