“So, what have you attempted towards fulﬁlling the terms of your vow?” Siofra asked Darius, as he and Esti ﬁnished telling the story of how Esti had become bound to him to his new bondservant. Siofra was in her ‘human’ form. (Human-like, rather. No one would mistake her for anything other than an sídhe, though they might not be able to place her clan.)
“I assume you mean the second part,” Darius replied. “Not asking her to do anything she does not wish is fairly self-regulating. As for freeing her, I haven’t had much chance to do anything yet. It has only been a week, after all. I’ve done a little research into unbinding spells, but I’m just getting started, really.”
“The sídhe have knowledge of these spells, some at least.” She smilled. “And there is little that can bind a cat. There may be something I can do. Which spell did you cast?”
“Well, I used a branch given by Esti to draw a Great Circle, then added a set of runes from the book, and…”
Darius looked over at Esti, then back at Siofra. “Well I remember a berkanan and a mannaz. I think there was a ííalan and a ingwaz, and possibly…”
“You do not not <em>remember</em>? How do you expect to undo the spell?”
“Hey, it wasn’t like I had time to study it or anything! We were kinda in a hurry, after all.”
“Have you brought the book here to study it?”
Darius had an answer for this one. “I didn’t want them to trace it to me, so I replaced it just before I left. I hoped that they might just decide that the tree wasn’t a dryad tree after all and give up.”
“What were they to think of the alarms that you had set oﬀ?”
“Perhaps a cat set them oﬀ.”
Siofra didn’t respond to the jibe, but instead sat thinking. “Perhaps you have not done so poorly after all, liege. You wished to not incite retribution, and it appears you have accomplished that goal.” She sat silent some more. “Would the spell-book remain in that room?”
“Well, there was nothing that would have held it there, if that is what you mean. But while those spells aren’t exactly forbidden, they are looked down upon. I doubt many would be willing to have it found upon them.”
“And you? Would you be willing to have it be found upon yourself?”
Darius stopped at Siofra’s question, pondering for a moment. “I would not set it out to be seen. But… Doing what is right and being thought to do what is right are diﬀerent things. It would help me help Esti, and I can survive being thought to use those spells.”
Siofra was watching him. “It seems I make a habit of underestimating you. Have you the memory of how to ﬁnd the cavern?”
Darius looked at Esti. He hadn’t tracked where they were that night very closely: she had been the guide. “I… I think so. We didn’t mark it or anything, but I was paying attention to the crossings.”
Siofra stood up. “Then we should go. See if the book is still there, and retrieve it.”
Darius stood up as well, followed by Esti. “Now?”
“There is no reason to delay. The miscreants are as likely to be gone now as at any other time, and Esti’s memory of the path shall only fade with the passage of time. The book must be retrieved before any true progress can be made upon fulﬁlling your oath; else you shalt spend your energies both upon what you have done as well as what you must do. Suﬃciant time has also elapsed so that the removal of the book and your triggering of the alarms would be seen as seperate events.”
Darius shrugged. “Now it is then.”
Esti had made a few false turns, but they made it to the chamber in fairly short order.
Darius was surprised both by the lack of change and the change: The lack, in that nothing seemed to have been moved. Esti’s tree still dominated the room, and nothing had been moved as far as he could tell.
The change in that the tree’s condition had deteriorated, as well as the light. He remembered it as bright as day, but now the light was little more than twilight. Barely enough to see by. (For him: He knew both of the girls had better eyesight in the dark.) The trio made their way carefully down the stairs.
“It appears those who drew the tree here have given up. For the moment, at least.”
“Yeah, it appears that way.” Darius replied. “Still… Esti, be careful.”
Esti had wandered over to the tree, tenitively running her hand over the leaves and bark. “Of course… I…”
“What is it?” Darius seperated from Siofra, and walked over to his friend.
Esti’s voice was indertiminte, between sadness, wonder, and relief. “I can’t hear the tree…”
He put his hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry.”
“I can hear other trees, like always, but…”
“The spell never mentioned any eﬀects on the tree. I supose we should have realized there would be some.”
“Yes…” She turned, and clung to him for a moment, then pulled away, wiping the tears from her eyes. “I’m sorry. I just…”
“I know. It can’t be easy, having who you are changed.”
“Yes. And… Thanks. I can’t imagine what state I would be in right now if they had got their way. I think… My mind would probably have broken.”
“Which is probably where the idea of dyrads as mindless spirits came from.”
Siofra had hung back, but now approached. “I hate to interupt, milord, but do you recall which closet held the book?”
Darius turned part away from Esti, answering, “Yes I do. Here, this way.” He led the women to the closed doors. “It should be in here, I think.”
He opened the doors, to ﬁnd the familiar pedistal empty. At it’s feet, however, were two spellbooks, obviously discarded, not placed.
Siofra picked one up. “ ‘Binding the Spirits.’ I have heard of this tome, but never before seen a copy.”
Darius picked up the other, and started to examine it. “Is it dangerous?”
“Not as such. The spells are diﬃcult, and I suspect failure would not be pleasant, but there is no inherant power in the book. It is just, as you said, ‘looked down upon’.” She ﬂipped through, found the spell for binding a dryad. “A diﬃcult spell. I am impressed.”
“I had an advantage: Esti was helping.” He ﬂipped through the book in his hands. “Here it is: The spell that bound her into her tree. And the spell that identifed the tree in the ﬁrst place. Wish I’d had these a week ago.” He looked up. “We’ll take this one too. I wonder why they left them?”
“I suspect they thought they were false, after you freed the dryad they had captured. If they thought the books worthless…”
“Yeah, that sounds about right.” He turned to face the ash tree standing in the dim light underground. “Wonder why they left the tree, though.”
“Why should they spend the eﬀort to move it?”
“Point.” He considered a moment. “Which brings up the question of whether we should move it.”
Esti answered immedately. “Of course we should. It is dying down here.”
Darius could think of at least one reason why he didn’t care if a tree died, but now did not seem to be an apropo time to bring it up. “Right, of course.” He paused. “So, where do we move it to?”
He had meant the question to simply be a request to Esti: he didn’t know the location where the tree had originally been well enough for a teleport. Siofra answered though: “A good question, liege. If the spell has damaged this tree, it may harm the woods where it is placed. As well, it has lost it’s caretaker, and needs healing.”
“And we might want to move it to a healer?” Darius asked, retorically. Siofra just nodded. He sighed mentally. “Do you have any place in mind?”
“I know of plant-healers among the sídhe.”
Darius looked at Esti for comﬁmation of her thoughts on the plan. Not that he had any doubts… And her eyes told the tale.
“We won’t be able to teleport it to there.” He looked up at the tree. “We’ll have to carry it. Esti, you try to keep the tree stable while we shrink it.”
Size-changing spells were delicate, but not particularly tricky. The main problem was with using them on living things: If the spell wasn’t precisely balanced, the organisim could be damaged. Also, of course, it could be damaged by a careless touch once shrunk as well.
A teleport would have been easier and safer for the tree. Darius as well.
He and Siofra set up the shrink spell, and Darius cast, with Esti watching, trying to tell if anything unexpected was happening to the tree. When they were done, a six-inch high tree stood in the center of the room. Esti went to carry it.
“So, how do we get to this plant-healer of yours, Siofra?” She asked, picking it up.
“The best are Underhill. There is a gate in the woods, which will get us close.”
“Can you just gate us from here?”
Darius cut the answer oﬀ. “I’d rather we went back to my room ﬁrst.” When the girls looked at him, he continued. “We should drop oﬀ the books ﬁrst, so that we do not have to make another trip. And I’d rather not have them in hand while we visited the healer.”
“Wise” was Siofra’s only response. Upon consent, they headed back the way they came.
Esti was looking around it frank awe at the plants around her. Jungle, almost: their were plants everywhere, on top of, inside, and around each other. Each obviously the recipient of careful individual tending.
“Does their care meet your approval?”
Esti broke her gaze from the plants around her at Darius’s voice. “Yes. I can see the damage — some of these plants are still recovering — but the healing they have gotten is extrodinary. They all love it here.”
No need to ask how a meliae knew how the plants felt. Darius was more surprised that some of the plants were still recovering: He would have said all the plants were in perfect — and verdant — health. “Good. Your tree should get the best care.”
Esti bit her lip and looked away.
Siofra had resumed her cat form when they’d regained the dorms, and not bothered to leave it in the Elven lands. She would be recognized just as well in it as her other form here. She turned her head and spoke: “The keeper is just around the next bend.”
Darius straightened his shoulders. He would have to be the speaker here: The other two were bound to his alligence. He wished he’d had a little more experince with the fae than a day with Siofra. For that matter, he wished he’d thought to ask more about this ‘keeper’ from Siofra: He didn’t even know if the elf he was about to meet was male or female. The clan would have been nice as well.
They rounded the bend, and Darius found himself relieved of wonder on both points: Only a ‘high’ or ‘true’ elf could look so graceful, so perfect.
And only a female would have… Well, looked so good doing so.
His throat caught, and for a moment he had trouble thinking of what to say. Then he managed a cough, and said: “Keeper: We were wondering if you could help us.”
She turned from the plant she was working on. “I may.” She looked them over. “Hmm. A human, a meliae, and… a cait sídhe. Siofra, if I recall correctly? We have met, though I am not sure we were introduced.”
A cat can’t blush, but Siofra tried. “I believe we were not. I am sorry if I cannot recall your name as easily as you recall mine.”
“You may call me Carmel. What brings you in such odd company?”
“I believe you should ask my oath-master. It is at his request I guided them this way.”
“Oath-master? So one of your ‘toys’ ﬁnally surprised you, did he? Well then.” She turned to Darius, looking him over, and was evidentaly surprised. “Either you are more powerful than you look, or Siofra’s reputation is greatly exagerated.”
“Neither, I believe, madam Carmel. I just got lucky with a trick she did not expect.”
“Tricky and lucky, hmm? I may have to be careful then. What can I do for you?”
“We have a tree in need of healing.” Darius looked over at Esti, who stepped forward with the tree in her hands.
Carmel took it gently, examining it in it’s miniture form. “An ash, carried by a meliae, and you need me to heal it?” Then her face clouded. “I see. This ash has had a meliae ripped from it, and was ill-treated after.” She examined Esti. “You were the one ripped from this tree.” She examined a bit more, then turned the same gaze on Darius. “And you were the one who did the ripping. Why should I help you now?”
“Because I did what I believed best at the time, and I was not the one who mistreated the tree. Nor was… seperating… Esti from her tree my choice.”
Carmel was inscrutable for a moment. “Perhaps you tell the truth: your meliae certainly shows less damage than I would expect. And the fact that you came here with the tree speaks well for you. Still…”
“What would I have to do to prove why I am here?”
She considered. “I recently lost possesion of a plant that was placed in my care. A human sourcerer took it from me, for use in their own spell-work. Bring it back so that I may complete it’s healing, and I will do what I can for this tree.”
“What plant and which human?”
“The human’s name is Xavazen Hall. As for the plant…” She raised a hand, and conjured an image. “It has no common or mundane name. It is often mistaken for mistletoe, and is reponsable for some of the stories about the powers of that plant. However, it is not a parasite.”
“May I ask why you are asking me to retrieve it? I am sure you know many more powerful than myself.” And Darius didn’t want to go on a suicide mission.
She smiled. “I do, but Xav is expecting that. He has placed wards upon the plant, preventing any creature of magical nature, including the sídhe, from approaching it. And my work here does not leave me much time for visiting the mortal world.”
“So I’m the ﬁrst human who’s visited since it was stolen?”
“Lucky me.” Darius took a deep breath, considering. “Ok. I will attempt to retrive your plant. I cannot garuntee that I will retrieve it though: Anyone powerful enough to do what you claim can easily stop me if they try.”
“I know. I am expect you will need luck and a bit of trickery to get it back.”
Great, a elven healer with a sense of humor. “May we leave the tree in you care until then?”
“Yes.” She waved a hand over it, and a bubble of force formed around it. “I have placed it in stasis. It will be safe from harm until you return.”
Assuming of course that he returned fairly quickly: A stasis spell, unless a lot of eﬀort were placed into it, would usually only hold for a day or two. He bowed to Carmel. “Then I will return as soon as I can.”
She nodded her dismissal, and they left.
Darius stopped the group as soon as they were out of the healer’s enclave. “So, anyone have any ideas? Anyone know anything about ‘Xavazen’?”
He looked between his followers, and got no more than a shrug from Esti. Siofra elaborated on her shrug: “Nothing the theft itself does not tell us: That he is fairly strong, and does not believe that mortals need respect the property rights of sídhe.”
“Ok. I’m guessing just asking for the plant won’t work, not unless I could pay for it. Siofra, take us home, and we’ll try to ﬁnd out what we can on this guy.”
A little research had turned up Xavazen’s address, and Siofra worked a transport spell to bring the trio to it. Which was how Darius found himself sneaking along behind the girls in a lovely private garden just outside London.
Most of the garden wasn’t magical, and the few traps they’d avoided would just serve to turn the curious non-magical away (and warn the magical that they were trespassing on another magic user’s property), but that was to be expected so far. They would be getting to his inner garden soon, and Darius expected more protections there.
He was not disappointed. Siofra turned a corner, and stopped cold. “Siofra?”
She turned her head, slowly. “Esti stays here. I believe I can manuver through these, but only in my cait form. I will alert you if there is anything that will trigger on your presence, liege.”