Saturday, July 3, 2010

Chapter Six: Dancers of Death LINK

I couldn't decide whether or not to post chapter six here. I do want some age-range reviews on it though, so if you'd like to read Ch. 6 please follow this link where I've posted it in a writer's Forum. http://www.writersbeat.com/showthread.php?t=25594 Be sure to leave feedback!

Feedback Questions

Alright, Folks. So I had a couple of simple questions for the sake of feedback purposes. I would be very grateful if you could answer one or all of them when you're done reading these five chapters.

1.Overall enjoyment on scale of 1-10:
2.Reading Comprehension (was the story so far easy to follow or too confusing?):
3. Would you read this book?:
4.What is your Age?:
5.Last but not least, something you especially liked? Something you especially disliked?:

Thanks for taking the time to do this! Your feedback will help me make these books even better!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Budding Leaf: Chapter 5: All That's Left

Chapter Five
All That’s Left



That night, Leaf dreamed again of a silver-haired boy. The dreams were coming more frequently than before, and were tinged with a profound sadness that nearly made her weep. Those dreams had been haunting her for as far back as she could remember; but she had no idea what they meant. Now she also dreamt of gentle Geram and felt a strange yearning that made her ache. These dreams… these were new, but felt old; and powerful. And confusing.

There were other kinds of dreams haunting her now, too. Leaf would never stop seeing the faces of her loved ones twisted in pain as they died horribly. Her heart clenched painfully.

When Leaf woke, she kept her eyes closed and took a deep breath. With eyes still closed, all of her other senses became keener and she began absorbing what they told her.

There was a soft breeze coming from a small window near the cot that was refreshing and smelled of grass and shade trees. Leaf could feel the rising sun’s warmth on her face and exposed toes, almost certain she could feel the dust motes that were dancing through the beams of light like little fey sprites.

From across the room came a disharmony of rattling snores that could only be the strange old wizard and his even stranger companion. If Leaf had wondered at the mysterious events of the previous night thinking them just another sad dream, she knew now they were not.

She squeezed her eyes even tighter, thinking once more of her dear friends at Ganolly Castle. But the castle of Ganolly stood no more; and Leaf knew with a profound certainty that her future was now her own to decide. She was determined to make Maron and the others proud of her.

With a sigh, she opened her eyes at last. There were the old wooden beams of the cottage roof, with their tangled gossamer robes draping down in silvery strands. As if in defiance to the tiny threads of moonlight hanging there, Leaf lay with her short red hair sprawled about her face like a fiery halo in the streaming sunlight.

What would this day hold in store for her? Well I shall have to clean, certainly. Treedon and Mixl Pae would never bother. That was clear. From what she’d observed of the bickering two so far, it seemed they never did more than was absolutely necessary. Still, it would be comforting to do something so familiar, so routine.

Brushing aside her brooding thoughts, Leaf sat up and swung her feet over to the side of the bed and touched the floor. With a yelp she immediately jerked her feet back up.

Ouch! That floor was in dire need of a good polishing! She hoped she hadn’t graced herself with any slivers! That certainly wouldn’t do anything to cheer her up. Grumpily searching for her slippers, she remembered all at once that she’d lost them in the woods the previous night. But then… what was that?

Leaf lifted up the draping blanket from where she sat. There, looking spotless and innocent and inviting, were her slippers. Leaf didn’t know what to think, she just stared at them for a full minute- refusing to blink as if they might disappear. Thoughtfully, she leaned down and picked them up; testing the soft texture with her fingers, she was almost surprised to find it familiar. Placing them gratefully in front of her feet, she put them on and took a tentative step on the rough floor. With a sigh of relief, she thanked Orethyn for His mercy and that her slippers were thick enough to stop the threatening wood.

Spying the large book and even larger bundle Maron had packed for her at the foot of her cot, Leaf clapped her hands to her mouth. She suddenly remembered leaving them by the hatch the previous night when she’d wandered off in her grief. She looked around at the two still snoring across the room with a new appreciation. Somehow she was certain it was they who had gone back for her things and brought them to her. She would never forget this kindness on their behalf. These belongings were all that remained to her.

Leaf sniffled as she walked over to the pack and lifted its bulk on top of the bedding. It took her a minute to work out the knots of the thick blanket Maron had used, but the corners finally fell open to reveal an assortment of smaller bundles.

She reached inside her robe and withdrew the smaller blue book from its inner pocket and looked it over for any signs of water-damage. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, it was in the same condition she’d first found it in when dusting the library what felt like so long ago. Had it really only been two days?

Tenderly, she placed it on top of the larger tome resting on the bed beside her. She then began taking stock of each item Maron had packed her: A food satchel that included four juicy apples, a large brick of yellow cheese, a length of sausage and a swollen skin of cow’s milk. She was sure Nora had had something to do with the food satchel, and she was very grateful. Leaf had no idea how much food Treedon and his friend had brought with them and determined to ask as soon as they woke.

Glancing across the room at the curious pair still sleeping soundly and snoring something horrid, she felt a wave of fondness come over her and knew she was in good hands- even if they were more than a bit unorthodox. Smiling to herself, she bent her head back to the task at hand, taking a large bite out of one of the juicy apples. She hefted a leather pouch next, trying to guess what might be inside. The pouch made her think of Jonah.

Sure enough, when she spilled some of the contents into her hand she discovered a variety of seeds. Right off she recognized summer squash, carrots, corn, lettuce, celery, tomato, strawberry and pumpkin. There were a few others that were not familiar to her, but the gesture warmed her heart. Briefly she wondered yet again just how much her friends had known about what was going to happen, and how long they had known. Sighing in frustration, she decided to let it go for the time-being. Somehow she knew that one day all her questions would be answered.

After pulling aside varied articles of clothing, a hairbrush and small hand-mirror, a toothbrush, a scented bar of soap and a couple of washcloths, there, lying inconspicuously beneath the miscellaneous pile was a small, white, velvet drawstring purse. It didn’t feel as though it contained money. If she had to guess just by the feel she’d say it was full of dirt. Bursting with sudden curiosity, Leaf very carefully lifted it close to her face. It took a certain amount of dexterity to loosen the tightly knotted strings and reveal what dwelled there. She was careful not to spill the contents as she lowered her eye to the opening and peered inside. Good thing, too. Whatever it was, it glowed brightly. Leaf couldn’t decide what color it was because apparently neither could it. It acted like an iridescent substance that radiated its own light. So what was it?

“Leaf, wait!”

Leaf nearly jumped out of her skin but held on to her composure just well enough not to send the bag flying. Finally she absorbed that the snoring had ended and, sure enough, Treedon was standing directly behind her, hand out in a commanding gesture.

“What’s wrong, Treedon?”

Treedon closed the small gap in one step and knelt next to her, facing the white velvet bag.
He spoke softly and slowly, holding very still.

“Very carefully now, Leaf… Pull those drawstrings tight, and be certain not to spill one particle, understand?” He never took his eyes off the bag for a moment.

Leaf did as she was told, practically quivering with surprise and curiosity. It wasn’t until she had tied the knot that Treedon took a breath and stirred, wiping away a bead of sweat and swallowing. He gave her a firm look and Leaf opened her mouth to protest.

“I didn’t know what it was; still don’t actually. So…do you care to explain?”

Heaving a great sigh, Treedon creaked to standing once again. “Girl… if you only knew… Listen closely, alright?” He waited for her nod before continuing. “Your lessons started ahead of schedule- Rule number one: No meddling with things you don’t understand, Understand?” Leaf swallowed her instinctive retort and nodded sullenly.

“Yes, sir.”

“Very well, then.” He gently closed her hand over the tightly shut bag. “You must promise me not to open this until I tell you it’s the right time, okay? This is very important!

Squirming uncomfortably for a moment, Leaf finally lifted her chin firmly.
“I promise, Treedon. I will show you that I can be a good student.”

Treedon smiled, pleased. “Good girl. So. I’m sure you’re wondering what’s inside…?”

Leaf’s eyes got big “Well of course I am! So?”

Knowing he had her on the edge of her seat now Treedon gave a satisfied grin. “Let’s just say… it’s Dust.” Seeing Leaf ready to bust he couldn’t help but chuckle as her face turned red. “I jest you not- that’s what it is.”

Leaf opened her mouth indignantly “But then why—

Because girl, it’s priceless- and rare to the point of saying that’s all there is left. Do you follow me?” Leaf nodded slowly, unsure, and he continued “Unless I’m entirely bereft of logic, I’d say that gift came from Karla; your librarian friend, I believe? Have you no thought as to what it could be?”

Leaf’s face had crumpled at mention of Karla… how many of her friends had died with Ganolly Castle? “It couldn’t be from Karla,” she mumbled.

“Oh? And why not, I ask?”

“Because…” And here her chest heaved with a bone-deep sigh, “She’s dead.”

“Oh?” he said again, “Are you so sure? And what does her ‘death’ have to do with leaving behind a small token for you?”

“But…? Why would she leave me a bag of dust?” Her eyes became distant. “It couldn’t be… dust? As in the dust from the Library?”

“Ah, so you came to it at last then.” Treedon looked very pleased.

Leaf was very confused. “So again, why would she give me dust of all things? What’s so special about that? And why does it glow like that?”

“Ahh, but you see, Ganolly Castle is no more! All that remains, you hold in your one hand.” At Leaf’s stricken face he continued in gentler tones “Does that not make it valuable indeed? Why does it glow, you ask? What you hold in your hand, is all that remains of your physical memories in Ganolly… priceless.”

Leaf’s gaze lowered to the invaluable purse resting inconspicuously in her hand. Pulling it close to her chest, it came to rest next to her mother’s amulet. Gazing down, she remembered it all over again. “So it is…” she murmured softly.

Leaf was finding it difficult to pay attention at this point; there was just too much to take in… All she wanted right now was some time to be alone, and some quiet; to think.

~*~

The cottage already being rather small, was made even more so by the number of occupants. Considering this, Leaf decided to go for a walk; however, she was only allowed to leave after firm promises to keep the cottage roof in sight. After stepping out the front door, she stopped to take in a deep breath of the cool, fresh air.

The grass here was tall and wild, secreting any countless number of creatures inside its wispy depths. The sheer greenness of her surroundings was comforting. It was almost as though if she were to reach out into the air with her hands open- palms down, she would be able to feel the very texture of the life growing and breathing around her. Oh that felt good.

The cottage itself stood at the highest point in the round meadow, being at the very center on the only hill. From this vantage it was easy to see everything within the tree-line of the surrounding forest.

It was a soft and generously accommodating hill upon which her parents had built their home, and it was easy to see why it’d been their first choice. A well had been dug at the top of the easy knoll, conveniently placed beside the cottage. She was certain now that it had been dug using magicks so as to better reach the sweeter waters that lay deep within the earth.

Leaf took a moment to absorb that. According to Treedon her parents had been very renowned Scholars. They had been Manna-users…

Sighing, Leaf finally decided which direction she would go based on where the only path lay. This meant, of course, she went in the opposite direction. Her mood simply didn’t allow for anything else, seeming as how it was a rebellious and brooding one.

Getting her bearings, she knew she was heading east; Leaf imagined she could almost feel something pulling her that way. The wild grass soared above her head in many places and often times it felt as though she were in a deep jungle, looking for some hidden treasure. The sensation was comforting and reminded her of the old passages and hidden corridors of Ganolly. …it felt like home. Though, admittedly, it required a great deal more work to get through this maze. And pain.

By the time she reached the tree-line the grass had given way to sporadic undergrowth. Her hands bled and burned from all the grass-cuts she’d received on her little sojourn. I’m supposed to have special abilities, right? Then I should be able to do something! Wincing in pain, Leaf stared at her hands until her eyes began to tear, willing them to get better. A headache made a timely appearance as she concentrated for what felt like hours, staying as focused as she possibly could until she had stabbing pains on either side of her head. In all that time the only thing she discovered was an ability to move her ears!

Disgusted with herself, she shut her eyes tight in defeat. Legs buckling, she sank to the ground with her head between her knees. She tried to cry, but the tears wouldn’t come. Her heart ached so badly that she couldn’t breathe, and still the tears would not come.

Leaf thought she would die of silent agony, completely taken by noiseless sobs that wracked her entire body. Her fingers reached out and angrily clawed the rough earth around her, further abusing hands that were already throbbing with pain. How much more will Orethyn punish me? Can’t I shed even one tear for my friends?!

~*~

Leaf had no idea how long she lay there, stretched out face down in the earth, head turned slightly for air, her eyes staring at a small hollow in a tree without actually seeing it. The hollow appeared to have formed behind a sort of natural basin in the beautiful and wild old tree.

The leaves of the canopy overhead whispered in consistent waves, as if they were saying,
“…hushhhh, hushhhhhhh…”
Leaf closed her eyes. She knew it was her imagination, but she found it comforting all the same. The whispering wind was a soothing balm to her itchy eyes and wounded spirit.

When she opened her eyes again, she thought she detected movement inside the hollow… or something anyway. Leaf lay very still, certain to make no noise and simply watched.
There!

A flickering light! She was certain it hadn’t been her mind playing tricks. Besides, there was no sunlight in this particular spot beneath the shady canopy. Common sense told her to be careful, but a sixth sense told her this was something special.

Leaf slowly raised her head from the ground, eyes fixed on the spot she’d last seen the light- directly in the middle of the hollow. As she attempted to rise without a sound, Leaf could’ve sworn she heard a small laugh.

Hesitantly, she called out “Who’s there?”

No response.
Presently however, Leaf became aware of a peculiar sound that seemed to be getting louder. The sound reminded her somewhat of a large moth fluttering about… a huge moth, she amended; caught inside the belly of a drum. She absentmindedly peeled off a large leaf that was stuck to her cheek as she got to her feet.

“Put your hands in the water.”

Leaf jumped and looked around pointlessly for the source of the voice, eyes finally resting back on the basin in the hollow. “Hello?”

“Oh come on now, just do as I say. Just lean over here and plop them in—gently, please. You don’t want to go upsetting the fexbeez.”

“Um.” Leaf wasn’t sure what to think- and she still could not for the life of her find the owner of that voice, though she was fairly certain now that whoever it was waited inside the shadows of that hollow. It had a decidedly feminine ring to it. “Can you please show yourself?”

Leaf heard a sigh that was magnified by the drum-like hollow. “I don’t think so.”

“Well, why not?”

“Because you’re human. Besides, it’s not time yet.”

Leaf felt a burning in her spirit. Something told her to trust this faceless voice, despite her numerous misgivings. Swallowing hard, she made her decision.

Approaching the hollow basin slowly, she said, “Alright then, though I don’t understand. Perhaps one day, Orethyn willing, I will know the answer to these riddles that are drawn to me.”

Now standing over the basin and looking down, Leaf saw that it was filled with the clearest rainwater. She watched as a late remnant of dew swelled from the tip of a leaf directly over the tiny pool and fell… It was as if time slowed to a crawl for Leaf. The world was silent and all she could see was this one drop of pure liquid as it made its enchantingly slow way down through the air. As the drop touched the surface, there was a moment of pain-filled ache in her heart and then—
Music. Pure music. It rang softly through the forest, heard by every living creature within distance. Strangely compelled, she slipped her wounded hands inside the water. It was cool; almost like air- her hands didn’t really even feel wet. All it took was for that one thought to register before she realized that her wounds were healed as though they’d never been. Leaf withdrew her hands and stared in awe.

“Thank you” she spoke without thinking, to no one in particular.

“Lylendyvar says ‘You’re welcome’.”

A Budding Leaf: Chapter 4: The Almighty Mercue


Chapter Four
The Almighty Mercue



On the other side of the false-backed wardrobe, Leaf hesitated, biting her lip in worry. She felt totally overwhelmed with a myriad of raging emotions and confusion. What was going on in the castle? She had no doubt now that it was something much worse than rats this time. But what then? Why all this secrecy? She was sure it had something to do with the stranger.
She reached up and lovingly cupped the necklace now draped around her neck. And her parents...? No. She didn’t think she could handle dwelling on that just now. Remembering the urgency of the situation, she hefted her precarious burden and began to make up for lost time. She found her way by sliding her hand along the familiar damp and grainy stone.

The tunnels were mostly roomy enough for her to stand comfortably, which meant that a grown man would have found himself nearly doubled in half just trying to walk through. There were times when her small size was definitely a plus.

Leaf had discovered these particular tunnels when she was only six- quite by accident, as usual. Concerning secret tunnels, this had been her first discovery. Ever since then she’d recklessly gone on a multitude of excursions, exploring them and the places they led to with eagerness. If she’d ever stopped to think about the danger she was placing herself in, she might not have continued those memorable forays; but as it was, she’d barely even considered the danger wandering these decaying tunnels might entail.
By now, she could find the way to the outside passage with her eyes closed, which was lucky, seeming as how she was making this trip in utter darkness. Leaf only hoped she would have as much success finding her way through the forest in the dark. While she’d explored the castle depths to an amazing degree, she had rarely explored very far from where the passage exited into the thick and tangled woods of Faryen Forest.
The tunnel seemed to be getting damper as she went, which meant she was well beyond the castle walls.

Coming to a halt in the darkness, Leaf reached up- blindly feeling for the trap door she knew was there. Finding it at last, she pushed hard. Nothing happened. She struggled to get enough leverage, now bruising her small forearms as she shoved as hard as she could.

Just as panic began to set in, the hatch budged. After a few more minutes of adrenaline induced shoves, it finally opened. Immediately the water began to drip- and in some places pour- down on her. Brr! She knew it wouldn’t be long before she was properly freezing.
The well-camouflaged hatch was set neatly flush with the earth around it. How was she supposed to get out, again? Oh yeah… the foliage around here was strong, and her body-weight minimal... she sighed, feeling spent already.
Carefully, she pushed the weighty bundle out first; making certain it wouldn’t fall back in before she tackled the climb herself. After an intense struggle that involved a great deal of mud, rain and grass stains, she lay panting beside the closed hatch.
Getting gingerly to her feet, she hurriedly hefted her weighty bundle off the wet earth. …Not that her scrawny arms could protect it much from the rain, but she did her best. For the first time ever, Leaf cursed the rain.

It was very dark in the forest, being roughly around midnight. She turned almost unwillingly, searching through the dripping darkness to see what had befallen her home. At first she thought that perhaps dawn was somehow approaching, judging by the light she saw in the distance; but after a moment she realized she was facing north, and then the awful truth finally hit her like a punch in the stomach.
There, through the canopy, she was able to make out the flames licking angrily at the wet sky; a terrible black smoke-cloud fighting to keep the light hidden. Crying out, she fell to her knees in shock, thinking all of her dear friends lost in the unexplainable blaze that was even now burning higher. The wet ground quickly soaked through her clothing, but she didn’t notice.
Drunken with grief and unable to cry, she eventually staggered to her feet. Some part of her unconsciousness must have taken control, or the sodden girl might have curled up and waited for… something to make sense. She began weaving her way unsteadily south-ish of the burning castle through Faryen Forest, just as Maron had instructed. She wasn’t even sure she knew how to reach wherever it was she was going.

~*~

After trampling doggedly through the confusing wooded tangle for about an hour, Leaf finally came to a stop, panting. Her emotions raged inside her and she felt numb from the wet cold. The breeze cut through her robe and straight through her nightgown like it was nothing. Abruptly Leaf realized with crystal clarity that she was hopelessly lost.

Fighting against the sluggish depression that threatened to completely drown her senses, she focused on putting one foot in front of the other. At this point it was all she could do not to slip. Eventually she remembered what Maron said to her at the last. Oh Maron…
“I wonder where this so-called guide is? Maybe he’s dead too.” she mumbled out loud.

As if in answer to her query, a sudden green-blurry glow zipped in her face with the sound of a large bug. It was bigger than her two fists together. She jumped a foot in the air- nearly tripping over her own feet, and followed its movements with wide, foggy eyes. Am I delusional already?
The thing zipped up onto a nearby tree branch and seemed to settle in precariously- due to the downpour, presumably. At the same time, an insane cackle burst out of the light.
The ‘glow-ball’ began talking in a startling, squeaky voice.
“BEHOLD! I am the great dragon Mercue! Tremble before my awesome power, puny mortal!
Feel honored that the great and mighty Mercue is deigning to speak with you at all!”
“What on earth?” Leaf shook her head to clear it, thinking that surely now she was hallucinating.
“SILENCE!” screamed the squeak. “Speak only when given permission! Prepare! For I, Mercue, am about to reveal my holy and secret presence!”
Leaf couldn’t be sure, but she would have sworn she heard the thing drum-rolling itself. The greenish light presently dimmed to reveal a puny little old pixie with a beard.
He waited expectantly.
“Well? Are you not awed by my presence?” he asked in his petulant squeak.
“Um.” Thinking this creature was entirely bereft of sanity; Leaf could only stare in mute astonishment.
“Ah-ha!” squeaked the pixie. “You are speechless, I see! That is good. Tell me—

“Oh shut-up, you rabid fox-fodder!” came a new voice. “The whole forest can hear you trumpeting! We’re supposed to be quiet, remember?”
The bushes nearby rustled loudly and out stumbled a ragged bundle of robes and white hair several feet away. Leaf jumped back at the rapidly nearing newcomer and stared closely, trying to gauge her safety. However, before she could make head or tails of anything but vague shape and color, the Thing flailed abruptly and fell flat on its face. She heard muffled curses…
“You stupid speck of an earthworm’s dung! HELP ME UP!”

At first the pixie looked extremely affronted; but then, surprisingly, he just shrugged his tiny shoulders. Picking himself up off the wet branch with great aplomb, he flittered down and grabbed heedlessly at the white mass on the ground. Finding the first suitable grip, he began to pull. “How many times must I tell you, you old fool? I’m a dragon

“OWWWWWW!!!!” Leaf heard more muffled curses. “LET GO OF MY BEARD!”
The Thing righted itself, flailing at the pixie. “Can’t you see I’m up, curse you?!” With a final highly satisfied tug, the tiny creature flew to safety- well out of reach of the twiggy giant.
Well, Leaf corrected her initial judgment, giant in comparison to the strange pixie, and me. Granted, she’d never met a pixie before, she’d only seen drawings in her books and hadn’t an inkling of what the rest of them were like.

Finally, a bent old man with a terrible tangle of a white beard straightened out to reveal himself in the darkness. The old-timer strove vainly to look dignified, the whole image spoiled mainly by the twigs and moss poking out all over his wet and bedraggled self. Leaf couldn’t decide whether to run, or to break out into hysterical laughter at the madness of it all. It never occurred to her that she probably looked much the same.
The man and pixie began eyeing each other, looking ready to tirade each other for insults done. She wrestled her impulse to lose her already cracked composure, and said “Excuse me, but—

“What?!” The old man and pixie glared at each other for speaking at the same time.
Leaf crossed her arms, robe dripping and tapped her foot in the mud, a fine temper boiling up.
Well, pardon me! After all, I am the one that just flew and tripped in your faces, half-scaring you to death, then insulting you, not to mention shouting to wake the dead before even bothering to introduce or explain myself!”
The silence that thus ensued was a very awkward and embarrassed one; it consisted of two very sorry-looking and abashed old men, albeit two men of very different heritage.

“Well then.” She continued, somewhat appeased by their discomfort. “If you don’t mind, I’ll just be going on my way.”
She then marched determinedly past them, losing her last slipper in the process. She didn’t even bother trying to find it, her feet were completely numb from the cold anyway. The two were caught in a stunned silence as they watched their charge quickly disappearing in the dark.
“Wait!” they cried, again speaking at the same time. Without even waiting to glare at each other again, they dashed after her.
“Begging your pardon, madam…”
“Now wait just one minute, missy…”
This time they did spare a frown for each other. Eventually noticing the girl hadn’t stopped her furious progress, they jumped into action once again rushing anxiously to catch up. She was going to get herself killed like that! When they reached her they slowed their pace a fraction to match hers. Keeping on either side of her, they began apologizing profusely for bad manners and so on. She glared first at one, then the other, until finally slowing to a stop… or tripping, rather. She hoped they hadn't noticed.

“Now then; that’s considerably better. Does either of you two quarrelling old hens mind telling me who you are, and what you’re about? I have to admit; I certainly wasn’t planning on running into anyone tonight. …Except perhaps, for my mysterious guide.” She sputtered on the rain as she muttered to herself. “…and don’t I wonder if I’m ready for any more surprises tonight…”

The old man and pixie exchanged a meaningful look and the pixie nodded reluctantly.
White-beard spoke up first. “Again, I beg your forgiveness madam. It seems my shortsighted companion here has given me permission to speak, after all.” He graced the impish pixie with a wry smile.
A dangerous stare from Leaf urged him to get on with it, quickly. The old man cleared his throat loudly. “Allow me to introduce myself, young madam.” He tried to draw himself up with as much dignity as possible while speaking in a rush… in the rain, in the dark.
“I am Treedon, the retired and highly acclaimed Professor of Manna.” He paused expectantly, until he realized the rapid squelching below was Leaf tapping her foot.
“You haven’t…heard of me?” He seemed to deflate. “I’m a wizard.” he explained simply with a put-upon sigh. “I see you’ve already had the pleasure of meeting Mixl Pae, this puffed-up piece of glowing pixie poop.”

Mixl Pae glowered murderously. “What did you call me?! I’ll pixie you in the face you old swaggering cockatrice!” He followed his rebellion with a furious pounding of his tiny fists on Treedon’s robed chest. Treedon just looked down and watched, slightly smug, while the pixie continued his antics. “‘Retired and highly acclaimed’ my tail! More like decrepit and denounced street-side magician! You Anins’ hound!”

Treedon bent his head toward Leaf and whispered in a loud undertone, “You may have noticed he hasn’t got a tail.” With a wink to her nearly lost in the dark, he merely harrumphed loudly before ignoring the fey in a dignified way. This scene was apparently a common occurrence.
Mixl, meanwhile, had quite sadly worn himself out and was hovering slumped over as if fast asleep. Treedon rolled his eyes and gently scooped the bent pixie out of the air and placed him in the dip of his hat. The little fey didn’t even seem to notice the small pool of rain he was now reclining in.
Leaf, momentarily distracted, was shyly curious. “I didn’t know they could sleep while flying. Does that happen often, then?”
“Quite often, actually; and Mixl more so than any other pixie I’ve heard tell of.”
Narrowing her eyes she asked, “Why does he think he’s a dragon?”
“Blunt and to the point, aren’t you? Well that’s a story for another time. I take it then, you are the young and talented Leaf Dai’Lyn?”
Leaf looked at him suspiciously, searching for a jest. Finding none, she responded, “You’ve only got it half-right. What am I supposed to think of that?”
The old man looked very confused for a moment. “Well you look whole to me. Just what are you trying to say?”

Leaf gave him an incredulous glare. “Are you completely mad? I’m saying my name isn’t Leaf Day-whatever you said. It’s Leaf of Ganolly.” She was keenly suspicious but too emotionally strung out to make much sense of anything. Leaf froze in sudden horror.
“Oh no! Don’t tell me you’re supposed to be my guide?”

“Why, of course I am, girl! Maron said you were quick, but she seems to have misjudged you.” He scratched his head. “And your name isn’t what you thought.” Abruptly he straightened, turning north. “Well, time to go.”

Leaf blushed angrily. “Well pardon me! If you only knew half of what’s happened tonight, you might be a little more forgiving in your judgment! …Did you just say I don’t know my own name? Hey! Wait up!”

“No excuses!” He called over his shoulder as he strode forward confidently into the darkness. “You must always be prepared for the unexpected! We’ve delayed here much too long, we must be away! You like standing in the rain all night? Quickly, now.” Leaf heard another crash and several muttered curses from up ahead.
“Get up here you good for nothing wing beat- I can’t see a thing!”
Mixl Pae snorted in his sleep, acquiring a very satisfied and smug smile on his gnarled little features.
“Oh, right… I’d forgotten you were there.” Grumbling under his breath, the old wizard whispered something indecipherable and a globe of light appeared in his hand. Lifting it to a spot just above his right shoulder, the globe hung there when he removed his hand. It moved with him as he walked, never straying from the exact placement above him.

Leaf was unable to help being fascinated at the display, not to mention grateful for the light, and followed a little less reluctantly. She had short confidence in this unlikely pair, however. Her mind simply could not properly process the earlier trauma nor the following… peculiarity of the situation in which she’d found herself trapped. Her usually well-kept temper just seemed to be completely out of her grasp for the time being.
“I don’t know where you get off lecturing me like that, by the way.” She said as she stomped along just behind him. “I usually am prepared for anything. And it’s not as if you’re my ‘highly-acclaimed’ professor.” At the meaningful glance Treedon passed back, she gasped in dismay.

“Actually, young madam, I am. Let’s just say I owed Maron and her sister a debt, and they decided it was time for me to pay the bill.” He gave her a wry look.
“Come, girl, it won’t be so bad. Look, we’re nearly there…”
“We are? Already?”
He turned a quirked eye at her as he led the way, nearly tripping over a tree root. “You’ve been walking relatively south for over six hours, child. Dawn is only an hour away.”
Her eyes went wide as she tried to do the math. Her best guess is that she’d traveled approximately fifteen miles through the storm-wrought forest during the night; most of that time she’d been completely out of it.

Abruptly entering a clearing, the pair slowed down. Mixl finally stirred himself and lifted off to hover by the glowing globe above Treedon, glaring at it when it nudged him. Leaf looked at the sky in amazement, wondering where all the rain had suddenly gone. That was a little strange…

She halted uncertainly, staring at the small and lonely cottage resting on a hill. Something about the haunting dwelling made her feel both as if she wanted to cry, and as if she were coming home from a long journey.
Feeling a lump form in her throat, Leaf bowed her head solemnly. There was a soft light glowing in the window and a small tendril of smoke rising from the chimney. Treedon’s hand was suddenly resting on her small shoulder.
“We left the fire banked low in preparation of your arrival.” He paused a moment. “Welcome home, girl. Welcome home at last.”
Leaf nodded, silent, and together they walked through the quaint little door.

Once inside the cottage, Leaf immediately felt a sense of being right where she belonged. Her first impression was that of simple beauty and organic harmony. Her second impression was dust. The dust was so thick that it muffled all sounds; almost as if she were in some secret sanctuary that wasn’t truly a part of this world, a place more of the heart than of tangible fact.

The multitude of cobwebs seemed to have been long abandoned; as if the spiders had had no luck in finding food and had given up their homes in search of a more bountiful harvest. They left behind the ghostly rags of their fine-woven silver as the only sign of their passing.

A closer look at the floor revealed deep furrows in the carpet of dust where a long oak table had been dragged closer to the fire. Leaf noticed a cot made up in the corner of the room, also near the fire- an attempt to find comfort in the light more so than for the warmth. Hot season or not, she could stand to be warm right now; that storm had been vicious.
“Wait a second there, miss. Let’s get you dry.”

The old wizard’s magick once again caught her attention for the moment, as he did something that extracted all the water from their clothing and sent it out the door before he closed it. Leaf shivered gratefully at the sudden warmth of her clothes- though it meant she could feel the cold again, no longer being numb. It wasn’t long, however, before she was feeling quite cozy and content.

Treedon walked past Leaf, who stood in the entryway looking around again, quiet and… hungry. If eyes could be said to devour, hers did now.
He signaled to Mixl Pae who grabbed a poker and stirred up the fire. After the old pixie got a good flame going, he flew out the door to fetch a bucket of water from the well. Treedon, pulling out a belt knife, began cutting up some vegetables he’d apparently left on the table. No one intruded on Leaf’s personal moment as she reacquainted herself with all-but-forgotten memories.

A moment later, Mixl Pae zoomed recklessly back in the door with the precariously full bucket of water. It wobbled suddenly, rapping Treedon on the head as the pixie flew to the heated cast iron pot hanging over the fire. It made a resounding thud.
“OWWWWW!” he howled.
Leaf heard them arguing with only a small part of her attention, their voices echoing strangely in her ears. Mixl claimed the bucket was just ‘too heavy for an old dragon with an aching back to be carrying around’. Then, as he poured the water into the pot he accidentally spilt some and doused the fire in the process; thus ensued more yelling followed by a great yelp from Mixl. ...Treedon had gotten a little carried away while relighting the fire with a wave of his hand.

Leaf was oblivious now; completely absorbed by an intricately carved broom she spotted in a cobweb-draped corner. She reached out and took hold of it, imagining for a moment that she’d felt a tiny, pleasant jolt of energy when she lifted it. She closed her eyes as she held the smoothly carved wood, trying with all her might to hold onto a memory that was drifting in and out of her consciousness.
…She could see her mother, wearing a blue dress; her hair looking like the golden sun rising on a calm sea. In her vision, her mother was sweeping with this very broom, and the dust that swirled around her never again touched the floor. Instead, it danced in an intricate pattern around the slender woman before drifting out the open door in an orderly fashion. She could almost hear her mother singing a soft song as she stepped delicately around the small cottage. Without understanding how it was she knew- Leaf felt certain her mother had been banishing more than just dust…

The two bickering men continued their argument as Leaf explored the cottage in closer detail, picking up one thing or another to gaze at it longingly, only to set it back down and move on to the next thing that grabbed her attention. In the end she noticed a very dusty painting above the fireplace and moved to wipe it clean. She stopped at Treedon’s sudden voice.

“Allow me, girl.” Treedon cupped his hand beneath his mouth and blew the air from his lungs six feet away. The dust swirled slowly and vanished.
Since magick was still new to her, Leaf watched in fascination till the last particle snuffed out of existence. It took a moment before she realized the painting was now revealed. In that moment her eyes positively poured over its contents with longing.
It was a painting of a handsome dark-haired man with his arm around a beautiful golden-haired woman; she was holding a small child with flaming red hair. She gasped in recognition.
“This must be my…” She touched their faces lovingly. “…Mother and father? And this…” She trailed her fingers around the familiar-looking child. “…This is me.” … “It seems like another life. A memory of a dream… But I do remember them. I remember this place, and I remember happiness within these now silent walls.” She noticed Treedon watching her, and blushed.
“You must think I’m silly? I was only three when…”
Treedon eyed her sharply. “Do you remember what happened that night, seven years ago?”
Leaf studied him curiously. “Well, sometimes I almost think I do, but then it fuzzes and pricks like a burst bubble right when it starts to become clear. Why, Professor Treedon? Is there something you can tell me? Maron said… Well, she said they might still be alive.” She eyed him pensively. “I don’t even know their names.”

Treedon went back to his vegetables as if he hadn’t just been staring at her like a hawk a moment before. “Just Treedon will do. Your story… there’s not much I can tell you that you don’t already know. Something tragic happened here and then you went to live at Ganolly Castle with your aunt and uncle when you were three. Nora and Maron told me that much.” His furry brows quivered as he bent to work.
“As for your parents?” He grew quiet. “I don’t know, girl. But something tells me they’re probably gone. I’m sorry.” His eyebrows became quite still.
She sighed deeply and turned away to hide a tear. “No need to be sorry. I don’t even remember them very well. Like I said,” she turned back around with a brave face, “it’s like a memory of a dream.”
The wizard contemplated for a minute and then nodded to himself as if making a decision. “Their names were Philo and Maylee Dai’Lyn.”
Leaf was silent for a moment, Treedon observing her closely; vegetables once more forgotten. “So that’s why you called me Leaf Dai’Lyn earlier.” She stated.
“That name is dangerous, Leaf. Better if you didn’t answer to it… for now.”

She shrugged. “So I’ll just keep going with the only name I’ve known.” Fresh pain seemed to spasm through her heart at the sudden reminder. Her voice grew distant. “Treedon, do you know what happened back at the castle?”
Treedon sighed heavily. “I’m sorry, but that name isn’t safe either; so for now you’re simply Leaf. As for what happened at Ganolly… One can only guess, my girl. And my money is on the Fey Wraiths.”
“The what?”
Fey Wraiths; or, as some call them, the Cursed’; they are the embodiment of the hand of Murandis, the malevolent Demon. Surely Maron and Nora spoke of him?”
She arched her brow at the implication of her ignorance. “They did, as a matter of fact. And even if they hadn’t, I do read, you know. Quite a lot, actually. Legend says Murandis is the one corrupting the roots of the Fey Tree. Maron says he cannot leave Fey with his full power, or the world would already be destroyed.”
He gave her a strange look. “I’d like to know exactly which book you’ve been reading. That’s not common knowledge, at all.” She blushed. It was true, she hadn’t read any of that in a book, those were just things Maron had taught her. Treedon continued as if he hadn’t just caught her in a lie, “Anyway, while all of that is true, it isn’t to say he cannot leave in one form or another- and hasn’t for that matter.”
Leaf gasped. “You mean he’s…? What do you mean?”
“I mean, he could have left a great portion of his power- or essence- behind him, and then left. Important knowledge for you to remember, I’ll give you a preview of Fey Tree one-oh-one...not that they teach it right anymore…” He mumbled something rude about some school that Leaf couldn’t quite make out.
“…Of course, you’ll learn part of this when you go on to Karmamaen in three years.”
Karmamaen? In three years?! What am I missing here?”
Treedon sighed in exasperation, misunderstanding her. “You have to be at least thirteen to enroll at the University of Manna. You’re still too young! Not to mention unprepared…”
“What, am I to be a Scholar of Manna then?” she asked incredulously.
Treedon stared at her in bewilderment, finally catching on. “You didn’t know?”
It was Leaf’s turn for bewilderment. “No…When you said you would be my professor I just thought maybe… you know, you’d teach me some history or something; like Maron did…” Her voice got quiet. “I used to daydream about it sometimes, using Manna, but I never imagined for one minute that I actually had any talent in that field. Don’t you have to have command of the magick to go to the University?”
She spoke the unfamiliar terms uncertainly. She didn't understand what any of it really meant.
Treedon shook his head in disbelief, muttering to himself. “Bah… ‘just history’… You really didn’t know…” he looked up suddenly remembering her presence, and finally answered her question, “Not precisely. There are ways to divine whether or not an individual has the potential for commanding Manna, without them actually having to demonstrate any sort of control.” He looked at her sharply.
“Have you never experienced any sort of interesting gifts? For instance; staying warm in the bitter cold, always finding your way when you think you’re lost, or” here he paused before asking in a deceivingly light tone “made anything grow just by willing it to?”

Leaf studied his features, thinking hard. She didn’t think she could do any of those things. And anyway, could she even trust this strange man? Was his innocent madness merely a fa├žade? What did she really know about him anyway? Wasn’t it odd that he and his little bickering companion show up when she’s running away from someone trying to harm her? It could have been a ruse on their part, to lead her here so they could… what? Feed her and give her an education? How sinister.
Leaf met his gaze with a fierce and piercing one of her own. She found herself looking deep; green eyes meeting a blue sea that seemed to open up before her, revealing his soul like a book for her to read at her own leisure. Then she knew.
He was pure.
Not exactly understanding what just happened, Leaf tucked the peculiar incident away in her mind to examine later in closer detail. It was something she often had to do; her mind simply had too many thoughts going on at all times to process things in one go.
One thing she knew; she had always been able to trust her instincts. Orethyn had blessed her with good ones. Nodding to herself, Leaf decided then and there that she would trust these two with her life until they proved in some way that they were unworthy of it.
Treedon had been observing her curiously all the while, and seemed to be following her train of thought. “You can trust me, girl. If you trust nothing else in this world, you can trust this: I would use every power at my disposal, including that of my own life if needs be, to keep you from harm.”
He said it with such fervor, Leaf was slightly taken aback. However, she didn’t hesitate when she spoke. “I trust you Treedon.” Turning her head she looked at him sideways.
“I don’t know if this counts or not, but I always did have a special knack for discovering tunnels and hidden passages in the Castle, and of finding my way out of their maze-like warrens. And believe you me, I found plenty of remains from the unfortunate previous explorers, be they animal or human… I never told Nora or Maron though…” she sniffed quietly, “they may have told me to stop exploring.” She bowed her head.
Treedon took a step closer meaning to comfort her, but stopped. Better not to get her hopes up, he thought. I’ll let her grieve, let her heal, and if all is well someday ahead, she will have that much more to rejoice in… Orethyn knows she’ll have enough heartache before all of this is over.
“So I was telling you about the Fey Tree?”
Leaf looked up, startled out of her brooding thoughts. “Oh, yes. Please continue, sir.”

Treedon was pleased at the token of respect. “Well then, here’s the breakdown of how this works. The Fey Tree is the Cornerstone, so to speak, of all the worlds Orethyn has created. It’s where all the races originated from; from the tiniest anim to the superior races of intelligence such as dwarves, dragons, mermaids, trolls, ogres, and… elves.” Leaf didn’t miss his exclusion of humans in that list, but she would wait to ask about it later.
“The sacred Tree both houses and protects the Lifestream, you see. There are certain rules there…” Treedon was lost in thought for a moment, and Leaf waited patiently for him to continue. She knew parts of what he was saying already, but Maron had taught her how to listen, and learn more than just what the words were telling.
“So, there are only two ways that I know of for a spirit to leave Fey. The first is the simplest, and one we all know; we are born. When we die, we return to Orethyn. Easy, right? Well the second way is a tad more complicated. These fey can leave behind most of their Essence, or power, and sojourn to a world of their choice for as long as they wish with a full awareness of who they are. This makes them immortal, but weakened magickally during that time. But even in their ‘weakened’ state, their power is formidable! On the other hand, during their time here, they are linked to Fey by the Essence they left behind. When they wish to return, it is by means of their missing Essence. However, once they return, they cannot leave again that way. Ever.”
“Do you understand what I’m telling you Leaf?”
Leaf nodded slowly. “I think so. You’re saying that these immortal fey are controlled by Murandis via this essence link of theirs, right? What I want to know is how he is controlling the Tree of Fey to begin with?”
Treedon nodded approvingly. “That may just be the most important question of all, Leaf. Unfortunately, all we Feymerians can do is conjecture… quietly, mind you; to maintain our health, if you catch my meaning. I’ve a feeling that in finding that answer, we would be holding the key to his undoing.”
“So… He’s pretty happy on his throne then.”
He grimaced before smiling wryly. “Correct again. Now, can you imagine for a moment, what might make a demon like Murandis want to leave his seat of power by leaving Fey?”

The realization hit Leaf like a punch to the stomach, and she spoke in a deadpan whisper.
“He wants to corrupt and control this world too.” She turned to Treedon with a stricken face. “He can’t do itcan he?!”
Treedon’s face wrinkled with distaste, and he breathed out a bone weary sigh. “Leaf, that is the very thing I have devoted my entire life to trying to understand and prevent. Now, perhaps, you may appreciate a little better who I am. It is a hard thing having so much knowledge… it’s enough to make you quake with the responsibility that comes with it, but never enough to help you do much of anything about it. …That is, until now.” Here he looked at Leaf with such a hopeful expression that she almost cried in dismay.
“But what can I do?!” What’s all that got to do with me? And Ganolly Castle for that matter?”
Treedon shrugged, a little too ostentatiously. “I wouldn’t know, girl. But I do know they were here, seven years ago...” Treedon ducked his head again so his face was hidden. Leaf hated when he did that! It felt like he was laughing at her or something!
Who was here?”
“The Fey Wraiths girl. Don’t you listen?” he asked in exasperation, finally lifting his face to see hers.
What? Why didn’t you tell me?!”
Treedon looked affronted. “I just did, didn’t I? Besides, there’s no point in scaring you.”
“You’re saying it was these Fey Wraiths that took my parents? Where was I?”
“Being spirited away of course! Your parents knew of the wraiths coming, and sent… a friend… to take you to safety. The Wraiths never even knew of your existence… until now, I believe. I can think of no other reason Maron and Nora would send you to me. They had to have come looking for you at the castle of Ganolly.”

Leaf grew very quiet for a time. When she spoke again, it was with quiet and bitter anger. “That still doesn’t answer my question, Treedon. Why are they looking for me? And for that matter- why the interest in my parents?”
Treedon sighed deeply. “Girl, there are just some things none of us know the answers to- yet. …However, I plan to help you until the mysteries are solved. I promise you that.”
Leaf smiled then, quite unexpectedly. “I thank you Treedon. You are a good man, I think.”
A blushing Treedon busied himself with continued vegetable chopping. She heard him mumble, however. “You needn’t think anything of it.”
“Why don’t you just use your magic to chop those veggies?” She asked curiously. Was she imagining things, or were his eyebrows …dancing? Treedon just ducked his head further and mumbled something about how you can’t rush something as special as cooking.
Leaf looked at him out of the corner of her eye, and after a moment asked
“So. How did you know Nora and Maron?”
Treedon fumbled the knife and cursed sticking his finger into his mouth. He muttered
“…stupid things get slippery, don’t they?” and continued to look flustered. “What did they tell you? If you must know, we were professors together at the University of Manna. But that was a long time ago, things were much different then…” He looked very uncomfortable and tried to duck his head again.
Leaf gasped in surprise. “You mean to say they knew magick?!”
Treedon seemed to think she was making sport of him. “Look, I don’t know what they told you, but it was their fault what happened. Not mine!”
Leaf did smile then. Adults were just too easy to manipulate when you wanted information. “What happened, Treedon? I always guessed they must have been professors of some sort the way they taught their lessons so proper; but they never really talked about their past. In fact, the phrase ‘shut tight as a mussel’ comes to mind. Well? Treedon? What’s so funny?”

Treedon was hunched over laughing. Leaf crossed her arms and started tapping her foot impatiently. Treedon straightened up and tried to compose himself, but was still full of mirth.
“It’s just the way you described the girls. Let’s just say, back then, we three were considered rather eccentric. That was one reason they, uh, asked us to leave…”
“Oh, Treedon, you weren’t fired were you?”
“Well, um, not precisely… erm, that is to say…” his eyebrows were dancing on his forehead. He looked up in exasperation. Leaf laughed in delight. “Oh Treedon! You simply must tell me!”
Treedon shuffled around a bit before answering. “Well, if you must know- it was the girls, you see, they thought it would be fun to liven up the place a bit with more of a… how to put it, ‘hands on’ approach. And, you see, they…” here he coughed, “Well, back in my time I was considered to be quite an exceptionally handsome man, if you don’t mind my saying so, and—“

Mixl Pae interrupted with a rude “Ha!” while Treedon’s shaggy white brows looked like they were trying to hula. Treedon blushed. “…As I was saying, moderately handsome…” the eyebrows began to settle; a bit. “…And well, Maron and Nora were quite lovely lasses in their time as well, and they fought like mad when it came to certain things, you see…”
Leaf just couldn’t help herself, she started giggling. “Oh Treedon, did they fight over you?! How silly grown-ups are! Let me guess, they blamed you because you refused to choose between them, right?”
It was Treedon’s turn to look surprised. “Well-er- yes; as a matter of fact…” he paused, “they did.” His face reminded her of a vivid sunset now.
“They got a little carried away, very competitive, those two. They thought that whoever did the fanciest bit of magick would win me over.” He shot an angry and embarrassed stare at Mixl Pae, as if daring him to say a word. Mixl just stared back innocently. He cleared his throat loudly.
“In conclusion, the headmaster gave every one of us the boot. Said he wouldn’t risk the campus to any more of the girls’ famous tantrums, or some such nonsense. But why, I ask you, why was I to be blamed for their nonsense?”
Leaf finally managed to conquer her giggles, and adopted a very reasonable expression. “Probably because he was afraid the loser would destroy his school completely when the other came to claim her prize.”
Mixl Pae broke out in a mad cackle, doubling over in mid-air and wheezing in his mirth. “As a matter of fact—
Treedon rushed to cut him off. “Ah yes. Well, you may be right… Even so…
“Enough of this foolishness! I should never have told you in the first place!” At this, he angrily scooped up his choppings and kerplunked them into the pot over the fire with a spray of water that hissed as it hit the flames. Treedon kept his back turned as he monitored the spluttering fire; he wanted to make sure he hadn’t doused it accidentally. Leaf looked around as a rattling sound began somewhere nearby. Mixl had fallen soundly asleep, slumped against an overturned cup.
“Well then, Leaf.” Treedon said, having calmed down. “You may as well catch some winks while the stew cooks. Morning isn’t far off and we’ve got to get an early start!” he handed her a loaf of bread. “This should hold you over, girl.”
Leaf asked the obvious question while accepting the bread hungrily. “Why didn’t you start the stew before you came and found me?” She began wolfing the generous morsel down immediately, licking crumbs from her fingers before Treedon had time to properly respond. He handed her some more.
Treedon looked startled as she took the bread and devoured it in seconds. “We were, uh… slightly unsure of what was to happen. And we took a detour getting here, and—
Leaf raised an eyebrow. She was sure she could imagine just what this detour entailed. They’d probably gotten lost! Her mouth was half-full when she asked, “Ab orly ‘art on wha’, eneebay?”
Treedon looked dismayed, not missing a beat on her lack of articulation.
“What? Didn’t I already say? Your lessons girl! I most assuredly hope the girls weren’t wrong about you!” He muttered loudly, “Goodness gracious! ‘On what?’ Not too sharp at all, I’d say…”

A Budding Leaf: Chapter 3: Shadows on the Trail

Chapter Three
Shadows on the Trail



The old wizard crept behind the free-standing shelf stealthily. He knew what that woman could and would do if she caught him in her shop again… He upbraided himself mentally for the dire circumstances that had made this trip absolutely necessary.

Once again he caught himself muttering softly and shut his mouth with an almost audible snap. Like walking into the spider’s den itself, he thought. Rolling his eyes heavenward, he said a silent prayer to Orethyn and clutched his patchy hat to his chest like a talisman. He veritably tip-toed toward where the object of his quest rested in the dingiest, darkest, dustiest corner in the whole shop; all the while he honed his ears to the slightest disturbance.

A Man, he thought to himself contemptuously, a Grown, Dignified, Scholarly Man- and here I am TIP-TOEING! The thought was just too insulting. For a brief moment he straightened his aching spine. Throwing back his shoulders at the imagined offense, he thrust out his snow-bearded chin stubbornly.

His fool pride nearly got him killed. Or worse.
Quickly and unabashedly he ducked back down so fast that he clipped his prideful chin on his knobby knees as he caught sight of the notoriously large and braided brown head of Madam Yibi coming in the back door.

It’s not that he wasn’t perfectly willing to pay for this item. He just knew Yibi would never sell it to him once she found out he needed it. It just so happened, that dear misses Madam Yibi had had a ‘thing’ for Treedon from the moment she’d laid eyes on him fifty years ago. Women had such an unfortunate and inconvenient habit of never forgetting a man who’s broken their heart!

He allowed himself what he considered a brief moment to whine in his thoughts.
How do I get myself into these predicaments? It’s not my fault I’m such a devilishly handsome and irresistible gentleman!

His more than generous bushy white brows started to quiver… Such an unfortunate side-effect, that, he whined silently. He couldn’t even think thoughts that were ever so slightly untruthful or exaggerated without them setting off like that…

Again his brows began twitching like furry ancient caterpillars doing a strange dance. The curse was a token from the very woman he now intended to steal from.

Well… moderately handsome, he amended to himself stubbornly. I am Moderately handsome! He argued silently while his eyes rolled up in his head in an effort to glare at his own elusive eyebrows. His brows quivered once more, indignant, before settling into a quiet- but attentive- slumber. He was completely hopeless at poker.

Treedon crouched low, creeping along as quietly as he could, making steady but nerve-wracking progress. He imagined he looked comparable to a great, hairy gray spider at the moment.

When he heard the customer bell ring as a new patron entered, he let out a small sigh of relief. The very inquisitive and noisy customer more than drowned out any incidental noise he might make as he covered the last few spans to the back shelf in a hurried scurry. Now where was that darned carrion-eater when you needed him?

It was as if his friend had read his mind, wherever he was; the suddenly distressed customer started screaming. As if on cue, Treedon stood up quickly, grabbed the object of all this bother and made a mad and creaky beeline for the back door while the thus distracted Madam Yibi tried to calm her horrified client. The old man briefly wondered what commotion it was that the old pixie had caused this time; but one fleeting and haphazard glance as he ducked out the door informed him strictly that he did not want to know. He sent a fervent prayer of thanks to Orethyn for Yibi’s obliviousness to the thievery.

Once outside, he took a quick peek at the object of all this trouble. It really didn’t look so remarkable; just your typical-looking flower bulb. But Treedon knew better.

He ever-so-carefully tucked the jar- and more importantly its precious contents- into his tattered old hat and made it disappear before straightening stiffly and walking on…
Briskly.

*~*~*

Leaf and Temy had made a point to leave first thing that morning so as to reach Ganolly Castle at a decent morning hour. Jenna had performed some secret miracle on the little boy’s shoes; and the result was a clean, dry, and blissfully un-fragrant walk home. Their walk was also quiet and uneventful, seeming to take only half the time.

Leaf was deeply immersed in her own thoughts, contemplating her curious conversation with Jenna the previous night. She was keen to ask Maron about Wey- whatever it was- the first chance she got. Thus preoccupied, she was startled out of her reverie by a sudden current of energy surging across her exposed skin. Leaf looked up to study the sky; however, she didn’t need the tell-tale darkness on the distant horizon to confirm that a storm was coming. She couldn’t stop the smile that came to her lips. Storms were magick for her; she never felt more alive than the hour before a storm hit.

Once back, she delivered Temy back into the kind care of Jonah with murmured well wishes. Leaf kept on toward the castle’s back walk, still carrying the empty basket. The bruise that had been developing the previous day had at some point vanished completely. Leaf wondered about that, making and discarding theories one by one. Jenna was the prime suspect on that one, though.

She arrived promptly through the back door, and skid to a halt with one glance at Nora’s face. Instead of the welcome she was expecting, Leaf was shocked to see a very worried and frantic grimace. As soon as Nora spotted her however, she adopted the impatient expression Leaf had come to know and dread. Suddenly curious, Leaf flashed her best smile.

“Is everything alright, Mistress Nora?”

The large cook began to shout with renewed vigor. “Of course not, girl! We’ve an important guest that’s awaiting his breakfast. So snap to it!” At mention of this mystery guest, there was a fleeting look of worry. Leaf snapped-to, however; and talked while she helped prepare his meal.

“We have a guest? When did he get here? Who is he?”

Nora barked, “None of your business, girl. He arrived late last night and now is waiting to be fed; that’s all you need know!” The old woman began muttering under her breath while Leaf listened closely.

“Shan’t pretend I understand the manners of nobility; him arriving in the middle of the night and demanding room and roof! Shady if you ask me, but they won’t! Sleeping in all morning and then up and demanding breakfast as if we’d kept him waiting…” She looked up and caught Leaf hanging on every word. As she gathered her considerable temper, Leaf noted the tell-tale signs of danger and hurried to head her off.

“Shall I go shut all the windows, then? The storm will be here soon enough.”
Nora swallowed what she’d been going to say, looking relieved. “Yes! Go do that! Just stay away from the guest wing!” The last statement she emphasized with a meaningful tap of her formidable stirring spoon before stabbing her finger towards the door.

~*~

Shortly thereafter, breakfast being delivered by Nora herself, Leaf decided to tag along… in secret of course. Nora had given her a sharp reprimand to stay out of the guest wing; but surely there were windows there that needed to be shut as well. So, naturally, being eaten alive with curiosity had nothing to do with it. Leaf decided she needed to get a peek at this alleged ‘Guest’. In case there were open windows, of course.

Was it just her imagination, or did many of the servants seem to be particularly on edge today?

Taking hidden shortcuts, Leaf got to the hall of the guest wing just ahead of Nora and hid behind a large suit of armor. She was slightly less familiar with this part of the castle, simply because it was on the opposite end from where her own room was… that and it happened to be the most boring and unremarkable portion there was.

Nora came bustling by, tray in hand and muttering crossly. To Leaf’s delight, the door Nora stopped at was directly across the hall from where she hid. Leaf observed carefully through the hole made by the bent metal elbow. Nora straightened her shoulders and patted her bun into place before knocking timidly on the door. At a soft call from within, she opened the door and entered. She was in luck! Nora had left the door open just a crack and Leaf dashed across the hall to get her quick peek.

Ignoring the falsely cheerful chatter coming from inside, Leaf peered carefully around the edge of the door, taking care not to be seen. To her dismay, Nora was keeping her plump figure between her and the mysterious visitor. Just as Nora began to turn around however, Leaf caught a brief glimpse of a pale-haired and handsome man. Realizing her time was out; Leaf dashed back across the hall and slid behind the armor just as Nora bustled out.

Shutting the door firmly behind her, Nora suddenly slumped with a great sigh. Straightening herself out, the old cook walked casually across the hall and stopped to study the large suit of armor Leaf hid behind. Leaf held her breath and stood stock-still.

“My goodness this armor seems to collect dust faster than lightning.” Whipping her hand out she caught Leaf deftly by her ear and yanked her out faster than you could say ‘Got ya!’.

Leaf had nothing but a guilty and sheepish grin to offer, but the smile slid right off into a nervous gulp at the thunderous expression on Nora’s face just before she was rushed back down the hall like a prisoner.

~*~*~

Leaf squirmed on the stool uncomfortably; wincing as yet another sliver stabbed her tender backside. Leave it to Nora to find the one chair in the entire castle that was just shy of scrap wood for Leaf to sit on.

She was elbow deep in crusty, snotty potato starch, still twenty potatoes to go and only a dull knife to take her there. So much for her curiosity… ugh! She hadn’t realized an inquisitive mind could be so unhealthy. Someone snickered and she jerked her head up, looking around for the culprit.

Of all the people Leaf knew, Japo Wacabee was the very last person she wanted to see right now. He smirked from the doorway of the Outer kitchen, looking entirely too smug! He was small for his age too, which meant at thirteen he was only about a foot taller than Leaf. Shaking his curly-red head in mock disappointment, he swaggered in. She pointedly ignored him as a blush of anger set fire to her face. Surely Orethyn himself was taking a hand in her humiliation now.

“My my my…” came his snide little voice. Leaf thought she would rather shove the dull potato knife in her foot than hear him say another word. “Someone’s been a sneaky little leaf, I hear.” …Better yet, his foot.

Leaf was suddenly and swiftly reminded of her visit to the orphanage, and of the promise she’d made to herself concerning this twerp. She looked up then as he made his gloating way across the Inner kitchen to her condemned corner, and gave him a vicious smile. He stopped in his tracks, suddenly unsure. She was about to invite him over so she could make good on her promise when he turned abruptly around, apparently remembering somewhere else he needed to be. “What? Oh! Coming father!”

Something in her expression must have given her intentions away. Drat. Leaf frowned in disappointment; she would’ve dearly loved to get some of her frustration out just then.

“LEAF!” she jumped in her seat, and winced. “Where are my potatoes?! Everyone is waiting to be fed, you lag-along!” afraid her rear-end was in further imminent danger, Leaf hurried furiously.

~*~

As Leaf’s spoon scraped the bottom of her second bowl of potato soup, she looked up to study those gathered around the table. She licked the slopped soup-remnants off of her fingers, just grateful she still had all of them intact after the day’s work.

The sky made good on its earlier promise of rain. The wind howled something fierce outside, trying to find any and every nook, crack, and cranny to get inside the castle. Oh it was a fantastic storm this time! It made the atmosphere inside all the more comfortable and exciting by contrast.

Leaf loved this time of night, especially nights like this. She loved having everyone gathered together for a good meal, loved the conversation and laughter, the warmth of camaraderie, the sympathetic exchanges of the day’s work… Rylan and Sarah sat close, doe-eyes locked like they were the only two people in all the world. Leaf grinned and shook her head.

She loved her adoptive aunt and uncle, who would forego all protocol and formality to come down to the kitchens and eat with their servants; like one big happy family. The only absentee was their son Martin Jr., who was currently visiting the port city of Davren to further his training as the heir-lord of Ganolly. These were all good people, and she felt lucky to be counted among them.

Well, except for Japo anyway. But his good-natured father Jep couldn’t help having had an anomaly like that born to him.

Upon occasion, everyone would take turns lumping Leaf next to that rotter. Saying how cute they were, with their matching red hair… Leaf seethed, glaring at him from across the table. The red of her hair was nothing like his carrot-mop! She tried futilely to nurse her wounded pride.

The imp in question was careful to avoid looking in her direction. She would never forgive him for making such a fool out of her about the orphanage!

She was startled to hear the deep bass of Lord Martin say her name.

“Leaf?”

“…huh?” she looked to the head of the packed, warped table. Sure enough, his serious grey eyes were boring into hers. “Yes sir?” her voice did not just squeak! Did it?

“I asked how your studies were coming along.”

The elegant, strawberry-blonde Lady Elizabeth Ganolly was now staring at her, too; a kind smile lit her face. Leaf swallowed. She adored the Lord and Lady Ganolly, but they rarely gave her any sort of personal attention; they were very good people, but far too busy. Leaf wasn’t exactly on even footing and was unsure how to talk to them properly.

“Um… W-well. They’re going well,” She swallowed. “Thank you.” She added hastily.
Boy that was lame; couldn’t she think of something more interesting to say? He nodded politely and, just as she feared, turned away to more engaging topics of conversation. Lady Ganolly smiled warmly and winked before turning away as well.
What can I say? I’m a regular bore. Ugh! She was disappointed in herself.

After a few minutes of sulking, Leaf quite forgot all about Japo when she overheard someone saying, “Our guest. Pah!

Finally she spotted the speaker; Rylan’s father, Olyn; the sheepherder. She suddenly realized she hadn’t seen him in a month, and he was looking decidedly worse for wear; clothes and beard unkempt and bedraggled.

Everyone knew Olyn doubled as Lord Ganolly’s tracker. However, it was Ganolly’s worst-kept secret that he also tracked far more than just beasts for his lord. He was supposed to keep an eye out for bandits, cutthroats, assassins, and the like. Normally the surly sheepherder was sharing a meal with the rest of the staff every seven-day. Though admittedly, it’d been more often these last few months, until recently. Leaf wondered what had kept him away for so long. She hadn’t remembered until he spoke that Rylan had been coming from the fields alone lately. Leaf berated herself for not paying more attention and leaned forward to better hear.

“It’s too much to be coincidence, I tell ye!” he was saying to those around him; particularly Martin Ganolly. “I’d been finding the strangest signs in the forest around here. Not footprints, mind, whoever’s been makin’ these signs knew well what they were doing. They led me on a right goose chase through my own woods and hills! Then all of a sudden they stop. Gone without a trace you might say. And just last night some stranger shows up, acting all high and mighty and demanding room and board! It’s shady, is all I'm sayin'! This blaggert is up to no good! I don’t trust him,” he ended with finality, leaning back and crossing his arms. Lord Martin’s eyes tightened and Leaf had to lean forward to catch the soft words he uttered in reply.

“You know my policy, Olyn. I’ll not turn any man, woman, or child away who comes in peace asking for food and rest,” he said frowning with firm authority. Instantly Olyn was ducking his head apologetically and touching his forehead as a token of respect.

His next words to Olyn were gentler, “I will have a few of my guards keep a close eye on him, however.” Olyn appeared mollified as Lord Martin motioned one of his guards over to confer in a low voice.

Out of the corner of her eye, Leaf saw someone stand up and move away. She looked to see who it was, surprised to find Maron joining her sister in the Inner kitchen. Leaf looked around to see if anyone else had noticed; but apparently no one was paying any mind to the sisters. Trying to remain inconspicuous, Leaf picked up her dishes- intending to bring them to the sinks in the Inner kitchen.
To her rotten luck, people did start to notice her; many of them handing her their empty dishes to take back as well. It was a good thing Leaf had such a knack for balance, because she suddenly found herself trying to watch her step through a tower of plates and bowls.

Gabolee-dunks and goose-hooks! she thought, irritated. Why was it that everyone felt fine imposing on her? Just because she was a child?! She growled as she stalked awkwardly toward the Inner kitchen, and one of the servants frowned at her disapprovingly. Leaf ducked behind her tower, blushing, only to catch Jonah smiling at her from the other side. He winked conspiratorially and she grinned back. Temy was at his side, helping himself to what appeared to be his third bowl. She shook her head as she continued to the kitchen. As she neared the entry she slowed, listening.

“Have you been keeping an eye on him?”

“As best as I can! I need to get back up there. …Nora, there‘s just something disturbing about that fellow. I think Olyn is right.”

Leaf could hear Nora snort impatiently. “Of course he’s ruddy-well right! Why else would we be keeping such a close eye on our ‘guest’?”

Someone sighed, Leaf thought it was Maron. “Alright, sister. No need to get short with me, I’m not one of your help to bully around- as you’re so fond of doing.” This was said with a condescending tone. Leaf’s mouth dropped. Only Maron could get away with saying something like that to Nora. Part of her still waited for an explosion that never came. She was shocked when Nora spoke in a tone completely foreign to the woman: she actually sounded deferential!

“You’re right, of course. Sorry Maron, it’s just that—

RAP! CLANG! Whoo woo-woo woo-woo…
Leaf stood stock mortified staring at one of the top bowls that had clattered loudly to the ground and rolled into the kitchen ahead of her. She quickly recovered, making a point to not hide her steps as she clumped into the kitchen, adopting a frazzled expression. Thanks to the tower of dishes she was trying to balance, it wasn’t much of a stretch.

“Oh!” she squeaked as she spotted the sisters. “Can someone please give me a hand?!” the note of panic that entered her voice was not at all feigned, now. She just tried to play it off as something to do with her burden rather than the twin glacial glares she was receiving. They did, gratefully, help her get the dishes to the sink without further incident. But before either of them could question Leaf, someone screamed from beyond the outer kitchen. They all exchanged looks before running out to see what happened.

“THERE! It went under those shelves! Get it! PLEASE?!
“AH!”
“HO!”
“WO There!”
“FOR THE LOVE OF ORETHYN WILL SOMEBODY PLEASE KILL THAT RAT?!”

Leaf laughed, and she wasn’t the only one. The contortions many of the servants were in… They ranged from terrified stool-standers to would-be heroes holding various make-shift weapons. The rest, like her, merely observed the show with great humor. The scene was comical beyond belief.

Martin Ganolly himself stood at the head of the table, feet apart, shoulders squared, and laughing heartily as he held his squealing wife the Lady in his arms. The best part of it all was the sight of Japo Wacabee shrieking like a girl from the table, half a salad stuck to his backside.
Leaf grinned, knowing this memory went straight to her happy heart.

~*~

The storm showed no signs of letting up any time soon, which was perfect for Leaf. She never slept better than during a storm.

She was sitting on her bed in a shift, toweling her hair dry while Maron, the Head of Household, finished the day’s lessons. Unlike her sister Nora, she was rail thin, but with the same silver-gray hair and crystal blue eyes. They both wielded their stern expressions like a whip, but anyone who knew them also knew it was mostly just for show. In truth, they both carried big hearts in their chests, and had the affection and respect of all who knew them.

Maron was walking slowly around the room at the moment, inspecting Leaf’s cleanliness, or in this case the lack thereof, while finishing up her lessons. Leaf was completely distracted by earlier events. Questions about this upsetting and mysterious guest gnawed at her brain and she could think of nothing else at the moment.

She winced, squirming around painfully, trying without success to get comfortable. Well, almost nothing else. Nora had been quiet furious with her earlier; Leaf had never seen her so angry. Her tender bottom would attest to that.

“So,” The thin, straight-backed woman said as she glanced over at Leaf with a beady eye. She frowned disapprovingly at the girl. Leaf sat still, not taking it too personal. She’d learned early on that it was something Maron often did unconsciously.

“What have you learned today?” Leaf caught the double meaning and flushed with shame. Of course Nora told her what she’d done. Maron lifted an object off the small table and wiped a finger under it, checking for dust. She shook her head at the results, ‘tsk tsk’-ing all the while.

She sat up straight when Maron looked at her. Unable to help herself, she pulled a face the second her mentor turned her back and began reciting from memory.
“There are three greater continents, and thirty-three lesser; the three greater are Fera, Ceda, and Idra. Our continent, Fera, is the smallest; but because of our greatly valued University of Manna we are considered a real power in Feymera. There are five provinces in Fera: Dragon’s Head, Aura, High Wing, Low Wing, and Dragon’s Tail. The Traelian Royal Family rules Fera, and Karmamaen is their capital… which is located in The Heart of Aura Province and is often referred to as the sixth unofficial province…”

Leaf plowed on for several minutes, eyes scrunched up trying to remember each and every name of the thirty-three lesser continents. She always mixed them up. Her thoughts wandered back to the visitor. What was he doing down there, anyway?

“Ahem.” Maron prompted her to continue.

Leaf sighed before continuing, but jerked straighter when Maron gave her a sharp look.
Her voice took on an involuntary drone. “The city of Ganolly was founded in twelve-hundred O.C. by Riorden Ganolly. Ganolly Castle was built in thirteen-hundred O.C. as a means to support Ganolly city, which in turn supplies the capital with most of their needs… thanks to our great river. Ganolly is considered the gate city of the capital and may even be called a first line of defense from northern invasion, which is why the Queen holds a royal garrison not far from our city…” Leaf wasn’t paying any attention now to what she was saying, so she missed the incredulous stare Maron was giving her.

“When did I teach you that?!”

Leaf blushed. “Um… I guess it must have been in one of those novels I read in the library… Honestly, I don’t see why they would bother. Who would want to attack Karmamaen? We’re at peace with everyone, right?”

Maron sized her up with her eyes, as if seeing her clearly for the first time. “Indeed. Who would attack? Did your novel happen to mention any possibilities?”

The red-head shrugged. “Yeah I believe it mentioned everything from the Great Troel Uprising to the secret conspiracy cult of the Idra Warriors.”

Her mentor quirked an eyebrow. “And you still don’t see why the Queen bothers?”

Now Leaf blushed again. “I guess I thought it was just a good story… you know, not real? If all those things printed in it are true, then how did they get away with printing it? I mean, wouldn’t someone have tried to stop it? Wouldn’t we have tried to stop some of the things those other people are up to?”

Maron just looked at her. Finally she whispered, a bit melodramatically Leaf thought, “What makes you so sure that we haven’t? Or that they didn’t try to stop the printing of Deeper Waters, for that matter?”

“You know the book! But I thought…” This time Leaf really didn’t know what to say. As tiresome as the overload of knowledge could sometimes be, she admitted to herself that she really did find it all very interesting. But as for this topic, she would obviously need to do a little more homework before continuing any sort of debate.

“You’ll find many unexpected treasures in the library of Ganolly, Leaf. That’s part of its charm.”
She caught Maron smiling at her before the woman turned back to fiddling with Leaf’s things in a neat-freak sort of way. “Why don’t we go back to today’s lesson for now, child?”

Nodding uselessly at her turned back, Leaf tried to remember the point at which the deviation in her recitation began. “Right… so, um. Orethyn!

Maron jumped, startled, turning a questioning glare on her pupil. Before she had a chance to scold her, Leaf explained her outburst. “I was just remembering what the rest of your lessons were about… sorry.” Maron just shook her head with a wry smile, and waited for her to continue.

“Well, you were telling me about how the Order of Orethyn has their largest Abbey in the capital. And something about… how they used to have a place on university campus but no longer do? I don’t really understand that. Anyway, I guess everyone still goes to Karmamaen when they want to get an Orethynian Tattoo.” Leaf grew thoughtful.

“The Orethynian Tattoo is like a foretelling concerning the future of that individual who receives it. It is in the form of an intricate picture on the skin. However, very few but the High Orethynian Priest can interpret the tattoo. It’s usually placed on the right, upper forearm…” Distracted, she looked at Maron.
“Mistress Maron, do you have an Orethynian Tattoo?”

Maron jumped like she’d been bitten on her backside and pulled at the long sleeves of her right arm. She scolded Leaf. “What a silly question! What would a mere servant do with such nonsense, I ask you?”

Leaf sounded surprised. “But I thought the Orethynian Tattoos were for whoever wants one?” She paused. “I think I might like one someday.”

Maron seemed to regain her composure. “Of course they are, and of course you will, but that’s neither here nor there. And not everyone gets their tattoos in Karmamaen... Well I think that’s quite enough of lessons for the day.”

“Mistress Maron?”

“What is it, dear?” she murmured distractedly as she tidied up one of Leaf’s drawers.

“Can you tell me more about the fabled Tree of Fey?”

Maron paused in her folding. “Dear child, who ever told you it was a fable?” she asked sternly. “Because I’m sure it wasn’t I.”

Leaf blushed in confusion. “I guess no one really, I just thought maybe it was… you know. Like a fairytale or something.”

Maron looked down her angular nose irritably. “Nonsense. Why are you so convinced that everything is just a story? Didn’t I teach you any better than that?! You’re a smart girl now, so shape up!”
At Leaf’s responding wince she softened her tone. “Oh there now, never mind this old witch’s bark- you had no way of knowing.” Leaf smiled hesitantly, grateful for the apology. It’s not as if she was trying to be difficult. It just happened… a lot.

“So what is it you’d like to know? I've already taught you the geography as best as it’s known. Ah! You wish to hear the legend behind the tale, right?”

Leaf nodded eagerly. “Oh yes! Please do tell!”

Maron smiled, indulging her favorite girl. She cleared her throat and took on her ‘enchanting storytelling voice’ for dramatic effect. As prickly as she could often be, Maron had a lovely story voice. Perhaps it had had some influence on Leaf’s difficulty telling fact from fiction; who knew?

“Very well then, child. But prepare your soft young heart for cold and chilling facts.”
Leaf grabbed her pillow and settled in as comfortably as she could under the circumstances. Maron began by reciting some kind of poem.

“The Land of Fey is the life of all,
Over all the earth hangs her motherly shawl.
‘Tis the shore of all life and its mirror twin
Holds all thereby that holds within.

The land of Fey knew not good or ill,
No worries or fears, only Orethyn’s Will.

But there was one who began the Changes.
Seeking the source of forbidden knowledge,
He hid in the shadows and the darkest places,
He corrupt, harbored many faces.

With time, he gained in power
And by the Roots’ Pain
Fey willing or unwilling to follow,
Sin forced began the Demon’s Reign.”

Leaf sat there enthralled. “I think I've heard that somewhere before! But I never knew what it was about. What does it mean? Who’s this ‘Demon’?”

Her silver-haired friend met her eyes with a solemn gaze.
“His name is Murandis. And he corrupted the roots of Fey, imperiling us all.”

Leaf stared at her dumbfounded. “Huh? What’s that supposed to mean?”

Maron just sighed with exasperation. “Oh forget about it for now. I shouldn’t have gotten started on this. Perhaps when you’re a little older we’ll try again.”

Leaf’s eyes dropped to her lap in disappointment. “I’m sorry I don’t understand Mistress Maron…”

The older lady just shook her head. “Don’t worry about it Leaf. There’s no need to rush things; ‘all things in their rightful season.’”

Leaf looked up and adopted her most innocent expression. “So… who is this mystery guest and why can’t I meet him?”

Maron gave her a sharp look, not fooled for a minute. “That is hardly any of your business, young lady. It is only for you to stay out of sight.”

Leaf fidgeted nervously. “But I’ve seen you and Mistress Nora whispering all day…”

Maron turned very icy. “I see. I thought eavesdropping was beneath you, Leaf. I’m very disappointed. And what exactly have you heard?”

The abashed girl was quick to defend. “Almost nothing! Just that neither of you trust him…” Leaf, looking very ashamed added, “I’m sorry… I just really wanted to know who he was and why I…”

“Why you what?”

“It’s nothing Mistress Maron. Only a silly feeling I’ve had.” Leaf suddenly found herself the object of great scrutiny.

“And what feeling is this? You may as well tell me while we’re talking about it child.”

Finding a sudden surge of courage Leaf looked Maron in the eye and spoke evenly. “There’s a sort of… wrongness here.”

Maron met her gaze thoughtfully, and Leaf was surprised when the expected ridicule never came. “Indeed, child. This is something both Nora and I have felt as well.”

A faint scream echoed from somewhere in the castle and they both jumped. Maron paused, frowning.
“That’s probably Nora’s help finding another rat in the kitchens, no doubt.” Her worried eyes betrayed her thoughts. “I better go check on her Highness of the Meals. I expect you to be all ready and in bed by the time I get back, Little Leaf-lee.” Her voice was stern, but softened by a fond smile when she used her pet name. “And stop worrying yourself over things that don’t concern you.”
It was a gentle reprimand, but Leaf could’ve sworn the woman almost added: yet.

“Yes, Maron.” Leaf watched curiously as Maron left, and began to run a quick brush through her damp, short hair. Returning the brush to her nightstand she climbed thoughtfully under the warm blankets to await Maron’s return.

~*~*~

Maron left the room and made her way down the hall toward the main stair when she heard another faint scream, and then another. Frowning with worry, she started to run toward the stair when out of nowhere an eerie sound, more felt than heard, floated up the wide steps. A chill settled over her; Maron stopped dead. She noticed an unnatural flicker in the shadows cast by the lamps that lined the flight ahead.

After a brief hesitation she paced back a few yards to a large tapestry on the wall. With a quick flick she darted behind it to a well-lit hidden stair that traveled directly to the kitchens below. It’s a good thing Nora and I took precautions tonight! She shuddered to think what would happen to her if she went within the unnatural shadows now.

Upon reaching the bottom of the staircase, Maron slowed, trying to listen. There were still the occasional faint screams coming from somewhere in the large castle, but there seemed to be nothing but deathly silence ahead of her. She stopped abruptly and pulled a single silver hair from her head. She began to wrap it in an intricate pattern around her left index finger- all the while whispering words in the musical language of Orethyn.

As she whispered, the silver hair started to glow- at first faintly and then brighter until the hair shone a silvery light brighter than that of a lamp. She lifted the latch that secured the hinged cabinet to the wall and eased it open. Holding her hand out in front of her, Maron inched slowly and cautiously into the dimly lit kitchens. An all but invisible motion behind her sent her spinning around suddenly to find Nora standing directly beside her.

Maron sagged with relief. “For a while there- when I heard all the screams…” She hugged her sister. “I was wondering when you’d show yourself. How many of the Cursed are there?”

Nora swore under her breath. “As far as I know just the bloody one. But you know Fey Wraiths. It only takes one. Damn! We should have realized what he was, sister. We invited evil in and I served him breakfast! Now it may be too late. As you’ve certainly guessed from all the screaming he has already summoned the Shadows!”

Maron scolded her gently. “Do not blame yourself, sister. The Cursed have powerful ways of disguising themselves. We must salvage what we can and save as many as possible.”

Nora turned suddenly pale. “Where is Leaf?”

“Calm yourself, I have concealed her room, remember? She is safe for the moment. Have you already taken steps?”

“Yes sister. I gathered as many of the young help I could find and sent them out to the Haven. I summoned those things you’ll be needing to give the girl.” At this she warily handed Maron a heavy rucksack.

“Well done. Is it all here?”

“I’m certain. Are you sure they won’t be able to trace my spell?”

Maron nodded impatiently. “We’ve already tested that theory, remember?”

Nora hesitated a moment. “Remind me why we can’t just send her the same as the others? At least she would be safe!” Nora watched the struggle in her sister’s face before she replied decisively.

“You read the oracle, the same as I. We know what she has to do. Tampering at this point may certainly unravel the whole thing.” It was clear to see she wished it were otherwise.

Nora opened her mouth as if to argue the well-worn topic but closed it once again, nodding. “It’s already been set in motion.”

Firmly resigned, Maron turned away.

“Maron, wait. I can’t find the lad Temy.”

“I’m sure Jonah has taken him to the Haven by now. Jonah’s a competent Scholar, Nora. Have faith in him.” Maron gave her sister a quick embrace. “Now, hurry out and take any others with you that you come across. But don’t take any unnecessary risks sister! It was a foregone conclusion that many would die this night. You did get the Lord and Lady out, didn’t you?”

“Of course I did. I’m no fool, Maron. Now go take care of her, and be safe. We’ll meet at the Haven when all of this is over.”

Maron gave her sister a brave smile and a pat on the arm before turning away and hurrying up the stairs.

*~*~*

Leaf listened to the steady ticking of the mantle clock resting on her wardrobe, tapping her fingers in a counter rhythm as she waited impatiently. There was still no sign of Maron.

After what seemed an hour had passed by, Leaf sat up. Worry lining her face, she slid her feet into some slippers while donning a warm robe. There had been more screaming after Maron left. Leaf assumed there was more than one serving girl trying to catch the supposed rat… But something felt terribly wrong. She tried to write it off as her overactive imagination, but she just couldn’t shake the chill that kept creeping up her spine. She knew she would be in very deep trouble if she left her rooms now, but…

“She’s never taken so long before. I better have a look.” Just as she reached her door, a very anxious Maron bustled through and closed the door quickly and quietly behind her. Thinking to give her a tease, she said,

“Afraid the rats will get inside, Mistress Maron?” She cut off abruptly as she got a good look at Maron’s frightened face; all of her carefully suppressed fears came to the surface in an instant.

“Come, girl, there isn’t much time.” Maron tore a blanket off the recently vacated bed and spread it out on the floor, tossing a rucksack on it that she’d brought with her into the room. Leaf opened her mouth to ask a question but Maron cut her off.

“No time for questions child, just listen!” She started muttering under her breath. “I thought I’d have more time!” She continued adding a variety of objects to the pile from her room- most of it being clothing- and spoke in a rushed whisper.

“Your parents may still be alive, Leaf, I’m not certain; but if they are, you may find a clue as to their whereabouts in the old cottage where you were born.” She paused as Leaf gasped and caught the stricken look on the girl’s face.

“How could they be alive—?!

Maron paused what she was doing with sympathy bright and clear in her piercing blue stare. She tsk-ed herself, muttering. “Probably wasn’t the best way to tell her…”

Speaking up she said, “I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you sooner, Leaf, but there just wasn’t enough time! It simply wouldn’t have done to have you running off in search of them while so young and unprepared. Truth is, I don’t know that you’re ready even now, but there really isn’t any choice… now. There’s so much I haven’t told you yet!” Maron folded the corners of the blanket over the pile and started tying the bundle with one of Leaf’s belt cords.

Leaf stammered over the questions bursting inside her, but all she managed was, “But I don’t even know where the cottage is!”

“Don’t fret, girl. In a way, I will be guiding you tonight.” She opened the girl’s wardrobe and pressed some unseen switch. There was a click, and the back opened up; she turned to study Leaf’s expression.
Leaf squeaked. “How did you know about that?!”

Maron gave a satisfied nod. “I thought you were a bright girl. Did you think I didn’t know you were sneaking out of your room to explore the castle every spare moment you had? What you might not realize is that this passage also leads to a tunnel that takes you well out of the castle grounds.”
Something in Leaf’s expression made her smile briefly. “Good girl! So you did know that, eh? Well, use it tonight. Head south through Faryen forest, where you will meet your guide. Don’t worry. They’ll find you. They will show you the way to your parents’ cottage in Faery Glen.” She pushed the large bundle into Leaf’s arms.

Leaf was more than frightened. Quickly she asked, “But- what’s happening Maron?”

“I’ll find you later and explain everything.” Maron began to help her up through the wardrobe doors. “Oh wait! There’s one more thing- well, three actually.” She removed two books and something small and shimmery from her apron pockets. “This”, she indicated the first book which looked very heavy and intriguing, “is for you. A gift from Nora and I.” As Leaf reached out to take it, she thought she imagined a tingling vibration where it touched her skin.

“This, you’ll find out later.” Here she handed Leaf the second book after having tucked the first one securely into Leaf’s bundle. She was sure the second book was the same soft blue leather volume she’d been looking at just the day before while dusting the library! Sure enough, as she turned it over familiar silvery letters gleamed back at her spelling out the mysterious title, Dawn Lorealyn de Floreyn.

“And this,” The shimmery thing seemed to flow out of her fingers and catch at the delicate silver chain. Maron hurriedly put the necklace around Leaf’s neck and fastened it. Leaf was in awe as she held the intricate pendant up to her face and studied it lovingly.
“This was always yours, but was left in my safe-keeping until it was time to pass it on. You must never lose it, Leaf! Never take it off! Promise me.”

Leaf clutched the necklace in one hand and nodded firmly. “I promise Maron.” She paused a moment, now studying what looked like an amazingly life-like detailed image of a tree.
“It was my mother’s, wasn’t it?”

At Maron’s surprised smile Leaf nodded once, now sure. It seemed to give her courage… or it at least built a temporary barrier around her pervasive cowardice. “I will do everything you ask, Maron.” Why wasn’t her voice quivering? It felt like she should be screaming by now.

Maron gave her a proud smile and a swift hug. “That will do, girl. That will do.” She gently pushed her into the wardrobe. “Be swift, my little Leaf. Be safe.” And with that she closed the doors of the wardrobe. Leaf swallowed in the darkness.

*~*~*

A moment later, as Maron turned away from the wardrobe she found the Fey Wraith standing directly behind her. It grinned evilly and reached for her. She sucked in her breath, vanishing before he was able to touch her.

His red and black slit-pupil eyes flashed angrily.