Thursday, July 1, 2010

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…”

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