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Chapter One

They mean you no harm, Ranger, the tree said, perhaps intending it for comfort.

Across the green, the house—built of wood, dead, dry, and without virtue—the house vibrated with power, kest rippling off of it in waves, like heat; slashed with brilliant bars of color.

Meri stopped beneath the wide branches of the elder elitch, and closed his eye—a useless protest; the assault upon his other senses continued, like an aurora, he thought, danced with knives.

"I cannot go into that," he said, his voice flat with fear.

Ranger, they mean you no harm, the voice of the elitch insisted softly inside his head, like a grandsire soothing a fractious sprout.

"A branch shaken loose by the wind wounds what it strikes, regardless of the tree's intent."

You are supple enough to bend, and strong enough to stand.

Trees, Meri reminded himself, like any grandsire, had a store of proverbs from which to choose during arguments with wrong-headed younglings. He winced as a particularly brilliant blade of power smote him. His meager kest responded, rising like spring sap, blindly seeking to meld.

Meri gagged, and gasped, drinking down green-scented air. Slowly, counting as if he were in fact the merest sprout, he brought his base instincts under control, shivering as his kest retreated to pool at the base of his spine. A roaring sounded in his ears, not unlike the voice of the ocean, and it seemed that the colors of the Newmen auras dimmed somewhat, as if seen through spray. When he licked his lips, he tasted salt.

What, he thought, not for the trees, but for himself. What in the name of root and branch am I doing here?

That at least was easily answered. He had not . . . quite . . . gone mad, coming unprotected and alone into this place. No, no. He was here because his cousin Sian, whom he supposed to care for his interests because there was no one else to do so, had bid him go, to care for the trees. He was Wood Wise, and a Ranger; and he could no more refuse a charge to care for the trees than he could refuse to breathe. So here he stood, perhaps a little mad, after all, alone among Newman, the very same beings who had tortured him, and who had brought Faldana to her death.

Not the very same beings, Ranger, the voice of the elitch sounded in the depths of his mind. Merely the same sort.

"Well enough," he muttered gracelessly. "The same sort."

He sighed, opening his eye as the door in the power-full house swung wide. A Newoman stepped into the twilight, her auburn hair blazing in the sun's last rays. She stood a moment just outside the door, a stocky, capable figure outlined in a blare of glory, her head tipped to one side, as if listening.

"Master Vanglelauf?" Her voice was calm, perfectly audible over the roar of the ocean in his ears.

Meri took a deep breath and stepped forward, out of the comforting shadow of tree branch, into the open green.

Seen closer, the woman's face was square, her eyes a soft blue. The resemblance to Sam Moore, who had at Sian's word guided him to this place, was striking. Despite the brilliance of her aura, she exuded a nearly tree-like tranquility.

Halfway between the trees and the house, safely out of easy reach of the Newoman's hand, Meri stopped and bowed.

"I am Meripen Vanglelauf, sent by the Engenium's word, in aid of the trees."

She smiled and returned his bow.

"I am Elizabeth Moore. Be welcome among us, Meripen Vanglelauf," she said, gravely, and gave him a sideways smile. "My son admires you already, and gives us to understand that our kind hosts, the trees, do the same."

"Jamie Moore is a likely sprout," he said, which had the double advantage of being both politic and true. "The nest he built for my comfort is everything that I could want."

"It pleases me to hear you say so," Elizabeth Moore murmured, and looked about her as one just discovering her environment.

"What a very pleasant evening!" She turned back to him with a broad smile. "I wonder, Ranger, if you would indulge me by speaking with a few of us out here under the sky. It is far too fine to huddle within walls."

Meri blinked, and bowed again, to cover what must surely have been his too-obvious relief.

"I would be pleased indeed to speak with persons of merit, and share the evening breeze with them."

Elizabeth Moore laughed. "Very courtly," she said, and gave him a roguish wink. "Make yourself comfortable on yon bench and I'll just fetch the others out."

She turned, light as a flutterwisp, and was gone, leaving Meri to return beneath branch. He sank onto the bench with a heartfelt sigh of relief. His hands were shaking; he pressed palms against thighs to steady them.

They mean you no harm, Ranger, the tree commented, which was the third time. Meri shivered and bowed his head.

"So it would seem," he murmured.

* * *

Becca came awake with the feeling that someone had spoken her name. The room was filled with green shadows, as if her couch were tucked inside a tree's lush canopy. The shadows moved about her, rustling, admitting a long spear of butter-yellow light, giving her a glimpse of a tapestry ocean, a low table a-glitter with glass, a rug done in leaf brown, gold and crimson.

It was not a room she knew.

She reclined half-seated against sloping pillows. When she tried to move, she found her limbs dead weights; the light blanket binding her to the couch as effectively as any rope.

Memory followed her tardily into wakefulness, the weight of a collar in her hand, the realization that there was but one way to make certain of her freedom; the stretch for the knife—

Then nothing.

"Rebecca Beauvelley," a clear voice murmured, "do you wake?"

"You know that I must," she said into the shadows, and spoke the name that came to her tongue, "Sian."

"Must I?" The green dimness beyond the low table parted like curtains for the Engenium in her sharkskin leggings and wide-sleeved shirt. "Now how would that be?"

"Did you not put the sleep on me?" Becca asked bitterly. "Of course it is you who calls me out."

"She does," another voice said, this one high as birdsong, "have you there, Cousin."

"One point only, though I believe she may think I hold the game." Sian came to the edge of the couch where Rebecca lay bound and dropped to one knee beside it.

"You have broken the geas that bound you, and stand a free woman."

"Stand?" Rebecca asked. Hidden yet inside the green shadows, the bird-voiced woman trilled a laugh.

"You are not," Sian said over her shoulder, "helping."

"Nay, nay! What aid might I lend to one so disadvantaged?"

Sian bent her attention to Becca. "Give me your word that you will not attempt to harm yourself and I will release the bonds upon you."

Her word, Becca thought, and moved her head from side to side against the pillows. Trapped, bound, and in thrall to a Fey. If only she had been quicker with the knife, or taken one more leaf more of the kindly duainfey . . . Becca swallowed, and moved her head again. She had learned something from her bondage to Altimere: She would not participate in her own entrapment. Not this time. Let them expend their precious kest to bind her. They would get no aid from her.

"What," she asked, "do you want?"

The shadows lightened, melting away as a Fey woman in a hyacinth-colored robe stepped to the Engenium's side. Her hair was long, rippling in broad bands of gold, crimson, brown, and black, braided with stones, shells, leaves and flowers. A dozen rings adorned the long white fingers that rested on Sian's shoulder.

"I am Diathen the Queen," she said in her high, musical voice. "I would learn what you know of Altimere's plans and designs regarding myself and the Vaitura, if you will tell me." She sank gracefully onto a stool that hadn't been there a moment before and smoothed her robe over her knees.

"Sian," she said. "Please release Miss Beauvelley to her own will."

The Engenium doubted the wisdom of that; Becca saw her hesitate, then felt a slight sparkle of energy along her limbs. Freed, she pushed the coverlet away one-handed, and slipped her legs over the side of the couch, sitting up to face Diathen the Queen, who Altimere had called 'upstart,' bookkeeper, and worse.

"Altimere wishes to depose you," Becca said baldly, which was perhaps not how one ought to address a Queen, and certainly not how one ought to address a High Fey. "He wants to lower the keleigh and bring . . . my people . . . under Fey dominion. As is," she finished bitterly, "your right and privilege."

"Acquit me," the Queen murmured. "I dominate but indifferently, as Altimere and his allies have doubtless taught you. And to throw down the keleigh is not something that I, in my bookkeeper's soul, can find equitable."

"And yet," Sian murmured, "we cannot continue as we are."

"So I hear from the philosophers on my right hand, while those on my left urge me to increase the forces already in play and seal us in, safe as a child in a closet."

"The keleigh consumes kest," Becca said, remembering Altimere's demonstration. "But throwing down the keleigh will—release kest in unexpected ways."

"Aptly put," the Queen murmured. "Was Altimere teaching you?"

"No," Becca said, bitterly. "He only needed me to harvest power."

Silence. Sian and the Queen exchanged a glance before Diathen brought her attention back to Becca.

"I feel that we have now reached my subject, Rebecca Beauvelley. I would count it a favor, if you would allow me to know just how such harvesting was done and where this harvested power has gone."

Becca took a breath, tasting cinnamon and apple, watching the play of the silvered green nimbus that limned the lady's slender form.

"My philosophers are studying the necklace and the geas woven into it," the Queen said after a moment. "I fear but little remains of the original working. Altimere is, after all, an artificer of some skill and subtlety; old in his craft. I would hazard that it was the means of harvesting, but—"

"No," Becca said, and it seemed that the flavorful air in the green-shadowed room was too thin, very nearly too hot to breathe. "No, I gathered the kest; the necklace was to—to control me and bind me to . . . his will."

The Queen tipped her head. "Forgive me. It seems extraordinary that Altimere would require so much to tie you to him. Your name alone—"

"I kept my name!" Becca snapped. "If I had known what it meant, I would have gladly given it away!"

Sian's hand rose, long fingers shaping a sign. It flared, briefly turquoise, and faded as a breeze flowed in amongst the shadows, damp and tasting of salt.

"So," she said, her voice soft as a thought. "You harvested kest at Altimere's will, holding your name the while. And yet I do not see that you hold so very much power . . . "

Becca hung her head. "I gave it to him," she said miserably. "To Altimere. I—I gave him my power and my future . . . "

"Perhaps your power," Diathen the Queen said, her high voice sharp as broken shell. "That can be done. But a future cannot be given away, Rebecca Beauvelley."

Becca shook her head. "What is one, out of so many?" she whispered, rocking back and forth now, her maimed arm cradled on her lap.

Diathen shared a worried glance with Sian.

"You must forgive me," the Queen said to Becca, "for having broken your sleep. I can only plead a need to know what Altimere intends. I will leave you now to continue healing—"

"No!" Becca thrust to her feet, and would have fallen except for Sian's hand beneath her elbow. Diathen rose to face her, purple eyes hard.

"I will not have my will over-ridden again!" Becca cried, feeling a flow of molten gold flowing up her spine. "I am my own person; I hold my own name; I am not a plaything!" Sparks lit the gloom: green and gold and crimson. She took a breath. "I demand—" she began—

And crumpled into Diathen's arms, asleep before her knees gave out.

* * *

They were gentle, and most courteous, Meri admitted, and careful not to overwhelm his senses. Not merely with the arranging of the meeting out-of-doors, where he might feel unconfined, but also in the numbers that they chose to field: Himself, Elizabeth Moore, a white-haired elder called Jack Wood, and the sprout Jamie.

The trees would have it that the sprout was fruit of a melding of the Newoman Elizabeth and a Wood Wise named Palin, which strained credulity. Yet, the trees had said so, and certainly the shy greens of the boy's aura were more Fey than the hectic and gaudy displays of his elders.

Jamie the sprout carried a chair out of the house and placed it for the elder. Elizabeth Moore settled herself comfortably on the grass between chair and bench; at a sign from her, Jamie settled next to Meri, his cool aura showing yellow sparkles of curiosity

"Sam sends apologies," Elizabeth murmured. "He's with our mother, in case she should wake."

"I grieve for the elder's illness," Meri answered politely. "May her kest soon rise."

"Thank you. We all hope for her recovery."

"No more'n I do," the elder Jack Wood said in a voice like the wind blowing through reeds. "Just her an' me left o' those who walked the hellroad. Stubbornest woman I ever known, that side er this, and I don't think we woulda won through, if not for the tongue in her head, and the wit that drove it."

Meri turned to him. The elder Newman's aura was a complex weave of silvers and blues, as vivid and as dangerous as glass.

"You crossed the keleigh?"

The old one laughed, his aura shimmering, and shook his head. "Some long seasons ago, that was! Eliza there was a babe in arms—slept through the whole passage, for all the sound she ever made. Sam, now, he was born this side, same as Gracie an' Thomas an'—"

"And me!" Jamie piped up from Meri's side.

"You!" Another laugh, warm and welcome as new bread. "Ain't no doubt regarding you, Sprout."

"No doubt at all," Elizabeth said, with a calmness at odds with the brilliance of her aura. "But the Ranger hasn't come to hear our lineage. His concern is to hear what ails our good friends, the trees."

"Aye, aye!" Jack Wood raised a hand gnarled and spotted like an old branch. "Mind you, now, it was Lucy give the trees our parole back when we first found this spot. And 'twas the trees sent young Palin along to have a look at us. I put myself forward as caretaker, for I'd been a woodsman, back there, and fancied I knew something of trees." He chuckled. "They soon learned me different, and Palin, too, after he brung Lucy back from swearing us to the good lady of Sea Fort."

"So," Meri said carefully, into the silence that followed this declaration. "You have been caring for the trees. The Engenium—the good lady of Sea Fort—had given me to understand that your folk were . . . not treewise."

"Nor are we," Jack Wood told him. "I'm no Ranger, young master—far from it! Oh, I'm canny enough to take off a sick limb, and to keep the burrowers away from new roots. But there's a need in the forest of late that I'm not understanding, a—" He moved his hand again, as if fingering the word from the passing breeze. "A—mistiness. My lore tells me the stand's old; and in the natural way of things some o'the elders'll be fallin', the same as with Lucy, and—soon enough—myself. This though—I'm thinking this is something different, something . . . not of root nor branch." He sighed and shook his head, sending Meri a rueful grin.

"You'll see why we asked our good lady for a Ranger, eh? It goes far beyond me, and this one—" He jerked his head at Jamie.

"The trees talk to me!" the boy said hotly and the old man chuckled.

"Who said they didn't, eh? But are they speakin' of their affliction?"

There was a pause. Jamie sighed, visibly wilting on the bench, and shook his tumbled head.


"Nor would they," Meri said briskly, "burden a sprout. We are all as children to the elder trees, and in truth there are those whose thought is strange, even to we who are Rangers." He looked again to Jack Wood. "Surely, though, the trees would speak to their own."

The old man blinked. "Eh?"

"The Ranger means Palin, I think," Elizabeth Moore said from her comfortable recline on the grass, and gave Meri another of her smiles. "Palin wanders," she said softly. "He does errands, for the trees, for the Engenium at Sea Hold, for us, for other Wood Wise—for the Hobs, too, when they ask him. He belongs to the trees, certain enough, Master Vanglelauf, but less to these trees than we do." She moved her shoulders in an easy shrug. "We had thought perhaps someone who was tied to the Engenium's lands, as we are . . . ."

"Which I am not," Meri said softly.

"But the trees like you!" Jamie said exuberantly. "They're pleased you've come!"

"And so I am pleased to have come," Meri said firmly. He looked, first to Elizabeth Moore, then to Jack Wood.

"I will undertake to identify the problem," he said slowly. "You understand that this will mean that my time will be spent—"

"Can't you use your longeye?" the sprout interrupted. "Sam says you saw our village from leagues away!"

"Seeing is not the same as going among," Meri said, patiently, for it was the duty of those elder to teach the young. "In addition, the longeye is a gift of the sea, and is less use than you might think, among the trees."

"I—" began the sprout, and pressed his lips suddenly together as his mother raised a hand.

"You," she said, "have been quite rude enough for one evening, Jamie Moore." She turned her head and gave Meri a smile. "We understand that you are here to aid the trees, Master Vanglelauf. It is what we asked of Lady Sian. Had we wished for a jester, that is what we would have asked her to send."

"And right daft she would have thought us, too," Jack added, with a grin.

Elizabeth nodded, and seemed about to say something else when there arose an outcry from the house across the green, the accumulated power flaring into new and terrifying patterns.

"Gran!" Jamie cried, flinging to his feet, running heedlessly back toward the house, with his mother not two paces behind.

The Newman elder rose more slowly, and turned, staring at the house without moving. Meri gained his feet also—courtesy, he reminded himself, though he trembled at this new display of raw, potent power.

"May I escort you, sir?" he asked, desperately hoping that this proper and polite suggestion would be rejected.

Jack shook himself—"Eh?"—and looked over his shoulder. Meri could see that cheeks were wet.

"Nay, then," he said softly. "That's a gentle offer and I'm obliged, but—I can walk on my own." He shook his head, seeming not to notice the tears that ran into his beard.

"Never thought she'd go first," he said, "and leave me at the last."

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