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Chapter Two

Waking was a long, languorous business.

Becca stretched, luxuriating in the smooth slide of sheets along her limbs and the flex of muscle and flesh. She slipped back into a drowse, becoming by degrees aware of the warmth of sunlight upon her face, and a ruddy glow beyond her eyelids. A sweet, riotous scent tickled her nose—roses, lavender, teyepia and gradials—beneath it the prickle of pine and the clean, woody odor of elitch, a touch of turned earth.

She smiled and nestled her cheek into the cool pillow, a little closer to awake now, lazily following the frenzy of bird song until she smiled and stretched once more.

"You may wish to bear in mind, in the interest of your future well-being," a clear voice said dryly from near at hand, "that one does not demand of a Queen. Even so mild-natured a Queen as Diathen."

"Yet it was not the Queen," Becca answered languidly, "who struck me down."

A short silence followed by a sigh that sounded more irritated than comfortable were her answers as she drifted inevitably toward the shores of true wakefulness.

"A Queen," Sian said at last, "depends upon those who owe her loyalty to protect her. Does it become necessary for her to raise a hand in her own defense, she cannot afford to be seen as . . . less than strong. Are you awake, Rebecca Beauvelley?"

"For the moment, it seems that I am." Becca opened her eyes and met Sian's sea-green gaze firmly. "Until you decide otherwise."

"This conversation has a familiar odor to it," Sian observed, perhaps to herself. She sat a-slouch at some remove from the day-bed, one boot planted firmly on the glass-topped table, the chair tipped precariously back on two legs. She moved her arm in a meaningless sweep. "I grant it may seem mere whimsy on my part, but you must own that twice I've acted to preserve your life."

"A boon," Becca snapped, fully awake now—and fully irritated, "I neither requested nor desired!" She sat up and thrust the covers aside, faintly surprised that these things were allowed her.

Sian raised a thin golden brow. "Come now, would you rather be dead?"

"In fact," Becca answered, swinging her legs over the edge of the bed. "I would! What do you think I was doing when you interfered with me in Altimere's garden?"

"Seeking clear thought," Sian said, and brought her hand before her face, fingers spread wide, as if in defense. "Do not glare at me, madam! I only repeat what you yourself told me."

Becca snapped to her feet, and flung out her good arm to catch her balance. "I do not—"

"You saw the collar for what it truly was, did you not?" Sian continued. "Certainly, with all the artifice woven into it—forged signature and will-to-fail among the lesser evils that Diathen's philosophers have found!—Certainly, you were correct to seek clear thought before attempting to deal with such a thing for the third time. That you triumphed—"

"Had to do with—" Becca bit her lip, while inside her head a deep, amused voice told her, Good morning, Gardener.

Sian tipped her head. "Had to do with?" she inquired politely, and crossed her arms over her breast, waiting.

Well, and what does it matter, now? Becca thought angrily. Surely, I might be excused for having run mad.

"Had to do with the trees!" she snapped. "They came to my aid at the last."

Sian closed her eyes. "A very familiar odor, indeed," she murmured. She raised her boot from the table, the chair crashed down onto four legs, and she was on her feet.

She made, Becca admitted privately, a brave figure, with her hands on her slim waist, her sleeves billowing and bright in the fresh breeze, her legs shapely in their tight trousers, and the cool blue flames outlining her against the air.

For herself, she felt . . . somewhat grubby, her dress draggled with having been slept in, and her hair knotted and none-too-clean—and the weight, not entirely unfamiliar, of dread anticipation pressing down upon her shoulders.

"Why," she demanded, "have you wakened me, this time? Has Altimere returned?"

Sian lifted both eyebrows. "In fact, he has not, nor has Councilor Zaldore, and the Queen's Constant has gone into recess for the lack of them. I am therefore redundant, and my kinswoman, gentle Diathen, the Queen, has deemed you to be my problem."

"The Queen," Becca said, snappishly, "is in error."

"That's as may be," Sian returned mildly. "But she is the Queen."

Becca raised her chin. "I am a—a free woman in possession of my own name," she stated, in a hot, small voice that did not seem quite like her own. "I refuse to be dominated."

Silence. Sian turned her head to stare out the window. "Oh," she said. "Do you."

"Surely that is my right?" Becca challenged her.

"Surely, it is your right to resist domination, should it be offered, to the fullest extent of your power," Sian murmured, her attention still seemingly engaged by the scene outside the window. "To state that you refuse . . . " She shrugged, and at last glanced back to Becca. "Of course, you must say so. Anyone would. However!" She raised her hand imperiously. "It is not domination, but care that is offered, since you apparently lack the wit to perceive it. Think, Rebecca Beauvelley! Your situation is perilous at best and dire at worst! Might a friend—or even two—be beneficial?"

"Perhaps so. Do you put yourself forth as my friend, Engenium? I warn you—terrible things happen to my friends."

Sian shrugged. "Terrible things have happened to my friends, as well. And neither of us wishes to dwell long upon the fates which have overtaken Diathen's friends, now and again." She sighed.

"Put your wits to work, girl! Altimere the master artificer has vanished, and with him she who would be queen in Diathen's place! Does that frighten you? Certainly, it casts my nerves into disorder—and you may make of that what you will!"

Becca swallowed, her right hand curling into a fist at her side. "The thought that I might meet Altimere again . . . terrifies me, if you will have it," she said, her voice low, but steady. "And, since you bid me apply my wits, allow me to say that I know the Queen wishes to keep me in her pocket until my testimony may be used against him. Nonetheless, I must insist that I be allowed to go free."

Sian blinked. "Free," she repeated, as if the word were some strange artifact that had only now been put into her hand. "And where will you go, free?"

"I would go across the keleigh." The words had scarce left her lips when her stomach heaved. Becca clamped her teeth against sickness, took a breath—

Peace, Gardener, murmured the voice of the trees. A cool wash of green flowed through her, cooling her tumultuous blood, uncramping her stomach.

She took another breath, tasting the distinctive sweetness of duainfey in the air. Duainfey, which gave the gift of clear sight; and surcease from pain. A healer's friend, duainfey, the death it gifted as sweet as the taste of its leaves.

She had eaten two duainfey leaves—enough to achieve clarity of vision. The third leaf had been taken from her before she could complete her resolve.

"You would cross the keleigh." Sian sounded openly skeptical.

"I've crossed the keleigh once," Becca said, lifting her chin with an effort. "It holds far fewer horrors for me than the possibility of meeting Altimere again."

The Fey woman nodded. "You do have wits, then. Still, the keleigh, though less horrifying than Altimere, is no small obstacle. And, as you say, the Queen has her own reasons to keep you close. Best you come with me, to a more protected location, and await her command."

"I—" Becca stopped, looking down at her draggled garments. What, after all, awaited her at home? She was ruined—even if she managed to keep the details of her life under Altimere's . . . protection . . . a secret. After all, she had been wanton enough to elope with the man! She had been ruined before the first night was through. All else—everything else she had accepted or had forced upon her—merely confirmed her in shame. Women like her were remanded to Wanderer's Villages, or hung by the Board of Governors, as an example for obedience and chastity.

And yet—to remain in the Vaitura, where she was prey and worse? A kest-less being to be dominated and used by those who held more power—which would, she thought dismally, be anyone, including a child not yet out of nursery.

You are not so unprotected as that, Gardener, nor so friendless.

The thought warmed her, even as she recalled that the trees had been unable to preserve Elyd's life.

"Forgive me, Rebecca Beauvelley," Sian said, breaking into these thoughts. "You were about to say?"

"A moment," Becca said curtly. She closed her eyes, forcing herself to reason.

The first thing to do, she told herself carefully, was to remove herself from Altimere's orbit. He might, after all, return home at any time. Therefore, to accept the Queen's dictate—for now!—and accompany Sian was, in its way, wisdom. Later, when she had had time to plan, and to proceed from a position of safety—or at least such safety as was available to her here—Later, she would see what else she might contrive.

She sighed, and raised her head to meet Sian's eyes.

"I will not leave my horse here," she said, firmly, "nor my lore books."

Sian's mouth twisted into an ironical smile. "These books—they are in Altimere's house?"

"Yes, and my horse is in his stable," Becca answered tartly. "Is that so wonderful?"

"Scarcely wonderful at all," Sian said, and made Becca a sudden, extravagant bow.

"Lead on, by your kindness! I shall, of course, accompany you."

It was, Becca thought, shameful that she should feel quite so much relief at hearing these words.

Sian is not an ill friend, Gardener, the tree told her confidentially, which, for all she knew, was so.

And, in any wise, she really had no choice.

Head high, she walked past Sian, across the room. The hallway door opened to let her through.

* * *

Meri had returned to the nest and curled down 'mong the sweet grasses, thinking to make an early start on the morrow. Sleep, however, eluded him, held away, no doubt by the sounds of wailing on the air, and the flares and flashes of the Newmen's auras, terrible and seductive in grief.

At last, he removed to some small distance from the nest, sank to the ground and put his back companionably against a dozing culdoon tree. Night had come on, and the early stars were preening. Meri pulled out his knife and began to tend it, less for necessity and more for the comfort involved in performing so commonplace and usual a task.

"If sleep is denied me, I might as well begin my task in the wood this night," he murmured, his voice hardly louder than the purr of whetstone down blade.

It may be that your task here is not yet done, the deep voice of the elitch answered, and Meri sighed, without needing to ask what was meant.

"Tell me of this Palin Nicklauf," he said then. "He wanders, so I'm told, and serves the needs of trees and Engenium alike. Has he no wood of his own to tend?"

Lightning flashed—but no. It was merely the Newmen's grief, blaring for a moment, then falling. Surely, Meri thought, the Elder had sublimated by now.

Palin Nicklauf is his own wood. The elitch spoke slowly; its thought forming with a degree of uncertainty marked in a tree—and said no more.

His own wood? Meri wondered. And how did that come about?

There was no immediate answer from the tree, which was not, on reflection, entirely surprising.

Ranger, the elitch spoke again. Shallow roots bear the fruit of fear.

"So I have heard, and so was I taught," Meri said politely, his attention more than half on the knife.

My roots are deep and I shelter many. Allow me to give a gift.

The whetstone stopped its steady stroke. Meri closed his eyes, hearing Faldana's broken whisper, pleading with him as he held her shattered body. "Beloved, allow me to give the gift. You may live. I . . . cannot."

"I . . . " He cleared his throat. "Elder, I am honored by your regard, but—I am so weak, and you are so mighty . . . I fear that your fires would overwhelm mine. Let me . . . grow in the usual way. A slow settling is surest," he added, which the trees in Vanglewood had been particularly fond of quoting at a sprout.

Silence, as if the tree pondered, then—

You are the best judge of your own health, Ranger. The gift is yours, should you need it. Only ask.

"Thank you," Meri whispered, his throat tight with emotion.

It is the trees who thank you, Meripen Vanglelauf.

Bemused, Meri tested the edge of his blade with his thumb. Satisfied, he slid it away, stowed the whetstone, and considered what other comfortable, needful task he might be about to while the night—

There was a sound, to his left and ahead, as if a foot had been set unwarily among the leaves and grasses.

Meri tipped his head, listening as the steps, soft, but perfectly audible, moved toward his nest. Whoever approached must assume him asleep, so carefully did they move, saving that one misstep only. Their breathing, however—that was noisy, and irregular, as if they labored under strong emotion.

"Jamie Moore," Meri said, pitching his voice no louder than the whisper of the breeze through the trees.

The footsteps hesitated, then sounded again, moving toward Meri's position at the base of the culdoon.

The boy was disheveled, his brown face pale, and sticky with recent tears, his quiet aura stitched with crimson. His task, Meri thought with a private sigh, as the trees had foretold.

"Sit," Meri invited, patting the grass beside him. "And say what is in your heart."

It was more collapse, but however it was done, the lad was facing him, properly cross legged, his hands flat on his thighs.

"Why did the trees let Gran die?"

The boy's voice was unsteady, as well it might be, bearing the burden of such a heart-question—indeed, the question. Wood Wise, even Rangers, tended to believe that the trees were all-powerful. It seemed inconceivable that beings so old and so wise could be limited in any way, and yet—

"Even trees die," Meri said softly.

Jamie sniffled. "But trees, they share themselves with the whole forest," he said. "Their thought doesn't die."

Root and branch. Who expected such insights from a sprout?

"It is true that their wisdom endures," Meri agreed; "but the voice—that one, distinctive and unique viewpoint—it is gone forever. The forests may learn and treasure, but the forests have learned from, and treasure, many." He paused, considering the boy's bowed head, and the tender curve of his exposed neck. Young he might be for these questions, yet he had asked and so deserved an answer, in fullness.

"It is the best we may do, Wood Wise, Newman or tree, to pass on our knowledge and our dreams to the ones who come after, so that those things we have learned are not lost, and our good deeds stretch beyond us, while our ill deeds are not repeated." He paused again. The boy did not lift his head, but there was a certain set to his shoulders that said to Meri that he was listening—and thinking.

"Your Gran, then," Meri continued slowly. "She was old and very wise, was she not?"

Jamie sniffled again, and nodded without raising his head. "She was our herbalist, and our doctor, and our historian." He raised his head at last and met Meri's eye. "She came over the hellroad—you heard Jack tell it. She said—she said her hair was as red as Violet's when she walked in, and the color of salt when they came to settle, like she'd walked down thirty years in that one crossing. Martin Kinderman, his hair went from gray to black, and the lines melted out of his face, though there were still old thoughts in that young head of his . . . " The boy's voice had taken on a cadence unlike his own, as if he were retelling a story he had listened to many times before, in the storyteller's own voice. "He died soon after they settled, like the youth was an illusion, and Gran, she kept on, not changing at all past the change that she'd already borne, caring for us. She asked the trees if we could stay and she gave the Engenium at Sea Hold our whole-oath, that we would serve her and her lands. And here we've been ever since."

"You were born to this land, Jack Wood said," Meri murmured, when a moment or two had passed and the boy had not taken up the threads of his tale.

"There's six of us second-borns," Jamie said slowly. "The Engenium at Sea Hold . . . Gran swore to her that we wouldn't outgrow our land, and—Father says the land holds us to our oath."

Of course the land holds them to their oath, Meri thought. And it also explained why Sian was so certain of her secret band of Newmen. She held the oath of the Old Woman, which was potent, indeed. But—the Old Woman was gone, passed beyond oaths and the Engenium, alike. Meri took a breath.

"Did Sam renew the oath when he came to be headman?" he asked, carefully.

Jamie nodded, and Meri felt a flutter of relief. "Sam picked up the oath and Mother renewed our kinship to the trees," he said solemnly—repeating, Meri suspected a lesson learned but perhaps imperfectly understood. No matter. The Newmen were bound, to the Vaitura no less than to the trees themselves. Mischief could always be done, of course, but such ties were potent.

"It seems that you are well-situated here," he began—

Brilliance shattered the night, confusing Meri's senses, so that he flung an arm up to shield his eye. Came the sound of running feet, sobs, a shout—and he was up, his back against the culdoon, his hand on his knife. He fingered the hilt, but did not draw. Beside him, likewise braced against the tree, was Jamie Moore, his breathing quieter now.

"Violet!" The shout came again, and now Meri recognized the voice of Sam Moore, though he had never heard it carry such a depth of pain.

"No!" A girl's voice, clearly distraught, the girl herself the merest suggestion of shadow behind the blare of her aura. "Sam, leave me alone!"

"Violet, I know you're upset, but you can't just refuse—at least think about it!"

"I have thought about it!" the girl cried, spinning around to face her pursuer. "The fact is that I'm not an healer! I don't know enough!"

"You know more than you think, right now." Sam's voice was calm, with an edge that suggested to Meri that it was hard-won. "Mother told me you were learning your lore well and that she was certain that you would be her equal or better."

"Gran died!" Violet shouted, and suddenly, she was bent sideways, like a bird protecting a broken wing. Her voice wavered, blurry with tears even as her aura sharpened painfully with the force of her grief. "She died because I didn't know enough to save her!"

"She died because it was time," Sam countered, which was, Meri thought, only commonsense. The Newman stepped forward and gathered the girl into his arms, their combined auras thundering against Meri's senses.

"Violet," Sam murmured. "I know. We all expected Gran to be with us forever. I know that you haven't had your complete training. You've been flung from 'prentice to master all of a sudden. But I know you can do it; Gran knew you could do it."

The girl continued to sob. Meri saw their silhouettes through the blare of their auras: the girl with her head against Sam's shoulder as he gently stroked her hair, offering comfort and, perhaps, commonsense.

Hidden from the two Newmen by the kindness of the tree, Jamie Moore moved—and stilled, which Meri considered well-done. Their presence would only increase the girl's grief and Meri, for one, had no wish to approach that hectic aura.

"Listen," Sam murmured. "What if I ask the Engenium to send us a Fey Healer for a little time? Just until you find your feet and get over the—"

"No . . . " the girl moaned. "Fey heal by—even Father—he knows the plants, but he draws on their kest. The process of making a poultice, or brewing a restorative tea—it's not what they do . . . "

Delicately, Meri queried the trees, receiving a bewildering series of images: a white-haired woman working over a table, drying leaves, grinding roots, making pastes and liqueurs . . .

The healing arts, the elitch added, take many forms.

So it would seem, Meri replied, bemused.

"Let us send for another healer," Violet sobbed against Sam's shoulder. "Before I kill someone else in my ignorance."

"Send?" Sam sounded honestly baffled, as Meri, his fingers clutching knife-hilt, went cold all over. "Where would we send, child? As far as I—and Lady Sian—know, we are the only folk of our kind on this side of the hellroad."

"Then send to the other side!" Violet cried.

There was a moment of charged silence before Sam answered, his voice chilly. "You are overwrought. Come, let me take you inside. You should have a cordial and go to sleep. Rest is what you need."


"No," he said firmly. "We will talk again after you have rested. In fact," his voice grew a little louder. "It is time for Jamie to seek his bed, as well."

He turned, then, guiding the bent and still weeping girl back toward the house. Jamie sighed and shifted away from the tree.

"Sam's got good eyes," he said. "Even Father says so." He sighed again. "I'd better go." He danced back a step—then darted forward, touching Meri on the shoulder as if they were comrades of the branch. "Thank you, Master Vanglelauf."

"You are welcome, Jamie Moore," Meri murmured. "I think that Sam is correct; rest if you can, and survey your thoughts when you are calmer."

The boy nodded. "That's exactly what Gran used to say," he murmured, his voice husky. "Root and branch, Master."

"Root and branch, Sprout," Meri answered, and watched the child slip away through the shadows.

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