“Ordinarily, of course, a visit such as this would garner a much greater reaction,” the hunter said apologetically as he stepped across the creek. “As you can see, though, we have a goodly number of guests already, and only so much attention to go around.”
“Oh, that’s perfectly okay,” Juniper assured him, splashing through the water. “I’m not much for ceremony anyhow, I’d rather everyone be comfortable. Wow, you really do have a lot of company, though!”
The grove was fairly teeming with activity, the central area encircled by the stream set up with multiple low tables and cushions; elves were seated, standing and chatting everywhere. Some were eating, others apparently giving full attention to their conversations. A circle off to one side were passing around a fragrant pipe. In addition to the wood elves native to the grove, there were at least equal their number in guests. Even to a viewer not sufficiently familiar with elves to distinguish between the shapes of their ears and shades of their eyes, the sun-bleached buckskins of the visitors revealed them to be a plains tribe.
“What with all that is happening in the world lately,” their guide said with a smile, “the elders have deemed it a good time to reach out to others of our kin with whom we may not have much regular contact.”
“Anishai, don’t bore honored guests with tedious tribal politics,” Elder Sheyann said, gliding swiftly toward them from the circular table in the center of the grove. She wore a welcoming smile, but gave Anishai a very flat look. “Would you go help Elraene, please? She is guiding a group of our visiting cousins through the forest.”
“Of course, Elder,” the hunter said, bowing to her, then nodded to his charges with a smile. “You are in good hands, now. Again, welcome, and safe travels to you.” He backed away for two steps, bowing politely, before turning and bounding off into the trees.
“It’s wonderful to see you again so soon, Juniper,” Sheyann said warmly. “And welcome, Marshal, to our grove.”
“My thanks, madam, sir,” Marshal Avelea said politely, tipping her hat. Sheyann glanced over her shoulder, quirking an eyebrow as Elder Shiraki joined them.
“Welcome indeed, daughter of Naiya,” Shiraki said, smiling at Juniper. “Truly, we are blessed to see thee again in our midst. Will thy classmates attend us again, as well?”
“Oh…no, we’re actually dismissed for the summer,” Juniper said, her expression growing more pensive. “I came alone. This is, uh, sort of a personal visit.”
“Ah, so?” Shiraki said, turning to give the Marshal a politely inquisitive look.
“I’m just her temporary guardian, sir,” Avelea said. “Dryads aren’t generally wanted around population centers. Juniper’s a special case, but even she’s not to be in Tiraan territory without a University or Imperial escort.”
“Quite reasonable,” Sheyann said with a bland smile. “Of course, per the Elven Reservation Act, you are not in Tiraan territory.”
“I understand that fully, ma’am,” said the Marshal. “Obviously you’re plenty busy, and the last thing I want is to intrude on your privacy. I’d be glad to retreat, but I’ll need to wait until she’s ready to return to Sarasio…”
“The Act contains stipulations concerning the transfer of such responsibilities between Imperial and tribal personnel,” Sheyann said in perfect calm, still wearing that gentle smile. “You are, of course, welcome to stay and enjoy our hospitality. If you would prefer to contact your superiors or study the rebuilding progress in the town, though, I believe it will be quite acceptable for you to leave Juniper in our care. It will be no trouble at all to notify you when she wishes to depart. We have been made much more welcome in Sarasio recently; many of our young hunters would be glad of an excuse to visit the town.”
“Well, that’s very accommodating of you,” Marshal Avelea said with imperfectly concealed relief. “If you’re sure it’s not an imposition…”
“Not in the least.”
“My thanks, then, ma’am. I’ll be waiting in town; you can find me at the Imperial office. Juniper, I’ll…see you later, then.” She tipped her hat once more, politely, then turned and strode back the way they had come, moving more quickly than before.
“Please don’t be offended,” Juniper said as Avelea vanished into the forest, an elven guide slipping into place alongside her. “It’s nothing against your hospitality, I’m sure. She’s terrified of me. I haven’t got the full story, but from hints, I think she knows someone who had a run-in with one of my sisters. Knew someone, I guess I should say,” she added more quietly.
“I must confess, Juniper, I am nearly as curious as pleased to see thee so soon,” Shiraki intoned. “Pray tell, what wind hast brought thee—”
“Okay, I’m sorry, I don’t want to be rude, but couldja please cut that out?” she said plaintively, turning to face him. “It’s weird and it makes me feel like you’re making fun of me.”
Sheyann made an insincere effort to smother a chuckle behind her hand.
Shiraki stared at Juniper for a moment, mouth slightly open, then gave his fellow Elder a sidelong glance. “Oh…fine. You may laugh, but it impresses the hell out of the rubes.”
“I’m sorry to say I cannot refute that statement,” Sheyann said gravely, but with mirth still in her eyes. “He makes a good point, though, Juniper. What brings you back to see us?”
“Well…” The dryad looked down at her bare feet. “It’s kind of… I mean, I’m not quite sure how to…”
“Why don’t we retreat to my sleeping space, so we can talk in privacy?” Sheyann suggested.
“Um… Sure? But, y’know, everyone here is elves, and I know you don’t have soundproof walls.”
“But,” Sheyann said gently, “it is a comfortable place, where you can relax and take whatever time you need to find the words for what is troubling you.”
“And, being elves, we are amply practiced at not hearing what is none of our business,” Shiraki said solemnly. “I don’t hear all sorts of things right now. Multi-tribal gatherings like this are always mysteriously followed by a good number of births a year or so later. It’s inexplicable.”
Juniper cracked a grin at that. “Okay…thanks. That sounds good.”
To say nothing of not being soundproof, Sheyann’s home didn’t even have walls. A woven roof of vines and leaves kept off the rain; apart from that, it might have resembled a huge bird’s nest in the crook of one of the great trees, if not for the belongings arranged on shelves and pegs affixed to nearby branches. Fallen limbs were arranged to form a bowl-shaped platform, which was heavily padded with straw and feathers, topped with a layer of quilts. She had no furniture, but there was basically no place not to sit.
“I want you to teach me about nature,” Juniper burst out, after a full five minutes of sitting in silence.
The two elves raised their eyebrows in unison, looked at each other, then back at the dryad.
“Forgive me,” Shiraki said finally, “but that begs for a little more explanation.”
“It’s just… I mean… I think I’m a bad person,” Juniper said softly, staring down at the quilt between her feet. “And…I mean that in both senses of the term.”
“What…are the two senses of that term?” Sheyann asked.
Juniper sighed heavily. “Someone who habitually does bad things… And just…” She raised her eyes at last. “And I’m just bad at being a person. I never had a reason to realize it until I started spending time among mortals. But there’s a way to do it, and nobody ever taught me how. I’m learning from my friends, and other people I meet, but there are so many things that just don’t come to me. Stuff everyone’s so accustomed to taking as given that they don’t even know how to explain it.”
“May I ask what brought this on?” Sheyann asked quietly.
“I’ve…had to accept some things,” Juniper said, lowering her gaze again. “My whole life I always assumed…basically, that whatever I wanted was right, and that made it perfectly natural. That’s how my sisters all live, and they were the only example I had, y’know?” She sighed. “Apparently, the word for that is ‘spoiled.’ I don’t want to offend you religiously or anything, I know my mother is very important to you… But honestly the more I learn, the more let down I feel. She didn’t teach me anything. Me, or any of my sisters. She never tried. And we’re not automatically right, and thinking we are and that that is what nature is means none of us even understand nature. Or people. I suck at both. So… I’m learning about people at school, but… I thought elves would be the best people to ask about the natural world.” She glanced up shyly. “You work so hard at being in balance with it.”
“Juniper,” Shiraki said after a thoughtful pause, “will you be offended if I speak frankly about Naiya?”
“I… Probably not. If I am, I’ll get over it. I think more frankness is pretty much what I need right now.”
He nodded. “In frankness, then. We revere Naiya, yes. We also are very respectful of cyclones, earthquakes and wildfires. And diseases. The magic she provides is of great importance to us, but… Reverence does not necessarily connote fondness.”
“Naiya,” Sheyann said, “is an old lady who has gone far too long without being meaningfully challenged. She accumulates ‘daughters’ the way other old ladies collect cats, and with about the same degree of attachment. Woe betide any fool who raises a hand to one of her darlings, but if one wanders off and never comes home…” She shrugged. “Well, that’s life. And there are always more where they came from.”
“Wow,” Juniper muttered.
“It’s entirely possible that you are the most self-aware dryad alive at this moment,” Shiraki said with a smile. “At least, I have never heard of one having this particular conversation. Those of your sisters who have come to face painful truths, or anything particularly painful, have tended to create their own doom.”
“Yeah, I know,” she said sadly. “I guess…I’m fairly lucky to have avoided that. Maybe Avei’s intervention stabilized me a bit…”
“Avei?” Sheyann asked, tilting her head. “Does this have to do with the obstruction in your aura? I do not perceive divine magic directly, but I have learned to recognize its presence by the shadow it casts.”
“She…punished me,” Juniper mumbled. “For something I did. I asked her to. It was pretty harsh, but… I felt better in the end. Like, it balanced me, sort of. Does that make sense?”
“That is what justice is,” Shiraki said, nodding.
“Yeah…I guess so. Anyway, she cut me off from Naiya. I’m, well, on my own now.”
Again, the Elders shared a look.
“To cut you off from your mother is beyond the scope of Avei’s abilities,” said Sheyann. “Naiya’s power dwarfs hers, by a wide margin. Even if such a thing were done, it would simply kill you on the spot; the goddess’s power is what animates you. However, it is well within her reach to place a concealment upon you. Not diminishing the magic of your being, but hiding you from your mother’s sight.”
“Such a thing could only work because Naiya is rather inattentive,” Shiraki added. “Forgive me for saying it, but I feel it is best you have the truth. In all probability she thinks you dead. What she has done about this, if anything, I could not even guess.”
Juniper sighed heavily.
“And so,” Sheyann said thoughtfully, “a dryad comes to us, seeking to learn the ways of the druids.”
“What?” Juniper raised her head. “Oh… Um, not really? I mean, sure, I’m interested in understanding the natural world. I mean, with knowledge. I can communicate with basically anything alive, and I can attune to nature, but… It’s very intuitive? Not really rational. And my perspective is… I think the word I want is tainted. Even knowing, cognitively, how wrong I was, I’m still all mixed up about what is and isn’t right. As if whatever thing it occurs to me to do should be the natural thing, even though I know in my mind that’s not always true. Not usually true,” she added morosely.
“Then you’re already ahead of much of the training,” Sheyann said with a smile. “But druidism is what you want to learn, Juniper. The way of nature.”
“I don’t…think…I need more power. I have lots of power, even if I can’t do much with it. I sort of have the feeling that more power would just give me more opportunities to mess up.”
“That is considerable wisdom for someone so young,” Shiraki said, grinning outright. “But no, you are confusing the path of the druid with that of the shaman. A druid must learn some fae magic, it is true, but mostly for the purpose of doing things which your very nature makes instinctive. For the most part, it is a course of study. Of knowledge, and understanding. The science of the wild.”
“Biology, as the dwarves have it,” Sheyann added. “The distinction seems to help them; perhaps it would help you.”
“Biology,” Juniper mused, then nodded slowly. “Okay. That… Yeah. Maybe that. And also, um, ethics. I feel dumb asking questions about what my friends consider basic stuff. I just… I don’t want to hurt any more people unless they deserve it.”
“We can work on that, too,” Sheyann said gravely.
“I only have three months, though. I’m…guessing becoming a druid takes more time than that.”
“We would not dream of impeding your studies,” Shiraki said dryly. “Versatility is a great asset.”
“In any case,” added Sheyann, “any task worth completing would look impossible if you looked at the whole thing from one vantage. A journey can only be taken one step at a time.”
“Unless you can teleport,” Juniper said reasonably.
Sheyann sighed. “Then again, perhaps we should take full advantage of having you out from under Arachne’s thumb for a little while.”
Shiraki glanced fleetingly through the branches at the gathering below, but placed his full attention on the dryad before she felt any reason to follow his eyes. Absorbed in their conversation, Juniper took no note of the soft stir that resonated through the grove as a small party of drow took their place among the elders at the central table.