Slipping into trance was altogether easier and more pleasant than the last time. Of course, not having it sprung upon him by surprise made a great difference, as did Mary’s succinct words of guidance concerning what he could expect, and should do. Vision-walking was not at all unfamiliar to Ingvar, anyway. Most Huntsmen would only be called upon to experience something like this a few times in their lives, at certain levels of initiation, but Ingvar had had several lengthy sessions with shamans in the course of proving that he was both correct and serious about his condition, and his goals.
He sat elven-style, cross-legged and straight-backed, with his hands resting on his knees. He had been given nothing to drink this time, though his two companions had (and then been told to stay back and keep quiet). Their drink was, in fact, meant to counteract the effects of the fragrant incense smoking in front of Ingvar, since it could apparently be dangerous for someone to slip accidentally into a spirit walk. He had been more surprised to learn that it was possible.
Ingvar focused on his breathing as he had been taught, inhaling the spicy scent of the herbs and letting Mary’s soft chant wash over and through him. It was very much like slipping off to sleep, letting the dreaming mind slowly overtake the waking one, though a more conscious process. Whatever those herbs were clearly helped; he rarely got into a natural sleep this smoothly.
The shaman’s voice gradually faded into the background, as the scent of burning spice did from his nose, slowly replaced with the natural surroundings. Wind rustling gently through the branches above, the constant song of crickets, occasional punctuation by owls and, off in the far distance, the howling of a pack of coyotes, their music reminiscent of the cries of wolves, but distinctly different.
He felt the time was right, and knew to trust his feelings in matters such as this. He opened his eyes.
The forest was much the same, though fully dark now, no longer lit by the last fires of sunset. Of course, that could be the vision or just the passage of time; with his mind relaxed as it had been, he could not be sure how long he had been sitting there. He felt no stiffness when he stood, though.
Having been through visions like this before, Ingvar knew what to expect, and yet paused for a moment to simply look down at himself, inhaling deeply to feel his body. He did not run his hands over his torso or anywhere else; that would be entirely unseemly, even if he was alone in this realm. And he was probably not alone, the whole point of this journey being to find the consciousness which had reached out to him. Still, he indulged in stroking his chin, feeling the rich beard there, where it should be. It was often this way in his normal dreams, too, though it was most vividly experienced in a vision-walk. His mind and soul knew what his body had misunderstood at conception.
Ingvar quickly gathered his focus and peered around; he was here on a mission, after all. The forest looked exactly like the elven grove in which he had sat down to meditate, except for the lack of his companions and the Crow, and the small incense-laden fire which had been before him.
Nothing here, and no hint of which way he should go. No sign of his quarry.
Ingvar thought for a moment. Mary’s advice had been rather general, and mostly of the sort other shamans had given him in the past: the vision would function on a blend of irrational dream logic and more solid waking world physics, the flow of time would be very different, he could to an extent influence his surroundings with his mind but it was wisest not to test that too eagerly.
A thought occurred, and he smiled. If the mechanisms of visions were what he needed, he had a recent example.
Ingvar closed his eyes again, focusing, remembering. Though the images had faded as quickly as a dream upon waking, it had only been a short time ago, and the impressions they had left were still vivid. He could call up the sensation of running through the night, the wind in his fur, navigating through a world of scent…
He opened his eyes again and shook himself off, looking around once more upon four legs. Suddenly, though he had not moved, the forest was different; this was a pine wood, sprawling over flatter ground than the hilly deciduous grove of the elves.
And this time, there were traces he could follow.
The Crow’s scent was most immediately present, and most recognizable. Which was odd, as he could not recall having actually smelled her before, but he recognized the scent as hers. Ingvar lifted his nose, trotting about in a circle to explore it; her traces were all over this spot, but also extended off to the… He couldn’t actually tell what direction that was. There was no moon, the stars were all different from the constellations he knew, and the trees had no moss.
There was another scent, a faint but powerful one; it smelled of magic and of life. And it, too, was familiar. He would not have staked his life upon it, but something told him this lingering touch upon his dreamscape was left by the being he sought, the one who had sent him those prophetic dreams.
It and the Crow’s extended off in the same direction. Ingvar was dubious what to make of that, but at least it told him which way to go from here.
A moment later he was bounding through the pines, following those intertwining scents. This was truly living; nearly-faded memories were brought back to life, of his journey with the wolves in the vision induced by the Rangers. In fact, for a keen moment he missed the presence of his two brothers alongside him, but shook that off, returning his mind to the task at hand. The vision was joyful now, but visions could be tricksome, and it was dangerous to become too immersed in them at the cost of his awareness of self.
And indeed, there quite soon came a point where those scent trails separated. The ancient and magical smell continued on through the trees, into the distance, in a direction in which he smelled a river far enough ahead that he could not yet hear it flowing. Mary’s veered right, descending into a cave that opened in a depression at the base of a towering pine, braced by its roots. It was a little reminiscent of the entrance to the hidden grotto beneath which Data Vault Three was buried, though this one was not hidden at all. That tunnel was easily large enough for a man to step through unbowed.
Ingvar stepped toward it, again on two legs, narrowing his eyes. He had a feeling…
Festooned around it were spider webs. Not of any kind he knew from the real world of nature; dense, well-structured streamers that made trails from outside into the confines of that dark tunnel. They looked more as if they were there to add support to it than to catch anything. And in fact, he had seen such as this before.
In that last dream of Shaath, the one which had prompted him to seek out the Crow.
Ingvar stood, frowning at the webbed cave, then glanced back in the direction in which the other scent had led. Even without a wolf’s nose, he retained an awareness of it, extending away into the night. That was what he had come here to find; he already knew Mary’s stake in this, and it might not be wise to become too involved in her business anyway.
On the other hand, one interpretation of this suggested she knew more of these events than she was letting on. What relationship did she have with this…mysterious spider? Those webs had notably not been binding Shaath…but they had led him to the bound god, as they now pointed into this underground path.
The last time he had followed a tunnel, he had learned a great deal.
Ingvar glanced back once more at the path of the other trace, then resolutely turned his back to it and stepped down into the gully before the great tree, remembering his own shaman’s advice, which had launched him on this quest to begin with. Right or wrong, it was better to make a choice and take action than to vacillate.
Keeping carefully clear of the sticky silk festooning the walls, he stepped into the cave.
It was like stepping around the curtain on a stage, to see the space behind it, where the actors gathered to prepare. Suddenly he was no longer in a forest or a cave, or much of anything as far as he could tell.
Stark whiteness extended infinitely in all directions. Behind him yawned the cave mouth, revealing the starlit forest beyond, but Ingvar could not shake the impression that what he saw now was something truer, something more approximating the actual essence of this dream-space, as it was when there was no mind present to impose a shape upon it. Before him the rocky path faded quickly, as if it were painted with watercolors which had run till they were all but invisible.
And yet, the spiderwebs persisted.
Ingvar stepped carefully forward, examining the strands of silk; they were hard to see against the empty white backdrop, but definitely there, and affixed to…what? If not for those webs, he probably would see nothing worthwhile here and turn back, but they revealed something hidden.
Someone, it seemed, was trying to tell him something.
He placed his feet carefully on the fading path, half expecting to plummet through it, but the ground held. Or at least, his feet came to rest where he expected them to, as if this realm understood the idea of the ground and obligingly provided it even if it couldn’t be bothered to create the image. Reaching forward, he lightly touched the thick webs, finding them tacky and exactly like mundane spider silk in texture, though far thicker. Slowly, he extended his hands to touch the spot before him where they connected to nothing.
His hands passed through without encountering any obstruction.
Ingvar withdrew his arm and studied this for a moment. Then, edging closer, he reached up to touch the very end of the web itself, carefully maneuvering his fingertips around the point where it was affixed to midair. This wasn’t easy; the texture of spider webs did not lend itself to sliding one’s hands along it, wanting to cling to his fingertips. But he managed, and by keeping contact with the web, he found he could get his fingers on the invisible wall before him. A wall which was not only unnoticeable but untouchable without the aid of those strands of silk.
Someone was not only telling him something, but providing a means to reach it.
Its texture was odd—somewhat like leather, but also like fabric. It was unfamiliar, but whatever it was, it was malleable. He inched forward, exploring the surface with his fingers, and paused when he found they sank into it at one point. Ingvar hesitated, feeling carefully along the edges of the little rent he had accidentally made. It tore further at his explorations, and he frowned in concern. Given what he had just learned from the Avatar, tearing holes in the fabric of reality did not seem like a wise idea.
But then, this wasn’t reality. It was a dream.
He raised his other hand, grasping the other edge of the rent after fumbling for a moment (this was difficult with his eyes telling him there was nothing there under his fingers) and pulling it to the side.
Now, though he couldn’t see the barrier itself, he could see what lay beyond it. He was looking at an island beneath a blank white sky, crowned with golden-leafed trees. The whole thing appeared to be less than an acre in size, surrounded by shallow water lapping its pebbly shores in little waves.
Ingvar hesitated only a moment longer before stepping forward and climbing through. He didn’t actually pull the rent open any wider, but somehow had no trouble fitting. He slid into this new world as easily as if poured.
In fact, this time there was a sensation, and not a pleasant one. For a moment right there on the barrier he felt a terrifying vertigo, a sense that something was horribly awry with his perceptions. It was as if that split-second passage held him for a hundred years, then was forgotten the instant he was through it, leaving only the chilly memory of lost time.
But then, there he was, standing in the shallows. He glanced around once again, reaching back to make sure he could find the rent, and strode up onto the shore.
The island was tiny indeed, slightly rounded and decorated here and there with boulders. He climbed upward toward the center, never once letting the shore out of his sight. The trees he recognized: aspens. They were a fascinating species—actually communal, with multiple trees rising from the same interconnected root system. It was possible this entire little forest was only a single organism. There was no sign of bird or even insect life, nothing underfoot but rocky soil.
Who would plant a grove of aspens in a walled-off dream-space? More to the point, why was this important to him, and who was this mysterious spider who now directed him to it?
“Who are you?”
Ingvar whirled at the voice, then nearly choked, staring.
It would have been startling enough to find himself confronted by a strikingly lovely and completely nude young woman, but he immediately recognized what was signified by the subtle golden hue of her skin, and her pale green hair.
A dryad. He was alone, on an isolated island, in a bubble behind a dream, with a dryad. This marked the last time he would ever follow spider webs anywhere, assuming he got out of here un-eaten.
“I am Ingvar,” he replied to her, bowing as deeply as he could without taking his eyes off her. “A Huntsman of Shaath. I apologize for disturbing your sanctuary, daughter of Naiya; it was not my intention. I was exploring, and didn’t realize you were here.”
“You were exploring?” she said, stepping forward, and he had to repress the urge to retreat. Her expression was not hostile, though; she appeared eager. “But how did you get here? Do you even know where you are?”
“I…do not, actually,” he said. “If I’m not supposed to be here, I’ll depart.”
“Oh, I don’t mind, I love having somebody new to talk to!” she said avidly, rushing forward and seizing his hands in her own. He barely managed not to flinch or jump backward. “I only ever see Sheyann, and she only wants to talk about…” She broke off and her face fell for a moment, then she rallied and pressed onward. “I mean, this is my mind, Ingvar. And also it’s behind a barrier of time; all this is rushing past while nothing at all moves outside. How did you even get in here?”
“I…followed a trail of spider webs,” he said honestly. “There was a barrier, but it was not difficult to breach.”
The dryad frowned. “Spider webs? I have spider webs around my mind?”
“I’m afraid I don’t have any answers for you,” Ingvar said. “I have very little idea what’s going on. I’m hunting for…something else. I think the trail I followed here wasn’t meant for me…”
“Well, that doesn’t matter!” she said brightly. “You’re here now, and you can stay with me!”
“I…actually can’t,” he replied, edging backward but not removing his hands from her grip. Her skin was smooth and warm; he’d have expected a dryad to be a maze of alien textures, but they simply felt like a woman’s hands. “I am on a quest.”
“Oh, a quest,” Aspen snorted, scowling, and actually stomped her foot. “Who cares? You’re here, and I’m bored. Stay with me!”
“I can’t,” Ingvar repeated, frowning, and finally pulled free of her. She didn’t fight him on it, fortunately.
“But I want you to stay!”
Perhaps it was the sheer ridiculousness of the situation, or simply his own disconnection from the world as he knew it, but Ingvar’s courtesy cracked under her imperiousness, and he heard himself reply, “So what?”
Aspen stared at him, poleaxed. She opened her mouth, worked her jaw soundlessly for a moment, and finally croaked, “W-what?”
“You say that you want me to stay,” he said. “I want to go. Why is what you want more important?”
Her expression, if anything, grew more confused. “But…I’m a dryad!”
Aspen backed up a few steps, now staring at him in something like horror. The backs of her knees ran into a low boulder, and she very abruptly sat down on it. “I…I’m a dryad. A dryad. I’m a daughter of Naiya. I matter!”
“Everyone matters,” he retorted, then caught himself, shaking his head. “No, no, this is silly. I’m not going to try to have a debate on ethics and philosophy with a fairy. It was an honor to meet you, Aspen, but I have to leave.”
“Wait, what?” she said, frowning. “I didn’t tell you my name.”
He hesitated, then reached out to rap his knuckles against a nearby trunk. “Forgive me if I assumed wrong. You said this is your mind, and there’s only one kind of tree here…”
“Oh,” she said sheepishly. “Right. I guess you’re kinda smart.”
“Thank you, I try.” He bowed to her, then turned to go.
“Ingvar?” At her suddenly small voice, he hesitated, looking back. Aspen sat hunched in on herself, with her hands between her knees. It was actually a more modest pose than he’d seen on her before, but if anything the sudden apparent vulnerability was even more alluring than her brazen nudity. “I… Please stay with me? For a while, at least? I’m just so lonely. Please? There’s not much to do, but we can talk, and play, and make love. I’m really good at that, I know you’d enjoy yourself. At least for a while, please?”
Dream-space or no, Ingvar felt the blood rush to his cheeks, which he found very irritating. Appealing as the idea was on a very instinctive level—especially here, where he actually had the correct body to take her up on the offer—a Huntsman of Shaath knew very well not to dally with dryads. Exploring the wild places as they did, encountering one was a much greater possibility than for most people. They were not granted initiation without being forewarned about such dangers.
On the other hand, continuing to flatly contradict her could lead to all sorts of trouble. Thus far she hadn’t gotten angry, but she was clearly a wildly emotional creature. One who could tear him in half as easily as he could snap a twig. What would happen to him if he were killed in a vision? Somehow, it didn’t seem worth finding out.
“Why are you in here?” he asked to lead her away from that topic. “You make it sound as if you can’t leave.”
Aspen slumped down still further, staring glumly at the ground. “I…can’t. I messed up, made a mess of everything… My body’s all broken and I…” She swallowed heavily. “I shouldn’t get mad at Sheyann, I know she’s trying to help. Her and the Arachne and Kuriwa. But I feel like I’m gonna go crazy in here. I don’t even know how long it’s been. Time is all…weird.”
Kuriwa. Well, that explained her scent leading here. And Arachne? Ingvar began to suspect he had stumbled into something very dangerous and very much none of his business.
“Trying to help with what?” he asked, stalling while taking a very small step away from her and toward the shore.
Aspen sighed heavily, lifting her eyes, and he stopped moving. “It’s all Juniper’s fault,” she said sullenly.
“Juniper…that’s another dryad?”
“My youngest sister. First she was killed, and then she was fine, and I never did find out what was even going on with that because when she tried to explain it, this happened!”
“I…see,” Ingvar lied.
“None of this is my fault!” Aspen leaped to her feet and began pacing back and forth in agitation; Ingvar reflexively stepped back, but fortunately she seemed not to notice. “I was just doing what we do, what’s natural. I didn’t know! How could I be expected to know?”
In another abrupt change of mood, she came to a stop, wrapping her arms around herself. She looked so sad, suddenly, that Ingvar hardly noticed how that pose emphasized her breasts. “I… I didn’t…” She paused, swallowing heavily, and tears began to leak from the corners of her eyes. “I hurt some people.”
“Who?” he asked carefully, taking a half-step back toward her. Curiosity was beginning to get the better of him.
“I don’t know,” she whispered. “Just…people. I didn’t know they were… They were all just animals, right? Just more things to… To, you know, chase and eat… You understand hunting, don’t you?”
“I certainly do,” he said immediately. “But the Huntsmen don’t hunt people.”
“It’s not my fault!” she wailed, turning her back. “She didn’t have to show me that! I didn’t need to see it! I could have just gone back home and everything would have been fine like normal!”
“I don’t think I understand,” he said carefully. “You’re upset because…you hunted people?” She just sniffled, her shoulders shaking. “Then…why did you do it?”
“I didn’t know,” she mumbled. “That…they felt. That they were like me. Things hunt other things, it’s just life. I never wanted to know what prey felt like!”
“Oh.” Comprehension dawned. “And your sister made you understand that.”
“I never asked her to!”
“Well, you should thank her.”
“Excuse me?” Aspen whirled around, glaring, but this time he didn’t back up.
“More understanding is always better than less,” he said. “Now you know more, and can do better.”
“Who asked you?”
“No one. That’s not the point. You’re blaming Juniper for showing you an important truth because it was a painful one. Well, truths are just like that, sometimes; it’s not anyone’s fault. What matters is how you cope with what you learn.”
“I cope just fine!” she said shrilly.
“Really?” Ingvar raised an eyebrow. “Then why are you trapped on a dream-island?”
A moment too late, it occurred to him that speaking thus to a dryad wasn’t the best idea he’d ever had. Something about this place was bringing something out in him.
Aspen stared at him in shock, then her face collapsed into a furious scowl. “And what would you know about it?”
“I certainly know about hunting,” he said, feeling oddly unable to stop himself from talking. It was both disturbing and liberating. “We hunt all the time, but we do so in balance. With respect for nature, and especially for what we kill. The Huntsmen give thanks to prey for what it gives us, and honor for the challenge it poses. For life to continue, lives must be taken, but this must never be done without respect, and gratitude.”
The dryad was staring at him, slightly slack-jawed, as if not sure what language he was speaking. “But…you’re the hunters. You’re stronger.”
“And that makes us better?”
Ingvar shook his head. “I’m starting to see why you were stuck in here.”
“Oh, like you’ve never been wrong!”
“I most certainly have,” he agreed. “Quite severely…about some very important things. I’ve just learned that a lot of the matters on which I’ve built my life were mistakes, and I don’t yet know how to deal with that. Much less what I’m going to do. I do know, however, that sulking and falling to pieces will only make it worse.”
“So you were wrong!” she crowed, pointing at him.
“Yes,” he said simply. “And?”
Aspen stared, apparently uncertain why he wasn’t getting her point. “You were wrong!” she repeated insistently.
“Everyone’s wrong sometimes,” he said patiently. “There’s no point in dwelling on it. You just have to correct your mistakes if you can, and do better next time.”
“But you were wrong!” she shouted, stomping her foot again. “Wrong wrong wrong! You can’t criticize me!”
Of all the absurd… For what possible reason would some mysterious dream-scape agent insist he had to come here and deal with this ridiculous woman?
No. Realization suddenly descended. It was a mistake to think of her as a woman, or even as a fairy. From her talk of dryad exceptionalism, to strength making right, to the total lack of emotional control and debate tactics that consisted of pointing and shouting… She was a child. No one had ever taught her discipline or self-control.
“Just shut up,” Ingvar said curtly. “If you have nothing worthwhile to say, don’t talk.”
Aspen stared at him in utter shock. He stared right back, impassively.
“Sheyann doesn’t talk to me like that,” she whispered finally.
“This Sheyann,” he replied. “If she works with Kuriwa and Arachne…she’s another elf?”
“Well, that explains it.”
The dryad frowned in puzzlement. “What? How?”
“Only someone who will live forever has time for your nonsense.”
Ingvar turned his back on her and walked away.
He made it to the beach before she shouted “Hey!” at his back. Ingvar paused, peering around; his own tracks were quite plain, so this was where he had come in, but now he couldn’t see the rent leading back. The shallow water appeared to extend to every horizon on all sides; Aspen was clearly isolated in an ocean. At least the sky was blue and contained a warm sun, unlike the stark white void he had first beheld upon arriving.
Perhaps it was only illusion? That would explain why his own perceptions had shifted since coming here. Whatever the mechanism keeping her in, unless this Sheyann had a cruel streak, a natural barrier would be far less uncomfortable for the dryad than some kind of cage.
This was obviously not the same dream-scape he had first entered through the vision, but it was equally obviously connected. Considering how he had first been contacted, it made sense that Mary would send him into some medium that could connect to the dreams of others. By that logic, her rules and advice should still be applicable.
It took him a few moments of concentration to get it, but by focusing, Ingvar found he could perceive the shadows of the structure around this mind-prison. There was the white beyond the sky…and around the place, a peculiar structure that he had to examine closely to realize was an enormous hourglass. The shape of it was rather unfamiliar when viewed from within.
Pounding feet on the sand were the only warning he got. Ingvar whirled just in time to behold Aspen lunging at him in a flying tackle, snarling furiously.
Something in him snapped.
He met her in midair, shifting his weight sideways to throw her off balance even as he lunged forward, his powerful jaws clamping around her throat. They tumbled to the ground, dryad and wolf in a rolling tangle of fur and limbs, but somehow he ended up on top of her, rear paws planted on the beach and front ones pinning her shoulders to the sand. He still had her neck in the firm grip of his jaws, the position twisting his head, but not as badly as it did hers.
Aspen whimpered pitifully, and he realized the acrid taste in his mouth was tree sap. Or, in this context, blood.
A wolf should not be anywhere near as strong as a dryad, much less heavy enough to hold one down, much less able to penetrate her skin with teeth or claws. Only then did Ingvar understand: this was, after all, not the physical world. Here it was thought and belief that mattered; neither of them had a body except the ones projected by their minds. He was more powerful than she, and acted toward her with more aggression than was characteristic of him, because in his mind, she was a silly, hysterical girl-child who needed nothing more than a good spanking.
And the fact that this had worked showed that on some level, she thought so too.
He growled once, loudly, enough to make her whole skull vibrate (assuming dryads had bones). Aspen squealed in panic, clawing at the sand, but notably not trying to throw him off.
A rush of satisfaction filled him, followed immediately by a sickening horror. Here he was, forcing a woman to the ground and adding intimidation on top of brutality until she was clearly terrified senseless. Worse, a woman he had already decided was too childlike to even be truly alluring.
Ingvar released her and immediately stepped backward, controlling himself barely enough not to make it a leap.
“I’m sorry,” he said weakly, then cleared his throat.
Aspen raised her head, peering nervously up at him. “I—you… I’m sorry too.”
He drew in a deep breath, quelling his unease; he had overreacted, yes, but not as badly as she.
“I will not do that again,” he said firmly, “and neither will you.”
“Okay! I’m sorry!”
Another breath, then another, and he began to feel somewhat calmer. Enough, at least, to lean forward and offer her a hand up.
She accepted it, still watching him warily.
“I need to leave,” he said. “My quest is important, but aside from that, this place… I don’t know why, but it brings something out in me that is…troubling. I have never been so quick to attack before.”
“What do you mean you don’t know why?” she said, frowning slightly. Her body language was still slightly tense, but she seemed to be quickly forgiving him for the previous outburst. “I told you, we’re in my mind, here. I’m a dryad—a predator. Like you. You’ve got instincts, don’t you? I’m all instinct.”
“Ah,” he said, blinking in surprise. “Actually, that makes a great deal of sense. And it underscores my point: it is clearly past time I was gone.”
“Ingvar, wait,” she said softly. “I…please take me with you?”
He sighed; the pleading expression on her face now was a lot harder to deal with than her tantrums, grandstanding or even assault. “Aspen…”
“I’m a wild thing,” she said plaintively. “I don’t belong in a cage. If you have a way out, and you won’t stay with me, please.”
“This is your mind,” he said. “How can we take you out of it?”
“I’m desperate,” she whispered. “I hate this. You can’t leave me trapped in this…purgatory. I’m a dryad; it’s not right for me not to be connected to my mother, my sisters. The world.”
He opened his mouth to object again, and a sudden realization crashed down upon him, prompted by her phrasing.
The Mother, Naiya, was well known by Huntsmen, witches, and all who practiced her arts to be standoffish, inattentive, capricious, and broadly disinterested in the affairs of mortals. According to what he had learned in the Data Vault, the dryads were like her paladins, serving to secure her consciousness and personality against manipulation. And if they all acted like this… It explained a great deal.
But what if a dryad could be taught to act…differently?
Suddenly, whoever it was sending spider webs to guide his way, he had the sense that they just might be on his side.
“I cannot guarantee your safety if you follow me,” Ingvar said, keeping Aspen’s gaze locked to his with the firm stare he used to control children back at the lodge. “I have no idea what will happen. You might be unable to leave, you might just be brought back here…or it could be painful or even fatal for you. This is a risk, you understand?”
“I do.” She nodded eagerly, and it was bizarre how familiar that expression was. A recently-chastised child, eager to redeem herself. “I don’t care.”
“And assuming that this works,” he continued, frowning deeply for emphasis, “your behavior of the last few minutes is not acceptable. I am on an important quest, which you cannot derail. You generally can’t run around acting like that. If you’re going to come with me, I need your word that you will behave yourself, accept my guidance, and obey if I tell you to do something.”
She hesitated, chewing on her lower lip. Her amber-brown eyes cut to one side.
“Decide for yourself,” Ingvar said. “I won’t force you to come, but if you do, these are my terms.”
She met his gaze again, resolutely now, and nodded. “Yes. Okay. I can do that.”
“Promise,” he said flatly, “and make me believe it.”
Aspen drew in a deep breath (and he resisted the temptation to shift his eyes from hers), and nodded again. Her voice was quieter, but also firmer than he had heard from her yet. “I’ll be good. I’ll do what you say.”
He read the sincerity on her face…and also foresaw the moment it would collapse. Children did their best, but they were wildly emotional creatures who inevitably acted out. Just like fairies.
But children grew up. Could a dryad?
He was going to regret this. Hopefully it would be worth it.
“All right,” Ingvar said, nodding, “we have an agreement. Follow me.”