The forest was like a cathedral with columns of redwood and pine, the air cool and dim except where shafts of sunlight pierced its canopy. In other ways, it resembled a park more than a real woodland, with a carpet of lush moss interspersed with bushes and saplings whose placement was both ideal to support them and ensure their future growth, and also aesthetic in the symmetry and balance it created. It was vibrantly alive, deep and mysterious, and yet not truly wild. This was a land deeply cared for, created by the people it sustained. One with them, in a way.
“And that is what those old hard-liners forget,” said the older of the two women walking hand-in-hand beneath the trees. “The rhetoric about mad, nature-destroying humans is dismally short-sighted. Of course there are humans who do that, just as there are those who deliberately cultivate the land around them… But either way, it is the nature of all life to find equilibrium with its environment, sapient or otherwise, and humanity is far from the only species which can devastate its surroundings if allowed to run unchecked. Any predator and most herbivores will do the same; viruses do literally nothing but. Trying to single out a mortal race for it is nothing but a political agenda.”
Trissiny nodded, gazing around her at the forest. There came faint flickers of motion from overhead, betraying the passage of the birds whose singing livened the quiet.
“I’ve been trying to figure out what it is about this place that reminds me of Viridill. At a glance, it doesn’t look anything like the mountains, but… I think you just jogged my mind.”
“Oh?” Lanaera smiled at her.
“It’s a shaped land. That’s the quality they have in common. Viridill… It’s all so old. These ancient twisted trees, old paths and stone steps cut in the slopes, stone walls that are half-fallen. Everything’s weathered and just feels ancient. But it’s ancient in a way that’s shaped around the people who’ve lived there for thousands of years. The people and the environment are…” She frowned, groping for a word.
“Balanced?” Lanaera suggested.
“Yes.” Trissiny nodded again. “Integrated. There’s a harmony. I’ve been in true wilderness, too. The Golden Sea, the forests around Veilgrad. Really wild country doesn’t feel the same at all. It doesn’t care about you, it’d kill you in a second if you let it, and just…something about the place carries that constant reminder. But Viridill reflects its people. Like your grove reflects the elves. People belong in these places; they aren’t really wild.”
“That’s not how I would put it,” the shaman commented, still smiling. “I like your phrasing, though. You have an intuitive grasp of such things that’s unusual for someone with no education in naturalism.”
Trissiny came to a stop, tilting her head back to let a sunbeam warm her place. “I wish I’d been able to visit a grove before. I missed out on that, in Sarasio. Something about this place is peaceful, like nothing I’ve ever felt before.” She opened her eyes, turning to Lanaera with a quizzical little frown. “Is that…genetic?”
“That’s a very large question,” Lanaera mused. “In an absolute sense, definitely. Forests are always calming to the spirit; they connect to something ancient and primal in all of us. But if you mean because you are my granddaughter, or a half-blood… Maybe, though I would not ascribe too much weight to that. If the forest speaks to you, then it does, and that’s good. That is a spiritual thing. Spiritual things are to be experienced, not analyzed. I agree, though,” she added. “You already look more relaxed than when you first arrived.”
“I think I’ll have to make these visits a regular thing,” Trissiny said, smiling back. “If that’s all right, I mean.”
“So respectful.” The elf shook her head ruefully. “That isn’t genetic, I can tell you that much. It’s all right to be a little presumptuous, Trissiny. You are blood, and I have welcomed you here. Unless you do something specifically to negate that welcome in the eyes of the Elders, this place is yours to visit as you please. And to be quite frank, you already seem less likely to make that kind of mess than some who were born here.”
“I appreciate it,” Trissiny said quickly. “I just don’t want to be an imposition on anyone who didn’t have a say in that. I know elves like routine, and privacy.”
“Mmm…” The shaman gave her a sidelong look, the faintest hint of smile glinting in her eye. “Let me put it this way. Have you ever met someone about whose opinion you simply could not force yourself to care?”
She grimaced. “Frequently.”
Lanaera laughed, startling a rabbit out of the bushes nearby. “Well! The tribe does value harmony—both with nature and with one another. A big part of life in elven communities is avoiding conflict. That doesn’t mean there are no irritating idiots among my tribe, merely that I do not seek out opportunities to thwart them, and in fact do not take every opportunity that arises. So, if someone did happen to object to my own granddaughter being welcome in my home, not only would I utterly disregard their entire existence, I would take a degree of satisfaction in so doing that probably reflects badly on my moral character.”
Trissiny couldn’t help grinning along with her at that.
“All that aside,” Lanaera continued, her expression sobering, “I do think you needn’t worry about the likelihood. There are very few elves who truly hate humans, at least on an individual level, and none in this grove. Most of the strongest anti-human sentiment among us comes from a suspicion and fear of humanity, collectively. We tend to think of people as groups, whereas you tend to as individuals. A human may earn welcome among us, and many have over the years.”
“Do humans come to live in the groves?”
“That’s extremely rare, but…occasionally, yes. Few humans have the mindset to get along in tribal life, and fewer still the patience to earn a tribe’s trust and acceptance. Half-bloods do somewhat more often. Having family among the tribe gets you in, which is the most difficult thing—you have that part covered. Halflings often come to groves, even if they were not born in one, to extend their lives.”
They had begun walking again, but at that Trissiny stopped, frowning. “Extend their lives? How so?”
Lanaera gave her a considering look, then sighed. “All right. This requires some explanation… You do understand, I hope, how the elvish metabolism works?”
“Yes, Professor Tellwyrn explained that to me. I did some experimentation to see what traits I’d inherited. I have the metabolism, but not the instinctive recognition of relatives.”
“Ah. That’s good to know. What I’m about to tell you is a secret, Trissiny.”
“Then I’ll never repeat it,” Trissiny replied immediately.
Lanaera squeezed her hand, then stepped away and pulled her gently along. They continued walking slowly through the shadow-dappled forest while the shaman collected her thoughts. Trissiny wasn’t quite used to the hand-holding yet; for as generally aloof as the elves were, they were amazingly touchy-feely between friends and loved ones. It didn’t make her uncomfortable enough to object, though.
“An elf is not a body,” Lanaera said finally, “but an aura centered upon one. You and I, walking this way, are partly within each other. Mingling and resonating. This fact is at the root of the unity and harmony toward which all elven communities strive; simply by living in proximity, we are connected in a way that humans are not. It would drive us mad if we didn’t maintain that harmony. Those who can’t or won’t do so do not remain within the community.”
“Tauhanwe,” Trissiny said, nodding.
Her grandmother squeezed her hand again. “Yes. This has other implications. Wherever there is an elf, any human in their proximity is within their aura—their magic, their very being. And for humans and every non-demonic species, this is extremely healthy. An elf’s aura encourages life, and the balance thereof. You mentioned that Principia’s squad has two elves? Well, none of those women will be inclined to catch so much as a sniffle for the duration of their association. A standard Silver Legion period of enlistment will probably add five years to each of their lives.”
Trissiny slowed again, coming to a stop; Lanaera did so along with her, watching her face closely.
“I see,” Trissiny said finally, eyes wide, “why that is a secret.”
“Yes.” The shaman grimaced. “About five hundred years ago, a rumor circulated among the nobility that drinking or bathing in the blood of elves could grant immortality. The results of that were predictable and horrific. It would be bad enough if human communities learned the truth, that they could just keep an elf chained in their bedroom and… Fortunately, the gods and their cults help us suppress the knowledge. The Veskers expunge it from their tales, and Avei and Eserion alike have been zealous in punishing any such abuses.”
“I gather Kuriwa makes a point to punish people who abuse elves, too.”
“Right,” Lanaera said sourly, “and then pats herself on the back for how protective she’s been by agitating every human power in the vicinity against our whole race. Frankly, child, I consider Arachne a better woman than Kuriwa. The main difference between them is that Arachne doesn’t pretend to herself that she’s helping.”
This time it was Trissiny who burst out laughing.
They were interrupted by a shape bounding toward them through the trees. Like a stag in form, but with sweeping horns instead of antlers, and the entire creature seemingly made of mist and light. It leaped soundlessly past trunks and over bushes, passing within arm’s length of them and coming to a halt in a glade up ahead. The ghostly figure turned, one foreleg upraised as if about to leap away again, watching them in silence.
A much less graceful and less quiet shape came pounding along after it. Schwartz was out of breath, his hair and robes disheveled from rushing through the forest and glasses slipping down his nose. He shoved them back into place, staggering to a halt alongside the two women.
“Whew! Good morning, Trissiny, Lanaera! Didn’t see you at breakfast.”
“Should you really be chasing that, Herschel?” Trissiny asked pointedly. Meesie, squeaking in greeting, leaped from Schwartz’s hair to her shoulders where she scampered a complete lap around Trissiny’s neck before bounding onto Lanaera.
“Oh, it’s just a game of tag,” he wheezed cheerfully, grinning. “Fae spirits! Very playful!”
“Herschel, at least, knows better than to pester fairies who don’t care to be approached,” Lanaera said with clear amusement, scratching an ecstatic Meesie’s head with a fingertip. “There are no dangerous fae in the grove, regardless.”
“I say, since I’ve run into you, d’you think it would mind if I augmented myself with a spot of magic to keep up? Cos I don’t mind telling you, I’m already bushed. Or would that be cheating?”
“Cheating isn’t even a concept to most fairies, as you well know,” the shaman said, gently depositing Meesie back on his shoulder. “You are not going to catch that stag, Herschel. If you wish to avoid boring him, better use every trick up your sleeves.”
“Rightyo!” he said brightly. “I’ll see you later then, girls. Come on, Meesie!”
The little elemental bounded back atop Schwartz’s head, where she grabbed a fistful of his hair and pointed at the stag, trumpeting a tiny charge. He bounded off after the spirit again, this time as lightly as a gazelle. Whatever craft he had employed still didn’t make him a match for the fairy, which took off immediately. In seconds, the two had vanished into the forest.
“Well, he’s having the time of his life,” Trissiny observed. “I’ve never seen him that happy without a book in his face.”
“Mm.” Lanaera was watching after the departed witch with a smile. “That was more family than I expected to come visiting, but I’m glad you brought him.”
“About that,” Trissiny said more cautiously, “I hope…”
“I assure you,” Lanaera said in a wryer tone, “the rest of the tribe is not bothered by Herschel. He is blood of my blood—apparently—and his family is known to us. He’s a follower of Naiya’s craft, besides. No, you’ve both made an excellent impression here in just a few days. If anything, I imagine most of them were gladder to meet him than another Crowblood. You should be aware that our clan is generally heralded by a great rolling of eyes. You know the real irony, though?” she added, giving Trissiny a thoughtful look.
“Do I want to know it?” she replied, with the same expression. “I’ve had mixed luck with ironies.”
Lanaera grinned and squeezed her hand. “It’s just that you make a better elf than either your mother or I did at your age. I look forward to antagonizing a few specific individuals with the idea that it’s the Schwartz blood which does it.”
Trissiny looked mostly confused. “A…better elf?”
The shaman shook her head and resumed walking, her granddaughter again falling into step beside her. “An awkward way to put it, sorry. You’re just so…centered. Calm, respectful, and you have an innate tendency to adapt to your surroundings and the rhythms of those around you. When I was twenty I most got into fistfights and set things on fire.”
“Hm,” Trissiny murmured. “Funny. For most of the last two years people have been telling me I’m judgmental and stuck up.”
“Yes,” Lanaera said dryly, “and that’s exactly what they usually say about elves.”
Trissiny made no response that time, just gazing ahead with a faintly pensive frown, now, rather than peering around at the forest. After glancing curiously at her, Lanaera left the silence alone.
They continued on their way, the elf gently steering their course around little hillocks and bushes, till they reached a bank overlooking a bend in a small stream. Atop this hill was a small tree—small, at least, in comparison to its towering neighbors, all of which stood far enough away that ample sunlight penetrated. It was an old and sizable specimen of its kind, though. The tree leaned far out over the stream from relatively high above, its fern-like foliage casting iridescent shadows upon the water.
Both came to a stop, gazing up at the lone mimosa.
“They don’t usually grow in places like this, do they?” Trissiny asked quietly.
Lanaera shook her head. “It was a gift from a tribe which visited us from a very distant land. They are not native to this continent, and have not spread here. The few which grow in these lands are transplants, most lovingly cultivated.”
“There’s one on the Abbey grounds in Viridill.”
“I am in no hurry, granddaughter,” the shaman said in a gentle tone. “Things are better allowed to come in their own time. I have time aplenty. But I am not sure how much you have. Avei’s business will call you away soon enough, and likely allow you few breaks in which to return. It might be better to speak of her sooner than later.”
Trissiny heaved a heavy sigh. Releasing Lanaera’s hand, she paced slowly up the hill to the tree, and placed her palm against its bark. The shaman followed more slowly along behind her.
“I’m not really accustomed to having family,” Trissiny said after a long pause. “I’ve heard people say it’s possible to love someone with all your heart and not really like them all that much. I always thought that was the strangest idea…”
“That’s a very apt description of what it’s like to have family,” Lanaera replied with a rueful little chuckle. “Yours, especially. If you go on to meet more of our clan I suspect you’ll come to understand it very well.”
“I don’t love Principia,” she whispered. “And I don’t like her. But…I no longer resent her. I gave up on that because carrying a grudge is just…exhausting. Pointless. Gradually, I’m learning to…appreciate her. I feel that I could grow to love, or like her, in time. Maybe.”
Lanaera stepped past her and seated herself on the main trunk of the tree, which grew as much to the side as up. It was vertical enough that Trissiny wouldn’t have tried balancing on it that way, but the elf perched with no sign of difficulty.
“Almost every Crowblood I’ve met has told me we come in two kinds: the tauhanwe and the aggressively ‘normal’ ones who work extra hard at being traditional elves to compensate for the rest. Personally? I think there’s only the one kind. Our bloodline has a tendency to be magically gifted, strong-willed, and more than a little iconoclastic. It’s just that some of us choose to pursue a conventional tribal life—and pursue that with the same single-minded disregard for what anybody else thinks as ardently as the most rambunctious runaway tauhanwe goes haring off after adventure. I am even more prickly than most, if anything. That I am a respected shaman of an ancient grove is because that’s what I want.”
She hesitated, looking out over the stream at the quiet shade of the forest beyond.
“My daughter and I are very much alike… And that may as well have doomed us. I’m just not a very good mother, Trissiny. It takes a degree of patience, empathy, and self-sacrifice that is simply not in my personality. If I had been more flexible, more understanding, maybe… Well. If ifs and buts were berries and nuts we’d be knee-deep in squirrels. Principia and I were butting heads by the time she could talk. In hindsight, I suspect that a large part of what drove her to such a violently idiosyncratic life was my constant badgering when she behaved so badly as a youth.”
“No one’s responsible for who they are but themselves,” Trissiny murmured, reaching up to lightly run a green frond through her fingertips.
“It’s not so simple as that,” Lanaera said with mild amusement. “Not that you’re wrong; that is an important insight. But… Take this tree. I could have shaped it, from a sapling, had I wished. Guided its growth, coaxed or forced it to take a form unnatural to it, to stand upright and spread horizontal branches from a single trunk, like these redwoods. But no matter what craft I employed, no matter what shape I convinced it to take, it would never be anything but a mimosa. We are shaped by those around us, and yet we are defined by our choices, and our essential nature. Either, and both.”
“It isn’t all one thing,” Lanaera agreed, nodding. “Too much harmony is like too much of anything: destructive. There is an extent to which you must avoid being influenced by others. Children are uniquely vulnerable, especially to their parents. They have shallow roots and slender trunks, and are easily swayed into forms which will define them forever. I tried to make Principia what I thought was best. But in my carelessness, I attended only to the shape of her, paying no mind to what kind of tree she was. And so…here we are. You are not the only one, by far, to suffer for her antics, though I think you have been cut more deeply than most.”
“Oh, no. It’s not like that at all.” Trissiny stepped over to her grandmother and took her hand again, smiling. “She’s never hurt me. The worst thing I felt when Principia revealed herself to me was just shock. I had a mother, and a good one. I had an upbringing that I give credit for most of my strengths. And some of my flaws,” she added with a grimace. “But Prin… She came along years later and the disgust I felt at her for abandoning an infant daughter was a general one. It wasn’t personal; it’s not as if I had any memory of it. I think I’ve had a better life than I would have if she’d kept me.”
Lanaera slipped down off the trunk and wrapped her arms around Trissiny in a hug. They stood that way for a few minutes. These long demonstrations were another thing Trissiny was still growing accustomed to; with eternity in which to do everything, elves tended to take their time, and a hug could draw on till it became almost tedious. At least at first; she was learning to appreciate just being close to a loved one while time paused around them.
It was Lanaera who finally drew back with a soft sigh. “Well. I prompted the subject for a reason, granddaughter. Your visit may be somewhat abbreviated. The grove has another guest, and I have a sneaking suspicion he is here for you.”
The grove stood on the prairie, but within the shade of the trees, the ground was quite uneven, rolling and heaving up in hills and valleys. They were smoothly rounded shapes, as there wasn’t much rock in this soil. Water helped define the shape of the land, rising up from springs and vanishing back into sinkholes. Long ago, these features had been carefully coaxed into being by fae craft from what had once been a flat stretch of prairie no different from that which surrounded it.
Most of the elves lived near one another, along a high bank of the widest stream in the grove. It rose almost three yards above the water, and was held in place by a line of mighty redwoods. Their homes were dug into the soil, using the root systems of the trees to define these spaces. Common areas for gathering, eating, and pursuing crafts and various tasks were built higher up, a network of platforms and bridges stretching between the branches. All of these were grown from the living wood; not one nail had been driven into one tree.
They returned to the central meeting space, a platform suspended between three redwoods which grew unusually close together, to find much of the tribe present, gathering around the new visitor. He was apparently human, wearing colorful silks and an improbable floppy hat which trailed a long peacock feather almost to his heels behind him. The man sat strumming a guitar, evidently waiting for them.
“There she is!” the bard said cheerfully, hopping to his feet when Trissiny stepped onto the platform, Lanaera right behind her. “My, but you’re looking well, Triss! I’ve never seen you so serene. I guess a little vacation time was pretty much called for after spending months with Eserites, eh?”
She studied him dispassionately for a moment, then glanced around at the assembled elves. Their demeanor was notable; the tribe hadn’t been this carefully aloof even when she and Schwartz had turned up unannounced. Usually, gatherings in this public spot were relaxed and full of talk. Now, the elves stood warily at a distance from the bard, watching. No hands went near weapons and no spells were held at the ready, but…still.
“Lord Vesk,” Trissiny said finally, bowing. “What can I do for you?”
“Straight to business, then,” Vesk said with a dramatic sigh. “Very well, I’ve dealt with enough Avenists to know better than to waste your time with banter.”
“And yet…” Lanaera murmured. Trissiny’s lips twitched.
“Trissiny Avelea,” Vesk intoned, suddenly with ostentatiously put-on grandiosity. “Hand of Avei, hero of the Pantheon, I hereby call you to perform a quest.”
She narrowed her eyes slightly. “When a bard says ‘hero,’ they mean ‘victim.’”
At that, he broke character to grin. “Well, look at you! And here everybody warned me you have no imagination. But you even quote stories to me! Granted, it’s just the Aveniad, but we can’t expect miracles.”
She stared at him, impassively.
“You must retrieve for me a key,” the god of bards continued, resuming his excessively solemn delivery when his jibe failed to get a response. “A very special key, which is scattered across the land in several parts. Its pieces must be gathered from the princess in her palace, the scoundrel in the shadows, the maiden in her tower, and the monster in its sepulcher.”
Silence reigned for long moments, while Trissiny studied the god through faintly narrowed eyes. Several of the onlooking elves were watching this exchange now with openly skeptical expressions, including Lanaera.
Finally, the paladin spoke. “Why?”
“Why?” Vesk’s eyebrows shot upward. “Why, she asks me? I come here, a freakin’ god of the Pantheon, to deliver a sacred charge, and the paladin asks me why. What happened to the dutiful soldier Avei raised, eh?”
“She grew up,” Trissiny said sharply, “thanks to some excellent guidance from friends of yours.”
“Yeah, well,” he replied, grinning, “if you’ve gotten this defiant, this quickly, you’ve been spending too much time with Eserion, y’ask me. A nice, old-fashioned quest’ll be just the thing you need to get all that out of your system!”
“Lord Vesk,” she said flatly, “I am glad to serve the gods toward a genuine need, or specific purpose. But you have a long history of sending people on long, convoluted errands for no reason except that you think the result will make for a good story. Yes, I was warned specifically about you, and not by Eserion. So if you can explain what you need this mysterious key for and why you need a mortal’s help to find it, I will be glad to help you. But if you’re just going to spout cryptic free verse, you can go find yourself another paladin.”
“Ah, well, as to that,” he said, his grin widening and taking on a degree of mischief that bordered on malice, “I already did. So, by the way, in addition to my quest, somebody really ought to go rescue those boys.”