Although it was well into the night, the inhabitants of Tarragon continued their celebrations. Some sang on the upraised stage, others danced within the cleared area beyond it. Many ate casually by the tables that were still laden with food, mingling with those of other clans, or re-uniting with old friends or family. If it went as the other ceremonies did, many of them would not be retiring to rest until just before the sun rose.
Rowena found it fascinating that the elves could spend their celebrations in a way that was so similar, yet so distinctly different from the way the humans did. There were no fires or tight dresses with layers of skirts, only heated rocks and flowing garments that almost looked better fit for spring. Though, just as the humans did, the elves sat or stood talking in groups. The sounds were much more subdued and hushed than they were in the great hall, but the atmosphere was the same; a mixture of excitement, nervousness and vitality.
She found herself slipping further behind the large tree trunk that she had leaned against, her brown eyes scanning the crowd as if they alone were the entertainment. Finally, she grinned and shifted her position once again, hiding most of her form but standing just so she could see her sister. Silna stood looking only slightly uncomfortable, speaking with a male from another clan. He was the same one she had pointed out earlier; tawny hair with white streaks, and a curious light brown gaze. Rowena watched with rapt interest, wondering what it must feel like to be approached in such a ceremonious fashion. Being human, she knew it would never be the same for her, but she observed with keen interest, all the same.
All at once Silna’s back straightened. Her eyes narrowed and her gaze lifted and moved to the spot where she and Rowena had sat earlier in the evening. Rowena tilted her head as her brows drew down in confusion. Silna looked angry as she continued her conversation with the male, lifting her hand in a gesture that betrayed her mannerly stance. Leaning in further, Rowena watched with her mouth slightly agape, wondering what had happened to make her sister’s temper come out.
Hearing her own name from such a close proximity made her jump, and she pulled back behind the large tree to find Dolen staring at her with drawn brows.
“I see it is common practice for you and your sister to hide in bushes and watch other people.”
Rowena flushed. “I’m watching Silna!” she whispered in a harsh tone, and then realized that she had not said much to defend herself. “I am not hiding in bushes,” she gestured to the ground surrounding the trunk of the tree, covered in nothing but a light layer of snow and her own footprints.
“Behind trees, then,” he said casually, his lips pursing as he turned to peer around the other side of the tree.
He leaned against it, much as Rowena had done earlier, and looked out into the clearing with a bored look on his usually impassive face.
“If you mean to hide from the ceremony, why attend at all?” he asked after a pregnant silence.
Rowena sighed harshly through her nose and went to the other side of the tree, standing just behind him and folding her arms.
“I came to support Silna. She had never danced before tonight.”
“It usually only takes place once,” he stated, his gaze still set outward.
When the conversation moved no further, Rowena went on, her stance shifting in a nervous fashion. “We mean to visit Feather Grove soon, so I will not be here long.”
Dolen’s eyes lifted to the branches above them and he gave her a bare nod.
She bit her lip and looked away from him, turning back toward the other side of the tree. In another swift motion she turned back and lifted her chin in forced effort.
“You should -”
It was Silna who whispered for her this time, and when their eyes met, the elven female ducked her head under a branch and came at Rowena with a strained look on her face. When she caught sight of Dolen she shook her head and allowed her lip to break into a short smirk.
“Lovely celebration going on and you two find a place to hide away from it,” she said in a slightly amused tone.
When Dolen stood up again and looked as though he would leave, she lifted her brows and smiled.
“You played wonderfully, Dolen. Thank you.”
He nodded and she continued without giving him a chance to move any further.
“Come then, we will all leave this behind and visit the humans in Feather Grove. I have had enough,” Silna’s voice sounded slightly annoyed.
“I thought you were speaking with...someone,” Rowena seemed to approach the statement with a wary edge to her voice.
Silna’s face dropped into a wry expression that was not at all reminiscent of her culture.
“He wanted to know if I was sister to you. The mere fact that a human lives in our midst apparently fascinates foreign clans.”
“You mean, he did not want- he was not trying to...” Rowena stumbled over terminology, her face flushing slightly as she searched for the right words.
“No. His interest was purely in my lifestyle,” she all but snapped. “Dolen, can you lead the way? It will be just as it was when we were young.”
He frowned, but moved forward, lifting a branch so that the females could pass under it.
“Rowena knows the way much better than I,” he admitted in a soft tone.
“Will mother be angry?” Rowena asked, glancing back at the receding light of the ceremony as the three made their way through a thick copse of trees.
Silna let out a laughing sigh. “She and father will be well into the yalwan by now. They will not miss us.”
“Maybe not, but they will hear us if you both do not step more quietly,” Dolen put in, his eyes bright in the darkness.
The three moved on into the woods, the cold gripping them more tightly as they moved away from the ceremony and further into the snow-covered brush and trees. After awhile, the echoes of music from the celebration faded, and all that could be heard was the occasional soft flapping of wings above them.
Rowena was doing her best not to make noise when both Dolen and Silna stopped, turning their heads quickly to the left. She knew both would be able to see and hear an approach before she would, so she stopped in her tracks as well. In following their gazes, there was nothing out of the ordinary. Even in the moonlight, all Rowena could make out was the dark trunks of trees and the snow strewn about them. She gasped out loud as what she thought had been a tree moved and stepped forward.
“You travel the forest unarmed?” Tey’ven’s voice broke the silence.
“Not entirely,” Dolen answered, but made no other move.
“Hello Tey’ven!” Rowena offered politely. “Does Ta’llevny have the treaty?” she asked, unable to think of anything else to say.
The dark-haired elf nodded, and Rowena was amazed at how well he blended in to his surroundings. He had to have traveled soundlessly, as well as out of sight to evade Silna and Dolen’s attention. Even without his signature white cloak, his white streaked hair and dark clothing made him seem as though he were a part of the background. Only his bright blue eyes gave him away.
Rowena was just beginning to wonder why it was that he had followed them from the ceremony when there was a flash of silver and Tey’ven stepped toward Silna.
“Are you able to defend yourself?” he asked her, and Rowena’s brows drew together as she realized he was offering her the hilt of a sword.
“Of course I can!” Silna said, seeming to snap out of a reverie.
She deftly wrapped the long sleeves of her dress around each arm and took the sword, raising it before her and eyeing it calculatingly. All at once, Tey’ven lifted a glinting blade and brought it down on Silna, who blocked the blow with the grace of an expert.
Rowena made a protesting sound, but before she could move, she felt Dolen’s hand on her arm, pulling her back.
“Is he serious?” she asked in a harsh voice, reverting to her own language in surprise. She stumbled a bit as Dolen continued to pull her back out of the way, but she turned on him in a slight panic.
“What is he doing? Silna has done nothing wrong!” she protested in the elven tongue, turning back to moving to go after Silna again.
This time she was stopped by Dolen’s hand gripping hard on her own, pulling her back once again. His other hand gripped her shoulder and he leaned in close behind her to speak softly.
“He courts her,” he answered, and Rowena’s eyes widened.
She watched the two parry and lunge at each other with swift movements. Though Silna worked through her motions with well-practiced ease, it was clear that Tey’ven considered it more of a dance than a fight.
“Does she know?” Rowena asked in a wry tone, and felt Dolen’s hands leave her as he made an amused sound.
“Come, they will likely continue for some time,” he said.
“If he really is courting her, I suppose they should be alone,” she admitted, turning to follow him quietly through the woods.
After walking some distance in silence, Rowena spoke again. “Wait, when was Silna hiding in bushes?”
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
“So, the Blade-borne clans fight, the Mind-borne practice magic, Tree-borne build homes...” Rowena mused and pulled herself over a fallen tree.
Dolen moved along carefully, knowing they would reach Feather Grove soon. It made him nervous, since he was not fond of the fairies, but he would not feel right leaving Rowena to make the trip alone. In fact, a part of him was fiercely against leaving her alone in general.
“What do the Trail-borne clans do?” she asked, and he averted his gaze, moving ahead of her with a quick step.
“They play as the deer or the birds do,” he said vaguely, his voice dropping lower with slight annoyance.
Since they had left Tey’ven and Silna alone, Rowena had peppered him with questions about elven courting. He was surprised to hear that she had never been taught such things, but as the conversation wore on, it was clear that teaching her was not as easy as it sounded.
“Play?” she asked, stepping gracefully over a patch of undergrowth.
Dolen shook his head and looked up at the sound of wings, glaring up at the white owl under his brows. As annoyed with the bird as he was, it proved to be the distraction he needed as Rowena followed his eyes.
“Who is your friend?” she asked in a whisper.
“I know not. The owl has followed me since my last post,” he replied, looking fully upward as the owl landed on a large branch above them.
“Wait!” she gasped, putting a hand on his arm to halt him in his tracks. “He speaks to you, Dolen.” When he did not reply, Rowena went on, excitement in her voice. “Do you see pictures sometimes? Maybe just a passing thought that may not be your own?”
Dolen turned himself so that he could see her, preparing to shake his head in a negative motion before he remembered something.
“I dream of flying on some nights,” he kept his tone deadpan so as not to betray his growing curiosity.
She nodded and grinned, looking up to the owl before moving her hand to his arm and pulling it up.
“Hold your arm up like this,” she said, testing the thick bracer on his forearm with her fingers before backing away. “Just stand there and picture him landing on your arm. He’ll see it too.”
Although he drew his brows together in disbelief, Dolen did as Rowena asked, holding his arm up parallel to the ground and imagining the white owl landing on the bracer as it had on the branch. To his surprise, the owl lifted into the air with a few quick flaps of its wings and made a soaring beeline for his arm. He almost flinched, but kept his cool as the owl landed gracefully on his arm. Rowena laughed and crooned with excitement as she watched the owl settle in. Dolen brought his arm in closer to them and examined the bird.
“He is heavy.”
Laughing, Rowena reached out a hand to pet the white feathers of its head.
“Snowsong,” she announced after a moment. “His name is Snowsong.”
“He speaks to you?” Dolen asked, watching the owl’s large eyes shift between the two of them, head rotating smoothly back and forth.
“In the way that birds do. Broken words and pictures. But he speaks to you as well!” she stepped back and moved so that she could look him in the eyes. “Their speech is not like most animals’, but if you are seeing his thoughts, you are communicating.”
Her excitement was contagious, but he kept his face impassive. All at once he saw a flashing view of what must be Feather Grove, lit with tiny lights and glowing rocks. Rowena’s human friends were settled into furs, looking as though they were comfortable at the foot of the huge tree that the fairies called home.
“Feather Grove is just ahead,” Dolen said with narrowed eyes, watching the owl before smirking. “Go on then,” he said softly, lifting his arm and watching as Snowsong took off from his arm and flew on ahead of them.
Rowena, grinning, fell into step beside him, her emotions clear on her face as always.
“So you can communicate with some of them!” she skipped forward a few steps and turned back to look at him. “I’m happy for you.”
He was still skeptical, but he let a slight smile break his facade, unable to resist feeling a bit proud. Dolen nodded toward the path ahead when he saw the soft glow come into view. Soon, they were passing into the clearing of the fairy village, and he fought the urge to flick a hand at the colorful beings who flew forward to welcome he and Rowena.
- - - - - - - - - - - - -
Ferin had his group up and riding just as dawn broke the night sky. Dergon hefted his and most of the other guards’ packs up as the rest of them struggled to wake. The day started out misty and overcast, leaving no room for the sun’s rays to light the way, and making the landscape look desolate. Their horses plodded along for another hour, snow crunching heavily under their feet as their riders sipped at hastily made drinks and huddled into their fur cloaks.
When Tarragon finally came into view, Ferin stopped his mount for a moment, staring at the slightly U-shaped clearing that seemed to be fenced in by Tarragon’s boundary. Their trip had been spent mostly on clear land, with sparse hills and the occasional block of woods along their sides. Now they faced a veritable ocean of forest.
“That is thick woodland,” he commented, his eyes narrowing.
The First Prince had never been so far out before, and his nerves began to get to him as he wondered if his father noticed his absence.
“I do not see their prints anywhere.”
Dergon grunted in reply and took in a deep breath through his nose.
“They won’t have gone anywhere else, Lord Ferin. Everything south of this hill is Tarragon Forest. This is the easiest way to get in without making a treacherous ride.”
Ferin’s blue eyes glinted as he shifted his gaze, seeing that Dergon’s words were true. To both the far left and right of them were thick trees and underbrush. The snow covered the ground at odd angles, hiding possible footfalls and holes that could break a man or horse’s leg. He nodded and urged his mount forward with pressure from his heels.
“Let us find them, then,” he ordered, doing his best not to show his own trepidation.
When the group got close enough to notice the thickly woven branches and underbrush, they dismounted. Ferin himself moved forward to put his dagger to a few branches, but the woods were so thick that even hacking through the first layer got them nowhere. He cursed out loud and threw his dagger, which buried itself to the tip of the hilt in snow.
“Curse them! There’s no bloody way into this forest, and I don’t see any prints but our own!”
“Shall we wait for them to emerge?” Zane asked, his eyes peeking out from a mound of furs.
Ferin’s nostrils flared as he focused his gaze on Zane.
“Oh, brilliant. And what are we to tell them when they return? Father was more than clear that this was to be in Vance’s charge,” he snorted and turned again, a fist on either hip as he surveyed the line of thick woods that stopped so suddenly. “It’s almost as if this was built,” he sneered, his cowl falling back to reveal his well-styled dark hair.
After some time passed, Dergon realized that Ferin had no intention of leaving. As the First Prince walked the long line of trees along the edge of the clearing, he made the soldiers walk the horses in a circle, clearing the snow so that they could set up a make-shift camp and let the horses graze. Though still gray, the sky had brightened considerably by the time Ferin approached the group again, eyes lit with both anger and foolhardy ambition.
“We’ll light it aflame. That ought to cut a hole into the wooden fence that seems to have been erected around this forest,” Ferin said, looking pointedly at one of the lower ranked guards. “We need dry wood to start a fire.”
At the spoken order, two of the guards left the group to begin collecting wood, and Zane offered Ferin a rolled stick of flavored wood to chew on. Such was a habit amongst many of the more wealthy males in the kingdom of White Phoenix. Ferin took the stick with a nod of approval and breathed out heavily through his nose.
“If the woods are that thick all along the line, how did Vance and the Lady get into Tarragon Forest?” Zane asked.
This time Ferin could only shake his head. The facts had become more and more perplexing the closer they got to Tarragon. Though he knew the forest was huge, there should have been more signs of civilization if another people lived within. Moreover, if this was the most accessible place to enter, where were the signs that Vance’s party had done so? Ferin knew that he and his group could only be a handful of hours behind them. Even within the time it took to camp out for the evening, the weather had not been such that would completely erase footprints.
“I think this is truly a border built from trees and shrubs. If there are people living within, they would want to protect their border from trespassers, just as we do.”
“And you mean to light their border aflame?” Dergon’s tone was as light as he could manage, but it came to the point.
Despite his ranking much lower than Ferin, he was rarely punished for simply speaking the truth. Often times Ferin found himself in need of a blunt advisor, rather than a sniveling sidekick. Ferin pulled the chewing stick from his mouth and pursed his lips in thought, his blue eyes focused sharply on Tarragon’s border.
“Just a small part,” he finally said, one side of his mouth flicking upward in amusement. Dergon did not look as amused, but he remained silent.
“They do not appear to have posted sentries or guards, so we may well be able to enter without their knowledge.”
The group was silent as they stared up at the tall trees, a foreboding feeling coming over them. Gray clouds still clung together in the sky by the time they had built a fire and began handing off torches, Ferin leading the group toward the forest with a look of accomplishment already lighting his gaze.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Sa’nengal’s bow was strung, an arrow aimed easily at the temple of the leading human. His sharp gray and green eyes remained as still as a rock, as he waited. It was obvious what they meant to do as they approached the border with flaming torches, and the elven guardian was ready to retaliate as soon as the flames touched one of Tarragon’s trees.
“Do not fire on the human." Shaden spoke into his mind. “Ta’llevny bids our visitors to the border to stop them. We will not begin a war with the humans.”
Sa’nengal did not move, however, keeping the arrow on the bow only by the innate strength of his long fingers.
“They defile our home with their fire,” he replied in kind, his words were harsh even through his mental voice.
His nerves were strained from a long night of keeping watch. He had been on edge since he had first sighted their fire some miles off, and was even more anxious now that they were within range.
“Our master is aware, and he bids you to stay your hand,” Shaden said with more force.
The mare was one of the eldest of the group of horses and elves that made up Ta’llevny’s riders. Unlike most of them, she had the ability to communicate directly with the forest’s leader.
With a firm set of his jaw, Sa’nengal lowered his bow, forcibly letting the arrow loose and replacing it in the quiver. Averting his eyes, he led Shaden on a long pace back and forth, doing his best to ignore something that would be painful to watch. He breathed in deeply to calm himself, and finally let a smile cross his face. A more rational idea came into his mind and he sat up more straight in his saddle, whispering a few words aloud.
All at once, a gust of wind picked up and caused snow to fall from branches. The layered white cloaks that adorned horse and rider were pulled and strained against their forms, flapping silently in the harsh breeze. The elf watched with some measure of satisfaction as the humans stomped and yelled in a temper, their fires going low or doused altogether as the wind picked up. Although they quickly ran back to their small camp to tend to the larger fire, it had bought the trees on the edge of the forest some more time.
Amusement poured into Shaden’s thoughts as she commented.