Lyara was staring at the prisoner. She looked kind of fat, even for a human. Not that Lyara had seen all that many humans, but they had all looked much thinner than this one did. The girl, in turn, was staring at the trio across the moot cave from where she was sitting, tied up with vines.
“What are they talking about?”
“Killing you, mostly.”
“That’s what Jae-lagh wants to know.”
“Ugh, Jae-leeeeeee!” Lyara rolled her eyes. “Humans… Anyway, Jaeworl wants to know why Taral tried to kill you.”
Lyara didn’t bother listening to the prisoner’s reply, instead turning her attention to Taral’s pet oakman. At least she thought it was an oakman. It definitely wasn’t sylvan, and certainly no fey. Which left one of those spirit things the forestfolk called oakmen. Why oakmen, though? They didn’t look like men. Didn’t really look like women, either.
The creature was hopping about on some stones by the Dream Pond, its tiny vines digging into the moss whenever it began to lose its balance on landing. It looked kind of fun. A lot more fun than sitting here, but Iamerla had been very clear about Lyara’s task. She was to make sure the prisoner didn’t try anything while she and Jae-lagh talked to Taral.
From what little snippets of conversation Lyara heard without listening, it seemed like Taral was claiming he’d been told to poison her by the Fair Folk. Imaerla wasn’t believing him, while Jae-lagh seemed sceptical but not as certain.
Taral started talking about how he’d woken up one night to find one of them in his hollow, hovering before him and telling him to feed the captive the contents of a bowl left on the floor, and Jae-lagh asked him for details or a description of this visitor. That’s when Lyara started actually listening.
“They were beyond beautiful… Skin of starlight, glowing in the dark of night. Long, raven hair flowing like they were lying in a pond. They wore nothing, not a single leaf or fur.” Taral shook his head, his brow furrowed in concentration. “They were effeminate, yet lacked features… No eyes, no mouth, nothing.”
Imaerla gasped, Jae-lagh slumped, and Lyara squeed. Taral looked almost as confused as the prisoner.
“It makes sense, you know. We- I should have figured it out sooner. The missing memories, the geas, the disappearing companion…” Jae-lagh looked at Taral and smiled wearily. “We believe you.”
“What’s going on?”
Lyara was hopping up and down with excitement, and it took her a moment to realize the captive was asking her.
“It’s Twilight Rose!”
“You mean those flowers from Urmor?”
“Flowers? What’s an urmor? No, Twilight Rose! You know? The Dread Mistress, the Shadow of Memory, Lord Nightmare. He, she, it- Twilight Rose is one of the Eerie.” Lyara noticed that everyone’s attention was now fixated upon her, and took the opportunity to thoroughly show off her knowledge. “The Eerie are like… Okay, you know how Imaerla is our Faery Queen? Like, she’s the one charged with looking after our herd and keeping the haven safe and stuff?”
“Like, all of us. Fey, oakmen, druids, forestfolk,” she dramatically pointed at herself, Taral’s pet, Jae-lagh, and Taral in turn. “And the rest, too. So, the Eerie are like that to the Fair Folk. They each have their own Court, like how Jae-lagh has all the druids. So, like, Twilight Rose is the Queen of the Fair Folk. And-”
“Wait,” the prisoner cut in rather suddenly. “You just said they each had their own Court, so how can she be the queen of all of them?”
Jae-lagh waved her to silence before motioning for Lyara to continue.
“Humph! Humans!” Lyara huffed, pouting angrily at the woman. “Anyway, Twilight Rose likes to enter people’s dreams to steal their memories; delights in spreading fear and mistrust; hates boring tranquility; and always wants change, something new. Twilight Rose is like a story! No one recalls meeting-”
Lyara once again found herself interrupted, this time when Uragh burst into the cavern, tearing down half the moss curtain hanging in the entrance. He was wild-eyed and panting heavily, with a branch protruding from his upper arm.
“Trolls. Coming.” He locked his gaze on the prisoner. “Feast.”
Lyara had never seen the brute winded before. She didn’t even think it was possible. But he was standing there, bent over and out of breath, looking as dumb as ever. With a grunt he yanked out the bloody stick and looked at it with confusion before tossing it aside. He then moved over to grab Imaerla and tried to pull her out of the moot hollow.
A lot of things happened all at once, after that. Jae-lagh and Taral exchanged a handful of words while Imaerla broke free of Uragh’s grip, her grimace suggesting he’d been more reluctant to let go than she’d expected. She turned to Jae-lagh with a bewildered expression, her mouth opening to ask a question that never got asked because Uragh knocked her down and hoisted her up.
More forestfolk and some curious sylvans came rushing in after Uragh, only to be immediately turned around by Taral as he pushed past them in an effort to get outside and began barking commands to everyone.
“Lyara!” Jae-lagh’s voice was hard to hear through the commotion, but she could tell from where he was pointing what he wanted her to do. She fluttered over to the pond and began flying around above it, sprinkling the surface with her faery magic.
Meanwhile, Jae-lagh was ushering a very confused human girl toward the edge of the water while Uragh unwillingly followed, the dazed Imaerla slung over his shoulder. He was constantly looking at the cave entrance as if worried the whole flock of trolls would come in at any moment and eat them all. Lyara wasn’t worried; it wasn’t like they’d get in a bloodlust until after they ate the human.
Lyara’s skin tingled as Jae-lagh sent forth his own magic to help her. He wasn’t as artful with it as Lyara, but he had many times more powerful magic. A few heartbeats later Imaerla’s surprised yell ended in a loud splash, and then calm settled as the three remaining figures in the cave looked at each other in an attempt to decide on what to do next. Four figures, Lyara realized. Taral’s pet was peering into the pond as if trying to see Imaerla and the captive hiding under a rock in its shallow waters.
Jaeworl sat atop a large boulder on a small bluff, gazing at the people milling about in the forest below. A storm was brewing. What was the word humans used…? War? Yes, the storm of war was coming. This herd had calmed the trolls, sought to bring them into the fold. It had worked for many seasons, and now it was all going to abruptly end.
For now there was a calm throughout the haven again. It was mixed with a sense of ill omens, of trouble in the woods, but not yet upon them. An uneasy peace reigned, but it was a reprieve to prepare. To run. The sylvans and oakmen had scattered into the Wilds, while most of the faeries had gone back to the Fair Folk.
Only the forestfolk really remained, and they had no way to fight the trolls. There were simply too many trolls, and too little prey for them to eat when their natural hunger returned. The forestfolk would need allies when the storm came, and the only option Jaeworl could think of were the humans.
He wondered, not for the first time, if he should lead the forestfolk south instead? Following the sylvans and oakmen deeper into the Wilds, while the trolls were busy hunting in the northeast. It was tempting, but he knew better. Their hunters avoided that area for good reason, and his flock had not the numbers to survive there. Once again he came to the conclusion that the humans were his only choice.
Jaeworl sighed again, slipping down from the boulder and moved away from the gathered people. That would fall on him, now that Imaerla and Loriana were gone. He would need to warn the humans and convince them to work with his tribe against the trolls.
Without the Fair Folk’s magic keeping the trolls in check, it would not take long before their bloodlust returned. Sending them out to hunt might have been a bad idea, in hindsight. The rush of taking down prey would undoubtedly stir the passions of these vicious predators, hastening the return of their primal urges. On the other hand, it would scatter their numbers and buy everyone else time.
Holding his staff with both hands he closed his eyes and leaned his head against it. He was too old for what he was about to do. Nature takes many forms, and so does its servants. But time marches ever on, and no matter the form all of nature abides the prevailing season. There were not very many animals in the forest who remained healthy in their old age, but at least there was one.