The tiny creature stared at her with its lone eye. Loriana stared back. The creature, if that was even the right word for it, was perhaps as tall as a hand was long. It was kind of hard to be sure, because it bobbed about impatiently on root-like tendrils emerging from the wide bottom of its body. Not that she was sure ‘body’ was the right word, either.
Loriana closed her eyes momentarily, trying to clear her thoughts and then looked at it again.
It had an eye, clearly. Rather a huge one, dominating its entire appearance. Around that eye it had a, well, body with skin of bark and patches of something akin to moss. The whole thing looked kind of like a tiny, very knotted, irregularly shaped log. Except for the big, round eye on the upper half, of course, and those tendrils at the lower end.
It had to be a bogun, one of the fabled plant-folk of the Wilds. Except the stories claimed they were bigger, much bigger. Some even said they were bigger than half-ogres and jotuns. A walking bush or tree, a writhing tangle of moss and vines, or a mass of twigs and branches woven into humanoid form, that’s what they were supposed to look like according to the stories. Not that Loriana could remember where she had heard the stories, so maybe they were not to be trusted.
The creature mimicked her movements as she tilted her head this way and that, its wooden body bending as readily as her own neck.
Loriana tentatively reached out and gave it a pat, being rewarded by an excited chirping noise and happy bouncing. This was really remarkable, being able to meet a creature like this. She did not remember much of her life, even her name she had been told by her captors and accepted only because it felt right, yet she was strangely certain she had never met anything like this before.
Loriana looked around, surveying her new prison.
They had moved her from the ‘shackles’ where she had been held at first. Apparently because they were content she was not out to hurt them, though she suspected that this cell was less trouble for them. Here she did not need a faery to feed her nectar by hand and here they did not need to employ magic to restrain her, as she was sure they had done with the vines.
The floor under her feet consisted of packed dirt, and the walls were made of wood. Not planks or anything like that, but rather smooth wood that looked like it had been grown to serve as the walls and ceiling of a small room. It was more likely the room had been carved out from a large hollow space in a tree, of course, but Loriana could not help preferring the more fantastical notion of trees grown to serve as homes.
There was a bed of moss in one ‘corner’ and a small knothole in the ceiling on the opposite side let in a bit of light from the outside. It was hardly needed, though, since there was no door barring the entrance. A sparse curtain of leafy vines hung in the doorway, letting in plenty of daylight yet still offering a modicum of privacy despite not reaching quite all the way to the ground. Outside the door all she could see was forest, and the boots of whoever was currently on guard.
The sounds of birds drifted in, songs she had never heard before and a few that she had, and the musty smell of damp earth mingled with the fragrant scents of flowers in bloom. Leaves rustled in a gentle breeze outside, carrying with it noise of children laughing in the distance. No, not children, Loriana decided, remembering the many faeries that had come to gawk at the human while she was still hanging in her shackles.
This was the kind of prison where she would be pretty comfortable, even if the amenities were quite lacking and she had nothing to do but try to communicate with her new friend.
Imaerla squirmed as Jaeworl scrutinized her carefully. He seemed less than pleased with her sudden desire to show hospitality to their captive, and the look he gave her was one she could hardly have had to endure for many seasons. By the looks of it, she felt like a child being chastised for doing something the old druid did not approve of.
Taral couldn’t help but smile to himself as he waited politely at the other end of the glade. It was a small clearing surrounded by dense thickets and crowded trees. At its center bubbled a small wellspring, its waters flowing over rocks and collecting into a small pool before feeding a brook flowing out past Taral’s feet. Next to the spring was an ancient bush, the Heart of the Forest. Its branches lay draped over the stones, heavy with berries in a variety of colors.
Imaerla strode past him, once again her composed and graceful self. Taral bowed his head as she passed, as much to hide his smirk as to show his honest respect.
This was the druids’ grove, where they tended the ancient Heart and communed with the forest itself, and so Taral stood patiently at the entrance, watching Jaeworl stand staring into the pool while he waited for a summons.
It struck him then how old the man looked, standing there in his robes of brown adorned with green vines. His posture was slumped and he stood leaning casually on his staff, while the wrinkled features of his face emphasized the troubled expression he wore. The smoky gray quills of his hair, hanging limply over his shoulders and back, were thinning to the point where he might pass for human even under close inspection. As he stood here deep in troubled thought, he absently rolled the staff in his hands causing his beard to twirl itself around it.
When he looked up and motioned Taral over, a serenely inquiring look had come to his features.
“What guidance do you seek, Tar-lagh?” Jaeworl’s voice was relaxed and even, so hopefully he would at least hear Taral out.
“We need to kill it,” Taral stated bluntly. “Its scent has the trolls on edge, and now Imaerla moved it closer to the dwellings?! It’s just a question of time before one of them goes after it, then the others will be drawn by the scent of fresh blood, and then they’ll fight over who gets the feast-”
Jaeworl gave Taral a quick rap on the forehead with his staff. “The trolls are on edge because something is wrong, youngling.” He reached down and plucked a crimson berry off the Heart bush. “Do you know what this berry means?”
Taral shook his head, frowning as much in annoyance at being hit as from confusion over what the berry had to do with anything.
“I do. The other druids do. Some of the oakmen do. One or two of the faeries and other sylvans might. The Fair Folk would, were they to visit.” He casually plopped the berry in his mouth, as though the sacred fruit was a snack like any other. “Something is wrong in the forest. No more than a few days before we found her-” The old man’s pause was a demand Taral did know what it meant. “-Lyara was here, complaining that the trolls were agitated and not being calmed down as readily as they used to. Even before she and her companion showed up, things were going wrong. Faeries disappearing, flowers vanished, trees cut… “
“Cut by the humans!” Taral seized on the pause. “No one else lives in this part of the forest but our herd, the humans, and the animals. Of those three, only the humans cut down trees and harvest plants whole!”
“Human blades do not slice clean through a tree in a single strike, Tar-lagh. What is happening is not the doing of humans, and it is most definitely not the doing of our guest.”
“How can you be so sure? It got worse after we captured her, didn’t it? It’s her friend, I tell you, doing it to scare us into releasing her! We should kill her, make her an example so they’ll leave us alone!”
Jaeworl sighed. “Tar-lagh, my boy, you have plenty of heart, but you aren’t seeing the big picture. Say we kill her and things do not stop. Then what?”
“Then we have one thing less to worry about while we figure out the other stuff.”
Taral could feel those mottled brown eyes lock onto him in a way very much like what Imaerla had been subjected to earlier, and sure enough the weathered face set into a most disapproving frown. “Say we cold-bloodedly murder her for our own laziness, and the troubles continue. And say the faeries cannot keep the trolls calm. Maybe the trolls start eating them when they try, so they run away into the Wilds and take the oakmen and sylvans with them. Say the trolls decide that we, being the only group left, would make a great dinner. Then what?”
Taral squirmed uncomfortably, unwilling to let go of his argument for killing the captive but clearly seeing where this was going. “Then we need the humans,” he mumbled sullenly when the silence became unbearable.
“Then we need the humans.”