Authors: Robin D Owens
Rothly! An older, crippled, bitter Rothly. One who couldn’t naturally balance the home and the land just by his presence. One who had more of an air nature than fire. One who disliked being human and wanted to only embrace his Lightfolk side.
A flash of Rothly as a boy came, lifting the right edge of the desk, putting a pocketknife in the small space. Jenni circled the desk and lifted. There were several drives. Whipping her personal computer from her pocket, she linked them. Before her eyes rolled pages and pages of ancient journals, all scanned. Her heart started thumping hard. She’d thought that she would have to take all the books, read them. Here was the wealth of her family!
As she watched, red markings came up and she stopped the scrolling, magnified. Rothly’s notes…among others. A sigh escaped her. Her family heritage that she hadn’t understood how much she’d missed and yearned for until now. She scooped up all the drives, hesitated. She shouldn’t take all Rothly’s stash. What if something happened to her, too?
Turning to Aric, she said, “What kind of personal computer do you have?”
He dug into his coat pocket and pulled out a sleek device, smiled slowly. “Not yet released.”
Greed rose in Jenni. “I can see that.”
“Eight Corp got prototypes.
it has been modified to run on ambient magic.”
“Yes. Absolutely no recharging needed.” He handed it to her.
She turned it over, felt the hum of magic in it, swept her tongue across her lips. It felt like Aric, solid native Earth Treefolk magic. The rest of the elemental energies were nearly equal in balance—someone had done a good job. Now that she held it, she could also
the little device absorbing magic from her hand in tiny molecules, and from the atmosphere around her. She wanted one.
Aric had moved to the desk, opened a secret panel he’d obviously recalled, gestured to it. Ancient “floppy” disks were inside, marked with her brother Lohr’s name. Jenni swallowed. Would Rothly have included everything her family had on elemental balancing in his own drives?
She would have. And she’d bet this house and the land and all her shares of Fairies and Dragons that Rothly had been studying everything he could get his hands on for years to try and regain his magic, or find a work-around.
They didn’t have time to search everything.
Aric took his device from her and picked up a couple of the miniature drives. He plugged one into his computer and linked them, loading the information. He glanced at the clock ticking off the seconds of copying, placed it on the desk and began to scrutinize the bookshelves.
The first drive had loaded onto Jenni’s pocket computer, and she switched it out for the second. She gulped when she saw her father’s very old-fashioned handwriting and the faded ink. These were his earlier journals when the family had first moved to Northumberland from France several centuries before. Then the scrolling went faster and cream-colored pages blurred by.
“All your father’s reference books on elemental energies are here. I think most of the more esoteric volumes are gone, though.” Aric shrugged.
Jenni joined him, and noticed for the first time in her life she didn’t have to dodge stacks of books on the floor…and every step in this house caused pain to grind within her at the memories.
Her pocket computer pinged and she sighed in relief and returned to the desk, swapped out one drive for another and placed the first back into Rothly’s hidey-hole. Then she slid down against the desk until she sat, brought her knees up and lowered her head to them, closed her eyes.
“I’m sorry this is hurting you so much,” Aric said.
“I am, too.” She waited a beat, but still knew what she felt the most right now was the pulsing of Aric’s aura. On her outward breath, she whispered, “I’m sorry you’re hurting, too.”
A longer silence, almost companionable, and his breathing slowed. “Thank you.”
“Did you plan on balancing this place before you left?” That sentence should have been laden with overtones and subtext, but was perfectly leached of emotion.
Jenni didn’t look up. “Yes.”
“Why don’t you go ahead? I’ll load all this to our computers.”
She rose, glanced at him. “Are you going to pass on all the information on your computer to the Lightfolk archives?”
A corner of her mouth quirked. “I didn’t ask you if you were going to give Mistweaver secrets to the Eight.”
Inclining his head, he said, “Thank you for knowing you can trust me not to do that. I know you do not want the Eight to know everything. But the keeper of the archives has much secret lore and this memory bit can be bound against opening until your…if you…we…are lost.”
“If I die.”
Jenni nodded. “I’ll say such a spell and you can give the memory bit to the keeper of the archives.” She still didn’t like the notion that the Lightfolk would have access to Mistweaver secrets. There was little enough for halflings to keep as their own.
“Thank you,” Aric said.
All the lost voices of her family seemed to protest as if she betrayed them—again—and this time in their very home. She squared her shoulders and toed the bottom line. Knowledge should not be lost. “I’ll be in the sunroom.” No sun today.
JENNI STOPPED IN THE KITCHEN TO ZAP A
quick mug of the herbs from Rothly’s store, cycled her energy to the correct pattern.
Sipping the potion she entered the sunroom that ran the length of the south side of the house. There was the humid scent of many plants, and whatever she’d thought of the rest of the house, this area—the sacred space of the Mistweavers—was as wonderful as it had always been. Tall plants pressed hard against the windows, but there was enough light that had the sun been shining, the room would be gold and green.
Her breath clogged when she saw the wheel engraved on the floor and her insides wrenched. A wheel with eight places. Each person of the family with their own place—including her mother, who couldn’t step into the mist but insisted on being an anchor. Jenni’s lungs unfroze and her breath came fast and ragged and she wanted to turn and run away.
Instead she walked to the circle.
Only faint traces of her family lingered as she passed over them. How hard it must have been for Rothly to be here, to try to practice here! He hadn’t wanted her with him, but now she saw that she’d had the better deal. With his twisted and crippled magic, how could he have borne this room? She moved to the center of the wheel, expecting to feel Rothly—and didn’t.
She stared, tramped her feet in place. Surely he hadn’t stayed in his own place at the northeast bronze diamond indicator? Walking over to there, touching a toe, feeling the surge of bitterness and fury, she found that he had.
Jenni withdrew from the bleakness of his spot. With a last sip of her tea, she set the mug due west, symbolizing water.
Once again she followed the whole of the ritual to prepare herself, hone her skills, though training and tea and spells wouldn’t work if a person didn’t have the inherent Mistweaver talent.
She crossed to the middle of the circle, did a cleansing pattern of body movement. She bowed in each direction. No matter how Rothly practiced their craft, the place for one person was in the middle. No wonder the house and the land were unbalanced. Rothly’s magic was maimed, his emotions even more sour and negative than her own, and he’d stubbornly stayed in his own place.
After the chant, Jenni closed her eyes and took the tiniest step to slip into the gray mist of the interdimension. As she did this more often, she would need less preparation time, less potion and even less of the spoken chant. Soon she’d be able to move into the grayness with only a mental word.
She turned in place to survey the area and saw the dark smudge of Rothly’s spot. Something in the grayness fluttered. Tensing her throat and entire mouth against more useless tears, she got on with her task.
The sheeting flames of elemental energies hovered brightly near the house, as if they’d stayed after being summoned for so many years and waited to be gathered and used once again. Jenni smiled and let the
of them imbue her.
Then she raised her hands and called her magic, matching the texture and the beat and the density and
of it to each near element—humid air with a touch of salt and forest and hill breezes; rich hillsides with veins of soil and rock; crackling fire of the hearth, of controlled burns, of holiday bonfires; mist and molecules of water in the air, from the sea and streams and ponds.
Like called to like.
By “pulling” on the elemental energies she drew the amount she needed. It was the work of a moment to gather enough water and earth to balance the energies of the area, and she spread that equalized magic as far as she could reach.
And in practicing her craft, for a few precious minutes, peace came.
When the strain of being in the interdimension wore on her, she shuffled back into evening gloaming and rain splashing against the windows.
A shadow moved…Aric pushing away from the doorjamb where he’d leaned. “Done?” He held her bag.
“Yes.” She let out a shaky breath. One session down, two more and she would feel competent to rescue Rothly. “I’m completely done here.”
Aric nodded. “Good.” He repeated his earlier words. “It’s a sad place.”
She picked up the mug, emptied the liquid in the sink in the corner of the room, rinsed it out and put it on a shelf.
came against the conservatory windows and she glanced over to see the wetly gleaming teeth of a shadleech.
She stumbled back into Aric. He steadied her.
Then another hit came. Faster and faster like a hailstorm in the mountains, but…squishy. The things weren’t hurt. Harder to hurt since they were more magical than physical. Magic enough to enter the interdimension.
Aric cursed under his breath. “They’ve found us.”
Jenni swallowed. “Guess so.”
His hold on her tightened briefly. “We must go outside to enter a tree and the greenspace.”
The thought of that made the back of her throat slime with chill fear. “Yes,” she said, her lips numbed. She struggled with her pack until he helped, then she picked up her tapestry bag.
“The sycamore, to the east, is closest and it’s big.” He hesitated. “I’ll make it right with the dryad later.”
Jenni winced. “You’re not on good terms with her.”
Jenni decided she didn’t want to discuss the topic.
“We’ll have to run.” From one of the magical pockets in his coat, he pulled out a large silver dagger that flamed around the edges. “They react negatively to fire.”
“I can burn ’em up if they attach themselves to us.”
“Good,” he said.
Quick inhale through nostrils, puff through mouth. “You have the docs?” she asked.
“I transferred all the files I could find to both our palm devices.”
The thumping on the glass came faster, harder. “The house shields—”
“Are holding fine, as well as anything against shadleeches. If the filthy things are Kondrian’s, they’ll leave when we do.” His jaw flexed. “They seem directed, not random.”
The thuds of shadleeches against the glass roof and windows were almost mathematical in their precision—squadrons of the things. Aric gripped her elbow and his fingers went white-knuckled on his weapon. “Ready?”
He didn’t look at her. Foolish that she’d wanted him to, to reassure her that they were in this together. But they hadn’t been together for a long time.
“Ready,” she said.
His fingers tightened, overlapping just above her elbow. They hurried through the house, Jenni said a spell to open the east side door. As she did, she sent a blast of fire in the direction of the sycamore.
The smell of crisped and charring fur accompanied screams. She and Aric ran, and she slammed the door behind her hard. More screams, but no shadleeches had entered the house.
Aric swept the air ahead of them with his knife, and shadleeches died or disappeared. They couldn’t attach to his coat, but several dipped under his collar and Jenni flamed them with a gesture of her free hand. She’d encased herself in fire except for the arm Aric was holding. Teeth nipped and tore and fastened, sucking magic. She sent fire to them from her skin to their mouths. They dropped.
Five more paces and Aric propelled her to the sycamore. She sent a last look over her shoulder to her old home. Solid. Empty. Her family long gone.
Aric had left a light burning for Rothly, one yellow glow of hope.
A thump and they were in the tree’s greenspace. Jenni heard breaking china, saw a flash of a dryad’s tea party and the fem shrieking at Aric in Treefolk. Another tug took her to a different tree with a startled dryad laughing at them, then Aric pulled Jenni from the tree…and into Kew Gardens in London. From a sycamore to a sycamore…easier to do. He must have been shaken.
“Where are we going?” she asked, glancing around the empty park. However cloudy or sunny the day had been here, it was now dusk and the place was closed.
“The Eight are meeting us in the main Earth Palace in the States.”
“Which is where?”
“Near Yellowstone National Park.”
“Near Rothly, too.”
“That’s why we’re meeting there.”
Jenni wrinkled her nose; she knew enough about Yellowstone to understand that if the supervolcano there blew, Denver wouldn’t be safe. Maybe the whole Rocky Mountain range would be activated. Therefore… “The Earth Palace isn’t near Yellowstone!”
“On the contrary. What do you think helps stabilize the volcanic mantle plume?” Aric said.
“Huh.” And the Eight had been keeping their own secrets.
So they walked from the twilight that wasn’t much different from the daylight, through a tree and came out in Yellowstone, back into the brilliant and dazzling blue skies and sunshine of a midmorning American West winter.
Jenni blinked, stepped away from Aric and shook her whole body out. She hadn’t done tree traveling in a long time. Aric matched her deep breaths for a full two minutes. She lifted her face to the sun. No, she’d never go back to Northumberland, she’d become used to three hundred days of sunshine a year in Denver.
Yellowstone in February was crystalline in its beauty. Ice crystal. Drifts of snow heaped around them, smoothing over the features of the landscape. The odor of sulphur twitched her nose, not unpleasant to her djinn-fire nature. Geysers steamed in the distance and she saw a colorful pool not too far away. “Beautiful,” she breathed.
The corner of Aric’s mouth quirked. “It is.”
They stood for another minute, watching a hawk soar, then Aric gestured her to go back to the great pine that they’d just exited from.
“Why did we stop?” she asked.
“Because it’s beautiful.”
And he’d felt she’d needed a beautiful moment in her life? She’d forgotten he’d done things like that, little gestures of thoughtfulness that had pleased her.
This had given her a moment of serenity. Once more she glanced at the landscape around her, the blues of sky and shadows, the white of snow, yellow of shafts of sunshine. The quiet of a place with few humans sank into her, sliding along her ruffled nerves, soothing her.
She closed her eyes, and sent her senses downward—into a seething lake of magma far closer than she was accustomed to. It was oddly exhilarating. When she opened her eyes, Aric was watching her with a half smile and something like tenderness on his face as if he actually cared a lot about her. Her heart gave a twinge. He looked so much like she remembered in past shared moments. The sorry past.
She opened her mouth and realized the snide words she wanted to say would destroy that expression of his, this moment, and diminish her, too.
“Thank you,” she said, then again as she actually realized what she had done. “Thank you.” She had risen above old instinct and grief and behaved well. The sting of doing that vanished, as had some of the memories that smudged her.
Since he watched her with an inscrutable face and penetrating green eyes, she figured that he’d sensed a shift inside her. Like he knew she couldn’t hold on to her grief forever? She’d thought the clutched grief had been comforting, deadening her to the too-sharp guilt that pierced her. But a bit of that guilt was gone, too. His acceptance of the past was rubbing off on her.
Jenni rolled her shoulders, scanned the panorama again. “Very beautiful, and the supervolcano heat feels nice against the soles of my feet, but I don’t think I’d want to live here. It probably gets as much sun as Denver, but a whole lot more snow, and I like the city.” Despite her occasional hermit months.
Aric nodded, his head lifted as he stared in the distance. “Can you feel Rothly?”
Her whole body lurched. She hadn’t even thought of Rothly! All her concentration and emotions should have been focused on him! She’d spent too much time blocking out the pain that thinking of him gave her. That was a habit she must break. She
to keep her brother in her thoughts. And she admitted inwardly that the emotions she’d suffered through the past two days had been intense enough to weary her.
Dragging in chill air, she spread her stance, closed her eyes again and
for her brother in the here and now.
He was…not near enough to walk to, but close enough to feel. “Yes,” she whispered. “He’s in the area. I’ll be able to find him, though it will take me longer than a Lightfolk tracker. How much do you and the Eight know?”
“I’ll tell you when we get to the Earth Palace.” Aric turned and stepped into the tree again. Once more he held out his hand.
This time she had no hesitation in taking it.
They exited into a large cavern lit by enough glow lights to make a djinn feel welcome. Jenni glanced at the tree they’d stepped from. It was a huge oak. She got the idea the tree had been grown just for a transportation hub for the Treefolk.
The room around her was like a geode. No huge stalagmites and stalactites, and the floor was of many colored flagstones, but the walls were comprised of large crystals. The multitude of surfaces caught the light and magnified it so the room was almost as bright as outside. Air more humid than expected caressed her skin.
Aric cocked his head. “Not all of the Eight are here. I have been informed that I should show you to where you will be staying and we can have a meal and a rest.”
“That’s fine,” she said, not that she was looking forward to seeing King Cloudsylph again. Or confronting the dwarves and merman who’d sent Rothly off on a fatal mission.
Aric waved toward one of the four doors in the room and she wondered if the palace was divided into quarters by magical element. He took her elbow again and they strode to the southern one. Halfway there he coughed and Jenni recognized it as embarrassment, as his skin took on a ruddier tint.
“What?” she asked.
“We’re going to the female halflings dormitory.” He paused. “So you’ll feel more comfortable.”
Jenni was pretty sure all the halflings in the palace were servants. She snorted. “So much for my upgrading to nobility and princesshood.”
Aric turned redder.
“Yah,” she continued. “I know. I haven’t completed the damn mission for them, whatever it is.”