A tense meeting between the Lord of the Forest and some of the "old guard."
Nikki tries to be a fly on the wall as Beren and Avarice stand their ground in a confrontation with the leader of the wild faeries. Young Nikki certainly sees a side of his father and of Omen's mother that his generation has not really seen before, and much of the meaning escapes him.
One thing is certain -- an enemy is near, and the consequences if they don't all pull together sound dire . . . But hopefully, it won't come to that.
Now Round It Comes The Wandering Star
To a faerie, they all followed Nikki back to the valley floor in pursuit of the Sundragon. They cautiously picked their way through burned and steamed bug bits as they climbed down the rocky slope.
The gryphon watched their progress but contributed nothing else.
"I'm guessing," Nikki said as he tried not to slip on rubbery crabmeat, "that gryphon is going to wait until we're out of sight, and then there's going to be a feast."
The faerie girl Selesol pointed to the blackened bits. "Hope that isn't going give the gryphon a stomach ache." She limped badly as she tried to keep up, and Nikki had to fight the need to lend a hand. Most of the faerie shied away the moment he stepped too close. They wanted his help and his protection, but their natural wildness left them skittish.
"Creatures of the Wyldwood are wise about their choice of food," antler boy — whose name turned out to be Quaret — said as he skipped down the slope with not a hint of caution.
"That didn't turn out to be true when you found the fermented pirons in Niilegar's hidden orchard," a wisp-thin girl with enormous fox ears said primly. "You were sick for a week."
"But it was worth it." Quaret snickered wickedly. "I saw into the heart of the sky that night. And her heart was beautiful."
Nikki had heard many a drunkard in his mother's tavern wax poetic about ale and spirits, but he had to admit that Quaret looked unusually happy recalling his drunken state.
"Of course," Selesol sounded vexed, "Niilegar then hid his orchard deeper in the Spring Lands, and now none of us get even one piron." She wrinkled her nose in Quaret's direction. He gave a helpless sigh.
Between the lighthearted bickering, the songs, and the riddles (How is a plum the same as a peacock?), Nikki's band of faeries was soon deep in the forest. Along the way, others joined — skittering out from behind trees, emerging from bushes, digging out from the loam. They whispered among themselves as each individual pointed to Nikki, but all continued to follow.
Nikki had to admit that he thoroughly enjoyed the company, even though the more they acquainted him with the object of their conflict — the tree eaters and their minions — the less he was looking forward to the upcoming battle. And none of them know what happened to Shalonie. At best, she's in that castle. At worst . . .
"There are three kinds of the bugs," Reduse, the auburn-haired faerie, told him as they hurried along.
"No, four kinds. You left out the queens."
"No, seventeen kinds. You're forgetting about the life stages."
"They're all bugs. Bugs!"
Nikki felt the need to cut in, trying to figure out what exactly was happening in the woods. "Are these tree eaters dangerous?"
Looks of shock spread through the faerie ranks, and Nikki assumed he'd made some mistake.
"They eat trees!" the faeries exclaimed. "Our beautiful trees! Tree sprites are dying."
Tree sprites! Of course — these are the wild fae. Connected to the woods. He quickly adjusted his question. "I meant are these tree eaters fighters? Will they attack us — or just the trees. Those crab things attacked us — they're meat eaters. Will the tree eaters attack us?"
That gave the little troupe pause, and they began to argue. Finally an old badger with silvering fur moved forward, and the other fae quieted down. "The tree eaters have guards. They fight. The meat eaters — they fight everything, including the tree eaters. They're all dangerous in the immediate moment. But the tree eaters — they are the ones that will destroy the world."
The poem he'd recited to Shalonie just that morning came back to Nikki. "They'll eat the bells, the green, the roots, till all our hearths grow cold," he said slowly.
The faerie frantically whispered to each other.
"Those are the old words — you know the old warnings," the silvered badger agreed. "Very wise indeed."
Nikki hardly considered himself wise — though it was nice to hear. He felt certain that whatever was happening in the woods was far too serious for him to deal with. I need to catch up to the dragons, find Shalonie, and get help.
Their path through the woodlands in pursuit of the dragon led them to a pretty glade divided in two by a brook. The late afternoon light played over the grasses, and bright spring blossoms filled the circle surrounded by trees.
Voices drifted through the air, spoken in faerie tongue at first, all balm to the ear with the beauty of their sound and eloquence of the words that Nikki did not understand.
"You dare suggest that he is at fault?" a hard voice with an accented rasp spoke in Merchants Common — the voice unmistakable, the cutting tone chilling.
That's Omen's mother, Avarice. Alarm moved through Nikki. Avarice had not traveled with Shalonie's group, and he wondered how she'd gotten to the Blue Wilds.
Despite Nikki's instinct to backpedal, his group piled into the clearing to witness a surprising confrontation.
Beren Deldano stood on one side of the little brook. He carried a full complement of weapons — two swords at his side, six daggers visible on his belt and strapped to one leg, an axe dangling opposite the swords, and two pronged metal rods with leather grips crisscrossed on his back underneath his lute.
It seemed to Nikki as if his father had a golden aura about him, a glow that seemed to radiate power and magic. Is he casting a spell?
Beren's lute pulsed with an ice-blue gleam as if it were a shining star in the northern sky. The fine wood had been ornamented with swirls of glowing symbols that Nikki did not recognize. He knew the lute Omen carried had once been Beren's — faerie made and very powerful, though Omen was still struggling to learn how to use it. But Beren had abandoned that instrument in favor of the one he now carried — an instrument that sparked the envy of many. More than one Melian bard had asked Nikki about it — all Nikki knew was that the magic of Beren's lute was powerful. His siblings had all confessed they were leery of even touching it.
Like a vicious dog with only one master.
Nekarra Deldano stood at her husband's side — her movements quieted, she seemed like a statue of martial perfection — tall, lithe, clad in modified Shindarian armor, ink-black hair pulled tight in a high ponytail, the tip of which reached the small of her back. She rested one hand on the hilt of her long sword.
A Shindarian warrior. Kadana had told him that Nekarra was unrivaled on the battlefield. He hadn't yet had the courage to ask his father's wife to train him.
On the other side of Beren stood Omen's mother, Avarice Machelli. She too was dressed for battle — dark leathers, a long sword at her side, daggers at her belt, her black hair pulled from her face with a web of silk-twined braids.
Opposite the three familiar forms, on the other side of the brook, stood an ancient fellow with skin the color of green clay and long vine-like hair as silver as the moon. Dressed in dark leathers and a cloak of green leaves, he wore a crown of twisted branches and berries, a gnarled staff in one hand. He reminded Nikki of the faerie lords he'd seen in the Summer Lands — though he knew this one, like all the fae around him, was mortal.
That some sort of confrontation was happening between the group was obvious to Nikki. The little faerie band around him also sensed the tension though they were less cautious about voicing their questions.
"Are they fighting?"
"Who is using magic?"
"That's Rugern, the Lord of the Wyldwood."
"Big folk should not be arguing with the Lord of the Forest. The trees will grow angry."
"Do you think any of them have any apples with them?"
"Or ale! I want ale!"
Embarrassed, Nikki found himself standing in the center of the gaggle of fae as the eyes of his father, Nekarra, Avarice, and the Lord of the Wyldwood turned toward him. He raised his hands out to his side — much as he had when Oblique had started shrieking in Melia — as if to say he had nothing to do with the interruption.
Nekarra lowered her lashes in a slow blink, a cat-like gesture that managed to make Nikki feel as if she were welcoming him.
"Nikki!" a bright voice called out, and Nikki spotted Lilyth Deldano, outfitted in leather armor. Beside her stood the flame-haired girl Sable Velaquenta, also clad in fine armor. The oversized kitten Shard, folded ears perked, pranced in front of them. They'd been hiding behind a tree just past where Avarice stood but stepped forward now that the confrontation seemed to be interrupted. Lilyth waved enthusiastically. "We're here to save Shalonie."
Finally! Some news about Shalonie! Relief flooded through Nikki and carried him forward. "We fought a kakload of bugs — giant crab things! Geryon reduced them to ash . . . What about Shalonie?"
"I is telling Nikki! I is tellings everyone about the walnuts in our dancing shoes and the terrible scorecard that is being filled with pelicans!" Shard exclaimed excitedly.
"Skeletons," Lily explained and then started speaking very rapidly, interrupted occasionally by Sable and Shard. All Nikki heard were the words Shalonie and castle and danger.
The idea that Shalonie was trapped in the ruins of an ancient castle did not sit well with Nikki. "We have to go rescue—"
"There's quite a bit going on here." Omen's father, 7 Daenoth, also clad in armor and armed with a long Lydonian blade, stepped out of the woods, stopping Nikki's words. "And we need to decide what to do now that we're back together. Shalonie gave very specific instructions."
"She told us to kill all the bugs," Lilyth whispered to Nikki, and Nikki couldn't understand how Shalonie could be trapped in a castle but still get a message to Lilyth Daenoth.
"But he's the one who broke the whirligig. He has to fix it!" A little man with a rumpled hat waved an accusatory finger at Beren and then hid himself behind two faerie who looked like bear cubs.
"I cannot begin to tell you how tired I am of hearing about your problems!" Avarice snapped, directing her words to the old forest lord. "Your illustrious queen created a portal to protect you folk to the detriment of small children. You forced generations of castle dwellers to sacrifice their little daughters to your cruel magic. You should be ashamed."
Wait — what? Nikki blinked in confusion, not certain he'd heard Avarice correctly. Are there dead children? I thought it was just bugs and trees!
"But the son of Straakhan broke the whirligig!" a tall faerie with giant blue eyes spoke for her king. "And he released the cursed creatures, and he left us vulnerable to the tree eaters."
"Beren broke what had to be broken!" Avarice growled. "His heart is greater than yours. He saved the children because the children had to be saved, come what may."
She whirled on the rest of them, her black hair like a cloak made of shadows, her silver eyes burning. "And what has come is destruction. That is your lot. You stood by when the children suffered. And now you suffer. And we all will suffer unless we stop the bugs and," she took a labored breath, "and the cursed creatures."
"I have spent the worst part of the last thirty years tracking down the cursed creatures," Beren spoke, his words resonating in the fading afternoon light. "If the cursed ones roam here, we shall vanquish them this day." He turned slightly and ran his gaze over the entire assemblage. "But all here must join to drive back the scourge that is the tree eaters."
He gave 7 a slight nod, and the Daenoth lord — crown prince of Lydon — stepped up.
Nikki noted how much 7 looked like Omen. Older, of course — mature in his physique where Omen was still a boy, golden-haired where Omen's mane shone like copper, and when 7 spoke, a wealth of experience and depth colored his words, lending gravity and wisdom where Omen's words were almost always tinted with mirth and wonder.
"They're called Tetramites—"
"Told you!" 7 was interrupted by a lamb-faced boy, who quickly hoofed out of sight when he realized that everyone had heard him.
"They come from the Wandering Star, through a portal that has opened in the castle as it did long ago when the ancient lords of faerie united to fight them. The old ones are not here anymore to protect the woodlands, so we must now do it in their stead. And if luck is on our side, my son Omen, and the Lady Shalonie, will find a way to close that portal once and for all."
"The time to dispose of the Wyldwood's plague is today," Beren proclaimed. "We have a flight of dragons on our side and a battalion of warriors from Melia. But these woods are home to the fae, and we are just visitors. Will the Wyldwood join the fight?"
Nikki's heart pounded with excitement and not a little fear at the thought of going into battle. He watched as the king of the forest raised his hand, and an echo of cheers rang through the woods as the faerie shouted their consent.