I wandered for a bit, having not explored this part of the island much. After a while, I found what looked to be the remains of a cromlech, so I went over to take a closer look. As I was exploring it, I saw movement. Looking closer, I realised that what I had thought a tree was actually Aerodine, looking much woodier than I had previously seen her. Another motion caught my eye, a figure by the river, apparently drinking, accompanied by a large lion-like creature. I turned my attention back to Aerodine, explaining that I had been worried about her. She turned on me, almost hissing, her eyes full of rage. I could understand that, because of the fire. She asked why I was there, so I told her about going to the stone, then to the other place, and not finding her, how I had then sought out my Cait friends. I was worried about what had happened. The figure by the water joined the conversation, saying that it had happened during a Hunt, so maybe the hunted one had been trying to defend themselves. I recognised the figure as Galyanna, Vedis’ guard. Aerodine kept her eyes on me, wary, angry, and I felt like I was confronting a wounded animal, that could attack out of pain. She said I should not be there, then said something about thorns, and cuttings and something that was going to die. I stood my ground and told her that I was there because I cared, because I was worried that people I cared about had been hurt. I told her that the burning hurt me too, because of my friends. Part of me was concerned – for all that we had been intimate, I knew I was dealing with a creature with very different motivations, so could be unpredictable, yet somehow I trusted the human-like parts of her emotions. I asked Galyanna what she had seen.
She said she had been using the hunt as a chance to find and kill the cŵn that the Huntsman had made from the guards killed in the castle. There had been enough deaths, she said, and by hunting those cŵn, she could perhaps prevent any further unnecessary deaths. She said that the Huntsman had been after someone and then there were explosions. Aerodine was not pleased, screaming that it was her duty to find and punish the culprit. Turning to me, still clearly in a rage, said that I could not hear the screams and feel the pain. She produced a crossbow bolt from somewhere in where her hair would have been. “This is the thorn,” she said, claiming it came from the castle. Galyanna apologised for angering her and for her loss and left us.
I told Aerodine that I had seen men burned to death on my ship. It was not the same, but the nearest I could experience. I looked at the crossbow bolt, asking if it could be tied to the explosions, or had it come by some other means. I said that if it came from the castle, we might be able to match it to a weapon somehow. Most of all, I was trying to calm her anger, wanting to convince her that justice could be done without starting wars or causing needless death. She shouted that the war was forged already, then said that the forest was my father, mother and family, so was not a war worthy? I could, perhaps, agree with her, appreciating her acknowledgement of my love for the forest, but was concerned that blame could be directed at the wrong people. I argued that the bolt may be from the castle, but it probably didn’t start the fire, since it was not a fire arrow. She stood up again, pain and conflict in her eyes. She told me that I should not be there; looking as though she might cry. I could see there was conflict, perhaps between her anger at mortals, if it was a mortal who had caused this, and her feelings for me. I stepped closer.
“I am here,” I said. “I am here because I want to be, because I am concerned about you. I am concerned about the forest.” She still would not look at me directly, and I could see the anger still in her face, her limbs trembling with that and pain.
“I could kill you,” she said, shaking, “And you should not see my like this.” I stood my ground.
“You could, but I do not believe you will, else I would not be standing here. And it does not matter which shape you wear, I am still your friend.” She stood, staring at the landscape for a while, then bent, touching her fingers to the earth, drawing forth from it a sapling.
“It will take time,” she said, partly to herself, “But this place will grow once more.” I knelt, so that I could see the sapling better, recalling what I had so recently said to Valene.
“That is what I said to Valene of the Cait, things will grow again, and this pain shall pass. New life is what is important now.” She shook her head, hissing rather than speaking, saying that revenge was important, else this could happen again. The elder tree was very angry, she told me. I could not tell if she meant the particular species, or just a senior tree. I nodded, partly in agreement with her.
“Yes, but the new life takes longer, so should be started, as you are doing now. But, it is important to learn who the revenge should be exacted upon. Perhaps somebody from the castle is to blame, but that does not mean everybody from the castle is to blame. If we strike out in anger, then many people could get hurt, and then others will strike back. The woman in armour spoke of the hunter and the hunted. Perhaps the Huntsman knew his prey. If that prey, the hunted one, cast the explosions to escape and caused the fire, then that is the one who should receive the vengeance. The Huntsman may be able to tell us.” She shook her head, the anger rising again, and when she faced me, there was almost hatred in her eyes.
“What care I for mortal souls, only to cut and burn us all the more?” she murmured. “Mortals and immortals, alike. Kill your own kind… destroy your homes…” I stood and faced her, understanding her anger, but hoping I could still reach her.
“I did not do this. I dislike this too,” I told her. “I want to see the culprit brought to justice. Strike at me if you wish, but you know I am not your enemy.” She glared at me for a moment and then looked at the ground, her words still angry.
“You burn us… you make your homes… not just around us, out of us… you make trinkets and tools… you eat us…” Her eyes flicked back to me, “You love us… without loving us.” I could see the struggle within her, and trusted to her better nature. I undid the buckle of my sword and let it fall to the ground. I spoke softly still.
“Anger only calls forth anger. Yes, there is much wrong that has been done, but I cannot answer for all the wrong my kind has done. Somebody specific did this; and they will suffer, but do not blame me. If you really blame me, then strike, I am unarmed.” She stepped closer, seemingly confused.
“You ask two different things. Either you want me to destroy you because you think it will make me feel better, or you want to be a martyr. I do not understand.” I did not move, keeping my face calm, looking straight into her eyes in the hope she could see my intent, not to die, but to show my trust in her.
“I want you to see that I am not your enemy,” I said. “I want you to see that I trust you. I have no wish to die. I want to help. Let me help. Let me use my channels to see if I can find out who did this, even if I have to face the Huntsman himself.” She looked me over slowly, then reached out a trembling hand.
“It is not my decision,” she told me, “And, here, among this, I cannot control myself.” I held her hand gently, her skin still rough and bark-like. I told her to go and tend to her trees, to plant saplings and to concentrate on life. If there was another who had to make the decisions, then she should bring my offer to them. She looked at me a while longer.
“Your death gives us nothing,” she said, slipping her hand from mine. “I need to go.” And with that, she faded into the forest. I stood for a moment, settling myself, calming myself with the thought that I had perhaps at least postponed drastic action. I gathered my sword up again and headed back to Valene’s den. If I was going to sleep now, at least I would have pleasant company.
Morning came, and I found I was alone in the den with Aoibheann. She was just waking up, murmuring something in Gaelic. I rolled over and smiled at her, saying good morning and teased her by telling her she had been wonderful. Of course, the joke went right over her head, and rather than explain, I just said she was wonderful for being her, and for still looking pretty after a night in a cave. That got me the usual blush and looking away. Gwyn saved the day by re-entering the cave. From the droplets of water on her face and in her hair, I guessed she had been having a wash in the river.
“Good morning, exiles,” she said. “Does anybody else feel like they’re in the not so bowdlerised version of Peter Pan?” I had no idea what she was talking about, and apparently, neither did Aoibheann. I grinned at her and asked what a Peter Pan was and why he needed to be expurgated.
“Peter Pan was a children’s book, one of the first iconic fantasies for children,” she said. “Three children fly away with magical Peter Pan to an island where children never grow up. They play pirates and stuff. The book was full of Victorian sensibility, but I’m pretty sure main character Wendy and magical Peter were getting it on.” I was not sure I was any the wiser and hoped she explained things better in literature classes. Aoibheann just looked confused, muttering something about children always wanting to play at pirates. I remembered then the day I had found her in the pond with Kale, looking for treasure. I asked Gwyn what she was smoking and then suggested that we find our way back to the castle and get some breakfast. Aoibheann was not sure, telling us that Padishar was having Rachel leave the castle, and had inferred from that that the castle was not safe. I opined that Padishar was probably removing Rachel from the castle to avoid me having to behead her, not because the castle wasn’t safe. Eventually, we persuaded her to come with us.
Back at the tavern, Aoibheann immediately started to look for something to clean. Before that though, she gave me some copper pieces for the writing materials. I refused it, saying I had no need of her money. I told them to get themselves some breakfast and set off in the direction of the stables in search of mine. There I found one of the stable lads mucking out the horses, who was more than willing to take a short break for my benefit. Suitably replete, I returned to the tavern, via my hut where I found one of my old ledger books and a spare pen for Aoibheann. Back at the tavern, I found them arguing over the health benefits of port, at least, that’s what I think they were going on about. I gave her the writing materials. Gwyn commented that she was glad she was writing as it always helps to get thoughts in order.
I decided to make tea for us all, which I did, while grumbling that what passed for tea here was not a patch on Borris’ Black Rose blend. That got a response from Rachel, who had wandered in, who apparently also missed drinking tea. I asked if she was still dead, saying there was no point in offering her a cup if she was. Yes, she was still dead, because Padishar could not bring her back to life without breaking some bond, so something needed to be sorted out with Vedis so that he could still keep her under control. I shrugged, not being that interested. I made the tea and brought it to the table, serving it in the manner of a butler, where I found Gwyn making a sandwich half the size of her head, and chomping on it in a very unladylike fashion. Not that I expected anything else from her. I then thought more about what Rachel had said.
“Keep you under control?” I said, in a very disbelieving tone of voice. She said that this was so, telling us that there were ways to break the bond, but she was sure that he would just bind her again if she did. She admitted that she was a baby demon who could not do anything her master didn’t bid her. Aoibheann had drained her cup and asked for more. I poured her another cup and told Rachel it wasn’t my business, so provided she didn’t cross any of my friends, there would be no reason to disagree. I had hoped that would be the end of it, but again, she went on about having saved our lives by sacrificing her own. I had no answer that I was prepared to say in front of the ladies, so I just ignored it.
Gwyn, Aoibheann and I chatted for a while. I explained who Borris was and about his tea. Gwyn suggested that the tavern could do with some decoration and Aoibheann said she would have to ask her mother, presumably Paash. Eventually, Gwyn started yawning again and said she was probably going back to her hut for a while, to catch up on her diary. I walked her to her hut, gota bacon-flavoured kiss and then retired to my own hut, there to catch up on my own diary.
I hope I can see Valene again soon. I may have to send Royce for her. I think I made progress with postponing any drastic action from the dryads. Perhaps if I can speak with Valene’s queen and maybe the Seelie court too, some peaceful resolution can be achieved. I would have to leave this place so soon, or see it destroyed in a pointless war.