â€œAre you feeling better?â€ Weide was sitting by the spring massaging Melaâ€™s shoulders. Mela could feel the gentle stream of life energy the grey-skinned dryad was focusing into her, washing away damage she hadnâ€™t even realised was there.
â€œMuch, thank you. I didnâ€™t realise how ill I felt,â€ Mela replied.
â€œHmm, yes. Anywhere else and you would have collapsed hours ago. Then again, anywhere else you would have had plenty of warning. Iâ€™ll make you something to help before you leave Waldhafen.â€ Weide looked up at her colleagues and Daniel. â€œSheâ€™ll be fine.â€
â€œYouâ€™re sure?â€ he asked. He was sitting on the other side of the spring, looking pale and drawn.
â€œIâ€™m sure.â€ Weide gave him a sharp look. â€œBut Iâ€™m not so sure about you. You donâ€™t eat or sleep enough.â€ She laid a hand on his arm. â€œYouâ€™re alright for now, but youâ€™re going to hurt yourself if you carry on like this. Your secondary affinity canâ€™t support you forever.â€
â€œDonâ€™t you start.â€ He rubbed at his forehead wearily. â€œI get enough nagging from Ebona.â€
â€œI know, but still donâ€™t think you get enough. You should listen to your heart friend, Daniel. Youâ€™ll not help anyone if you collapse.â€ Weide turned to Ebona. â€œAnd you need to make him stop more often.â€
â€œYou know?â€ he asked. â€œHow?â€
â€œWeâ€™ve been watching you since you first entered our forest,â€ Saeaera said. â€œHad your behaviour not belied the stories about you, we would have been far more cautious about allowing you entry.â€
â€œAh,â€ he said. â€œI should have realised.â€
â€œWe might have hesitated anyway,â€ a light-brown-skinned dryad said. Mela recalled Saeaera introducing her earlier as Avellana. â€œBut we saw your confrontation with the storm queenâ€™s troops, and what you said convinced us youâ€™re not the enemy. Even here weâ€™ve heard about the destruction of Elapyron city.â€
â€œThat was just before I came here,â€ he said.
â€Yes, and he bought you here. I suspect itâ€™s not unconnected – he was after your bracelet. I wonder how he knew where it was.â€ Avellana pulled a face. â€œNot many knew where the bracelets were hidden, but according to the survivorsâ€™ tales he went straight to it.â€
â€œAnd he didnâ€™t have that useful toy of Melaâ€™s either.â€ Daniel studied the moss covered floor with a frown. â€œThat is odd.â€
â€œYouâ€™re here to request the Life Heart bracelet, arenâ€™t you?â€ She held out a goblet of crystal clear water to him. â€œYou desire an audience with she who was Elaranor.â€
â€œThatâ€™s right.â€ He took a sip of the water. â€œEbona tells me sheâ€™s the most communicative of the guardians, and I need to warn them. I used mine to try and talk to he who was Miridan but…â€ he trailed off. â€œI donâ€™t think I got anywhere.â€
â€œMiridan wasnâ€™t exactly communicative even before his transformation. Speakers with an affinity for death rarely are,â€ Shadavar said. â€œElaranor is your best choice. The problem is that we do guard the bracelet, but itâ€™s not really ours to lend. Youâ€™ll need to convince Birke, whom I think youâ€™ve already met.â€
â€œAnd probably Sarah as well,â€ Avellana said. â€œBirkeâ€™s not likely to hand it over without consulting her.â€
Mela blinked. Birke was the dryad who accosted them on their way up from the river, wasnâ€™t she? No wonder sheâ€™d said theyâ€™d talk later.
â€œSarah?â€ Daniel asked. â€œIs that the Life Warrior? So Birke is her heart friend?â€
â€œI never even noticed she didnâ€™t have a heart stone.â€ He frowned again. â€œAnd she wasnâ€™t in resting form. Her heart friend is here?â€
â€œNot to the best of my knowledge, though she is prone to arrive without warning and Iâ€™m pretty sure Birke will have called for her,â€ Avellana said. â€œBirke has access to an artifact that lets her assume her full form for a few minutes without her heart friend. It wears her out, though.â€ She turned and looked outside where the sun was just rising. â€œYou should rest for a few hours, then talk to Birke.â€
He looked like he might argue, but then he rubbed at his forehead, pinched the bridge of his nose and nodded. â€œI am tired,â€ he conceded. â€œAnd I trust you.â€
â€œGood,â€ Avellana smiled. â€œWeâ€™ve arranged accomodation for you.â€
Even with Ebonaâ€™s nagging, Daniel really hadnâ€™t realised how tired heâ€™d let himself get until he reached the chambers the Waldhafen council had provided for him. There was a bed of woven willow and leaves for him and a pile of bracken for Ebona. The bed was as soft and warm as his bed at home and he fell asleep immediately.
When he woke, the sun was just setting and a human woman with dark blonde hair in a smart suit was sitting by the bed reading a nanotechnology journel. A covered tray sat on the table next to her, and Ebona lay on the pile of bracken chewing contentedly on a pile of raw steak.
He pulled himself onto one elbow and looked around properly. Like the great hall, the room and all its furnishings grew from the surrounding trees. However, it was much cosier and lit a warm golden colour by a glowing lamp.Â Looking at the woman, he guessed she was a little older than his mother. She looked a little like her as well.
â€œHello?â€ he said.
She looked up at him. â€œAh, good evening! I tried to wake you when I arrived, but you were out for the count.â€ She extended her hand. â€œIâ€™m Doctor Sarah Tyler.â€
â€œDaniel Stevens.â€ He shook her hand briefly and suppressed as frown as he tried to remember where heâ€™d heard her name before.
â€œYou picked a good moment to wake up.â€ She gave him a warm smile. â€œThey just brought us dinner. I hope you like stew.â€ She lifted the cover from the tray to reveal two bowls of a delicious smelling stew. â€œWeâ€™re lucky, they know how to cook for humans here.â€
â€œYouâ€™re the life warrior?â€ He asked took one of the bowls and tasted it. It was as good as it smelled.
â€œI am. Iâ€™ve been talking to Ebona and the Council while you were sleeping. You want to borrow my bracelet.â€
â€œYes, I presume they told you why.â€
â€œAs best they could. And I can surmise a few things Ebona didnâ€™t say as well.â€ For some reason he couldnâ€™t fathom her hazel eyes sparkled with amusement.
â€œMay I ?â€ he asked.
She opened her mouth to reply, but then broke off as a loud gong sounded from somewhereÂ above them. She went white and the bowl dropped from her hand to smash on the floor. â€œWhat the hell!â€
â€œWhat is it?â€ he asked.
â€œThatâ€™s the attack alarm!â€ She headed for the door.
â€œHold up!â€ He leapt to his feet. â€œIâ€™m coming with you!â€