They still hadnâ€™t found the source of the water sound, though it kept getting louder as they followed the imps. The sun had set a couple of hours earlier by Melaâ€™s reckoning, but they still hadnâ€™t reached wherever the imps were leading them. More imps had appeared, carrying tiny green lanterns and flying around them like a cloud of fireflies. Neither the Rider nor Ebona needed them, so they must be for her benefit. But there were so many. Who could animate this many imps at once? She didnâ€™t realise sheâ€™d said it out loud until Ebona answered her.
â€œNo one could, at least not on their own. If one Speaker made all these, theyâ€™ve got a power source. More likely itâ€™s a group.â€
â€œBut where are they leading us?â€ the rider said.
â€œWaldhafen, I think,â€ Ebona replied. â€œThis sort of thing fits with the defenses they are supposed to have thrown up two years ago. No one gets in or out without the ruling councilâ€™s permission. Having a heart bracelet would explain why they did that.â€
â€œYes, I suppose that it would. If theyâ€™ve been isolated, do you suppose they donâ€™t know who we are?â€
â€œI doubt that,â€ Ebona said. â€œWaldhafeners still come out to trade and they still let outsiders in; theyâ€™re just choosy. Thereâ€™s no way theyâ€™re ignorant of the current situation.â€ She paused and seemed to stare at something ahead of them which Mela couldnâ€™t see in the dark. â€œYes, itâ€™s definately Waldhafen. Looks like they have a boat out for us.â€
A boat? Mela sniffed the air again. There was still no water, but there was a sweet scent she hadnâ€™t registered before. It smelled like tree sap? She peered into the darkness, trying to see what lay ahead, but could only just make out a couple of lanterns hanging from the trees. She could, however, sense a speaker near them.
â€œThereâ€™s someone there,â€ she said.
â€œYes,â€ Ebona agreed. â€œThe pilot, I would presume.â€
â€œWell, letâ€™s go and see,â€ the rider said.
Ebona picked her way towards the lanterns. Mela continued peering through the darkness, willing things to become clear. As they drew closer, she could eventually make out a jetty with a canopied river barge tied to the far end. She couldnâ€™t see what the river was made of, but she was sure it wasnâ€™t water.
As they reached the jetty, a figure emerged from the barge. In the pool of light from the lanterns, Mela could she was a dryad, though paler than any dryad sheâ€™d seen before. Her skin was silvery white with the occasional black streak, and she had pale grey eyes and light green hair.
â€œGreetings, Dark Warrior.â€ The dryad curtseyed gracefully. â€œI am called Betula. I have been sent to guide you in. Please follow me.â€ Her white robes swirled around her as she turned and stepped back onto the barge.
â€œItâ€™s been a while since anyone called me that,â€ the rider murmered as he dismounted. He turned and lifted Mela down after him. â€œCome on then.â€ He led her and Ebona towards the barge.
Mela paused on the gangplank and looked down. The barge floated on a river which certainly swirled and sloshed like water around the vessel, but she could sense it wasnâ€™t water and it was the source of the sweet smell.
Betula must have noticed her confusion.
â€œHave you never heard of the Green River of Waldhafen, child?â€ she asked.
â€œThe… Oh!â€ Mela looked down again. â€œSap!â€
â€œIndeed.â€ Betula gestured to the comfortable looking cushions, pile of hay and the low tables covered with plates which lay under the canopy. â€œNow come, we have food suitable for speakers and humans on board.â€
â€œMy thanks!â€ the rider said as he sat down and picked up an apple. â€œI do get bored of so much meat. I can gather my own greens but no one ever seems to think of it.â€ He shot a quick glance at Ebona, who had tucked into a platter of meat, and then bit into the apple. He gave Betula a direct look. â€œWhy do you?â€
â€œOh, the Life Warrior visits sometimes. Her heart friend lives in Waldhafen. You get used to humans when youâ€™re around them.â€ As she spoke she cast off the ropes and the barge began to float down the river.
â€œAnd she doesnâ€™t keep the heart bracelet with her?â€ he asked. Betula shook her head.
â€œShe always opens the gate straight to here, so she doesnâ€™t need to. Itâ€™s safer here.â€ She looked at the pendant around Melaâ€™s neck. â€œWe guess thatâ€™s why youâ€™re here?â€
â€œWe need to gain an interview with she who was Elaranor,â€ he said.
â€œAh,â€ Betula said. â€œYes, that would explain it. The council will want to hear everything.â€
Mela walked to the front of the barge and stared into the darkness. The barge was floating upstream under its own power, and she could see green and gold lights in the distance. They seemed to stretch from ground to sky. A hand touched her shoulder and she looked up to the rider standing there with a plate of meat.
â€œYou should eat something, Mela.â€ He handed her the plate. He looked out at the approaching lights. â€œWaldhafen has tall buidings.â€
â€œTall trees actually,â€ Betula corrected. â€œWaldhafen is built in the trees. Weâ€™ll be there in about an hour. The council is waiting for you.â€