It looked like a lot more than the council were waiting for them when they reached Waldhafen. Mela had never been to a town before, so she looked around with interest as Betula led them up a sloping wooden ramp towards the central tree. The town was well lit by larger versions of the green lights that the imps had carried and she could see curious faces peering out of the windows and between the branches of the trees. Most of the watchers seemed nervous of the rider and Ebona, keeping their distance.
One group of dryads broke away from the crowd and ran over to them, giggling. They must be part of Betulaâ€™s clan, Mela thought, because they shared the same pale colouration. One of them walked boldly up to the rider and Ebona and stood in front of them, hands on her hips and lips pursed. She was a little older than the others, Mela thought, though with dryads it was hard to tell.
â€œThe trees whisper stories of you and your heart friend, Dark Warrior,â€ she said. â€œAnd the wind carries tales.â€ She looked Ebona in the eyes. â€œSo tell me, unicorn, do the two of you come in peace?â€
Ebona looked over at the Rider for a moment before answering. â€œThat is our intent. Weâ€™ll attack no one who does not attack us first.â€
â€œGood answer.â€ The dryad gave a warm smile. â€œI am called Birke. I suspect weâ€™ll talk more later.â€ She turned and walked back to the others.
â€œThat was odd,â€ the rider said.
Mela was about to agree when her breath caught in her throat as she spotted the guards at the hall doors. Two muscular palomino centaurs with long curling cream hair and beards regarded them with crystal blue eyes. They were alike enough to be twins and each was armed with a huge axe, which they held as if they weighed nothing. To Melaâ€™s untrained eyes, they certainly looked like they knew how to use them.
â€œIâ€™ve brought the guests the council wished to see,â€ Betula told them. The centaurs nodded wordlessly as one and moved aside so they could pass between them into the hall.
It wasnâ€™t a building in the sense that Queen Valeriaâ€™s palace was, Mela realised as they entered, but neither was it a natural structure like her clanâ€™s underwater grotto. It must have been a natural clearing once, but the trees surrounding it had somehow been trained to create a great hall. The walls were grown from the living trunks of trees. The vaulted roof above was the branches of the same trees, woven tightly enough together to keep out a storm. But what really drew Melaâ€™s attention was the small natural spring bubbling up between the roots of one of the trees. It was large enough for her to sit in and it was definitely water, not like sap like the river.
At the far end of the hall, the high council of Waldhafen awaited them. Two brown skinned, green haired forest haltia – a male and female – three dryads of varying types and a faun sat in the still-living chairs which grew out of the walls and floor of the strange building. Next to them, a glossy chesnut unicorn with horn and hooves of polished dark red wood lay on a pile of leaves. A Hercinian bird sat on a perch above them, its brightly glowing wings providing much of the light for the room.
As Betula led them forward across the moss covered floor, the unicorn rose to its feet and trotted over to Ebona. He touched horns with her in ritual greeting.
â€œWelcome to Waldhafen, shadow sister,â€ he said warmly.
â€œThank you, life brother,â€ Ebona replied. â€œItâ€™s been a while since anyone made us feel welcome anywhere.â€ She paused. â€œOf course we havenâ€™t been acting in ways that would endear us to others.â€
â€œNo, you havenâ€™t,â€ the female forest haltia said. â€œBut we think you have your reasons.” She rose to his feet and the others followed suit. â€œI am Saeaera.â€ She gestured to the male beside her. â€œThis is my mate Myrahd.â€ She turned to the others. â€œOur dryad sisters and faun brother are Avellana, Weide,Â Quercia and Erlin. Our feathered friend is Chiara and youâ€™ve already met Shadhavar.â€
â€œI am Ebona.â€ She touched her horn to the floor respectfully.
â€œYour name isnâ€™t unknown to us, sister,â€ Shadhavar said. â€œWeâ€™ll talk later – but first I think your young friend there,â€ he pointed his horn at Mela, â€œis drier than sheâ€™d like. The Life Affinity of Waldhafen is masking the symptoms, but she will collapse as soon as you leave if we donâ€™t attend to her needs.â€
â€œIâ€™m alright,â€ Mela said quickly but the Rider had already turned to look at her. He studied her for a moment before he stepped over and laid a hand on her forehead.
â€œNo, youâ€™re not,â€ he said. â€œYou just think you are. You look terrible, I should have noticed.â€ He bowed his head.
â€œWe didnâ€™t pass anywhere suitable for me to rest anyway,â€ she said.Â She turned and looked at the spring and then back at the council. â€œMay I?â€
â€œOf course,â€ Saeaera said. â€œHelp yourself.â€
â€œThank you.â€ Mela ran across to the pool, leapt into it and transformed her legs back into her tail. She ducked under the water for a moment before realising sheâ€™d forgotten her manners and sitting back up. â€œMy name is Mela, noble councillors.â€
â€œWelcome, Mela.â€ Shadhavar and the others turned to the rider. â€œMay we know your name, Dark Warrior?â€
The rider looked at the floor, clearly considering the question. It was several moments before he answered.
â€œYou may, if you will promise it wonâ€™t leave these walls. There are people Iâ€™d rather not hear it yet.â€
â€œWe can agree to that, I think,â€ Avellana said. The others nodded.
â€œThank you,â€ he said. â€œMy name is Daniel Stevens.â€