On the Way to Cerisey

That morning was cold. Even colder than before. With wounded coming in that morning from Calder Keep, Typhon Né begged off the traveling as people needed her here for a time and she had little to do with Cerisey or the Vale, save for a very distant relation to Remy Silverleaf. Both Elemix and Renée were miserable, and Emmeline slightly less so. At least she didn’t have to be bundled as much. Most of the morning there was little said as they rode through the snows. Renée would quickly ride ahead and plot out the way to avoid the deeper drifts, but even then it was slow going. It would be after dark before they got there.

Despite the night coming, on the rolling hills of the East Valley visibility was a tiny bit better. Eventually after much suffering the saw a house ahead. It was the home of the Crispians, a farm family a mile outside of Cerisey. Emmeline met them once at her first, and so far only ‘Stump’ court. While technically not Emmeline’s subjects, both Elemix and Renée implored Emmeline to pause for the night, or at least for a time to warm up. Both of them had the beginning of frostbite and hypothermia. Elemix in particular was regretting his previous decision to sell his ring of warmth.

“You say you have met them before. Surely they would be willing to let us warm up by the fire,” Elemix said to Emmiline.

Renée added, “aaannddd, giveee ussusus somme hottatata sooouppapap?”

“It can’t hurt to ask,” Emmeline said. “Let’s see if they are still home and not yet retreated to Uzec.”

The family was home. At the knock on the door a “who is it” in a gruff voice rung out.

Mademoiselle Emmeline de Cerisey, Maitresse en titrê and witch.

“It’s Lady Emmeline with Wizard Elemix and our friend, Renee,” Em stated. “We’re terribly cold out here. Could we trouble you to warm ourselves at your hearth this eve?”

There was a sound of a bar being removed from the door, a couple of locks and then the door opened. “Ma’am,” Phinneas Crispian said. “Come in and warm yourself by the fire. Maude, please get them some hot tea. Kids, line up and greet our guests.”

Four little children, two boy and two girls came out of the back room in their sleeping clothes and bowed. “Good evening ma’am.” they said in attempted unison.

“Oh you are all so lovely, I’m so sorry to have roused you out of your warm beds. Please don’t let us interrupt you overmuch.” She addressed Phinneas and Maude. “Thank you so much for opening your door to me. I had expected to be home in Ceresey by now, but the going was much more difficult than we anticipated.”

Phinneas said, “if you wish to rest and warm up for an hour, I could hook up a couple of your horses to our sleigh as Cerisey is hard by. You could return it on the way back. Or you could stay the evening. It would be less dangerous. What do you wish m’lady?”

Emmeline hesitated and then looked at her companions. Poor Renée couldn’t stop shaking and she could tell Elemix had absolutely no intention of going any further tonight. She gave Phinneas an appreciative but apologetic smile. “Actually, I think my companions might very much appreciate it if we could stay until dawn?”

He answered, “Please, if the ladies can take our room, the magus we can put up in the kitchen – it will be nice and warm as we can start up the stove. We will stay with the children.”

“Thank you sir, you are very kind,” Emmeline said. When Phinneas and his wife had turned to make arrangements and resettled the children, Em placed one gold piece for each member of the family upon the mantle. She knew they’d find it in the morning. Normally she would rather repay kindness with a song or bit of news, but the news she had wasn’t happy, and it was too late for the children for songs.

Elemix said, “I will stay in the kitchen. Your kindness is most appreciated.”

When they were alone, Emmeline said to Elemix, “This is bad, El. It should not be this cold. I fear the river may freeze and then you know what that will mean.”

When their host left Elemix responded to Emmiline. “Yes the situation is most dire. I have been thinking about the river freezing over. Perhaps there is a way for us to break the ice in that event. It would freeze again, but it could buy us some more time. And if timed right, it might even take some of the goblins.
I can summon elementals to weaken or fracture the ice. Fireballs will likely come in handy as well.
Do you know of other options to achieve such a feat?”

“If someone had mastery of weather magic, then they could try to combat the cold directly,” Emmeline said. “It would then be a contest of who was the greater master of weather, though odds would be greatly tilted toward winter weather since that’s the season. It might be better to think of how we can take advantage of a frozen river for our own purposes, such as counter attack, ambush or troop movements, but… you know I haven’t the head for that sort of strategic thinking. Nor have I any knowledge of the soldiers the Baron— Marquess — really has.

“I’m worried for Lady Rivanon — the Baroness. With her father in the north, weather like this could delay her and her reinforcements. That means the ideal time for goblin forces to strike at Uzec would be at dawn. I would return to Uzec post haste, but I’m responsible for Ceresey. They have no one else to protect them, or my Vale. I have to go on in the morning no matter what.”

“It’s possible there are other raiding parties of goblinoids similar to the one we dispatched, but then Uzec is not unguarded. There are troops and guards. Less so then usual given the situation at the keep up north, but the Baron would not leave it so undefended as to not be able to withstand an attack. Tifane is there as well now.
I understand your concern though. Are you suggesting you want Renee or I to return to Uzec?”

Emmeline thought about that, then shook her head. “Actually, as I think about it, we are most effective as free agents, aren’t we? Not stuck behind walls. When the attack comes, we can put ourselves in a better position to do something crippling to their leadership if we are out here where they don’t expect us.”

“I agree. We should stay together. Remember also that heavy snow hampers their vision and movement just as much as ours. From what I know of goblinoids they do not prefer cold environments any more than we do – usually.”

Renée who was listening intently added, “we sir, that is not entirely the case. Cold bothers them a bit less than us, but just a bit. They all have a natural instinct for survival, more so than humans. But you are right that they would need heavy clothing or furs, like the ones we saw a few days ago. In the north there are lots of potential animals for such clothing, but for an army, wouldn’t that would require getting them from somewhere?”

“Yes, but who monitors such things?” Emmeline wondered. “How would any of us know if, say, a herd of sheep went missing from Faol to be used to make blankets for a small army? Or who would know if a herd of mountain goats disappeared as they were skinned as used for clothing? A variety of sources could be used to outfit an unknown number of goblins. We do know that those forces comprise of hobgoblins, goblins, and even larger leaders, they are well equipped and armed, and well organized.”

She didn’t say what she was thinking, that the warband of some 25 goblinoids they encountered would have wiped out places like Ceresey and any farms they encountered.

“Yes, but who monitors such things?” Emmeline wondered. “How would any of us know if, say, a herd of sheep went missing from Faol to be used to make blankets for a small army? Or who would know if a herd of mountain goats disappeared as they were skinned as used for clothing? A variety of sources could be used to outfit an unknown number of goblins. We do know that those forces comprise of hobgoblins, goblins, and even larger leaders, they are well equipped and armed, and well organized.”

She didn’t say what she was thinking, that the warband of some 25 goblinoids they encountered would have wiped out places like Ceresey and any farms they encountered.

Renée thought about it. “Well, we could I suppose. But there are the Saeisté out there. My mother was a member. They are volunteer rangers, wardens, and the like. Likely there are one or two working with the Baron up here. Certainly around Faou. When I was little, mother would go off to meet with them from time to time. If we bring out suspicions to them, it might help make sense of the attack at Faou, as well as the other raids – including the Calder mines. But goblins are rarely taking such initiative or planning that far ahead.”

“It’s a good idea to warn anyone who might listen or who might have eyes and ears in the mountains,” Emmeline agreed. “Also we know that Tyaanites have been stirring things up for the past year as well. They appeared in the Calder area interested in the mines, attempted to purchase access, and when that failed, they gathered up resources, including human settlers and villagers. That was where our adventures began and Typhon Né’s curse was laid upon him, apparently.”

Renée asked, “So was it the goblins that tried to purchase the mines or the Tyaanites? Goblins of any stripe are not known for their mercantile skills.”

“Sorry, that was a bit muddled.” Em tried to clarify. “The Tyaanites were interested in the mines and attempted to gain access. They used goblins to gather up resources and humans for the mines.”

Renée was a tad confused, “Goblins don’t like working for humans unless there is something in it for themselves. Force and fear will only work so long before they stab you in the back. And they will.” Renée clearly did not like goblins. “I bet those Tyaanites probably wanted to hide their real intensions through using the goblins as cover. The goblins probably were told that they would be helped to gather stuff and given magic if they attack the mine and villages. I doubt they were on the same side. But I could see the goblins being manipulated if it is something they want anyway.”

Emmeline nodded. “And to add to that, a village nearby was attacked last fall before we left for the east. They seemed to be remnants of a larger force that was broken, of course, and were heading back north. Yet they took the time to attempt to sack village. We caught them and destroyed them, but it’s telling that they were willing to stop long enough to make the attempt instead of just running for home.”

Renée was turning out to be some kind of goblin expert – at least she seemed confident. She added, “Likely given orders to bring back booty or die trying.”

“Has your family done a lot of work against goblins?” Emmeline was curious to know.

Renée nodded, “Years ago mother did. She was a young girl during the last series of attacks. Her mother died and her father had long ago disappeared and she was adopted by a ranger and accompanied her and her troupe against goblin bandits. Father was part of the Legion unit that led the punitive expedition up in the Calder Valley and other areas. Both have taught me much. Mother would take me into the wild and taught me everything she knew. Their habits, their tracks, their weaknesses. I don’t hate them like mother does though.”

“Well, I empathize with your mother. I haven’t met a goblin I haven’t immediately found reason to dislike,” Emmeline said.

“They are not all bad,” interjected Elemix. “It’s a slippery slope to pre-judge someone simply because of there race. I am sure many Elves and Dwarves would echo those sentiments.”

Emmeline shrugged. “I’m not pre-judging anything. I’m simply stating a fact. I haven’t met one I liked. I’d love to see a goblin who greets us with a friendly wave of their hand instead of a menacing wave of their weapon when we first meet them, but as long as they are creeping around Uzec armed, armored, and looking to loot and kill, that’s unrealistic.”

“It’s good you have learned about them Renee. That knowledge will prove invaluable in the days and weeks ahead.

I myself have learned their language and it has helped somewhat in the past.”

She nodded, “I speak it after a fashion. I probably couldn’t read Ms. Em’s story-songs into Goblin, but I can ask about basic stuff. I do have to agree with Ms. Em that generally multiple goblins are up to something bad, but maybe one could be innocently doing whatever goblins do. I just have not seen it. Then again, in some ways they are not much different than some humans.”

“Sagas is the term I think you are looking for,” Emmeline suggested.

“It has been humans that have hurt us most often,” Em agreed. “Anyway. I’m going to turn in before I end up watching the dawn.”

The three of them fell asleep and the next day they helped the farmer hook up his sleigh to the horses. The snow was still coming down, but the sun was much more forgiving than the bitter cold of night. Within a couple hours, the sleigh arrived at the little hamlet of Cerisey.

At Emmeline’s small manor, Riok stepped out and welcomed them, “M’lady, we didn’t expect you until spring.”

Em smiled and waved a greeting then nodded. “I know. But we were concerned for people here so after we completed our mission, we took a… shortcut. How is your wife?”

He replied, “Rowena is doing well ma’am. She is with our fourth child.”

“And the people of Ceresey? How fare they during this especially difficult winter?”

Riok said, “they fair well. At least as well as been expected. This winter has been a might terrible. Strange folk been seen passing by the ridgeline up in the heights passing south a few times. The last was a week ago.”

“Magus Elemix, Renee, Typhon Ne and myself encountered nearly 30 strangers on the road between Derrien and Uzec,” told him. “They were all goblin folk, all dressed for war. It was a very large scouting party or raiders, but we dealt with them. I’m concerned they might be raiding for supplies. Have livestock gone missing this winter?”

Riok nodded, “yes ma’am some have from the Deval family and the Chiffre homestead. We thought it was wolves though, but come to think of it, their farms are farther up the mountainside. You must all be cold. Please get inside so you don’t catch a death of cold.”

Riok led everyone inside the small manor. His wife Rowena brought fresh blankets and hot tea for everyone as they sat near the fire. Riok spoke up again, “but no body in town has been attacked as far as I know. Only old Jacques has taken too ill, and that kind priestess made her way here to heal him as she made her rounds in the countryside.”

Em was savoring the tea and getting comfortable. “Priestess? Do you mean Jocelyn, the high priestess from Uzec?” she asked.

Riok shook his head. “No. I mean Sister Jocelyn has come around a couple times, and her local deacon Louis visits every fortnight on Mondays to care for the old and sick when he can make it up from Arrisey. No this priestess has stopped by a few times, helped the sick and poor. She cured the sick, brought us food, told us where to find the best game in the winter snows, and inspected the fields like you did in the fall. She says her name is Zoé. I thought she was from you or from the Vale and Lady Mara?”

Emmeline shook her head. “No, I don’t know anyone by that name. And Lady Mara hasn’t been able to send anyone either, as far as I’m aware. I haven’t been able to send help at all, which is why I’m here now. She sounds like she has helped a great deal, though. I would like to meet her if I can. Which god or goddess does she venerate?”

Elemix looked somewhat uneasy.

“Apparently one that reveres nature in some form.
Odd that there would be a priestess in the area helping out on a kind of regular basis that Sister Jocelyn isn’t aware of. If she was surely she would have mentioned it to us when we said we were heading this way.
From what direction does she come to town?”

Riok thought about Emmeline’s question, “hmm, didn’t bother to ask actually. Could be a nature person I suppose Mr Magus.” nodding to Elemix. “I mean we are taught that Aarith is the first of the gods and the fountainhead of knowledge. All thought and spirit flows to him and back throughout the world. As a child I was always taught that other gods are for other people and most often wrong, evil, false, or simply a different reflection of Aarith’s mercy and omniscience. The priests at Temple would tell us the difference. The nature worshipers were in the eyes of the church simply an unrefined version of what St. Alador represented as the greater glory of Aarith’s order and love.”

Riok added, “at least that is how I understand it. Now as far as Sister Zoé, she appeared oh about a month or so ago, maybe six weeks – turn of the year for certain. Sister Jocelyn has not been out in that time and the snows have kept the deacon out. We told him about the visiting priestess, but that was before we knew her name – she’s quiet about such things and humble. He must have assumed it is Sister Jocelyn as he was in a hurry to get to back before the big snowfall.”

Riok added, “oh yes, she comes from the eastern mountains. Where I’m not sure exactly.”

“I hope I have a chance to meet her,” Emmeline said. She moved on to another topic. “How fares the manor? Wood supply and food for your family?”

“Got it all taken care of. Got the seed for next year in the mill. Plenty of wood, plenty of flour. Some of the folks thought that in the spring it would be nice to build a community bread oven?” said Riok.

“Excellent idea! Do you have an idea how much that would cost the manor?” Emmeline wondered.

“It is a new masonry building, so it will not be cheap. I can get the costs for you. We could take some labor as tax in lieu of crops or money.” Riok replied.

Riok grabbed a wax tablet and scratched down some numbers, then said, “probably 700 gold work I recon. Now some of that is labor, so maybe 200 could be the town getting together and putting it up, but we’ll need milled lumber, tar, and masonry. The last is the big cost, building the ovens and the additional metal work. There is someone I reckon in Uzec who does that kind of work.”

“Then we’ll be able to get that much in loan against my bank account,” Emmeline said with a smile. “I believe Ceresey produces an average of 30 gold in goods and services per month, so it won’t take that long to recoup the costs. Once winter breaks, I’ll make sure funds are released to you.”

Emmeline said, “I know that the manor hasn’t any money right now, since I wanted any taxes to go back into improving the manor itself until it was it good shape. I have a small amount of gold personally, though, in the bank. I’d like it to eventually become a fund against which we can take loans at no interest, but hopefully also enlarge it over time in order to cushion us against emergencies and disasters. We can talk more about that later, when you have an idea what the communal oven will cost.

“Another matter of business has come up. Before I left, the Baron and I discussed expanding my holdings here. This would also expand my feudal obligations, but I want to be able to better care for people and the Vale. None of this is official yet, so please keep this between us for now, but he is offering to expand my holdings tenfold. It will include another village and a hamlet, if I recall correctly. If this were to manifest, would you be up for greatly increased duties? With the understanding that I would appoint people to assist you as needed?”

The math was simple enough. Ceresey included a hamlet on about 100 acres, arable, with another 100 or so less usable. Ten times that meant about 1000 acres of farmland with another 1000 other. A square mile was comprised of 640 acres. Therefore, her fief was being expanded up to a little more than three square miles, which was a vast improvement over the less than 1/6th of a square mile at which it currently stood. Emmeline knew from traveling so much that most nobles and gentry broke things up into units they referred to as “manors” — which didn’t always include an actual place of residence. No, a manor was more generally used as a term for a unit of property that included around 500 acres of land, a hamlet or village, and a central place to store goods. Gentry usually controlled a single manor, though more prominent ones might have a few. She might slot in as “somewhat prominent” in terms of holdings.

The lesser nobility usually had ten times that number of manors, and the great houses ten times or more than what the lesser nobility typically had. So in the grand scheme of things, she was still a very, very small deal. But even so, if this came to pass, it was still a big step up for her and she took it very seriously.

“I would need to appoint my own Game Warden, Reeve, etc. to handle law enforcement, tax collection, and defense, but if you felt up to this much responsibility, they would all be answerable to you as my Steward.”

“Very good ma’am.” nodded Riok. Rowena stepped in, “Now you three warm yourselves up. I’ll be putting a lunch together in a bit for you all. Husband, please help.” It was obvious that she was trying to be subtle that one, she needed his help, and two, that she didn’t want to bother the party as they unfroze. Um, ma’am I’ll do whatever you need of me. To answer your earlier question, that is.”

As the couple disappeared, Emmeline said, “I’m going to press on to the Vale after lunch.”

“I suppose we shall join you then if that is alright. Best that no one travel alone these days.,”said Elemix

“Indeed ma’am, me too,” Renée added.

Emmeline nodded to her companions and soon enough they set out.

The snow came down a bit more often but the overall visibility was okay. If not for the underlying menace hanging over it, one would think it was just a colder February. Within a short time they had left the village behind and made there way with ever more difficulty to the heights that hid Mara’s Vale. The little lake the surrounded the Mother Tree was frozen. The myriad of springs that fed it like tiny waterfalls held solid, frozen in time as icicles. The Mother herself had had her leaves brown to a range of deep reds and lighter siennas, though few of the actual leaves had fell.

Up near on of the surrounding rock outcroppings was Remy Silverleaf who watched the party’s approach.

Emmeline turned toward him and headed to see the Warden first. She hailed him as she approached. “Remy Silverleaf! How do you fare?”

“Unwell Lady Mabrilith. There have been strange folks about and no sign of my clan. All that I contacted to find them came back empty-handed. They speak of a great stirring in the north and signs of the free peoples doing battle with monsters great and small. It is a fell winter we are in and I fear it shall not end until late. Possibly well into May.”

Renée looked on. She had only ever seen an elf from the distance. Never this close.

“Your people have withdrawn into hiding but I have heard some evidence they are becoming active again.” She spoke gently. “A generation there was a conflict with a Snowmorian tribe that ended in a slaughter of the Silverleaf Clan. By now they may have recovered, but they may not yet have revealed themselves to take revenge upon the Snowmorians. We will find them eventually, Warden.

“And you are right; goblinoids and perhaps worse are on the move. I have been desperate to return and see to the safety of things here, as much as I can. This winter weather has been worsened by use of magic intended to do so.” Emmeline frowned and shook her head. “And dark fey creatures are looking for this place. I am desperate to find you help, Warden.

“But healer visiting the area, named Zoë, has been stopping at the village. She speaks to them of places for hunting and does not appear to be a cleric from Uzec. Have you heard of her?”

“Silverleaf shook his head, “not by name. With the snows, Riok has rarely came up here and when he does it is to deliver supplies I need not for small talk. To be honest the Mother has sensed some others in the area – again not by name. She says old magics are bound to return and with them, their followers for good or ill. The goblins have avoided the Cairn Lands and the Vale as we are hard by.”

His expression turned sour a bit when he continued, “I know of the attack on my clan from my brief discussion with Typhon Né. She is a scion of the Trond who drove my people from the Silverwood, the daughter of my niece dead now for several years by the hand of Typhon’s bastard brother. The Trond number in the thousands, the remnants of my people, likely a few dozen – if that. That the Silverleaf seem to be completely disappeared troubles me greatly for I thought that despite my decision to remain a wanderer they would be in one of the holdfasts I once knew. I am wrong there. When it comes to the Trond or any Snowmorian, I doubt they will ever leave anything they have conquered without much blood.”

“But I am happy for your return. I also see you have brought your cousin the Magus,” he nodded at Elemix, “and someone new.” The last he said with a touch of menace. “The last new one was not of the blood, the family, or the fae – she made the Mother uncomfortable. Who is this one?”

Elemix nodded in return. “It is good to see you again, and even better to see you and the Mother tree are well.”

“You as well friend wizard,” Silverleaf replied. Renée stood uncharacteristically silent, intimidated by the elf.

“This is Renee,” said Emmeline. “Our companion. Her mother is half-elven.”

Renée bowed saying in rough elven, “I am honored to meet you guardian Silverleaf.” The elf nodded with a subtle smile, “please all of you follow me. The Mother is strong, but not enough to fight away such weather completely. I have built a flet in one of the surrounding trees. It is warm and we can discuss. Come dusk, the Mother may join us.”

Emmeline nodded gratefully and followed Remy to his flet.

The flet was a platform up in one of the trees. It was little more than a glorified treehouse, but it provided some shelter from winter, a bed and a protected place for a fire that would keep Silverleaf and the rare guest warm. Silverleaf and the party gathered around the fire as he helped them up the tree each in turn.

He then asked, “what are all your plans then? The weather is growing more terrible. There is a front of clouds bringing a fierce blizzard due within a day or two. All portents point to the sun turning her back on the world and letting the snows and cold of the winter sister descend most bitterly since, well since before any of you were born.”

“This winter weather is being enhanced by magic. That is why things seem unnaturally cold,” said Elemix as he warmed his hands by the fire.
“We don’t yet know the actual source of the magic but we believe it to be related to the goblinoid presence. We have heard rumor of an ancient frost dragon moving much farther South then usual. It is possible the goblins have somehow allied themselves with that creature.
Soon I expect we shall be headed North to do what we can to find the source of this magic and delay or halt any further Goblinoid attacks.”

“I do not know much about dragons,“ Silverleaf confessed, “but even the most talented wizard or sorcerer could not do this. It is the work of gods, fallen, or fae, or those who call upon such. Goblins, even their most powerful, could not do this.”

“Based on what I have learned in my studies on dragons, I believe those that are truly ancient can in fact bring about changes in their general environment not unlike conditions we are experiencing,” returned Elemix.
“That being said, it is just a hypothesis at this time. These conditions could certainly be caused by another factor, or combination of factors as you suggest.
Perhaps Mara will be able to provide more information and help us determine if some of this is being caused by fae of somekind.”

“Perhaps so,” Silverleaf replied. “In this place she hears every word we say. This evening, she may speak, or she may not. Only one can truly call her to appear and then only to her.” Silverleaf nodded at Emmeline.

“As for my plans, Warden Silverleaf, I had thought to protect these lands in the near future,” said Emmeline. This talk of gods or fallen or fae or whatever was causing the weather to worsen was worrying her. She didn’t want to think about leaving when she’d barely arrived home.

“I wish I had better news, Warden. I had hoped I’d find someone, some way to find descendants of the light fae that would come. What I have found the most of are shadow elf fanatics who would rather die than speak to me and hags who would twist everything into their own image. I may have to find another solution until I can speak with Lothiel’s people or find some way to locate your people. It’s not right to have to force you to be the sole defender of this place.”

“Lothiel? A raven-haired elf-maiden, yes? If so I met her in passing a time or three. Her people, what I know of them, are very insular. There home has never been found by elf, goblin or man.” Silverleaf replied. “They were bitter enemies of the Eterians and at time the Danaeans before them. Legend says that your man, Sidonius, personally made peace with them, amongst others.”

“Now shadowelves, the Zvartalfar, that is a true surprise. None has been seen in an age, and then they were very few. When did you see one?”

“Before we left, in Derrien. She was a Tyaanite fanatic we defeated and was set to be executed for murder. I had a chance to speak with her, but there was no way to reason with her no matter how I tried,” Emmeline said. “She’d rather be exectued. I knew she would return somehow, though I tricked her for a time, getting her soul into a ring until she became smart enough to realize she could leave. Now she is in the body of a child. Reincarnated somehow, I would suppose, but a shadow elf no more.”

“I remember that incident,” Silverleaf remarked. “I do not believe she was one by birth in the first place. Just a useful fiction. A true elf, at least according to legend as I have not experienced it myself, is very difficult to bring back from the twilight of death as we are half in this world and half in the Otherworld.”

“Possibly not her first incarnation then,” Emmeline said. “I suppose that makes sense. In any case, my point is that it’s very hard to find any fey, descendant or not, that isn’t twisted. So we may need to find another solution than fey protectors for the Mother Tree.”

“Sevé and her friends are not,” said Sevé with mock annoyance. Silverleaf added, “this is true good Sevé. It is said that that the ancestors of gnomes and goblins were once the same. Goblins, at their core, are fey beings simply corrupted by mortality, dark powers, sorcerers, tyrants, and frankly the struggles of existence. Gnomes, who are few and far between in this land, are less corrupt but more mortal and tied to the mortal world stronger than elves are. There are also bands of wood elves scattered on the edges of human exploration that could be called. The evil ones may simply be more attuned. I cannot say for certain. The Snow Elves of my clan need a new home. They are at their core Wood Elves, but they took up the challenge of the north. If they could be found I am certain they would return. I would go myself if another protector for the Mother Tree could be found. But, in truth, your barbarian half-breed friend has a better chance of addressing the old wounds. Better than myself in any event.”

“I’m not sure I understand what their conflict with Snowmorians have to do with the Mother Tree here. I don’t see how resolving the war between Snowmorians and the elves would convince them to come here,” Emmeline said with some confusion.

“But you need to know that just a couple days ago, El, Renée, Tiffanie, and I ran into a scouting warband of up to 30 hobgoblins, goblins and some kind of even bigger goblin. We destroyed 25 of them, which probably means others escaped to their main army. This was between Derrien and Uzec. If they are coming from the north, then they could arrive here, at the Vale, at ANY time. If I leave you alone to guard the Mother Tree, I feel like I’m leaving you and Mara to die. I just can’t do this. I have to help the Baron and you defend Uzec and this Vale before I can seek elves any further.”

“That war cannot be resolved, the Snowmorians won and they need to let it go. That is the point. They want their revenge but they would also want hope. The Mother Tree can give them hope, if they ever learn about it. A scion of one of their daughters, more than you, more than I as an outcast, can do this. We can help of course. Mara would be even better, but her power is weak far from the Tree.” he said.

“As far as the goblins. I do not fear a group of 5 any more than you and yours feared a group of 25. No stranger has even gotten hear the tree. Through her power, Mara has kept the tree safe. But you are right if a larger force comes over the mountains. Their defeat is the first concern.”

“I’m glad you understand. Also, I want to thank you for getting word to Baron Roland. He took the message you sent very seriously and acted on it immediately.” Em switched gears a little bit. “I don’t know what news you may have heard or have not heard, but if you have questions I’ll answer anything you might want to ask.”

“In my dreams Mara tells me much. Her hopes for you, her fears. She said that you and yours were tracked by a great number of persons. She does not know them all, but if you are tracked or watched then that is something I have concern with. Can you tell me who they are and if you know if they still watch you from afar?” he asked.

“We killed many of them,” Emmeline said. “Tyaanites were able to track us through Tiffanie’s blood because they were able to get a sample and used magical means. Bounty hunters sent by Typhon’s brother also search for Typhon; we’ve dispatched many, destroyed others, and converted a few to our cause. There could be still more, but again they are looking for Typhon Ne. That said, it’s possible that members of the Wizard’s Guild who don’t trust me may attempt to spy on me from time to time if they have the inclination, but I’m not concerned about that. I’m not hiding anything from them anyway.

”I think the Tyaanites were following us because of an artifact we had. They thought it led to something of great power and thus were tracking us in hopes of either wresting it from us and finding out what it did, or figuring out where we were going and take whatever was there.” Emmeline smiled. “I think that if they did find out where we went and got there themselves, they’ll be in for a surprise so unpleasant they may never wish to follow us again, if they even survive the experience. We have not been bothered by Tyaanites since we completed our mission, but time will tell. If there is anyone else tracking me, I’m unaware of it.”

“The Mother Tree and by extension Mara’s influence grows so that here, within the Vale you are safe from casual detection by others. That being said, they could track you to Cerisey,” said Silverleaf. “The simple truth is that the daughters of Tyaa I highly doubt would harm a Mother Tree. They may use it to their own ends if they felt so inclined, but she is not endangered directly by them. In any event, let us rest for now and wait until dusk when Mara’s bond with the Mother Tree and by extension this world is strongest. In the mean time…”

The elf paused for a moment and stood up. “Someone comes from the south.” He quickly leapt from tree to tree until he could see down the valley clearly. Looking back he said in elven, “it is the mate of Riok – Rowena. She is braving the snows to come up here.”

Emmeline frowned with worry, then strode out to meet Rowena. She wouldn’t brave this weather unless something dire had happened.

Rowena spoke up, shivering with cold, “My husband sent me to you. Apparently widow Marie took ill last night. Quite severe. Her son came for Riok and I just an hour ago saying the healer Zoé was there and had asked for some herbs and blankets he knew we had that she required. Riok said he would try to go there and delay the priestess and he sent me to let you know.”

“Thank you so much for doing this, Rowena. This is above and beyond duty!” After she got directions to Marie’s place, she asked the Warden, “Will you let Rowena warm herself by your fire before she sets out for home? I need to see this Zoë while I have the chance.”

Silverleaf nodded. “We will put a fire together for her behind one the windbreaks. She should not climb to the flet without experience. Please ma’am follow me.”

Renée asked, “should I follow you or stay here?”

“You can come with us, Renée,” said Em. “She is safe with Remy.”

The party made their way with some difficulty down to Cerisey. With a few questions to townsfolk they were able to find widow Marie’s home. A light shined out from it from a warm hearth. Riok’s walking stick was set outside, leaning against the doorframe.

Emmeline led the way to the door, then knocked.

A middle-aged man answered the door and then bowed. “M’lady,” he said as he stayed stooped and pulled the door open. Inside was Riok who nodded and said, “she’s still here m’lady, tending to Marie. I should go and fetch Rowena though, if you would excuse me.” Riok stepped out as the party was invited inside. The man, Gustin, explained that, “Miss Zoé came her a few hours ago. Monsieur Riok said you wanted to meet her.” The man hardly noticed Elemix, much less Renée focusing his attention on his liege. “She’ll be done in a short time,” he added.

Emmeline nodded and said quietly, “Yes I do want to meet her and thank you.”

About ten minutes later, a somewhat tired woman came out of the back room. She indicated to Gustin with a nod and said, “your mother needs you. She will live. Go.” Gustin went into the room and Zoé answered the door. She was probably around the age of Elemix’s mother with black hair with a touch of gray. There was a touch of the wear of years on her, but she retained a noble and natural beauty. She wore wolf and rabbit furs and otherwise functional clothing made to last and not for fashion. She carried a large satchel and a staff decorated with white raptor or owl feathers. Setting the staff aside and taking a seat (disregarding all protocol, contrary to the polite actions of Gustin or Riok) she looked up and said. “Well, your servant asked for me to tarry and wait. I can only assume you are the lady he spoke of,” gesturing at Emmeline, “what do you want?”

“To meet you personally and thank you for helping the people of Cerisey,” Em said. “Thank you. My name is Emmeline.”

She nodded, and said briskly, “it is no bother.”

There was a long pause and then she said, “There are many who need help in these times, I just do what I am called to do. Is there anything else?”

“I was wondering why no one had mentioned you before this year?” Emmeline asked. “Are you new to these parts, too?”

“I cannot know what others say or do not say to their appointed liege,” she replied briskly, “and I certainly would not presume to know why. As to being new, I have always been here in ‘these parts’ as you say; however, only in the recent year have my journeys took me to this village again.”

“The people here certainly appreciate you, and so do I. I’m sorry I must pry. All of this is new to me and so I am very curious about everything. Especially because of my responsibilities with regard to the new Vale,” Emmeline said, wondering if Zoe might take the bait and ask questions of her own. “Would you happen to be a druid?”

“It would be a great honor to be considered one of the ancient draoi as the Danaeans once called them, a druid as you say in the common tongue. But I am but an ember of that knowledge now lost. What is this new Vale you speak of? Is it the same as the source of the new spring?”

Emmeline was cautious but honest. “Yes, it is. It is a very special place to me and to a growing number of other people. It is the source of the spring of good, clean water and of healthy fish and a small pond. If you know any of the things the druids of old did, we could really use your help. I am trying, but basic healing and giving good health to plants is all I know that is a direct help. Of course this winter… this winter is very bad and hard on us all, including the Vale.”

“How do you know the ways of healing and plants? This one,” pointing at Elemix, “is obviously a wizard who warp nature with his dweamors. How do you do such things? Are you also one of his ilk?”

“I am a witch. A Fey Lady is my patron,” Emmeline said. “She has given me a few magics like those a druid uses, but I don’t know any of the lore. I know She would teach me what is needed in time, but someone with real knowledge and ability here and now is far better than anything I might be able to do.” She hesitated again. “The Vale is very special, Zoé. Vanishingly rare. Can I trust you?”

Elemix interjected. “With respect, Wizards do not warp nature. Magic is a part of nature the same as you, I, or that tree out there. Wizards learn to manipulate magic it is true, but it is not so different from a farmer clearing or manipulating the land so that his crop might grow easier.”

Zoé looked somewhat surprised replying, “a fey patron is a dangerous thing child. They are subtle, fickle, and facetious – beautiful and terrible at once. What they say is rarely what they mean. Yet they are part of nature and as close to the gods as we ever will truly encounter. You may trust me. Tell me about your Vale.” Zoé looked at Elemix, “I disagree, but that is a discussion for another time.”

“Last year my friends put to rest dwarf spirits that had been aroused by careless adventurers in the Cairns.” Emmeline told the story in a way that even Elemix might not have heard before. Time and distance and understanding gave her a better understanding. “There I discovered the … butchered remains of an ancient Mother Tree that had been corrupted. But deep within, there was a portion that was still pure, still alive. I was able to coax that tiny flicker of life into one last act; to produce an acorn.

“In the past year I was able to plant that acorn in what I call the Vale now, because that’s what it has become. A new Mother Tree, a true daughter of the very tree that once stood not far from here in the age before the coming of men or dwarves, lives again. This tree is so important, Zoe. It’s pure, uncorrupted, but there are many who would try to twist the Mother, warp her into something else. I will try to find elves who might understand how important this is, but someone who knows some of the ways of the druids of old might be able to help, too.” She looked hopefully at Zoe.

Zoé looked pensive for a moment, gathering her thoughts and analyzing what she heard. “The Mother Trees of old contained great spirit, usually a mother of dryads or other fey – at least according to the ancient thoughts. At one time each wood had one or more where the people met, led by their draoi would lead them in prayer and sacrifice. At least until the Eterians destroyed the last fathers and mothers of the faith and with dragon fire melted the holy grottos of what you call Thalassa. Wood Elves rarely settle and Light Elves hardly ever wish to leave their places of power but both see certain lineages of these trees as connections to their ancestors, though they do not worship through them – if they worship at all. Are you open to the Old Way returning to this area? Is your Fey Lady? Is your liege?”

“I am open, but that means little. I don’t have the answer to your other questions right now, but would ask you something,” Emmeline said. “Whether or not the old ways return, is not a Mother Tree worth cherishing?”

“Certainly. But if the people don’t believe in it, it cannot grow strong. It needs nourishment in more than water, sun and soil. It needs belief.” she replied. “The old ways will give that, and enrich the spirit within. Otherwise its acorns are just acorns, its leaves are just leaves, and over time if will fade and diminish. Do you think that the Mother Trees of old simply were found and cut down? No, they suffered from neglect and loneliness.”

“In time there will be people here that can celebrate the old ways. I’m working on that,” Emmeline said. “This one is not alone in any case. There is Mara, the Lady Mahryswenifar.”

“The fey? I do not know her, though there is much that was lost, burned, and purged in those dark years. The name seems elven or even the language of the fey. She is your patron?” she asked, adding suddenly, “do you even know what the old ways are child?”

“Yes,” Emmeline said. “And yes her name is in the fey tongue as was mine many, many lifetimes ago,” she added using the fey tongue. She switched back to Thallassan. “No, of course I wouldn’t know the old ways of which you speak. You know already that I don’t know any of the old lore of the druids.”

“Well, it is wonderful what you did,” she said with a slight smile. “I must admit, at first you seemed like just another absentee lord over these folk, but at least you are doing something good.” In a very formal and precise version of the fey tongue she added, “at least you know the truth of the soul’s journey, few today do. I could teach you more child.” Looking at Elemix she said, “this one is passionate, I’ll give her that. Are you too part of the story of this new Mother Tree? You look like a Danaean somewhat.” She seemed to ignore Renée completely.

“I have helped Emmiline as far as I have been able, though she has done far more than I in relation to the tree. I am glad to see it grow.”

Zoé nodded. After a brief time in thought she asked Emmeline, “what are you asking of me child?”

“When I heard you had come to the village and helped people by healing and pointing out where they might find game, I had hope,” Emmeline said. “I knew that clerics from the temple of Aarith in Uzec had not been able to come and so I had hoped that you were wise in the lore of nature, that I might find you. What I wanted to ask is if you would be interested in visiting the Vale of the Mother. These are dangerous times with very large goblin patrols about, and corrupt fey seek the Mother to twist her to their own ends. And so I’m looking for friends.” Emmeline switched back to the fey tongue. “I’m very interested in learning more, learned one, about the soul’s journey and other things.”

Zoé nodded, “I am interested. You should know that I am only one of a circle and my teacher may wish to learn of this. We gather soon on the equinox. If you show me the Vale of the Mother, I will be duty-bound to let him and my brothers and sisters know. It is the way of things. If I do not see it, then I could simply continue on my way and let it remain rumor. You should also know that while I am hopeful of a true Mother Tree being reborn, I am also cautious and skeptical of the motivations of a capricious sidhe. I have only encountered minor of their kind but they are rarely without complex hidden agendas.”

Emmeline continued in the fey tongue. “It doesn’t feel like my mo— Mahryswenifar is another petty Sidhe. Her motivations may be her own, but she and I are tied closely together. If you wish to maintain some contact but are wary of her then I can be that contact. What are the consequences of your Circle knowing about the Mother Tree?”

Zoé replied, “they will discuss its ramifications. Our teacher noted that strange things were afoot again in this area. That is not why I am here, but I was asked to keep an eye out. Your Mother Tree, the Vale itself, or the Sidhe called out to those touched by the fey. Some others have taken note. My Cirlce could decide to come here and make your Vale a place a power for us, like they were in days past. We could decide to let it be. We could decide to help bring others to protect it. We could decide it is too dangerous to leave it where it is. As we believe in the order of the natural world and nurturing of fauna, flora, and the speaking peoples, I would think the Circle would wish to nurture the Tree and the Vale in partnership with the Sidhe if possible. But, I am only one voice in a chorus.”

“Then this should be discussed with Mahryswenifar,” Emmeline said, switching back to Thalassan. “I would resist any attempt to take the Mother Tree away — the Tree is Mara’s anchor to this world, other than me, and it is very tenuous at that. But I would welcome those who would come to honor the Mother Tree, protect the Vale, and be part of what the Tree can offer this area. I do have reason to believe a very specific wood elf clan would be keen to come to the Vale. I just have been unable to reach them.”

“I mean to speak with Mara and her Warden both tonight at dusk. If you choose not to come to see the Tree tonight, will you stay nearby so I can tell you whether she would welcome the Circle and whatever it decides?”

“The snows are getting quite terrible and there is a herd of deer I must attend to soon; however, I can meet you somewhere. Perhaps we can meet at the woodland spur just north-east of the village. I can be there tomorrow morning. Will that work?” said Zoé

Emmeline looked to Renée first. “Do you think you can find it?”

Renée nodded, “yes ma’am.” It was possible Renée knew something, but was being uncharacteristically quiet.”

“I’ll be there in the morning,” Emmeline promised.

“Very well.” Zoé said as she got up and grabbed her staff. “May you have the protection of the gods. Farewell.” She then departed into the perilous snowfall.

After thanking their hosts for their hospitality, Emmeline left with Renée and Elemix to return to Vale by sundown. As they marched once more into the snow, Emmeline asked them both, “You each probably have something on your mind. Now is a good time to say it.”

Renée said, “my mother has had dealings with them I think. They seem to get along with the wood elves, many of the rangers, and the common folk, but they have been known to not acknowledge the Temple or the Nobility.” Looking at Elemix she said, “Magus, while I don’t know her I think one of her circle is a blood enemy of Magus Titus. Father and Magus Vorn often complained about the troubles between Titus and someone called Maedroc…no, Máedóc I believe. Yes that is it.”

“Hopefully that’s not a problem. I think El and I are the only wizards calling Uzec home,” Emmeline said. “I think you’re right about them lacking trust in nobility, but they probably also have some reason to. I don’t mind having to prove myself so long as they will aid and protect the Vale and people here. But I’m not certain Mara will like the idea of a circle of anybody sitting in judgment of her or deciding the fate of the Mother Tree. If it works at all, it will be tricky to handle.”

“I only know a little history,” Renée confessed, “but my mother does not believe in Aarith like father says he does. She and her kind believe in the old ways. I was taught both, but neither make any sense.”

Elemix thought for a moment and then said. “We are all taught different things about the world and it is up to each of us to choose what we will believe. Her circle likely has issues with the temple and with the guild because we are organized and collectively weild great power.”

Elemix looked at Emmiline. “Like you, and many others, they are probably very suspicious of how we use that power. Don’t be too quick to trust her, or her circle. And certainly don’t put yourself at their mercy. They may be good people, but we cannot know their true intentions so quickly. I suspect that will come in time.”

Renée looked puzzled, “but we walked up to her and told her a lot. I mean, we could have just ignored her? Right?”

“Zoe helped my people. That earned her my thanks and my trust,” Emmeline said, finding a middle ground between Elemix’s caution and Renee’s logic. “Magus Lothiel listened to me and even invited me to speak with the elders of her people and so I know she trusts me to some degree, as that’s not something elves would do lightly for any outsider. And so I feel I can trust her in return. But I don’t think it’s easy for Elemix or I to trust people we have not met yet. So I’m feeling cautious about this Circle. But then, I feel just as cautious around most wizards.”

Renée listened and then said, “well, that sounds fine. But Vorn always said that you shouldn’t trust elves. They are capricious and always speak with two minds – the one your hear and the one they mean.” She laughed, “then again Vorn trusts almost no one.”

“Thats true,” replied Elemix. “It’s a strategy that has kept him alive. Still, I am curious about this Zoe, her circle, and their magic. They don’t appear to be malicious what with helping these people.”

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