"Let's go follow some orcs," I suggested with I think admirable patience. "I should probably have my horse. Just in case we do end up fighting forty orcs." Conner wasn't likely to believe me, but that really wasn't in the plan.
"Yeah, he can take thirty of them," Gannon muttered.
"Well, my long-term goal is to eliminate the darkness and restore the druidic grove here, but that's going to take a while," Llweder noted. "So in the short term, we may as well."
Meara suggested that if we were going back to the village, we should pick up some supplies and talk to Gudrun. Nothing bothered us on our trip through the swamp. She gave Artos the bad news.
"It looks like we're not going to be chased back here by a raving horde of orcs. Real sorry."
"Oh. Well that's... good to hear, I guess. I'm sure if you try harder maybe you'll make it up," he replied with a wink.
Newly supplied and mounted, we retraced our path. The hut wasn't there, but the causeway was; we assumed that the trollwife wasn't in a chatty mood but wasn't so annoyed that she wanted us to get our feet wet and possibly bitten off by giant fish. Meara left her a note at the end of the causeway. We climbed the ridge as close to the mine as possible and followed the orcs' trail through the unnatural night. Llweder grunted, noticing the lack of animals and birds, though the plants were in fine shape. It occurred to Meara to see if the plants were evil, but that did not seem to be the case.
About two miles in we found ourselves faced with a choice. We had been traveling roughly northeast, toward the center of the darkness; the orcs' trail veered off to the northwest, as if they were heading back toward the coast.
"I say we go to the center of the darkness. The orcs are only a distraction," Llweder said.
"I think Llweder's right," Conner agreed.
"They'll still be there when we get back," I shrugged.
"You bitch about me wanting to go to the center of the darkness?" Meara gave Conner a look.
"Let's weigh our options here for a moment," he replied calmly. "We can go to the center of the darkness, where there may or may not be something, or follow the orcs, which we know are there."
"But you bitched about me wanting to go to the center of darkness."
"It all depends on how you scale it. With you it's the center of darkness or stay in town doing some research. With him...."
He nocked an arrow while he was explaining his thinking to the priestess, and we continued on our course toward the heart of things. There was a sort of path to follow, which led us around a hill and into a large thicket of wild rose bushes.
Conner snipped a couple and offered one to Meara. "Spell component, milady?" Then he realized that they were bleeding. "That's something you don't see every day. Gaaah!" He threw them away from him violently. Meara caught them.
"More obscenity," Llweder growled.
"No, this is magic, there's a difference," she replied absently. While Conner scrubbed at the blood on his hands with a handkerchief, she tried setting the roses back in place, but the cut seemed permanent.
"Put them in here." He held out his handkerchief, having gotten over his momentary shock.
"I'm not certain I want to give them to you."
"But they're mine...."
"One moment, let me think about this." She did. "Okay, here they are. Just keep in mind that they might actually be... people."
"I know. That's why I don't want to just leave them abandoned."
While we were talking, an opening had appeared in the thicket, big enough for Griffon.
"Was that there a minute ago?" Conner asked nervously.
"No," Meara replied. "By all means, let us go forward through the rose thicket."
"It would be rude to refuse the invitation," I announced. "He keeps giving me these looks," I added, seeing Conner's expression.
"You want me to go first, my lady?" she offered.
"Sure!" Gannon agreed enthusiastically.
"I know you guys won't...."
"Conner will be bringing up the rear," I sighed. She went slightly ahead, followed by myself and the men.
"Wait a second, I have 'wither,'" Llweder mused, looking around at the plants.
A chorus of, "Don't!" responded. "They're people," Conner reminded him.
"Not only that, but we could also be in the middle of a fairy tale, and trying to wither the roses is just going to backlash on us," Meara pointed out.
"I hate being in the middle of a fairy tale," Gannon muttered.
"How often does this happen to you?!" Conner wanted to know.
"By all means, should we actually find ourselves in dire peril, use the wither," Meara told Llweder. "But in the meantime...."
Onward. A short way in, the path branched left and right. Meara consulted her goddess and led us to sinister. At each branch of the maze, the indication was the same. It was very beautiful in among the roses. We came out on a pleasant hillside, looking down into a little valley with a spring at the bottom, surrounded by manicured lawns dotted with marble benches and half-hidden little bowers, the whole three-quarters surrounded by roses. It looked like a picnic ground, or perhaps a trysting place. The stars were right, but the moon had disappearedthough the light didn't seem to have changedso we clearly weren't where we had been. We descended the hill warily. Meara sat down on the bench and looked into the water, saw nothing but fish and shiny stones reflecting the sourceless light. Conner wandered over and looked in as well.
"I suggest you don't try to sample one of the fish," I told him.
"I wasn't going to."
"Shall we have lunch?" Meara suggested.
"I don't know if that's a good idea, here." I looked around. "There's no one here." The silent, perfect landscape didn't seem to offer much to further our quest.
She left some violets and apple blossoms at the edge of the water. Llweder concentrated on oghams; there were none in the garden, though he sensed there might be some in the maze behind us. He went a short distance down the rose corridor, but the impression continued to elude him.
"Shall we go forward?" Meara asked.
"Yes. I want to see if it looks right." This place bothered me. The hills beyond the little dell looked the same, but the moon remained absent.
"If you look very closely that way, and squint, there's a pillar of darkness," Conner noted. It was about three miles from us. "That might mean something."
"I think we'll have to go take a look at it," I agreed.
Meara concurred. "By all means. With caution."
Griffon shifted suddenly, which gave me an instant of warning before a thirty-foot-tall animate rosebush brought a viciously thorned limb down on me.
The priestess of Brigid cast Fire Coat on herself. The rose creature made a strangely quiet roaring sound, displeased. Gannon already had his sword drawn, and slashed at the thing to no effect.
Conner loosed his arrow. "Gannon, get out of the way!"
Sheathed in flames, Meara lunged at it with her dagger. Parts of the bush began to burn; it sounded less pleased than it had before. Llweder used that wither spell, but it didn't quite work; the monster wasn't entirely plant. It was still on fire, however. Gannon swung his gladius again and hacked off a burning, bleeding, "limb." My own attempt missed entirely.
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© 2002 Rebecca J. Stevenson et al