Meara was in very close, hacking at it with her long knife. Too close. She dealt it a serious wound, but the return blow crushed her to the ground like a reed even as the flames on her body further damaged the rose monster.
"Meara!" Conner yelled. "Oh, hell.... Hey, stupid!" He loosed another arrow and missed. "Gannon, get her out of there!"
The talented accountant managed to avoid both the rose creature's enflamed flailing and burning his hands on Meara's unconscious form while he dragged her out of immediate danger. I slashed at the thing with my blade, hacking off a small lump of smoking vines.
Conner's next arrow sent it stumbling back. "I think we're starting to get through to it...."
Couldn't prove it by me, as a limb smashed into me with appalling force. Gannon lunged in once more. It retreated slightly again, rose petals and blood raining down on all of us as the thing turned and writhed. I caught a second blow on my shield. Another arrow and the thing simply unraveled, still burning.
"Damn, I killed it," Conner remarked. Very quietly, he added, "I'm really sorry about the cutting the flowers off thing...."
"We should get out of here," I opined, in some pain.
Llweder put the fire out with some conjured water.
"Could you put her out, too?" Conner asked. In fact, we had to wait a minute until Meara's spell wore off before Llweder could apply one of his healing salves, which helped bring her around though she was still in plenty bad shape. We put her on Griffonwhich he wouldn't normally allow, but since I was right there he put up with itcircled cautiously around the smoldering remains of the rose monster, and wound our way back out through the maze. The moon came back as we returned to reality and headed to the village at our best speed to get Meara the care of the physician there.
"Anyone know what that was?" Conner asked on the way back.
"Animate rose bush, what?" I shrugged painfully.
"I'm sorry, I'm asking the wrong question. Does anyone know why that was?"
"I would have to assume it was annoyed."
"Wood giant," the mage mused.
"What's a wood giant?" Gannon asked.
Wood giants live in the woods, and are partially wood themselves, hence its immunity to Llweder's withering spell.
"Are you sure we don't want to go hunting the orcs now, or maybe go talk to the ghost?" Conner asked. "Or go leech hunting, anything else we want to try before... I'll stop now," he said meekly, seeing my expression. Gannon saved me the trouble of hitting him, and probably did it a lot more gently than I was thinking of doing.
When we reached the village, a kid went running for Gwydion while we were escorted to the unused house they'd opened up for us. The last person to live there had disappeared about fifty years ago; from the looks of the place he had been a wizard. Gannon and Conner made a thorough search, but there weren't any magical items around, and few books or anything of real use. Gannon was the one who noticed that the place had been searched before, if not by a professional then by someone who was very thorough and neat about it. There were a few semi-secret hiding places, all of them empty. They found a lightly stocked workroom, with all the materials necessary for making a spellbook except for ink, though it might have simply dried up. No journal, a few notes for the last routine enchantment he'd been working on. Nothing personal. As far as Rhonwen knew, nothing had been taken out of the building at any point.
"Who owned this building before you loaned it to us?" Conner asked Gwydion when he made one of his regular visits.
"Guy named Wynn by any chance?" Meara added.
"Stop reading my thought processes, it's irritating. I'm sure it's easy, but it's irritating."
It wasn't Wynn.
"Do you know who tossed the place?" Meara asked Rhonwen.
"Someone tossed the place?"
"He might have cleaned it out before he left," I pointed out.
"Who do I talk to about signing a lease?" Conner wanted to know.
"This is going to make your heart jump for joy: probably Emer." Meara grinned, so I figured she was feeling better.
"He does own the place, technically," I agreed.
He winced. "I suppose I could squat...."
Llweder spent a lot of time over the next week mixing up more of his special salve, endearing himself greatly to Gwydion and leading to better food for the rest of us, and even more time out communing with nature. He got a good feel for the area while doing so, and found that even under the darkness the land itself was in good condition, though the plants were a bit confused. The stones hadn't noticed the problem yet after a mere fifty years. Contemplation revealed that there were parts of the valley that were evil, and parts that were unnatural, and they were sometimes two different things. Parts of the swamp were evilswamps often were, especially when a priestess of Hel lived there. Evil was natural, though; the castle was both evil and unnatural, while the iron mine was evil but not necessarily unnatural.
Gannon skulked about the town, looking for useful information. After a couple days spent watching the people, something struck him: there was no one in the place much over sixty, no one who would have been more than a child when the darkness came. And they were all, as we had previously noted, obnoxiously good-looking. After that he made sure to check the burial ground, but that had seen normal use recently. Odd though they were, the villagers seemed to be mortal.
Conner fixed the clothes that had been ruined in the rose battle, and made Gannon a shirt with a lot of small pockets. He also spent some time working on the apple blossoms he'd taken from the circle of darkness, preparing them for who knew what magical use. Once in a while he went to what passed for a tavern in the town and stared wistfully at the barmaids.
I tried to lie quietly and heal and not kill Meara or Conner while the conversation about what he might want to put into his magical focus when he finally made one went into a fourth hour. I also spent a fair bit of time daydreaming about hunting down whatever meat would hold still for it as soon as we were ready to move again; fish twice a day, every day, palls fast whether fresh, salted, or dried.
We didn't get much company during our convalescence; kids were deputized to run food to us, Artos came by a couple of times, and Gaenor stopped over to see what had happened, but the level of curiosity was as we had come to expect rather low. Of course, the life of a fishing village doesn't leave people with a lot of spare time, but even so.
Lammas passed with the appropriate ceremonies, though somewhat minimalist since the village had no priest or druid and Meara and Llweder didn't feel a need to interfere with the local customs.
"Out of curiosity, how close does the actual high table around here and such mirror your parents' court?" Meara asked me one day.
There were parallels to be found if one wanted to, but I didn't understand what she was getting at. "In what sense are we talking?"
"I mean for starters, those two are disgusting. I mean at least they're not like my parents, so you're not finding one of them tied to thesorry. These people walked out of a story," she explained while the rest of us tried not to think about her parents.
"We've noticed. They're not normal, I know."
"No, butI mean, look at them. They're...."
"Perfect?" Conner suggested, looking interested.
"Idealized?" I offered.
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© 2002 Rebecca J. Stevenson et al