Minari, one of the members of the Guard had been wounded on patrol. They had brought her back, and walked her right through the central clearing. Kieri didn’t like it – it was improper to parade her in public while she was unable to protest, and the rest of the grove should not be given cause to worry.
It was only an arrow-wound, that was true, and Kieri wasn’t worried for her life, but it grated on his nerves that the current patrols should be so lax and unthinking. The Guard had never had rules about that sort of thing, not really, but everyone knew the proper way to do things.
He managed to stop himself before his internal tirade escaped. Oh, they would probably listen to him if he complained, but that was because they – all of the dryads – knew that they owed him. But it wouldn’t be the same, since there was no reason for the Guards to have that kind of polish anymore. And it was likelier that he would simply end up sounding hysterical.
Three centuries had passed since he had been a member of the Guard, three centuries since the last great war between the dryads and the shades. Of course the Guard wouldn’t be as strict as it had been.
Kieri saw Prince Tatran as he made his way to the central clearing to check on Minari. The Prince greeted him from atop his fine bay charger, and Kieri hardly had a choice but to chat with him for a little while. He greeted the Prince and asked what had brought him into the dryad’s forest.
His answer was rather surprising. “My Quest. All the Darshai royalty have to have at least one, and it was time for me to set out.” He made a face. “It was pretty tough trying to figure out what I should go questing for. All the dragons are dead, and all of the good magical artifacts have been recovered or destroyed, as is proper. In the end, I decided to go with a dryad legend rather than a human or elven one. I’m here for the Council’s approval of my quest.”
Kieri nodded. It wasn’t odd, for a royal family to have such a requirement – it kept the heirs fit and clever. What was unusual was that Tatran, the bastard son, had been asked to take a Quest. Perhaps it was to prove his worth. “And which of our mythical artifacts will you attempt to rescue?”
Tatran smiled. “I’m going to find the glass books. You know, the ones that the tale of Litara is all about. Your people will need them when the Shades decide to declare war again, and in the meantime, they will be a useful resource for my people.”
Hah. ‘When the Shades declare war’, thought Kieri, even he can see that it’s going to be soon and enormous. Out loud, he just said, “you are going to search for the glass books? Those are the volumes that contain every incantation and spell ever invented, and are also known as the source of magic, is that correct? That is a very worthy quest indeed.”
There was a slight pause as Tatran hesitated over something. “I wondered if you would come with me, since you are the best and most thorough storyteller I know. And I figured that the dryad council would want to send someone, since the books are practically a dryad artifacts.” He looked steadily at Kieri, and if he didn’t know better, Kieri would have said that Tatran was eager for his reply. Kieri hated to disappoint, but...
“Quests are for the young, not for one such as I.” He could not go questing anymore.
Tatran smiled chidingly and almost laughed. “You’re barely four hundred and fifty years old, and you’re an oak-dryad, Hosaalrua. You are young,” he said.
Old memories latched on to Kieri’s throat and began to squeeze, but he managed to force out his next words without sounding very strangled. “Unfortunately, I am neither young nor rash enough to partake of your adventure, Prince Darshai-Rei. There are myriad ways of measuring age.” The smile eased away from Tatran’s expression, leaving only the pleasant and open face that was his mask. Mist began to gather at the edges of his vision, and Kieri resisted the urge to clutch his abdomen and fold up around a wound only he could sense.
“Please? I was counting on you,” Tatran coaxed, but Kieri couldn’t breathe right, couldn’t see straight, and he could feel the panic bearing down on him, and he just had to get away.
Kieri shook his head firmly and turned to go; he got two steps before Tatran called after him.
“Hosaalrua!” Prince Tatran had worked on that voice and now his tone filled the entire forest easily, making it clear that he was calling for his friend.
Even on the edge of a panic attack, Kieri did not take well to being called like some pet animal. He stopped walking away, and when he turned around with deliberate care, the expression on his face was cold and forbidding. He did not speak, just waited for Tatran to continue with ill-concealed impatience.
“What’s wrong with you?” Tatran demanded, but gently. “I’ve known you for years, and you’ve never been so edgy, so, so – nervous.” He waited for an answer, but when none came, he spoke again. “What are you running from?”
Kieri was taken aback by the question, and his already cold expression closed completely. When he replied, his voice was equally hard. “I am not – as you so inelegantly put it – running from anything. I am quite stationary. I merely indicated that I want no part of your quest, though I agree that it will benefit my people greatly.”
It was a lie and Prince Tatran had a good ear for what was true, but Kieri was good at telling lies, and without another word, he slipped out from under Tatran’s stare and all but ran away into the forest.