Night Huntress

Page 16

"How do I do that without hurting the plant or cuttings?" I stared at the plant, not quite knowing how to go about this.

"You have to give it an offering, and then I'll show you where to cut." She produced a plastic bag that had a few holes punched in it. There was a paper towel inside, and she poured a bit of water over it and wrung it out.

"We wrap the cuttings in the moist paper towel and then tuck it into the plastic and zip it closed. That will keep it alive till we get the cuttings home and root them in water. When they're ready to plant, we'll create a special place in the garden for it. You'll also want to take home enough of the leaf for your tea until your plant is strong enough to withstand monthly cuttings. It only takes a small pinch to infuse a cup of water."

I considered the plant. What could I give it, in return for part of its body? And then I glanced up at Iris. "My blood and hair? Would that be an acceptable offering? After all, I'm tearing up part of its body and taking it with me."

She smiled, gently. "You've learned a lot, Delilah. Yes, that would be most appropriate. By the roots. That will strengthen the cuttings' connection with the mother plant. Go ahead, then, and say whatever comes into your head that feels appropriate."

Still uncertain, but feeling my way through what felt like the right course of action, I took my blade and gouged a hole next to the root system of the plant. I held up a small lock of hair and cut it with the dagger, slicing unevenly through it so that I had odd, uneven bangs on the right side of my head. I dropped the hair in the ground, pushing it deep, hoping no one else ever found it. Hair and blood were potent forms of magical connection. I knew that much from listening to Camille.

Then I held up my hand and slid the blade down my palm, cutting an inch-long gash in the fleshy pads under my fingers. It wasn't deep, but it bled enough for my purposes, and I held my hand over the hole and let the blood trickle over the lock of hair.

"My blood and my hair I offer to you in exchange for your children, for part of your body. May we both find strength in this communion." I couldn't think of anything else, and it sounded good to me. I shot a glance at Iris, who nodded.

"Very good . . . that should be fine."

"You don't think anybody will come along and find my hair, do you? I know witches and sorcerers can use hair to bind people to their will. We have no idea who might be watching from within the forest." I pointed to the edge of the woods. "There may be some creature worse than the winged centaur in there right now, listening and waiting."

Iris considered my words, and as I filled in the hole with dirt, she marked a rune on top of the soil and held her hands over it. "Sink deep. Bind and protect. Curse any who would misuse this offering." A flash of light crackled from her hands to infuse the rune, and it glowed briefly, then vanished. "That should take care of it until your hair has a chance to decompose and go back to the land. Now, here. You hold the stem like so, and then cut on a diagonal-no-not like that, look at how I'm holding the knife."

As she guided me through the steps, I tried to focus, but my thoughts kept slipping back to the fact that we were in Otherworld, and we would soon be returning Earthside, and we hadn't found Father, Trillian, or any clue as to whether I'd had a twin at birth. The latter wasn't nearly so important as the former two, of course, but still . . .

"No! Now, look at what you're doing," Iris said, reaching out to shift my hand position by a quarter inch. "See how the angle changes the direction of your cut?"

I nodded. "Yes, I'm sorry. My thoughts are a million miles away."

"Well, better to focus on the here and now. Do one thing at a time, and you'll never end up having to redo anything."

I let out a long breath, then inhaled deeply and tried again, this time keeping my thoughts on my work.

We were finished by midafternoon, and it was time to head back. As we aimed in the general direction of the path, once again I forged a trail using my dagger as a makeshift Weedwacker. I couldn't decide whether I was happy to be leaving or not. It wasn't that I liked Darkynwyrd. I'd be altogether delighted when we emerged from the shadowy depths. But once we worked our way through the woods, it would be time to head over Earthside. That's where my heart was torn.

I really wanted to stay in OW for a while. To go someplace comfortable and lean back and relax. But thoughts of Menolly and Maggie, Chase and our home Earthside intruded, and I realized that home in Seattle meant almost as much to me now as did home in Y'Elestrial.

Indecision flickered: OW, Earthside; OW, Earthside . . .

Hell. I snorted. When I really thought about it, I realized that I had no idea what I wanted. As usual. When Iris first came to live with us, she was always complaining that when I was in cat form, I'd stand at the door mewing until she opened it. Then I'd stop smack in the middle of the threshold, unsure whether I wanted in or out. That's why she installed the cat door.

As we stumbled out from the overgrowth onto the main path, Camille looked around, frowning. "Hey, we're not where we were when we went off the trail. I don't recognize this point in the path. Want to make a bet we overshot and are farther up the road, deeper in the forest than we were when we headed toward the pond for your plant?"

I gazed at the surrounding trees. "You're right. Which means we have more distance to backtrack. I hope it's not too far."

Iris, who was excellent with navigation and directions, made sure we were heading in the right direction, and we set off. The sun-and Morio's watch-told us that it was three P.M. If we hadn't traveled more than a mile or two off course, we'd reach the meadow and the portal around five and be home in time for dinner.

As we rounded a bend in the path, Camille stopped, pointing off to the right. There, tucked back about twenty yards along a dirt path, sat a small cottage. Surrounded by a sturdy wooden fence, the land enclosed within had been cleared, and in place of the knee-deep brambles, a vegetable garden and an herb patch thrived. Large crystals guarded the gate-one to each side-and even I could sense the magic that ran between the smoky quartz spikes. They stood a good three feet high, points aimed toward the sky, and must have weighed several hundred pounds each, easily.

A figure standing near the fence stared at us. I reached for my dagger, but Camille suddenly let out a shout and raced toward him.

"What are you doing? Are you out of your mind-" I started to say, but she was waving. The man-a Svartan by the look of him-waved back. He was ruggedly handsome, looking far less civilized than Trillian, but the jet color of his skin glimmered appealingly, and his eyes were the same pale blue as Trillian's . His hair was far shorter, barely skimming his neck, and he had a good mustache and goatee going.

Of course, the moment Camille raced off, Smoky was right on her heels, as well as Morio. I glanced at Iris, shrugged, and we followed, jogging to catch up.

Camille was babbling like a fountain on overdrive. "Darynal! I can't believe it's you." She skidded to a stop two yards from the gate and looked at the crystals. "You got any wards up that I should know about?"

He flashed her a lazy grin. "If it isn't Trillian's woman. Camille, it's been a long time, you gorgeous wench. I'm not surprised to see you, though." He leaned on the fence post and closed his eyes, waving his hand over a sigil painted on the front of the gate. "There, it's safe now. Come in, and bring your friends."

Camille motioned for us to follow her. Smoky looked none too pleased. Frankly, neither was I. Any friend of Trillian's was bound to be suspect. But we silently filed through the gate and joined them at the house, where Darynal opened the door and stood back, waiting for us to enter.

As soon as I stepped through the door, I looked around, searching for any signs that this was some sort of a setup. Maybe my sisters had been rubbing off on me too much, but I didn't trust someone whom Camille hadn't seen in over a year. And far more time than that, if Darynal thought she was Trillian's woman, unless the two men had talked in the past few months. Camille and Trillian had broken up several years ago, before Trillian showed up Earthside, and they picked up where they left off.

Too much could happen in that amount of time. Allegiances could be formed . . . and broken.

There were three rooms that we could see. A kitchen, living room, and what was probably a bedroom. Built from sturdy logs, the cabin had a solid feel to it, a ruggedness I'd never associate with Trillian.

A row of antlers attached to the walls provided handy tines to hold various bags and clothing. Functional trophies, I thought. A faded, overstuffed divan and chair sat at one end of the living room, a rough wooden desk and chair at the other. A bookshelf filled with scrolls and volumes buttressed the desk. Apparently Darynal could read.

The fragrance of soup drifted in from the kitchen, and my mouth watered. We hadn't eaten in hours. I sniffed, the scents of carrots and warm beef broth filling my lungs. Maybe Darynal wasn't such a bad sort after all. I mean, a man who could make soup that smelled like heaven in a pot couldn't be all bad, could he?

"That's not beef soup I smell, is it?" I blurted out, my stomach rumbling.

Camille shot me a long look that spoke volumes about my lack of manners, but Darynal just grinned.

"Indeed it is. Delilah, isn't it? Won't you all join me for a late lunch?" He nodded toward the kitchen.

"How do you know my name?" I said, freezing.

"Trillian told me all about you," he said.

So he had talked to Trillian within the past few months. "Then you've seen him lately?" I asked.

Darynal inclined his head. "He stays with me sometimes, when he comes back to Artanyya."

Artanyya . . . the Svartan name for Otherworld.

"He isn't here now, is he?" Camille glanced around, a wild hope flickering on her face that maybe somehow we'd lucked out, that maybe Trillian was alive and well and staying with his best buddy.

But Darynal quashed her hope with a quick, "No, I'm sorry. He isn't here right now. I'll fix the soup and bread," he added, heading into the kitchen.

"I'll help," Iris said, following him.

As soon as they were out of the room, Smoky turned on Camille, his eyes practically glowing. "Who is he? What connection do you have with him?"

"Those are supposed to be my questions," I said, chiming in. "How do you know we can trust him?"

She shushed us both. "Trillian and Darynal are blood-oath brothers. They're bound by a pact they forged in childhood. They didn't just oath-swear, either. They bound themselves before gods. If Darynal plays turncoat on Trillian, he'll be struck down by his own oath. And vice versa. Trillian told me they decided the pact was necessary just in case times came to this. I guess life in the Subterranean Realms, even within their own city, wasn't easy. This way, they knew they'd have someone they could trust even in the darkest hours."

If that was the case, then Darynal had to treat us with courtesy, considering Trillian and Camille were bound together. I relaxed my guard, and so did Smoky. Morio arched his eyebrows and slowly wandered around the room, glancing at a sheaf of papers on the desk.

"Darynal's a trapper, isn't he?" he asked. "Here's a receipt for twenty wild fox pelts." He shuddered and looked away.

Camille nodded. "I'm sorry, but yes, he is. He's not at all like your usual Svartan. He prefers to remain solitary, and he's a mountain man at heart. He traps, he hunts, and he fishes. He keeps bees, I believe, and Trillian told me that he also makes the best apple cider in the world."

"Trillian is telling the truth," Darynal said as he entered the room. "Lunch is ready. Please join me in the kitchen."

We followed him into the large room where we found a rough wooden table laden with food. The benches were covered with padded cushions. As I swung my leg over the bench and glanced around the kitchen, I realized that Darynal's home felt cozy. The garlic braids hanging on the wall, the baskets of beans and potatoes and tubers, the fresh loaves of hearty grain bread, all made up for the roughness of the décor.

Lunch consisted of bowls of spicy beef-barley soup, a platter overflowing with soft, rich bread and butter, a jar of the sweetest honey I'd ever tasted, and mugs of foaming apple cider, steaming with nutmeg and cinnamon. It was the best meal I'd had in a long time. The food in OW was richer, more flavorful . . . most likely due to the lack of additives and depleted soils that plagued Earthside.

As we ate, Camille grew quiet. She glanced up at Darynal, and I knew she was thinking about Trillian. Finally, I decided to ask what she couldn't bring herself to.

"Darynal, have you seen Trillian lately? He's missing, and we're worried." I gave a meaningful glance toward Camille. "She's been frantic."

Darynal's head shot up and he frowned. "Missing? Trillian's not missing. I saw him three days ago. Unless . . . did something happen since then?"

"Three days ago!" Camille jumped up. "What do you mean? He's been missing for several months now, and I've been terrified!" She backed away from the table. "I've been so scared that the goblins got him . . ."

"You mean he didn't tell you? I thought for sure . . . uh-oh . . ." The look on Darynal's face said it all. Trillian wasn't missing, Trillian was still around, and Trillian had let us go on thinking he was in danger on purpose.

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