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A Trip to the Wildlands - For the Love of Mist

Leaving 14-3-348 {16-5-348 planned return}
22 days from Scary to the Wildlands

Table of Contents:

Heading North

Message of Three

(Outside): To be delivered to Keerla Naim, Divaekah, Lorien Woods, The Wildlands

(Inside - main message):

Warning: if you are not Keerla Naim, stop reading now.

Dear Keerla,

I found the fastest bird to send this to you. I'm leaving Birnham Woods and heading north. I hope to see you in Haathkash.

14-3-1270 TGR

Dear Thistle,

It is useless to tell you not to be mad. I know you will be, but I am only taking a short trip to The Wildlands. I made a promise to you. I have no intention of breaking it.

It was not my original plan, but I am already halfway there, and it is hard to ignore after fighting death amongst other elves. I hope you understand, or at least will let me explain when I return.

Be good while I am gone. I'll bring you back a gift.


Dear Kel,

It is only right you hear it directly from me. Our trip to Loosend did not go as planned, but given who I travel with, this shouldn't be of any surprise to you. In short, we ended up in Birnham helping some Grey Elves fight some Drow. I am now on my way to The Wildlands.

If you had just come with us… No, I know we agreed that the paths of our lives were no longer aligned. But I need to do this for myself. I don't know if you will understand, but I hope you do.

Please watch over Thistle and the wolves while I am gone. I made some promises I must keep, and therefore I do plan to return. After that, you must decide what is best for you.

Sule melan'an, arani.*


Start of a Journey

After saying her goodbyes, Shi'Nynze started heading north. While she would have loved to stay in Cawdor a few more days and learn more about her grey brethren, their battle with the Drow had taken its toll on them. She would not intrude upon their grieving just as she would not want an outsider intruding on hers had she been in their place. They were kind enough to give her what little provisions they could spare knowing her journey. She left them with her blessing and desire to meet again one day.

The first few miles in the old forest were tense as she kept waiting for someone to try to stop her. It's not that she expected it. Whether or not they understood her trip home, the group knew she had to do this for herself. As it was, she half-jokingly told Branwyn after writing the letter to Thistle that Shi'Nynze could not be gone long, or Thistle would likely try to hunt her down. That would easily cause more trouble than it was worth, something they agreed upon, and so as she promised Thistle before, she would be back. It was not a permanent goodbye.

No, what was odd was that she had never been allowed to go anywhere in her life before without someone stopping her. Her mother or brother making sure she never wandered too far from Divaekah. Her uncle stopping her from trying to hunt down Ellidor's killers by herself. Keldorldrin (it hurt less using his full name) dogging her steps the minute they left home. Even some of the Dragonslayers tracked them down when they decided to camp away from Corvash rather than stay in town. But the farther into the forest she got, the more she was able to relax as it was the first time in forever no one stopped her.

That day of travel was slow as she still listened for faint footsteps following her. When she stopped listening, it became tranquil and refreshing. An elf in the forest was invisible to most letting her see what the forest offered the lone, silent traveler. The snuffling bears, the steady trout, the whirling thrushes, the languid vines full of fruit and stout bushes full of berries. Before the sun had disappeared, Shi'Nynze gathered herself close to a proper Elven dinner. The plorkins were out of place among the roasted maple seeds, the sips of honeysuckle, the sting of wild onion, and the sweetness of ripe mulberries, but they were still a welcomed piece to her meal. The little bottle of feywine slipped to her before she left would wait.

It wasn't until she was settled in the cradle of an old oak that she let her mind start to wander, when it was too late to turn back and reconsider her decision to visit home. She could no longer help Miranda adjust to being reincarnated, although it might have helped her understand and accept it faster with Elven company. Nor could Shi'Nynze do what little she would be able to do to help Indigo process his grief over the demise of Penelope, not that she was doing so well with her own emotions. She was too far now to turn around and rejoin their journey back to Dragon Fen.

There was no light chatter as the day wound down. To her surprise, Shi'Nynze caught the first note of the Chuck-Will's-Widow nightly call, something she only heard when alone in a quiet forest. That single note brought her an unexpected mix of sorrow and peace. There was happiness in hearing the sound that is so difficult to hear when surrounded by many loud, noisy beings, and yet, those very people were the beings whose company she was finding herself to miss sooner than expected. Rather than dwell on that thought, Shi'Nynze formed a plan for morning after a comfortable, meditative rest high in the old oak tree.

You've Got A Friend In Me

Shi'Nynze spent the next few days carefully observing her surroundings. She had two goals in mind: find more food and find a friend for company. The first was much easier to achieve.

The old forest, untouched by corrupting hands, had much to offer. There were, of course, lurking dangers, especially for the inexperienced: memory-stealing moss, questionable mushrooms, thorny vines, and a large creature she decided she didn't need to identify. Thankfully, her grey brethren had sent her on a safer path out of the forest where she found more welcoming aspects of the forest: a patch of wax mallow with flowers for tea and leaves for lunch, a pond full of cattail for consumption and pillow stuffing, a lone sycamore perfect to coax out a drink when her throat was dry, and a grove of trumpet vines and blooming plum trees simply beautiful to glance at, smell, and briefly rest under.

It was, with that knowledgeable direction, easy enough to find some delectable foragable goods to add to her meals. Sometimes, it was enough to make for a full meal itself. There was no harm in the normal provisions they ate when they traveled, but something about eating what nature provided, then and there, made her feel lighter on her feet and more intune with her surroundings; however, she had no direction for her other goal.

Once more, Shi'Nynze regret her decision to leave the wolves and Fete behind. She did not expect traveling beyond Loosend, and there had been no reason to take the wolves to the human city. She already learned that was frowned upon, but Fete would have been discreet. While she was beginning to enjoy her solo travel more and more, she missed the animal friendships that were central to her very being. But while it would take more work than simple foraging, it wasn't an unattainable goal by any means. She just had to find the perfect companion.

As she had done when meditating at her shine, and when didn't need to focus on the conversation of another, Shi'Nynze drew upon the gifts of her god to listen to the forest around her. The zips of the vireos and chattering of the squirrels became noises with far more meaning to her: declarations of territory, warnings of nearby predators (of rodents), callings for young ones to behave themselves, and wistful desires of all kinds from all kinds. The plants themselves sometimes spoke to her, too, but the dialect of an old forest was hard to understand in passing, and she could gather little that was useful from their words.

Shi'Nynze listened as often as she could to find something that might be willing to travel with her. The kit was promising, but as soon as it found its sibling, she knew it was best to let them both stay within the forest. The bears were so focused on feeding themselves after a long hibernation she knew she'd never have enough to share for it to work out this time of year. The wolves she heard one night howling at the moon she ignored as she already belonged to a pack, far away though they might be.

It was late morning when she struck up a conversation with the most curious of crows. As she stopped to enjoy a snack and her surroundings, it hopped among the branches around her. She tossed a few extra berries near it which, after only a short, cautious pause, it took up with glee. Quickly deciding she wasn't a threat, it slowly made its way towards her, first for another bite before exploring the contents of her travel pack when she was deemed not a threat. Perhaps of no surprise, the minute it found a shiny gold coin, it tried to take it from her.

"You can't have that," said Shi'Nynze, carefully pulling the coin away. "I might need it later."

You don't need it now.

"Well, no. It's useless in the forest and where I am going, but I might need it to return, and I am unsure where to get more of it," replied Shi with the slightest smile. She dug around and found a single copper piece, instead. "I don't think I'll need this, though."

Less shiny. But shiny! I will take it.

Shi'Nynze listened, first thinking the crow had finished talking before realizing it had trailed off in thought. They were incredibly intelligent birds, and easier to understand than most, but she could not figure out why it stood there, copper coin in its mouth, not moving. It put the coin down, picked it back up, looked around, and seemed lost as to what to do.

"What is it? Trying to figure out how to bring it to your nest?" asked Shi, gently, after a moment passed.

No nest. No flock. Nowhere to take it.

"Oh," said Shi with concern. Still in a gentle voice, she asked, "What happened?"

Sky plague. All grounded. All alone now.

"I'm sorry," replied Shi, simply but with sorrow. It wasn't common, but it wasn't unheard of; mass flocks dying off, often from weather or algae poisoning, or any number of things. "How long have you been on your own?"

One and two moons.

While she couldn't figure out exactly how much time the crow meant, it didn't seem like it was long, a few months at most. Of course, it was not hard to decide her next question.

"Would you like to travel with me? I am headed to a different forest, but you may be less lonely there. I could introduce you to some of my friends, if you were so inclined," said Shi with slight hope. The spell was at the tip of her tongue, begging to be used, but if she could convince the crow, instead, she preferred it. As it glanced at the coin, she added, "It is a forest full of shinies. You can keep that one, even. Perhaps wear it around your neck for now?"

The crow glanced at her and at the coin, still undecided. To show what she meant, Shi'Nynze gently took the coin away, found a string, used a bit of magic to thread it, and as the crow simply watched with interest and hadn't left, carefully put it over the neck of the crow. It pecked it, tilted its head, and finally seemed satisfied with its placement.

You are elf friend?

"Shi'Nynze, or Shi, if that's easier. Do you have a name?" asked Shi with a smile. She was given a loud caw in return. With a bit of a grimace, she said, "That is… hard for me to pronounce. May I call you...hmm, Athras, perhaps?"


"Half in shadow," replied Shi, in translation. "And, er, usually used for females."

Elf name is nice. I will be Athras to you.

"If we are to be traveling companions, it's only right to share," said Shi with a bigger smile as she tore a piece of bread off from her supply and handed it over.

Athras ate it greedily before resuming her search through Shi'Nynze's traveling pack. With a sigh, Shi finished her meal and grabbed it away from Athras, but when she started walking again, Athras kept up with her. That night, finding a spot hidden beneath a willow, Athras perched in the branch next to her and fell asleep. She was still there come sunrise.

A Monk on a Log

Shi'Nynze and Athras made their way peacefully through Birnham Wood with little incident. It was a disappointment, in a way, when the beautiful, dark forest became lighter and more spacious. The feeling of the Old Forest had become comfortable, tranquil even, like reconnecting with an acquaintance from long, long ago. Earlier difficulties aside, to leave the Old Forest was nearly heartbreaking, but Shi'Nynze knew another forest much closer to her heart still awaited her return.

The trees finally opened up to reveal a dazzling sea of grass. The damp earthiness of the forest was replaced with the smell of freshness, sunlight, and wildflowers. The relaxed humming of darting bees replaced the crinkled movement of leaves. It may not have been a forest greeting her, but it was a near wonderful sight of its own.

It wasn't The Wildlands, not yet, but it wasn't all yet cleared for farmlands. If nothing else, the grassland before her was just a glimpse of the beauty awaiting her the closer she got to home. With that thought pushing her on, Shi'Nynze took to the game trails and continued north.

At first, Athras was not as keen on the change in scenery. She had grown up in the Old Forest, and rarely ventured beyond it. While the open skies were enticing to some birds, Athras wasn't sure what to make of it. It took a day or two of carefully flitting through the grass, although not as gracefully as the various sparrows, before she became a bit more loose with exploring her surroundings. While Athras never quite got comfortable with the exposure of the grasslands, Shi'Nynze secretly appreciated how much easier it was to spot her among the green and gold grasses than the dark shadows of the forest.

While Shi'Nynze did her best to avoid any of the towns or settlements in the area, she was aware that her path at times brought her uncomfortably close to some of them. There were times her reverie was broken by the sounds of voices or the digging of hoes not far in the distance. Whenever that happened, she'd pick up the pace, focus back on her surroundings, and slipped deeper into the grassland.

For all her earlier excitement, reaching yet another bit of forest was a welcomed respite from the dodging of settlements. By her estimations, it meant she was just north of Tuckborough, about halfway out of Gold Hills, and therefore that much closer to The Wildlands. The forest, if she remembered correctly, was known as Chetwood, but that was all she truly knew of the forest, provided she had the name correct.

There was a sigh of relief, from both Shi'Nynze and Athras, to be back among the trees. It meant no farmers who may accidentally sneak up on them or settlements close by to distract or discover her. The sea of grass that initially greeted her, for all her earlier excitement, did not hold a candle to her expectations. That would come later. For now, she let the comfort of a forest envelope her again.

Unfortunately, her relief was short-lived when she stumbled upon a human sitting quietly on a stump. He seemed to be focused on something, or perhaps lost in thought, but it was difficult to tell from her viewpoint. Either way, she had no reason nor desire to interrupt him. She took a step back, intent to slip back into the trees, when he started to turn in her direction.

"Yes, who is it? What do you want?" He turned his head to look towards the disturbance, and his eyes widened when he saw who was there. "Oh! An elf! Please come in!" His eyes roved over her, taking in all the differences between her and a normal human, especially focusing on the ears.

"Why have you come to me? Have you come to teach me? Or to make sure that I don't learn too much? Have I done something wrong?"

Shi'Nynze cursed her luck and the sudden attention. She still wasn't a fan of talking to unknown (or strange) humans, but traveling alone, there was no one who could answer for her. As his enthusiasm seemed to peak the minute he noticed she was an elf, she probably would have had to talk to him anyways even if she was with anyone else.

Doing her best not to suddenly be self-conscious of her ears, Shi'Nynze carefully replied, "I don't know. Do you think you've done something wrong? Do you have something to learn? Who are you?"

"Oh, I'm Ghiraman. I'm trying to learn everything. Do the elves already know everything? Are you here to pass on the elvish secrets of the world to me? That'd be great! How is it done? Some kind of mind-meld, transferring the knowledge from your mind to mine?"

"Communion is not just something you can...," started Shi'Nynze, annoyed, before she stopped and sigh.

Upon closer look, Ghiraman seemed young and likely going off some rumor he'd heard. There was no use getting irritated at his casualness at something sacred he didn't understand. Of course he didn't understand if he honestly thought it worked on non-Elves. He was neither the first human to misunderstand Elves nor would he be the last. Or perhaps she was simply irritated at being reminded of the last time she'd participated in a communion.

"What makes you believe you're worthy of any knowledge I have? What great deeds have you done to earn such knowledge?" asked Shi in a more controlled tone.

"Great deeds? In order to know and understand the world I have to go out and slay monsters? Pssh! That's ridiculous! In order to understand the world, you have to study it. That's what I do. I watch, I think, I understand. Or... I try to. And- you're here! Things do happen at random, but from those random events, great webs of life are built up." He bends over and peers at the ground. "Look! This ant here. Right here. No, over here. Yes, that one. If it goes this way, it might run into that spider web over there and get eaten. But the other way is safe. And the ant goes the safe way, the way that leads to food. I've noticed that about ants. They seem to always re-use the same paths. So early on, some ants did get stuck in the web at random, but the others learned, and are now going this other direction. And you came to me. What part of the great web of life is going to get made from our meeting? Will you build a great node of knowledge here, or set me on a different path, or just walk away and leave me with nothing?"

Was he enthusiastic about knowledge, naive about the world, or simply a strange individual? It was hard for her to tell. Tempted though it was to just walk away, at this point she was committed to this conversation.

"Your first mistake is believing great deeds are only achieved by slaying monsters. Certainly you could slay the dragon, but what if you instead convince it to help guard your home? Nonetheless a grand deed no matter how it is achieved, but certainly not the only such deed. What is creating a masterpiece that lasts through the ages? To discover a new way to bring health to soil? Collecting and retelling the myths and stories of your people? What is doing your part to help achieve prosperity for family and friends if not a great deed? Great deeds may seem easier to find in the wider world, but you can still achieve them close to home."

"Your second mistake is waiting for life to come to you. You want to know everything? There is no harm in watching the world pass by, but all you will learn is the space you occupy. Do you believe all ants find a safe path to avoid the webs? What of the ants that forge their own, tearing apart any webs or animals in their way? You only learn of one ant, by sitting here and staring at them. You do not learn of the soldier ants, the leaf-cutter ants, the ants who farm like halflings and follow completely different paths from the ones you watch."

"This web you construct will be small and simple, waiting for the passing fly to satiate you, but will that truly be enough? Or perhaps, like the ants, you should learn how other spiders hunt and exist - the ones who build traps for prey or hunt at night, the ones who live with other ants or wander with others of their kind, the ones who hunt birds in the sky or fish in the sea."

"You sit here and wait for knowledge, and luck may bring you some, but how are you different from the ants who got stuck in the web? Would it not be better to seek those ants who have already learned the safe path rather than wait for them to tell you it? Or perhaps simply seek that knowledge for yourself?" asked Shi'Nynze, curious.

Ghiraman clapped his hands to his knees. "How exactly does taming a dragon, or painting a picture, or hoeing *dirt* help me learn and understand the universe? That's like telling a wannabe soldier, 'Before you can learn the fighting arts, first you must master the art of knitting.' It just doesn't make sense!"

He points off toward the horizon. "Yeh, I tried wandering, looking for the 'wider picture', but everywhere I went, it was just the same patterns all over again. The goats and sheep moved for the same reasons in the same directions, the wind and leaves blew the same, the grass was grass, and everything was the same. So why wander? If I can identify and understand the intricate details of every pattern right here, then it will only take minor changes, if any at all, to apply those exact same patterns to new places. Rather than getting just a basic understanding of millions of different rules and ways of the universe, maybe I'll only need hundreds or thousands."

"Those soldier ants you mentioned. They're still just ants, maybe with a bit of wolf-pattern thrown in. Or leaf-cutter ant? Same as regular ants, except with a different food source." He gestures at the clearing around him. "Until I've mastered this wood, why confuse things by adding even more?"

He turns his head to peer at her. "But you elves live forever, right? You've had the time to see all this, learn all this. You already understand the basics, and are wandering to add to your knowledge. If you can teach me some of these basic things, pass on your knowledge, I can advance even quicker!"

Wolf-patterned ants? Shi'Nynze could not decided if that was more insulting to the wolves or the soldier ants. Besides, how could one sit and stare in the woods and not be absolutely fascinated by such creatures? Or to truly think all ants were just simply ants? The arrogance of the boy.

Shi's ability to remain pleasant was not as strong as it used to be, and so with what little was left, she replied, "Some of us do wander - to see where the grass becomes oceans and sand, to watch the trees get large and imposing, to go where the sun rarely shines so we can better appreciate it's brightness and warmth, but not all of us. Still, those who do not wander always have something worthwhile to give in return for what we learn whether it's song and dance to give us joy, soil that grows plants we bring back ten times faster, or making truce with a tyrant threatening home so that those who do wander have a home to which to return."

"But you give none of those. You give nothing in exchange for any knowledge I have except for excuses as to why you have nothing of value to trade. You want to understand the universe yet fail to see how small acts can have big impacts. How can you advance your knowledge when you wear a blindfold? When you focus so intently on the small patterns you don't see the larger puzzle before you?"

The boy frowns at her tone, small seeds of doubt beginning to sprout. "But I have knowledge! But... but I thought you knew it all already. How could an elf not know that there are badgers on the west end of the big glade, that they're there because of the grubs that feed on the rotting wood from the diseased grove from 10 years ago? 3 adults, 4 kits, one of whom has a torn ear. And many other things like that! They're too trivial for you to care about. You know the big secrets! And.. well.. you're an elf! Maybe you can affect the universe and still understand it, but in my studies, any attempt to interfere with the pattern of life just obscures it. All I see is the effects of my interference. Like... like looking at a still pond! If I move a stick, it creates ripples across the surface and I can't see into it anymore."

There was something in his expression that reminded Shi'Nynze of Thistle. Reminding herself that he was just a boy, she took a small, calming breath, and replied, "You only see the effects of your interference because you are still so young. You see the ripples, but you have yet to see what those ripples will help wash upon the shore. You cannot yet see if your ripples will add to another's to create a wave. You are patient enough to notice the badgers, but too impatient to notice how their digging brings new life into the diseased grove a little at a time. "

"Have you ever seen a badger hunt yet with a coyote? It's fascinating to watch," continued Shi with a tiny smile. She gave a small nod towards the crow watching from the branches. "If I considered such things trivial, I would not have met Athras. I would not know her flock perished to disease. But I know, too, she may one day have a greater impact on the world than simply accompanying me. In the end, it is a balance of knowing the big and the small, of being open to the potentials and possibilities of the universe."

Ghiraman opens his mouth to speak before pausing with another frown. Those seeds of doubt sprouting into questioning his questions. Does he know enough? Or does he know only enough to know he doesn't know enough? As he stares at the ants in contemplation, Shi'Nynze takes that opening to slip away. Lost in thought, the boy doesn't notice.

(A thank you to TMO for helping contribute to this part of the story and forcing me to delve into a philosophical discussion!)

The Followers of Columba

After the very confusing and slightly infuriating conversation with Ghiraman, Shi'Nynze was far more careful as she traversed the rest of Chetwood and what remained of Gold Hills. As the grass grew taller and the signs of farming thinned, Shi'Nynze knew she was blissfully close to The Wildlands. It was something about the angle of the sun, the scents in the air, the pull of home getting stronger.

Shi could not say how she knew when she reached it, but she knew. There was no other feeling like it. Whether it was the time since she'd last been, or how the Mist wore on her, having finally reached The Wildlands filled her with a joy she hadn't felt in far too long. There was still a ways to go before she reached home, but she was that much closer.

The mood must have been contagious as even Athras seemed to perk up. The aerial acrobats she performed were invigorating, inspiring, exciting. The caution that they both followed for the days after running into Ghiraman was lost. They were in The Wildlands, after all. Perhaps it was an intimidating place to many, but not to her. It was practically home, after all.

They enjoyed the peaceful walk for about a day before they heard the sound of multiple voices. Considering there were no towns in The Wildlands, that alone was odd to Shi'Nynze. She stopped and crouched low as Athras flew overhead, but when she came back, all she could confirm was that yes, she was hearing voices because there was a town up ahead. A town full of undefined people.

Anywhere else, Shi'Nynze would have skirted the edge and avoided the place, but it was different now. While it wasn't her Lorien Woods, she was still protective of her beloved Wildlands. There were others who lived there, of course, but they knew how to treat the land right. The last thing she wanted, and her true fear, was that it was someone attempting to tame the land as they had done in Gold Hills.

There wouldn't be much she could do, yet, if that was true. She grew up hearing the stories of her mother's clan. As it was, there was only one of her. There was also the chance that whoever it was meant no harm, but there was no telling. In the end, there was only one way to find out for sure.

After a brief conversation with Athras, the crow flew off to keep an eye on her as Shi'Nynze made her way towards the town. It was frightening, doing so all alone, but she had her spells and her wits about her. Of course, it didn't quite prepare her for what she saw the moment she was within sight of the settlement. She barely glimpsed the incredibly odd clothing of various individuals before she was noticed.

"It is another!" gasped a voice upon spotting her. To her surprise, it was a young half-elf who ran up to her, eyes wide with wonder. "A follower of Columba you must be! Finally I will have acceptance!"

"Ahn?" asked Shi'Nynze, automatically slipping into Elvish. As the poor half-elf only looked at her with confusion, she switched back to the Common they were speaking. "What?"

"Brothers and sisters! Columba has brought us another!" yelled the half-elf, turning away from her and towards those behind him.

While she initially expected more clearly lost half-elves, that is not who peer out from the woodwork. From her quick look, she thought she spotted some humans, halflings, and even a dwarf or two, and still there were more whose curiosity drew them into the open.

"Columba, who gives us all! Columba, who guides us to salvation!" exclaimed the half-elf, hands raised to the sky.

"Columba, who brings brightness to our lives!" added a human wearing equally bright clothing to match her words. All of them were in something bright, and to be honest, it was a bit gaudy.

A Human male exits a nearby wooden shack, tying the vine holding up his pants as he walks. Topless, except for a ring of flowers around his neck, he was clearly your and in very good health. Hearing the talk and seeing a new visitor, and a female at that, he struts up and does his own welcome. "Hello, my lady" with a sweeping bow. "Welcome to our humble town, while I am sure you will be comfortable and enjoy your stay, anything, and I do mean anything I can do to make you more comfortable, you just let me know" he says with a wink.

"Thank you Chet" the cheerier female interject as she steps close to him, holding him back from their new guest just a bit before addressing her again. "Hi am Mayi, this is Friend Chet. He speaks the truth in his own way. But you must be tired, walking alone, no one to talk to and no beast to carry you. Come sit with us as we share the joys of the day. What shall we call you friend?"

Shi'Nynze was suddenly regretting her decision to stop by the supposed town. Thankfully, as Mayi, Chet, and the odd half-elf waited for her reply, she was reminded of some words of advice from her grandmother. With minimal hesitation, she said, "S'Theas."

The young half-elf simply clapped at the name to her relief with no indication of understanding. It was the Elven traveler's trick when it wasn't prudent to give their real name. A way to be able to claim it if it mattered, but just as easily lost if you wanted no connection to an event, and the way things were going, Shi'Nynze did not think she wanted anyone of these odd followers to know who she was, or to somehow be connected to them.

"S'Thss?" repeated a feminine voice, clearly human, and also unable to speak or mimic Elven. Coming up next to Chet, putting an arm on his shoulder, she also gave Shi a wink, as she said, "Oooh, exotic. If he's not your type, you can count on me, sweetheart. I'm Lemon, Lemon Grass."

With the (ordinary) grass knotted in her hair, woven into a necklace, wearing a grass skirt but no top, Lemon put on a similar show as Chet without looking anything like him. Before Shi'Nynze could take a step back, yet another individual, half their size, came up to the group. He whacked Chet and Lemon Grass with a branch, squeezing in front of them to stand next to Mayi almost like a shield. Once there, he held a cracked plate with pieces of mushrooms, insects, an unidentifiable hunk of meat, and various leaves on it.

"She's probably hungry for food. Not whatever it is you two have to offer," said the older halfling with annoyance. He held up his plate, beaming. "You're just in time for third lunch!"

"Um, thank you, but I recently ate," said Shi'Nynze, cautiously and apologetically. "Perhaps someone can tell me what this place is exactly?"

"May I?" Mayi says before breaking into uncontrollable giggle.

Chet pats Mayi on the hip and smiles at Shi again with big warm eyes. "S'Thisss, I can't speak for the rest, but this is home. This is where Columba gives us everything we need. I only hope you stay long enough to experience Columba for yourself."

"May you?" says Lemon, breaking out into giggles like Mayi before abruptly stopping. "Wait... yes! May you?"

As Lemon started giggling again, the young half-elf, still staring awestruck at Shi, said, "Columba will give me acceptance."

He gestured at Shi, but her attention was again drawn by the halfling, who held up his plate of food, saying, "Columba gave us the glory of tenth dinner! And this plate!"

Mayi composes herself. "Woman to woman, I understand you. As an elf, you know what the forest can provide. Clearly you have traveled a ways and have heard and seen plenty in your long life. I am sure you are thinking, What can Columba give me? S'Thss, I can show you. Please follow me." as she extends a hand and leads to a path on the far side of the clearing. The rest look on with excitement to see what S'Thss will do.

With exception to Lemon and Chet who easily made her uncomfortable, the rest seemed harmless, if not a little unhinged. Shi'Nynze glanced from Mayi's hand to the dark shadow flying high in the sky. After the Ghiraman ordeal, Shi'Nynze and Athras had put a plan in place if one of them was in need of a distraction for an escape. Between that and the spells on the tip of tongue, Shi'Nynze had decent confidence she could escape if needed provided one of the Followers of Columba didn't turn out to be an accomplished spellcaster of some sort. Perhaps it was reckless, but curiosity was winning the silent battle over caution.

Rather than take the offered hand, Shi gripped the strap of her travel sack tight with both hands, giving Mayi a slight nod, saying, "Lead the way."

Mayi smiles, undeterred by not holding Shi's hand, she waves and starts skipping down the path. It takes just a few moments to see where she is going as it leads to a dip in the field just a few yards away. The rest of the clan slowly follow Shi, keeping a distance but watching closely as Mayi steps into the dip and sits quickly almost out of sight. Shi stops just in time to see Mayi sitting in front of an odd rock formation of two longer flat rocks forming an arrow pointing to the woods, with their ends sitting on top of a round flat rock where Shi notices a faint red glow. Suddenly a wave of mental / charm magic passes over Shi that she easily shakes off but does raise her concern.

"Come on, sit" Mayi calls innocently, patting the ground as the rest of the village look on from behind.

"Avy esaya gera assan i’ara’av’ingala," muttered Shi'Nynze, suddenly mad at herself for her decision. With far more caution, she walked to stand near Mayi, but did not sit down. "I, um, am more comfortable standing. What are you showing me?"

Mayi claps as she stands "Oh, goody goody new perspective!" She spreads her arms wide as if reviling the horizon. "Look, see the grass sway" she says as her body sways along, clearly the youngest here, adult but barely, she continues innocently. "What catches your eyes, your ears? The breeze, the tree over there or the forest in the distance. Can you feel the light and warms of the sun?" she asks as her arms raise to the heavens and then her hands flutter down to her chest, where she holds herself lovingly for a moment until she curls herself up in a self hug, her eyes closed, her head tilted, still swaying with the with wind. "This is Columba"

As if by cue, another wave of magical energy passes over the pillar of Shi's mental fortitude, but this time it is as if she feel a drop of water land on her brain. To make matters worse, Chet and Lemon, in a half embrace just behind Shi each reach out a hand and place on each of her shoulders gently, as the say as one overly smooth voice "Columba offers you Love, all you have to do is accept it"

The curiosity from earlier had easily fled leaving Shi'Nynze needing to figure out an escape plan. It finally started making sense why she couldn't spot a single elf within the crowd. The half-elf was an oddity, but the rest seemed easily swayed by whatever was coming from that pillar. Shi did not know what else to expect from that pillar, and so rather than attempt any spells yet, she decided to see if she could talk her way into an escape. With slight guilt, she realized that poor, confused half-elf could be exactly what she needed.

Calming her nerves, and trying to sound as if in awe, Shi'Nynze said, "I understand. I…" she turned suddenly towards the half-elf, effectively slipping away from the very uncomfortable hold of Lemon and Chet. "That is what you want, A’Tel’Quessir. Acceptance. But not just the acceptance of Columba."

The half-elf's eyes widened as he finally felt understood, before he began nodding frantically, "Yes. Yes, yes yes. Yes!"

Shi'Nynze briefly closed her eyes, attempting to mime how Mayi swayed slightly with the grass, before she, too, was nodding, although less frantically. She looked at Mayi, saying, "It is becoming clear now why Columba brought me here. I must guide our lost Tanar'ri, give him the heritage he is missing, the key to his own happiness. It must be the will of Columba. Why the signs point towards the forest."

By now, Shi'Nynze had been inching closer and closer to the edge of the clearing. The half-elf had stuck close to her, but the others simply listened to her words. She hoped in a trance that would not be broken once she darted away. Shi kept talking, using her words hopefully as a successful distraction.

"The breeze guides us, but these are secrets only to be shared with A'Tel'Quessir," continued Shi, taking another step back. She put a hand on the half-elf's shoulder. "Allow me to heal this Child of Columba. We can then celebrate his healing with twelfth dinner."

Chet and Lemon have a second of disappoinment cross their face until they look at each other and decide to console each other in an embrace that quickly continues to them laying together right where they are. As they stretch out, they knock over Mayo who suddenly finds herself on the ground again but now facing the couple's expression of love to each other. She watches with the wide eyes of a child.

As soon as the words 'twelfth dinner' are spoken, the Halfling yells "On It" and runs to her hovel where there is much banging and commotion.

The Half-Elf looks a little confused but not wanting to be unaware of elven tradition, kneels at Shi's feet. "Please, anything to allow us to share in Columbia and bring us closer."

Shi'Nynze had lost their attention far easier than expected. The few other cult members she spotted whose names she never heard, were soon following similar behavior as Chet, Lemon, and Mayi. Unfortunately, she was now saddled with the half-elf who followed her even as she left the clearing and fell out of sight. Still, she had a plan.

As they walked, she gathered some sage leaves and stalks here and there, deftly tying them into bundles, until she had a small handful. She stopped once they reached a small grove and turned to face the half-elf. The guilt was there again as he continued watching her with wide eyes. For the most part, half-elves garnered pity, but very, very rarely were they welcomed into any Elven clan. Shi'Nynze saw absolutely no reason to change this fact.

After reaching up to add some juniper to the bundles, she handed them to the half-elf, saying, "First you must take these and burn them. Find a place of comfort and solitude. Breath in the smoke. Meditate. After you have cleared your mind and spirit, you must make a decision: remain with, er, Columba, or go south to Loosend. Both offer what you seek. I cannot guide you any further."

The poor thing only looked confused still, but she would offer no more. Rather, she took one of the bundled leaves, lit it until a gentle smoke began to emit from it, and handed it back. The scent alone - earthy, spicy, and uplifting - took the attention away from her as the half-elf sniffed it, and sniffed it again with wonder. When he finally looked up, the elf had disappeared. He only looked around briefly, never to find her thanks to her magic camouflage, before he pocketed the other bundles and sat down to simply watch the one he held burn away. Shi'Nynze was long gone by the time it became nothing more than a pile of ashes.

(A thank you to John for helping contribute to this part of the story and surprising me with his attempt to turn Shi'Nynze into a hippie! Good unexpected fun.)

Back to the Gypsy

Shi'Nynze spent the following days berating herself for her earlier decisions. While Ghiraman had been harmless, she'd underestimated the Cult of Columba. They may not have meant harm, but that did not mean they were benign. She was simply thankful she had resistance to the sway of whatever Columba actually was and did her best not to consider what would have happened if that hadn't been true. While it may have also been reckless to have investigated on her own, she tried to comfort herself by knowing it would have been worse if she'd been forced to drag away a more susceptible friend.

The approaching horizon of the Lorien Woods helped wipe away some of her more troubling thoughts and speed up her steps. Eventually the anticipation of arriving to her beloved woods was all that was on her mind, although she still did not let that erase any of her gained caution. It's why, when she finally, gratefully, reached the treeline that evening and heard music and spotted firelight, she stopped.

There was certainly something familiar to the rhythm of the music, the sounds of laughter, and the stomping of dancing feet. It was familiar enough to draw her closer, quietly inching towards the camp to confirm her suspicions. Standing half hidden leaning against a tree, Shi'Nynze watched a band of gypsies dancing away, lighting up the night. As tempting as it was to greet them, she stood there with indecision, uncertain as to her next move.

The music continued as she watched. Couples pairing off for dancing or slipping off into the dark between the five wagons. Shi'Nynze watched as the band carefully tended to the fire to make sure no stray spark caught on the grass or nearby trees. Naturally hidden in her own home environment with Athras nodding to sleep on her shoulder.

It was right as Athras nearly fell while she dozed that Shi'Nynze realized she had to make a decision. Climb the trees for sleep and watch them? Of course, there was a chance someone else was, or had been, watching them already. Or see how receptive they'd be to her company? A stray spark jumped from the fire, but did not leave a mark as it was quickly put out. The care they showed for her home (for she was finally home in her woods!), not to mention the pull dancing still had on her (if only the music did, too), finally drew her out to be seen. If she could not trust gypsies, she did not know who she could trust. That, and if they had been allowed to pass through, it meant her clan did not deem them a threat.

"May I join you?" asked Shi'Nynze with slight uncertainty.

A young gypsy girl startled and looked at Shi'Nynze with a quick adjustment and smile. "Why of course come and dance with us. We are always grateful to have a visitor. Just don't let Rab fool you, he is not as good looking as he seems."

Leading the way to the fireside the gypsy girl gave a quick staccato clap clap clap, "We have a visitor! Bring the wine and some stew, she needs some meat on her hips." Turning with a laugh towards Shi, "Join in and dance and sing. Are you looking to leave home and travel the world? Is that why you came to find us?"

"Thank you. I am sorry I have nothing to contribute to this meal," replied Shi, apologetically. She sat down on the log she was led to next to the fire, gratefully taking the offered stew and wine. After carefully setting the sleepy Athras on the ground, she put a piece or two from the stew next to her. Athras quickly woke up to eat her share.

"Our paths simply crossed," said Shi, turning back to the gypsy girl. "I am returning home... am home. Almost. But I heard the music and, well..." Shi gave a shrug and small smile. "I have met some of Bosha, and one of Dom. The clans I have met have always been kind and fun. I miss dancing. The last one who helped me find my feet again was a young gypsy girl..."

With a sigh and slight shake of her head, trying to clear her thoughts, Shi asked, "Who are you? Who is your wisewoman?"

With a flourish and a curtsy, "I am Sparrow. My mother said that I was speaking and commenting on things from the time I emerged from her belly. Our Wisewoman Grey Fox has been guiding our journeys for over twenty summers now. If you know of the clans your village must be welcoming to our people. Where are you returning home from? " pausing to sip from her cup, she then calls louder, "A story, We have a traveler with a story to tell, gather round."

"A story. Of course. I forgot I do have something to contribute, Daughter of Dom," replied Shi with a slight laugh. "I believe we've had gypsies trade at market in Divaekah in the past, and those who are respectful are generally accepted within the Lorien Woods." She gave a slight nod to those tending the fire and snuffing the sparks. "But most of the clans I met during my travels. One of my …companions, Branwyn, is known as a friend of the gypsies, although I do not know the full story as to how she gained the title."

Shi'Nynze paused and lightly shook her head. She was still conflicted on her feelings regarding those she had called friends, especially Branwyn (and, she supposed, Jennevive, although that was a different story). Their recent adventure had only complicated things, and she was not yet ready to untangle her thoughts on her relationships. Certainly not tonight, at least.

Rather than dwell on that, Shi said, "I have been to many places: Dryads Lair, Cornelia, Portown, Loosend, through Gold Hills and Birnham Wood, Ghostwood Domain, Jistille Estates, Dragon Fen, and most recently have stayed in Valoris Wood. The last few are in the Mist which is… unpleasant. The sun cannot fully shine there, and it is difficult to get used to it, but I do know gypsies are welcomed at Dragon Fen, too."

"But my apologies. I am simply listing where I have been which is hardly a story. If you want to hear a story gained from my travels, my favorite would be when I found my wolf pack. They are back in Valoris Wood at the moment, but... " Again, Shi shook those troubled thoughts from her mind. She would go back for them in time. "There was a bugbear keep that held some precious stolen items not too far from here. Rather than storm the keep, we decided to help a bugbear named Billy overthrow the current king. We let ourselves be captured to gain access to the inside of the keep. The cell they tossed us in was guarded by four scrawny, mangy wolves. It was ...not right. They were prisoners forced to guard prisoners. Wolves are meant to be free, fierce, beautiful ...I gave them what little food I had and offered to let them escape with us. Only sweet Tinu, Solonor Rest His Soul, needed extra convincing and another treat."

Shi'Nynze briefly paused to send a silent prayer for the soul of her lost pup before she continued, "Our plan succeeded. Billy overthrew the king and let us take what was rightfully ours previously stolen." Another quick pause as Shi gripped her brother's bow. "But the wolves were not healthy enough to go off on their own. They had been cooped up for so long. Anor, the leader of the pack, kept trying to prove she didn't need any more help, the prideful wolf that she is, but Ithil convinced her to let herself heal. He has always been the most sensible of the pack, although he still lets Anor push him around sometimes. Galad and Tinu were so young at the time, though. So playful and affectionate. They bounced back the fastest and took the quickest to me. I will not take the credit for convincing Anor to remain. I believe that goes to Galad and Tinu."

With a reminiscent sigh, Shi looked up at the canopy, aware she was prattling on and yet stuck in memories of the past. Still, she preferred those memories to more recent ones. Doing her best not to talk their ears off about the pack that was absent, she said, "It has been a few years since that time. I do not know when I became part of their pack, when they accepted me, but I am." After one last look at the stars through the leaves, she brought her attention back to the audience. "They traveled with me on a boat. They traveled with me to a vampire's castle. They somehow convinced me to swim with them in a river of red. I brush their fur and clean their teeth, although they complain about the latter, while they pretend they are not keeping an eye on me, watching out for me. They can pretend all they want. I have seen them rip apart orcs who threatened me in order to protect me." Shi gave a small, apologetic smile. "I am sorry they are not here for you to meet them. It was only supposed to be a visit to the city, and I know they preferred to stay in the woods than be in a city full of those who do not understand. This trip was spur of the moment, but I know they will wait for me, and I will continue to do my best not to let them down."

There was a slightest hint of embarrassment as Shi said, "I hope that story suffices. I know some prefer stories of adventure, the swaggering hero and a village saved, a fireball in a horde of zombies, a vampire who hunts giant snails. But Voron has always said the best stories are those that are the most meaningful to the storyteller."

Sparrow lead the fireside in a toast, "To Shi'Nynze of the Lorien Woods!" The gypsies raised their mugs in a merry cheer. Sparrow handed Shi a wine skin, "You are welcome for the night to stay with us." Sparrow went to scoop up a bowl of stew and while she was gone Rab scooped up Shi for a quick dance around the fire.

When Rab came back to where they started Sparrow was there with a bowl and another wine flask. Sparrow used her hip to knock Rab off his gait, "She needs to eat" pushing the bowl and flask into Shi's hands. "And now you owe us a story Rab."

Rab gave a grin and a bow, "Welcome our friends, let me tell you a story of a cold wintery night before Sparrow was able to fly."

"Two years ago we were traveling from Hallstatt where we had spent half a decade. The armies were getting restless and we decided that if they did not have an alternative target we might suffer as we have over the years. I helped load the wagons under the watchful eye of Jerarm and we headed west to the Great Mountains. After several weeks we joined up with another group of traveling merchants making a last attempt at crossing before the winter snows closed down the passes. In the end that was not to be sucessful. There were our ten wagons and another fifteen wagons from the merchants. We were a strong group, well protected from bandits and the monsters of the mountains. We traveled through the port city of Bexantur, then up along the passes to the High Desert. The bitter cold there was only a harbinger of what was to come. We lost one of our clan and two guardians for our companion merchants to a young yellow dragon that we thought was hibernating for the winter. Finally after crossing the high desert and climbing even higher into the Great Mountains we came upon the Great Saint Bernard Pass. In the center of the pass is a small shrine to the Druids of Hallstatt and there they venerate the Great Saint Bernard, one of their heroes."

Rab took a long pull on his wine skin.

"We camped near the shrine. It seemed safe enough and in any holy place there should be sanctuary. It was not to be."

He took another drink then a bit of stew, watching his audience and letting them settle deeper into their blanket nests.

"It was late morning when we arrived at the shrine, we thought to stay only for an hour or two them make our way down the other side. One of the merchants wagons lost a wheel so we stopped to repair it. As the early winter sun beat down on us it grew warm. I had thought it was the exertion of the repairs but Jeram was wary. Suddenly a wall of snow came with a roar from up above us smashing into the merchant's wagons. We lost one of ours but they lost nine. It was a most horrific scene. We had to stay there and try to recover what we could. Everyone pitched in to dig through the snow and try to uncover and save who we could."

Rab continued, "Night came quickly to us there in the pass. We camped and did our best to help the merchants with what little gear they were able to recover. Then in the middle of the night as we all lay tired and worn in our bed rolls a screeching came from the north. It was trolls, horrible winter trolls. We attacked with blade and torch but we could barely hold our own. Then out of the corner of my eye I say a ghostly dog, as big as a pony, standing and pointing towards the south. I looked that way and there was an outcrop of rock. I did not see anything special about it but as I was looking the ghost dog went to it and started digging. I was drawn in and I followed. I should have told Jeram I was leaving, he thought I had his left flank. I got to the rocks and there was no dog only a tree branch stuck under a boulder. I cursed in disgust and turned back to help my family. As I did I saw a troll reach up and slash Jeram across his leg, nearly ripping it off. I screams and used the branch to push off to jump down onto the back of the troll. As I did my foot slipped as the branch gave way. The boulder suddently started rolling forward and it tumbled right through the center of the trolls crushing their leader and half of their group. The rest fled from the sudden asault."

Rab nodded to a one legged gypsy sitting on the opposite side of the fire with a wine skin and two young children near him. "Jeram survived and we made it down off of the mountains with no other losses. We left the merchants in Wolfspack after passing several abandoned settlements along the way. From there we traveled north and west through Terraguard until we came to Dryads Lair. We are now continuing to travel towards the Central Mountains through Gold Hills and then over the Hoarbrite Pass into Blackwater. If we reach there it will be the farthest west our clan has traveled. I hope to bring amber and other goods back east towards home near Orphet. I miss the purple desert."

Rab stood and bowed to Shi'Nynze. "Shi'nynze of the Lorien Woods, I hope you enjoy your visit home after traveling. Perhaps you will settle in being content with your journies through the world you have had. I suspect you will find your feet are not ready stop for too long though. The world pulls at us and draws us to unseen wonders."

Rab takes a last drink and calls out, "Time for watches by the pure and rest for the wicked!"

General laughter takes the camp as everyone starts to clear away and curl up for a good night's sleep.

(A thank you to BOB for helping contribute to the story and adding one of his own!)

Almost Home

After a wonderful night full of dancing, Shi'Nynze bid the gypsies goodbye as she went her way and they went on theirs. It was a later start than her days previous, but she did not mind. She never planned to arrive in Haathkash during the daytime. While she would still need to slow her steps, she was certain she could time herself right to arrive sometime in the evening.

Pausing, hidden once again in her home forest, Shi'Nynze took a deep breath of the fresh air. Athras flew back to her shoulder, her foraging done, and together they continued onward. That serenity was incredibly brief, the quiet morning broken by the sound of something crashing through the forest.

The sound of hooves came quick and close, a young male Centaur galloped past, obvious to Shi. A moment later, a second older male centaur followed, quieter and focused on being one with the forest as he chased the one that came before him. The forest calm returned and just when Shi thought she missed the chance to make a new friend a female centaur stepped into sight. Long flowing blonde hair braided with vines and flowers blended into conservative leafy bra and her tanned skin transitioned into a beautiful chestnut body. Her voice was also warm and inviting as she spoke in Elven

"I am so sorry for the boys, they are just letting off a little steam. I certainly hope they didn't bother you too much. We are just on patrol and will be out of your way soon enough."

"It is your forest as much as it is mine, and yours to patrol as much as it is ours," replied Shi with a smile and a nod. There was an added slight hesitation. "Although, while I knew centaurs were also in this forest, I had yet to meet one until now. I am Shi'Nynze of Divaekah. What may I call you?"

"It is a pleasure to meet you, I am Terrock Fermantie. We expanded our patrols with the increase of Orc activities in the northern wildlands, but my brother and I are trying keeping the Chief's son away from any real danger. We would be very happy to travel with you for any words of wisdom you would be willing to share. I would consider it a personal favor."

"Damn Orcs," muttered Shi'Nynze, annoyed. She lightly cleared her throat before she continued, "Um, I suppose that would be fine. I'm headed to Haathkash. I'm not sure what words of wisdom I have, but good company is always welcomed. This is Athras," said Shi, tilting her head slightly towards the crow on her shoulder. "How should I address your brother and the chief's son? Which village are you from?"

"Oh, well hello Athras, my brother is Terrock Normte but I like to call him 'No'," Fermantie smiles warmly "I should have saved that for Mor'Haten Pellis. There is so much he needs to learn before he takes over the Hartone tribe. It is a challenge but it should be worth it, I just wish..." and she faded out just as Pellis rushed in and slapped her hind quarter and Normte gallops in shortly. Both males look at each other and gives Fermantie a look while catching their breath, allowing Fermantie to complete introductions. "Pellis, Normte, this is Shi'Nynze. Shi'Nyze this is Pellis and Normte. Oh and that is Athras" pointing to the bird.

Pellis steps up to Shi in an attempt to give her a hug "It is very nice to meet you."

Shi'Nynze was not a big fan of strangers touching her (circumstances such as dancing with gypsies being an exception), but she didn't know if it would be rude to decline, especially from the chief's son of a nearby centaur tribe. In Dragon Fen, and all the other places they had traveled, Shi did not have to worry about diplomacy. In her own forest, family ties aside? Reluctantly, Shi accepted the hug, though she tried to make it quick. Athras wanted no part in it and quickly flew off.

"Nice to meet you, too," replied Shi, slightly awkwardly. "As I was telling Fermantie, I was on my way to Haathkash, if, er, you were going to continue your patrols and travel that way."

"That is not our primary goal.." Normte says after a short bow and just before being cut off by Fermante

"But it will be a good example for Pellis, a unique situation that he will need to be able to deal with eventually. Best he learn now. Pellis, run off ahead and hide, try and spy on us as we walk past. Normte, you follow and watch him, make sure he knows where we are going." Fermante finishes with a firm look to her brother and watches as they run off once again, slightly more quiet. Once they are out of ear shot, she smiles and starts to walk towards Haathkash.

"As I started to say, my brother and I have a few reason we want this training to go well, so I thank you, just for being here. But, if I may ask, how do you find yourself alone, with just a bird for companion?" Fermante asks casually.

"You're welcome, although I'm not sure exactly how I am helping. If you are trying to improve your patrols, you'd be better off asking one of the Shadow Guardians. Then again, I suppose you'd have to find one to ask, " replied Shi, smiling slightly.

As they walk, Shi'Nynze pauses before finally answering, "As for your question, it is... a story I do not fully wish to delve into, but suffice to say, I had been traveling with a group before we parted ways in Birnham Wood. I simply needed to come home for a bit to visit a friend. Athras lost her flock in Birnham Wood and wanted a change of scenery, and so here we both are. I... have never traveled on my own before, to be honest, but it has been a nice change of pace, especially now that I am back home."

"I am glad you are almost home" Fermante starts with reflection, "even when i don't leave the woods, home still means something. Though some in our Druidic circle say we should feel at home wherever we are with nature, I would wonder how one with your travels would think of that. But honestly, feel no pressure, the results of this training is unlikely to change things, certainly not for my brother and I. I just wanted some..... different companionship if only for a short while. Our paths are generally chosen for us, we only make the best of those choices we get to make. But I should ask, before I get too deep, how strongly are you with your beliefs? Is this a sensitive subject for you?"

"It is fine. My beliefs, personal and otherwise, have had some... challenges, lately, but if this conversation treads where I do not like, I simply ask you respect my desire not to answer," replied Shi with a small smile and a shrug. "Such as your belief that our paths are generally chosen for us. I do not fully believe that, but... I am still working through that."

Shi'Nynze pushed those thoughts from her mind as she continued, "But I do agree with those in your Druidic circle. Nothing can truly compare to home, but being in nature... a home away from home is still home. I do not think my companions cared much for Birnham Wood, but it felt like an echo of here, a place of some comfort - not quite a hug from family or a lover, but a hug from a friend, if that makes sense. I built a shrine down in Valoris Wood. The Mist may be a godsforsaken creation, but even there, where the sun cannot fully shine, tucked in that fascinating old forest, I have another echo of home."

''Solonor Thelandira is the Elven God associated with surviving in wild and harsh places. It simply felt right to leave His mark in that place. If you were referring to my religious beliefs, He is the god I follow, but I have always viewed it more as a partnership, of sorts. He wishes to keep the integrity of nature with His marksmanship. I wish to do the same, especially after what happened to my mother's clan centuries ago..." There was barely a pause as Shi briefly shook her head, trying to keep those thoughts away, too. "He asks for little in return to help me do what I wish to do, to follow the path I already wished to follow, one He is already on. Are my religious beliefs strong? I do not know. I would guess other priests, especially those of other religions, may not think so, but my personal beliefs in that specific matter are for what it is worth."

Fermante stops for a moment and looks closely at Shi, not only because of the importance of the topic but with some of the more interesting facts. "You have been all the way to Valoris Woods, my you have traveled. We know all about Solonor in the circle and it sounds like you would be welcome to our discussions anytime, especially with the stories you must have. I know I.." Her last words interrupted as a pair of blunt arrow strikes her front hip.

The two male centaurs emerge from their hiding spot to a disappointed Fermante. "I said the object, when you had the chance, is to make sure you hit only your target and not a potential friend. You must learn to pick your shot and focus your aim. But decent job at hiding."

"I am sorry" Pellis said with a bowed head. "I was sure I could make the shot but these training arrows don't fly the same."

"I actually think he hit his target." Normte added. "Even with the training arrows he is more concerned with who annoys that what the mission is. He will make a better diplomat than warrior, but maybe that is for the best. " Turning to Shi "I mean no offense, I doubt I could shoot at you without knowing you better, even knowing it would do any real damage. I hope Ferm has not talked both your ears off. I guess it won't be long now either way and you'll be done with us."

Shi'Nynze shook her head with a smile, saying, "I am not offended. This is certainly not the forest to shoot an elf you barely know, training arrows or not. You never know if you're being watched, and it is frowned upon to attack any of our clan."

With an added nod towards Pellis, Shi added, "And there is nothing wrong with being a better diplomat than a warrior. My father knows his way around magic, but he shines brightest when it comes to diplomacy. Sometimes you can do more with your words than your arrows. I do not have half his talent, but I have found myself more than once trying to negotiate with a potential enemy before being forced to attack it. It is nice when it succeeds, and we don't have to fight it out."

Still with a friendly smile, Shi included Fermante, as she said, "Anyways, Fermante has not talked my ear off. We were simply chatting about your Druidic circle before we were interrupted."

"Oh, Circle talk, no thanks" says Normte before nodding and trotting off again.

Pellis contemplates whether to follow or stay but before he has the chance to decide for himself, Fermante takes charge again. "Pellis, stay with Shi'Nynze a bit, I'll be back shortly." she says before chasing after her brother.

"So," Pellis started hesitantly "Have you ever been to the Circle? Father says they put a lot of pressure on him, sometimes. They talk a lot about balance but I'm not so sure they understand the balance between Strength and Wisdom, War and Peace, they don't seem to understand sometime you have to be the aggressor. We should be defending our lands by taking the fight to the orcs? You must know there can be no peace with orcs?"

"I have never been to the Circle. I have heard whispers of it from others, but that is all," replied Shi, shaking her head.

There was a much longer, obvious pause as she tried to figure out how to answer his other question. If it was Fermante who had asked, she'd simply not answer, but once more, she did not know if that was appropriate with the chief's son.

Finally, Shi'Nynze said, "I do think, in some instances, there is something to be said about balance. I had companions who honestly believed they could strike a deal with an orc. Do I personally think peace can be made with orcs? Absolutely not, but why did they offer that one a chance when I would not? Is it my own hatred of them, the knowledge of what they did to my brother, something that will forever cloud my judgement? For that, I do not care enough to know as I will never forgive their kind, but I was made more aware of the consequences of my own actions, of how they would have seen me if I had killed it without pause. Would it have been worth it to do so, to be a murderer in their eyes?"

Turning to give Pellis her full attention, Shi'Nynze continued, "You are the son of the chief. Your actions will never be your own. What will it be worth to you to take the fight to them? What will your village have to give up for a chance, not a guarantee, at victory? It is a pain, it will always be a pain, to continually patrol against them, but are you in a position to pay the price of bringing the fight to them?"

"I will never forget the day we recovered my brother's body. The state of it, the disrespect shown to him.... fen'harel ver is'en. I set out that night to get my vengeance. What did my life matter if I could take a few of them down with me? My uncle stopped me before I managed to make it very far. I used to tease him for that when I was a child. It seemed every time I was one step away from disaster, when my parent's eyes were turned the other way, he would appear," said Shi, quietly. Again her attention drifted, her eyes now trained on the trail the two other centaurs had disappeared down. "I was willing to pay with my life to take down a few orcs in an act of revenge. My uncle was not. Nor my parents when they found out. Even my actions, and the consequences of them, would not have been entirely my own. If my uncle had not stopped me, we would have gained nothing except another burial, but because he did, we put our efforts into bettering our patrols. And we were rewarded when those damn orcs tried again to bring the fight to us, and we took them down without losing another Elven life."

"I want them gone as much as you, but what is the cost of bringing the fight to them, and will it truly be worth the price you pay?"

Pellis walked in silence for a few moments, clearly in deep reflection before speaking a little softer than before. "I like you. You speak to me straight and honest, it seems. No one has ever given me such personal insight, a reason for what you told me. I appreciate it." He took another deep breath. "I have a lot to think... but hey, where did you meet Athras?" He tone and volume change mid sentence as Fermante came back into view.

"Sorry to interrupt" She says with a quick smile. "I seem to have lost Normte. Can you lead us to him Pellis?"

Pellis steps up but not too far and starts examining the surroundings, tracking the missing Centaur. Meanwhile, Fermante tries to lighten the mood. "Have you eaten lately? We are about to grab a bite."

"I could eat something to hold me over until dinner," replied Shi with a smile. "I, er, am not sure as to what all you normally eat, but I did manage to forage some this morning to add to the meal: some fern heads, a handful of berries, and some late blooming violets. I'm certain we can find more nearby to tide us over unless you had another idea?"

Fermante smiles warmly "We would never ask for handouts, we would share with you if need be. I try to eat only what grows but with the amount the boys need to eat, it is hard, especially away from home. Once we get to the point where there is a dead body, I refuse to let it got to waste. I just don't want to offend."

"SSSShhhhhh", Pellis says in a loud whisper, "we are hunting Normte."

Rather than focus on the comment about the dead body, Shi said to Pellis, with a slight smile, "Noise won't help you hunt him, but if I may offer an idea? You're hunting prey known to you. You could always turn the tables and force him to show himself. Lure him out with something he likes, put yourself in a position where he has to leave his hiding spot... Whenever I got tired of trying to find my brother when we'd play, I would, er, make him think he'd have to save me. Um, although, there was that one time the water was much deeper than I expected, and he really did have to save me..."

Shi'Nynze rubbed her head with slight embarrassment, saying, "Or you could do the safer option and just sit still and listen, wait him out, or hide in turn and make him think you left so he shows himself."

Pellis nods but still gestures for quiet

Fermante says quietly to Shi "It is more about his tracking skill than strategy, but I think he is listening to you"

The three walk in quiet for a little longer before Pellis raises his hand signaling to get attention and point to the just left and ahead. He then proceeds to lead the trio around a well covered tree where the see Normte crouching down facing them but with his hands raised.

"Ha! Found you!" Says Pellis rather loudly a second before seeing Normte has a blade pointed periously close to his throat. The elf holding the blade looks up, squints briefly at Pellis, and gives him a half-smile as she pulls the blade away.

"I was wondering why a Centaur was sneaking so close to our lands, but hello Sir Pellis," says the elf, giving him a nod of her head. "You are still welcome here, as are those that are with you," As she turns her attention to Shi'Nynze, her half-smile breaks out into a huge grin. "Especially such an elf as that one." Barely keeping her compsure, she turns back to Pellis. "Thank you for your assistance in accompanying our fellow elf in these times. I think it best if I take it from here."

Pellis, taken with a little respect and remembering Shi's words, takes things a little more serious. He looks back at Shi, nods and waves his arm as if to clear a path for her to get to the elf. "Come Normte, come Fermante. Let us continue on our way." And the two male centaurs step away as Fermante says a few words.

"I do hope to see you again, Shi'Nynze. The Circle will always be accepting of someone like you. May your path be warm, bright and your own, always."

"Thank you. Sweet water and light laughter to you and your tribe," said Shi'Nynze before the centaurs take off. She watches their departure for a short time before turning towards the female elf with an equally large grin, saying, "Keerla."

(A thank you to John for helping contribute to this part of the story and introducing some centaurs to the woods!)


Home Sweet Home

The sun was beginning to set, and Haathkash was just visible in the distance, but neither of those mattered now. While Shi'Nynze had thought she'd need to do more searching, it seemed Keerla had found her first. Of all the other possibilities, or other elves, that could have been the ones for her to come across, she was immensely relieved it was Keerla.

The minute the sound of hooves disappeared, Keerla sheathed her sword and ran at Shi'Nynze with a huge smile. Athras, who moments before had been dozing on Shi's shoulder, barely had time to fly to safety before Shi was engulfed in a bear hug. There was no pause as Keerla pulled her in tight, twirling her around with a laugh, and only letting Shi go after adding a kiss.

"I can't believe you're really back!" exclaimed Keerla, holding her at arm's length.

"Neither can I," said Shi with laughter. "And I can't believe you threatened a centaur."

"I was getting antsy waiting for you. I've been walking the perimeter the past few days. I'm surprised no one else stopped them. Can you imagine if it had been one of the new recruits, instead?" replied Keerla, rolling her eyes at the thought of that disaster.

"Yes, I much prefer that it was you," replied Shi with another laugh, although much smaller and dying down quicker. "I just… I needed to see you if only for a bit. I just need to be here right now."

"I'm glad you're here. I missed you, too," replied Keerla with another, longer hug. Finally satisfied with all the hugs, Keerla let her go and looked up towards the crow in the tree. "Who's the bird?"

"Athras. She gets a little cranky when she's tired. I met her in Birnham," replied Shi, looking up at the sleepy crow who refused to leave her new perch. Shi shook her head, her attention back on Keerla. "I wish I had brought Fete and the wolves with me, but I didn't originally plan to visit. Things just ...didn't go as I thought they would after Loosend."

"I'm sure I'll have another chance to meet them," said Keerla, reassuringly. Looking up towards Athras, she continued, "In the meantime, we're going to become friends."

"She can sleep there tonight. You'll get off on a better foot with her if you wait until morning. More so if you find something shiny to give her," replied Shi with a small smile.

"I can find something," said Keerla, grinning.

"Good," replied Shi, nodding. The pause was hardly noticeable before Shi asked, nervously, "You didn't tell anyone I was coming, did you?"

Shi still wasn't sure if it was the right decision, but she did know she needed to see Keerla. Whether or not she needed to see anyone else, or if she'd even be up for it, she'd decide after another day or two. She wasn't ready to make that decision yet, though.

"If you wanted anyone else to know you're here, you wouldn't have had me travel back to Haathkash," replied Keerla, rolling her eyes as if it was obvious. "It was clear you didn't want anyone else to know. It's not my business to tell anyone, anyways."

"I just wanted to check since I didn't exactly say not to, but…"

"I can read between the lines and still practically read your mind. I've gotcha, girl," said Keerla with a wink. Shi finally started to smile and relax a little. "But what's with all the secrecy? Just not ready to tell your parents what happened?"

"No," replied Shi with a despondent sigh. "I just… there's still so much I need to work through, and I'm not sure I can face my family right now. What they don't know won't hurt them, right?"

There was a slight creaking of a branch behind them as a different voice said, "Da Fenlin, you wouldn't really break my heart like that, would you?"

The Intercepted Messages

Shi'Nynze barely held in her shriek of surprise as she rounded on the voice. She still had to pry her hands from her mouth as she turned towards someone who looked exactly like her father. As it was, when he wasn't wearing his Shadow Guardian armor, and if they didn't know them well, people still confused Aolis for Yinris. Of course, just because it was her uncle, not her father, who already tracked her down, didn't mean she felt any better.

"Osu'Tan! What are you doing here?!" asked Shi with accusation and apprehension. No one was supposed to know about her visit except for Keerla.

"Greeting my favorite A’Su’Tan after one too many years have passed," replied Aolis wearing a large grin. He jumped down from the branches he was hiding among, taking advantage of her lingering surprise to sneak in a hug and friendly kiss on the head. She barely accepted it before pushing him away, still wanting answers.

"I'm your only niece. You're in Haathkash by coincidence?" said Shi, frowning. If her uncle already knew she was here, it was only a matter of time before the clan knew, and more worrisome, for her mother to know. In reply, her uncle simply lifted a brow and waved his hand in front of himself. Shi smacked her forehead in response. "You've been following me since I entered the forest?"

It easily explained what Shi had thought to be luck for not running into another elf once she entered the forest. There was no need if her uncle had been there the whole time. Anyone patrolling already knew she was being kept safe - even if she didn't know it herself.

"That is our job, Da Fenlin. Although it was Nuala who alerted me. I had a vague idea of when you'd be here, but I can only keep an eye on so much of the forest," replied Aolis with an easy shrug, his grin never disappearing.

"How did you know…," started Shi before her eyes widened and her anger returned. "You've been reading my messages! Osu'Tan! Those were private!"

"Not all of them, but you rarely write your parents, and I do hear of it all the time," said her uncle without a trace of remorse, even as Shi made a loud noise of frustration. His teasing grin quickly returned. "How are the wolves, Da Fenlin? I did not see any with you."

"They're still in the Valoris Wood. This wasn't a fully planned visit," replied Shi, annoyed, and now understanding why her uncle kept using that specific endearment, calling her little wolfling. "You seriously read all my messages, Osu'Tan?"

"I skimmed the ones I could get a hold of, but I didn't tell your mother most of what I did read," said Aolis, finally showing at least the barest hint of guilt. "I just needed confirmation that you were doing okay."

Shi'Nynze was silent for a second, biting her cheek, before she said, softly, "If you've read them then…"

"Skimmed them," said her uncle, quickly correcting her and cutting her off. The smile he gave her had that touch of melancholy she saw so much when Ellidor died. That, more than his words, stopped her. He certainly knew more than he was going to admit, but he continued, "They were not written to me, after all. You may save your words for Keerla, but if you need more ears, I am here for you, Da Fenlin."

"Thank you, Osu'Tan," replied Shi with quiet gratitude.

"Although, I am disappointed to see Keldorldrin is not with you. I have more than a few words for him," prompted her uncle in a cheerier voice with an edge of steel.

Shi'Nynze briefly closed her eyes, trying again to find the right words, before she sighed, and settled on saying, "It was mutual."

"You will need more conviction than that when you tell your parents if you want them to believe you, but that is not my concern. My concern is the oath he took to be a Shadow Guardian, and the oath he made before he left with you. Pride and scrags do not erase either of those oaths," replied Aolis, his words filled with an undercurrent of anger, disappointment, and warning.

"I get to have at him first," said Keerla, finally finding a foothold into the conversation.

"You have to get to him first, Da Veluuthra," replied Aolis with a wink. Back in a better mood, Aolis threw his arm across Shi'Nynze's shoulders and started dragging her along, forcing Keerla to follow them. "Now come, Da Fenlin. I am starving."

"Osu'Tan! What are you - but Keerla and I," said Shi'Nynze, unable to free herself.

"You have all night. You can wait just a little longer, but if your cousins find out you were here and didn't visit, they'll be just as upset as your parents. Besides, if you have to put up with your uncle, it is only fair you put up with my uncle, too," replied Aolis, his grin returned.

"Great Uncle Zelle? How is that fair? He's nothing like you," said Shi'Nynze with a groan of complaint. Putting up with Aolis was nothing in comparison. In truth, she'd completely forgotten her great uncle lived in Haathkash, but she wasn't going to say that out loud.

"Don't tell him that or he might hold that against me, too. Of course, you can visit him on your own, if you prefer," said her uncle, teasingly. With that option on the table, Shi'Nynze sighed and let herself be pulled along.

"So can you," muttered Shi'Nynze, annoyed. She was given a laugh in return, but it was an option she knew her uncle wouldn't take, either. Shi glanced over at Keerla helplessly, who shrugged and followed them. As used to the Zaurahels as Keerla was, she knew there was nothing she could do but go along with it.

What's In A Name

Simple though it was, it was the first extraordinary dinner Shi'Nynze had had in a long, long time - homecooked, Elven, and surrounded by family as well as friends. There were clover blossoms, nettle, an abundance of mushrooms, berries galore, and more than one type of fish. With her surprise visit, they indulged on the good feywine. Stories were traded, but the ones they cared about most were any regarding the Wand of Wonder, given they were of the Zaurahel line.

They were just as disappointed about its lack of use against the orcs, less surprised it didn't manage to slow down a Hill Giant, and were thrilled with how it was used to blind a battlefield with prismatic colors, especially knowing it was used to aid other Elves; however, Shi'Nynze had to be more careful in trying to say how, exactly, it was used, as some of her cousins, and especially her great uncle, were a little too traditional and therefore would hate the idea of human hands holding a family possession. She was as vague as she could be, relieved Branwyn had given her back the wand to prove it was still with her, but feeling slight guilt for claiming more to the actions than she otherwise would.

The chances Branwyn would ever meet any of her family, though, were slim to none. As it was, it was a Wand of Wonder. If it didn't seem to act exactly like a normal wand, able to be used by Shi with some never quite clear assistance from a mage (who she never described or confirmed was human), they didn't question it. It was a wondrous wand, after all. Normal magical rules didn't have to apply as far as they knew. Just as they didn't seem to apply to Ruavain, herself. And as it was an unpredictable wand, it wasn't like they wanted her to prove anything by using it then and there. They all knew what had happened to her father.

"The greatness of the Zaurahels lives on," said her Great Uncle Zelle, holding up his glass for a toast after hearing all the recent stories of the Wand of Wonder. "You have done well to uphold the family name, A'A’Su’Nys."

Shi'Nynze could only give an embarrassed, uncertain smile to the toast, not sure what to say, if anything, but Aolis saved her from any words, by adding, "As can be expected. We certainly wouldn't tolerate anything less, Osi'Tan. Importance of the family name and all."

"As you say, E’Su’Nys," replied Zelle, clearing his throat lightly. "I remember helping your mother with her wand centuries ago..."

Zelle started on a long, convoluted story about helping Ruavain construct her Wand of Wonder. It was his favorite, one that made it seem as though he was critical to its success (he was not), and therefore, one he repeated often. Shi'Nynze did her best not to roll her eyes at a story she'd heard more than enough times in her life, and did her best not to laugh when Aolis gave her another wink for the subtle slight he aimed towards Zelle.

The youngest brother of Xhalh and Ruavain, Zelle was the least accomplished of the three Zaurahel siblings, and the generation before them, and yet he put the most importance on the family name. It was a sticking point with Aolis, whose mother was undoubtedly one of the most famous of the Zaurahels, and yet cared the least about whether or not her children upheld the family name. Yinris might be diplomatic whenever the topic came up, but Aolis couldn't help but to poke the bear when the opportunity presented itself.

It was long past sunset, and a light argument or two later, when Shi'Nynze and Keerla managed to sneak away from the gathering. Aolis had their back, as he usually did, but also knowing he owed Shi for dragging her to dinner. He placated those at the meal as they slipped away, including Keerla's parents who joined. While Keerla had been there a few days, her visit to Haathkash was unexpected, too, and they tried to get what time they could with her before she left again.

With another bottle of feywine, and a bottle of Hammerbane's Brew, a gift from Aolis, and less surprising now knowing he'd read her letters, Shi'Nynze and Keerla made their way to the moonlit grove they used to visit when they were younger. They sat and waited in silence until they were certain they were alone. They were in the safety of Haathkash, but that didn't mean they were always safe from curious ears. Without a word, Keerla popped open the bottle of feywine and handed it to Shi'Nynze.

"You're going to have to start at the beginning," said Keerla, urging Shi to take a swig of the bottle.

"From the very beginning? That's ... a lot," replied Shi, eyeing the bottle before finally accepting the offer, taking a drink, and handing it back.

"Want me to open the Hammerbane instead?" asked Keerla with a sly grin.

"That stuff is disgusting," said Shi, making a face at the simple thought of the taste. She would never be a fan of Dwarven brews, but there was no denying it was strong. She glanced at the moon before sighing, and saying, "But we might need it by the end. Better save it until then."

As the feywine steadily passed between them, Shi'Nynze told Keerla everything that had happened since the moment she left Divaekah. Unlike others, there was no need to leave anything out. That meant no filters, no half-truths or full lies, no sugar-coating the tough parts. It meant being completely honest about her feelings, especially regarding Keldorldrin and her death. While it was clear Keerla had opinions, she kept them to herself and simply listened until Shi'Nynze talked herself back into silence. By then, the Dwarven brew had been opened.

"So let me make sure I get this straight," said Keerla, holding up her hands as she started trying to count all the main points to the story. "You made friends with a goblin and future bugbear king in order to find Ellidor's bow. You helped rescue a halfling from becoming a tutor to dragons. You go to a wedding and get threatened by a vampire queen. You traveled to The Mist, which I didn't think was real or that any sane elf would visit if it was real, moreso knowing its origins. You met a human queen who might be a werewolf. You got cursed by an evil priestess you decided to chase through the swamp. You decided to stay in the castle of a known vampire. Let me say that again: you WILLINGLY stayed at a VAMPIRE'S LAIR and somehow survived. You now have a gypsy girl under your care, in addition to your pack and your flock. You made a deal with a treant to build your own shrine to Solonor and have a vacation home in Valoris Wood. To top it all off, you fought in an epic battle between grey elves and Drow, one that included a dragon and ancient protectors of Birnham forest? Is that right?"

Shi'Nynze thought for a second before nodding, saying, "That's about right."

"Sheesh, girl, and that still doesn't cover it all. You've traveled with dwarves, gnomes, halflings, and humans. You've met swanmays, werewolves, cultist, and possible snail...things. You've meddled in human political affairs, small and large. You've also meddled in animal affairs, small and large. You've danced with gypsies and death. You actually summoned an army of Reverend Ones. You've known love and loss, AND you've justified a pincushion for my blade," said Keerla with undeniable awe. She shook her head slowly, as she continued with a slight smile, "Ruavain must be so proud of you."

"Proud of me?" repeated Shi, frowning with confusion. "But it's all been such a mess."

"Well, when you give the nitty-gritty details, yeah, but you really think her adventures were flawless?" countered Keerla, still smiling. "You've done so much in such a short amount of time. You've had adventures to counter her own. I think she definitely knew what she was doing when she gave you that wand. She knew you'd carry on her legacy. You know I'm right."

Shi'Nynze again gave the moon her attention, fuzzy as it was becoming. Feywine didn't make an elf drunk, but that Hammerbane's Brew was something else - which was the reason they drank the rancid stuff. Still, feeling at ease, she leaned back, her lips wanting to twitch into a smile, as she finally said, "Maybe."

"I'm counting that as a win," said Keerla, poking Shi's shoulder until she finally got a real smile in return.

With a content sigh, Keerla laid down next to her, shoulder to shoulder, personal space not a concern between them. It did, briefly, make Shi think of Thistle, who had no concept of personal space with her, either. The thought of how similar Thistle and Keerla could be made her smile last a few seconds longer as Keerla broached the topic she was dreading.

"I mean it, though. I'm going to make a pincushion of Keldorldrin."


"You remember what Ellidor told you after that night with the campfire?" asked Keerla, lifting herself up on her elbow to look at Shi'Nynze. The pause was long as Shi'Nynze tried to remember which campfire, and what conversation she had with her brother, that Keerla had to help her along. With patience, she said, "I know you remember. What you told me was that you and Keldorldrin somehow got ahold of some ale and decided to drink it one night."

"Don't remind me," groaned Shi, suddenly, slapping her hands over her face. "I could not stop vomiting. Just thinking about it makes me want to run into the bushes and vomit again."

"Good thing you did or who knows how far you'd have gone with him," said Keerla with light disapproval. She fell back against the ground, satisfied they were on the same page. "Remember now what your brother told you when he found out?"

"'He's going to break your heart,'" quoted Shi, trying to deepen her voice to sound more like her brother. She shook her head, before replying with a normal tone, "That's not fair. We were young and stupid back then. Of course Ellidor was right. He would have, but then, I probably would have done the same to him if we'd gotten together back then."

"And yet here you are, decades later, supposedly more mature… with a broken heart," said Keerla, bluntly, plainly, uncomfortably. Shi'Nynze shifted slightly next to her, the discomfort showing in her movement and the pause before she replied.

"Well, yes, but, I mean -," said Shi, trying to find some way to counter the claim, wanting to somehow defend the childhood friend who left her heart broken, but not knowing how.

"Shi. Stop," replied Keerla, cutting her off, already knowing what she was trying to do. She again moved so she could look straight at her. "I know you have a long history with him. I know you made good memories with him. I know that, despite everything, despite how much you hurt, you'd rather try to find a way to protect him from criticism than acknowledge what happened between you, but for at least one night, you need to stop. You can't heal if you don't face the truth of how you are feeling, if you don't stop putting others before yourself. It's not selfish to realize your needs and feelings are just as important as anyone else, okay?"

It might have been her words, it could have been the brew, it might have been all the pent-up emotions, or maybe it was a combination of all three, but that incredibly delicate facade Shi had kept up since she left Dragon Fen finally broke. It was an ugly cry, there was no way around it, but it was exactly what she needed. Keerla hugged her when she desired it, poured them more brew when it seemed like a good time for it, and helped her get out all those feelings, whether it was ranting, breaking branches, or just quiet talking.

Looking back on it later, when her head was clear of the alcohol, Shi'Nynze would be surprised by all the things she felt without realizing it. The sadness was expected, but the amount of anger she held towards Keldorldrin astonished even her. Once it was out there, it was not hard for her to find reasons for it. It was not hard for her to feel abandoned or the resentment it left. It was hard for her to forget how loud their argument was that night she came back to life, his plan and conviction so different from her own. The love and support she thought she'd return to so twisted and unrecognizable from her expectations or needs. The memories were there now, no longer to be ignored, but they had to be for her to get past them.

Shi did not yet know what that would mean for their relationship when she returned. She never truly believed it would only be a break, that they'd get back together after some time apart, but she didn't know where it left their friendship. Deep down, she knew she'd hate if they never mended it, years later, somewhere down the road, but for now, she did not want to think about it or him.

There was the uncomfortable jealousy, too, that Shi had to acknowledge. Not towards Keldorldrin, but towards her companions. It was hard to ignore the coupling and the children, so certain in their love and happiness as to settle down. Certainly not all of them, but one too many for her taste at the moment. It was also incredibly hard for her to ignore, although she certainly tried at the time, how much more in love Branwyn and Tiberius were after he had returned from the dead. How Shurkural never let Ilero out of her sight after Tiera refused his passage. May Solonor rest her soul, even Penelope and Indigo were inseparable after her brief time with death only a few years ago. All her companions who'd seen their loved one die seemed to come back to a relationship stronger than what they had before. It was a stark difference from her return to this plane of existence and the relationship she falsely believed to be strong. The bitterness on her tongue certainly lingered.

Shi'Nynze was drained by the end of the night, but she was finally on the mend. Or at least, she was on one front. She could not yet face the other strong emotions she held tight to her chest regarding her unwanted resurrection, but neither did Keerla try to force it. It was not healthy to face soul shattering pain more than once a night.

Besides, as Keerla told her through some laughter they managed to find that night, it was far more fun to bash Kel than it was to try to understand the meaning of life and death. They would save that for another night. Maybe without the Dwarven brew, though.

Show Me How To Live

"You're going to talk to him, right?" asked Keerla, as they lounged by the creek.

Aolis promised them a day where he wouldn't bug them, but in return, he strongly suggested Shi'Nynze head out to Diveakah with him tomorrow. Keerla was, of course, welcome to join them, but knowing it meant surprising Shi's parents, she opted to wait another day or two before heading back to Diveakah. That very event was why it didn't take much for Shi to agree with her uncle's suggestion. Either he'd tell her parents she was visiting the woods, or she told them and never let them know it wasn't her original plan to stop by Diveakah. It was an easy decision.

"I don't know. He deserves better," replied Shi, trying to hide the apprehension and despondency from her voice. She didn't fully succeed.

"He's been talking to your uncle a lot more since you left."

"How's that supposed to make me feel better? Uncle is a notorious flirt. If Nieven feels my uncle's ways are better suited to him, why would I want to talk to him?"

"You made damn sure he'd have a hard time forgetting you while you were gone, and apparently, your uncle's suggestions haven't helped," said Keerla with a wide grin and a wink.

Shi'Nynze only sighed in response as she tossed a pebble into the water, before saying, "It's not like I can avoid him, but I'm not sure I'm ready for…. I don't even know. What are we?"

"Friends with benefits?" offered Keerla, helpfully, with a slight wag of her eyebrows. The look Shi gave her made her laugh out loud. "Okay, okay. Well you're friends, at least. You can't deny that, right? But you both have always had this… tension between you, this dance of trying to figure out if you're something more. For the first time in your life, you don't have to worry about someone else trying to cut in."

The last part was said gently, but Shi didn't exactly know how to reply to it. It was technically true. When she didn't say anything, but still seemed willing to listen, Keerla pressed on.

"Just think about it. All your life you thought you already knew your future. It's why you teased Nieven along yet never felt comfortable getting closer. It's why anyone you've dated in the past was never serious, never for long. So much of your life was guided by that certainty you had, I don't think you ever fully realized it, but now, you can finally do what YOU want, never looking over your shoulder or second guessing your decisions. Just you, your life, your decisions. No one else to consider or worry about."

There was another pause, a longer one, this time. Keerla did not say more, already certain she'd said enough for now, but Shi only looked thoughtful. There was still that pain there lurking behind her eyes, but the tears were done falling for now.

"I'll talk to him. It's only right," said Shi, evenly. "But I promise nothing beyond that."

"You two do make a cute couple," replied Keerla with a teasing grin.

"Stop. You've been saying that since you first met him," said Shi, bumping her shoulder as she started to smile. "If what you said is true, I bet you're half the reason he can't forget me."

"I don't know what you mean," said Keerla, her grin growing bigger. "But, I've always held he was a better option for you."

"If I recall, you told me anyone was a better option for me than, well, Keldorldrin."

"Admittedly, it is a low bar, but I do have standards for you, and Nieven meets my standards."

"You have standards for me?" asked Shi, laughing.

"They can't be a pincushion, and whoever it is has to be a better option than me," said Keerla before quickly landing a peck on her cheek. It only made Shi laugh harder as she playfully pushed her away.

"You are such a flirt! You need to stop talking to my uncle, too," said Shi, laughter still in her voice as they both fell back against the ground. The bright, beautiful sun warmed their faces as they laid there listening to the birds. After numerous minutes passed, in a voice a little more solemn, Shi prompted, "I never realized that before, but you're right. It always felt… inevitable. I think that's why I waited so long before giving him a chance, because once I did, I just… felt that was it. My whole life was leading up to that moment and then what? But was I really living my life like I wanted before that? I just… don't know. He's been such a big part of it, and probably influenced more of my decisions than I ever considered, but now I'm realizing I don't even know who I am on my own."

Keerla grabbed her hand and gave it a squeeze before saying, "I know you're still working through it, but you were given a new life. You're still the Shi I love, but you have so much more potential now than you did before that mess happened. Why not use it to explore all the things you missed the first time? Live in the moment and enjoy it."

"I'm not sure I know how," said Shi, still with a trace of melancholy.

"Dance with the gypsies like no one is watching. Run through the woods with only the wolves on your heels," replied Keerla. Her lip twitched as she continued, "Flirt with the weird snail man in a vampire's castle. The sky's the limit!"

"Ew, what?" asked Shi as the laughter found her again. "Neither humans nor snails are my type, and really, a vampire's castle isn't romantic at all."

"Fine, fine," said Keerla, still snickering. "Then go visit Nieven and see where things go without worrying about what you two are right now. If you both find out you're happy with whatever your relationship is, who cares about the details of trying to define it?"

"You're just dead set on us ending up together," replied Shi, that earlier moment of sadness having passed for a better mood.

"I certainly wouldn't be upset if that happened," said Keerla, grinning. Her expression softened as she gave Shi's hand another squeeze. "But I'm not an idiot, and neither is Nieven. You're nowhere near ready for another serious relationship."

"No, I'm not," replied Shi with a small sigh.

"That doesn't mean you can't have fun, though," said Keerla, teasingly. The look Shi gave her again made her laugh, although not quite as loud. "I'm just saying, if he asks you to stay the night, seriously consider it, all right? It's made you happy in the past. Unless you think it'll splinter your heart now, you're allowed to do what will make you happy."

Shi was quiet for a second, before a small smile appeared. Nudging Keerla again, lightly, Shi said, "Seriously, you need to stop talking to my uncle."

"Do I need to stop talking to him? Or do you need to talk to him more?" asked Keerla with her biggest grin yet.

Walk Me Home

Tempting though it was to put it off, Shi'Nynze and Aolis set out for Diveakah not long after breakfast. Keerla had joined them for the meal, and seen them off, but even Shi's half-hearted attempts to convince her to come with them didn't work. Keerla was smarter than that.

To Shi's surprise, Keerla managed to convince Athras to stay with her, too. The pile of shiny trinkets and promises of showing the crow a beautiful part of Haathkash apparently was enough to win her over. In truth, Shi'Nynze was relieved. She had enough on her mind to worry about. This way Keerla and Athras could bond while Shi faced her parents. That task alone would take all her concentration.

It was a gorgeous day with the sun filtering through the canopy and the scent of wildflowers in the air. The birds sang ecstatically and the path was easy and clear. Much like the one she followed out of Birnham Wood, it was carefully crafted, meant to offer safe travel between the cities of the Lorien Woods, but hidden from the eye of non-elves and stranger elves.

They did not talk much when they first set out as they were interrupted more than Shi planned to be. It was Spring, after all, and one of the busiest times for elves. There was more trade between the cities, more families moving to visit those in a different city, and a time to prepare for any number of festivities planned. While she had lost count of the days, Shi did not believe any of the big ones were being celebrated soon, but that didn't mean there wasn't something being celebrated anyways. They were Elves, after all.

When they hadn't passed anyone after a little more time, and after her uncle guided them down a slightly less tread path used more by the Shadow Guardians, he finally asked, "How is your head, Da Fenlin?"

"It was a thoughtful gift, Osu'Tan, but I am reminded again why I do not care for Dwarven Brews. It is mostly gone, but it still lingers too long," replied Shi'Nynze, wincing slightly. "What did you trade them? Uler and Ulada are usually quite stingy."

"Beard wax," replied Aolis with a wink. Shi'Nynze raised a brow as she looked at his beardless face. It only made him laugh. "I talked Quelenna into giving me some of her leftover wax. She had some too runny for candle making. Neither of the Nar'Hahlorkh accepted it as a trade at first."

"They wanted to see you drunk?" asked Shi'Nynze, knowingly.

"Dwarves," said Aolis, shrugging. He started grinning again as he continued, "So I found some… odoriferous things to mix in with it. Once the wax smelled more like them, they seemed much more willing to trade without needing to see a drunk elf."

Shi'Nynze joined her uncle in a laugh at the story before saying, "Do I care to know how you got the wax from Quelenna?"

"She had no use for it," replied her uncle, smiling. There was plenty more left unsaid in that single statement which had Shi rolling her eyes at him. Their on and off flirting was none of her business, anyways.

It was only a short pause, before her uncle asked, a little more gently, "And how is your heart, Da Fenlin? Mending?"

"It is… getting there," replied Shi'Nynze with a sigh. She pulled on the feelings she preferred dealing with as she continued, "I realized I'm disappointed in Keldorldrin. No... I am furious with him, but it makes it easier to handle what happened between us. I am still uncertain about some of the friends I made while traveling, but I am much less angry with them."

"Anything you'd like me to know before you tell your parents?" asked Aolis, lightly.

Shi'Nynze thought for a minute, trying to decide what would benefit her best, before a thought came to her. Carefully, she asked, "You know how you often joked that mother would prefer a Drow to a human? You ...weren't really joking as much as I used to believe, were you?"

"Why ask when you know the answer?" replied her uncle, curious.

"Because now that I have met some Drow, who weren't… as bad as I expected, even if the lot of them were a bunch of cowards, I know mother is going to be absolutely irate when she finds out I died because some human didn't know their own spell. Even knowing I'd probably die, she casted it anyways!" exclaimed Shi'Nynze, suddenly and heavily. "It wasn't even my fault I died, or some heroic act or anything. It was a human being stupid and now mother is going to say she proved her point, but she's wrong, not all of them are, or at least I didn't think so, but I don't know anymore or if maybe she's right, and maybe I'm wrong, and I just don't know, Osu'Tan."

"Breathe, Da Fenlin," said her uncle, calmly, grabbing her shoulders and facing her. "One step at a time. What's this about meeting Drow?"

Shi'Nynze took a deep breath to compose herself, before saying, "We met up with the Grey Elves of Cawdor while looking for a religious artifact in Birnham Wood. They have a peace treaty with the Drow of Glamis. As it were, the artifact we were looking for had been stolen by one of the main houses of Glamis and used to wage war on Cawdor. Lady Lennox wasn't bad for Drow, I suppose, and she claimed to follow Eilistraee, but the only help she and her followers offered was to stay out of our way as we killed one of their own to restore peace. They wouldn't even do that themselves. Well, actually, based on the giant spider in the house and fake shrine to Eilistraee, I don't think MacBeth was one of their own anymore. But still, they refused to help."

"Dirth’ala na," cursed her uncle, quietly. He sighed before asking, "Now when you say we, who do you mean was with you?"

"If you've been reading my mail, you already know some of their names," said Shi before counting them out on her hand. "Branwyn and Tiberius, of course, since we were searching for that artifact as a favor to the Greek Church for bringing Tiberius back to life." Shi'Nynze winced only slightly before she continued, "Ilero was there, too. The dahn’direlan is half the reason I bothered talking to any of the Drow."

"Explain," said her uncle, simply, before she could list anyone else off.

"We got attacked by orcs, ones who might have been involved in stealing the artifact to begin with, and managed to take one hostage. They thought they could actually get the orc to talk. I knew it was pointless, but Ilero killed it before I could. He said something about not wanting me to stain my soul with murder or something," replied Shi, shifting slightly in discomfort.

"Human?" asked Aolis for clarification.

"Yes," replied Shi, frowning. He nodded for her to go on. She threw her hands up in the air, finished counting. "I don't know, and others. Indigo, and Kenna, and people I'd never met before and some I barely know, and others you wouldn't know their names. They were there."

"Did you leave Keldorldrin in Birnham or did he not come with you there?" asked Aolis, carefully.

"He refuses to leave Dragon Fen unless it's to return home with me. Permanently," said Shi, bitterly. "He's gone the way of mother, doesn't think we should mingle outside the clan anymore. He kept trying, all those years, to convince me to stop adventuring, but after what happened… Why does he have to be such a felasil, Osu'Tan? I didn't abandon him when he died. Why'd he abandon me? Why did he have to be such a masa about it when I died? I thought he cared."

"Da Fenlin," murmured her uncle, hugging her when she started to cry again.

"It hurts, Osu'Tan. It hurts so much more than coming back to life hurts," cried Shi'Nynze, trying and failing not to fall apart again.

"I'm sorry, Da Fenlin. Sometimes an elf isn't who we thought they were," said her uncle, comforting her as she cried. "I am sorry he failed you, but it sounds like you have others who have not failed you. Am I right, Da Fenlin?"

"I don't know," said Shi'Nynze, trying to wipe away the tears as she pulled away.

"It sounds like my niece isn't a murderer to start. That is good," replied Aolis with a slight smile. "And it sounded like it wasn't malice but ignorance that brought you back, is that not correct?"

"Branwyn convinced Jennevive to bring me back, thinking I'd want it since Kel did way back when, and because I think she just thought it was the right thing to do," replied Shi'Nynze, swallowing the lump in her throat. Not wanting to burst out crying again, she said, "You really should be ashamed of yourself for reading letters not addressed to you."

"I only read the ones you wrote," said her uncle, giving her another wink. "What of the gypsy girl you've mentioned? She seems important to you. How did she react?"

"Thistle?" asked Shi'Nynze to which her uncle shrugged. Then again, there wasn't any other gypsy girl he could have been referring to in his question. "She was… happy. Relieved, I think. She's been trying really hard to help me adjust, and she's… going to be really mad that I came home after telling her I wasn't going to do that."

"She is not the only one, but she is the only one that matters for the moment," commented her uncle, lightly, with an undercurrent of anger directed at another. "You are not planning to stay, are you, Da Fenlin? You don't have your pack with you."

"I don't know, Osu'Tan," said Shi'Nynze, sighing. "I will not abandon them, but am I going to return to the life I've lived the past few years? Or set myself on a different path?"

"What happened to the one who forced you on this path?" asked her uncle, delicately.

Shi'Nynze shrugged, saying, "I don't know. They left Dragon Fen. I do not know under what circumstances, but they are gone."

Aolis nodded before pointing down the path to a red flower, saying, "Shoot that, Da Fenlin."

"What?" asked Shi'Nynze, confused by the sudden change in subject. Her uncle only looked at her in wait until Shi'Nynze pulled out her bow and did as he said to do.

"As I thought," murmured her uncle before pointing to something else. "Now that one."

He picked a few different targets for her to shoot at, and without fail, she hit every one of them, even as he pointed towards things farther and farther away. While she didn't know what point he was trying to make, it did make her feel better. She'd forgotten how calming archery could be. When she was done, he held out his hand for the bow. It was quiet as he examined it, rubbing his hand along the wood and plucking the string. He gave it back after a few minutes.

"Ellidor would be disappointed if his bow stopped seeing use," said her uncle, softly. "As would your grandmother were her wand to sit and gather dust. It is clear you have grown strong with your adventures, Da Fenlin. Would you really be content to pack them both away?"

"Osu'Tan -," said Shi, but she was interrupted.

"It is something to think on, Da Fenlin. There is certainly no reason to make a decision so soon, but you inherited a restless spirit. If you decided you must keep moving, I would be at peace knowing it is with those who care about you, humans or not," said her uncle, honestly. He reached over to give her one more hug, saying, "Especially ones who let me see my niece again without having to bury her."

Shi'Nynze couldn't stop the tears again, but they were slightly happier ones than before, or at least, less full of sadness. She could almost swear, as she pulled away, that her uncle may have been crying, too. It was hard to tell as he started walking, knowing they needed to keep moving, and knowing he'd never admit to it, but his words alone made her feel better and gave her some better things to think about.


There Is Another

It was evening by the time they arrived in Diveakah, the air full of the smell of dinners cooking. They had taken their time so Shi'Nynze could prepare herself for what could easily be a long night. She was glad, though, as her uncle more or less knew the full story, and would be there to support her if it got too hard for her, again. Based already on how the day had gone, there would undoubtedly be more tears, even as she wished she'd cried them all out by now.

"Ready, Da Fenlin?" asked Aolis as they reached the door to her home. She nodded when they stood in front of it, but didn't move. He gave her less than a minute before pounding on the door himself, as she clearly wasn't going to do so, saying loudly, "Ary'Tan! You'll never guess who crossed my path!"

There was the sound of a chair scraping against wood, some annoyed muttering, and loud words as a male voice got closer to the door. "This better not be another story about one of your rendezvous, Arael'Tan."

The door opened to someone who looked identical to Aolis, except to those who knew them well. Shi'Nynze could easily tell them apart, but in that moment, the easiest way to differentiate them was their expressions. Whereas her uncle was leaning against the wall with a grin, her father was torn between shock and disbelief.

"Ara da’ean," whispered Yinris. There was no hesitation as he pulled her to him for the biggest hug she had received yet.

"Babae," whispered Shi'Nynze, hugging him back, tight.

There were tears, but these were ones Shi'Nynze was not worried about shedding nor was her father ashamed of the ones he shed, either. He eventually pulled away some, wiping away the streaks down her cheeks, as he said, "I did not know you were coming home, ara da'ean. Is it just you?"

"Already with the questions. It is only us, but our stomachs are very empty, Ary'Tan," interrupted Aolis, slipping past them inside the house. "We should fill them first before you query Da Fenlin anymore."

"Mudfish stew tonight. Your favorite, Arael'Tan," replied Yinris, giving Shi'Nynze a wink as he led her inside. Mudfish was an acquired taste, one Ruavain had apparently been a fan of, and therefore one the twins ate far too much of growing up, but it was clear from the smells coming from the kitchen that mudfish wasn't on the menu, and in truth, likely never would be.

"My nose still works," said Aolis, tapping the side of his nose in emphasis.

"It is clearly the only thing that still does, then," replied Yinris with a teasing smile.

"One of two things," said Aolis, wagging his eyebrows. Yinris shook his head and rolled his eyes while Shi stifled a giggle. She forgot how much she enjoyed their banter, but more than that, she appreciated how much the mood had already lightened. While it came natural to them, she was certain some was purposeful by her uncle as he then shouted towards the back of the house, "Where's my favorite lethal'lan? She'll want to hear this captivating story, too!"

"Vara, Felassan," said a feminine voice a room or two away.

"You can't still be mad at me, lethal'lan!" exclaimed Aolis, grinning. "I didn't think you'd be that upset about Ashalle."

"Pala adahl’en," replied the familiar voice, casually.

Shi'Nynze clapped her hand on her mouth with surprise, trying hard not to laugh as she shot her uncle a questioning expression. It wasn't a phrase her mother used often, or at least, not in front of her daughter. He simply shrugged, having heard it far more than Shi'Nynze would ever know, as he was never quite able to stop himself from purposefully making Lorahana mad at him.

Yinris lightly cleared his throat, saying, "Ara sal’shiral, you will want to hear this one."

"Doubtful," said Lorahana with a loud sigh. Still, it was soon followed by the sound of a book closing, footsteps, and a gasp when she rounded the corner into view. "Ara vhen'an."

"Savh, mamae," said Shi'Nynze, apprehensively with a small smile.

"Asha'lan. Ara vhen'an," cried her mother as she rushed over to hug and kiss her. It did not last long as she started looking over her daughter, smoothing her hair, wiping away dirt, and all sorts of frantic motherly actions while murmuring those words over and over again, making Shi feel very much like a child.

"Mamae!" exclaimed Shi'Nynze in protest, pulling away. It was just enough for her mother to pause and collect herself.

In a calmer manner, but unable to completely stop, she tucked a loose piece of hair back into her daughter's braid as she asked with concern, "Th'ea, ara vhen'an?"

Instead of replying, already close to breaking down once more, Shi'Nynze gave her mother a big hug, whispering, "I missed you, mamae."

It felt as if her mother would never let her go. When she finally did, Shi caught sight of some quiet conversation between her father and uncle, but she couldn't decipher or figure it out, especially as her mother quickly grabbed her attention back, by saying, "Iovro’shan has already filled your room with all his junk. You can stay here in your old room until you're ready to move back in with your grandfather. It will take time for him to clean up, anyways."

"Oh, no, mamae," replied Shi'Nynze, hesitating. "I...I'm only visiting. I left the wolves behind and I made a deal with a treant… But I was already nearby, and I needed to come home for a bit. I can't stay for long, I mean, not yet, but…"

"What do you mean, asha'lan?" asked her mother, confused and unhappy.

Shi was saved from answering by her father, who put a hand on Lorahana's shoulder, saying, "We would still like you to stay here while you visit, ara da'ean. Why don't you settle in and clean up while we get dinner ready?"

Shi'Nynze gave him a nod and made her way back to her childhood room. She hated the look her mother had just given her, as if she'd broken her heart all over again, but she knew worse could possibly still come. Even then, as she reached her old room and set her stuff down, she did not regret her decision to come home. At least she'd get more time with her parents by staying with them.

As was common with Elven settlements, space was limited as homes were not simply built by clearing land, but by working with the trees. Living in Nightingale Nest, one of the oldest neighborhoods, meant more constraints. Her family was lucky to have three homes within it. Once she was old enough to move out, she moved in with her grandfather. It had been a great arrangement for her as he rarely left his workshop, so it was as if it was her own home, but right now, she much preferred being back in the house she grew up in. After taking a moment to collect herself after putting her limited stuff away and washing her face, she made her way back to something also familiar: an oft-heard argument.

"When are you going to let her grow up? If she wants to keep adventuring, she's going to keep adventuring. You only make things more difficult for her," said Aolis, annoyed. It might have been harder to tell the twins apart by voice alone, but the tone, and the familiar and vocal disagreement, was much more characteristic of her uncle.

"If you stopped putting ideas in her head maybe she'd finally settle down," replied her mother with the slightest growl in her voice.

"I'm no more guilty of putting ideas in her head than my mother was," said Aolis, his frustration leaking out. "She was just born with a restless spirit. I'm being supportive whereas you -,"

It was then that Shi could see she guessed right as to who was arguing, as well as when her father glanced over at her entrance. Rather than let them keep going, he said, calmly, "Let's eat before it gets as cold as this bickering is about to be."

While it was a simple dinner, especially considering it wasn't planned for her return, it was a delicious one. The ramp and cheddar stew was served with sauteed greens (dandelion, henbit, and plantain for tonight) and sprinkled with an assortment of roasted seeds (tasted like maple and some acorns from storage). A bowl of early spring berries (mulberry and strawberry) topped with honey served as dessert. Her mother even let her use the little bottle of lyre-leaf greeneye seasoning on it. Shi'Nynze couldn't remember the last time she'd had any.

Thankfully, Shi'Nynze was able to enjoy the meal as her parents didn't ask her questions, although it was clear her mother was waiting. Instead, her uncle easily found other topics of conversation. It wasn't without her input completely, but it was still the easier stories to tell.

"Uncle Zelle says hello. I'm sure you're upset about missing that dinner," said Aolis, giving his brother a wink. "We only argued twice this time."

Yinris chuckled, asking, "You couldn't avoid him?"

"Da Fenlin wanted to surprise you. It was easier to meet her in Haathkash from where she was coming from, and you know Uncle Zelle would have been upset and offended if he found out she was there and never intended to say hello," said Aolis, casually, both covering for her and lightly admonishing her for her earlier desires to keep her visit secret from all but Keerla. Before anyone could ask where, exactly, she had come from, Aolis continued, "At least she is still on his good side. It'll be fun to hear what rumors he starts to spread from her stories."

"Oh?" prompted Yinris, glancing between the two, unsure who would answer.

"A fanciful encounter where ten Hill Giants were slowed, possibly by mud or simple magic from mother's wand. A field of orcs obliterated by some as of yet undefined means. Uncle Zelle would never admit to failures. Now flooding an Elven battlefield with prismatic light and summoning Reverend Ones? No reason to change that one. It might be his new favorite story, which is fair," said Aolis, casually, looking at Shi to let her fill in.

"Birnham Wood. Cawdor and Glamis had a… disagreement. Grandma's wand help. They're working on a new peace treaty now," said Shi'Nynze with some uncertainty.

There was a chance her father knew the places, but he gave no indication beyond a nod, as he instead asked, "Is that where you were last?"

"Yes, although I did not get to spend as much time there as I wished," said Shi'Nynze with a touch of disappointment. "Those grey elves were… different."

"They all are," commented her father with a smile. By now, it was clear there was something she was hiding, or building up to, so he took the hint and stuck with the easier topic at hand. He knew she'd get there eventually. "What other rumors will Uncle Zelle be starting about you?"

"Just those," replied Shi with a slight shrug. "We never had a chance to use the wand against the orcs, and the Hill Giant felt nothing, but those were the only times it seemed like grandma's wand would be of great asset. I'm not going to just use it all the time like Great Uncle Zelle wants me to do."

"And yet he still likes you more than me for some reason," commented Aolis with another wink. He succeeded in getting a laugh, but Shi still fell quiet not long after. Turning towards his brother, he prompted, "She doesn't know the big news."

There was a very tangible pause from her father as if he wasn't certain it was the right time. The glance he exchanged with her mother only made her more curious. Whatever silent discussion they were having went right over her head.

"Not that news. Not yet," interrupted her uncle, hurriedly. "Council."

"Oh," replied her father with discernible relief. It only piqued her curiosity more as it became clear she wasn't the only one hiding something at the moment. "It's… not that big of a deal."

"Your father has finally started the process of becoming an Elder on the Lorien Council," said her mother with obvious pride. "It is a very big deal, ara lath."

"Really, babae? That's so exciting!" said Shi, earnestly.

It was the first genuinely happy smile Yinris had spotted on his daughter's face so far that evening. That alone made him unable to brush it off as if it was nothing. Wanting to keep that smile there as long as he could, he indulged her questions and told her all he was doing to strengthen his case for becoming an elder on the council. No small feat, especially at his younger age, but one his family had been pushing him towards, one his daughter in particular kept telling him he needed to do, until he finally decided it was time.

Shi'Nynze managed to make it through dinner and cleaning up on the smaller stories of her adventures in exchange for stories from her parents: choir practice, political meetings, and all the small stuff in-between. She was testing her mother's patience, but it was difficult to find the courage to tell them why, exactly, she needed to come home. While her father would easily have given her days, her mother only gave her until the end of dinner.

"Ara vhen'an, when will you tell us what's troubling you?" asked her mother, as she sat down next to her daughter on the couch. She gently took one of her hands in comfort. "You are not hiding it well."

Shi'Nynze bit the inside of her cheek, glancing at her uncle sitting backwards on a nearby chair for any help he could give, but was only given a small, sad smile, as he said, "Sometimes you must rip it up by the roots, Da Fenlin."

Knowing she couldn't put it off any longer, Shi took a big breath and closed her eyes. Even as her father sat next to her, she kept her eyes closed, knowing she did not want to see their reactions. She replied, with quiet difficulty, "We were heading to an abandoned church to clear out some undead who'd taken it over. We never got that far. There were griffons on the way and one of them grabbed me… next thing I know, someone casted lightning and then… I could hear them, mamae and babae. I could hear Ellidor and I'osu, trying to guide me to… but they didn't give me a chance. They didn't ask if I wanted to come back. I didn't… I could hear them. I could hear them so clearly and they took that away from me."

"Atish’an, asha'lan," said her mother, gently, hugging her tight when Shi'Nynze found herself unable to speak through the tears.

"Suil Annui, erio thûl lín i faer hen," murmured her father as he reached over to comfort her and rub her back. It was an old, archaic prayer of healing, but a soothing one full of old memories.

"I'm sorry," whispered Shi'Nynze when she looked back up, but couldn't stop crying.

"Din, ir abelas, ma vhenan. You should not have to burden such pain," replied her mother, caringly, giving her a kiss on the head.

"Do not be sorry, ara da'ean. We could never be upset that you are here with us," added her father in reassurance. "We are always here for you."

"Melana ‘nehn enasal ir sa lethalin," sang her mother, softly. It was the last verse of a song about enduring and emerging from sorrow, and while it did quiet Shi's tears, it also reminded her of her other loss.

Shi wasn't looking at anything in particular as she whispered, miserably, "I can't sing anymore, mamae. My voice is gone."

"We will find the music for you," replied her mother, quietly, confidently.

Shi'Nynze took a shuddering breath and pulled away some, wiping at her eyes. She felt so worn down, as if everything had piled onto this single moment. It didn't help when her uncle carefully said, "Do not leave behind any pieces of root or the weeds may return. Best to get it all out now, Da Fenlin."

"There is more?" asked her mother with concern.

Her uncle made a tsking noise, his displeasure obvious, as he replied, "If we'd also like to address the dahn’direlan who was with her and ended up breaking her heart, among other things, yes."

"Kel?" asked her father for clarification.

"Keldorldrin," said Shi with automatic correction and a nod. Her father took the hint, but now her parents were looking at her for more explanation. She sighed, but at least she had that seed of anger to draw upon as she continued, "They thought… they thought I'd want to come back for him as he had come back for me, but when I returned… He was delusional. He thought it was a sign and we should go search for Arvanaith… We fought that night. He kept saying we needed to leave. He finally conceded that we needed to come back to Divaekah first, but I wasn't… I needed love and support, but that isn't what I returned to. He finally told me he was done, and the only place he'd go with me is home, but that was it. I couldn't… I thought he loved me. I thought he cared, but to return to that… Why? Why couldn't he support me like I did for him when he came back?"

"Such tragedy can show an elf at their best and at their worst," replied her mother with a light sigh at memories past. "It is never easy, but to know an elf at their worst is to know if they are to continue to be in your life or not."

"Did he at least accompany you to Haathkash?" asked her father, mildly.

"No," replied Shi, shaking her head with weariness. "We were only to go to Loosend. We ended up in Birnham Wood to find a missing artifact. But still… he would not even go to Loosend with me. He will not know I came home until the others deliver my letter to him."

"It is for the best," stated her mother, simply, and unless Shi was imagining it, with an undercurrent of satisfaction, too. It would not have surprised her considering her mother was accepting of Kel at best, but much like Keerla, believed she could do better.

Now that it was all out in the open, her parents started to carefully and gently ask her questions. They wanted specifics, where she was comfortable telling them, but they also wanted details of some of the other stories and people she'd mentioned. Her mother, predictably, was not happy hearing of all the human involvement, but with exception to the expressions she made, she could put it aside for now and focus on giving her daughter comfort. Her father, meanwhile, simply wanted a better picture of things: from the people she knew and traveled with to the places she had gone.

At some point her uncle made some tea and brought it over. Neither of her parents had left her side, but having heard or read most of her troubles, Aolis didn't mind being quiet and listening. Of course, he did at times speak up when he felt it was needed such as when a question felt too invasive or it was clear Shi'Nynze didn't want to talk about something specifically anymore. It was one of those times she realized how much she truly appreciated her uncle.

It was a long night of talking, but it left her spirit feeling lighter. After yet another yawn, her mother gently said, "You are exhausted, asha'lan. I think we should call it a night."

"No," said her uncle abruptly. It woke Shi'Nynze some, but he was once again looking at her mother, already knowing where the argument was going to start. "Not yet. Tell her tonight."

"It will be too much. Let her mend first," replied her mother, protectively. She hugged Shi close, but it only made Shi much more curious as to what the argument was about.

"Tell me what, mamae?" asked Shi, interested.

"Nothing, ara vhen'an. Why don't you go to bed? We can talk in the morning," said her mother, but her uncle again spoke up before Shi could even try to move off the couch.

"You do her a disservice, Lorahana. It will be easiest if you just tell her tonight. She is much stronger than you give her credit for," interrupted Aolis, frowning. He glanced at his brother for any backup only to see Yinris had his attention on his daughter.

"It is not bad news. It is just… shocking," said her father, calmly, quietly as Shi looked at him with wary curiosity. He gave a sigh, glancing at his unhappy wife, before continuing, "We did not know until you were gone, ara da’ean, and is it not something to tell you with written word. They wanted to tell us after his mission, but with your brother's passing… Meira wanted to do what was best and waited until it was the right time to tell us."

"Tell you what?" asked Shi with confused concern.

Her parents exchanged another look, in which her mother took her hand to hold, before her father replied, carefully, "About your niece, Elindra. It was one of the names your brother picked out if it was to be a girl. After all that happened, Meira thought it a perfect one to honor him and his wishes. Elindra, his daughter, was born just over a year after his passing."

"His daughter?" repeated Shi, slowly. The words were not sinking in. "He had… Ellidor and Meira… he has a child?"

"With Ellidor gone, Meira wanted to wait until she was certain Elindra was coming along well before she told us about her pregnancy. She did not want us to potentially endure another loss. It was… difficult, for all of us, waiting to see if Ellidor's child would come into this world to stay," replied her father, softly.

"But mother and child are both doing well," interrupted her mother, gently, giving Shi's hand another squeeze. "Meira had little trouble at birth, and Elindra was born with an abundance of health. She has her hair and his eyes. If you want to go meet Elindra -,"

"No," replied Shi, suddenly. She put her hands on her face, shaking her head slightly, as she continued, "I'm not… I'm not ready for that. Ellidor has… a child. I never thought…"

"Take what time you need, ara da'ean. It was hard for us to comprehend, too. When you are ready, I am certain Meira and Elindra will be happy to see you," said her father with a small smile and a hand on her shoulder. A silence followed until her mother thought it best to break it.

"Unless there are more objections," said her mother with brief fierceness, pausing and continuing only when no one else spoke up, "I think we should finally call it a night."

Shi'Nynze stood up, a new weariness now weighing her down, looking forward to her bed and a moment of quiet to think by herself. Before she got too far, her uncle gave her a hug, whispering, "You did well, Da Fenlin. I'll be in town as long as you are if you need anything."

"Thank you, Osu'Tan," whispered Shi, hugging him back. "Maybe I even appreciate you being a nosy busybody, but it's still too early to tell."

Her uncle gave her a laugh and a kiss on her head before letting her go. Shi finished bidding her parents goodnight as well and made her way to her room. There was still quiet talking as she left, but it was hard to concentrate on, especially once she laid down. A pair of footsteps could be heard passing down the hall. Elsewhere two similar sounding voices carried on a conversation that was getting farther and farther away until she fell into a sweet, deep, and welcomed reverie.

Old Bear and the Fourth Wall

Understandably thrilled to have their daughter home, Shi'Nynze was greeted by the most irresistible breakfast to date. Both her parents were up and about before she finally decided to leave her bed, and based on what was in the kitchen, put in what effort they could to make her feel loved. If there was one thing Shi'Nynze had noticed in her travels, it was the universal language of food. It was one of the easiest ways to tell someone how you felt about them. From the fresh fruits and syrups to the hot nut bread, the message of their love was loud and clear.

"Did you have a good rest, ara vhen'an?" asked her mother, handing her a plate of food with a little bit of everything. Usually, Elven portions were much more reasonable than the places Shi had eaten outside The Wildlands, but apparently breakfast was going to be an exception.

"Yes, mamae," replied Shi, staring at the pile of food. Rather than figure out if she could even eat it all, Shi gave her mother a kiss of thanks before sitting at the table.

"Have you any plans for the day?" asked her mother as she joined her at the table. There was a note of caution, which became more prominent as she continued, "I am going to bring Meira and Elindra some lunch."

There was the slightest pause, and perhaps a hint of hope from her mother that Shi'Nynze would already be ready to meet her niece after a good rest, but Shi'Nynze lightly shook her head, saying softly, "Not yet, mamae."

"There is no rush, ara da'ean," said her father. He put a hand on her shoulder and gave her a good morning kiss on the head before sitting down with his food. "I need to check on O'Su today. Perhaps you'd like to join me?"

"I would like that," replied Shi, smiling at the thought of seeing her grandfather. "What has Iovro’shan been up to lately?"

"Forgetting to eat, forgetting to sleep, forgetting the existence outside his house," replied her father with a slight chuckle. "If you mean his projects, you will have to ask him. A coherent answer is still difficult to get from him."

"So same as usual," said Shi with a grin.

"He has become more interested in improving locks recently which frustrates Aolis to no end, but that is not unexpected of O'Su, either," said her father, smiling and shaking his head.

"They are not normal locks, are they?" asked Shi'Nynze, already certain of the answer.

"No," replied her father, still smiling.

The homes that had been passed down in the family all resided within the same neighborhood. It was therefore barely much of a walk to reach her grandfather's residence. From the outside, it looked exactly as Shi'Nynze remembered before she left, but she noted the lock as her father pointed it out to her. There was no doubt it was recently replaced. While most Elves barely bothered using a lock as it wasn't needed, her grandfather was a little more paranoid and protective of his space and his inventions. It didn't help that he couldn't necessarily hear well, or perhaps he preferred ignoring potential interruptions, as knocking got them nowhere.

"He replaces these locks much too regularly. First is seeing how much of this is an ordinary lock," prompted her father when they reached the front door. He put his hand on the door, the sound of clicking revealing at minimum some mechanism his magic was able to manipulate. "This is too simple."

"What do you mean, babae?" asked Shi'Nynze as he stared at the door in thought.

"He did a different lock similar to this one a few months ago. It might be a modification of that one," replied her father, more in thought than an answer to her question.

With careful fingers, he felt around the door handle until a small piece of metal fell loose. That piece in turn was used to open a small compartment. Shi'Nynze could see another compartment inside already opened, possibly by her father's magic, and some wooden pieces inside. The whole thing was a small, complicated puzzle of moving this and that until finally, with far more patience than Shi'Nynze would have had, her father managed to open the door.

"Va! You have a visitor!" called her father into the seemingly empty residence.

There was no reply, to which her father looked at her with a smile and shake of his head, before going deeper into the house. Shi'Nynze briefly spotted her old room where various pieces of wood, metal, and mechanisms littered the floor. The clutter was worse at the back of the house. After carefully shifting a path, her father knocked and opened the door to the workshop.

"Va! You have a visitor!" repeated her father to the silver-hair elf hunched over his desk tinkering on something Shi'Nynze couldn't see.

Ievos simply lifted a hand, not bothering to turn around, and waved them off, saying, "I don't need the help. Send them away."

"I am not sending your A’E’Sum away, Va," said her father with infinite patience. "Will you not do her the courtesy of greeting her?"

"I am in the middle of something very important, E'Sum. Come back later," replied Ievos with rivaling impatience.

"Va," repeated her father, simply. He was given a sigh before Ievos set his tools down and finally turned around to face them.

"Eh? Finally left your room, A'E'Sum?" asked Ievos upon spotting her. He looked just as she expected, except for perhaps slightly more unkempt hair and a new pair of magnifying glasses perched on his head. His clothing had seen better days, too.

"I haven't been home for a few years, U'Osu," replied Shi'Nynze with a gentle smile.

Her grandfather paused in slight confusion before asking, "You were not ignoring me?"

"I missed you, too, Iovro’shan," said Shi as she gave him a hug and kiss. He returned it without pause, and seemed to gain new energy as his focus turned to a different project.

"Ah, good, good, good. Now you can tell me if one of these will work?" asked her grandfather, standing up and rummaging around in one of his piles of stuff. He pulled out two different feline prosthetics for her to examine. "I do not have time to test them myself."

"For Arnn?" asked Shi with excitement. She was given a nod. "Thank you, U'Osu! I have not seen Arnn yet, but I will let you know!"

"A success, then," noted her grandfather with a small smile at seeing the happiness of his granddaughter.

"Have you eaten or rested recently, Va?" prompted her father, lightly, as Shi'Nynze looked over the gorgeously made fake limbs.

"Bah! Always the same questions," replied her grandfather, grumbling. His stomach did the same.

It prompted a smile from Yinris, as he said, "I will go cook you something while you two catch up. Shi'Nynze has not seen some of your latest inventions. What were you working on last?"

"Ah! Yes, over here. No, wait, over there? Hmm, I put it… oh, right here," said her grandfather, leading Shi'Nynze around trying to find what he wanted to show her while her father slipped away.

There were many different projects, shown in no particular order, that were new to Shi'Nynze, and a few that were just improvements on ones she'd seen before. They ranged from simple tools meant to speed up certain tasks such as picking acorns, planting flowers, or removing seeds from fruit to more complicated contraptions. There were also the unusual ones such as the attempts to find a way to tell time without needing the sun, magnifying glasses that went beyond any normal strength needed for detailed work, and attempts at possible flying machines without the use of gems. Her favorites were the ones that served little purpose than to bring about joy. When she spotted the small collection of beautifully crafted wood boxes, only to hear music upon opening them, she instantly fell in love.

"What are these, U'Osu?" asked Shi'Nynze, fascinated by the box with the dancing elf and the familiar, beautiful music that came out of it.

The elf was just a picture on the back of the box, but it moved almost seamlessly as if watching a real one dancing. That alone would be impressive if it were magic, but it was more so knowing there was no magic involved. Unlike so many other Elven inventors, her grandfather was far more interested in knowing what could be created without magic.

"A merchant once brought some sad, sad prototypes of boxed music to market. Good idea, bad execution. It needed many improvements. Ruavain loved dancing to this song," stated her grandfather, matter-of-factly.

"How does it work?" asked Shi'Nynze, unable to understand just by looking at it. The only thing that did make more sense was how the elf did have some resemblance to her grandmother, but it was not obvious until he pointed it out.

Without a word, he picked up the little box and brought it back to the workshop. His steady hands gently pulled it apart to show her all the pieces. The music came from bits of metal cut and dotted in a pattern, pieces of string strung just so, and a tinkling bell, but it was not something she could understand. Together, all those little components had created music like a miniature orchestra. What was slightly easier to understand was the moving elf. She could see that the elf was a series of drawings on wood, although a bit crude, but somehow timed perfectly to switch between them to mimic movement. Very carefully, Shi'Nynze picked up the drawings to study.

"May I work on this, U'Osu?" asked Shi'Nynze as she examined it critically.

"Yinris will yell at us," replied Ievos, handing her his set of paints.

Shi'Nynze gave him a smile, and was given one in return, as she went to work. While Ievos resumed his earlier tinkering, Shi'Nynze did what she could to fix the paintings. There were not many of them, and the base was already there, but a little detail went a long way. Contrary to the prediction, when Yinris spotted the two of them busy on their projects, he decided to give them a little extra time before calling them to lunch. Shi'Nynze did not know how much time did end up passing when there was soft knocking on the door.

"You do need to eat, Va," prompted Yinris, lightly.

"It is almost… and then that goes here, and this there, and, ah! There. Let us see, A'E'Sum," said Ievos, ignoring his son and holding up the music box for Shi'Nynze to watch. He wound it up, and soon an elf looking much more like her grandmother started to dance to the music. Wearing a reminiscent smile, he said, "She was a good dancer."

"O'Si and Aolis used to dance all over the living room whenever they got the chance," added her father, quietly, as he watched the improved music box.

"And you would play your songs to their beat," said Ievos, finding a moment of clarity in memories of the past. "How is the music, E'Sum?"

"It still sounds as it should," replied Yinris after listening for a moment. Back again in the present, he prompted, "But it is time to eat, Va. You, too, ara da'ean."

Yinris did not give them a chance to find a new project to work on as he shepherded them out of the workshop and to the dining room table. Very similar to breakfast, there was far more food than Shi'Nynze was used to eating laid out, but it became clear it was for her grandfather's benefit. With his tendency to skip meals, her father tried to get him to eat more to help carry him through the day. Some of it, too, such as the bread, would last a few extra days and could be left in his workshop for him to snack on later.

Whether still stuck in the past, or from something else, after they all grabbed food and settled down to eat, Ievos, looking directly at Shi'Nynze, asked, "How is Ruavain?"

"She left for Arvanaith, Va. Remember?" replied Yinris, gently. It was not the first time he had to remind his sometimes forgetful father.

Instead, Ievos shook his head, still looking at Shi'Nynze, as he said, "No. You have talked to her recently, Ardavanshee. I can tell when melamin has been nearby."

Slightly startled by the claim, Shi'Nynze exchanged a look with her father, before quietly replying, "Ellidor is with her now, U'Osu."

"Ah! Good. She has more company. She adores her E’A’Sum just as much as she adores you," said her grandfather, nodding with satisfaction. He paused his nodding to give Shi'Nynze one more look, almost of scrutiny, as he added, "But you finish your adventures first, Ardavanshee. Do not rush off to hers yet. You know it is not time. She told you as much."

With that, Ievos resumed eating as if they'd had a completely normal conversation. There was no explanation for his sometimes eerie sixth sense. While this wasn't the first time he'd casually remarked on events he should not have known about, it was still rare enough to leave her slightly unsettled. It was less due to her grandfather's intuition than it was that, for once, his instinctive remarks were directed at her.

In a familiar pattern, the exhaustion started to catch up to her grandfather not long after the filling lunch. He was not allowed to try to ward it off by going back to his projects as her father wouldn't let him. Sometimes it was distracting Ievos with conversation, or chores like helping with cleaning the dishes, and sometimes it was physically preventing him from re-entering his workshop. Thankfully, Yinris had his daughter with him, and conversation with Shi'Nynze was enough to keep Ievos from trying to return to his workshop. She told him of some of her adventures, plenty about any interesting contraptions she'd seen during her time away, and a little about her companions until he couldn't stop yawning.

"Tell that dwarf you want to visit his home. They have all sorts of interesting ideas," said her grandfather with another yawn. "And let me see that spyglass. I'm sure it needs improvement."

"I can try to explain it's construction to you later after you rest, Iovro’shan," replied Shi'Nynze, as she stood up with him and started leading him to his bed. "I will be home for sometime."

"Good, good," said her grandfather, nodding. He took off his magnifying glasses and sat on the edge of his bed, giving her that same look of scrutiny. "You think about what Ruavain told you."

"I will, U'Osu. Have a good rest," replied Shi'Nynze, softly, giving him a kiss on the head.

After closing the door, she put her ear to it until she was satisfied to hear the sound of heavier breathing. It may have been her father who'd been checking up on Ievos while she was gone, but it was a routine Shi'Nynze had been familiar with from when she'd lived with her grandfather. She was given a smile of appreciation by her father although they did not talk until they left. It was not worth the risk of waking up the old bear now that he was finally resting.

"What is it, ara da'ean?" prompted her father once they left the house. The thoughtful and uncertain expression she wore was the same she'd had during lunch.

"I don't know what I'Osu and Ellidor said to me," replied Shi'Nynze with confusion and undeniable sorrow. "I thought I knew, but… I don't know, babae."

Without a word, her father found a bench. He sat down, patting the spot beside him, which Shi'Nynze took without hesitation. It was quiet as he stared at the canopy, putting his words together as Shi'Nynze again started to spiral.

With measured calm and comfort, he finally said, "I cannot recall a time where O'Su was wrong with his intuition, but he does not mean for his words to cause you misery."

"So U'Osu was telling the truth? I'Osu told me to stay here?" asked Shi'Nynze, uneasily.

"Only you can know that, ara da'ean," replied her father, shaking his head. He briefly closed his eyes, the first subtle sign that Shi'Nynze could see of the pain her father was feeling as a result of her own. Still, he kept it out of his voice, as he continued, "But if O'Si, or any of us, thought you could return with no harm to your soul, that it was not yet your fate to go to Avarnaith, do you not think we'd do the same? To try to encourage you to stay?"

"But how could you possibly know if it was fate or not, babae?" asked Shi'Nynze with frustrated skepticism. She did not have the control her father exhibited, and he could easily hear the agitation his words were causing her.

There was another pause as Yinris attempted to steer her to steadier waters, but it was to her confusion, still, as he patiently prompted, "Why do you think we wanted you to become a priestess, ara da'ean?"

While it felt like a change of topics, Shi'Nynze tried to calm herself before responding. She couldn't hide her annoyance, although it related to her answer, as she replied, "Because it was the next best thing to being a Shadow Guardian which I was never going to be able to do."

"You have a good eye, da'assan. It would have been hard, but it would not have been impossible," said Yinris, soothingly. With a small smile at her look of suspicion and surprise, he continued, "But why a priestess, instead? Would we not have been happier if you had simply honed your voice, tuned your instruments, focused on music? Or become a mage, like so many in the family, who may have chosen to remain here to study? Why encourage priesthood when they are the ones who tend to leave? A trade that would take you away from us? Why encourage it when we knew that would likely happen?"

Shi'Nynze thought of those times Ruavain tried to get her to follow the path of a mage, just like her, just like her father, just like a long list of other elves in her family tree, and all those times her brother and uncle would take her into the nearby glade to practice her archery. As much as magic fascinated her, those who wielded it had to choose it over all else, to focus on learning spells over shooting arrows. With that thought in mind, she finally replied, "I would not have been content doing anything else."

"It is more than that, ara da'ean. We have noticed since the day you were born. The gods have had their eye on you. What protection could we offer you but that of another god?" said Yinris as he looked over at Shi. There was a surprising trace of weariness in his eyes, yet another subtle sign of the empathetic strain he felt for her situation.

"What?" asked Shi, confused. "You almost sound like…" She shook her head, the name Ilero leaving her thoughts as she focused on the conversation. Her father, in turn, sighed, his attention back on the canopy above their heads and the light filtering through it.

"Most of us are born into this world as hardly a ripple in the pond. We exist, living our lives as we wish, with hardly a footprint left on the world at large to mark our name. But every so often someone like you is born into this world, with the eyes of the gods watching and influencing your every move. What defense can one give you, but to beg the favor of a god to protect you? What were we to do, ara da'ean, but persuade you to join the priesthood?" asked Yinris, thoughtfully.

As serious as he sounded, Shi could feel a seed of bitterness. Trying to hide her exasperated sigh, she replied, "Perhaps you are reading too much, babae. If any of that were true, I wouldn't have…" Died. The word was right there, but she still didn't like using it.

"You are here now, ara da'ean. As they wished for you to be," said Yinris with a slight smile. He laughed as he caught an expression he'd seen from her a few times in his life. "No, I did not get hit too hard in the head by your grandmother's wand."

"I am not sure about that," muttered Shi with disbelief. "Besides, I made the decision myself to come home. That was not the will of another. While Solonor has granted me skill, I refuse to believe any gods influence my life. It is an easy way to drive one crazy."

"Let me try again, ara da'ean. You say your friend brought you back against your will? Perhaps the gods nudged her to do so. You say this visit was unplanned, but perhaps they finally saw their chance to persuade you to come home. I believe that you have your own will, yes, but I also believe that your life as a whole is not without influence from something higher. The stories you have already told me of your travels are proof enough that something more is at work."

"I have never taken you to be very religious, babae."

"May Solonor continue to bless us with his bounty," replied Yinris, his smile never disappearing. "But not particularly, no; however, your grandmother was convinced of the same. She believed there was more to her life, too, and she claimed to feel the same whenever she was around you. Call it fate, or intuition, but like your grandfather, I believe she was right."

"She did?" asked Shi, surprised.

"As you say, ara da'ean, do not let such thoughts drive you crazy. But I do believe the gods are looking out for you, and from what I have heard, I do think they want what is best for you. Perhaps they cannot stop death, but they can bring you back from it if they thought it was not yet time. They can bring you home if it is what you need to heal. The gods were watching mother, and she lived a good life. I believe the same for you."

Shi'Nynze let her head drop to rest on his shoulder as she said quietly, "I don't know how to feel about that, babae."

"You do not need to know right now, ara da'ean. You know better than me that you cannot rush one's healing," replied her father, wrapping an arm around her shoulders.

After another pause, Shi'Nynze asked, "You made the music for that box?"

"O'Su wanted that specific song. We had to figure out how to do it justice with the limitations of that contraption. I think it worked out well, don't you?" replied her father, contently.

Although Shi nodded, she followed it up by whispering, dismally, "I wish I could sing again."

"Aolis is right. We asked too much of you last night, but when you are ready to talk about it, I know your mother is waiting to help you. Neither of us believe it is to be lost forever, ara da'ean. You would not be ara da'ean if I did not think you could overcome this," said her father with warmth and confidence.

They did not speak after that statement as Shi'Nynze took what comfort she could from her father's embrace. Meanwhile, he savored a moment he understood was almost denied of him. It was a sobering thought to both and did not truly hit either of them until that moment.

Without moving, Shi'Nynze finally said, quietly, "I'm glad I came home."

"I am, too. Amin mela lle, ara da'fenor'ean," replied her father, tightening his hug and giving her a kiss on the head.

"Ar lath, babae," said Shi, returning both.

They enjoyed the moment for a little longer before deciding to head home. With her father's words in her ears, Shi'Nynze knew what she wanted to tackle next to help heal her soul. The sooner she addressed the bigger wounds, reluctant though she was to provoke them, the faster they would heal. Luckily she was surrounded by those who knew exactly how to help her.

Songs of the Soul

Although Shi'Nynze was determined to find a way to heal her voice, it still took far more courage than anything else she had done lately. When they returned from visiting her grandfather, her mother seemed almost expectant of an improvement of some sort regarding her daughter's troubles. Instead, what little they had to tell her of their visit was hardly news to her. It had been, by her accounts, a normal visit from the sounds of it, with exception of Shi'Nynze being present this time around.

At one point, her father managed to say something to her mother in a voice too low for Shi'Nynze to hear, but she never figured out what was said. It may have simply been him urging her patience, to let her daughter be the one to bring up her troubles on her own this time. It was easy to believe as the day carried on with no one questioning her, and it worked, as it allowed Shi'Nynze to build up the courage she was missing.

Not long after her father had been called away to help settle some dispute, Shi'Nynze walked up to her mother, took a deep breath, and prompted, "Mamae, I miss singing."

Such a simple statement briefly had her mother beaming, happy as she had always been when her children would trust her and seek her out with their troubles. It was what made her appreciate being a mother. Still, with the gravity of her daughter's troubles, she kept her composure, although the small smile could not be hidden, and led her daughter over to the couch so they could talk.

"Why did you take to singing, asha'lan?" prompted Lorahana, patiently. Shi'Nynze just shrugged, not quite looking at her mother so she couldn't see the pain in her eyes. "Come now. You had a reason."

"I don't know, mamae. I just liked singing," replied Shi, unhappily. While she wanted help to sing again, it was still a hard topic for her to talk about.

"More than playing your father's clunky instruments," commented her mother with a small smile.

"They're not that bad," said Shi, nearly smiling before she sighed. "But I couldn't do what I wanted with them."

"I remember you complaining to me after only a lesson or two with him," replied her mother, nodding. The small smile remained. "Do you remember that conversation, asha'lan?"

"You wanted me to be a singer because you were a singer," said Shi, slightly annoyed.

"I thought singing was more suited to you, but you would have done whatever you wanted to do, as you have always done," replied her mother, calmly. She knew it was not the time for disagreements, but one of healing, and pressed on. "We talked about what it is to sing, asha'lan. What it means to use one's voice to create music. That is what convinced you."

There was a pause before Shi lightly shook her head, saying, "I don't really remember that."

"To sing is to use the voice of the soul," said her mother as she caringly tucked a loose strand of her daughter's hair behind her ear. "It is the breath of truth to speak your desires and needs, a way to channel your power and deepest moods. It is more than expressing yourself, vhenan. It is to know yourself."

"So I cannot sing because I no longer know myself?" asked Shi after another pause, another sigh. The despair was plain.

"You do not need to find yourself to sing. You only need to find a way back to yourself before you can sing to find yourself," replied her mother before shifting her gaze to the past. "Singing is healing, to breathe the voice of your soul over that which is ailing or broken. Sometimes, you must sing for yourself."

A brief quiet fell as Lorahana was lost in memories, and Shi'Nynze was reminded of the last time she had heard those words. It had been hard enough coming to terms with planning a funeral for her brother. When her mother presented her with the song to sing at the service, Shi'Nynze nearly lost it until her mother told her those words. The reminder that music was a way to come to terms with all that had happened helped her push on and sing when it came time. It had healed her then, as it could do now - if she could find a way to sing again.

Shi'Nynze leaned against her mother and was given a hug and kiss on the head in return. After only another brief, solemn moment of silence, she whispered, "I don't know where to start."

"You have already started. Now that you are finding a way back to yourself, you are giving the music a chance to find its way back to you. It will happen, especially now surrounded by those who love you," said her mother, giving her another kiss.

Rather than focus on the slightly backhanded comment her mother made, one clearly meant to imply the friends she made while traveling couldn't care less about her, Shi'Nynze let it be swept under the rug. It was her mother, after all, and expected. As it was, Shi'Nynze still felt too raw from retelling her journey to her parents the previous night to argue it. Nothing could be gained for such a conversation, for either of them.

That afternoon and the ones that followed, she hummed notes with her mother of songs she loved as a child. They did not move her, but it made her feel like she was at least trying. It gave her hope that, if she tried hard enough, or at least attempted to sing, someday she'd find the song that would bring the music back to her. From there, perhaps she could finally start mending her soul.

More Than Friends

Shi'Nynze felt bad for leaving the house, but she could only take so much at the moment. She'd only been home for a day, and as much as she loved her parents, she felt as though they were suffocating her. It did not help when her uncle joined them for dinner. Between the three of them, and especially after the day she had had, she thought she'd drown from all their reasonable concerns and familial affection. It was too much too soon, and she needed a moment to breath. Thankfully, when she told her mother where she wanted to go, she happily let her daughter leave for the evening. It didn't surprise her, but it didn't help the apprehension.

Shi slowly made her way toward her uncle's house, trying to think of all the things she would say. The apprehension only built as her mind kept replaying her uncle telling her he had no plans to be home that night and would stay with his brother. In a way, she was glad Nieven had found somewhere new to lodge in the time she'd been gone. Before that, and after moving out of his parent's home, Nieven lived in Vireo Vista, the newest neighborhood, with one elf too many in a house too small to share, especially with his musical talents. Having her uncle finally be convinced to take him in while he was still being tutored must have been a relief for Nieven, but at the same time, it meant her family had a little more pull than she liked in things.

After taking a few deep breaths, Shi'Nynze knocked on the door and waited. It wasn't a long wait before a familiar elf answered it. Nieven and Shi stared at each other for a long second, and had another short second of awkwardness, before settling on a hug. It wasn't the big bear hug that Keerla gave her, but it wasn't wimpy, either.

"You really are back. I thought your uncle was messing with me," greeted Nieven with an ecstatic smile that dropped a little at the awkwardness making itself known again.

"Just to visit," corrected Shi, quickly. She didn't want to get anyone's hopes up again. "I, um, left the wolves behind and made a deal with a treant I still need to see through and all…"

"Right," said Nieven with a nod. "Do you… want to come in?"

Shi gave him a warm smile and returned the nod, walking past him as he held the door open for her. Without pause, he headed to the kitchen to make them some tea as Shi sat at the counter. That little bit of familiarity helped ease the atmosphere. It was helped more by Nieven's good memory and selection of tea.

"Linden with a touch of elderberry?" asked Nieven, checking to make sure he was right. He was given another nod and smile in return.

It was quiet as the tea brewed. Shi'Nynze looked around the familiar house, seeing the touches of another occupant in the various instruments and sheet music lying around, certainly not belonging to her graceful, but tone deaf uncle. Nieven meanwhile focused on the tea and kept sneaking a peek at Shi, but wasn't quite sure what to say yet.

When it was ready, and he poured them both a cup, he finally asked, "How have you been?"

Shi'Nynze stirred her tea and took a small sip as she tried to think of a reply. That question was hard enough to answer in a few short sentences, but getting easier to answer with honesty. Of course, she never knew what anyone else already knew.

"I've been better, but I'm getting there," replied Shi, honestly. "How much has Keerla told you?"

"Bits and pieces," said Nieven, shrugging. He hesitated as he continued, "She told me some of what was in your letter to her from Loosend. Do you want to talk about it?"

"Not really, but it does seem to be helping," replied Shi with a slight laugh.

By the time Nieven heard the story, Shi was able to tell it without fully getting upset. There were moments where she had to pause, but she was able to pick back up pretty quickly. It helped that, unlike with Keerla, and unlike with her parents, she didn't have to fully explain certain parts. It helped that, again, it was only Keerla she shared all the intricacies of her emotions with already. It wasn't that they weren't there, but that by now, they were easier to handle.

The tea had long been drained by the time Shi finished her story. They had since moved to the comfort of the couch. There was hardly any space between them, but neither of them minded.

"You've really been through a lot," remarked Nieven by the end of it.

His hand moved to cover hers, out of habit to comfort her, but stopped halfway through the gesture, as if uncertain it was the appropriate thing to do. It was not just the imaginary Keerla nagging her, telling her she had to make the first move, that made Shi take his hand to twine their fingers, but the simple craving she had for his touch. There had clearly been feelings between them before she first left. While she was still too broken to explore them in depth, if they were still there, if he was willing to be patient with her, she wasn't going to deny something she did, in truth, want. If nothing else, she simply missed being held.

"I did not realize how much until Keerla repeated it all back to me earlier," replied Shi with a small smile. The smile was in part from the squeeze and caress he gave her hand.

There was a brief pause before Nieven carefully asked, "Have you truly stopped singing?"

"Food tastes bland, colors are dull, and music… music does not move me," replied Shi, quietly with a hint of raw emotion. Trying not to dwell on it, she took a deep breath, and continued in a stronger voice, "But I can still draw. My hands still move."

"I would hate for you to lose that, too," said Nieven, taking the hint and not asking more.

Instead, he tried to reach for a nearby book. When he couldn't reach it, he glanced at their interlaced fingers before giving an almost inaudible sigh, letting go so he could bring the book to them. When he sat back down and carefully opened it up, Shi saw some of the various sketches and illustrations she had sent him, through her messages to Keerla, over the last couple years.

"Maybe you can explain some of these to me? I've been curious about a few of them."

"Some of these are worse than I remember," replied Shi, glancing at her older work and grimacing. "There's no reason to hold on to them. I'll make you something better."

"I think I'll keep these, thank you," said Nieven, laughing a little and shooting her a smile. "But I'm always happy to have more, although context is always nice for ones like this one."

"Thistle claims she once visited some magical dream garden. These are some of the sketches and concept work I did before putting it on a bigger canvas. The actual painting hangs in her room, but I thought you might be interested in seeing at least parts of it and a smaller, rougher version of it. I have been told by others it was real, but, well, dream magic sounds very… human. She was happy with the resulting painting, though."

"That explains the random bed in the middle of it. It seemed an odd choice without knowing why it was there. What about this one?"

"Valoris Fenorian Solonor," replied Shi'Nynze, softly, with a hint of pride and tenderness. "It is small, but it is peaceful. Not all the trees around it are real. It was tricky to do, but it gives the saplings something to inspire to be. Ancien called it a mystic place. For a treant, I think that's approval of my work there."

"This is inside The Mist?" asked Nieven for clarification. He was given a nod. "Who knew something so beautiful could exist in a place like that. Is this illustration also of a place within The Mist?"

After explaining only one or two more, Shi pulled the book mostly onto her lap, taking over to talk about some of the other sketches and illustrations she sent. It gave Nieven the perfect excuse to put his arm around her shoulder, and that in turn gave Shi the perfect excuse to lean against him as they went through the collection. They were still like that by the time the book was closed, and they had moved on to smaller, happier stories of events that had happened in their time apart.

"I can't believe you actually did that," replied Nieven with laughter after hearing her tale of the weird party she went to in Dryad's Lair. He gave her a kiss on the head without thought.

"I still can't believe I did, either," said Shi, her laughter dimming much more quickly. She gave a sigh and pulled away, although they were still holding hands. "I'm sorry, Nieven. I know Keerla said I shouldn't worry about it, but I just feel too guilty."

"About what?" asked Nieven, confused.

"You know I care about you, I really do, but after everything that happened recently I just…," replied Shi, pausing to gather her word before she continued, "I feel like I should have treated you better when I left, and I feel like you deserve better than me, especially right now. I'm just… so broken and unsure of what I want, but I don't want to take advantage of you."

"I've been worried I'm doing the same to you," admitted Nieven with a slight, uncertain smile. "But you know what your uncle told me?"

"Why does my uncle keep coming up in conversations? Why do people keep listening to him?" asked Shi, purposefully dramatic and with a hint of humor.

"Because he actually has things to say worth hearing, which you already know," replied Nieven, his smile growing a little more. "What he told me was that sometimes, you have to make concessions when it comes to relationships, but when the opportunity is there to be happy, even if only for a few moments, you need to take those moments and savor them. I know you have a lot you need to figure out, and a letter from you would be wonderful next time, but I still care about you, Shi'Nynze. It wouldn't hurt to let you have some happiness. I don't mind. You just tell me what you want, and for now, we can live by the words of your uncle."

"I never thought I would," said Shi, laughing slightly, relieved. With guilt absolved for now, she reached over to give him a long, sweet kiss. It was readily accepted.

It was only a few minutes into it, before Nieven asked, a bit out of breath and with a clear bit of courage, "Would you like to stay the night?"

"I think I would," replied Shi with a genuine smile. She pulled him back to her for another kiss.

Late the night before…

It had easily been one of the longest nights Aolis had had in recent memory. Only one other night could compare, and while it wasn't anywhere near as bad as that one, it was half the reason for it. While Lorahana and him certainly disagreed on how to go about it (his brother took the middleground, as always), both of them had become much more protective of Shi'Nynze after Ellidor died. The least he could do for her was stick around, no matter how late it got, to help her navigate the tricky waters of telling her parents all that had happened the last few years, especially when it came to her death and her shattered relationship with Keldorldrin.

The house was as dark and quiet as the night outside. Or at least, he thought it was until he glanced towards the guest room and noticed the lightest flickering of candlelight coming from under the door. Any other day, he'd likely ignore it and save the conversation for the morning, but perhaps there was one more thing he could do for his niece tonight.

Aolis walked over, knocking not so delicately, as he said, "I know you're awake, Nieven."

There was barely a pause before he heard movement and things being shuffled on the other side of the door. While Nieven did share some similarities to Aolis's own father, at least the young elf was always responsive. His own father sometimes ignored the knocking, or didn't hear it, resulting in picking the lock and shaking his shoulder to get him to respond, especially lately. Aolis was very close to removing the lock completely, and would have by now, if Yinris wasn't the one mainly checking up on their father at the moment.

The shuffling became footsteps before the door opened to a tousle-haired, tired-eyed young elf who gave Aolis a sluggish smile as he said, "Good morning, Aolis."

"Stayed up late or woke up early?" asked Aolis, patiently. It was technically morning, but that didn't mean much.

There was another pause, as Nieven looked up in thought, before he shrugged and replied, "I took a nap."

"And?" prompted Aolis, expectantly. Maybe Nieven wasn't as bad as Ievos, but that didn't mean he still didn't have his moments, and Aolis didn't have to still bring Nieven's focus back to the real world from time to time. Even if it meant treating them both like children sometimes.

Nieven had the grace to lightly blush as he replied, "I ate this morning. Er, yesterday morning. I'm not hungry. I'm close to having this verse down. I'll eat again after I finish it."

"Your hair is a mess. I won't ask when you last washed your face," said Aolis with a slightly dramatic, disapproving sigh. "You're a grown elf. It's not my job to tell you how to take care of yourself, but if my lady love was back in town ready to be wooed, I'd certainly want to look my best, wouldn't you?"

"Huh?" asked Nieven, confused. Aolis kept talking as if he didn't hear him.

"And considering how much her parents are already smothering her, I wouldn't be surprised if she stopped by to visit as soon as tomorrow, but if this is how you'd rather her see you, by all means, go back to your songs and finish that verse," said Aolis, casually, waving his hand in the direction of the disorganized room.

"Shi'Nynze is back in town?" asked Nieven, with a hint of hope as he slowly reached his hand up to start detangling his hair. "Keerla didn't tell me -… is she really?"

"Is it worth the risk to find out if I'm lying or not?" asked Aolis with a grin as Nieven was now also trying to smooth some wrinkles in his shirt.

There was a pause in Nieven's actions as another thought came to him, one that let an inkling of despondency and uncertainty enter his voice, as he said, "But Keerla did tell me… I can't try to… 'woo' someone with a broken heart, Aolis. That's just wrong."

"If you're not an idiot about it, you'll be fine," replied Aolis, a little more gently. As the uncertainty still didn't leave Nieven, Aolis sighed and explained, "Keep your expectations low, and let her be the one to tell you what she wants. If she just wants friendship right now, respect that and just be there as her friend, but considering you two have toed past that line many times before, I wouldn't be surprised if she asks for more. Neither of you are making any commitments or declaring your love for each other or anything. Just go with the flow and have fun right now."

"Are you sure? I don't want to hurt her or screw anything up," said Nieven, still not convinced.

"Some relationships are built upon those little moments of happiness you can find, especially when you're hurting the most," replied Aolis, quietly. Who Aolis was thinking of, Nieven did not know nor would he likely ever know, but the when was easy to guess. In a slightly stronger voice, Aolis continued, "Besides, Shi'Nynze isn't moving back yet. She still needs to return to Valoris Wood for her pack. Whether or not that means she's gone for months or years next time she leaves, I don't know. Take what moments you can with her now while she's here."

"Alright. If you think that'll be okay, I'll take your advice," replied Nieven with a grateful smile. A light blush of embarrassment followed as he realized he had another question and uncertainty, but one he was certain Aolis could answer. "And how do I handle… jealousy, of another elf?"

"You're in luck. The dahn’direlan didn't come with her. Plucked the last petal on that flower if you ask me," said Aolis, bluntly, and from what Nieven could detect, with a bit of anger, too. He sighed and rubbed his head, muttering, "And I suppose this means I'll need to be the one to tell his parents tomorrow why she's here, but not their son. I certainly can't let her be the one to face them."

Nieven waited patiently while Aolis muttered to himself, the long night finally catching up to him and showing in his weariness. When he thought it safe, Nieven, prompted, carefully, "Thank you, Aolis. I'll, um…"

"Get something to eat, wash up, and then get some real rest," replied Aolis helpfully. Nieven gave him a nod as Aolis started making his way back to his own room. He paused, hand on the open bedroom door, and called back, "And clean your room when you get a chance. I'll be staying at my brother's tomorrow, provided I'm right and my niece decides she already needs a break from her parents."

Aolis gave Nieven a grin as he caught sight of the deepest blushing the young elf had shown yet that night. At least he knew his implication was received loud and clear. Aolis gave a slight wave, shut the door to his room, and collapsed on his bed, unconscious almost within minutes.

Meanwhile, Nieven followed through on all the suggestions of making himself more presentable, all while going through imaginary conversations with Shi'Nynze. He still couldn't decide if Aolis might be messing with him, especially as Keerla hadn't said anything to him about Shi'Nynze visiting, but he wasn't going to take the risk of believing Aolis was lying. Small steps were still steps to the now real possibility of having a serious relationship with Shi'Nynze one day. If Aolis was right and this was his chance to build that relationship up, he wasn't going to miss it or mess it up.

As Nieven tidied up his room, the sheet of paper full of verses he was working on fell to the floor. He looked at it briefly before setting it back on the desk off to the side. As much as he wished he could work on it, he had more important priorities now. Perhaps seeing Shi would finally give him the inspiration he needed to finish the song.