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A Trip to the Wildlands - For the Love of Mist

Leaving: 22-12-348 SKR
Arrive in the Wildlands: 17-1-349 SKR
Arrive in Loosend: ??-?-349 SKR
Arrive in Dragon Fen: previous plus 8 days
Potential arrival at Dragon Fen: 10 - 3 - 349 SKR

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.

Lesson of Three

It was another morning where Shi'Nynze was given a chance to meet her niece, and another morning where she still did not feel ready for it. In truth, she didn't know why she kept hesitating, nor why she'd put it off forever if given the chance, but something kept holding her back. Once again her mother was torn between wanting to give her time and thinking she'd had enough time. To please her, Shi'Nynze finally pitched out the possibility of going with her in the afternoon, but made no promises. The compromise worked well enough for the moment, but rather than stick around and feel more pressure, Shi'Nynze decided to go for a walk.

Keerla was not yet back, but Shi'Nynze did not think it would be too much longer. While she still needed to visit The Shrine of the Shrike, and more importantly, talk to Tira’allara, she was not yet ready for that conversation. There were still a few things she needed to come to terms with before she spoke again of her troubles, and truthfully, she was getting tired of so much soul searching in such a short amount of time.

After a few walks around the neighborhood, she found herself again in front of her uncle's house. She hesitated as she honestly didn't know the protocols of her undefined relationship with Nieven. Was it too soon to visit him? Right now she simply wanted a friend for company to help keep her mind from wandering. For better or worse, when she finally decided to knock and see what would happen, it wasn't Nieven who answered.

"Back so soon, Da Fenlin?" greeted her uncle with a knowing grin. His niece blushed, but not as much as she would have in years past. Perhaps she'd grown more than he wished to consider in her short time away. He stepped outside and closed the door behind him. "Unfortunately, I was explicitly told not to let you inside."

"What? But it's your house," said Shi'Nynze, confused.

"It is odd being told what I can and cannot do with it, but this is a good reason, and no, I will not tell you why," replied her uncle, smiling. "Is there something you need, Da Fenlin?"

"I just needed to get out of the house this morning. I'm not quite sure what to do with myself, but Keerla isn't here yet," said Shi'Nynze with a slightly dismal sigh. "I still have too many thoughts clouding my mind."

"You are not the only one going stir-crazy," replied her uncle with a wink. "I have not taken this much time off in years. Already I am getting bored. Perhaps your uncle's company will do?"

"My uncle, yes, but not my uncle's uncle," said Shi with a smile. She was given a laugh in return as they started aimlessly walking.

"What's on your mind, Da Fenlin?" asked her uncle after a few minutes passed. They stayed to the upper levels, pausing to look over the balcony at the waking marketplace below.

"I am tired of talking about death, my voice, and Keldorldrin," replied Shi'Nynze as a warning with a small frown.

"And yet you still have much on your mind," said her uncle, knowingly.

There was a pause as Shi'Nynze tried to decide what she wanted to talk about first until she realized she needed to put her most recent anxiety to rest. With a return of the light blushing, she asked, "Should I, um, have stopped by today? Was that a mistake?"

"You make everyone's day brighter, Da Fenlin. Why should you not have visited?"

"Don't pretend to be so obtuse, Osu'Tan. You know what I mean."

"And I mean what I say," replied her uncle, his grin softening. "If he were not currently occupied, Nieven would have been delighted to see you again so soon. I doubt that will ever be a lie. Why are you worried about it, Da Fenlin?"

"I am still untangling myself from… from my last relationship," said Shi, carefully avoiding the very name she already declared off-limits to discuss for the moment. "I am not ready for… whatever this is to get too deep. I don't know what this is, and I know I shouldn't worry about it, but Nieven isn't just some random elf to have fun with, you know?"

"As I told Nieven, neither of you are making any commitments or declaring your love or anything so just go with the flow and have fun," said her uncle, turning to face her fully. There was a slight smile wanting to make itself known. "So which one of you didn't follow my advice? Who made the declaration of love?"

"It wasn't recently," replied Shi, turning bright red. That was the color Aolis expected with his earlier remark, and its return made him chuckle which in turn earned him a scolding. "Osu'Tan!"

"Laev, Da Fenlin," said her uncle, holding his hands up in surrender, his grin never disappearing. "I am simply relieved you did not grow up as fast as I worried you did."

"What's that supposed to mean?" asked Shi, her embarrassment becoming unhappiness.

"Only that you are still young at heart," replied her uncle with an honest smile. Shi gave him a frustrated sigh, but seemed satisfied with that answer. A little more cautious, her uncle asked, "Will you tell me what happened, Da Fenlin? I may have some insight for you."

"I don't know, Osu'Tan. I didn't mean to say it. It slipped out. I tried to make light of it, but I don't think I was successful. We never had a chance to talk about it, though. It was only a few days later that Ellidor...," said Shi before she trailed off with another sigh, although one full of sadness and weariness. "And then things got more complicated. It certainly isn't something I wish to bring up now, but it looms there and makes me question everything. I am trying to ignore it, but what will come of this, Osu'Tan? It is hard to treat whatever it is I have with Nieven lightly or carelessly."

"Have you talked to him about your uncertainties?"

"Yes, but he told me not to worry about it."

"Believe him, Da Fenlin. He means what he says," replied her uncle, gently. "If I may tell you something that hits close to one of your tired topics?"

"I suppose you have a reason for it," said Shi with some uncertainty.

"Even knowing it was a possibility, when your letter came confirming your… previous relationship, Nieven was crestfallen, to put it lightly. His reaction now makes far more sense knowing what you told him not long before you left," said her uncle, giving her a consoling smile. "I tried to help him take his mind off you, but I don't think my suggestions were very helpful to him. You are back now, and while the timing isn't perfect, I do believe he'll do whatever he must not to lose you again."

There was a pause before Shi'Nynze turned away and let her head fall to rest on the railing of the balcony. Although muffled, she could still be heard saying, "Osu'Tan, you only made me feel more guilty."

"Gra'ean’i’man," commented her uncle, laughing.

Shi'Nynze lifted her head and threw her hands in the air, saying, "How am I supposed to react, Osu'Tan? You know that's why I never wrote him? He's not just my friend. I worried about where we stood, and then I was dreading returning home after… after that letter because I didn't know what I would tell Nieven, or how I would face him, or what would happen to our friendship or whatever it is we had before I left."

"Da Fenlin, why are you making this more difficult than it needs to be?" asked her uncle, interrupting her before she could continue on.

Rather than answer right away, Shi turned back towards the railing and the market, before she quietly replied, "Because I don't want to hurt him. I know what it's like to be hurt, to be truly and painfully hurt, and it's not a feeling I'd wish on anyone."

Aolis joined her at the railing, both looking at the movement below, as he said, "You don't want to be hurt again, either, but I promise you will be fine, Da Fenlin. You both will be. If you were staying, perhaps I'd be more concerned about you going too fast, but you will be leaving. Even if it only ends up being a short return trip to fetch the wolves, you will have that time to really consider a serious relationship, after you have sorted your troubles and your head is clear. Right now try not to worry. You both know where you stand. Talk to each other if you don't, but otherwise, relax and have fun, Da Fenlin. You could use something to cheer you up."

"I suppose you're right. You promise to warn me if I'm doing something wrong?" asked Shi. She gave him a small smile as she continued, "If you're going to be a nosy busybody, you might as well put it to good use."

"Who is to say I have not already put it to good use?" replied her uncle, laughing. He shook his head, still smiling, as he added, "While I may disagree with Lorahana on many things, I do agree with her on Nieven. He is an admirable elf. I do think he is good for you, but more than that, I do not want to see you hurt again, Da Fenlin. I'll do what I can to prevent it."

"I am going to be a gra'dean again if you keep this up, Osu'Tan," said Shi'Nynze, touched by the sentiment, but trying not to let her eyes get misty.

"It looks like Uler is here this morning. Perhaps that'll help?" said her uncle with a wink.

"The thought alone is more than enough," replied Shi, smiling. They stood and watched a little longer, Aolis waiting as he knew there was more on her mind. Eventually, Shi asked, "What's it like being an uncle, Osu'Tan?"

"There is nothing wrong with being a parent. They are the ones who bring such wonderful elves into our lives, but they have limits I do not," replied her uncle before giving her a mischievous grin.

Aolis turned around, looking into the tree line, before telling her to wait and disappearing. Shi'Nynze stood there confused, unsure what she was waiting for until he returned a short moment or two later. Still wearing the same grin, he held out a handful of old acorns left lying around as they were moldy, cracked, or otherwise useless to forage.

"Now if I was your parent, I'd have to at least pretend to care about your behavior," said Aolis, continuing his answer. He took one of the acorns, closing an eye as he looked at the marketplace not far below them. "But since I am your uncle, instead I can continue to critique your throwing skills and teach you a new trick or two."

There was a slight twist of his wrist as he tossed the acorn over the balcony. They watched just long enough to see it hit someone squarely in the head before turning towards each other, pretending to be deep in conversation. Once the individual started looking elsewhere for the culprit, the silent laughter took over them.

Shi'Nynze could not say how long ago it was, but there were many memories of such simple fun. While she could remember being scolded by her mother and father for tossing things down below, she could also remember her uncle showing Ellidor and her better ways to do it without being caught. With those thoughts in mind, once the coast was clear, Shi took one of the acorns offered to her and did her best to hit a target. It ended up better than Aolis's throw.

"Impressive, Da Fenlin!" exclaimed her uncle, laughing. He took another acorn and tried to mime what movements Shi'Nynze had made. "It looks like you will be the one teaching me this time. What was it you just did?"

"A gypsy trick Thistle showed me," replied Shi'Nynze, beaming. "See, you move your hand like this and kind of flick your wrist like so."

After watching Shi'Nynze mime the movement one more time, Aolis took yet another acorn. He mimicked the motion, and was moments from throwing it, when a voice behind them said, "Aolis, what mischief are you up to now?"

Ever so smoothly, Aolis secretly slipped the acorns into his pocket and turned towards the female elf, his smile matching his movements, as he replied, "I hear a nightingale singing my name. Ah! My sweet Gweyr, what a glorious sight you are this morning! A visage as warm and lovely as the sunshine."

"You better not follow that comment with some kind of claim of being in Arvanaith," interrupted Gweyr with an amused smile.

"How suddenly that song became the screeching of a blue jay," said Aolis, dramatically putting a hand over his heart. Shi'Nynze could not stop the giggling that escaped her lips at the show. Giving Gweyr his most charming smile, he continued, "Perhaps you'd rather I lavish you with tales of your beauty in the moonlight?"

"Behave, Aolis. I see your niece is with you," replied Gweyr, still amused, but now wearing the slightest hint of a blush.

"I am behaving. My best lines are not for her ears," said Aolis with a wink.

Gweyr shook her head before turning towards Shi'Nynze and giving her a smile, "It has been some time, telella. You have grown well. Keep him out of trouble, yes?"

"As best as I can," replied Shi, stopping her giggling just long enough to answer. Gweyr gave Aolis one more look before she continued on her way. Once she was gone, Shi'Nynze turned towards her uncle, humor still present, saying, "You have not changed, have you, Osu'Tan?"

"One of us mustn't," replied her uncle, slightly offhanded and almost with a trace of gloom. It was unexpected, to both of them apparently, as her uncle made a tsking noise, waving his hand as if to push the comment, and her curiosity, away. "Another time, Da Fenlin. Now, I am guessing your earlier question relates to Elindra?"

The whimsy quickly dissipated as Shi'Nynze was reminded of the thoughts currently plaguing her. She sighed as she replied, "For all her earlier worrying, I feel like mamae is disappointed that I will not see Elindra yet. But I don't know why I am not ready to see her, Osu'Tan. I never expected to be Osu'Nys to anyone. I was too young to ever think of it before, and then once Ellidor left… What is expected of me, Osu'Tan? How do I be Osu'Nys to an elf I never thought would exist?"

"You are doing it again, Da Fenlin. You must take it one step at a time," said her uncle, patiently. "Nothing is expected of you except, perhaps, to meet her. She is still far too young for there to be any other expectations. Do not make it more difficult than it needs to be."

"But I am now Osu'Nys. What does that mean for me? Do I need to be here for her?" asked Shi'Nynze with clear uncertainty.

"You must live your life, Da Fenlin," replied her uncle, shaking his head. A hint of the near imperceptible gloom returned. "There may be a time the calling to be Osu'Nys will be stronger than whatever calls you now, but until it is, live your life as you must to be fulfilled. Elindra has plenty of love and support in her life. It will be fine if you venture off again."

"What if the guilt overshadows any calling?"

"You will find ways to alleviate it. You can still be there for her without being here, Da Fenlin. I am certain one day she will appreciate the illustrations you paint, the songs you sing, the letters you write, and the tales you are already weaving."

There was another brief silence until Shi'Nynze pulled away from the railing with new ideas forming. After a nod to herself, she said, "Nothing says I cannot start now, and maybe by doing so I'll finally be ready to meet her. I need some better paints and paper, though."

"Unless you tire of me, I think this sounds like a good time to spoil my A’Su’Tan," said her uncle with a caring smile.

"Even if I protest?" asked Shi, returning his smile.

"Let this be another lesson for you. As Osu'Tan, my job is to spoil you. One day you will be doing the same for Elindra," replied her uncle as they started walking. His usual grin made a quick return as he continued, "Aesar is still one of the best to seek for art supplies. We should start there, I think."

"Osu'Tan! I do not need anything so fancy," said Shi'Nynze, protesting already.

"I disagree," replied Aolis. Seeing that she stopped, he gave her a wink. "Better hurry up, Da Fenlin. I am visiting Aesar one way or another. You likely prefer to pick out what I get for you yourself. You know I do not have an eye for color like you do."

"Fine, but first you must answer my question," said Shi, catching up. When her uncle gave her a nod in agreement, in a softer voice, she asked, "How are you doing, Osu'Tan?"

"Better now that my A’Su’Tan is home," replied her uncle, honestly and evasively. As she kept staring at him in wait, clearly not accepting the answer, he let out a small sigh. "A final lesson for you then, Da Fenlin. It does not matter how old memories get as they will always find a way back to you. You learn to cope with them, but do not be surprised if they take you off guard again decades or centuries down the road."

"Bad memories?" prompted Shi'Nynze with hope for a real answer.

"Another time, Da Fenlin," repeated her uncle to her disappointment. With a clear change of topics, he continued, "Now what needs replacement in your kit? I have seen the illustrations you have sent home. You have talent. No reason to be frugal. I'd like to see what more you can do with the proper supplies."

True to his word, Aolis did not hold back when bargaining with Aesar to get Shi'Nynze the supplies she wanted. More than anything, it was the small set of quality brushes that excited her. By the time she returned home, she had a painting in mind for Elindra. Upon seeing the rough sketches, her mother finally left her alone, wearing a smile, her approval obvious. For when the painting was done, Shi'Nynze knew she'd finally be ready to meet her niece, and if she kept up her current pace, working through the night, it would be soon.

Continuation of a Legacy

There is something to be said about creating a painting. There are the simple ones, with little thought, a splash of emotion, and enough attention to detail to create something pleasing to the eye, but with no true meaning. Then there are the paintings where an artists' heart and soul are laid bare, where each brushstroke holds a story, a meaning, an emotion. Whether or not the final painting is something wonderful to behold, it is certainly impossible to ignore.

That was not the intention Shi'Nynze had when she started the painting for Elindra. She had a concept, a final product, a specific image that she aimed to create - something her niece would look upon one day to know she was loved. What she ended up with was a raw and impassioned painting that nearly took up one wall of her bedroom.

All those feelings she'd been unable to express through song, that she'd bottled up not just recently, but from the moment she learned her brother died, were splashed on the canvas before her. There was anguish and despair, yes, but they were there because of the overwhelming love she held for her family. It was the cause of the pain of being kept from her brother and grandmother, and it was the cause of the inkling of joy she was feeling again, back home with her mother, father, and uncle. It was a complicated painting, a reflection of Shi's current state of mind regarding her life and her niece, but there was underlying love in the piece. While she still had to come to terms with unexpectedly becoming an aunt, it didn't mean she had no love for her niece.

"Da Fenlin, you should have let me spend more on you," commented her uncle as he gazed at the painting before him. "I do not know what I expected, but it was not this."

"It is too much. I cannot give this to Elindra, Osu'Tan. It is not…," said Shi, unable to find the words and simply waving her arms around uselessly. As he kept looking, Shi continued, "I know mamae and babae will tell me it's fine. That's what parents do, but that's why I wanted to show you first. I want you to be honest with me, Osu'Tan."

"If Yinris did not have the patience of a predator to hold her back, Lorahana would be trying to open that door. I am certain she will be complaining about this later," replied Aolis, briefly looking sideways to give her a grin and a wink. At the very expected frown, he continued, "But what is more important is how you feel, Da Fenlin. Painting or not, will you be here for dinner with Meira and Elindra?"

"I cannot back out now, Osu'Tan. It will be evening soon enough," said Shi'Nynze with uncertainty.

"You know you can. You may still be apprehensive, but you are ready to meet her now, are you not?"

Shi'Nynze shifted her eyes towards the bottom center of the painting, biting her lip for a moment, before nodding, saying, "Ellidor would want me to meet her."

"Then your painting was a success. That was your purpose, was it not? To ease your guilt before you would meet her?"

"But I am not sure about giving this painting to her."

"It is a tapestry of sorts, is it not?" asked Aolis as his attention drifted back to the painting before them. He reached out, two fingers hovering over a section. "This represents O'Si, if I had to guess. Osi'Tan Xhalh…., ah, good Osi'Tan Zelle is here, too. He would be offended if he were forgotten," said Aolis, giving her another grin before he went back to examining what was before him, his tone getting more somber as he kept looking. "O'Su, U'Osi Zhoron, I'osi Vashti...all the elves before them and with them, a glimpse of their lives, here and gone, down through us to Ellidor. Da Fenlin…"


"Gone, but never forgotten," replied her uncle, softly, after a brief pause. "The pain of the planes separating us, but the love of how their lives have touched us, and that hope, that thread of optimism, that we will all unite again one day."

"Have you taken up painting, Osu'Tan?" asked Shi, quietly, refusing to look at him.

"One does not need to be able to paint in order to appreciate it," replied Aolis, his tone matching hers. Trying to shake the now solemn air, he gave her one more smile and a nod, as he continued, "You painted this not just for Elindra, but for yourself. It does not matter if the painting is good or not, Da Fenlin. What matters is how you now feel."

They stood there in silence, staring at it for a bit more, before Shi'Nynze asked, "But is it good?"

"Uncle Zelle will be jealous he does not have this," replied Aolis with a slight laugh. He finally turned away, tilting his head towards her closed bedroom door, as he continued, "Perhaps you'll believe the opinion of your parents when they agree with me on your masterpiece."

Shi'Nynze did not go to open the door. After another few seconds of waiting, she asked, "But should I give it to her?"

"You know I cannot answer that for you, Da Fenlin," said Aolis, patiently.

Still wearing a frown, she finally turned to him, saying, "I mean is it appropriate?"

"It is a powerful piece," replied her uncle, nodding. His lip quirked, but his grin did not return as he continued, "You are right, the pain is clear in your piece, but so is your love. It is the reality of life, and it will be the reality of her life, too."

Giving her painting one more look, Shi'Nynze let out a resigned sigh as she said, "You can go tell mamae and babae they can see it now."

"It will go well, Da Fenlin," replied her uncle in comfort.

After giving her a one-armed hug and a quick kiss on the head, Aolis went to open the door as Shi'Nynze stood there rooted by her uncertainty. To the surprise of neither of them, Lorahana appeared within seconds of hearing the door open. Aolis simply gave her a nod before slipping past her to say a quick unheard word to his brother. Whatever was said made Yinris noticeably more curious, had Shi'Nynze actually looked their way, before Aolis stepped outside for some fresh air. He needed a few moments of peace to process the unexpected sorrow and wistfulness he was suddenly feeling. He would not be the only one.

"Ara vhen'an, when did you learn to paint like this?" asked her mother with a hint of awe.

"I have been practicing," replied Shi, simply, with a shrug and a blush.

While her mother asked her a few questions about the piece and her technique, her father was quiet. He examined it closely, wearing the slightest smile, his eyes gaining a mistiness he was able to hide. There was no rush to voice his opinion as his wife lauded their daughter with praises, making her blush more with self-consciousness, but he could still clearly see the unease in her eyes. In many ways, the painting was the most vulnerable Shi had been, perhaps more so than the first night she returned home, and she was still uncomfortable being so.

Hearav carvaumn.

The frown Yinris gained as that phrase unwillingly popped into his mind was easily hidden, too. Although his daughter had carved out her heart and put it on a plate, figuratively speaking, he had never been a fan of the crude Orcish language. For many reasons.

He shook that thought and that tongue from his mind, as he finally straightened himself and stepped back from the painting. Shi'Nynze looked at him expectantly as Yinris sought the right words to speak aloud. Giving her a soft smile, he simply said, "You have left your mark, ara da'ean."

There was no hiding the relief, embarrassment, and simmering pride Shi'Nynze felt at that simple statement. Her father was an eloquent speaker, when he needed to be, but he could be just as effective with a few words and the slightest change in his expression. Sometimes that was more powerful, as it was in that moment, as her father implied her painting to be something as notable and precious as the Wand of Wonder. The painting was her mark on the Zaurahel line, something extraordinary enough to be remembered for it. Whether or not Shi actually agreed didn't matter. The words said to her were enough.

Far less practiced at trying to hide emotions she did not want others to see, Shi'Nynze opt to give him a big hug. She buried herself in the embrace to give herself time to wipe away the tears that managed to escape - ones of joy, sorrow, and relief. Only a hint of the short trail they made was visible when she finally let go.

"Thank you, babae, mamae," said Shi, quietly taking a shuddering breath and giving one final sigh of relief. Until that moment, she hadn't realized how much the painting and their words mattered.

"Will you help me finish preparing for dinner?" asked her mother with a hint of apprehension as she caressed her daughter's hair. A smile was gained when Shi nodded with almost barely a pause.

With that, Shi followed her mother to the kitchen to set the table and finish the cooking. Her father took one last look at the painting before joining his brother outside. There were more words said between the twins, as there always would be, and ones no one else would know, as it would always be between heart brothers.

The apprehension still left Shi'Nynze on edge. When there was knocking at the door, she couldn't stop herself from jumping slightly. After checking with her one more time, wanting to make sure she was ready, the door was opened to an elf a little older than her with beautiful willow brown hair holding a squirming little one. There was no doubt, when the baby elf turned towards her, that it was her niece. Elindra really did have her brother's eyes.

"Savh," said Meira after only the slightest pause once she was inside.

Meira looked like she wanted to say more to Shi'Nynze, but the awkwardness kept her from it. While they had always gotten along well, it was clear Meira was aware of Shi's hesitation. Rather than draw it out, she simply adjusted her hold on the squirming child so Shi'Nynze could better see her niece and lightly cleared her throat.

"Shi'Nynze, this is your A’Su’Tan, Elindra," said Meira in introductions. She gave the baby a kiss, her voice softening, as she continued, "Elindra, this is your Osu’Nys, Shi'Nynze."

Leaving it at that, Meira moved her arms ever so slightly, offering Shi'Nynze the chance to hold her niece or refuse. While the moment still felt surreal, Shi'Nynze reached out to take the little one. The both looked at each other with the same level of curiosity before Elindra gave her a smile and a baby squeal. It was promptly followed by a little hand reaching up to pull part of Shi'Nynze hair loose from its braid.

"Elindra!" exclaimed Meira, partially scolding, partially cooing. She helped free Shi from the grip of her niece before taking her back. "I'm so sorry."

"Just like her father," said Shi with a small laugh as she tried to sooth her hair back into place. One of Ellidor's favorite past times had been to mess up her hair any which way.

Meira gave her a slight smile in return, before Lorahana, wanting to make the whole meeting go as well as possible, prompted, "Why don't we eat before it gets cold?"

By choice, Shi'Nynze sat next to the high chair Elindra was settled into for the meal. Little by little, she started asking Meira more questions about her niece, simple things like her favorite foods, her favorite toys, how she slept, and how Meira herself was holding up. Wanting to make up for putting off meeting her, Shi started trying to help feed the baby halfway through dinner. By the time dinner was over, Shi'Nynze was playing with the surprisingly active Elindra who should have been sleepy. It was another characteristic Shi thought was far too much like her brother, but that thought only made her smile.

While the others talked and watched, Shi'Nynze kept up with the active little Elindra. She could move fast, especially for barely being able to walk, and soon enough she was following her down the hallway. The door to her bedroom had been left open. Before she could stop her, Elindra spotted something of interest and hastened inside. Shi hesitated, debating if she should grab Elindra and return to the living room, until she noticed her niece had finally stopped moving, enthralled as she was by the painting as to forget about getting into trouble elsewhere.

"This is your family, Elindra," said Shi, quietly, going over to sit next to the little elf. She lifted a hand, her fingers guiding the little elf's eyes to the bottom center, as she continued, "Your father, my brother, was one of the most courageous elves I've ever known. He was kind, caring, always looking out for me, immensely talented… he may not be on this plane with us anymore, but I am still jealous of his skills. We used to play hide and seek all the time. He always won. He always found me, and I always had to cheat to find him."

Without realizing it, Shi'Nynze started relaying a few of her memories of her brother to her niece. For being so active earlier, Elindra seemed content to listen and stare at the piece before her. Neither of them noticed they had company until they were interrupted.

"You painted this?" asked Meira when it seemed appropriate to speak up.

Shi'Nynze only jumped a little, but blushed a lot, before she nodded, saying, "It was… is… a gift to Elindra. If… if it is wanted."

"It is beautiful," said Meira, quietly. She gave Shi a smile before looking at her daughter, saying, "For what little attention she gives most things, I think you have her answer."

Feeling both embarrassed and pleased all over again, Shi'Nynze scooped up Elindra, who was finally yawning, before handing her off to Meira. The little elf settled comfortably against her mother, yawning again, making it clear it was getting past her bedtime. The three of them made their way back to the living room.

"I am glad you could meet her, Shi'Nynze. I know Ellidor could not wait for it," said Meira, carefully. She gave her another small smile. "And thank you. Elindra and I appreciate the gift. More than I think either of us can say."

Shi'Nynze laughed knowing full well her niece could not yet speak, before asking, hesitantly, "I do not yet know when I will be leaving. May I… see her again? Before then?"

"You are her Osu’Nys. You may see her any time you wish. Ellidor would have wanted you to, and I want you to," said Meira in reassurance.

"Thank you...Nys," replied Shi with only a bit of hesitation, unsure if it was the right word to use. To her relief, Meira was suddenly beaming, as it had been what she wanted to call Shi'Nynze earlier. She reached over to hug her as best as she could.

"No, thank you, Nys," said Meira, giving her one more squeeze. With that, she bid Shi and the rest of the family goodnight, leaving with a full heart and a new sister.

Solace With Solonor

As much as she wanted to, Shi'Nynze knew she could not put it off any longer. It was the first time she'd woken up with the sun since she had arrived home. Some of it was to gain courage with the peace of the morning bird songs, but mostly it was to avoid the crowds. Much like when she knew she'd have to talk with her parents, Shi'Nynze did all she could to mentally prepare herself for the inevitable conversation. The tricky part was getting there first, especially as she did not have her uncle to help guide her to her goal and keep others from distracting her.

Even from the distance, Shi'Nynse could spot the treekeepers climbing around the Tree of Life like little ants. They worked day and night to maintain the health of the tree: inspecting every leaf, pruning any dead branch, removing pests that were unwanted. Rarely, the tree hinted at something that might distress it, but considering the amount of care it got around the clock, it rarely had complaints. Normally the complaints were of clumsy beginner treekeepers.

They ignored her as she approached the shine as they had no reason to talk with her. Shi'Nynze was far less lucky when it came to those of The Shine. It was where she'd trained, after all, and hopeful as she was to avoid most of them in the wee hours of the morning, her luck couldn't continue to hold out. To reach the specific individual she wanted to talk to meant having to greet others, and while some she did not mind, others were another story.

"Ah, Ardavanshee, you have returned to us. How are your studies going?" asked a voice much too close to her and with that slight timbre to that word which she did not appreciate. Shi reluctantly turned towards the older, stern elf who seemed only mildly interested to hear an answer.

When her grandfather called her ardavanshee, he pitched the right vowels to make it an endearing nickname to emphasize her love of adventure. When High Priest Giilvas called her ardavanshee, he wound those syllables ever so slightly, ever so differently, as to make it a subtle scolding, almost an insult for her desire to wander. If ever there was an instance Shi'Nynze would point to that emphasized the impossibilities for outsiders to properly learn Elvish, it would be that single word that she both loved and dreaded - all dependent on who said it and how.

"Faernsuor Giilvas," replied Shi'Nynze with a small bow. "They go well enough."

"You keep to your daily prayers? Your monthly fasting? How many offerings have you provided this past year? Who has heard the greatness of Solonor from your lips?" asked Giilvas, listing off his questions with barely a pause for her to answer. Clearly he knew them already.

"I do as I must, Faernsuor Giilvas," said Shi'Nynze, simply. She doubted her real answers would please him, and based on his frown, the answer she gave did not please him, either.

"Ardavanshee, you must do better, then," replied Giilvas, disapprovingly. "When will you take your duties seriously? You are a priestess of Solonor and -,"

"And if you took a moment to evaluate her, you'd see He is pleased with her," said a female elf nearby wearing a small smile. She tilted her head slightly for a better look before her smile grew. "Another Bear for our ranks? That is wonderful to see, Ardavanshee."

"Thank you, Faernsuor Tira’allara," replied Shi with both relief and pride. Mentally, she noted that the priestess was another who could call her such a name in an acceptable manner.

"Giilvas, I believe Gleweril was looking for you earlier. Perhaps you should see to that?" said Tira'allara as she turned her attention to the priest. As he was of lower rank, and none refused a call from Gleweril, he bowed in reply, looked at Shi'Nynze one last time, and left. "It is good to see you, Shi'Nynze. Some little birds, and one big one, told me you were back."

"Yes," said Shi'Nynze with a slight nod and obvious curiosity at the remark.

"You've made so many animal friends over the decades, you should not be surprised that they noticed your absence and rejoice in your return," replied Tira'allara with a caring smile. It grew slightly, as she continued, "And it is hard to ignore the fascinating stories Athras has told me."

"Athras is here?" asked Shi'Nynze, suddenly excited. "That must mean Keerla is not far behind."

"She never is with you," replied Tira'allara, laughing slightly and shaking her head. "But I would not think you'd come here to find her. You had a different purpose, did you not? Or will you surprise me, and tell me you truly came to please Giilvas by spending the day in prayer and devotion with us?"

There was a pause as Shi'Nynze was reminded of why she sought Tira'allara and another moment as she sorted out her ever quickly changing mood. With a bit of hesitation, she finally replied, "I cannot rule it out, but I… need to talk to you first. For advice."

Tira'allara simply gave Shi'Nynze a nod before leading her to her office. It was one of the few sculpted from the nearby trees. A place of respite, advice, or scolding, all three of which Shi'Nynze had received in the office before. Still, the atmosphere relaxed her as did the tea offered to her. Thankfully, advice was normally the reason Shi'Nynze ended up in the office, and the familiar routine helped put her at ease.

"You have a heaviness about you, Ardavanshee," prompted Tira'allara, serenely.

Shi'Nynze did not answer right away, opting to look at her cup of tea, before she said, quietly, "I am not supposed to be alive, Faernsuor Tira’allara."

The High Priestess simply nodded, saying, "Tell me what happened. Take your time, but do not leave anything out of your story."

There was no suppressing her sigh, one of so many that had built up in her lately, before Shi'Nynze launched into her story. By now, the emotions were mostly held in check. She would never be able to relate how close she was to reuniting with her brother and grandmother without her eyes getting wet, but nothing fell from them. Unlike her parents who wanted the full story simply to understand her pain, Tira'allara wanted to find those details that Shi'Nynze never would have thought twice about, those signs Shi could never see, those actions she had not yet second-guessed or believed there to be other meaning behind it. In order to provide a different perspective on the story, Tira'allara needed to know everything even if it made Shi'Nynze question everything.

"I do not believe it is by accident that you are here, Ardavanshee," remarked Tira'allara, calmly, once Shi'Nynze talked herself back into silence. Seeing the confusion, Tira'allara gave her a small smile. "You are one of His priestesses. Solonor would want you to be here."

"What do you mean?" asked Shi'Nynze, still confused.

"You are here because He knew you'd need guidance to get back on the right path," said Tira'allara, spreading her arms. She moved them to gesture at Shi'Nynze. "And you are here because He could never let an enemy of His take one of His own in such a manner."

"Solonor has Kayugan enemies?" asked Shi'Nynze, her confusion not abating.

"Any who encroach on His forests are an enemy, but I am referring to your death. Are you certain the one who caused it was Kayugan? Are you positive Talos did not slip in to guide her hand? To cast lightning on a priestess of Solonor, and one so quickly gaining His favor…," said Tira'allara before trailing off with a shake of her head. It was a grave, insulting way for any of Solonor's children to go. "I am doubtful He would stand for it."

"I did not consider that," murmured Shi'Nynze with uncertainty.

"I find your immediate interactions with followers of Eilistraee quite interesting as well," said Tira'allara, thoughtful. "We both know the complicated history of Solonor and Eilistraee. It was no easy task you accomplished, but perhaps He sent you as a way to confirm His decision for you to come back to this plane was right. It is not hard to believe He wished to assist Eilistraee with Her troubled followers and saw you as the answer, as a way to repay His favor to you. Not only that, but to perform your first resurrection in the same breath? Even I am impressed, Aravanshee. It is good you created a shrine to Him as it sounds to me as if He is very pleased with it and with you."

"That is a thought," replied Shi'Nynze, slowly. With hesitation, and growing dread at the possible answer, one that would challenge her faith and her return to life, she asked, carefully, "But did I give up my only chance at Arvanaith? Was that taken away from me?"

"I will let you in on a little secret," said Tira'allara, smiling slightly. "It is true most Elves choose to forgo another chance at life as nothing will compare to Arvanaith, but there are those who cannot quite accept that belief. Those that know that truth, but believe that there is a time and place for Arvanaith. They are the ones who seek me, as you do now, as I understand that nothing in life, or death, is black and white."

"There are?" asked Shi'Nynze, trying not to get hopeful.

"Most often they are parents," replied Tira'allara, nodding. "You know how precious Elven children are to this clan. You have recently been reminded of it, have you not? And so precious are these children to us that, if their life is unexpectedly shortened, some will refuse to accept it. I cannot blame them, and I will help them, if it comes to no harm to their soul."

"When would it cause harm to their soul?"

"When they have already reached Arvanaith, but young as they are, they have difficulty finding it, and it is during that short window when a choice must be made. That is why I do not fear for your soul or your chances to return, Ardavanshee. You already confirmed that you were not yet to Arvanaith. You had barely a glimpse of it, but not a taste of it. The sorrow touches you, but you have the ability to overcome it. From what I can see, you are starting to do so already."

There was contemplative silence as Shi'Nynze considering her words, rolled them over her tongue, and mulled over them as she drank her tea. Tira'allara let her, knowing she needed a moment to process the conversation, and knowing she needed this safe space to do so. When Shi'Nynze finally spoke up, Tira'allara was ready with the answer, as the young elf before her was surprisingly not the first to ask it.

"What if it happens again, Faernsuor Tira’allara? Whether by my choice or not, what if I am brought back again after another death?" asked Shi'Nynze, quietly, worriedly.

"Then you must make me a promise, Ardavanshee," said Tira'allara. When Shi nodded, she continued, "You must promise me that you will return here to devote the rest of your life fully and completely to your studies. It will be harder for you to get to Arvanaith, but it will not be impossible. It is a place even Drow can enter, if they put in enough effort, and it will not be closed off to you, but it will take effort to reach it a third time. You will have to devote the rest of your time on this plane to get to that plane. Do you promise me, whether by your choice or not, if you are to return a second time from death, you will immediately seek me out?"

"Without hesitation, Faernsuor Tira’allara. I promise, and if you are not to be found, I promise my full devotion to Solonor and whomever He deems I study under."

"Go make that oath to Solonor, for if such a day ever arises, you will need His help and His favor. Let Him know now what you will give to Him if that day comes."

Setting her empty cup on the desk, Shi'Nynze stood up. There was another small pause, another quiet moment, as Shi said, "Thank you, Tira'allara. For… for many things."

"For you, sumamin, I am always here," replied Tira'allara with a comforting smile. She stood too, if only so she could give a proper hug. "And I have faith that you will be fine."

Relishing the hug, and the rare moments Shi'Nynze was given to appreciate the close mentorship she had with Tira'allara, she let it last as long as she could. Shi gave a smile, and was given another in return, before leaving the office. While Keerla was on the back of her mind, there was a task Shi now had to do, and a renewed purpose in doing it. Keerla would find her, or Shi would find Keerla, when she was done with her oath, but until then, Shi'Nynze devoted the rest of her morning to praying as if she had never prayed before.

A Maze To Forget

Tall, solid hedges stood before them imposing and daring. A few Elves ran past them giggling, but the noise disappeared almost as quickly as they did. Keerla glanced at Shi'Nynze questioningly, but it seemed she really was intent on running the maze today. As Arnn was currently nowhere to be found, and Athras was busy exploring the new city (and likely stealing from the market), this was Shi's activity of choice.

"Mulhy Maze? You sure? We could just skip it and go straight to the lake," said Keerla, hands on her hips as she stared at the wall before her. "You know who normally runs the maze."

"The maze is open to everyone, Keerla," replied Shi'Nynze, slightly distracted.

"Couples and bratty children trying to prove themselves, Shi. You should just ask Nieven."

"He's holed himself up doing… something or another. Another project, I think."

"Already?" asked Keerla with a trace of annoyance. "Didn't you two -,"

"Keerla, please?" interrupted Shi with slight desperation. Keerla raised a brow, waiting for more explanation. Shi sighed as she said, "The last elf I ran this maze with… I need him to stop invading my thoughts so I can enjoy myself. I need new memories to focus on to help me get over the old ones. I want to start here, but I need to run this maze with someone different. I'm not ready for that to be Nieven yet."

"First question,'' prompted Keerla. When Shi gave her a nod, Keerla continued, "Did the pincushion try to barrel his way through without thought last time?"

"Of course he did," replied Shi, frowning.

"While I would be far more graceful, I will instead keep my blade sheathed and we can do this the boring intellectual way," said Keerla, smiling slightly. "Second question: if we're running this as a couple, does that make you my girlfriend for the day?"

"Keerla," replied Shi, laughing, but not answering.

"Hey, if it helps you get the fenedhis out of your head without damaging any potential you have with Nieven, I'm happy to offer my services," said Keerla with a wink.

Shi'Nynze nearly choked with disbelieving laughter at the crude nickname as she replied, "That's an insult to the wolves."

Keerla thought for a second before offering, "Munedhis?"

"Are you coming or not?" asked Shi, rolling her eyes and holding out her hand.

"Anything for you, Gaildahlas," replied Keerla, taking her hand and giving her a peck on the cheek.

"You are impossible," said Shi, shaking her head, smiling, as they walked into the maze.

"Well you didn't say no," replied Keerla, grinning.

Mulhy Maze was the product of the Lorien Academy of Magick. The students of the academy altered the maze each day, sometimes simply changing the paths, but sometimes adding their own riddles and twists. There were many ways to complete the maze which was the joy of it. Of course, as it was a mage's maze, strong-arming through it was generally the least effective way, unless the individual simply was giving up and just wanted out.

As Keerla had pointed out to Shi, which they discovered quickly enough still held true, most Elves who ran through the maze were either couples or younger Elves seeking some fun. There were plenty of dark corners for those wanting it or fun traps that'd launch an elf into the air (with a safe landing ready, of course). The dark corners only reminded Shi of failed flirting attempts and bad jokes, but it was entertaining when Keerla had to yell at a couple, reminding them that there were young Elves nearby and to find a different room if they carried on in that manner. There were puzzles, too, but so far, nothing difficult.

"Create a waterfall without using magic or moving the pot," read Shi on the sign nearby. She turned to look at the pot that sat before them, mostly empty except for the little bit of water at the bottom of it.

"Is tipping the pot moving it?" asked Keerla as she looked into it.

"Don't make me regret asking you to join me," said Shi with a slight smile.

"You only regret asking me because you'd prefer to enjoy those dark corners with Nieven," replied Keerla, winking. "Or maybe that's why you didn't ask him because you knew those dark corners would be much more tempting with Nieven."

"Perhaps I should just run this maze by myself," said Shi, sighing and shaking her head.

"Gaildahlas! You don't really mean that, do you?" asked Keerla with a dramatic gasp. Seeing the look she received in response, Kerala sighed, and said, "Will you at least give me a hint?"

"Athras could figure this out," replied Shi with slight laughter.

After giving Keerla a minute, Shi gave up and headed to the nearby pile of rocks. Just before grabbing one, Kerala smacked her forehead, grabbed the rocks, and put them into the pot. Little by little the water rose until the water dripped onto the ground. The wall hedge blocking their path parted to let them through.

The next puzzle was no more difficult than the last, but cheered Keerla up. Unlike the attempted riddle, this one was far easier to figure out the task. Before them stood three platforms each with colored blocks of different shapes and sizes stacked on top each other. The meaning was clear enough before reading the instructions.

"Now this I can do!" exclaimed Keerla with confidence. "Let me guess: stack them from largest to smallest without moving them off the platforms?"

"Yes," said Shi, nodding as she read the instructions. "They're not trying to be difficult today, are they."

"Don't ruin my fun," replied Keerla, laughing, as she quickly finished the puzzle.

"Oh, you're having fun now?" asked Shi, smiling, as the section opened for them to move on.

"Any day with my Gaildahlas is a fun day," said Keerla, wagging her eyebrows, making Shi laugh harder as they move on.

There were a few similar puzzles, but nothing memorable or hard. Shi'Nynze was starting to regret asking Keerla to run the maze. She knew it'd been some time since she last did, but she couldn't remember it being this boring. When they hit a section of logic puzzles, she got frustrated by the whole experience.

"If this, if that. Why do I care if Keraro has ten berries or if Tanes can't lie at night?" asked Shi, tossing up her hands with annoyance.

"This isn't about the puzzles anymore, is it," commented Keerla, knowingly.

With a sigh, Shi'Nynze shook her head, saying, "Of course not. Running the maze was a stupid idea."

"Was it?" asked Keerla with a sudden smile as she looked past Shi'Nynze.

There wasn't enough time to figure out what Keerla was looking at before a sleek, brown beast pounced on her and knocked her to the ground. The frustration quickly leaked away into laughter as Shi'Nynze playfully wrestled with the jaguarundi before turning it into a big hug. While Arnn generally didn't tolerate affection, he had his exceptions. Keerla, who came over to join the hugging, was his other exception.

"I'm glad I decided to carry these around!" exclaimed Shi'Nynze as she let go of Arrn and started rummaging through her bag. Keerla kept petting the big cat until Shi'Nynze took out the two prosthetics her grandfather had made. Speaking careful, and making sure he understood her, Shi'Nynze said, "These will help you regain your balance. Will you try them on?"

As expected, Arnn had to investigate them carefully before letting Shi'Nynze put them anywhere near him. He sniffed at them, batted at them, and bit them, until he looked back up at her with permission. Carefully, Shi'Nynze first took a look at his bad leg. He'd gotten used to the stub, but the fur was thin at the nub, the skin hardened from using it to walk on. With a gentle hand and a little magic, she cleaned it up and numbed any pain he might have possibly felt. Keeping to that same delicate manner, Shi'Nynze slipped the first prosthetic on, testing its fit and comfort, before sitting back.

The prosthetic, Shi came to later discover, was an exception to her grandfather's desire to create without magic. With help from her father, the fake limb stayed attached with magic. Better, they somehow figure out a way to make the claws extend and retract with the right amount of pressure on the leg. After adding some touch-ups to it, Shi'Nynze was able to paint it to blend in seamlessly with the rest of Arrn's fur. The two prosthetic limbs each had a slightly different fit to them, which Shi'Nynze let Arnn test to decide which was most comfortable, but between the talents of the three of them, none would be the wiser of the limb being fake.

"So you favor this one?" asked Shi'Nynze as she refitted one of the limbs back on the big cat. From the moment he wore the first, and understood how it worked, he'd begun to purr. Once his preferred prosthetic was back on his leg, his purring became loud enough to shake them both.

"I don't think I've ever heard you so happy, Cath'Sha," cooed Keerla, scratching his chin.

"I will leave this one with Iovro’shan. Keerla can get it if you need to replace that one," said Shi'Nynze as she stuffed the other limb back in her bag.

Arnn shook his leg once more, satisfied it wasn't going anywhere, before he rubbed up against Keerla and Shi'Nynze. After taking a very needed stretch, one he could do now with all four limbs, he carefully hopped onto the top of the hedge. With tail swishing, he jumped to another branch, and another, higher and higher, testing his new limits, and thrilled with the results. He disappeared from view, and after a few minutes, they understood he'd stay that way.

"Your grandfather has talent," commented Keerla, brushing herself off, and standing up.

With a nod, Shi'Nynze replied, "He does. It is too bad so few appreciate it."

"They appreciate it. They just simply don't want to admit to needing it. Some elves are too prideful for their own good," said Keerla with a slight smile. "Arnn, however, is not. The question is if Tira'allara will appreciate his new ability to be mischievous. I am guessing not."

"Tira'allara will see good in it," said Shi'Nynze, a little more solemnly as she was reminded of her earlier conversation with the high priestess. "It is Giilvas who will have complaints."

"So let him complain. He will find a reason to complain no matter," said Keerla, bumping her shoulder playfully.

"You only say that as you will not be the one who has to hear it," replied Shi, laughing slightly.

"Guilty as charged, Gaildahlas," said Keerla, grinning. The stood staring at the hedge before them before she asked, "So are we done with this maze yet?"

With a sigh, Shi'Nynze gestured to the hedge wall before them, saying, "Go for it."

With a growing grin, Keerla carefully took out her sword, stared at the leaves and branches before them, and snapped her wrist in a quick and precise manner. It was not a maneuver Shi was able to follow, but the results were obvious. The new opening was very clean and decisive. Even Shi'Nynze was impressed by it as they walked through it to exit the maze.

"I have not been gone that long, and yet you've improved that much?" asked Shi'Nynze, watching the hole made close up once they had gone through it.

"You thought I'd slack while you were gone? How could I impress my Gaildahlas if I hadn't improved?" replied Keerla, sneaking in a cheek peck.

"Color me impressed," said Shi'Nynze, laughing.

With a sad sigh, Keerla, replied, "I suppose this means I have to keep doing my best."

"You are the envy of many elves, myself included, and I will be sorely disappointed if you ever stop your training," remarked Shi'Nynze, lightly.

"We could never have that now, could we?" said Keerla, grabbing her hand, smiling, and pulling her towards the lake. After only a minute or two, she asked, "Do you want to talk about it?"

The pause was short before Shi'Nynze replied, "I cannot stop myself still from imagining what could have happened if things had gone differently. What if I had not gone on that trip? What if I had used a different spell? What if, what if, what if? How do you stop it?"

"This is why I am not a philosopher. You know I hate those questions," said Keerla, shaking her head. "But if you insist on dwelling in them, are you giving the positives as much attention as you are giving the negatives?"

"Enlighten me, Quess'ar'Teranthvar," said Shi'Nynze with a slight hum and mocking bow.

The response made Keerla laugh and gave her hope. The joking manner in which Shi'Nynze was already able to take such a serious question meant she was finally on the mend. She was not whole, or she wouldn't still be plagued by such thoughts, but it was a welcomed sign of improvement.

Still smiling, and still cautious of her words, Keerla replied, "You are focused on the possibilities of a bad outcome without realizing the good that has come from it. You have discovered a new angle to take your art to create more powerful pieces. You have met your niece and started building that relationship now rather than years down the road. You've discovered the limits of a pincushion after a short bout before you invested more of your life into that foray. My dear sweet Shi'Nynze has even redefined her relationship with her god. I have never seen you pray so hard, so completely, but I do not think it is bad. I think good will come from it. Good already has, and I would not be surprised if more does."

"You think so?" asked Shi'Nynze, the uncertainty mild as she could hear truth to those words.

"I do, especially once Nieven gets some sense knocked into him, even if I am the one who has to do it," replied Keerla with a mischievous grin. It did not disappear as she sped their pace towards the lake. "Now come on. The water is waiting, and you were going to show me how much your swimming has improved. Besides, I can't wait to see you in your new swimwear, Gaildahlas."

"Keerla," said Shi'Nynze with another laugh and the slightest blush.

"You agreed to being my girlfriend for the day. Let me enjoy it while I can," replied Keerla, winking.

A Song of Healing

"I think I've got it," said Nieven, clearly excited.

A few days had passed since they last talked. While Shi'Nynze made the rounds to greet everyone else who'd yet to see her, Nieven had holed himself up in his room. When she went by once more, her uncle answered and still wouldn't let her inside. Shi'Nynze again asked what Nieven was doing, but Aolis only winked at her and said he wouldn't ruin the surprise. He dragged her away before she could try to figure it out herself.

Although Shi tried to deny her desire to see him, she didn't hesitate when Nieven finally asked her to visit. She left only a few minutes after she received the message. It was obvious, when Nieven opened the door, that sleep had eluded him. It reminded her a little too much of her grandfather when he was consumed by a project.

"Have you rested at all? Or had anything to eat?" asked Shi'Nynze, unable to stop herself from falling into routine questioning. Grandfather always forgot to eat.

"Briefly," said Nieven, waving off her concerns as she walked inside. "It doesn't matter. It still needs work, but I think I'm ready to show you."

"Show me what?" asked Shi, confused. It didn't clear up when he handed her a beautifully scripted piece of sheet paper. Only one or two words and notes were crossed out and replaced, but there was a pile of ripped and balled up papers in the corner.

"This," said Nieven, excitement not dimming. "The lyrics. What do you think?"

"Heruamin lotirien alai uethri maeria," murmured Shi'Nynze as she read. She frowned slightly, the confusion not quite cleared up. "I'm not familiar with this dialect."

"I didn't think you would be. It is an older one, but one of the first I started studying. It worked best for the song. You can understand it, though, yes?" asked Nieven, hopefully.

"I feel the sun through the ashes in the sky," read Shi'Nynze after a minute of deciphering. She kept reading, some to herself, some out loud. "I have run through the fields of pain and sighs. I am the one who will live on."

"I took some liberties with the word choice, but you see where I am going with it?" said Nieven as the apprehension started to break through his hope and excitement.

"Nieven, what is this?" asked Shi, quietly. Her tone gave nothing away.

"A song for you. A way to reclaim your voice," said Nieven with uncertainty. He picked up one of his many instruments as he continued, "Would you… like to hear it?"

"Please," replied Shi'Nynze, finally alleviating his growing anxiety a bit.

It was, unsurprisingly, absolutely beautiful. It was also, surprisingly, very touching. Shi'Nynze thought she was done with all the strong emotions she'd been feeling lately, but the song stirred quite a few of them back up. Her eyes were misty by the time he finished.

"What do you think?" asked Nieven, again, now that she'd heard it in full.

"Beautiful," whispered Shi'Nynze. Hard though it was to hear her, it had Nieven beaming.

"With your voice it will be," said Nieven as he reached over to wipe away an escaping tear from her eyes.

"Did you really write this in only a few days?" asked Shi with a slightly embarrassed laugh as she wiped away the rest of the moisture with her sleeve.

Nieven shook his head as he said, "I've had the melody down and an idea of the lyrics for a while now. I've been trying to write you a new song for some time, but talking to you helped me figure out what it needed to be."

"Thank you," replied Shi as she leaned over to give him a kiss. The smile he wore grew, looking exactly like the ecstatic one he had when he greeted her. In a quieter voice, she added, "Ma melava halani."

"Ara melava son’ganem," replied Nieven, softly. He gave her an encouraging smile as he strummed the first few notes. "Let's find your voice, shall we?"

It was wobbly, but her voice was there. Even when Shi'Nynze stumbled, or lost it for a few beats, or her throat unexpectedly caught, Nieven encouraged her and she found her way back. It was going to take persistence and practice, they both knew it, but for the first time in too long, the music started calling to her again.

A Voice For The Voiceless

While Shi'Nynze tried not to be, she was starting to get frustrated. The music was there, finally calling to her, but it was still weak, and worse, her voice would not do what she wanted it to do. The beautiful, eloquent song Nieven had written just for her simply was not meeting her expectations when they practiced and she sang. She felt she was not doing it justice. Of no surprise, Nieven was patient and reassuring, but Shi'Nynze was not satisfied with how it was going, especially if he was truly hoping for them to perform it at Sora Stage. Her voice was nowhere near ready for that.

After another practice where Shi'Nynze was still not content with how it was going, Nieven gently suggested she get guidance from her mother. While Lorahana knew of her troubles, Shi'Nynze still worried for her mother to know to what extent she was having difficulties. Unfortunately, Nieven ruined her only flimsy excuse by giving her permission to let her parents hear the song they'd been working on. They were often an exception from his rule of not letting anyone hear his work until he was ready, as they had to be since Lorahana was tutoring him and her father sometimes gave him advice (living with her uncle, he was also added to the list of exceptions), but Shi'Nynze still had that small hope this song would be different. It was not.

Shi'Nynze waited until breakfast the next morning to finally ask her mother for help. It was a simple request, but her mother's face undeniably lit up at the request. Lorahana jumped right to it, postponing her other tentative plans that day to have a music lesson with her daughter. There was no hiding how disappointed Shi was with herself from her mother, but it only made her mother thoughtful. After all, it wasn't a problem she'd encountered before, yet nothing motivated her more towards finding a solution than to see the distress it caused her daughter.

"You shy from the music, asha'lan," stated her mother after having Shi'Nynze repeat a verse.

Shi'Nynze did not immediately reply, as she considered what she'd just sung, before saying, "I am still afraid of losing it, mamae. It just came back to me. What if it leaves again?"

"The weight of this song adds to your anxieties," replied her mother, knowingly. She was quiet for a moment before saying, "It helped you find your way back to your voice, but it needs some support. Perhaps some improvisation tonight?"

"You think that'll help, mamae?" asked Shi'Nynze with hope and undeniable excitement. It had been so long since she'd had such a session with her family, and she missed them.

"Your voice needs some freedom before you try to reign it back in," said her mother, nodding. With a smile, she continued, "I'll let your father know so no one tries to rope him in for a meeting this evening. You should ask Nieven to join. He will be your support when you are on stage, after all. Strengthening that relationship will help your voice."

With a plan in place, they took a break from practice. While her mother left to get her message to her father, probably in person, Shi'Nynze went to visit Nieven. On one hand, Shi was certain her mother was again trying to encourage any blossoming feelings between them as she had always done. On the other hand, it was a good point her mother made. If Shi was going to be performing with Nieven, she needed to make sure they had a good dynamic, and playing music off script was a great way to do it.

Now as to her mother's insistence that he come for dinner beforehand? That was likely more meddling in her daughter's life than anything else. While her parents both cooked, her mother prepared dinner that night. Shi's belief that there was more to the dinner invitation for Nieven was bolstered by the unusually good meal prepared that night: crunchy fiddlehead fern salad, lake trout baked with juniper berries and violets, buttered leaves (poke and beech leaves with nut butter - not the odd, fatty butter Shi was introduced to during her travels), and battered blossoms (elderberry, redbud, and dandelion) and berries. All that was missing was the special lyreleaf greeneye seasoning, although it wouldn't have added much to dessert this time.

Good food and good conversation soon became instruments tuning and advice being exchanged. Although her father played as a hobby whereas Nieven was dedicated to the craft, there was over a century of experience difference. Nieven was always happy to hear any new tips or tricks. As it was, considering their goal for the night, Yinris did have a few extra words of advice for Nieven, but they were not said loud enough for Shi'Nynze to hear them.

Shi'Nynze and her mother initially just listened as Yinris and Nieven tried to find common ground and set the tone for the night. They played back and forth until a rhythm could be found and the music melded almost seamlessly. Once in sync, they played a tune here and there until Lorahana joined in, adding vocals wherever the music took her.

It was enjoyable to watch and hear, but like jump roping, it was harder for Shi'Nynze to find the right time to join in. While she tried not to get frustrated, she could not help but think how it'd never been a problem for her before. Rather than let that frustration build and cause her to fluster, her ever observant parents readjusted to make it easier for her to join.

Although it was mildly successful, it was still difficult for Shi'Nynze to find her voice to set it free. She saw her mother and father exchange a nearly subtle look before he switched to a different chord. They had played together as a family for so long words were hardly needed, but Nieven did briefly fall off his playing as it was clear a new plan was in place, but not one he knew.

After a few measures, her mother lead Shi'Nynze into the music with vocals. She guided her further with hand motions and head movements. Nieven soon seamlessly joined in, and with her mother's encouragement and the music in her ears, Shi'Nynze finally let go. They sang together and apart, one voice lifting the other before drifting off on their own. Soon enough, it was her mother simply supporting her voice with her own. Meanwhile, her father and Nieven buoyed them along and kept them afloat, going with the flow, and in doing so, took her away from those earlier doubts and worries.

"Mar lahn elas tarosa, ara da'ean," praise Yinris before smoothly moving onto the next song, one Shi was able to join easily.

With the dam broken, Shi'Nynze was at last able to fully enjoy an evening of music and singing. There was no song or lyrics to adhere to, and so she was free to explore what she could do, or what she might still be able to do, with practice. She was able to familiarize herself with the voice she had lost, to test its limits and discover its unknown potentials.

Encouraged from the freeing night, Shi'Nynze and Nieven resumed practice the following morning on his song. It still needed work, but Shi'Nynze finally felt satisfied with how things were progressing. She believed that maybe she actually would be able to perform it on Sora Stage soon.

While Shi was reluctant to admit it, her mother's plan had work. It was not the success of her plan to find Shi'Nynze's voice that she did not want to admit. She'd easily sing praises to its achievement. Rather, it was how much closer Shi felt to Nieven she hated to admit. Perhaps it was due some to her current vulnerability, but by the end of the day full of more than just music practice with him, she did not care. Shi was happy, and rare as that'd been lately, she wasn't going to question it.

I Am The One

Performances at Sora Stage were nearly a daily occurance, rarely never, and often busiest towards the evening when the sun was setting perfectly to spotlight the stage. It was an impressive spot in Divakeah, with the trees carefully shaped around the edges to amplify and reflect the sound. The canopy opened just right to the east and to the west so the beautiful light and colors of the sky added to the atmosphere at the right times of day. The earth had been shaped and molded to allow multiple, mini-stages if desired, seating for all viewpoints, and crowds of various sizes. It was a unique place to the non-elven eye, but masterfully crafted and clearly the place to go if you had something you felt was worth sharing.

Shi'Nynze had already come a few evenings to enjoy song, dance, and other performances with Keerla and Nieven, but tonight was different. The crowds were bigger than usual, which did not help her nerves, and she was going to be one of the ones performing tonight. What hadn't been a source of anxiety in her past, made her suddenly uncertain and uncomfortable. No matter how much they practiced, she worried the music would leave her again.

"You've got this," said Nieven, lightly grabbing her hand and giving it a kiss.

The atmosphere was always a laidback one, and perfection wasn't necessarily expected, but Shi'Nynze was with Nieven, the rising musician and reason for the bigger crowds. Elves seem to constantly want to hear what new songs he had written. It would only be later, after their performance, that Keerla would point out to her that Shi was a reason for the interest as well as the daughter of the famed singer Lorahana.

As they waited to jump on stage, Shi'Nynze risked looking around at the gathered. Keerla was the easiest to find, front and center in the crowd, excitement evident as she shot Shi an encouraging grin. Her parents and uncle only took a little longer to find, the opposite of Keerla, and farther in the back. While her father claimed the acoustics were better in the back, her mother wanted to see how well her daughter's voice carried. As it was, along with her uncle, they were the only ones who'd heard the song already, during practices, and so they were more than happy to let others see it up close.

Shi'Nynze caught her mother's eye who mimed some advice her way. Warm her vocal chords, open her lungs, focus on her diaphragm. In the past, she would have been annoyed at her mother reminding her of the very basics of singing. Now, she fully appreciated it as it gave her something to focus on and help her feel prepared, especially as their turn was next.

Nieven gave her hand another squeeze before she let go to walk up on the stage. He was right behind her, carrying a stool and setting it next to her. He sat down on it, testing to make sure his strings were correctly tuned, before glancing up at her. At her nod, he played a few notes, slowly, and the crowd quieted down. A measure in, Shi added vocals, and a few measures after that, switched to the lyrics.

(Ancient Elvish) ♫♪(Translation) ♫♪
Heruamin lotirien
Alai uethri maeria
Halurocon yalei nam bahna
Dolin nereba maome

Ame amin
Halai lothi amin
Aloamin Heruamin

Heruamin oh lonai
Imwe naine beriole

Ame amin
Halai lothi amin
Aloamin Heruamin

Ame amin
Halai lothi amin

Ame amin
Halai lothi amin
Noamin Heruamin
I feel sun
Through the ashes in the sky.

Where's the one
Who'll guide us into the night?

What's begun
Is the war that will
Force this divide.

What's to come
Is fire and the end of time.

I am the one
Who can recount
What we've lost.

I am the one
Who will live on.

I have run
Through the fields
Of pain and sighs.

I have fought
To see the other side.

I am the one
Who can recount
What we've lost.

I am the one
Who will live on.

It was not long before Toross and Ryalle jumped on stage and jumped in with their instruments to compliment Nieven's playing. The two elves were well-known master musicians, and when a song inspired them, they readily joined as if they knew the piece by heart. Just a quick glance at the sheet of music left out for reference of chords, and they were soon emphasizing Shi'Nynze's voice and boosting Nieven's short solo making it more prominent. More than that, they let the music fully take hold of her and let her make it into something of her own. It was the beauty of Elven music in one, glorious moment, and based on the cheers when the song finished, it was received as such.

"Yes, yes, yes!" exclaimed Keerla, jumping on stage to hug Shi'Nynze as she was making her exit after the clapping. Keerla walked with her, and once they were fully off-stage, included Nieven in her hug. "No one is ever going to forget that performance. You were both so wonderful!"

"Keerla, please… ," said Nieven, blushing as he carefully extracted himself.

"But it's true!" said Keerla, hugging Shi tighter. "I'm so proud of both of you."

"All I did was sing," said Shi'Nynze, embarrassed and unable to free herself.

"Stop. You know if I sang...," replied Keerla, raising an eyebrow, no need to finish her sentence.

"Keep it to your blade, El'Tael," said Toross with a wink. He nodded towards Ryalle as he turned towards Nieven and Shi'Nynze. "We haven't had that much fun in what feels like years. We look forward to your next song, Avae'essa."

Both blushing more at the unexpected praise by master musicians, and Shi'Nynze finally freed from Keerla, Nieven and her both gave Toross and Ryalle a bow as the two elves left. There was, of course, more praise to quickly follow from other elves as they worked to disappear back into the crowds. It took time and some work, but they eventually made it to the back where their families waited with their own hugs and praise.

Day of Enlightenment

The days were finally starting to meld into a comfortable blur. For many Elves, this was preferred, and Shi'Nynze was finally able to appreciate it. Up until recently, almost every single day had been marked by strong emotions, most of them negative, but those days were getting to be fewer and fewer. She was beginning to look towards the present and future while leaving the past to her memories.

There was a pattern starting to form for how she spent her days. If she was not with Keerla, she was with Nieven, and sometimes, both. There were some mornings she spent at the Shrine and some evenings she spent solely with her family. Sometimes with Meira and Elindra, sometimes with her grandfather, and sometimes just with her parents, perhaps her uncle, too.

As Shi'Nynze started adjusting to the blissful blurring, she couldn't help but to notice the differences now to when she was last home. The most obvious was the complete absence of Keldorldrin. While reminders of him still turned her thoughts sour, she was beginning to understand more of what influences he had had on her life. These were most notable whenever she spent time with Nieven.

There were no casual remarks with jealousy leaking out. There were no proclaimed accidental stumbling upon them together. Most of all, there was no more second guessing coming from her. Shi'Nynze was finally able to give Nieven her complete attention, something she realized with shame she hadn't in the past, yet something she was fully committed to doing now. Of course, there was still that awkward moment before she last left, that single phrase never discussed, that still hovered between them, unsaid, unacknowledged, but they were able to ignore it. Mostly.

"I'm so glad to see you doing so well. Your little ones are beautiful. Look how strong they are already!" cooed Shi'Nynze with affection at the little birds perched on her arm. The littlest of the birds flapped with a chirp of pride. Hearing footsteps, she continued, "We can talk again soon. Thank you for introducing your family to me, Arior. You keep taking good care of them and yourself. Swift winds, my friends."

With another round of happy tweets, the little birds fluttered off her arm and away. Shi'Nynze watched them for a minute before turning her attention to the dripping wet elf next to her. Nieven was still watching after the birds before he shook his head with a smile.

"This is what I lo-, er, appreciate most about you," said Nieven, stumbling slight over his word choice. Thankfully, the words were similar enough in Elvish it was likely not noticed, but on the chance it was, he kept talking without pause. "You see everything worthy of friendship, from the smallest bird to the largest cat. They come back to you, too, and you give each one a name, so you know it is genuine."

"I had not noticed until recently," replied Shi'Nynze with a light blush, giving no indication if the blushing was from the praise or from the word so carefully unspoken even in a simple sentence. "So many have sought me out since I have returned. Each time, they tell me that someone else was looking for me, and they'll let them know where I am or that I am back."

"It is an admirable trait to have," said Nieven, smiling. He sat down next to her, kissed her cheek, and handed her a filled bottle. "I brought you some more water."

"I think there is more on you than there is in this bottle," replied Shi'Nynze, laughing. She gratefully took it, moving her brushes from the dirty water to the clean, and resumed with painting her sketches.

"The sun will dry me," said Nieven as he stretched out on the grass in the sunbeam, his eyes on the canopy, relaxing. Within minutes, he was lightly humming, and every now and then, he heard vocalise next to him, joining his song without thought or effort.

They had decided to spend the day at Koehaera Falls. It was another nice swimming spot, but more to their interest, there was a shallow cave hidden behind the vast amounts of falling water. Anyone older than a child knew there was a reason couples often visited Koehaera Falls, but even when they were done with that fun, they enjoyed what else was offered at the scenic spot. When Shi'Nynze got tired of swimming, she decided to practice her art. While Nieven brought his notebook as well for any song ideas he had, he'd spent most of his time enjoying the water until he tired himself out.

"I will have to ask Aesar how to make better paints," remarked Shi'Nynze as she cleaned up, finished with her art for the moment. "The quality I have found on my travels have been subpar. I've since been attempting to make my own, but they do not do what I want. I don't know if it's me, or if it's the quality of the ingredients. The Mist does odd things to the life down there."

"I find it hard to believe there is life there," replied Nieven, simply, his eyes remaining on the canopy as he soaked in the dimming warmth of the sun. With each passing day he was reminded that their time together was shortening, and he had yet to come to terms with it.

"I have been trying to keep track of it: when things bloom, how their colors differ or change each year, if certain species are migrating or coming back. Things like that, the patterns others do not see, the things Ancien misses when he sleeps. It is a place being forced to adapt, and if I am to help protect it, I must know if it is adapting well, or if it needs more help," said Shi'Nynze, absently. She touched the paper of her sketchbook, satisfied to find it dried quickly in the sunshine, and carefully closed it before turning towards Nieven. "There is more to protecting a forest then just stopping Or'Hahlorkhs."

"Gabreths," commented Nieven without thought. There was the briefest pause as Shi'Nynze registered his word of choice before he looked over, blushing as he realized it was spoken out loud. "Sorry."

"Your father makes some valid points," replied Shi, quietly, with a small smile and shake of her head. "You do not need to apologize for it."

"Not all agree," said Nieven, uncomfortable.

"How is he?" asked Shi'Nynze with genuine curiosity.

"I am still surprised he came to the concert. He ...never cares to stay for long, though." Suddenly presented with a topic less desirable than the one he had been trying to find courage to bring up, Nieven finally asked, "You will let me know before you leave, won't you?"

"Why would I not?" asked Shi'Nynze, confused and slightly hurt.

"I mean you won't wait until the last moment? You'll give me time to… to prepare?" replied Nieven, sitting up, nerves and uncertainty getting to him.

"Of course. You deserve more than a last minute goodbye," said Shi'Nynze, blushing at the comparatively abrupt departure she took last time. She turned her eyes towards the trees, not quite able to look at him, as she brought up her own uncomfortable concern. "You deserve… a happy life, Nieven. I do not know how long I'll be gone. I… I cannot unfairly ask for you to wait for me to come back."

"What if that is my choice?" asked Nieven with a surprisingly firm challenge to his voice. The force with which it was said made her blush more and look back at him, baffled. "What if I want to wait for you? Just as Ievos waited for Ruavain each time she left for an adventure, I am willing to wait for your return."

The comparison took Shi'Nynze by surprise. As that quickly passed, she frowned with suspicion, asking, "Is it my uncle or my mother I need to scold this time?"

"Your family means well," replied Nieven, evasively, his turn to blush.

Shi'Nynze watched Nieven carefully, the suspicion never leaving her expression, before she nodded slowly, saying, "I believe I need to have a word with my uncle later. I never realized how much of a busybody he was until recently."

"Unless you have a good reason for me not to wait, it is what I will do," said Nieven, refusing to give her even a small hint as to if her assumption was correct.

"Only guilt," replied Shi, shaking her head, still believing it was asking too much from him, but unable to hide her slight smile at his stubbornness. "You still do not want to adventure?"

"I would only get in the way," said Nieven, scratching the back of his neck. "But if you decide to keep adventuring, I will support that. Every elf has something different they need in life."

"I am glad you understand," said Shi, quietly. Rather than dwell on thoughts of the elf who kept trying to get her to come back home, with an attempt at humor, Shi prompted, "I do not know if I should be grateful my uncle gave you a place to stay or not."

"It was actually your father who found me a place to live," commented Nieven as he started to fidget again. They were steering close to the earlier topic he disliked, but he no longer knew if he could avoid it. Or if he should avoid it.

"Babae meddles?!" exclaimed Shi'Nynze, incredulous at the claim.

While Yinris wanted what was best for his daughter, he was the least likely to ever try to purposefully shape the growth of her life. As he had told her, he believed she was capable enough to do so on her own, and she should be allowed to blossom on her own merit. He also let it slip once that he thought she had enough interference from other members of the family, and that she didn't need him to add to it.

"Not like your mother and uncle," replied Nieven, shaking his head.

With a frown, Shi'Nynze said, "So you admit it was my uncle. You've never mentioned him as meddlesome before now."

Nieven gave her a small smile before he sighed and looked away. It was clear his focus was on past memories when he replied, "Your father sees and hears so many things others do not or will not. He is the one who let your uncle know of the… difficulties I was having in finding a place where I could grow on my own."

"Difficulties?" asked Shi'Nynze, perturbed.

"You know some of them, but I do not believe you understand the extent of them," said Nieven, rubbing his arm. "Even with the increasing appreciation for my music, to allow me another place to live to better focus on it, is still asking too much from some, apparently."

"Because you're half-Sylvan? Do they think you'll suddenly turn violent on them or something?" asked Shi, quickly angered at the very thought. "Who was it? I'll show them they're wrong."

"More than one whose mind you cannot change with a simple scolding," replied Nieven with a sad smile. He took her hand to kiss and to hold, stopping her words before she could say them. "There is little more you can do than you are already doing except… to listen to me."

Shi'Nynze bit her tongue to stop the oncoming tirade. She looked up, took a calming breath, and finally nodded. After shifting her position to wrap her arms around him, she said, "Okay."

"Thank you," said Nieven, kissing her head and moving to accept and return the embrace. "I know you wish you could do more, but you and your family have already done so much. Your family makes an effort to include my father in activities when he's comfortable enough to visit. The only concern your uncle had for lending me a room was it being too meddlesome in your life. He says he had no qualms with me, and I do believe him as he continues to let me stay and treats me well. Your father has made sure to voice his concerns about practicing what is preached in equality, especially in matters brought up to council. Your mother didn't think twice about tutoring me when I sought her out. You have called out those Elves on their unpleasantness before and continue to do so. Much like you do not quite understand some of the difficulties my family has had, I don't think you understand the influence of yours, either."

"What do you mean?"

"Your family may be… unique, in some ways, but it is an old and respected family. For being very… carefree and uninterested in the opinions of others, others certainly care about the opinions of you and your family."

"What about your mother? Is her word not good enough?"

"Some High Elves seem to wonder why she'd fall for my father. I've heard whispers of similar disbelief about… us."

"I'm really good at scolding," muttered Shi'Nynze, hugging him tight and receiving similar in return. There was a pause before she said, "You never did tell me how your parents met."

"My mother was on her way back to Selihar. My father was keeping watch for his encampment when he spotted her. He knew then he had to meet her. When she sat for a break, he revealed himself to her. It was love at first sight," replied Nieven, simply, as if that told the whole story.

"Love at first sight?" repeated Shi'Nynze, skeptically. "Do you believe in that?"

"You don't?" countered Nieven, a bit surprised and uncomfortable, hoping the way they were situated would prevent her from seeing his sudden deep blushing.

His refusal to answer, and the way his tone altered ever so slightly, made Shi'Nynze blush, too, and caused her to seek a change of topics and some reassurance. Lightly clearing her throat, she said, "Not that I don't think your parents care for each other. It's clear they do. I, um, just thought their relationship alone might change some minds."

"It has changed some of my father's family's minds, and some of my mother's family's minds. I suppose it has changed some minds of others, too, but not everyone. That will take more work."

"Is your father's clan as bothered as some are here by the relationship?"

"From what I have been told, once they understood my mother harbored no ill-will, most were fine with her. As quick as some Elves are for judging Sylvan for violence, they seem to ignore their capacity for love," replied Nieven, matter-of-factly, his blush much lighter than it was only moments ago. "My father worries about what living here, somewhere more civilized, is doing to me. He told me to hold true to my roots and never ignore what my heart tells me to do like a true Sylvan. His clan, and my family on his side, accepted my mother because my father did as any Sylvan would do: live by his heart. You don't need logic for that."

"I like that thought," commented Shi'Nynze, more to herself, wearing a small smile.

"For some things, yes," replied Nieven with a slight chuckle. "But while they can be elegant in thoughts and actions, it hurts my ears when I go to visit. Did I tell you my father's family is the reason I decided to study different Elven dialects?"

"No," said Shi, shaking her head, interested.

"Their Elvish is… well, it's a bit crude. Maybe they don't need it to be anything more. You can very well tell what they're feeling when they talk to you by their body language, but it was odd to me the first time Father took me with him to visit. It was nothing like what I heard growing up in Selihar. Trying to tell my cousins why something upset me, but them being unable to help because they didn't have the right words to understand my distress… I had to learn their dialect, first, so that we could communicate better, and then that got me curious about other Elves, and older Elvish, and well, it is something enjoyable to learn," said Nieven, shrugging.

"Was your music and your studies the full reason you came to Divaekah?" asked Shi'Nynze, wanting to take advantage of Nieven's current openness to learn more about him.

"Yes and no," replied Nieven, his gaze once again on his memories. "My parents did want to offer me better opportunities to let my music flourish. Divaekah was easily the best choice for it, but I do not think that alone is what convinced them to move here. It is… well, in some ways, my father vastly prefers Selihar, but it was a contradiction for him. Selihar is not quite so built up which he prefers, but those Elves who are ...uncertain about my family are ...more vocal there. Divaekah is much bigger, much more diverse, with more Elves of mixed blood, and so in many ways, much more accepting. The voices are still there, but they are quieter, more subtle, in their disagreements. It is easier to pretend they do not exist."

There was another brief pause as Nieven reached out to idly play with a strand of glass before he continued, "My parents gave up their comfort for me. My father has such a hard time staying here for very long, much harder than any time he spent in Selihar, and often, because of me, my mother decides to remain here while he recoups with his clan. They would always tell me it was very normal for Elven couples to spend time apart, and I know that is true to a degree, but they spend more time apart than together. From what I have seen, I believe it is mostly due to being in Divaekah and not with any problems between them."

"I'm sorry," said Shi'Nynze, quietly, unsure what else she could offer.

Nieven simply shook his head as a small way of saying he'd come to terms with it, as he replied, "My mother has been talking more and more about moving back to Selihar, or possibly going to spend time with my father and his clan, now that I am mostly on my own. Your uncle letting me stay with him has offered my parents more reassurance than you can imagine. I will not be surprised when she finally makes that decision, especially if it is soon."

"I suppose this means I do need to be grateful for my uncle offering you a place to say," said Shi'Nynze, lightly and thoughtfully. "Meddlesome or not."

There was a slight laugh from Nieven and then hesitation as he asked, "Do you know why your uncle's home has reassured my parents so much?"

Shi'Nynze paused to consider the question before carefully replying, "It is something more than stability and being roommates with an elf whom you can trust, I am guessing."

"He is a twin," said Nieven, rubbing his neck again as a sign of his uncertainty at giving her an honest answer. "From what I know, all Elves seem to understand what a blessing twins are upon any family, but… well, all Sylvan know that twins are an undeniable good omen, moreso when they have eyes that reflect the sky. Your uncle and father may not be Sylvan, but my parents, my father especially, believe they bring good fortune, and that by staying with your uncle, good fortune will be brought to me, too."

There was another beat of silence as Nieven questioned if he should have even brought it up, but was relieved to discover that, once more, the silence was just contemplation. Finally, Shi nodded slowly, saying, "I can believe that. Overall I would say I have been incredibly fortunate to have the father and uncle that I have, and it seems to have been nothing but good for you since you moved into my uncle's spare room. I might have some complaints about my uncle, especially lately, but I would not trade him, or any of my family, for anything. I hope you can say the same about yours."

Much like Shi'Nynze, Nieven took a few seconds before he finally replied, "I can."

Shi'Nynze shifted so she could easily give him a proper kiss before saying, "Thank you for being so open and honest with me, Nieven. I treasure moments like these."

"Thank you for listening to me, Shi'Nynze," replied Nieven, simply, as he followed her kiss with one of his own, one that spoke far more of his feelings than any of the words he knew could.

Later that night…

While the night had been another long one, one of many lately, it was not one to complain about. These were the nights Aolis preferred when he spent time with his family: eating dinner together, playing games, making music, and lighthearted chatting. Almost every day ended the same, too, where he'd talk with his brother late into the night, just as they had always done, although now they did not need to worry about being scolded for staying up so late.

The inevitable exhaustion had him stumbling home where he was never quite sure what awaited him anymore. Before his niece had returned, it was an easy question of if there would be light shining under the door of the guest room or not. While at least this time he knew his niece wasn't there as he had just seen her, it was anyone's guess as to what Nieven was up to, if he was up. As it was? He was.

Aolis gave the young elf a tired nod as he walked by him on his way to his room. There was no response. Nieven was far too focused on picking at the food in front of him. Food that looked to have lost its warmth hours ago. Food that hadn't been touched. The longer Aolis looked at Nieven, the more he realized he couldn't simply walk away. While he may not have had kids of his own, it didn't mean he hadn't seen such behavior from his niece and nephew in times past. It also meant he couldn't just ignore it.

With a tired sigh, Aolis sat down heavily in the chair opposite of Nieven, prompting, "Are you going to eat at all or are you content to stare at it?"

"Aolis!" exclaimed Nieven, jumping in surprise and embarrassment. The latter was made worse when he dropped his utensil which loudly clattered to the floor. "Sorry! Sorry. I, um…"

"Laev, Da Evaliir," said Aolis, calmly, picking the utensil up off the floor while Nieven tried to clean the food it spilled off the table. "Something troubling you?"

"No! No. It's, um, no, I'm fine," replied Nieven, unconvincingly. Aolis simply waited while Nieven started to blush more until he admitted, "I mean, yes, but um, … well, you're apparently meddlesome so I probably shouldn't…"

"I'd hate to prove my niece wrong," interrupted Aolis with a sudden grin. "Come now. I will do what I think best for her regardless."

It was clear he hadn't quite convinced Nieven yet as the young elf said nothing while he finished cleaning his mess. He stood up to throw it away and wipe his hands, the action slowing as he stared at the counter trying to figure out what to do. Still avoiding eye contact with Aolis, eventually, he said, "It shouldn't matter as long as I keep following your advice. Right?"

"I have been informed my advice became moot by words she spoke to you before she first left," replied Aolis as he stretched and leaned back in the chair.

"Shi told you about that?" asked Nieven, looking straight at Aolis, clearly mortified. With a hint of panic, he continued, "I didn't know she told… oh gods, what if she tells Keerla? I wouldn't hear the end of it. Unless Keerla already knows? No there's no way she'd keep that secret unless… oh gods what am I going to do?"

"Sit down. Breathe," said Aolis, sighing. Nieven complied, but barely. "I don't know why you two insist on trying to make this more complicated than it needs to be. That was the past. When the time comes to say such words to each other again, you will know. There is no need to fret over it."

"You don't understand," replied Nieven as the misery quickly overtook his earlier panic.

"Then help me understand," said Aolis, patiently. As he watched the young elf start to blush again while his lips remained locked, he prompted, "Arael'Manthor. It will remain between us."

Nieven looked at Aolis, weighing such an oath against his carefully guarded secret, one he realized might already be compromised. He could not maintain eye contact before he finally asked, "Do you believe in love at first sight?"

As quick as Aolis usually was to tease, Nieven was immensely relieved to see no hint of that when he had the courage to look up at him. The older elf had that same thoughtful expression Nieven had seen on Shi'Nynze earlier that day, promising an answer that wasn't going to mock him. While Aolis also had a worrisome glint of understanding in his eyes, too, Nieven realized he was hopeful he'd now have someone else besides his parents to help him figure things out.

"I grew up hearing the most absurd tales from my mother, many of which she was able to prove were true. I've seen her wondrous, confusing, fantastic wand in action. My brother understands and speaks an incomprehensible number of languages. My niece has told me stories from her travels I'd have a hard time believing were they coming from another's lips. With all the strange, extraordinary, magical, and weird things in this world, why would it be hard to believe something as innocuous as love at first sight exists?" replied Aolis, fairly. He shrugged, as he added, "I do not think it exists for everyone. It certainly hasn't for me, but I do think it can exist for others."

"Many Sylvan believe in it, in a similar fashion, that it exists even if they themselves may not experience it," said Nieven, quietly, the relief plain in his voice. "I do not think as many High Elves do, though."

"Too much logic clouding our hearts, yes?" asked Aolis with a reassuring grin. Nieven hesitated for a second before giving him a nod and small smile. "But that does not mean we would be immune from it. We just may not be able to recognize it."

"I never thought of it like that," murmured Nieven to himself.

"Now, there is of course that fine line it walks near obsession, but, for what it's worth, Shi seemed quite taken with you from the start, too, so I do not think that is the case here," said Aolis, simply. He laughed as the young elf was again overtaken by blushing and a building panic. "Laev, Da Evaliir. Arael'Manthor. I will not tell my niece you have loved her since you first set eyes on her. It puts many things into perspective, but leaves some questions, too, such as your lack of response to her earlier words to you."

"My parents made it sound like it'd be the easiest, most natural thing in the world. It was for them so why wouldn't it be for us? And I thought it would be. It's ….different with Shi. I don't know how to explain it. Our relationship is unlike any I've been in in the past. In a good way. But…," said Nieven before he sunk down, setting his head on the table, and grabbing his hair with renewed despair. "She told me today she doesn't believe in love at first sight."

"That does not mean she does not love you," prompted Aolis, gently.

Nieven shook his head, saying, "I did not believe her when she told me all those years ago. The words she used were ….uncertain. The love she proclaimed felt accidental. It was not the same as I felt. I know how I feel about her, but she seemed tentative with her own feelings. How was I supposed to reply? Should I have replied? Would things have been different if I did?"

"Both of you seem dead set against making this easy for me," replied Aolis with a tired, teasing grin. "Would you like the insight of a meddlesome busybody of an uncle? I can only guess what is going through my niece's head, but I am confident that they are good guesses to temper your torment."

"I will take anything," said Nieven almost immediately before pausing. "Unless it's bad. I don't know if I could take that right now."

"There are some truths you do not wish to acknowledge and are possibly avoiding. They are not new to you, but another perspective of them may help you move forward, especially as neither of you seem ready to face it," replied Aolis in fair warning.

"You mean Keldorldrin," said Nieven, uncertainly. He was given a sympathetic nod.

"The clan had an unhealthy investment in their relationship given that they practically grew up together. Perhaps from his status, more likely from her family ties. They care too much about my family. It does not help that Shi'Nynze has such a likeness to my mother, a rightfully famous elf, but one who'd never wish such scrutiny upon the family," said Aolis with a weary sigh. "We certainly never contributed, but she could hardly go a day without someone asking if they were together yet, or worse, fantasizing about their future together. I do not think my niece ever truly believed other futures were a possibility."

"I wish they'd mind their own business," muttered Nieven, unhappily, for which he saw an understanding smile in response.

"If they will not, you purposefully give them something to gossip about," replied Aolis with a brief, mischievous grin implying his preferred way to fight the gossip. It did not stay long as continued, "To answer your question, I do not think things would have been different if you had given her a reply. It is unfortunate she had to find out in this manner that she can live a life separate from him, but I do think it is the best way to move past him without second guessing herself. More, you are the only other elf she has ever shown serious interest in. I do not know about now, but it likely confused her back then. She was told it was her destiny to fall in love with him, that they were fated to be together. Can you imagine how she must have felt when she developed feelings for someone else?"

"Probably uncertain," replied Nieven, scratching his head, as it started to click.

"And if you grew up believing something was destiny only to be proven wrong, and in such a horrible manner, how would you view other claims of fate or inevitability?" asked Aolis, patiently.

"I… would not believe in them," said Nieven, slowly, resignedly.

"That does not mean it cannot exist, but I would bet, for now, only a Grey Elf would have more skepticism than Shi'Nynze in such a concept as love at first sight," replied Aolis with a mix of joking and sympathy.

"So what do I do? It feels inadequate to tell her in simple terms that I love her, but I do not want to scare her off with… with the truth," said Nieven as he slipped back into misery.

"Patience, Da Evaliir. Why must you figure this out so soon?" asked Aolis, calmly.

"Because I don't know what I'll tell her when she leaves again," replied Nieven, quietly. "I can't make the same mistake as I did before."

"If I knew how much time you had, it would be easier to give you advice, but for this, even I do not have any good guesses," said Aolis, slightly annoyed at this one glaring lack of knowledge for him to possess. "But I will tell you this: Shi'Nynze is moving on from her past relationship with Keldorldrin much faster than I expected. I believe you are the reason for it. You have shown her that there are still good elves in this world, that she can still rely on others beyond family, and that just maybe, love still exists even in the cruelest of times. It can be a hard, long process to accept these truths when a relationship goes sour, but you were already there ready to prove the falsehoods she was beginning to form wrong. Knowing all this, I believe you will find the right words to tell her when the time comes."

"I hope so," replied Nieven, only partially convinced. He stifled a yawn, his head muddier than it was before the conversation. "Thank you, Aolis."

"Go rest on it. You have been up too long. I would know because I have been up too long," replied Aolis with a grin and the contagious yawn. "Nothing will change the next few hours."

"I suppose," said Nieven, nodding as he stood up. Before heading to his room, he added, "I think Shi'Nynze is right, though. She is very fortunate to have the family she has."

"You are a good one, Da Evaliir," replied Aolis, smiling. He gave him one more grin and an added wink. "But it is still your turn to clean tomorrow."

Curiosity and the Bird

Although she tried to hide it, Shi'Nynze was already getting a little restless. It wasn't so much she was eager to hit the road again as much as it was being reminded how quickly time passed for others. She'd barely been home at all, but it was the longest she'd been gone from the wolves, and with the way she was growing, Shi'Nynze worried Thistle would be another foot tall by the time she returned.

Perhaps she wasn't hiding it well, or it was just a coincidence, but her father seemed to be aware of her thoughts. She'd gone with him for lunch after one of his meetings at the council chamber. Her mother was busy with choir and had no desire to meet them at Mockingbird Market for a meal, a place she avoided like the plague. As it was, she knew it was good for them to have time without her.

They sat in the large courtyard, away from the main hustle and bustle, with their collection of various foods to serve as lunch from the various merchants, some Elven and some not. It did mean some of it was hit and miss on if it was even worth eating, but it was a tradition of sorts she always enjoyed doing with her father. No one else, not even Keerla, was as willing to try new things with her as her father.

There was also the added entertainment she could only get by visiting the market with her father. Mockingbird Market was full of travelers and traveling merchants, the only place they were allowed to visit, and while generally the minority, there were non-Elves present. They were vetted, as expected, but most did not speak even basic Elvish and relied on potential customers speaking Western Common or something else a little more widespread. The entertainment value came in the form of those who did not know her father, and more importantly, did not know his ability to speak and understand an undefined number of languages.

It was difficult, too, for seasoned merchants to warn newcomers as they knew Yinris was a twin, and none of them knew if it was Yinris or Aolis that was visiting. Elves being Elves, the Elven merchants weren't helpful as they found entertainment in it as well. While her father never purposefully went out of his way to humiliate someone, the expression some merchants got when they'd complain about him or another in their language, and being called out in kind, never got old. Shi'Nynze was still smiling about the cursing Dwarven baker, who was told by her father in polite Dwarven terms, to tone it down in present company. She swore she could see embarrassed blushing under his beard when they left.

"Why are dwarves so bad at food?" complained Shi'Nynze as she pushed away the weird piece of fungus loaf they had bought to try. Her father laughed, but he certainly didn't seem to want to take another bite, either. "You would not think it that hard to mess up a mushroom."

"They do grow some good ones, but the texture of that loaf does leave much to be desired," replied her father, fairly.

"Always the diplomat, babae. You can just say it: it's disgusting," said Shi'Nynze, smiling. She was given another chuckle, but he left his statement standing. Before Shi could say more, a large black, feathered shape landed on the table interrupting her. "Well look who it is. Been too busy for me, have you?"

Athras gave her a near ear-splitting caw before stealing some food and flying away. Unable to stop himself from laughing at his daughter's comical disgruntled expression, Yinris prompted, "Perhaps she has a reason for it, ara da'ean."

"A reason for being so rude?" asked Shi'Nynze, frowning, rubbing at her ear. "Perhaps the city is simply a bad influence. She was much nicer when we traveled."

"She took more than a single bird would eat," said her father, lightly.

Eyes narrowing, and frown deepening, Shi'Nynze asked, "What are you implying, babae?"

"She is your friend, but it might be worth your curiosity to be the one to seek her out next time," replied her father, amused. Shi'Nynze fell quiet, suddenly going through all her interactions with Athras trying to decide if there were more hints she missed. After only another bite or two of food, her father prompted, "Ara da’ean, you are thinking of flying again, aren't you."

It was not a question, but Shi'Nynze only paused for a second before she nodded, and replied, "I do not know when. It is still just a thought, but humans live such short lives. The wolves, too. I want to stay here longer, I have barely been home at all, but I worry about what I may be missing. I don't know what I'll do when I get there, but I want to see them all again."

"You have wings for a reason," said her father with a small smile. Unlike her mother, he was much more accepting of her need to see the world, even if as a parent it was hard to let her go. "Do you know yet how you will return?"

"I have not decided," replied Shi, thoughtfully. "It was not a bad walk here from Birnham, but it will be a longer one back to Dragon Fen. We did take the river there initially, so I suppose that is another option, if I want to brave it."

"You do what you feel you must, but if I may make a suggestion?" prompted her father. When she nodded, he continued, "It might be worth looking into teleportation. If you must go, you must go, but the less time you are on your own, the more at peace I will be."

"Branwyn has done it a few times. It does seem faster," said Shi in consideration as her mind flashed to those times she'd seen it done. "But you know I can't teleport, babae. Well, no more than from tree to tree."

"It is not easy magic. If you were to go that route, I would not be happy unless you found a highly skilled mage to do it. I know you are going to give me that look again, but you should talk to Iefyr. With mother gone, he is your best bet," replied her father, fairly. He laughed again as he was given the exact look he expected, where his daughter once more seemed to question his sanity. "I forgot how much I missed seeing that expression from you."

"You missed me once again wondering if grandma's wand hit you too hard?" asked Shi with a wry smile and slight laugh. "And what would she think if she heard you now?"

"Once she got over herself, she'd know I was looking out for the best interests of my daughter," replied her father, smiling. "Whatever trivial dispute they had going on, it does not change the fact they were both great mages, and that Iefyr is still a great mage. Their childish antics have nothing to do with you. It would not hurt to talk to him and see if he'd be willing to help."

"You want me to ask grandmother's rival for a favor? Her own granddaughter, who keeps being told she resembles her, to ask her only rival, for a favor? Babae, you really should get your head checked again," said Shi'Nynze, shaking her own.

"Just think on it, ara da’ean. You have brokered peace between opponents before. I have faith in your ability to strike up a fair deal with him," said her father, still smiling. "Besides, I maintain their feelings for each other were much more complicated than you make it out to be. You once told Keerla you thought the same and there was more to their relationship, did you not?"

"When did I tell you…," said Shi'Nynze before she gasped with annoyance. "Osu'Tan told you what was in my messages? He told me he kept most of it to himself!"

"I doubt he would ever lie to you, ara da'ean. Are you sure that's what he said?'' asked her father with no shame and without losing his smile.

Shi'Nynze thought for a moment before she groaned with frustration, saying, "He told me he didn't tell mother most of what he read. So he told you?"

"As I was saying, Iefyr may be more inclined to assist than you currently believe," replied her father, indirectly, as he took another bite of food with a guilty grin. It was clear, like with her uncle, admonishing him would do nothing.

"Shame on you, too, babae, but I will think about it," conceded Shi'Nynze to her father's satisfaction. She pushed the little pile of pocket pastries towards him. "What do you think of these plorkins? I have had some on the road, but not with such sweet filling. I think I prefer it to the other kinds."

"Certainly an improvement," agreed her father after eating a piece or two. With a wink, he added, "And much more delicious than that disaster of a fungus loaf."

"Well said, babae," replied Shi with a satisfied laugh.

The Untold Story

It was not longer after talking to her father that her mother caught wind that Shi'Nynze was beginning to think about leaving. While it was likely her father had told her, perhaps to soften the blow, there was a chance she simply picked up on it from her daughter's recent behaviors. As much as Shi hoped her mother becoming maela might help her be less protective of her own daughter, considering she had someone else now to be protective of, Shi'Nynze was wrong.

What little remarks were made were easy enough for Shi'Nynze to handle, to gently try to reassure her mother. Unfortunately, like in times past, it came to a boiling point at dinner a few nights later. It wasn't even her or her father who caused it, but her uncle. One simple comment was made and they started arguing again much like her first night home.

"Every single time, Lorahana. You must let her grow up already!" exclaimed her uncle, his tone barely keeping level and controlled.

"Let her grow up?" said her mother, infuriated. "These childish forays of hers are what are preventing her from growing up!"

"Mamae," said Shi, carefully, trying to disrupt them, but she was ignored.

"Childish?" repeated her uncle, incredulous. "There's nothing childish about them! Have you not noticed how much she's grown from them?"

"What I've noticed is that I came far too close to losing the only child I have left!" said her mother, bluntly, unable to stop the pain of the thought from tainting her words.

It did cause her uncle to pause, briefly, and for him to lower his tone, but eventually, he replied, "You cannot protect her forever, Lorahana. You must let her live her life."

"That's easy for you to say," said her mother, angrily, before she was interrupted.

The hurtful words she was ready to fling at him, as she had done in times past, of her false claims that he wouldn't understand as he wasn't a parent himself, were stopped by the firm and steady words of her father.

"Enough. Both of you," said Yinris, sharply.

While her mother bit her tongue, her uncle gave one more glare before standing up and leaving for fresh air. It was an achingly familiar pattern. Shi'Nynze exchanged a weary glance with her father before she stood up to follow Aolis while he soothed her mother. Aolis hadn't gone far, he never did, and he wasn't surprised when she joined him to view the moons while he calmed down. Similar to when he talked to her about her troubles, she simply waited until he was ready to break the silence. After a few minutes, he did.

"I will always be your biggest advocate, Da Fenlin. You may have forced us all to face our worst fears with your adventuring, but that does not mean I will stop supporting you or fighting for you to do what you wish," said Aolis, honestly, the lingering fierceness to his statement still present.

"Even still, Osu'Tan? I know babae understands to a degree, but you argue with mamae as if… as if nothing bad will happen again," said Shi'Nynze, confused and uncertain.

Aolis didn't answer right away, clearly weighing his response, before he finally said, "You wanted to know what memories have plagued me, Da Fenlin? You are unintentionally responsible for them, after all, but it is a story I do not believe Yinris ever told you in full."

"I don't want to be the cause of bad memories," replied Shi'Nynze, softly, apologetically.

"You have no blame here," said her uncle, shaking his head. He sighed before he continued, "But you have reminded me of our younger days. You know what inspiring stories O'Si weaved. You know what effect they had on you. Can you imagine what it was like growing up with those stories as her own children?"

"Neither you nor babae went on adventures that I ever heard of," replied Shi, frowning.

"We had it all planned out," said her uncle, giving her a slight smile tinged with old sadness. "Yinris always had a slightly better grasp of magic. Eventually he convinced me to focus on physical skills to balance us out. We were going to be the Dynamic Duo. Off to see the world, fight monsters, and save the day. Just like O'Si. Then came the day Yinris walked in on O'Si while she worked on that wand of hers."

"Osu'Tan?" prompted Shi'Nynze when he fell silent again. The story she'd heard growing up was that her father temporarily lost his hair, but gained his uncanny ability to speak and understand an unfathomable amount of languages. She never thought there was more to the story.

"It is hard to say exactly what happened to him, Da Fenlin. He became subdued and withdrawn after the accident. Others wrote it off as a simple reaction to being bald at the time, but he is my Arael'Tan. I know there is more to it than that, but to this day, it is the only thing he has never been completely honest with me about," said Aolis, unable to fully hide that hurt. He gave another sigh, as he continued, "Dreams of the Dynamic Duo died that night. It took time for him to readjust to… many things, and some things were not the same after, but he found a new calling, and it is one he has proven to be extraordinarily good at. The night of the accident, he told me to go ahead and adventure without him as if it was something I'd ever do. Instead, I promised him I would always be there for him. I still hold to that promise. When he becomes part of the Elder Council, as we all know he will, I will become his Guardian. Just as I was when he traveled on those diplomatic missions of his so many decades ago. I enjoy my current position, but it is not where I will be needed soon enough, and it is not where I will stay. It is not where I am meant to be. I could not protect him from something that drastically changed his life. The least I can do is protect him with mine."

"I never knew," said Shi, quietly, after a lengthy silence. She cringed slightly as she added, "And I've always joked about it with him."

"You are fine, Da Fenlin. He really is entertained by that expression you make. You know which one I mean," replied her uncle with a reassuring smile. "I think the humor has always helped him cope, and at this point in his life, he has come to terms with it. It is only his twin who is apparently having some difficulties being reminded of how his Arael'Tan changed that day."

"I'm sorry, Osu'Tan," said Shi with sympathy.

"The gloom will pass again soon enough," replied her uncle, giving the moons one last look before his full attention turned to her. "But now you understand why I must fight for you, Da Fenlin. I have regrets for the adventures I could never take, but there is no reason for you to have them, too. O'Si gave you her wand for the same reason. Uncle Zelle would be appalled to find out that Yinris and I both refused to take it when she offered it to us. She believed adventuring was good for the soul, and while she may have accidentally ruined it for her children, she wanted to make up for it by giving her precious wand to her son's child, one she thought would benefit from adventuring."

"I still don't know if I want to keep adventuring, Osu'Tan. I have been reminded now that there are reasons for me to be here and not Arvanaith, at least not yet. What if it happens again?" asked Shi'Nynze, still filled with uncertainty.

"No one can make that decision but you, Da Fenlin," replied her uncle with a touch of sorrow. "You have talked to Tira’allara? She could give you better guidance than I ever could."

"Spiritual, maybe, but your guidance will always be some of the best I can get," said Shi, giving him a smile. It did not last long as she continued, "She gave me hope as she says I am not the first young elf to encounter such an issue, and our philosophies are similar, but I have not made a decision yet as to what to do."

"You have time, Da Fenlin. You do not know what will happen once you reach Dragon Fen. Perhaps you will be offered an adventure that calls to you, or perhaps you'll find you prefer to grab the wolves and return home. Just remember that it is your decision and yours alone. I will not be upset if you decide to give up adventuring, but I will keep fighting for you to be able to make that decision on your own," said her uncle, comfortingly.

"Nuvas ema ir’enastela, Osu'Tan," replied Shi, quietly, hugging him.

"Anything for you, A’Su’Tan," said her uncle with a smile. He returned her hug and added a kiss on the head before saying, "Now let us go back inside and finish eating before our food gets colder."

"No more arguing for tonight?" asked Shi'Nynze, less as a question and more as a demand.

"I believe Lorahana and I have been reprimanded enough for now," replied her uncle with a slightly embarrassed laugh. "She will come around to you doing as you must, but I will do my best not to antagonize her when it is not appropriate, such as at dinner."

"I will hold you to that, Osu'Tan," said Shi, nodding with satisfaction. "But don't think either of you are getting off that easy. I am sure babae has a few words for you still just as I have a few words for mother."

"Lucky us," commented her uncle, shaking his head, but this time with a smile.

Not For Naught For Knot

"Are you sure this is the right way?" asked Keerla, exhausted.

"I told you word for word what I was told," replied Shi'Nynze as she scanned the trees. She stopped moving for a minute to listen for the sound she was seeking.

"Right, but maybe that shrew meant the other way?" said Keerla before Shi'Nynze put a finger on her lips to shush her. They stood still for a moment longer, before there was a nod and they continued on their path. "But what if it's a different family?"

"Then they'll tell us the right way to go. You can't tell me you aren't curious," replied Shi'Nynze, calmly and with undeniable determination. Keerla simply frowned, but was unable to disagree, and so simply kept following Shi'Nynze through the forest.

The sounds of cawing confirming they were at least in the right section of the forest, they started scanning the canopy looking for the tree described to them. It wasn't easy, as different creatures had different ways of identifying individual trees, and those did not always translate well, but they had the noise to go off. Already walking with a plan, it wasn't long until they were sought for conversation by a nearby crow - partly from their shiny offerings they carried.

"Thank you," said Shi'Nynze, giving the crow a sparkling ornament before it flew off. She turned towards Keerla with a grin. "That tree there. You ready to climb?"

"I was born ready," replied Keerla with a matching grin as she cracked her fingers.

They carefully stuffed their gifts into more secure pockets before taking to the tree before them. It wasn't a challenging climb by any means, and soon enough, spotting their target, they reached the branch they had hoped to find since that morning. Whether from knowing their nosiness, or word from others, Athras showed no surprise by their appearance even as their suspicions were confirmed by the nest she was sitting in.

"Gyrah'Sha! You really are nesting!" exclaimed Keerla, surprised. "I did not think you would be doing so already!"

"You have settled in this forest already?" asked Shi'Nynze, a little confused.

As an easy reply that they'd both understand, Athras shifted slightly so they could spot the single egg under her. It would only be days before more were laid. While she knew it was a possibility, it oddly made Shi'Nynze feel a bit forlorn. Still, she kept it out of her voice well enough, instead focusing on her happiness for the once lonely bird.

"You found someone? Well, are you going to introduce us?" asked Shi'Nynze, smiling.

With another loud caw caw, Athras shifted slightly and waited until another crow showed up. She gave a bob towards him as an introduction, and some cawing that did not translate well for his name, before he shared the piece of food he'd been carrying in his beak. They both then turned towards the elven pair.

He is my mate.

"Does he make you happy?"


"Then he needs a name, yes?" asked Shi'Nynze as a courtesy. Athras gave her another bob as Shi'Nynze thought up a name for the mate of her crow friend, one she hoped to also befriend. "Is Ellanis a good elf name for you? One who can do anything."

The mate of Athras took a moment to think about it before he gave a caw of approval. With that settled, Keerla handed them some of the presents they brought as well as her wishes for them to raise a happy and healthy family. They talked for a bit, but it was clear that Athras had gone into mother mode, her attention more on the egg laid and waiting for more to come. With promises of visiting again, when she was willing to let them, they left the happy crow pair to their nest and egg tending.

"I wonder when she met him. She hasn't been here that long," said Keerla in thought as they made their way back to the main parts of Divaekah. She shook her head, unable to figure it out, before she turned her attention to Shi'Nynze. "I never thought you'd be jealous of a bird."

"I'm not jealous of a bird," said Shi'Nynze, a little too quickly. With a groan of annoyance at Keerla's knowing looking, she gave a small sigh before saying, "I'm jealous of how easy she makes it seem. Why can't it be that easy?"

"Do you really want that?" asked Keerla, skeptically. "Birds can form close bonds, sure, but can you really compare it to love? Who knows if Athras will stay with Ellanis next year. Right now all we know is Ellanis knocked Athras up. Is that what you want? To be knocked up?"

With a sudden snort of laughter, Shi'Nynze barely managed to choked out, "No."

"I'm sorry I can't help you there, but it probably wouldn't take much to convince Nieven."

"Keerla," interrupted Shi'Nynze, laughing harder.

With a grin, Keerla bumped her shoulder and grabbed her hand, before she said, "It's a bird. If Athras understood your relationships, she'd be jealous of you. Sure, she might be ready to be a mother far sooner than you, if you ever decide to be, but you also have much longer not just to decide, but to find the right elf for it."

"I suppose you're right. Why was I ever jealous of a bird?"

"Because right now you'd like things to be easy, but you don't want to think about what that really means," replied Keerla with patient sympathy. Giving her another grin with an added wink, she continued, "But if you really do just want to be knocked up, I'm sure Nieven would happily oblige. He might even stick around for the next nesting season."

"I expect an elaborate courtship display first," said Shi'Nynze, jokingly.

They made their way back to have dinner with Keerla as a guest. For all intents and purposes, she was mostly viewed as family at this point. The jokes about Shi'Nynze and Keerla being joined at the hip were not far off, especially lately with Shi'Nynze being back in town. It was the middle of dinner and of conversation, one where Yinris was not at all surprised by their findings about Athras, when they heard a knock on the door. Seeing the others preoccupied, Lorahana got up to answer it. All conversation quickly stopped when they heard her gasp followed by noises of excitement.

"Pala," cursed Aolis, quickly standing up.

For being a word he never uttered in polite company, Yinris barely flinched as he grabbed for his brother's sleeve to pull him back down to sit, saying, "Arael'Tan."

"You did not warn me," said Aolis, turning towards his twin with accusation.

"Ir Abelas. I could not confirm it," replied Yinris, softly. Aolis gave an annoyed groan, putting his head in his hands, accepting the apology, but not any happier for it.

"What?" asked Keerla, confused by what was going on.

But Shi'Nynze could only shake her head, starting to understand her uncle's reaction when the sound of voices drew upon her memories from over a decade past. Her confusion wasn't on what was going on, but rather what her mother could be up to. She knew it was something when the voices rounded the corner into view. There, with her mother, was another female elf who shared similarities, if not a bit less age, and a younger male elf who was clearly related.

"Asha'lan! Look who has come to see you!" exclaimed her mother, happily.

"Ma'asa'ma'lin Velanna. Isa'var'lin Illen," said Shi'Nynze, hesitantly, as she stood up from her chair to go greet her aunt and cousin. "This is… unexpected."

"Well, after your mother told me what you had been through, how could I not be here?" replied her Aunt Velanna. She reached over to give Shi a hug before holding her at arm's length. "But we do not need to speak of it now. My, how you've grown since you last came to visit!"

"Yes," said Shi'Nynze, the hesitation not gone. Not wanting the attention to linger on her, she continued, with a look towards her cousin, "I am not the only one."

"I could not let mother travel alone," replied Illen, shrugging.

"It is wonderful she has such a reliable son," complimented Yinris as he came over to the little gathering, all friendly courtesy. He reached over to give Velanna a hug. "It is good to see you again, lethal'len."

"Yinris. I am glad you are still treating asa'ma'lin well," said Velanna, accepting the hug. When she let go, she glanced over at Aolis, her words directed to Yinris. "Still as kind as I remember."

"I'm trying to make it easier for you to tell us apart," replied Aolis with a grin.

Velanna gave him a small frown, her attention shifting elsewhere to land on Keerla. The brief inspection she gave Keerla, where she picked up on far more than expected, did not erase her frown, as she asked her sister, "Is this…?"

"No, no. You will meet him later," said Lorahana, quickly. Seeing her daughter gain a frown of her own, she continued, "This is Keerla. A friend of asha'lan and of the family."

"Oh!" exclaimed Velanna, suddenly with more friendliness. "I recall that name. My sister has spoken of you before in kind words."

"I am glad," said Keerla, caught in an odd spot of not being a fan of meeting new people, but also not wanting to disappoint Lorahana after hearing that comment. "It is good to meet you."

"And my son, Illen," said Velanna, bringing him back into view by pulling him over.

They looked each other over, Velanna with a spark of hope, and the same incessant matchmaking desires as her sister, before Keerla said, bluntly, "If only you were a girl."

Shi'Nynze had to try hard to hide her sudden laugh at the remark, saved only by her mother's desire to prevent it from getting awkward. With a hand on her sister's shoulder, she started leading Velanna away, saying, "Come. Let's get you both settled in. It was a long trip."

The silence was brief as her mother, cousin, and aunt disappeared from view down the hallway, until Aolis broke it by slapping his brother on the back, saying, "It has been good spending so much time with you, Ary'Tan, but I believe I should get back to work."

"Arael'Tan," said Yinris, simply. Just as before, there was far more implied in that one word than anyone else would catch, causing Aolis to again make a noise of frustration.

"She must know it will likely backfire?" remarked Aolis to the confusion of Shi'Nynze. Yinris briefly looked up, closing his eyes, but made no reply. In a lower voice, and with a note of concern that Shi'Nynze never heard before in her life, Aolis asked, "Have they forgiven her?"

"I hope so," said Yinris, quietly.

"Why?" asked Aolis, aware of the eavesdroppers, but it did not matter. His brother knew exactly what he was asking.

"The guilt," replied Yinris, not clearing anything up for Shi'Nynze or Keerla.

There was another pause as Aolis was clearly debating something, until he shook his head, returning to his dinner, saying, "Fine."

"Serannas," replied Yinris, making sure his gratitude was clear.

"What?" whispered Keerla to Shi'Nynze, clearly confused by the conversation that just transpired.

To that, Shi could only shake her head and shrug her shoulders. Whatever their conversation meant, she believed it'd make sense soon enough. She just hoped it wasn't anything bad.

The Other Side

It was not hard at all to decipher part of the conversation Shi'Nynze had heard between her father and uncle. They made it through breakfast pleasantries easily enough. Yinris offered to show Illen around while the sisters caught up. Before she was able to make a decision for herself, her aunt asked Shi'Nynze to remain for some girl time. It wasn't her first choice, but it was easy enough to sit and listen to the continued chatter when the boys left.

Velanna updated her sister on family and hometown gossip. There were enough little changes in the Bindbole Woods to keep the conversation pleasant throughout the morning. The first sign, or reminder, of how the Uladi line viewed others slipped as they switched to local gossip.

"Oh! I didn't tell you about the visitor we had, oh how long ago was it now?" prompted Velanna, pausing, before deciding the timing didn't matter. She shook her head, and sniffed ever so subtly, as she continued, "A rund'uren, if you can believe it. He thought he found his mother's clan."

As Velanna rolled her eyes, Lorahana asked, "How did he find the town? Who did he claim to be his mother?"

"Oh no. He never got to town," said Velanna, quickly, to Lorahana's relief. "Patrol found him. Sathrian's brother told me the story. Never found out who he claimed to be his mother. Barely spoke any Elvish anyways. Not like anyone would claim him now, is it?"

"What did patrol do with him?" asked Lorahana, interested.

"Sent him on his way, of course. Heard he was given incentive to never return," replied Velanna, ominously. While Lorahana frowned slightly, she nodded in acceptance.

After hearing yet another story with such disparaging remarks, Shi'Nynze had to remind herself that she couldn't exactly blame her family for their feelings. The conflict their clan had encountered with human settlers centuries ago still stained their forest. A half elf would find even less acceptance within the Bindbole Woods than it would elsewhere. While Shi'Nynze had been less hostile, hadn't she done the same with the half elf she encountered earlier? Sent them on their way? Although perhaps without the threats.

Eventually they came back around to talk about Shi'Nynze. Although she was simply listening quietly, her aunt still wanted to hear the story that had brought her out of her beloved woods to visit her sister. She was gentle enough with her questions, clearly concerned for the welfare of her niece, but there was only so much that could be glossed over. Shi'Nynze did not realize how much she was tiptoeing until her aunt brought it up.

"Let me guess. It was another human?" asked her aunt when Shi'Nynze again did not divulge details about her companions. She never had time to answer before her aunt sneered. "It must be. Only a human would act like that."

Shi'Nynze opened her mouth to explain, but was cut off by her mother who said, "As we know too well, asa'ma'lin. But I see retelling this story is only upsetting asha'lan. Perhaps we should set it aside for now?"

"Yes, yes. I don't wish to upset you, fenor'esha'lin," said her aunt, reaching over to hug her. Shi'Nynze accepted it, befuddled. "Hmm, what's a happier topic? Oh! I hear you have a love in your life? Is it the one I met before? Oh, but your children would be darlings!"

"No!" exclaimed Shi'Nynze and her mother at the same time, although only Shi'Nynze with such abrupt fierceness. She closed her mouth and let her mother talk.

"No," repeated her mother, more calmly. "He was as I told you he would be. But do you remember the musician I told you about? The one who wished to better know our dialect?"

"Oh! Like Yinris?" exclaimed Velanna with a clap of excitement. "He sounded to be quite the charmer! When will I meet him?"

"Mamae, we're not...," said Shi'Nynze, weakly, but she was easily talked over. Or, perhaps, her mother simply knew how to get her way.

"I was thinking we should invite him to dinner tonight. Don't you agree, asha'lan?" asked her mother, innocently. With the slight hardening of a note in her tone, one Shi'Nynze recognized easily from her childhood, her mother continued, as less of a choice and more a demand, "You could leave now to go see if that would work for Nieven."

"A musician," commented Velanna, dreamily. She gave Lorahana a knowing look with a wink before turning to Shi'Nynze. "You could not do better than a musician, esha'lin. Their talents do translate quite well to other areas of life, or so I was told. Wonderful in bed."

"I'll go see if he's free," said Shi'Nynze, abruptly.

She stood up with a furious blush and quickly rushed out the door. It was bad enough for her aunt to imply what it must be like in the bedroom with Nieven. It was worse when her aunt subtly brought her parents into the conversation. There was a sudden, strong temptation to track down some dwarven brew. She didn't make it far before she was interrupted.

"You could fry an egg on that face! Think Athras will give up one of her unborn to try?" said a voice full of laughter nearby.

"I'd prefer to just hide in the trees with her," replied Shi'Nynze as she turned to face Keerla.

"So you're happy to see your aunt and cousin?" asked Keerla, grinning.

"Illen lucked out and is off somewhere with my father," said Shi'Nynze before pausing and covering her face as the blush held fast. "Whereas I'm stuck home where my mother and aunt are telling me how wonderful a musician is in the bedroom."

"I knew I should have stopped by earlier," said Keerla with disappointment.

"Keerla!" exclaimed Shi'Nynze, exasperated. "I do not need family to be talking about that aspect of my love life nor do I need any hints of… of my parent's life, either!"

"Damn. I forgot how adorable you are when you're so flustered," remarked Keerla, teasingly.

"Keerla!" exclaimed Shi'Nynze, again. Frustrated, she started walking away as she said, "You know what? I think I'm going to go jump in a river and just see where it takes me. As long as it's far from here, I'll be fine."

"Hey now. It's only been a day at most," said Keerla, quickly sobering up as she reached out to grab her shoulder. There was too much truth to that statement for either of them to ignore.

There was a pause as Shi'Nynze finally gained some composure, and a hint of guilt at her statement, before she said, quietly, "That's what my uncle meant last night."

"What?" asked Keerla, confused.

Shi'Nynze shook her head and pressed her palms to her eyes. After a few seconds, she replied, "I'm not very close to my mother's side of the family. And I'm being reminded why. It's not just distance that prevented us from really bonding. They might mean well, but… it'll backfire. If it's only been a day, and I'm already feeling this way... I think I need to talk to Iefyr soon."

"Aren't you being a bit hasty?" asked Keerla, steadily, not letting Shi hear her sudden concern. "All they did was tease you. Is that all it really takes to drive you off?"

"No, but my aunt can be…. judgemental and her priorities are… different than mine. She's already judged the friends I made and imagined the children I could have. I'm worried about how dinner will go with Nieven."

"Nieven will charm her socks off. There's nothing to worry about."

"I don't think my mother told her his heritage," replied Shi'Nynze hesitantly.

"He's an elf. What else matters?" asked Keerla, frowning.

Looking up at the canopy with memories of her mother's stories, Shi'Nynze said, "That's all that should matter. I hope that's all that matters, but when my mother's clan was attacked, some of the Sylvan in the woods helped them."

"Well that's good, isn't it?" said Keerla with hopefully enthusiasm.

Shi shook her head, saying, "I am told what the Sylvan did there is one of the reasons rumors of their violence still hold strong. At the time, her clan could look past it as they formed a necessary alliance, but there were… events that happened that were hard to forget. Nothing compared to what the humans did, but certainly some unforgettable actions."

"But your mother adores Nieven," said Keerla, confused once more.

Shifting her attention to Keerla, Shi'Nynze raised a brow as she said, "Would you believe me if I told you my mother is the most open minded of her family?"

"Your mother is open minded?" repeated Keerla in disbelief. She put a hand on her head as she said, "If that's true, maybe you should be worried."

There was a brief pause before Shi'Nynze asked, quietly, "Do I warn him?"

"Are you sure that's how they'll react?"

"I don't know how they'll react."

"Then tell him that," said Keerla, fairly. Shi'Nynze eventually nodded in agreement. Keerla put an arm around her shoulder as they started walking again. "And if you want to avoid it all together, I'm available. I'd be happy to discuss the bedroom with them. I'm sure I have stories you haven't told your mother."

"Solonor save me," replied Shi'Nynze with a groan, another deep blush, and yet another need to hide her face behind her hands.

"And then your aunt can decide which is more blasphemous: you with a sweet, caring half-Sylvan or you with me."

"Why do I need to go hide in the trees when I can just be a tree? I bet my life would be much simpler and less mortifying."

"So adorable," remarked Keerla, laughing, as she gave Shi's reddened cheek a peck.

They walked around the neighborhood for a short bit while Shi'Nynze gained her composure before seeking out Nieven. It was rarely hard to find him, as often as it was for him to lock himself away to work on a song. Interestingly, Aolis was nowhere to be found, but Nieven wasn't so engrossed in his work as to ignore the knocking.

"I thought you'd be busy with your family today," said Nieven in greeting, kissing her cheek.

"Good news! You get to be, too!" said Keerla, barging past them and flopping on the couch.

Seeing Nieven confused by her words and her presence, Shi'Nynze grabbed his hand and led him inside. Already in need of it, she started preparing some tea, as she said, "My mother hopes you'll join us for dinner tonight. My aunt wants to meet you."

"Tell him now while it brews," prompted Keerla, carelessly, waving her hand towards them.

"Tell me what?" asked Nieven, the uncertainty never leaving as Shi clearly hesitated.

Shi'Nynze gave a sigh, pausing to try to find her words, before saying, "My aunt can be… judgemental. I'm not sure about my cousin. I haven't seen him in so long, but I don't know how they'll react to you."

"React to me?" repeated Nieven, confused. It was a short pause before he caught on. "Oh."

"It might be fine," said Shi'Nynze, reaching out to grab his hands in reassurance. "You know my mother adores you. Her sister might, too. I just don't know. I heard enough of her judging this morning that I just don't know. But if you don't want to come, I'll just tell them you're busy."

"No. I'll come. I'll just…," replied Nieven, hesitating.

"Not let anything that might be said get to you. You are wonderful as you are, and you have no reason to be ashamed of it," said Shi before giving him a kiss which did elicit a small smile from him. "And it could be fun. We don't know."

"Was I invited?" asked Keerla, interrupting them.

"No," said Shi'Nynze, shaking her head.

"The chances of it being fun are substantially less now," said Keerla, winking.

"You had your fun last night," replied Shi, rolling her eyes as she handed out the tea.

"See? Already trying to help you out, Nieven," said Keerla with a grin, holding up her mug with a gesture towards him. "No way she'll dislike you more than me."

To that, he could only give a nervous laugh. They talked for a bit, both trying to prepare him and help his growing nerves. It was not easy. With some reluctance, Shi'Nynze admitted that he wasn't coming to dinner as the elf Lorahana tutored. He was coming to dinner as the elf who was interested in Shi. Even if Shi'Nynze could not, or perhaps still would not, quite define whatever their relationship was, it was clear some of her family had. That simply put more pressure on him to not screw anything up.

The two eventually left to give him time to get ready, although with suggestions for what to wear and what to bring, leaving Nieven alone to shake off whatever nerves remained. Still Aolis never returned, having slipped out before Nieven was awake, and therefore unable to give any advice. With a box of candied flowers to share, and hair as tamed as he could get it, he made his way to what he hoped to be a decent dinner, if nothing else.

Dinner With the Uladis

Things did not improve when Shi'Nynze got home later that day. Her father and cousin had returned from their tour of the city and were telling them about their day. The moment Velanna heard mention of the market, which they never did visit, she expressed her disapproval of how Divaekah was run, and how any "riff-raff" was allowed inside it. Unlike some previous topics, her mother was on her sister's side. Before her father could sooth her concerns, there was a knock at the door.

"I'll get it," said Shi'Nynze, quickly standing and heading towards the door. It wasn't simply because she already knew who it was, but to escape the current aggravating conversation.

"Hi," said Nieven, simply, clearly still filled with apprehension.

Greeting him with a smile, Shi'Nynze reached over to fix a stray lock of hair, before giving him a light kiss and asking, "Are you ready?"

After a single breath of commitment, followed by a small nod, Shi'Nynze grabbed his hand and led him inside. She kept a tight hold of it as she walked him into the living room where he spotted two elves he hadn't met before, although he could see some resemblance to the elf next to them that he already knew. Yinris was the first to stand to greet Nieven, perhaps out of simple courtesy or perhaps to give him some familiarity. Lorahana stood with her sister, the young male elf taking a moment longer and hanging towards the back, as they turned towards them.

"Ma'asa'ma'lin Velanna, Isa'var'lin Illen, this is Nieven. Nieven, this is my mother's sister and her son," said Shi'Nynze, as casually as she could, even as her aunt gained an almost imperceptible frown. Her cousin simply looked befuddled.

"Are you a High Elf?" asked Illen, slowly, confused.

From what Shi could hear, it wasn't with a hint of malice, either. If anything, her cousin sounded naive. Still, such a question already had Shi'Nynze tightening the hold she had on Nieven's hand. Before she could say anything in his defense, her mother spoke up.

"He is an incredibly talented musician and a good-natured elf," said Lorahana without elaboration. Instead, she noticed the box Nieven was holding and tried to draw attention away from his heritage. "Oh, how lovely. These will go great with dessert. 'Ma serannas, Nieven."

"De da’rahn," replied Nieven as he handed over the gift. Already he was starting to regret his decision, as Velanna kept inspecting him, debating if he wanted to go through this uncomfortable, but not unfamiliar, routine.

"No, no, but there is some High Elf in there. Is it your mother or your father?" asked Velanna without tact.

"Ma'asa'ma'lin Velanna, these are not questions to ask," interrupted Shi'Nynze, frowning.

"Oh. I am so sorry," replied Velanna, suddenly. With undeniable sympathy, she continued, "I should have guessed as much, esha'lin. I apologize if my question brought about painful memories for you. Given the circumstances of your birth, I'm sure whoever raised you still loved you very much."

Eyes widening at the insulting implications of her aunt, Shi'Nynze exclaimed, "Ma'asa'ma'lin Velanna, that is not how he -,"

"We have met his parents many times, lethal'len," interrupted Yinris, calmly, trying to save his daughter from any potential blunders. With a much smoother response, he continued, "It has always been clear that they cherish their wanted son very much."

"Oh," responded Velanna, now more thoroughly confused. It sounded like she couldn't fathom how anyone would willingly choose to have a child with a Sylvan. Hardly a few seconds passed before she gained a smile and clapped her hands together with a thought. "You certainly look more Sylvan, but I bet there is enough High Elf in there that your children will be fine."

"Ma'asa'ma'lin Velanna, you -," said Shi'Nynze, shocked. Again she was interrupted, but this time by her aunt's idle dreams.

"You know, he's got some lovely dark hair, too. I think you could still have some darling children! Maybe not quite as -," started Velanna, but for once, she was the one cut off.

"I imagine the food is ready now. Why don't we go sit?" said Yinris, lightly. It was, thankfully, enough to toss her aunt off her current thoughts.

"Oh, and you both have worked hard on this meal! I'm looking forward to it!" exclaimed her aunt, excited. It took no effort from there for Lorahana to drag her sister over to the dining room where Ilen quietly followed behind.

"I know it is tiring," said Yinris, quietly, as he set a hand on Nieven's shoulder for comfort and reassurance. "And though you will unfortunately always bear the brunt of it, you are not alone."

"I know," replied Nieven, softly. He let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding before giving Yinris a weak, reassuring smile. "It's okay. I'm used to it."

"And I am sorry for that," replied Yinris with undeniable sorrow. "You remember what I told you about those doubts?"

Rather than elaborate to clue Shi'Nynze in on some previous conversation, Nieven simply paused, before he nodded, saying, "Yes."

"Good," said Yinris with a smile at the reassurance that was genuine this time. As they started walking towards the dining room, Yinris asked, "I take it my brother has not returned yet?"

"I haven't seen him since last night," replied Nieven, shaking his head.

"You know where Osu'Tan is?" asked Shi'Nynze, curious. Since she'd been home, she couldn't think of a single day where she hadn't seen him, even if only briefly.

"Of course, ara da'ean," said Yinris, chuckling. "He is good at keeping an eye on others, but someone must keep an eye on him, yes?"

"He should be here for dinner," replied Shi'Nynze, frowning. While she appreciated her father's diplomatic approaches, she would have better enjoyed her uncle bluntly calling out her aunt.

"I agree, but my words were not enough," said Yinris, nodding. He gave her a knowing smile, as he continued, "Will you do me a favor, ara da'ean? When you see him, do not go easy on him."

"If your guilt wasn't enough, why would mine be?"

"Even though he is my Arael'Tan, there are moments where he finds strength to brush off my attempts to persuade him as any normal sibling could do. But you are his favorite A’Su’Tan. It is far harder to ignore you."

"I am his only niece," replied Shi'Nynze, rolling her eyes.

"Yes, and Osi'Tan Zelle is now my only Osi'Tan, but have I told you yet if he is my favorite?" asked Yinris with a wink.

Once more, her parents, especially her mother, went all out for dinner. The little bottle of lyre-leaf greeneye season made its appearance which was perfect for the syrup-drenched berries on top slices of honey bread. A light sautee of various greens (dandelion, young mulberry leaves, and strawberry tops) sat below a crunchy topping of fried minnows. All of it was washed down with a brew made from sycamore water and flower nectar.

The amazing food coupled with the passage of the initial shock of Nieven ended up making dinner bearable, and if those earlier introductions could be ignored, almost good. As Keerla predicted, when finally given a chance to talk, especially when it came to music, Nieven was able to charm them. It was hard not to as his love of his craft was infectious. If there was one thing all Elves loved, it was music, and it was an easy topic of conversation.

Of course, with her aunt there, Shi'Nynze wasn't able to completely get away from dinner without a few unwelcome comments slipped in. Her aunt, once again, mused on what their future children would be like, now enthralled with the idea of a little musical family, but wondering if they may still have what she called Sylvan tendencies. As with before, she kept talking before anyone could call out her comments. It was not the only one, either, nor the most embarrassing. After complimenting Nieven on his manners, something that seemed to surprise her, she wondered out loud if the repressed Sylvan came out in the private parts of his life, hinting that maybe it made things more exciting when the lights were off. He wasn't pureblooded, which she pointed out when someone said something, meaning, in her mind at least, there could still be some silver-linings to find towards his mixed heritage.

While those types of comments were thankfully far and few in-between with all the conversations going on at dinner, they were still one too many. Rather than let him sit around and endure more out of feelings of necessity, Yinris did what he could by giving Nieven the option of an early out. The suggestion that Nieven play one of his songs excited Velanna, but more, it gave Nieven a chance to leave under the pretense of grabbing one of his instruments.

As the others settled back in the living room, Yinris once again quietly spoke to Nieven off to the side, his daughter there with them. Making sure to keep his voice low, and wanting them to know the reason for his suggestion, he said, "It is up to you if you wish to perform, but if you feel you are too tired to return, we will be none the wiser. Velanna and Ilen can simply see one of your performances at Sora Stage another day. It is always possible I heard Aolis mention something about you being up late, and no musician wants to perform when not at their best."

"Thank you," said Nieven, gratitude plain in his voice, but also hesitation. He lightly rubbed his neck, as he continued, "But I don't mind."

"You are under no obligation to make them happy, but if you decide to play for us tonight, it would be my pleasure to provide an accompaniment, should you want for it. Take your time to decide. There certainly is no rush," said Yinris, fairly. This time, he was only given a nod from Nieven. "And if you do return tonight, I hope the piece you wrote the other winter is a strong contender for the possibilities of what you'll perform."

After giving him one more smile of reassurance, Yinris headed out to the living room to join the others. Shi'Nynze and Nieven soon left the house, telling them they'd be back, but giving no definitive timeframe. While the destination was nearby, the walk ended up being a long one to reach their goal, not simply due to taking a scenic path with slow steps, but from all the words that needed to be freed before they got any farther - with many things.

"How are you?" asked Shi'Nynze, quietly, when they found a spot to linger with nobody nearby. On the other side of the balcony was the darkened forest, leaves still shifting as some creatures settled in while nearby an owl hooted a warning of an impending hunt.

"I've been better," replied Nieven, watching a bird flitting between canopies. He mustered a smile, though nothing impressive, before turning towards her. "But I'll be fine."

"Please be honest with me, Nieven," said Shi'Nynze, unconvinced at the farce that was his smile. She shook her head, saying, "I'm sorry. I never should have let you come to dinner. That was unfair of me knowing what might happen. And did happen."

"It's fine, Shi," repeated Nieven, but this time without the smile nor with his attention on her. Rather, he preferred to stare at the trees beyond them. "You did warn me. It was nothing I haven't heard before in some form or another. I've learned how to cope with it by now."

There was a pause before Shi'Nynze joined him at the rail, not looking at him, but simply watching the forest settling down. Still in a soft voice, she said, "That does not make it okay."

"It's a reminder for you what is reality for me," replied Nieven in an equally quiet voice. "I hate being complimented on manners I've learned out of necessity whereas another elf could get away without them. I hate how hard it is for others to understand that my parents love each other. I hate that worse is assumed from the Sylvan in me than the High Elf in me. But while I hate it, I won't waste my emotions on Elves with such narrow views. They don't deserve it."

"No, they don't," said Shi in agreement. While it became clear he had nothing more to say on the subject, Nieven made no moves to keep walking nor to do anything but stare into the darkness. Eventually, Shi'Nynze prompted, gently, "Something more is bothering you."

Rather than push it when there was no immediate reply, Shi'Nynze let the silence settle around them. It was a neutral quiet, one that offered Nieven the chance to break it at his own decision, if he decided to break it at all. Nor did Shi'Nynze try to pressure him by staring at him in wait. If she had, she might have noticed the light blushing, something Nieven always cursed as it gave away the directions of his thoughts. But by simply watching the evening birds and listening to the crickets, Shi'Nynze gave Nieven the option to speak his mind - or not - on his terms.

"I just…," started Nieven, after some uncounted minutes, before he let off a noticeable sigh. Slightly lower, he tried again. "I just don't know if we're ready for this conversation."

"If something is bothering you, we have to be," said Shi'Nynze, looking over at him. "Nothing good can come from something that festers."

There was a pause, as Nieven considered it, before he shook his head, saying, "No. It can wait. I know what we agreed to the first night we talked when you returned. You're finally happy, and I'm not going to ruin that."

"You already are," replied Shi'Nynze with a small, teasing smile. With a shake of her own head in disagreement, she continued, "Many things have changed since that night. Yes, I am finally in a better place, but if you don't believe my happiness is tied to yours, to a degree neither of us can honestly ignore, then I am unsure how many pages apart we sit from each other."

"That's the problem," said Nieven, turning away and refusing to look at her. "I don't know what page I'm supposed to be on. I have never known. I've been able to skim well enough to keep up in the past, but I can't do that anymore. What are we? Was I going to dinner as a friend of the family, or was it supposed to be as someone of significance to you? Are children a possibility in our future? We've never talked about it before. Goddess Hanali, is there even a future of us together? I've been able to ignore those questions and others like them. They never bothered me before, but suddenly, they're all being tossed at me at once, and I realized I've never been able to answer the very first one with any confidence."

The words hung there as Nieven was overcome with embarrassment and concern. For so long he was able to ignore the lacking definition to their relationship. He certainly knew what he wanted, and he assumed, in time, it would be enough to carry him through their oddly ambiguous relationship. While he hoped to one day discuss it, it certainly wasn't his intent to do so now, at this moment, when Shi'Nynze was recovering from so much. And yet, he couldn't ignore that half his discomfort at dinner laid at the fact that he did not know what they were. Everyone there kept making assumptions while he still sat in the dark.

Countering his embarrassment was the shame that filled Shi'Nynze at his words. She took a moment to find the answer she owed him, closing her eyes, when she finally replied, "I told you once before what you were to me. I still don't know if you didn't believe me, or if you did not feel the same, but it does not matter now. Back then, I wasn't looking for a relationship. I was tired, so tired, of being told I should settle down when I had barely lived my life. I wanted to be like I'Osu who waited so long before she decided to pursue anything. And that's what I told…others, the ones who pressured me one way or another, to settle. Something casual was fine, but I never wanted anything serious. Then you came along."

Shi'Nynze took a breath, opening her eyes to look back up at the trees and back into her past, as she continued, "You know I hate when my mother's right. I love her, but she can be overbearing sometimes, and it's always worse when she's proven right about anything. Even when it started becoming clear to me that our friendship wasn't enough, I didn't want to admit it because then she would be right. I denial, for many reasons, and wanted to be for as long as possible. It was not fair to you, but at the time, I didn't know it. Or maybe I ignored it."

"And now?" asked Nieven, hesitating, when she fell quiet.

Shi'Nynze did not speak right away. She took a moment, looking down at nothing in particular, as she whispered, "And now I'm scared to define our relationship. I'm scared to say words I may regret, words whose very definition I've had to start questioning as I don't know their meaning anymore. I'm scared of losing you. I know you deserve better than I can give you, more and more I've realized that, but I don't know how to fix it, or what to do so you don't leave. A part of me believes if I don't define anything, you can't leave as it's only leaving if we're in a relationship. And I'm scared, too, that my fear in itself will ultimately be my undoing."

The pause was only long enough to be certain Shi'Nynze had nothing more to say before Nieven reached over to embrace her. Holding her tight, he murmured, "I'm not leaving whether you think this a relationship or not. I'm still here, all these years and events later. Does that count for nothing to quell your fears?"

"I don't understand why," replied Shi'Nynze, her voice muffled against him.

"One day you will," said Nieven, kissing her head as his courage to tell her the truth was nowhere to be found. "Even if you think I deserve better, I'm the one who gets to decide what I deserve, right? Yet I'm still here."

"Do I need to question your sanity, too?" asked Shi with a hiccuped laugh and an attempt at humor to lighten the mood a little.

"I'm not the one who willingly met a vampire," replied Nieven, smiling, as Shi'Nynze pulled away. While he was given another small laugh, he asked, hesitantly, "But now that it's out there, I need to know: are we a couple? Do you... want a serious relationship with me?"

There wasn't an immediate answer, which worried Nieven, until Shi'Nynze asked, "What about when I inevitable leave to get the wolves?"

"I told you before I'd wait for you," said Nieven, carefully.

"Then yes," replied Shi'Nynze with barely a pause and a sudden, vivid blush. "I still worry about my… last relationship and how it's influencing me right now, but I keep reminding myself that even before I left I… had started entertaining thoughts of what a future with you might entail."

"I look forward to finding out," said Nieven, ecstatic, before he gave her a deep, loving kiss. With a small laugh, a slight blush, and his own attempt at humor, he continued, "I'm not sure I'm ready to talk about children yet, though. Or have them anytime soon if… if we get to that point."

"Good. Neither am I," replied Shi'Nynze, laughing slightly. As he gained back his smile, Shi'Nynze reached up to put a hand on his cheek. "This is what did it. Your smile. Maybe it's all the brighter because of what you have to face. Whatever the case, the first time I saw this smile… well, I am glad we were able to find it again."

"And yours," said Nieven, softly. "Even after everything... I'm glad at the ease with which you've been able to find it whenever we've been together."

"Thank you, Nieven," said Shi'Nynze, quietly, hugging him again. "I hope the day to find out why you believe I deserve you comes soon."

"It will. I promise," replied Nieven, sighing in slight defeat at his lacking nerves.

They finally made their way to the house to pick up one of Nieven's instruments and debate on his songs as his enthusiasm to play was renewed. While Nieven had a few pieces he was considering, Shi'Nynze was, naturally, most interested in the one her father had suggested. It was with some reluctance Nieven showed her a beautiful scripted paper she had not seen before though she could sight read it well enough to get the gist of it.

"This is beautiful, Nieven. Why haven't I heard it yet?" asked Shi'Nynze, intrigued.

"It is… you know I write from the heart," replied Nieven, tentatively. That statement gained more of her attention as he grabbed the first page of the sheets of music. "When your father heard it, he proclaimed it to be a masterpiece, easily one of my best songs yet, but all the things that led to it are… I needed to write it to help me deal with everything I was feeling at the time."

"The other winter," murmured Shi'Nynze, recalling her father's words. Given the reluctance he had to share the song with her, and when it was written, she asked, gently, "Is it presumptuous for me to think this relates to me?"

"No," said Nieven, unable to hide his blushing, again. Smiling, Shi'Nynze reached over to hold his hand. With everything that had been on the table that night, and the willingness both had to listen, Nieven decided there was no reason not to explain. Or explain as best as he could. "Keerla probably already told you I… I did not take the news well when that letter came… confirming my fears. But that was not the worst of it."

"It wasn't?" asked Shi'Nynze, squeezing his hand in comfort and encouragement, and, to be honest, a little confusion, too.

"'I knew she could do better. A family like hers could never be with a family like his anyways. Did he seriously expect anything different? The only good thing about him is his music,'" said Nieven, quoting the various whispers he'd heard when the news spread. He shook his head and the cruel thoughts from his mind. "I did what I always do: I wrote a song. Although perhaps… with far more on my heart than normal."

"That's why this one is perfect," said Shi'Nynze, quietly, after giving him a kiss. "You often write songs for others, but this one you wrote for you. You allow for accompaniment, but you don't need it. It'll highlight not just your talent with your strings, something I wish you'd do more, but also shows that what others criticize most is what truly makes you special. Show my aunt all her misinformed beliefs are wrong."

"I don't know if it'll have the same impact as my first performance," commented Nieven, still blushing, but with a ghost of his earlier smile gained after the kiss.

"Well, I want to hear it, if nothing else," said Shi'Nynze, hopefully.

"I'll consider it for tonight," replied Nieven, fairly, as he handed back the first page to her. "If… I do choose it, and the music takes you, I had imagined some… vocals might be nice right there towards the end, if you saw the line."

With renewed excitement, Shi'Nynze looked through it again, more carefully this time, while Nieven shifted through other potential songs. In truth, between Shi'Nynze and Yinris, he knew the song was chosen, but he had to build up the confidence to play such an emotional piece. Thankfully, the sound of the front door opening and closing bought him some more time. There was no pause after they both heard the noise that Shi'Nynze made her way to the living room to attend to her current favorite hobby: scolding.

"Osu'Tan! Where have you been?" asked Shi'Nynze the minute she spotted him sitting down on the couch. She stopped in front of him with a glare and hands on her hips.

"Out," replied Aolis, simply, as he worked to get off one of his boots. He looked up briefly, shooting her a teasing grin, as he said, "It seems I am finding you here more and more often, Da Fenlin."

"No deflection this time, Osu'Tan," said Shi'Nynze, crossing her arms, but unable to stop that flush of embarrassment. Her glare hardened as she took in an outfit he hadn't worn since she'd come home. "Why are you wearing your armor? Is that… a spot of blood? Don't make me ask where you were again."

"I did not expect to come home after a long day to an interrogation," said Aolis, ripping off his other boot, far less entertained by his niece's reactions than he would be on another day.

"And I did not expect you to be absent from dinner tonight," replied Shi'Nynze, frowning.

"Of course you did, Da Fenlin," replied her uncle, tilting his head to work out a kink in his neck before stretching out the tension. "You cannot expect me to be at dinner every night, and certainly not with present company."

"I can expect you to be at dinner when Ma'asa'ma'lin Velanna insists on meeting Nieven," said Shi'Nynze a little more softly.

"And I will be. You do not need to worry about that."

"But you were not."

"I was not?" repeated Aolis, confused. This time being the one to gain the frown, he said, "Velanna has only been here a day at most."

"Babae warned you, didn't he," said Shi'Nynze as a statement, not a question. "Neither Ma'asa'ma'lin Velanna nor mamae had the patience to wait longer than a day."

"Pala," cursed her uncle, quietly. He ran a hand over his face, his exhaustion somehow tripled from what it was only seconds ago. "How did it go?"

Shi'Nynze glanced over at Nieven who remained near the door to his bedroom while the two had talked. As Aolis looked up and over at him, he gave a small shrug, saying, "It was nothing I haven't heard before."

"It was at least as bad as you expected, Osu'Tan," offered Shi'Nynze in translation from the clear sugarcoating.

"Pala," repeated her uncle with a groan. He gave Nieven his full attention and a small nod of apology. "I am sorry, Da Evaliir. Velanna can be… a handful. I should have been there to help you handle her. I've certainly had decades more practice at it."

Nieven opened his mouth to accept the apology, but Shi'Nynze cut him off before he could, saying, "I hope the mission you went on was important enough to miss dinner, Osu'Tan."

"It was," replied Aolis before trailing off and sighing, knowing he'd gone more for a brief escape and stress relief than for any importance. He rubbed a sore spot on his shoulder. "...not. It seems you've grown on me, Da Evaliir, for me to feel this bad about it, although the disappointment of my A’Su’Tan certainly isn't helping."

"Good," replied Shi'Nynze with slight smugness, but it vanished quickly as her uncle raised his brow at it. She rolled her eyes and shook her head at his expression - a humorous plea of sympathy. "Fine. You can make it up by coming back over to see Nieven perform, AND you have to come to as many dinners as possible now."

"Skip one dinner only to now be committed to almost all of them? If I had known beforehand, I would not have made such a mistake."

"Babae warned you."

"Yes, yes," said her uncle, waving the comment away as he stood. "I will hear about that enough from him. But I will certainly be having a conversation with him about you." Shi'Nynze gave him an unabashed grin to which Aolis gave her a smile before turning back to Nieven. "Will you accept my apology and allow me to come see you perform, Da Evaliir?"

"Of course," replied Nieven with his own smile of reassurance.

"Thank you. Let me go clean up then I will be ready," said Aolis, giving himself a sniff to confirm that he did, indeed, reek, and need to get cleaned.

"Do you need healing first, Osu'Tan?" asked Shi'Nynze, her eyes back on the spot of blood.

"Hmm? Oh," replied Aolis, spotting the blood and giving it a quick examine. "Not mine. It must have been from one of the Orcs."

"You were fighting Orcs and didn't let me come with you?" asked Shi'Nynze, suddenly, slight disappointment very apparent in her voice. It only made her uncle laugh.

"I may support your desire to adventure and do as you wish when on your own, Da Fenlin, but I am certainly not going to allow you to be in harm's way if I can help it," replied her uncle, still laughing. He shook his head and made his way to his room. "I'll be ready to go soon enough."

By the time Aolis was done, he could hear faint music from the other room. It wasn't an unusual occurrence by any means, but it did make him more willing to return with them and put up with Velanna. It was a song he'd heard only once before, and while he'd never told Nieven as such, he had hoped to hear it again. For that reason, he sat and listened for a bit before he finally decided they'd waited long enough and let them know he was ready to leave.

With his favorite and most prized instrument carefully packed up for the very short trip, Nieven walked back with Shi'Nynze and Aolis mentally preparing himself for his performance. While this was a very different setting, and he wanted to make sure he did his song justice, he wasn't too nervous. After all, he'd performed many times in his life, and there was always a thrill to it. At least when Velanna saw him again, she seemed delighted instead of confused, her earlier disapproval of him now clear excited anticipation. Nieven did still see a hint of that disapproval, but this time it was directed towards Aolis when he came in behind them.

"I am glad you are able to join us, Arael'Tan," said Yinris as Aolis came to sit down next to him.

"You do not play fair, Ary'Tan," replied Aolis as he gave his brother an accusatory look. Yinris gave him an unabashed grin to rival the one Aolis was given earlier from Shi'Nynze.

Nieven walked over with the small pile of sheet music, holding it out towards Yinris, as he said, "May I take you up on your earlier offer?"

"It would be my honor," replied Yinris with a sincerity that made Nieven's cheeks redden.

For Nieven, it did not matter that he was the one known for his music. The approval of Yinris, an elf with centuries more musical experience, and one of the most respected elves within Divaekah, carried a weight to it that still made him self-conscious. As Yinris took the music and went to sit down at the keys, Shi'Nynze standing nearby him, Velanna looked as if she was going to explode with anticipation. Although he had played it once before for Nieven, Yinris still took a few minutes to reacquaint himself with the notes of the song. It gave Nieven those finally few minutes he needed to tune his strings, calm his nerves, and play from his heart.

While Nieven's mood was vastly different than the last time he had played the song to an audience, it was still as beautiful, moving, and memorable. Just as he'd been advised, it was the perfect song to perform for the audience given to him. While Yinris and Shi'Nynze added some layers to the piece, it was music played by Nieven, for Nieven. Any doubts that he did not know his craft were easily wiped away, and whatever misgivings Velanna may have still had, were wiped away, or at least had their hold vastly loosened.

"Wow," said Illen, clearly not one for words, but noticeably impressed.

"I've never heard something so… so magnificent before!" exclaimed Velanna, in awe, before she started clapping. "Oh, play it again, will you?"

"It has been a long night, lethal'lan. We can certainly watch him perform another time while you are here. It is rare for him to miss a week visiting Sora Stage," said Yinris, giving Nieven a wink and a smile. "Serannasan Ma, Nieven. You have given us all a worthy memory."

Unable to escape the feelings of self-consciousness plaguing him that day, Nieven could only smile and give him a nod before attempting to hide his face as he put up his strings. After setting his instrument somewhere safe, he joined the rest in the living room, deciding to stick around for wherever the evening conversation took them. For this decision, he quickly decided he didn't regret it.

Whether from their earlier conversation, or perhaps in defiance to Velanna, Shi'Nynze seemed to give up reservations she'd had in the past of showing too much affection for him while around her family. There was no hesitation to give him a kiss on the lips once he sat down next to her, nor did much time end up passing before she was leaning against him, his arm left with nowhere to go but around her. The conversation ended up being good, enjoyable even, as not only was Yinris able to keep the peace, he had Aolis there to help. Their dynamic in such a situation was something Nieven vastly underestimated, but now something he fully appreciated.

As the night wrapped up, Nieven realized that day was going to be a worthy memory for him, too. Nieven bid goodnight to Aolis and made his way to his room, his lips still burning from the parting kiss from Shi'Nynze and a smile still plastered to his face. Whatever unkind words were said to him earlier that day were quickly swept aside. The peace and comfort he was given knowing the future he had been hoping for was finally, officially a real possibility, drowned everything else out.