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Journey of the Maple

Chapters 1 & 2

“I won’t go! I won’t go!”  

Screams of laughter beckoned in the distance, their force like a wave, unstoppable.  

“I can’t go! Don’t make me!”  Her cries were desperate; she had to escape the darkness washing over her. 

Again, the laughter shrieked, closer this time, an angry, triumphant laughter, pulling, drawing her, clutching at her… 

A bright flash of light, a blood gem like a red eye…a chain weaving through the darkness, drawing her closer, closer to the laughter; she knew she couldn’t escape, but she struggled anew – anything would be better than this sickening feeling of invincible darkness sucking her down to that crimson eye, scaly blackness, and demonic chuckling… 

She found her voice just as the darkness seemed to swallow her whole and screamed with all the strength she had. 

 

“My Lady!” 

She was strangling in cloth; she fought with renewed strength to be free from the darkness. Strong hands grabbed her wrists and held them fast as she gasped for breath.  

“MY LADY ANDRETHA! Wake up! You are going to hurt yourself!” 

The voice, warm and authoritative, dispelled the last of the dream. She opened her eyes to morning light partially obscured by the bed sheets tangled around her, constraining her like a hastily wrapped corpse. Her head almost collided with that of her maidservant.  

“Karida! What…?” As her eyes cleared of the nightmare, Andretha realized her newly arrived breakfast was on the floor and her dark-haired maidservant was peering at her with extreme concern. 

“It was a nightmare, my lady; all is at rights! Do not tear at your sheets so! Let me untangle them. Lie back and slow your breathing before your heart comes out of your chest!” 

Breathing heavily and blinking back tears of relief, Andretha did as she was told and was slowly able to come back to reality: inside a warm room, large fluffy pillows, a canopied bed, and outside, a pink-tinged sunrise, a blue sky, and a sweet breeze ruffling the curtains through the open windows. 

“I’m so sorry, Karida. I’ve never had such an awful nightmare. Did I break anything?” Her poised maidservant shook her head as she bent to gather the scattered breakfast. 

“What about the eve of your wedding day could create such a horrid dream? Is there something about your Prince Sharin that upsets you?” Karida raised her brows questioningly as she finished arranging the sheets and placed a tray on the princess’ lap. Andretha laughed a bit shakily. 

“No, no. Nothing like that. This was entirely separate from wedding jitters. I’m not nervous for the wedding, and Sharin is the perfect fiancé.”  

“You’re not worried about the ceremony?” 

Andretha laughed a little. “Mother has everything worked out. We’ll have a lovely wedding,” she added with a decisive movement of her light blue hands, “and the kingdoms will finally be united. This is what he and I have been born for – it’s not the stuff of nightmares.” 

Karida daintily replaced the breakfast items on the tray and buttered Andretha’s toast. 

“And you are not afraid of any expectations within the marriage?” she asked carefully, frankly unsure if it was her place to be saying such a thing. However, she knew that royals often brought high expectations of one another into their marriage after being raised to believe happiness came from making the right match. As Andretha was an elf maiden, there could also be many cultural differences that she and her dren groom would have to reconcile.  

Andretha sighed as she cut into a boiled egg. 

“Oh Karida, I’m bold in saying this, but I’m very good at living up to people’s expectations. That’s what I’ve done my whole life, isn’t it? It’s my duty to my family and to the kingdom. Marriage is no different.”  She looked at her servant sharply over her toast. “What makes you ask this so suddenly?” 

Karida shook her head quickly. “No, nothing, my lady. You know I only want you to be happy and safe. Everything about the wedding seems perfect, as you said.” She expertly flicked marmalade off the knife onto a napkin and collected crumbs from Andretha’s lap. 

“And a gorgeous wedding it will be!” Andretha said, and added, her green eyes sparkling wickedly, “Dearest Mother has been in fits about it for far too long. I thought she would spear that manservant right through yesterday when he told her the pastries would be three hours late.”  

Karida covered her grin, remembering.   

“It’s a good thing her hands were full of flowers and no sharp objects were within reach!” Andretha set the tray aside and bounced out of bed, landing lightly on her feet. “Well, the wedding is finally here, so we must do everything we can to speed it along. Help me get dressed so we can assist with the final preparations before Mother has a breakdown.” 

**** 

Silk flowed over the stairs, trailing in Andretha’s wake on her way to the ballroom where her mother would be hard at work. Sure enough, Her Majesty Isadora stood as queen bee in the middle of the hive, strategically ordering each wedding drone to its place. Silver, white, and violet fabric floated everywhere, attached to wooden walls or magically suspended in midair. The air of excitement - and slight hysteria - was palpable. Andretha deftly dodged two elven courtiers carrying truncheons, a dwarf balancing a load of brightly colored fireworks, and a court alkemist conjuring fresh bouquets from planters arranged around the room. 

“Mother!” she called, one hand holding her skirts to keep from tripping a rushing drone. Queen Isadora turned, her silver hair rippling over her sky blue skin, and arched her brows. 

“There you are, my dear, nearly-married daughter! I thought you would be up hours ago!”  

Andretha cringed.  

“Karida had to wake me. I had a most horrible nightmare-” 

“Not about the wedding!” Isadora gasped.  

“No, no, it was something else, something-” 

“Well, that’s all right then,” her mother smiled at her, placing her hand on Andretha’s arm. “Nerves can do silly things to our minds. Everything is going to be perfect. Don’t worry about a thing. I have everything under control here. Go have Ilandra fix you an herbal tea to drink so you can relax. I will see you at luncheon.” She embraced Andretha tightly and gave her a teary smile before turning back to bark at the décor drones. Andretha fled the flurry, her footsteps barely making a sound on the crowded marble floor. 

Once in the main kitchen, she wove her way through the steaming pots and chattering servants. The pastry chef, furrowing his brow over the towering culinary creation covered in swans, trees, and pearls, glanced at her fretfully as she passed through and out the little wooden door that led to the courtyard. All the fruit trees and garden plots made the huge courtyard appear even more spacious. 

When Andretha’s ancestors had built the castle right outside the capital city, Lesthiel, they had been surprised to find in the midst of the construction that there was a group of trees that was inhabited by a dryad. Quickly and reverently, they changed plans and built around the trees to form a large courtyard. The dryad was fascinated by the elves and their ways, as she had never associated with human kinds before. They offered her a place in the household, and eventually she ran the gardens (even the most contrary fruit trees would produce fruit at her coaxing) and oversaw the kitchen staff. The result of this nontraditional arrangement was the best and most freshly stocked kitchens west of the Great Bay. Andretha, even as a tiny child, had felt drawn to the garden and the dryad, who welcomed her company as often as the princess wanted it. A fertile friendship had grown up between them through the years as Andretha escaped the pressures of royal life more and more to seek peace and advice from the wise immortal.  

Andretha entered the haven of the trees and breathed deeply, feeling her anxiety slide off. She trod softly to the middle of the grove and sat quietly next to Ilandra, who was half in her tree state, humming happily and stroking the strawberries at her brown feet. At her touch, they grew brighter and rounder. Andretha sighed, and Ilandra slowly morphed into a more human form, beaming at the elf maiden before her.  

“It’s your joining day, my young maple! Do you feel like a sprout in spring?” 

“Yes, I’m very excited,” Andretha smiled. She was used to the dryad’s unique way of speaking. “A joining is a very important ceremony in an elf’s life.” 

“My branches grow new leaves at the thought! It will be such a green time! Your partner, who will join roots with you tomorrow – he is like you? I’ve never seen him.” 

“Rather like me, yes,” Andretha said, lying back on the velvet grass. She took a moment to inhale the fresh, green air. “He is a dren though, and his lifespan is short like mine - compared to yours. He has yellow hair - leaves - instead of red, like mine, and his bark is a different color as well. It’s more white like the color of that birch instead of cyan like mine and the elves’. He loves his family - his grove, you understand - as I do, and he is very kind. I am satisfied with my parents’ decision. And, you know, our joining will connect more than us: it will join the roots of two kingdoms, like the Great Forest in the West joining ours in the East.” 

Ilandra nodded, her eyes wide and solemn. “A very big day indeed,” she said.   

Andretha closed her eyes. The light breeze that was always flitting about the courtyard rustled her red hair, and she felt calm for the first time since her dream that morning. Ilandra smiled and began humming again.  

After a few moments, Andretha, eyes still closed, said, “Have you ever feared that you wouldn’t be able to do your duty for those you love - your trees for example? I don’t usually, but today…this wedding is so important. I do not want to disappoint anyone.” 

Ilandra looked at her thoughtfully. “Maple dear, I have much responsibility for the life of my beloved trees. We are one. We rely on one another. From what I have learned with much time and rings - generations you say? - with your grove, I have gathered that this joining is much the same. But, when you are one, if you worry about all the other trees in other forests, and if you spend your time checking each tree, you will age yourself and your grove.” She pointed to the tall trees. “None of you will grow well. You must rest in knowing that you will all do what you must to make the forest healthy and strong. No single tree must carry the burden of the whole forest. Neither can one dryad. You must trust one another and stand strong as you can.” She looked at Andretha again, piercingly. “You are very strong, Andretha.” 

“What do you mean?” Andretha asked, surprised. 

“You know that you are a Maple. You must know what this means, yes? Even your extraordinary red leaves, so unlike the rest of the Plains Elves, set you apart. You thrive when you are needed in the forest. Do not doubt your strength.” 

“That’s lovely, Ilandra, and thank you, but I don’t see how being different or strong will help me in this marriage.” 

Ilandra nodded gravely. “Joining is very important to you, yes. But there is more in life as well. You will see that soon.” 

Andretha sighed and stretched. She often felt that Ilandra spoke in riddles, not just because of her dialect, but also because she viewed life from a different perspective. This was why Andretha sought the dryad for advice more than any other person. 

“I don’t understand everything you’ve said yet, but I appreciate it.” She smiled at Ilandra gratefully. “I always feel better after talking with you.”  

Smiling ethereally, Ilandra walked her to the edge of the grove, then stopped beside a tall, green, maple tree. “You elves do not use magik, I have found. You study alkemy instead?”  

Andretha nodded.  

“Did you know that when dren saplings start to study magik, they come to a dryad to receive their wand?” Andretha shook her head. “You would not know how to use a wand, but I would like to give you a gift for your joining and new grove.” She reached toward the maple tree and slid her green hand lovingly along the trunk. When she pulled her hand away, a small, hard bud grew out and pulled away from the trunk into the dryad’s hand. She spoke softly to it, and it condensed and turned the color of maple leaves in autumn - a glorious deep red. Andretha stared at the dryad, feeling an unexpected solemnity - as if it were a sacred moment. Ilandra held the bud out to her. “I want you to have something from my grove. If you have great need someday, this will help you find the way.” 

Andretha reached for it, and as soon as her fingers touched it, the bud glowed crimson and disappeared. She jumped in surprise. Ilandra smiled.  

“It will come back to you when you are ready. Go to your joining knowing that our roots will never break apart, no matter how far you go.” 

Unable to say anything, Andretha embraced the dryad, smelling fresh earth, grass, and sweet flowers in her wild hair.  Ilandra smiled tenderly as Andretha turned to go and waved as she exited the gardens. 

**** 

A flock of birds scattered with the afternoon breeze as a young prince tramped through a forest of dense trees, eyes fixed on the grass as his stocky bodyguard stood watching in the background.  

“Is it really bad luck to lose an arrow on the eve of your wedding day?” the young dren asked anxiously, swiping blonde hair out of his blue eyes and unwittingly smearing dirt on his face. The bodyguard regarded him seriously. 

“I’ve heard it said so.” Catching the eye of the besmeared, forlorn prince, the half-dren, half-dwarven bodyguard caved out of compassion. “I’m sure it’s nothing, Prince Sharin.” 

“You’ve never seen a superstition come to fruition?” the prince demanded skeptically.  

“Maybe it's a symbol,” he shrugged. “You are losing-” he was not a very metaphorical man but strove on in a flash of inspiration - “You’re losing your freedom as a bachelor, and arrows are a symbol of freedom.”  

Sharin looked at him. “Arrows are a symbol of divinity,” he said flatly. 

“That depends on the region, my lord.”  

Seeing through the bluff but feeling too stressed to pursue the matter, Sharin scowled worriedly. 

“You do realize I’m to be married tomorrow? The unity of the two kingdoms is finally to happen? The world as we know it will change forever?” He looked positively harassed for a moment. “You can't possibly understand, Kal, and I'm afraid you're laughing at me.” 

Kal shook his shaved head and looked the prince in the eye. “Never, my lord. Tomorrow will be a grand day. If your mother-in-law does not kill you by nightfall, I will wear the expression of a mourner till it does happen.”  Sharin threw back his head and guffawed, causing another startled flight of birds.  

“My dear mother-in-law loves me,” he sternly shook his fist at the ever serious face of his bodyguard. “Princess Andretha says that her mother yearned for our marriage ever since I was only twelve years of age. I will thank you to remember that,” he ended with a final shake of his fist. Kal allowed himself a small smile and bowed his head. 

“Come now,” the prince said, punching his broad shouldered guard, “It’s almost time for the feast, and I need to be dressed.” 

“And cleaned,” Kal added, pointing to Sharin’s dirt smeared face. They set off, Sharin frowning at his reflection in his sword, vainly trying to remedy his stained visage. 

**** 

The feast that night was full of the best entertainment Andretha's country, Brauen, could offer: nomad dwarves demonstrating their latest awe-inspiring technology and indoor fireworks; dren mages from Galtia (Sharin’s home country) doing telekinetic demonstrations; elves dancing while mages suspended them in the air and caused gauzy hangings to twine about them in a beautiful display. Rich, warm breezes flowed through the windows, bringing the fresh scent of early spring and gently ruffling the silver and violet hangings. The guests, elves from Brauen and dren from Galtia, laughed merrily, chatted together, and listened with amusement to different wedding traditions from the two lands. Storytellers circled through the heaping tables, downing the fine elven hollander juice and telling comedic tales from both lands, as well as a dwarven tale or two. It was a magnificent night; everyone was filled with excitement over the coming union of the two countries and enjoyed the feast to its full extent.  

Sharin and Andretha sat side by side at the head table, smiling and politely answering every question, carrying conversations diplomatically and laughing at the storytellers.  

Halfway through the feast, an elf alkemist shaped a column of shimmering fire that turned into the form of a phoenix. As everyone applauded appreciatively, Sharin, still clapping, leaned over and asked Andretha, “How did the alkemist do that? She doesn’t have a wand.” 

“Alkemists don’t use wands,” Andretha explained. “I think the process has to do with the runes she traced before beginning. Is that correct, Alkiim Randolph?” she addressed an elderly alkemist across from them. 

“Yes,” he answered, bowing slightly to Sharin and smiling, the wrinkles around his kindly eyes dancing as he explained his beloved art. “Your dren mages would use a wand to bring fire from another world to this world and shape it accordingly. We elves work in harmony with this world: we use runes to influence natural processes in this plane.” He pointed to the alkemist, who was now tracing invisible runes on the stone floor in a kind of dance. As she worked, fire seeped up from the coals on a tray beside her and emitted small sparks that created an image of a sunrise. “Desiree was trained from the age of five to understand natural alkemy. We alkemists find our friendship with nature to be the most important of our relationships. Do you practice magik like your father, Prince Sharin?” 

Sharin shook his head. “No, father practiced it as a young man, but he thought I should study subjects that would build my foundations for ruling someday. He always said that the only use he ever had for magik was winning my mother.” Andretha and Alkiim Randolph looked at him curiously. He looked from one to the other and asked, “Do elves have tournaments for marriage candidates?” They shook their heads, taken aback.  

“Young elves are matched by their families unless they find a mutual interest before age twenty,” Alkiim Randolph explained. “My own wife was two months shy of twenty when we met and petitioned our parents for the marriage agreement.”  

Sharin laughed a little. “I see why you are confused, then. Our ways are quite different. Tournaments are the most important part of the courting process for dren. Males are tested in all arts of war, and magik is one of the events. My father won my mother’s affection during the conjuring event when he produced a bouquet of five dozen lilies and presented them to her personally, showing his serious, public intention to wed her.” 

“How lovely,” Andretha said, her eyes sparkling.  

Sharin laughed. “Much more romantic than the dwarves’ tradition, I hear,” he said. When she cocked her head in interest, he explained with amusement. “My bodyguard told me once that dwarves view marriage as a partnership, and thus they must know their mate for five years before drawing up what sounds like a business contract.” He stopped and thought a moment. “However, they do make their own bands of commitment.” He saw Andretha’s blank look and explained, “Together, they make arm bands that join their families’ symbols into a new symbol - the symbol they will pass on to their children that defines their own family unit. The bands actually tighten and loosen as needed, which is necessary because they are permanent. They are fastened on at the marriage ceremony.”  

“I actually find that quite romantic,” Andretha said thoughtfully. “How do they make them so flexible? Are they made of cloth?” 

Sharin shook his head. “Metal. Dwarves are known among dren for their metal work. Quite genius, really. I’m always trying to probe information out of Kal, but he’s not much of a talker. Rather stoic - another dwarf characteristic.” He grinned at Andretha. They realized at the same time that they should be talking to others at the table, and after a brief, shared smile, they turned and entered the conversations around them. 

As shadows began to dance on the walls, dren mages conjured floating globes of light, and courtiers coaxed a fire from the great fireplace to keep the dusky chill away from the revelers. Storytellers became more daring with their tales, telling epics like Koroth’s victory over the evil sorcerer Drunia and the extinction of the dragons long ago. One particularly daring fellow started the more recent tales of Krizimir’s betrayal and dark evolution into a necromancer before his exile, but Sharin, uncharacteristically stern, held up a hand, gave the man a look, and he hastily switched to the well-known tale of Lessliathe, the elf maiden who slew witches in the Age of Legends.  

Feeling uncertain about questioning him but so curious she couldn’t help it, Andretha touched Sharin’s arm and asked, “Why did you stop that storyteller?” Sharin’s face turned stony. 

“The history of that necromancer, Krizimir, is not to be told in places like this. He is a demon.” Seeing her expression, he softened a little and sighed. “Krizimir was a court mage at our palace in Valen-Tarras many years ago. He secretly delved into forbidden magik and betrayed the royal family.”  

Andretha changed the subject. 

After a while, her head began to ache with the noise and warmth. Sharin intuitively noticed her quietness and expression. He touched her hand to get her attention.  

“Would you like to go somewhere else for a moment?” 

Andretha said a grateful “thank you,” and rose, excusing herself politely from her current conversation. Their parents smiled indulgently, and Sharin’s bodyguard stood to accompany him, but Sharin waved him down and the couple exited the feast. 

“Where would you like to go?” Sharin asked somewhat awkwardly. He put a hand through his hair, looking around uncertainly. “I don’t really know my way around your home yet.” Andretha smiled at his expression. 

“I’ll show you my favorite place.”  

On their way to the kitchens, Sharin reached out and took her hand. She jumped a little and hoped she wasn’t blushing.  

They were to be married tomorrow! Suddenly the political arrangement became very personal. As they entered Ilandra’s garden, Andretha studied her prince anew. She had always thought of him as good-hearted, but now she saw that he was empathetic as well as startlingly handsome in the moonlight. His natural royal bearing commanded respect without appearing demanding, and, from the way he looked at her as they sat on a fallen log, he was not at all opposed to her scrutiny. This time she knew she was blushing. He was still holding her hand.   

“I heard that a dryad lives with your household. Are these her trees?” he gestured around them. 

“Yes,” Andretha said, thankful for the conversation starter. “When we go back to the feast, I could introduce you. Ilandra is one of my best friends. In fact, I was just talking to her this morning about-“ she stopped, embarrassed. 

“What do you talk about?” he asked with interest. “I’d always heard that dryads are difficult to converse with. I don’t know of any in Valen-Tarras unfortunately.”  A cricket chirped nearby. 

“Well, we talk about many things,” she paused, then decided to be brave. “She asked me about you and our…our marriage.” Why is my face so hot? she thought furiously. “She calls it a ‘joining,’ like connecting roots.” 

Sharin was obviously intrigued. “I would like to meet her,” he said. Then, visibly mustering his courage, “What did you tell her about me?” 

“Well, I said you were very kind, and you love your family and country, and…you’re blonde…” 

Sharin laughed. “I’m glad you remember the color of my hair,” he teased. 

“I can’t remember all we talked about,” she protested. His eyes twinkled merrily, and she retorted, “What do you tell people about me?” That was really very presumptuous, she thought, but the nearness of tomorrow’s ceremony made her daring.  

It was Sharin’s turn to fumble. 

“I don’t…know…I....” 

Andretha raised her eyebrows at him.  

“Well then. I tell people that you are…” he looked pleadingly at her amused grin, “you are…” deep breath, “enchantingly beautiful! As well as lively and a good companion. I…well, I tell them that I look forward very much to our marriage. I usually don’t tell them this, but it’s not just for our countries’ sakes.”  

Silence. 

He stole a glance at her and chuckled. “You are as red as your hair.”  

Andretha sighed. “May I be very honest with you?” He nodded, suddenly unsure. 

She looked him in the eye. “I’m very nervous.” 

Sharin breathed a sigh of relief. “I was afraid I was the only one.” They laughed easily and sat silently for a moment, suddenly much more comfortable after their confession. The stars glowed softly over the dark, rustling trees. 

“There are very beautiful trees here,” Sharin said, pointing to the maple at the edge of the grove. 

“Yes,” Andretha said thoughtfully. “I always feel calmer here. I’m trying to remember what Ilandra told me about the forest and relying on one another. I think I’m going to need her advice often after tomorrow.” 

“You will miss your family and friends greatly, won’t you?” asked Sharin, as though the idea had just occurred to him. A breeze traveled through the garden, and Andretha shivered. 

“Yes,” she admitted. “It will probably be difficult for a while. I’ve…never been to Valen-Tarras.” 

He looked at her with compassion and took off his blue cloak. “You do understand,” he said as he draped it over her shoulders and cautiously put his arm around her, “you can visit here anytime you like. I won’t keep you captive in a dungeon.” She had to smile at this. 

“Thank you. But I must also learn the ways of your country and your people because they will be mine as well, and someday…it will be important for our countries to trust one another. I must be a strong example to my people. I must…trust you.” She looked up at his face and realized how important trust would be after tomorrow. 

“Do you think I’m trustworthy?” he asked quietly. 

Andretha studied him for several moments. He had a pucker between his brows, but his eyes were open and unshuttered. His touch was strong and comforting. He was so…kind. 

“I do,” she said. 

CHAPTER 2

The morning dawned clear and crisp. Colorful tree buds opened everywhere, unleashing a wave of color - perfect for a wedding day. The wedding was that evening, so the castle was a mass of preparation and controlled hysteria. Feeling wedding nerves added to all the extra tension, Sharin called his bodyguard, saddled his horse, and fled to the woods till the afternoon. Kal, a quiet observer by nature, said little and let Sharin speak or brood as needed. At one point, when the brooding had gone on for an hour, Kal felt compelled to be at least slightly comforting.  

“Are you troubled, my lord?” 

Sharin looked up blankly. “Everything is fine.” 

Kal nodded knowingly and dismounted his horse to retrieve some food for their midday meal. 

“Everything is fine except that I’m going to be a husband in eight hours to an intelligent, beautiful woman who will soon know that I’m no great man! How can I lead one country, let alone two? I don’t think I’m ready for this, Kal.” 

Kal looked at him solemnly. “Your humility betrays you, my lord. You are a good man.”  

“It’s a deadly serious matter, Kal!” 

Kal assumed a graveyard expression.  

Sharin sighed. “Oh, fine then. You understand much in life, but you do not understand this yet.” 

Sighing again, he shook his head. “I might as well stand strong and bear it, I suppose.” He grabbed a hunk of cheese and bread from Kal’s pack and sat down to eat. They were munching comfortably together when a dense shadow passed overhead, and Kal suddenly stood and drew his sword. Sharin, who was searching the grass for a dropped piece of cheese, shivered and looked up. “What is it?” 

“It can’t be…” Kal rumbled. Sharin brushed himself off and stood, suddenly worried. “What did you see?” 

“No. It can’t be. They’re extinct.” 

“What?” demanded Sharin. “What do you think you saw?” 

“Dragon.” 

Sharin stared at him. Then they both sniffed the air, and with growing horror, saw the smoke rising in billows on the horizon. 

“The castle,” Kal said gravely. 

They mounted their horses and raced for Andretha’s home. 

**** 

The smell of smoke choked them as they arrived at the charred castle. Sections of the living quarters were simply gone, their massive stones strewn about at a great distance. Trees outside the castle were flattened and burnt. Servants and soldiers ran panicked through the halls, searching for the wounded and for water to quench the flames. Screams and moans filled the air. Helpers beat out flames where they could as they searched for anyone living. The dead lay where the scorching flames had found them.  

“I must find my parents and Andretha,” Sharin said desperately, coughing from the thick layer of ash still falling around them. He broke into a run with Kal following, sword at the ready. 

She would have been in the garden, Sharin thought after he had searched her smoky rooms and the ballroom, where the wedding would have taken place. He pushed the thought of the past tense aside and hurtled through the kitchen, opened the door - and stopped in shocked silence. Clouds of ash rolled overhead, darkening the once beautiful sanctuary of the princess. Kal began mechanically searching the blackened remains of the old trees and gardens. An awful foreboding stole over Sharin's heart. Then -  

“Mother! Father!”  

Hearing him behind him, Kal closed his eyes briefly before moving to Sharin’s side, where the prince knelt by the four royal parents.  

The ceremony, Kal realized. He had overheard yesterday about the elven tradition that brought all four royals to die together in this garden today. The four people who raised the engaged couple met on the wedding day to drink a shared cup and eat a small meal together to celebrate their coming union through their children. Shards of a smoky crystal goblet lay scattered beside their desecrated bodies. The dragon must have interrupted just as they were beginning the meal; blackened fruit and bread littered the ground. 

The choking odor of smoke and death filled Sharin’s nostrils and burned his throat. He knelt at his mother’s side, weeping uncontrollably, unable to believe the foul evidence that told him his family was gone forever. 

Kal’s soldier instincts kept him moving. Sword still drawn, he searched the entire courtyard, keeping an eye on Sharin’s graveside vigil. 

How could things have changed so quickly? Sharin thought, shaking. This was his wedding day! Just a week earlier, he and his parents had arrived here in Brauen, excited for the wedding and the bright future of their countries! They'd laughed and joked together; they'd been nervous but so happy. The different customs of the elves had been intriguing instead of intimidating, and Andretha's family had been exuberant, welcoming hosts. Andretha's family! He looked through tear-filled lashes at the bodies of his would-be in-laws and groaned aloud, anguished. Their future - in ruins! Their parents, their leaders, their advisors! Gone in an instant. He hadn't even been there to say goodbye. Sharin felt that the shock would consume him: his whole body was trembling violently. The thought that his bride might too be a victim of the flames hovered outside his consciousness and threatened to completely undo him. He couldn't give up hope that she was alive - but where was she? 

Meanwhile, in a corner of the courtyard, Kal found the dying dryad, her pale hair streaming listlessly with an unfelt breeze around her prone figure. Her green eyes were glassy, but they sharpened when she saw Kal.  

“Sharin,” Kal called firmly. The prince dragged himself determinedly to his feet, dashing away tears, and came to Kal’s side.  

“You are…Prince…yellow leaves,” she grasped Sharin’s hand. Her burned brown skin felt papery and rough, like bark. They heard weeping in the distance. 

“What happened?” asked Sharin brokenly. 

“The dragon…” she frowned. “Something…strange…about it...My trees are burned. The fire took them. Andretha!” She half-raised herself frantically but fell back down, coughing, her strength spent.  

“Yes! What happened to her?” Sharin pressed desperately. 

“She came to the grove to warn us, but the dragon came too quickly. It wrapped its roots around her and tore her off the ground. She is gone with the beast. You must find her!” She pointed at Kal. 

“We will,” Sharin said; his wet face was streaked with ash but recklessly determined. "What else have I to live for now?" 

The dryad looked vaguely into the sooty sky, then focused on him sadly. 

“Yes. Take me...” she struggled to rise and reached up feebly, pointing to the edge of the grove.  

“No, you’re too weak,” Sharin protested, but she persisted, and Kal gently lifted her and carried her to the maple where she was pointing. He placed her carefully on the ground where she was barely able to stand with Kal’s support. With a shaking hand, she stroked the rough, dark bark, and slowly, painfully, a thin auburn wand stretched from inside the tree and separated to lie in her palm. Ilandra spoke softly to it and held it out. Sharin took it carefully, staring, his blue eyes bewildered.  

There was an earsplitting crack, and the big maple, the last blackened tree standing, rent in two. Ilandra shuddered, cried out like a flock of scattering birds, and was still. A sapling suddenly stood in her place, its bark rippled and dark. Its leaves turned from green to crimson and fell. The ancient dryad was gone.