“Sie!” Misha ran across the forest floor, calling out the fey’s name. “Sie!” The forest responded with silence broken by Misha brushing through grass and low-hanging leaves and shrubs.
“It’s no use, Misha,” Veldin’s voice called from behind her. Misha stopped to look back to him. With Owain’s arm injured, no doubt dislocated, he was unable to climb over and push past the various obstacles of the forest. Veldin had been forced to carry the man in his arms, an arrangement neither of the two was happy with. Owain’s expression was one of annoyance and discomfort, though he said nothing in light of the current circumstances. Veldin kept shifting the mousefolk about both to avoid any pressure on the wounds on his own chest and struggling properly to hold Owain’s weight, no doubt adding more problems. The wolf limped more slowly through the forest than he had before thanks to the damage done to his shoulder.
All members of the group had come away from the experience worse for wear. None of them were truly in any shape to be traveling so soon, but options were limited. Everyone, wolf no doubt included, knew they would need to be moving lest they encounter any more errant fey. So, they had pressed on from the site of their battle with the white wolf almost immediately afterwards. Few words had been spoken as they’d begun to walk back, however, a heavy sense of dread and melancholy weighing down on them all.
Misha shook her head at Veldin’s words. “No! We have to–we have to find Sie! What if they can help?! What… What about the seed? The seed from the queen, maybe Sie knows how to get another!”
“Misha,” Veldin said more firmly. “Stop and think for a moment. If it were so simple as that, they would not have needed to reach out to us for this.”
Tears welled up in Misha’s eyes. “No!” She refused to accept that. “No, we can–we can still save the forest, Veldin!”
“Even if that were the case, we have no hope of finding the pathway to their home again or accessing it even if we do.”
Owain sighed, tired and drawn out. He did not look at any of his allies, instead staring off into the distance. “He’s right.”
Once more Misha shook her head, repeating, “No… We can– “
“Listen to me, Misha,” Owain said. It had been years since Misha had heard anything but her nickname spoken by Owain. “The fey wanted us to help. And we… We couldn’t. But we did what we could. We did what we had to. And now, we have to return to the village as soon as we can to report this.”
“But… What are we going to do?”
“The captain’s the one who’ll have to decide that.”
“Owain, I… I killed the forest.” Misha could not stop the tears from falling from her eyes as she finally said it out loud, her voice breaking between her words.
Owain’s voice turned gentle, then, and he at last looked to make eye contact with Misha. “Don’t say that. You saved us. That thing would have killed us if given the chance. Or worse, probably.”
“But we could have saved it.” Misha broke into a shout, “We were supposed to save the heart! We were supposed to save our home! Our home is going to die and it’s my fault!”
Veldin spoke up once more. “Stop it, Misha.”
Misha met his eyes, the tears still flowing.
“I…” There was a hesitation in Veldin’s voice. “I should not have said what I did. About being able to save the heart. I said that out of optimism, and… And out of foolishness. I don’t think there was ever any way we could have done so.”
“Wh-what do you mean…?”
“What I mean is, I spoke without fully assessing the situation. What would we have done with it, had we managed to separate it from the body it had claimed? We would have no means of stopping it from doing the same to one of us, or to stop its command over the forest. My spells would only be able to subdue it for so long.”
Misha thought that over. Veldin’s words made sense, yes, but…
The wolf made let out a heavy breath, like he trying to grab the group’s attention. Misha had almost forgotten he was there in her panic, but there he stood. Some paces away from the group, watching them converse, blood soaking through the bandage on his shoulder.
Misha took a breath. The tears did not want to stop. Veldin’s words made no difference in what she had done. Knowledgeable a man as Veldin was, he could still be wrong, couldn’t he? What if there had been a way to save the heart, despite everything? Misha let her attention land on the blood in the wolf’s bandages and pushed the thoughts away. “We should... take a moment to check over our wounds before we continue…”
Owain nodded. “Agreed.”
Misha opened the supply pack on her belt, reaching for the bandages kept inside. Only so many remained. In the back of Misha’s mind, she hoped, prayed to whichever of the Dragons may be listening, that Sie would appear before the group again as they returned to the village.
The fey never did.
There was a long silence in the guard captain’s office. The thick atmosphere of dread and uncertainty pervaded even the air here, though no one addressed it directly. The guards that had gathered said nothing, waiting for a decision. Misha and Owain stood among them.
“How long can we expect the forest to survive at this rate?” Wrent asked.
One of the other guards, a knowledgeable sandy-furred woman by the name of Temin, answered. “Judging by their report, I’m afraid the plants’ wilting would be the least of our concerns. The forest is large, it would take a considerable amount of time for enough of it to die away and for this land to become uninhabitable. But if what these fey said is true, that the plants cannot grow without a ‘heart,’ then I doubt we can expect anything to grow back after this next winter.”
“And what about this year’s harvest?”
“I think we’ll have to keep an eye on the plants we’re already growing. If we’re lucky, we can still get something out of this year’s gardens.”
Wrent sighed. The same exhaustion that Owain had displayed, and still did as he stood in this building with his arm in a sling. Despite his injuries, he had insisted on attending the meeting. Misha had done the same. She had suffered bruising and split skin not far above her left eye, but it was not enough damage to impair her in any lasting way.
“As it stands,” Wrent spoke with a grim tone, “we may need to seriously consider evacuating the village. There are any number of nomadic societies in the Emerald Plains that may be of help to us, and the city of Indervel is ever a common destination for those in search of a new home.”
In search of a new home. The gathered guards looked at each other but refrained from speaking out of turn. Misha hated this. She would rather her people relocate than die to the very forest that they had lived in for so long, but this was wrong. Her family, her friends, all the people she had known in all her years would have to leave their lives behind. Mikhail’s shop, Nera’s library. Would there be any way to even bring all the books that had been collected there over the years? What would happen to the guards?
This was wrong.
Misha realized Wrent was speaking again, giving assignments to check on supplies and resources, and for a pair of the guards to begin looking into viable options for the people to escape to. “It will be some time before we’re anywhere ready to depart, but we need to ensure we are prepared as soon as we can be.”
That was it, then. They would have to move. Misha listened as Wrent gave out the assignments, asking Misha to assist in collecting lumber that would be needed for the upcoming evacuation. Her heart sank, but she nodded. “Yes, sir.”
When Wrent dismissed the guards to their duties, Misha remained behind. Wrent stood from his desk and walked for the door that led outside. With the meeting over, he would have to make the announcement to the villagers.
“What is it, Misha?” Wrent asked, stopping at the door.
Misha began to speak, but her voice caught in her throat at first. She took a breath and tried again. “I’m… I’m so sorry, Father.”
Wrent’s whiskers twitched. “I don’t see what there is that you need to apologize for.”
“I did this.”
“It seems you helped to stop our allies from being torn apart by thorns.”
“But they– “
“Misha.” Wrent’s voice was stern, and he looked his daughter in the eye. “You’re wearing your vest, aren’t you?”
Misha glanced down at the leather vest she wore. She understood what her father–what the captain meant. “I… Yes. Yes, sir, I am…”
“Then tell me, do you believe you’ve acted in this village’s best interest today?”
Misha hesitated. She truly wished there had been another option, another answer to this. But she looked back at the choices that she had been given, at what Veldin had expected the forest’s heart would do if left unchecked… She nodded. “Yes, sir. I’d like to believe I did.”
“And that is precisely what I ask of our guards. It’s precisely what we need right now. And besides all of that, I hear you placing the blame for this on yourself and not on the actual culprit. Our arcanist friend said something else caused this corruption, did he not? Something else brought this blight upon the scale shards and upon us, Misha.”
More kind words. Words that made sense, words that she knew, in a way, were true. But that guilt still lingered, not so easily quelled. What would the other people of the village say once the news was announced? Still, Misha nodded. “Yes, Captain. I understand.”
“Good. Then, off to work with you.” Wrent reached for the door and opened it, the pair stepping outside. As they did, both mousefolk spotted Veldin nearby, leaning with his back to a nearby tree, arms crossed over his chest. His coat had gained yet more stitches across the chest where the plants of the forest had struck him. Wrent commented, “I hadn’t expected to see you still here.”
Nor had Misha. Now that Veldin had retrieved the shard, Misha had thought the man’s purpose his was done and that he would be preparing to leave the village much in the same way the wolf had managed to slip away from the group during their travel back.
“I came to offer my condolences,” Veldin said. “Lady Elcevier and I are doing all we can to stop the corruption of the shards from exacting their toll on the lives of innocents, but… Well, there are only two of us. We regrettably can only do so much.”
“We appreciate you’ve been able to do. Without you here, that thing would still be roaming free.”
“Yes, well… I am going to be departing as of the morning. As you are no doubt going to be busy from here on out, I expect this is goodbye. I thought I should at least say that now, while I have the chance.”
Wrent nodded. “It’s been good to have you, Veldin. Best of luck on your travels.”
Veldin returned the nod, his gaze shifting to acknowledge Misha for a moment, and then he turned to walk away from the two. Misha watched him. This would be her last opportunity to speak with him, wouldn’t it? There would hardly be time on this night. She called out before it was too late, “W… Wait! Veldin!”
Veldin turned back to look at her.
“What if you’re wrong?!”
Obvious irritation crossed Veldin’s features. “About what?”
“About saving the forest! What if there is a way?”
Wrent looked at Misha, and Veldin’s expression softened. The arcanist broke eye contact once again, taking a moment to answer. “I do not want to give any false hope. This is uncharted territory we’re dealing with.”
“But is there a chance?”
Still another pause. Then an answer. “I cannot be sure either way.”
Misha was willing to accept that answer. She turned to Wrent. “Captain… Father. I want to go with him.”
Both Wrent and Veldin looked at Misha. It was Wrent who answered first.
“Misha…” Wrent shook his head. “You have to understand, we cannot afford to be short hands right now. Even if there’s a possibility, we would not be able to rely on that alone. We need to be prepared to evacuate the moment it proves necessary.”
Misha shook her head, refusing that answer. “Veldin understands magic more than I have any hope to, I know that. He’ll always be the expert on… On all of this. But I have to do something.”
“Misha, I said– “
“Father, please!” Misha’s voice rose to a pleading shout. “You asked me just now if I believed I was doing what was best for the village. But that’s not what I’ll be doing if I have to stay here knowing there’s a way to save our life as we know it! If there’s any chance that my being there will make a difference, I need to take it!”
Wrent began to say something, but then stopped. After a moment, he gave a heavy sigh. “I know you do, Misha. You won’t back down regardless of what I say, will you?”
“No… I need to do this, Father. Please.”
Still Wrent hesitated. Then, finally, he nodded. “I understand. As your father, I only want to make sure you’re safe. But then, what sort of hypocrite would that make me while I wear this vest? Misha.”
“As much as it pains me… I accept your request. You are to travel with Veldin for a means to save the Orchard Forest–under the condition that you make sure to return to our ranks alive. Are there any objections?” Wrent said, directing the question to Veldin.
“None,” Veldin said. “I seek the shards for the sake of preventing the harm they may cause. I can hardly return to Lady Elcevier and say I’ve been successful while your home withers, can I?”
“Of course. Misha. What do you say?”
Misha breathed a sigh of relief at hearing her father give his blessing. She smiled and said to him, “Of course, sir. I agree to your terms.”
Veldin awoke at the first sign of sunlight slipping into the library’s upper floor from the windows. It was a soft light, the first rays that began to break through the darkness of the previous night. Despite that, however, it was still enough to cause a splitting headache the moment he opened his eyes. Instinctively, he pulled the blanket he had been using over his head to block out the light, letting out a soft groan as he did. He immediately regretted allowing himself that when he heard a voice.
“Are you alright?” The voice was soft and gentle. It belonged to the white-furred librarian of the building. Nera? Veldin was fairly certain her name was Nera.
He pulled the blanket back down and sat up from the floor to face the mousefolk. Her fur was messy and disheveled as opposed to its usual smooth texture. No doubt brushing and grooming had taken a lower priority to however she’d spent the night after the news of the village’s impending evacuation. In the late hours of the night, Veldin had heard soft sobbing from the floor below, periodically accompanied by the voice of a male mousefolk speaking as if to comfort her, though the words had been soft enough that they had been muffled through the floor.
“I’m fine,” Veldin said, standing up and stretching his arms and back after yet another night on the floor. As he moved about, he was becoming increasingly aware of how much his joints ached as well, though he was having difficulty telling if it was any worse than the past few days. Seeing Nera’s gaze studying him, Veldin quickly opted to change the subject. “Why are you here, exactly?”
“You, um…” Nera fidgeted a bit, gripping something in her hands. It was some sort of small pouch made of blue cloth, held shut by a drawstring. “You wanted to be leaving once the sun was up, right?”
Right. He did say that. Veldin held back an irritated sigh. “Very well. Go on ahead and fetch Misha, will you?”
“Oh, of course! I checked in with her, she’s already awake.”
The woman was punctual. Veldin would have appreciated that more if he were not already in an aggravated mood today. The pack of belongings and supplies he’d carried with him sat in the corner of the room. He grabbed it and made his way down the stairs and towards the door that led outside of the library. Nera followed him, her steps light on the stairs.
Veldin paused at Nera’s hesitant interjection. When she said nothing more, Veldin prompted her, “Yes?” He hadn’t meant his voice to sound as curt as it did, but his poor condition this morning did little for his patience. He had already stayed here far longer than he should have.
“I-I just, um…” Nera stuttered her words, staring down at the floor and idly running a small hand over her whiskers, still gripping the pouch with the other. “I wanted to thank you.”
“Well, Mikhail said you helped Owain and Misha. And you… You stopped more monsters from appearing, right? I didn’t see any, but I heard from the guards…”
“I suppose I did, yes.” How Veldin would have liked to be able to boast about that. Instead, he would be returning to Lady Elcevier to tell her that an innocent village would be relocating. But perhaps, if anyone would be able to find a way to save the forest even with the flower slain, it would be Lady Elcevier. The sooner Veldin could return to her, the better. It had been far too long since he’d seen her face.
He snapped out of his thoughts when he realized Nera was holding up the cloth pouch for him to take. Confused, Veldin turned it over to examine it. “And this is…?”
“Tea leaves. My favorite blend, actually. I always find it’s very soothing when you’re sick, so I thought you might like some.”
Veldin raised an eyebrow. “I’m afraid I don’t follow.”
“Oh. Well, you’ve seemed… I noticed you’ve looked pale the whole time you were staying here. I thought you may not be feeling well.”
“Aren’t you also pale by mousefolk standards?”
“I…” Nera glanced down at the fur on her arms. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…”
“It was a jest, I apologize,” Veldin said, offering a soft smile to compensate. He couldn’t tell if he was still having difficulty getting the proper tone across this early in the day or if Nera was simply that skittish of a person. “I only meant that there is nothing wrong with me, you needn’t worry. But I do appreciate the thought, nonetheless. I enjoy tea in good health as well.” He tucked the pouch away into a coat pocket.
Nera sighed with obvious relief. “Oh, that’s good. I didn’t mean to keep you, though. Misha’s probably waiting.”
After one final check to ensure she had everything she needed packed away in her bag, Misha slung her rucksack onto her back. It weighed more than she was used to carrying compared to her supply pouch, but she could hardly fit everything on her belt, after all.
She had intended to say goodbye to Mikhail on her way out but was surprised to find he was not in his bed and assumed he must have woken up early. Earlier than her, in fact, which was impressive. She adjusted her vest and belt, then turned for the door of her family’s home.
When she opened the door and stepped outside, however, she no longer needed to wonder where her brother had gone off to. He and Wrent–along with several members of the guard–were waiting outside already.
“What are you all doing here?” Misha asked, unsure how else to respond to the sight of everyone gathered here. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted Veldin approaching the scene from one of the paths that led through the village. Nera followed along behind him, then picked up her pace to join her fellow mousefolk.
“What else–seeing you off,” Mikhail answered.
Wrent stepped forward until he was right in front of Misha. “That vest has always suited you well. You’ll be sure to do our village proud out there, won’t you?”
Misha nodded. “Yes, sir. Of course, I will.”
“Good.” Then, without warning, Wrent reached forward and pulled Misha into a hug. “Stay safe for me, Misha.”
There was a warmth in her father’s voice that made Misha’s eyes sting with tears. It finally hit her in that moment that she was leaving, with no knowledge of when she would return. But Misha held back the tears, then felt more arms wrap around her shoulders as Mikhail joined the hug. “Listen to him, Misha,” Mikhail said. “Don’t do anything reckless.”
“I promise, I’ll make sure to come back to you all.” Misha allowed the embrace to carry on for a few moments before pulling away from her family and taking a deep breath to regain her composure. “Thank you all for– “
“My turn!” Owain had snuck up behind Misha during her conversation with Mikhail and Wrent, and now wrapped his good arm around her in a rough hug of his own, giving a boisterous laugh as he did. “You heard the captain, Pipsqueak, you’d better go out there and make sure this forest keeps growing nice and strong like it has been!”
Misha squirmed in Owain’s grip. “I’ll be–be sure to–Owain,” she managed to say while simultaneously slipping free from the hug with some effort. With that, the other guards that had gathered came forward to say their goodbyes to Misha, even Nera chiming in with a cheerful, “Good luck, and take care of yourself!”
When it was finally time to depart, Misha made her way over to where Veldin had opted to wait, out of the way of all the commotion.
“Are we going now?” Veldin said, staring off to the direction they would be leaving the village from.
“Yes, yes, I’m ready to go.”
Though the forest was rarely ever quiet, there was a notable difference between the sounds it made at night and during the day, and Misha could hear the sounds of morning echoing more strongly through the trees. It reassured her to hear those familiar sounds as she and Veldin left the village behind, knowing that at least a part of the forest was the same for now.
With any luck, they would make it to the forest’s edge by evening. Even with everything that was happening, Misha felt an excitement at the thought of seeing the lands beyond the Orchard Forest. Throughout her entire life, the furthest she had ever been was to the outskirts of the Emerald Plains that lay outside the forest, and even that was only on a few special occasions.
Her musings were interrupted when she noticed something out of the corner of her eye. It was a shape moving through the trees and bushes parallel to the group. As soon as Misha noticed it, she stopped and raised a hand to gesture to Veldin. He halted and focused his attention to the direction Misha indicated.
The thing moving alongside the pair stepped towards them, revealing itself to be the wolf once more.
Misha’s wariness faded instantly at the familiar animal. “Well, welcome back,” she said, only mildly surprised at this point. She noticed Veldin tense up a bit as the wolf began to approach the pair. “Oh, relax. I don’t think he’s going to try to attack you again, especially not at this point.”
“I’ll prefer not to take any chances.”
“I think he’s taken a liking to us.”
Misha let Veldin have his misgivings and turned her focus to the wolf instead, gently brushing a hand through his fur. She avoided the wolf’s wounds as she did, a few of which had managed to stay bandaged. The wolf had apparently decided others should be gnawed free and were now exposed, but at least partially healed. “You should be careful with how roughed up you’ve been lately, you know,” Misha said to the wolf. Then, letting a hint of melancholy return to her, she added, “I’m… I’m so sorry.”
The wolf lowered his head, bringing his nose to the side of Misha’s head and licking her ear. Misha’s ears flattened and she stepped back, failing to hold back an abrupt laugh. “H-hey, no, that tickles!” Before she could say anything else, the wolf turned in the direction the pair had been heading and began walking forward.
Misha looked back to Veldin. “I think he’s planning to stay with us for a while.”
“You can keep it if it doesn’t make any attempts to turn me into its prey while I sleep,” Veldin said dryly.
Misha hurried forward to catch up to the wolf and patted his front leg. “Don’t mind him, he’s grumpy sometimes. I’m sure you’ve noticed. Come along, then.” With her four-legged ally keeping pace alongside her and Veldin not far behind, Misha turned her attention to the travels ahead. To the land beyond the Orchard Forest.