With her back to the pub, Fyathe poured vodka into three small frosted glasses and dashed a measure into her own wooden cup before returning the bottle to the shelf. She slipped her cup into her apron pocket, propping it behind the wipe rag so it wouldn't spill, and handed the glasses over to the gravedigger's assistant with a smile.
He returned a gap-toothed leer. "You know…"
Fyathe pivoted to face the next customer before he completed today's pathetic attempt to lure her into his bed. Unfortunately, no one else waited at the bar. She strode over to where Sallen caught up on the latest news of the realm from a spice trader.
"Might I take a break now?" Fyathe asked when the trader paused for a gulp of ale.
Fyathe followed the studying gaze the landlord gave the room. Only three tables remained empty but no one clamored for more drink. Sallen nodded and turned his attention back to the trader.
Fyathe hurried through the sweltering kitchen and escaped into the slightly cooler garden. She followed the stepping stones to the bench under her favorite tree. The massive elm dwarfed the pub. Enchanting notes from an unseen piper drifted through the garden. Fyathe's breath caught and she drew the precious vodka from her pocket. Biting back a curse, she tossed the liquid down her throat.
Eyes closed, she savored the feeling for a minute. Warmth spread through her body and serenity filled her. Fyathe sighed, snapped a couple of mint leaves from their stems, and popped them in her mouth. She dropped the cup back in her pocket and cocked her head to the side with a frown. Nostalgia and yearning hung heavy in the summer air. The vodka spared her the notes, but the piper's song continued to prey upon her.
She shouldn't be surprised. Six shots usually blinded her to Faerie and this last, combined with the sips from her personal stash before her shift started, only brought her up to five. If she kept this break short enough, Sallen would allow her another.
The stench of smoke, sweat and soured ales choked her and sent her into a coughing fit upon reentry into the pub. Sallen thrust a pitcher into her hands without greeting or query about her health. "Mead and four glasses. Table by the door."
Fyathe raised an eyebrow at the unusual order. Filling the pitcher took two bottles of the sweet, golden liquid. When she ducked behind the bar to pull out four glasses, Eddyth dropped down beside her.
"Tonight, I wish my father a rogue who'd sell his own daughter," Eddyth whispered with a wicked grin. She giggled and darted off with her next order.
Since when did Eddyth ever need payment or her father's permission? Shaking her head, Fyathe stood and glanced to see who Eddyth giggled over. Her breath caught. She slammed the glasses on the bar and rubbed both eyes.
She had be hallucinating. Decades of vodka numbed her to magic and iron, and now caused hallucinations. She sneaked a glimpse through her fingers. The four male fae remained seated at the table by the door.
They were mountain fae. White hair with a bluish cast graced the one with his back to her. Across from him, a fae with silver-streaked white locks and glinting silver eyes talked animatedly. On his left sat a fae with mossy green hair and matching moss-green eyes. The fourth had deep grey hair with purple streaks and purple eyes.
Fyathe's hands darted to her cap. Both ears remained securely hidden. With her auburn hair and gold-flecked brown eyes, they could not possibly tell she wasn't a particularly striking human.
She looked around wildly for Eddyth. Eddyth wanted to serve them. Why not let her?
But Eddyth stood clear across the room, passing out drinks to a table of poker players. Fyathe caught Sallen's frown and picked up the tray. She liked it here, better than any of the other places she'd hidden over the last five decades anyway. She couldn't allow these fae to ruin that for her.
The lilt of their voices reached her from halfway across the room. Fyathe willed herself not to understand the words, but the pub didn't stock enough vodka to make her forget her native tongue, even when laced with a mountain accent. Silver-eyes boasted about conquests he'd make at the Midsummer Festival. Of course, he did. What else would a male fae have on his mind? Especially since Midsummer was one of the four times a year all fae allowed other clans to travel freely in their territories.
Perhaps she emanated disapproval. Might just be humans were stupid. Whatever the case, she only made it halfway to their table before all four turned and stared. She fought the impulse to throw the tray and flee. Her feet propelled her forward on their own accord and she mechanically set their drinks on the table. Green-hair leaned forward and greeted her formally in their tongue.
Fyathe hesitated a second too long before forcing a look of bewilderment on her face. She glanced from Green-hair to the others and shook her head. "I'm sorry. I do not speak your language."
She looked around the table nonchalantly and adopted a particularly strong human accent. "Is there anything else you'd be needing?"
Fyathe didn't fool them. Wariness blazed in eight narrowed eyes. She smiled blandly and walked back to the bar, willing herself not to flinch despite imagining daggers speeding towards her back. She dared not breathe until the bar stood between her and the fae. A tray of dirty glasses waited in the sink. Fyathe tackled the excuse to hide behind the bar.
She sensed the mountain fae's outrage at her lie and hoped they'd not cause a scene. They had no right. They were in human lands now. Fae manners needn't apply.
"I think they like you," Eddyth whispered.
Fyathe started and dropped a glass into the sink. The water caught its fall. "Who? What?"
"The fae. They can't take their eyes off you." Eddyth bubbled with excitement.
Fyathe affected a laugh and shook her head. Sallen called Eddyth away. Dishes done, Fyathe busied herself with checking on customers as far away as she could stay from the fae. She sighed deeply when they rose and left.
On Midsummer's Eve, Fyathe volunteered to work while Eddyth joined the festivities. The village elders descended on the pub, while the young danced and flirted around the bonfire in the square. Even with the pub packed to the rafters, Fyathe managed to sneak away for her usual vodka breaks.
They helped not at all, not even on top of the half bottle she consumed before her shift. Magic filled the air and Fyathe noticed every flicker and sparkle. After closing, she buried her head under her pillows to mute the wild sounds from the distant faerie revels.
Monotony returned swiftly to the human world, but the revels continued for another week and more in Faerie. The sounds from that realm's parties drove Fyathe out of her mind. An unheard of eight shots atop a full bottle of vodka failed to mute the magic.
Though he said not a word as he handed over the bottles, Sallen scowled throughout the transaction. Fyathe sipped her way through three bottles in two nights. Sallen watched her closely and she dared not sneak further shots from the bar all that week.
Without vodka, the proximity to iron made her queasy and even more irritable. In wild moments of despair, she allowed herself to imagine that she'd left with the mountain fae and now danced 'round the fires in the bliss of an iron-free world. The daydreams left an aftertaste of bile.
The first evening she reached her chamber and realized she heard nothing, felt no magic, Fyathe burst into tears. She stopped snapping at the customers and Sallen turned his wary study from her to Eddyth, who'd been clumsy and dreamy since the bonfire.
Three weeks past Midsummer, Eddyth dropped her fifth tray in so many days. Glass shattered in puddles of vodka and ale. Fyathe grimaced to see so much good vodka go to waste. Sallen stormed out of the kitchen, took in the scene with a huff and screamed at Fyathe to fetch the mop. Eddyth he ordered to follow him to the kitchen.
Once the mess was cleaned up, Fyathe hid behind the bar to avoid the gossips who wished to pump her for information on Eddyth. She sighed with relief when Sallen and Eddyth returned after only a few minutes. Eddyth averted her red eyes and Sallen ordered Fyathe to take a break.
Her pockets held no vodka, but she chose not to argue with the look on his face. Outside, she paced the length of the garden under the half moon. She was bored. Fyathe shied away from that thought, refusing to admit boredom was her general state of being in her self-imposed exile. She reached the end of the garden.
When she pivoted to face the pub, someone whispered in the faerie tongue. Fyathe stumbled. Startled by the voice, she missed the meaning of the words. The wind whispered in the trees and insects buzzed nearby. She spotted no one in the garden. Perhaps she'd imagined the voice. Maybe now the gallons of vodka she'd consumed over the past few decades played tricks with her mind.
"I beg mercy at your hands and at your feet I lay my plea for your aid."
Fyathe gasped at the repeated cry for help. Centuries of good manners ensured that the words of formal beseeching would not be ignored. She dared not feign ignorance of his language.
"Where are you?" Fyathe whispered harshly in the faerie tongue. Please, let no human hear her. In all these years she'd only once been recognized for what she was. She wrapped trembling arms around her chest.
The whisper sounded in her ear and helped not at all. Fyathe twisted her hands. He needed to go before Sallen came looking for her. She couldn't take a break as long as this. But she couldn't ignore his entreaty either. "Where? Please, I don't see you."
A pale purple glow flared just beyond the gates within the leaves of the weeping willow.
"Put that out!" Fyathe shrieked and glanced back at the pub.
The light winked out. "Please. I am Tophillianthon à Lusalia Thim. You hold my name."
Shock ripped the ritual response from Fyathe's memories. She'd been Nithil's lover for a century and a half before he tossed her aside and never known his true name. Her hand shook as she lifted the latch. She closed the gate softly and stepped towards the tree.
"Stop! Seeking assistance, I might be, but helpless I am not. I stalk in Death's Shadows and will kill you if you insist."
Fyathe winced and blurted the ritual response. "The name of Tophillianthon à Lusalia Thim rests safely in the hands of a friend."
He did not respond.
Fyathe bit her lip. She couldn't see him in the darkness beneath the tree and worried he prepared to make good on his threat. She knew with the assassin-trained Shadows she'd never sense his attack before she lay dying. "I apologize. I misplaced the words in my shock. I did not expect high ritual in the kitchen garden."
A shadow detached from the tree. Moonlight fell on the fae and answered almost all of her questions. Tophillianthon à Lusalia Thim was the true name of Green-hair. The mountain fae's dirty tunic had been ripped off at an indecent length. He wore one piece of the tunic around his head with a clot of blood at the temple, another bloody rag encircled his wrist. One eye was black and his lip split. A bruise discolored his jaw. The Mountain fae wavered, unsteady on his feet, as he stood deep in the heart of the Grassland fae territory, four full days past the end of Midsummer revels travel truce.
"What do you want of me, Green-hair?"
"Call me Ianthon." His smile ended on a wince. "Sanctuary. I need a place to heal myself and my…friend."
Fyathe squinted into the shadows behind him. "Friend?"
"Reiven is gravely injured. I cannot make it to the closest free ring while carrying him. The Pannish al Drinnil hunt us still and likely guard the portal home. I beg sanctuary."
His eyes grew wide. "Have I come that far? Are we in Fanneliaria lands?"
She raised her eyebrows. "You think they would allow humans to build in their domain? No, you are simply much closer to the Fanneliaria than the Pannish."
"We did nothing to give offense. None of us were so low in birth to make a mistake of courtesy. Will you honor your oath and provide sanctuary?"
Fyathe cursed herself a fool for answering him without a thought She should have walked away at his first word. Three wouldn't fit in her tiny room nor could she imagine explaining that to Sallen. "Do you have coin, true human coin?"
Ianthon's face dropped into an outraged sneer. "You would ask payment in response to a sanctuary plea?"
Fyathe held up her hand. "Not for me. I have no home. I earn a small closet to live in as part of my work here. I can arrange a room for you and your friend but cannot afford a private room from my savings."
Ianthon's jaw still hung open. "You work for these humans?"
Fyathe's eyes narrowed. "Yes. The inn belongs to Sallen."
"Why? Why would you demean yourself so?" Ianthon's hand dropped to the dagger at his side.
Fyathe froze. Did he intend to kill her or Sallen to wash away desecration he saw here? And who was he to cry sacrilege? She'd never bedded a human. She doubted he could say the same. "Do you have the coin?"
Moving stiffly, Ianthon pulled a purse from his belt and threw them at her. Ignoring his hostility, she poured the coins into her palm. They weren't under glamour and would cover almost a full week in the pub's only private room. She hoped he wouldn't stay that long.
"Where's your friend?"
Ianthon hesitated. "You will help us?"
"I gave my word."
Ianthon sucked air through barred teeth. "So did the lords and ladies of Pannish al Drinnil that the ten days before and after the revels were days of truce. That doesn't make Vrady any less dead."
"The Pannish attacked you during the truce days?" She scowled. "Why would they dare draw down war on themselves?"
The Pannish risked all the mountain clans uniting to seek retribution for the violation of truce days. Other clans might join in for the sheer fun of a good fight.
"To prevent reprisal, they must see that Reiven and I do not live to return home. They crept up on us while we slept six days ago. Vrady fell protecting his sworn ward and they took Eilian prisoner. If Reiven dies, I fail in my duty and none will ever know what happened to us.
"Not until the Autumn Equinox truce will our families learn that we did not linger with new friends and lovers. Winter Solstice will arrive before anyone takes the Grassland roads to seek us. Our trails will be as dead as we are." Ianthon blew a strand of moss-green hair out of his face. "You are far from the forests. Where do your loyalties lie?"
"I have no connection with the Pannish or any other Grassland clan. Get your friend and wait here in the gardens. I will return once I've secured your room."
Sallen's scowl melted briefly at the handful of gold. He stared at the stylized eagles embroidered on the silver velvet and whispered, "Fae?"
Fyathe took a deep breath. "Yes."
"Why don't they come in the front door like any other guest?"
"They don't wish the village to know they're here."
Sallen stiffened and tried to hand the pouch back to Fyathe. "I don't want them bring faerie trouble down on us."
She stepped back. "If you don't tell the pub that we have faerie guests who will know? I'll see to their wants."
Sallen grumbled a bit more, but wasn't about to turn down that much gold. He handed her the key. "I want you back at work in ten minutes."
Reiven was a mottled mess of bruises and wounds on purple-tinted skin. His shredded shirt was stained with blood that seeped from a shoulder wound and an inadequately bound gash across his chest. A cut under his left ear had clotted closed, but over that ear, a bloody patch remained where a swatch of his silver and white hair had been yanked out. A deep purple bruise colored the left side of his face and his right eye was swollen shut. Scraps of Ianthon's tunic bound a wound on his thigh. His left hand was broken and wrapped in a makeshift splint.
"I'll bring refreshments and bandages on my break, but must return to work now. Do you need anything before I go?"
Ianthon frowned, but shook his head. "I just want to sleep."
Her night continued to spiral downhill. Sallen refused her first request for a break, claiming her time seeing to the fae counted as two. Eddyth stumbled into Fyathe and knocked a couple of glasses from Fyathe's tray. One spilled over a customer's head. The customer pitched a fit and stormed out. Eddyth begged Fyathe to deliver her next order so she could take a break to compose herself, but hadn't remembered the order correctly. The customer blew up at Fyathe. Sallen docked her pay for the glasses that Eddyth broke and humiliated her in front of the customer who received the incorrect order. He only allowed one short break all evening
At least the rotten night distracted Fyathe from the fae upstairs. She hadn't spoken Faerie since the night she stormed out of her forest home, and the language brought back too much pain. All the guilt at murdering her lover's human washed over her again. That she never intended to hurt anyone still brought no solace.
Homesickness engulfed her. All she had wanted for decades now was to go home, but she lacked the courage. She'd damped her magic through years of proximity to iron and the human poisons she ingested. The thought of facing her ex-lover alarmed her, but the idea that everyone would see how she'd deteriorated terrified her.
Alas, fear only stopped her from walking home. It didn't lessen her longing for Faerie.
A flare of magic ripped Fyathe from her sleep. She rolled over on her pallet and stared dumbly at the door. Ianthon worked to heal Reiven. The magic swept through her and taunted the emptiness inside her. She reached for a bottle and poured vodka down her throat until she fell unconscious.
Late for her shift, Fyathe stumbled into the pub. Eddyth shot her an anxious glance. "You look green. Are you ill?"
Sallen glowered from across the room. Fyathe attempted a reassuring smile and hurried to take the orders of a table of thirsty customers.
She used her first break to take food to Ianthon and Reiven. For Reiven she brought bread and broth, but for Ianthon she loaded a tray with enough food for three and hoped he wouldn't mind that she picked food off his plates as she carried it upstairs.
Ianthon peeked warily through a slit in the open door, but when he saw the food, he flung the door wide open.
"How is…" She set the tray on the table, turned to check on Reiven and jumped. Reiven looked back at her.
"Thank you. For helping us," Reiven croaked. Scowling, he rubbed his throat.
Fyathe crossed to his bed. "How are you feeling?"
His silver eyes clouded. "Forsaken Eilian's death negates any joy my survival might bring." He shook his head.
Ianthon growled at him. "Vrady is dead. Eilian may still live."
"He is dead." Reiven squeezed his eyes closed.
Fyathe felt too drained too cope with Reiven's grief. "I have to get back to work. I'll stop by after my shift ends."
"Work?" Reiven's eyes flew open.
"We saw her working in the pub on our outbound trip. I told you that. Remember?" Ianthon asked.
"Working for humans." An ugly looked crossed Reiven's face.
"Yes," Ianthon said.
"Why?" Reiven asked Fyathe.
Flustered, Fyathe opened the door. "I have to go."
She spent the rest of her shift unhappy and uncomfortable. Why was she doing this? She needed human money to make her way in the human world—especially to buy her vodka. But why bother? She needn't stay here. A broken heart and self-condemnation sent her into exile. She'd never meant to kill Nithil's human lover and guilt prompted her to flee. She needn't keep punishing herself for that mistake.
She'd fallen into the job as a way to get more vodka after her first taste dampened her pain. An old trader who found her a few days into her flight and allowed her to camp with him. He shared a bottle of vodka and explained where she could get more, but cautioned against use of faerie gold.
When she felt far enough from home and sick enough from the ever-present iron of this world to need a place to stop, she'd taken a job as a barmaid. No matter where she'd moved, she'd taken the same job ever since.
She didn't care for the work.
Really didn't care for humans—especially drunk ones.
A few hours into the shift, she came to the conclusion that she continued to work for humans in their pubs for lack of anything better to do. Until she overcame her fear of facing everything, and everyone, she'd run from, what else was there?
Gloomy, exhausted and sporting a wretched headache, Fyathe sighed when Sallen finally barred the pub door. She made herself a sandwich from leftovers in the kitchen and trudged back to Ianthon's room.
He opened the door with his finger to his lips and beckoned her inside. "Reiven's doing much better—especially after the food. He was grouchy and back to his imperious self by the time he fell asleep."
Reiven lay across the bed in a careless sprawl. The sight of him wretched Fyathe's heart. Nithil used to sleep as if he owned the entire bed too.
"We'll be leaving before dawn, but cannot make it alone. Will you help me? Reiven's family is nobility. They'll see you richly rewarded for your assistance."
Fyathe's heart tripped over its next beat. "Did the Pannish al Drinnil know who he was?"
"Of course, that's why they attacked."
Ianthon sighed. "Likely Reiven is right, Eilian is dead. He was our queen's son. The queen scorned a Pannish al Drinnil lord a few centuries back. Some ugly lover's quarrel. I don't know the details. The lord went home.
"Eilian refused to care that he might hold a grudge. He had a cousin among the Pannish al Drinnil that he wished to visit, a relative of his and Reiven's. We'd heard rumors that the lord was speaking of vengeance, but no one showed the slightest hint of discourtesy our entire stay.
"Vrady and I grew careless on the return journey. We expected danger while in Pannish territory, but we were halfway home and thought ourselves free of any threat. The lord's hunters killed Vrady and captured the son of the lover who replaced him. Now he intends to ensure no witnesses survive.
"Will you help?"
The idea of entering Faerie made Fyathe crave vodka so badly she smelled it. But the melodic cadence of Ianthon's voice made her heart sing His home would not be hers. She could return Faerie without having to face her past.
The faerie ring lay about half a day's walk through human lands. Fyathe and Ianthon, with Reiven slung between them, waded through grasses up to their waists under a brilliant blue sky. The plains rolled gently
Fyathe found the trek arduous. An ominous thud echoed in her head to accompany each step. The closer they moved to Faerie, the less she felt she could breathe. More than anything she wished for a nip of the vodka stashed in her pack. Her last bottle. For good. She promised.
Reiven distracted her each time she decided to run away. He whined that they jostled him too much and about each scrape and bruise on his body. Fyathe wished the healing hadn't gone so well. She liked him better unconscious.
"Can we rest?" Fyathe asked. She stopped and sagged against a cottonwood. She needed her vodka. Just a sip.
"We just did," Ianthon said. He had no choice but to stop. Reiven would spill from the improvised sling if Ianthon moved too far from Fyathe.
"An hour ago."
Ianthon scowled and pointed ahead of them with his chin. "The ring is close. We can rest when we've passed through to home."
"What can it matter if we pause for a few minutes?" Fyathe shivered. She should never have agreed to return to Faerie. It was too much, too soon.
"Perhaps you two should quit squabbling. Do you not sense that?" Reiven asked.
Fyathe and Ianthon quit scowling at each other over his head. A whisper of magic breezed past them.
Ianthon cursed. "It's the Pannish al Drinnil. We have to run for it."
"You cannot be sure," Fyathe said. But Ianthon didn't wait for her opinion and the sling tugged her after him.
The grass around them began to rustle and whisper, "This way. This way. They're over here. Over here."
Fyathe shot Ianthon a panicked glance.
He frowned, but Reiven cursed. "How dare they use their magic against us!"
He held up his fist.
The earth rumbled behind them. Reiven gasped and pitched forward Ianthon caught him and lowered his body to the ground.
Fyathe squatted beside him. "What did they do to him?"
"The fool did it to himself. Arrogant idiot thought he could rip the land open to swallow them in his state. At best, someone stumbled and twisted their ankle. Stupid waste of magic." Ianthon sighed harshly. "Help me get him back in the sling."
The grasses continued to mark their location. Fyathe scanned their area. The whispering seemed to lead straight back they way they had come A tree-topped hill broke the monotony of the plains to the west. "Where's the portal again?"
Ianthon gestured vaguely to the east.
Fyathe bit her lip to staunch her smile. An exit unraveled before her. She couldn't face Faerie, but she could still fulfill her promise. "Can you make it alone if we sling him over your back?"
"What? No, well, yes, but what are you going to do?"
She helped Ianthon pull Reiven over his back. "Just go. Run. I'll draw them off."
"They will kill you if they catch you."
Fyathe smiled. "Go. Hurry."
The babbling grasses grew excited. Ianthon grimaced, but nodded. "Stay safe."
He laid his hand on her arm. "Thank you."
Fyathe nodded. He sprinted for the ring. She shot off in the opposite direction. The whispering grasses grew confused.
"This way. No, this way. They're here. No! Over here."
On her flight, she concentrated hard on the image of Reiven and Ianthon. At the foot of the hill, she released her magic. An illusion of Ianthon and Reiven joined her on a sprint up the hill. At the top, they stopped to survey the plains below. Fyathe didn't have to feign exhaustion The effort of maintaining the illusion was staggering. Magic never used to be this difficult.
The grassland fae noticed her before she found them. She heard a shout. Acting frantic, she looked down the other side of the hill and stifled a grin to see a handful of cottonwoods just beyond the foot of the hill. Now that her pursuit could rely on their eyes, the grasses stopped whispering. When she squinted she made out fae camouflaged in the colors of the grasses making a beeline for her.
She waited as long as she dared. Arrows whizzed at her. One fell only inches from her foot. She screamed, pivoted, and dashed down the other side, abandoning the energy-draining illusion half way down.
Hoping her luck would hold, Fyathe flew to the strand of cottonwoods. Panting and limping, she ran past the closest two trees and stopped by the next she reached. A glance behind showed the grassland fae had yet to clear the top of the hill, but they drew near. She heard them shouting.
Dizzy from the strain of magic, Fyathe took a deep breath. Fifty years had passed, probably more, but she was a forest fae. Surely the magic of trees wouldn't fail her now, no matter how pathetic her state.
The thought speared her heart. She couldn't do this to herself any more. Magic had grown too hard. Another dozen years of vodka and she'd lose that part of herself entirely. Then what? Spend the rest of time as a human? Her stomach turned at the idea.
She dropped her bag to the ground and pulled the bottle of vodka free. She stared at her only solace in this place. The shouts grew louder. Soon they'd reach the crest of the hill and it'd be too late.
No more, she vowed. She didn't belong here.
Without giving herself a chance to reconsider, she slammed the bottle against the packet dirt. It shattered and the precious, beautiful vodka seeped into the ground, gone forever. Fyathe's breath caught. Too late now.
And she hadn't time for regret. Behind her, pursuit neared. She placed her palm flat on the tree trunk and asked permission in the language of the trees.
For a second nothing happened. Then the bark shuddered beneath her palm. The shocked reply made her smile. She took another breath, stepped forward and into the tree.
Peace and quiet drew her close. She smiled. Her body changed shape as she stretched out along the solid trunk of the cottonwood. The tree was startled out of its drowsy, slow world. It had never met a fae, not in this manner.
"Where they'd go?"
"They're around here somewhere. They must be!"
"Check with the grasses."
Silence outside for a minute, then Fyathe learned new curses from the grassland fae. She smiled to hear that Ianthon was now too close to the faerie ring and would transfer home before any of the Pannish al Drinnil hunters could reach them.
And later, she would follow. She'd sworn an oath to see Ianthon home. She'd find the courage to complete that promise, but not yet. She must wait until the grassland fae gave up, and that could take some time…all the way to Autumn Equinox truce. Maybe even Winter Solstice.
With a sigh of relief, and more than a little regret, she settled down for a long conversation with the curious tree.