"What now?" she asked her companions softly. "We dare not cut at the greenery here."
"You met him once," Hal pointed out. "Perhaps he would recognize your voice if you called out to him," he suggested.
"I think perhaps you should put your bow away, Luin," Aran said, feeling eyes on them and not all of them friendly, but it seemed to him they were only being watched for now, as if someone was deciding whether they were friend or foe.
"I do not like to unprepared in case of trouble," Luin objected softly, but she did put up her bow, albeit with no little reluctance. She glanced over at Hal in concern. "What should I say?"
"You do not walk into someone's home with your weapon drawn," Aran pointed out. "Tell him ..." Aran frowned, wondering suddenly why he didn't just speak for himself. He stepped forward into the middle of the clearing, leaving Hal and Luin at his back and cleared his throat. He was a Prince of Ilyethlin; that had to count for something.
"Vedui!" he called in a voice that he hoped sounded friendly. "We are elves from the village of Anarven, seeking council with the druid Nesgrim. We mean no harm. We only wish to speak with him, if we may. It is a matter of utmost importance."
For a long moment there was nothing. Nothing - no sound of birds or animals, no whisper of wind through the trees. Then a ripple seemed to pass through the vines that barred their way, a mass of coiling, shifting greenery that parted with invitation to show the way toward the very heart of the forest. Luin couldn't help being suspicious.
"Be wary, highness."
"We must all be wary," Aran warned his companions. "Do not draw your weapons. It might be seen as an act of aggression, and we are here on a peaceful mission."
Hal exchanged a glance with Luin, looking as wary as she was. He wasn't sure he liked this; it could easily be a trap, but he had no choice but to do as his prince commanded.
"I'll go first," Luin volunteered, moving with silent care over the moss-covered ground to pass between the rippling vines. She did not like it one little bit, but if this was the only way, then this was what had to be done.
Aran went next, with Hal taking up the rear, in case they were attacked from behind. Though he did not have a weapon drawn, he was wary and alert for any sign of attack. Though Aran was nervous, he had to hope they were not walking into a trap. Certainly not a trap set by gnolls, in any case.
That hope was misplaced. As soon as all three of them were between the vines, the greenery moved, uncoiling, wrapping tendrils about arms and legs, lifting each of them off the ground to pass them as though from hand to hand through the trees, deeper into the darkest part of the forest. No amount of struggling could free Luin's hands or feet - indeed, the more she struggled, the less dignified the position in which she was being carried. By the time they reached an eerily lit clearing around a massive oak in which was set a small door, she was upside down.
All three of them were caught off-guard, but none of them called out in terror.
"Luin! Stop struggling! It will only make it worse," Hal urged, though he was just as alarmed as she was. He had quickly learned that it was useless to struggle.
Of the three of them, Aran seemed the most calm, almost as if he understood this was of the druid's doing. He could not very well blame him, knowing he had good cause not to trust them. Hopefully, he would listen to reason; he could just as easily have denied them entry, but he had not. He only hoped this wasn't a trap.
Frustrated and annoyed, Luin let out a huff of breath, forcing herself to relax as she dangled, long hair brushing the ground beneath them. This was not the best position in which to be assessing the druid. The grand oak they had been brought to was far larger than any other in the forest and, as they watched, the door set into the trunk swung inward. A small figure stumped out, all white beard and hair, branch-like horns worn like a crown, scraps of hide covering the nut-brown body. He peered up at them suspiciously.
"Well?" he asked, his voice reedy and impatient.
Hal held his tongue, though his patience was waning. He was no more pleased than Luin at their predicament, and it was difficult to keep either of his companions safe when he was so tangled up in vines as he was.
"We have come to speak with you and to ask for your help," Aran replied, unable to do much more than that, as he was as tangled up as his companions.
"What's in it for me?" the gnome demanded. He was very old, and obviously very isolated from sentient company. There was little regret in his poor manners, however. "You, boy ... you're Raniel's new whelp?"
Aran clenched his jaw in annoyance, though he held his temper in check. "I am called Arandir. Raniel is my wife's father," he explained, trying not to get too annoyed with the gnome's lack of manners. "I take it you are the druid Nesgrim. We have come to ask for your help. We mean you and your forest no harm."
The gnome nodded thoughtfully, leaning on a staff that looked as though it was nothing more or less than a sapling that had volunteered itself for this task. "You're little Carina's mate." He waved the staff, and the vines released Aran gently onto his feet. The gnome turned to Hal. "You, what are you?"
Hal blinked at the druid, wondering why the little gnome didn't know what he was. It seemed obvious enough. Or did he mean who? "I am Haldreithen, Royal Guard to the Prince of Ilyethlin," he replied, perhaps a little too seriously and a little too honestly. "And that is Luin, my mate. You have met her once before."