Rowan (a tale of D&D characters)

It was a warm spring day. The birds were singing, the sun was shining, and the wind was rustling through the trees of the forest. Xavier and Ariond were riding on a faint path Ariond had found, a path, he had assured Xavier, that was a short cut through the forest. Xavier had been a little skeptical ("If it's a short cut, why does it look as if no one has traveled it for months?"), but decided to follow it. It had been about three weeks since they had first met. Over the time they had come to know each other well, each telling the other a little more about himself until finally, they knew each other better than they knew anyone. They were much alike, with a burning curiosity and a tendency to get into trouble foremost. The two had become comfortable with each other, and enjoyed each other's company. Ariond provided many fascinating--and fanciful--stories, which Xavier attempted to match, but could only give second-hand accounts of stories he had heard, and they weren't delivered nearly as well as the bard's, as Ariond continued to point out at every opportunity. The two traded such barbs constantly--it was an integral part of their friendship.

"Hey, Xavier, wake up!" Ariond called out. "I said, this looks like a good place to stop for the day. What do you think?"

Xavier snapped back to the present. The site Ariond had found looked good enough. It was a clearing a couple yards off the path, lush green grass surrounded by tall trees, and a stream flowing off to the side. It looked ideal. "It looks almost too good," Xavier commented.

"Oh, don't start with the paranoia again," Ariond said disgustedly. "You're going to have to learn to accept good fortune when it comes along, not question everything that doesn't have a string attached! Face it, some things in life are free."

Xavier had some doubts about that last statement, but decided that he was being foolish about the campsite. They turned their mounts off the trail and dismounted in the clearing. They set up camp, unsaddling their horses and putting them on loose tethers to graze on the luscious grass. Ariond started to clear a spot of greenery for a camp fire.

"Hey, Xavier, why don't you go look for some wood? I'm kind of busy right now," Ariond called out, vigorously applying himself to slicing up the turf. Xavier glared at Ariond for getting the easy job, but knew from past experience that it was pointless to argue: Ariond lived by a first-come, first-served philosophy in all things, including easy labor. The elf rooted around the surrounding trees, but failed to find any dead branches. "I'm going to have to go out further for the wood, Ariond," Xavier announced. "Are you sure you can handle yourself until I get back? You've only got the brains of half an elf, remember," he added mockingly.

Without even deigning to glance up, Ariond returned, "Just don't get lost-you don't have any human cunning to help you get back again." With a snort of derision, Xavier walked on, scanning the undergrowth for any suitable wood. He noticed with some curiosity the relative cleanliness of the forest floor, at least in this area. Sure, there was dirt, but it was *clean* dirt, with no animal droppings, few leaves or needles, and absolutely no branches. He extended his search about a quarter of a mile all around the clearing, and still found no wood besides the living kind on the trees.

Xavier's curiousity was increasing from mild interest to keen wonderment, and with his curiousity arose his 'paranoia'. His elven senses and woodland training didn't notice anything unusual, but he couldn't get over how everything looked so well tended, as in a garden. Though he was troubled, the fighter-mage wasn't worried enough to return to camp. Ariond could handle himself, and if there *was* nothing to worry about, Xavier wouldn't hear the end of it for weeks. So he doggedly continued his search for kindling. Eventually, about a half mile out, the forest became more normal in appearance, with dirty dirt and--finally--some wood suitable for a fire. Xavier bound several bunches together with some rope he had brought for that purpose, and started to head back to camp.

The light had been growing dim when he had left the camp. Now, a half hour later as he approached it, twilight had set in, leaving dim outlines of the surrounding trees. It would have been difficult going for any human, but elves--and half-elves, he thought grudgingly--had the ability to see the heat given off by all living things, even trees, and this ability became more noticeable as the normal light faded.

As Xavier entered the camp site, he saw Ariond--or his body heat, actually--standing in the middle of the clearing, facing him. "No, that's all right, don't bother to help me with the wood, I've got it but thanks...." Xavier began, but then trailed off as he noticed certain aspects of the heat image in front of him. First, it appeared to be leaning against a tree in the center of the clearing, a tree Xavier was almost positive hadn't been there before. Second, though he couldn't see fine details, it appeared that Ariond's weight had been shifted around, along with his height. Before Xavier could puzzle it out, light suddenly blossomed in the clearing, momentarily dazzling Xavier, who quickly dropped his wood and drew his right long sword, his left hand raised in a futile effort to shade his eyes. He quickly became accustomed to the light, but halted his left hand's trip to its own sword hilt. Before him stood a figure, and it wasn't Ariond. Most definitely it wasn't Ariond. Before him stood a vision, a dream, an impossible embodiment of perfection in the female form, beauty incarnate.

She was of average height, a little over five and a half feet tall. That was all that Xavier could see that was average about her. Her skin had a brownish cast to it, much the same shade as the tree she now leaned against. And there was quite a bit of skin to see. Xavier shut his eyes for a moment, shook his head, swallowed, then opened them again. She was still there. This time, so as not to overload his eyes, he glanced at her ankles, then worked his way up.

Her shapely legs, smooth and perfect looking, disappeared under a leafy shift that was borderline decent, accentuating the curve of hips and waist. Further up her arms were folded over what appeared to be quite full breasts--Xavier thought he would find out just how full if she ever bent over. Her face was radiant with beauty, a perfect compliment to the work of art below. Her features were soft, with a smoothness Xavier was aching to explore. Her chin looked like it had been made to be stroked; her lips were full and red. Her eyes caught and held him for what seemed like forever, blue as a mountain lake, and deep as the most depthless plane. Xavier felt himself sinking into them, and welcomed, no, reveled! in the feeling. Eventually his eyes were his again, and he moved up past her smooth brow, up into a mass of fire. Her hair was unlike any he had ever seen. It was a deep red, a red that seemed to blaze in the strange light with sultry flames. It was long and luxurious, tumbling in cascades down her back and framing her lovely face, a portrait framed in the sullen fires of every man's darkest desires. Xavier's sword fell from his hand, and both hands were raised, almost without any conscious effort, to stroke that hair, that skin, to crush that body into his to....

He started forward, stumbling, not looking where he was going, nor caring, knowing that he must possess this dryad that had come upon him, for that was all she could be, one of the creatures of fairy that were the living embodiment of a tree's soul. Many stories were told by adventurers, and all paled in the face of the reality.

As Xavier crossed the clearing, the woman--goddess!-detached herself from the tree, and moved to meet him, holding her arms out in welcome, her lips curved in a wanton smile that promised much. Xavier's pulse quickened, his breathing became ragged. He was feet away when a small voice, a voice Xavier often heard, but seldom listened to, the part of him that was cautious, 'paranoid', sensible, and oh, so tiring, spoke up.

Where was Ariond? it asked first. Maybe she did something to him? Shouldn't you look for him?

Who cares? Besides, there's no way I'm going to share this...this "vision• with anyone, he snapped back.

What about that tree? Where did it come from? it returned.

It's probably her's! he brushed off. She *is* a dryad, after all, and they live in trees.

There was never any stories about the trees moving around with them! it snorted.

As if the stories were accurate! Why mention something like that, it's not important. Can't you leave me alone? I'm trying to enjoy this. I mean, "look• at her! he sighed.

I *am*, and that's what's got me so worried. No one that looks like that is going to be up to any good! And what would she be doing with *you*, anyway? it snapped.

Hey, watch it, that's *us* you're talking about! I'm not so bad, he added, but had slowed down, trying to reason out what his thoughts were telling him. For some reason, he found it difficult, and gave up, not worrying about it, and continued his approach.

You weak-brained idiot! the voice roared. She's got you charmed to the Abyss and back! Can't you see that?

*That* brought Xavier up, his blood cooling a bit. He didn't like the idea of being controlled, he never had. One of the few times he had gotten truly angry with his grandfather and mentor was when the teacher had cast a spell that allowed him to control Xavier's actions. It had been a simple exercise to practice defenses against it, but Xavier had hated the feeling, and felt resentful for days. The thought that this dryad might be doing something similar cooled his ardor indeed. Then he returned his attention back to the figure before him, and felt his will slip away again. Determinably, he tore his eyes away, looking at the ground, as he drew forth his one remaining sword, not daring to search for the one he had dropped.

He sensed the creature halting, and a voice, musical, yet with a seductive deepness that almost made Xavier drop his other sword and reach for her again, spoke.

"Fair elfling, why do you draw steel against me? I mean you no harm. Indeed, I promise you delights to fulfill the longings I sense deep inside of you, longings you are even now fighting. Don't fight it, give in. I long for your touch. Come, join me!" she cried, stepping towards him again.

Xavier brought his sword up firmly. "Stay back, fairy creature!" he warned, keeping his eyes averted. "I seek no quarrel with you, yet you attempt to seduce me by magical means, to rob me of my free will. You are most fair," what an under­statement! "but I will not succumb!" he finished, praying silently that it was true. "Now, who are you, and what have you done to my friend Ariond?"

Abruptly, the dryad burst into tears. Startled, Xavier looked up to see her weeping, her hands covering her face in a futile attempt to stem her tears. More than anything, Xavier wanted to go over to the woman, embrace her, dry those tears from her lovely face. But, he stood firm, refusing to submit once again to her charms. "Answer me, wench!" Xavier demanded, forcing himself to be harsh.

Struggling for control, the dryad withdrew her hands, revealing a tear streaked, but still beautiful, visage that was presently twisted with anguish. Drawing in a quivering breath, she began, "I am not really a dryad, but a half-elf maiden who was transformed into what you see now by an evil wizard. I am to seduce travelers with my charms so he can capture them for his experiments. Your friend, the bard, succumbed to me, and is now awaiting the wizard's return to take him away."

"But where is Ariond now?" Xavier demanded, fearing that he might be too late to save him.

Smiling sadly, the `dryad' backed away from Xavier, and leaned herself back against the tree she had started at, the tree Xavier couldn't remember seeing when he had first left the clearing. She stroked the trunk and rubbed herself against it's bark. The tree shivered as if in a wind, yet no breeze was apparent. Having developed a terrible suspicion, Xavier withdrew the crystal of true sight his grandfather had given him. Holding it before his eye, he surveyed the woman and tree, gasping at the vision revealed.

The woman's form was markedly different when seen through crystal. Her hair was a dark brown, and her figure, while still quite attractive, had lost some of the voluptuousness. Superimposed over the figure was the dryad form, seen as a hazy outline, along with a soft glow that Xavier guessed were the charm spells used to enhance her allure. But behind the woman...Xavier saw Ariond, standing motionless, arms spread towards the sky, feet spread apart, a blissful expression on his face. Around him, the outline of the elm tree he had become was visible. Xavier fought an urge to grin. No matter how ridiculous he looked, and no matter how much Xavier was going to rib the bard about this when--if, he corrected himself--he ever got Ariond out of this, this was a serious matter, with the bard being in serious trouble. Xavier was a mage, but had nowhere near the power to reverse the spells on either Ariond or the `dryad'.

"Change Ariond back!" he commanded, hoping that it would be that easy.

It wasn't. "I can't, elfling. I know only how to change, not how to change back. Only my master could do that," she added, quietly.

"Is there any way to break the enchantment on you?" Xavier asked, thinking that two against one fairly powerful wizard might not be as suicidal as one against one fairly powerful wizard. Something seemed to change in the woman's eyes: for a moment, there appeared to be a struggle, then they were calm and blue again. Very calm, and very blue, and now very bottomless. Xavier felt the pull of her once again, but held on. "Why, yes, there is a way to reverse the enchantment placed on me, little elfling," she purred, once more advancing on him. "What is the way for any enchantment like this to be removed? You must kiss me," she finished, her tone openly challenging, her eyes openly inviting.

Of course! Xavier thought to himself. That's how it is in all the stories, the hero kisses the enchanted lady, and they live happily ever after! Why couldn't I have seen it myself? Forgetting his earlier caution, he dropped his sword, leaving both now on the ground, and crossed the distance between them.

NO! his inner voice roared. What are you doing?!

You heard her, Xavier retorted, this is how to break her curse. It's just like the stories.

You believe her *and* the stories? You idiot! You gullible fool! I'm sure a succubus says the same thing, just before she drains men's souls! Think, elf, think!

But Xavier was past rational thought (not that he indulged much in it anyway). He crossed the final feet to the woman, the lady in distress. In a flash, his arms were around her, glorying in the feel of her flesh. Her arms were entwined around his neck before he even knew it. Both tightened their grips until their bodies were mashed together, every curve jammed into another. The woman's head tilted back, eyes closing and lips parting. Xavier's mouth hungrily dove down seeking hers.

STOP! his voice called out frantically. Remember Ariond's face!

In a frozen instant of time, with their lips barely separated, Xavier remembered. He remembered Ariond standing, limbs spread, an ecstatic look on his face...

At the last possible instant, Xavier turned aside, feeling her lips graze his cheek. Breathless, he waited anxiously, but nothing happened. Xavier gritted his teeth and, changing his grip, grabbed the lustrous red strands of the woman's hair and yanked her head back. She gave a cry of pain, and her hold around his neck loosened, then released as she tried vainly to get Xavier to remove his grip. Grimly, Xavier held on against her struggles, and started to shake her. Eventually, she subsided and stood, defeated, her arms at her sides.

"Now, then," Xavier began, "I forgot to ask how you transformed the men you met into lumber. Foolish of me, but you are quite distracting at times. Let me guess, you do it by KISSING THEM?" he roared, furious that she had abused his offer of aid to try and trap him as she had trapped Ariond, leaving him with a smile on his face and bark everywhere else.

"I'm sorry," she said quietly, eyes downcast, "but I had no choice. The spell laid on me is very complicated, with a number of side spells to deal with emergencies should anyone withstand my initial charm."

"Are there any spells that would prevent you from helping me capture this wizard of yours?" Xavier asked, hoping there weren't any spells that made her lie about answering a question like that. "For instance, when he comes, could you tell him that there was only the one traveller, and not mention me?" he added.

She paused to think a moment, then said, "I think so. Yes, I think that would be allowed, but what are you going to do? I'm no slouch, but he got me without too much trouble. What can you do?"

Several insane plans had already presented themselves, but all he said was, "Just let me worry about that. You just lean against Ariond there like you were when I came. When does he come to pick up a load, and where does he come from?"

"Oh, he comes when I call him, and he always appears right over there," she pointed, indicating a spot near the edge of the clearing.

"Right," Xavier noted, an idea crystallizing from his earlier plans. "Wait until I signal, then summon him. Then just act natural, and I'll do the rest. Got that?" he asked, knowing that everything rode on whether or not she helped him. She nodded wordlessly, and Xavier, after picking up and sheathing his two swords and a rock he found, hid himself behind a tree that would place him out of sight of the materializing wizard. He checked his equipment, took a deep breath, and nodded to the woman. She nodded back and closed her eyes. After concentrating for a moment she murmured "Exnar" three times, then opened them and gazed at the edge of the clearing.

A figure suddenly appeared. A standard teleportation spell, Xavier mused, though such spells were beyond him at this point. He hoped the wizard wouldn't take any extreme security measures.

Apparently the wizard was confident in his `dryad's' ability to dispose of most trouble makers, for he just looked casually around. Spotting Ariond, or rather the tree that was Ariond, he gave a grunt of satisfaction, and started to stride across the clearing. He was a human, well over six feet and well muscled. This wasn't one of those frail mages who spent most of their time exercising their brains and nothing else. He had jet black hair and a tan complexion, and walked with a purposeful and commanding stride. It wasn't going to be easy taking him down. "Ah, my dear Rowan! So good of you to call. I trust things have been going well?" he asked cheerfully, extending his arms to embrace a reluctant Rowan. "You only have the one this time? Oh, well, I'll have to see to it that he lives longer than--what was that?" he said sharply as he heard a noise of to his left, where Xavier, on his right, had thrown a rock.

"Is there anyone else here, my dear?" the wizard asked slowly, scanning the underbrush.

Xavier readied a throwing knife, waiting for the perfect moment and praying fervently that his aim would be true. Things could go awfully sour if it wasn't.

"Why, no, master Exnar," Rowan answered the wizard sweetly, coyly hiding behind Ariond-and away from anything Xavier might do. "I'm sure it was just some animal or something," she added.

"No, I removed all the animals from this area, and none would dare come back," the wizard said thoughtfully. "All right in there," he continued, raising his voice, "I'll give you this one chance to come on out, or I'll have to do something I'll enjoy and you'll regret." As he finished, he raised his arms, holding the components for some obviously nasty spell at the ready. Xavier stepped out, and let fly with the knife, adding the additional twist that would allow the handle to connect with the target, rather than the blade; Xavier needed a functional wizard, not a corpse, even if it would enhance his reputation. He then dropped to the ground and rolled back behind the tree, following the age-old advice, "If they can't see you, they can't hit you." He then scrambled to his feet and peered around the tree trunk.

The elf's aim had been true, his dagger hitting Exnar on the side of the head as the wizard had been turning around to investigate Xavier's sudden appearance. The human wizard found himself on the ground, momentarily stunned. However, you don't become a powerful wizard by lying around on your back: he was already rolling over away from Xavier, and trying to get his feet under him.

Knowing that none of his spells were likely to be able to stop or injure the human to any significant degree, Xavier charged in, hoping to disrupt any spell-casting the wizard might attempt.

He almost made it.

The wizard had just regained his feet and leveled a menacing hand at the incoming elf. With a sneer of triumph, the human let fly with a lightening bolt. His sneer turned to a scowl, however, when Xavier's lunge knocked his arm away from the elf just as the energies were letting loose, and the deadly bolt detonated on a stand of oaks, which splintered apart. With a cry of rage, the human went down under the wildly flailing elf. Xavier was fairly strong, especially for an elf, but after the first couple seconds, he realized that if the wizard ever recovered, he would likely tear the elf apart, even without magic. Xavier's attacks were therefore centered on incapacitat­ing the human. His wild blows turned into punches at Exnar's head.

Gritting his teeth, the human wizard heaved, throwing the struggling elf away from him. Gasping for breath, Exnar hastily regained his feet, and readied himself for another charge. Suddenly, he heard footfalls approach behind him. Whirling around, the wizard raised one arm to shield himself from an attack. Then he saw who it was, and relaxed, his face breaking into a smug grin.

Rowan had managed to retrieve the dagger Xavier had thrown at the wizard, and had tried to sneak up on the now erect human and club him with the handle again. Unfortunately, just as she was about to bring it down, her limbs had frozen up. Suddenly remembering, Rowan cursed her foolishness.

"That's right, my dear," Exnar said mockingly, seeing the realization spread over her face. "You can't hurt me, the magic won't allow it! Otherwise you would have escaped a long time ago. But then, you must have gotten caught up in the thrill of battle. I understand, really I do. It must be boring standing around here all day. But," he added, his eyes narrowing, "that doesn't mean you won't be punished later." So saying, the wizard whirled around, suddenly remembering the elf.

Aside from Exnar, Rowan, and the entreed Ariond, the clearing was empty. The human warily looked around, pulling out more spell components as he did so.

"It looks as if your friend has decided to cut his losses," the wizard began a few minutes later, but never finished when he heard a whirring sound behind him. With feline grace the human spun about, just in time to see Xavier let fly with a set of bolos.

Frantically, the wizard attempted to loose his magic missile spell at the elf, but even as he mouthed the words and again raised his hands, the bolos struck, their weighted ends wrapping themselves around the human's chest and pinning the arms in mid gesture. Nodding in satisfaction, Xavier walked out into the clearing, drawing both long swords. He approached the struggling wizard, noting with interest the bulging muscles straining against the taut ropes.

"I wouldn't," Xavier said pleasantly, placing both swords on either side of Exnar's neck. "You're convenient, but there are lots of other wizards around. I'm related to several powerful ones myself. Oh, and I'm a magic user as well, so if you start to cast any spells, you'll never finish them. Now, I suggest you listen to what I say. Do no talking at all until I give you permission. And remember what I said about spells," he finished, his tone changing from pleasant to flat and emotionless, a tone that left no doubt in the wizard's mind that this elf would do as he promised. Exnar nodded curtly.

"Oh, good, I'm glad we have an understanding. Now, here's what you're going to do. First, you will restore that tree over there back to his normal, if annoying, self. Second, you will release this woman from all the enchantments placed on her. After you do that, then we'll talk about what's next. Any questions? Good," Xavier said, not allowing the human a chance to speak. "Now, I'm going to untie your hands. Do as you're told: remember, I was trained in the same arts as you, and I know what you'll have to do," he finished, though actually he only had a vague idea about what was required. But a little bluffing never hurt anybody.

Xavier walked over to the still-paralyzed Rowan, and pried his dagger loose. Free of any instruments with which to injure her `master', the woman was suddenly free to move, as Xavier had hoped would happen. The elf motioned Rowan over to the bound wizard. "Take those components out of his hands," he said, indicating the spell components Exnar had been prepared to use when he had been captured. "Then unfasten the bolos from him. And watch him, he's dangerous even without magic," Xavier added, wincing as he stretched a sore shoulder. Rowan dutifully collected them, then unwound the bolos from the wizard. All the while, Xavier and Exnar were involved in a staring contest, Xavier with the slight advantage of holding two swords at his opponents neck. When Rowan stepped back, Xavier removed the swords and stepped back, sheathing one blade and drawing a throwing dagger.

"Now," he said, "shall we begin?" With a scowl, Exnar motioned Rowan to stand over by Ariond. After a glance at Xavier, who nodded, she complied, placing herself about two feet away from Ariond's trunk. Exnar gave Xavier a sidelong glare, and Xavier raised his dagger into a throwing position, ready to strike, then moved directly behind Exnar. Exnar turned back abruptly, and started to chant. Xavier tensed, ready to strike, but the spell seemed right, the words fitting the general polymorph principles he had been taught. Suddenly, the tree Rowan was standing next to started to shimmer, and suddenly Ariond stood there, looking blissful for a second longer, then collapsing in a heap.

"He's fine," Exnar said quickly, sensing Xavier tensing to throw. "Many people find the change tiring. He'll be all right in a minute." Rowan, who had gone to the fallen bard, looked up at Xavier and nodded. "He'll be all right," she said, getting up. "Now, could we get on with it please?" she added impatiently, "It's been a year since this jerk did this to me, and I want my own body back. Not," she added, looking at herself, "that this isn't to bad itself, but it's not me, not really. So move it!"

"You heard the lady," Xavier said cheerfully. "You mustn't keep them waiting, or there'll be hell to pay later, take it from me."

"And me," said Ariond, getting up. "Boy, talk about a *kiss*!" he added, looking wistfully at Rowan, who just glared back.

Exnar again started his chant, and soon a similar transformation took place with Rowan. A shimmer, and suddenly a dark haired ranger stood there. While different than the dryad she had so recently been, she had lost none of her beauty. She was clothed in well fitting leather armor and leggings, and had an air of competence about her.

"Hey, what about my horse and equipment `master'?" Rowan said, sneering the last word.

Grumbling, Exnar made a few more motions and a horse materialized from another tree, and a bush turned into a long bow and assorted equipment. "Happy?" he snarled, then stopped when Xavier poked him warningly through his robes. "Well, I did what you asked. Can I go now?" he asked, modulating his tone into a persuasive wheedle.

"And have you chasing after us the first chance you get? Not likely," snorted Ariond. "I say we take him with us and dump him at the next town with a constabulary and a wizard of their own. Who knows what else he's done, who else he's captured?" "That's too risky," objected Rowan, now outfitted in all of her equipment. "You'll have to watch him every second, and eventually someone will goof."

"Oh, that's easy to fix," said Ariond. He pulled out his crossbow, readied it, and levelled it at a sweating Exnar. "Strip," the bard said evenly. "Xavier, use that crystal of yours to see if he has anything hidden on him. Everyone cover him from a different angle so you can kill him if he casts a spell; that way it will only hit one of us." Xavier and Rowan complied, and soon Exnar was down to his undergarments. He looked hopefully at the group.

"Rowan, do you mind?" Xavier asked, amused at Exnar's predicament.

"Not at all. I'm sure there's not going to be anything worth seeing, but have him take them off anyway," she said brightly, not even blushing. Exnar, who was blushing, shot everyone a furious glance, then complied. Rowan was right--there was nothing worth seeing.

They allowed him to dress in a spare robe Xavier had, then put all of his stuff in another bag. Under careful supervision, Ariond then tied Exnar's hands together behind him, and tied him to a tree. "And, just so you won't think of escape," Xavier added when all this was completed, "and so the rest of us can sleep well," he added. Without finishing the sentence, he held his hand over Exnar's head and sprinkled sand over the wizard who, after struggling, fell into a deep sleep.

"That'll keep him quiet for several hours. Ariond, since you were asleep on your feet, you take first watch," Xavier announced, overriding Ariond's objections. "And this time, no matter how beautiful she is, don't kiss strange women." Ariond bridled, but stomped off to begin his watch.

"Oh, you're calling me strange, are you elf?" Rowan asked, folding her arms over her chest and tapping her foot.

"Uh, it's more a figure of speech," Xavier hastened to explain, though he privately thought her far from ordinary. "And the name is Xavier. Xavier Landstrider," he added.

"Thanks. Now we aren't strangers anymore," Rowan said, and, walking up to him, she grabbed his head on both sides and gave him a big kiss.

It would have been a great kiss. It could have been one of the best kisses Xavier had ever had. And it wasn't too shabby anyway. But he was so dumbfounded that by the time he started to respond, she had pulled away, laughing.

"You're going to have to be quicker than that, elfling," she laughed, then turned around and walked to her bedroll. She suddenly turned back, face serious. "Thank you, Xavier," she said sincerely. Then she lay down.

Xavier considered following her, but that little voice inside that had saved him from her before once again broke in and advised self-preservation instead. So, grudgingly, Xavier also went to his pallet, on the other side of the fire from Rowan, and lay down to sleep. He dreamt of red haired nymphs, dark haired rangers, and bards who refused to put down roots.