Ghost and Jägerson go looking for leads.
The ivies inside Autumn glow were all carefully pruned ornamental ivies. Ghost had not talked much with pruned ornamentals before; addressing them now she found them to be simple-minded braggarts blatantly angling for some kind of favor and not really able to offer anything of any value at all. The mistletoes were even worse: daft, self-absorbed, and belligerent with either no grasp of reality or a penchant for lying.
The thing that kept this task from being infuriating was the presence of Jägerson. After each conversation he would ask for a translation and then make the most accurate, cutting remark, putting all her frustration into words. It was therapeutic.
After wasting the morning on these non-helpful parasites they ventured outside the city wall to look for other, hopefully more helpful plants. This was Ghosts first venture outside the wall since she entered a fortnight earlier, and she had actually forgotten her previous fear of detection under the eyes of the centaur guards until she was among them. One of the centaurs tensed when it saw her and watched her with wary eyes and she passed. However, nothing else came of this and they found themselves outside without incident.
For some distance around the city the woods were just as carefully tended as were those inside, although designed to give a more wild appearance. But after a few hundred yards the true forest took over and Ghost began to look for something that might know of the Unseely.
“What are we looking for?” asked Jägerson as they wandered with no obvious direction through the woods. “More ivy?”
“Anything dark and unpleasant,” replied Ghost. “Ivy, galls, slime-mold, katydids, fairy rings, any kind of parasite, caterpillars, that sort of thing…”
“Caterpillars?” asked Jägerson, surprised.
“Yes, you know, squishy little bugs that come in swarms and chew holes in otherwise healthy trees’ leaves. Then, once they have finished sucking all the life-blood out of the trees they take on a beautiful exterior, deceiving everyone about their malicious past. Few things that can live outside the fey lands are as vile and deceitful as butterflies.”
“Huh,” said Jägerson, trying to wrap his head around what it must be like to grow up as a tree. He also saw Ghost’s words about beautiful exteriors and malicious pasts as possibly autobiographical and reminded himself to remain wary of his companion.
“Caterpillars aren’t our first target, though,” added Ghost, “because the young ones are naïve, the old ones hardly more honest than the butterflies they will become, and none of them have much in the way of cravings we can exploit. Poison ivy would be best, or greenbrier, or bindweed: something that’s in active conflict with the forest and that might appeal to the destructive sensibilities of goblins.”
“How about some nettles?” asked Jägerson, pointing.
“Nettles are all bluster and no action,” replied Ghost, “but they do attract the baser sort. Let’s give them a try.”
They moved over to the nettle patch that Jägerson had noticed and Ghost walked right into their midst and crouched down to speak with them.
“Tell me, dear ones,” she cooed, “how are you this fine autumn evening?”
Instantly the nettles began to chatter amongst themselves.
“Heh, she thinks she’s talking to us” sneered one.
“‘This fine autumn evening’” another mimicked in that nasal sing-song voice that people use to quote people they don’t like.
“Look out, it’s a tree spirit in man-pants!” laughed another.
“Pants? Oh, I see, I thought it was just a shapeless dress but you are right, it does look more like a fat man’s trouser leg.”
“Hide the babies, it’s a harbinger of frost. Oh, wo are we…”
“Flee, ye faithful, an oak has sprung up in our midst and will kill us in its deep deep shade!”
“It seems to me,” continued Ghost as if she had not heard them, “that there is far too much favoritism this close to Autumn Glow. Out in the real world, an oak or a nettle can thrive because it is strong, but here…” she let out a sigh. Not a performance that would lead her to a career on stage, but nettles were not a discriminating audience.
“Favoritism? Get real. Like a nymph would have any trouble in this place.”
“Oak and nettles in the same breath! As if. If I had an oak here now, I’d show it about strength!”
“Those ‘real world’ plants don’t know how easy they have it! Try growing in a land of perpetual autumn, sometime.”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you? A chance to ‘prove’ how you are stronger than us…”
Ghost turned to face this last voice. By addressing her directly it had opened up a path for actual conversation, a path she intended to walk before it closed again.
“But how could you think me stronger than you?” she asked innocently. “It takes me dozens of years to grow at all and even then all an oak has is bark and size, not your beautiful, elegant stingers…”
Most of the nettles froze at this, realizing that their friend had put his mouth in the wrong place.
“That’s right, sister,” spat back the nettle she addressed, “you’re just a big lummox compared to us real plants.”
“And I suppose I am foolish to even think of venturing into darker places without a stinger of my own. I am so lucky none of the people here have stingers like yours!”
“You said it, lady,” said the nettle, and with that the conversational road closed. The other nettles sighed, relieved to see it resolved so simply, took up their cat-calls again.
“She seems to think there ain’t no people with stingers around!”
“What a daft oak. Had a conversation and didn’t take it.”
“Give her a stinger and she’d sting herself!”
“I know a darker place you should go…”
Ghost saw the new opening and took it. “You do?” she asked this last nettle.
This time the other nettles didn’t silence; in fact, they seemed ready for a show. And Ghost saw why as she looked at this last speaker. It was an old nettle, woody in the stem with big long needles dripping with acid.
“Sure I do,” replied the nettle, “I know several, in fact. Places where an out-of-bark oak like yourself would learn what stingers are all about.”
“If you know several,” said Ghost, “then tell me about the least dark and ugly. Stingers and the wisdom of the nettles do appeal to me, but you make these places sound frightening, even dangerous!”
This was a dangerous ploy, and Ghost knew it. If the old nettle noticed her reverse psychology or sensed the fine line she was waling between truth and lies they whole patch would turn on her and she’d never get a thing from them. But if it worked… if it worked and the nettles’ information was good…
“You dare tell me what to tell you?” screamed the nettle in justifiable rage. “What could you possibly think gives you the right to order me around? You’re just the soul of a tree, a miserable spirit! You think I should tell you where to go? Go where souls go when their wizened old bodies finally give out, to the realm of death itself! Oh, you’d like that, wouldn’t you? It dark enough for you in the underworld? If you ever show your face here again, I’ll show you there myself! ‘Tell me about the least dark’ indeed. The nerve of some people! Trees always think they’re better than us. ‘Oh, look at me, I’m an oak, I can tell you what to do!’ I ought to send you to them, they’d teach you all right! …”
Ghost hurried away as the nettle continued to rant. It was making so much ruckus that all the plants for hundreds of yards would hear and then start sharing the tale to their neighbors… in fact, she could already hear the gossip starting. The oaks nearby stared at her with unconcealed disaproval, as if she had sullied the good name of their entire family.
“We’re not going to get anything useful here,” Ghost said to Jägerson. “Let’s go inside for a late lunch and see if Goldilocks has a sword for you yet. We may have better luck asking around the south gate when we set out tomorrow.”