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A Plant of Slow Growth

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I am not of that feather to shake off
My friend when he must need me.

William Shakespeare, Timon of Athens

Two

Angharad, nurse to various branches of the de Rolo family for nearly seventeen years, watches her latest charge like a hawk. She is aware of the other children within the creche, playing with building blocks and soft, feathered toys, gabbling away to each other in half-words. Percival is standing quite still, staring up at the top of the high fence that keeps the toddlers from the bigger children and (more importantly) the door, in a way that makes Angharad exceedingly nervous.

Lady Johanna thinks she's exaggerating, and Lord Frederick approves of his adventurous son. Neither will agree to move the nursery to a lower floor or a more secure room. They're not the ones who had to extricate their two-year-old from a fort built of washboards in the laundry. Or retrieve him from the top of the watchtower. Or from that incident with the crossbow.

Most of the Air Ashari and some from the other tribes have come for Winter's Crest this year, and there's talk of making the teleportation circle a permanent feature. Lord Frederick and Headmaster Korren have been friends for years, and no doubt whatever they're discussing will be good for both the Ashari and Whitestone. Certainly the crops have been excellent for the last five years, and the winters easier to bear.

When one of the Ashari places a hand on her shoulder and offers to relieve her, she shakes her head, not looking over even though she knows it seems rude.

"Trust me, you can't take your eyes off him for a moment."

One of the Ashari children has toddled over to Percival, a redheaded elven-looking girl who seems willowy against Percival's still-chubby form. She has a building block in each hand and, after some deliberation, offers the green one to Percival. He takes it from her gently, definitely not snatching, looks from it to her and back again, and smiles. The girl smiles back and reaches out to to pat him on the shoulder.

"He seems to be playing very nicely," the Ashari says.

"Oh yes. He's very well-behaved with other children. Or at least, those he's not related to."

"Then why-"

Percival reaches up with his free hand and puts it over the girl's for a moment. Then he releases her, turns to the fence and, with a two-handed grip and look of calculation, throws the block. It catches what must have been the tipping point, and the whole section of fence on the far side of the creche tumbles over. Goal achieved, Percival starts towards freedom, then hesitates and takes the girl's hand again, looking at her questioningly.

Beside her, Angharad hears a slightly strangled sound of surprise from the Ashari. "Oh."

There are already people rushing over to pick up the fence, while most of the children are now wailing in alarm. When it becomes clear their escape path is blocked, the girl starts pulling Percival back towards the toys instead. The noise has attracted enough attention that Lady Johanna leans around the door to see what's going on. Angharad covers her face with her hands as the Ashari pats her awkwardly on the shoulder.

"I'll have someone come and relieve you in an hour so you can get some rest. Don't worry, we'll keep our eyes on him."

Inside the now-being-rebuilt-creche, Percival has become distracted by the rest of the building blocks, and seems to be trying to show the red-headed girl how to build a better tower. On the plus side, Angharad decides, as she sinks gratefully into the nearest chair, at least he didn't throw the brick at anyone else. The bump on Julius' head has only just gone down.

~

The morning after the dragon attacks, everything seemed eerily quiet and too full at the same time. Keyleth wandered the halls of the half-destroyed Keep, listening to people whisper softly to each other, every voice holding so much fear and uncertainty that it felt like it was bleeding into her skin. Pike had set up a makeshift hospital in the temple, while Grog was sulking over that stupid skull they'd found at General Krieg's, and that everyone was still puzzled by. Most of the staff looked terrified, when they weren't trying to serve not enough food to too many people. Even normally unflappable Jarett looked like he wanted to be a long way from here, but where could anyone go?

Stopping at a window, Keyleth looked over into the Cloudtop district, where columns of smoke were rising into the dawn sky. It felt impossible that the stone under her hand was still solid when the whole world had tilted sideways.

And because it was the worse possible moment, naturally that was when Grog decided to push the matter of the skull, with Scanlan trying to reason between him and Vax, Vex ending up holding the damn thing and Pike trying to calm things down. Not that Keyleth didn't understand Grog's frustration. For two years they'd been travelling and fighting, from the Astral Plane and the Underdark to Vasselheim and Pyrah. There had been trouble with the Council, that strange visit from Zahra's cousin, Tiberius deciding he needed to go home, and the whole business with General Krieg which had taken more of their time, and done more damage to their reputations, than they could really afford. All the time, they'd been moving forwards, never stopping, never thinking further than the next adventure.

But this was too big for them. They couldn't take responsibility for the whole of Tal'Dorei. They'd only agreed to be on the Council of Emon to help Uriel and the city that had adopted them and which now felt like their prison. Keyleth was sure that the others were feeling as helpless as she was, trapped inside their keep like rats. So she didn't really blame Vax and Grog for the argument, and under the circumstances she didn't even blame them for coming to blows. Except this time, it wasn't a playful spar in the courtyard, and Grog didn't look like he was going to be giving up the subject any time soon.

Keyleth was actually looking at the doorway when Allura and Drake arrived, and her relief at seeing them made her sag into a chair. When Allura asked if everything was alright, there was an awkward silence, both Grog and Vax shifting a little, and Keyleth had to resist the urge to laugh, because once she started, she didn't know if she'd be able to stop again.

It took nearly half an hour to get the immediate problems straightened out. Allura and Drake left for Westruun, Vex made the wretched skull disappear, and Keyleth and Pike scryed on as many places as they could. Seeing Pyrah made her head spin again, and more than anything, Keyleth wanted to take herself to Zephra, to speak to her father, to have his advice. Had anyone from the Air Ashari been at Pyrah when it was destroyed? Did they even know it had happened? It was almost too much to take in, so instead of acknowledging the panic that threatened to choke her, she took a deep breath and cast the next scrying spell.

All that really established was that nowhere on the continent was safe, so much so that the Elves had made a run for the Feywild. With that weighing on them, they all sat back down around the table, Laina and Jarrett brought them drinks, and everyone became very interested in the bottoms of their cups for a while. Grog was still looking a little disgruntled and Vax, sitting next to Keyleth, was nursing an impressive black eye. Almost without thinking, she reached out and touched his face, muttering the words of a healing spell, and then flushed when she realised everyone was looking at them.

Vex cleared her throat. "We can't stay here," she said, leaning hard on her elbows on the table. "And the refugees certainly can't." She looked over to where Jarett was leaning against the far wall. "What about Marquet? Is there somewhere in Ank'harel that would take them in?"

He scratched at his jawline, but Keyleth knew the answer before he even opened his mouth. "I mean, maybe? But I'm not exactly in favour there, so it wouldn't be top of my list."

"There's Kraghammer," Pike suggested.

"Not terribly welcoming as a place, and not necessarily safer than here." Scanlan shook his head. "What about Vasselheim?"

"It's such a long way," Vex said. "And it's not exactly welcoming to refugees either, I don't think."

Scanlan shrugged. "Well, I can't think of anywhere on this continent that they could go and be safe. Pyrah is half-destroyed, any of the Ashari encampments could be next, and we know Draconia is probably going to be under attack soon. Unless we want to shift them to a different plane, I'm out of ideas."

Something Scanlan said made Keyleth's brain grind to a halt, and it took her a moment to realise that everyone was looking at her. "What?"

Vax nudged her. "Vex asked if your people could shift everyone into a different plane."

"Yes. Probably. Perhaps. But they're not safe places to be. Creatures of this world aren't meant to exist there." She pursed her lips, playing with the charm on the end of her necklace. "It could be done, I think, but I don't think it's a good idea."

"And you have a better one." Vax was still looking at her closely and it hadn't been a question.

Slowly, Keyleth nodded, the words feeling right as she said them. "I think I might." She waved a hand in Scanlan's direction. "What you said about there not being anywhere on this continent. I have an old friend here in Tal'Dorei who might be able to help. I haven't seen him since leaving for my Aramenté, but he's someone who'd have the resources to support these refugees, and maybe more."

"You've got a rich, powerful friend and you're only mentioning him now. What, was it a bad break up?" Scanlan asked, earning himself a kick on the ankle from Pike.

Keyleth smiled, shaking her head. "No, nothing like that. He just lives a long way away, and a little off the beaten track."

"But you trust him?" Vex was asking, and Keyleth nodded without hesitation.

"Definitely," she said. "I've known him my whole life."

~

Keyleth had visited Whitestone by teleportation circle lots of times, and once or twice she'd travelled by road or river. This wasn't even the first time she'd arrived via a tree, when her father had brought them. Even so, this was different. Not the tree part, although she was still fairly new at it, but coming into the town rather than the castle. She didn't know it nearly as well, and she looked around, trying to get her bearings as her feet immediately sank into a few inches of snow. Shivering, she moved out of the way, letting the others tumble out of the Sun Tree behind her. The tree's branches were empty of leaves, but she could see some shreds of coloured fabric still caught in them, presumably left over from Winter's Crest last week.

The others were looking around with their usual interest, which was to say that the twins looked suspicious, Grog seemed unimpressed and Scanlan looked like he was appraising the place for purchase. Not for the first time since she'd suggested it, Keyleth had to wonder exactly how well - or badly - this could go.

Vox Machina had formed a protective perimeter around the refugees who'd managed to stumble through with them, and Keyleth counted about twenty people, many of them sitting in the snow despite the chill. Crossing a continent in a few seconds took it out of you, and they'd deliberately chosen those most in need for this first trip. Pike would be waiting with the others, including Gilmore, tomorrow morning, and judging by the size of the group here already, Keyleth would only have to do the spell once more to get everyone through.

Hoping she didn't ruin the effect by falling over, Keyleth turned to the people now gathering around them and planted her staff more firmly in the ground. Vax had told her it looked authoritative, and it had the added bonus of helping her to stay on her feet.

"Please send someone to the castle to tell Lord de Rolo that Keyleth of the Air Ashari is here, with people in need of help." Her voice carried well in the crisp air, and she saw some of the smaller boys take off from the back of the crowd. Behind her, Scanlan snorted, and she heard Vex repeat Lord de Rolo? in an undertone.

An older woman came forwards, and Keyleth recognised her as one of the castle staff, although she didn't know her name. She tried not to wince when the woman bobbed a curtsey, intensely glad that she couldn't see her friends' faces.

"Please, your highness, they don't look so good." She gestured to the group who were more suitably dressed for the mild weather of Emon. "We should be getting them inside, really, at least to sit down."

"Yes, that would be good, thank you," Keyleth said, wishing she'd thought of that. "And maybe some warm drinks?"

It seemed that, at some point, it had all rather slipped out of Keyleth's charge. The older lady - Genine - got the nearest tavern opened up, and organised a troop of people with coats and blankets and warm drinks for the refugees. There were even some toys to keep the children occupied, while Vox Machina were offered spiced wine and - to Grog's delight - drinks from a large ale barrel. It felt like Winter's Crest all over again, and Genine reassured Keyleth that everyone still had too much left over from last week. Keyleth had the feeling that if they had to wait much longer, everyone would be invited elsewhere for dinner and she'd never get them all together again.

As though hearing her, there was a shout from outside and Keyleth peered out of the door to see the people parting to let through a troop of guards, impressively decked out with some very strange-looking weaponry. In the middle of them, Keyleth caught sight of a familiar shock of white hair, and stepped outside towards them without thinking, waving her arm in a mixture of relief and excitement.

"Percy!"

There was ice under the snow, and she started to slip before she'd taken three steps, but Percy was there, grabbing her before she could fall and pulling her into a quick hug before holding her at arm's length and looking her up and down.

"What are you doing here?" he asked, and Keyleth had to laugh.

"Nice to see you too."

There was something close to a smile on his face, but his eyes were serious. "It's always good to see you, you know that. But you don't normally arrive in such a dramatic fashion." He gestured over to what, Keyleth had to admit, looked like a second Winter's Crest in full swing. "And you don't normally co-opt my townspeople into working for you."

Gesturing for the soldiers to wait, he led her back inside, arm around her waist to stop her slipping. He seemed little altered from when she'd last seen him, the same observant eyes and guarded expression. Even Keyleth had to admit that Vox Machina were something of a motley group, and she didn't doubt that Percy would have assessed the threat they presented as soon as he stepped inside.

She also knew that he would have taken in the state of the refugees, their clothing which was obviously unsuited to the weather, and their various injuries. His frown softened a little as two of the older children threw themselves into a noisy wrestling match, which was quickly hushed by a nearby adult.

Vex took a step towards them, and Percy's attention shifted to her, his eyes guarded behind his glasses. In the dim light of the tavern, Keyleth couldn't quite read his expression, but something in it made Vex's greeting stutter to a halt.

"These are my friends," Keyleth said, stepping away from Percy so she could see him properly. "And it's a long story, but we're going to need your help."

There was a moment when Keyleth thought he was going to refuse, that two years was too long to be away, that she should have come alone and asked him first. He looked them over with more calculation than seemed right for a group of refugees or for the friend she'd left behind two years ago. She had the distinct impression that she'd put her foot in it somehow, which for less than five minutes was a record, even for her.

Finally, to Keyleth's relief, Percy nodded, and gestured for Genine to come over. "Then you shall have it," he said, and Keyleth let herself breathe again.