“The temperature in here will always stay the same,” I explained. “But the rain and light are controlled by these levers. The one on the left turns off the lights, like this.”
I grasped the heavy iron lever and pulled it up. The huge room was plunged into darkness, relieved only by the faint glow of a few weak lights in the ceiling eight feet overhead. About as bright as moonlight, they were just enough to let anyone caught in the room when the lights went out find an exit.
Most of my audience gasped in surprise, but at least no one panicked. That was a good sign.
I turned the lights back on, and reached for the other lever. “This one makes it rain. There’s a little dry area here by the doors, but it should cover the rest of the room pretty evenly.”
I threw the switch, and a light drizzle began to fall from the sprinkler system on the ceiling. The farmers in the audience just stared, but both dryads stepped out into the warm rain and spread their arms.
“I’m never going to get used to this, milord,” the taller of the two dryads said. Her name was Ilona, if I remembered right.
“I can feel Lady Elin’s power in the water,” Gabi, the other dryad, added. “She’s very kind to us.
I smiled. “Yes, she is. But let’s not turn the field to mud just yet.”
I turned off the rain, and turned to the old man who stood at the head of the little group of former peasants. Hrodir had been the headman of his village before Fimbulwinter, and he was by far the best person I had available to take charge of this project.
“So, you’ve got about half an acre of land in each of these chambers. Elin and I only have four of them finished right now, but I expect we’ll get the other twenty set up over the next few weeks. I’ll leave it up to you to organize who works which plot and what they should plant. The soil is a couple of feet deep, so I imagine it should work for most of your normal crops. Just keep in mind that with the dryads blessing the fields you’re going to be pulling in a harvest every few weeks instead of just once or twice a year.”
We’d warned the men up front that they’d be working closely with the dryads on this project, and the volunteers were all relatively young and unmarried. But even so, there was as much fear as lust in the looks they gave the naked nature spirits.
“There, ah, ain’t no blood sacrifices or nothing in makin that happen, right?” One of them asked nervously.
Ilona laughed. “We only feed our trees the blood of enemies, silly. Fertility rites are a different kind of magic, and not one I’ve ever seen a man object to.”
“I don’t know, sister,” Gabi said. “There are only six of them. They might not have the stamina to handle us both. Especially not if we bless the fields morning and night, like we were talking about.”
It took the men a moment to realize what the dryads were getting at, and even then they didn’t seem to know whether to be intrigued or terrified.
The dryads were quite attractive, if a little odd looking. They both had brown skin the same shade as the bark of their trees, and their long hair was the same green as their leaves. Their lean, athletic bodies had more than enough curves to catch a man’s eye, and with their deceptively young-looking features they could have passed as human teenagers if not for their odd coloration. But they were nature spirits, and contrary to what Disney might tell you nature isn’t about cute little furry critters singing songs and living in harmony together. The average dryad was about as tame as a wolf, and considerably more dangerous.
Well, they’d work it out.
“I can always find more men if you need them,” I said. “Now, half of every harvest goes to me, as rent. That’s what we’re going to be feeding our troops with soon, so be sure you plant a decent variety of crops. The rest is split evenly between you and the dryads, although since they don’t need to eat I expect they’ll end up selling most of theirs.”
“How do we do that, exactly?” Gabi asked. “I mean, I think I sort of get this human idea of buying and selling things, but it all sounds very complicated. I don’t have a clue how we’d actually do it.”
“You may want to get the men here to help you with that,” I told her. “They’ve all done it before, and considering how high food prices are these days they should be able to get you good deals. Everyone, I want you all to remember that this project is a partnership between dryads and humans. Odd as it may seem we’re all on the same side here, and we need to work together if we’re going to survive.”
“That means no cheating the girls just because they can’t count money,” Hrodir put in. “You boys are lucky sons of bitches to be here, and anyone who screws things up won’t be for long. Right, milord?”
I nodded firmly. “Yes. This is one of the most important jobs on the island, and anyone who doesn’t pull their weight won’t keep it for long. If you can’t handle the work we may just shift you back to the general labor pool, but if you cause trouble Hrodir is going to boot you right off the island.”
That was a likely death sentence these days, for a man with no connections or special skills. I was hoping the threat would be enough to prevent trouble, but Hrodir had predicted we’d have to follow through on it at least once. Maybe he was right, but I couldn’t see a better alternative.
“What about the dryads, milord wizard?” One of the braver famers asked. “They aren’t under Hrodir, are they?”
“No, the dryad groves are like villages,” I told him. “Each one has their own leader. But Pelagia has agreed to be in charge of making sure all the dryads involved in the farms do their jobs and don’t get up to any mischief.”
Ilonna shuddered. “No one is going to cross the Mistress of Bloody Thorns, milord. Besides, you men have nothing to fear from us. We’re very grateful to the lord wizard, for giving us a place here. None of us want to risk messing this up.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” I said. “But misunderstandings happen, and I know men and dryads don’t usually work together. So men, if you have a problem with one of the dryads take it to Hrodir, and he’ll talk to Pelagia and work things out. Dryads, if you have a problem with one of the men bring it to Pelagia and she’ll see that it gets fixed. Now, any other questions?”
There were a few, but nothing of any substance. After a few more minutes of discussion I left Hrodir to take the men up the long elevator ride to their quarters on the top floor. That had originally been a giant attic space, but I’d turned part of it into a set of private rooms for the farmers. It was easily big enough to house the entire staff for the farming complex now, under conditions that would seem downright luxurious to the former peasants.
Of course, six men was only the beginning. Hrodir was already planning a trip to the nearest refugee shelter to look for more, and considering the volume of food we hoped to produce we’d probably end up with dozens of them. But indoor farming with magical assistance was an exotic enough venture that we’d both felt it was best to start small, and bring in new workers a few at a time.
I found Elin resting near the entrance to Pelagia’s grove, with a group of exotic nature spirits waiting on her hand and foot. She was usually too embarrassed to let them do more than bring her fresh fruit, but apparently she’d made the mistake of letting one of the nymphs give her a foot rub this morning. Now she was sprawled bonelessly across the lush grass that had sprung up beneath one of the dryad trees, with her head in the lap of a dryad who was feeding her orange slices while two nymphs collaborated on what must have been a pretty amazing massage.
I could tell that because Elin’s skirt was up around her waist, and she wasn’t objecting to the hands on her thighs despite the fact that they had an audience. But they’d probably end up trying to seduce her if I gave them the chance, and she’d be terribly embarrassed however that turned out. So I decided I’d better come to her rescue.
Wait, oranges? Where the heck did they get oranges? Aren’t those a new world plant?
My moment of confusion gave the hamadryad who’d been watching the show a chance to intercept me, with another nymph and a couple of dryads in tow. They all mobbed me in a group hug.
“Welcome, lord wizard!” The hamadryad said, just quietly enough not to disturb Elin. “What can we do for our savior today? Do you have time to stay for a bit?”
She looked like a taller, curvier, slightly older version of the dryads, which I found sexy as hell. Especially when she was molding herself against my chest, twining her arms around my neck and giving me a look that said she was mine for the taking.
The nymph was even worse, with her lush figure and supernatural aura of sexual allure. She trapped my right arm between her mountainous breasts, and went up on tiptoes to kiss my cheek.
“Please say yes,” she said softly. “We still want to properly thank you for our new home.”
The dryads finished my encirclement, running their hands over me eagerly.
A month ago I wouldn’t have had a prayer of resisting them. But being involved with Cerise and Avilla had done a lot to build up my tolerance for feminine charms. So instead of drawing the hamadryad into the kiss she was practically begging for, I somehow managed to keep my head.
“I’m afraid I came to fetch Elin for a meeting,” I said.
The nymph pouted, and the hamadryad actually looked a little hurt. She bit her lip.
“Have we displeased you in some way, milord?”
“How could you have displeased me, when I don’t even know your name? No, I’m just very busy. Keeping this place safe is a lot of work, and I do have my own coven to keep happy.”
“Invite them all, if you’d like,” she suggested. “The hospitality of the Red Thorn Grove is justly famous in certain circles. See how gently we’ve handled Lady Elin, when she’s barely awakened to her own passions? We’d be happy for the chance to treat your ladies well, my lord.”
I had to admit, getting Elin to relax that much was an impressive feat. She was usually wound pretty tight, and anything that hinted of sexuality tended to make her pull back into her shell. She was so used to thinking of herself as a hideous monster that she had trouble letting anyone touch her, even within the coven. But here she was, apparently enjoying herself.
“We’ll see,” I temporized. “But right now I’m here for Elin.”
“Of course.” She stepped back, and hesitated for a moment. “Milord? My name is Nomiki.”
“I’m Xenia,” the nymph said, suddenly grinning. “And the girls here are Carla and Hella. So now you know our names, and you can ask for us next time you visit.”
“Or send for us,” Nomiki added, not missing a trick.
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
I walked quietly to where Elin was lying, and knelt beside her on the grass. Her little court of lecherous nature spirits all looked disappointed at my arrival, but none of them said anything. I bent, and gently kissed her.
Her eyes opened, and she blinked up at me uncertainly. Then they drifted closed again, and she languorously returned the kiss.
I chuckled. “Having a good time, sweetie? I hate to interrupt, but it’s almost time for the staff meeting. Not to mention lunch.”
She seemed to suddenly realize what a compromising position I’d found her in, and blushed faintly. “Um. This isn’t… I wasn’t... I mean… oh, drat. They got me, didn’t they?”
The nymphs giggled.
“Did you enjoy your massage, milady?” One of them asked. “See, we told you that we can control ourselves. We won’t do anything you don’t want us to.”
“Come back anytime,” the other one added. “It’s fun to have a challenge to work on.”
“A challenge? What do you mean, a challenge?” Elin squeaked indignantly.
“Why, you get so tense that it’s a challenge to get you to relax,” the first nymph said innocently.
“They may tease a lot, but they’re also serious about the offer,” Nomiki said. “You’re welcome to call any of us up to your rooms whenever you get yourself all knotted up like that. Massage is one of the special skills our grove has long sought to perfect. It would be very nice to have someone new to practice on.”
“I have to admit, that was heavenly,” Elin said. “Perhaps I will. If you really don’t mind?”
They all assured her that they’d be delighted, and I certainly wasn’t going to object. Although I resolved to have a private word with Pelagia about it, and make sure they weren’t just setting up a seduction ploy. A little pampering would be good for Elin, as long as they didn’t end up pushing her into things she wasn’t ready for.
Elin sat up, and then frowned. “Um, Daniel? My legs don’t seem to want to work.”
“That must have been some massage,” I observed, and scooped her up into a bridal carry. She squeaked in surprise, and threw her arms around my neck.
“Daniel! I didn’t mean for you to carry me!”
“I like carrying you,” I told her. “It’s not like you weigh anything. You just relax, and let me know when you can wiggle your toes again.”
She giggled, and leaned against me. “Oh, you! Fine, carry me then. You’re probably cheating with force magic, anyway.”
She relaxed against me, and started kissing my neck as I carried her out of the dryad habitat. That was one of her little signals that she was feeling amorous, and I reflected that it was too bad we didn’t have more time. But if we delayed any longer we’d end up being late, and I wasn’t going to be the asshole boss who made everyone else sit around waiting for him.