Hobgoblins lead by King Rudickar have seen a population boom since they hid themselves away from humans and escaped persecution. Their numbers have now risen too far for them to remain hidden and they have returned to their once-great city of Torvecken. In doing so they have triggered magical wards left by the victorious human armies centuries ago, and old treasuries are re-opening to provide the humans with the means to fight and win the war again. However, the humans have forgotten, and the
Dry, brittle twigs cracked underfoot and leaves crunched crisply in the autumn air. The eldest druids moved across the ground soundlessly, their feet pressing so gently on the remnants of the trees that nothing broke or crumbled in their wake, but the younger druids made noises to varying degrees. Mirko made too much noise for his own comfort, and his every step annoyed him. He had been practising silent movement as well, but here, with all the other druids of the enclave surrounding him, his concentration went and with it his awareness of the forest and his soft-step.
They came to a ring of trees grown close together, their trunks broader round than three men stood together and coated with soft, green moss that wept when it was touched. The forest here was silent, no birds called, no insect clicked or chirruped. Yet despite the silence the forest was not dead, just waiting. Mirko could feel its presence, a heaviness like the air ahead of a thunderstorm. The druids moved forwards still, seeming to thin out until they were nothing more than knife-edge slivers that slipped past the trees and into the shadowed clearing beyond it. Feeling tense now, Mirko paused, gathering his thoughts, and reached out for the forest.
Physically he didn't move, but his mind opened and expanded, allowing the sylvan presence in. One moment he was a druid struggling through the forest, trying too hard to soft-step, and the next he was a forest, sprawled across the land. Veins ran through him filled with sap and his thoughts slowed down to match an entity whose every breath was the turning of a season and who life was measured in centuries, not years. He became aware of the migration of a herd of deer through himself, and the presence of a hunter somewhere beyond them like a tiny red dart in his flesh. Birds wheeled above him, mocking him that he could not reach into the sky, but he had patience, for soon enough they would return to his trees to rest; their mocking gone in repentant repose.
A hand on his arm confused him momentarily -- how could he have an arm, he was a forest? -- and then his focus returned and he was both Mirko and the forest simultaneously. He felt dizzy, trying to look through his eyes at one small part of himself, but he controlled that as he'd been taught to do, and approached the ring of trees. To his eyes the trees moved aside to let him through, a heavy creak of ancient wood stiffly bending to the side, while to his mind the little druid-creature seemed to shrink and turn inwards, becoming thin enough to pass beyond the protective sylvan ward.
Beyond the ring now, Mirko released the forest and pulled back in on himself, once again feeling somehow diminished and small, lonely now that he was just himself in one tiny, insignificant body. Next to him, Akanda seemed to appear out of thin air. Akanda looked at him and half-smiled.
"You need to practise more, Mirko," he said. "You have such potential within you, and the withdrawal seems to hit you so hard, that you should rivalling even old Mecta with your soft-step."
"I do practise," said Mirko quickly. "I practise every day!"
"Are you sure you're practising the right thing then?"
Akanda grasped Mirko's wrist and drew him along, over the long grass so dark it was almost black and towards the lake at the centre of the clearing. "Sometimes the mind plays strange tricks on us, and what we need to practise is not obvious."
"What could need practising for soft-step then?" said Mirko. He wasn't angry, but still part of him chafed at the idea that he was doing it wrong. "I meditate, and I can walk almost silently when I practise."
"When no-one else is around?" Akanda looked sideways at him, an eyebrow raised quizzically.
Mirko nodded, and Akanda dropped his wrist and slipped sideways, away to his place in the council circle without any more answers. Mirko sighed, very softly. All the druids were like this, wanting him to learn the answers for himself and never wanting to share what they already knew. It seemed like it would take him a lifetime just to come as far as they already had.
He stepped into place in the third ring of druids, all surrounding the lake. Old Mecta was walking across the water to the island already, and he was barely a third of the way there. The fourth ring was filling up behind him, and Mirko was pleased in a small way that he'd graduated from there already; many of the children he'd grown up with in the enclave were still in the fourth ring, still learning how to do the basics.
Finally Mecta reached the island, now looking quite small in the distance, and laboriously clambered onto the speaking stone to address the gathered council of the druids.