Mecta spoke, his voice frail and at times ethereal but carried to the ears of the listening druids by the magic of the stone. Mirko listened carefully, trying to suppress the shudder he felt; the speaking stone made him feel as though Mecta were stood just behind him, whispering in his ear. The speech was a general one, news distributed amongst the enclave, rumours quashed, and the future addressed. Mecta spoke of the challenges that the enclave faced, from the growing intolerance for magic from the Mayor of Kinewick to the increase in the number of wolves in the forest; from the attempts of local landowners to increase logging to the onset of winter. Finally, wavering a little on his stone, he spoke of an odd omen: a huge wolf three times the normal size found dead in the Kinedrink, polluting the water as it rotted and poisoning sheep and cattle.
"There was a time when this would have been recognised everywhere," he said, his voice barely a sussuration, "and that was a time when all the lords and barons would have banded together and sent men to find where this came from. We have identified this positively as a Balewolf, and it is an ill omen. Be alert and aware, brothers and sisters. And remember, though the Balewolf is bad, something else killed it and left it there. Whatever it was, it may be worse."
Mirko shivered at that; he'd known about the Balewolf from Akanda, but he'd not stopped to think that the wolf had been dead when found, slain by a long, deep gouge in its side that had splintered ribs and punctured its lungs. Mecta stepped down from the stone and the council was ended; all around him now druids were turning away and leaving the clearing in ones and twos. Soft mutterings tumbled in the air like pixies as druids discussed the news and speculated on what a Balewolf was and what might have killed it. Mirko turned as well, thinking to return to a grove of ironwood trees he was nurturing in the south of the enclave, but then Akanda was in front of him again, laying a hand on his shoulder.
"If you wouldn't mind," he said, pushing gently so that Mirko turned back. "There are a few of us who would like to speak to you. We have a small request." He stepped forwards, his arm coming around Mirko's shoulders. Akanda smelled of mistletoe and mint, a fragrant, herby smell from the plants he tended and the potions he brewed up. His arm was bony and thin, and there was little warmth to be had from him, but there was always a faint, earthy sense of camaraderie around him.
"A few of you?" said Mirko, allowing himself to be lead across the soft earth towards the lake.
"Myself, Mecta," said Akanda, drawing out the names with long pauses. "Emenda, Oliver and Gayle."
"The inner council?" Mirko looked round at Akanda, whose gaze was fixed on the middle distance. "What have I done?"
Akanda chuckled lightly. "You've been beyond the enclave and encountered the real world. That's a little unusual for us here."
Mirko thought about that: it was true that most druids didn't leave the enclave now, and most hadn't for years. He knew that it hadn't always been that way, that once upon a time the druids had travelled widely, both mapping and watching the land, and linking the various enclaves together. Then the weather grew wilder and the roads less safe and travel had fallen off and people had become afraid to venture too far from their homes and familiar lands. Even when the weather had improved again, a new consensus had formed that home was best and travellers and strangers were to be mostly feared. A few still roved: minstrels and mercenaries mostly.
"So what is your request?" he said, but Akanda stopped and he realised that the other four were gathered now in front of him.
"Our request," said Mecta, his voice still frail, like soft grace notes trilling an arpeggio, "is for you to leave the enclave again and undertake a small task for us."
Emenda nodded. She was taller than Mecta by a head, and possibly slightly taller than Mirko too. Long brown hair plaited into a braid fell to her waist and seemed to pull her head slightly to one side, and sparkling blue eyes seemed to laugh at him whenever she looked his way. "Do you remember the tapestry you found in that old tower you visited?" she said.
Mirko nodded, not trusting himself to speak around Emenda. His tongue always seemed to trip over itself when he did.
"We've identified the place it showed; it's a grove sacred to Morwen. It's about two day's journey from here, give or take a little time for searching when you get there."
"Though if you have been diligent in your study you will not need to search," said Oliver, his voice distant and deep. "You will feel her presence and vitality."
Emenda glanced at him, but he had lapsed back into silence. "We'd like to go there and perform the rite of reconsecration. The grove has been left untended for too long, and Morwen does not deserve this dishonour. Ideally we'd send someone with you, but..." she sighed and spread her hands. Her robe, the green of fresh mould, billowed as though caught in a breeze.
"But those who would go are young and foolish and those who should go are old and scared," said Mecta.
"Not entirely true," said Akanda, "Mecta would go with you, except that then it would be a two month journey and like as not he'd die on you on the way."
"Hah!" Mecta's brow furrowed and with a noise like splitting wood thick root-like tendrils lunged out of the earth and wrapped themselves tightly around Akanda's calves.
"Children," said Oliver, still sounding distant.
"Will you go?" Emenda looked at Mirko, smiling, while Akanda repelled Mecta's tendrils, slowly pushing them back down to the ground and into the earth.
"Uh... whes. Yen?" said Mirko. "I mean, yes, when?" He blushed.
"What do have that needs attention that cannot wait a week?" asked Oliver.
"Uh, nothing," said Mirko.
"Then pack and go."