Packing

Oliver walked back to Mirko's room with him, a tall, silent, brooding presence like a shadow made concrete.  Mirko, like many druids his age, had a room in a long-hall.  There were several such long-halls throughout the forest, each housing twenty to thirty young druids.  They were made by planting two long rows of trees and encouraging them to grow inwards and upwards until their branches met and wove together forming a strong, living roof.  The gaps between tree trunks were filled with thin, laminated bark and smaller shrubs and ivies encouraged to grow over it, holding them in place and insulating further.  Occasional gaps were left as windows but these were few; young druids living in the houses were expected to be cultivating their forest sense by which they could feel what was happening outside without needing to see it.  The interior of the long-houses were partitioned by thin bark screens that were light enough to lift up and reposition as the number of druids living there needed.

Mirko went in alone, Oliver standing outside as immobile as a statue, his face grim and unreadable.  Inside the light was tinged green, filtering through the leafy canopy of the roof, and there was a warm scent of red-ivy blossom and mown grass.  The inside of the long-house was always slightly warmer than the outside, and today it was humid too.  Mirko shivered slightly at the change in temperature and was glad that he wasn't staying now; the long-house suited him better when it was colder.

He pulled a chest out from underneath his bed; apart from them the only other things in his room were a small clothes chest next to the bed, a hand-copied Almanac under his pillow and a spare pair of shoes set side-by-side at the door.  The chest wasn't locked and opened quietly to reveal a pack, and beneath that a tin plate, a waterskin and a handful of acorns.  He stared at the acorns, bemused, for several seconds.  He knew he hadn't put them in there, and couldn't think of anyone who would have thought it funny to do so.  He pushed the plate and the waterskin into the pack, slung it over his shoulder and pushed the chest back under the bed.  At the door he paused again and put the spare pair of shoes into his pack as well, reasoning that they might come in handy.  Then he rejoined Oliver outside.

"You'll need this as well," said Oliver holding out a rolled-up scroll.  Mirko took it and put it into his pack without looking at it.

"It's the rite of reconsecration," said Oliver as though Mirko had asked about it.  "Emenda copied it herself from Mecta's original.  It will be a good one."

"Has it been used before?"

"Three times that I know of," said Oliver, his words slowing and sadness creeping into his speech.  He started walking, past the long-house and into the deeper forest.  "The last two were reclaiming forgotten shrines, much as this time will be.  The time before that... the time before that a woman had been murdered in the mistletoe grove."

Mirko was shocked.  His step faltered slightly and then picked up again as he realised that Oliver wasn't stopping.  Beneath them the grass was fast vanishing as the old trees sucked all the life from the earth and guarded it jealously, heavy branches lifting heavenwards to drain in all the light.

"She was... we thought she was probably only sixteen.  Her blood had been daubed on every tree; it was clear that the intent was to deprive us of mistletoe.  I was much younger then, I was all set to hunt down the murderer and make him pay for his actions.  But the elder, at that time it was Vannadra, said that there was no time for that.  There were eighteen of us to perform the rite, and it lasted for hours.  When we finished the sun had long since set and the murderer long fled.  It still took the grove over a year to recover its strength."

Oliver fell silent again, still leading the way through the now-ancient forest heart, treading silently over ground littered with old, dry branches and cracklesome leaf litter.  Mirko's steps were noisy in comparison, yet of ten branches he stepped on only one broke.

"Eighteen druids?" said Mirko.  One druid was generally sufficient to consecrate ground, so eighteen was almost beyond comprehension.

"Eighteen druids; maybe eight hours."

"I didn't know it was possible to link that many peo--"

"There's much you don't know," said Oliver, interrupting by shouting over Mirko.  "I hope you'll learn some more on your little journey.  You should be setting a better example."

"Wha--?"  Mirko's words died in his mouth as Oliver stopped and looked back at him.

"Carry on west from here," he said.  "And don't come back if you don't manage to reconsecrate the shrine.  That's not the kind of example I will tolerate."

The End

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