Tripping over another protruding root, Jobeh fell hard on his rheumy, water logged knees. He hissed, sucked in his breath, then rolled sideways to sit and rub the inflamed joints, massaging them to ease the pain, though that didn’t work as well these days.
Shemba turned and waited for the old man. Jobeh had bought her for only three summers, just before Matga and the girls were murdered, but this was the best and most well behaved ‘truffler’ he’d owned. And the only bright spot left to him now. Jobeh had always spared his animals the rod, which resulted in some particularly recalcitrant pets, but he preferred to have a clear conscience. When the pain subsided (it’s taking longer and longer, Jobeh soberly thought), he groped in the dark for Shemba’s braided leather fetter, dragging his fingers through the soft earth. Not finding it, he paused to listen, and could hear Shemba shuffling through the undergrowth.
With a groan, he resigned himself to the chase. It shouldn’t take long, neither of them were overly fit, he thought, but it would still hurt. Grasping the tree, he hauled himself up and then stumbled. There was no point calling, he would simply follow Shemba and claim her when she stopped. The gibbous moon afforded a decent light, but his aching joints made his progress slow, especially when the growth started to become thick. He didn’t remember it being this dense however; Jobeh knew this part of the forest. He was near the disused…
The wall of foliage exploded, the air filled with sound of whips cracking. Before Jobeh could finish his thought, tendrils shot forward, curling around his limbs, his throat, lifting him off his feet. Eyes wide with shock as he was dragged into the growth. Jobeh shied his head, closed his eyes, and was momentarily blinded when he opened them. The grove was only dimly lit, but after the relative dark he’d been traveling in for the last three hours, it was like direct sunlight, even with the moons glow. Stunned with fright, he didn’t struggle , his eyes frantically scanned the clearing.
Eight sets of eyes looked at him, but only one set with any warmth. Shemba was sitting happily by the woman who owned them: she had a broad, open smile, and was scratching the russet pig, whose tail thumped happily on the dirt as like a dogs. The behemoth that approached him did not have any warmth. Merely displeasure
“You have made a foolish error, old man. We had no wish for any to know that we meet this night, but alas, you lost control of your… pet.” The last he said with some disdain. “It is a sad thing. But, as it has been said before: do not meddle in the affairs of druids, for they are subtle, and quick…”
“Oh, please. Do stop, Olgrem. You’re being overly dramatic.”
The warm eyed woman stood and walked towards the suspended Jobeh. Frozen with fear, he could do nothing but observe the woman as she approached. He could not pick her age, though she was not young. Matronly, he decided. The warm, generous smile never left her face. She raised a hand, and the living plants gently lowered Jobeh to the ground, though he still fell, his fear gripping him. The woman knelt by him, and he felt a warm rush of energy move through him. The pain disappeared: not just from the earlier fall or where the vines had gripped him. The sweeping in his knees fell away, and his eyes did not hurt for the first time in an age. Jobeh looked up into the woman’s face, but he was still speechless. The softness in her eyes, he had not known such caring form anyone, let alone a stranger, since poor Matga died.
The massive trunk of a man called Olgrem was a bunch of taut muscle upon muscle, obviously frustrated at the woman’s actions. “You know the importance of this, Hilea. Why would you let this man…” He did not finish as Hilea gave him a look over her shoulder.
“Let me show you why, and also show you why you should be patient. Sir,” she turned to Jobeh, “please tell me your name?”
Slightly less fearful, but only slightly, Jobeh managed to mutter his name, which made Hilea smile. “Thank you, Jobeh. It’s nice to make your acquaintance. I am sorry for the way you discovered us. We have need presently of … security.” Hillea softly stroked Jobeh’s thinning, silver hair. “You’re a long way from Trishden. What brings you out here?”
The other Druids waited passively, though not necessarily patiently, as Hilea questioned the old man. With her kindness, her gentle questions, Jobeh unburdened himself: his wife Matga, his daughters, moving them to a farm near Trishden to try and have a peaceful life for his family. He didn’t know about Bleakmire, just across the range, nor about their raiding … parties. The drinking, the lack of hope, the pain. He shared it all. And all the while, Hilea held his hand and comforted him. Shemba also sat patiently, tail thumping like a metronome
Hilea said, “Your companion, she likes you very much, Jobeh. She says you are kind. She likes the name that you have given her. Shemba tells me that sometimes you go without food to make sure she eats. Is that true?”
Jobeh dropped his head, shamed that he could not support himself and that she knew his secret. “Sometimes…some of the local villagers, they give me extra food for the truffles she finds. They know I struggle, but it is all Shemba’s work. She should have the reward.” He scratched the pig’s head, the tail thumped harder.
Hilea stood and faced Olgrem. She didn’t need to say a word – Olgrem dropped his head, slightly abashed. Satisfied, she turned back to Jobeh, and drew a small vial from her belt pouch. “Friend Jobeh, your treatment of your companion warms our heart, and we wish to help you. But I must ask- it is vital that none know that we have met here, in this sacred place. You have shown yourself a good man, and I would be loath to ask you to drink something to block your memory. If we help you, will you keep our secret?”
Jobeh saw Olgrem open his mouth, but was silenced with Hilea’s raised hand. “You’ve shown me nuthin’ but kindness, Mistress Hilea. And t’ know tha’ Shemba likes tha’ way I treats her, well that makes me happy to. Your business tis your own, and I swear on the memories of mah darlin’ Matga and our girls, that I’ll keep your secret safe.”
Hilea smiled that warm smile. “Thank you, Jobeh. Please, lay down.” as she said the words, the other seven formed a circle around him
Jobeh awoke to a bright, sunny morning. Shemba sat beside him, and from the patterns on the ground, Jobeh thought her tail may not have stopped all night. Next to Shemba rested a bag over brimming with truffles – Jobeh knew that months of searching wouldn’t have produced this many, of this quality. And on top of the truffles, a note in a woman’s flowing hand.“Friend Jobeh, We have done all our limited time will allow. You should cease the drinking – it exacerbates the pain in your joints, though after last night you should no longer feel much desire for it. Below are some small sites in the forest you should find interesting. Please make of these as you will, as our advanced … ‘thank you’ for keeping our confidence. Remember, we were never here and we never met. Though I do hope that we may, someday not meet, again. H”
– Written by Les Allen –
It was another grey morning in the County of Bleakmire. The mist was thick and almost felt as if it stuck to your skin. Foxe disliked coming here, but he knew it had to be done, someone had to keep an eye on the Grove. For a few months now, Foxe had no way to defend himself or the lands and creatures he cared for. When he closed his eyes and concentrated hard on the words he uttered, nothing happened, and sometimes the wrong thing happened. He made the decision then that he would do what he could, even if it was just to check up on the lands, and find others like him.
Foxe finished his breakfast and splashed water on his face from the nearby stream. He picked up his pack and his staff and set off again. He followed the narrow deer trail up into the valley. As her drew closer to the Grove, he stopped. Something was wrong! His skin crawled as he noticed the eerie silence. He took a deep breath and started towards the Grove, whatever he would find there had to be dealt with. This was his calling, and his whole life was dedicated to nature and the protection thereof.
Foxe stepped out from between the pair of boulders that marked the entrance to the grove, and froze. A woman knelt in the centre of the grove her hands were dug deep into the soil and magical energies pulsed around her. Fury welled within Foxe. These dark sorcerers have been destroying the groves all across Bleakmire and he would not let them do the same here. With a furious cry he threw himself at the figure. He briefly considered the foolishness of attacking a sorceress with nothing but a staff before the wave of force hit him.
Light exploded in front of his eyes as he hit the ground. With a surge of willpower he launched himself to his feet, his staff already whistling in a deadly arc as he came upright. With a graceful ease the sorceress ducked under his swing and responded with a kick that sent him sprawling once again. She muttered a spell under her breath and brambles shot out of the ground, wrapping around Foxe’s limbs, trapping him, thorns digging into his flesh. He strained against his bonds, blood starting to run from the gouges that the thorns were raking in his flesh.
Thinking him subdued, the sorceress turned back to the ritual she was casting.
Gritting his teeth Foxe managed to push himself into a kneeling position, tearing plant and flesh alike. “You…will…not…destroy…MY GROVE!” he roared as he ripped free of the brambles and tackled the sorceress. Pain lanced through his arms and legs where the thorns cut him to shreds, but he ignored it as he wrestled to pin her to the ground. Ripping a piece of cloth from her robe, he stuffed it into her mouth to prevent her from casting any more spells.
Resting on her chest, with her arms pinned beneath his knees, Foxe studied the sorceress’ face as he tried to decide how to proceed. She was obviously too powerful to let loose, but Foxe had never taken a life, and he was not willing to kill a prisoner. As he ran scenario after scenario through his mind he noticed that she was shaking as if crying, and tears were running down her face. Pulling his belt knife out and holding it to her throat, he carefully removed the rag from her mouth. To his surprise, she was laughing.
“Not destroying… healing.” She managed between gust of laughter. He was puzzled for a second until he noticed the patch of ground where she had been casting her ritual. Green shoots were radiating out from the point where her fingers had dug into the soil like the vines of a creeper.
Getting up, he helped her to her feet. She gently ran her fingers over his arms as she said “I am Chloé” Where she touched his skin, the blood stopped flowing and the pain receded. “I have been searching for those like you, true servants of nature and protectors of nature’s realm. What is your name?” “Eh, Foxe” Foxe replied, still slightly puzzled by the new turn of events.
Foxe listened attentively as Chloé explained what it truly meant to be a servant of nature. The code seemed simple and logical to Foxe and he realised that he had been living by it for most of his life. When her explanation drew to a close Chloé looked at Foxe with a serious expression. “Foxe, are you willing to take up this struggle and devote yourself to the service of nature? Bearing in mind that these are dark and difficult times for our kind.”
Foxe did not have to think twice. Going on to one knee, placing one hand over his heart, he looked up at Chloé. “I am willing to take on this duty. From this day to the day I die, I shall defend nature, fight for its cause and shun all who do not respect her.” As he said the words, power surged through him. The words were different, the power familiar and at the same time foreign. Magic flowed through him once again. He could feel the flow of nature around him, and also the putrid wound that festered in the grove. Also… something else. Similar to the wound, but more fleeting. “Chloé, do you sense…” was all he could utter before a wave of desecrated animals crested the hill. Their twisted bodies galloping along at an incredible pace. Sharp spiked horns cut the air as foul ichor dripped from gaping, fang filled maws. Foxe drew on his newfound power and unleashed the magic in a powerful wave, the words of the spell coming unbidden to his lips.
Glancing at Chloé he noticed a look of grim determination on her face. He shot her a brief smile before the wave of beasts broke over them and they were thrown into a maelstrom of claws and magic.