I awoke the next day with a profound pain centered just above my eyes. I was in a small building made entirely of oak. A few beds laid in rows in the center of the floor and clay jars filled shelves along the walls. Light came in through the only window set next to the door. I could hear muffled talking from outside. I grabbed the pitcher that some kind soul put on the ground next to my bed, splashed some water onto my face to wash away some of the grogginess, and downed at least half of what remained to sate my overwhelming thirst.
I decided to wait to put on my boots. I figured a chill morning’s dew would do wonders after pounding my drunken feet through the forest all night. I stepped out of the door and saw Kaius with a group of young druids circled around him. Our cleric was playing missionary.
“We call Pelor the Shining One,” Kaius explained. “He represents a number of domains: Strength, Light, Travel…” He cut himself short to turn around and look to me. “Good morning, Kio.”
“Good morning, Kaius. I see you’ve attracted Pelor’s first church in this new world.” The druid’s laughed and gave each other nervous looks.
Gregorius turned around the corner of the house and came up short, obviously surprised to see us up already. He winced in pain at the sound of his own voice. “We are going to begin our morning rituals soon if you would like to join us.”
“I’d be honored,” I said. “Could Kaius come along as well?”
“Of course,” Gregorius said, a hand coming up to rub at his temple. “I can see he is already sharing his faith. We should share ours as well.”
We followed Gregorius back through the clearing with the standing stones and through cleared path. The trees here had been grown to form a tunnel of branches and leaves. The fruit on the branches glowed and lit our way. We exited into a small clearing occupied by about two dozen druids. They were sitting on logs laid in parallel for benches. At the center of the clearing was a raised dais. An old druid with a long gray beard was addressing them from a lectern on the dais.
Behind him stood a statue of woven branches, over twenty feet tall, grown to resemble the form of two twins, back-to-back and each one blindfolded. One held a wilted flower in her outstretched hands; the other held a newly grown sprout. I had never seen a more beautiful tree shaping before. It must have taken the druids decades to complete.
Gregorius held out a hand to direct us toward a log near the back to avoid disturbing the rites.
“And so Gaiane and Sprita,” the old druid said, “upon seeing the destruction the goblins wrought upon the trees and animals of the forest, called down lightning on their foes. The goblins gnashed their teeth and cursed the storm, but lightning fell until their huts and axes burned. The forest, too, caught aflame, and burned for three days and three nights.
“And then, on the fourth day, Gaiane and Sprita returned to see what their wrath had done. The ground still smoldered, but under the broken remains of goblin homes, green sprouts were beginning to bud. New life emerged, and the sisters were happy for it. They breathed life back into the forest.”
The old druid closed the tome on the lectern and held up a twig of holly in one hand. In his other, he produced a flame and held the twig over it and let it catch fire. It burned to ash quickly in his hands, but he appeared unfazed by the heat of the fire. Then he took the ash and placed it at the base of the living statue behind him. The other druids rose to their feet and began to filter out. Gregorius bade Kaius and me to follow him up to the dais.
“Greetings,” said the old druid. “I am Beltas.” He had a grandfatherly smile.
“This is a fascinating ritual, Beltas,” Kaius said.
I followed his gaze up to the two sisters. “Which one is Gaiane, and which is Sprita,” I asked, and then immediately regretted the question.
“What?” Beltas spat.
“Beltas,” Gregorius said stepping between us, “these are guests, they are not familiar with our deity or religion.”
“I am sorry,” Beltas apologized. “That is not an appropriate question in our faith.”
“I should be the one apologizing,” I said, shaking my head. “Please, forgive my ignorance.” I took one last look at the twins, bowed to Beltas, and let Gregorius lead us away.
We found Greg and Lluc waiting for us back by the standing stones. Greg was talking to two druids and pointing to two nags and the cart that they were pulling. He dropped a purse-full of money into one hand and shook the other.
“The mage got us two stallions and a palanquin,” Lluc said flatly, then turned to Greg. “We need to teach you how to haggle.”
“I figured you’d be happy just to have a means of carrying anything besides all that armor you wear,” Greg replied.
I reached out to the two animals and felt at their emotions. Both of them seemed amiable enough. They pushed their noses into my hands as I held them up to touch.
“These are good animals,” I said. “What are their names?”
Greg looked at me questioningly, then turned to ask the druid he bought the horses from.
“Uh,” started the druid. He turned to his companion, obviously lost. “Starfury and Shrug-stem.”
“I like them,” Greg said. He took the lead and started patting Starfury’s head as if she were a dog. She tossed her head in annoyance. I was going to have to show him how to care for the animals.
Each of us unpacked what we didn’t immediately need into the back of the cart. I made sure to keep some rations on me just in case we got separated, but unloaded the bulk of my loose coin. My shoulders felt much better for it. We made our goodbyes, making sure to thank Gregorius for all his hospitality, then left, heading east, before the sun rose to noon.