Stories always make heroes seem so well compensated. They get land or are granted titles. The only resident of the small village that seemed eager to thank us was the young girl Kaius had stepped in front of to shield her from the goblins. She had her arms firmly wrapped around one of his legs and was praising him for his bravery. The rest of the villagers simply slumped to the ground where they stood, eyes fixed on the smoldering remains of their homes.
“At least it’s only spring,” said a man walking up to Kaius. “We have a few seasons to rebuild before snow.” The man must have been the girl’s father. He delicately detached her from Kaius’s leg and picked her up in his arms. She wrapped her own arms around his neck and gripped onto him with the same affection she showed Kaius.
Kaius removed his gauntlet and mussed the girl’s hair. He reached into his coin purse and counted out a considerable amount of gold pieces and held them out to the man. “Please, take these and share them. The next few weeks are going to be rough, I’m sure, and the nights are still cold. Use them to buy supplies from the next town over.”
The man looked down at the gold Kaius held in his hand and looked visibly ashamed. This may not be the world any of us came from, but I was sure that working folk everywhere shared one characteristic above all else: pride. Pride in their work, pride in their family, and pride in their ability to provide for themselves and the ones they love. They are also pragmatic. So the girl’s father took the gold, and it disappeared into a pocket.
“This is the fourth raid this week,” the man said. “We haven’t seen a soldier come to defend us. And the constable died three nights ago trying to lead a militia against these monsters.”
Kaius wore a grim expression. “I can’t promise you anything. We’re on a trip leading us a bit further north of here. But if we find any goblins on our way, we’ll put them to the sword.”
“Thank you for your protection. And the gold.” The man and Kaius clasped forearms before carrying his daughter off to the group of survivors walking sullenly back to their homes.
We continued on past the village’s remains, over rolling hills, then back under the cover of trees. The forest we entered was not the same as the last—the canopy didn’t choke out the sun, and there was ample room between the trees for even caravan traffic. By the end of the afternoon I began seeing the signs I was looking for: mistletoe growing from birch branches, holly, and oak trees all around us.
It wasn’t long after we came out into a large clearing with tall standing stones at its center. Small groups of men and women dressed in plain leather moved busily through the open area. Casks, crates, and bushels were all being set up around the perimeter of the stones while even more groups set about moving long logs fashioned into simple benches out from the forest and set them up on the west side of the stones. West, to view the full moon as it rose above the stones. Because tonight was the Full Moon Festival.
A man about ten years my senior separated himself from a group of druids passing and walked up to our group. “Greetings, brother,” he said, grasping my forearm. “Welcome to our grove. My name is Gregorius, and I have the honor of being our grove’s Elder.”
“Then it is my honor to be welcomed by you, Elder Gregorius,” I said. Gregorius was … young for an Elder. He carried himself well, though, and the other druids in the grove showed him his due respect as he asked them to carry out preparations for the night’s festival.
“Will you be joining us this evening?” he asked. “Your friends are welcome of course. We could always use extra hands to finish our arrangements.”
I turned to look at my companions. Greg was scribbling madly into a notebook, taking care to balance it along with an inkwell with one hand. Kaius and Lluc both nodded, and Barry had already started drifting to a cook pot on a nearby fire.
“That would be wonderful,” I said, and Gregorius put us all to work moving tables, unpacking foodstuffs, and preparing for the night’s festivities. Barry was awestruck by the amount of food put onto the tables. Beans, potatoes, cheese, bread, three types of squash, bowls upon bowls of freshly picked berries, and a multitude of different fruits, all ripe and begging to be eaten.
“Where is all the meat?” asked Lluc. “I thought you said this was a feast.”
“It is,” I replied. “But fruits and vegetables return with the turning of the seasons. It is not so easy to replace enough deer to offset the amount of venison that would be required of a monthly gathering of this size.” I could tell Lluc was still a little upset, but his face brightened when he saw a cask as tall as him being let down onto a stand at the end of our table. Gregorius had placed us at the head table next to his own seat.
As the sun began to set, the air was filled with music and the scents of cooking food. The Elder introduced us to prominent members of the community there. It must be understood that a community of druids can stretch its borders out for hundreds and hundreds of miles. A grove is a meeting place on sacred ground. Druids may need to travel many days before reaching one, and many do not go to every gathering. The only time that most if not all who call a grove their own return is to elect a new Elder.
It was on the topic of groves that I learned something interesting: not every druid knew the location of every grove here. Gregorius marked the location of the Arch Druid’s grove on Greg’s map. He fought down a smile as he pointed to a position just outside of Bellenau.
The moon began to rise above the ring of standing stones and Gregorius rose unsteadily to his feet. No druidic festival is complete without consuming a generous amount of ale or wine, and Gregorius was a very festive druid indeed. “Brothers!” he shouted. “Another month has come and passed, and the Moon returns to bless our deeds. Go forth, and collect its favor. ”
He grabbed me by the arm. My speech was a little slurred at that point, but I managed to let Kaius and Lluc know we’d be back in a few hours. Dawn at the latest. All of the druids dispersed from the clearing. Well, not all of them. Some tripped on the benches and failed to stand back up afterward. Those of us with our feet under us took our tools into the forest to collect holly and mistletoe and oak leaves.
The night of the full moon is sacred to druids. The reagents we collect at the peak of each lunar cycle grant us abundant power. Gathered any other night, they grant only a fraction of that potential. The food, drink, dance, and music all celebrate this endowment. The drink in particular. It wouldn’t do to make gathering a plant that can’t run away too easy. Druids believe in balance in everything.