An hour before the dawn of the fall equinox Roy walked through the clearing the local Sanna called Mete’s Grave. The air was damp and cold, somehow hiding the thinness of the air without making it any easier to catch his breath. The opening in the trees was a little over a hundred feet below the peak of the mountain at the foot of a steep drop which Yose had supposedly thrown his brother down.
At the center of the grove a blackened set of broken and twisted rocks, Mete’s final resting place, sat in the middle of a barren patch of ground. Brambles coiled around the open dirt and nothing taller than grass grew within fifteen feet of the crater. But the churned earth and tightly packed pine trees by the cliffside told them some trees had moved through the area recently.
There were no signs of Thomas or Andrew Blythe in the area. About fifty feet below the crater ran a small spring that fed into one of the streams they’d followed most of the way up the mountain, a stream that supposedly flowed all the way down the side of the mountain and into the lake where Yose’s heart still beat thrice a day. That was their first concern. Reeds and Oldfathers both agreed that Yose and Mete needed their fleshly avatars to clash in some ritualistic fashion – not necessarily at the top of the mountain – to fulfill the demands of the legend. They had to stop that or Andrew Blythe was going to die.
So the Brothers had to be kept separate. But Mete had to get to the clearing and reveal the nawonota. He’d hidden it somewhere on the mountain and none could find it until his brother caught him with it. True to form, although Roy had the whole group search the clearing from cliff to river, they’d found no sign of the artifact which meant only Mete could get it to reveal itself.
Given that Mete was quite possessive of the thing they weren’t likely to get a hold of it easily.
But given that something in the nawonota could be growing in power every time the story played out it wasn’t something they could easily ignore, either.
The simplest way to handle all these problems was what the general had initially planned. Keep the Brothers separate. But with the added caveat that they get close enough for the legend to actually begin. To that end O’Hara had spent the last day setting up her board of spell tiles and building a bulwark along the streambed, a towering ten foot earthwork that moved through sympathetic ties to the stones laid out on her board and backed by the mystical power the ancient ziggurat builders had used to conquer Tetzlan in ages past. Roy had also placed Reeds there to prepare as many Teutonic charms and wards as he knew and could find room for between the stream and clearing.
Grunt and Marshall watched the other end of the equation, standing guard by the unnatural clump of pines by the cliffside. Something had moved them there and, based on what had happened in Yellowstone, that was likely Mete flexing some power he received as an avatar of the Bones of Enkidu. Some of those trees were clearly large enough to think and move on their own which made their silent, stationary vigil the surest sign that something mystical held them in place. Trees of that size rarely suffered large groups of humans to stay in their presence. They were the greatest danger in that direction but Grunt with his bearded axe could keep them at bay for a while. With Marshall’s war club and superhuman fighting instincts to back him up they might even hold indefinitely.
Roy and Oldfathers positioned themselves halfway between the stream and the clearing, ready to support either end of the formation if needed.
Which left Nora Blythe standing beside the crater. The unnamed mother in the Brothers legend was supposedly the creator and first owner of the nawonota, which led Roy to hope that Nora’s presence at the confrontation would reveal a new wrinkle in the story and potentially change the outcome. As dawn approached she was seated on one of the stones surrounding Mete’s Grave, staring into the crater. She started as Roy crouched down beside her and asked, “Are you alright?”
“Yes!” She shook herself back to the present. “I’m sorry, is it dangerous here? I thought it looked a little off, but-“
“It’s a little late to worry about danger,” Roy said with a chuckle. “This whole trip is dangerous, I don’t think sitting here will change things much one way or another. I was just… worried. How are you feeling.”
The deep, predawn shadows, lit only by a handful of lanterns O’Hara had brought, exaggerated the lines of grief on the widow’s face rather than hiding them. The strained twitch of the lips that might have been a smile did little to change the overall impression. “Thank you, Mr. Harper. I’ll feel better when I have my sons back.” A new shadow took root in her eyes. “Well, mostly.”
“I understand.” And he did. Roy saw similar shadows every time he spoke to someone who knew the Folger brothers or Fat Stu. Some days he even saw it in the mirror. That was one reason he avoided them. “Mrs. Blythe, I’d like to consecrate our little band, make us ready for the day ahead. O’Hara knows the cant, but…”
“But I was a Hearth Keeper. “The smile was less strained this time. “I understand, Mr. Harper. And who will answer the cant? I know it’s traditionally the highest ranked member of the expeditionary group but…”
But the leader of their little band was a retired Lieutenant and the specter of a Major General loomed far over that. Roy nodded his understanding. “A fair question. Under the circumstances, I will.”
“Then gather the men, please.”
He did, starting with Grunt and Marshall. They did a wide circle around the riverbank to avoid Nora coming back with O’Hara. While not strictly a demand of the benediction, most military men felt it was bad luck for men and women to cross paths until it was time to begin. So they took a detour to collect Reeds then added Oldfathers to the group on the way back.
“What are we doing?” Reeds asked as they approached the clearing again. “It’s almost dawn.”
“I know,” Roy said. “This is the only time we can perform the blessing.”
Nora had climbed up on one of the rocks by the crater so she could command a view of the whole area. Roy gestured the others on before him, it was traditional for the replying cantor to stand at the rear of the assembly.
“Do we have to join this as well?” Reeds asked.
“It’s a blessing for an expedition as a whole, not individuals,” Oldfathers said. “Every Columbian and Avaloni army the Sanna fought did this before they marched to battle.”
Reeds shrugged and turned his attention to Mrs. Blythe.
She raised her hands over her head, arms spread wide, palms up and said, “O Lord in Raging Skies, turn your eyes towards your people once more. As in the days of Arthur guide us safely through storm and trial, grant us clarity against the designs of the enemy and justice to prevail over passion and violence. Fight on our behalf with your spear of thunder and your shield of winter. May we prevail over all enemies until the work is done.”
Roy swallowed once, watching as Nora concluded with the Sign of the Storm. Though he’d been an officer he’d never held a formal command and so never actually performed this cant before. But he wasn’t about to leave something this important to Oldfathers.
He stretched out his hands palm down a little more than shoulder’s width apart. “O Lady in Burning Stone, watch over our homes and hearths. Stand guard over our families with the mountain, your sword, and warm them in sunlight, your robes. As in the days of Arthur shelter us from danger and death that we may return to rest and safety and not end our days under lonely skies.”
Roy raised his hand in the Sign of the Hearth and touched it to his forehead. The others, save for the two Sanna, do the same. There was a moment of silence then Roy said, “Sunrise is in forty minutes. Get to your positions.”
They broke up and made their way to their previous places, except for O’Hara who lingered to talk to Grunt. There was long standing precedent for those kinds of meetings after the benediction and Roy allowed it to go unremarked on. That left him walking down towards the river with the General and Reeds.
The Sanna man seemed a touch amused at the proceedings. After going a dozen steps or so Reeds looked over at Roy and asked, “Will you answer something? Truthfully?”
Roy raised an eyebrow. “Have you found me dishonest so far? If so I’m doing my job poorly.”
“This is a question of a very different nature to anything we’ve discussed so far,” Reeds said. “And one man might easily lie to himself about it.”
“You’ve got my interest, Reeds. And a truthful answer, no matter the question.”
“The Lord and Lady – they’re the guardians of Avalon, correct? Sworn to that nation through their servant, Arthur, who walks as one with the Storm. Columbia’s connection to Avalon is only through the first wave of settlers who came here from there and – until Dolmenfall – the Stone Circle at Morainehenge.” Reeds spread his hands. “Are you certain the Lord and Lady extend their protection to you as well?”
A dozen scenes of carnage and violence rushed through Roy’s mind, half-forgotten moments from the battles and skirmishes of the Lakeshire and Palmyra Campaigns where Columbians had killed one another over blind emotion and sheer stubbornness. He remembered the druids who mourned more when Roy’s men broke down the dolmen than when they buried their dead.
He remembered his own contempt for the people of Palmyra who’d walked their streets from one burnt building to the next like they’d lost all purpose. “No, Reeds,” he said, his voice a whisper. “I’m not sure they do.”
Reeds considered that answer for a moment, then nodded thoughtfully. “Thank you. At least that answer has the ring of truth to it.”
Reeds continued towards the stream leaving Roy and Oldfathers by the rock outcropping they’d picked as the midpoint to anchor the two halves of their formation. Roy clambered up on the rock, giving him an extra two feet of height and helping him see uphill with greater clarity. Oldfathers settled on a small stone nearby, looking downhill. They sat there in silence as the sky grew brighter.
“They came here for humanity, you know,” Oldfathers said, watching the sunrise. “Arthur was just the only one who listened.”
“Who?” Roy asked, his wandering thoughts pulled out of the past and back to the present. “The Lord and Lady?”
“That’s what the writings passed down from Stonehenge say,” the general replied. “That’s why the Watchers and the Keepers crossed the ocean with the first settlers. Their gifts that protect us from the chaos of the elemental world were intended for everyone.”
“They haven’t spread very far if that was the point.” The old memories faded back into the corners of his mind. “And the human world has plenty of chaos on its own.”
“At least we only have that to deal with.” Oldfathers laughed. “You’ve been to Tetzlan. Do you think Dolmenfall would have been better or worse with things like blood rituals in play?”
That was uncomfortable enough to call for a subject change. “What about now? How do they take a hand against this fine mess the Sanna left for us?”
Oldfathers laughed and leaned back against the rock, hands behind his head. “It’s not about who or how, Mr. Harper. I’m sure if we had the Mated Pair here to explain the whole thing to us all they’d do is remind us of the Quest.”
There were a lot of quests in the stories of the Stone Circle. Roy couldn’t think of any that were relevant to this particular situation. “Which is?”
“Cultivate a moral spirit in yourself. Oppose destruction. Build up the nation. Preserve the legacy. Above all else, defend the life well lived. For in that life is a balance of the elements and finding that balance is the duty of all druids.”
“I thought the ways of the druids were passing away.”
“Oh, that’s likely true. But the Quest is as eternal as the Lord and Lady and just because the druids are gone doesn’t mean we haven’t sown the seeds for the next generation to continue it.” He mimed casting seeds along the path before them. “That’s why I spent the last decade of my life ensure the relics of Morainehenge got out to people who would use them rather than rotting in the armories of Columbia.”
“Which reminds me,” Roy muttered, pattering his breast pocket. “I forgot to return this yesterday. I was seeing how far I could push you by hanging on to it but handing it back must have slipped my mind.”
“Did it?” Oldfathers reached a hand up to take it without bothering to look. Roy placed it in his hand and he shoved it into a jacket pocket. A tinge of humor entered his voice. “How careless. Must keep better track of it in the future.”
“Of course.” He wasn’t actually sure what the old druid meant by that but he didn’t have time to mull it over. There were more important things at hand. Yose was coming.