For Christmas, I’ve decided to treat my readers to a holiday story featuring Azi, Rian, and their friends in Cerion. Follow them as they quest through a treacherous snowstorm to retrieve the perfect gift for Midwinter’s Eve.
White and gold and moonlit wine Plucked from snow beneath the pine Snowberry blossom, pure and dear Comfort my love throughout the year In the light of the stars Washed in blue by the moon ‘Neath a blanket of white The snowberry blooms White and gold and moonlit wine Plucked from snow beneath the pine Snowberry blossom, pure and dear Comfort my love throughout the year Its petals are white Pure as the snow Its perfume of pine, Of sunlight and rose White and gold and moonlit wine Plucked from snow beneath the pine Snowberry blossom, pure and dear Comfort my love throughout the year This rare, precious blossom Brings fortune and cheer If gifted to true love It blooms throughout the year White and gold and moonlit wine Plucked from snow beneath the pine Snowberry blossom, pure and dear Comfort my love throughout the year On Midwinter’s Eve, This precious flower Closes its petals In its final hour White and gold and moonlit wine Plucked from snow beneath the pine Snowberry blossom, pure and dear Comfort my love throughout the year Reminding us all of life’s great cycle Of love and loss, of life and slumber White and gold and moonlit wine Plucked from snow beneath the pine Snowberry blossom, pure and dear Comfort my love throughout the year
Seated on a low stool before the great hearth of His Majesty’s Elite’s guild hall, Mya, our guild leader, stows her lute as her song is finished. A fluffy red fox is curled at her feet. He doesn’t stir when in quiet pause, the children slide closer to the bard in anticipation of the story to come. Tonight is Midwinter’s Eve, the longest and last night of the year. We’ve worked all day to help Mouli and Luca clean and decorate the guild hall to be host to scores of Cerion’s subjects in the morning. The mantle is decked with sprigs of fresh fir and crisp juniper, tied with golden bows for prosperity in the New Year.
Now, as the hall fills with the sweet aroma of Mouli’s cookies and sweet rolls, it’s time to rest in the warmth of the fire and enjoy the company of our families and Mya’s songs and stories. I snuggle close to Rian beneath a cozy fur, and we share a mug of hot cider together.
“Do you remember being so excited on Midwinter’s Eve?” his lips brush my ear as he whispers to me beneath the din of excited children, sending a warm tingle through my cheeks.
“It wasn’t that long ago,” I smile. Across from us, Mum and Da are settled together on their settee, much the same as Rian and I, with a steaming mug between them. Cort and Bryse, Brother Donal and Dacva, and Uncle Gaethon have come to sit by the fire and listen to Mya’s songs and tales. Even Mouli, our cook, and her husband Luca, the custodian of the Guild Hall, have taken a rare moment’s rest.
“Still, it’s fun to see it through the eyes of the younger ones,” Rian whispers, circling his arms around me.
I smile and nod and curl up closer to him. I’m glad Mya agreed to invite the Ganvent children to come early to this year’s feast. It was my squire Saesa’s idea. She sits beside Tib, giving him hopeful looks, and as always the Sunteri boy is fairly clueless about her interest in him. Lilen, the Mage apprentice, holds little Garsi in her arms. Ruben rolls a leather ball between his bony knees on the polished wood floor. Emme looks as though she’s considering crawling right into Mya’s lap. Their blankets and furs lie forgotten behind them as they scoot in around Mya, waiting impatiently for the bard’s story to begin.
On the mantle above her, a bowl of sugar cubes has been set out. Tradition says that sweets will lure the fairies. Every year, children go to bed hoping to wake to presents gifted by the fae as a reward for being kind and thoughtful. Of course, most everyone in Cerion believes that fairies are creatures of legends, and in truth, it’s the parents who leave the gifts.
“To think,” Flit’s voice drifts into my thoughts, “fairies lured in by sweets, leaving gifts? Ha! Selfish humans, always wanting things. Typical. And they put it up on the smoky, stinky mantle, too. Ugh.”
“I have some here for you,” I send my own thoughts to her.
Only Rian and I notice the sparkling light that seems to shimmer with every imaginable color as Flit comes to rest on my shoulder. I secret a couple of sugar cubes to her and she munches them merrily in my ear as the children make their boisterous requests for stories.
“Am I too late? Did I miss the stories? Hey, budge over, Flit,” another fairy emerges from the air beside Rian.
Looking at the two of them, one might say they were complete opposites. Flit is bright and cheerful, with twinkling eyes that shift through ever color of the rainbow and seven ponytails to match. Even for a fairy, she’s rather short and has a child-like roundness to her face. Her wings are graceful and glass-like, reflecting her light beautifully and sending it splashing in prisms across the cushions of the sofa. Twig, on the other hand, is tall and lean. His clothes and skin are crusted with dirt. His hair is black and green and shaggy, and stick-like wings poke out from his back.
No one else is aware of the two of them as the fairies flop onto their stomachs on the arm of the sofa beside Rian and munch away at their sweet treats. They’re hidden secretly in the Half-Realm, the place between sleeping and waking where fairies dwell. No one else in the Elite has Rian and my ability to enter the Half-Realm or see into it. We only happened on it by accident ourselves, but that’s another story.
“Shh! She’s about to start,” Flit whispers to Twig.
I curl up closer to Rian and his arms tighten gently around me. We turn our attention to Mya, smiling to ourselves as Rian’s mother begins to tell her tale.
It was a Midwinter’s Eve like no other. A blizzard had blanketed the streets with snow up to the windowpanes of shops, and covered the carts in the market square so that no trading would be done for days. The ships at the harbor were crusted over with ice. The subjects of Cerion tried not to let the weather dismay them or dampen their spirits, for there was work to be done before Midwinter’s Feast. Despite the cold, they threw open their windows as has been the custom for generations, and they cleaned away the dust and dirt of the old year to make room for the new.
At the guild hall of His Majesty’s Elite, it was no different. Mouli was busy in the kitchen with her baking for the feast, and Luca was of course working hard at beating the dust from the furniture and rugs. While he worked, Luca had only one thing on his mind: the snowberry blossom that would be his gift to his beloved.
You see, every year since their courtship, Luca had presented Mouli a snowberry blossom on Feast day. He would give it to her in a vase of his own making, and always he would speak the same wish to her.
“May you ever look at this blossom and know that its beauty shan’t rival your own. May our love grow through the year as it blooms,” he would say.
Now, Luca was not known to be the romantic sort. A hard worker was he, and sturdy and steadfast, but he was not one for flowery speeches and frivolity. The snowberry blossom was his one reminder to Mouli throughout the year of his love for her, and in nearly fifty years of marriage, he had not once failed to present her with this gift.
Luca scowled as he shook the soot out of the hearth rug and the blustery wind blew it right back into his face. The snow and the cold was too cruel. Perhaps this year, he thought, would be the year he would have to disappoint his love. He was getting old, and the journey to the pine forest where he usually picked his bloom for Mouli was treacherous even without such a storm to hamper him.
Still, his love for Mouli was such that he could not bear to imagine her face in the morning when there was no new blossom to replace the old. For as the song goes:
This rare, precious blossom
Brings fortune and cheer
If gifted to true love
It blooms through the year
White and gold and moonlit wine
Plucked from snow beneath the pine
Snowberry blossom, pure and dear
Comfort my love throughout the year
On Midwinter’s Eve,
This precious flower
Closes its petals
On its final hour
No, Luca thought to himself, I will not disappoint my love.
But the storm did not cease and as the afternoon hours waned, Luca’s mood grew more and more sour. He did not see how he’d be able to sneak away, as he always did, to the forest outside of the palace gates to find his treasured gift for Mouli. Even if he was to make it there without freezing, the grove was certain to be buried in snow, the flower patch frosted over, and the snowberries dead.
It was Azaeli and Rian who were the first to notice Luca’s dismal mood, for as hard as he worked, the guild’s caretaker did it always with a smile on his face and a song on his lips. Even more so on holidays. His dark mood troubled them, and it was Rian who put it together and realized what needed to be done. He brought Azi by the hand to Mouli and Luca’s chambers and showed her the wilting flower.
Together they made a plan. They would go to the grove themselves and find the perfect bloom for Luca to give to Mouli.
They bundled into their heaviest cloaks and boots and slipped off into the battering wind. Though the snow came to their thighs, Rian did his best to clear it away with a spell as they trudged forward. It was difficult work. The wind was too strong, and the spell did little to ease their passage.
On the way to the gates and to their relief, they met with Bryse, who was just finishing clearing a path into the Conclave so that subjects of the city might seek healing if it was needed. Bryse was a giant of a man, and the work of shoveling heavy snow was quite welcome to him. Snow is plentiful in the chill north, so Bryse felt very much at home with that particular chore.
“Where are you two off to in such a squall?” Bryse asked Azi and Rian as they neared.
“Squall?” Azi’s teeth chattered, “This is the worst storm I can remember.”
“Bah, this is nothing!” Bryse grinned. “You haven’t seen a storm ‘til you’ve been to Hywilkin! Snowdrifts up to a true giant’s chest!” He thumped his own chest, which is broader than Rian and Azi side by side.
When they explained to him their plan to help Luca, Bryse grinned. “Can’t think of a better way to spend Midwinter’s Eve, than helping those two.” And with that, Azi and Rian had gained a worthy member for their adventuring party.
When he plowed ahead of them, Bryse’s two broad feet made a wide enough path for both Azi and Rian to walk easily through the drifts. They followed him out of the city gates and into the thick pine forest beyond, searching for a place where snowberry blooms might grow.
With their minds on the task before them, they barely felt the cold, nor did they notice they were being watched from within the forest. They continued on, following Bryse deeper and deeper into the pines as the sky grew dark and the wind howled through the broad trunks that surrounded them.
Rian was the first to notice they weren’t alone. He put his arm out to stop Azi, and reached ahead to Bryse to tug the larger man’s cloak.
“Something moved,” he whispered, turning toward the thick, snow-covered underbrush. “There.” With a whisper and a gesture, Rian cast a ward over the three of them as they stood together in knee-deep snow, waiting.
“State your name, Mage,” a young man’s voice commanded from the snowy cover. “And explain why you have chosen to disturb our grove.”
“Blast and bells,” Bryse cursed under his breath, “Druids.”
“Bryse,” Azi whispered, scandalized. “Did you lead us into a druid’s grove?”
“Got turned around, didn’t I?” Bryse grumbled. “I’m not the one to follow in the woods, you two should know that. Bah, and me without shield or sword…”
The three were certainly concerned at this point, for everyone knows it is forbidden to enter a Druid’s grove without permission. Druids are the protectors of the forests, and their groves are sacred, secret places.
The young man barely disturbed the snow on the low-hanging branches as he stepped out from behind them to circle around the three. Beside him, a gorgeous white wolf in full winter coat slunk low, his teeth bared.
As all druids do, this young man moved with a grace and purpose unlike ordinary folk. He wore a long cloak of bear fur, the head of which covered his face to his brow. A graceful long bow was slung over his shoulder, and the moccasins on his feet were laced up tight to his knees. His chiseled jaw was washed with white, and his skin shone in the low light as brightly as the snow, as though he had taken on the characteristics of the storm itself.
This mimicry followed through to his eyes, which loomed dark and threatening as he looked the three trespassers over, his bow at the ready. All of these things together gave him an air of the wild and feral. He was only slightly older than Azi and Rian, but still too young to be guarding a grove on his own. This and the wolf made Rian wary.
Bryse, as was his duty and instinct, placed himself between the druid and his two companions, protecting them as he circled around them, taking in every feature.
“Lower your hood, that I might look into your faces,” he commanded, and Rian and Azi obeyed.
First, he examined Rian.
“We know this face,” he ventured, “the fox and the muse.”
Then he turned to Azi.
“Faerie-friend,” he offered mysteriously. “What reason have you to bring this hulking beast into our grove, to trample its fragile grounds with little concern for the damage he causes?”
“Who’re you calling a beast?” Bryse rumbled through clenched teeth and punched his fist into his palm threateningly.
“Please,” Rian said calmly, stepping around the half-giant to come eye-to-eye with the Druid. “We meant no harm. We strayed from the path, and for that we apologize. Certainly with all of the snow, you understand how we could make such a careless mistake.”
“As silver-tongued as his mother, and as wily as his father,” the druid moved closer. His wolf moved with him, as though the two were of one mind. “Oh yes, we know of you, Rian Eldinae.”
“I’m not trying to be wily or silver-tongued,” Rian protested.
“So you say,” the druid lowered his bow, “and yet you dodge our question.”
“That was not my intention,” Rian offered apologetically.
“It was not your intention to enter our grove, either. How do you stumble through life with such little care for intent, son of the fox?”
“We came searching for a gift,” Rian replied with a sigh of resolve. Azi and Bryse, seeing that their companion had the conversation under control, decided to remain quiet. “A snowberry blossom.”
“True love’s offering, on Midwinter’s Eve.” Though the druid smiled, it did not reach his eyes. “And you see nothing wrong with plucking such an enchanting gift from our grove with little forethought? With no mind to ask permission, no offering for the Great Spirit? For Nature Herself?”
“It isn’t for us,” Azi blurted. “It’s for our friend, Luca.”
When the druid raised his chin curiously, Rian elaborated on Azi’s statement.
“Yes. You see, Luca never fails to bring a blossom to his wife on Feast Day, but the weather is unforgiving, and Luca is getting old, and we wanted to save him the risk of venturing into the cold. He’s a good man, you see. A hard worker. He has served our guild, our family, for many years.”
“Kind sir,” Azi pleaded, “could you allow us to bring him this small happiness? May we have your permission to take a blossom?”
The druid looked away from them and into the thicket of trees thoughtfully. His eyes searched the branches of the pines, and it seemed to Azi and Rian and Bryse that he was holding a conversation with the trees themselves, silent and secret.
“We know this Luca, and we believe that your intentions are good and kind,” he said to them after a long pause. “But we cannot help you. Our snowberry patches are buried in snow. They are resilient, but we fear they have succumbed to the weight of the drifts and the cold of the frost. And the careless misstep of a hulking giant.” With that, he scowled up at Bryse, who huffed angrily at him in reply and then looked down at his feet. He shuffled them carefully, revealing the crushed and broken stem of a snowberry flower.
“Ah, cr—“ he started, and was promptly interrupted by Rian.
“Crystal! A Kalsun crystal, to be exact,” he mused, “would melt the snow and foster life for the flowers, wouldn’t it? And you need them as well, don’t you? Your poultices and incense require that the snowberries picked on Midwinter’s night.”
“That is so,” the druid replied, obviously impressed by Rian’s knowledge. “At this very moment, the others of my clan have ventured to the source to seek the crystals out.”
He knelt in the snow and took the petals of the crushed bloom gingerly between his fingers.
“But,” he said, barely above a whisper in the din of the storm, “our source for Kalsun has been encroached upon by fell creatures. My clan has ventured into darkness to seek the crystals. I fear for them. They ought to have returned by now.” His gaze drifted to Bryse, and for the first time he looked at him not with mistrust, but with hope. “Perhaps…” he glanced to the wolf, who paced and whined anxiously.
“I am forbidden to leave the grove unattended,” he said to the three. “But the pines know your father, Rian Eldinae. They know his heart, and they see him in you. I shall tell you the secret way to the Coastline Caverns. Retrieve the Kalsun for our grove and recover my clan, and I shall allow you one blossom for Luca.”
“Now you just hold on, now,” Bryse stormed. “You realize you’re asking us to delve unarmed into a cave full of–what did you call them?”
“Fell creatures. Goblins. Dark gnomes. Wraiths, possibly,” the druid regarded him with one eyebrow raised. “Are you afraid?”
“Me?!” Bryse’s deep laugh thundered through the grove. “Course not! But what about Azi, she’s got no armor. No sword.”
“She has my wards,” Rian said with a grin. “And this.” With a graceful gesture, he whispered the words of spell, and a sword of icy flame burst forth in Azi’s outstretched hand. The blue light that shone from it danced across her grinning face.
“Ready?” Rian asked her.
“Ready!” she whooped. “For Luca! For Mouli!”
Azi’s enthusiasm for the adventure was short-lived when she found out that their trek to the icy cliff caves meant slipping and sliding along narrow paths cut into the cliff side itself. Rian was wary as well. Everyone knows that the Coastline Caverns aren’t to be entered lightly. They howl with the wind that whips up from the sea and into the twisting depths. Dark and ominous, the caves are rife with the spirits of lost adventurers, and crawling with terrifying creatures that hide in the craggy darkness, lying in wait, ready to pounce on the weary traveler who seeks shelter among the dripping rock formations.
Still, Azi, Bryse, and Rian were determined in their quest for Luca’s gift. With the missing druid clan heavy in their thoughts and Luca’s gift in their hearts, they slipped into the dark, narrow mouth of the cavern and stopped for a quick rest.
“The crystals,” Rian whispered, “form nearest the glowing wishpool.”
“How do we find it?” Azi huddled close to the Mage, her teeth chattering more from her fear of the sheer fall to the sea than from the chill air. Inside the cave was quite a bit warmer than outside, and the shelter from the wind and the snow would have been a welcome relief had it not been for the heavy, foreboding sense of something – many somethings, actually, lurking in the darkness.
“Follow the spriteworms,” Rian whispered.
Azi was just about to ask him what a spriteworm was when a glowing pulse deeper into the cave caught her eye. It blinked once, yellow, then red, then orange.
“It’s beautiful,” Azi gasped and began to step toward it. Immediately she realized her mistake. Rian flung his hand out to stop her.
Screams filled the caves, ringing painfully in their ears as several inky creatures charged them from the shadows. They were hobgoblins: spindly black creatures with dark eyes and pointed, sharp noses. Their bared teeth were fang-like and dripped with venom.
“Gobs!” Bryse roared and surged toward them, his hunched shoulders crunching against the low stone ceiling. He scooped one of the creatures in each hand and bashed their heads together.
Azi raised her hands and Rian cast his spell, and the ice sword flashed between her clasped fingers. She swung with an impressive grace and skill and cut through the remaining three hobgoblins with little effort at all.
With their foes littering the dark cavern floor around them, Rian offered a rather late warning.
“The spriteworms are beautiful, but they serve a purpose to the creatures here,” he explained. “They entice wanderers closer, deeper into the cave. They give them a sense of wonder so strong that the adventurer is unaware of the danger until it’s too late. They’re beautiful, but dangerous. They help feed the creatures within. Be careful. Be on guard.”
Rian’s warning wasn’t taken lightly. He and Azi and Bryse clung together as they picked their way carefully over the slippery stone and into the depths of the dark cavern.
Despite the ominous feeling, the three were awed by the beauty of the stone formations. Some of them were thin and fragile, like cascading folds of fabric, while others were ancient and enormous pillars formed by endless years of dripping water.
The spriteworms grew more plentiful as deeper into the cavern they crept, and of course with their numbers came the creatures the druid warned them about. There were more hobgoblins, and wraiths of spirits that could only be felled by Rian’s magic. There were tiny hordes of dark gnomes wielding spears and pelting Rian’s wards with stones. Despite the fact that Bryse was unarmed, he fought savagely with his hands. His great fists pounded the masses of creatures into pulp as they charged at the three, and Azi swung her ice sword, and together the small group pushed their way further into the caves.
The spriteworms here coated the walls and ceiling so completely that they twinkled and shone bright enough to cast a beautiful light over the three adventurers. They were so enamored by it that even Rian couldn’t help but look up and be awed. They stepped carefully among the glittering lights, but not cautiously enough. Bryse was the first of them to fall under their captivating spell. Azi and Rian didn’t notice until it was too late. The Squire and the Mage crept onward. Azi was the first to pause.
“Do you hear that?” She whispered to Rian, but he was too drawn in by the scene ahead: Golden light cast upon the walls from the wishpool, beaming through the facets of the Kalsun crystals.
“Hear what?” Rian asked, dazzled. Azi didn’t know how to describe it, except that it wasn’t a sound at all. It was the absence of one. Bryse’s ever-present heavy footsteps behind her had vanished. She spun in place to look, and sure enough, Bryse was gone.
“Rian,” Azi hissed and reached for him, but when she turned she found that he, too, had disappeared. “Bryse?” she called hesitantly, and took a frantic step back. Her foot slipped on the edge of darkness. She tried to catch a pillar of stone as she fell, but the stone was too slippery. She was falling fast now, leaving the glow of the spriteworms and the wishpool far above her.
She landed with a thud on something soft and warm, furry and breathing. She yelped and hopped away from the creature, which she could not see. Her eyes were still adjusting to the darkness. High above, a perfect circle of light from the spriteworms was framed by the darkness. She was in a pit. A trap.
“Bryse?” she whispered again, “Rian?”
“Ungh,” Rian moaned, “I’m here.”
“Aye,” said Bryse. “Me too.”
“Who’s there?” someone else ventured. It was a voice none of the others recognized. The furry creature beside Azi moved and she groped away from it, searching for Rian with her hands outstretched.
“Here, this will help,” Rian whispered a spell, and a globe of soft light bobbed right in front of Azi’s face.
It cast its light over Rian, Bryse, and Azi, and also three strangers who sat against the wall looking rather tattered and beaten. There was a woman and two men. They were dressed in leathers and furs like the druid boy had been, and two of them had wolves just like his.
“Great, more hoppin’ woodsies,” Bryse grumbled, for being a man accustomed to stone and ice, he had very little understanding of the druids of the forest.
“Put that light out,” the elder of the men hissed.
Rian hesitated, and the man jabbed an irritated finger toward the top of the pit. Warily, the three followed his direction and looked up. The ceiling of the cave, once speckled with glowing spriteworms, was dark.
“I don’t understand,” Azi whispered as Rian gasped and quickly put the light out.
“The spriteworms are sensitive,” Rian explained under his breath, “outside light weakens them.”
“Well, what bloody difference does that make?” Bryse grumbled. “We need to be able to see to get out of here, don’t we? C’mere, Azi. Get on my shoulders.”
“No use,” the older man warned.
“Yes, we tried that several times,” the woman replied. “One cannot climb out. Wards on the mouth will throw you down again. Even our wolves could find no purchase on the ledge.”
That was when they noticed the third wolf: a pile of unmoving fur, lying beneath the man who hadn’t spoken yet. The man was bent over the creature. Now and then his shoulders shuddered with silent, mournful sobs.
“No,” Rian whispered, creeping closer to the wolf. The other druids, though injured, leapt to their feet to form a wall between Rian and their companion. The hackles of their own wolves raised as they bared their teeth at him. Quickly, Rian raised his hands to show that he meant no harm, but the druids kept alert to him. They took a battle stance and pointed their spears at him cautiously.
“I swear I won’t hurt you,” Rian kept his voice steady and calm. His eyes rested on the man and the fallen wolf. “I know what it is for a druid to lose his wolf.”
When the druids showed no sign of lowering their defenses, Rian stepped back a little and continued explaining.
“My friends and I were out seeking the Snowberry Blossom. We have a friend who gifts the bloom to his love, but we worried that the storm would be too much for him, so we decided to make the journey ourselves. As Rian spoke, the woman eyed him with suspicion. Her wolf stopped its growling. “When we accidentally arrived in your grove,” he went on, “we were met by the young man who you left behind. He told us of his concern for you. That you came for the Kalsun and didn’t return.”
“As you can imagine,” Azi said, stepping to Rian’s side, “we’re relieved to find you all here, and alive.” She glanced at the wolf apologetically. “Mostly.”
“And why should we trust the word of a Mage and his traveling companions, when it is a Mage’s spell that holds us trapped in this place?” the man before her sneered. Beside him, his wolf growled, its white teeth glowing in the dim light.
“How dare you,” Bryse boomed and shoved Azi and Rian aside to face the two druids. Their wolves closed in before them, snapping and snarling. “You don’t know us, how dare you assume we’ve got anything to do with that?” He raised a thumb toward the ceiling. “If we did, would we be dumb enough end up down here with you?”
“That’s to be determined,” the elder man replied drily.
“It’s all right, Bryse,” Rian soothed the hulking man, pushing him back from the agitated wolves. He turned to the druids again, still showing them the palms of his hands.
“My name is Rian Eldinae,” he raised his voice over the wolves’ threatening voices. “My family has long been friends with your grove. We’re in this together. I mean you no harm. None of us do. We came to help you.”
“Help us,” the man before them scoffed, “in return for payment. Our blossom.” His wolf pawed at the ground, mirroring his agitation.
“Help you because you need it,” Azi said, coming to stand beside Rian again. Despite her fear of the druids’ wolves, she offered them her hand to shake. “My name Azaeli Hammerfel, Knight of His Majesty’s Elite of Cerion. And this is Bryse, Shieldmaster of the Elite.”
Bryse said little in the way of greeting. Instead his eyes narrowed to dark, untrusting slits as he balled his fists before him, ready to strike.
“Knight? Shieldmaster?” The woman examined Azi’s offered hand. “Where is your armor then? And where is your shield? What sort of adventurers go out in such weather so utterly unprepared to face the dangers of the forest?” the woman asked.
“Who needs a shield to pick a flower, you—“ Bryse raised his fists, threatening to charge, but Azi and Rian held him back.
“Let them help us,” came a quavering voice from the shadows. The two druids lowered their spears slightly and looked behind them, where the grieving man lay draped over his wounded companion. It was the first time he had spoken. “For Saeyli. She doesn’t have much time. Our healing is spent. We’re trapped here. It’s our only hope for her. Her heart is slowing. She’ll die…”
“What choice do we have, Delvan?” the woman whispered.
Her companion considered her words in silence. Finally, he nodded his agreement.
“We shall allow you to help us,” he said, and in that instance, the wolves whimpered and calmed themselves.
“Big of you,” Bryse grumbled.
“I am Delvan,” the elder man said, ignoring Bryse completely, “and this is Mistra. Fiorn shall remain in the shadows, with his companion. He would not be a fit addition to this venture with his wolf in such a state.”
“Will he be safe here, alone with her?” Mistra asked warily.
Rian, who was already pacing the width of the pit and assessing the spells above, nodded slowly.
“I can break the ward above, get us to the top, and then set a new ward that would keep him safe,” the Mage said, pushing up his sleeves.
It wasn’t long before the group was standing at the lip of the pit and looking down at Fiorn and Saeyli. The druids’ wolves trotted along the rim, whining softly, obviously uneasy at the thought of leaving their companion behind.
“Ward-breaking, levitation…” Delvan shook his head. “You are more powerful than you seem, boy. How old are you? Fifteen? And at least a Sixteenth Circle Mage. I had heard the son of the fox had done well for himself, but I had no idea you were quite so accomplished.”
Rian’s pale skin blushed red from his cheeks to the tips of his slightly pointed ears. He grinned as he set the ward over the opening of the pit to protect the man and wolf left behind, but he didn’t answer the druid. It is unbecoming of a Mage to brag about his station, and unwise of him to blurt out his Circle in the midst of a cave where his enemies could be lurking and listening.
“This way,” said Mistra after the wards had been set, and Azi, Rian, and Bryse allowed the druids to lead them into the depths of the cavern. The glow of the spriteworms lit their way, and they soon found themselves at the rim of a beautiful golden pool that glittered with a dazzling light. The rim was set into the stone at chest-height to the druids, and the pool was fairly small. Its waters were not even such that they could fill a small bucket.
All around it, amber-colored crystals spiked up out of the rocky face of the cave, catching the light with their smooth facets and casting it over the dripping stone in a breathtaking display. They were smaller than Azi and the others had expected, long and slender and fragile like the quill of a feather.
It reminded Azaeli of a place she’d been before, a sight she’d seen that she would not dare speak of. She glanced at Rian, and the look in his eyes told her that he was thinking the same. A place they dared not speak of, a place they were sworn to keep secret and safe.
Despite its beauty, the pool itself did not give of a sense of power or magic. The energy was held instead within the crystals, which seemed to pulse with magic and power.
“Look there,” said Mistra, pointing to a break in the stone that indicated one of the crystals had recently been broken away. The facet left behind was charred and jagged. “Someone has plundered the Great one.”
Delvan’s lips pressed to a thin line as he leaned in beside her. His nostrils flared with anger.
“For generations, our family, our grove, has come to this sacred place. We take the crystals, yes, but only those which have fallen on their own. Here,” he explained as he reached into the pool to retrieve a slender crystal from its depths.
No sooner did he touch the crystal’s surface than the group of them were accosted by a horde of terrifying creatures. Their skin was black as charcoal, and their wings long and thin, like skin stretched over a stick.
“Bloodbats,” Bryse roared, and grabbed one from the air with his meaty fist. He swung it hard against the wall of the cave and smashed its head in.
“Waiflings,” Delvan corrected the brute, as he drove his spear through two at once.
Azi and Rian stood back to back. The ice sword was in her hand once more, and Rian’s fingertips crackled with magic as the waiflings closed in on them.
The creatures, a score of them at least, chattered and squawked and screeched in a bird-like way, but their faces were more human than bird. Jagged scales protruded from their glistening black skin, and their teeth were wet with poison as they dove in to bite.
Rian tried to keep his wards over himself and Azi, but the creatures were too many. Around them, the druids and Bryse speared and punched and kicked. The wolves held their own as well, tearing the creatures limb from limb as quickly as they were charged.
Rian’s spells seemed to be most effective against the wicked little beings. He tried a spell of colored light that seemed to freeze them in their place as they stared in awe, mesmerized by the twinkling that seemed to echo that of the spriteworms.
With a group of them properly entranced, Azi swung her ice sword again and again, cutting them down. Before long, the druids and the Elite were left panting and exhausted while the ground around them was littered with tiny coal-like bodies.
“That was unexpected,” Rian said shakily as he pushed his fingers through his auburn hair.
“Quite,” Mistra replied, patting her wolf reassuringly.
“Seemed like they didn’t want you taking that.” Bryse nodded to Delvan, who tucked the crystal into his pack carefully.
“Long has our grove visited these caverns to collect the Kalsun that grows by the pool. Never before have we met with such resistance from the creatures who dwell within these walls,” Delvan said thoughtfully.
“Nor have we seen such greedy desecration of the crystals,” Mistra brushed a shaking finger across the charred facet. “That one had grown for generations without falling. It would have been a great gift, had it ever been released by the earth, yet now it has been broken away with no regard or respect.”
Rian shook his head mournfully. Between the stolen crystal and the warded pit, he knew that it could only mean one thing. Someone wicked had trodden here. Someone powerful, as well. Sorcerers, probably. He dared not say it aloud.
“Why make a trap, though? Seems like they got in, took what they wanted, and left all right,” Bryse mused.
“To keep from being discovered,” Rian shook his head. “To keep from being followed.”
“We have what we came for,” Delvan said after a long pause. “Mistra, you may collect one for yourself, and Azaeli, I trust you to carry one for Fiorn, that he may use it to heal Saeyli.”
With a trembling hand, Azi reached into the pool and drew out a small crystal. She braced herself for more waiflings, but thankfully she and Mistra were able to take their spoils unmolested.
Their journey back to the pit was uneventful, and none of them spoke for fear of waking the shadows. Rian removed his wards from the mouth of the hole, and with a levitation spell, he lowered the crystal that Azaeli bore down to Fiorn and Saeyli.
The druid took it gratefully and set it upon the back of his dying wolf. He lowered his head and whispered fervently, and the two other druids and their wolves joined in his prayer. When they were through, the wolf in the pit raised her head and blinked at her master. Her legs slipped and scrabbled on the stone until they found purchase, and she struggled to her feet and licked Fiorn’s hand gratefully.
“Why did they need the crystal?” Azi whispered to Rian. “I thought that druids had the ability to heal others on their own?”
“Like all magic,” Rian replied under his breath, “theirs comes from a source. It is finite. Their trek into the cavern was taxing. Their healing was spent. The crystals help to restore that healing.”
“Why would someone steal one, though?” Azi asked as the druids helped their companion to clamber out of the pit. “For healing?”
“Perhaps,” Rian said quietly. “Or as an ingredient working toward some greater magic. Not necessarily healing. They’re ready. Let’s go,” he said, and they followed the group of druids from the cave in thoughtful silence.
The sun had set long ago, and the driving storm was unrelenting as the group trudged carefully along the narrow paths of the cliff wall and up into the forest again.
They found the young man, whose name was Gest, on his knees in the Snowberry patch, working hard to clear the snow away from the crushed and frozen blooms. When he saw them approach, he and his wolf leapt up and ran to them. He threw his arms around Mistra and whispered to her.
“Mother,” he said, “I feared the worst.” Beside them, their wolves wrestled and pounced on each other playfully.
“All is well, my dearest,” Mistra said, returning the boy’s embrace.
At the center of the patch, Delvan knelt in the snow. He produced the Kalsun crystal from his pack and drove it into the ice beside the largest bloom. The crystal flashed and glowed and pulsed with gorgeous, warm light which felt like that of the warmest summer day. All around them, the snow melted and the grass grew green and lush. The snowberry blossoms stretched and yawned and pushed themselves to stand tall and strong even as the snow fell in thick clumps around them, blanketing the area once more in white.
Azi gasped at the sight before her. The blossoms unfurled in beautiful puffs of delicate white petals. Their yellow stamen rose strong and bright from the center of each bloom and gave off the same sunny light cast by the crystal. Points of light like motes of dust in a sunbeam drifted up from the stamen, and one by one several of the two dozen blossoms bore their berries, soft, plump and red.
“Quickly,” Mistra whispered, gazing up into the sky as the clouds parted and the silvery light of the moon washed the scene in blue. “It’s nearly midnight.”
As she and the others worked to pick the berries, Delvan led Rian by the hand to one of the larger blossoms. Carefully, the druid dug into the soil around it and scooped it out by the roots.
“Have Luca pluck the blossom himself,” he said with a smile, “and tell him we wish him and his wife well in the New Year.” He lowered the flower, roots and soil and all, into Rian’s cupped hands.
“Hurry, now,” the druid said. “The moon is nearly at center.”
With rushed goodbyes and gratitude from the druids for their safe return, Rian, Azi, and Bryce hurried off into the woods again with only the moon to guide them.
But the storm outside the grove was brutal, and no sooner did they think they found their path than they discovered they’d gotten lost once more.
When their spirits were at their lowest and all hope seemed lost, when Bryse had run through every curse he could muster and his mood was at its foulest, Rian spotted a flicker of hope in the silvery white snow ahead. The flick of a black-tipped tail. A dash of red fur among the trees.
“Is that?” Azi squinted ahead.
“It is!” Rian whooped. “Da!”
“Bout time,” Bryse mumbled through his chattering teeth.
With the fox to guide them, the three Elite crashed through the woods and onto the path that led to the main road to Cerion’s gate. They arrived in the nick of time, for Luca was nearly to the gates himself, trudging through the snow, already looking half-frozen.
“Luca!” Rian called as the fox bounded around the old man happily in the snow.
“What?” Luca spat with a grumpy leer at the others. When he saw the blossom cupped in Rian’s hands, his eyes welled with tears and a wide smile stretched across his face. “What did you do?” he gasped joyfully.
“We knew the snow would be too much.” Rian grinned. “Hurry, pick it for Mouli. It’s nearly midnight now.”
“My boy,” Luca’s smile couldn’t go any brighter as he took the flower from Rian and hugged him tight. “My girl,” he said to Azi as tears spilled down his cheeks and she hugged them both together.
“Aw, you three,” Bryse sniffled, scooped the group of them up into a giant hug, and trudged them all back to the guild hall.
“And that is the tale of the Druids and the Snowberry Blossom,” Mya’s melodic voice drifted over the warm, cozy room.
Their cider mugs now empty, the others in the room begin to stir and stretch from the reverie that Mya’s story created. Mouli sniffles and snuggles into Luca’s arms as the children whisper and whine for more stories. Mum and Da doze slumped together on the settee across from us, and Twig and Flit yawn and push themselves up to sit on the arm of the sofa. Still asleep at Mya’s feet, the fox twitches its ears and stretches its slender black legs out into the firelight.
“Typical,” Flit pushes to Rian and me. “Not a word about our part in it. It might as well have been called ‘Adventures of Stinky Mage. And oh, consequently, Azi was there, too.’”
“Right,” Twig pipes up, “like how you lead the way for them to find the crystals, and how I was the one who made the blossoms glow so brightly. You can’t just revive an entire patch of Snowberry with a skinny piece of Kalsun.”
“Or how they went into the Half-Realm in order to get back to Luca in time, because otherwise it would have taken too long and they never would have made it by midnight.” Flit nods.
“To be fair,” Rian offers, “that wasn’t Mum’s fault. I’m the one who left that part out when I told her the story.”
“Right,” I push to the others, “it isn’t as though we’d tell your secret just to be able to share a story with our guild mates. That would be a serious breach in discretion, wouldn’t it?”
“Oh,” Flit huffs, “well, I suppose you’re right. You’re smarter than you look, y’know, Azi.”
“Thanks for that,” I laugh at the fairy and roll my eyes. “Guess we’re not a bad choice after all hm?”
“Don’t go getting a big head,” Flit smirks.
“Still,” says Twig, “we could have made a worse choice, you know, for Keepers of the Wellspring.”
Thank you for reading Snowberry Blossom!
Read more of the Keepers of the Wellsprings series:
Book Three: Call of Brindelier coming in 2016
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