Authors: Shawn E. Crapo
As he watched his apprentice, Jodocus suddenly sensed a familiar presence. Something in the forest knew he and Farouk were there, and projected a great sense of curiosity. The Druid felt it. He looked around to the trees, scanning the mottled green and brown mass of foliage with a trained eye. When he spotted the source of curiosity, he smiled, knowing how much Farouk would enjoy sharing the experience.
“Farouk, my friend,” Jodocus called out to him. “Come. I have something to show you.”
Farouk looked up from his herb gathering, sitting his basket on the ground to go to his mentor’s side.
“What is it, Jodocus?” he asked.
The Druid pointed off into the forest, singling out a large oak that overshadowed the other trees around it. “There,” he said. “What do you see?”
Farouk follow Jodocus’ finger and squinted, looking closely for the source of the Druid’s excitement. He saw only trees, some ginseng, and various weeds. There was, however, a massive oak that stood in the center of his view. It seemed different somehow, as if it didn’t belong there. He focused, examining every detail, desperately trying to decide why it seemed strange to him.
“I see a tree,” Farouk replied. “An oak, to be exact.”
“True, true,” Jodocus said. “But what is strange about it?”
Farouk looked again, summoning every ounce of attention he could muster. He looked at the tree’s bark, its leaves, and the crown of roots that poked above the ground. He then looked to the leaves, seeing them hanging still from their branches. At last, he realized why the tree didn’t seem right. The whole thing was completely still. Though the trees and other foliage around it were moving in the gentle wind, the oak itself was impervious to it. It stood unmoving among the mass of other life.
“The tree does not move in the wind,” Farouk said.
“Correct,” Jodocus replied. “Do you know why?”
Farouk thought for a moment, unable to come up with an answer. “No,” he replied, “I do not.”
“Wait and watch,” the Druid instructed, crossing his legs and stirring the soil with his staff.
Farouk stared at the oak, seeing only its stillness. There was nothing else. “I see nothing, Jodocus,” he said.
The Druid reached out and touched Farouk’s shoulder, imparting a small amount of his magic to his apprentice. “Watch carefully,” he said. “Concentrate on seeing the tree, feeling it.”
Farouk focused his thoughts on the oak, straining to see into its soul, reaching out with his mind to feel its presence. He began to smile as he finally realized why the tree was still. Its spirit was leaving, and that spirit was becoming visible to him.
A faint, green mist was emanating from the trunk, swirling around in a vaguely human shape. Farouk looked closer, concentrating harder and focusing on the shape that was beginning to emerge. The mist began to coalesce, taking on the shape of a woman, translucent, green, and beautiful. She was small, slender, and moved with the grace of the wind itself. Farouk smiled as she emerged fully, and timidly hid behind the trunk of the oak.
“She’s beautiful,” he remarked. “Who is she?”
“That, my friend,” Jodocus explained, “is a Dryad.”
“A tree spirit,” Farouk finished him.
“Very good. Do you know why she has appeared?”
Farouk thought again, and then said, “She knows we are here, and she is not afraid. She is curious.”
“Yes,” Jodocus said, “the Dryads are always curious. They investigate everyone who passes through the forest and especially near their oaks. Mortal men cannot see them, unless they choose to make themselves seen. But as a Druid, you will be able to see them with practice.”
“I am intrigued,” Farouk said. “I have never seen anything like it. Are they friendly?”
“Not usually,” Jodocus explained. “To us, they will remain neutral. To other men, they may be neutral, as long as the men do not disturb the forest. They may also be a nuisance, however, playing tricks on them or tripping them with roots. But, if anyone tries to damage or otherwise upset the forest in any way, they can be dangerous and hostile.”
“What of the Rangers?” Farouk asked. “Do the Dryads ever interact with them?”
Jodocus shook his head. “No,” he said, “the Rangers protect the forest, and the Dryads respect them for that. They may on occasion help the Rangers if they are in trouble, but never directly. The Druaga, on the other hand, are different.”
“They can see the Dryads,” Farouk reasoned.
“Yes, indeed,” Jodocus replied. “And they have been known to fight alongside them if the need arises.”
“I have no doubt the Dryads are formidable in battle,” Farouk remarked.
Jodocus nodded, smiling. “Yes,” he said, “especially when they command the trees to attack their enemies.”
Farouk began to respond, but was cut short by a wave of Jodocus’ hand. The Dryad had turned to the two of them as they were speaking, and was now headed in their direction. She walked toward them gracefully, her shimmering green form a mesmerizing dance of natural beauty.
She approached Farouk, who stood frozen as she leaned in closer. “What is she doing?” he whispered, trembling.
“Do not fear,” Jodocus replied. “She is only examining you. She wants to see what kind of man you are, and if she can trust you. She knows me, and is curious as to the nature of my new apprentice.”
Farouk said nothing, but remained still as the Dryad reached her hand out to place it over his heart. She slowly moved her fingertips over his chest, tracing the designs on his robes. He felt her energy flowing through him as she touched him, feeling it permeate every corner of his soul. The Dryad’s energy seemed to meld with Farouk’s own, sharing in all of the experiences of his past life, delving deeper and deeper into his consciousness. Finally, her expression changed to one of great admiration. She then looked into his eyes and smiled.
“She knows what kind of man you are,” Jodocus said. “She knows how you retained your honor even when in service to the darkness. She is impressed.”
Farouk returned her smile as she slowly backed away. He watched her closely as she removed the shimmering cloth that wrapped her body and raise it above his head. The cloth drifted down over him, wrapping him in its warmth, and falling against his skin. Farouk’s heart raced, his body numb with the energy that the cloth imparted to him. It then disappeared into his skin, becoming a part of him. The Dryad smiled again, and slowly faded from sight.
“What did she do?” Farouk asked.
“She has given you a new power,” Jodocus said. “She believed that you were ready for it.”
“What has she given me?”
Jodocus laughed, patting Farouk on the back. “She has extended you the power to become one with the trees,” he said, “so you may be better protected from the enemy. It will greatly enhance your ability to become unseen in the forest. She must believe that you will have need of it in the future.”
“How do I use this power?” Farouk asked.
“You will use it the same way you use all of the powers you have gained. You need but focus and will it to happen.”
Farouk nodded in understanding, realizing that using the powers of the Dragon and The Great Mother was as simple as having a thought. The process applied to everything, Jodocus had explained. Will it, and it will happen. All that is required is the strength to believe.
It seemed simple enough.
“Come now, Farouk,” Jodocus said. “There is much damage on the island that is ours to repair. The Dragon has given us these powers to maintain the balance of the island, and we must oblige him. It is time to begin your first communion. Are you ready?”
“Yes, my friend,” Farouk replied, eager to begin his duties. “I am ready.”
The Knights of the Dragon rode at full speed across the open valley. Eamon led the way, his sights set on the company of Jindala in the distance. The enemy numbered only fifty or so, with one man on horseback, and a handful of archers. They would be easy prey and only a small detour in their route.
Having left the bulk of their army in Gaellos, the Knights and their Lord had headed south toward the coastal town of Bray. Along the way, Brynn had spotted the Jindala on the horizon and the chase was on. They had fled when they saw Eamon and the Knights charge them, but the distance between them was quickly narrowing.
Realizing there was no escape; the Jindala had stopped running and arranged themselves in a wall formation. Their leader, an armored man of elegant dress, took his place at the front of their lines, awaiting the inevitable conflict. He held his sword out in front of him, and his right hand was in the air in a neutral gesture.
His signal told Eamon that the company would not make the first move, but would await whatever outcome. Either the group was on a diplomatic mission—as it were—or was in the possession of a precious cargo. The Knights were eager to discover which.
As they neared, Eamon slowed, motioning for the Knights to stop.
“Why are we stopping?” Angen asked. “We could ride them down easily.”
Eamon pointed toward the enemy company, showing the veteran soldier what he saw. Among the Jindala was a woman. Eamon had not seen her during the charge, but she was clearly there, in the center of the formation. The Jindala were protecting her.
“I wonder who she is,” Brynn said as he saw the woman himself, “and why she is traveling with the Jindala.”
Azim rode to the front, squinting to get a better look at the woman. He scowled when he made out her garments, red silk robes with golden adornments, a red and gold crown, and a veil that covered the lower half of her face. He knew those garments well.
“A sorceress,” he spat, drawing his sword. “She is just as vile and unclean as the rest of them. Cut her down.”
Eamon took another look, and then turned back to Azim. “Are you sure?” he asked. “We cannot make a mistake and kill an innocent woman.”
“I am sure, my friend.” Azim replied. “A Jindala woman in these lands is only here for one purpose; to reinforce the soldiers with her magic. Besides, her robes are those of the Ka’ha’di, handmaidens of the Prophet. Were she not a sorceress, her presence would still be a threat.”
“If she were an innocent woman,” Wrothgaar added, “she would likely be the one on the horse.”
Eamon drew his sword. “Then she dies with them,” he said, riding closer to the enemy company.
He closed the gap somewhat, pointing the Serpent’s Tongue at the leader in challenge. The leader slowly rode forward, prompting Eamon to meet him in the middle. Eamon obliged, closing the distance cautiously, urging the Knights to stay back until he charged. He gave Daryth and Brynn a quick glance before he picked up his pace, signaling them to be ready with their bows.
The leader met him in the middle, his dark eyes piercing and cold underneath his gold and black helmet. He wore no faceplate as the other Jindala did, and his turban was red instead of black. The robes he wore were also of red silk, like the sorceress, and were trimmed in gold. Despite his elegant appearance, the sword he carried was that of a veteran warrior, decorative but highly functional. Strangely, the Serpent’s Tongue began to vibrate as he approached.
“We have no quarrel with you, Prince Eamon,” the leader said in Eamon’s tongue. “We merely seek one of our own who has fled to the South. He is a criminal, and is armed and dangerous.”
“Then he is my friend,” Eamon replied smugly. “This is my land, and you are not welcome here.”
The leader laughed. “This is Queen Maebh’s land,” he said, “and she has signed a treaty. We are surely welcome here. You, however, are not. Your kingdom lies to the North. You are outnumbered, my friend, and outmatched. Leave now, and we will let you go in peace.”
Eamon laughed. He turned away, nodding to Brynn and Daryth. Then, spinning his horse around, he thrust the Serpent’s Tongue into the leader’s gut, pulling himself closer to glare into the man’s eyes.
“When you meet The Lifegiver,” he hissed, “tell him I’m coming for him.”
Eamon withdrew his sword and raised it in the air as the man slumped and collapsed to the ground. “Attack!” he yelled, leading the charge into the Jindala ranks.
Brynn and Daryth both fired, sending their arrows into the front line of spearmen as the Knights clashed with them. The Jindala dropped their spears as their comrades were knocked into the air.
The sorceress immediately raised her clawed hands to cast a spell, her face a twisted mask of hate. Lightning sparked between her fingers, crackling in the air and running up and down her pale, bony arms. She growled as she finished her spell, sending a bolt of energy toward the Prince as he cut through the human barrier. Eamon thrust the Serpent’s Tongue out in front of him to block the spell. It bounced off harmlessly, discharging into the ground with a thundering clap.
Frustrated, she reared back to cast another spell, her red silk robes billowing with the gathering of magic. Her face contorted as she uttered the words of the spell, and the dust began to blow around her. Then, an arrow struck her in the throat, silencing her and sending her back several steps. She angrily clawed at the shaft, choking and gagging in an attempt to breathe. Daryth fired a second arrow, catching her square in the forehead and silencing her for good. She fell to her knees, pitching forward into the dust.