Tiernan discovered the dead dogs outside the trapper’s camp at the base of Mount Storm. The animal’s frozen carcasses hung impaled upon the trunks of black oaks, branches bursting out of their flanks and eyes and mouths. The moment he saw the grim spectacle, the druid knew that Bril’s mind was too far gone. There could be no bringing him back, now.
But I must try, Tiernan thought. At the very least, I must try.
He moved forward stiffly in his furs and heavy boots, unaccustomed to such clothing after spending so many years in the Druid Circle’s warmer southern climes. Even with all the coverings layered upon him, he still shivered–though whether it was because of the cold or because of his mission, he could not be certain. Confronting a fellow member of the Circle was always a sad affair, but this particular trip was doubly so. The druid to be uprooted had been Tiernan’s student. More than that, they had been friends.
The trappers suffered worse fates than their dogs. Tiernan found their corpses scattered over the plain outside a log cabin, twisted heaps mutilated on the ground with grim coats of raven pecking the flesh from their bones. Chaotic designs of blood in the snow told the story of a harried and futile retreat, one of men injured and terrified in flight before falling. The druid imagined those desperate figures wheeling about in clouds of murderous birds, and took a deep breath to steady himself.
He shooed the birds away. They rose with angry caws and lighted upon the cabin roof to watch him through their black eyes, as though warning that he might be their next victim.
One by one he dragged the trappers inside the building. Druidic tradition was to leave the bodies in the wilderness to decompose naturally, but city people lived and died in different ways, and their beliefs had to be respected. He scattered fireseed over the cabin wall and struck his flint, setting alight the makeshift pyre.
The ravens scattered into the air and headed north, into the gathering dusk with a flurry of beating wings and shrill cries. Back to their master, Tiernan thought. Back to Bril.
He climbed to the far side of a rise and set up camp out of sight of the billowing flames. The sight of druidic power used so savagely unsettled him. The Art was meant for gentler things. Rapid-seed spells were meant to replenish forests, not skewer sled dogs. Bonding spells were meant to commune with animals, not to employ them as assassins.
Bril knew all these things. Or, at least, he had once known all these things. He had been among the gentler souls of the Circle, and it was difficult to associate him at all with the brutality that had occurred on that mountain. Tiernan huddled deeper into his furs.
He cleared snow from the frozen earth and built a fire as the sun set low in the sky and the shadow of Mount Storm stretched long over the plain. He laid out an elk skin and sat upon it, watching orange shapes rise and sink from the fire’s black embers. It was said that long ago druids could read the future in that fiery language, but if such a thing was ever true, it had long since ceased to be so.
Tiernan blamed himself for Bril’s violence. All along he had known that his friend’s acute sensitivity put him in danger. A druid taking Stewardship over a piece of land entered into a Communion with that place, and the connection could become so deep that it risked consuming his mind completely. Bril’s temperament made him exceptionally vulnerable to that kind of psychic disintegration.
A hard wind whistled through the dark and bent the fire sidelong. Tiernan pulled the elk hide tighter around his shoulders and thought about the desolation of that place where his friend had spent the last five years of life, removed from connection with other people.
To the north extended the Bladed Mountains, hundreds of miles of peaks so sheer and unforgiving that not even druids went there. To the south and east, the fast waters of the Thalthemin River cut the area off from the rest of the world. To the west was the city of Industry, growing rapidly along the shores of Lake Phalheen. Its inhabitants numbered in the tens of thousands, but for a druid like Bril, a legion of merchants was the loneliest prospect of all.
Mount Storm is a perfect place for a man to go mad, Tiernan thought. And I left him alone here, for all these years.
An animal padded through the snow just outside the light of the fire. Tiernan looked until he saw the faint outline of a snow ferret. As the animal watched him, Tiernan knew that Bril was seeing though its eyes.
“No one wanted things to come to this,” he said.
The animal stiffened momentarily, but remained.
“You know why I am here, just as you know that I cannot leave until my task is done.”
The ferret turned and bolted off into the darkness.
“Please do not make this any harder than it already is,” Tiernan said, to the darkness, or to himself.
Autumn nights were long in those northern reaches, but that night, he knew, would be even longer than most. He had gone there hoping to rescue his friend before it was too late, but found the mountain already stained with blood.
And I fear that before my task is done, much more will be shed.
A pall of mist hung over the mountain as he set off the next morning to find his friend. Tiernan knew Bril would be observing him, so he made no effort to mask his approach, and he was not surprised when the boughs of the trees at the forest’s edge bent back to create a pathway for him to follow.
The crisp smell of pine in the cold air struck him with boyhood memories of playing in the woods around his father’s iron shops and warehouses. He had been in the south so long that he had almost forgotten the scent, and found himself smiling. Shaking his head against the pleasant reverie, he clenched his jaw and marched forward. His business on Mount Storm was not of the smiling kind.
The path led him to a grotto where Bril kneeled upon a broad, flat stone as he looked into a pool of water. His emaciated form was covered only by a sackcloth too thin for the cold, feet bluish in his sandals, yet he smiled when he looked over his shoulder. In that moment, despite the knotted beard full of twigs and moss, despite the face wizened and chapped by frigid winds, his cobalt eyes radiated with such innocent joy that Tiernan recognized the boy he had known so many years ago.
Tiernan walked up and looked over his friend’s shoulder to see a sinuous fish swimming in slow circles in the pool. Multicolored spirals and whorls decorated the animal’s flanks, swirling as they sent arcs of purple and orange and green spinning out through the water.
Tiernan spoke softly. “What manner of fish is that?”
“I have never seen the likes of it before,” Bril said, shaking his head and laughing. “If I had one hundred lifetimes to tend this mountain, it still would not be enough for me to discover all the secrets and beauties hidden here. This place alone could teach me everything the world has to teach.”
There were few joys greater than seeing a wild place through the eyes of its assigned Steward. Tiernan knew he needed to say something before his emotions distracted him from his task.
“Why did you kill the trappers, Bril?”
The fish turned and swam downstream, as though the druid’s words had broken the idyllic spell that had been keeping it there.
Bril’s smile disappeared. “They were destroying the forest.”
“And their dogs?”
“The men turned those animals into something else, something that did not belong in the wild any more than their owners did.”
“You have no right to make that appraisal, or that decision.”
“I was sent here to protect this place.” Bril looked up at his friend. “So, I protected it.”
“It is part of our duty to balance the good of the forest with the good of civilization. You know that as well as I do.”
Bril stood and looked down into the water, or perhaps at his reflection in the water. “I know what I was taught,” he said, “but those things do not work in this world, anymore. The rules have changed.”
“Do not lecture me,” Tiernan snapped. He wanted Bril to yell back, to fight. It would make the task at hand much easier to carry out.
Instead, Bril shook his head sadly. “I remember the man you were. You did not take on the responsibilities of a druid so that you could play at politics. You were better than that.”
“And you were better than a murderer,” Tiernan said coldly. Bril flinched under the words, but said nothing in return. “You left a home of comfort and wealth to serve the Circle.”
“Not to serve the Circle.” Bril shook his head. “To serve nature.”
“Humans are part of nature, too.”
“They were once,” Bril said. “Somehow, I do not believe that they are, anymore. Somehow, the pact has been broken.”
“You know what I have been sent here to do.”
“I know,” Bril said. “I do not intend to fight you. I merely want you to understand.” He nodded towards the direction of the trapper’s camp. “They used to come once a year, for a month, maybe two. Lately, they have been coming more and more often. Barely a day goes by when I do not hear the foxes crying in their snares. They will not rest until every one of the animals, and the trees, are dead and gone. ” He rested a hand on Tiernan’s shoulder. “The old ways do not work anymore, my friend, if they ever did.”
Tiernan pulled away from Bril’s touch. “You can explain all of this to the Circle. It is time to go. We have a long journey ahead of us.”
“I will not leave my mountain.”
“I cannot allow you to hold this land, anymore. You have spent too many years out here alone. You have lost perspective.”
“If there is one thing I have gained in my time here, it is perspective.” Bril walked northward, away from the direction Tiernan intended to take him. “You cannot kill me,” he said over his shoulder. “You think you can, but you cannot. Your heart is too good.”
“Do not do this.”
Bril stopped by a tree branch upon which a sparrow rested. He held out his hand. The bird hopped onto his finger and perched there, singing. “It saddens me to no end that the world drives us to this position. Before I do what must be done, I ask that you walk with me, as we once did.”
Tiernan hesitated. “What must be done?”
Bril lifted his hand and sent the sparrow fluttering into the air. He smiled and headed deeper into the forest.
“What must be done?” Tiernan asked again. He received no answer.
Part of him wanted to attack Bril, and part of him wanted to set his friend free. Eventually, he knew, he would have to do one of those things. When his legs started moving, however, he did not know which it would be. He merely followed.
No matter how hard Tiernan tried to steer the conversation towards the dilemma they faced, Bril only talked about the trees. He addressed each fir, each birch, each oak, as an individual friend. He smiled as he discussed the ways he had tended each one, and fondly recounted afternoons sitting in their shade and listening to the advice they gave.
“Patience,” Bril chuckled. “Their answer is always patience.”
It had been generations since any druid had entered deep enough into Communion to speak with flora. Such a connection was thought to be a thing of legend, and Tiernan had a hard time believing it was anything more than another symptom of his friend’s madness.
“They speak in words?”
“No. They speak in something more like emotion.” Bril bugged out his eyes comically. “Trees do not know words, Tiernan. You would have to be a lunatic to think that.”
Despite his best efforts, Tiernan could not help but laugh. “Why did you do it, Bril? It was not merely wrong, it was stupid. Nothing will be accomplished by it. The cities will continue to spread. The trappers will keep coming. You cannot kill them all.”
Bril stopped to examine a tree of blue frost roses in full bloom. He propped up a branch to show the flower’s intricate folds. “This beauty was achieved over vast stretches of time, through countless generations of forebears. It is perfect.” He bent over and breathed in the scent. “It is worth fighting for.”
“There are other ways to fight. The Circle is trying to adapt.”
“You mean ways to compromise.” Bril breathed the scent again. “Death knows no compromise. Only a fool tries to bargain with it.”
Tiernan stepped closer, to force his friend to look at him. “Last spring, a merchant from Industry came to the Circle to tell us that you had been harassing trappers. He said you destroyed their traps and set their catches free. He wanted you removed, but he did not want violence. You took it down that road. Not them.”
Bril’s voice came out low and tense. “They no longer take what they need. Now, they take what they want, and their want is endless. It has no aim or object anymore. Their want is everything.”
They walked deeper into the forest, reaching the edge of a broad clearing laced with the thin ribbons of streams meandering through the snow. Tiernan knew the inevitable was drawing near.
Bril could not win a fight between them. Tiernan was a Steward of a different sort than most druids, for his role was to maintain the order itself. As such, he had been trained in a different kind of power. He was unafraid of defeat, but he knew that his friend would not surrender. Once the confrontation began, there would be no turning back.
Bril stopped abruptly, gazing forward like a hunting cat that had spotted prey.
Tiernan followed his gaze down the long slope. First he saw streaks of blood staining the snow. Next, he saw the carcasses. Dozens of crag deer lay in heaps, stacked at the edge of the trees.
Bril ran to the scene. Tiernan called for him to stop, but when his friend ignored the plea, he followed.
Only pedicles remained on the heads of the deer, rough shallow cavities where the precious antlers for which they were so well known had been forcibly removed. Each animal had a hole blasted through its side, indicative of the new weapons that had been popping up in the cities.
Bril uttered a single, tense word. “Muskets.”
For the first time, Tiernan saw in his friend’s eyes a killer capable of butchering a whole crew of trappers and their dogs.
Tiernan spoke softly, the way he would to a frightened animal. “I promise that I will find out what happened here.”
“I will not leave this site,” Bril said, barely above a whisper.
Voices came from the woods. Three men emerged, each one tugging violently at a rope tethered to the head of a mule laden with sacks full of antlers.
“Come on,” one of the men barked, pulling forcefully and stretching the animal’s neck taut.
Tiernan felt the air grow thin around him, and knew Bril was summoning energy for an attack. He stepped towards his friend. “Stop.”
The newcomers looked up. The figure standing at the lead, a blockish man with dim eyes and brown hair jutting out from under his furred cap, spit a mouthful of black leaf into the snow. Squinting suspiciously at the druids, he nodded a greeting.
“Did you murder these deer?” Bril’s words were a question, but his voice a threat.
The hunter spit again. “I hunted those deer, yes,” he said. “Is there a problem?” There was no apparent malice in his voice, only curiosity.
“You butchered them for their antlers,” Bril said.
The man’s eyes narrowed as he seemed to realize that he was not being confronted for his actions. “We’ll take some of the meat,” he said. “But the antlers get the highest price.”
Tiernan stepped between them. “These woods are under druidic protection,” he said. “As such, they fall under the Hunt Laws.”
“We talked to the law people,” the man said, eyes still fixed on Bril. “We have full permission for this venture.” As if sensing that his defense sounded inadequate, he added, “I have a family to feed, just like any man.”
One of the hunter’s allies, a scrawny character with an enormous, misshapen nose, stepped forward and pointed his musket at Bril. “We don’t want any trouble. It’s been a hard winter. We have people to care for.”
Bril’s eyes went wide and his hair stood up…too slightly for others to notice, perhaps, but enough to tell Tiernan that he was charged with energy and ready to strike.
“We don’t want any trouble,” the smaller man said again, voice quivering.
Tiernan moved to restrain Bril. As he did, musket shot exploded behind him, and a terrific force threw him forward. He landed face first in the snow, pain burning through his back like fire. He lifted his head to talk Bril down, but no words would come.
Blue light emanated from Bril’s crazed eyes. “You come to my woods,” he said. “My home. And you murder my friends.”
Tiernan tried to speak again, but his lungs would not work. Just before he fell unconscious, he heard the sound of hornets. Thousands of the insects flew out of the forest in a black cloud, their buzzing so loud that it drowned out all other sounds, except for the screaming.
Tiernan woke beside a fire in the night with a bandage wrapped around his back. The wound still burned.
“I covered the dressing with healing salve,” Bril said from his place beside the fire. “It hurts, but you will recover in a few days. By tomorrow, you will be well enough to start your journey back to the Circle.”
Tiernan opened his mouth to chastise Bril for escalating the situation with the hunters, but then closed it again without saying anything. He was tired of politics. He was tired of debate. He just wanted to talk to his friend.
“What if the hunters were speaking the truth, Bril? What if they had permission to be here?”
Bril shrugged. “It does not matter.”
“It means you killed three more innocent men.”
“Innocent.” Bril chuckled. He tossed some new branches into the fire. The moisture in the wood sizzled and popped, and the scent of evergreen wafted through the cold air. The reflected fire danced wildly in Bril’s eyes as he stared intensely into the embers. Though he knew it was not true, Tiernan could not help but imagine that the sight was really a revelation of the inferno raging inside his friend’s mind.
Bril looked up and grinned, as though sensing the other’s thoughts. “I am not mad,” he said. “Though perhaps I have done mad things.” He picked up a branch and poked around in the fire. “I regret killing the trapper’s dogs.”
Tiernan forced himself to sit up, wincing against the pain that seared through his body. “You cannot win this war, Bril. There are too many of them.”
Bril pushed an ember over with his stick and sent a cloud of orange sparks dancing into the air like fireflies. “I cannot win it alone,” he said.
Silence hung over the scene as Tiernan considered the unspoken proposal behind Bril’s words. “I am not a murderer,” he said, reminding himself as much as Bril. “I cannot do the things you have done.”
“You do not have to. Every army needs soldiers, but every army also needs diplomats. You have seen what they are doing to the world, and the world is not only theirs. Lines have already been drawn. No matter which side you stand on, you have blood on your hands.”
Tiernan reached back to feel along the bandage. He hissed as his fingers lighted upon the holes that had been blasted through his back. “Your mountain is the only place I’ve seen in a long time that still feels like a mountain,” he said. “All through the south, there is no place one can go that is silent of human industry. Somewhere, a balance seems to have been lost.” He was hesitant to utter the words, feeling himself crossing over some kind of mental boundary. But, once he spoke, he felt a deep burden lifted from within.
“I need you,” Bril said. “Without you, I will merely fight for some time and eventually die. There are too many of them and their weapons are becoming too powerful. But together, we can start a campaign. We can restore sanity to the world before it is too late.”
Tiernan’s hands stung with cold. He pulled the elk hide over his shoulders and blew into his fists to warm them. Have I been in the meeting halls and out of the wilderness for too long to understand what is happening? He wondered. Have things gotten so bad? Images of rivers choked with dead fish and forests of stumps and burning plains rushed through his mind. No, he realized. They were already there for me to see. I just did not want to look, anymore. Bril is right. I have already chosen a side. I already have blood on my hands.
The words came out low at first, as though uncertain if they wanted to be said. “If we hide ourselves out here, then the city and the Circle can easily dismiss us and dispose of us accordingly.”
Did I just say we? I suppose my mind is made up. So be it, then.
“I will go to the Circle and make our cause known. There will be those who will join our cause and those who will align against us.” He blew into his hands again. “But it will be in the open, and no matter what follows, they will not be able to keep it silent.”
“So, you are with me?”
“I am,” Tiernan said. “But I hope to prevent further killing, Bril. On both sides.”
“I would like nothing more than for you to succeed at that.” Bril pulled the poker from the fire and examined the flame dancing on the end of the stick. “But things rarely proceed as easily as our mind’s foresee them.”
“I know that,” Tiernan said. He moved to sit closer to the fire. “I have no way to know to where this will go. But, I have made my choice.” He looked up at Bril and saw the reflected fire dancing again in his friend’s eyes. He could not help but wonder if his own eyes now danced with the same reflected fire.