It’s astonishing the wonders a good night’s sleep can do for a man. Last night, Benison Ioudek could not make the climb into Thalia Douieal’s carriage on his own, and this morning he was hauling tents and cooking supplies back to the caravan faster than the youngest guardsmen. It was a shift that drew a deal of attention, but the real topic of interest was, of course, the spell he had performed the night before.
“So, who are you?” Cressenda Dandayla had asked that morning as the two ate their sausage and mashed potatoes. Benison could taste that the food had been magically heated, which was a disappointment for such an extravagant crew. There was a hardening in the texture and slight loss of taste that came with the convenience of wizardry.
“I am Benison Ioudek,” the old man replied, taking unwanted scraps of ham from a passing stable boy.
“You know what I mean,” the dwarf pressed. “You’re not some homeless fool, after all. What’s a person with power like that doing in a cave in the middle of nowhere?”
Benison mulled over his answer as he chewed an uncomfortably tough piece of meat. “I’m a criminal,” he said. “Wanted far and wide for crimes of murder, arson, vandalism, and treason, to name a few.” Cressenda sized up the man uncertainly, her grip tightening on her fork.
Benison smiled a toothy smile. “Just an old man,” he assured her. “The only thing anyone wants me for is a good tale. And to feel young again. Now let me ask you something. What’s all this about? Clearly Ms. Thalia is someone of import if she bears the name Douieal.” The name was given only to elves who were made honorary members of all five of the great elven clans. Typically such a name belonged to ambassadors, heroes, and leaders.
“Lady Dioueal is the High Governess of Dol Belvargamar. This journey is a personal matter for her. A pilgrimage she makes every five years to honor Druidlona, the demigod of the village where she grew up.”
“That so?” The Story Keeper asked, his purpose now clear to him. “Nice to see a woman of her station stay in touch with her roots.”
“I don’t mean to rush you,” Thalia said a bit later, when she and Benison were in her carriage, watching the lush fields give way to barren desert, “but might I hear what happened next?”
“Ah, of course. I wasn’t sure you were interested. Thought for the elves, a man turning into a tree was practically commonplace.” Thalia smiled. “Very well, then. Where were we?
“Oh yes. Pless had just seen King Dundermoat turn into a sapling in the ruins of his castle. She knew innately that the sapling contained his spirit. When the forces of Grandia arrived, there was much confusion. And then, feeling foolish and threatened, Sir Bottlehelm made a move to uproot the tree and take the land once and for all. Pless yelled at them to stop. Her voice echoed. An orange glow flickered beneath her eyes.
“Then the knight hissed in pain. As did one of his guards. Another yelped. They began to retreat, hopping as they went, as blood trickled from their feet and onto grass that had erected itself into spikes. The wind howled behind Pless like a hundred dragons’ roars and the clouds thundered in anger. The ground cracked in a mile radius around King Dundermoat; a thin line, but a loud, crackling one, which formed a neat square, and stretched to the core of the earth.
“Lord Dundermoat was acting through Pless, of that she was certain. But she had never seen this side of him, nor the land, and it unnerved her.
“‘Leave here at once,’ Pless said, her voice rich with magic. If you have been unfortunate enough to encounter a primal, or fortunate enough to encounter a dragon or a nymph (actually, dragon could go either way really), you have some idea how unnatural it sounds, and how it awes the ears, churns the stomach, and warms the blood. ‘Give us time to mourn your cruelty. You may have your colony by the sea. You may have your selfish victory. But if you value your life, Sir Edward Bottlehelm II, you will never cross these lines.’
“A few miles to the west, Seamoore was born. It was a nice town with nice folk. They didn’t bother Pless much, and she didn’t bother them. She rarely left her plot, and when she did it was only to forage for food. To the people of the new village, she was an oddity. The strange, pleasant girl who talked to the tree.
“But it wasn’t only the tree she could talk to. While Pless had inherited a lesser iteration of King Dundermoat’s abilities, she found she could express them in ways he never could. Her education, her knowledge of the arcane arts, of biology and language, coupled with Dundermoat’s gifts granted Pless access to a kind of magic she’d never heard of. That nobody had. She could speak to animals, alter her form, command the weather.
“These things started slowly. Asking a squirrel its name, turning her nose into a beak, moving a few clouds to give the king some sun. But the king grew slowly, and she spent a long time watching over him. She asked the birds to fetch her books from nearby libraries, and scrolls from far-off lands. Over time, the halfling could ponder astronomy with the falcons, change her shape to any animal you could name, and summon rain to quench her thirst. Even time was tamed by the young woman – halflings rarely live two centuries, but after the hundred years she kept watch over her king, Pless was less than middle-aged.
“A decade into her study, it became clear to onlookers that she was becoming something more than a strange girl. People of Seamoore gathered around to see her magic at work, and to listen to her speak of what she had learned about the world, and about life.
“Most were merely curious, but a few, especially young folk, were interested. Of that lot, the handful with an aptitude for magic became her apprentices. A few even came from the elven lands, from the mountains, and from other continents to learn what she had to offer. The bit of land that had been set aside for King Dundermoat became a beautiful garden at which all sorts of flora flourished, and a great many creatures exotic and commonplace alike would stop for a visit and a meal.
As she became a teacher to man and beast alike, Pless took on a title for herself, one that she read in a scroll written in a time before civilization. In our Common tongue, it means ‘One Who Speaks for the Land,’ but in the tongue of the ancients, it is simply Druidlona.”
Benison pretended not to notice the look of surprised recognition that spread across Thalia’s features. He smiled only to himself.
“Her students were of course called druids. They were considered by many to be the premiere thinkers of their kind, a perfect blend of the academic and the natural. Some felt threatened by their presence and ideas, but if the animals of the land didn’t scare them away, the rumblings of the land certainly did.
“At first, anyways. As Druidlona’s garden flourished, so too did Seamoore. The small costal village soon became a proper town, and then a city, encompassing all of the land that King Dundermoat once claimed for himself. The druids did not mind their garden becoming a park, in fact they welcomed the company, but it reminded both Dundermoat and Druidlona of Sir Bottlehlem’s gradual conquest so many years prior.
“After nearly a century, the people of Seamoore saw the druids less like an eccentric extension of the town, and more like strange ideological invaders threatening their way of life. Druidlona saw fit to ignore her detractors, but King Dundermoat had been scarred by the cruelty he faced so long ago, and its resurgence began to change him.
“While he had once sustained himself off the land, and the magic of those who studied his ways, the king began to grow more ravenous and fearful. His roots emerged from the ground, forming a formidable and gnarled fence around the perimeter once established by Druidlona. His bark blackened, and plantlife within a yard around him died as he fed on their essence.
“And then two yards. And then a hundred. Soon the park that had once been so lush and beautiful was brown and depressing to behold. The animals, the druids, and even the clouds, no longer wished to visit. Only Druidlona remained, pleading with the king to return the land to its former glory.
“The king was remorseful, but he said there was nothing to be done. Their utopia could not exist in the open, for it would always be an abomination in the eyes of lords and kings. Confident that he could protect himself, King Dundermoat urged Druidlona to leave him his solitude, for she had outgrown him.
“As for the rest of the story…you tell me, Miss Dioueal. What became of Druidlona after she left Seamoore?”
“You know?” the governess asked. The Story Keeper said nothing. “I suppose it wasn’t a secret. Putting together what I now know, I suppose the stories are true that she tried her hand at politics for a time. As you say, she was the ultimate penumbra of nature and civilization. She played the game she left behind as a young girl, in an effort to create reservations of a sort, where King Dundermoat’s ideas could flourish. But not all of us are for the game. Druidlona was meant for simpler and grander things.
“She established a series of villages in the west. Small farming towns, inconspicuous enough that nobody bothered to look too closely at them. Towns where the laws of Grandia were only suggestions. Where people could live simple, pleasant lives. The village of Dera, where I grew up, was one such village.
“She lived for six centuries, the stories say. Her magic gave rise to Mount Paylor. She wandered the lands, protecting the weak and providing safe places to practice uncouth beliefs…sorry, I am no story teller, I don’t know where to begin.”
“No worries, my dear. There is but one more piece of import. From time to time, Druidlona returned to Seamoore to visit her mentor. As much as she tried to bring beauty back to the remnants of his kingdom, Dundermoat continued leeching from it. But he saw that Druidlona had not been broken the way she had. That within her was promise that had been snuffed out in him. And so he gave her a fruit, which he told her to eat, and it was the most delicious thing anyone has ever tasted before or since. The fruit had one seed, which he told her to keep for when the time was right.
“Unfortunately, Lady Dioueal, I’m afraid this story has no satisfying ending. They say Druidlona never decided what to do with the seed, and King Dundermoat’s gift was lost to the ages.”
With less composure than he’d ever yet seen her display, Thalia fumbled for something at her breast – the centerpiece of a necklace made of seamlessly-woven stems. “I, I think,” the Lady stammered before clearing her throat. She held in her palm a small, silver, octagonal seed. “I believe this may be what you speak of.”
Benison grinned. “Do you, now?” he asked. “An astonishing coincidence, then. You on your way to Druidlona’s resting place. Me, in a cave on the road, choosing this tale of all tales in exchange for passage.”
“Do not insult my intelligence.”
The Story Keeper held up his hands. “I would never.”
“It’s very plain that this was all your design. Very clever, old man. Is that what you want to hear?”
“That will suffice.”
Druidlona was buried in a grove which dwelled inside an unmarked mesa in the desert. Whether there was a sentimental reason for this spot, Benison couldn’t say. Perhaps the idea of this hidden oasis was simply beautiful to her. It was to him.
Most of the caravan was asked to stay outside. Only Benison, an androgynous elven guard, and a horse-sized bearded canine were told to follow Thalia through the thin crack in the mesa. Coming out the other side was like stepping through a portal into another land (this isn’t a guess, remember, Benison actually knows what that feels like). Immediately the air was different here; fresher, clearer.
The grove, which rose steadily upward, was all green grass, chirping birds, and trickling stream. Everyone was silent as they followed the stream upward, allowing the sounds of nature to do all the speaking. Benison could imagine sleeping here. It was pleasant.
At the top, the stream widened into a small watering hole, which was fed from a thin waterfall trickling down the back wall of the grove. A coyote and a number of desert-dwelling rodents were quenching their thirsts here, and they did not scatter as one might expect.
Beside the water were perhaps a dozen small piles of stones, each originating from different regions of the world. They were placed surrounding a carved slab of mythril, which was mined beneath Castiron. The graves of Druidlona and her most loyal disciples.
Thalia kneeled before them and closed her eyes, her yellow dress pooling around her like liquid gold. The guard stood beside her, arms crossed, and closed their eyes. The dog laid on its belly beside the High Governess. Benison observed in respectful silence.
When she was finished, Thalia approached the mythril. She shared a trepidatious glance with the Story Keeper, who replied with a nod. Thalia moved aside a small patch of earth, set the seed inside it, and replaced the soil. Then, with cupped hands filled with water from the stream, she nourished the seed.
The wind blew gently, then, the misty air tickling their skin like the calming embrace of a mother. Thalia smiled, and looked up to hide her teary eyes.
Three years from now, Thalia will return to the mesa. There, she will find a sapling with pale bark, which match Druidlona’s skin, and orange leaves, which match her hair. Without words, the tree will thank the High Governess of Dol Belvargamar, and she will weep.