Once upon a time, an unreasonable wyvern came to Chesny Wold.
So began the petition from the Chesny farmers to Nimrie, Goddess of Beasts and Love, at the Grand Temple at Llenead Maera. That terse opening was followed by an accounting of devoured herds, ruined crop stores tallied up in bushels and bales, and terrors visited upon the people.
The lengthy petition scroll cascaded from Erran Fox’s hand, and across his lap, to collect in springy coils around his feet. Somewhere among the moss and ferns, it ended with the usual invocation and a prayer to the Goddess to please do something about her troublesome creature as soon as divinely possible.
The accompanying petition from the animals of Chesny Wold, held in Erran’s other hand, was shorter and more dramatic. It told a tale of grief, fear, and urgency, and pleaded for justice against an enemy who took all but gave nothing and so could have no lawful claim to their lives.
Both documents were drawn in the same hand, on the same linen paper, in testamentary ink made of marigold, hickory, and the blood of the sworn, which would burn before it would record a lie. Each was written competently, if not poetically, in the script of humans and beasts, and the sigils worked into the calligraphy radiated their magic.
“Many words, but little information,” said Erran to the Worshipful Reverend Finda, Arch-Prelate of the Grand Temple, as he looked from one document to the other. “What else is this wyvern, aside from unreasonable? They don’t even name its tribe.”
“Patience, dear Fox, and a little tolerance” said Finda. “Are you familiar with Chesny Wold?”
“I’ve never been there.”
He dropped the farmers’ paper over his knee but continued to study the one belonging to the animals.
“Really?” Finda poured pale, fragrant tea into the finely carved wooden cup on the table before him. She waved a wizened hand over the plate of seed cakes and little baskets of berries, inviting him to take some more, which he gladly did. “I’m surprised. Isn’t it close to where you come from? What is the place called?”
“Lefford,” he said. “It’s some few days distant.”
It was a rare honor to be summoned for a private meeting with the Arch-Prelate. Such an invitation was sure to be of weighty importance, but there would always be tea and cakes made by the elderly lady herself, and a sense of inner peace that Erran thought must be what home would feel like.
In fact, Erran often imagined that, if he had ever known either of his grandmothers, he would remember teas with them just like these meetings in the green serenity of Finda’s moss garden, deep within the sacred forest of Llenead Maera. Like the rabbits dozing on the bench beside her, and the birds chatting in the trees, Erran found refuge in Finda’s delicate strength, and the warmth of generations in her snow-white hair, her smile, and her eyes. She seemed so fragile, wrapped in the robes of her station and the thick, woolen cloak that warded off the spring-time chill, but she moved with an easy confidence that made Erran, one the Goddess’s rangers, feel as protected as within the arms of Nimrie herself.
He sipped his tea and raised his eyes to the end of the garden, where stepping stones crossed the pond to the inner sanctum. He could just see through the trees the curved roof of the shrine where the Goddess dwelled and watched over all the creatures in the world.
“Ah, well, in any event,” Finda continued, “like Lefford, Chesny is not wyvern country, so the petitioners probably don’t know what kind it is.”
“Do we know how it came to be there?”
“We know only what is in the petitions and what could be coaxed from the boy who delivered them, which was very little.” Finda dabbed cake crumbs from her lips and took a sip from her own tea cup. “Apparently, it appeared in their wood one day and commenced laying waste. It is larger than small but smaller than large, and of a greenish color, like sour plums, which describes half the wyverns in three-quarters of all the tribes.” She smiled apologetically. “So we send you to learn the rest.”
“Am I merely to learn, or shall I also resolve?”
“You must resolve the situation,” she paused before adding, “and then return with the beast’s gem.”
Erran stopped in the act of reaching for a berry to drop into his tea. He looked at that beautiful, ancient face, watching him.
“Its gem?” he said.
There it was, the weighty importance of a summons to tea with the Arch-Prelate.
“It must be killed, then?” said Erran.
She nodded. “I’m afraid so.”
Erran drew in a deep breath. For the first time since entering the sanctuary, he felt the tight leather armor bearing the twin hinds that declared his service to the Beast Mother.
“But,” he said, “I’m a ranger. Isn’t this the work of a paladin?”
A kind of sorrow entered Finda’s apologetic smile. “So it shall be, when it’s done.”
Her words settled down on him like the pressure of an approaching storm. All he could say was, “Oh.”
He looked again towards the shrine, another world beyond the garden. The goddess’s face rose from his memory, the vision of her on the day he first met her and felt the touch of her hand on his smooth cheek. Why do you weep, child? Do you need a place to hide for a little while?
For a little while.
“Oh,” he said again.
He didn’t notice when Finda reached out to touch his hair as it lay over his shoulder. She wound one long, auburn lock around her finger.
“Fox Under the Moon,” she said. “Our Lady gave you that name, didn’t she, for this hair and those tawny eyes of yours. Handsome boy.” She caressed the close-trimmed beard that outlined his jaw now.
Erran blushed bright pink as he shifted his position and tried not to drop his cup.
“You may decline, if you feel you’re not ready,” said Finda, “but Our Lady is calling you again, and you know the call will echo until it’s answered.”
He cleared his throat and straightened his posture.
“I will answer, Worshipful Reverend. Of course, I will answer.”
Their meeting concluded soon after, and Finda walked Erran to the gate of the Arch-Prelate’s residence. She linked her arm with his, pretending to need his support. In his other hand, he carried seed cakes wrapped in a cloth. The petitions were tucked into his leather jerkin.
Along the way, she explained details of his assignment in the manner of a mother sending her child off to school and advising him on what to eat, what to wear, and how to comport himself. Erran, still feeling the decision he had just made, knew he wasn’t paying enough attention. He forced himself to acknowledge every word that managed to penetrate his mind.
“A purifier will follow on, probably with a curate or two, to conduct the funerary rites,” Finda was saying.
“Yes,” said Erran.
“They’ll travel slowly, so expect them to catch up with you in a few days.”
“Word has been sent to the circuit minister who serves Chesny Wold, but she is in the north and will not arrive before you.”
“Also, the Council of Divines recommend that you hire a bard to assist you. It will need to be someone who can charm dragons.”
“Yes—“ Erran, passing through the gate, stopped and turned. “I’m sorry, did you say hire a bard?”
“Naturally, the Temple will pay any fee,” said Finda.
“Why do I have to hire one? Are there no bards in the Temple?”
“There were two, but now there is only one. Reverend Brother Uviir died two months ago. He must have been, oh my, almost three hundred years old. Of course, spending most of your time in the field, I suppose you hadn’t heard. I remember when he first came to Our Lady, just a skinny little lad. Time flies swiftly. That leaves Reverend Sister Ziri, but she is in Einael.”
Einael, on the other side of the world.
“But how am I supposed to find such a master?” Erran protested. “Have you ever dealt with bards in the secular world? They are impossible people.”
Finda patted his arm. “I know, dear, it can be difficult to work with the laity. You must use your judgment, but the Divines have divined, and this is their recommendation. Now, let me kiss you.”
With a sigh, Erran bowed his head so she could place a blessing kiss on each cheek and on his forehead. Her lips rested on his skin a little long, giving him a brief flush of her warm aura. He felt the pressure on him ease, just a bit, just for a moment.
“Love and trust, my dear boy.” With an affectionate touch on his cheek, she left him.
Erran closed the gate behind him and walked along the path back towards the outer precincts of the Temple. The ancient trees arched into a dense canopy high above. Shafts of light pierced the soft gloom of their shadow, highlighting the vast, blue carpet of forest flowers that spread as far as he could see, heralds of spring and the awakening earth.
The soil, flowers, and trees combined into a sweet, spicy perfume that had the power to heal the body and calm the spirit. Another scent mingled with it, faint in the cool air – the scent of Nimrie’s charges, furred and feathered, scaled and shelled. It was the scent of the living.
Erran didn’t pause to breathe in the restorative air this time, and he didn’t feel, just now, the sense of togetherness he usually found in Llenead Maera. He was thinking about the next gate ahead, which marked the boundary of this holy place, and of what lay beyond it.
A trio of panthers appeared around the base of a gnarled beech tree. The cats, with their languid strides and huge paws flattening the flowers, passed silently around him. The hindmost, the eldest, big and scarred, acknowledged the Ranger with a slow blink. Erran returned the greeting with a nod, and watched them until they vanished into the shadows and light.
From there, the forest grew busier. Charms and talismans decorated branches. The undergrowth murmured with small flutterings and rustlings, as well as some large rustlings of bodies sliding by, out of sight. Nearing the main gate, he heard blessing chants echoing from the many spirit shrines in the forest.
Just then, a small, gray body shot from a tree branch and landed hard on his shoulder. A raspy voice said, “Brother Fox! How did you fare with the Arch-Prelate? Are we done? Are we going? Where are we going?”
“Nutkin,” Erran said, giving the squirrel a light scratch behind the ear. “Have you paid your respects?”
“Yes, yes.” Every word was punctuated with quick, sharp movement, as the squirrel ran all over Erran’s jerkin, in and out of his cloak, inspecting him minutely. “The shrine was oh so busy, what with everyone and their brother seeking a mate or blessings for their kits, and the yearlings getting up to mischief. But my few, poor acorns were well received, I think, wretched bachelor though I am. What’s in this bundle? Is it seed cakes? Oh, I do love seed cakes. May I have one, please?” The little beast ran up and down Erran’s sleeve, from shoulder to bundle and back again. “Please? May I, please?”
“Behave yourself,” said Erran. Nutkin obediently perched on his shoulder, his little hand-paws tucked to his chest. “They are for you, with the Worshipful Reverend’s greetings.”
“All for me?” Nutkin barked with delight, resuming his natural fidgeting. “I will share. How many are there?”
“You may have one, because you are my big brother. Half of one. I will give you a morsel to appreciate the flavor. You may smell them.”
Erran smiled, but it quickly faded.
“Perhaps you should seek a mate this year, Nutkin. You’re three years old. Isn’t it time for you to settle down and raise some kits of your own?”
“Why would I do anything like that?” said Nutkin. “Tell me, what’s the quest. Where are we going? What are we doing?”
“I’m to be tested.”
Nutkin, now on top of Erran’s head, excitedly stuck his face, upside down, before Erran’s eyes. “The test for paladin? You’re to become a paladin at last?”
“It will be difficult.”
“It wouldn’t be much of a test if it was easy. What, do you mean to go without me?” He dug his claws into Erran’s hair and lashed his tail furiously. “Well, that’s a fine thing, after all our travels. What can you do that I dare not? Don’t think you’ll be rid of me so easily. Be a smart fox, Erran, not a stupid human. Let’s go – and give me a cake. I want a cake right now.”
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