The night air blew soft and smooth through the glade, mingling scents of earth and pine. Something crunched in the distance, barely audible over the chorus of crickets. There was a snap, and then a rustle.
A man slid through the brush. He paused for a moment, turning his head this way and that, before resuming his steady pace. It was only a few minutes more before he stumbled on the nearby stream, clear water burbling cheerfully in its rocky bed. He smiled. A splash of cold water would be almost as refreshing as sleep, and he was eager to reach the Grove by morning. He had been away long enough. Shifting the cloth bundle on his shoulders, he knelt by the stream.
Someone whimpered. The man stiffened, a cupped hand of water halfway to his mouth. He pondered for a moment, his steady grey eyes staring straight ahead. The whimper came again, louder and more irritated. What in the…oh. He opened his hand and let the water fall back into the pool before reaching around to remove his bundle. The cries intensified as the bundle opened, revealing a very angry infant.
The baby wrinkled up his little squashed tomato of a face and screamed. The man awkwardly dandled the infant in one arm while rooting in the bundle with the other. After what seemed like an eternity, his fingers closed around the bottle he had purchased from the last farmstead. He deftly uncorked it with a flick of his thumb and held it up. The child’s lips found the small wick dangling from the bottle, and his cries stopped. He closed his eyes and blissfully sucked at the milk.
My son. The words were still strange in his mind. He tried it again, wondering if a name might make it better. My son, Ahsdale. No, still not right.
Ahsdale opened his eyes, staring up at him. The man smiled, and the child smiled back, letting go of the bottle. He giggled milkily, a bubble bursting on his lips. The man started to relax, finding something to enjoy in this new role. Galia would have found this amusing. She told me more than once that I would lose my own head if she weren’t there to take care of me. But she’s wrong. After all, raising a child on one’s own was not uncommon in nature. The great cycle had often claimed mothers before their time. He would learn to cope.
Pushing the bottle away, the baby tugged on a lock of the man’s greying hair.
“That is my hair, Ahsdale,” he said, though he knew the child would not understand a word.
His curiosity exhausted for the moment, Ahsdale squirmed fretfully.
“Do you want more milk?”
Ahsdale grimaced and spit up all over the man’s tunic.
That must mean "No."
He gently set the child down on the empty cloth before mopping the sticky mess from his clothing. By the time he had finished, Ahsdale was sleeping peacefully. He smiled and carefully wrapped Ahsdale in his cloth. Ahsdale stirred, but did not wake as the man continued his journey south, deeper into the forests of Tethyr.
“Cernd!” A man hurried from the cabin, his arms spread in greeting. His tiny dark eyes twinkled in his seamed face, and every inch of his spare frame seemed to crackle with energy. “You have returned! Successfully, I hope?”
“Yes, Grand Druid.”
“There will be no ceremony between us, old friend. Save such honorifics for the next moot.”
Cernd smiled. “As you wish, Soris.”
“Come, tell me of your travels.” With a sweep of his hand, he beckoned Cernd inside.
The room was much as Cernd remembered it, a hodgepodge of leaves and roots on every flat surface, awaiting use in any of the hundreds of salves and potions that Soris produced. A sharp woodsy aroma filled the air as the Grand Druid bent, carelessly brushing his work off of a chair. “Was it as we had feared?” he asked, offering the chair to Cernd.
“Indeed.” Cernd accepted the chair, rejoicing in the knowledge that he would not have to take another step for at least the next half hour. “The Shadowed Ones had infiltrated the Circle, smothering the land as strangleweed chokes the life from the oak. But they were cast down with the help of…”
“GAH! AH GA OOOO!!!”
“What was that?”
Cernd blinked for a moment, and then remembered Ahsdale, who was squirming around in his carrying sling. He retrieved his son, hefting him in his arms. “This is my…er…son. Ahsdale.”
Soris’s white eyebrows twitched with surprise. “Congratulations. And his mother?”
“Ah.” He bowed his head. “I am sorry to hear of your loss, but…”
“But all return to the Mother’s breast in the end,” Cernd finished automatically. In his mind’s eye, he could see Galia as she had been when they first met, her laughing green eyes and easy smile. She was like a honeysuckle vine, artfully twining herself into one’s heart, and sometimes when their eyes met, he had managed to forget all about the forests and his duty. It did not seem right that she should be gone.
“How did it happen?”
“She never told me she was pregnant…she took up with another man. He did not treat her well, and he…he…I am sure he…” Cernd passed a hand over his eyes, unable to speak.
A bony hand touched his shoulder, and he felt calmer. “It is all right,” said Soris. “Death may be part of the natural cycle, but it does not make it any less difficult when someone you care for passes away.”
Cernd just nodded, grateful that someone understood.
“In any case, it will be no trouble to raise the boy here. I am sure Foryn will be happy to…”
“Ah. You are correct, I suppose Foryn is a bit old to keep up with a bundle of energy. Perhaps Carina then, she is still…”
Cernd answered softly, but forcefully. “No, Soris. I wish to raise Ahsdale myself.” Now he hesitated, looking down at the squirming child in his arms. “I was not there when Galia needed me. She made some poor decisions because she had nowhere else to turn, and she paid with her life. I would not see that happen to Ahsdale. I want to do right by him.”
Soris laid a wrinkled brown hand on his shoulder. “I understand, Cernd, but what will you do when you are called to serve? Caring for a child is different from planting a tree. You cannot walk away for a season and expect your son to flourish.”
“I am not planning to. Once Ahsdale is older, I will become available for short excursions in the service of the Mother. But, as the larks return to their trees each spring, so would I return to my son.” Cernd glanced at Soris, his heart sinking slightly at his friend’s carefully neutral expression. “I am not retiring, Soris,” he added.
A flicker of a smile finally showed itself on the old druid’s face. “You. Retire.” Soris creaked with laughter before sobering. “I wonder, though, if your choice will be so simple. I have never known you to stay in a place for longer than the turn of seasons.”
Cernd shifted Ahsdale into a more comfortable position, smiling as his son blew bubbles at him. “How hard can it be?”
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