It wasn’t until Mathuin returned as the sun was setting that he began to worry. The stranger had not moved since the old druid had seen him hours ago. He had been annoyed before, but surely no wandering traveler would just park down here.
It was more troubling that the stranger had not bothered to set up a tent or make any sort of camp. The Direwood was a dangerous place – even after the work the Nine Circles had done. The wilderness wasn’t some tame garden to sit and marvel at – without some sort of shelter from the elements this man would be very miserable very soon.
And, by the Spirits, the stranger was sitting in his glade! It was unremarkable compared to several other forest spots – just a flash of grass surrounded by a ring of trees, really. The reasons Mathuin frequented it wasn’t something a simple wanderer could pick out – the glade was particularly close to the Primal Spirits. Why would the traveler pick here to sit down and gaze at the sky?
Mathuin decided he was still annoyed after all, the druid couldn’t stand it anymore. This was his glade – the stranger would have to find another one.
“Look, I don’t know who you are but—“ The stranger turned around suddenly and gave the Druid a fierce look.
“Shh! I can… hear… something. Almost like a voice. Trying to explain — maybe answer my prayer at last?“
Mathuin arched an eyebrow. “What voice? What are you talking about?” Great, the Druid thought, I don’t have a wanderer, I have a lunatic.
The stranger looked at him again, this time he was puzzled. “It says… He says that I’ve been waiting for you? That as one purpose turns to ash, new life may yet bloom. That it is time I open my heart to new teaching.” The stranger scowled at that.
“Well, obviously. I’m not about to start singing prayers to gods that have abandoned me. She ignored me when I needed her most, and I left. Of course I’m open to new ideas,” the stranger continued.
Mathuin shook his head. Part of him couldn’t believe it, but another part, a deeper part knew the words that the stranger was trying to grasp. He had to make sure first, and wasn’t about to wait around until this idiot got his act together.
“Come. We have much to discuss you and I,” the Druid took his signature long strides away form the glade, leaving the stranger to quickly follow in the dust.
Mathuin took the stranger to a hollow he sometimes used when he was human. The sun had set, and a brilliant set of starts had populated the forest sky. They had not said a single word to each other, an awkward silence making talking even more difficult than it should have been.
The stranger had finally decided he had never been in more bizarre company. His… ‘host’ had said some kind of prayer over the wood he used for a fire, and then went out hunting – but only came back with enough for one of them to eat.
While the meat was cooking over the fire, the stranger’s curiosity got the best of him.
“Who are you?”
“My name is Mathuin, Druid of the Nine Circles”.
“A… hmm… the word is elusive. Not friend, but not quite brother either. I am a… pack-mate to the Primal Predator, one of the Primal spirits that exist within our world. I am a steward, I guess, to the Direwood”.
Mathuin looked over to see how his explanation fared with the stranger.
He just looked more confused.
“I apologize. I don’t socialize with people often. Not many come into the Direwood. It makes explaining things difficult,” Mathuin continued.
The stranger snapped. “Well, try harder then! Gods ever since Sabrina died, nothing’s made any sense! I was supposed to go to the Glass Tree – a Pilgrimage, looking for answers from a goddess that probably never gave a damn in the first place, and then I’m… drawn into the goddamn woods, and I found the stupid glade, and then it starts talking to me, but it speaks in damn riddles, and you’re the only person I’ve seen this entire time who I didn’t want to kill, and here you are speaking in more goddamn riddles!”
The stranger was on his feet now, yelling. Mathuin saw the rage – but also saw its source. He was scared and alone, like a new born deer without a mother. The Druid looked him in the eyes.
“I can explain, but you must tell me everything. Who is this Sabrina, who died? What is your name – why did you go on this pilgrimage?”
The stranger seemed to realize he was yelling, and sat down. “It’s a long story. You probably want to eat first.”
The druid smiled. “I already did. Please, go on.”
. . .
The stranger had been right. It was a long story, Mathuin thought, chuckling as he recalled the stranger’s name.
“Who names a child Adalbert?” he asked the trees softly. But now was not the time for that.
Was this young man Fate had brought to him a druid? Mathuin walked over to a nearby river, looking at the starlight reflected in the running water. The Nine Circles was desperate for more members. Many places had gone Dark. They needed Druids in the world.
Could this man who had felt betrayed by everything be trusted? Mathuin decided it was so – or at least, he should try. The Order’s need was great – and it would give this Adalbert a sort of purpose to put his grief behind him. It was a good thing he rubbed the meat down with several herbs that kept one awake. They still had work to be done.
Mathuin walked back to camp. “It’s been decided.”
“What’s been decided?” Adalbert replied. “I pour my soul out to you, and you just walk away, like its nothing then come back a half hour later telling me that you made a decision? Good for you! I didn’t realize it was a half hour deliberation for you to decide If you wanted to talk or not.”
This is going to be a trying time, Mathuin thought. “No. And such answers are counter productive. Come with me, it is time you return to the glade and see a wonder.”
“It’ll be a wonder if I can get you to say a damn normal sentence once in a while,” Adalbert replied. He paused, thought for a second, then continued, “And how do we plan on getting to the glade? Unless you plan on making it day?”
The Druid shook his head. “I’ll follow my nose. Stay close behind.”
More confused than ever, Adalbert followed, swearing under his breath at his luck.
It was beginning to lighten by the time they got back. Adalbert briefly wondered why he wasn’t exhausted, but then gave up on it. He had bigger mysteries to fry.
Mathuin beckoned Adalbert to stop at the edge of the glade, then walked out to its center. He then looked Adalbert in the eyes.
“There is one fundamental tenet to being a druid. The earth is our mother – she gives… and she takes away. However, although she is powerful, recently, people have forgotten about her. Things have gone Dark without her love. Druids are in tune with her, however. She gives us the strength in order to protect her and keep the balance she has set out for us. Behold.”
Mathuin’s robes shimmered for an instant, then began to distort. Adalbert swore the crazy old man had winked at him as he fell to all fours, brown fur sprouting all over his body. Soon Adalbert gasped, a massive brown bear stood in front of him and roared. The birds that had been roosting scattered in a cacophony of wing beats. He backed against a tree, as the bear got closer. It morphed back mid step, faster than Adalbert would have thought possible, into a human again.
“The voice you heard in the glade was the earth, Adalbert. She will give you a new purpose to replace the one you lost – a new life to replace the old one. Do you accept her call?”
“Sure. You really need to work on your welcome speech, by the way. I hope membership comes with a new pair of pants, because I’m gonna need it. What do we need to do, send me through some kind of trial, mark me with some kind of oil, whats the rite for this kind of thing?”
“Rite?” Mathuin chuckled, “There is no rite. Such pomp and circumstance is a… mankind thing. The wolves do not initiate their newborn, why should we?” Mathuin suddenly stiffened.
“That’s it! We’ll give you a new name. One to distance yourself from your past life and the suffering it has brought you – to symbolize the earth giving you a second chance.”
Adalbert thought it over for a bit, watching a few birds slowly begin to return to the trees. “That’s…a good idea.”
“Then you are Adalbert no longer. For now, you are Faolan. A little wolf.”
The new druid snorted. “Bit of a one track mind there. Faolan. However, I like it. So, erm…now what do I do?”
Mathuin smiled. “Learn to shapeshift, of course. It is our greatest gift, and our most powerful weapon.”
Faolan looked back at the old druid in surprise, “That’s not something that like only experienced druids can do? Can’t we start on something a little more basic?”
Mathuin burst out laughing. “You look like raccoon that just got caught stealing something. I think the expression is… throwing you to the wolves? Yes that’s the one. Hmm. Not a bad idea for the future.”