It was the third night we had camped amongst the tall trees. The black of their silhouette pressed against the constellations revolving around the Pole Star.
The tall trees had ceased to be objects of fear. Pine needles and cones fell from above but every creak and sigh from their boughs was a welcome reminder we were alive. There was only one test to go before we became warriors. Two women and we three men huddled under skins to keep warm because fires were not permitted near these great firs which communicated with gods.
In the distance the shaman was preparing our final trial. We had learnt that a warrior’s first duty was to protect. Two of our band had been killed before we succeeded in repelling the raiders. Knowing the finite nature of life had made us all sleepless. The summer constellations were glimpsed between the crowns of the revered trees. The path of Jupiter, Saturn and Mars all noted. How the movement of great things made me feel inconsequential. An owl screeched then on silent wings went hunting, later a nightingale sang. I felt my eyes close.
“Elisedd.” I felt Caomh’s fingers push into my ribs and his coarse hair against my cheek. I remembered I’d only got this far because of his training. Caomh was determined in his pursuits. He would go into the woods and live alone for several days and return thinner, ravenous but happy.
I determined to follow him once and found my friend picking up pieces of wood. Measuring their worth and returning them to the ground to rot. On another occasion I found him sniffing the air around leaves, tasting it with his moist tongue. This done he examined leaves in minute detail. I did not dare ask what he was doing for fear of offending him or the druids who I sensed lurked nearby.
The shaman reappeared amongst us, his odour strong, a mix of musk and herbs which in my exhausted state made me light headed. His stick came down across my back and he gave me that look again.
“The final test.” He dropped a lichen covered branch on the floor between us. He asked each of us to pick it up and examine the fractured twig. Each of us did, turning it over, searching for clues.
“This is a branch shed from a sacred fir tree.” He looked around to see if the enormity of his words had hit home. “What is it?”
We looked at each other. I was perplexed. Surely a tree is a tree given to the world by our gods? This turned out to be almost word for word what the first girl said.
The shaman bent his head, shook it and pointed back to the village. She had failed.
He passed it on to a thin youth.
“Wood from the sacred grove belongs to the gods.”
Again the shaman shook his head and pointed home.
I racked my brain for another answer. I felt sick. I thought everyone would see me for a coward. The woman next to me held up the log in supplication. “It is the discarded branch of a sacred fir, beyond this I do not know.”
The shaman smiled but still his staff pointed the way home.
The log fell to my hands. I stood and looked the shaman in the eyes. “With the turning of the seasons the fir tree grows. It grows neither knowing nor caring about the affairs of us humans. It is a free living thing.”
The shaman stared at me. I wasn’t certain if he was pleased or angry. He said nothing but didn’t order me home.
Next it was Caomh’s turn. He received the branch, bowed then looked the shaman in the eye. “Wood is air combined with water. It is how the plant grows, taking energy from the gods to create a greater whole.” He passed the log back.
The shaman let it fall. He brought his own staff down across Caomh’s back. He raised his stick again and felled my friend. He swept round to deliver the final blow. I pushed the force of his sweep away from Caomh. The shaman attacked again. This time I let the branch absorb the force.
“I might not understand his words but you will not harm him for saying them. That is everyone’s right.”
The shaman stopped. He peered into the darkness and took a deep breath as though expecting something. “You have both failed.” Momentarily he was distracted by a rustling of leaves.
The bushes around us appeared to breathe and yet I could see no cause for their movement. They grew taller and moved closer. I sat Caomh upright. He gripped my arm. “We will both live or both die together.” I whispered. The shrubs enveloped the remaining light then the leaves parted and a solitary lady appeared carrying a lamp.
“The shaman speaks the truth, Caomh and Elisedd. You will not be warriors.” She gave a light laugh. “But the order of druids has need of you both, if you’ve a mind.”
“We have a choice?” I asked.
“We all have choices. It’s what defines us.” She held out her hand.
I helped Caomh up. We both accepted her outstretched fingers and with amazing strength she drew us behind the veil of bushes.
“One is a thinker, the other is loyal, and this is a great combination in friends. We find neither wanting.” Suddenly the sacred grove was filled with light and a soft, beautiful song emerged in praise of tall trees.
Clint Wastling is a UK writer based in The East Riding of Yorkshire. He’s had stories published in newspapers like The Weekly News and online with With Painted Words and Every Day Fiction. There’s a story forthcoming in the Travel Story Anthology “Going Places” as well. Like loads of others he’s trying to get a first novel published! His collection of stories, Calico Blue and Other Stories, is available on Amazon.