The passageway through the world opens…
THE GREAT OAK
The old druid cut a formidable figure, antlers bursting from his headdress, ceremonial furs draping from shoulders to boots. Before him stood the enormous tree, her branches concealing the soupy-gray sky for one-hundred steps, her trunk so wide around that it took 10 men gripping hands to encircle it, the face of the Mother carved into it at eye-level with the druid.
“My pack has pulled your old bones on the sled through snowdrift these many days,” grumbled Fortress. “Why have you not yet opened the door in the tree? Have you forgotten how?”
“Patience, old dog. She is perplexing and must be appeased.”
“It has been far too many seasons since you appeased any woman,” growled Fortress.
The druid’s face wrinkled into a smile. “There is a saying among the people. The maiden requires a strong gaze, but the mother, a hungry stomach.” He dug through the snow at the base of the tree, producing a handful of green acorns. He rapped the shells off with his staff, then gnawed at the bitter nut meat. “Let us see what nourishment the Mother has for us,” he said, feeding one also to Fortress.
They waited in silence, side by side. Although he expected it, the ensuing stomach cramps bent the druid double. he leaned against the tree trunk, his head swimming. His vision blurred. The world darkened and peeled away. Fortress, too, fought the sick that threatened to overtake him. Sensation drained from him like water drops from an icicle until his spirit floated above, watching.
“Why has a child come so far from his home?”
The voice came from the tree. The druid looked for the Mother’s face and found it far above him, her stern eyes looking down.
“I have come to beg passage to the other side of the world, Mother,” he said, and his voice was high and breaking. He looked absurd in his ceremonial furs, which had grown to tent him. His beard vanished. Even the stag horns on his headdress shortened until they were the nubs of a fawn. Where the formidable druid had stood, Fortress saw a boy.
Branches stretched out from the trunk to touch the boy’s face. “It has been so long since I held a son,” crooned the voice within the tree. “Your companions may pass, but you will stay with me.”
“No!” Fortress tried to lunge forward but felt as if he were moving through mud.
The boy held out his arms to embrace the dire wolf, burying his face in Fortress’ furry neck, petting his nose and ears. “Go on, old dog. This is the only way.” Then, his body collapsed into the embrace of the branches.
A wolf whined, then another. Fortress backed away from his old friend. “Call out to the spirit of our fallen packmate,” he commanded, then craned his neck to the moon and let loose a mournful howl. The others followed, one after another wolf song ringing out as the Mother hugged the druid, wrapping her branches round and around him until he was pinned against the trunk.
The pack watched as the face of the Mother turned into a wide hollow. A thick, humid scent leaked from it, steaming the freezing air. Fortress moved closer, tentative, sniffing. Inside, a wooden staircase spiraled down into the dark.
To be continued…
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