A pall of mist hung over the mountain as he set off the next morning to find his friend. Tiernan knew Bril would be observing him, so he made no effort to mask his approach, and he was not surprised when the boughs of the trees at the forest’s edge bent back to create a pathway for him to follow.
The crisp smell of pine in the cold air struck him with boyhood memories of playing in the woods around his father’s iron shops and warehouses. He had been in the south so long that he had almost forgotten the scent, and found himself smiling. Shaking his head against the pleasant reverie, he clenched his jaw and marched forward. His business on Mount Storm was not of the smiling kind.
The path led him to a grotto where Bril kneeled upon a broad, flat stone as he looked into a pool of water. His emaciated form was covered only by a sack cloth too thin for the cold, feet bluish in his sandals, yet he smiled when he looked over his shoulder. In that moment, despite the knotted beard full of twigs and moss, despite the face wizened and chapped by frigid winds, his cobalt eyes radiated with such innocent joy that Tiernan recognized the boy he had known so many years ago.
Tiernan walked up and looked over his friend’s shoulder to see a sinuous fish swimming in slow circles in the pool. Multicolored spirals and whorls decorated the animal’s flanks, swirling as they sent arcs of purple and orange and green spinning out through the water.
Tiernan spoke softly. “What manner of fish is that?”
“I have never seen the likes of it before,” Bril said, shaking his head and laughing. “If I had one hundred lifetimes to tend this mountain, it still would not be enough for me to discover all the secrets and beauties hidden here. This place alone could teach me everything the world has to teach.”
There were few joys greater than seeing a wild place through the eyes of its assigned Steward. Tiernan knew he needed to say something before his emotions distracted him from his task.
“Why did you kill the trappers, Bril?”
The fish turned and swam downstream, as though the druid’s words had broken the idyllic spell that had been keeping it there.
Bril’s smile disappeared. “They were destroying the forest.”
“And their dogs?”
“The men turned those animals into something else, something that did not belong in the wild any more than their owners did.”
“You have no right to make that appraisal, or that decision.”
“I was sent here to protect this place.” Bril looked up at his friend. “So, I protected it.”
“It is part of our duty to balance the good of the forest with the good of civilization. You know that as well as I do.”
Bril stood and looked down into the water, or perhaps at his reflection in the water. “I know what I was taught,” he said, “but those things do not work in this world, anymore. The rules have changed.”
“Do not lecture me,” Tiernan snapped. He wanted Bril to yell back, to fight. It would make the task at hand much easier to carry out.
Instead, Bril shook his head sadly. “I remember the man you were. You did not take on the responsibilities of a druid so that you could play at politics. You were better than that.”
“And you were better than a murderer,” Tiernan said coldly. Bril flinched under the words, but said nothing in return. “You left a home of comfort and wealth to serve the Circle.”
“Not to serve the Circle.” Bril shook his head. “To serve nature.”
“Men are part of nature, too.”
“They were once,” Bril said. “Somehow, I do not believe that they are, anymore.
Somehow, the pact has been broken.”
“You know what I have been sent here to do.”
“I know,” Bril said. “I do not intend to fight you. I merely want you to understand.” He nodded towards the direction of the trapper’s camp. “They used to come once a year, for a month, maybe two. Lately, they have been coming more and more often. Barely a day goes by when I do not hear the foxes crying in their snares. They will not rest until every one of the animals, and the trees, are dead and gone. ” He rested a hand on Tiernan’s shoulder. “The old ways do not work anymore, my friend, if they ever did.”
Tiernan pulled away from Bril’s touch. “You can explain all of this to the Circle. It is time to go. We have a long journey ahead of us.”
“I will not leave my mountain.”
“I cannot allow you to hold this land, anymore. You have spent too many years out here alone. You have lost perspective.”
“If there is one thing I have gained in my time here, it is perspective.” Bril walked northward, away from the direction Tiernan intended to take him. “You cannot kill me,” he said over his shoulder. “You think you can, but you cannot. Your heart is too good.”
“Do not do this.”
Bril stopped by a tree branch upon which a sparrow rested. He held out his hand. The bird hopped onto his finger and perched there, singing. “It saddens me to no end that the world drives us to this position. Before I do what must be done, I ask that you walk with me, as we once did.”
Tiernan hesitated. “What must be done?”
Bril lifted his hand and sent the sparrow fluttering into the air. He smiled and headed deeper into the forest.
“What must be done?” Tiernan asked again. He received no answer.
Part of him wanted to attack Bril, and part of him wanted to set his friend free. Eventually, he knew, he would have to do one of those things. When his legs started moving, however, he did not know which it would be. He merely followed.