“It’s getting quieter now,” Brother Aran said. “And it should be dawn soon.”
Father Dorian nodded. “Yes, it’s quiet.” He sighed and pushed himself up from the wooden settle. His old bones creaked. “They said that it would likely finish before dawn.” He pinched out the single candle. Faint light shone through the shutters. “The wind has stopped.”
“What happened last night?” Brother Aran asked. “It sounded like demons racing around the village.”
Father Dorian picked up the jug of water. “Would you like a drink, my son?”
“I will share some with you,” Brother Aran said. “And we should be able to go out and get more soon.”
Father Dorian rubbed a weary hand over his face. “It will soon be time for the morning worship.” He watched Brother Aran pour the last of the water into two cups and drank gratefully as he listened carefully at the shutters. He took a deep breath and then opened them. Dawn sunlight streamed in.
Brother Aran sighed in relief. “Thank goodness. It sounded like the devils of the infernal pit were in the village this morning.” He looked past the old priest. “And I think that they may have been. There is quite a mess left behind.”
Father Dorian unbolted the door and removed the wooden bar. The courtyard was untouched, and the cottages and pens of the village that the priest and his apprentice had blessed were also safe. Beyond that was chaos. Branches and leaves were tumbled all around and scorch marks ran along the track to the forest. “Thank the Holy One Most High that the forest dwellers warned us.” He winced at the pain in his bones, then carried on. “
Brother Aran swallowed. “What are they like?”
“The forest dwellers?” Father Dorian limped across the courtyard and towards the chapel. He sighed. “I was younger than you when I first saw them. The old priest here was the first man that they met.” He looked sadly past the untouched bounds of the village to the battered meadow. “I forgot to bless the pasture. I blessed the fields, but I forgot the pasture.” He turned to Brother Aran. “They came at the same time as the goblins, but from the forest, not the mountains. When I first saw them, I thought that they were angels.” He shook his head. “They are not. Nor are they goblins or men. But there is such a light in them.” He limped up to the chapel door and rested for a moment. “I am failing, and I shall have to take you to meet them soon to pass on the duty. But you must never tell the lords about them. You must never tell the kings or the soldiers or the merchants. I fear that our good friends would be hunted like goblins, and they do not deserve that.”
“Why should they hunt them?” Brother Aran asked.
Father Dorian looked sad. “Great men fear what they cannot control. These strangers in the woods, they have such knowledge of the stars and the forest. They have a grace in them that shames us mere men. It would shame the lords and they would not tolerate it. And they are kindly to us, in this village. They warned us about this devil’s storm, and they share knowledge of healing. We cannot betray them.”
“They’re not demons, are they?” Brother Aran asked. “Because back in the city they said that it was dangerous to study the stars too much.”
“If they are demons, they are strange ones,” Father Dorian said, opening the chapel door and walking towards the high table. He bowed creakily. “They send for me to baptise their children, and they pay their tithe more readily than many villagers.” The old priest waited until Brother Aran had bowed respectfully. “And after the worship here on a Sabbath, I go to the forest and preach again to them. They listen better than all the villagers combined.” Father Dorian sank onto the bench in the corner. “They do not know who they are either. They study the stars to find out.” He stretched his bad leg out in front of him. “I fear that I will not live to see their answer. Say the prayers, my son, and read the passage of the day. Then, after we have eaten, I will take you into the forest with a gift. You can meet them and we can thank them for the warning.” Father Dorian ran a weary hand over his face. “Because without that warning, I suspect that we would all be in pieces. We owe them our lives, and perhaps our souls. We should take a good gift.”
Brother Aran’s hand trembled as he lit the candles on the high table. After the terror of the storm in the night, now he was going to meet the strangers in the forest. He opened the prayer book and found the right passage. It didn’t matter whether he was scared or whether he was eager. He had a duty. He couldn’t guess what waited in the forest. He had to go, regardless. He was called to bring the faith to whoever needed it. Yesterday he had said the last prayers over an old man in a dark hut and blessed a plough. Today he would go into the wild wood and pray with strange creatures that were not ruled by the king. The dark storm had passed and now they continued, just as they should. He took a breath and started to pray.