After such a long trek, the three were happy to have arrived at their final destination. The excitement in the coach was palpable. The vista, well recognised by them, would soon open, and they would be “home”.
Turning into the valley, everything changed. Something was wrong. The scene before them was as far from the expected, tranquil forest idyll, as could be imagined. Before them. Devastation. Bodies strewn everywhere. Dismembered limbs heaped in random piles along the highway.
“How could this have happened?” the Mother cried. The Maiden simply gasped in despair. The Crone, laying aside the weft she wove, sat in silence, observing the scene of unfolding horror.
The carriage moved on, the silent coachman searching for some word of comfort but coming up short. As unexpected as this was, there was an inevitability about it. Man, in believing he had come so far, still had so much to learn.
The double portal, too, had been violated. Not overtly. The pillars of each remained but, between the two gateways, scorched earth, devastation, and a tangle of lifeless limbs. The Maiden shrieked in anguish. This. This was too much to bear.
The Place of Meeting, thankfully, was safe. Far enough from the centre of devastation to have been spared. At least for now. The carriage drew to a halt. The three stepped out, breathing clean air and basking in the unspoiled, twilight view.
Un-beckoned, the driver moved around the coach to retrieve the tools he knew would be required. The Maiden, turning East, took the first brand offered and gathered unto her Earth. The Mother, turning South, took the second brand, and gathered unto her Water. The Crone, turning West took the final brand, and gathered unto her Air. The coachman, as was fitting, stood off, to the North, holding Fire.
Next day, intention set and Powers gathered, the three travelled through, and beyond, the blasted landscape. Only in the Great Hall could their intention be rooted. Only in the Great Hall could their Powers be joined.
Leaving the carriage some way off, they climbed the short, oak-strewn hill and moved, carefully, through the gates of the three concentric rings, formed in pillars of stone, to take up their position. A makeshift altar, dressed in black and semi-precious gemstone, was set; at its centre, a plain vessel, carved from antler and adorned with a simple rim of silver, was filled with a honey coloured fluid.
The coachman, having lit and handed out the brands, was invited to stand in the North, as Fire. The Mother, as Water, stood to the West. The Maiden, as Earth, stood to the South. The Crone, as Air, stood to the East, from where she oversaw the rite; her thrice-weft wand of sacred thorn, focussing All to the Work.
“Blessings upon Water,” the cup was sipped. “Blessings upon Earth,” the cup was sipped. “Blessings upon Trees,” the cup was sipped. “Blessings from the life-giving Sun”, the cup was sipped. The driver, directed towards the greatest oak in the Grove, poured the remaining libation, such that the Fae may bless the coming endeavour.
The sun had not fully set when they de-carriaged at the Mourning Tree. In the Grove it appeared darker than it should, given the backlight of sunset spilling over the ridge beyond. Not far off, the sound of the falls, eternally filling the Votive Pool, splashed across the meadow to harmonise seamlessly with the leaf chatter all around.
Brands lit, with one each for the Maiden, the Mother and himself, the coachman stood off, to the North. The Maiden, as Earth, took up station in the West, whilst the Mother, as Water, took up station to the East. The Crone, as Air (now obviously of Trees), stood to the South.
Approaching the Mourning Tree, her administrations and offerings remain obscured by the semi-darkness and the song of Nature around them. In the growing darkness, a gasp from the North. On the ridge opposite, silhouetted against the last glimmering of day, a… something… has appeared, and stands, in tree like form, observing…
The drive to the Inn, where they had spent the previous night, was filled with conversation about what could the sudden appearance of a “tree” on the gloaming skyline possibly mean? What its nature and form? Approaching the bridge into the village, the horses shied. Something was wrong and they had sensed it.
It was the coachman who heard it first. The Nereid, daughter of Nereus, who had lived under this bridge for over three millenia, was struggling. The devastation upstream had left her vulnerable, trapped, and unlikely to survive. She cried out for help.
Tomorrow was going to be a busy day…