The villagers of Delton didn’t want a savior. They wanted an army. So when the Mother Tree’s child walked among them, clad in mossy rags and carrying a staff instead of a sword, none were impressed.
Angorn did not lean on his staff. Such would be an insult to Sansea, his mother, who gifted him with a living branch from her body. The staff reached from just above Angorn’s hooves to the base of his mighty antlers, and grew fresh green leaves with the spring season.
In fact, his antlers grew leaves and flowers as well. Such a thing was unseen in any average stag, and between the seeming branches that grew from his head and the fireflies that whizzed around him and the warm emerald glow of his eyes, it was clear that Angorn was no ordinary pilgrim. The villagers knew of him. Some had even visited him years ago, when he was more of a cleric than a Druid, healing the sick and wounded in the heart of the Anadorian city of Verdania.
Or at least, healing those who “donated” to the Woodland Wardens for the privilege.
One such would-be patron was the Delton Village mayor, a raccoon named Sylva. She saw Angorn stride into her village from high in her tree house and knew just what kind of creature he was.
“Come to sell your services, treespawn?” she asked from her high balcony. Twilight had fallen in her village, but Angorn glowed bright as a star.
He raised his proud head, his antlers shining from the fireflies that whirled around it. “I am no merchant,” he said. “I ask only for a drink of your freshwater stream. I offer my aid freely, however, if you seek it.”
His emerald eyes scanned the chopped-down doors of nearby houses and the scared faces of animals peering between the barricades on their windows. He saw burnt patches of razed earth, the stumps of young trees, houses smashed to splinters, and apple trees picked to the bone.
“It seems you could use the help,” he said.
“We have no hurt or sick here,” Sylva said, climbing down the ladder posts nailed into the base of the tree she lived atop.
She was thin, Angorn noticed. Too thin. The dark fur around her eyes made her look very tired.
“Drink from our stream and leave, treespawn,” she said. “We’ve no food to share with you.”
“I can see that,” Angorn said. Some of the other villagers had emerged from their homes to observe the conversation. Cubs looked at Angorn’s firefly companions with rare delight. All of the villagers appeared to be underfed.
“You are being raided,” Angorn went on. “The effects are plain to see. You may not be hurt, but that is because you have not fought.”
“Those who did fight are beyond healing now,” Sylva said grimly. “Sansea has abandoned this village. She does not smile upon us. Leave, before she turns her frown upon you too.”
One of Angorn’s fireflies alighted somewhere into the shaggy leaves of the tree above him. Angorn followed it with his eyes. He smiled. Then he reached up with his staff.
An instant later, an apple fell from a hidden place in the middle of the tree’s high branches. He caught it deftly and held it before the growing crowd of onlookers. They only gaped. An infant squirrel caught Angorn’s eye, and he nodded. Slowly, the squirrel stepped forward. The stag smiled gently and leaned down to give the apple to the infant.
“Sansea has not abandoned anyone,” Angorn said when he stood to his full magnificent height. At that moment, the moon’s light broke through the branches of the apple tree above him and shone on his antlers, making them a silver crown.
“The raiders have taken your food,” he said. The onlookers nodded. “They have taken your goods and your dignity.” Shamed faces nodded again. “They return to vex you over and over.” More nods as some covered their faces and wept softly. “And yet, the grass is still green. Trees grow fruit. Your waters are clear.
“No, the Mother Tree has not abandoned you. But these raiders are taking advantage of her blessings. The bounty of the earth belongs to everyone and provides for everyone. To steal it from others is cowardly and pointless. Perhaps I can remind them of that.”
He spotted a beaver with a splint on his arm. Angorn beckoned him forth. The beaver looked to Sylva, who shook her head.
“And what then?” Sylva asked. “What happens after you help us? More bandits will come. Bandits calling themselves Wardens, demanding payment for your so-called ‘help.’” She spat. “The demons we know are better than the demons we don’t.”
Suddenly Angorn thudded his staff into the earth with such force the gesture might have been mistaken as anger, if not for the gentle smile on his face.
“I serve no demons,” he said as the bottom of his staff grew roots that tunneled under the soil. His eyes blazed green. “No bandits. No Wardens. I am a Druid of the Mother Tree. I serve none but Sansea and the good people of Anador.”
To the villagers’ surprise, the burnt patches of lands that had been scorched by stray fire arrows began turning green again. Flowers sprouted and bloomed before their eyes. The burnt land now appeared to be more fertile than the land surrounding it.
Delton was alive again.
As Sylva and the townsfolk were marveling at the new vegetation, the injured beaver waddled forward. Angorn smiled at him and kneeled.
Sylva finally noticed this and said, “Flapper! Get back!”
But Flapper ignored her. He took his last few steps toward Angorn until he was standing directly in front of him.
“His magic comes with a cost,” Sylva warned. “He is no savior. He is a merchant, and you cannot afford his prices.”
“I charge nothing,” Angorn said to Flapper gently. “The Wood provides me everything I need. You have fought and survived. You are fortunate. Will you let me help you?”
Flapper nodded, tears in his eyes. He had not been able to work since the last attack. Without him, the stream’s dam would burst and flood the southern villages.
The emerald light in Angorn’s eyes gleamed once again. Warmth seemed to radiate from his staff. The magic light smelled like flowers and dewy grass, and it bathed Flapper in a gentle bloom. He thought back to a time when he had no fear, when he could curl up next to a hearth fire after a hard day’s work and fall asleep with a book in hand.
When the emerald light went away, he no longer felt pain or numbness in his arm. He removed the splint and flexed the newly-healed muscles. It was as though he’d never been hurt. The villagers gasped with wonder.
“Do not be fooled!” Sylva cried desperately. “Healing magic will not prevent the bandits from returning! Do not place your hope in him! He still works for the Wardens, no doubt. And the Wardens do not help villages this far from Verdania and the Witch Wall.”
Angorn lifted his staff. The roots that had grown beneath it receded until they were no longer in the dirt. He looked as though he was going to say something, when suddenly two birds flew in from the treetops above him.
It was an eagle and a hawk, garbed in the light ironbark armor of the Wardens, each carrying a Warden-issue bow and quiver on their backs. They swooped down and landed softly on either side of Angorn.
“What did I tell you!” Sylva bellowed. “Here are the tax collectors, come to take what little we have left!”
“Son of Sansea,” the eagle said. “We did not expect to see you here.”
Angorn’s eyes smoldered. “Then why have you come?” He had little love for the Wardens after years of being used as a tourist attraction.
“Our new leader, Head Warden Tara, saw smoke from this direction two days ago. We have been flying to investigate ever since.”
“Too little too late,” Sylva snarled. “I am Delton’s mayor. This intruder came upon our village without welcome.” She pointed a claw at Angorn. “You may take him away.”
The villagers protested—Flapper loudest of all. The Wardens could hardly make sense of the commotion. Some villagers sided with Sylva, some with Flapper, but altogether there were too many voices to hear any side properly. Before Angorn could urge everyone to calm themselves, a streak of light flashed in an arc over their heads.
“You have lost your firefly!” Sylva laughed.
“That’s no firefly,” the hawk said, following the light’s arc. It thudded into a tree, sending sparks flying before revealing a flickering flame.
“Fire arrows!” the eagle warned.
Soon more arrows whizzed overhead, plunging into patches of grass, bushes, and the walls of tree houses.
“To the stream!” Flapper ordered, waving his tail and leading a troop of villagers to the nearby water source.
Angorn’s eyes blazed as he summoned his Druidic magic without a second thought. He ordered bushes to sink beneath the earth and douse the flames. “Bandits,” he said to the Wardens, as though they hadn’t noticed. “You came here to protect the village, did you not?”
The winged Wardens looked at each other nervously. They had not counted on fire arrows.
A flaming missile streaked through the dell and speared a poor old fox in the tail. She screamed and slapped the flames away from her fur, but it was little use. Angorn flicked the bottom of his staff at the ground and sent a pillar of dirt flopping onto the fox’s tail. With the flames suffocated, Angorn healed her burns with emerald magic.
“To the sky!” he bellowed at the Wardens. “Find their hiding places and flush them out! I will protect you as well as I am able.”
Reluctantly, the Wardens lighted into the air, scanning for brigands hiding outside the dell. They saw no one—only arrows coming to greet them. The eagle was struck in the wing and the hawk in his tail feathers, and they both tumbled back to the ground with little information gained for their trouble.
“The bandits are well concealed,” the eagle screeched after coming to a hard landing.
Angorn soothed his pain with magic and removed the arrow, healing the wound left behind. He did the same for the hawk’s tail. Even though he had healing power that the bandits did not, unless they could see their enemies they would inevitably have to surrender. The bandits could always make more arrows and return the next night, or the next-next night. Healing was simply not enough.
Flapper and the other villagers returned from the stream with buckets of water. They doused the remaining flames, but more arrows were flying in all the time. This was the bandits’ strategy—tire them out with the chaos of fire until they have no more energy with which to fight.
“You must have seen where the arrows were coming from,” Angorn said as he finished healing the hawk.
“Yes, but we cannot attack our enemies unless we have their exact positions,” the hawk replied.
“All we need is their general location,” Angorn said, looking up at his bright friends. “We will find them for you.”
Dot, the bandit leader, was almost out of arrows. She was hoping those stupid birds would pop up again, but it seemed she’d already got the job done. Looking around at her companions as they fired volley after volley, the cheetah bared her fangs in a grin. There was no way Delton would put up any fight this time. The villagers’ spirits had broken weeks ago.
It was time. The arrows were almost spent. Dot gave the signal, and all the bandits began closing in on Delton, each of them removing swords, hatches, or knives from their belts.
Suddenly a strange sight appeared. The fire arrows seemed to be coming back on them.
Glowing lights swooped overhead, diving down into the woodlands where the bandits hid themselves, but the lights didn’t follow a clear arc. In fact, they stopped once they fell below the treetops. They weren’t fire arrows at all.
They were fireflies.
Before Dot could say anything to her crew, the fireflies zipped straight for each bandit, hovering over their heads like halos of light. They looked up and swatted at the annoying insects, but they wouldn’t go away.
Not until the Wardens perched on branches above them and sent a hail of arrows raining down.
The bandits fired back as best they could, but the Wardens were well trained, and the darkness of the evening concealed them. With the fireflies illuminating their targets perfectly, the Wardens felt like they were shooting fish in a barrel. Villagers came in through the tree line with their own bows at the ready, sending arrows flying at the bandits that had tormented them so long.
As more and more bandits were struck, they panicked and turned to flee. Dot snarled at them to keep fighting, but when she, too, was caught in the arm with an arrow she turned around to sprint away as fast as she could. She was swifter than any animal—the other bandits could die to the last, but as long as she survived, she could always recruit more.
But she didn’t make it far before a tree root rose up from under the ground and wrapped tightly around her leg. She tripped and hit the dirt, and even more roots crawled over her, pinning her to the ground despite her fierce struggles.
Dot couldn’t pretend to be brave any longer. She saw the ethereal sight of a great horned creature with burning green eyes walking toward her. One by one the fireflies that once marked the bandits floated over to this majestic figure and hovered serenely over his antlers.
“Stay away from me!” Dot warned, but the more she struggled the tighter the roots held her. She had her long knives in her paws, but unless she could lift her arms her weapons were useless.
“The Mother Tree has been watching you,” the stag said as he approached. His twisted staff gleamed with Druidic power.
“Please don’t kill me,” Dot begged. She had no pride left. She just wanted to live, even if it meant rotting in a prison.
“These are Sansea’s woods,” said Angorn, standing before Dot. “And we are all her guests.”
To Dot’s surprise, the stag smiled.
“Sansea does not take life,” he said. “She brings life.”
The pain in Dot’s arm vanished almost at once. The arrow melted away in an emerald glow, and her wound stitched itself closed with nothing but a warm tingling sensation in its place. It was as though she’d never been struck at all.
He looked around at all the wounded creatures. Most had survived, but were nonetheless hurt. The villagers stood over them with arrows drawn. Sylva in particular seemed ready to finish off her prey swiftly.
“I can heal you all,” Angorn said.
Sylva looked up at him. “At what cost, stag?” she sneered.
“The Mother Tree’s justice,” Angorn answered. “All shall be healed!” he called, his voice echoing far into the woods. “So long as they return to Verdania as the Wardens’ captives. Sansea can judge them from there.”
The roots that had been holding Dot to the ground receded back into the earth. She leaped to her feet, baring her knives before the great stag. He stared back at her. Slowly, she put her weapons down. Then dropped them.
“I ask Sansea’s forgiveness,” she said, hanging her head low. Sylva almost laughed, but when Angorn put a friendly hand on Dot’s shoulder, the laugh died at Sylva’s lips.
“Go to Verdania,” Angorn said. “You can ask Sansea in person.”
Dot nodded, tears in her eyes. And one by one, the remaining bandits came back through the woods, dropping their weapons as they approached. They suffered many cuts and gashes, but they wanted more than relief from pain. The Mother Tree nurtured all of Anador, plant and creature alike. The bandits brought fire and death to her paradise. They had to atone for their sins. Something in Angorn’s eyes told them so.
As the villagers and Wardens bound the wrists and legs of the bandits, Angorn healed everyone. Most Druids would tire of such intense arcane activity, but Angorn was no standard Druid. He was the son of Sansea. Lifeblood of the Wood.
Illuna was at the top of the sky when Angorn finished his work. The villagers provided two wagons for the Wardens to carry the bandits, and several villagers offered to be additional escorts. Not that they needed the help—the bandits were more than keen on meeting the Mother Tree and begging for redemption.
“You should come with us,” the Wardens told Angorn when they were ready to leave. “Tara is an honorable leader. I trust you would feel better about the Wardens if you met her.”
“One day,” Angorn replied. “But this village is one of many. And I am the only root of Sansea that grows independent of her trunk.”
There was little else to be said. The Wardens sighed and signaled the four equine villagers to pull the wagons toward Verdania. Angorn turned away with a smile and strode back through the village with his crowned head held high. It was time for him to take that drink from the stream.
When the son of Sansea passed, the villagers of Delton kneeled before him as they would the High Queen of Anador.
And Sylva was the first to bow.
-Written by Kyle Hubbard