The two figures appeared from nowhere. One moment Mhorik and I were alone, the next we were not. I jumped back and instinctively grasped for magic that wasn’t there to try to protect myself.

One figure walked toward me, holding a club ready in his hand. He (I think it was a ‘he’) had rich, dark skin and impossibly green hair that came down to his shoulders. His clothes were unadorned, made from some sort of fine vine twisted upon itself instead of the usual furs and hide. I looked at his face and a sound like a babbling stream came at me. Despite the panic that should have been overwhelming me, I felt almost passive.

My attention snapped to Mhorik who was saying something in quiet but quick tones. Even without magic, he still had an edge of authority to his voice that demanded attention. I saw him carefully take out something wrapped in an old hide from his pack. He put it gently down on the ground and unwrapped it, revealing a slab of dried dark clay. He picked it up carefully and handed it to the other figure standing near him. The figure looked at the slab, then turned to the other figure, making some noises that sounded more like speech, but nothing like actual words.

“Be still, Dorua. I have this under control,” Mhorik said, a sense of controlled urgency in his voice.

I tried to respond, but my tongue just wouldn’t move in my mouth. The figure near me turned away toward his companion and I felt a weight lift off of me. “Mhorik?” I managed to croak.

“Just be still,” he repeated. I shook my head and tried to regain my senses.

The two figures talked for a bit, then the one turned back to Mhorik and reverently handed the clay slab back to him. The strange person made some hand motions and turned away, putting the club away on his belt.

“Dorua, get ready. Don’t worry, everything is fine.”

I felt my body fall back under my control. I took a deep breath to steady myself, then I got to my feet and went to my pack. I quickly put things back in and slung the pack over my shoulder. Mhorik had put the slab back in its hide wrappings and put the bundle back into his own pack. He got up and put his hand on my shoulder. “We will go with them.”

“Who are they?” I asked, having completely shaken off the stupor from before.

“They are the Lelra, guardians and masters of this forest. We will see the matron.”

“Matron?” I asked, not familiar with the word.

“She’s the female that leads them.”

“Like a wizard?”

“Not exactly,” Mhorik said quietly. “All the Lelra seem to control magic in some way.”

I looked at Mhorik in shock. “All of them?”

“All I have met. Their magic tends to be subtle, though. Do not try to use magic while we are here.”

We walked in silence the rest of the way. We took no discernible path through the forest, but the Lelra didn’t hesitate, merely walking through the area and turning at seemingly random times. I ached to reach out and see if there were some magic guiding them, but I didn’t dare go against Mhorik’s words.

Finally we stopped. One of them turned around and held out his hand.

“We wait here,” Mhorik said quietly. The figure turned and left.

I finally dared to look around, and the sight took my breath away. What I thought was a merely a dense forest turned out to be a small area full of… people… like the two that guided us here. Some nearby carried filled baskets, entering what I now saw as doorways into buildings made of living plants. They moved quickly, stealing glances in our direction. Looking carefully, I also saw a few small ones peeking out from lit doorways, eyes wide in wonder at us.

My attention was drawn back to the figure who returned, stepping through what I now recognized as a doorway. He waved us toward him, and Mhorik put his arm around me to guide us through.

We entered an impressively large room, the walls made of living leaves of nearby plants. There was a dim, green light infusing the area, and it took my eyes a minute to adjust. Mhorik had already taken off his pack and had taken out the bundle again. He was unwrapping it as he stepped forward.

Just as I thought I couldn’t be startled anymore that day, my eyes fell on the magnificence of the far end of the room. A lavish and ornate chair, fashioned from the living wood of a tree, dominated the whole far side of the room. Upon it sat a dark matron, unquestionably powerful just by her mere presence. She sat upright, looking down upon the rest of the room and all the people below. I felt insignificant in her presence, and then she spoke.

“Mhorik,” she said, the words sounding odd on her lips as if she had never spoken aloud before. She drew a breath and started again, “Mhorik, you are returned.”

“Yes, matron.”

“The cycles pass and time weighs upon you. But, my mind blossoms with joy that you have returned.”

Mhorik’s hand reached up and stroked his beard. “It has been so many seasons.”

“Yes. You have brought back the symbol.”

“I have. I have kept it all this time as you told me to.”

She reached out her hands, seeming simultaneously spry and supple like a young girl’s, thin and wiry like an old woman’s, and powerful like a hunter’s. Mhorik held the slab out and gently gave it to her. Her face lit up as she held it. The matron then blew on it gently, and the symbol glowed a bright green. She gasped, obviously surprised. She then grasped the slab and with great effort cracked it in two. A small wisp of green came out and floated away as she spoke something that sounded like the rain against a roof at night. She then looked at Mhorik.

“You have proven yourself powerful, dangerous, but kind. You have also proven some of our wisest to be wrong in their assumptions. As we agreed so long ago, I will give you one boon. Name it.”

“I only wish free passage through your domain, matron. Perhaps some supplies, if you can spare them.”

A laugh like the quiet ocean waves came from her. “Easily granted, wizard, for you and your companion.” She said something and two figures ran off out of the room.

“Tell me about your companion, Mhorik.”

“This is my apprentice, Dorua. I am teaching her the ways of how to properly control magic.”

“Dorua,” the matron said, feeling the form of the words as they left her mouth. “I like that name. I see she has part of your power.”

“Yes, it is as I had hoped. Our ways are not so different.”

“I see they are not, as you told us seasons ago.”

The two figures came back in, carrying a bundle of supplies with them.

“Take these with you. The water is from the sweet spring here and will give you energy. The food is nourishing and will clear your mind as you need.”

“Thank you, matron.”

“You know our rules, but I will explain them to Dorua,” and she looked directly at me. “You are under our protection in this wood. Stay to the path we will show you. Do not harm any living thing intentionally. Do not bring fire into our bounds. Leave the stone cairns as you find them. Finally, do not alter the balance of magic here. Do you understand?”

I had no choice but to nod. But, looking into her face I saw her mouth break into a smile. “Learn well, Dorua. Mhorik has proven himself a potent teacher.”

I withered under her glance. “Thank you, matron,” was all I could manage to say.

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