This poem is from the April 16, 2013 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by prompts from siege and DW user Finch. It has been sponsored by Anthony & Shirley Barrette. It belongs to the series Path of the Paladins.
On the promontory, high above them,
stood a strange silhouette
of legs and horns and heads.
Shahana lifted her arm in a graceful wave.
The creature waved back and beckoned to her.
Then it turned and trotted back
into the woods from whence it had come.
"What was that?" Ari asked.
"That was our host for the night,"
Shahana said to her.
The two women made their way
through the autumn forest,
dry leaves crunching beneath their feet.
Squirrels chattered at them as they passed,
and birds sang in the trees.
"This place seems ... more alive,"
Ari said, looking around.
"So much of the world is half-dead,
but it's different here."
"It is," Shahana said.
"You will soon see why."
They came to a clearing on the high ridge
that pointed toward the promontory,
thick with yellowed blades of grass
and the brown seedheads of wildflowers.
There was no church there,
no statues or stained glass windows,
but there was a shrine made from mossy stones
and a sort of offering bowl pecked into the top
of a massive boulder flecked with colorful lichens.
"Holy ground," Ari murmured,
because she had learned to identify that much,
"but it doesn't look like anything I recognize."
"That's because this place is sacred to Diawn,
god of plants, who favors the wild places,"
said a voice from behind them.
Shahana turned, already smiling.
"It's good to see you again, Euan," she said.
"I'd like you to meet my novice, Ari."
Ari stared at the older man
with crow's feet at the corners of his black eyes
and silver streaks in his black hair,
perched comfortably on the back of a moose
with a bizarre set of twisted antlers.
His clothing looked like brown and green leaves
cleverly pieced into several garments.
Euan's left leg was warped
under the leather of his breeches,
and his right was missing below the knee.
Shahana nudged her novice with an elbow.
"Ari, be polite," she reminded.
Then Ari stopped staring and said,
"Thank you for inviting us to your shrine.
Most of the ones we've seen were abandoned."
Euan gave a dark chuckle, creaking
like tree branches rubbed together.
"Oh, it's not for lack of trying," he said,
patting the stump of his leg.
"They've come here any number of times, but
the crow-chasers haven't managed to kill me yet,
nor Duff either." He stroked the dark neck of the moose.
"How do you do it?" Ari asked him then.
"How do you keep your part of the world
so full of life when the rest of it is falling apart?
There are so many horrible people doing evil things,
some days I hardly know how to go on."
"Come, I'll show you," said Euan.
He led Ari to the crescent arc of stones
surrounding the boulder with its offering bowl.
He cupped his hands and spilled nuts into the hollow.
Then he turned to Shahana.
"Is she any good at this?"
"She can follow a cloaking spell if I cast it,"
Shahana said. "I hoped you might teach her
to do it on her own, as you did for me.
I'm not quite skilled enough to do that."
Euan tapped the moose's shoulder,
and Duff lowered his great head
so that the man could clamber down
the ladder of his warped antlers.
Euan seated Ari before the boulder
and then made an odd twirling gesture
as if settling a cloak around her shoulders.
Ari gave a soft "Oh,"
and stilled in place as if turned to stone.
"And there goes the afternoon,"
Shahana said dryly.
Euan shrugged and climbed back
onto his patient moose.
"It will take as long as it takes
for her to meet the forest," he said.
"Then it's just a matter of showing her
how to spin that into a proper spell."
"Truth," Shahana said. "Ari is right, Euan.
You've done wonders with this place."
"It is my calling," he said.
"Someone needs to keep the wild places
while men and gods try to tear the world apart,
so there will be something to rebuild from
when the time comes."
"You're still very philosophical about that,"
Shahana observed. "It bothers me much more."
Euan just shrugged. "Forest fires, lightning,
flash floods -- the world is filled with destruction,"
he said. "Such is the nature of things.
There is no point trying to prevent it all from happening.
You just have to work on minimizing the damage,
and help along the recovery process when it's time."
Shahana looked at her old friend
and marveled all over again.
He was, himself, like a tree struck by lightning,
scarred but unbowed and still fearless of the storm.
Whatever horrors he had seen
were poured back into the forest
to be swallowed up by the shadows and the plants.
Well, that's not a bad idea,
She settled herself on the ground
not far from Ari's motionless form
while Euan and Duff kept watch over them both,
stern and strong as the promontory itself.
It wasn't often that Shahana prayed
in the manner of another faith,
but she'd always had a soft spot
for Diawn of the plants.
She let her awareness sink into the woods,
surrounded by the drowsy murmur
of trees falling asleep for the winter.
It was soothing to let go of the worries for a while
and just be, as if she were a tree herself,
silver ash calm and quiet among the oaks and yews.
This sphere touched on Gailah's too,
for there was a deep abiding peace in the wilderness,
to which Shahana always came when she ventured there.
She sent a final prayer up to her Lady in that way,
light as a leaf on the wind, and then woke
to find herself refreshed and the light nearly gone,
indigo shadows wrapped around them all.
Euan shook Ari awake and patiently explained
how to cast the cloaking spell that covered a paladin
with the soft energy of the world itself.
She picked it up quickly, as Shahana expected
from a peasant girl with a good connection to the land.
They went to Euan's rustic little cabin,
where he made supper for everyone
and offered them a smooth wooden floor to sleep on.
"Thank you for teaching me,"
Ari said to him. "I'm still impressed
by everything you've managed to accomplish,
after all you've gone through and all you've lost."
"I still have two good hands," said Euan.
"That's enough and plenty to get things done."
"And if you didn't have those anymore?"
Ari asked, because the world could be cruel
and she'd seen more than enough of that.
"I'm a paladin, girl," said Euan.
"We work with whatever we've got,
as long as we're left in this world."
Shahana believed him,
and she could see that Ari did too.
After all, they had both seen trees
regrow from nothing more than stumps.
* * *
A bull moose, if gelded on purpose or by accidental injury, will immediately shed his current antlers and regrow a permanent set with a distinctive warped pattern. They're called "devil's antlers" and figure into a number of legends.