Chapter 2

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The following day Eleri was up before dawn.  Her excitement at the coming marriage ceremony had yet to abate and had kept her awake through most of the night.  Only when she silently promised the Lady that she would return to the forest once the sun was up and leave an offering of thanks at one of the woodland altars, did she finally fall into a deep, dreamless sleep.

After only a few hours of rest, she was awake once more, her recent promise already on her mind.  She rose quietly and moved through the summer camp and sleeping bodies in silence.  As the figures on the ground thinned, she glanced back and saw Celyn, who had been staying with the king's retinue, following her.

'Where are you sneaking off to in the dark?' he whispered when he reached her.

'Don't fret.  Dawn's not far off.  I have a gift to leave the Lady for the blessings of yesterday.'

Celyn leaned in and kissed her goodbye.  'Promise me you won't be gone all day?'

She smiled as she pulled away.  'I promise.  The sooner I go, the sooner I return.'

The warrior relinquished his hold and she turned to face the hill crowned with the shadows of the forest.  As she climbed she could feel Celyn's eyes on her; she knew he would not turn away until he could no longer see her.  He would have come with her, if she had asked, which, now that the thought had crossed her mind, she wished she had.  With both of their gratitude invested in the offering, the Lady was sure to continue smiling on them, Eleri realised.  Next time, she mused.

By the time she'd finished climbing, the sun had crept over the horizon.  On entering the forest, she felt instantly at home.  She spent more time within its leafy borders than anywhere else, as her work was focused on the sacred spaces hidden in the forest and the numerous wayside altars along the more well-travelled paths.  It was to one of these altars that she was heading now.  The nearest grove was a few hours walk away and, should she choose to go there, it would be midday before she returned to the summer camp.  Besides, an offering was what she promised the Lady and to fulfil her obligation all she needed was an altar.

She knew which shrine she wanted to visit.  It wasn't the one closest, but neither was it too far into the trees.  It was on a lesser-known trail, snuggled neatly between the trunks of two closely-growing trees.  The trees to which the trunks belonged had long-since died, but ivy had curled its way around it covering it entirely with greenery.

Slowly the soft morning light began to push its way between leaf and branch, painting the forest floor in a patchwork of shadow and silvery-gold.  Off to one side of the path, fine strings of silver thread, like the strings on a harp, were caught in sunbeams. Somewhere above, a wood pigeon cooed, and then another responded to its call.

As Eleri tuned in to the sights and sounds of the woodland, she became lost in its enchantment.  In no time at all her feet had carried her to her destination.  At the foot of the altar, she sat down facing it.  A large boulder with a flat top nestled between the ivy-clad tree trunks.  The flat surface was covered by a lifetime of gifts to the Lady of the Forest, though many more would have withered away and been returned to Her.

Eleri took out a stone from the pouch she carried on her belt.  In it she placed all interesting and valuable things she came across.  This particular stone had been found on a stream bed in late spring.  Then, placing it on the altar, she began to sing the Song of the Trees.  It was an old song, it was a long song, sung in both the ancient tongue and the new language of her people.  Whilst she sang, she gathered to her fallen twigs which she wove together to form a wicker outline of a woman, the Lady of the Woodland.

Once the final verse of the song was complete, she stood the statuette in the centre of the altar, whispering her words of thanks. Her promise now fulfilled, she could return to the gathering.

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