She Prays for Victory - Part 8

She ran out of the town, past the tents of her clan where they had pitched them overlooking the road from the north, and out of sight, over a small hill that looked down on Londinium from a distance. As she ran, the moon sank ever farther, and the light of dawn grew behind her, turning the sky dark gray between the stars. The sun was just beginning to crest the horizon when she summited another hill far along the road and looked down across the plain below.

There, encamped across the fields at the back of a narrow gorge, lay thousands upon thousands of their enemies, silent and waiting, as if for a trap to spring. Here and there, watchfires shone in the dwindling darkness, and she could even see their sentries moving to and fro at the edges. Although she knew she stood too far off for mortal eyes to see, she felt exposed and vulnerable, and she cast a glance over her shoulder toward Londinium, where her people would even now be awakening and preparing to advance toward Verulamium, their next target for conquest.

Fighting the urge to turn and race back to their encampment, she turned her eyes instead more directly north and, after a long, silent moment in which the whole world seemed to stand still for her decision, began to run once more.

In the last hour before twilight she came to the edge of the forest, and she paused under its eaves, peering inside. The darkness had already stretched out its fingers around the trunks of the trees, and she could not see the path she sought. Knowing she must trust to instinct—or whatever she thought of as instinct—she stepped inside the wood and began to walk, as quickly as she dared, into its depths.

Tree after tree drifted by her in the lengthening gloom, and as her vision adjusted to the darkness their shapes grew more vague, not less. All stood silent about her, with even the cries of the birds above dwindling into the distance behind as she walked, and no sign of movement before or about her betrayed the presence of any living creature but herself. She walked on, with only the rustling of the leaves at her feet for company, until even the last remaining rays of the sun were receding from the tops of the trees above. Then, almost without warning, she arrived at the place she sought. One moment she had spied the sacred grove before her, and after only a few more steps, she had emerged into it. Looking up, she saw the deep blue of the fading day-sky through the scant leaves of the oak trees above, and those same leaves cast faint, flickering shadows on the ground at her feet.

Before her stood the great oak, the mighty sacred tree from which all the power of the gods and the authority of the druids, their priests, emanated. Wide and gray and tall, it towered above every surrounding tree, spreading its roots out across the ground at her feet. She took a step toward it, and felt a ripple of fear—or awe—run over her skin, but the tree itself only stood silent and proud before her, neither welcoming nor spurning her.