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It was nearly impossible to see through the thick mist that had descended on the valley. But it didn’t matter to Ekkva; she had lived here for the better part of her life and would know her way around even when blindfolded. She followed the familiar babbling of the creek downstream until she found the circle of standing stones.

Samppu sat outside the sacred circle, cross-legged and with his head bent in meditation. Drops of dew had gathered on his thick, umber fur; he must have been waiting for quite a while.

Ekkva cleared her throat. Samppu's head shot up and his hand reached for the studded staff that lay at his side. Once he had recognized Ekkva, he relaxed and left his staff where it lay.

‘The spirits see us,’ she said and touched her right horn in greeting.

‘The spirits know us.’ Samppu's voice trembled when he gave the traditional answer to her greeting.

‘How fares your father?’ Ekkva asked.

Samppu shrugged. ‘He is ever displeased that his son and heir would be a druid and not a warrior.’

Samppu was muscular and large, and he dwarfed the nine-foot standing stones with ease: he would have been a fine warrior indeed. But for all his mass, muscle, and training, the heir of the chieftain of the western clans had a head for magic and mysticism, and not for axe and shield.

‘Don’t worry,’ Ekkva said. ‘He may fret, but he sees your talent, as I do.’

‘I hope so,’ Samppu said.

Ekkva smiled. ‘Come on,’ she said, but when she beckoned Samppu to follow her into the circle of stones, he hesitated. ‘Have you been to a sacred circle before?’ She asked.

Samppu shook his head.

Ekkva studied him for a moment. ‘They are the secret places of power of druids,’ she said. ‘This one was built by my clansmen, before the humans slaughtered us.’ She brushed her hand over the moss-covered altar. The simple, stone block felt cold and slippery, but the power inside it made her skin prickle and the gray fur on her hand stand upright.

‘What must we do here?’ Samppu asked. He looked at the standing stones as if they could jump on him at any second.

Ekkva took a small, sealed jar from her pouch and placed it on the altar. She took a step back, looked at the jar, and stroked her white beard.

‘This is a trapped spirit,’ she said. ‘We will use it in a simple ritual to imbue--’ she looked around until her eyes found Samppu’s studded staff in the wet grass, ‘--your staff. It is the next step in your education. If you are to be a strong druid that leads the clans of the west, you must know how to perform such rituals.’

She looked at him again. ‘If this goes well,’ she said, ‘then you are an apprentice no more.’

Samppu’s eyes widened and he opened his mouth to speak.

Ekkva raised her hand. ‘No discussion,’ she said. ‘I have already spoken to your father of this. You are a good druid, Samppu, fit to lead. It is time for you to end your training and start leading the clans of the west.’

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