Tarwen and Rowan slogged through the underbrush at dusk. They were at the end of enduring a pressingly hot day; even being in the woods where shade was plentiful and thankfully some of the springs were only reduced to a trickle and not all dried up.
Now, as the sun receded the air was finally more breathable. Rowan adjusted the straps of his bulky pack and wiped his brow.
“How much longer, you think?”
Tarwen turned his back to him. He had little droplets of sweat on the bridge of his nose and his face showed traces of dirt where he had wiped away sweat before.
“I do not know any more than I did twenty steps ago.”
Rowan swallowed once more, his mouth dry. His feet shuffled forward and kicked up brittle earth that once had been mud. He followed Tarwen, who again had picked up speed and was scanning the tree line left and right from the path.
The sun vanished behind the hill altogether and the sky turned from light blue to gray. As soon as Rowan smiled at the evening, he heard the humming of mosquitoes in his ears. The first of many of their bites came right after. Still, Tarwen kept walking.
“It’s going to be completely dark soon,” Rowan called out. “Shouldn’t we make camp?”
“There is a nice, full moon out. I told you, we need to be there on time.”
Rowan shook his head and kept marching. After quite some steps, Tarwen held up his hand. He looked around, sniffing the air. He turned a full circle, slowly. He kneeled down and pressed his ear to the crusty ground.
“It’s here. It’s got to,” he announced. He turned once more and pointed into the forest.
“That’s the path.”
Rowan planted his feet beside Tarwen.
“I see no path nowhere.”
“It’s there. It just hasn’t been used in a while.”
“But didn’t you say others were coming as well?”
“Maybe we’re the first?”
Rowan scratched his head.
“So, first you hurry me for days, so that we won’t be last and now we’re the first?”
Tarwen put his hands on his hips.
“If you keep complaining like a little swaddle boy, I will send you home and that will be that.”
He walked off into the forest where he had indicated the path to be. Rowan drudged behind, making sure he did not lose sight of Tarwen’s pack.
It was proper night by the time Tarwen raised his hand again. The moon darted slivers of pale light through the rustling trees and the searching hoots of an owl made Rowan’s skin crawl. He wanted to be sheltered and safe, not out and about in the uneasy company of hidden night prowlers. He felt too much like prey.
He closed the distance to Tarwen in careful steps. Tarwen pointed to something in the underbrush.
“There. Do you see it? There it is.”
“Oh, now I see it. But it’s dark. No light, no nothing. Are you sure this is the right place and the right time?”
Tarwen brushed a small branch aside and walked forward.
“Is it the seventh day of the seventh month of the seventh year after the darkest day or not?” he asked.
“Yes, everyone said so,” Rowan replied.
“Then it is the right time and this has got to be the place.”
They both walked up to the small, straw decked hut that was located beneath thirsting pine trees with brittle needles. Once there, Tarwen looked inside and Rowan walked all around it.
“It’s tiny,” Rowan said.
“And empty,” Tarwen added.
“This can’t be it,” Rowan concluded. But Tarwen was leaning forward and rubbing dust from a sign by the entrance. The sign itself seemed to be made of some sort of metal. It was too dark to tell what sheen it had. Tarwen moved the sleeve of his right arm over it several times. Then he angled it toward the moonlight so he could read.
“What does it say?” Rowan asked.
“It says: ‘Wake me up and be welcome,’” replied Tarwen.
Rowan scrunched his nose.
“That doesn’t make any sense at all.”
Tarwen grabbed the door handle and opened the door with an energetic pull. He walked into the hut and once inside, turned a full circle. Rowan shrugged and followed after. He reckoned that a hut was better than nothing in the forest in the night. Even if this wasn’t the Inn they were looking for, it was warm and dry and had a door you could close. He pulled the straps of his pack over his weary shoulders and sat it down. Tarwen was examining the walls and pulled out his flint.
“Grab that candle from that shelf, will you?”
Rowan staggered to where Tarwen stood.
“You have cats eyes. I didn’t even see the shelf.”
Tarwen worked the flint and Rowan held the massive metal candleholder with the black candle inside it close, so that the wick would catch a spark and would ignite the candle. After several tries it did.
The candle flickered to light and the hut was bathed in a warm, orange light.
Rowan smiled at his older brother. Tarwen had once again kept him safe.
Tarwen was about to take his pack off when the earth shook. The hut wobbled and spun. Crackling noises danced in Rowan’s ears and the air smelled as if they were standing right in a rainless thunderstorm. The kind that was responsible for killing whole flocks of sheep on the mountainsides. The candle was blown out with a whoosh of air. Then the rattling and shaking stopped. All was silence and darkness.
“What by the sorcerer’s tail was that?” asked Rowan.
“Shhhh!” Tarwen pointed to the door.
“I think I hear singing from out there. And there is light coming from the gap under the door.”
Rowan’s spine tingled. The little hairs on his arms and the back of his neck stood up. The candleholder with the extinguished candle was shaking in his hand. He carefully set it down on the floor.
Tarwen walked to the door and slowly opened it just a crack. Then he let it open wide and he stepped outside. Rowan followed behind into a small clearing illuminated by a great number of lanterns that were hung in the trees. Opposite from them they saw a massive house, built from strong lumber and thatched with moss. Its windows were illuminated from the inside and another huge lantern hung by the front door. Music and people’s laughter trailed its merry way from the house to the brothers and the smell of baked pies came with it. Rowan inhaled deeply, his mouth watering. Still, he was rooted to the spot.
“It can’t be. Where did all this come from? I walked around the hut and there was nothing!”
Tarwen looked a bit pale around the nose.
“I think we did what we were supposed to. We woke it.”
He shouldered his pack again and walked forward. Rowan put on his pack as well. He reached out and held his brother’s arm.
“Do you think it wise to go there?”
Tarwen pointed at the brass sign swinging at the front porch.
“This is where we need to go. No matter how strange the journey.”
Rowan took a closer look at the sign. His brother was right. They had arrived at the Inn of the Seventh Goddesses.