It was a long ride from the king's seat in Eskermere to the wood-locked town of Orm; the wide trade roads through the lowlands and their far-flung net of lakes and rivers narrowed over mounting hills and were squeezed down to mere paths by the ocean of trees that lapped the edges of distant mountains. To the south and west of the king's city, the woods were younger: islands of ash and maple, pine and fir, and to the east the lakes gave way to marshland and the endless plains beyond. In those provinces a man could travel a week in any direction and stop to pay his respects at a different kith-shrine every night. To the north lay only the Oakensea, vast and ancient, a great sprawling tract of oak and aspen and birch that an unwary traveler might lose himself in forever.
That the entire great forest had only a single kith-shrine should have made strangers a common sight at the Quarter dances, or so Koster would have thought. Instead he caused a minor sensation as he stepped from the shadows of the path through the wood, having followed the torches of the celebrants and Senn Arvidson's laughing directions to the clearing at the shrine.
It wasn't a large turnout for a Quarter dance, even taking into account the chill of a spring balance-day. All the same, Orm wasn't a large town, far smaller than might be expected from the age and power of its guardian, and without visitors from the Oakensea's other towns or travelers from beyond its wide bounds, perhaps the sparseness of the crowd wasn't so surprising. He'd had a few of the dancers pointed out to him earlier that afternoon, but he'd been introduced to none; he'd ridden in late, had been collared almost immediately by his new captain and several other rangers, and had only escaped a more thorough rehashing of several weeks' news by the arrival of dusk. He didn't doubt that there'd be plenty of private celebrations that evening, but the gathering at the shrine should have been the best-attended, the dancers not nearly so predictable in their reasons for coming.