A 440 page/100,000 word fantasy adventure
The Druid suddenly opened his eyes, staring up into the oppressive darkness, which was so deep that it seemed to permeate his very skin; he could see nothing. The only sounds that reached his ears were that of his own breathing and, somehow, the resonating of his heartbeat. But where was he? He could see no stars, feel no breeze, hear no stirrings in the night. Continuing to gaze up toward the heavens above, waiting for inspiration, it took him a few spans of heartbeats to recall where he was: in the deep recesses, once used as a prison, of the Druid castle and under guard, lock and key. He lay there breathing. Though fully refreshed, rejuvenated and whole, it would take a bit before his mind cleared from such prolonged sleep. How many times had he done this? How many more times would he extend his life this way?
But what had aroused him? He waited; memories always initially stirred slowly after ten cycles of the sun of restoration. Again, he felt the agitation that had wakened him, the spell he had set to arouse him from the Druid Sleep if Daektoch the Black Mage exerted his malevolent power. Swiftly he rose, his long brown robes and mantle flowing behind him. He strode to the thick-planked door hung on heavy iron hinges, moving like a man of forty cycles though he was well over six hundred, and rapped twice. He then drew back the bolts that would allow the guard to undo the locks on the opposite side of the door; personal safety had a high priority when undergoing the Druid Sleep.
It neared one-quarter of the moon's course under the star-filled sky by the time Jerhad, unaware of how Destiny had resolved to change his life, reached the Rogue Stream. The Rogue, a cold mountain torrent flowing chiefly east to west between the southern Coastal Ridge and bordered on the north side by the Rogue Ridge, had its source in a mount known as Freemont and ended at the Mage River about one league north of Mildra. The icy stream emptied into the river in one last glorious display on its way to the sea, its waters cascading down over a cliff's edge one hundred paces below to where there formed a small lake that was a summer, swimming hole for children and a favorite local fishing spot for Blue-gilled Trout and Red Perch. The chill of its waters was a bit too keen for the adults.
Set upon a cloudless, velvety indigo sky, the silvery moon, risen well over the Coastal Ridge, lit the path enough so that he would not need to slow his pace. He stared up at the sharply graded cliff he must climb to get to the trail that followed the Rogue to Canon. By the snowmelt-swollen stream, cool crisp air refreshed the terrain from the course's oppressive heat. Sounds of frogs, spring peepers and crickets mingled with the roar of the Rogue's waters plunging into the Mage. The night made him feel alive as he reflected on how good things were at home and in his village, leaving him with a sense of security and well-being. This part of Frontmire had not known war, famine or plague in over five hundred cycles of the sun, and the Elves by nature were keenly aware of their fortunate state. At peace among themselves and their neighbors, the Elven villages prospered.
Wouldst thou be willing to do such, Jerhad? came the old man's words to his mind, as a specter in the night.
How did he know my name? Jerhad was sure he had not told him. Again, he surveyed the opening in the forest, the trailhead of the path that would follow the Rogue between the mountains. Cutting straight east, he would save six settings' journey. The track, treacherous at times and isolated, often could be void of traffic for more than a half-cycle of the moon. One fall, one misstep could strand an injured traveler indefinitely. Fortunately, his mother knew which way he went.
"If I'm not back in twenty settings, send cousin William to look for me," he had told her.
"Ah, ye gods in the heavens, Jerhad. Why can't you use
"I'll be fine, Mother. Just plan on how you'll spend that gold you swindled from me," he had taunted her.
Time in Frontmire, and the surrounding lands, was counted by the sun's course from sunrising to sunsetting. This time divided into four quarters and each quarter again into four spans. The night was similarly divided but by the moon's travels regardless of its phases. In that sunrising to sunsetting varied by less than one span per season, these divisions were fairly constant.
About three spans of the moon's course into the night, with the ease of a prowling moor cat, Jerhad journeyed eastward along the path along the Rogue. The dense forest canopy dimmed the soft moonlight; he still traveled at a good speed, for the Elves were of a naturally keen vision at night, utilizing any scant light, managing significantly better than other races.
The mountain stream, its stiff current churning through a boulder-strewn trek, left a lingering, misty and cool air about itself. Mosses and ferns grew thick among the lichen laden Great Live Oaks, their limbs heavy with Strolling Moss and Witch's Beard. In the winter, the mist became far too cold and penetrating to allow reasonable use of the trail, but for now, it provided a sweet relief from the course's earlier crushing heat. He traveled on.
Near two-quarters of the moon's course, he stopped to drink from one of the pure springs that were so numerous in southern Frontmire hills and mountains. In spite of the cool air, a light sweat covered him, and he was thirsty. He drank from the untainted stream, sat and ate a bit of dried fish and fresh bread. Ahh! But could mother bake bread!
Jerhad, now in his twenty-fifth cycle, was a bright young male (only the Humans referred to their males as men). Content with his life at home, helping his parents, he had few pressing responsibilities, which he mostly enjoyed anyway. In his idle time, he occupied himself hunting, fishing with his friends and together exploring the forests along the Coastal Ridge and up along the Mage River. As most young males of the Elven population, he was not prone to mischief, crime or malice but, like all Elves, enjoyed a close communion with the land they worked and inhabited and waters they traveled and fished. The Elves, regrettably, had long forgotten their heritage of magic after having relocated from northern Frontmire to the southern plains and had settled down, becoming a good-natured, practical-minded sober race with a deep enjoyment for life, their legacy of magic lost. Jerhad had an imagination keenly fueled by his grandfather who loved telling stories of the old times: of magic and Druids, Elves of long ago, of dragons and Dwarves. Throughout his lifetime, Jerhad had always hoped that these stories, somehow, were true.
He had not been back on the trail long before he began hearing rustling sounds in the brush behind him. Probably wolves, he thought, but they should not have been following him. It was not uncommon for the local pack of wolves to come out of the mountains to attempt raids on the grazing flocks on the hills above Mildra, on the eastern banks of the river. However, they had also long ago learned that an encounter with the Elves could prove costly. Longbows and fierce herding dogs wearing spiked collars, the only dogs kept by the Elves, often claimed more wolves than the carnivores did sheep. The predators took great measures to avoid the Elves while hunting.
He moved on, listening intently to the sounds about him as he journeyed up the tortuous trail. With certainty, he knew that something, and more than one, stalked him and was closing in. Jerhad grew nervous. Normally, he retained a very calm mind-set, cool in a crisis, but now, this started to get to him. Being alone and in the dark did not help. Neither did his grandfather's stories of hobgoblins and weredragons. He attempted to maintain a steady pace and remain calm, but finally, nerves beginning to fray, he pulled his long-knife from its sheath, the handle moist from the mist, yet surprisingly warm. He looked down to discover that the central stone, of the six imbedded in the handle, the green one, esord in the ancient tongue (meaning foe-finder), had a soft glow to it.
The movement behind him came swiftly! That was one weredragon story too many for him! He ran. The pursuit followed close, the whispering of bodies slipping through the undergrowth hot on his heels. Fleeing at a sprint, he quickly outpaced his pursuers, but it was not long before his breathing became ragged; though in good shape and used to strenuous activity, he was spending himself too fast. He knew he had to get control of the situation before he became exhausted, before he gave away any advantage. Veering off the path he jumped the stream, which only measured some two paces width at this point, and landed in a thick cluster of brush on the opposite side. His lungs burned, wheezing, as he knelt amid the shrubs, listening, waiting, his knife ready. Again, the Elven blade drew his attention; looking down, he saw the yellow stone, licri in the ancient Elven tongue (meaning strength or mighty), glowing also. The amber glow of magic spread up along his arm, embracing him, calming, strengthening. His breathing slowed and grew easy.
On the path across from him, dark sinister shapes materialized along side of the icy, frothing stream. They were of Human form, only small, like children, underfed children, speaking in a fast, high-pitched gibberish. Jerhad could see that they held long thin, crooked looking blades. The blades! They appeared to be the kind of weapons his grandfather said the Forest Gnomes carried. These folk were the right size, carried the right kind of arms and spoke a different language. But what would
The group of Gnomes parted, and to the edge of the rippling stream came a larger Gnome, his hands cupped before him and illuminated with an evil red light, his face with a pointed nose, dark, narrow, slit eyes, and widely spaced spiky, reptilian teeth, reminding Jerhad of a possum. The Gnome stared down into his hands for a span of heartbeats and then looked up directly into Jerhad's eyes, a wicked grin crossing his face. Pointing to Jerhad and shouting a command, he sent the whole of the troop swarming across the tributary after Jerhad.
Again, Jerhad ran. This time he did not go far but pulled up behind a Great Live Oak, leaning against the gnarled tree that caused his enlivened fingers to tingle with the sensation of the coarse bark, quickly having lost the Gnomes in the dark. The knife pulsed to the rhythm of his heart's beating, as his consciousness opened to a hidden instinct deep within him, arousing a slumbering power. It was as if another intelligence or knowledge possessed him. Yet it was him, something of an innate nature awakening: something buried in the fiber of his being that he had never seen, felt or been aware of before. It felt like coming home or waking from sleep.
With the ease of a moor cat, Jerhad leapt up three times again his own height, into the massive limbs of the tree. Again, he leapt up higher; his Elven mind reeled at what transpired as he moved along, guided by the instinct, propelled by this force. Away from the tree, he ran, down the length of the bough, until it began to bend under his weight, and then the Elf sprang to the next tree. Swiftly he scampered, with the ease of a squirrel chasing through branches. His eyesight cleared until he could see as if by the midcourse sun. The sound of the bubbling stream behind him echoed loudly in his ears as the splashing of Gnome feet broke through the water.
Finally he stopped, euphoric at the changes occurring within him. Fear forgotten, his breathing easy, he waited. Shortly, he observed the evil glow making its way toward him.
They're tracking me with it! But how? Unconsciously, he reached within his tunic and drew out the old man's pouch, the silver rune emitting a soft silver-white glow. Quickly he returned the pouch to its place within his coarse travel tunic. How did he know my name?
Jerhad focused his attention on the Gnomes who were dispersed in the forest below him. There were at least eighty, the number of a squad; he clearly understood he could not fight that many of them. From his tree top vantage, Jerhad observed as the Gnome leader tracked him with the luminescent orb. The wicked grin looked up at Jerhad, and then the Gnome barked some orders, sending his underlings scurrying about. The Gnomes piled dried branches around the tree while two others sprayed an oily substance from skins onto the pile, the oil's stench reaching up to the Elf. Soon, a fire blazed at the tree's base, flames licking at the bark, the branches continuing to be piled higher.
Ouch! A shock from the knife handle surged up his arm, as if trying to draw his attention. The Elven blade handle's blue stone, urcha (flight or safety), glowed with an enchanting light that infused his eyes as he gazed into it. It made him feel light-headed, almost ethereal. Again, instinct took over. Standing, he casually walked to the end of the branch, which for some reason did not bend or even move under his weight. His mind rebelled. No! I'll be killed if I drop from this height. Slowly, he surrendered, watching himself as if in a dream, and let himself drop forward.
Thogg, the Gnome leader grinned, his sharp, pointy teeth fully exposed and eyes wide with mirth; he was, after all, a good-natured fellow when things went his way. The Gnomes finally had cornered their quarry. Having been sent in search of the pouch by the puny second-rate wizard, Avenar, the Gnomes had been in search of it for many courses of the sun. The Gray-mage had been insistent that they retrieve it, quickly and unopened. Their mission must have been important; the mad fellow had even given them use of the orb from his staff, the source of his newer magic, to track the pouch and its contents. The wizard was far too paranoid to leave his magically cloaked hideaway to go after the pouch himself.
Having traveled one score of settings of the sun toward the western sea and then south, they had sought an old man who at first had been at sea and sailing north toward the Mildra area, as seen in the orb. The old man had been replaced by a young Elf, now revealed within; well, actually, all Elves appeared young. Since yestercourse, the pouch had again been on land and would soon be in their possession. Their prey had provided a good chase, and it would have been impossible to track him in the dark without the orb, especially when he had seemed to run through the treetops. Now, as the flames about the Elf's refuge grew higher, it would be a short time to possession of the pouch.
The Gnome leader watched on with the deep self-satisfaction he had when things went his way. Then he saw Jerhad stand and walk to the end of the branch. The fool's going to jump!
"How quickly we despair, my little Elf-friend," he chuckled.
Jerhad let himself fall from the tree. Down he went. At least, that's the word that came to mind. Like falling into his grandmother's duck down pillow. He not so much fell as he glided forward above the treetops on the steep cliffs on the north side of Rogue Ridge, away from the stream, the wind rushing across his face and through his hair, filling, as it were, his lungs with life and vigor, a bracing energy coursing through his entire body and his mind in ecstasy. Magic, foreign to the young male, filled him, leaving his mind reeling in bewilderment. In his primary escape from the Gnomes, Jerhad had unwittingly made his way to the top of Rogue Ridge and now progressed toward the River Rain one league away and to the north. With his hearing still keen from the magic's influence, he heard what had the tenor of cursing echoing from the Gnomes on the ridge. His descent increased in speed as he followed above the treetops, arms stretched out as if he were winged. Under the luminescence of the moonlight, he saw the river approaching. He circled once above the water, dropping lower all the time. He circled again as he approached the northern bank of the river, his mind stupefied with the unfolding events.
Water filled his mouth and nostrils before he knew what happened! Fool! He had not been paying attention and had landed in the river. Breaking up through the surface, coughing and sputtering, he swam the short distance to shore. Cold and exhausted, the magic seemingly spent, he dragged himself up onto a hairline's breadth of a shore, crawled underneath the opened and exposed roots of a gigantic Majestic cedar, and he was asleep before the last of the Gnomes that were thrown from the cliffs by their raging leader had hit bottom.
The sun, with promises of making an attempt at scorching the land again by midcourse, had been up one-quarter course when Jerhad woke, trembling from cold, dampness and hunger. Climbing out from his shelter of massive roots, he looked about. Jerhad had never been to the River Rain, which was separated from Mildra by the insurmountably sharp cliffs on the north side of the Rogue Ridge and continued northeast in the same manner all the way to the Maring Sea some fifteen leagues east of Mildra; extremely few of the existing Elves had. Somewhere along this stretch of the eastern turn of the river, there was a village named Rain's Bottom. The name, he had heard tell, had come from the constant flooding that threatened the town during the wet season, the rain and snowmelt accumulating to their doorstep. Yet the residents stayed on, Rain's Bottom's denizens a mixture of trappers, fishermen, hunters, soldiers, shopkeepers and assorted vagabonds. More so, they were mostly all human! Yet, this remained his best option to get help or find how to get back home. Whether to go upstream or downstream was the only problem to solve.
His stomach grumbled; he might as well eat first. He still had his pack, his knife, which he noted no longer glowed, and yes, the old man's pouch, which after verifying he still had, he returned within his clothes where he kept it, hanging on an oiled-leather strand. Pulling a loaf of soaked bread from his pack, he decided that it definitely had the look of fish food to it, and so, he dropped it into the river. The wedge of cheese wrapped in a beeswaxed cloth seemed to have survived better than the soggy, smoked fish.
Well, I guess it's cheese and sopped fish for breakfast! he thought as he sat himself down in a sunny spot, hoping to dry off his clothes and warm himself. Having eaten, he decided to set a couple of driftwood timbers afloat and ride down the river. The current seemed fast enough, and he was already wet. Drifting downstream would beat trying to blaze trail through the brambles that choked the riverbank. If Rain's Bottom lay upstream, he would still eventually have an opportunity to stop at one of the many villages that lay farther downstream. The worse case scenario was that he could ride the river all the way to the east coast and make his way south from there.
Jerhad had been on the river for two risings and three-quarter courses of the sun when his raft hit a sand bar in a turn in the river. Using some rope that he carried in his pack, he had lashed the two large pieces of timber together to construct the craft; and then he had tied some fir boughs to the top, hoping to keep himself above the water. Finally, he secured a short log across the two longer ones to form a seat in the center of the vessel. From this lofty purchase, he alternated between the use of either a long pole that he had cut with his knife or a makeshift paddle. Once afloat, he managed to keep dry down to his knees, his pant legs rolled as high as they could be. He now had slept two nights in the bush along the river using his light tarp to form a shelter.
Securing his vessel with the last of his rope to prevent it from going off without him, the Elf sat on a rock on shore to eat from the rapidly dwindling supplies he had brought from home. Feeding himself by using his skills would now become a priority. There would be no berries or nuts to be found this early in the season, so he set about digging for familiar wild roots, which he could boil in the small hammered-tin pot he carried in his pack. The Elves were resourceful when traveling in the wild, usually carrying enough light supplies to be self-sufficient if necessary. Excellent hunters, fishers and scavengers of edible plants and roots, they fared well in the wilderness. Among their supplies could usually be found a few cooking utensils, a hook and line, twine for a snare, a light tarp for shelter and a bedroll. Many traveled with a longbow and arrows, which Jerhad had left behind, not anticipating this detour.
Soon, he had ten Red Perch on his stake, having used salamanders caught under rocks along the shore as bait. With flint and steel in hand, he soon had a fire burning. The perch, he skewered on sticks to cook; he preserved the rest by heat drying them on sticks that he stuck in the sand and by the fire. He boiled the roots to draw out their bitterness. After eating, he wrapped the remaining fish in Tannic Oak leaves to help preserve the fish and leftover roots. He decided to make camp here for his third night on the river, building another makeshift lean-to against a rocky overhang, lining the ground with pine and fir needles onto which he unrolled his bedding and settled down for the night. Spring water being abundant, he refilled his water skin. Now, he sat back against the sun-warmed stone of the cliffs where he camped, the emitting heat a welcomed sensation to his back. Removing a small tin from his pouch, he opened it and took out a short briar pipe and a leather of tobac. Fortunately, these had stayed dry in his earlier swim in the river. He packed himself a pipe-full, and, using the glowing ember at the end of a stick from the fire to light up, he sat back to enjoy a good smoke.
It was an old Elven custom to smoke, but as with wine and ale, it was practiced in moderation. It was said that the custom of smoking tobac had been adopted from the Dwarves. Rumor had it that the Dwarves grew the tobac that the Elves smoked, at least the best varieties. Merchant ships brought barrels of tobac to Mildra as an item to be used in barter and trade. The oak casks it came in were extremely well built and tightly bound with iron rings, the casks themselves were considered a valuable commodity. Jerhad sat back and drew a mouthful of the naturally sweet and aromatic smoke, allowing it to return from his mouth and up into his nostrils, savoring the fruity fragrance, relaxing as the sun set in the crimson sky to the west.
Jerhad had reflected on his experiences of the past few courses as he had drifted down the river. Again and again, he mulled them over in his mind: how he had met the old man that had sent him on this quest, how the Gnomes had then pursued him and how his knife had proven to have magic. The Gnomes would be tracking him again with the magical orb. It would prove difficult for them to get down the cliffs of the Rogue Ridge; he hoped that he had left them far enough behind as not to see them again though he did not believe it.
The Forest Gnomes, reputed as being nasty, underhanded and tenacious, should not have been encountered in these parts. Actually, aside from reputations, they normally dwelt at relative peace with their neighbors, but it was a fact that they were easily led into or hired out to do dirty work. They were not known for having any magic, which made Jerhad wonder all the more at what was amiss about this situation. He had to conclude that they sought the pouch the old man had given him, since they had no dealings with the Elves and had never been known to come this far south out of their home region in the eastern Mystic Mountains.
Jerhad again reflected on the events that had set this episode in motion: He had been lying half asleep under an ancient Silver Willow common to the southwest of Frontmire, a land mass forming a peninsula that approached being an island off the greater continent of Canterhort....
Spring had taken hold of Mildra, the sun's unseasonable swelter had slowed the populace to a halt as they waited for the
Jerhad had watched as an old, gray-bearded man in brown robes and mantle, bent with age and relying heavily on his staff, made his way up the road and ambled up the steep incline past Jerhad's home. The lane was lined with wood-planked and fieldstone built homes, the cedar-shake roofs painted in a variety of bright colors that complimented the walls. Through the uncanny aura produced by looking out through eyelashes of barely opened eyes and the shimmering of the air that rose as a mirage from the sun-baked cobblestone street, Jerhad watched as the man neared. The whole scene appeared as a dream or vision from some distant past. The old man's sharply angulated features, high cheekbones and long hawkish-beaked nose painted an almost sinister appearance. His short hair and long beard, both streaked with the gray of age, were gnarled and unruly.
When the man was almost past the house, he turned to Jerhad and in a firm, spellbinding voice spoke. "Hot. Is it not? Thou doest appear to be weathering it well though."
His language and accent originated on the
"Yes," responded Jerhad, turning onto his side and propping his head up on his arm, acquiring a long blade of grass to chew on with his free hand. "Very hot. Why don't you get out of the sun and rest here in the shade for a while?"
Without hesitation, the old man, in his stooped posture, hobbled toward him. For but a span of heartbeats, it appeared to Jerhad that the old man did not seem all that old, but younger, and though not a large man, possessed of a muscular build, his gait perhaps deliberately slow rather than stiff. When from under thick, heavy brows the man looked up again, his eyes, clear, deep dark pools filled with knowledge and intelligence, met Jerhad's. The aged man gazed as if peering into Jerhad's inner being, searching his thoughts, his motives and fears. Flustered, Jerhad turned away; when he looked back, all he saw was an ordinary appearing grandfatherly figure. Funny...just an old man, he thought. Jerhad wondered why he had imagined that he had seen something else.
"I thank thee, mine son, for the offer of thine shade in allowing an old man to rest himself. Permit me to seat mineself beside thee. Mine name is Morlah. I hadst not been in this region in many cycles; it hast changed little. It hast been two risings of the sun since I came from Parintia to journey to Canon in the eastern mount known as Freemont. I doest seek to deliver a certain object to its rightful owner; however, mine journey across the sea didst cause mine old bones to ache, and now, I am in doubt of mineself as to whether I shouldst continue upon mine cause."
Canon, a mountain city on the southeast end of Frontmire, was normally accessed through Mildra. The reefs along the south and southeast coastline of the peninsula made it unapproachable by ship or small boat, so those venturing there usually docked in the port in Mildra and went on by foot or oxcart on the road that followed the southern coast to Canon. A journey of eleven settings of the sun and one rising, Jerhad doubted the frail appearing old man could make the arduous journey along the old coastal road. At least not on foot.
"...and I didst wonder," continued the old man, "if I couldst procure the services of one, mayest I say, more capable to the task: a younger man to make the journey in mine stead."
A trip to Canon, mused Jerhad with interest; he had been lazing about for a quarter-cycle of the moon since the spring planting had been finished and while waiting for the gray tarpon to run the river: The tarpon swam into the bay and up the
"...and wouldst offer such a lad four large golds for making such a delivery."
"Four golds?" Jerhad came fully awake and sat up.
"Yes. Four large golds shouldst well compensate such an effort. And to provide incentive to see the journey through, the receiver willst also pay two large golds upon delivery of said item. Wouldst thou know of one willing and able to undertake such, Jerhad?"
Six golds was more than Jerhad could earn in a hundred courses of the sun. Heros, the
Not wanting to appear too eager, and wondering if the old man might be hungry, Jerhad asked, "Will you take meat with me, old man? My father is at sea on a merchant ship and my mother is at her shop in the market, but I could find us some bread and cheese and cold spring water."
"No. I must find one who willst execute mine errand and mayhapst find mineself aboard the MayBest. She doest sail with the tide this eve to return to the island," declined the old man, fanning himself with a leafy branch he had found on the ground, the light breeze afforded by the leaves appearing to refresh him.
"I'll go. I'll go to Canon for you. Six golds you said?" said Jerhad, his excitement rising with each heartbeat.
"Yes, Six large golds. Four now and two upon delivery. These then art mine instructions if thou doest desire the task.