It was a fine May evening, unusually hot for that time of the year, and the hint of a thunderstorm hung in the air. The first flowers had made their annual appearance a few weeks prior, and now, in the hills and dales, blossoms grew as far as the eye could see. A fair wind from the south blew on the two men walking down the dusty footpath, called the Shady Spring Way, or what the villagers simply called the Shady.
Malchius stopped and wiped the sweat from his brow. He glanced at his father to reassure himself that Corus was still there. He felt somewhat the fool for doing so, but the village talk about strangers waylaying people had set his nerves on edge.
Generally speaking, one could walk the Shady from the King’s fields to the sturdy wooden gates surrounding the village of Ambia in half an hours time. The path meandered somewhat. At first, it led through a large field with many small hills, dotted here and there with farms. Next, one had to climb a steep hill through a small wood. At the bottom of the hill, on the other side, the path crossed a stream. A small bridge, faithfully painted white each summer, led one to another, larger, adjoining lane. From there, it was but a short jaunt downhill to the sleepy little town, nestled deep in the heart of the Ambian Forest; the Forest, as the inhabitants called it. No one knew how big the Forest was, except that it comprised the entire kingdom of Selidorn, a small country now since passed out of time and remembrance.
"I tell you the truth son," began his father. A man of large build, closely-cropped hair, and a large-grizzled beard. "I don’t know if we can hold out much longer. Mizraims just raised taxes again, for the second time this year. We already work twice as much in his fields as we did ten years ago. Time was when a man could work two days out of seven for Mizraim, and still have time for his own fields. This working four days cannot go on for long. I don’t know how much longer we can make it." Once, Corus was a strong man, but now walked with drooped shoulders and bent back. Many long years toiling in the hot summer sun and cold windy winters from daylight to dusk had wrinkled his skin and whitened his beard prematurely. Still, Corus had a zest for life. He was plump, well-fed, and had large, deep, glossy eyes, with a big wart on his chin. He was not a talkative man, but smiled a lot, and for this reason people thought him wise. He made his living, as did nearly everyone else in the land, by farming. Every day, from dawn till dusk, he toiled and labored in the fields; four days for King Mizraim and three days in his own. Taxes were high and Mizraim demanded more from the crop than did other kings, yet Corus rarely complained. He always managed to have enough for himself, his wife Adeth, and their only son.
"Surely, Mizraim knows of our labors and the hours we work out here," Malchius said. "It’s only a matter of time before he relents. He can’t turn a blind eye towards us forever."
Malchius stood a full six feet, tall for his age and still growing. He was not very broad chested, but was well muscled. His face was hard and angular, yet supple. A curious feature about his face was his eyebrows. They were fairly pointed and gave him, others said, a sinister look. His skin was a touch lighter in hue than the others in Ambia. Not noticeable at first, but one gleaned something different about him.
"I tell you he can. He’s practically a divine being and can do what he so desires. Something has to break sooner or later, and the sooner, the better."
They continued on and were just in sight of the village walls, when in the distance they heard the neighing of a horse and the gallop of hooves. An instant later the madly-driven creature appeared pulling a rickety old cart. Within seconds it was upon them. The driver, a pale man, black-cloaked and wearing a tall, dark, and shapeless hat, appeared not to see them.
"That fool has a mind to trample us to death!" Malchius shouted. "Look out!"
A split second before the hooves were upon them, Malchius grabbed his father and pushed him out of the way. The rear-left foot of the horse just clipped Malchius’ thigh so that later a large bruise was left. Corus and Malchius tumbled hard to the ground and rolled into a briar patch.
"Ho! Whoa Darkmere!" came the rider’s voice. It sounded cold and cracked and foreign. The horse, frightened at coming on Malchius and Corus on a sudden, reared upon its hind legs. The driver nimbly jumped off, just as the cart overturned.
"You crazed halfwit...," Malchius trailed off into a stream of obscenities and grabbed the reigns. Strewn about the roadside were parcels and bags. Corus ran over and looked around frantically for the driver, but he was gone. Hastily, he righted the trap and piled the packages together. Malchius finally succeeded in calming the horse down.
"Go to the house and get a torch son. I don’t see as well as I used, but that tramp is laying around here somewhere. Most likely unconscious, curse him!" Malchius rubbed his legs gingerly and jogged off to Old Farmer Wint’s house, the first house in the village. Corus brushed himself off and looked about him. With a worried look, he peered up and down the road, then into the surrounding forest. His skin felt prickly and his mouth was dry. He wondered if he had somehow wandered off into the village in the general confusion of the wreck, but something told him otherwise. Malchius had been gone sometime and Corus was just about to follow after when a dark figure crossed his path. He turned to see a bedraggled, unkempt man of nearly his own age staring at him. Pale and thin-faced, he had a predatory look, that reminded him of a vulture.
"Hi! Stranger. Where might you be going on an evening such as this?" asked Corus quickly. The stranger startled him made him a nervous. He was not one to enjoy surprises, and it made him talkative. "Are you hurt?"
"No, quite all right. My horse here took fright at you." Corus noticed the tramp had a foreign accent. He meant to ask where in all Ambia he had been hiding, and why, but simply asked "Who are you?"
"A stranger, far from home, and alone. I’m on my way to Berithia." "Berithia? Why that’s an hour’s drive away. You could have spent the night at the Silver Spring Inn. Why the hurry?"
"Business. If you must know, I’m a trader."
Corus pointed to the village. "Well, come inside trader and have a drink at my house. There’s no hurry tonight."
"I must make Berithia soon. I cannot be late."
"Oh, com’n. Don’t be a stranger. Is fifteen minutes too long? Come. We rarely get visitors in these parts. News of elsewhere would be welcome. I’ve righted your trap and secured your goods. Now, ain’t that worth something?" The stranger started.
"Were any of the packages opened?"
"Nay, not a one," Corus replied. "Some were a might bit damaged and nearly all were muddy, but none were opened." A grin crept up in the tramp’s cold, pallid face. He removed his hat and scratched a mass of long wiry hair.
"I’ll visit for a brief spell."
Corus helped the tramp pile the packages into his wagon. Soon, Malchius returned carrying three torches. He eyed the tramp suspiciously when Corus told him that he would be visiting for a spell. They walked to the village in silence, through the tall, wooden gates to their home. They were met by Corus’ wife at the door.
Adeth was a rather lumpy, red-cheeked peasant with an apt to talk at great length about everything in general and nothing in particular. She was homely, plain, superstitious, and had a tendency for her imagination to run wild, (which is partly the reason why Corus often responded to her with that trite but popular phrase, uh-huh). She always expected the worse. Her hair was dark brown, frizzy, and very long. Although her legs were short and stubby, they were well-muscled from ceaseless walking.
"Corus, is that you? Oh…" She had just noticed the man. Her spine tingled. She was not a learned woman by any means yet she divined something ill with him. Something she could have never explained, she simply knew.
"Welcome," she said curtly.
The stranger bowed and entered.
"Meet my wife, Adeth. Malchius, here, whom you’ve already met, is our only son." He put his hand on his son’s head.
"So," Adeth said. "I don’t suppose you’ve a name. How about it."
"Graul," his voice spoke, "Graul of Ettrune."
"Ettrune, eh? Where might that be? I’ve never heard of it."
Graul pointed his long bony hand eastward and replied, "I come from the province of Ettrune. One of the smaller provinces of the land we call Turul. It lies many days in the East, near the borders of the Great Sea. My road has been long and weary, for I seek no specific destination. Turul has become a place of desolation. We are overcrowded, water is scarce, and famines rage across the land. Among the more adventuresome of our people, the Emperor has sent us into the far quarters of the world in search of new dwelling places. We seek new lands and peace."
"Are there many of you...um...traders about?" asked Corus.
"Not many. Soon, however, our numbers will increase."
An uncomfortable silence ensued. Corus asked another question. "You’ve an emperor?"
"Yes. The Emperor Melchizadar. The Venerable, as he is sometimes called. He is the Giver of Life to our peoples in our present time of trouble. He exacts no taxes upon us and allows us to work our own lands. His own servants till his soil, unlike of course, a certain Mizraim, if the stories are true."
Corus smirked, "Yes, what you’ve heard is true." And for the next fifteen minutes he recanted the unjust doings of King Mizraim. Graul listened attentively, without moving, then said.
"I am beginning to see Ambia through your eyes kind man. Perhaps in the future, Melchizadar will extend his dominions to Ambia, and then.... Well, I make no promises, but perhaps your King Mizraim will have no more abusive powers and the land will become free as Turul."
"Well, Graul of Ettrune, they’ve sure have a funny way of speaking in your country, but what I say is this. If this Emperor of yours, Melchizadar, is half as good as you say he is. Well, the change’ll be most welcome." said Adeth.
"Yes, it would be different," came his flat reply.
"Say now, being a traveling man and all, has anything newsworthy been happening in the other parts of Selidorn. We’re rather secluded here in the forest."
Graul paused for such a time that Corus almost asked the question again when he replied. "Nothing new under the sun. Is there anything remarkably different that ever happens? People come, people go, civilizations rise, empires collapse. The faces change, nothing more."
He placed his hand into his pocket, as he did so, a small gold medallion fell to the floor. Malchius picked it up and held it aloft. In the light of the candle he could see etched in great detail intricate letters and a black hand.
"I’ll have that," said the man quickly as he took it from Malchius and placed it in an inner pocket. Malchius started to say something, but a strange fear gripped his heart.
"I see. The time is running short and I must be off. I thank you for your kindness. Furthermore, I should feel amiss if I did not return the favor. Wait here. I’ll return."
Before they had a chance to reply, he went outside. No sooner had he disappeared then Adeth looked at her husband and said,
"Well, now. He certainly is an odd creature. Why he..."
"He’s just different, that’s all," interrupted Corus. "And probably not feeling too well from traveling all day and falling on his head. That’s all." He told Adeth about the wreck.
Soon, the stranger returned carrying a small wooden chest. Carved into its top and sides were complicated designs of flowers and letters. The flowers and words were inlaid with thin strips of a gold-colored metal. The Ambians had never seen anything like it. It was very beautiful. Graul placed it on the table and said. "A gift for you and your family. Again, I thank you for helping me."
"Oh, you don’t have to..." said Adeth.
"Please," the stranger insisted, "It’s no trouble for me at all. It’s the least that I could do." He bowed, and with that, left as quickly as he had the first time. Corus and Adeth watched him from the door as he made off to his wagon. He jumped aboard, gave one brief look at his wares, and then took off without so much as looking their direction. They watched him drive off into the night. When he was out of sight and sound, Corus immediately made to open the tramp’s present.
"Without doubt, that was the strangest customer I’ve ever met in my life!" said Adeth. "Did you notice how he never blinked his eyes? Just like a snake he was. And dressed all in black. Black! He was evil clean through, he was. Now don’t you reckon..."
"Now, now dear," replied Corus. "He’s just from other parts. That’s all." He was looking carefully at the box and trying to figure out what was inside.
"And just what was that medal he dropped on the floor? Here, I’ll have that," she said in mock imitation of his voice. "Did you see what it was?"
"No," he replied.
"It had a black hand on it. A black hand! Black tis an evil color and I know it."
Corus rattled up the box. "Oh, drat that little present he left us!" said Adeth. "Can’t it wait til’ morning to be opened Dear? I’m tired." She sat down and looked blankly at her husband.
"Hmm, I can’t seem to make out how to open it."
"Probably needs a witch to open it most likely. Com’n Cor. It can wait till later. Matilda is coming over first thing in the morrow and I must be ready to go with her. Marcella is due any day now and we need be with her."
Corus sighed. He knew his wife had enough excitement for one evening and the quicker she got to sleep, the quicker she would stop talking. Besides, she would never forgive him if she wasn’t ready to leave with Matilda when she arrived. Marcella, his wife’s sister, was pregnant with her first child, and Adeth insisted she be there at the birth. Matilda, his sister, was also of the same disposition. In fact, both women insisted on being at the birth of every baby in the village. "Ah well," he thought. "She needs the rest and I’m tired also. Besides, I’ll have plenty of time to open the strange present in the morning."
Early the next day, Matilda arrived. After a quick breakfast and many words, they were gone. Corus spent a good hour trying to pry the tramp’s gift open. Whether by some trick of the gods or just very bad luck, he simply couldn’t find any way to open it. In frustration he threw it on the floor. He started out the door when he looked to see that a plank of wood on the corner of the box was slightly ajar. He walked back over and looked closer.
"Aha!" he said, and pulled the plank away. For to open the cunningly designed box he only had to slide a certain panel of wood. "A most crafty bit of work it is." He peered inside and with a puzzled look, took out the greenish-red contents one by one. It was a dried fruit of some kind, powdery and very sticky. He held one to his nose and sniffed. It held no odor. He plopped one into his mouth. It was very sweet and the soft fleshy center tasted like a date. He ate another piece. This time it tasted different, but only slightly so. The second had a slight chalkiness to it. He ate a third. It was crunchy and bland. Corus picked up the box and shook. His eyes spied a solid white one. At once he reached for it, but thought the better. "No, I’ll save it for Adeth. Perhaps she’ll think the better of old Graul." He slid the panel shut, put on his hat, and met Malchius outside. Together they walked the two miles to King Mizraim’s fields.
Corus arrived home late that night to find his wife in tears. At the first sight of her husband she ran to embrace him.
"Oh, it’s terrible!" she said. "It’s here."
"The Plague. It’s here!" she wailed.
"Now, now dear. Don’t be silly. Why, what makes you say such a thing?"
"It’s true. This morning, Ramy, he’s the little red-head who is always hanging around the Silver Spring, well...he said two members of the merchant guild just died. Later, Marcella told me the old beggar passed away too, black sores all over them as well. That can only be one thing...the Plague. That’s not all. That dark creature who visited us last night was seen talking to the same merchants late last night. Now what do you think of that?"
Corus rubbed his stomach and fancied he was coming down with something. "Another coincidence probably," he mumbled.
Adeth crossed her great hands and looked at him. "I do hope he didn’t poison them. Why I ate one of his fruits today myself."
"Yes, I couldn’t help myself. It was a white one you know. But I threw the rest out. Oh, you’ll do something Corus, won’t you?"
"Yes dear, I will, but first things first. Tomorrow we’ll see."
At daybreak, Corus could be seen scouring the countryside for traces of Graul. All that morning he looked for signs and tracks but found nothing. The other villagers couldn’t shed any light on the matter either. No one else they knew or heard of had seen the mysterious stranger. They expressed astonishment over the incident. Most of the superstitious villagers believed it was an apparition sent by one of the gods. Others said that it was an evil omen and that no good would come of it.
That night Adeth was visibly tired. Corus felt concerned. "Is there anything the matter?"
"Oh, I’ve just had a beastly day, dear. I’m simply exhausted. If you don’t mind, would you be so kind as to finish up the washing. I’m going to rest a bit."
Corus nodded in assent. Presently, he finished up and went to look on his wife. He found her sound asleep. Quietly, he sat down beside her and placed his hand upon her shoulder. It felt cold. He placed a wool blanket over her, kissed her for the night, and climbed wearily to bed.
Well before dawn, Corus and Malchius left for the day’s work. Adeth, who usually rose before them, was still asleep. Corus let her rest.
Their work in the fields that particular day was hotter and dustier than usual. Mizraim had invited one of his chief lords to overlook his fields and expected him to arrive in three days. So, the men were set to pulling weeds, extra hoeing, and in general, making his lands more presentable. The hours wore on. Finally, the men were given the sign to depart. When Corus and Malchius arrived at home, it was well after dark. Malchius immediately decided to sleep for the night. Corus found his wife in tears once again and more tired than ever. He decided to stay with her at home the next day. Typically, this wasn’t allowed under the lawcodes, but Corus was such a good worker that the overseers overlooked it.
When Malchius came home the next day, he found his mother asleep and very ill. Corus, holding her hand and with tears in his eyes, turned to look at Malchius. As he entered the door he asked "What is it? How is mother?"
"Don’t know, son. Somethings gotten hold of her, that’s for certain."
For the second day in a row, Malchius walked to Mizraim’s fields alone. Mid-morning, an overseer approached him. "Malchius, I’ve a message for you. Your father has sent for you."
"Is something wrong?"
"I don’t know. You’ve been given permission to leave."
Malchius jogged homeward. Something queer in the man’s voice distressed him. Apprehension grew in his heart the closer he got to home. When he arrived, his fears were realized. The dark purple blotches and pale skin of his mother told him everything.
"I’m afraid she has the Plague my son." said Corus.
"The Plague!...," his words faltered as his aged father placed his head in his hands. "Get the priest, boy. Run! And be quick. Perhaps he can do something."
Malchius turned and ran as fast as his legs could carry him to Nakon, the village priest. If he hurried, perhaps Nakon could invoke the help of the goddess Naedrus before it was too late. Malchius didn’t know what caused Naedrus to become ill at ease with his mother, but perhaps she would change her mind. He didn’t understand the ways of Naedrus. No one really did, except Nakon, and he felt sure that even the priest didn’t fully comprehend her, though he said otherwise. Naedrus lived in the wooden temple in the central square of Ambia. The temple itself was on top of a small pyramid-shaped hill with seven steps. Two statues, one on either side of each step, greeted worshipers as they approached the temple. The statues, stained red with blood and smoke, were said to be the different faces of the goddess. Once, when he was very young, Malchius asked Nakon why she had so many different faces. Nakon got cross and merely said, "You’re too young to understand such things boy. Naedrus is dark and mysterious. Few can know her ways." The priest was the only one allowed in her temple, so, he figured, he knew best.
Nakon sat in the shade of an almond tree at the temple’s base. His eyes were closed and he was chanting some ancient rhyme.
"Ah, Malchius. May the light of Naedrus shine bright on you this fine day."
"Yes, yes!" said Malchius. "Come. Mother is dying!"
Malchius and Nakon hurried back, but they were too late. An ashen-faced Corus met them by the door, and emptiness was in his face.
"You’re too late your Holiness. The Black Death has come upon her." His blood went cold. Nakon made to put his arm around Malchius, but abruptly swept the priest’s arm aside.
"Why? Why? Why?" shrieked Malchius. "Where is Naedrus now? Where? Tell me! Have we not sacrificed at her altars enough this year? Hasn’t enough blood been spilt for Her Holiness?"
Nakon looked at the ground, but had no response. Malchius’ eyes filled with tears. He turned and fled.
"Wait Malchius!" yelled Corus, but the words fell on deaf ears.
Malchius ran blindly through the forest, not caring where he went. Tears streamed down his face, and he stumbled on. He felt weariness creep into his legs, but the numbness in his heart pushed him along. After a time, he found himself walking up a narrow valley. A small stream bubbled swiftly past on his left. Slowly now, he ambled along on the bit of a path, occasionally tripping over tree roots. Spider webs kept getting in his eyes and hair, which added to his irritation. He kept on with bowed head. Suddenly, he came upon a man hurrying towards him. He cast a quick look at the surrounding valley and so didn’t see Malchius until they practically ran into one another. The man, noticed Malchius, wore a dark black overcoat splattered with bits of mud. Over his shoulder hung a large yew bow. It was Graul.
They recognized one another at once. Graul coughed a quick little cough and said. "Oh,...Malchius of Ambia...I believe."
"Yes, Graul. It’s me." He glared fiercely at the thin-faced man from Ettrune.
"I, uh...hadn’t expected any company today,...welcome though it may be." He chose his words carefully. "What brings you out here?"
"Never mind what I’m doing here. I’m just here. Alone and with you. Oh, and thanks for the little gift you gave us," he sneered.
Gaul grimaced. "Gift?"
"A little brown box, if you remember."
"Ohh, yes...yes. I do seem to remember something of the sort. I picked it up a few weeks ago in some small village I passed through."
"You don’t say," Malchius didn’t believe the dark man for an instant. "You know where my mother is now? She’s dead. She’s never coming back. Just dead. I’ll never...ever...speak with her again. You know how that feels?" Malchius’ eyes welled up with tears and he continued. "Do you know how it feels to have your mother suffer from the Black Death...the cold numbness that seeps into your heart and drains the life force right out of your body? To have your one and only mother...murdered!"
Graul drew further and further away from him. At the word ‘murdered,’ he recoiled as a snake as Malchius jumped for him. Malchius snatched Graul’s cloak, but the man from Ettrune slipped neatly out. He whipped out his bow , notched an arrow, and stared blankly at Malchius.
"Now look here boy. How was I to know that she would die? Surely, you can’t expect me to keep track of every little thing in my wagon."
Malchius didn’t believe him. He lunged at Graul’s bow and fell headlong to the ground. Graul leapt away, but not before a well-aimed kick at Malchius’ head. The blow knocked him unconscious. Sometime later he awoke with a throbbing head. His vision was slightly blurry, but he could plainly see Graul’s tracks. He followed his trail to a stream bordered with scrubby briars. In vain, he looked for signs. He stopped. Someone or something was approaching. A moment later an animal crashed through the underbrush and stumbled to the ground nearby. He turned to see a young deer, with something black sticking in it’s side. It was a black arrow. He bent down to look at it more closely and saw that it was obviously not one of the townsmen arrows, for they were dull and blunt, as they were used only for sport. This was a meticulously handcrafted piece of work. He marveled at it. Suddenly, he heard voices and the sound of footsteps. He turned slowly around to see three Gwawriddurs, rapidly approaching, dressed in the typical black and red uniform of the kings guard. Malchius stood still as a statue, but too late. He was seen.
"Well, well, well. Look at what I found," smirked the smallest of the three. "Doing a little hunting today are we?"
"No," Malchius replied. "I merely stumbled across this creature not five minutes ago."
The short pig-faced soldier, whose name was Drohne, walked over to the deer.
"Oh really, then how do you explain this!"
He showed the long black shaft to the other two soldiers. The three eyed it suspiciously.
"Hunting in the Kings forest is a criminal act you know," said another guard. "A crime punishable by death."
"I didn’t kill this beast," said Malchius in a stern voice. "I tell you, just five minutes ago I was walking along and I just happened to come upon it."
"More likely it just happened on you or should I say, happened upon your arrow," said the short man again in a voice that rather resembled a pig’s squeal.
"All peasants know the rules set down in the Lawcode by Our Lordship the King," said the second guard again.
"Yes, you must come with us!"
"I’m telling you I didn’t kill it. Look at me. I’ve nothing to shoot the arrow, and if I did, where would I have hid it!"
"Doubtless in a good place, but we’ve no time for that now," said the talkative little guard.
"Ormen, bind him!"
The third of the guards, a tall imposing figure who had not spoken at all, took out a yard or so of rope from his pack and bound Malchius’s hands behind his back. They then began the long march southward to King Mizraim’s castle. The rough rope which was tied none too tightly began to cut into young Malchius’s skin. A few times he stumbled to the ground only to be kicked by one of the guards. Sweat poured off their skin, and their saturated clothes clung to their bodies. In the hot and muggy weather, the insects seemed especially active. Clouds of gnats followed the four along the forest path. After about two hours of nonstop marching they began to hear buzzing noises.
"Say," said Drohne, "What’s that? It sounds as if ........ow!" In that moment a very large hornet latched itself to his arm. Soon, another one landed, and then another until an entire swarm was flying and buzzing around him. The other two guards and Malchius were also being stung and chased by the hornets. Malchius realized his chance and took it. In the confusion, he left the road, and ran into the forest. It took a few moments for the others to realize what was happening. They were busy running to and fro looking for a stream to jump in, and by the time they found one, it was too late. The hornets had their share and Malchius had a good five minute head start. Frantically, they looked around, but decided to give it up and look for him later. After all, they figured, he couldn’t go very far with multiple stings and arms all tied up. They tended to their wounds and presently began to look for Malchius again.
Malchius, meanwhile, was about a mile away. He stopped, turned around and saw no one pursuing. He panted and wiped the sweat away from his eyes with his shoulder. He wasn’t in as bad a shape as the king’s soldiers, however, the stings made him feel pretty weak. He began to jog, slowly. His goal was to put as much distance between himself and them as possible. He was a fugitive now--a wanted man. Malchius knew that the penalty for escaping as he did was death. The thought grew in his mind until it filled all his thoughts. They probably expected him to go back to his family and friends for help. So, he made up his mind not to do exactly just that. He resolved a plan in his mind to escape to the foothills of the Kablam Mountains. There he would be safe, at least for a while. Malchius’s jogging eventually slowed to a walk. He trudged along for what seemed like days but was in fact only a few hours. At length he stopped by a stream and sat down upon a large moss-covered rock. He was glad to see and hear no one in the distance following him. The air was still, only the sound of the wind in the leaves could be heard. He looked for a sharp rock to cut the cords that still bound his hands. At length he found a suitable rock and with not any small amount of difficulty he managed to pick it up and slowly rubbed it back and forth over the rope. His attempts at wearing through the rope were pretty much useless; however, it did seem a little less tight. Progress was painfully slow, yet in the end he finally got loose by using the stone to pry the ropes apart rather than actually cutting through them. He attention turned to his pursuers and how close they were. A twig snapped in the distance. Malchius jumped up and looked around warily but saw nothing but a small deer. It’s watery eyes stared at him for a moment before it fled. He hurried through the forest in a roughly north-east direction. After a time, he found that the ground leveled out. The trees were less numerous, but larger, and the undergrowth nearly absent. In fact, he could see for quite a way. Here there were huge, gnarled trees of enormous girth, with great shaggy beards of moss. Some were bigger than the house he grew up in. Were there sounds coming from inside the trees? No, that had to be nonsense, or was it? Now that he was alone in this trackless woodland, fears he thought long forgotten woke in his mind. Magicians in the forest, mysterious old men flitting to and fro in the shadows. It was no secret that it was a refuge for outlaws of all sorts. Malchius knew the lands circling Ambia well enough for twenty square miles and that was a much as anybody. Why didn’t they explore much further? He continued on into the ever-darkening gloom.
He tried to relax, but the pounding of his heart merely increased his tense nerves. Many times his heart jumped into his throat when he heard noises in the wood. The wind in the leaves and the snap of the branches made him more vigilant than ever. Now that his arms were free, he could now manage to move much faster in a much more direct path towards the foothills. As he ambled along, he formulated a plan in his mind. He would venture to Lun-Amlaith, or Oloris’ Mound as it is now called. Oloris’ Mound was a high, relatively treeless, mound that marked the beginning of the foothills. From its top, it afforded one a fairly good view of the surrounding land. It was the ancient residence of an old hermit named Oloris, but he had died many years before and most traces of his dwelling were gone. This also marked the unofficial end of King Mizraims’ dominion. Officially, it extended many more leagues East, but the fact remained that other Lords, dark and mysterious, unknown to anyone but the most brave and daring travelers, held sway here and were not apt to leave anytime soon. Dusk was approaching, and he still had many more miles to go until he reached Oloris’ Mound. Malchius marched along looking for it somewhere in the distance. It was obvious now he would not be able to make it before night, so he looked for a good place to camp. A place well-hidden from the eyes of pursuers. He searched and found a tall oak tree in the middle of a thick patch of brambles. He climbed up in the tree and gazed about him.
"Gwawriddurs...Ha! Anyone would simply have to make a racket of a noise if they came in here after me."
He laid himself lengthwise in one of the highest limbs and watched the red circle of the setting sun. The forest seemed quiet now. The chirp chirp of crickets and the gentle rustling of leaves were the only sounds he heard. He watched and waited, and still no one came. The blue sky became darker and darker. Night arrived. Soon stars appeared. Malchius looked at the constellations he was taught as a youngster. Lightfoot the unicorn, Muna in his eternal chase of the white stag, and Archon the brightest star were directly above him. Finally, the great orb of the moon made his appearance.
He maneuvered himself into a more comfortable position. It was the first time he had ever slept in a tree and swore to himself it would be the last. He fell asleep. He dreamt he was running around a forest filled with kingsmen. Whenever they saw him, they would shoot arrows at him. The arrows never hit, but always struck a tree near his head. He could never run very fast either. His feet seemed to be laden down with heavy weights. Malchius awoke the next morning just before sunrise. He slept rather uncomfortably, as may be imagined, in the tree. Quickly, he scrambled down to the ground but not without first taking a brief view to see if he was still alone. He was.
He wanted to make Oloris’ Mound as soon as possible, hopefully before noon. So, off he marched through the forest silently, stealthily, and speedily. A few minutes went by and the trees began to get farther apart. This made him more wary and nervous.
"All the better for the Gwawriddurs to see me," he thought.
Out of the corner of his eye, off in the distance, a hundred feet away, he saw someone or something move. Something like a human but not quite. He stiffened but kept on going. He stole a glance in that direction. Yes, there it was again, or was it? He stopped dead in his tracks and pretended to look at something on the ground. He cast a furtive glance, but this time saw nothing but the furrowed, light ash-gray trunk of an oak tree. Malchius rubbed his eyes.
"Why, I’m starting to see things--I am. Surely I just saw someone. Maybe it’s just my imagination."
Onward he trudged. Moments later, the trunk of a tree began to sway, then it began to move and even walk. The trunk, of course, was a carefully concealed man. Not just any man but one of the Rodamines. They were not a common folk and lived primarily in the thickly wooded forests in the outskirts of Eastern Ambia in the area known in their tongue as the Aeldorland. They were a shy race with little ties to any of the other villages in the Ambian forest. They lived a simple life of peace and tranquility. The Rodamines were masters of herb and shrub, tree and flower. From early childhood they were taught the name and uses of every plant in the forest.
Their reclusiveness led most other people to doubt their very existence. Many wild rumors were told of the mysterious forest wanderers, and it became a common fireside custom to tell tales of their deeds.
In physical appearance they differed markedly as well. Their skin was darker in hue then the fair-skinned villagers of Ambia. They were much taller as well. Some thought they were descended from the bowels of the earth. The Rodamines, however, were merely the last remnants of an ancient race of men who were noted for their cunning ability to disguise themselves to look like their environment. It was always a deep secret of theirs about how this was done, but magic was believed to be involved.
Malchius continued on, keeping a sharp eye out. About noon he saw his destination. Oloris’ Mound lie directly in front of him now. He walked towards the top of the high hill taking somewhat of a circuitous route. At length he reached the top, wiped his brow, and sat down.
Directly below him, perhaps about a quarter of a mile away, lie the edge of the Ambian forest. On and on it stretched as far as he could see. He thought he could just get a glimpse of his own small village miles and miles away but he wasn’t sure. He gazed long and sorrowfully towards his own village, Melodigone, the only place he had truly ever known. Where he learned all about the ways of the forest. He recalled the dark nights when he used to lie under the stars with the other boys years ago. They would tell one another stories of brave knights going off to fight in the Dragon Wars and recant legends of famous heroes. At last he turned his eyes and looked behind him. A few miles away the land grew higher and higher. This wild hill country was the foothills of the Kablam Mountains. Behind them rose their tall, jagged peaks eternally white with snow. There he stood, silently meditating about his future. He couldn’t go back except as a fugitive. Inevitably, they would catch him. His only recourse was to be an outcast for life. He turned and stared in the direction of his beloved village in the Forest of Ambia, slowly becoming enshrouded in a cloud of mist. The fog rolled over the trees like waves upon the shore. Suddenly, he saw a man steadily approaching from the edge of the forest just below, looking intently at the ground. He stopped and motioned towards someone out of Malchius’s sight. A cold chill ran down his spine. Fear gripped him as he fell flat to the ground.
"The Gwawriddurs!" he cried. "They’ve come."
Steadily, the man continued marching upward towards Malchius. Quickly, he scrambled down the other side of Oloris’ Mound towards the foothills. He jumped behind a thick grove of oak trees and looked. One of the king’s men had arrived at Oloris’ Mound and was looking his direction. Malchius froze, but the man but the man didn’t seem to see him. The oaks were still, the only sound was the buzzing of a bee. Malchius watched him nervously. A breath of wind stirred the leaves above him, and a thrush sang nearby. The Gwawriddur turned and looked in the opposite direction. Malchius watched uneasily. A bead of sweat gathered on his forehead and slid down his nose. It tickled. "Animals smell fear. Does this Gwawriddur sense me?" Obviously, the king’s men used this site as a lookout point also. He edged towards a clump of rhododendron, out of the Gwawriddur’s sight. He turned and fled. Gwawriddurs had an uncanny ability to find people. ‘How did they know where to look? Was asked by more than one captured man. At times, he thought he heard voices, but was never certain. On and on he ran, jumping logs, fighting cobwebs that caught his eye, and ducking low hanging tree branches. Then, almost too suddenly to be felt, he ran smack dab into a tree, fell down, and knew no more.
When he came to himself, he sensed was lying in a firelit cabin with a throbbing headache. The air felt thick and heavy with wood smoke, and strange voices were speaking near.
"We should have left him alone," said a gruff voice.
"How could we have done that," said another in a voice not quite as gruff. "We couldn’t just leave him lying there. The Gwawriddurs could have found us."
"No Gwawriddurs have ever found any of us; they’re afraid to travel this far in the foothills. Don’t you remember?" said the first voice.
"They used to be," said the second voice again. Perhaps they’ve become less frightened. I hear King Mizraim is anxious to expand his borders, and you know how Kings get when there is land to be conquered. Their soldiers become more frightened of them than of the unknown."
"Well, the less he knows about us the better," said voice number one again.
"This man is a Jemdat Nasir," a third voice echoed. The sound seem to linger for a few moments then an eery stillness filled the room. "I repeat. He is a Jemdat Nasir. His coming to us is no accident. Furthermore, I want you two to keep this a secret. Tell no one."
"A Jemdat Nasir?"
"Yes, you heard me. I said a Jemdat Nasir. Perhaps even the Jemdat Nasir," he continued. "Haven’t you learned anything from the Sayings of Mamre or must I repeat myself---again?"
"It’s just that it doesn’t seem possible or real. I’ve always wondered what one would look like. I never expected him to look, so, well, and normal."
"Does that come as a surprise to you? What did you think one would look like?" Neither answered. "Later, perhaps, he will be put to the test. Until then he should remain here."
"Now look here Myridon. Even if he is a Jemdat Nasir, he..." but he was interrupted.
"Quiet now! Look! He’s coming to."
Malchius coughed. Very slowly the room came into focus. He tried to move his head but found with shock that he could not. Indeed, he could hardly feel his body at all. Wherever he was, it was comfortable. Though whether in the presence of friend or foe, it remained to be seen. For some time the sound of the voices, indistinct, but quite close had been speaking. He heard footsteps approaching.
"Strangers," Malchius said in a feeble voice, "spare my life. I trust I am no friend of King Mizraim or his men. I was wrongly accused of killing one of his deer in the forest but fortunately escaped."
"He speaks with a sincere voice that’s for certain." Malchius looked and saw the first speaker for the first time. It was a tall, dark skinned man dressed from head to toe in black that met his gaze. He had broad shoulders and was muscular. His large wide mouth had a fine set of teeth which seemed to be set in a permanent grin. This trait made it hard for some people to take him seriously at times. The hair, jet black, was tied in a ponytail behind his head.
"Aye, that’s for certain. Perhaps, he’s one of the Gwawriddurs himself," said voice number three.
"Do not be hasty in your judgment, Aidin and Jorlath. Think about it. Now why would a treacherous Gwawriddur be running throughout our lands like a madman and dressed as he is?" said the second voice.
"Well, I don’t know, you’re probably right again as always," said the third voice, presumably Jorlath’s
Except for a sharp pointed beard and brown outfit, he looked almost exactly as the first speaker. Both Aidin and Jorlath had a neatness and orderliness about them. Their clean cut and well-chiseled features contrasted with the untidiness and generally scraggly look of Mizraim’s troops.
"Where am I and who are you?" said Malchius.
"My name is Myridon and these are two of my friends, Aidin and Jorlath."
Before him stood a older-looking man with a flowing white beard. His face was covered with thick wrinkles. And his nose, which was larger than most, was straight. His dark black eyes were the most distinctive feature of his face. Set farther apart than usual, they gave him a remarkable field of vision. His deep penetrating gaze at Malchius seemed to slice to his very inner being. One could tell at once that before him stood a man that perceived much more than most. Malchius felt drawn to him immediately. "You are in the land of the Rodamines. You’ll have to excuse them for being so inquisitive. These are dangerous times nowadays. You would trust no one unless you knew them as well as your brother in these parts."
"I see," exclaimed Malchius, "I’ve always been told that the Rodamines were a mythical tribe of savages."
"You’ve probably heard a lot of other lies too," said Myridon. "The truth is King Mizraim doesn’t want his subjects, people such as yourself, to leave his kingdom. It makes it easier for him to collect taxes. As a result, he encourages rumors like these to scare his folk into staying."
"So the Rodamines aren’t savages?"
"No, far from it. They are a gentle peace-loving folk, renowned for their knowledge and love of the land. They are the last of a dying breed of the great lore-masters of old. Descendants of the RÚdan when the world was young."
Wonder appeared in Malchius’s eyes as he viewed them. The two Rodamines walked over to the bed where Malchius lay and bowed.
"My name is Aidin and this is Jorlath my brother. It’s not everyday we meet with strangers.’
"I’m honored to meet you and thankful for my life as well," replied Malchius.
"As Myridon says, these are in the news indeed perilous times. And you are not the first stranger to be seen in these parts lately. Only yesterday morning I was following a stranger when you came bumbling through and scared him off."
"My apologies," replied Malchius.
"Don’t worry some of the others will track him later. It was the three following you that concerns us most."
"What ever happened to them."
"After you went through I decided to follow them. It was no hard task either. The short one was talking so much that a blind man could have followed him. Afterwards, at dark, they made camp. A tall man was standing guard. I crept closer and closer. But, alas, he must have heard me for he shouted to the others to wake. I saw that they had weapons so I returned back here as quick as I could to roust Jorlath. When we returned this morning, we saw from their tracks that they made for Oloris’ Mound.
"Yes," exclaimed Malchius. "I saw one approaching me while I was up there."
"Seems everyone is using that old hermit’s hill nowadays," muttered Jorlath.
"As I was saying, Jorlath and I found the three Gwawriddurs walking around the old orchard. We decided it best to dispatch of them as quick as we could. Two we shot with arrows, but the tall one escaped. We think he went back to Mizraim but we’re not sure."
"From the way he was running, I’d say he’ll not be back here for a good long time," smirked Jorlath, "still, one couldn’t help but notice that he was more noble-looking than the other two."
There was a good deal more of talk that night but excited as he was, Malchius simply couldn’t keep his eyes and ears open to hear the end of it. He was safe now and that’s what really mattered.