Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Unknown Betrayal

By Matthew Greenwood Joshua Duncan
This is a fantasy story I am working on with a friend from high school.

Chapter 1
My mother was the only family I had ever known. Though my time with her was short, she had cared for me dearly. It was by pure coincidence that I did not also die in that old farm house. I was found by a teenage boy, who was delivering a letter to my mother on that fateful day. The neighbors took over my land and sold me off as a slave.
This slave encampment had been my prison for the past fourteen years. At about twenty, I was one of the oldest of the slaves and was still the healthiest. No one had survived as long as I had through the hard labor they made us do every day. Dark scars from the whips intertwined across my back and around my sides. Though I became accustomed to pain, I was in no way content with my life. Talk of escape was popular among the slaves. Freedom for us was a golden dream, almost a figment of our imaginations.
James, only a year younger than me, was by far my best friend and stood up for me no matter what the cost. He was devious and planned escapes daily. Though we hadn't attempted any of them, they brought us a thrill. Today, his uncle had come to visit him. After an hour the guards escorted James back out and he came to find me.
“Mathias!” James whispered in excitement. “We may be free at last! My uncle is going to try to bargain us out!”
Freedom sounded nice, but he had come to me many times before offering the same thing.
“And how might he do that?” I asked.
“He does not plan to bribe the king this time, but he sends word to look to the sky tomorrow night when the moon is highest. He wants you and I to be at the east gate,” James' voice cracked.
“We cannot go near that gate without guards firing on us! How do we escape then?”
“He told me to trust him ... I will trust him,” James said defiantly.
I sighed, “I wouldn't mind dying here soon James, but if there is a chance at all at freedom, I'll take it!”
“Matthias,” James whispered, “it is almost sunset.”
I looked up into the bright red clouds. “Yeah, when did you say he was going to break us out, again?” I asked.
He seemed to be disappointed that we were still trapped and did not answer. I followed his gaze to where he watched, longingly.
“Stop staring!” I whispered more intently, anxious. “If you stare the wall will know!”
Sighing, James returned to looking down at the ground. “Sorry Matthias, you might be right. I’m getting second thoughts,” he said, sitting cross-legged.
I joined him, very close to the roaring fire. The fire was the only thing keeping us alive through the night during the winter. Around the fire were shacks that kept the snow off the ground, when it did snow. Every once in awhile the fire would crackle and James would look up in excitement, only to grow more anxious. Then something occurred that hadn’t in a very long time.
The forest started to sing out with incredible force!
I looked at James, wondering if this was his great-grandfather at work, but he looked back in confusion. Perhaps, I thought, he didn’t notice the forest.
Then, swift as a lion chasing its prey, came a crack from the wall. A huge section was blown to pieces. Guards sprang into action, holding up their long swords that gleamed in the remaining sunlight. Two horses charged from the debris straight for our fire. James smiled for perhaps the first time since I had met him so long ago, and stood up. His great-grandfather brought the horse to his side and helped him up onto it. James reached his hand for mine, but his great-grandfather galloped away, without me. Tears ran down my cheeks; it was then that I decided to make my final escape or die. As if invisible, I ran past the guards who now held back the escaping prisoners. I looked towards the town, and saw a brigade of men coming my way on their steeds. The town was no longer a safe route.
Turning to my only escape route, I plummeted headlong into the forest. Though the trees were dense I seemed to be able to pass through them with incredible ease. I ran until my legs gave way to the strain. Then I lost my footing and dropped like a rock to the ground, my head smashing into a fallen tree. A burning sensation coursed throughout my neck, and then the blackness engulfed me.
Much later, it seemed, I awoke. My head throbbed with pain and felt moist as if I had been sweating. My muscles ached as I turned my body around to face the clear blue sky of the morning. I wiped the sweat away with my hand, and then noticed that it was not sweat but blood that I had wiped away. The burning increased and a deep desire to sleep washed over me. I remained awake, but was barley able to hold my head up. The forest seemed oddly quiet now, as if listening to my every breath. Animals would stop and stare at me before they passed on, all leaving in the same direction. When the sun had risen fully, and my frost-bitten skin had started to warm again, I headed in the direction all the animals were going, desperately hoping for some water to satisfy my thirst.
I followed the deer tracks through the forest, which led me straight to a large river. My body trembled and shook as I got on my hands and knees, bending as low as I could to drink. The forest seemed to grow in sound. Chirping birds darted my head. A wolf in the distance howled, as if the moon had been full. I looked in the water, and saw two fish, larger than full loaves of bread staring up at me. I had no time to think before I jumped in after them, hoping with all my heart that I would catch one. I was no match, though, for the frigid water. As my upper torso mixed with the water, a quick spike of cold knocked the wind out of me. My body writhed with the sudden coldness and I locked up. In fear and with the urge to survive I opened my eyes and bolted upwards but was not tall enough to reach the top of the water. Something in my body told me to flap my arms like a bird, and run like I was on tiptoe. Miraculously I seemed to be able to break the surface of the water and breathe. However, another pure shock of icy water stunned my legs and I was swept under by the current.
My eyes opened. I thought this was it. I saw a gleaming light and I knew I must be inches from meeting my Maker in heaven. This would be paradise at last! However, the light seemed to pass under me. My heart wrenched in fear. If I missed the light would I be banished to hell? With whatever strength I had left, I did everything in my power to go back to the light. I wanted heaven, eternal paradise! The current, I thought, was Satan pushing me back, wanting my soul to eat and burn in his body. My head spun and my chest began to spasm, I wanted to breathe in, but water surrounded my mouth. Just as I wanted to give up, I was within reaching distance of the light! With every ounce of strength left in my body I reached out and grabbed the light, closing my eyes.
A terrible realization came to me as I noticed it was only a stone. My lungs felt unbearably heavy, as if a large man had sat on my chest. I had no strength left to do anything. I wanted to see the sky for the very last time, to watch how beautifully the clouds had formed. Feeling foolish, I clenched onto the stone that I thought would save my life. My vision blurred and my head burned even worse now. I felt, as my body gave way to my command, branches that held me down in the water. A memory popped into my head of my mother’s smile, then darkness.
The memory of my mother seemed to stick into my thoughts. She moved, but only slightly back and forth. I remember looking up at her and I felt happy. Her finger looked huge and nuzzled my stomach. I giggled and felt my arms and legs moving up and down, side to side. But then, the door smashed open, revealing a large figure who I had not remembered before. They spoke, but their words were unrecognizable. I burst out into tears and screamed uncontrollably. My view changed to over her shoulder. I still cried, but felt a couple of soft pats on my back. Feeling comfortable I stopped. She started to sing a very familiar song, one that made me want to sleep. My vision, as clear as it was, slowly faded inwards, until all I saw or heard was her song.
I slowly came to. A warm feeling had come over my body. Cracks and pops resounded in the near area.
“Matthias! I thought… well… I thought you might be dead!” a familiar voice said.
I raised my head from the soft pillow that had been comforting my head. A large piece of cloth had been tied around my head. Opening my burning eyes I looked at James, who was fully dressed in the finest clothes.
“When I heard you had escaped I came looking for you in the forest. My conscience, guilty, I did not stop searching for you, even after nightfall. I am so sorry, brother, for leaving you behind!” James cried aloud.
I coughed, trying to speak. My throat was sore and felt as if it had been scratched on with the toughest sandpaper.
“Do not talk, I had to pump the water out of your lungs. You had swallowed quite a lot! Let it heal and dry out,” James said, his tone unchanged.
My vision was very blurry, in fact I could barley pick out James from the trees. I sat back again, resting my numb head, and yawned.
“Matthias, I need to report to my grandfather, will you be alright?” James asked quickly.
I tried to piece words together, but without a doubt I knew that he was already mounting his horse.
“I’ll be back tomorrow, I promise!” James said, and I heard him swat his steed. The horses’ hooves kicked the ground and I felt the rhythm die down as he paraded off into the unknown. I sat there, thinking not only of my pain but also of the one memory that had stuck in my head. My mother had been very beautiful; I didn’t know why she had been killed. I knew nothing of my father, not even a vague memory. I thought perhaps he had been enlisted in the army and had no time to see me.
Then it occurred to me. I was still clenching the stone that I had found at the very bottom of the river. The stone that deceived me into believing I was going to heaven. My eyelids spread open and I once again raised my neck. The fire seemed to be a haze of red that dashed up and down. Angrily I threw the stone into the fire, or at least as best I could. I heard a couple taps as it bounced around on the various pieces of wood that had been set up to create the blazing fire. Again the picture of my mother appeared, this time stronger and clearer than ever. As she held me up on her shoulder and patted my back, I heard again the song she used to sing. Silently I mumbled it to myself. My throat was in no condition to sing at her level, or at any level to be specific. The words came out as if they were an ordinary simple sentence. As I finished, the forest exploded with sound.
From the largest predator to the smallest pray, all the creatures in the forest sang a melody in rhythm unlike any other. The melody was soft and smooth, a melody that seemed to make all else fade away. The fire, as blurry as it was, flickered to the rhythm. A light, brighter than any other, shone inside the fire. The fire was sizzling, as if someone had put water on it, yet the flames stood high and tall. Then, as the melody increased, so did the flames. The flames started to create a humanistic figure, a female. The forest drowned out my thoughts entirely as the sound got more intense to the point where I could feel my skin vibrating. It was as if every animal was standing around me, shouting whatever sound it was making straight into my ears. The image of this female grew stronger and stronger. Suddenly, the image and the fire flashed and died, and the music of the forest died as well. A buzzing sound stuck in my head, irritating me. I noticed just then that the figure had stayed put. It moved, frightening me. I tried to stand up but my body was drained as if I had just been running for my life. I breathed quickly, fearing the worst. A hand touched my head, and a soothing relaxation came over me. I was not able to think, speak, or control any part of my body. I just stared endlessly up into the sky.
The hand was removed, and a female voice broke the silence.
“Rest, friend,” she said, softly. “You are safe now.”
I tried to stay awake, but as the time progressed my eyelids began to bear the weight of the day’s trials. Slowly I fell asleep, knowing full well that whatever had appeared out of the fire was right at my side.
* * *
As I started to awaken, a deep fear sprang to life within my heart. I had witnessed a girl standing in the fire, fire that would burn your skin if you dared to touch it. I acted as if I were asleep, but peered around through a crack in my eyelids. As my eyes fell upon the rekindled fire, I saw the woman’s back. She had tattered clothing that might once have been a very fine, very tight, green dress. Her straight, dirty blond hair stretched to the middle of her back. My fear dulled a little and a wave of courage overwhelmed me. Opening my eyes, I sat upright to view her and the fire.
“Hello?” I said boldly.
She spun around surprised with a look of horror. “W-where am I?” she said, her dashing green eyes glaring at me.
“In the forest, I don’t know which one…” I sighed.
She wore a look of complete confusion, her eyes darted from me to the wildlife which seemed to be more quiet than ever.
“Are you a warrior?” she asked, her eyes wandering to my arms.
“No…” I paused, “I was to be a slave for all my life.”
She looked appalled. “A slave?” she asked, “We… We fought for freedom, we won that battle! There are no slaves!” Her voice cracked.
The forest grew louder, and a look of terror griped her face.
“Whom did you serve?” she asked, her every breath more intense.
“No one really knows his name besides the higher chain of command. Most of us are told what to do and they do not accept questions.” I paused to think of anything I knew of this king whom had enslaved me. Then it came to me. “He is a very fat man who has riches beyond any man’s wildest dreams! He is the keeper of the most sacred and valuable stones, Elf Stones.”
Her eyes closed and her knees bent. Her body came rushing down to the ground, tears built up in her eyes until they came tumbling down. Her hands gently wiped away her tears and for a brief moment there was only the sound of the fire dashing about inside the circle of rocks.
“How…?” She asked aloud.
Several minutes passed before she regained her composure herself and sat back. Her soft face wore a completely devastated look, as if she had just lost a close friend. Confusion struck me; there had been slaves now for a couple thousand years. How could she have fought against slavery? As I peered into her beautiful face, I noticed that her ears were longer than usual. Her body, though skinny, looked very strong.
The fire… how had she appeared in the fire? Then I remembered, I had chucked the stone into the fire! Was this some kind of enchantment? She must have noticed my confusion because she smiled at me. Her teeth were as bright as the snow that layered some of the forest ground. The smile intrigued me.
She stood again. “Who are you?” she asked, walking closer to me.
“I’m Matthias,” I paused for a few seconds as she got closer to me, “Who are you?”
“My name is Maria,” she said, now a few feet from my side.
I was tempted to stand up, but laid there on the soft pillow. She bent down on her knee and placed her hand upon my chest.
“I’m going to try to mend your wounds. This might hurt a little,” she said, her eyes glowing slightly.
She squinted and her green eyes glowed fiercer. That was when I noticed a trickle of pain in my chest. A couple seconds later the pain had grown immensely, but my body would not allow me to move. The glow of her eyes seemed to travel down her neck, to her arm, and finally down through my chest. As soon as the glow strengthened the pain stopped, though I could feel my bones popping back into place, and my skin stretching over my gashes.
The glow dimmed quickly. Her eyes relaxed and looked at mine. “That will be good enough until we can find someone who can really heal you. I am without much training,” Maria said, lifting her hand from my chest.
My body felt renewed in certain areas but in others I was still hurting, just not as much. I could not stop staring into Maria’s green eyes, nor could I for a moment grasp what had just occurred. What was she and where was she from? She looked from my face to the ground, as if she had made a poor decision.
Quickly I smiled, “Thank you.”
She stood, holding a hand out for me. “Do you know where the nearest town is?” she asked as she heaved me up to my feet.
“Well, kind of. If we get to the river all we need to do is travel north until we find the footpath and travel east. They will be looking for me though. If I go back…” I paused, terrified. “If I go back, they will kill me.”
She smiled as the forest started to chirp. “The forest thinks differently.”
I looked at her, and simply nodded my head. I took nearby gravel and snow to put out the fire. After I had done so, a chill ran over my body. I was freezing! I looked at her, though, and noticed she had no protection either. I looked around at the surroundings and saw the pillow that I had been propped on.
Tearing a hole through the top I handed it to Maria who laughed. “I am not cold, in fact I am quite used to this weather. You need it,” she said, and would not accept it even after I tried to force her to grab it.
The empty pillow provided some slight warmth, but would not last long in this weather. I waved for Maria to follow me and we traveled through the forest on a deer path. Soon we found the river and started heading north. Maria insisted on being in front. I was curious but not enough to ask why she insisted. The sun seemed to set itself behind the clouds today, creating winds that chilled my spine. My face burnt as if it was on fire, but I knew full well that it was colder than ice. We trudged onwards, not stopping for water or food. As the sky seemed to darken a little we found the path leading into town, though we were a long ways from it. We traveled east for some time, then she finally decided to stop. She plopped down on the side of the road, and patted the ground next to her.
I sat next to her, but kept my distance. She sighed and moved towards me, then stoically wrapped her arm around my waist. “If we keep together we will be warmer.”
Feeling warmer I squeezed in against her. My muscles ached and my stomach writhed. I hadn’t eaten anything in a long time.
Maria and I sat there, as if frozen to the spot. I was waiting for Maria to tell me what we were doing, but she stayed silent. It was an hour or two before she stood up.
Maria looked up into the sky, which was growing redder by the minute. The sun would soon appear over the endless tree tops. Maria’s gaze swept from the red sunrise to me.
“We should get going," she said and helped me up.
Both of us stayed silent for quite some time, until at last the road lead to a familiar area. The slave camp!
"The wall..." I whispered, hoping it couldn't see me.
Maria looked at the wall, and then to me. She understood exactly what I meant. "Don't worry, I promise you will never have to go in there again." She paused for a moment. "Can you trust me, Matthias?"
I paused to think. Why did she ask me if I could trust her? After all, I had not questioned her up to this point. I looked into her beautiful face, and nodded approvingly.
"I'll be back as soon as I can with some food and clothing. We can't walk you past the gate in that clothing!" Maria said.
I looked at Maria and at what she was wearing. How was she any better off than I was? She sprinted off towards the wall, leaving me to myself.
I attempted to entertain myself by throwing rocks as far as I could. Soon that got boring and I laid back into the tree line. I stared up into the wide deep blue of the sky. The tree branches created more bizarre looking paintings in the sky than did the clouds. As time moved, so did the clouds and their patterns. Soon the sun touched the tip of the tree line and the clouds turned red as blood.
I was worried now. I had no idea what I would do if she didn't happen to come back, and if she did, what worth am I to her? Her beauty swept my thoughts away when she was near. It was the very passion of wanting to know her that had kept me going along this far. Other than James, no other person had given me any sort of chance at friendship. I wanted to be a part of her life.
Though I had been a slave all my life, there had been female slaves among us men. The females did not appreciate me as a someone, even when I would take their full load for them! I was nothing more than just another person in the prison.
The moon rose softly upwards into the sky. It wasn't long after that, that the crickets started to chirp. Every once and awhile an owl would coo or a wolf would howl. My eyes started to strain with the weight of the day. It had been exhausting waiting for Maria. Soon time itself stopped and all that had once been on my mind ceased to be.
A loud hum woke me up. The hum strengthened until it became a string of words, "Matthias, wake up!"
I opened my eyes and Maria stood there looking down at me. She was wearing a large coat and thick pants that made her look fat, and in her hands were another coat and pants. As I stood up she handed me the jacket and pants, which weighed a considerable amount. Quickly I put them on, and instantly felt my skin start to warm up. I smiled at Maria, and she smiled back. She waved her hand at me, asking me to follow her. I did so, happy to know that she had come back. We walked eastward to town, it was right as we were about to pass the slave pins when a guard with a noticeable face stopped me and Maria.
"Hey, you! Do I know you from somewhere?" the man asked, his gaze searching out my face.
I looked down towards the ground, trying to avoid his eye's, "No sir, I don't know what your talking about" I said.
"Sir," Maria said, "Do you know who I am?"
The man looked puzzled, "Uhh..."
"I am your lord's wife! Do you not recognize me?" Maria whispered angrily.
The guard looked stunned as if he had been stricken, "If you..." he began, but Maria cut him off swiftly.
"I will hear no more of this matter!" she said sharply.
The man seemed to be locked up for words to say, so with his hand he gestured us away. We got quite a bit away when Maria stopped.
"I'm sorry I took so long. I have found us a place to stay though, the elf is a very old friend of mine who has been guarding quite a few elf stones. He may be able to aide us," she said smiling.
I smiled at her, "Thanks for the clothes." I managed to say.
"For a human you are extremely shy!" she giggled.
I didn't know what to say. "I'm sorry." I replied, dropping my head down.
"No, don't be sorry Matthias!" she paused and lifted my chin up. "It is good to be shy."
She pushed softly on my back, wishing me to march on with her, and I did so. The town was visible in the near distance, fire trails lit by the sun led up far into the sky. The night had been awfully cold and I was amazed that I had lived through it. The closer we got the town, the louder the sounds got. Soon we arrived at the front gate and two fully armored guards with long spears walked over to us. Their plate mail suits both had an emblem on the front of it that looked like a (to be designed later!)
"What is your business?" one of the guards asked.
Maria smiled up at the left one, "Don't you remember me?"
The guard at once nodded and they both returned back to their spots. Maria and I walked forward past the guards and into town. My heart raced and my head burned as if it was on fire. I had never before been into a town of free men. Never had I been equal with anyone but my fellow worker! This was different, and hard to fathom. Maria led me north west of town to a two story house with a shack next to it. The building was surrounded by a metal gate that bore a sign. I could not read what it said, but it had a skull on it meaning something about death. She unlatched the gate and we entered the front yard of the house. It was a large and very old wooden house that had vines crawling up its sides. It's once marvelous stone patio was in ruin. The door, however, was new and contained a hefty lock on the front of it. Maria stepped up onto the porch and knocked on the door. Nothing stirred inside, but Maria stayed still in front of the door.
"Who is it?" an old voice yelled out suddenly.
Maria smiled, "It's me, Maria," she replied back.
A huge thud emitted from the door as the lock spun around. An old man leaning heavily on a strong wooden staff appeared in the doorway. My first impression was that this man was in his dying years.
"Is this him?" he asked Maria in a low, gruff voice.
Maria nodded. "He is the one who freed me.”
“He is welcome then! We shall have a feast!” the old man declared.
He turned slowly, waving us to follow. The scent of old parchment filled the air. The sound of the door closing echoed through the hallway. Warm air rushed around my body as the old man lead us deeper into his home. He brought us into a newly furnished room. He sat down at a cedar table next to the blazing fireplace, which lit up his weathered face dramatically. All his hair was white, and his thick, well-trimmed beard defined his strong chin. Harsh wrinkles marked his stern face, but when he smiled, kindness filled his bright eyes. I sat down in the chair he had pulled for me, close to the fire. Maria decided to stand instead of taking the chair closest to the old man.
“Welcome to my humble abode. Maria, if I remember correctly you had told me that this man released you from your imprisonment?” he said boldly.
Maria nodded, “Yes, though I do not understand how a human managed the task.”
“Neither do I.” The old man paused. “Mathias is it?” he said, looking at me.
“Yes,” I answered.
“I’m Nahado, a very old friend of Maria’s and a defender of sacred Elf Stones.”
“What do you know about Elf Stones, Matthias?” Maria asked.
“Well, they are the most valuable rubies in all the world! They are said to heal even the deepest wounds!” I thought out loud.
“You are right Matthias, however, there is something deeper you should know about them…” Nahado paused and looked around. “Each one carries a life within it.”
“A life? What do you mean?” I asked.
Maria looked to me with sadness in her eyes. “A life like myself.”
"You’ve been a slave all your life, correct?" inquired Nahado.
"Yes," I answered.
"Have you had any education?"
"I learned to read and write before I was sold off to slavery."
"Do you know anything of the history of your race?"
"Very well. We do not have time to go into it in great detail, but I will give you an abridged account of the history of Man." Nahado thought for a moment, then began his tale:
"What you must first understand, Mathias, is that the world as you know it is not how it seems. This land is not truly ruled by the King of Men. No. The true power belongs to an elf, who for generations, has used the human king as his puppet.
"You see, your race is relatively young. Only a few thousand years, actually. Before that, elves ruled the earth, and when Man and Woman emerged, we did not think much of you humans at first. Your life spans were so short, the average elf had not reached adulthood before several generations of men had passed away.
"However, as your race grew in number, we elves feared you would someday threaten us. So, sadly, we enslaved your people. However, our greatest king, Lord Dnno, fought for your freedom. But he met fierce opposition from some of the elvish lords."
"If he was your king, who could oppose him?" I asked.
Before Nahado had a chance to answer my question, Maria chimed in, "You must understand, our culture was much different than yours. Our king did not wield the unbridled power of the human dictator who now rules."
Nahado continued, "At any rate, slavery persisted in many parts of the land in spite of Dnno's best efforts. Until the slaves, growing tired of their state, rose up under the leadership of a slave named Olgi. At first, their attempts were pathetic. Olgi was little more than a nuisance, but he was clever. He found a way to use black powder, an ancient art we elves took for granted, to create a weapon. He called his device 'the gun.' With his guns, he fought his first successful battle and freed many slaves."
"Good," I added heartily.
Nahado looked furious for a moment, but controlled his temper. "I understand that as a human you are inclined to side with the slaves, but Olgi was a monster. He killed all elves, regardless of whether they supported slavery or not. And when he eventually came to power, he enslaved his own people. As time went on, he created larger and more powerful guns. They shattered our defenses and laid ruin to our mightiest cities. Lord Dnno was forced to take action to prevent our extinction--" Nahado suddenly stopped. He looked like he was in pain.
Maria continued the story for her friend. "Dnno instructed all elves, except for guardians like Nahado to take the form of an Elf Stone. In this state, we would sleep peacefully until it was safe for our people to reemerge. Elf Stones are nearly unbreakable, but if one is destroyed, the soul contained inside it is destroyed as well. That is why at least one elf must remain in order to guard them."
Nahado continued, "Dnno appointed seven of his most trusted servants, including myself, and divided the stones among us. Never did we suspect there was a betrayer amongst the guardians. How could we predict such despicable treachery! The locations of our temples were divulged to Olgi, who had by now appointed himself as King of Men. He invaded all the temples simultaneously. I barely escaped myself, but could do nothing to protect my charges."
"Who was the betrayer?" I asked.
"I have no way of knowing for sure," Nahado said dejectedly. "Dnno must have learned of the treachery almost immediately after it occurred. I suspect he did not know who the betrayer was, but I know he took precautions to make sure that he would not suffer the same fate. It was far too late to undo what had been done,” Nahado added.
“Why would he abandon his people?” I asked.
“I do not know. I can only have faith that Dnno had good reason for what he did,” Nahado responded.
“So where is Dnno’s stone?” I wondered out loud.
“That is the question I am hoping to answer soon. Now, Maria, I’m going to tell you something that not even you know. One of the guardians, Nelrion, escaped as well. But, unlike me, he managed to save a number of his stones. They have formed a last sanctuary deep in the forest of Greenwood. That is where I want the three of us to go.”
“Why me?” I asked, shocked.
“Maria trusts you. And you can help us carry our heavy equipment,” Nahado said grinning slyly.
“You look tired and worn out from your day's adventure. We’ll purchase supplies tomorrow, but tonight let’s get some sleep,” Maria said to me.
I stood up to leave. "Aren't the two of you going to bed?" They looked at each other curiously.
"I wish to choose a few of my precious books to bring with me. I have so many, it will take me a while," Nahado answered.
Quickly, Maria added, "Mathias, Why don't you go on to bed while I help Nahado?"
"All right," I said. As I left, I watched the two out of the corner of my eye. They didn't move, at least not until I left the room. I was suspicious to say the least. What could they be discussing without me? Why wasn't I privy to it? With a pang of fear, I wondered if they could be planning to return me to the slave traders, but I suppressed that suspicion. Though I had only known Maria for a short time, I was confident that she wasn't planning anything like that.
However, I heard their voices carrying through the door. Instead of ignoring the voices, I pressed my ear against a small hole in the wall. I could make them out clearly.
“All right, Nahado. What are you not telling me?” It was Maria's voice.
“I’m sorry?” Nahado answered.
“Why are we going to Qarsak?”
“I need your help to discover the resting place of Dnno.”
“No, there's more to it than that. What do you know about Mathias? Why do you want to bring him to Qarsak?”
“I should have known I couldn't hide it from you, Maria," he laughed. "I do not know anything for sure. Let me just say that I find it intriguing that Mathias, a human, could release you from the Elf Stone. Indeed, it is disturbing. If humans have developed a way to break the power of the Elf Stones, Nelrion must know immediately.” There was a hint of fear in his voice.
“I think it unlikely that humans would simply develop such capabilities. What if—could it be something about Mathias? ”
“I have considered that possibility as well. Either way, it will be of immense interest to Nelrion.”
Suddenly, the two began to approach the door! I jumped away from the hole in the wall. Seconds later, Nahodo came out of the study. I was sure Nahado had not noticed me jump, but as he looked at me, my heart pumped furiously. “I am sorry," said Nahado. "I forgot to tell you. You and Maria will have to sleep in my shack. It's comfortable enough. I'll show you the way.”
Nahado lead Maria and me out the door and towards the shack. I leapt when I saw two beastly cats who had poked their heads out from the tall grass. The two black beasts appeared to be overgrown cats with pointed ears and black fur. Most fearsome of all were their ruby red eyes.
Nahado laughed at my shock, “They are quite friendly, so long as you are with me.”
The cats followed us as we walked towards the shack. The sun had set in the distance. The night’s chill swept over me, causing me to shake. The small wooden door which lead into the shack was only as high as my neck. Nahado stepped forward, opened the door, and bent over to tip-toe in. Maria and I followed him. The shack's appearance would have deceived anyone for the inside was filled with furniture and beds, as if to hold many guests. In one of the corners were several pillows clawed nearly to shreds, and in the middle of the wall was a large fireplace. It was not until the door that lead into the shack was shut that I felt the warmth from this fire.
“You may take any of these beds. They are as fine as they come,” Nahado said at once, then turned to the door.
“Thank you Nahado,” Maria said.
I smiled at Nahado as he left through the door.
“Which bed would you like Matthias?” Maria asked.
I walked to the nearest bed and collapsed on it. The weight of the day had indeed taken its toll. Maria took the bed, opposite mine. I closed my eyes and fell into a deep, comfortable sleep that I had never experienced before.
Chapter 2
Something pounded onto my chest and I woke with miserable pain! As my vision cleared a large cat appeared. The beast licked my chin and purred. Hastily I threw it off of me, not knowing whether it was trying to be playful or mean. It cowered away to the pillows in the corner where another beast was asleep. I looked around for Maria, but she was no longer in her bed. I jumped out of my own bed and headed for the door. To my surprise it sprang open; Maria stared at me.
“Ready to go into town?” she asked.
I nodded and she helped me through the small door. Slowly we walked, not talking to each other, to Nahado’s house. Nahado greeted us at the front door. He wore dark green garments that matched his new staff.
“Are we ready?” Nahado asked.
“What are we going to be doing in town?” I asked.
Nahado smiled, “We must get supplies for our quest.”
“Quest?” I asked.
“Matthias, there's something you need to know. I wanted to tell you last night, but I could not bring myself to do so,” Maria started, but Nahado raised his gnarled hand.
“Maria, the two of you can discuss these matters later!” Nahado paused, “We'll need supplies for our trip. Food, water, and clothing!”
Maria looked to the ground, disappointed. Nahado raised his hand and set it on her shoulder. He spoke in a foreign tongue to Maria, who looked up and smiled sadly.
“Come come! We have much to get done today!” Nahado said at once.
We ventured south towards town. None of us spoke. However, I noticed something unusual about Nahado. Despite his age, Nahado had kept the quick pace with Maria and me. In fact, his gait was almost soldierly. But just as we were about to enter town, I thought I saw him subtly stoop over, putting more weight on his staff, and he shuffled his feet a little.
This thought was driven from my mind when we entered town. Scores of people bustled about, conducting all sorts of business. After weaving our way through the long streets and crowded marketplaces we found the local baker. Nahado spoke with the baker and arranged for twenty loaves of bread. The baker asked us to come back later that day, when he would have our order ready.
“Now we need clothing,” Maria insisted.
Nahado lead us to an old store that had very few tailors. The woman, who was taking orders, glanced over at Nahado and smiled. “Welcome Nahado! You do not venture out here that much!”
“Hannah, it’s so nice to see you!” Nahado replied cheerily.
“Who are these two?” Hannah asked.
“This is Mathias” said Nahado, pointing to me, “and this is Maria,” he added, gesturing to Maria. “We are in need of some...” He paused and winked at Hannah. “...Some clothing,” he said softly.
“Right, come with me,” she whispered.
She led us back into a broken down shack, closing the door behind her. She lit a couple of candles to light the room up a bit, then bending over, she picked a floorboard up out of the ground.
“Right this way,” She said and ducked down into the now open hole.
We followed her down into a room filled with majestic clothing.
“You have quite the inventory today Hannah!” Nahado whispered, as he straightened his back with a crick.
“Thank you, I’ve had more free time these days. Still, I dislike how I must live,” Hannah sighed. “What can I help you with Nahado?” she asked.
“The three of us are leaving on a journey, to finish something that I should have done long ago.” Nahado paused. “We need to be ready for any sort of trouble we come across, whether it is just against the cold winter winds or the blades of an army.”
“An army?” I interrupted.
“You don't seriously expect us to waltz right into the path of a hostile army, do you, Nahado?” Maria laughed. She waited for an answer, but Nahado said nothing.
Several seconds passed.
Nahado's silence was eloquent, I thought.
“We need two pairs of clothing each. Can you fit us?” Nahado asked, looking at Hannah.
“Yes, but must I wear this feeble costume?” Hannah replied.
“No, you can trust these people,” Nahado said.
Cracks from Hannah’s back echoed through the room. She grew four inches, and her gray hair turned to blond. Her wrinkles stretched out and revealed smooth skin. Her appearance changed completely.
“Well that’s better!” she said excitedly. “Come here, Maria, we’ll clothe you first.”
Maria walked over to her.
“Which colors do you like better, dark green, dark blue, dark purple, or black?” Hannah asked.
Maria chose the dark green and dark purple robes.
“Very well. Matthias and Nahado, turn away to give Maria some privacy.” Hannah paused then addressed Maria, “Put these on, Maria.”
Nahado and I turned around. I heard clothing hit the ground, then the sound of clothing being put on.
“Lovely, just lovely,” Hannah said.
“Your turn Matthias, come pick the colors that you like,” Hannah said.
I turned around, noticing that Maria had now changed into her forest green robe.
I, however, loved dark blue and chose black to go with the dark blue.
“Put one of them on to make sure it fits. We’ll turn around for your privacy,” Hannah said.
When they had turned around, I slipped off my old garments and put on the new ones. The garments were quite a bit lighter but very tough.
“I’m finished,” I said.
They turned and looked at me.
“You look very nice!” Maria said, looking me up and down.
I smiled at her, “You look great too!”
“So how much will these cost?” Nahado asked.
“You can have them if they are going to be put to use against the betrayer,” Hannah replied.
Nahado smiled, “Thank you Hannah, I am indebted to you.”
“I need to finish some business down here, I will see you later?” Hannah asked.
“Thank you again, Hannah.” Maria said.
Nahado led us back up out of the secret basement. As we got out Nahado handed me my second pair of clothes.
“Let's get some breakfast. We should have one last full meal before we depart!” Nahado said.
We followed him to a smoking hut that smelled greatly of venison. Inside, four men who stank of whine sat and ate juicy meat. The sight caused my mouth to water. When I had been a slave, the guards would eat in front of our faces. Every time they had, our stomachs would writhe.
“We’ll take three medium pieces, tender please,” Nahado asked the butcher.
“Yes sir,” the butcher said and went into the back.
We stood there, waiting for our meat. I noticed that Maria seemed on edge. It was as if she desperately wanted to say something, but kept holding it back.
“Nahado,” Maria whispered plaintively.
“Maria, there is a time and a place for this conversation. That time and place is not here,” Nahado said, looking away from Maria.
I was confused, what did they mean? Was this about their secret conversation? I looked at Maria trying to find an answer in her face. The silence was terribly akward.
“Matthias, have you ever wielded a sword?” Nahado asked, trying to change the subject
I shook my head. “No, sir, I’ve never been allowed,” I answered.
"Mathias," interjected Maria, but Nahado jumped in.
"No Maria, we'll discuss this later, in a safer place!"
Maria shook her head. "It's not that! Mathias--" she whispered so softly in my ear that even I could barely catch her words, "--we have to be careful what we say. If someone overhears us discussing what you haven't been allowed to do during your life, they might grow suspicious. These villagers must have been alerted of the breakout from the slave camp by now!" Nahado and I suddenly realized! Carefully, I checked around the tavern, trying to see if anyone was eavesdropping on our conversation.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed two men staring at Maria. They were smiling wickedly, their eyes glazed over. A deep feeling of resentment filled my heart. I looked away from them, and held my breath. The greed in their eyes as they stared at Maria, it was disturbing.
“Here they are, sir,” the butcher yelled to Nahado.
Three medium sized servings plopped down on top of an old wooden plate.
“That looks very good Nahado, thank you!” Maria smiled.
“Your welcome, here take your piece,” Nahado answered.
I picked up a piece and tore away some meat from it with my teeth. The meat tasted wonderful, making my mouth salivate more! I had never experienced the taste of meat!
Just as we stood to leave, the four men stepped from their table as well, and followed us to the door. "Will you hurry it up?" grumbled one, his words slurred. Without warning, he slapped Maria’s butt.
Maria didn't even blink, but she seemed at a loss for words.
Furious, I grabbed the drunk by the collar. “Tell her you are sorry!” I yelled. He stared at me venomously.
Now that I thought about it, he was a lot larger than me. In fact, he was at least a foot taller than I was! Before I had time to act he swung back his arm and with all of his might he hit me with it. If I had not tried to dodge his attack he might have bashed my head right off my shoulders. Instead I was knocked down to the ground, my head stung like it had at the river. Things became a lot blacker than they had been. A second later, my body felt nothing at all and I could hear the sound of my heart beating. I jumped up to my feet and with anger that I had never experienced before, I swung at the giant, hitting him plain in the chest. Again and again I hit him, my anger channeling through each punch. He tried to fight back, but his blows no longer affected me. Soon he was falling backwards, but still I threw my fists into him. My anger felt unending. By the time his back touched the ground my knuckles were bleeding furiously. The man covered his head with his hands and cried out for mercy. My anger wanted to hurt him more, but I held out against it. I stood straight up and looked over at Maria, who was being held back by Nahado. I felt horrible now. I had just made a fool of myself in front of her. In spite of all my anger towards this man I gave him my hand. He took it and stood up. Slowly he trudged off with his three friends. They glared at me fiercely, but I understood why.
I stared down at the ground now as I walked back to Nahado and Maria. I didn't know whether I had done right or wrong.
"Mathias..." Maria said quietly but Nahado silenced her.
"Come you two, we should return to my cottage," Nahado suggested.
Maria silently paid the innkeeper for the damage to the furniture that had resulted from the brawl.
As the three of us stepped outside, I could feel the angry glares from the four troublemakers at the back of my neck. We stepped slowly towards Nahado's home, Maria never looking at me. Finally, I broke the awkward silence, "I'm sorry I lost my temper. Maybe I went a little too far."
"It wasn't worth fighting for at all," said Maria with a voice like steel.
I certainly hadn't expected that. "Maria, he struck you!"
"He was drunk. What does it matter? You could have gotten yourself killed or worse. What if you got arrested? What if they discovered that you are a slave?"
"What was I supposed to do? Stand by and do nothing?"
"I am fully capable of protecting myself, Matthias. Please do not feel that you need to
leap to my defense, because I'm not a weak little girl."
"I didn't fight him just because you're a weak little girl! I had other reasons." Maria just gave me a stony look. "Wait! That didn't come out right. I didn't mean I think you're weak!" I corrected. Nahado was doubling up with silent laughter. "You're not weak. It's just that what that man did was degrading and-" as she turned away I just gave up.
I stared dumbly as she walked briskly ahead of us. Nahado suddenly appeared at my side and whispered into my ear so Maria could not hear, "Nice right uppercut!"
I looked up to Maria, but she made it a point not to look at me. This saddened me greatly. All the way back I tried to justify what I had done, but every time I thought deeper about it I knew Maria was right; I had overreacted. I hated myself for what I had done.
All three of us entered Nahado's house and sat at the great table inside. Maria closed her eyes, waiting for Nahado to speak.
"The sun will set in a few hours, then we will leave for the secret elven city of Qarsak, the last refuge for elves. I wish for you to meet my closest friend, for I have many questions that only he can answer."
In our last few hours before our departure, I tried to keep myself busy, so I would not have to awkwardly endure Maria's silent treatment. While Maria packed our food and other necessities, I helped Nahado with our equipment: knifes, rope, lanterns, tools for making fire, our swords, and "just a few" of Nahado's precious books, three bags full. All of this was mine to haul through the forest. I didn't mind. After all, I had borne much heavier loads as a slave. In fact, I was prepared to carry the food, until Maria lightly snatched it up. "I'll be fine carrying this, thank you," Maria stated, giving me a look which clearly meant, "Unless you think I'm too weak and frail to manage it on my own."
Nahado looked from me to Maria, then back to me. "Shall we depart, friends?" he asked us, emphasizing the last word slightly.
Both Maria and I nodded in assent, and the three of us marched to the door, eager to begin our journey. As I swung the heavy door open, I couldn't wait to see the wide open fields and scenic paths which led to the forest. The sight which greeted me was not what I was expecting. At least a dozen men were huddled outside Nahado's home. Dusk had fallen. Warm light flickered from out of their torches and eerily lit up their faces. One of them stepped forward, raising his rough voice, "That's him! That's the man who tried to kill me! I told you he was staying with crazy old Nahado!" It was the drunken man I had fought earlier, but he was fully sober now.
Two other men, both in uniform, stepped from the group and marched towards us. "What business do these strangers have in our town, and why are you harboring them, Nahado?"
Nahado was stooped over again, and he spoke to the villagers in a cracked, feeble voice. "These are merely travelers, sergeant. They wished to purchase some of my books. I was just escorting them out of town."
"I don't believe it! Who cares about your books, old man?" shouted someone I could not see, but one of the soldiers raised a silencing hand.
"I cannot allow these strangers to leave, Nahado. They must be brought in for questioning. After all, this one attacked an innocent citizen," barked the soldier, pointing to me.
"Sir," Maria interrupted, "the man who stands behind you, the one who accuses us, was so drunk I am surprised he even remembers the fight. He was rude to me, and Mathias felt it was his duty to defend my honor. A silly thing to quibble over, I admit, but clearly Mathias was not in the wrong." With a winning smile, Maria added, "Don't you agree, sergeant?"
"Well," the sergeant seemed to be mulling it over. "I suppose that's fair. But I'm going to have to ask you to leave town at once."
I felt relieved. Leave town? Was that all? That was exactly what we wanted to do! However, the man I had fought with was not satisfied. At the soldier's words he seized his opportunity, "Yeah! I say we drive 'em out of town, right now!" The others cheered their assent, and the two soldiers looked nervous. If the small mob grew violent, the two of them would not be enough to suppress them. They placed their hands firmly on the shouting man's shoulders, hoping to calm him down, but their gesture had just the opposite effect. Feeling threatened, the brute shook the soldiers off, clubbing one with his torch. The other villagers roared and charged us!
In response, Nahado stuck both of his fingers in his mouth and whistled shrilly. The deafening whistle lasted for five whole seconds. Everyone paused dumbly, including Maria and me. Since he now had everyone's attention, Nahado took this opportunity to speak his mind, "Now, gentlemen, I'm sure there is a rational, civilized way for us to sort this all out." A few hundred feet behind the villagers, I saw two shapes leap out of the old shack in response to the whistle and came bounding towards us. Listening intently to Nahado with their backs turned to the shack , none of the villagers noticed them. I realized what was about to happen.
"And this, my friends, is not it," finished Nahado, in a strong, powerful voice. The time for acting meek was over. The two black cats pounced ferociously at the back of the group. At that instant, Nahado charged the distracted men in the front, staff in hand. Before Maria and I even had time to rush to Nahado's aid, it was over. Six men lay sprawled on the ground, some unconscious and others rubbing their skulls looking confused. The rest were fleeing as fast as they could.
"Shall we take our leave?" invited Nahado as though he had just finished having a quiet tea with the villagers.
Stepping over the bodies, I expected to see a lot of blood, but it seemed Nahado's pets weren't trained to kill. "They'll be alright. I only hit their heads," reassured Nahado. "For decades, I've been cooped up in this village, gathering what information I can about the monarchy, trying to make a living selling these ignorant bigots books, which they couldn't care less for," he said to himself.
And so, the three of us began our journey. After witnessing Nahado's feat, I found it ironic that Maria and I were carrying all the supplies for the old man, but I didn't bother to mention it.
We walked headlong towards the forest. Every now and then I would glance beside me and try to catch Maria's eye, though each time she noticed me, she would avert her gaze. The trees were sparse, but gradually grew thicker as we progressed. Birds small and large flew in and out of the different trees. Creatures crawled around the area, never taking notice to us as we passed through. The noises of the forest became almost unnoticeable. An hour or two passed and the forest looked just as bland as it had been at Nahado's house. Every once in a while we would run into a meadow where only grass grew. I sighed in relief as we entered another clearing. It was much easier travel! "It's so beautiful here," I observed.
To my surprise, Nahado slammed his staff sharply to the ground. I looked at him uneasily.
“These meadows. Do you recognize them, Maria?" he muttered.
"I think so," she answered, hesitantly.
"This field is the final resting place for the elves who fought against humans at our last stand. This is a cursed place. The blood of those soldiers has laid dormant under the grass for hundreds of years, preventing the growth of trees. I remember visiting here shortly after the massacre. I was so young then, just a religious acolyte.” Nahado swallowed hard.
Maria walked over to him and wrapped her arm around him. In their language she spoke softly to him. Nahado wiped the sweat from his brow. "Senseless. Why did it have to happen? Dnno was making such progress. He had already secured freedom for thousands of humans. One by one, he convinced the elvish nobles and the church leaders that slavery was intolerable. There were only a few godless fools who refused to listen to the words of their king, and even their resolve was weakening. But that wasn't good enough for the humans. At first, Olgi's mob was content to hunt down and butcher their former owners. Soon, they were strong enough to overthrow the elf lords who had supported their enslavement. Dnno often spoke of his vision, a world where our races could stand as allies, where every man, woman, and elf lived free." Nahado knitted his weathered brow. The gentle wrinkles which showed his age seemed to ripple away, replaced by waves of anger. His voice grew bitter as he continued, "But Olgi believed that as long as a single elf remained alive, there was a threat to his race. Every day, we would hear new accounts of destruction and carnage at the hands of humans. Whole cities were purged, even those where slavery had long been abolished. Dnno’s dream was destroyed by the very people he sought to liberate—humans!" The last word was a dangerous whisper. Nahado looked up and our eyes met for a brief moment. I cannot easily describe the feeling that came over me. It was as if Nahado was looking at me, but all he could see were the atrocities that my ancestors had committed. There was fear, pain, hatred in those eyes. But in an instant it was over, and kindness filled his eyes again as he looked back to Maria.
Slowly, Nahado raised his staff and continued walking. I was shaken, but I tried to control myself, the way Nahado had controlled the look in his eyes. Did he hate me because I was human? Did all elves harbor similar resentful feelings? A terrible thought occurred to me: what if he was leading me into a trap? I remembered his conversation with Maria behind closed doors, about my unusual ability to unlock Maria from her stone. That was one reason why we were going to Qarsak, one they didn't want me to know.
What exactly was going to happen to me when we arrived at Qarsak?
But at the sight of Maria, my doubts vanished. I couldn’t bring myself to doubt her, after all the kindness she had shown to me. As if she was trying to vindicate my trust, Maria ended her silent treatment, and the three of us began chatting amiably again.
Chapter 3
As we went deeper into the forest, the man-made paths started to disappear. After some time I became suspicious that Nahado had no idea where we were going.
“Nahado?” I asked, when I realized we had abandoned the paths altogether.
“Yes?” Nahado responded.
“Are we lost?”
Nahado chuckled slightly and glanced at me. “Lost! No, of course not. We are right on track!”
Maria seemed amused as well, but her laugh faded in her throat. She was staring at something moving on the path ahead of us. When I saw it, I understood why she wasn’t laughing.
A gigantic bear was bent over the carcass of a deer. It looked up from its kill, fresh blood staining its fangs and claws, and stared right at us with its empty, black eyes. Step by ponderous step, it trudged towards us, breaking twigs under its mighty paws. I looked from Nahado to Maria, waiting for them to react. I was about to tell them not to panic, as if that would have helped, but Maria's face lit up, not with terror, but with sheer joy!
“Nahado! May I?” she whispered in excitement.
Nahado nodded and Maria approached the beast at a swift pace. I started to run after her but Nahado griped my shoulder tightly, holding me back. The bear stood on its hind legs, towering over Maria.
Just then, Maria held out her hand to pet the bear which allowed her to do so freely. I was stunned. Nahado pushed me forward, directly in front of the animal. Maria smiled at me reassuringly as she took my hand. My heart raced as she extended my arm to the warm fur which felt smooth to the touch.
“Mathias," she said with a laugh, amused by my expression of terror, "you will find that, with our help, creatures of any kind can become your allies. We elves have a special connection with nature. It has been that way since the beginning of time, until your race…” She ended abruptly and hung her head.
Nahado cleared his throat. "We had best be on our way Maria. We are about to cross the border,” Nahado insisted.
The bear seemed to understand Nahado and fell to the ground with a thump, looking dejected. I forced myself not to laugh at the sight: a ferocious monster looking more like a lonely puppy. Maria said something in her language to the bear and it bounded away.
Maria seemed to be very happy to have encountered that beast. Her smile was infectious.
As we traveled through the forest, the trees had grown progressively larger and closer set. Now, they almost formed a solid wall. As we carefully winded our way past the thick trunks and branches, I was starting to get claustrophobic. I also had a strange feeling of déjà vu. I thought I could hear something unusual, besides the noises of the forest life; its volume would sometimes increase and then fade away, only to increase again even louder. It was like music. The same music I had heard before.
“This music. Nahado, I heard this same song on the night I escaped the slave encampment!”
“Indeed?" Nahado looked interested at this news. "Was there anything else strange you noticed that night?”
“No…” my voice trailed away as I thought. Then, the trees jogged my memory. “Wait, there was something. When I fled from the slave camp, the trees had been blocking my path. I haven’t thought about it until now. I guess I was too concentrated on escaping. But I remember now that the trees had almost seemed to -- shift out of my path, like they were letting me through.”
Nahado nodded. “Intriguing.” There was a moment as he pondered my words. “This is an enchanted place, Mathias, as you may have gathered. The music you hear is the Song of the Forest. The trees here can move, if they wish, and think, and sometimes even speak.” He paused dramatically. I thought he was waiting to see if one of the trees would do something to prove the truth of his words. None of them moved, but he continued unperturbed, “What I find strange is that, since humans inhabited the outer regions of this wood, the Song of the Forest has only been heard in the deepest areas of the forest, far from human ears. The trees do not trust your race as they do mine. One more question for my friend Nelrion.”
Nahado’s gaze flicked to the heavy satchels and sacks I was hauling. “Here, let me take some of your load. I’m sorry, my books must be a terrible encumbrance.” I knew it was his subtle way of suggesting that we cease talking and move on, but I didn’t mind. I was satisfied with his answer. Also, I was thankful to be relieved of his heavy book bags. Without the extra weight, it was somewhat easier to maneuver around all the brambles and foliage.
By now, the sun was almost completely blotted out. “Tread carefully here,” advised Nahado. “Don’t worry, there is another source of light in this forest. We should come across it before it becomes pitch black.” A minute later, I looked up, and sure enough, a hazy green aura seemed to emanate from the forest canopy. It was like a thick fog, glowing eerily.
As I looked at my surroundings I noticed there were vines thicker than my arm spiraling up most of these trees which were covered with beautiful flowers. This flower was similar to a sunflower, its center a cluster of thousands of florets arranged in a gorgeous spiral. But unlike a sunflower, its petals were blood red and relatively thick. Nahado noticed my fascination and grabbed my extended hand before I could pluck one. “Careful,” he cautioned. “The head of this flower, the center, has remarkable recuperative properties,” he said as he delicately broke one off at the stem. Before I could ask what he meant by “recuperative,” he answered my question, “It naturally speeds up the healing process. However, the red petals are highly venomous. Even a slight touch could be dangerous. Or is it the other way around?”
“Nahado!” cried Maria.
“I’m only joking. I know the difference. Though medicinal herbs were never my best subject. Nelrion is an expert on botany. You’d best be careful or he’ll talk your ear off!” Nahado gently flicked the flower away, making sure not to let the red petals brush his skin.
The red flowers were not the only dangerous plant life. The sparse plants that grew on the ground had no flowers but thorns, which tore at my sandals. Another hour passed and the trees became as wide as cottages. Some of the smaller plant life that had been hindering us before had stopped growing in these parts. Off in the near distance we saw a large cat-like animal that stared us down. Its fur was long and well kept. Nahado's walking was uninterrupted by this beast, and as we moved closer it ran off.
Maria suddenly gasped.
Nahado and I turned at once to view why. Apparently she had tripped over something and was laying face down on the ground. I rushed to her aid and wiped the mud from her face.
“Thanks...” she whispered, then turned to look at what had tripped her.
“Nahado!” she screamed and the old elf ran towards where she was pointing.
Nahado picked up the end of an old and weather-beaten pole that had long since fallen over. Attached to the other end was a skull of a human. I looked to Nahado. His face was grim.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“It means we’ve almost arrived at Qarsak,” he answered bluntly without looking at me, as he buried the skull with the loose dirt that surrounded it. “Maria, what do you think we should do? I’m hesitant to set up camp here, but we’ve been traveling all day, and it’s another half-day’s walk to Qarsak.”
Maria thought a moment and answered, “I think we should set up camp here. It is getting late, and I don't think we should travel through this part of the forest if our minds are tired and groggy. We should get a few hours of sleep.”
“But it’s still nearly bright as day,” I said, confused.
“Because of the mist, it’s almost impossible to tell how long you’ve been in the forest. It’s probably past midnight outside the woods,” answered Nahado.
In the distance there was a giant tree that had fallen over. It was hollow and had a crack down the center of it. Nahado seemed interested, and motioned us to follow him. It was a beautiful place. A few hundred feet away, I could see a shimmering pool of water. But as I stumbled on one of its giant roots and caught myself, I saw something which drove the pool of water to the back of my mind. A centipede, about a foot long and three inches thick, was crawling up my leg. I screamed and struggled to brush the thing off me!
“Humans!” Nahado laughed as I wildly kicked it away from me. “Here, let me put a protective charm around the three of us.” Nahado started chanting words in a foreign language, and a large sphere of green sparks began to form around his staff. His eyes began to glow slightly. As he raised his staff, I felt a warm sensation travel through my whole body. “Very good,” Nahado finished. “Now, for your sake, let me do something about these insects.” Lightly, he tapped the hollow log and every creature who lived inside it came running out. An ant the size of a small cat was the last to leave!
“That should keep them out until morning. Come – let us get some rest,” Nahado declared.
We entered the log and I unloaded the baggage to the ground. While Nahado decided to sleep on the flat ground, Maria lay her head on the end of the log opposite from me. I smiled at her, and she smiled back. She was really beautiful when she smiled.
Maria quickly drifted into a deep slumber. On the other hand, I twisted and turned fitfully, unable to get comfortable.
I awoke late that night and couldn’t get back to sleep. My mouth was irritatingly dry, so I thought some water might help. I blinked, trying to find the water pouches, and finally saw then tucked by Maria. There was no way of getting them without disturbing her.
I tried to force myself to sleep. Of course, that didn’t work. Finally, I made up my mind to go and drink from the natural water source I had noticed earlier, and crept my way past my two friends to the pond. The moon was just barely peeping through the branches high above, and its reflection gently shimmered in the dark blue water. Even if it was stagnate, I wouldn’t have cared. But as I approached, I noticed it was clearer and fresher than any water I had ever seen.
I bent my head over to drink.
But I did not see my reflection in the water. Someone else’s face was staring back at me!
Stunned, I backed away from the spring with a gasp. Blinking, I checked the water again, but this time, it was my own distorted reflection. Was it just my tired mind playing tricks on me? My thoughts were interrupted by a deep, clear voice. “Well, are you going to take a drink, or are you going to sit around all night muttering to yourself?” the voice resonated. Startled I looked around for the speaker.
“Where are you?” I asked desperately.
“I’m in the pond,” said the voice full of sarcasm.
I stared at it incredulously. “In the pond?” I thought out loud.
“You are very quick,” the voice added in that same sardonic tone. It sounded almost bored. “Here. Let me take on a more palpable form. It has been a very, very long time since I have had someone to speak with.” In the center of the pond, the water began to rise. Slowly, it took the shape of a creature like an elf and stood unmoving where it had appeared. Though it was made of liquid, the elf-like figure had distinct features: hands, ears, hair, and shining blue eyes. “Now, what manner of creature are you? You look like an elf, but clearly you are not,” it inquired. The figure’s mouth moved, but the voice seemed to emanate from deep underwater.
“Well, what sort of creature are you? You look like an elf, but clearly you are not,” I said, imitating its doleful voice.
It laughed stiffly. “Well, it’s seems you are not without wit. Very well, I shall go first. I am a sprite. Now, it is your turn, I believe.”
“I’m a man. Haven’t you seen a man before?” I asked, raising my eyebrows. When I saw it shake its head, I replied, “How long have you been here, anyway?”
“Oh, centuries probably. It’s almost impossible to determine time in this forest, as I’m sure you’ve observed already. Tell me, how long have mans been around?”
“You mean ‘men,’” I corrected.
“So sorry,” it said, looking impatient. “But really, I could not be expected to know that, could I? After all, I've been here since before your race of 'men' emerged. Now, could you answer my question, please?”
“My race is thousands of years old,” I informed the sprite.
“I figured that I must have been trapped here at least that long.”
“Why can’t you leave here?”
“As a sprite,” it began, “I have complete control over the body of water I inhabit. But I am limited to said body. As all rivers eventually lead to the ocean, that restriction usually isn’t a problem for sprites, but I got stuck in this pond.”
“How did you manage that?”
“Oh, bit of a fracas between myself and some elves. They lured me to this pond through a stream which led here, then used their magic to cut me off. Dreadfully tricky creatures, elves. You can’t trust them.”
I thought of the two elves whom I traveled with, sleeping soundly back at the camp site. Could I trust them? I hadn’t forgotten their secret discussion about my presentation to the elf, Nelrion. “Why would they do that?” I wondered out loud.
The sprite, who must have thought the question was directed to him, answered, “I suppose they were jealous of me. Envious of my power. Elves covet magic above all else. That tendency has marked their race since the beginning of time, eons before your race of men came about, when sprites and elves and other creatures inhabited this world together.”
It had been my power that had interested them, hadn’t it? I remembered the concern in Nahado’s voice when he considered the possibility that men had developed the power to awaken elf stones, and the fear in his eyes when he looked into my eyes at the ancient grave. Did he fear retribution? That my people would seek vengeance against those who had enslaved us long ago? I brooded on this question.
“Something is troubling your mind,” the sprite observed. “What is it?” he inquired, curiously. I was hesitant to answer. After the moment’s pause, the sprite hazarded a guess: “Are you having troubles with elves, yourself?” I was astonished by the sprite’s powers of observation.
“I—I’m not—” my voice was hoarse, and I stammered.
“You’re throat is so dry, you can barely speak. Why don’t you have a drink to restore your voice?” it offered, invitingly.
“Are you sure? I mean, aren’t you the water?”
“I am a spirit which inhabits the water. ‘Sprite’ is derived from the ancient elven word for ‘spirit.’ Drinking the water will not harm me, so long as you do not drink the spring dry, which you look thirsty enough to do,” it joked. I laughed, but the strain on my voice sent me into a fit of coughing. The sprite’s liquid eyes filled with concern at the sight. Finally, I decided I was thirsty enough to accept his offer. Opening my parched mouth, I bent over the freezing water. I could feel the wonderful chill against my face—
“Mathias, what are you doing?” It was Nahado. As I turned to look at him, I saw his eyes were wide, his mouth agape with fear, breathing deep, quick breaths. “Step away from that water,” Nahado whispered every word firmly.
“What is this? An elf? Here?” the sprite cursed.
"What sly words have you spoken to this boy, demon?" demanded Nahado, his staff raised.
"You dare to threaten me? You think I am intimidated by one such as you, a decrepit, pointy-eared fool?" growled the sprite.
"Nahado, what's going on?" It was Maria. At the sight of the sprite, she trembled. I'd never seen her that frightened. "Mathias, get away from there!"
The sprite repeated her words, "'Mathias'?" He directed his attention back to me. "They know you? Are you traveling with these elves, Mathias? Are these the elves who are deceiving you?"
"You're one to talk about deception, sprite," Nahado spat the final word.
I didn't understand why Nahado was so furious. "What's wrong with you two? This sprite has been very friendly to me. Why do you accuse him of deception, Nahado?"
"Mathias, that sprite is an evil spirit. Get away from it now!" he implored me.
"They're lying to you," the sprite shot back.
I stood between the elves and the sprite, not knowing what to do. Seeing my hesitation, Maria spoke to me gently, "Mathias, we haven't lied to you. You can trust us."
I answered coolly, "Oh, then tell me, what exactly is going to happen when you hand me over to this elf, Nelrion?"
“You know?” she whimpered.
“Yes, I know. I overheard the two of you speaking behind my back!”
“You’re no fool, Mathias. They thought you would follow them blindly, unquestioningly. But it seems you have questions they need to answer. Why are they taking you to Nelrion, Mathias?" the sprite asked.
"Because I awoke Maria from her elf stone," I answered. Suddenly I found myself asking the questions that had plagued my mind out loud. "Has a human ever been able to do that?"
"We don't know, Mathias. That's why we're taking you to Nelrion," Nahado answered timidly.
"And what will they do to determine the answer, Mathias? Experiment on you?" suggested the sprite.
"If we thought they would hurt you, Mathias, we would never take you to them," reassured Maria.
I kept turning my head as each of the three spoke to me. I was growing frustrated. Their words came at me from all sides like arrows, overwhelming me. "Enough! Stop your chatter! I'm no different from anybody else, am I? Is there something wrong with me? Am I a freak? I just want to know the answer! ”
The sprite seized his opportunity. “A fair question, Mathias. In effect, the question you are asking is, ‘Who am I?’ It is a question which every sentient creature has pondered. I am an ancient being, Mathias, as old as the very race of elves. My knowledge is vast, deeper than the oceans. I may have some of the answers you are looking for.”
“Tell me!” I demanded.
“I can do better! I can show you! Step into the water, Mathias. Submerge yourself in my knowledge, and you will see it all with your own eyes!”
Yes! Full of confidence, I stepped into the water, and prepared to dive deep into its recesses, when Maria’s desperate scream rent the silence of the forest. “NO! Mathias, the sprite will drown you, or possess you! You see the shape it takes? That of an elf. A sprite can only take the shape of that which is in the water. That is an elf. A drowned elf!”
I turned to the liquid elf. “Is it true?”
“There are two sides to every story, Mathias,” said the sprite, stonily.
I stared into the sharp blue eyes. “You’re right,” I said. At this, Maria’s screams died in her throat.
“And I want to hear theirs,” I added sternly making my way towards the shore.
The sprite's voice grew more menacing, "No!" I tried to move my legs, but it was as if they were encased in stone. Shouting for help, I reached for my friends, and Nahado rushed to the edge of the pond, extending his staff to pull me ashore. I grasped the staff with all my might, and Nahado pulled me towards him with surprising strength, but the sprite quickly reacted. Tentacles of water shot forth, coiling around my waist and chest. Nahado's staff snapped in two under the strain and I was yanked underwater.
The water distorted the sounds of the elves' shouting, but I could hear the sprite's voice clearer than ever. "Now we shall learn what makes you special, Mathias." I felt water trickling down my throat. Clamping my mouth tight shut and pinching my nostrils with my hand, I tried to keep the water out, but it pushed with tremendous force, wrenching my mouth open. It flooded down my throat!
A shock wave coursed through my body. Suddenly, I was being lifted up, out of the water, into the air! I plummeted to the hard ground. Nahado and Maria appeared at my side, propping me up. "Mathias, you need to vomit! Vomit out all the water before he can possess you!" Nahado didn't need to ask twice. I doubled over and forced the water out of my system. There was little more than a trickle, though. "Mathias, is that really all?" demanded Nahado.
"Yes," I answered weakly.
"It didn't try to possess you?" Maria realized.
"Bah," came the sprite's voice from the pond, "there is nothing unique about him! I learned nothing, except that men are weak creatures. They are, aren't they, Mathias? I saw the flaws inherent to your race: cowardice, aggression, selfishness, greed, arrogance. And you are no different."
The sprite said no more.
* * *
I was buzzing with questions, but the elves didn’t want to discuss anything until we were far away from the sprite. As we walked, the three of us remained silent. Nahado seemed irritable, but didn’t have the heart to lecture me. Once in a while, Maria looked at me shame-faced. Finally, Nahado seemed satisfied that we were far enough away from danger and we all sat down.
I wasn’t sure which question I should start with: why did you keep me in the dark, did you already know about the sprite, why was I able to unlock Maria from her elf stone.
“What the hell happened?” I asked numbly.
Drumming his fingers on the broken halves of his staff, Nahado answered curtly, “What happened? You almost liberated one of the most incredibly dangerous magical creatures in existence! That is what happened!”
“What was that thing – the sprite? What do you mean when you say I almost liberated it?” I demanded.
“I’ll tell you,” growled Nahado. “Eons before you or I ever existed, that sprite murdered an elf in the royal family. In response, the elves lured him into the forest and trapped him in a pond. He was condemned to remain there for all eternity. He saw you as a means of escape. If he could get you to drink some of the water, the sprite could have entered your body, and escaped!” I recalled how the sprite had insisted repeatedly that I have a drink.
“Don’t lecture me!” I shot back. “You didn’t warn me about any of this. It was your fault!” The two of us stood and glared at each other, our fists clenched.
“Stop! Please!” It was Maria. She stood between Nahado and me, a hand on each of our chests. “Mathias, I’m sorry we kept secrets from you about our suspicions,” she said with defeat in her voice.
I looked into her eyes. “Why was I able to free you, Maria?”
“I don’t know, Mathias. I just don’t know,” her voice broke, and tears filled her eyes.
Trying to comfort Maria, Nahado began explaining, “Don't ask us why, Mathais. We do not know why it happened.” He looked deep into my eyes. "All I know is that it did happen. Somehow, you did it, you freed Maria. And for that, I thank you, Mathais. Maria was like a daughter to me before the tragedy of the betrayal. Her stone was lost. I thought I'd never see her again, but you have brought her back to me. I swear to you, I will never let any harm befall you. You must trust us!" Nahado fought back tears. It was the first time I had seen him show such emotion.
"I believe you," I said finally.
Breathing hard, Maria smiled, her tear-stained cheeks filling with color. "Thank you, Mathias. We're going to take you to Nelrion, and he'll have the answers. We'll find out what makes you special, I just know it!"
I was smiling myself, but the feeling of happiness suddenly died. Her words had reminded me of the sprite. "Maria, don't you remember? The sprite said there was nothing special about me."
Nahado laughed hard. "Feh! Lying as usual. Mathias, think for just a minute. Why didn't the sprite possess you when it had the chance? You were probably the only opportunity for escape it will ever see. Something prevented it from possessing you. One of the most ancient and powerful magical creatures in this world, and something about you stopped it!" He grasped my shoulder triumphantly. "If there is one in the world thing I am sure of, Mathias, it is that you are no ordinary human!"