Bah! Those soldiers don’t scare me. Let them come, sit, and listen. Even if the devil-born king himself came down from his towers and slit my throat he wouldn’t be robbing me of that many years. I’m too old to hold my tongue anymore. Or be interrupted. So hush! What I speak is the truth, and you would do well to hear it.
Everybody knows how the war started. That story traveled across Merifren, even faster than the Conscriptors. A scarcer tale is how it happened. Even among the Traverns most don’t know how close they came to real destruction. How close King Coleman came to extending the rule of his black hand across the Peninsula.
Even if you’ve never been to the Great Forest west of here, I’m sure you’ve heard of it. That mass of timber stretches across the western coast, from the southern Needles to the bottoms of the Dunes. The great, ancient Oaks popping above the canopy like so many mushrooms. Only a few of the foresters that reside there even dare to venture in the deeper parts of the wood. One such forester was a young man named Lewick.
He was up a tree the first time he met her. He was one of the few people from Dremmurd who ventured that far south, away from the hunting and merchant trails. He mapped these uncharted areas, a craft he spent many young years developing. It was often that hobby that would lead him so far into the dark woods to begin with. He feared nothing there. It was his home, and he knew it as well as you do your own dining table.
She came crashing through the woods, with enough clamor to draw the curious boy from his perch in a great oak. She didn’t see him sitting on a low branch above the clearing, but he saw her. She was beautiful, young, and terrified. Wearing a dress that was already shredded from the knees down. Twigs and brambles were stuck to it at all angles, and thin, scarlet scratches coursed up her arms and across her face. Her shock of blonde hair was wild, dirty, and covered in leaves. Lewick was smitten instantly.
“Are you ok?”
The girl spun around wildly, looking for the source of the voice. She spotted the boy perched on a low branch.
“You need to leave, now. It’s not safe here, there’s… someone coming. Someone dangerous.”
Lewick tried to look where she had come from, but it was no use. The forest was too thick. The trees were still. “Who’s coming?”
“It doesn’t matter, he’ll kill you if he sees you.” She began to back away from the tree, to restart her flight.
“Wait!” He leapt down from one branch to another, coming closer to the ground. “The safest place here is up one of these.” He reached his hand down. She would be able to grab it.
Still, she didn’t move. “Are you sure?”
He nodded, “Aye, there’s nothing else around here for miles.”
Aye, they were safe in those trees. The Ancient Oaks, over 400 years old, were magicked into existence by elf-folk. Old magic flows in those massive trunks. Nothing could harm or find them there. So they hid, at the very top where the air thinned, and across the great forest they could see the Merifren Sea, shining gold in the blazing sunset. There was no safer place.
She sighed, a great weight lifted from her chest for the first time in a long time. Safe. “Thank you. I…”
He grinned, and held out a hand. “Name’s Lewick.”
She took it. “Amelia.”
Lewick gazed at her with curious eyes. “What are you running from?”
She looked up, met his gaze, and looked away. “My husband.” She whispered. “A vile man. I had no wish to be with him. And when I ran…” She shuddered. “I think he means to kill me this time.”
His gut contracted. “Where’ll you go?”
She thought a moment. “I have family north of here… In Gellert.”
Gellert. Outside the forest, and several miles north. Lewick had a map of wider Merifren at his house, and tried to remember how long it would take to get to Gellert. At least two days by horse, longer if they had to walk.
“I can take you to Gellert. You’ll need a guide to get through the forest anyway if you don’t know it. And I have maps that we can follow to the city.”
She bit the tip of her thumb. “Are you sure?”
“Aye. Never been outside of the forest before. I’d like to see Gellert anyway, and when I explain the situation to my Pa, I’m sure he won’t mind me gone for a few days.”
A moment of silence passed. “You’re very kind.”
Lewick smiled. Something warm he hadn’t felt before glowed in his stomach. “We should get going though. Before it –”
“We need to wait… My husband might still be down there. I need to be sure he’s gone.”
So they waited. It was nearly an hour before Amelia would agree to descend. When they reached the bottom, the forest was still, and the two made their way towards Dremmurd, the town of foresters.
No, I don’t expect you to have heard of it. Not many have. It’s buried deep within the forest. Few people go there, and few people leave. Odd folk, those who’ve lived there the longest. Touched by magic, some say. Touched by isolation, methinks. Those who do live there have been there as long as living memory.
Lewick’s family was one of the oldest, and his Father owned the closest thing to a proper farm the foresters have. Lewick knew they were close before they’d reached the town. The woods started to thin, and the soft bleating of sheep carried across the trees.
His parents welcomed him and his companion with open arms and open breadbaskets. They listened to the girl’s tale over supper, and were deeply moved by her plight. They not only assented to Lewick’s assistance, they insisted. Toranna, his mother, offered her own clothes to Amelia, while his father, Lorin, took him to their stables.
The stables were small. A couple nags, too tired to carry anyone anywhere. A mare lay on its side in a larger stall next to them, nine months pregnant and resting. Lewick’s father led him straight to the back, holding an oil lamp in front of him. There, proud and tall, were his father’s prized animals.
“I want you to take these two with you,” Lorin’s voice came out low, like the soft
rumble of a distant rockslide. The two stallions stared back with inky eyes that shone like stars in the lamplight.
Lorin nodded. “You’ve never been outside the forest before. It’s a big world out there, you’ll need a good horse to cross it.”
Lewick nearly laughed. “I’m just going to Gellert. Even old Thredan over there could get me to Gellert and back… if I gave ‘im enough oats. But Folkviren and Rask?”
Lorin’s eyes twinkled, and he set the lamp down. “Aye, I’m sure Thredan could, but it’d take twice as long and the poor nag might just drop dead when he gets back. Besides -” he grabbed a bag of oats from off a peg, and began hand-feeding them to the stallions. “The world outside the forest is as dangerous as it is big. You’ll need horses that can get you out of trouble as quickly as you get into it, and these -” He stopped feeding Folkviren and scratched it behind its ear. “These are the best horses I ever seen. Bought them off elves, I did.”
Lewick’s eyes widened. His father had never told him where the horse came from. He came home late from the market one day, nearly ten years before, with two of the most beautiful stallions you’ve ever seen in tow. Never said where, or how.
“Aye. Nomads, from the southern plains. A tribe had been driven into the forest by Coleman’s raiding parties. Desperate, hunted, I hid them. It didn’t take long for the soldiers to become convinced their prey had melted into the trees. The elves paid me for the trouble with these horses. I never saw them again.” There was a touch of melancholy in his voice. “They’ve served me better than any horse I’ve ever known.”
He turned towards his son. “And now they shall serve you. Treat them well, feed them well, and they’ll never fail you.”
“Lewick, your Ma and I are very proud of you. You’re not a boy anymore, and
it’s your decision to leave the forest. We’re worried, but we’re proud. You helping this girl. You’re doing the right thing.”
The words of his father warmed Lewick at his core. He looked at his father’s horses. His horses. They stared back with eyes that twinkled like starlight.
The two wasted little time preparing the horses for the journey. In fifteen minutes, they were waiting in front of the cabin. Toranna came out, then Amelia, wearing all new clothes. Gone was her ripped and tattered dress, replaced with soft wool and leather riding gear. All the leaves and twigs and dirt had been brushed out of her hair, which was now tied up behind her face.
“Are you ready?” She looked at Lewick, a new determination radiating from her face. He nodded.
She thanked the family of foresters for everything they did. And swore on her own life she would repay the honour if she ever got the chance. With little ado, they fled.
The thicket surrounding Dremmurd would hold less wiley horses to a walking pace, but elven stallions are as sure-footed as any goat, and they dipped and dived through the thicket of branches, going no slower than a quick trot. By morning they had reached the forest’s very edges.
Have you been to the Maxin Plains? You? Aye, then you’ll know. Those plains are flatter than a pond on a still morning. On a clear day you can see straight to the horizon. On a dull morning, you can still see anyone coming from any direction. The plains were empty that morning, so they galloped. As fast as those stallions could carry them. As fast as the wind.
They’d ridden for hours, well into the noontime sun, when they spotted a wagon on the horizon. Now you know as well as I do that travellers are nothing rare, especially in these times. But two young people, charging across the plains on steeds fast as lightning? That stands out, enough for someone to remember, for someone to talk about it next time they stop to fill their belly, for someone to overhear. So they slowed.
It took nearly another hour for them to reach the oncoming wagon. They stopped
and chatted as they passed. The “hi”s, “how are you”s, and “where are you headed” sorta thing, you know? A young couple, on their way to a new place to start a family.
As soon as the wagon was gone over the horizon, Lewick and Amelia took off in a gallop again. Another few hard hours in the saddle, and they could see the teeth of Garrowend Gorge jutting out of the ground.
“We’re getting close,” Lewick said as they pulled their stallions to a stop. He consulted his map of Greater Merifren. “We can cross Merickaw Bridge, and camp the night on the other side. We’ll have a clear shot at anyone coming across the bridge. Good time to run if someone comes.”
They fed and watered Rask and Folkviren while they were stopped. Lewick kept a keen eye out on the horizon. After the brief pause they continued their flight, until they reached the gorge. Those elven steeds picked their way through the jagged crags with ease. Lewick followed Amelia the whole time, until they could see into the gorge. Then they could see the army.
Lewick stared at it. An army. Lit up with few torches, but in the reflection he could see the gleaming armor of hundreds, no, thousands of soldiers. A trail extending beyond the curve of the gorge, where he could see no more. He pulled his horse back onto solid ground, hoping they hadn’t been seen or heard. Amelia backed up Folkviren, but stayed close enough to look at the huge siege engines below.
He swore. “What are they doing here?”
“They’ve been sent by the King. He intends to use them to destroy Travern.”
“What business does he have with Travern?”
“None, except he does not yet own it. The Gorge twists and turns, but empties at Travern’s gate. They’ll never see it coming.”
He edged his horse next to hers, to look down into the pit. “We need to leave.”
“Because… “ Her voice cracked, and her eyes looked down. She seemed to be struggling to say something, to tell him something. “Because I need to go to Travern.”
She turned away. “Someone needs to warn them. Someone needs to help.”
Lewick stared. Dumbstruck. A rush of air left his lungs.
“Is anyone even chasing you?”
Several deep breaths. “Yes, but it’s not my husband. It’s… a homunculus.”
The stallions were skittish above the waiting horde. “A what?”
“A homunculus. I know how it sounds, but you have to believe me.”
“I do NOT.”
“No.” He shook his head and turned. He couldn’t look at her. He couldn’t look at the army. “I’m going home.”
She winced. “Please.”
Lewick swore. “Dremmurd doesn’t need to be an X on King Coleman’s map. I’m going home.” He turned Rask away from the gorge.
“Those people need our help!”
He paused, but refused to turn towards her.
“There’s no one else who can.”
Lewick sighed.“Take Folkviren. He’s faster than any horse down there. Just take
care of ‘im, okay? Make sure he gets food and water as soon as you get there.”
You know that feeling you get when go to sit down, and you miss. Everything becomes terrifying and real for just a second. Aye, that’s how Lewick felt leaving the crags. He rode for hours, slumped over in his saddle. Yet in the falling night he saw something that roused him from his melancholy. A orange glow on the horizon.
He smelled the burning flesh before he reached the fire. The rotten stench filled the plains. Rask wouldn’t approach the scene, so Lewick left him behind.
It was a wagon that was burning. The canvas top had already burned away. The horses were slaughtered in front of it, blood pooling from long gashes in their necks and sides. The couple he had met were smoldering in the wagon. The grass around them glowed red.
He jolted and looked to his right. A weasel-faced man, wearing a black cloak stood several yards away, watching the horrific scene. Lewick’s right hand slowly reached for his hunting knife.
“Did you do this?”
The man didn’t take his eyes off the embers. “Aye.”
This was a nightmare. He felt sick, and it had nothing to do with the stench. “Why?”
The man smiled. “Does it matter? Will it affect how you use that knife your holding? Surely this is something horrific I’ve confessed to. Surely a hero like you should avenge their deaths?” The man finally turned his head and faced him, the orange glow casting long, dark shadows across his face. “Or are you just scared, Lewick?”
He took a step back. “Who are you.”
The man downright grinned. “Wrong question.”
Lewick raised his knife, and the man walked forward. He turned open a palm. The skin at the center of his palm raised to a point, until a blade began poking through his hand. He kept grinning. With the sickening sound a knife makes when it’s pulled through the fresh carcass of a pig, the blade grew. The man kept walking toward Lewick, and the blade kept growing.
“What are you?”
He kept grinning. “Right question.”
In a blink, the Stranger had traversed the distance between them. Lewick’s knife caught the first blow with a deafening clang, but the strength of the strike knocked his knife clean out of his hands. He was reeling backwards, his weapon clattering away, and he into the dirt. In another heartbeat the Stranger was over him. He reared back his arm, the glistening blade slick with its own master’s blood gleaming in the embers. Lewick shut his eyes.
A moment passed, and he opened his eyes. The stranger was still there. His
blade inches from Lewick’s face. He kept grinning.
“I am a homunculus.”
That word again.
“Just like that yellow wench you’ve been keeping from me.”
Realization dawned on Lewick. He tried to explain to the Stranger that it was a mistake. That she lied to him.
The Stranger never stopped grinning. “Well, that’s okay. Everyone makes mistakes. Look at me…” He waved his blade at the carnage behind him. “Even I make mistakes.” The blade was at his neck again. “But I’ll give you a chance to rectify yours. Where is she?”
Lewick’s vision was starting to blur as he found it harder and harder to breathe. He could barely process the question. Through the haze, over the Stranger’s left shoulder, he could make out a star in the sky, blazing away from all this.
He pointed north, unable to say anything at this point. The man dropped him in a pile on the ground. “Thank you.”
The choking presence of the Stranger left with him, and soon Lewick felt able to breathe. Like the sloshing drunk, he climbed onto Rask’s back, and let it carry him as he stared at the sky.
He navigated by the stars. Finding the northern star on the end of the Little Beyorn, he remembered the lessons his father would teach him. Aye, there’s the Big Beyorn, and right at his heels, his son. Just like you and me. And if you look at his paw, you can see the northern star. The whole sky rotates around that point, son. If you can find that, you can always find your way home.
Lewick realized what he’d done. He yanked on Rask’s reins and the stallion neighed loudly as it turned back towards the gorge, and took off into the night.
He rode for over an hour, but turned off west before he reached the Gorge. He was slowed by the crags and stones, but was soon clear of it completely. He opened into a hard gallop. After nearly half an hour going flat-out, his legs were sore, and Rask was panting. On the horizon, silhouetted against the glow of the moon, was Travern. Below it, the Stranger, hooded in black, approaching Amelia and Folkviren.
Lewick charged. He coaxed Rask to full speed, begging the stallion not to stop as it approached the Stranger. That horse hit the Stranger like a battering ram. Nearly throwing Lewick from the saddle as it trampled the homunculus.
Breathless, Lewick stared at Amelia. “Are you okay?”
Lewick nodded. “Let’s just say I got my bearings.” He looked at the twisted wreck
of bones and cloth that was the Stranger. It was still moving. “We should go.”
Lewick barely had to touch his heels to Rask’s side before the beast took off running. He turned around and looked, and the Stranger was already up and chasing them. Not on horse, it didn’t even look like he was running. Yet there he was, coming after them at unnatural speed, his black cloak billowing out behind him. He kept grinning.
They weren’t going to make it.
Lewick held on to the stallion beneath him, trying to hold still on top of the beast as it jumped and galloped. He held himself up and low.
He turned again. The Stranger was catching up, slowly inching forward toward the pair. Ahead of them Travern was getting nearer, its great walls looming ominously above them. If the door doesn’t open, they’ll never make it.
Lewick thanked the gods for each passing foot. His legs were sore, and his eyes watering from the wind cutting at his face. They weren’t going to make it. He could see the massive gate to the city, it remained closed. They weren’t going to make it.
“Keep going!” Lewick shouted across at Amelia. She looked at him, surprised and wild-eyed. “Go!”
He yanked on his reins and the horse turned round to face the oncoming Stranger. His horse reared as the hooded man approached, swinging its hooves in his face.
“You should’ve stayed on the plains.” With the same sickening noise as before, the blade reappeared from his hand. “You’re in my way now.”
“Who are you?” Lewick’s stallion didn’t want to stay, and he had to fight with it to keep it still.
“It doesn’t matter.” He raised his blade, still moving forward.
Lewick pulled his knife. He charged, and suddenly everything moved slow. The Stranger swung his blade at Rask’s legs, but the stallion actually jumped over it. Lewick looked into the Stranger’s black eyes as he dragged his knife across the homunculus’ throat.
Rask dug his front hooves into the dirt as he landed, and Lewick nearly snapped his own neck. Both of Rask’s back hooves snapped out, sending the Stranger flying backwards.
As soon as he got his bearing Lewick steered Rask toward the body of the stranger. He pulled on the reins, and Rask reared up again. Coming down, he put both hooves through the Stranger’s skull.
He left the Stranger laying in a pool of the black liquid that he called blood, and rode off towards Travern. The gates were open by the time he reached it. He was barely awake.
Lewick stepped off his horse, looking around for Amelia. Exhaustion hit him like a kick in the teeth, and he slumped over into the dirt. Amelia ran to him, putting his head in her lap. He couldn’t keep his eyes open.
With that she left him lying in the dirt.
In the square where they arrived there happened to be a bard. Drunk from a long night’s tale-telling, he was stumbling home to sleep it off and count his earnings. To his displeasure, he sobered up as soon as a beautiful woman and dirty young boy came riding into the square amidst a huge commotion. I couldn’t see everything going on, but someone must’ve pointed me out to her in that square. She cornered me and told me everything. Not just the legend, but about her. She was a homunculus as well. A living weapon, just like the Stranger, made by the Black King to the same end – dominion over all free folk of Merifren. It was to begin, and begin to end, with Travern. But she rebelled, escaped, with great effort, from the King’s clutches in a small fortress along the southern border of the Great Forest. The Stranger had been sent to stop her from warning Travern. From saving all those people. Then she met Lewick. She asked me to tell him everything, and a little something else. When he woke, I did.
I guess you know what happens after that. Everyone does. As Coleman’s army marched on Travern that day, a great light opened up in the sky, and scorched the earth. The invading force the Black King had raised was decimated, and from that day forth the Garrowend Gorge was both deeper and wider. The source of that light, though it would pain both the Travern and the coal-hearted bastard himself for you to know, was Amelia. It was the ultimate weapon the King had made her to be. It cost her life to use. It was her curse.
In the end, it was her gift.
Hello everyone! This is a short story I wrote that I’ve been trying to get down for years. It’s been through a lot of forms, but I’m pretty happy with how it turned out! I’m gonna try to post longer work like this every two weeks or so. Let me know if you like it and if you want more!
Copyright Eddie Maciorowski 2017