The Forrester's Quest




THE FORRESTER’S QUEST
 BY DUSAN SEKULIC


PROLOGUE

THE lone robin sang a melody of reflective sorrow, piercing the late afternoon light in the amber lit forest. With bitter sweet tones, it roused the softly sleeping form of an aged man, sitting in strained contemplation on the stump of an ancient tree by the small abbey nearby. His thoughts curiously drifted to his childhood of solitude and perseverance. Time searched his aging soul in this damp season of the fall. Straining his head ever so slightly, he peered up at the intermittent sky above, fading light running through intertwining branches in order to reach the shadowed soil of the forgotten land. The years had gone by at seemingly different states. From bright, exalting heights to wintry isolation, swept by the wind. At times, the years carved a dark path of resignation for the tired journeyman. All bound by duty. To one’s kin and fellow man, to the eternal forces of life, and the single enduring faith of the resolute abbey, sitting peacefully at the forest’s edge.
     Rising ever quietly, the old man began his walk towards the sacred entrance from whence he had come, clutching his weathered tunic. The stone walls and hollowed space of the abbey welcomed all, forsook none. An old hymn could be heard in the man’s mind, stirring memories of old friends long gone, companions of a time forgotten, withered away to dust and endless sleep amongst the stars. Yet still he remained, wading through the tides of life.
     The rustling leaves bent under the weight of his feet as he traversed the last stretch of ground that led to the steps of the secluded abbey. At the foot of the entrance, the man stopped. He could hear the approach of a powerful steed beyond the line of trees yonder. He could almost sense its strange approach. Neither hurried nor suppressed, but filled with purpose that was beyond his wise understanding. The light had almost faded as, paying no heed, he resumed his slow procession into the shrine of his destiny.
     Softly lit candles lined the old walls of the abbey, creating an enchanting aura of serenity. Fate now guided the old man as he glided towards the stoned sepulcher at the far end of the building, hidden behind the altar. He kneeled before it, gathering within himself a prayer for the unknown knight who lay there in eternal rest. The hymn had finally faded from his distant thoughts, this moment permeating all of his existence. Closing his tired eyes, the aged figure began his prayer in isolation. For a while he knelt in complete equilibrium with time itself.
     Then, with the summoning of fate’s hand, he was not alone anymore. The silent, hooded rider had entered the holy midst of the secluded corner, his stout gauntlet resting on his sheathed sword. Time’s futility had come forth in the shroud of darkness, beckoning fate.
     The old man ceased his quiet whispers, eyes opening unto the immovable figure behind him, rigid and resolute. He could not see his face – suppressed, like the robin’s song.
     No muffled scream, no harrowing struggle. Only the swift synchronicity of violence and death. The dagger momentarily stained in the echo of stillness.
    
     The abbey doors yawned open, spewing out into the night the bitter form of the hooded rider, walking the steps of his own destiny, rued in blood. The moving specter now mounted his horse, the eyes of the night watching his shadowy exit. Sitting high on his protected steed he slowly took off his right gauntlet to gaze at the prize he had procured: Betwixt his silver-ringed forefinger and thumb, perched a key of glistening beauty, the bringer of ominous deeds.



Up! Up! My Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you’ll grow double.
Up! Up! My Friend, and clear your look;
Why all this toil and trouble?

The sun above the mountain’s head,
A freshening luster mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.

Books! ‘tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! On my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it.

And hark! How blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless –
Spontaneous wisdom breathed my health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of more evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things: -
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

The Tables Turned By William Wordsworth

I

A FARMER, TWO FIDDLES AND AN OX

THE long dusty road stretched out into infinity, its lengthy barrenness beckoning solitude. A rich harvest of crops could be seen on either side of it, the variety and plentitude overindulging the senses. Stocks of corn firmly formed in abundance. Cucumbers, potatoes and lettuce brought tender cheer to the wandering onlookers of insects gliding and crawling in their cyclical journeys. Bushels of onions as far as the eye could see.
The tomato. Its grand importance never too far from the keen eye. All embedded in earth and dirt, among Nature’s endless list of possessions and virtues. See the tender stock growing in plentitude. Its embracement of life brings life.
     The sky’s palette of blue clarity oversaw these glorious fields this fine, upstart day. A single cloud made only the slightest appearance from time to time, ushered away until the next cluster formed.
     Not unlike any other day it was in the fields of Lower Mire, or Myrr, as it was known in the ancient times. The villagers were busy at work claiming the fruition of the summer’s happy harvest. Their minds finally at ease while their hands worked hurriedly in the morning light.
     The people of Lower Mire were a proud collection of souls. Their strength and solidarity lay in their love of family and knowledge of each other’s every affair, jovial or not. How the ears pricked up at the chatter of friendly neighbours together idly slicing peppers and crushing garlic in the mid-afternoon heat. Arms raised, gripping the gate of the front yard whilst chins rested on the top, conversing in a melody of vital information. Yes, these were well acquainted neighbors through and through. Their names rang in the windy air: The Billingsleys, the Motfires, Trenchants, Delaneys, Suttons, Sternes, Eaeldreds. Endless, truly endless. Most impressive yet, everyone knew each other to the utmost degree. Again, not an uncommon occurrence for such a small village. Yet, deserving of a bow of approval. Wedding dates, baptisms, birthdays and all sorts of bothersome, tedious list of dates. Ah, but to the residents of Lower Mire, this was their life.
     To truly understand the people of this hard working village, one must venture to comprehend, through patience and careful thought, the layout of the dwellings and surrounding geography. Situated off the centuries old main road of Asharan, the village sat just to the west of it, settled underneath the steep slopes of the mountain of Ealdmoder. Opposite from it, on the other side of the Asharan road – the east side – lay the farming fields spread out. These were of course the fields of Lower Mire, better known as ‘the field of gold’. Beyond them to the east over the rolling hills lay the other great mountain of Ealdefaeder. Along its gentler slopes was the village of Upper Mire – whose history lay very much entwined with that of Lower. The two mountains formed an enclosing border, providing protection and cover for the two communities over many centuries. At the edge of the field of gold sat the old peaceful forest of Ilfen. It was not large, yet radiated with serene charm and beauty. Filled with oak trees and many other varieties of arbor, undergrowth and life, the tranquil greenery provided peace for many of the villagers who cared to pass through it. Along the forest ran the Myrr creek, which provided the water for the crops to grow.
     It is in this balance of nature and growth that the people of Lower Mire lived their lives care free with peace and mutual togetherness.
     For the most part, the people lived along the main, battered dirt road that ran through almost the entire village of Lower Mire. Every day they would pass along the weathered lanes, horses plodding along, pulling their burgeoning carts of hay or food. Supplies aplenty.
     Today was just like any other day, filled with boisterous crowds in the marketplace, families perusing and exchanging food and goods, whilst children sang in good cheer. The morning wore on slowly but surely, and by midday almost the entire village was in the main square of Lower Mire. For, coincidentally enough, there was a particular event that attracted only the highest bidders: The haggling of the woolly-coated boars.
     Here competition ran at its highest, least not because the principal sellers provided only the best boars from their own precious stock, raised and fed to the most pristine condition of plump. Besides their most obvious value, the long hairs on their backs provided wool as a raw material for saddlers. As such, these excellent grazers were held in high esteem across the land.
     Yet, these were not the reasons why the haggling of the woolly-coats was most entertaining and spell-binding for the villagers. Indeed, it was the great rivalry that became of it in recent years, as the main competitors in this lively Lower Mire tradition were three of the four brothers of Eaeldred: Borah, Dill and Turnavine. The Eaeldred family was the oldest and most famous of the families that first settled in Lower Mire all those many years ago. They arrived with the first settlers that originally migrated from the larger village of Upper Mire. They came to settle, to grow, to start anew. A strong family they were then. That strength still resonates today individually, but not in unity. Twenty years ago they were as one; close friends, forming a bond from the minute they were born. Inseparable in the village square, tavern or farmland. The Eaeldred’s they were. However, over time – as they aged, and responsibilities and expectations grew with marriages and children and council meetings – they began to drift apart.
     Dill, the fourth and youngest brother, was a quick witted yet tempestuous fellow, prone to jealousy and short sightedness. His elusive ways always struck an indecent chord with the other four brothers, particularly Turnavine – as the third oldest, he was always in eternal competition with his little brother Dill. Habitually jealous, constantly looking to prosper as much as he could, Turnavine had drifted very far from the young, selfless man of years bygone.
     “A pity,” many would cry out. “Together, they played the liveliest, most vivacious fiddles in all the land. Ah, how I do miss those days!”
     Borah was the second oldest. Strong as an ox, he ceaselessly commanded respect, from his own family members and those he shared the village with. He took pride in all his work, whether on the farms or in the selling of his stock in the square. But it was his stubbornness and fierce temper that he was most known for.
     The oldest brother was named Ignatius. He was a headstrong, traditional man, impervious to acts and antics of confrontational circumstances, always preferring to take the middle ground of sound judgment – much like his father did. Ignatius was firm in his ways, uncompromising and sure of himself, dedicating his life to the growth and prosperity of his farmland.
     Stories abounded of this famous foursome, yet as the years went by, less and less folk chose to tell them. Eventually they would be all but forgotten. Still, every so often, on a cloudy, wind-swept afternoon in the fall, or frost-bitten winter, there would be the odd narrator in the Myrr Tavern, willing to recall some of the stories of old – so long as none of the brothers were around.
     The village square was now a mass of onlookers, surrounding the small group of buyers and handlers gathered in the centre of the excitement. Some wore faces of cheer, laughing at all the wages being waved around on the potential prices of the boards at hand. Others stood grimly, focused on the task to come, knowing they must purchase the woolly-coated beasts at a good, yet reasonable price.
     Suddenly there was a motion from little Tomkin, sitting on the enclosure of the small vegetable market set up at the entrance to the square from the main dirt road. He raised his hand to signal and the murmuring of chatterers began to swell with volume. Mr. Wootton was calmly making his entrance to the square, three of his prized boars at his heels. He had an air of confidence about him, but the crowd scoffed at his assured affront. They knew the brothers Eaeldred all too well. Next came Thurlow, Penn, then the Hagleys. Still, not a single villager was impressed.
     Then, a cry from Tomkin as he pointed to his left. Around the corner of the dirt road did the placid form of Dill emerge, wearing an indifferent scowl on his face. His thin body casually leading on his three champions of the day. Turnavine was close on his heels, looking rather perturbed at the indignity of his brother strolling ahead of him into the village square. He felt that it was his duty to enter first as the older of the two brothers. Turnavine’s tall, lanky figure huffed with outright annoyance as he dragged his struggling boars along behind him.
     Amidst this extraordinary display of posturing, leaning on a horse post next to the fish market of Mrs. Bowbray, stood the amused youth of Fenn Eaeldred. He gazed at the three men gathered at the centre of the market, boars at hand, arguing almost at once with each other and those hoping to settle accounts as quickly as possible. But Fenn knew, as did everyone else, that the true test would come once Borah made his arrival.
     Fenn was a young man of no more than twenty, an air of indifference permeating from his calm, green eyes. His tousled brown hair had a hint of blond in it, which almost always seemed to go very much noticed by those closest to him. But no matter, he was who he was. Fenn was tall for his age – a trait he knew he inherited from his father, as was the fact that he was left-handed. A pair of farmers hands he had as well, strong and true, though by the smooth look of his face one would never have gathered that he had worked a day in his life. Up and down the fields he would trudge daily, his father calling after him, proud of the work his son always did manage to do.
     Fenn was fully immersed in the events transpiring before him when a quick and sure-footed form surreptitiously navigated its way behind the occupied youth and clasped a hand on Fenn’s shoulder warmly.
     “Who do you gather will win it this year squire?” ventured the unexpected visitor.
     Fenn only slightly turned his head toward the voice and gave the heartiest laughs a young man could bestow. The smile on his face was infectious as his inquisitive friend could only mirror his cheery disposition.
     “That matter was settled years before you were born Horsfall!” started Fenn, amused that his young companion would even venture such a question. Horsfall Atherol – a well-tempered youth who was only slightly younger than Fenn – simply shrugged at his reply, obviously hoping for a different answer this year. He slid his hand through his long dark hair and turned to face the melee of hagglers going at it without any remorse.
     “You know Horsfall, every year I come to this – spectacle – and wonder why Uncle Turnavine and Uncle Dill simply don’t gather up their wits and together, sharing their lot, raise the finest boars this side of Asharan,” he shook his head slowly in disbelief. “Each to his own task, they don’t stand a chance against Uncle Borah. But together, united, yes, they would cause the greatest sensation in all of Lower Mire! Even the people in Upper would be singing their praises.”
     “Ah, but Mr. Borah would never forgive them for that slight! Can you imagine the indignity?” Horsfall countered.
     “I couldn’t even begin to. Look now, here he comes.”
     Slowly, but steadily, the burly form of the great Borah could be seen on the western branch of the main dirt road leading into the village square. The air of confidence on the man’s visage would shrivel up the proudest of men. Into the crowd of onlookers and participants he strode with four burly looking boars. The contest seemed never in doubt from the outset.
     As the lively dance of bartering and boasting began in high spirit, Fenn peeled himself away from the fish market that had been his vantage point most of the day. He waved to Horsfall to come along, but his friend wanted to stay and enjoy the spectacle. Through the rushing crowd of boisterous village folk, Fenn made his way out of the square. The old dirt road bended slightly west as it stretched deeper into the village itself. On days such as these, he very much enjoyed walking along the main road, observing the quiet atmosphere created by so many villagers being at the square. Fenn would welcome the occasional dog greeting him with a friendly bark, or a cheery group of sparrows darting about his head and into the branches of trees along the road. Before long Fenn had reached the tiny bridge which crossed a small creek that ran all around the mountainside, past his grandfather’s house that lay deeper in the trees that covered the entire mountain. He was nearly home.
      As Fenn approached the white gate of his family’s abode, he could hear the thudding of an axe against the wooden block they had in the small yard behind the house. Surely his father was hard at work, unceasingly. He swung the gate open casually and made his way around the house to speak to him.
     Ignatius was wielding the family’s old ax in immense anticipation, poised to swing at another piece of wood resting on the block. He quickly glanced up to see his son approach, then brought the ax down with a loud thud. Collecting the splintered wood and tossing it into the pile he had gathered behind him, he addressed his son.
     “How goes the marketeering today boy?”
     “All is as well as it should be father. I don’t suppose you want to know how the bread makers and fruit dealers faired in their business today?” he sarcastically prodded, expecting his father’s usual curt reply. Ignatius spared another glance at Fenn and groaned irritably. He set another piece of wood on the block.
     “Have you begun preparing for your journey to Ernvale? Your clothes and supplies won’t pack themselves you know?” His father countered, changing the topic expectantly. Fenn had only started gathering the things he needed for the journey south of Lower Mire tomorrow, to the sanctuary of Ernvale. There, any wayward traveler could find the freshest source of mineral water in the entire Kingdom of Eardgeard. Of course, many came from all parts of the land to spend but a few days basking in the warm breeze of the gentle hillside sanctuary, its sacred temples housing but a humble collection of beds and friars to attend to them. Fenn enjoyed the summer trips to Ernvale. It brought peace and relaxation from the long days on the farmland.
     Ignatius had noticed Fenn’s wandering mind and correctly guessed his lack of timely preparation: “Well get to it lad, no time to praddle about son. When your mother gets back from the market she can help you with the binding of the food you’ll need. Where’s that Horsfall? Is he as ready as you?”
     “His horse will be ready before either of us!” Fenn boasted as both men chuckled heartily at that. He began to make his way towards the front of the house when his father called out suddenly, “Fenn! Whose boar had the highest bid?”
     “I couldn’t tell you father, I left before the fun began. But I am sure there will be stories to tell by the time the sun comes down behind Ealdmoder!” Fenn yelled over his shoulder as he disappeared behind the side of the house. Ignatius nodded with a grunt, then brought the ax down for another blow.

     It was late afternoon when Fenn’s mother Beryl returned from the village square. She carried three sacks of various food items, a few delicacies, and even some radiant flowers for his younger sister, Rhoda, which she particularly liked. Fenn was busy packing clothes and supplies, but it was not long before the evening supper was laid out across the grand table they had in their dining room. When his father Ignatius had built the house with his own hands, he had vowed to create a spacious room for his family to eat in. A large request, but one which he insisted on to his mother. Beryl would always jest that Ignatius wanted such a dining “hall” as a result of his childhood home, which had been a sort of tiny shack, containing barely one room, a single bed and a fireplace.
     “Absolute shambles!” she would remember him reminiscing about his former abode in the direst voice. Beryl claimed that Ignatius even had nightmares about it from time to time. Yet, thinking back on it, he knew there was no house as cozy as that small dwelling from a time long ago, now mercifully gone for many years.
     At his mother’s summons, off went Fenn to the dining hall. He greeted his mother and father as he entered, before welcoming his sister Rhoda – who had just come from the kitchen carrying a basketful of warm bread. They had all just sat down to eat when a gentle knock came on the front door.
     Exchanging looks with Fenn, Ignatius nodded towards the door in a rather indifferent manner. Rising quickly, the young man approached the drafty entranceway and swung the door open in muted anticipation. There standing before him was the drawn out form of his uncle Dill. Almost immediately he took his hat off in quiet greeting, afforded Fenn the slightest of grins, and nimbly drifted by the perplexed looking youth into the warm, comely home.
     Making his presence known almost immediately to all those in the dining room, Dill began his narrative of the afternoon’s events. For the most part, he skimmed by the less insightful occurrences of the market dealings, and before anyone had even began to eat their hearty meals, the conversation drifted inevitably to the haggling of the boars.
     “I tell you Ignatius, not a finer stock I have ever had, and still! Still, Borah wielded his magical victory! What is he feeding them? The gods only know!”
     Chewing his food silently, Ignatius could only stare back at Dill’s lively retelling of the haggling as he saw it. In the meantime, Rhoda had set up another plate for her uncle, which he in turn filled up only slightly with some bread, cheese and tomatoes. Rather, he continued in his detailed explanation of the bids that were the highest for the boars and how many each man was able to sell by the end of the day. An hour passed by steadily when Dill finally rose from the table to bid a less than gracious farewell, but humble nevertheless. On came his hat, his walking stick firmly in hand, and swiftly into the early evening did Uncle Dill disappear, none the worse than when he had first came.
     Calmness restored once again, Ignatius Eaeldred looked at his family with bemused eyes, then simply resumed his evening feast. Fenn grinned from ear to ear, obviously finding much to enjoy in the company of Uncle Dill. Beryl glance quietly at Fenn before slicing another piece of meat for her own rather enlivened palette to taste. Rhoda rolled her eyes lovingly. Fenn started to say something, but held his tongue at the last moment, for something outside caught the attention of his alert ears.
     Crickets were sounding off at a fierce pace in the bushes just behind the house, but not loud enough to overpower the fierce footsteps that could now be heard storming down the dirt road from the direction of the village square. Closer and closer they seemed to be approaching, and before long all present at the Eaeldred table could hear the furious mutterings of a man opening the gate of their home and stepping up to the porch of the house.
     A quick succession of knocks were struck on the door. Up Fenn jumped, too eagerly for Ignatius’ liking, and bracing himself as best he could, the young man opened the portal – in through the door, and shouldering past the surprised Fenn, rushed the grisly form of Uncle Turnavine.
     Into the guest chair he plopped his tall, lanky body, his face reflecting the furious features of an enraged bull.
     “Brother, this is absolute sacrilege!” he began rather earnestly. “30! 30 coins for my majestic boars! An insult I say. I spit on that untidy sum…and that Borah, 50! And 50 for his smallest at that! They’ll rue the day when they come to their senses, that belligerent lot, I tell you!
     Fenn coughed ever so slightly. Quick as an Asharan grasshopper did Turnavine turn his head towards the apologetic youth.
     “You, boy, stop eating your food so fast, you’ll choke I tell you.”
     “Sorry Uncle –“
     “And I tell you another thing, it’s that little Dill. Up to his scheming ways he was! I know for sure he was hovering about my hedges the past few weeks, thinking up ways to disrupt. Who knows what he could have slipped into the slop I feed them? A travesty! Gliding into the square he did first, before me! Of all the things that boy has done, I tell you!”
     “You know Turnavine, he’s not a boy anymore. And neither are you for that matter,” Beryl jested, to the obvious agitation of her brother-in-law.
     “Well,” he muttered, the scowl on his aged face getting even deeper and more pronounced. “What do you have here?”
     Out reached the hands of Turnavine, grasping the nearest plate on which he placed several potatoes, vegetables and a small piece of meat. Bread came last as he tucked in to the hearty meal that Beryl had prepared so warmly. Any sort of discussion was few and far between from this moment on, but by the time his plate was finished and clean, Turnavine shot up from his sturdy seat, bid all a pleasant evening, and stamped off into the evening air. His protesting mutterings could still be heard for a short while before he too vanished into the night. Ignatius could only sigh, but Fenn could not help but offer the slightest of grins, as did his mother and sister, who were thoroughly amused.
     Peace reigned once more in the home of the Eaeldreds. By this time, evening was beginning its steady progress into late night and soon the table began to be cleared. Ignatius was about to rise himself when a sudden gathering of noise could be heard in the near distance.
     Naturally, it was coming from the direction of the village square.
     The gradual shouting of several voices was getting nearer and nearer, and as Fenn raised the basket of bread to return it to the kitchen, he quickly recognized the most prominent voice of the shouting group approaching: Uncle Borah.
     Fenn placed the basket of bread back down on the table and headed to the door. Ignatius followed his son’s actions with an unconcerned stare. As he swung the door open, there standing on the old dirt road was the jovial form of the great Borah, absolutely beaming with joy and struggling to open the white front gate. He had two other villagers standing with him as he laughed off his difficulties with the latch. One of them was Lescott Trenchant, an old childhood friend of Borah, while the other was Lee Sutton, an old acquaintance from the village of Upper Mire. He travelled all this way to see Borah gain the highest haggling bid for the fifth year in a row it seemed. Expressing their many thanks and congratulations on an assured victory, off the two men went, clutching what looked like a leather wine skin, sloshing liquid in the chilly breeze.
     “Fenn? Is that you? My dear boy! You never cease to amaze me how quickly you grow!” Borah shouted, rambling up the steps to the open front door. He gave the biggest hug a man could possibly bestow on another, a hard slap on the back, and in he went through the comely portal. Fenn smiled immensely as the familiar smell of wine greeted his nostrils when Uncle Borah went by.
     A big, rollicking man his favourite uncle was, Fenn thought. How now he sat at the end of the table, opposite Ignatius, bringing good cheer to all those around him. His retelling of the day’s events at the square and market was the boisterous of them all!
     “In and out, they came and went Ignatius! But I knew, I knew they never had a chance. The poor beasts, and I’m not talking about the boars! Ahahaha!” rolled the words with the booming voice of the large man. Borah sat back in joyous amusement, surveying the rather barren looking table. He looked up suddenly and inquired, “Beryl! Do you have, perchance, any of that famous bread and savoury duck? I would give up three of my favourite boars just for a taste of those sweet delights!”
     As if from a dream, Beryl emerged from the kitchen with a plate filled with all the best collection of delectable foods that Borah could ever have imagined. She had made sure to set aside a good portion for him earlier in the evening. A silver of wine, carried in by Rhoda, also greeted him exuberantly.
     “Ah, dear Beryl, a glorious, glorious treat! Bless you, bless you dear sister! Ignatius, you speak of the foreseen difficulties you would have if you did not have dear Beryl with you. Ha! I say what would I do without the dear lady? Bless you all!”
     Even stern Ignatius could afford a gentle smile at that. As the jubilant, victorious Borah began his excitable shoveling of food into his great belly, the bright fire place continued to spread its energy and warmth throughout the loving home of the Eaeldreds.
     While outside, in the deep dead of the night, the stirrings of creatures and critters, common and ancient, resumed their mysterious existence.


II

THE LONE RIDER

DAWN’S irresistible rays of light cast their beauty upon the dewy rooftops of Lower Mire. All the excitement of the previous day had melted into serene bindings of duty – the mid-summer tending of farmlands awaited all the early risers on this bright day. All but those chosen few.
     Fenn Eaeldred rose from his warm bed, only to be greeted by the cool draft of his small room. He knew the day would get much warmer by the time he set out for Ernvale with Horsfall. Casting his eyes beyond the window of his room, he could see the sun slowly rising past the peak of Ealdefaeder in the east. There lay Upper Mire in the shadows of the old mountain. He had not visited their neighbours by Ealdefaeder for many years. As a matter of fact, he recalled being in their village only once as a young boy. Fenn knew he had several cousins and relatives who dwelled in the ancient village – even older than Lower Mire – that had stood in the same spot for centuries. There seemed to be a drift that had formed between the people of Lower and their distant relatives in Upper. Fenn remembered asking his uncles about it many years ago, as a child, but recalled the indifferent and muted responses he had received. Resolved to discover the origins of the hushed behaviour, he decided to ask his father about it. Ignatius pulled his son aside that day and spoke sternly:
     “Listen here Fenn. Our family left the peeks of Ealdefaeder many years ago, before you were born. Once we lived together with the Eaeldreds and people of Upper Mire in harmony, each kin holding a bond stronger than this here mountain. We were one. There came a time when our bond was tested, tried to its very limit.” Fenn nodded quietly. “When a person goes through a hardship such as that, there comes a moment when difficult decisions are made and, once made, you must live with the consequences – whatever they may be. Until that time comes for you, and it will come, I want you to think of our cousins by Ealdefaeder with respect and a good heart. You understand boy?”
     Fenn never broached the topic again. He did not fully comprehend his father’s words at the time, but knew it was not his place to question them. Perhaps one day he would ask again.
     Shortly after after the rising of the sun, Fenn heard Horsfall’s voice outside his window, chattering away with his sister Rhoda just by the gate. She had gone to draw water from the well nearby and encountered the vibrant youth on her way back. His cheery disposition made Fenn smile and he called out to him to help him carry outside the supplies they would need for their journey.
     The Eaeldred home was bustling with activity from corner to corner. Ignatius was gathering some wood for the supplies, while Beryl set the table for a hearty breakfast. Rhoda was busily bundling up as much food as Fynn and Horsfall would need for their two-day stretch to Ernvale. By the time breakfast was concluded and all the supplies gathered outside, the quiet rumbling of an approaching horse-drawn cart could be heard coming from the far end of the main dirt road.
     Steadily pulling the cart while making his way to the front gate was the loyal horse that belonged to Ignatius and the family. His name was Scéam. Once, many years ago, in the full bloom of his youth, Ignatius rode Scéam’s father, Celeritas. Both horses were pale gray, and where the older horse was once renowned for his speed, the younger was known for his strength and courage. Guiding him on top of the cart was a silent form of a man. A quiet watcher, yet he possessed a rather large and strong form. Very little hair remained on his head, but something told Fenn that the man did not regard personal appearance as slightly important. He wore a loose brown hooded tunic which he would cover his head with on warm sunny days to protect his heavily bearded face. Emotionless he seemed at times, but Fenn had seen him slightly grin on the odd occasion.
     The man’s name was Alden Ewart. He was an old friend of his father’s – Fenn knew that much. He did not know where Alden came from – no mention was ever made of it – but Fenn gathered that he was born in Lower Mire, or at least in a village nearby. Ignatius always entrusted Alden with the safety of his son during these infrequent travels outside of the village. They had an unspoken bond and deep trust which Fenn saw the moment he met the man when he was a young child. Like old comrades, they showed immense respect for each other. Ignatius would always welcome Alden into their home with open arms, offering food and drink aplenty. Although Alden spoke very little, his father would regularly lead the conversation, telling tales of olden days, while steady Alden would nod his head in approval, brandishing the smallest of grins every so often.
     Alden Ewart had started coming by their home when Fenn had just turned four years old. He remembered the first occasion vividly. It had been a viciously stormy night in the waning autumn season and Fenn was playing with his baby sister in the kitchen rooms. The clouds had gathered in such intensity, the likes of which he had never seen before or since. Outside, the winds were howling with rage, rattling the sealed windows immensely. However, not even the overbearing sounds of the storm could prevent Fenn from hearing the thunderous gallop of a horse outside, fast approaching. What happened next was difficult for him to remember clearly. He recalled his father Ignatius peering through the window, only to rush out in a hurried blur. There were voices outside, two men shouting loudly amidst the deafening torrent of rain. Within moments, his father came back through the front door, helping what looked like an injured man, fully dressed in armour – his face hidden by the broad shoulders and arms of Ignatius. Fenn quickly glimpsed the faint outline of a wet sword, only to see all before him vanish as his mother rushed over to their aid, swinging the kitchen door shut behind her.
     Curiosity reigned in Fenn’s mind that night, but his mother would shed no light on the mysterious visitor from the darkness. The next day his father forbade Fenn from going into the dining hall where he correctly assumed the mysterious man still lay. It was pointless to ask any questions, but Fenn knew that it was important not to disturb the resting figure in the next room. Days would pass and a quiet, somber mood descended on the Eaeldred household. The life of the mysterious visitor was on a knife’s edge. Although he was still very small, Fenn could tell from the quiet and dark faces of his parents that the survival of the man rested in fate’s hand for quite some time.
     That all changed one bright morning when Fenn awoke to find the guest room next to his occupied by the strange visitor and the door shut. Ignatius and Beryl had both gone to tend the fields while the young boy’s Grandfather, Roth Eaeldred, watched the children. He was sitting outside by the front gate holding little Rhoda, humming ancient songs to her in the morning breeze when the rising Fenn was overcome with curiosity and inquisitiveness. He remembered slowly approaching the door of the guest room in eager anticipation. The door handle was just within his tiny reach. He turned it.
     There, laying peacefully on the guest bed, his eyes shut, was the large form of Alden Ewart. Fenn had never seen a man such as this before. He appeared to be comfortable and very much alive. He had no beard at the time and there were traces of long hair still remaining on his scalp, a gruesome result of some violent affair that had brought him to Lower Mire. Various scars enveloped his body wherever he saw exposed skin - particularly on his arms and legs. His abdomen was carefully and heavily bandaged and wrapped in cloth. Venturing closer, Fenn allowed his eyes to wander to the corner of the room where a pile of polished armour rested, where there was none before. Propped up against the wall in a glistening sheath of silver was a magnificent sword of great size. Staring at it in awe, Fenn suddenly felt very much aware of his own presence in the room. He quickly turned to look at Alden and was met by the calming stare of his gentle green eyes, looking at Fenn ever curiously and very much awake. Silence reigned for a moment before, quite suddenly, Alden smiled at the small boy, his teeth as white as snow. They remained staring at each other in mutual curiosity when Fenn heard the voice of Ignatius calling for him outside. Quickly he spun around and hurried out of the guest room, forgetting to shut the door completely.
     That was Fenn’s first meeting with the gentle and loyal Alden Ewart. A week later, the quiet man would leave their home just as suddenly as he came. But that was not the end of his visits. Often he would come and see the family at the change of the seasons or at a particular feast. Later he would accompany them on their travels near and far. And although Ignatius never told Fenn the story behind Alden Ewart’s mysterious and sudden appearance in their lives, he surmised that he had a very good reason not to.
     Alden now guided Scéam to stop in front of the main gate. The cart lurched to an abrupt halt. Fenn and Horsfall greeted the large man with excited grins, petting the neck of their beloved horse with affection. Scéam nuzzled Fenn fondly as he stroked the light coloured mane of the charger with happiness.
     Ignatius emerged from the house soon after, carrying the last of the supplies. After loading them up on the cart, he pulled Fenn aside for the briefest of moments to have a word with him.
     “You be careful on the road Fenn. You know what’s out there on the Asharan route. Listen to Alden – he is your eyes, ears and hand, always. And you watch that Horsfall. He always wanders his way into trouble, one way or another.” The young man nodded sternly.
     As the sun continued its steady slope of ascendancy in the blue sky, Fenn and Horsfall climbed onto the loaded cart. With parting waves of affection from Ignatius, Beryl and Rhoda, Alden and the two lads set off towards the village square along the main road of Lower Mire. “You take care now Fenn!” His mother shouted, her parting words bringing a loving smile to his face.
     Along the way, many familiar faces greeted the three travelers as they passed by. Robert Trenchant, Quint Motfire, Mr. and Mrs. Sutton and little Sarah Billingsley, chasing after their cart with excited jubilation, hoping to get the attention of Horsfall whom she adored so very much. The young lad turned away, his face flushed with red, and Fenn laughed heartily at his discomfort. Crossing the small bridge across the tiny mountainside creek near his house, Fenn had the sudden inclination to visit his Grandfather Roth deep on the mountain road before they left the village. The thought held his mind captive for the briefest of moments as Alden hurried Scéam along the village road past the quaint bridge. Fenn sighed in melancholic anticipation. He had not seen his grandfather for some time, what with the farming season in full bloom – the work in the fields required all his attention. Fenn would visit Grandfather Roth almost every day as a boy. He loved the daily walk to his house on the mountainside, exploring the hidden paths that ran along the side of the small village creek. Many times he would get lost exploring the extent of each trail, sometimes finding himself wrestling branches of a thick cluster of trees; while other times the path would end at an old abandoned well or farmstead.
     Before long they had reached the periphery of the village and steadily approached the long form of the ancient Asharan road. Behind them, Ealdmoder could now be seen in its full glory, the mountain stretching towards the clear blue sky. Consciously, Fenn tried to refocus his thoughts – the long road awaited. Turning Scéam effortlessly to the right, Alden directed the cart’s bearings to the south as it squeaked under the normal strain of its load. Horsfall was daydreaming next to Fenn, staring out across the field of gold, the morning summer breeze soothing his wandering complexion. His eyes seemed to have drifted towards the small forest of Ilfen, on the edge of the field. Something had caught his attention. Fenn looked.
     Approaching the mouth of Ilfen at a great speed was a dark horse. He could not see the rider but he knew from the frantic pace of the steed that it was in some sort of distress. Fenn followed the path of the horse from whence it came, watching ever so closely for any minute detail or change – then he saw them. Two more riders at some distance behind were in close pursuit, undeniably gaining on the isolated horseman. Now looking ahead of the three riders, Fenn noticed something that alarmed him considerably. Near the entrance to the forest was the horse-drawn cart of the Mottershead family. He recognized their distinct white horse and knew his friend Lynne and her father were surely gathering vegetables today, directly beside Ilfen on their plot of land. He could not see them yet but he knew danger loomed.
     By this time, Alden had also spotted the dramatic chase and had surmised Fenn’s thoughts almost immediately. There were strangers in their lands, unwelcome and very much threatening. Neither he nor Horsfall had ever witnessed such a sight before. Curiosity took hold of Fenn, as did his desire to help the unknowing Mottershead family.
     Without a word, Fenn glanced at Alden with purposeful intent and leapt off the cart hurriedly. With the help of the silent guardian, he quickly untied Scéam from the cart. Alden had already mounted the horse and was reaching out to pull Fenn on top as well. Within seconds they galloped away north on the Asharan road, leaving Horsfall to watch over their supplies.
     Fenn’s heart was pounding with anticipation and concern. He had known Lynne his whole life and desperately hoped that nothing ill would become of his childhood friend. He could now see the three riders just approaching the mouth of Ilfen, their haste unceasing. The pursued horseman suddenly slowed down then veered off into the forest itself, the trees swallowing him up. The other two riders were right behind and within moments darted into the forest themselves. Fenn still saw no sign of Lynne or Mr. Mottershead. They were approaching the field of gold rapidly and the adrenaline he felt was unceasing.
     Through the field Scéam galloped, the tempo of his breathing increasing with each stride. The Mottershead white horse was just ahead of them now, their cart resting silently beside him, seemingly abandoned. Alden gently pulled on the reigns as they came to a stop by the lone cart. It was filled with tomatoes, peppers and cabbage, gathered together without any disarray. Alden jumped off Scéam to take a closer look. Suddenly, there was movement. A visibly perturbed Mr. Mottershead emerged from behind the cart clutching his right arm – it was bleeding. He saw Fenn and Alden approach him.
     “Fenn!” the older man exclaimed wearily. His voice sounded weak. Alden reached out to help Mr. Mottershead’s injured arm, tending to it quietly in order to stop it from bleeding any further. “Those cursed marauders. They came from the northwest, probably from the direction of Dearthe. Gods, I tried to warn Lynne. I was shouting for her but she could not hear me. I called out to the riders but one of them struck me as he passed.”
     “Mr. Mottershead, for goodness sake, where is she?” Fenn exclaimed frantically.
     He pointed to the entrance of Ilfen forest. “There boy. She was in there picking some berries and having a quiet walk. She must have been quite deep within if she couldn’t hear me. Please Fenn, find her, find Lynne!”
     Alden was watching Fenn the whole time during this exchange of words. He had not yet fully bandaged Mr. Mottershead’s arm. Without another word or any hesitation, Fenn turned and dashed off towards the mouth of Ilfen. As he ran, he reached for the inside of his tunic and felt the cold steel of the short dagger he always carried with him on journeys far from the village. Swiftly drawing the sharp blade from its scabbard, Fenn held it firmly balanced in his right hand as he quickened his pace. The gaping mouth of the small forest swallowed up the young man as he broke through the first layer of leaves, barks and underbrush. He was in Ilfen now, running along the faded path within, trying desperately to follow the track of hooves he saw before him. All his thoughts, focus and presence were in this moment, taking one steady step after the next. Fenn knew there were creatures scurrying around him in the undergrowth, watching him dart by. The leaves, rocks and twigs scattered as he passed. Nevertheless, the sounds of the forest were lost on the young man’s ears. All he could hear was the thudding of his burning footsteps. He was beginning to tire when he heard shouting amongst the trees up ahead. Fenn could also discern another very distinct sound as he approached the source of the commotion and anger – the clash of steel swords.
     Fenn could see the three horses now in front of him. Two of them were wandering aimlessly close by while the third lay on the ground, seemingly injured. He stopped his hurried run. It was then that he saw the three riders engaged in a passionate struggle of violence. They seemed to be fighting with each other. Two of the marauders appeared to be surrounding one of them – the solo rider who was being pursued earlier. He wore a heavy hood that covered his face considerably. One of the pursuers lunged with his sword, a direct stroke to the heart. The lone rider parried it deftly and swung his blade around for a fatal stroke on the back of his attacker’s neck. The first marauder fell stone dead.
     At the moment the sword was raised to strike, Fenn had noticed a bloodied patch of dampness in the lower abdomen of the hooded rider. As he brought his sword up to defend himself once more, he stumbled backward, grasping for his wound in obvious pain. The other marauder now moved in for the kill. Fenn could not watch any further. He burst forward with heartfelt spirit, raising his dagger to defend the injured rider, now barely holding himself up on one knee. Fenn called out to the marauder to distract him. He was so very close to him now, approaching at a great speed. The attacker spun around in surprise, not expecting the appearance of the unknown intruder. Fenn was only a few feet away when he brought his dagger down for a critical strike.
     In one swift movement, the marauder lunged forward with his sword hand to deflect Fenn’s dagger strike harmlessly to his right. He caught Fenn on the wrist with a firm hit and sent his dagger flying to the ground. A sharp pain erupted in his hand. But the marauder had not finished his motion yet. With his free hand he swung his fist up and right onto the right ear of the off-balanced Fenn. The blow toppled the young man to the ground. Disorientation took hold of his mind in an instant.
     Dazed, Fenn barely managed to look up at the lone marauder, looking rather satisfied with himself. He was saying something to Fenn, but he could not make out the words – his ears and head were ringing, but from the look on his face Fenn could tell it was neither friendly nor pleasant. Desperately trying to get up and protect himself, with glazed eyes, he could see his dagger just a few feet away, but not within his reach. It was futile. With a cruel grin, his face covered with scars and aged with malice, the marauder slowly raised his sword, ready to bring down fury once more.
     And in that futile moment Fenn saw blurred movement from the trees behind the marauder. The form of a man emerged, emanating with intense purpose and focused aggression. He was holding a magnificent sheath of silver, from whence a great sword emerged. His speed was extraordinary for a man of such strength and size, and within a few strides he had closed the distance between himself and the astonished marauder who had also heard his arrival. He tried desperately to prepare himself but his body refused to respond, his sword barely raising itself. Then with a flash of steel, the great force cut his man down with unrelenting vehemence.
     Incredulous beyond words, Fenn looked up at his savior as his vision slowly began to clear. There standing before him, his gentle green eyes looking down at Fenn, offering his outstretched hand to the young man, was Alden Ewart – his eyes, ears and hand; his silent guardian.

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