A hunter's secluded existence is broken when he saves a sorceress from a troll
I stood on the porch listening to the sounds of the night like many a night before. Like my father, before me, I had become a forester, and hunter living alone in the forest. A lonely life some say, but I had the animals of the forest for company. The forest has many different moods and idiosyncrasies the wind rustling through the trees, rain pattering on the leaves, birds singing in the early morning, chirping and squabbling during the day. The animals and insects all had their distinct sound all this and death too; had its place in the forest. Even the trees ancient though many are eventually died, rotting from within with the mouldy scent of decay. The forest is a vast living organism within which lesser beings played out their drama of life and death. The forest had beauty too, the bright green of spring, the rusty bronze of autumn, the stark bareness of winter with snow covered branches, and dew sparkled cobwebs of the dawn. All these things I felt and visualised within myself, I felt a part of that vast organism known as the Kilydarin Forest.
My father died some years back in a hunting accident, but he had taught me many things; I could even read and write quite well. To me, one of the most important things I learned from him was to respect the forest, so as I listened to the sounds of the night an uneasiness crept over me, unlike anything I felt before. Tonight there was something different about the forest. I could not tell what, so as I stood, I listened more carefully, far of an owl hooted. I heard the cry of a nighthawk as it searched for its prey; nearby insects chirped all seemed as usual, yet the sense of uneasiness grew.
I went inside fetched a hunting spear and gathered up my bow and quiver, around my waist I wore a worn scabbard in which nestled my short sword. I met few people in the forest, and though I knew that bandits and cut-throats sometimes frequented the forest. Rarely did I see any; it always paid to be prepared and this night I felt the need more so. I had met and spoke to elves in the forest, they are a secretive people and though I’ve traded with them, usually food or goods for their finely fletched arrows, which I prefer to my own. I have never been able to get on close terms with any of them, nor did I know where they lived. The forest is a vast place, and many strangers had been known to go missing never to return; I did not think the uneasiness had anything to do with the elves, however. I moved off slowly, my footsteps making no sound as I made my way deeper into the lengthening shadows. I followed a path parallel to the trail leading to Oakmyre; deciding to keep off the trail itself if there were bandits or cut-throats abroad they would surely be waiting to waylay whoever came along the path.
A distant sound caught my attention; I froze in place trusting my instincts that finely tuned sixth sense that alerted me of coming danger. My dull green tunic and breeches blended in with the foliage as I waited. Listening, my eyes long accustomed to the eerie darkness of the forest night. A faint putrid odour caught in my nostrils a smell unfamiliar to me and the forest. It occurred to me whatever moved through the woods this night was something more than a mere man, something altogether not entirely human. The sound grew nearer it was like someone thrashing about in the undergrowth with reckless disregard, a muffled angry growling noise accompanied the thrashing. There were other sounds to moving further away from the first. Years in the forest both with my father and then alone taught me patience; whatever was out there was hunting something, and if I wanted to remain the hunter and not the hunted I had to be patient and still. The sound grew nearer still, and I could see bushes been trampled underfoot. Ahead to my right between the trees a lumbering shape appeared; I leaned forward a little to get a better look. The moon appeared from behind a cloud throwing shafts of light into the shadows. As I saw more clearly the shape in the moonlight, I gasped in horror. The creature lifted its head to look at the moon, and it sniffed the air for the scent of its prey. My father had told me of such animals that live mainly in the mountains north of the Kilydarin Forest but rarely was it believed they roamed this far south. I pondered the implications of a mountain troll this far south from its home range. The troll had stopped and seemed to have lost the scent of its prey its black eyes gleamed with animal intensity. I crouched low from my vantage point and studied the man-beast with a hunters eyes seeking to find a weak spot, so I could kill it if It got my scent, luckily I faced downwind from it; so It was unlikely to smell me. The troll had a large head with an almost human face with heavy brow bridges a broad, squat snout of a nose, sunken eyes and, a full jaw with two sizeable jutting fang-like teeth top and bottom. Its body covered with a mass of shaggy brown hair flea ridden no doubt. It stood six feet tall in one massive hand it carried a spiked wooden club. Suddenly it sniffed the air and let out a deep growl turning to my left it stomped off through the trees.
I followed not knowing for sure why maybe I just wanted to make sure it left this forest and went back whence it came or perhaps it was just curiosity whatever I followed making sure I stayed downwind of it. Even if I lost sight of the troll, I could probably track by its rancid smell. Trolls my father had told me were not fussy what they ate and were by far one of the most disgusting and filthy creatures ever created. I decided to fall back away, the trail it left was easy to follow. I looked around to see how far from the main trail I had strayed following the creature. I heard shouts, at once I quickened my stride into a run; the trolls prey to my dismay sounded human. I burst into a small clearing the troll stood sideways to me not more than ten feet distant; swinging his club at two figures backed against a tree. The one nearest me looked to be a man about my own age I could not see the other figure at his side. The man dived in and out under the troll’s reach cutting and slashing with his sabre. The man was quick and had some skill and his thrusts cut at the trolls hide somewhat still all he seemed to be doing was angering it more. Trolls are given not to be very intelligent as I angled my way around being careful to keep downwind of it. I saw the mans strategy the constant cutting and slashing was weakening the troll blood oozed from many cuts and gashes on its body. Still the man would tire before the troll did then it would have him unless I did something soon; I readied my spear at that moment the man saw me desperation turned to hope on his face though he gave no sign thankfully of having seen me in a brash move he darted out from under the tree amidst almost hysterical shouts from the second figure I could see that she was a woman. The troll turned to face him the man’s plan was I thought to give me a clear throw at the troll without the possibility of accidentally harming the woman. He continued his ducking in and out while moving backwards as the troll advanced swinging its club enraged beyond all caution now it growled and swung wildly in all directions. I aimed my spear and threw with all my might at that moment the man tripped and fell and the troll caught him with its club. My spear hit high in its side though it howled in pain I cursed silently the spear had not penetrated enough to be fatal. A loud crack filled the air as it snapped the spear with a massive hand and pulled the broken spear from its side howling with anger and pain. It turned to seek out its new assailant; but I had moved; the troll still stood between me and the woman. I heard her cry out in what seemed part hysterical fear, part anger; while I was still seeking a new vantage point to attack the troll. Bow now at the ready I stopped in horror seeing now why the woman had cried out the troll not having spotted me had turned back to the man I heard the sickening crunch of bone as the troll tore the mans arms from his torso it already had one leg in it’s massive jaw blood and saliva ran down it’s chin and soaked it’s shaggy hair pooling at it’s feet it grunted looking around protectively like a vulture over a tasty morsel of meat. I felt my stomach heave; gritting my teeth, I raised my bow. The elfin arrow flew true to it’s mark the troll howled in pain dropping what it had in it’s hand, I loosed another then another until it fell. At last the multiple wounds the man had inflicted upon it and my spear and arrows finally taking its toll on the creature. Still, it breathed yet as I stood over it I took my sword and thrust it deep into its chest the creature heaved mightily then gave a last gurgling breath.
Sheaving my sword after first cleaning it I walked over to where the woman lay in a faint; picking her up in my arms I sought to take her away from the carnage. I would return later and bury the remains of the man as to the troll I would leave it for the forest to dispose of in its own way and time. Getting back to my cabin took longer carrying the woman, and I had to stop several times on the road, but the woman did not stir all the while, apparently suffering from exhaustion as much as a shock. I lay her on my cot lighting a lantern I held it close to her studying her features. She looked younger than I, but appearances could be deceptive her face looked porcelain white under the dirt now encrusted on I could not see her eyes beneath closed lids, blonde hair hung dishevelled at neck length, wispy strands curled around to cling to her face. I brushed them back, and she moaned fretfully. She had a small mouth and nose and, seemed no beauty but attractive to me in some way I could not say. Her clothes were dirty and awry though un-torn in spite of her flight through the forest. I sat down on a chair facing the cot considering this nights event and what they might portend. I dosed fretfully and woke with a start then dosed again. Awaking again, to the women staring at me intently from the cot her eyes I could now see, were blue.
“You are Max Corak the one known as Kilydarin the hunter,” her voice was soft and silky the accent unfamiliar to me. It had been a long time since I heard a feminine voice, even longer since I heard anyone call me by my given name
“I am, who are you that you know my name,” I said as she sat up still studying me in the dim light. Dawn was not far away as I stood and strolled to the window turning to face this strange woman who seemed to emanate a power at odds with the terrified person I first saw in the forest being chased by a troll only a few hours ago. There again who would not lose their composure and be terrified when faced with such a fearsome creature.
“I am Shonela,” the name rolled off her tongue as she looked up expecting the name to have some significance or import to me. It did not; I waited she still had not told me how she had come to know my name. “I am a sorceress,” a brief pause, “and I knew your mother.” Again she expected some response from me. I raised an eyebrow and considered what she said. I had hardly known my mother and my father spoke little of her when he did he usually choked back tears. She had left us when I was no more than four or five breaking my father’s heart. I remembered vaguely a dark-haired woman nursing me on her knee singing to me in a soft musical voice. I hated her for what she did to my father, although he had said she had no choice to leave us when she did. I believed he only said that to soften my memory of her. I held the belief that she went because she could not stand living in the forest and preferred the more comfortable life of the towns and cities. As to Shonela being a sorceress I believed the power of wizards and sorceresses was much overrated, that they had some ability I thought possible; but much of it I felt to be trickery and superstition.
“My father raised me, my mother abandoned us for the comfortable city life, and I don’t hold much faith in magic. Whatever brings you here sorceress bodes no good if what happened last night is aught to go by.”
My words stung as she stood lips quivering, eyes flashing angrily “I came looking for you Kilydarin I had hoped your father might have told you the truth about your mother and that you might be a bit more understanding and willing to help me, but if I must, I will make you. Time grows short the world turns, once again momentous events are upon us.” Her voice cold as ice, she was used to being obeyed that much I could tell. It galled me she had made no mention to her companion who I now felt certain had not merely tried to distract the troll but had deliberately sacrificed himself for her.
“Sorceress riddles, I will return to bury the remains of your companion when it is light then you can tell me what it is you wish of me, and I’ll consider if I’m able to help you or not.” I was cruel I knew, but this woman irritated me, who seemed to have no time even to shed a tear for the man who gave his life to save her.
“No!” There is no time the good spirits have him now; I need you as a guide I have to see the Elf Queen.” Her anger seemed almost like desperation; I glowered at her turning I went to the door opened it, heard what sounded like a roaring in my head, the air felt electric, the door slammed shut. I turned to face Shonela again her lips pouting angrily intense fire danced in her blue eyes. I felt myself being lifted off the ground slamming into the closed door, air expelled from my chest leaving me breathless and gasping for air. Realisation at last dawning on me that Shonela at least was a true sorceress
“Alan was bonded to me by sorcery, but he let me bond him willingly because he loved me. I was fond of him and I will grief for him when there is time. Now there is no time tell me you will aid me now or I will do what I must; you have to trust that I will explain all in due course.”
An invisible barrier seemed to be holding me back I said nothing, anger rose within me, I had saved her from being eaten by a troll like her friend whom she said she was fond of yet could not find the time to grief for; she had not even thanked me for saving her. Now she seemed bent on forcing me to help her. I knew there were more afoot here than what there seemed, but anger and stubbornness burned in me; I remained silent.
“Damn you, If you don't help me willingly, then I will bond you I don’t want to do that to you as you seem an intelligent, resourceful man say you will help me there is more at stake here than you know.”
I stared at her; she stood her arms stiffly at her side her cheeks flushed with anger, I felt desperation again in her voice yet I did not relent.
“That’s gratitude for you. I saved your life; maybe I should have left you for the troll,” I spat back.
“There is no more time for this,” she raised her hand incanting words I did not understand I heard the roaring in my head again and felt a sudden need to protect her to bask in her love forever I looked at her longingly I ached to do her bidding; there was a look of sad regret on her face. Then something within me rebelled at what was happening to me. Without knowing how I fought back against the geas before it could completely consume me. Somehow I glimpsed the threads of the spell entangling me and pushed them back sweat broke on my face as I strained with all the willpower I could muster. A sudden release washed over me.
Shonela gasped, looking at me in surprise her eyes wide, for a moment she looked once more the defenceless frightened woman I rescued earlier. “It’s true you have your mother’s gift in you,” she said with a note of awe in her voice.
“More sorceress riddles, what do you mean my mothers gift?” There was no time for her to answer, as the door burst open shattering in pieces sending splinters everywhere. A troll stood in the doorway. I moved to one side grabbing the axe near the hearth. Shonela incanted a spell; fire burst from her fingertips, a ball of flame engulfing the troll it roared in agony staggering back out the door and falling heavily the stinking smell of troll hide and flesh burning filled the air I gagged as the troll writhed and thrashed on the ground.
“We must go now I warned you there is no time,” Shonela exclaimed. I was already moving gathering my travel pack and handing another to Shonela we began packing food and what other essentials we might need. Far off in the forest, I heard distant growls and other unearthly noises; then we moved off at a fast pace. I kept moving deeper into the forest Shonela close behind neither of us spoke the sun rose above the trees still we kept running. The speed I maintained was quick and punishing, but Shonela neither complained or asked to slow. I had a great many questions to ask her of which not least was what were trolls doing in the Kilydarin Forest and why they were so intent on hunting her it was apparent they weren’t hunting just for food there was easier game to be had in the forest even if the trolls had acquired a taste for human flesh.
I knew a place where a lean-to shelter made between sallow trees, close to a stream which I had left some provisions there against sudden need; this seemed to be the time. I stopped some distance from the place telling Shonela to wait, erring on the side of caution. I padded silently on moccasined feet making no sound on the soft mould I turned checking behind me to find Shonela following surprisingly almost as quietly she looked at me defying me to tell her to wait I shook my head and turned forward again. The lean-to thankfully was deserted and showed no signs of having been disturbed for sometime
“I think we are safe for a while and I need to bathe,” she said looking at me a rueful smile a momentary crossed her face as she unhitched the pack she carried and rummaged in it finally pulling out some old clothes of my mothers which she must have grabbed before leaving the cabin. Then she strode towards the stream disappearing behind some yenrod bushes. I set about making a small fire getting a pan from the pack and some dried meat and tubers from the stores I had kept. A splashing sound came from the stream accompanied by a soft humming voice. I waited until I thought she would have finished bathing then went to the stream for water She stood in her smalls rubbing herself dry her blonde her wet and shining silky soft. I turned away embarrassed but not before glimpsing the milky white exposed flesh. She laughed a tinkling sound as she spoke
“There is no need to be embarrassed Kilydarin I’m not completely naked after all,”
“You might as well be witch,” I said, trying to cover my embarrassment. A long silence, I looked up she wore my mother's green dress which seemed to fit her perfectly as she faced me angrily as her cheeks, glowing red
“I’m no witch or doxy Kilydarin; I do have standards of decency even if you don’t think so,” she said. I said nothing, feeling embarrassed. I filled the pan with water as she stormed off back to the lean-to; leaving her clothes on the yenrod bushes drying.
She had her back to me as I returned and I could see she shook slightly. I put the pan on the fire adding the meat and tubers to the water as she turned to face me. Tears streamed down her face, her eyes red-rimmed I could now see she had been through much I wanted to tell her how sorry I was and how I must have misjudged her, but she turned away again and the moment passed. We ate in silence both locked in our own misery I for misjudging and thinking her a cold-hearted witch, Shonela no doubt for the loss of her bond companion and who knows what else. At length, I could stand it no longer I had to say something,
“All right I’m sorry, I was wrong, I’m sorry I called you a witch, I’m sorry for the other things I said, I misjudged you. You came for my help, and I didn’t want to know I’m sorry,” I blurted irritably. I was tired, and recent events had frayed my nerves somewhat. Looking up her blue eyes studied me and she smiled even through her tears
“I suppose I wasn’t very tactful myself, there wasn’t much time for tact though and precious little yet to spare,” The sun sank below the tree line; I listened to the forest sounds and the murmur of water not far away
“Perhaps you can tell me something about what is happening and why you need to see the Elf Queen,” I paused, “I must warn you that no one I’ve known including myself knows where the elves live or has been to their home that alone how to find them; they usually find you when they want to.”
She told me then of the trolls coming down from the mountains and other unthinkable evils abroad Oakmyre had been attacked and, several villages had been wiped out by marauding bands of trolls. Though Oakmyre being a walled city had withstood the attack it had been cut of for a while and was now in need of fresh supplies and recruits if it was to resist any further attacks. The seals to the underworld were weakening and the demon lord’s influence growing stronger in the world she told me.
I remembered stories about the demon lord being imprisoned in the underworld it was supposed to have happened ages ago and took six magicians and six sorceresses to seal him in all which died in the process if the stories were too believed. Shonela came originally from Lasatyn across the Shallow Sea which explained her unusual accent. She told me of evil creatures coming out at night killing people and even the dead rising. So she travelled here by ship some months ago to see how we fared. Apparently her reputation as a sorceress is renowned even here in Culdar, and she had visited the king who took her news seriously having already received news of villages being attacked by trolls in his own realm.
We decided to move on after gathering our belongings. I did not like the eerie quiet that seemed to fall over the forest, and again I set a fast pace heading for the place I had last seen elves and the furthest I had been into the forest’s heart beyond that we would be treading new ground. As we travelled, Shonela told me more of what was happening in the world outside the forest. She told me that she had been helping and advising the king for some time, but things had grown worse lately, and she realised that her help alone would not suffice to stay back the tide of darkness. Three nights ago she had left Oakmyre with Alan and a small company of the king’s best men. They had fought several running battles with small bands of trolls as they tried to make their through the forest and their force cut to less than half. Shonela had expected to find safety when they reached the woods, but the trolls kept up their pursuit until only herself, and Alan remained she had drained her powers in fending off the trolls needing rest to regain them and was all but impotent to help when I came across them. She told me this, with some self-loathing as we decided to stop for a rest and, that I could get my bearings also.
“What makes you think the elves can or will help?” I asked as I scouted around for tracks, if I were correct, it would be morning when we reached the place we headed for or midday at the latest.
“It will affect them too; no one is safe, the elves have powerful magic of their own and are formidable fighters we must join forces with them if we are to stop the advance of the demon lords minions.” Shonela’s blue eyes met mine, and I saw concern, fear and a dreadful determination there. I shivered a chill running down my spine even though the day was hot.
“Don’t worry we’ll find the elves tomorrow,” I said trying to sound more confident than I felt.
“I know we will, and I’m glad the bonding didn’t work on you," she smiled warmly ‘I’m sorry I got you into this, and thank you for saving my life,” the smile changed to a frown of self-reproach.
“You said it affects us all,” I shrugged my shoulders. “ I’m only sorry I could not save your companion,” I added I would have said more but thought the subject too painful. We set off again as the light faded hoping to make as much headway as possible before dark the forest growing denser around us, a feeling of sadness seemed to shroud us, and we travelled silently wrapped in our morbid thoughts. Just before nightfall, I stopped a clinging mist rose up in front of us, and the air seemed to fill with the fetid stench of rotting flesh. Beside me, Shonela let out an angry hiss.
“Necromancy, only those aligned with the demon lord would practice such foul magic,” she began to prepare herself. Incanting a spell as several emaciated human-like forms appeared out of the mist. As they came closer, I could see they were rotting corpses raised from the dead. Flesh hung from faces arms and legs exposing bone underneath, bodies partially covered in rotting rags; their eyes though were not empty sockets but filled with an unearthly green light they stumbled forward arms outstretched uttering soulless moans.
“Don’t let them touch your skin,” Shonela said, more of the zombies appeared from the mist
“Why?” I chopped an arm of one; it fell bloodless to the ground the zombie kept moving forward ignoring the severed arm I stepped out of reach, hacking of its other arm.
“Their touch withers the flesh.” Shonela’s reply came clipped as she unleashed her magic.
All the advancing zombies exploded in a cloud of debris and smoke. I saw a figure stood some distance away quickly incanting spells at once I ran towards the figure as I drew nearer I could see it looked like an elf but smaller and darker skinned a goblin then I thought. The goblin let lose his spell as I came upon him and more zombies appeared. He made to run, but I grabbed him disarming him as he reached for his dagger; a moan came from behind and, I swivelled holding the goblin in front of me. I slashed the zombie across the stomach and gagged at the rancid stench. I hacking it to pieces, and it fell in a heap but not before it touched the goblin. I felt Shonela’s magic as the remaining zombies exploded and all became still apart from the shrieks of the goblin as he tore away from my grasp and fell riving to the ground. The flesh on the exposed arm the zombie touched had withered away revealing fat tissue, which in turn began to shrivel to nothing; blood began to solidify and dry as the insidious withering spread up his arm. I watched a moment in morbid fascination and horror
“There is only one way to stop it,” said Shonela as she came to join me, but before we do let's find out what we can from this shaman. Shonela began speaking to the goblin in a language I didn’t know except for the occasional word. The goblin answered in a wheezing voice his face contorting in a mask of pain. He looked from the calm face of Shonela to his withering arm; I wasn’t sure which he was more afraid of; his arm or withering or Shonela.
He seemed apparently in awe of her; he spoke more frantically as Shonela shook her head looking displeased with what he told her. His face became fevered the infection I thought would soon be past help. Shonela, at last, turned to nod to me. I lifted my sword high and severed his arm cleanly above the elbow. The goblin screamed a high shrill cry before passing out.
“We could have just killed him; he is one of the demon lord’s minions like you said,’” I looked at Shonela sceptically to see what her reply would be.
“Indeed we could have, but I think you would not have agreed to it, nor would I agree to take life needlessly. Mayhap he has learnt a lesson and will mend his ways, though I suspect his kind will kill him soon enough once they learn of his failure to stop us.” Again I was struck by the coldness of her tone as she turned to face me; just as I thought I was beginning to understand her. There was one thing I knew for sure about Shonela, and that is she is a dangerous woman.
We made camp after moving a safe distance from where we fought the goblin shaman bandaging him up best we could. Unfortunately, Shonela didn’t know any healing spells, or so she said to help ease the goblin’s pain, in spite of the fact he had tried to inflict a horrific death on us I could not help feel sorry for him. We set off at daybreak; I left a little food and water for the goblin in spite of Shonela’s protests that we had done more than enough for him and it would be a waste of supplies that we might yet need. We spoke little as we travelled further into the heart of the forest. The day became hot, and humid sweat made my shirt cling to my skin and flies bussed around angrily. I saw finches flitting about from treetop to treetop and, squirrels scampered up trees as we approached them. All seemed tranquil in the forest again and, it lifted my spirits somewhat. There was still no sign of any elves, however, and we reached the place where I hoped we might see them just past midday.
We rested awhile waiting for the elves to show themselves but none came. “Well I guess we keep going,” I said gathering our things as Shonela nodded without speaking she wiped her brow a worried frown on her face; I took a barely worn trail west. The forest seemed to close in around us, and it wasn’t long before the trail disappeared altogether. Using my sword I hacked a path through the underbrush, Shonela remained silent and grim ignored any attempt to make conversation. I believed she no longer had much faith in me finding the elves and thought us both hopelessly lost looking ahead I noted the trail reappeared and veered to the south with no better idea I followed the trial as Shonela muttered about going round in circles. I stopped and asked what she suggests we do; frowning she apologised gesturing to lead on. The trail began to slope gently down twisting and turning through gnarled oak and elm trees which must have survived hundreds of years untouched by man. I saw signs of a large boar and instantly became warier slowing our pace down I listened and observed our surroundings. We began to climb again cresting a small rise we looked down into a little vale I could see a stream at the bottom and deer drinking there. I suggested it would be a good a place as any to camp; even though there was some daylight left. We might not find a more suitable place before dark; Shonela nodded her acceptance worry etched on her face. So we made camp near the stream after eating we decided to take turns watching through the night though I felt no danger nearby, I wasn’t going to take any chances. I woke shortly after daybreak, Shonela still slept I prepared breakfast and had a bit to eat while Shonela finally stirred.
“I think we’ve company,” I said rising from the log I sat on, Shonela sat up blinking her eyes sleepily. I gave her breakfast and watched the three figures approach. They were all dressed in dark green all carrying bow and quiver. The tallest of the three walked in front and wore a hunter’s cap. As they drew near, I could see their skin was tinted a light green all had blonde hair and lobeless ears. The leader came to a stop in front of me I remembered him from before.
“Well met Kilydarin, “ sorry we could not come to meet you sooner but, we have been pre-occupied with the goblins,” he said smiling sardonically.
“So we noticed, we had a run in with a goblin shaman yesterday,” I said as Shonela came to stand beside me, he raised an eyebrow then turned to face Shonela with a slight bow of his head.
“I’m honoured to meet the great sorceress Shonela. My mother speaks highly of you and waits patiently to meet you in person at last,” Shonela returned the bow smiling serenely.
“You must be Marin Elmera’s son I trust your mother is well, I to look forward to meeting her in person. Give us a moment to break camp and gather our belongings then you may lead us to her,” Marin nodded. It seemed Shonela was full of surprises I was beginning to feel surplus to requirements as the elves lead us off through the trees with Shonela and Marin talking pleasantly in the lead. I seemed all but forgotten not that it bothered me too much. Have I not been content with the lonely life until know. It annoyed me that I did miss Shonela’s company, I contented myself by studying our surroundings. This part of the forest seemed filled with huge poplars pines, and spruces the canopy so dense no sunlight could penetrate, and nothing grew underneath we tread on wet dark brown earth littered with pine needles, fallen leaves, branches and dead twigs. I saw several varieties of toadstools two of which I knew to be poisonous and one I had never seen before. I caught a glimpse of stoat and deer and other forest animals all which seemed un-frightened by our passage. At length, the two other elves fell back and started talking to me.
“How much further Davin?” I asked, Davin was the most talkative of the two, I liked him, were as Ravin his brother seemed a very dour sort who spoke little.
“We’re nearly there you’ll see soon, you are in for a surprise,” his smile was infectious, and I smiled back ahead of us the forest began to thin out again, shafts of sunlight breaking through the treetops. All at once we entered what looked like a large meadow with green everywhere huge oaks bigger than any I had yet seen reached skyward their limbs seeming to disappear out of sight. High up on the limbs were tree houses and walkways between the trees elves went about their business calling to one and other on the ground to were houses camouflaged so that you had to look twice to make sure they were there. I glimpsed another glade further ahead similar to this one in which horses could be seen running free. The air filled with the scent of wild flowers which grew everywhere around. The peace and tranquillity of the surroundings created an atmosphere that soothed the troubled soul I felt all my tiredness and anxieties wash away in this place replaced with a giddy lightheartedness I had not felt since childhood. Davin looked at me expectantly his smile broadening,
“All outsiders react the same as you the first time they come here,” He slapped me on the shoulder companionably.
“It’s so beautiful and peaceful,” was all I could manage to say. Shonela came towards me then with Marin I could see the strain of the past few days had left her face also in this wondrous place.
“I am going to see the Elf Queen now, you may rest and refresh yourself first, Marin will fetch you to us later,” she smiled warmly reaching out she clasped her hands in mine for a moment. Her touch sent not, unpleasant tingling shocks up my arms quickly she withdrew though I thought or hoped a little reluctantly
“Thank you, Max, you have done well when we have more time I will tell you of your mother,” she left then. I felt irritated by the way she had dismissed me yet at the same time I wished I could have gone with her. I went with Davin and Ravin who lived in one of the ground houses at the far side of the meadow. They lived with an older sister who fussed around them like a mother and instantly treated me like a long-lost son. Like Davin, she had an infectious laugh that made even Ravin smile.
Long after dark Marin finally arrived silently, he guided me to an adjacent valley was a tall oak stood in the centre. Carved out of the tree itself and ornately decorated was a chair in which sat the elf queen, a raised wooden platform with steps up led to the throne. Shonela stood on the queen’s right, and Marin went to her left. I felt awkward not knowing what to do so I stood in front and bowed in what I hoped would be a suitably respectful bow. Shonela smiled reassuringly at me as the queen regarded me for a moment. She was tall lean boned, and while most elves had blonde or light coloured hair her shoulder length hair was a jet black, and her skin only showed the slightest tint of green. She had brown eyes which seemed filled with merriment, yet her expression and stance portrayed the weight of the responsibilities she carried.
“Come forward Kilydarin let me take a close look at you,” she smiled beckoning me forward. Awkwardly I moved forward to stand closer to the queen.
‘It is an honour to meet the Elf Queen,’ I said not knowing what else to say. I felt uncomfortable under her gaze.
“There is no need for stand on ceremony, here Kilydarin you may call me Elmera,” she paused looking more closely at me. “Yes I see your mother in you,” I winced at this, and she noted my reaction “He does not know of his inheritance,” she said turning to Shonela
“I wasn’t sure myself until I tried bonding him to me,” Shonela replied. Elmera looked shocked at this, and her expression darkened
“You tried bonding him, and against his will, that was dangerous and foolhardy what possessed you to do such a thing I thought you knew better than that the circumstances being as they are Shonela,” Elmera said scathingly; I could see Shonela’s expression become disturbed; she bowed her head looking wretched under the queen’s stare. I felt for her and could not see her humiliated so.
“Elmera it was not Shonela’s fault she came in desperate need and did what she thought necessary, I was reluctant to help her at first not fully understanding what was happening, surely she has told you about the trolls and the demon lord. I do not blame her for acting as she did in such circumstances nor should anyone else,” I blushed feeling a little embarrassed and surprised at my outburst. Elmera looked at me again this time shrewdly her smile returning.
“Nobly spoken Kilydarin, I did not mean to speak so harshly to Shonela, you see you are more vital to what is happening than you realise, and I see now Shonela has not yet told me the full story of your journey here,” she paused. “ We have known for some time of your inheritance and your important role to play in soon to be events, but Shonela was unaware of the full extent until she met you.”
She turned to apologise to Shonela while I stood bemused. Events were moving apace, and I had trouble keeping up, a lot of unanswered questions buzzed around in my head. I wondered why the elf queen thought I a hunter who had lived alone most his life had such an important role to play in what was happening. Elmera beckoned me to sit while Shonela explained in more detail are meeting and journey through the forest.
Shonela went into detail about the troll attacks on Oakmyre and the surrounding countryside. I listened intently to all what was said; the elves had their problems with the goblins who had long been their enemy and would occasionally mount minor skirmishes against them; these attacks had increased lately both Elmera and Shonela thought it part of the overall pattern of events brought about by the demon lords influence. So concerned by this Elmera had decided to take the unprecedented step of travelling herself to Oakmyre to join in a conference with king Michael on a means of countering the demon lords growing threat to both their peoples.
At daybreak, we travelled back through the forest without encountering any trolls or goblins or any other possible foe due mainly to the contingent of elves Elmera brought with her who scouted ahead and kept alert to potential danger. We reached Oakmyre shortly after sunset making much quicker time on horseback. The elves horses I believed to be enchanted with some spell as they seemed to glide through the forest effortlessly needing little or no guidance at all. I so enjoyed the ride so much so that I regretted having to leave my horse, a chestnut stallion that seemed to take as much pleasure in my company as I in it’s. As we dismounted in the courtyard, the palace guard stood at attention word had travelled ahead of us, and we were ushered in with full pomp and ceremony.
I stood to one side all but forgotten about as the king met the elf queen and as I didn’t like the crowds pressing in around me to get a glimpse of the elven queen I headed towards the stable coral where the elven horses were. The chestnut stallion came up to me as I approached and muzzled me. I was surprised to see Davin and Ravin also here.
“He has taken to you Max; he’s yours now,” Davin said grinning.
“What do you mean I can keep him, I don’t think I can afford to buy such a magnificent horse,” I didn’t dare hope that the horse could genuinely be mine.
“You don’t understand Max it doesn’t work that way with elf horses,” Davin said. Still grinning, even at my confusion. “Elfin horses choose their riders, and once they do they can’t be ridden by anyone else, he has chosen you, so he’s yours now,” Davin explained. I gave a whoop of joy thanking Davin profusely though he explained I should be thanking the horse, so I did clamping my arms around its neck. The horse whinnied with delight and nodded it’s head up and down.
“I’ll have to give him a name Davin what do you think?” I asked after calming down.
“Yes He’ll have to have a name, but only you can choose if he won't accept suggestions coming from anyone else as you may have guessed elfen horses are enchanted creatures and are extremely intelligent and sensitive so select his name carefully my friend,” Davin replied earnestly. I stood silently mulling over possible names while Davin and Ravin waited. My thoughts turned to the forest, and I saw pictured in my mind again the journey here; the name came to me in a flash of inspiration. “Hunter,” I called, and the horse who had moved to the far end of the coral galloped back to stand before me shaking and nodding its head approvingly.
“Well chosen my friend it’s an apt name indeed, see he agrees,” Davin said nodding his head at Hunter. We laughed together, and even Ravin smiled I was reluctant to leave Hunter later, and I felt the beginnings of a special bond growing between myself and the magnificent creature. I wandered around the castle with Davin, and Ravin nobody paid us any mind as there were a lot of elves about the castle, and I guess they thought I was just one of them. It wasn’t until much later that an exasperated Marin found us we had found our way down to the kitchens and Davin, and his brother had charmed one of the cooks into giving us a plateful of food, we were cleaning the last scraps from our plates.
“Kilydarin, the king, has had people looking all over for you, and both my mother and the sorceress are concerned as to your whereabouts you’d better come quickly,” Marin said. I rose from my chair hastily to follow Marin.
“Good luck Max you're going to need it,” Davin said slapping me on the shoulder with an amused look.
“You two better come too,” Marin said scornfully. Immediately Davin lost his grin as we all left the kitchen it was my turn to grin at Davin as we made our way to the throne room.
“You have no cause to be smirking Kilydarin, Shonela in particularly has been most upset by your absence; it was her that made the king send out men looking for you. She is fit to be tied and will probably turn you into a toad when she catches sight of you.” With that we all fell into a sombre silence I began looking around for a means of escape I had already seen what Shonela could be like when angered and I wasn’t sure I was up to facing that right now. I felt somewhat taken aback however when we finally reached the throne room as Shonela seemed more relieved to see me rather than angry while Elmera smiled and the king frowned studying me carefully.
“Your Majesty may I present Max Corak often known as Kilydarin the hunter,” Shonela said as I bowed.
“The two young elves are his friends Davin and Ravin.”
“I’m afraid that these two elves are a constant thorn in my side with their mischief-making and have led Max astray since arriving here,” Elmera said smiling, with wry amusement, her eyes twinkling.
“My Queen, I’m devastated that you would think so little of me,” Davin said stepping forward he bowed with a flourish. Elmera laughed heartily while king Michael looked shocked and bemused at the exchange.
“You see what I have to put up with your Majesty from my so-called loyal subjects,” Elmera said still smiling.
“Who loves you most dearly and would willingly die for you my Queen,” Ravin said. I felt taken aback by this response from the usually taciturn Ravin; then I caught the look in his eyes. It was apparent he was besotted by her.