An adventure through love, loss, and magic.
The leaves were shown in gleaming shades of pumpkin orange and honeysuckle, dancing lightly with the tender warmness given off by the breeze as it caressed every living thing.
There under the youngest branches, leaning up against the trunk of an unassuming apula tree, one of many in the countless rows that stretched across the valley, sat a shadow of a knight. His blackened and burned helmet sat beside him in the golden grass revealing a dusty, battle scared face that hung down almost to his knees. He was in the prime of his life, though his youth was hidden by the marks that crisscrossed his features.
His hand was covered in a black steel gauntlet as he slowly combed back his hair, dirty brown with a dash of sun.
He was worn and weary, the gift of sleep had not come for days as he tried to stay ahead of the King’s army. With exhaustion causing him to trip over his own feet, he had decided to stop, but only for an instant to catch his breath.
The beauty of the rising sun over the gilded landscape only weighed down his armor and his mind. He knew his quest was too much for the time he had to do it in. It had been one week since he had overheard the kings plans to marry his beloved.
Outside of a bathhouse high in the Autumn hills, conversing with one of the generals under him was when he heard the right hand of the king proclaim the news. The conversation didn’t involve him, but it had been so loud that it echoed through the stone house and out to Cedric’s ears.
“Word has arrived from King Korva! We are to return and serve as his wedding protection. Spring will unite with Summer!” Cheers erupted through the room, but the cold zing of dread rising from his gut urged him into action. The Fair Lady of Spring Meadows, the very woman that he had dedicated his life and purpose to, was betrothed to another. Betrothed to the only person he had respect for, King Korva.
Daring to run faster than the whole armada and cavalry, he had deserted his post so that he may claim the Fair Lady before the King himself even had a chance to realize what he had done.
Now that he had a chance to rest, the twist of hunger in his gut was overwhelming. He had been unable to stop after he fled the army that he had once commanded, only grabbing a bit of fruit as he ran. He dared not cry, nor show in any way the despair that crept into his heart. The dogs of the King’s army can smell tears and track fear, and they surely must know by now of his crimes.
He believed not in fate, although on this day it may be the one thing that saved him.
"Woe is ye…" he whispered to the wind, “for it shall be an eternity before I have a chance to gaze upon the undying sunrise of beauty, that is my Fair Lady of Spring Meadows." There was a dull howl as the plates of his charred and battered armor ground together between his back and the bark of the apple tree.
The Spirit of the Wind carried his words with an ever so playful echo down the endless rows of the orchard, twisting and twirling through the air.
The Gypsy Witch
The smooth feminine hand of the Gypsy Witch was shrouded in an ivory glow as she reached up and grasped a violet peora fruit in the early morning light. Bracelets of stones and colorful cord wrapped around her wrist and down her arm. She wore clothes that were earth-toned, layered together in torn sections to make a flowing dress so beautiful it seemed even the trees were envious of the way it shifted and flittered. Her hair as dark as a raven, and although a few ends hung over her face and down her neck, it sat with a messy elegance twisted with a crown of vines and dandelions high on her head.
The wind swiftly danced through the trees, as it engulfed the Gypsy Witch it caught each piece of her dress as it does with the leaves.
"Spirit of the Wind, what burden of the world do you place on thee this day?" She sighed softly, lifting both arms and closing her hazel eyes to listen to the childish laughter that is the wind.
"Come, sweet Witch, you are needed!" The wind whispered for her ears only. "Cedric sits beyond, tired and worn from his travels, dreaming of his fair lady..."
"The Knight of Darkness…in my own wood!" She exclaimed with a gentle smile, her lips glistened in a fiery amber shade. She picked up her woven basket brimming with fruits of every color, balancing it on her hip as she took off at a deer's pace.
She came upon him silently, bare feet gently padding the earth. "Come now Knight, rise to your feet, what makes your soul so weary and your woe so great?" Her free hand took his and weightlessly guided him to standing.
They saw almost eye to eye, he in all his metal plate and chain becoming just a hair’s breath taller than she.
"Oh Witch, what isn't there to woe over? My fairest Lady, source of all my desires, is a two-month ride from this spot. I have no steed which makes the trek even greater, and the Kings army is on my tail to imprison me as we speak. I fear I will never have the chance to proclaim my affections to my Lady of Spring Meadows.
If I do not find a way she will be betrothed to another before the time doth come to pass that I may be freed and able to gaze upon her face once more."
His weary eyes stared into hers, the last glint of hope slipping away as the despair of his situation had finally set in. But the Witch, her eyes shining with the glimmer of all the stars of the night, smiled lightly as an idea came to her.
"I know of a mighty steed that can get you to Spring Meadows within two fortnights. He is fast and as strong as they come, but I must travel with you to bring him home." The Knight was speechless at her offer, but a great burden was visibly lifted from his soul.
"Come now, he lives not far from here. We can be saddled and gone by noon." She turned, pieces of her skirts twirling in perfect harmony with the wind, and softly padded off without even a glance back. The knight quickly grabbed his helmet and took off after her, leaving all doubts and inhibitions at the base of the tree.
The two came upon a hill after some time. Purple, blue, and yellow wildflowers almost completely obscuring the golden grass from view, as flutter bugs danced from one petal to the next. Here at the top of the hill, the Witch came to a stop with the Black Knight only a few steps behind.
The warm breeze danced around them, gold and brown leaves on its tongue. Just beyond where they stood, the thick twisted roots of the Mother Tree jutted from the ground, marking the division between territories.
The Witch lifted her arms, palms to the sky, and gently asked, "Come, Snow Bringer. Garuk, Cea'em Two'um!"
The wind picked up, and a bitter cold chill ran through the colorful valley. Thunder rumbled out, quiet as a whisper at first, but quickly grew, gaining in speed and intensity. A gigantic beast, mighty and pure white, galloped on heavy hooves over the thick roots and up the hill, pride flowing through his icy mane.
His breath poured out of his snout, so cold that it frosted the air in a smoky haze. He left ice in his steps and a gentle flurry in his wake. Saddled with furs of the mighty Tar'una wolf, a beast that roamed the wilds of the snow-covered Winterlands many ages ago.
Snow Bringer pounded to a stop, his six hooves pawing at the now frozen grass in turn. The Witch reached out her hand and cradled his snout, motioning to the Knight to come to the beast. He did, almost shaking, but swallowing his fear.
Snow Bringer, eyeing him intently with glowing red eyes and a glint of distress, examined the knight that stood before him. Cedric reached out his hand, causing Snow Bringer to rear backward, lifting his massive front hooves to paw at the air above the knight’s head.
The ground shook as he brought down his hooves inches from Cedric's armor-plated boots. Cedric had managed not to flinch in panic. Instead, he smiled as he reached out his hand once more to comfort this beast that stood before him.
There was an almost eerie silence as unbridled power and battle-hardened skill leveled out to become equals. Snow Bringer, as massive as he was, gave in to the offer of friendship from the Knight. As Snow Bringer's velvety snout made contact with the cold black metal of Cedric’s gauntlet, an immense burst of frozen energy shook out from his, and Cedric’s core. Freezing everything within 30 yards into a permanent winter oasis.
Turning towards the Witch with a puzzled look on his face Cedric began to ask what had happened, but the Witch stopped him with a kind smile.
''Time is of the essence, Knight of Darkness.''
The beast bowed onto two knees, and the Knight although covered in his armor, swung onto its back with a heavy grace. He almost became part of Snow Bringer, the red in the animal’s eyes faded out to reveal a sapphire blue.
With a perfect elegance the Witch glided onto the furs, resting on the base of the first set of shoulders, her hands intertwining in the snowy mane. Without a moment of hesitation, she demanded. "The Forest of All, Cea'em Two'um!"
A mighty snort from Snow Bringer and they were off, faster than the knight had dreamed to go, heading towards the dark tree line to the south. The constant rhythmic drumming of six hooves against dirt brought the tempting feeling of sweet sleep to Cedric, one that he could not ignore.
The Hunter and His Stag
The sudden silence is what woke him. As the lulling movement ending, they were at the beginning of a place known as the Forest of All. The sun had just begun to settle over the horizon, with the outermost branches of the Mother Tree casting a dark shadow before them in the twilight.
Dark fog rolled out from the tree line, thick and moving like it had a life of its own. The harder you tried to see into the forest, the less you saw.
Stories of this place were as old as the Mother Tree herself, you could get lost within the first few feet of entering the tree line, and wander for years.
The trees were said to be able to uproot and move when you weren't looking. Thick fog could shape itself into your worst fear, or greatest desire, anything to daze and confuse all who dared to enter the heart of the forest to harm the Mother Tree.
Without a guide, you were doomed to be hopelessly lost in the darkness. Not to mention the legions of creatures that lived within the dark wood.
With a soft padded thud, the Gypsy Witch dismounted from Snow Bringer, taking a few steps forward, coming within inches of the tendrils of fog. She clutched a small piece of antler tied around her neck and bowed her head.
As the Knight shifted his weight unsure of what was happening, a crow rang out, then two, then three. A few tense moments had passed before a figure could be seen in the depths of the forest. Tall and broad, a crown of antlers rising above the head. A bow could be seen slung over the shoulder, a quiver of arrows at the waist.
The Hunter emerged from the fog, furred leather bound feet making no sound in the dry leaves and fallen branches. Piercing emerald green eyes glancing only once at the knight and Cea’em Two’um, before settling on the Gypsy Witch.
Though he stood much taller and wider than her he took a knee, his cape of moss and leaves trailed behind him and small furs adorned his shoulders. His curly brown hair flowed in the wind as the antler crown settled lightly on the golden grass to his side, a show of respect normally reserved for royalty.
“M’Lady,” he spoke softly to the Witch, his voice was deep and gravely, “what a pleasant surprise to hear your call. I have missed your gentle presence.” He took her small hand in his, kissing her knuckles before he rose to his feet, donning his crown once more. “What do you ask of thee, sweet sorceress?”
“We are in need of passage through the Forest, straight to Spring Meadows.” She looked behind her to the Knight still sitting on Snow Bringer before she turned back and whispered to the Hunter, “a few loose strings of fate to bond, I think.”
The hunter sighed deeply, knowing the Witch was up to her old tricks again. A simple nod and he turned back to face the forest. A long low whistle rang out, and a distant grunt responded. A shadow emerged from the fog, it was tall, taller than any horse, antlers so large and spaced it had to bend its head to and fro to avoid tree limbs. Another deep grunt as the Mighty Stag left the tree line and walked to the Hunters’ side.
Re’pa RRoe’s fur was coarse and deep brown, almost black in some spots. An old leather saddle lay strapped to its back and almost blended into his coat. A sturdy vine bridle wrapped around the velvety head and reins sat at the base of the massive shoulders. As Re’pa RRoe knelt down, the Hunter turned and mounted the Mighty Stag, the Witch glided back onto Snow Bringer. The Knight leaned forward to whisper into her ear.
“What happens now?”
“Now, we follow.”
The Journey In
Hooves crunched against old leaves as the small troop passed through the fog into the first ring of the Forest of All. The darkness of night fell over them like a blanket, covering the sleeping trees and fallen leaves almost as thickly as the fog that swirled around the ground. The Hunter and his Stag lead the way, his cape flowing over the back of the mighty animal. Snow Bringer followed close behind, large hoof prints of ice the only evidence of their passing.
“Much has changed since your last coming, as I am sure you have noticed enchantress.” The Hunter spoke softly but his low voice carried behind him.
“Brave Hunter, you have been hard at work I presume?” the Gypsy Witch responded in her sweet tone.
“Alas, though I wish to take the credit for this wonder, t’was not I.” He turned in his saddle to look at Cedric. “A great shift is to blame, one I have not seen in centuries. The fates may finally be on our side again.”
The Witch nodded and the Hunter turned back. Cedric, more confused than ever, spoke his thoughts.
“Great shift? Fates? I fear I do not understand.”
“You will in time Sir Knight. Patience is not your strong suit.” The Witch turned back to face him. “This first ring that we are in now, was for a very long time one of the most terrifying places in all of Da’nu. But as you can see…” She lifted an arm as if to point to the petrified landscape around them, “Most of the evil has begun to return to the inner rings. Life will grow anew here, and it will become the thriving sanctuary it was so long ago.”
As the Knight looked closer, he could see small sprouts of leaves budding from the long-dormant trees and very small beginnings of blossoms at their branches. He had never known the Forest of All to be anything but a terrible, destructive place. ‘A stain on the center of the map’ his King had called it once before. The thought that it had been more than a dark, dead forest baffled him into stunned silence as he looked around.
“Woah…” The Hunter and his Stag came to a silent stop, Snow Bringer a step later as the Gypsy pulled back on his mane.
They stood for a second, the Hunter pulling his bow from his shoulders softly and slowly as to not make a sound. All Cedric could hear was his heart drumming in his ears as anticipation rose in the dead air, he reached for his sword that was normally at his side and he realized that he didn’t have one. A feral squeal almost made him jump, his armor creaking slightly and he could see what the Hunter had stopped them for.
It was a huge tusked animal that turned and looked directly at the Knight. Anger flashed in the boars’ eyes as it pawed the ground ready to charge. The Knight froze in terror, but the Hunter spurred to action, pulling a metal arrow from the quiver at his side, docking and drawing his bow in one smooth motion.
Without even one breath the arrow was in flight before burying deep into the chest of the boar. A shrill squeal sent shivers down Cedric’s spine as he watched the heavy animal pull back before falling to the side, skin twitching and legs jerking as they held onto life.
The Hunter dismounted and bounded to the animal, expertly unsheathing a silver dagger and sliced through the tough skin of the neck. Blood shot out in the dim moonlight and the boars’ body finally gave in to its fate. A faint wisp of white smoke left the nostrils and dissipated into the air, its soul leaving the body and returning to the Mother Tree.
They sat in silence again as the Hunter finished his task and cleaned his blade and arrow. He lifted the boar and draped it over the rump of the Stag, the mighty animal not even flinching at the added weight.
“That will make a fine meal, Brave Hunter.” Said the Witch, her pride in him seeping into her words.
“It will be something, though not enough I’m afraid.” His voice was reverent and calm, heavy with the life he had taken. The Stag twisted his antlers around for the Hunter to use as a handle, and he remounted without another word, the six-legged horse a few steps behind. Before long an orange light could be seen flickering through the trunks, and the Gypsy Witch exclaimed,
“your camp is full again?” a touch of disbelief in her voice.
“Much has changed since your last coming, Enchantress.”