The second chapter, where Mikros learns a valuable lesson.
|While the noonday star burned high in the heavens, a small figure slunk out from a cave. Eyes watering, he rubbed them until the scorching light blinded no longer. A fiendish smile tugged at chapped lips. At last he was free to continue his mischief, for Fyla slept until the sun god began his slow descent.
Skipping from rock to rock, Mikros sang a song to himself. The words were nonsense, set to a tune remembered by heart. Flipping over a stone, he examined the squirming worms with curiosity. Then he wandered off in search of other amusements.
Grabbing a heavy stick, Mikros pretended he was a fearsome warrior. Nothing could withstand his might; plants and insects alike were defeated by a single strike from the powerful blade. He was unchallenged in skill, until one challenger rose above him. A knobbled oak tree loomed. Mikros imagined a scaly dragon snorting flame as it faced him, a monster slayer.
Lifting the shining sword skyward, the warrior swore a holy vow to end the dragon's tyranny on the kingdom. Green fire spouted as the beast gave its reply. With a fearsome roar, the brave warrior swung his blessed weapon. With a great crack, the iron sword split on the monster's scales.
The hero had fallen, underestimating the power of dragons.
Mikros lay in dry leaves, holding a broken branch. The oak tree was motionless. Sighing, he tossed the damaged stick aside and putting hands behind his head.
A voice murmured. That was entertaining while it lasted. Mikros sat up, looking at the tree in astonishment.
He heard the rustling words, but not with his ears. "Are you... a dryad?" There was a tone of amusement in the reply. I see you are not only sharp of hearing, but also sharp of mind. Yes, I am the dryad Balanos.
Standing up, he raced around the tree in excitement. "I never thought I'd meet a dryad! Fyla says there aren't many left!" The dryad didn't reply. Mikros stopped running and stared at the oak tree. That is true, Child. Man has killed most of us. Sadness tinged the groaning reply.
Mikros felt a deep grief, emotions of centuries which trees shared with each other. He heard singing, a haunting lament of the dryads. Those pure melodies tore his chest, bringing him to crimson tears. Blood droplets fell, soaking into the ground and seeping to the tree's roots. Mikros sobbed until his head started pounding. You... honor us, child. Now I will grant you the same kindness.
With a creak, bark splintered. A section of the tree swung open, revealing a green skinned woman. She smiled at Mikros, brushing leafy hair from her wooden face. Grinning back, he wiped the blood from his eyes. "Hello, Balanos."
The dryad laughed. It sounded like spring blossoms shaking in a soft breeze. Mikros wanted to laugh with her, but his head felt oddly light. Knees collapsed as the world grew fuzzy. Catching him, Balanos carried the boy in her smooth arms. Careful now, you've spent a lot of strength.
She smelled of moss and sweet grass. Mikros vaguely recalled the journey Balanos made, witnessing the forest pass in a haze. The dryad stopped beneath an apple tree, boughs sagging from branches bearing the heavy, red fruit.
Balanos spoke to the tree in an ancient language, old as the world itself. It was the sound of green things growing towards the sun, whispers dead leaves make as they fall, a noise flowers make once they bloom. It was the secret tongue that creatures of the wood know, born from Gaia herself.
Mikros remembered Balanos pleading with him to do something. Opening heavy eyelids, he saw her holding a golden apple. Eat, child. It will restore you. With an effort, Mikros bit into the gilded offering. Warmth rushed into weak limbs as pure energy swelled through his being.
Gently placing him on the ground, Balanos chuckled as the boy sprang to his feet with renewed vigor. The glittering apple turned brown, rotting rapidly. The dryad placed it at the base of the tree, thanking it for helping them. Mikros gave his heartfelt appreciation as well.
Balanos turned to him, speaking with regret. The day grows long, I must return home now. Thank you boy, for honoring our kind. As the wood spirit started to leave, he cried out. "Wait!" She paused. "My name is Mikros." The dryad smiled. I shall tell the trees of your deeds today, Mikros. Our memories are longer than time itself, we will never forget your name.
He watched as Balanos vanished, melting into the trees. It was only after she'd gone that Mikros wished he asked for help getting back. "Fyla is going to skin me alive," He muttered, trudging through the rapidly darkening forest.
From the distance, he glimpsed a fire glowing. Perhaps the cave was closer than he thought. Mikros pushed towards the warm light. His mind was buzzing with excitement, not only did he meet a dryad but he'd also learned her name! Did this mean they were friends now?
Pondering this new development, the boy wandered out of the woods and into a campsite. A cauldron of stew bubbled over a small blaze. Around it, sat a small group of people. Strangers gazed at him in mixed astonishment and suspicion. One of them reached for his sword. It was a man clad in leather, metal plates sewn on shoulders and chest. Behind him, a woman clutched two children.
"Hello." Mikros said, unsure what he stumbled upon. The woman shook her head at the man. "It's just a child!" Grimacing, her husband gripped his weapon and hefted it. "He could be anything, these lands are untamed." She tugged at his jerkin. "Please, just listen to me!"
Mikros scratched his head. Every story Fyla told him about mortals spoke of their greatness and wisdom, yet these ones seemed to spend a long time bickering.
The armored man finally sheathed his sword. "Alright lad, are ye some creature or spirit of the night?" Thinking it over, Mikros shook his head. "Just lost. Fyla is going to be mad because I wandered off again."
That was enough for the woman. She gestured for the boy to sit by the fire, pouring him a bowl of hot stew. When the rich aroma reached his nose, Mikros realized that he was starving.
The two children watched him eat in fascination.
"Mama says you aren't supposed to use your hands." The little girl chided. Her brother was playing with crudely carved toys as he sneered. "He's a savage, he don't know better." Mikros licked the bowl clean as the girl giggled.
The woman was speaking to the man in low tones. "... Someone is bound to come looking for him." His reply was gruff. "And if they don't? We can't risk another mouth to feed." Mikros turned to find the siblings waving at him. "What's your name? Mine's Eirene." The girl asked sweetly. He told her, how could he not?
The boy was facing away from the fire, playing with some rocks. Mikros watched as he stacked them until they fell over. "What are you called?" He asked politely. Ignoring the question, the boy began constructing another tower.
"He's Calix. Sorry if he's mean." Eirene stuck her tongue out at her brother. Calix growled. "Eirene, you shouldn't talk to savages." Mikros frowned. "Savage?" Sighing, the little girl led him away. "Don't mind him, I think he's still upset about Kyon. We all are."
Eirene explained that their hunting dog died last week. "Papa says it was a sickness, a wound gone bad." Mikros thought this over for a while. "If Kyon came back, would Calix be happy?" Eirene beamed. "Of course! All of us would."
When the adults finally came to a compromise, the strange boy was missing. Their daughter pointed into the murky woods. "He's going to bring him back!" Eilene danced around her grouchy brother, knocking over the second rock tower. "Bring who back?" Her father asked, tentatively.
An unearthly howl wavered in the darkness.
The family huddled together as the mournful sound rose. Weapon drawn, the man swallowed nervously, listening to something rustling in the shadows. Twigs cracked. A soft wheezing grew closer.
Then Mikros stepped into the light.
Once again he stood perplexed, witnessing a scene similar to the one before. "What are you frightened of?" Mikros asked.
Relaxing, the mother let go of Calix and Eirene. Remaining vigilant, their father continued to grip his sword tightly. "Did you make that noise, boy?" Mikros gestured to the gloom behind himself. "Of course not, that was Kyon."
That was when it shambled forth.
Fur had fallen out in patches, exposing mottled grey skin. Its rotting tongue lolled from a jawless snout, drooling pale maggots and corpse beetles. A cloudy eye seeped yellow pus, the other empty socket holding a darkly glowing orb.
Staggering, it crawled toward its horrified owners. Bones jutted out from the decaying limbs as it whined, tail stump wagging.
The children screamed, hiding behind their mother. Her face was white, eyes wide with horror. Raising the glinting sword, the armored man snarled at Mikros. "We took you in and this is how you repay us?"
With a slash, he cleaved Kyon's head from its putrid body. The animal whined, carcass flinching from the blow.
Shocked, Mikros watched as the decapitated creature cowered from a master it once loved. "Stop it! Can't you see he wants to come home?" He glared at the swordsman.
Gritting his teeth, the father lifted his blade again. "That thing is no dog of mine."
The creature whimpered, severed head still panting in the dirt. Stepping in front of the maimed carcass, Mikros grimly clenched his fists. "I won't let you hurt him anymore."
Pointing his gory weapon at the boy, the man spat. "Step aside. I won't ask again."
Embers crackled as they faced each other. Fingers tightened around an iron hilt. Mikros began whispering quietly.
Then a voice crept through the air, freezing everyone with cold menace.
"Harm him if you dare. There are fates worse than death." Thick shadows poured out from the trees, encircling the group.
Dropping his blade, the armored man backed away from the living darkness. With a venomous hiss, the entity spoke again. "Release that beast. NOW."
Bowing his head in shame, Mikros waved a hand over Kyon. There was a deep sigh as the undead animal resumed its eternal slumber.
"Leave this forest and never return." The sibilant whisper dripped with venom as the specter pulled the boy into the woods. Before the gloom swallowed him, Mikros saw the expression on Eirene's little face.
It was the furthest thing from happiness.
Snaking past gnarled trees and prowling animals, the furious shadow and silent boy traveled through the murky woods. Carrying him in wispy arms, the spirit said nothing to Mikros. It didn't have to.
He could feel discontent emanating, waves of hostility that knotted his stomach.
"I'm sorry, Fyla." Mikros sniveled, receiving no response.
Eirene haunted him, her glimmering tears of regret crushing his soul as the glassy drops fell soundlessly. For the rest of the journey, he quietly contemplated the effect his good intentions caused.
Perhaps even Balanos secretly despised him.
With a rustling whoosh, Fyla swept over weathered stones, gently placing Mikros before the cave entrance.
"Now we will talk, child. And I expect a thorough explanation." Fyla was shaking, the misty outline quivering with ire.
Mikros slumped, nodding reluctantly.
"I was playing with a stick and heard a voice..." He recounted meeting the wood spirit, how she gave him a magic apple and why he got lost in the dense forest.
Fyla listened to the boy's story, wisps rolling ever inward. Once he had finished, the spirit turned away to gaze at the rising moon. The luminous crescent winked from the starry sky as Fyla regarded it with invisible eyes.
"We were safe here. " Fyla whispered mournfully.
Before Mikros could ask what those words meant, the specter whirled to face him.
"Have I taught you NOTHING? Why do you insist on tormenting me with worry?" Anguish and anger intertwined, the questions stung Mikros deeply.
Fyla continued, emotion pouring into the night air. "If I hadn't felt you calling the dog, that man would have cut you in two. Do you understand?!"
But he couldn't.
Mikros shook his head, eyes glistening. "She said they would be happy to see him again. Why weren't they pleased?"
Fyla drifted closer with a murmuring sigh.
"You cannot bring back a memory, child. The soul will never return to its body once the string of fate is severed."
"But why?" Mikros asked softly. The spirit shrugged with vaporous shoulders.
"That is the nature of the world. You must learn that and many other things before you are ready to face the realms of man and beast."
They watched in silence as a shooting star tore across the heavens.
"Fyla?" "Yes, child?"
Mikros wiped his runny nose. "I'm ready now."
The shadow gently nudged him. "For your lessons or for your punishment?"
He winced. "It's all the same to me."
With a disembodied laugh, Fyla followed the boy into the little cave. "Tomorrow, we will have to find a new home."
As his guardian created a fire, Mikros took a sobering look around the cozy hollow. "I think I'm going to miss this place."
"Me too, child." Fyla said as the pair nestled by the warm flames. "Me too."