The Forest of Raia-Torell
Thus spoke Abiel, "Run where you will, Gideone, but you cannot hide. For I swear by the blood of Balor I will have my revenge."
The morning upon which Gideone awoke was cold and heartless. The sky was gray and overcast, and a cold, relentless mist filled the air. The prince found himself lying upon the ground surrounded by tall trees that looked gray in the dull light. He took a deep breath and groaned as his chest began to throb with pain.
"Your Highness?" he heard a voice beside him say.
"Stavros?" he moaned when he saw to whom the voice belonged.
"How feel you?" Stavros asked.
Gideone groaned as he remembered all that had happened to him. "I’ve just fought the worst battle of my whole life. I’ve seen my father killed, my people slaughtered, the man whom I thought to be my bravest and most trusted servant run in fear, and I myself was shot through the chest by an arrow. I feel wonderful."
"I‘m sorry, Your Highness."
"You’re older than I, Stavros," Gideone replied as he struggled to sit up. "Surely by now you must know that’s the way of war."
With Stavros' help he was able to finish sitting up. He looked around slowly and saw Vayan standing nearby next to three horses.
The prince placed his hand over his wound and said, "When that arrow pierced me, I thought surely I was a dead man. How is it I still live?"
There was a moment of troubled silence before Stavros spoke, "In sooth, I know not why, Your Highness, for the arrow which struck you was enchanted and sorely wounded you. It's obvious there’s some type of magic at work here, protecting you, but..." His voice trailed off, and his troubled look told Gideone there was something important left unsaid.
"What is it?" demanded the prince.
"Whatever the magic may be which keeps you alive, it’s slowly being overcome. The spell placed upon the arrow if not placed by a Power was placed, at the least, by an arch-mage." Stavros took a breath and continued, "If you don’t find someone with the power to remove the spell, you will die."
Gideone was silent as the full meaning of Stavros' words sank in. "I am dying, and none but a Power or an arch-mage can save me.”
Stavros nodded his head, a grim look upon his face.
"Then I must find an arch-mage," the prince concluded, more to himself than to Stavros and Vayan.
"A difficult task, considering all the arch-mages serve the Powers, and one which would perhaps prove fruitless, considering we know not whether even an arch-mage has the power to heal you," replied Stavros, ever the optimist.
"And what would you have me do?" Gideone demanded. "Surrender myself to death?"
Stavros said nothing.
There was a brief pause as Gideone turned his options over in his mind. "Tmalion is an arch-mage."
"But, Your Majesty," Stavros exclaimed, "he's closer to the Powers than all the other arch-mages."
"He seems as good a choice as any," Gideon replied. "Tmalion, at least, was once our ally. Perhaps he'll be moved by pity at the sight of our state and offer us aid."
"More likely, Your Highness, he’ll take you and give you over to the Powers," rejoined Stavros with vehemence. "Out of all who might be able to save you I would trust him the least."
"Who else would you have me turn to?"
Stavros opened his mouth to answer, but Gideone cut him off. "Tmalion may be allied with the Powers, but perhaps he’s not as loyal to them as we are led to believe. Or do you forget I was once to marry his daughter?" He said those last words bitterly. "Stay here if you will–I wish not to force any man to accompany me–but I will journey to the Mountains of Scalavori."
"I f’r one will travel with ye wherever ye go," declared Vayan who had been silent up until that point.
Gideone turned to look at Vayan then glanced back at Stavros. "Well, Stavros, it seems Delovachia can provide me with better servants than can Nor.”
"I never said I wouldn't go, Your Highness," replied Stavros, "but I think it foolish to hope we'll ever be allowed to enter Scalavori. And even if we do, Tmalion is certain to kill me and Vayan and take you captive so he can give you to the Powers."
"You have the better part of the bargain I would say."
Stavros only sighed.
"Well," said Gideone as he rose, "our country has been destroyed, our people slaughtered, I am mortally wounded, and we are now embarking upon what, most likely, is a suicide mission. I see nothing to keep us from being optimistic."
"I see much," muttered Stavros under his breath. Gideone cast him a look but merely said, "Come on."
He began to walk toward the horses but stopped and, turning, said, "By the bye, where are we?"
"The Forest of Raia-Torell," answered Stavros as he too walked toward the horses.
Many stories were told of the Forest of Raia-Torell–most of them contradictory. Some would have people believe that the forest was inhabited by the most noble and benevolent of wood elves. Others claimed it was an abode of utter evil. Evil or no, it was a large forest, and Gideone, Stavros, and Vayan could not afford the time it would take to make their way around it so they were forced to go through it.
The day remained cold and wet, and Gideone was glad he had not only a warm tunic but a warm cloak as well. It was at that point he realized the tunic he wore was not his own. He looked over at Stavros and for the first time noticed that beneath his cloak Stavros wore no shirt.
"Stavros," cried Gideone, "you gave me your tunic."
"I thought it only right, considering 'twas I who tore the one you were wearing," answered Stavros.
Gideone could think of no answer save "Thank you," which he said right heartily.
They rode for the whole of the day, and the further they went the more certain did Gideone become that the forest was watching them. It had all the sights and sounds of any normal forest–the trees appeared to be natural and the birds sang as they did in any other forest–but there was a certain air of silent curiosity that pervaded Raia-Torell.
"I dislike this forest," said Stavros grimly.
"'Twas you who brought us here," replied the prince.
"Aye, and I'm beginning to wish I had not."
"A forest is a forest; what could it possibly do to us?" continued Gideone, though not a minute before he also had been feeling not entirely comfortable beneath the eyes of Raia-Torell.
Their fears, however, seemed unfounded, for they traveled throughout the whole day and not once saw anything seemingly unnatural. Night fell at last, and Gideone was glad, for, though he had spoken not of it, his wound hurt him considerably. They quickly set up their camp and sat down to eat. As they ate their evening meal, they spoke and jested and laughed, for it was a way to keep their spirits up. Gideone tried to join in–he was not used to letting Stavros, who could be quite humorous when he so chose, tell a funnier story than he–but, though he tried, he did not entirely succeed. Vayan did not seem to notice, but Stavros, who had been with the prince since the day of his birth, could tell that all was not as well as the prince would make it appear. Vayan was chosen to take the first watch, and Stavros and Gideone promptly lay down to sleep. Stavros made sure to say a few words about what ill he was certain would befall them during the night, and Gideone, though silently believing every word, made sure to say that Stavros was out of his mind.
The forest that night was a grim and eerie place filled with a magic that seemed to creep and twist its way through the dark, hidden paths between the trees until it came upon the three men and completely surrounded them. It was in the midst of all this that Gideone slept and dreamed. He found himself once more upon the high walls of Zaren. The cries of men rose to him, and the stench of blood and death filled the air. The fires of the Dark Sorcerer rose into the sky, and the rain poured down upon all that was there. The prince looked down upon the horror laid out before him and, as a bolt of lightning tore through the sky, saw his father kneeling before the Dark Sorcerer.
"No!" Gideone cried as the sword of the Sorcerer sliced through the air and cut through his father's body. Then Gideone found himself standing, not upon the battlements, but beside his father's prostrate form.
His mind screamed for him to awaken, but he could not, for the dream was not yet over. He raised his eyes to the sky above, and as another flash of lightning lit the sky, he saw Orion and Nightfall fleeing from the battle. Orion turn his head toward him. The warrior’s cold, blue eyes were filled with spite, and his mouth was turned up in a cruel, mocking smile.
"Coward!" the prince shrieked, his voice piercing the air and filling his ears.
Gideone awoke with a start, his heart pounding. He was covered with sweat, and his wound had begun to ache terribly.
"Highness," said Vayan in concern, "Are ye all right?"
"Yes," answered Gideone, trying to make his voice sound as normal as possible. "I’m quite fine." With that he rolled over and tried to fall asleep again.
* * *
On that cold, dark night, fury raged not only in Gideone's dreams. Abiel, the dark prince of Delovachia, sat tall and proud upon his sable charger. A menacing figure he made with his long black cloak whipping in the wind. His face was hidden from view and only his flashing green eyes could be seen beneath his cowl. Before him stood fifteen dark cloaked warriors on horseback.
"It has been said you are some of the most fearsome magicians in all of Delovachia," said Abiel, looking at them darkly. “I expect you to prove this. If you don’t capture Gideone, I’ll kill every one of you.”
The magicians bowed their heads and, as one, replied, “Yes, my lord.”
* * *
The sun rose, casting its warm light upon Gideone, Stavros, and Vayan. The darkness of the previous night was replaced by the most cheerful of mornings, and in the light of day, Gideone's spirits rose until they were quite high. He more than made up for his failure the night before to tell a more humorous story than Stavros, and one would not have thought the merry group winding its way through the forest was fleeing for their lives.
Gideone was in the middle of telling about an encounter he once had with a troll when Stavros interrupted. "You speak of trolls, Your Highness. Methinks we’ll shortly meet one face to face."
Gideone turned and looked upon what Stavros spoke of. Before him he saw a river cutting directly through the forest path, over which was a small bridge wide enough for only one man to cross at a time.
"Stavros," said Gideone, "I see a river and a bridge, but I see no troll."
"Bridges over rivers always mean trolls, Your Highness."
"You can smell a troll a mile away. I smell nothing."
"Perhaps he’s learned the advantages of bathing, Your Highness."
Gideone found the thought of a troll bathing particularly amusing and started to laugh.
"Laugh if you will,” Stavros told him, “but I still think a troll is there."
Gideone only laughed more and dismounted. Stavros and Vayan also dismounted.
"And still think I there is no troll," declared the prince as he began to walk to the bridge. He did draw his sword, however.
"We shall see," said Stavros calmly.
When Gideone had reached the middle of the bridge, they did indeed see; for at that moment the largest, ugliest troll any of them had ever seen jumped out from beneath the bridge. He opened his mouth in a roar that sprang from deep within his belly, echoed off the trees and caused the three travelers’ eardrums to vibrate.
Stavros drew his sword and began to walk toward the beast. As he did so, he could not help but notice that, though the troll was very ugly, his fur was quite clean.
"Give me all your gold, and I might let you live," snarled the troll.
"We have no gold," answered Gideone truthfully.
The troll drew back at Gideone's answer, for this problem had never before presented itself. Gideone could only raise his eyebrow in an amused look as he watched the troll's demeanor go from fierce and terrifying to something far less than either.
"Give me all your armor then," growled the troll, as he once more became menacing. Gideone and Stavros looked at each other then turned back to the troll.
"What?" said Gideone, giving an incredulous look. "So we'll be all the easier to roast on a spit?"
The troll drew back again, for he could not remember having this problem before. Most travelers cowered at the mere sight of him and were on their knees begging for mercy at the smallest glimpse of his razor-sharp teeth. Of course, he had been hibernating all winter. Perhaps he was merely out of practice. At any rate, he was quite hungry and was not about to let his first meal of the season slip away.
"Now I have an ultimatum for you," said Gideone as he swung his sword about nonchalantly. "You will either let us pass, or we shall be forced to kill you."
The troll decided that it was time to put his foot down. He bared his teeth and opened his mouth in the loudest, most terrifying roar he could muster.
Gideone jumped back and barely missed being sliced by the troll's long claws. Stavros and Vayan ran forward as the troll roared again and charged toward them. Gideone tried to strike him, but even as he swung his sword, the troll struck him hard across the head. With a cry, the prince tumbled to the ground. For a moment, he could simply lie holding his hand to his head. He heard a loud cry followed by a huge splash, and, struggling to his knees, he caught sight of Vayan bobbing up and down in the river. He looked over at where Stavros and the troll battled. Blood was streaming from Stavros' arm, but it seemed not to bother him. With a cry Stavros sent his sword slicing through the troll's neck. The troll's head rolled from his shoulders, and his body fell limp to the ground.
Stavros stood up straight and looked around him, breathing heavily. Catching his breath, he looked down at his wound; it was bloody but far from dangerous. He ran his hand over it, and it immediately closed up, leaving only a thin, white scar.
He walked over to where Gideone sat and asked, "Are you uninjured, Your Highness?"
"Stavros," said Gideone, "I have just had my head boxed by a creature who was at least two and a half times my weight. Of course I’m fine."
Stavros placed his hand on Gideone's head, and held it there for a few moments. When he removed it, Gideone said, "Yes, that is definitely much better. Thank you, Stavros."
"'Tis only my duty, Your Highness."
Almost before he had finished speaking, they heard a loud splashing as Vayan tried desperately to pull himself out of the river. But the river was deep and had a strong current, and the rocks were so slippery that, before he managed to fully pull himself up, he fell back in again. He made such a comic figure that Gideone and Stavros could not help but laugh. Stavros made his way over to the river, and, still laughing, held out his hand.
"Come on, son."
He hauled Vayan out of the water. For a moment Vayan could only stand, shivering with his arms crossed, and look at Gideone and Stavros with an expression that was a cross between indignation and amusement.
They had little time to loiter, however, and quickly started on their way again. Their brief encounter with the troll had raised their spirits even more, and nothing that day could lower them. They made excellent headway, all the while laughing and talking, until the sky grew gray then, finally, dark with the coming of night.
* * *
Abiel sat upon his horse beneath the gray sky and looked darkly out over the surrounding countryside. The forest of Raia-Torell loomed, black and menacing, before him. He did not even glance at his fifteen magicians, for all his attention was focused on the forest before him where he knew Gideone was.
With a sharp, “Hiya!” he spurred his horse forward and, with his magicians close behind, plunged into the depths of the forest.
* * *
For Gideone, Stavros, and Vayan the night came on quickly, and they were forced to dismount and make camp. When dinner was over, Gideone rose and declared that he would take the first watch. He had expected Stavros to object on the grounds that he was wounded, but in this he was pleasantly surprised for Stavros said nothing in objection. In fact, all he did was murmur "Good night, Your Highness," roll over, and fall asleep.
The night was very peaceful, and in the stillness and darkness Gideone found his thoughts turning from the duty of guarding the camp toward all of the things which had so recently taken place. He had pushed those thoughts to the back of his mind, but now, in the stillness, they came rushing to the forefront. His father was killed, his kingdom destroyed, and his mother and his sister were no doubt taken captive by Kozan.
Well did he remember the day when, seventeen years before, he had gazed upon his newborn sister as she lay sleeping in her cradle. His father, King Ibrahim, had stood next to him and had spoken. "Son, look well upon your sister. Many will hate her, and princess though she is, few will love or protect her. Help her, guide her, protect her, for you are her brother." But he had failed in the trust his father had laid upon him: Mystia, if she was not now dead, lay in the hands of the enemy.
His hand went to his chest and through the cloth of his tunic he could feel the amulet which hung from a chain around his neck. It brought to mind the other woman he had failed. He did not need to look upon the amulet, so well did he know its features. It was made of the purest gold, beautifully and perfectly wrought in the shape of an eagle's feather. It was inlaid with a diamond, clear and flawless, which sparkled in the light. Even better than its form knew he the features of she who had given it to him. She also had been lost to him.
He took the amulet out from beneath his tunic and held it up in the light. With the moon and the trees to bear witness he spoke softly. "I swear upon this amulet and by the one whom I love more than any other that I will lose nothing more. I will build another army, and I will regain my love and my sister and my country. And if I do not do all which I vow, may death take me." He brought the golden amulet to his lips, then, after kissing it, hid it once more beneath his tunic.
As he leaned back against the tree a large owl flew through the air and swooped down toward him. He started and jumped to his feet. It caused such a noise with the flapping of its wings that Stavros and Vayan awoke. A squawk escaped its beak as it faded into the darkness of the forest shadows.
In less than a second Stavros, and Vayan were on their feet, and the three men looked at each other.
“Y’thin’ somethin’ frigh’ened i’?“ Vayan asked.
“I think we should leave,” Stavros said plainly, but, even as he spoke the sound of galloping horses cut through the trees. Through the shadows they could make out the dark figures of almost a score of riders. The three men started, hoping they could dash to their horses and escape. But there was no time. The riders drew up before Gideone, Stavros, and Vayan and held up their swords. The three men, in turn, drew their weapons.
"Fifteen of them and three of us," spat Gideone. "The odds are almost in their favor."
"You always were one to jest, Gideone," said a cloaked figure scornfully as he pushed himself to the front of the men. Gideone recognized him immediately.
"And you, Abiel, could not jest if your life depended upon it," he replied with a sneer.
"You dare mock me?" cried Abiel.
"I would hardly call it daring; 'deigning' is a much better word."
"Mock this!" Abiel threw back the hood of his cloak. His whole face was a mass of scars. It was as if his skin had bubbled like boiling water only to be frozen in that shape. A long, deep, lurid scar stretched from one end of his forehead to the other, and his mouth was perpetually twisted in a hideous grin, the ghastliness of which was only heightened by the evil glint of his green eyes. Beneath his right eye the skin was shriveled and stretched so thin one could clearly see the bone beneath it.
"'Tis almost an improvement," said Gideone when he had finished appraising Abiel‘s face. Stavros winced at what he knew was certain to follow.
"You did this to me!" shrieked Abiel. "And by Balor you shall pay!" He motioned with his hand, causing a wide circle of flames to spring up on the ground before him. Everything about it began to catch fire save for that which was in the center. The red glow of the dancing flames cast a sinister light on the men, horses and surrounding trees.
"Enter the ring of fire, Gideone," said Abiel, a look of grim anticipation upon his face, "and let us duel." He drew his sword, jumped down from his horse and took his place in the center of the fiery ring. The light of the flames played off his twisted features and made him look like some terrible creature risen from the pits of Elmorran.
"Enter into the Circle," he hissed.
Gideone started forward, but he was stopped by Stavros who grabbed him by the arm and said, "No, Your Highness. ‘Tis wickedness."
“Unhand me.” The prince pulled his arm from Stavros’ grasp. He started once more toward the Circle, but as he did so, a huge cry broke out from within the surrounding trees. Scores of arrows shot out from the cover of the foliage. Abiel screamed in fury at this unexpected attack and ran toward the trees. He had almost reached them when he was suddenly thrown back by some unseen magic force. With a snarl of rage, he hurled himself once more toward them only to be thrown back again, this time with such force that his head struck the ground and he was knocked unconscious.
"To the trees! To the trees!" unseen voices cried. Gideone, Stavros and Vayan did as they were urged.
From the darkness of the forest cover they looked back out. In the light of the fire which still burned, they saw the fifteen magicians–sorely pressed by their unseen attackers–pick up their unconscious leader and ride away as quickly as possible.
As the enemy disappeared, the three men turned and looked around for those who had lent them aid. For a moment all was silent. Then, slowly, with scarcely a rustling of leaves, figures walked out from the darkness of the shadows into the soft light of the moon. Scores and scores there were, their faces small and delicate, their eyes large and light-colored, and their ears pointed. The tallest of them measured only slightly more than five feet. Their long, light-colored hair moved slightly in the soft breeze.
One of them stepped forward. From his long, light brown hair hung the claws and teeth of a dozen different woodland animals. He looked upon them with eyes that were the lightest, clearest color of blue imaginable., and with a voice which, though soft, could be clearly heard, he said, "I am Chzaros, king of the elves of Raia-Torell. Welcome to my kingdom."