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Wilderness: Book One - The Forest (Chapter Nine - The First Test)

Colin Frayn
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After the excitement of the previous night's celebration feast, none of the group particularly relished the thought of returning to the task before them. They now had a safe wall surrounding their forest home, but much remained to be done over the coming weeks. The tower was the next stage to be built, and it was certainly going to provide a great number of problems.

Tarok and Doragon spent hours working out the exact dimensions of the posts required and the size of the foundations. They argued incessantly amongst themselves, knowing how vital it was that they got this stage absolutely right. Doragon wanted to build the tower slightly shorter so that it would be stronger and more stable. Tarok disagreed, preferring instead a good view over the surrounding forest. The tower needed to withstand a strong assault from a hefty ogre or two, but if it were too short then it would not be so useful. Carek and Athena were glad to leave their two friends to finalise the plans while they sorted out the raw materials.

Tarok spent some of his time helping to supervise the work that was being done, but still allocated the majority to studying. He passed many hours learning exciting new spells, and even longer perfecting those that he already knew. He was very pleased with the way that the display had gone the previous night, though he still wasn't sure that he could ever actually summon such powerful magic when it really mattered. Being able to cast spells in a relaxed environment was one thing; under pressure, it became an entirely different skill. A good wizard needed to remain focused, relax and channel the energies through his body in complete calm whilst arrows darted through the air all about him, and slicing blades pierced deep into enemy hides amidst a cacophony of deafening roars and battle cries.

The greatest of wizards had nerves of steel, able to ignore all but the most annoying of distractions. They were completely single-minded and unswervingly focused. Tarok remembered the teachers at his old magic school. They never appeared to pay attention to anything going on around them, yet were completely aware of all but the tiniest events. It was a difficult situation for a young student as your every move was being subtly followed without you even knowing. Tarok had been forced to invent new, more intelligent ways of passing notes, and more often met with failure than success. At least it forced him to be creative, which was a valuable skill that most of his peers lacked.

Tarok had been broadening his skills recently. It was all too tempting to keep trying new and more spectacular battle spells when a far wiser plan would have been to keep perfecting the spells that he already knew, and perhaps learn some more peaceful ones too. Just like his spell to create water, one could never be too sure when they would come in useful! Having a more varied arsenal of spells at his disposal certainly didn't make Tarok more powerful directly, but it increased his options. Often the key to winning a fight, as he had proved, was just to find the right tactic. The young wizard was pleased with the spells that he had learnt, and he was beginning to master yet stronger ones ready for the upcoming months. Looking through his books, however, he found out that the spells that he had learnt were positively feeble in comparison to those available to much more powerful wizards. It would be a long time before he could summon these great magical powers, but he knew that some day he would be strong enough, and this thought gave him extra enthusiasm to keep learning.

Though they had only known each other for a short time, Carek's hatred of the ogres was beginning to rub off on the other three members of the group. It was a powerful emotion. This joint enemy created a focus for the group's aggression, and helped the four of them to grow much stronger together. It cemented friendships and gave them a common goal in life. They had now met their foe, and knew how dangerous these creatures truly were. The ogres could not be allowed to remain in the forest, endangering all who lived within. Even Doragon, who until now had always prided himself in remaining neutral to most conflicts, was beginning to harbour a serious dislike for the beasts. The group would joke around the fire at night, making light of their dangerous encounters. It was a serious matter, but injecting a little humour into the situation seemed to help them to cope with their predicament.

Doragon was so keen to prove himself to the group that he had been practising his fighting skills, preparing for the next encounter. He used his short-sword to chop the smaller branches from the trees to be used for the tower. He spent a great deal of time carrying around heavy logs in the hope that he could get stronger and be of more help to the others in combat. He was rather disappointed that he was the only one who could offer little in times of battle, and had so far been given very few chances to really show off his other skills to the group. However, he was a master of the sneak attack, and would surely be of great use if another ambush scenario ever arose. He was eagerly awaiting an opportunity to prove his worth to the group, for so far he had only offered advice and guidance. Though he had fought courageously in the ogre battle, it was inevitably Tarok's plan, and Carek and Athena's fierce fighting prowess that had won the day.

The fort was beginning to near completion, and certain members of the group were becoming more than a little bit tired of all the hard work. Tarok, too, was growing extremely weary from his many long hours of study and practice. Magic was truly a physically draining profession to pursue. What he needed more than anything else was a holiday away from all his books. As soon as the fort was completed, he decided to take a break from the hard work and explore the surrounding forest. Carek decided that their best hope would be the old monolith over to the south. It lay only a few miles away, but Carek had never really explored it properly. Rumours from his youth spoke of a band of orcs living deep down in the dungeons underneath that building. They would become a fearsome enemy if left to grow in strength and numbers. Tarok rather liked that story, though he doubted its authenticity. Either way, this would be a proper adventure, just like those that he had so often read about in his youth.

Doragon had other things on his mind. Helping out in the forest was one thing, but he still had a secret desire to go and hunt for some real treasure. He hoped that there would be money down in the orc lair, should such a place exist. Maybe he would find gems and jewellery. Doragon's heart warmed at the thought, his deeply ingrained halfling instincts showing through. Orcs were well known as master thieves, raiding caravans all the way along the main trade routes through this part of the kingdom. The raids were especially serious towards the east where the orc presence grew stronger. They were equal opportunity bandits, stealing from the rich and the poor alike. All they really wanted were goods of value, which they could use to trade for weapons and armour from their allies such as the ogres.

Carek fondly told tales of the times when his father would go out exploring with town members and bring back stories of orc hunting tribes wielding vicious scimitars and such like. It was enough to stir up the most reluctant of adventurers, and even Tarok was beginning to get quite a taste for the excitement of forest life. Orcs were tough opponents, but compared to ogres they didn't seem quite so frightening any more. The group had grown in strength greatly since they first met. Carek began to wonder about his future. Would there be a time when even ogres seemed like feeble opponents? That would be a great day, and he wondered about the fantastic adventures they would then plan to strange places and mystical, faraway lands. Lands of dragons and giants, ruled from palaces of shimmering white stone. Lands where battling armies clashed on mountainous plateaux. He would learn about magic, and monsters more ancient even than the elves and dwarves. He would return laden with treasure and gifts, the crowds lining the streets awaiting his homecoming.

Was this all just a search for fame and fortune then? Was that all he wanted in life? He knew it wasn't, but right now it was an enticing thought. He was the last of the forest elves; he had a duty to perform right there in the eastern forest. The trees could not show their gratitude, nor line his path with expensive carpets, but the reward for him was much more than that. The reward was the knowledge that his life had made a difference. He didn't need the adulation of crowds of humans whose lives could not possibly be more removed from his actions. No, he was happier to know that his work actually had an effect not just on the lives of those immediately around him, but also on the lives of all the forest creatures, far and wide. Few men could truly make their mark on a kingdom, but Carek was ready to do just that.

Carek snapped out of his daydream, and returned to the topic at hand. If this monolith were to be explored then it would be the first real test for the group in a proper combat situation. They would be able to find out just how good they really were under pressure and, with a little luck, they would return with more than just tales of bloodthirsty orc warriors and countless hard-fought battles. The ogre fight gave them a lot of useful experience, and they now knew that they could use their brains to help them to win in many situations where brawn alone was not enough. Whilst they still accepted that they were too weak to take on any of the more dangerous forest creatures, they knew that they would be able to train hard as soon as the fort was completed, and then begin to adventure in the surrounding forests. Athena wanted to find out what was making some of the more frightening noises during the night, although Carek assured her that she would probably prefer to remain ignorant. They could all build up fitness and strength by practising around the fort. Tarok could even rehearse his spells to his heart's content, but they knew that the only way that they were really going to improve was by doing more fighting. Real fighting with real monsters. Important though the building work was, it was nothing compared to adventuring. They now had a taste of the adrenaline of combat, and at least one or two of them wanted some more.

After the first three days of work on the tower, the foundations had been dug and the four corner posts had been carefully dropped into place. It required all of their strength, and an elaborate system of ropes and pulleys devised by Tarok. It took only a couple of days before the ground floor walls were in place too, leaving a gap facing towards the courtyard for the door. Work began on the ground floor roof, which was still a little low down for Tarok's liking, but he knew that it could not afford to be any higher. They knew that work would slow down over the next few days, as they would need to erect some kind of scaffolding to reach the upper levels. They also needed to think about building the ladders needed to give access to each level. For now, though, they would all do their best to climb around as well as they could.

Work continued for the next few days, and the floors began to take shape one by one. Scaffolding was erected round the sides of the growing wooden structure, and many sturdy wooden beams were fixed together carefully and accurately in the strongest way possible. Tarok had ensured that the framework of the tower would allow it to withstand a significant force, and he still had one or two tricks up his sleeve. By three weeks after work on the tower had started, the ground floor, first floor and second floor had been built and all that remained unfinished were the battlements at the top.

Tarok admired the work as it was going on and had begun to prepare a spectacular display for the feast of completion. The tower would be very useful for his star-gazing, as well as casting spells and firing arrows at the advancing enemy. This was not just Carek's job any more, but it also belonged to Athena, whose crossbow skills were improving greatly. She tried to take an hour or so off each day to practise firing bolts at targets on trees. Indeed, she even accompanied Carek on what must have been the noisiest hunting trip the forest had heard for some time. It wasn't really a surprise that Carek had to return on his own a while later, and met with a little more success.

Tarok wanted to learn a few spells to fortify the walls, but they were far too difficult for him to master just then. He did however suggest to Carek to make a few pit traps around the fort perimeter. Doragon had the idea of digging a moat, and then filling it with water using Tarok's create water spell. If Tarok could fill a few buckets at a time then the moat would not take too long to fill. Assuming it didn't all drain away, that was. Some sort of waterproofing was probably going to be needed. They planned a yard-wide causeway at the entrance. It was decided that this would be a lot easier than trying to make some sort of makeshift drawbridge, which in the end, would probably prove more trouble than it was worth. They could even line the side of the causeway with wooden posts to keep it from crumbling away. This fort was to be as strong as possible. They didn't want to spend the rest of their lives repairing it, after all.

The tower was completed at noon, exactly three weeks after the first foundations had been dug. The group ate lunch at the top of the battlements, admiring the view, which, as they all admitted, was truly spectacular. They could just see over the top of most of the neighbouring trees, and gazed down the valley across a carpet of greenery as far as the horizon in every direction. Carek had never before been able to survey his surroundings with such ease. He remembered first climbing trees when he was younger, and gazing out over the valley towards the river. He remembered staring at the clouds and just wishing that he could fly up there and look down on his home. Now he was above the treetops, and could just stand there and admire the view. The forest took on a strikingly different appearance from up there. The trees seemed so mellow and peaceful, though Carek knew that the canopy of leaves concealed many sinister dangers below. Somewhere under that vast blanket of green lay an ogre lair, brimming with evil.

They had decided to leave the feast for that evening, giving Tarok enough time to prepare his best spells. The night promised to be beautifully clear and Tarok spent the whole afternoon perfecting his magical display. Doragon asked to accompany Carek on the hunting trip, and they set off to find a deer to roast. Doragon had been practising moving silently through the forest, and found that he was able to move almost as quietly as Carek now. His diminutive stature helped greatly, and he was by far the lightest member of the group. He also had very keen ears, and was eager to learn as much as he could from his half-elf friend, whom he greatly admired. Quite how Carek managed to remain so silent was a mystery to the halfling. Carek was probably twice his weight, and over a foot taller. Doragon watched his friend's delicate footsteps as he stepped carefully through the undergrowth. Then those same footsteps delivered a deadly burst of speed as soon as the first arrow struck home. Carek dropped his bow, and then sprinted off through the trees with his dagger ready to strike the final blow.

The hunt was successful, and the two friends returned to the fort with a young deer slung over their shoulders. They carried it between them into the courtyard, and laid it down in the centre where Tarok was preparing a fire. Athena was especially impressed, remembering her own failed hunting trip before. Her vocation, she realised, was to remain and defend the fort.

Later that afternoon, the four tired adventurers sat around in the courtyard, discussing the tower, the fort and the progress they had made so far. All was peaceful in the fort, and the group were beginning to forget the true purpose of their efforts. Carek was excited that he would soon have a strong, well-protected home to live in. Tarok was practising his spells, and Doragon was tending to the meal. Athena climbed the tower to have another look around the forest that had become such a wonderful home for her. Doragon was just beginning to turn the meat over when there was a yell from the battlements. He glanced upwards to where a figure was waving frantically towards him. It was Athena calling out to her three friends. "To arms!" Her strong voice resounded throughout the fort. "Hobgoblins attacking from the north!"

Carek quickly jumped to his feet, and rushed up to the top of the tower in lightning speed. There were half a dozen of the creatures, still stalking the outskirts of the clearing. This gave Carek enough time to take aim and shot two arrows into the nearest of the foul beasts. The startled hobgoblin fell to the ground in a heap. Athena's first shot missed, and she knelt down behind the battlements to load another. Tarok rushed up the ladders to join his friends, and cast one of the spells that he had been learning for the party. A cloud of smoke rose from the ground beneath the hobgoblins, and they began to choke as they struggled to escape from it. Doragon rushed to shut the gate before the creatures arrived, slammed the wooden bar down firmly and stood guard behind it.

Carek let two more arrows fly, aiming for the bodies inside the cloud of smoke. He could just pick them out with his keen eyesight. The first arrow hit the ground with a thud, but the second struck one of the foul creatures, which let out a painful shriek. By now, the smoke was beginning to disperse, and Athena had loaded her crossbow ready for another shot. She took aim, and fired a quarrel, which stuck in the chest of one of the nearest hobgoblins. The creature staggered back and collapsed to the ground in a heap. A further whirl of mist surrounded Tarok as he summoned his energies to cast another spell. Tongues of flame leapt up around the clearing, and jumped out of the ground in front of the hobgoblins, forcing them back a few paces. One of the creatures tried to escape by jumping through the flames, and his tattered cloak caught alight. He rolled around on the ground to put out the scalding blaze, yelling frantically and finally ripping off his armour and running screaming back into the forest.

Only two hobgoblins apparently remained, but just as Carek was about to let loose another arrow, Doragon gave a yell. It seemed that those six were only half the force, and a further six were currently scaling the perimeter wall on the other side of the fort, hoisting each other up over the top. Carek swung round, and fired two arrows in the direction of the attack force. One missed, and the other killed one of the attackers just as it was nearing the top of the fence. It fell back with a painful shriek, falling onto the earth outside the fort walls. Athena was still struggling to load another bolt as two of the attackers managed to climb over the fence.

Carek ran down through the tower, and went to help Doragon fight off the two invaders. Athena finally loaded her crossbow and sent a bolt whistling in the direction of one of the hobgoblins that had already managed to scale the wall. She hit it in the stomach, and the foul creature fell to the floor, writhing in pain. Doragon was quick to finish the job, thrusting his sword into the injured creature's abdomen. Tarok gestured to Athena to go and help Carek and Doragon, as they were soon to be outnumbered on the ground. The wizard could offer his help from the tower just in case. Athena rushed down the ladders, and joined the melee whilst Tarok prepared himself for another spell.

There were now four hobgoblins in the courtyard, having managed to climb the outer wall. Carek rushed at one, and engaged it in combat, dropping his bow, and wielding his new spear. His first attack missed the mark, and the hobgoblin seized his chance, lunging with a dirty old short sword. Carek managed to deflect the blow off his arm, breathing a sigh of relief. He silently thanked the quick reflexes that he had managed to build up after so many years of hunting dangerous forest animals. He stood his ground and parried another thrust. Athena lunged into combat, and managed to kill her foe outright with her first strike, piercing its chest with a powerful sword blow. She had decided that for now she was more use to her friends on the ground than up the tower with her crossbow. That was true, though she had also proven how useful her new weapon could be.

Doragon, however, was not having so much luck. He spent more time dodging sword blows from his attacker than he did making any lunges of his own. One of the hobgoblins charged at him with a crude looking club in his hands. Doragon swiped with his sword, but missed hopelessly. The ugly creature got lucky, striking Doragon in the chest as the halfling was off guard. Doragon felt the weapon crushing him in the stomach. Fortunately, his armour took most of the blow, as it had done many times before. It was a trusted friend; a companion without whose help Doragon would have surely died long ago. Doragon staggered in pain, stumbling backwards and calling to Athena for help just as he managed to dodge the creature's second blow. Meanwhile, one final hobgoblin scaled the wall, and surveyed the bloody scene. Many of his comrades lay dead or dying on the floor, and a wave of anger surged through the creature's body.

Carek's next attack was more successful, and he lunged forth with all his might, impaling the creature on his sharp spear. Meanwhile, Tarok had started glowing in his familiar form and two shining darts once again appeared in his hand. They shot off, and with unnerving accuracy, hit the hobgoblin that was attacking Doragon. The relieved halfling stepped out of the way as the hobgoblin fell down next to him. He was only too grateful to finish the job with a thrust from his sharp sword. One more hobgoblin had reached the top of the fence, but quickly dropped back down again when he saw the scene on the inside.

The two remaining hobgoblins saw that they were losing and desperately tried to escape. One was quickly cut down by Carek and Athena as it fled towards the gate. The other one tried to climb back over the perimeter wall, but was rapidly felled by Doragon's sword. The halfling hurled the blade in the direction of the fleeing attacker, and much to his surprise and the admiration of his friends, got lucky. The blade stuck in the creature's back, and the hobgoblin fell back onto the dirt, pushing the sword in even further. Athena gave out a victory cheer as the last creature collapsed to the ground, breathing its last.

The battle was all over, and the fight had been emphatically won. Tarok climbed down from the tower, knocking his head on the roof in his excitement. He cursed loudly, but could not stifle a genuine laugh. He applauded his friends, and shook them firmly by the hand, one after the other. "Congratulations Athena, Doragon and Carek. A job well done, I believe." They couldn't disagree with the wizard's comment, but knew that their triumph was mainly thanks to the fort and the newly finished tower. It was a fine victory, and one of which they could be justifiably proud. The four friends assembled in the courtyard, and Carek went out of the fort door to check that there were no more hobgoblins hiding nearby. Somewhere in the distance, a painful scream could be heard, vanishing through the depths of the forest. Around the clearing, the trees were still, and Carek's keen ears could hear nothing except the excited chatter of a few forest animals, fighting for a glimpse of the fateful battlefield. The clearing declared safe, Carek wandered off to collect some herbs to help Doragon to heal. As he walked round to one side of the fort, Carek noticed the pile of logs that the hobgoblins had used to scale the perimeter fence. A deep moat would soon stop that particular attack!

As Carek was scouting the clearing, the other three victors piled up all the dead bodies outside, and then began to drag them inside the forest. Tarok was joking, "We're going to need to dig a deep grave for this lot. I do hope there aren't many more where they came from!" It was an important point though; hobgoblins smelt bad enough when they were alive, and the prospect of a dozen of their bodies lying around the fort gave the group a good incentive to get rid of them. Carek had half a mind to just drag the bodies out into the forest and let the scavengers of the night finish them off, but thought about the idea for a while, and then realised that those scavengers were perhaps not the best creatures to be attracting. Athena even jokingly suggested leaving a few heads on spikes around the fort, but this was decided to be a little too macabre.

They were all amazed how much the fort had helped them in the fight. Athena was the first to point out that if the hobgoblins had attacked a week or two earlier, before the tower and walls were finished, then they would probably have overrun the fort, and killed the four friends outright. However, it was almost certainly the building of the fort that had attracted the creatures in the first place. Word travelled quickly in the forest, even amongst its more malicious denizens. The prospect of a stronghold of brave adventurers in the centre of the forest was not one that the more intelligent of the evil creatures would particularly relish. They would think twice before attacking this particular group again!

Work continued on the fort the next day, but without Doragon, who was still healing from the battle. He was fairly badly bruised, but nothing was seriously damaged. The potion that Carek had given him was working, but only slowly. With this medicinal assistance, Doragon would probably be able to help with some of the work in a few days' time, but for the moment was still too weak. He had taken quite a nasty hit from that hobgoblin's club, and was lucky to escape with such minor injuries. Inside, however, he was a sturdy character and thoroughly detested his own incapacity. At least he had proved more useful in this battle, even though he had ultimately contributed the least. This only strengthened his resolve to train even harder as soon as he recovered from his injuries.

The work now took place inside the fort, as Carek and Athena started making the tables and chairs out of forest wood. Tarok began to mark out the inside walls, which he planned to build out of wood from the existing huts. These remaining huts were to be pulled down in the next few days in order to rebuild them to their former glory within the fort's walls. There would be a small room to be used for storage, two separate rooms in which the group would sleep and a small area for the herb garden.

The next priority after the furnishings were finished would be the moat. They had all decided after the hobgoblin attack that a moat would definitely be a good idea, and would certainly make it a lot more difficult for any creatures to scale the fort walls. The moat was to go all around the fort, four feet wide and six feet deep. The soil would be dumped around the edges of the clearing in piles, which could be turned into small gardens for Tarok, or even into lookout posts, as Athena had suggested. The problem with being completely walled-in inside the fort was that of course there was no way of looking out except for climbing the tower. The view from the tower had its blind spots, and it would be all too easy for a sufficiently cunning enemy to sneak up unnoticed.

Doragon, after a significant amount of deep consideration, had another of his infamous ideas. Plenty of time spent lying in bed, or sitting and watching the others work hard on the building, had given him time to think more carefully about the layout of the fort. All the soil, he suggested, should be collected in one place to make a small hill. This hill could be fortified, perhaps with spikes or such like, and then another small enclosure could be built on top. This lookout post could be joined to the main part of the fort by a rope bridge, allowing easier access. Everyone agreed heartily to Doragon's idea. Carek was used to climbing trees in the course of a hunt, and was well aware of the advantage a raised outpost would give.

"A wonderful idea Doragon!" enthused the half-elf. "The advantage of height has saved my life many times. However, we must remember that the ogres can climb too, and they have a much greater reach than any of us." Doragon nodded. Having a small outpost would be extremely dangerous if the ogres could separate it from the rest of the fort. Someone could easily become trapped in there, leaving them far beyond the help of those left inside. "I suggest we leave the plans to Tarok as he seems to rather enjoy the designing he's been doing." That was certainly true; the wizard had not enjoyed himself so much for years.

Tarok also spoke, "I suggest that we postpone our imminent feast, and wait instead until we have completed the entire fort. We can't risk being caught off-guard again. Next time it might not be such a small force!"

Carek seemed surprised. "You call that a small force? We just defeated twelve hobgoblins! That's three times our number!"

"Yes, but they were only hobgoblins."

Tarok stopped to think. That was the first time that he had really considered their achievement. It was true. He really was becoming stronger. He cast his mind back several weeks to his first fateful journey into the forest. How frightening the hobgoblins seemed to him then! His months of hard work were finally beginning to pay off. Tarok looked back towards his half-elf friend and grinned. Carek knew exactly what his friend was thinking: The ogres were next!


WILDERNESS : Book 1 - The Forest Chapter 9 - The First Test © Colin Frayn

Migrate Wizard: 
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