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Wilderness: Book One - The Forest (Chapter One - How It All Began)

Colin Frayn
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The last few rays of sunlight had now slipped well beneath the western horizon, and countless specks of light began once more to decorate the blanket of darkness overhead. The stars gave a certain enchantment to the forest, one that was unnerving to those who were not accustomed to its mystical allure. Especially to those who knew little of what lay in the darkness ahead, shrouded by the menacing trees and ensnaring undergrowth.

It was almost five days now since he had left the comfortable, safe atmosphere of his home town of Tarnadon to explore the forbidden wilderness of the eastern forests. No one really knew what lay within, despite the drunken claims of the occasional world-wearied adventurer. Tales of even the bravest of warriors meeting their doom at the hands of cruel, deformed hobgoblins, or malicious ogres sent a shiver down the spine of the young adventurer. The eastern forests had claimed the lives of many who, like he, felt sure that they would be immune to its deadly grasp.

This particular adventurer was a young man by the name of Tarok Gallantin. He was eighteen years of age, and a very bright and promising young man in many respects. During the past few months, he had been too busy studying for his apprenticeship to the college of magic in the neighbouring town of Starksvil, to even contemplate such a foolhardy enterprise as this. Sadly, he was not awarded a place due to his haphazard approach to the mystic arts. His steadily increasing knowledge had begun to lead him into more dangerous areas and his teachers considered him too much of a risk. One particularly old wizard had delivered the verdict of the interview panel, his face sombre and stern, wrinkled by relentless time and the unforgiving drain of powerful magics. "Only when you have learnt and accepted the traditional methods of learning, Mr Gallantin, will you truly be ready for the disciplined life of study that awaits you. For now, I can only advise you to return to your books and work diligently."

Tarok had smiled politely, left the room, walked to the centre of the courtyard, and cast off his academic robes in a flurry of anger, trampling them into the dry, dusty ground. Then he turned to face the startled onlookers, nodded politely to them, and walked calmly out of the College of Magic, never to pass through its gates again. After this almighty failure, Tarok knew that formal schooling was not for him. He had no need of teachers with their monotonous drills and exercises. Even less still, he decided, did he require the relentless piles of books and the seemingly endless hours of study. He could teach himself! How hard could it be? After all, someone somewhere must have invented all of these magical incantations without a teacher. Somebody must have worked them out for the first time without laboratory classes and free from the tedious shackles of college life.

The benefits, he convinced himself, were real and tangible. He could miss out all the useless spells and go straight on to the more interesting and impressive ones. He could learn the spells he had been told about in innumerable exaggerated tales. Tales of goblins, dragons, elves and the like. Tales of magical adventures in lands so different to his own that he could barely imagine their beauty. Tales of bravery and heroism unparalleled in the world he knew. How many times had he sat daydreaming behind his desk, recalling the legends, the powers he had heard so much about from adventurers' tales throughout the years? This, he realised, was a junction in his life. A time to assess what he had achieved and what he wanted to achieve. He found his life so far severely lacking.

Just a few days ago he had removed his savings from under the floorboards, sold his textbooks and most of the old junk that had been lying around in his house ever since he had left home. He packed a few clothes and a limited number of treasured personal possessions and set off on a new chapter of his life. With the small purse full of coins that he had collected over the years, he bought a brand new empty spell book in which he could write his new spells. He also bought a vastly more interesting textbook; "Teach Yourself Elementary Sorcery - 4th Edition." This had a picture of a powerful wizard on the front, casting some bright bolt of lightning towards an unidentified fearsome two-headed monster. This was a book for real wizards. Wizards who didn't take any sort of nonsense from foul man-eating creatures. Wizards who could walk freely through the deepest, darkest dungeons with nothing to fear. The kind of heroes who were remembered in adventurers' tales and bards' songs, not in textbooks or on tombstones.

With his few remaining coins, Tarok purchased a lamp, some sturdy shoes and rations enough for a few weeks. His preparations complete, he said his goodbyes to the town he loved, and set off on a journey in which he would endeavour to prove his skill and ability, whatever the cost.

Maybe the Eastern Forests were not such a good choice, for Tarok had very little practice at orienteering, and was not a particularly accomplished explorer. Besides, all those stories about terrifying monsters frightened him a little, though he would never admit that even to himself. Nevertheless, he carried on, trying to reassure himself that these myths were all wondrous exaggerations, and that he was perfectly safe. Unknown to him, neither of these statements was true. Ignorance, though far from being bliss, conferred him at least with a certain false confidence which was probably the only thing stopping him from turning and fleeing as fast as his legs could carry him away from this accursed place.

As Tarok walked onwards through the forest, the nearby branches seemed almost to reach out and grab at his clothes and rucksack. The unfamiliar scenery and sounds were making him more than a little uneasy. Moreover, the dancing beams of moon light which filtered through the tree-tops were playing tricks in his mind, and the shadows seemed to writhe evilly behind gnarled oak trees and tall, imposing pines.

It was nearing evening now and Tarok's feet were beginning to ache from another long day's walking. If he didn't find a suitable shelter soon he would have to do the unthinkable and turn back towards home. However, it did seem as if the trees were thinning slightly, though Tarok was not sure how much of this was real and how much was just his imagination playing tricks on him to help him forget where he was. He pressed on forwards, timidly parting the undergrowth and peering nervously ahead. Even the trees themselves were different here to anything he had seen back at home. There were no bright, juicy fruit ready to be picked. Not even a few sweet berries concealed in the undergrowth. All was rough, hard, spiny and unyielding.

Tarok followed the thinning trees and before long, to his great relief, the parting branches revealed a small clearing amongst the forest's foreboding walls. This was a sanctuary, at least in his mind. After so many long days of walking in fear, he finally felt safe from the evil creatures that he imagined hiding behind the nearby branches, waiting to pounce as soon as he returned to the darkness of the trees. Tarok looked around, examining his surroundings. Numerous small, reflective eyes peered up at him from the grassy floor, and scattered as soon as the rays from his lantern shone in their direction. They looked harmless, though from his experiences so far he was not going to take that risk. Tarok carefully dropped his heavy pack to the floor, unpacked a bottle of water and took a large mouthful. It was warm and bitter. He swallowed it with a grimace, then put the bottle back.

A few eyes reappeared from the shelter of the undergrowth, timidly returning to their foraging spots. Kneeling down, and moving as silently as he could, Tarok cautiously approached the creatures, trying not to frighten them away. They intrigued him. They were similar to many of the creatures he had seen in Tarnadon, but yet adapted to live in the darkness of the forest floor. They had almost certainly never seen a human before and Tarok was probably not the best ambassador for his species. He managed to get within a few feet of one of the rodents and was justifiably proud of his stalking abilities when, all of a sudden, they all scampered off into the cover of the forest and left him alone once more.

Tarok shook his head dejectedly, resigned to yet another failure. The latest in a long line as far as he was concerned. "Oh well," he muttered to himself, "I guess I must seem strange to them." Come to think of it, he seemed strange to most everyday folk. Wizards generally did. It was a fact in which most of them revelled but Tarok was never quite what you could call conventional. Whereas his other friends in college would often shut themselves in libraries with books for days on end, Tarok still relished the outdoor life. He used to enjoy very much the games he would play with his friends as a child back in Tarnadon. Those days were gone now, as one by one his childhood friends moved on to new adult lives elsewhere. Some became farmers, some builders and carpenters. Some even joined the army. Tarok became a magician. He was quite the most popular young man to be found for a while, until the novelty wore off and his friends became more interested with money and marriage.

After his childhood days were long gone, Tarok became more dedicated to his chosen course of study, though there was always a place at the back of his mind where the happy, carefree days of his youth still remained.

Tarok snapped back out of his daydreaming, and stood up. He was ready to wander off and check around his chosen campsite when he heard a noise in the bushes to the north. He stopped dead for a moment, and then scrambled for his lantern, drawing the cover down to block off the light. Then he crouched down perfectly still once more. As his eyes began to become more accustomed to the darkness, Tarok tried to peer through the shadows to determine the source of the disturbance. There was some kind of creature over in the undergrowth. Presumably that was what had frightened off the animals. Perhaps it was a wild boar, or a roving badger. Maybe it was an ogre. He shuddered.

As he stood there, absolutely motionless, two hooded figures walked by in the shadows of the trees. They seemed human, but they were clothed in rags, and walked with a strange kind of limp. As one of them passed near him, it stopped still and curiously peered round. Tarok covered the lantern even more, taking care not to extinguish it completely. He held his breath and his heart pounded ferociously. As the figure turned, Tarok caught a glimpse of its face in a glancing shaft of moonlight. It was a harsh, cruel visage. Whatever it was, it certainly wasn't human - more orcish or perhaps goblinoid. Tarok had only heard of these foul creatures, and never in his wildest dreams did he ever expect to see one for real. His heart began to pound steadily heavier, until eventually the figure turned and walked away once more.

The frightened young wizard let out a muffled sigh of relief as the cloaked creatures passed harmlessly by. Whatever they were he wasn't in a hurry to find out, so he promptly turned around and set off again in the opposite direction, stooping to pick up his bag as quietly as possible. There was a shriek from directly in front of him, and the young wizard stepped back in shock. Two more of the creatures were standing less than five yards away, spears raised ready to strike. He could now pick out their rough green skin. They weren't human at all! In fact they looked to him like hobgoblins. Vicious, cruel and thoroughly evil. Tarok staggered backwards.

His heart pounded even more than before. This was the stuff of adventuring and he didn't like it one little bit. He waved his staff around in front of him in an attempt to frighten off his attackers but they didn't seem afraid. They thrust their spears ferociously in his direction and he was forced to back off some more.

Tarok didn't much fancy his chances in combat against the two creatures, which left him with little choice. He was going to have to try one of his limited selection of spells. A rustle in the bushes over to his left revealed the two creatures, which had passed him earlier. These were looking even more dangerous wielding crudely shaped swords and wearing rusty daggers by their belts.

The foul creatures gathered together, and muttered to each other in their own, primitive language. They were probably deciding Tarok's fate and the wizard could do nothing at all to prevent whatever they had in store for him. An evil smile crossed their faces, and one began chuckling as he examined his blade. They turned around, and began to close in. Tarok looked on in horror. He muttered to himself, cursing his bad luck "Stupid! Stupid! Why didn't you stay at home in Tarnadon where it was safe? No, you couldn't just be patient, you had to come here and get yourself killed!" Tarok tried to remember one of his spells, but he couldn't. He could only remember how to animate wooden dolls and levitate coins. These feeble tricks would hardly help him here! He stepped further backwards towards the bushes. He felt a sharp jab in his shoulder as he pressed into a thorny branch of a tree. He spun round, then back as the hobgoblins advanced. Tarok took a wild swipe with his staff, and the creatures stepped away, then towards him, pressing him uncomfortably up against the tree.

Tarok quickly looked about him. Brambles behind, hobgoblins in front. The sides were looking pretty hopeless too. Even if he managed to escape these creatures now, they would surely catch up with him. Tarok thrust his staff out once more to the nearest creature who returned with a swipe of his sword, narrowly missing the wizard's right shoulder.

The hobgoblins closed in further and Tarok's fate seemed finally decided. He swung his staff at the creatures once more but he was unable to fend them off. One of the hobgoblins advanced, sword aloft ready to strike. It gave a blood-curdling battle cry, charging at the hapless wizard. Suddenly there was a slicing sound, followed by a thud. A look of shock covered the hobgoblin's face. The evil creature staggered and fell forwards onto the floor in front of Tarok's feet, an arrow firmly lodged in its back.

Tarok breathed heavily in shock, and the other hobgoblins backed off in panic. A second arrow came whistling past, piercing the arm of another of the creatures, which dropped its sword and let out a terrifying yell. The remaining creatures fled as fast as they could, off into the undergrowth away from the bewildered young wizard. Their screams died away behind the curtain of blackness and disappeared into depths of the forest.

Tarok's heart was beating furiously. There was a rustle in the branches above as a bat flew off into the night. Tarok drew a few long breaths, and began to calm down. Before long, the leaves had settled once more and all trace of the skirmish was gone. Tarok glanced down at the lifeless corpse of his stricken attacker. He poked it with his staff, but there was no movement left in the evil creature. All about was totally still.

Tarok breathed a heavy sigh of relief, and then stood up straight, carefully scanning his surroundings. He looked around cautiously for the source of his unexpected redemption, but could see nothing. All the nocturnal forest dwellers cowered in the shadows away from the violent commotion, their eyes peering timidly towards the young wizard. Tarok checked the trees once more, and then stepped over the dead hobgoblin, and towards the centre of the clearing. Suddenly there was a rustle in the trees, and Tarok gasped as a cloaked figure dropped out a few yards away from him, dropping gracefully to the floor with barely a sound.

Tarok raised his staff once more, but soon lowered it when he caught a closer glimpse of the cloaked stranger standing before him. This one was almost human, but of slim build and slightly pointed ears, rather like those of an elf. Moreover, he was a good four or five inches shorter than the wizard, dressed in leather armour and a well camouflaged cloak. He carried a short bow slung over one shoulder, and in his right hand was a crude looking knife, fashioned seemingly from a short length of wood bound to a simple metal blade. Tarok soon realised by the kindly face before him that he was in no danger. He also guessed that the creature standing before him was a half-elf. That is to say he was partly elven, and partly human. Tarok had heard legends of forest elves, but had never seen one. He didn't really give this much thought as he was just glad to be alive.

"Who are you?" Tarok asked the stranger. There was no reply, as the new companion could equally well have asked the same question of the wizard. Tarok asked again, "Who are you? Do you understand my language?" The stranger peered deep into Tarok's eyes, frowning gently. He appeared to be examining him with a cautious look of interest. It was a kind gaze, but yet so very deep and penetrating with his chestnut brown eyes and finely chiselled facial features. After a pause, the stranger answered in a calm, gentle voice.

"I am Carek Thornwind." His voice was quiet, but firm. It had a strong, unrecognisable accent. Carek continued, "Why have you come here?"

Tarok replied, "My name is Tarok Gallantin. My home is the town of Tarnadon many miles to the west of here. I am an adventurer." His new companion smiled at this.

"You are a very fortunate man, Tarok Gallantin," continued the stranger in his almost lyrical voice. "If I had not been following those hobgoblins you might even now be lying dead on the forest floor. Why are you travelling alone in this place?"

Tarok sighed, took a deep breath, and then began to tell Carek about his misfortune, and his quest. He spoke of his plans to rid the eastern forests of evil creatures, and prove himself as a wizard. The half-elf listened patiently as Tarok's foolhardy exploits were laid before him. Tarok tried to make his journey sound noble, and even wise, but it was clear that Carek could see straight through his false veneer. His story over, Tarok turned to his companion and awaited a reply, though he already knew what it would be. Carek frowned.

"If you are a wizard," he began, "then why did you not protect yourself from those hobgoblins with your magic?" he asked.

"Because," started Tarok, pausing to contemplate his own stupidity, "Because I am not very good at what I do. I am a failure. I aim to improve my skills out here in the wild, but I suppose I have a great deal yet to learn." Carek smiled as if to agree with the wizard's reluctant self-assessment.

"Come with me," said the half-elf, "Let's get some rest. It is already growing dark, and these forests are much more dangerous at night." Tarok could not disagree, so collected his backpack and followed Carek away from the clearing and into the undergrowth. He was still tired, but had recovered well from his fatigue with the excitement of such an unlikely meeting. Carek led the way into the forest, sliding effortlessly through the trees. They walked for about half an hour until they reached another clearing, and a small collection of huts and tree houses, all seemingly deserted.

The huts were arranged in a small ring of varying sizes. Some were smaller, barely large enough for one person, whereas one was significantly larger with a set of polished wooden steps leading up to the door. All the buildings seemed to be fashioned of the same bronzed wood, which looked as if it had survived a great many generations. There were a handful of smaller structures scattered about, and a few piles of firewood and charcoal built up inside what looked to be some kind of storage shed. There was an eerie silence about the place, with which Tarok could not identify. Somehow this place seemed detached from the forest around it, despite its obvious proximity. Presumably these huts had once all been occupied, but it seemed that many of them had not seen any living occupants for many years.

Carek looked around the camp, and then turned to Tarok with a wistful look in his eyes. "Home," he said. "Here you may rest safely for the night, and then tomorrow we might see how we can get you back on your journey." Tarok smiled and nodded. "I thank you for your hospitality, sir. First I owe you my life, and now a night's lodging." Carek said nothing, but instead wandered over towards the centre of the clearing where he had stacked up a few dry logs ready to start a fire. He produced a tinderbox from inside his cloak, and slowly but expertly generated a flame which soon caught the thin, dry sticks and before long built into a warming blaze.

Carek spoke once more to his new companion, "Come, sit down here and warm yourself. I'll prepare some food and you can tell me a little more about yourself." Carek wandered off towards one of the smaller huts, and started rummaging around inside. Tarok sat down next to the crackling fire, and began to retrieve a few bits and pieces from his backpack. He pulled out his diary, a pen and a pot of ink. This would certainly make for an interesting entry! He began to write the date and the first few words when he was startled by a noise from behind him.

"Is that today? Today's date?" Tarok breathed a relieved sigh. "Yes, that's today. Or at least I think it is. I've been away for several days now but I doubt even I could have lost track so soon!" Tarok laughed, and his companion smiled uneasily. "Oh, and by the way you should really warn people before you sneak up on them like that! You gave me quite a fright!"

Carek nodded. It seemed that he had not shared a joke with anyone for quite some time. He looked strained by the emotion, as if it were a stranger to him. He looked away from Tarok, and then threw a few lumps of meat onto the fire, sending a shower of sparks spiralling up towards the night sky. After a few moments of silence, he spoke again. "I always wished that I'd kept track of the seasons, but as a young child I had other things on my mind." Tarok looked up from his diary and frowned. The flickering firelight danced around the pair of them then for a few moments, lighting Carek's face briefly before leaving him once more in shadow. Tarok decided that he really ought to find out more about his enigmatic new friend.

"So you're alone then?" began the wizard. "There's no-one else here with you?"

Carek looked away briefly. This was something that he'd never had to tell anyone before. Something that he had necessarily kept to himself in his own solitude. Vivid memories still danced around his mind as he thought about that fateful day so long ago. He looked back towards his innocent young friend and smiled another cautious, sympathetic smile. "I've been alone here for many years. By rights, it is a miracle that I'm still alive. The forest must have developed a liking to me for some reason!"

Carek smiled for a fleeting moment, and then his expression grew more serious. He lowered his head, and avoided Tarok's inquisitive gaze. Nervously he poked the fire with a loose stick, and then finally looked back towards the wizard with sorrowful eyes.

"My parents were killed about ten years ago, along with the rest of the community. It was ogres. A horde of them; ten, fifteen perhaps, I don't really remember too well. I've tried my best to forget." Tarok bowed his head. "They captured all of the villagers. Those who the beasts did not slay in combat they crushed with their clubs as they knelt pleading for mercy. Some were burnt alive in their own huts. Children were torn from their parents' hands and killed in front of them. My family… my friends were all slain. Their bodies were strewn about before me, their blood stained this very ground. The creatures ransacked the huts, took what they needed and vanished into the forest."

Tarok shuddered. It was a gruesome tale indeed, and he could see tears welling up in his young companion's eyes. Against his better judgement, he enquired more about the young half-elf's brutal fate.

"Where were you then? How did you escape?"

Carek looked up. "I was only a small child. My parents saw the ogres attack, and managed to hide me under the house so that the beasts would not find me. There was only space for one child, so they could not hide themselves. My father put up a brave fight, badly injuring a few of the beasts, but inevitably the ogres were too strong, and swept through the entire village. No one survived. The ogres burnt and destroyed many of the huts, and then left as suddenly as they had arrived. I lay frozen under the hut for hours, not daring to venture out in case the creatures were hiding in the undergrowth, waiting to kill me too. But they never returned. I was left at the heart of a devastated village, shivering with fear and grief. Lying all around me were the bodies of those most dear to me; my family, friends, neighbours…."

"I'm sorry, I … I don't really know what to say." Tarok had never encountered such emotions before. This kind of tragedy was more than any young child could possibly have comprehended. The wizard was totally lost for words.

Carek spoke again. "I can still remember their faces - the pity and the sorrow. I was only young so I couldn't fully appreciate the horror of it then, but I do remember the feeling of total helplessness." Tarok nodded, and looked around him, trying to imagine that fateful day. Carek continued "After I had buried all the bodies that the ogres left, I spent several weeks hardly knowing where I was, nor what I was to do. The sheer terror of the situation began to piece itself together in my mind. I had to bring myself up, and teach myself how to fight. Learn how to use the bow and spear. Feed myself every day for the rest of my childhood without anyone to show me what to do, nor how to do it. For a while I wished that the ogres had taken me too, but … well elves have a strong belief in fate. I was spared for a reason."

This used to be what Tarok had wanted. To live his life exactly how he pleased, without tuition, without rules and regulations. He was rapidly beginning to change his mind. Carek managed to wipe those thoughts once more from his memory. "It was a hard struggle, but I kept at it, and that's why I'm alive today." He turned to Tarok and smiled, "Maybe if you keep at your wizardry, you will one day be able to defend yourself. Maybe you will become a truly powerful mage!" The half-elf stood up and wandered away from the fire towards one of the huts where he kept his belongings.

Tarok admired his new friend's courage, and also relished the incentive to continue his hard work and keep up with his training to become a wizard. As they were eating dinner that night, Tarok made up his mind to work with his books all of the following day and to learn a new, and slightly more useful spell for his arsenal. Carek's tale had given him all the encouragement that he needed. It gave him more than the dangers of the forests could ever have done.

"We must get some sleep now," suggested Carek, "You can help me catch a boar for supper tomorrow if you like!" That idea rather appealed to Tarok, who had not eaten a good meal in days. "Yes" he replied excitedly, "I would like that very much. I owe you a great deal, my friend, and I hope that some day I will be able to repay my debt." Carek smiled, but had no reply. He walked quietly over to his hut, opened the door, and entered, leaving Tarok outside on his own with the remaining embers of the fire glowing red in the centre of the dark, lonely clearing.

Tarok looked around the huts, admiring them and trying to picture the camp before the ogres came. The forest seemed so much safer now that he had found someone who knew his surroundings well, but the dark, mysterious trees still doubtless held many dangers. Tarok put these thoughts quickly to the back of his mind, and found a nearby hut in which he could set up a few blankets and lie down for the night.

Tarok settled down on his makeshift mattress, and gazed out of the window, up to the stars. "What if I can become a good wizard?" He muttered quietly to himself. "What if I can teach myself the art of magic?" He lay back and considered the idea for a while. "This expedition will surely be more useful to me than all the endless hours of study back at home." Tarok was right, and he knew it. He had come this far, and survived. Now would be the time to take the initiative and learn something new. Carek believed that fate had spared him from the ogres. Now Tarok had himself been spared from a similar cruel death. Surely that was a good enough incentive.

Tarok lay back, closed his weary eyes, and soon fell into a deep and surprisingly comfortable sleep.


WILDERNESS : Book 1 - The Forest Chapter 1 - How it all began © Colin Frayn

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