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Wilderness: Book One - The Forest (Chapter Seventeen - The Journey Begins)

Colin Frayn
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As suddenly as it had begun, the rainy season finally ended. Before long, the all-too-familiar thunderclouds had parted and the valley was treated once more to the gentle winter sun. The trees were still bare, leaving the forest sadly bleak and denuded. The bright spring growth would not appear for several weeks yet, once again restoring the trees to their true glory. This was the forest at its most vulnerable and fragile. The rains had caused much damage, but had also brought a great deal of silt along with the flooded river, enriching and fertilising the valley floor. Such was the cycle of life within the forest's cruel embrace. It gave life then took it away.

Fortunately, the rains had caused only a little damage to the structure of the fort. The tower was still standing straight, its strong foundations burrowing deep into the sodden earth. The courtyard was a mess, as Carek's drainage channels now overflowed with mud and leaves, and the fort walls were all adorned with dirty tide marks left by the receding floodwaters.

As soon as repairs had been made for the damage sustained during the rains, thoughts turned to the quest ahead for the Northern Mountains. Tarok spent a while busily planning out the route, and Doragon helped Athena to clean and prepare the dragon scales, ready to present to the dwarfs. Carek, meanwhile, was busy planning the route they would take to the north, partly using his own knowledge of that area, and partly consulting with Doragon, who had occasionally ventured in that direction during his own extensive travels. Carek's route lead across to the western ridge, and then followed the valley in a north-easterly direction for several miles before turning off and heading to the north towards the edge of the forest.

Once they reached the edge of the forest, then it was simply a matter of navigating a few miles across open fields, and then finding the main trade route towards the north which would lead them most of the way there. This was a popular route, trodden by many merchants and mercenaries looking for an easy coin in the wealthy South, as well as the occasional group of soldiers, heading north to defend against attack from the orcs.

Doragon had written only one single chapter in his book concerning the North. Considering the great wealth of history associated with the area, this seemed a little unjust. "The problem was not finding enough information," began the halfling, "but rather knowing when to stop. As soon as I began one new tale, I was suddenly faced with two dozen wonderful places to visit, and literally hundreds of fascinating people to meet. The northern lands deserved at least an entire tome of their own, and I didn't feel I could do them justice."

The orc raids had been unusually light the past few years, and many of the soldiers from all over the realms had returned home with their earnings to live a more luxurious life before the battling hordes returned. However, it was an uneasy truce. Adventurers who ventured into the Eastern lands told of significant Orcish villages with large garrisons of soldiers ready to fight. The number of soldiers in the border towns was dwindling, backed only by a small contingent of their sturdier allies. The dwarfs still fought alongside the humans occasionally, but of late, they had returned to their mountain homes, preoccupied with other business of their own.

Even the elves seemed reluctant to help their human neighbours, their kingdoms suffering enough problems of their own. For now it was reasonably peaceful, but the people of the Northern lands didn't know if the orcs were truly reducing their military operations, or just silently amassing forces for another large offensive. In the midst of such uncertainty, the people of the Northern lands continued their everyday lives, hoping to ignore the dangers which were beginning to surround them on all sides.

Once he had planned the route, Carek spent most of his time reading Tarok's vast library, and learning new spells to help him with the journey. Carek had spent quite some time over the rainy season mastering the sphere of conjuration, and after a great deal of practice, and supervision from his wizard friend, was beginning to create some impressive results. Most importantly, Carek was learning how to create food and drink, albeit in small quantities, so that he would no longer have to rely on Tarok's resources, and could instead provide for himself. His success was limited, but at least he had learnt how to create a small glass of pure water and a limited selection of fruit and berries to keep him alive if necessary.

Tarok prepared all his spells and even learnt a few new ones. He knew that he would not be able to carry his heavy spell books with him to the Northern mountains, so spent a great deal of time deciding which spells he should learn, and which would be the most useful to the group on their quest. He had to make sure that he learnt the right combination of spells, so that he had one for each situation. Carek had a much easier choice, choosing from his minimal repertoire. The majority of Tarok's books were still utterly foreign to the half-elf. He was rather like a child learning a musical instrument - he could play and memorise a few simple tunes just by copying his teacher, but when it came to the more impressive melodies, he simply couldn't read the score.

This was where Tarok's formal training helped him immensely; for he was able to record all the spells he learned in his book, and could then recall them just by reading. As he grew steadily more and more skilful, he knew that he would be able to cast more of his spells without the use of his book, but for the moment, he had to rely on it for all but the simpler incantations. There was just too much knowledge to squeeze into his brain, and sometimes he felt like he was running out of space in there, with all those endless lists of ingredients and flamboyant magical phrases.

Doragon and Athena spent quite some time putting all the valuables and furniture down into the underground room, to make sure that it was all safe. They also checked that all the bolts were secure, and that there was no sign of rust on any of the locks. They had no idea how long the trek Northwards would take, but the fort would be left empty for several weeks at least, and they had to make sure that it was as safe as possible.

The moat was full after the rains, and Tarok seemed confident that it would hold out all but the most persistent of intruders. The only way into the fort was via the main gate, but that was heavily reinforced, and covered with vicious iron spikes. The fort still seemed a little vulnerable, but Tarok had a few new tricks to try out.

Lately he had been carefully studying the art of illusion, adding yet another useful skill to his already substantial arsenal. His ultimate aim was to create some sort of illusory guard for the fort, which would continue to follow a simple pattern or set of rules even when its creator was hundreds of miles away, fighting some impossibly courageous battle. Tarok imagined schools of vicious, sharp-teethed predator fish swimming around in the moat, or perhaps the odd water snake or two. He could even create a couple of ferocious-looking ogre guards at the gate. If he got more powerful then perhaps even a dragon perched menacingly on top of the tower.

Tarok finished his checks of the fort, and returned to his room to finish planning the journey for the quest. The maps of the land in his book were all a little out of date, and he knew that the main paths would probably have changed. Carek knew how to reach the main trade route outside the forest, and Tarok planned the route from there. It wouldn't be particularly difficult - the trade route headed due north for over a hundred miles after the forest's edge, by which time the mountains would be clearly in view. The group was to aim for the small town of Lanwyn, situated just a few days' walk from the base of the mountains, and from there they would venture northwards into the dwarven realm.

The planning was complete and the four friends were truly prepared for their greatest adventure yet. That night, they gathered all that they would need for the journey, and packed it carefully into their trusty backpacks. They packed a supply of warm clothes, and some thick blankets, which would help to protect them against the harsh winter nights. Thanks to Tarok's increasing magical abilities, they no longer needed to carry food or drink with them, but could instead rely on a steady magical supply. Neither did they need to take flint and tinder for lighting fires, as a sharp click of the magician's fingers would save them half an hour's effort. Tarok's usefulness grew with each day.

The careful preparations were complete and all that remained to do was to set off along Carek's carefully chosen path, and then onwards into the greatest journey of their lives. It was a most daunting thought - leaving the fort for such a long time. The forest had become their home, and the fort was a haven for them from the harsh world outside. This was a strange feeling, after spending several months consigned to their rooms, to suddenly leave their home and venture so far from that which they knew. Nobody slept easily that night. It was partly the excitement of their forthcoming journey, but it was also the endless worries that darted incessantly through their minds.

The next day the group awoke early and said their last goodbyes to the fort. The day had finally come, and this was the time for which that they had been waiting for so long. This was it - at long last, they were leaving for the Northern Mountains.

One by one, the four friends heaved their backpacks onto their shoulders, heavily laden with a cargo of dragon scales. In single file, they stepped out of the courtyard and assembled in the clearing outside. Tarok turned back towards the fort, closed the gate and locked the bar behind them. "Well this is it, I suppose," he began. "If you have any last worries then this would be a good time to tell them." Carek laughed, "Worries? Come on Tarok, we're invincible! Where's your sense of adventure?"

Tarok smiled. "My sense of adventure brought me to this place many months ago. As far as I know, it's still as strong now as it was then. Maybe even more so."

Doragon replied, "Well I'm more than ready. I've not been travelling for a great many years, and I'm beginning to remember why I loved it so much." Tarok turned to Athena, "And you, Athena? This whole journey was your idea, after all. Are you still keen to leave?"

Athena nodded. "If I spend another week in this place I'll probably go insane. Just try to stop me!"

With that resounding agreement, they set off and left the clearing, Carek striding ahead, through the morning mist and into the forest beyond. For the first mile or so, their route up to the valley side had been cleared to a certain extent, but it was still quite a struggle uphill. As they climbed steadily upwards, the familiar panorama of the forest opened up beneath them, revealing the full extend of the winter's floods in the valley below. The river had grown ten-fold over the rainy season, reaching half way up the banks towards the fort and flooding a substantial area in the valley floor. Several of the weaker trees had been knocked down, and presumably swept away with the current.

It was only from such heights that one could truly appreciate the sheer size of the forest. Looking along the valley to the north, the trees continued without a break up to the horizon, beyond which lay the wide open plains of the lower northern lands. To the west, east and south was the same situation - trees as far as the eye could see. The forest was vast, larger than any one person could ever know. Carek was glad of that. To fully understand something so enigmatic could give one some measure of superiority. The forest would always remain a mystery, at least to him.

The first stage of their journey through the forest would be the most difficult, as the valley side was still muddy from the rains, and there was no clear path to follow through the undergrowth. Carek pressed on ahead, slicing through the brambles as he went. Fortunately for them it was still winter, or the undergrowth would have been considerably worse.

The remainder of the first day passed remarkably quickly. The sun set early at this time of year, forcing the group to find somewhere to set up camp before nightfall. Tarok set up a fire and conjured up a refreshing broth to warm their tired bodies. Carek had the bright idea of making hammocks out of rope and woven vines. He had done this many times before, but it was well into the night before the four members of the group each had their own bed to sleep in. Fortunately, this gave them something with which to occupy their minds for the long, dark hours of the evening, as Tarok told them tales of the history of the northern lands, and the great battles that had been waged there over the centuries.

If Tarok's tales were to be believed then the northern lands seemed to be the place where the majority of the realm's disputes had been settled, chiefly in the most violent of fashions. In Tarok's own words, "this was the place where human civilisation had been tested more than any other, and barely a field has been free from the bloody taint of battle." Lanwyn itself had been besieged no less than three times in its history. Twice by feuding human warlords, and once by a large orc army whose persistence nearly caused the loss of the town. In fact, the whole continued human presence in the area was largely thanks to the heroics of one man who managed to sneak out past the greenskin army one night, dressed as an orc, and sent word to the Lord of the realm, who sent 20,000 men immediately to the town's aid. It was still a vicious battle, but the orcs were routed, and a great many of their number were slain.

After such a near calamity, the dwarfs pledged assistance to the humans, and from that time, their military partnership grew stronger each year. The dwarfs were tested themselves many times, but they always managed to defeat more numerous orc hordes, using their own unique brand of strategic warfare and a number of well- trained, heavily armoured and extremely fierce elite warriors.

The group woke the following morning just as the sun was beginning to shine above the horizon to the east. The plan was clear - they were to continue northwards until the valley began to open out some time in the early afternoon. As Carek had predicted, they reached the mouth of the great valley a couple of hours after lunch, stopping for a few moments to gaze over the view before them. The edge of the forests was visible from there, only a dozen miles further north, but too far to travel in the remainder of the daylight. There were at most nine hours of sun each day, and the Eastern forests were not the ideal place to go trekking through the nights without the promise of a safe bed to welcome you at the end of the day.

The second night was spent in the lower-lying trees towards the northern edge of the forest, and was considerably warmer now that they weren't quite so exposed to the wind rushing through the valley by night. Having said that, it was not by any means a peaceful night, nor did any of the group get more than a few hours of uninterrupted sleep. The following morning, they left their hammocks behind, aiming to reach the edge of the forest well before nightfall and to finally spend a night in the open, away from the worrying nighttime noises of the other forest denizens.

Now that they had the fort, it was all too easy to forget where they were, and to forget the presence of the strong stone walls all around them. Going back to camping in the wild forced them all to realise just what an enormous difference the fort had made in their lives. The months of back-breaking effort had really been worthwhile. Even Carek, ashamed though he was to admit it, was beginning to feel slightly less at home in the open now, sleeping without a roof for the first time in so many months.

By noon on the third day, they began to reach the outskirts of the forest, as the trees started to thin out and tall evergreen conifers were gradually outnumbered by shorter deciduous trees such as sycamore, ash and willow. Eventually, more and more light began to shine through the trees from the open fields beyond, and soon the group walked out from their long trek through the forest, emerging by the side of the trees into a vast panorama of open fields, sloping gradually away and rolling into the plains of the north.

Looking to the south-west, the group saw the long western ridge of the valley, knowing that Tarnadon lay a few days' walk to the other side. Now they were all leaving the lands that they knew, and venturing into the unknown. Tarok had done that once before, and it had left him in a number of fantastically dangerous situations. Somehow, he knew that this journey would likely lead to more of the same.

Before nightfall, they knew that they had to find the main trade route, and then the most difficult part of their journey would be complete. Navigation would no longer be a problem, and they would be more than pleased to finally shake the mud off their boots, and walk along a more solid, reliable surface for a change.

After almost two hours of walking across fields, they finally found it, deserted as far as they could see in either direction, but leading directly northwards towards the central foothills on the distant horizon. Over a hundred miles beyond, currently out of view, lay the great white peaks of the northern mountains.

The road surface came as a great relief to the tired feet that had trudged for three days now through wet, muddy, barren terrain. The sun was beginning to dip low in the sky, but now they had a safe route to follow, so they could afford to continue until well after dark. They finally set up camp in the evening, beside the road on the edge of a small copse. Carek quickly built a shelter from sticks and leaves, making use of the blankets they had brought with them to protect themselves from the harsh winter nights. A roaring fire and piping hot bowl of soup, both courtesy of Tarok's magical incantations, soon cheered them up and helped them to settle to a more comfortable, if chilly, night's sleep.

The following day, the group gathered their belongings, and continued on the route towards the foothills that they had seen earlier. These were only ten miles away, and were reached shortly before lunchtime. Tarok conjured up a relatively tasty lunch of what looked like potatoes and mutton, but even the wizard admitted that he was not completely sure what most of the ingredients were supposed to be. The day was spent walking through the beautiful, picturesque hills, perhaps at a slightly more leisurely pace than before. The trade route wove carefully between the steep scree-lined slopes either side, winding for fourteen miles through to the plains beyond.

They arrived at the end of the hill path about one hour before night fell. Carek quickly built a small shelter from trees and fallen branches, using bracken as a thatch for the roof. Tarok lit a small fire, and they all sat round, warming themselves over the flames. The nights were still cold, especially without the trees around them to keep them sheltered from the wind. Without Tarok's magic and Carek's expert survival skills, this journey would never have been possible.

Before the sun set on the horizon, Tarok made his way up to the top of the hill nearby to survey the lands ahead of him. Athena and Doragon followed shortly behind, inquisitively. There was no path, but the wizard and his companions managed to climb towards the top without significant trouble. The view was well worth the effort, for it was a most magical sight. The land to the north spread out as far as the eye could see in the dim evening twilight. Bunches of trees dotted the patchwork of fields and streams lay like veins before them. Marshes lay over to the west, and the great expanse of Fernwood spread out to the east of them. This was the home of the wood elves, and not far off to the north in the mountains, their cousins the silver elves, all distant relatives of Carek's ancestors.

Lying to the east of the forest of Fernwood was the great lake of Thrynn, the home of the water sprites, and the city of Lanwyn, which lay on the southern side of its vast sandy banks. Tarok sighed. There was such beauty in this land, but beyond this idyllic scene lay the dark mountains where the dwarfs lived, and the tribes of evil orcs and vicious goblins practised their foul necromantic sorcery. He turned to his friends, who barely dared speak as the last rays of rich orange sunlight slipped reluctantly beneath the western horizon. "That's our destination, my friends. That's where the Dwarfs live." The mountains were slowly disappearing from view in the waning light. "They may look beautiful from here, but believe me we will be tested many times before we reach our goal."

Tarok had never visited these mountains, yet somehow he spoke with experience. "Legends tell of plagues of giant bats terrorising the nights. They mention living shadows, which inhabit the lost valleys and caves along the rocky paths. Once you get a little closer, those great peaks are not a place of beauty, I assure you." Tarok remembered how the dwarfs defeated the goblins in the great battle of the peaks many years ago. The dwarfs would never forget such an encounter, and the very battle would be recorded in their archives to be kept for eternity. Dwarfs were the oldest enemies of the goblins, and battles amongst them were fought almost incessantly around the many dwarf strongholds of the land, but this one was different. Mighty armies clashed, and great generals drew sword and axe to smite their foes. There was much bloodshed, and the dwarfs still remembered their fallen brothers. The goblins had probably forgotten their dead, but could still remember the humiliation of their defeat. No doubt they were still plotting their revenge on their bearded neighbours even to this day.

As darkness fell, the three companions ventured back down the hill to meet up with Carek once more. He had finished the shelter, a fine work of engineering, which would protect them from the elements as they slept for the night beside the road. Though it was not enormous, all four managed to crawl inside, and lay down for a grateful night's sleep. They closed their eyes, and all was quiet except for the fluttering of bat's wings, and the howling of wolves in the distance. A great deal of walking was sure to follow ahead of them as they entered the northern lands, but they knew that their journey was half over now, and that in a few days they would once again be in a town where they could have at least one night of warmth and comfortable beds. That would make quite a change, they reckoned, after lying for so long on the crude mattresses back at the fort. As Tarok rested his tired, aching feet, he could think of nothing else. He slowly drifted off into an uneasy sleep, from which he would be extremely reluctant to awake.

The next morning, they woke up to a fresh winter sun piercing the haphazard canopy of their temporary night time shelter. The four weary travellers ate a fine breakfast, conjured by Tarok, and then set off again on their walk across the middle lands up towards the northern mountains, now shrouded with mist and barely visible in the distance. Although it was still technically winter, barely six weeks having passed since the end of the rainy season, the weather had begun to turn much milder, and the first signs of spring were truly upon them now. Tiny, barely noticeable buds had begun to form on the trees, and the first signs of germination were beginning to show in the seeds that had fallen onto the cold, damp soil. Within a month, the forest back home would once again be in full bloom, the early spring flowers carpeting the valley floor with a most beautiful display of nature's finest colours. They hoped that they would be able to return before it was all over.

The next few days passed quickly, and the group walked briskly along the road to reach the town as quickly as possible. Lanwyn lay only eighty miles from the central foothills, and it was now visible on the horizon, dwarfed by the ever encroaching mountains. Climbing up to the dwarf's caves in the cliffs, however, would not be so easy. The group decided to stop at Lanwyn by the side of the lake for a few days first. They would probably stay at an inn, and try to buy a map to aid them. After all, Doragon had brought their gem stones with them, so money was not going to be a problem.

They slowly marched on towards Lanwyn, and reached their goal in the middle of the following day. The town's walls loomed steadily closer, and the thought of civilisation helped the weary travellers to step up the pace for the last half an hour. More than anything else, they just wanted to throw down their heavy backpacks, take off their boots and relax to a warm bath and a comfortable bed for the night.

Lanwyn was a fairly large town, and several of the main roads in the northern lands joined there. The streets were quite narrow, but lively and full of people of all descriptions bustling around, just like Tarnadon. Tarok made straight for the magic shop to buy a few more books while Carek went with Athena and Doragon to browse around the town, and to try to find an inn. Clearly, Lanwyn was used to visitors from the Southern lands voyaging north to trade their wares at the bustling market, because no one so much as raised an eyebrow at the four strangers' arrival.

Carek chose the most luxurious of the town's inns, and paid for the group to stay. They collected their keys, and set off to the town hall where they had arranged to meet Tarok. There he was, with a pile of about five or six books, slowly making his way through the first. Quite how he was planning to carry these around they dared not think. Presumably, he was hoping that they could off load the scales on the dwarfs as soon as possible and then stay there for as long as it took while the armour was being made.

Tarok turned around and saw the group approaching. He stood up to meet them and began to tell them of his exploits. He told them that he had not only bought the books, but had managed to find someone to draw a map of the mountains for them. It cost five gold pieces, but was well worth it, as the cartographer also gave the group some advice on the best routes to take and about the various pitfalls on the way. He also suggested that the group could take along a few of the town guards to escort them to the mountains. They were well trained and friendly, and would be useful to help the group against the evil orcs of the lands. For a small fee, of course.

The journey was all working exactly as planned. They spent a relaxing night in Lanwyn, sleeping for as long as they could in the most comfortable beds they had ever found. Lanwyn was rather precariously located near the mountains, and also on the edge of the orcish territory to the East. Despite its problems, it was a rich town, acting as a trading post between the dwarfs and the rest of the kingdom, as well as supporting a strong fishing community all along the shores of the great lake of Thrynn to the northwest. It was also a strong agricultural community with a number of farms dotted all across the surrounding fields. Finding help here would not be a problem.

Doragon scribbled frantically in his diary, bravely trying to record the atmosphere in the town, and the group itself at this important time. He was still toying with the idea of returning to travel writing, but for now he was more than happy staying with his friends. After all, now he had the best of both worlds. He could go off on adventure, write a book about it, and then sell it to finance their next trip. Somehow, however, he didn't really think that many halflings would believe the adventures he'd had already, and this one was likely to be the most fantastic yet.

A week's travel had finally ended, and the group were now ready to begin the final stage of their journey into the perilous Northern Mountains. They would rest in Lanwyn for as long as they could, preparing for the long trek ahead, but soon they would have to begin the most exciting adventure of their lives. They had come this far and, despite their inevitable doubts and fears, they were all ready to set off on the last leg of what was to be their greatest tale yet.


WILDERNESS : Book 1 - The Forest Chapter 17 - The Journey Begins © Colin Frayn

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