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Wilderness: Book One - The Forest (Chapter Twelve - Distant Signs)

Colin Frayn
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Carek parted the undergrowth confidently before him as he stepped carefully over the soft forest floor. The evening sun had dropped below the trees ahead, and its gentle warmth was fading fast. For the first time in many years, he didn't care that it was growing dark; the dancing shadows no longer worried him. He had a new confidence that seemed unwarranted, almost foolhardy. Wandering onwards, he boldly stepped out into a small clearing, in the centre of which stood a wooden fort surrounded by a crude, stagnant moat.

Though this was Carek's home, it looked strange to him. The whole place didn't feel quite as it should, though he couldn't quite place why. It was almost as if the walls had lost some of their vibrancy, their once majestic hues faded with the draining hand of time. There was a fearful quiet about the place, one that Carek had not noticed before. He walked round to the entrance, still seeing no sign of his three friends. The gate was open and unbolted, but the courtyard was empty.

"Tarok! Doragon! Athena!" Carek called out their names in turn, but strangely there was no reply. He felt sure that they had been there when he left, though for some reason he couldn't really remember for sure. He wandered over to Tarok's room, and swung open the door. A cold breeze blew past the young half-elf, sending a shudder through his body. The room was empty, and the wizard was nowhere to be seen. There was no shelf of books, no clothes, no loose parchments covered in plans and diagrams. Carek's heart skipped a beat, and he hurriedly ran over to where Doragon slept. It too was empty, not one shred of equipment left. The same followed for Athena's room. All was empty: it was as if the three of them had not set foot in that place for years. Carek ran back into the courtyard, breathing heavily. He yelled his friends' names once more at the top of his voice. There was no reply.

Then he heard it - a spine chilling cry from the forest, followed by a deafening roar. His blood pumped violently, adrenalin surging through his veins. He had heard that sound before on a most unpleasant day from his youth; it was the ogres. Carek ran towards the gate to shut it just as the first of the creatures charged through. It was huge and fearsome, wielding a bloodstained club. Carek turned quickly and fled back in the opposite direction towards the tower. The brutish ogre gave a terrifying roar and charged closely behind, the heavy thud of its footsteps reverberating around the courtyard.

Carek dived into the shadows, and raced up the tower as fast as he possibly could. He climbed upwards, the berserk ogre right behind him bellowing cries of revenge. As he saw, the light of the battlements just above, Carek scrambled for the last few rungs of the ladder. Suddenly he felt a strong hand tighten around his ankle and pull sharply. He let go of the ladder and fell into the darkness.

Then he woke up, breathing heavily.

It was not like Carek to suffer nightmares and he wondered just what it meant. Whatever its purpose, he didn't like it one little bit. Carek had never considered himself superstitious, but it was difficult to ignore such a terrifying experience. He slowly calmed down, and regained his breath. One thing he now realised was that although the fort was a great defence, inevitably it was just a wall of wood and soil. No matter how safe it made them all feel, they needed the help of each other far more now than ever before. They could not afford to be complacent.

The thought of the ogres coming for revenge weighed heavily on Carek's heart. His vendetta had brought the group into a very precarious position. The fort was complete, but it would not keep out a determined band of ogres for long. Maybe it was his guilt that had caused the dream? Carek had led three friends to this place to make his fort, knowing that it might very well be the last thing they ever did. Would they stay with him when times became more difficult? Many months or even years from now, would they all leave him once more to live on his own in this accursed forest?

Carek put these thoughts to the back of his mind as he resumed work on the underground chamber. After the first section of the tunnel was completed with supports, work started in earnest on the remainder. The tunnel was to be just wide enough for Doragon to crawl down quite easily, and for a human to crawl down with a bit of difficulty. It was certainly not big enough to fit an ogre even if they were to find the trapdoor, which was unlikely.

This new storage space would be a great asset to the group while they were away adventuring, as it would allow them to leave all their valuables in a safe place. Even if the fort were attacked, the invaders would probably still leave empty-handed. The camouflage was certainly very convincing, and it would be a great deal better when the whole job was finished.

Tarok decided to use his powers again to excavate more soil from the tunnel. It would not be possible to dig out this tunnel using spades as it was simply too cramped and too steep. Tarok would have to excavate the whole thing, but the wizard didn't mind. After all, the room would eventually be used to store many of his possessions, as he was the one with all the books and papers. Some day he planned to build a proper library and a study room, but that would have to wait.

After the tunnel was completed, Tarok began work on the room at the end. He worked on his own for most of the time, with a little help from Doragon when the space became large enough to fit workers inside. In the meantime, Carek and Athena made themselves useful by making preparations for building the hill fort.

As the room was slowly enlarged, Doragon placed wooden supports in place to hold the ceiling from collapsing. While the Tarok rested, he was preparing himself for the final stage in the project, which was to convert the wooden pillars into stone. This was taking most of his time, and proved to be rather more difficult than he had originally planned. After all, it was an extremely powerful spell for the wizard, and one that demanded all of his energies.

Tarok had managed to develop a version of the spell, which he hoped would work as planned. This version would gradually change the supports to stone over a period of a few days, to minimise the energy required. The magical energy would transmit itself through all the wooden supports wherever they joined, and it would spread out all the way to end edges of the underground room given enough time. Every few hours, Tarok needed to return to the tunnel and add more magical energy into the wood so that the spell progressed as planned. Though he had been researching this spell for several weeks, Tarok was still not entirely convinced it would work. However, it was the best he could offer, and the group was willing to take the risk.

It seemed very little time before the room was completed, and then Tarok had an extra day of rest in preparation for his 'wood to stone' spell. Everyone was excited to see a new spell from Tarok, especially one that would have such a profound effect. Moreover, this was the first spell that the wizard had really worked out for himself. He had fiddled around with other spells before, but this one required a great deal of research and development before he felt confident enough to cast it.

The three onlookers assembled around the tunnel entrance, and watched as the wizard stepped forward. He began to wave his hands about while chanting the ancient words of the spell. Tarok then pulled a lump of clay, and a twig out of his pocket, and placed them on the ground. He looked up to the skies, and lifted up his hands. Then he knelt down, reached out into the tunnel and touched the first of the supports with his right hand, the twig and clay help firmly in his left. These two components were necessary for the wizard to channel the magical energy in the correct form. Without them, he would have no chance of summoning the energy safely and the results could have been disastrous.

Tarok knelt in front of the tunnel for a few moments, magical energy surging through his hand, and into the wood. He was growing visibly weaker, but continued with the spell until he had transferred enough energy to get the transformation started. Then there was a blinding flash of light from deep underground, and Tarok fell to the floor, unconscious.

Everyone gathered around the wizard as he gradually came round, and clambered to his feet. He turned to look at his friends and smiled. "Now we just wait and see. I used rather more energy than I was planning, but hopefully everything has worked as desired."

Tarok returned to the tunnel every two hours for the following three days. Each time, he reached out and touched the nearest wooden post, transferring a little more magical energy to keep the spell working. Whenever he returned, the wood felt more solid and colder to the touch. It was an enormous gamble, but it looked as if it might just pay off. Two interrupted nights of broken sleep had left the wizard tired and sluggish, and he didn't want to repeat the experience.

As the spell neared its completion and Tarok topped-up the magic for one last time, he decided to venture down the tunnel to check his handiwork. It was a bit of a tight fit for the wizard, but he managed to squeeze down in the end. A wonderful sight greeted his eyes. As he reached out a torch in his hand, he noticed that the light brown wood had changed into a dark grey colour, and it was cold to the touch. The spell had worked, and Tarok had managed to turn all the wooden supports into stone. All those long days of research had finally paid off. It was a fantastic spell, and Tarok had already begun thinking of suitably dramatic names for it.

Over the next few days, they finished off the door to the secret room and one by one admired Tarok's magical handiwork. Meanwhile, Carek and Athena flattened off the top of the soil mound, and pressed it down as much as they could, ready for the hill fort. The next job was to plant grass and small shrubs on the mound to help hold all the soil together so that it would not just slide away with the rain.

Four poles, each fourteen feet long, were driven into the corners to act as support posts. Eight smaller poles, each nine feet long, were driven into each side to make the walls, with four feet of wood showing above the surface, and spiked tops to help with the defence. On the side facing the fort, two posts were placed either side of the gap where the connecting rope bridge was to be fitted.

During the next few days, Doragon and Athena worked on making the twenty-five foot long rope bridge from vines and short planks of wood, while Carek made the set of steps leading up to the bridge inside the fort. He hammered a supporting post into the floor for each step, and then fixed the step to the post with a nail. Then he cut a small gap in one of the wooden stakes of the perimeter wall, and pushed the plank into it. Next, a smaller supporting plank was nailed into the perimeter fence just below the step, fixing it securely. The steps were finished in two days, so Carek helped with the rope bridge which was completed one day later.

The rope bridge was securely tied to the anchored corner poles in the hill fort, and fixed to two specially placed poles, each fifteen feet long, which had been hammered into the ground to act as strong anchor posts.

Finally, the bridge was finished, and as it was tied on around the final post, a great cheer arose from the four tired workers. Doragon suggested planting brambles and thorn bushes around the hill to help keep the soil even more secure. This would have the added advantage of making it much more difficult for invaders to climb up without being cut to shreds. Carek and Athena agreed, and they went to dig up a few bushes from the forest.

Now that the hill fort had been completed, Tarok decided to arrange a feast for the following night. He would firstly learn a plant growth spell to cast on the thorn bushes, and then practise some interesting tricks for the evening's entertainment. He also suggested turning all the corner posts on the tower, the hill fort and the main fort enclosure into stone one by one. If he did them one at a time, he would not need to rest in between spell casting. He could, however only cast it a few times a day so the process would still take quite a while but the final effect would certainly be worth it. In a few weeks, the fort would be considerably stronger, and the hill fort would also be safer for those who were stuck inside it. How far he had now come since his college days back at Tarnadon! One day, he would return to his old mentors, and show them what he could achieve! Perhaps that day would come sooner than he had expected, but at the moment, he was just pleased to have been of such invaluable help to the group. The fort was almost finished, and he planned to really celebrate this time. He had some particularly interesting spells to show off.

The following morning came quickly, though none of the four got much sleep that night as they were all looking forward to the feast. Tarok went to gather seeds for the thorn bushes and came back about ten minutes later with a small handful, which he sprinkled evenly over the mound. He then stepped back and muttered the ancient words of the spell that he had prepared, and watched patiently with the others as the seeds began to germinate, the green shoots sprouting upwards and hardening as branches grew outwards from the stem. The plants grew vigorously, invading the hill fort and soon swamping it with vibrant foliage.

After about ten minutes, the spell's effects wore off. The plants slowly stopped growing and Athena went back into the fort, up the steps, across the bridge, and into the hill fort to do some constructive pruning with her sword! The brambles and thorn bushes had taken over the small enclosure, but she managed to hack them down with ease, hurling the waste brambles over the side. Nothing would be able to climb up there without being seriously injured by the sharp spikes! Tarok had decided that it would be even more effective if he could find a way of making the plants grow longer and sharper spines, but admitted he would have to return to his books for a while before he could do that.

Tarok decided to turn the four main support posts for the rope bridge into stone pillars that day. He wanted to make sure that they were strong enough to take the weight of all four members of the group walking across the bridge quite frequently. He decided to turn the posts to stone two at a time, as he didn't want to risk all four at once. He knew from his previous experience that this would use up all of his energies, and he would need to rest again. This would have been rather unfortunate as the feast was planned for that very night, and he couldn't afford to miss it. In fact, he was to be the star attraction.

Tarok cast the spell as before, and then stepped back as the posts slowly began to harden and turn to stone before his very eyes. The wood would take several hours to fully transform, but the group could afford to wait. As soon as the transformation was complete, Tarok felt sure that the posts would be able to hold all but the heaviest of loads. He decided that the same would be done with the corner posts for the tower the next day, but they were longer so would need more of his energy. That meant he would have to do them one at a time. For now, however, he rested, and conserved his limited energies for the feast that night.

For the rest of the morning, and indeed most of the afternoon, everyone helped to prepare the feast. Carek went hunting with Athena, Doragon set up the fire, table, pots and mugs, and Tarok prepared his spells and the components that he needed. He wanted a spectacular entrance, and had a wonderful idea.

As the day progressed, everything was eventually finished and Carek and Athena returned to the fort after several hours of hunting. They had a boar and a small bag full of fruit, which they had picked on the way. They were excitedly discussing something between themselves, and were eager to share their story with the others, but decided to wait until the feast that night.

Doragon had laid out the table in the centre of the fort enclosure, and lit two fires over in the cooking area to start preparing the meat and soup. It was now early evening, and the heat of the afternoon had begun to subside. It would be a clear night, which would be perfect for Tarok's spells not to mention the evening meal. They were lucky to have such good weather now, as summer was over and Carek knew that the climate in the forest would only get worse as the wet season approached.

The wet season could cause serious problems for the new fort. The rains were often extremely heavy, and would pour down relentlessly for many months, seemingly without end. Carek suggested building simple drainage systems around the huts, which would flow out into the moat. He suggested that they should also waterproof the roofs of the huts with leaves and sap from certain trees that could be found in the forest. This was what he always used to do before autumn and the rainy season approached, and it helped a great deal in eliminating annoying drips and leaks!

As the skies drew darker and the first stars started to appear in the night, the celebrations began. Everyone helped to carry the roast boar to the table, and put the vegetables around in the small spaces left. Doragon brought the drinks that he and Tarok had prepared from squeezed fruit, and placed them on the table.

With the mention of Tarok's name, it suddenly became apparent to everyone that the magician was not with them. He had been there just a few seconds ago yet it seemed that he had vanished. They all looked around for him and called his name, but he did not reply. Clearly, he had gone off to prepare something for his display, but it seemed odd that he had slipped away so silently.

Suddenly there was an explosion at the top of the tower and everyone spun round to see what had happened. Smoke billowed out from the battlements and a shrouded figure stepped forward, his form barely visible amidst the black cloud that now encircled him.

The figure stepped up to the battlements and hurled himself off, landing soundly on his feet twenty feet below, seemingly un-injured. He revealed his face, and it was Tarok, with a comical false beard attached to his chin. The three onlookers laughed, and then applauded their friend. The magician stood forward, and once again he was lost in a bright flash of light and a cloud of smoke.

As the dust subsided, everyone looked up to their amazement, where they saw the form of an angry young dragon bearing down on them at a distance in the sky. The beast dived with ever increasing speed, and it grew nearer and nearer until a bright bolt of energy streaked from the tower where Tarok was now standing. The creature reared back, and stared at Tarok with burning eyes. The magician sent forth a great ball of fire, which shattered the beast to pieces. All that remained were flowers, floating down peacefully to the floor.

The other three watched on speechless as the thousands of flowers landed all around them and disappeared. Tarok also disappeared from the top of the tower, and re-appeared at his place at the table. Everyone stared at him in amazement, and then broke out into a spontaneous round of applause. Tarok smiled nonchalantly, and sat down in front of the food. He was the first to speak, "Right then, let's eat!"

When their senses returned to them, they all began to talk about what they had seen, but pestered Tarok about how it was done. The dragon seemed so real, but yet was only an illusion. It was all too clever for them to understand. Tarok had a particularly smug grin on his face for the remainder of the evening.

The meal began after the excitement had died down slightly. The roast boar was sliced rather crudely by Doragon, but there was more than enough to go around. It was a rich feast, expertly prepared and full of great woodland flavours. They hadn't eaten like this since they first entered the forest, and made a pact to do so again as soon as they could find another good excuse.

As the meal progressed, Athena and Carek began to tell the story of their earlier hunting expedition. Carek started, taking mouthfuls of food between each sentence.

"We were hunting earlier this afternoon, and had been walking away from the huts for perhaps quarter of an hour, maybe a little more. We found a young boar, in fact it was the very one you're eating now." Carek took another mouthful of food, washed down with fruit juice. "We chased the creature for a while, maybe even another half an hour, but eventually we killed it."

Athena laughed, "It would have taken Carek five minutes on his own, but I insisted on following and scaring the thing off every time!"

Carek shrugged his shoulders. "Well, I'm not going to lie to you Athena, you still require a great deal of practice, but we got the job done in the end. In fact, it's rather lucky you were with me, for if I had been hunting on my own then I would probably not have stumbled across that stone."

Tarok frowned. "What stone?"

Carek quickly took another mouthful of food, and continued his story. "Well, we had just killed the boar, and I stooped down to pick it up when I saw a strange stone, obviously out of place amidst the undergrowth. It was perhaps four or five feet in length, two feet wide and seemed to be some kind of polished marble. I brushed aside a few leaves, and noticed that the stone had some writing inscribed on it. It was written in elven and human, so Athena and I read it together."

Doragon was getting intrigued. "What did this writing say? Did it point to treasure?"

Athena shook her head. "No. Well, at least I don't think so. It gave directions to an old monolith off to the South. There were some strange words there that neither of us recognised, but it seemed that this was some sort of route stone, perhaps designed to help wandering nomads find their way to this ancient monument."

Carek interrupted, "The best part was yet to come. Under the directions were inscribed several strange inscriptions in writings unknown to either of us. However, I did recognise one part, which spoke of some kind of labyrinth. I presume it meant a set of tunnels attached to the monolith. I can't be sure, but that's what I understood by it."

Tarok was becoming increasingly interested. "So what did you do?"

Carek swallowed one more mouthful of boar. "Well, we followed the directions of course. What else did you expect?"

Tarok grinned. He expected nothing less from his inquisitive friend.

Carek continued, "I remembered my parents telling me of such a place many years ago, but they always told me to stay away from it. They must have had their reasons, I suppose. Still, we set off to see what we could find. We decided to find out if this place really existed first, and then turn back and tell you if it did. After all, we should really explore this place together."

Doragon nodded, "Especially if there's treasure to be found. I'll be a part of that expedition!"

Athena continued the story, "We walked through the forest for about an hour, and were almost ready to turn back when I had an idea. I hoisted Carek up to a lower branch of a tree, and he climbed it to the top to see if he could see anything in the distance. He called down, saying that he could see what looked like a stone pillar about two miles west of where we were. This would have meant probably an hour-long journey there and back, so we decided to return to the fort."

Athena stopped talking and looked at the bright faces of her three friends. "So what do you think? Wouldn't it be a great idea to go and explore it some time over the next few days?"

The idea was very popular, and they decided to prepare for the expedition the following day. Once they were ready, they could set off as soon as Tarok had fully recovered from his magical exertions.

This would be the first time that they had left the fort empty since its completion, and hoped that it would not be attacked. However, it would be an ideal opportunity to see how many of their possessions could fit into the new storeroom.

The night of feasting continued for many hours. Carek and Athena showed off their prowess with their bows in a friendly archery competition, whilst Doragon juggled knives to entertain his friends. As everyone went to their beds under the stars, they all wondered what the adventure to the monolith had in store for them. It was just what the group wanted - a real experience of adventuring. Without that, they would never have a benchmark for their prowess, and a sure way to test their rapidly improving fighting skills. It was just like the old legends that they had all heard about: the Eastern Forests held great danger but great reward. They wondered which they would find, hoping it to be the latter. The following day might bring danger, excitement or possibly a bounty of gold. One thing was for sure though; it would definitely bring adventure.


WILDERNESS : Book 1 - The Forest Chapter 12 - Distant Signs © Colin Frayn

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