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Wilderness: Book One - The Forest (Chapter Twenty-Six - Full Circle)

Colin Frayn
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For several days, the dwarven and elven cities resounded with a chorus of jubilant celebrations. Both communities had lived with the threat of attack for so long now that they found it difficult to accept that it was all over. There would be new enemies - that much was certain - but now the two allies could stand together against all perils that the mountains could throw at them.

As the celebrations began to die down, work began in earnest on the enormous task of rebuilding the ruined elven stronghold, with expeditions of skilled dwarven warriors flushing the last few remaining goblins from Rakrath's dark cave system. Most of the greenskins had long since fled, though a few still offered resistance to the sturdy dwarven axes. The dwarfs had known the habits of goblins for too long to allow even a handful of the creatures to remain within the tunnels and rebuild their scattered forces.

Several dwarf patrols were given the task of mapping out Rakrath's domain so that a plan could be put forward for its renovation. They returned with stories of caverns strewn with bones, piles of captured armour and weaponry and laboratories full of dismembered body parts in various states of preservation. Grom ordered some of the tunnels to be burned and filled in so that the full horrors of Rakrath's reign might be buried forever and the necromancer's unfortunate victims could finally be allowed to rest undisturbed within the mountains where they met their untimely end.

Rakrath had increased the extent of his underground home many times since he had first entered the mountains. His labyrinthine network of passageways wound deep into the heart of the mountains, like tendrils searching for veins of precious ore and minerals. Many of these tunnels would be sealed off and remain in darkness until such a time as they could be explored carefully. The necromancer still had a great many tricks in store, even after his death and nobody wanted to risk more casualties at the hands of Rakrath's vicious traps.

Within the City of Tur Cistell, Eldoran was leading the ambitious rebuilding work. Hundreds of workers were now busy tearing down many of the derelict buildings and mending others with whatever building materials they could scavenge from the surrounding rubble. Dozens of skilled dwarven miners set about reinforcing the tunnels that led to the Elven city, and broadening them somewhat so that the elves and humans could more easily pass through to the chambers above. Many other tasks had not yet begun; there was no steady supply of food down in the depths, and though Eldoran could provide a temporary solution with his magic, they could not rely on the mage forever.

A long time ago, the elves would grow much of their own food, planting varieties that had been magically altered to cope with the dark, gloomy light of the cavern. The walls were studded with minerals, once so well enchanted that their light could bathe the entire city as if on a bright winter's morning. Eldoran was working on restoring those crystals to their former glory. However, this task had previously required all the powers of several of his predecessors, and it was likely to take him quite some time when working alone.

The river itself had once been used as a method of trading with the outside world. As Rakrath invaded, the tunnels were filled-in and the flow of water stopped, but now that the river flowed richer than ever before it presented a fine opportunity to trade with the world outside the mountains. Previously, crops would be carried by a steady stream of elven merchants from the east, through the foothills of the mountains to the point where the crystal waters disappeared into the depths. There they would be loaded onto barges, and the rich produce would wend its way through the twisting mountain caverns until it reached the docks at Tur Cistell.

Once they reached the elven city, an elaborate system of gates and nets would catch the passing barges and guide them towards the banks where they were safely kept until their cargo could be unloaded. The empty barges were generally filled with stone and minerals quarried from within the mountain, and were left to drift downstream back into the mountain passages until they were funnelled out into the great lake of Thrynn to the south. The boats would often be picked up by elven fishermen who lived around the lake's edge, where their cargo was used to build elaborate elven homes. In the time before humans truly colonised the Northern lands, the elves controlled much of the lake's fertile shores and the surrounding farmland. Some of their settlements were still visible, though many had since been plundered for building materials by neighbouring human farmsteads as they encroached onto the abandoned elven domain.

Eldoran's dream was to join Tur Cistell with the dwarven city back upstream. It would take some months of careful planning, but the dwarven engineers were already working on the task. Many of Grom's best miners had begun digging the extension passages required to join up with the flowing waters. They soon began to make significant progress on the primary link tunnel, which sloped down towards the great river in the precise direction predicted by Carlon's elaborate magical divination.

The dwarfs had been aware of the great underground river for quite some time, but had never considered it worth investigating, preferring instead to remain closed-in and well-defended on all sides. Opening up a passageway to the river would just have been creating another weakness, which they could not afford during the years of the great goblin wars. They had several smaller streams flowing through their city, and these were adequate for all their needs. Now, however, the great wars were finished, and this was a time of expansion and trade. The canal that Eldoran proposed would form a vital link between the two ancient civilisations, and would ensure their mutual co-operation and friendship for centuries to come.

Tarok, Carek and Athena had been arranging the plans for Doragon's funeral. Grom had assured them that the brave halfling's body could be buried within the great dwarven funeral halls, alongside dwarven heroes and heroines of old. Kings, Queens, great leaders and warriors together with visionary ambassadors, skilled smiths and architects all lay in its hallowed vaults. The funeral was to be a quiet, private ceremony with Tarok, Carek and Athena standing alongside Grom, Carlon and a selection of the dwarven governors and generals. Doragon's body was preserved by Carlon's magic, and placed gently within a stone chamber, topped with a marble slab adorned with a series of dwarven runes. Grom read aloud the inscription, which had been carefully chosen by Doragon's friends.

"Here lies Doragon, a dear friend and treasured companion.

May he find the freedom he always desired,

And the peace which the world could not give."

Each of the group said a few words about their departed friend, Athena closing with the remarks that most closely summed up the feelings of all those present. "Doragon was a dear friend, one who was always kind-hearted, honourable and fair. He brought light to the times when those around him were struggling in darkness. He brought hope when we could see nothing but despair. He brought laughter when we were full of sorrow. He was a visionary, surrounded from an early age by those who were happy to sit back and let the world roll past them. Doragon was different: he knew that life would only reward those who dared to explore and to challenge the world outside. He took risks, and sadly those risks cost him his life. But he knew that over these last few months those same risks would gain him more rewards than most people see in a lifetime."

Athena paused for a moment, smiling back towards her two adventuring friends. "Goodbye, Doragon. We shall miss you terribly, but our lives will continue, because you taught us that we still have so very much to be grateful for." She stopped, returning to Tarok's side. Her heart told her to cry, but Athena had learnt how to control such emotions. Tarok had not, and he made no effort to disguise the tear running down his cheek as four of Grom's finest soldiers lifted the heavy lid carefully over Doragon's coffin, sliding it into place with a heavy clunk.

The assembled dwarfs silently left the burial chamber, allowing the three friends a moment alone to remember the times they were lucky enough to spend with their halfling friend. Carek had said very little so far, but now they were alone he began to speak of the group's future. "I believe we should plan to leave in the next few days. I fear the forest should not be left alone for any longer, or we might not have a home to which to return."

Tarok nodded. "I agree, my friend. Now that Doragon has been laid to rest, we no longer have anything tying us to this place. It is spring now, and the forest will be in bloom already. I wouldn't want to miss such a spectacle."

Athena nodded. "I for one would be relieved to live out in the open once more. This claustrophobic underground life is not good for my health."

"So we are agreed then?" Tarok briefly glanced at each of his friends, who nodded in unison.

"I'll speak with Grom when we return to the great chamber. I suggest you set about packing your belongings. We shall leave tomorrow - I see no sense in prolonging our stay."

They left the burial chamber, carefully closing the heavy doors behind them as they began to make their way up through the deepest levels of the mountain, and back to the great chamber where Grom and his council sat in open discussion. Tarok approached the great dwarf while Athena and Carek returned to their chambers to collect their belongings ready for the journey home.

"Ah, Tarok!" boomed Grom's deep voice, "I trust all is well?"

Tarok nodded. "Indeed it is. However, I have come to make an announcement."

Grom raised his eyebrows. "What do you wish to say, my friend?"

Tarok looked around at the elderly dwarfs of the council who had stopped their debating and were now watching him intently.

"Well, I thought I should tell you that we have decided to leave and return to our home. We are packing this evening, and shall be departing tomorrow morning with your permission."

Grom sighed, smiling wryly. "Well I knew we couldn't keep you forever. Our hospitality is extended for as long as you desire, I trust you had already assumed that. I wouldn't dream of refusing lodging to any who had fought so bravely to defend our great dwarven civilisation."

"That's a very kind offer, but we ought to return to our forest. We have been absent now for far too long."

Grom nodded. Tarok's wisdom was unavoidable. "Very well, as you wish. Might I make a suggestion, however?"

"By all means."

"I strongly urge you to return through the elven caves. I am sure Eldoran would want to wish you a safe journey. After all, he owes his life to you more than any of us."

Tarok blushed. "Well, I shall take your wise advice."

"If you visit him, do make sure you send my regards. You should be able to catch a boat downstream through the mountains towards the great lake of Thrynn, which will save you a few days of travelling."

Tarok nodded. "An excellent suggestion. I will ask Eldoran when we arrive."

"Oh, and one last thing, Tarok. You will allow us to celebrate one final time, won't you? I'm sure my people would be only too delighted to hold a feast for your departure. You'll need all the strength you can get for your return journey."

Tarok laughed. "If that is your desire, then I will not speak against it. I will return this evening."

The young wizard turned and wandered away from Grom's table, through the hall and back towards this own chamber.

Carek and Athena had both packed most of their belongings, and were glad to see Tarok return so that they could share their thoughts with him. Both were happy to return through Rakrath's now deserted caves in order to visit the elven city one last time, and the idea of a transport through the mountains by boat seemed like a most exciting plan. Carek sighed when he heard about plans for yet another feast, but took comfort in the fact that this would be the last time, he hoped, for many years. Wonderful though the dwarven hospitality had been, Carek knew that the fort awaited his return, and that there was much work still to be done in the forest.

Their last night in the dwarven caverns was to be a particularly merry one, with Grom determined to throw the biggest feast in living memory. The three weary adventurers eventually returned to their rooms well into the night, the sound of dwarven singing still pounding in their ears, and the effects of an unhealthy amount of dwarven ale beginning to make themselves felt most heavily.

The following morning arrived, almost too early for the tired, fragile adventurers. This was not the ideal state in which to begin a long journey home, but they knew that Grom's hospitality could not have been refused. Gathering their belongings, they finally left their rooms, and congregated in the great hall, where they said their farewells to those dwarfs who had been so good to them over the past few weeks.

A large number of dwarfs had turned out to see the three friends leave for their journey towards Rakrath's caves. Determined not to make a big event of their departure, Tarok, Carek and Athena walked in turn over to the dwarf King and thanked him for his kindness. Grom knew that the adventurers were eager to leave and to make their parting as painless as possible, so he added only a few words.

"Farewell, my friends. I dearly hope that we might meet again some time, perhaps in more peaceful circumstances. Safe journey to you all."

Bidding farewell to the dwarven caverns for the last time, the friends set off down the trail towards the elven city, a small crowd of well wishers following them along the mountain path for a short distance before turning back. It was a tearful goodbye, and all three waved frantically as they finally bade farewell to their kind hosts and rounded a corner out of sight of the great dwarven kingdom.

The journey to the elven city was not a long one, and they had all trodden that path many times over the previous few days. This was not at all like the first time they had ventured this way with a timid group of dwarven warriors, not knowing what they could expect, or even if they were to return alive from their brave adventure. The mountains felt different now and as they rounded the corner to the entrance to Rakrath's caves, the tainted atmosphere of evil felt greatly diminished. Rakrath's gruesome ornaments had been chiselled away and replaced with a simple slogan, in dwarven, elven and human script: "Tur Cistell. Enter in peace."

Several weeks had passed since the liberation, and now many of the buildings in the elven city were beginning to look habitable once more. Eldoran's magic had begun to restore the crystals in the cavern walls to their former brightness, and the vivid colours of the elven buildings were now shining through from under so many years of accumulated dust. A neat plot of land towards the far corner of the cavern marked the graves for the brave warriors who had fallen whilst battling Rakrath's fearsome undead soldiers. Eldoran had also unveiled plans for a joint memorial to the elves killed by Rakrath many centuries ago in the fall of the elven city, and those soldiers of all races who had so recently given their lives for the freedom of Tur Cistell.

Scouts had been sent back through the mountains to the nearby human settlements to inform them of the news of Rakrath's demise and the re-opening of the ancient Elven trade route. Several groups of workers were sent from the dwarven town and the human communities around the feet of the mountain to restore the elven trading post at the head of the mountain river. Once work had begun in earnest, it was only a matter of time before the first makeshift boat sailed into the darkness of the great river, and out into the great cavern of Tur Cistell many miles downstream.

Eldoran was patiently waiting for the group's arrival. He had prepared a boat for their journey, stocked with a selection of fine elven produce. As Tarok strode out towards the elderly elven mage, he greeted them with a smile and outstretched hands.

"My friends. Carlon told me you would be passing through. I have prepared a boat for your journey."

Moored alongside the river was a fine elven boat, recently arrived from the trading post upstream, laden with grain. "If you follow the river downstream it opens out into the plains south of the mountains, flowing into the great lake of Thrynn. I suggest you head for Lanwyn, and announce your arrival. Give the boat to the mayor of the town on your arrival. I wish him to know of our recent victory."

Tarok smiled. "He wouldn't believe this story in a million years."

"Then you must prove it to him."

Eldoran turned to all three adventurers and spoke to them one last time.

"I bid you good journey, and hope to see you again. You have done a very great thing here, and you will always be welcome in Tur Cistell as my most honoured guests."

Athena reached out her hand. "Eldoran, it has been a pleasure and an honour."

Eldoran bowed. "Likewise, my child. Now you must be on your way, or it will be dark before you arrive at the edge of the mountains."

The three friends thanked their wise host and turned to float off away from the bank of the river. Carek grabbed a paddle, ready to navigate the rapid-moving water ahead. They waved one last goodbye, and were moving off when a cry came from the assembled crowd, "Wait! Wait for me!" A figure was running from the city walls towards them. It was Tygard. He reached them, out of breath, a crude backpack strapped hastily to his back. "Please take me along with you! I've been in these caves for too long. I want to explore the world!"

The three friends were astounded, and looked at each other with amazement. Eldoran spoke, "I think that Tygard would be a fine and able companion. Moreover, he would make your number back up to four again."

Tarok shrugged his shoulders, smiled politely, and spoke to his new found friend, "Come along then! Your skill has already impressed us all, and I know that you would make a worthy addition to our group."

Tygard stepped towards the shore and slung his bag into the boat. The flimsy vessel rocked slightly, then steadied itself. Tygard thanked his three friends profusely, "I've been living in these caverns for so many years, I just want to get back to the world outside."

Athena helped the newcomer into the boat. "Well thank you for accompanying us. Without Doragon we'll need some help in combat, and you're the ideal choice."

Tygard's decision was met with a round of applause from the assembled workers and finally the boat left the river bank, moving steadily out into the river. The current began to pull the four travellers downstream, away from the elven city and the cheering onlookers, all of whom had now run up to the bank to wish their illustrious friends on their way.

The boat floated off again past the elven city and finally on the journey home. Eventually the intrepid adventurers passed out of the cavern and into the darkness of the tunnels beyond. Tarok lit a lantern in order to help the group avoid the walls, and then relaxed back amongst his luggage to tell stories of forest life to their new recruit.

A chill wind gusted through the tunnels, whistling past the jagged stalactites as the group passed through. The caverns were deadly silent, except for the gentle splashing of water, and the laughter of the four intrepid companions embarking on yet another journey into the unknown.

Many years ago, scores of elves had fled this way to escape Rakrath's tyranny. Now four friends were navigating their way through the tunnels in order to return to the lives that they had left just a few weeks before, never daring to predict the events that would befall them in the great mountains. Now they were passing through the very heart of those mountains for the last time, and returning along a route that no living creature had seen for centuries.

After a few hours, a bright light appeared up ahead and before too long, the boat floated out into the dazzling sunbeams of the river valley. Lanwyn was out of sight in the distance, but they knew it lay a little over a day's travel hence. They would be able to make it there by late afternoon the following day if all went according to plan. Fortunately there was a light breeze blowing from behind and the river was quite calm with a gentle undercurrent pushing them forward. Besides, now that they were out of the mountains they were in no particular hurry, and were happy to spend some time admiring the view.

It was now well into spring and flowers were opening up to carpet the valley floor with a fine blanket of vibrant colours. The trees were beginning to blossom and even the hills were becoming green with lush vegetation once more. This was so strange to Tygard now: he had not seen trees for so many years, nor flowers or even grass. He was like a small child, first admiring the joys of nature. But somehow it was different. He had tried so hard to shut out that happier previous period of his life as it had just depressed him when he was working in the caverns. Now it was all flooding back to him - all the emotions and the beauty, the smells and the sounds.

For several hours they bobbed down the mountain stream, through the rocky crags and out past the foothills onto the plains. As night began to fall, they decided that they would do better to stop on dry land for the night, and then set off early the next morning. Carek took a rope, and tied the boat to the nearest tree while Tygard and Athena built up a sturdy bivouac of branches and leaves. Tarok, meanwhile, built up a fire and conjured up one of his increasingly tasty meals, on which the group feasted merrily well into the night.

They camped the night there under a low blanket of cloud, which obscured the stars that Tygard had so hoped to see. He hadn't seen cloud for so long either that the disappointment was not so great. Nor had he seen the moon, which shone brightly on the four friends, bathing their makeshift home in a pale yellow glow.

The following morning they set off once more, having rapidly devoured another of Tarok's conjured meals. The boat was still moored up next to the bank, much to their relief. Throwing their bags back in, they sat down again for what was promising to be a rather tiring day of travel ahead of them. Carek untied the mooring rope, and they drifted off once more into the river, warmed now by the orange hues of the rising sun.

The river flowed still further, out into the great plains of the northern lands. There in the distance lay Lanwyn in all its glory and before it the great lake, which they would first have to navigate before they reached their journey's end.

The lake was a couple of miles downstream and as they approached it, Carek and Tygard took the oars that they had been given and rowed onwards, following the shallower waters of the western bank. This last leg took them several hours, with the town growing steadily larger and larger in their sights. It had been quite some time since they last saw Lanwyn, and its modest human architecture now looked so unremarkable, having been exposed to the fine workmanship of the master craftsmen of the mountains.

As Lanwyn approached, a flotilla of small fishing boats surrounded the group, ushering their flimsy vessel towards the docks. Tygard guided the boat over to the pier where they moored up and stepped out onto the sturdy wooden planks. The docks were surprisingly quiet, though a small group of passing townsfolk had turned up to watch the strange boat arrive, carefully examining the four strange travellers as they stepped off onto the town's cobbled streets. The crowd soon dispersed, and returned to their daily lives, happy at least to have some small story to tell of their afternoon.

Tarok looked round. It was hardly a welcoming party, but then again, how could the people of Lanwyn possibly know what had happened up in the great mountains? Tygard hadn't seen a human town for so many years that he could barely remember what it was like to set foot inside one. He had visited Lanwyn several times in his childhood, but it had all changed so much since then. The town walls had been strengthened after numerous orc raids, and the town centre had grown from a distant trading post into a vibrant market centre.

Leaving their boat under the watchful gaze of a selection of bemused fishermen, the group wandered off into the town in search of the mayor. The Town Hall was quiet, and Tarok had to argue for some time before he was allowed to enter to speak with anyone of any importance. The four friends were shown into the front room, then a few moments later the door opened and the familiar rounded form of Lanwyn's ruler appeared in distinctly casual attire. "Ah! Mr Gallantin, and friends. Welcome back! I hardly expected you to return." He stopped for a moment. "All is well I trust?"

Tarok bowed his head. "Largely, yes, though I'm afraid Doragon was killed in the mountains."

"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that." The mayor looked around. "Still, you have a new companion, I see!"

Tygard stood forward and introduced himself. "Pleased to meet you, sir."

"So then," continued their cheery host, "I presume this is not a social visit. What can I do for you?"

Tarok looked over towards his three friends. He didn't really know how he was going to explain this. "We have brought a gift of a boat from the elves of the mountains."

"Elves?" The mayor looked puzzled. "I thought you were looking for dwarfs!"

"Indeed we were. And we found them just as we planned. However, we also found a lost elven city too."

The mayor laughed. "I see. And how did you come across this lost city?"

"The story is too long, but we fought a great battle. The necromancer Rakrath lies dead, and the elves are now free to rebuild their home under the guidance of the mage Eldoran."

"Well I'm glad you've had a fruitful journey." A hint of insincerity was beginning to creep into the mayor's voice. "And how do I get to meet this great wizard of yours?"

Tarok shrugged his shoulders. "I'm sure he'll be contacting you soon. Be on the lookout for messengers sent from the mountains. I understand that both the dwarfs and the elves wish to trade with the people of Lanwyn and the Northern lands."

The mayor smiled once more. "Well I'm sure we would all benefit from that. If what you say is true, of course."

Tarok shrugged his shoulders. "Alas I can't prove any of it, I'm afraid. Except for Athena's shield. That is very real."

Athena offered her shield for inspection. It was met with considerable amazement. "This is very fine workmanship. You claim it was forged by the dwarfs?"

Athena nodded. "Yes, sir. You will find no human workmanship its equal."

"Well, I certainly wouldn't disagree with that. I must say I didn't honestly believe that you would succeed, but you may well have proved me wrong."

"The dwarfs have built a city underground in the heart of the great mountains. It was not too difficult to find, though the route was fraught with danger."

She had lost the mayor's attention for a few moments as he examined the shield.

"We could do with weapons and armour of this quality to help us against the orcs. Tell me where they are to be found and I shall send a messenger party up to this dwarf city right away."

Tarok smiled. "As I said, I'm sure you will be contacted when the dwarfs and elves are ready to trade. Take my word for it that the exchange will be extremely beneficial for all concerned."

They talked for another hour or two, explaining the events that had happened over the past few weeks. The four adventurers were met with wide-eyed admiration, though the credibility of their story was stretched at times. It was almost evening time when they finally decided to leave, turning down the offer of a meal and instead deciding to check into an inn for the night and get some well-deserved rest. As they stood up to leave, Tarok spoke to the Mayor one last time. "I hope you can forge a profitable agreement with the dwarves and elves. They are both powerful nations, and you would do well to keep them on your side. The elves can provide you with rock, minerals, precious metals and gems. The dwarfs can provide you with the finest metalwork you will ever set eyes upon." He strode through the door, turning just before he left for one last word of advice, "Oh, and if the dwarfs offer you to trade some of their ale, I suggest you refuse."

That night they enjoyed the most comfortable night's rest they had experienced for weeks. Tygard most of all, who had not slept on a bed for many years, was barely able to contain his excitement when he finally managed to lie back down and wrap himself in a fine woollen blanket. He lay awake for many hours, just remembering the hardships of the past years, hardly believing that they were all behind him.

The group decided to stay in Lanwyn for a couple of days while they recovered from their quest and began to prepare for the journey home. Tygard had agreed to accompany the other three back to the forest, eager to remain with them for many more adventures yet. He had become good friends with his three companions, and they had grown equally fond of him as he told them all the many stories of his past life.

It was two days later when the group finally decided to leave Lanwyn, and get back to the fort. There was still no messenger from the mountains, but Tarok felt sure one would eventually come. There was no use in staying in Lanwyn, and they knew that they would be better off getting back home as soon as possible.

That very morning, they left the town, laden with food and drink for the journey ahead. Lanwyn had been a faithful home to them, but now they longed more than ever for the familiar forest sounds. The forest lay several days' walk away, but they were fully recovered from their tiring activities in the mountains, and felt more than up to the task. Leaving the safety of the town walls, they began to walk down the Southern road, away from the great lake and down towards the central foothills, which lay between them and their distant home.

The weather had warmed up noticeably since they had first trodden this route many weeks ago. The journey home was still a long one, but the hours and days passed by quickly, and before long they found themselves in the foothills once more, beside the road where they had camped on the way to Lanwyn one cold winter's night. They decide to camp there again, and lit a fire to guard against the creatures of the night. Once more they recounted their adventures around the fire, telling Tygard about the fort, the ogres, the hobgoblins and the monolith. Tygard's life so far had been anything but sedentary, but even he gasped at the fantastic exploits that the group had shared. Tygard was the last to fall asleep again, finally able to gaze at the stars above, which he had not seen for so many years. It was often the simple things that he missed most when he was captive: the stars, the meadows of green grass, even the warming rays of sunlight that would stream through his window on a bright summer morning. Now he was free once again and he was even more grateful for those simple treats.

The next morning they packed quickly, and set off again in good time down the road. By the end of the following day, they could see the forest looming on the horizon although it was still a good day's walk away. They camped that night beside the road, and set off the next morning at a slightly quickened pace in order to reach the edge of the trees by nightfall. They soon met the familiar fields, and the road veered away to the right, back to Tarnadon.

As they made their way down through the fields, they reached the lighter section of wood at the edge of the forest where they decided to camp for the night. The pleasant sight of sycamores and beeches filled Carek's heart with thoughts of home, and only served to make the four travellers even more eager to reach the fort as soon as possible. The forest was no longer dark, wet and muddy, but instead was much drier, and covered with a carpet of spring flowers now well into their colourful prime, welcoming the long-absent travellers back to their true home.

The following day, the four adventurers set off early and entered the forest once more, welcomed by all kinds of rich saps and memorable aromas from the forest floor. All this was magic to Tygard, who could only just remember the beautiful forests near where he had lived before his capture. Soon the more familiar smell of pines took over and the three members of the original group recognised the pleasant scent of resin and the gentle rustle of the branches high above them.

They followed the path through the forest into the valley, thinking of the fort and beginning to wonder whether it was still standing. As always, it was so vulnerable in their absence that any marauding ogres could have torn the whole place down by now. One night's sleep in the forest was followed by another anxious day of walking. By nightfall, they were assured that they were nearing the fort, and Carek's direction sense was rarely wrong. As the branches began to fold away in front of them they could see the clearing ahead, and in the centre stood the tall tower and the hill enclosure, the bridge and the moat. Carek ran towards the familiar stone walls with the others close behind. The fort was still standing, unmoved and unperturbed by the group's conspicuous absence.

Tarok walked over to the front door and levitated the bolt behind it, opening the heavy wooden gates, which creaked open and revealed the seemingly bare fort beyond. All was where it should have been, much to their relief, and Tygard was almost lost for words as he strode round the perimeter, examining his new home.

The tired travellers laid down their bags, and rested their weary feet. Carek scrambled down into the underground room to fetch out all their belongings, and one by one passed them back up, squeezing himself with difficulty through the narrow tunnel. Already he missed having Doragon around, but they had found a new friend who would surely get to know the place just as well.

Night began to fall once more on the adventurers, but they knew that they were finally safe, lying back on their beds in the familiar forest surroundings. Tygard was still trying to take in the full wonder of his new home, listening to the mysterious, unfamiliar noises coming from the nearby trees, wondering how long it would take before he would become used to the background hum of life. He hoped that the forest would learn to accept him as it had done his predecessor. Tygard knew he could never replace Doragon's skills, but he hoped he could at least add some of his own.

Once more, he found himself looking up at the stars in the sky and pondering his new life. He was beginning to see what Carek loved so much about the forest, and why one foolish day Tarok had decided to leave behind everything he owned to venture deep into this magical wilderness. As he slowly drifted to sleep, Tygard could hear only the distant chirping of a cricket and, somewhere far away, the steady rhythm of clunk, clink, clunk, clink from metal striking rock.

Tarok was the only one still awake. It was growing late, but he could not fall asleep and his repeated efforts to do so were only serving to wake him even more. Resigning himself to inevitable fatigue, he rose from his bed and wandered out into the courtyard. The chill of a clear spring night struck him and he wrapped his cloak more tightly to his chest, shivering briefly as a breeze whistled through the forest outside. Tarok walked over towards the centre of the courtyard, sitting down on the benches where the four friends had eaten their evening meal several hours earlier. The stars lit the heavens in a bright tapestry of light, drawing the young wizard's attention for a few moments before he turned back to the dying embers of the camp fire.

Tarok cast his mind back many months to an evening in late summer when a foolhardy young wizard had left the warmth and safety of his home to explore the Eastern forests. He could never have guessed the events that were to befall him because of that one decision. He could never have known that now, less than a year later, he would find himself sitting in the middle of that same forest, in a fortress built with his own hands. Even less could he have ever guessed that he would play such an important part in a story that altered the course of an entire nation.

Difficult though it was to believe, Tarok knew that his life had now changed almost beyond recognition from that which he led back in Tarnadon. No longer was he the timid, absent-minded young apprentice, feebly struggling to control the most modest of magical powers. The forest had helped him to develop his skills beyond his wildest dreams, and it had brought him the greatest friendships he had ever known.

Tarok wandered back to his hut, and reached for a bag that he had stowed beside his door. It was a thick, leather-bound tome, hand written in the neatest script that the young wizard had ever seen. On the first page was written, in large ornate letters, "The Eastern Forests." Just below this was Doragon's elaborate signature, accompanied by the words "To my dear friends, Tarok, Carek and Athena." Tarok smiled, and turned the first page, beginning to read the introduction.

"My dear halflings, much has happened since I last wrote of my travels round the outside world, and many adventures have befallen me; too many to list here." Tarok could hear Doragon's clear voice speaking the words aloud as he read.

"This book deals with a place so vast, so enigmatic and so overwhelmingly dangerous that I could barely describe it if I wrote a thousand volumes such as this. I will tell you of such sinister evils and such deadly monsters that you will scarcely believe your eyes. I will recount tales of such daring and courage that your lives will never be the same again."

Tarok smiled, and then carefully closed the book, placing it back in its neatly sewn bag. Doragon's diary would have to wait for another time. It sounded like a truly wild adventure and, to be quite honest, Tarok had found enough excitement recently to last him a lifetime.


WILDERNESS : Book 1 - The Forest Chapter 26 - Full Circle © Colin Frayn

Migrate Wizard: 
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