Wednesday, August 12, 2015

ANDREW OF ARMAR: CHAPTER ONE: AN UNLIKELY RESCUE

ANDREW OF ARMAR

CHAPTER ONE
AN UNLIKELY RESCUE

Old Man Winter, the old trickster, fooled all who thought his frosty grip lessened for another season. The bitter greybeard played one last move in the contest for dominion over Northland forest and field and checked spring’s advancing thaw. Unwilling to relinquish his reign without a fight, even as the vernal equinox drew near, the senescent tyrant raised billowing ramparts above the battle lines. He prepared to unleash one final fury upon a cold and weary land.

Spawned from winter’s frigid breath, with bellies full of snow and ice, darkening clouds spread across the dimming sky. An anxious countryside braced to weather the oncoming storm. Birds sought refuge amongst the dense branches of fir and spruce. Bears just waking from their long sleep retreated back into their dens. Martens remained snug and safe in the hollows of trees. Wolves huddled close together for warmth and protection. Foresters, trappers, hermits, and outcasts hunkered down in their humble abodes, stoked their modest fires, and listened with dread to the waxing wind.

When the snow began to fall, it fell fast and furious. Out on the open plain, land and sky melded into one milky expanse. In the forest, snow whirled around bough and bole in frenzied eddies. It blanketed needled branches in white, though the buffeting wind periodically dislodged great clumps of snow that fell to the ground with muffled thuds.

As evergreens swayed and snow swirled in the rabid bluster, a lone figure struggled through the deepening drifts and biting wind. Wrapped in a heavy grey cloak, with fur-lined hood pulled tight around his face, a young man pushed forward in a determined effort to reach the forest’s edge. All about him, creaking boughs bent and broke in the wind, and only chance saved him from being struck down by falling limbs. A chilling numbness crept through his legs and robbed them of their strength, but he staggered onward. The storm’s wrath intensified and an icy blast buffeted the man’s frost-blushed cheeks as he stumbled out of the trees and onto a broad wasteland.

The wayfarer scanned his surroundings in the hope of spotting some identifiable landmark, but he could see nothing through the driven snow. He lurched blindly ahead and blundered into a stand of stunted larch. He halted and tried to catch his breath, but the icy wind stole the air from his lungs. Pain shot through his body. He looked up at the malevolent sky with an angry spark in his bright blue eyes and shook a defiant fist at the indifferent sky.

"I will go on," the man muttered. "I must go on. I must not fail.”

Even as the unlucky traveler uttered these words, he found it impossible to go on. His feet became lead weights in his fur buskins. He took a few more agonizing steps and then collapsed. The world faded from murky white to pitch black. As if in celebration of its triumph over the lost wanderer, the storm’s voice rose to a frightful crescendo and then faded into a whisper.

***

Once the merciless gale abated and the blizzard tapered off into languid flurries, the Northland’s denizens ventured forth from their protected lairs. As the face of the late afternoon sun peered through wispy mare’s tails and reflected resplendently off the freshly fallen snow, men and creatures stirred from their shelters. Woodsmen shoveled the drifts from their front doors and went to work hewing downed limbs. Trappers check their trap lines. Wolf packs prowled the forest hunting for any elk caught trudging through the deep snow. Ravens spread their dark pinions and circled over the ravaged forest. The winged scavengers then spun out over the plain in search of any unfortunate victims of the storm.

A red fox slid stealthily across the snow at the edge of the great forest. It left the dense cover of the evergreens in pursuit of its selected prey, a piebald ptarmigan scratching about in a clump of shrubby willows. The bird plucked at the tender buds, unaware of the danger that lurked nearby. The fox stalked its potential meal. It crawled ever so slowly closer and closer to the unsuspecting ptarmigan. When the fox judged it was within striking distance, it pulled itself down into a tense crouch and then pounced.

An arrow whizzed past the fox and struck the doomed grouse. The shaft ripped through the bird's body and sent it tumbling across the ground. Shocked by this sudden turn of events, the fox leapt back, spun around, and ran for cover. The canny canid decided that self-preservation was more important than a quick breakfast!

A tall, darkly-visaged man clad in the simple-but-functional garb of a forester strode over to the stricken bird. The forester grinned at his good fortune and skilled aim. He slung his rough flat bow across his broad back. He removed the arrow from the ptarmigan's body and dropped the bird into a leather sack. A slight grin slipped across his bewhiskered face as he tied the bag shut and looked forward to his upcoming feast. After an especially lean winter, even a meagre fowl such as this grouse would prove a grand meal. The man stroked his short black beard as he thought of supper. Then something strange caught his eye.

Carrion birds circled over a dark patch in the snow. At first, it appeared to be nothing more than a pile of rocks or a clump of sedge. However, it seemed strange that the ravens would show such interest in a mere oddity in the landscape. The shape almost appeared human in form.

The forester frowned. His intense brows darkened his green eyes as he stood and pondered the situation. He turned and took a step in the opposite direction, toward the woods, but then his curiosity won out. He plodded over to have a closer look at whatever it was half-buried in the snow.

The forester found a man prostrate in the snow. The inert figure wore a voluminous fur-lined grey cloak with the hood drawn up over his head. The man showed no sign of life; he lay perfectly still.

"Dead," the forester grunted. Just to be sure, he jabbed at the body with the toe of his boot. To his amazement, the man let out a moan.

"He's alive!" the forester proclaimed with a strange mixture of surprise and contempt. Then he sighed and shook his head. A glimmer of nobility shone in his soul, and he knew he must save the stranger from certain death. He tucked the end of the sack containing his catch into his belt, grabbed the stranger by the wrists, and dragged him to the edge of the woods. He continued to drag the man down a narrow footpath and to the door of a small, turf-roofed hut.

A swift runnel flowed down a rocky course that ran through a sheltered dale. The forester's simple domicile sat unobtrusively upon the banks of this burbling brook. Shrouded in snow, with drifts piled up the height of its low timber walls, the rustic abode looked more like a natural hillock than a man-made structure. A heavy wooden door set into the building's southern face broke the illusion. The forester opened this door and lugged his unfortunate guest across the threshold.

The hut's owner hauled the unconscious man up onto a plank-faced earthen bench that spanned the entire length of one wall. He removed a bearskin blanket from a rough pallet that sat along the adjacent wall and tossed it over his guest. He then walked past a trestle table loaded with clay pots, wooden bowls, and winter vegetables, and over to a quaint stone fireplace. He piled some shavings and kindling in the hearth, struck flint to steel, and soon had a pleasant fire burning.

The forester walked beneath the smoked fish and dried herbs that dangled from his rafters and back to his makeshift bed. He sat down on the edge of the cot to rest and to get a better look at his new ward. The more he noticed about his guest, the more intrigued he became.

A bushy mane of light brown curls, some touched with hints of gold, framed the young man's scruffy face. Between his fur-lined cloak and woolen tunic, the man sported a hardened leather cuirass. The broad strap for an overstuffed satchel lay diagonally across his armored chest. A buckskin sword belt dyed oxblood red was girt around his waist. An unremarkable scrip and a most remarkable scabbard and sword hung suspended from this knightly girdle. Oddly enough, the scabbarded weapon hung from the man's right hip, not his left. Aged red velvet that betrayed spots of wear covered the blade’s sheath. Gilt lockets set with precious stones fastened scabbard to belt. The sword's straight guard and disc-shaped pommel, both heavily gilded, glinted eerily in the firelight. The pommel’s engraved central boss displayed the arms of a winged horse enraged. The shimmering glow from the fire that blazed away in the hearth appeared to make the graven image quiver its wings and shuffle its hooves.

The armed stranger shuddered, moaned, and opened his bright blue eyes. Then he closed them again, flopped over, and groaned.

"Thawing out, are you?" the forester asked. "Good. I would hate to think I went through all that trouble of dragging you here just to have you die before we have had a chance to talk."

The forester rose, took a bowl from his table, and stepped over to the hearth. He stirred the contents of a pot that hung over the fire by an iron hook. He then spooned a healthy portion of a steamy potage into the bowl.

"Here," the forester said as he offered the bowl to his guest. "It is not much, just some dock root and parsnips boiled in broth, but it is hot."
The traveler fumbled for his scrip and tried to open it, but his numbed fingers failed him.

"M...m...must...herbs...pouch," the young man stammered in Armarian, a courtly language rarely spoken by commoners even before Armar fell.

“Armarian, eh?” the forester said with a hint of surprise. “I have not heard that language spoken aloud for some time." He leaned down close to his guest's ear. "Do you speak Rurikanan?"

The stranger nodded in response.

"Good," the forester said. "Every civilized person should. Although, I do not know what any civilized person would be doing here. Now, what is it you are so desperate to retrieve from your pouch?"

"Herbs," the Armarian spoke in slightly accented Rurikanan, "in a small bag in my scrip."

The forester retrieved the parcel. His guest sat up, dumped the bag's contents into the soup, and slurped down the broth. Color returned to his cheeks.
"Eastern mandrake, yellowflower, and some special faery additions,” the young man said. “They help restore vitality. I feel almost as good as new!" He tried to stand, but swooned back upon the bench. "Then again, maybe not quite as good as new."

"Easy," the man's host said. "You came nearer to death than you realize. Rest a while and regain your strength. Why not tell me something about yourself, like who you are and what brings you to this god-forsaken corner of the world?"

"I am Andrew!" the Armarian proclaimed with a twinkle in his eyes.

"Well, Andrew, call me Pandulf. Now tell me, what were you doing wandering around the Northland in the middle of a blizzard?”

"I was searching for something," Andrew stated with wide eyes and a puerile grin. He was not sure if he could trust his benefactor enough to tell him the whole truth, so he decided to play the fool.

Pandulf chortled. "Searching for what? There is nothing of interest around here, just trees and snow."

"I am searching for a secret," Andrew replied. He put his finger to his lips.

"Pah!" Pandulf spat. "The Northland holds no secrets worth seeking!"

"I have heard rumors."

"Rumors? What sort of rumors?"

If Andrew had been more attentive, he would have seen Pandulf slip his right hand onto the hilt of a knife that sat upon the table.

"Rumors regarding a great treasure!" Andrew exclaimed with a silly smile a bit too big to be believable.

Pandulf dropped his hand and laughed.

"There are no great treasures here, only trees and rocks. You are either a lunatic, or you are a liar!"

"Perhaps both," Andrew suggested.

"Any man who journeys out during a snowstorm must be mad!" Pandulf declared. "However, I suspect there is method in your madness. Something tells me you are not the fool you pretend to be.

"Anyway, one good turn deserve another, does it not? I saved your life; I think I am owed something in return. You can start repaying your debt by telling me the truth."

"Perhaps I do owe you the truth," Andrew admitted. "After all, if you had not saved my life, all would have been lost. Perhaps I should tell you of my quest."

"Quest?" Pandulf said. "Yes, tell me of this quest of yours. Tell me what sort of quest would make a man risk life and limb by wandering about forest and field in such dangerous weather."

"A quest to destroy the evil that Caelwick the Traitor has loosed upon the land," Andrew said. "I have sworn to send the demon that seized the throne of Rurikana and ruined Armar back to the flaming pits of Hell from whence he came, or die trying."

Pandulf remained silent for a moment. He stared off into nothingness. When he finally spoke, it was in a gruff whisper.

"You have undertaken an impossible mission," Pandulf said. "Also, you are about six-hundred leagues too far north to confront the demon sitting on King Rurik's throne. What does wandering about in a Northland snowstorm have to do with this quest of yours?"

"I might not be searching for gold or jewels, but I am searching for something of value," Andrew explained. "There are certain items, certain artefacts, which will aid me in my quest. One of these, the first I seek, is a treasured document hidden in the root of Mount Carrocktin, site of the last battle of the Demon War."

Pandulf winced at mention of that infamous mountain and the last desperate stand of the Armarian host against the demon's goblin horde.
"What do you know of the final battle?" he asked.

"I have been told tales," Andrew replied. "I know the story. After the sack of Aedonton and the death of King Andred the Third, those knights and lords who had not fallen with castle and king sought refuge within a bleak-but-nearly -impregnable sorcerer's tower constructed ages ago upon Carrocktin’s eastern slope. Led by that vile wizard Caelwick, the foul folk marched north in pursuit. Outnumbered by the goblin legions and overwhelmed by diabolic sorcery, the Armarian warriors faced annihilation. Though the knights of Armar fought bravely that day, an infernal maelstrom engulfed all and demolished the very mountain itself. If any good came of that terrible clash, it was that Caelwick vanished, presumably a victim of his own devilry. May he rot in Hell!"

"Horrible," Pandulf breathed. His face grew taut and ashen. "Simply horrible. I cannot see how anything could have survived the razing of the peak. It was totally destroyed!"

"What I seek lies in a cavern beneath where the fortress once stood," Andrew said.

"How do you know of such things?" Pandulf asked. "Who told you of such things?"

"Socahr the Wise," Andrew replied. "Socahr told me of the items that will aid me in my quest. He told me the tale of the Razing of Carrocktin. He set me upon this path."

"Socahr the Wise?" Pandulf asked with a look of mild astonishment upon his bearded face. "Surely, you cannot mean Socahr the Ageless, Socahr the Magnificent, Socahr the counsel to princes and kings?"

"I do," Andrew said.

"Incredible," Pandulf said. "Why would Socahr choose you for such a mission?"

Andrew shrugged.

"Who knows what goes on in the mind of a wizard?"

"Who indeed?"

"You seem well informed, for a mere woodsman," Andrew said.

"I was a traveler, a lifetime ago," Pandulf explained.

"You must not be that old!" Andrew asserted.

"More than years alone can age a man," Pandulf stated, and then he quickly changed the subject. "So far, this honorable quest Socahr appointed to you does not seem to be going so well, does it?"

"My quest seems doomed to disaster before it has even begun!" Andrew exclaimed with a frown. "My attempt to locate the ruins of Carrocktin proved a miserable failure."

"Perhaps not as much of a failure as you think," Pandulf said. "I found you less than a day's journey from the tumbled remains of that once-mighty mountain. If the grand peak still touched the clouds, we would be within its shadow even now."

"You know where it is?" Andrew asked. "It is close?"

"Close enough," Pandulf answered.

Andrew gazed down at his booted toes and pondered. He sensed an air of mystery about Pandulf and did not entirely trust the man, but he took an instant liking to him nevertheless. His gut told him the enigmatic forester might be a valuable comrade to have along on the quest. Andrew did not relish continuing his dangerous journey all alone. When he looked up from his toes, he stared straight into Pandulf's dark green eyes and asked:

"Pandulf, would you be willing to help put things right?"

"What do you mean?" Pandulf asked.

"The festering evil plaguing these lands must be stopped at its source," Andrew replied. "With Rurikana under the devil's black thumb, with Armar leaderless and broken, with the remaining kingdoms of the old alliance cowed into whimpering submission, the demon's goblins pillage and plunder at will. Bandits terrorize innocent travelers. The forces of darkness gather in preparation for a renewed onslaught upon the lingering bastions of light. Is this world you want to live in?"

"Does anyone?" Pandulf answered.

"Then join me in my quest!" Andrew declared.

Pandulf smirked, but then his face grew sternly serious.

"Your quest is a truly daunting one, perhaps more daunting than you realize," he said. "I do not think you should follow such a perilous path alone. Yes, I will join you. Besides, I have my own reasons for seeking the demon's destruction."

"Excellent!" Andrew exclaimed as he leapt to his feet. "If Mount Carrocktin is as close as you say, let us be off!"

"Now, wait a moment!" Pandulf cried. "It is past sunset, these lands are especially dangerous at night, and you recently looked death in the face. I think you should rest tonight. We can leave in the morning."

"Very well," Andrew grumbled. "I will rest tonight. Tomorrow we leave for Carrocktin."

"Your dedication is commendable," Pandulf muttered mostly to himself. "A bit misguided, perhaps, but commendable."

Copyright © 2015 Richard H. Fay

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