Starstruck, Chapter 1

Sethanon put his drink down on the bar.  As he leaned back on his chair he ran his fingers through his hair.  It hadn’t been washed in a while.  That’s what life on the road was good for.

Sethanon looked around the tavern.  Some other people sat here or there, chatting in small groups or just drinking on their own.  It was quiet.  That’s why Sethanon chose this tavern out of all the others in Eto.  He liked the quiet.

He brought the glass up to his lips and took another sip of his drink.  The whiskey had a good burn to it; his face sharpened as he swallowed.  He brought the glass up to his eye and swirled its contents around a bit, mulling something over in his mind.  Then, with a quick jerk, he downed the rest of the glass’ contents and slammed the glass back down on the bar.  The barkeep strolled over to top up his glass.

“Another, sir?”

“Why not?” replied Sethanon.  The barkeep grabbed Sethanon’s glass and slowly refilled it with whiskey.  Sethanon took a sip.  “Thanks.”  He looked down at the glass again before speaking.

“Can I ask you something?” he asked the barkeep.

The barkeep looked around the bar, noting the lack of boisterous customers.  “Hit me,” he said.

“Why do we wage war?  I mean, why do we fight and kill?  It all seems rather pointless.”

“Well, what do you do when someone refuses to listen to you and just tries to talk right over you?” the barkeep replied.

“You would have to force them to stop, but that’s not what I’m getting at.  I’m not talking about why nations try to assert dominance over one another, that’s just what they do.  I mean, why do the soldiers go along with it?”

The barkeep paused for a moment.  He looked Sethanon up and down, noticing his sword dangling from his hip before he said, “I take it that you’re having trouble with this whole soldiering gambit?  You’re awful young for the whole cynical, jaded thing yet though.  Just not your cup of tea?”

“I’ll admit that it’s not the life I thought of for myself,” Sethanon said with a shrug of his shoulders.  He took another sip of whiskey.  “But someone’s got to do it; someone has to defend the nation.”

“There I think you have it,” replied the barkeep, now shining a newly-washed glass.

“That’s too easy though.  To simply go about it with the why being only that it’s for the nation seems a bit hollow.  Why is fighting for the nation a good thing?”

I think the key is that it’s your nation,” said the barkeep as he leaned up against the bar, “and you feel that you should protect it against those who want to try to take it away from you.”

Sethanon leaned in over his glass, arms crossed on the edge of the bar surface.  “The nation though is a rather abstract concept, don’t you think?  You can’t actually touch or feel the nation or even be affected by it in a you-versus-it kind of way.  It’s hard to place it in amongst the strikingly real scenes of warfare as it isn’t as immediate in relation to ourselves.”

Sethanon leaned back and brought his glass to his lips as he waited for the barkeep to reply.  The barkeep rubbed his hand over his balding scalp as if he were trying to summon the genie of a thought from a magic lamp.

When he finally replied he said, “I think there would be something very wrong if I were motivated to participate in warfare by the things that are most immediate to me when on the battlefield.  I was once a soldier just like you.  I know what it’s like.  The day that you start fighting because you like it instead of for some abstract principle you should hang up that sword and retire.”

“Is that what happened to you?  Is that why you’re serving drinks in some bar in some backwoods town?”

“Not quite.  I certainly realized that I was becoming a bit too comfortable with the whole fighting thing, but I’m here because I served my time and did my duty.  Like you, soldiering wasn’t my first choice of profession, so when I got the chance I moved on with my life.  Soldiering isn’t the end of the line.”

Sethanon took the last swallow out of his glass and set it down.  “But what about serving the ideal of the nation and all that?  The nation’s still around and it still needs defending.”

“And it always will be in some form or another.  I won’t though.  Do you want another?”  The barkeep pointed to the empty glass if front of Sethanon.

“No thanks.  I really should be on my way.”  With his left hand Sethanon grabbed his travelling pack off of the floor while he fished out a coin purse with his right.

“What do I owe you?” he asked the barkeep.

“Five coppers.”  Sethanon fished out a couple coins and tossed them on the bar.

“Here’s another for the conversation.”

“Thank you, sir,” replied the barkeep, “Be sure to stop in again the next time you come through town.”

Sethanon nodded a silent farewell, flung his pack over his shoulder, and walked towards the door.  He nodded silently at some of the other patrons who looked up as he passed.  With a smooth movement he pulled his brown cloak tight, bracing himself for the cold weather outside.

The heavy door to the bar swung creakily as Sethanon stepped out of the bar.  The soles of his boots echoed loudly on the wood of the bar’s porch as he crossed it to step into the street.  The dark earth tones of his outfit clashed with the fresh snow that had fallen over the town.  As Sethanon walked some of the snow gathered in the hood of his cloak, just as it clung to his hair.  The further he walked the more it built up, giving him a fine coating that made him appear as if a ghost soldier from some ancient Frezarian battle.

Sethanon stopped briefly and stooped to pick up a handful of snow.  Its soft powder began to melt from the warmth of his hands as he stared at it.  Before it could melt all the way he tossed it into the air and watched it fall softly to the ground.

“What are you doing?  That’s silly.” A young boy stepped out from behind a porch.  His clothes were much too big for his skinny frame: the coat draped over his shoulders had to be rolled up at the sleeves so he could even use his hands.

Sethanon looked at him, surprised at the boy’s injunction.  “Son, where I come from it doesn’t snow this early in the year.  I was simply thinking back to my home and trying to picture it once again.”

“It’s still silly,” replied the boy.  “Snow is snow is snow.”

Sethanon rubbed his brow.  “That it may be, but it isn’t any less beautiful.”

“Who cares about whether it looks nice?  It makes everything cold.  Can I hold your sword?”  Sethanon’s cloak had slipped open when he had bent down to pick up the snow and the hilt of his sword was now proudly on display.

Sethanon once again pulled his cloak tight.  “You’re too young for that.  I doubt you could even lift it anyways.  Why don’t you head home?  I’m sure your mother is worried about you.”

“She doesn’t care,” the boy retorted.  “Hey, where are you going?”  Sethanon had begun walking again, continuing along the street towards a sprawling building.  The boy began to trail behind him.

With a shrug, Sethanon replied, “I have things to do.”  He didn’t slow down.  The boy trailed behind him.

“Like what?”

“I can’t tell you that.”

“Why not?  I won’t tell anyone.”

“It’s not worth it.  Besides, you wouldn’t believe me.”  Sethanon hesitated and looked back at the boy.  “Or maybe you might, but no one else would.”

“C’mon, I swear I won’t tell anyone.  And I’ll believe you.”  The boy looked up at Sethanon hopefully.

“No.  And that’s final.”  As he said this, Sethanon’s eyes took on a certain hardness for a brief moment.  He sighed, eyes softening.  “Now leave me alone.”

Sethanon turned off the street and stepped onto the porch of an inn.  The boy remained on the street, boots deep in the snow.  His eyes still held a shred of hope that he would be told the secret.  Before he entered the inn, Sethanon turned back and, noticing the boy still there, said “Go.”  The boy’s eyes dimmed and he turned and started trudging back the way he came.  With that Sethanon turned and entered the inn.

The common room was empty.  No one, not even the proprietor, was around.  Good, thought Sethanon, no one will bother me.  He took a few strides towards his left, in the direction of another door near the back.  The sound of his boots on the polished wood floor brought the owner out of the back.

“Seth,” he said surprised, “what can I do for you?”

“Actually Tolman, I was just about to grab my horse and leave town.”

“Really Seth?  You only just arrived.  We haven’t even had a chance to have a drink.”

“Yes, my business is urgent.  Unfortunately I was a little delayed over at the tavern, so I don’t have time to sit and chat, as much as I’d like to right now.”

“Ah, I guess you met old Fin.  He’s quite the fellow.  Him and I have a long history.”

“Yes, the conversation gave me a lot to think about,” replied Sethanon.  “I would stay and chat with you too like we usually do whenever I find myself out this way, but my business really is urgent and I must take my leave.”

Tolman’s shoulders slumped visibly.  “Very well then, I wish you good tidings.  Stop by a little longer the next time you are in Eto.”

Sethanon clasped Tolman’s outstretched hand.  “I will Tolman, I will.”

Tolman turned and returned into the back from where he came.  Sethanon saved one last glance at Tolman’s retreating back before resuming his walk.  With a quick tug, Sethanon pulled open the inn’s back door and stepped into the stables.  Quickly a stablehand rushed up to help him.

“Saddle my horse,” Sethanon said, flipping the boy a copper.  The boy spun around abruptly and went to fetch the horse.  Sethanon leaned up against the cold stone wall of the inn.  The sounds of horses stirring could be heard as the stablehand moved about the stable.  Sethanon’s eyes followed the boy as he went about his work.  A wry smile crept across his face as the boy tried to put the saddle on Sethanon’s horse.

The horse was a dark brown, bordering on black.  Its mane and forelegs drew heavily on that blackness.  It was of a proud build, muscles rippling underneath its coat, marking it as a trained horse of war.  Instead of one of its heavier counterparts, Sethanon had chosen this horse for its endurance, knowing that his journey could be long.

“Calm Blitz!” Sethanon called to his horse.  The whinnying softened a bit as Blitz allowed the boy to throw the saddle over his back.  Sethanon pushed himself off the wall and walked over to where the boy was leading the horse out of its pen.  “Thanks,” he said as he took the reins from the boy’s hands, “I’ll take him from here.”  In one smooth motion Sethanon swung up onto the horse and gave it a slight nudge to goad it into a gallop.  He tossed another coin down to the stablehand before Blitz got into stride.  “For your trouble.”

Sethanon gave Blitz another nudge and it sped out of the stable and into the snowy streets.  He pulled up his hood to hide his face from the cold.  Sethanon urged Blitz to take the right at the next intersection, turning his path north.  As the horse galloped, a few people in the streets looked up at Sethanon’s passage.  He kept his shoulders hunched over the horse and his face covered.  It was best if he wasn’t remembered as more than just a passing soldier.

After a few houses flew past, the street ceased to be a street and merged into a country path with the snow slightly packed down to allow travellers to pass.  Ahead of him, Sethanon could see the Great Forest obscuring the horizon.  With each stride, Blitz brought him closer and closer to the trees and closer to his goal.

In a few minutes, Sethanon’s horse had covered the distance between the town and the forest.  As the road approached the trees it veered off to the west.  Sethanon slowed Blitz to a slow walk as he examined the tree line.  The dark greens and browns of the pines stood out in contrast against the snowy backdrop.  Snow hung from branches, masking the colours slightly, but not so heavy as to bring to mind images of albino stalagmites rising from the earth.  As he walked alongside the trees, Sethanon brushed his hand against a branch, causing the snow that was precariously resting upon it to tumble to the ground.

On the road ahead he could see a bridge.  “Well,” he thought aloud, “Roland said that the path would be right along the river bank just before the bridge.”  He nudged his horse gently, allowing it to pick up its pace once again, flinging the downy snow up with each hoof beat.

Slowly the bridge materialized into an old stone structure that, despite seeming to be relatively uncared for, showed signs of being in rude health.  It certainly did not look the worse for the wear of years of travellers.

The path Sethanon was looking for wasn’t obvious.  Sethanon stopped at the foot of the bridge and looked about him.  The forest bumped right up to the edge of the river, with clumps of snow falling into the cold waters as the breeze slightly shaking overhanging branches.  A path, or at least a proper one, looked rather unlikely as the snow obscured any possible trail between the trees.

Sethanon got down off his horse and led it by the reins as he traced his way along the tree line.  Nothing seemed like a path; there were no markings or even scratches in the bark to signify that a path was available.  Goddamn it, he thought, if I’ve been led after some phantom…  He continued to pace, trying to think of how he could find this seemingly mythical path.  If I were going to hide a path of course I wouldn’t make it obvious.  It’d be something that only I would know about.

Sethanon stepped to the side of the path and bent down to grab a handful of snow.  As he closed his hand around a few flakes he caught an impression in the snow out of the corner of his eye.  It was very faint as the softly falling snow had started to obscure it.  Carefully, Sethanon wiped away the top layer of snow to see the impression more clearly.  It appeared to be some kind of footprint.

He looked up into the forest from where he knelt and saw more of the same shape indentations heading further into the trees.  It wasn’t much of a clue, but it was the best that Sethanon had.  Turning back now wasn’t an option.  He would have to go with what he had.

Sethanon stood up and led Blitz into the forest.  After about ten paces the snow began to fade into thin splotches where the trees pulled apart to give a glimpse at the sky above.  As the snow began to thin Sethanon began to discern a reasonable facsimile of a trail.  The footprints were still vaguely visible in those places where the snow had fallen through the cracks above.  The ground itself was mostly dirt, fading occasionally into small patches of grass.  Tree roots lined the dirt, occasionally crossing, but otherwise leaving the impression of bony fingers stretching outwards and grasping tenuously at the frosted earth.  Sethanon’s walk slowed discernibly as he led Blitz over these roots, taking extra care that the horse not stumble and break an ankle or leg.

To his left Sethanon could see and hear the flow of the River Irlerir as it flushed southward past the town of Eto to join up with the mighty Denenthran which continued onwards to the sea.  Downstream it would be a quick journey back to Lumin.  That’d be nice, thought Sethanon.  Safe in a nice warm bed with nothing to worry about except for where my next drink is coming from.  But going back for Sethanon entailed completing his mission.  Going back without doing so would bring about consequences he wouldn’t want to face.

The path meandered through the trees, taking Sethanon further north into the forest.  After a few miles the path diverged from that of the river, swinging sharply towards the east.

Behind him, in the Western sky, the sun was beginning to set.  Sethanon knew that he wouldn’t be able to follow the trail in the dark leading his horse as he was.  The only option was to find a suitable spot to camp for the night before moving on again in the morning.  As he continued onwards the sun sank lower and lower, casting the forest slowly into darkness.

Eventually, the path widened into what looked like a likely spot to camp for the night.  The trees were just far enough apart to leave a small space untroubled by the creeping tendrils of their roots, though the resultant gap in the branches above had left the smooth ground with a mantle of fresh snow.  Through that gap Sethanon could see the fading sunlight painting the sky with a bright red tinge, almost as if it burned just a little hotter as it disappeared over the horizon.

Ahead the path disappeared around a bend to the left.  Sethanon led Blitz over to a tree close to where the path narrowed again to the east.  The horse shuffled a bit as he hung the reins over a low, broken-off branch.  He swung his travelling pack off of his back and set it on the ground.  Undoing the clasp, he pulled out a length of rope and wrapped it around the tree and through Blitz’s bridle.  He stroked the horse’s mane for a second before moving over and removing the saddle.  That he set on the ground next to his pack.  Next, from his pack he pulled a bundled blanket.  He cradled the blanket under one arm and walked a few paces away from where he had tied Blitz and gently unrolled it on the ground.  Inside, at the center of the blanket, was a scroll.  Sethanon picked it up gingerly and looked at it for a moment.  Roland told me not to look at this, he thought.  I am just supposed to hand it over and then deliver the message.

With his other hand, Sethanon picked up the blanket again and sat down at the base of a tree with his back against the trunk.  He curled his knees up and draped the blanket over them.  But what if the contents of this scroll are going to get me killed?  I don’t want to walk right into some trap.  I already don’t know enough about what I’m getting into.  Sethanon’s brow furrowed.  Opening it wouldn’t be very loyal though.  It would be directly disobeying my superior officer.  My superior officer gets his orders from the leader of our nation.  How could I respect myself as a protector of the nation if I were to betray the trust placed in me? 

He rolled the scroll around in his fingers.  It wasn’t very thick, when it was unrolled it wouldn’t be very long.  The scroll was held together with a thin red ribbon that was tied tightly in what looked to be a hasty manner.  On the balance of things, Sethanon didn’t think that it looked that important, but, then again, he knew better than to assume that because it looked rather non-descript that it was not important.

What is the point of sending me into a potentially dangerous situation without telling me everything I need to know?  Why hide something from me?  I mean, I already know everything else.  They gave me the message to tell orally instead of writing it down.  He swept the blanket off his legs and got back to his feet.  He grabbed the pack and brought it back over to the tree where he was sitting.  Sethanon sat back down again and got comfortable.  He pulled a half-eaten loaf of bread out of his pack and ripped off a chunk before tossing the remained back in the bag.  As he chewed he stared at the scroll some more.  It would be very easy to slip the ribbon right off.  It would be just as easy to slip it right back on again.  No one would ever have to know that I had read it.  And I would be prepared.

Sethanon cast a furtive glance around the area, as if there was someone else there watching him.  He raised the scroll up closer to his face and thought for a final second.  With a gentle movement of his left hand he slid the ribbon off the paper and set it on his lap where it wouldn’t get damaged.  With his right hand he reached into his pack and fished out a box of matches.  With a flick he lit one and held it up.  He slowly unravelled the paper and read it.

Wizard,

This man is Sethanon Ashdel.  He speaks on behalf of the kingdom of Luminessa and its King, Deneld Essoch.  His word may be considered to be the word of the King and Kingdom as if it had been written as Royal Decree.

Yours in kinship,

King Deneld Essoch, King of Luminessa

Sethanon rested the letter on his knees for a moment, thinking about its contents.  His expression was puzzled.  “This makes no sense,” he muttered to himself quietly.  “Why swear me to not open the letter if all it contained was this?  It doesn’t do anything but say that I have authority and I’m not some fraud.  How could me knowing this harm anything?”  He closed his eyes and ran his fingers through his hair.

“They told me what to do and what to say anyways, so I’m basically just a messenger.  I’m just going to say what they told me to.  It just makes no sense to me why I wasn’t supposed to open it.”  Sethanon took another look at the letter, just in case there was something he missed the first time.  When he finished he carefully rolled the paper back up and softly slid the ribbon back around it.  “It still doesn’t make sense.  What are they playing at?”

Sethanon shook his head in frustration.  He just didn’t understand and it irked him.  He liked when problems were easily solvable.  That’s the second time today that I’ve come across something that just defies answering, he considered, thinking back to his earlier conversation with Fin.  He shook his head again.  Why can’t everything just be straightforward?

Picking up the scroll again, he tucked it safely into his pack.  Carefully, he folded the pack over itself to double its bulk.  Stretching out, he laid his head down onto the pack and went to sleep.

The sun crept over the eastern horizon.  The waters of Stargard lake and the Sea of Lumvar shimmered with the morning glow as its rays slowly worked their way over the land westward.  They touched the grassy plains, the rocky hills, and the majestic forests.

Sethanon woke to the sound of small wings fluttering.  A soft down of snow fell onto his face as a bird took flight from a branch directly above him.  He rubbed at his eyes and face to clear the offending material and sat up.  Blitz was still where he had left him, tied to the tree trunk.  His head was bowed, and it was clearly asleep.

Sethanon stood up.  He stepped off into the trees to relieve himself.  When he returned he pulled the scroll out of his pack and wrapped it back up in his blanket.  Before shoving it back into the pack he grabbed an apple from inside.  He gripped the apple between his teeth and bit off a hefty chunk.  As he chewed it he looked down at the apple and the thin trickle of juice his bite had unleashed.  The sweetness clung to his tongue and he washed it down with a quick swig of water from his canteen.  He chomped it down with a few more bites, whittling it down to the core.

Moving over to his sleeping horse, Sethanon patted it gently on the rump.  With a slight whinny it came to life, beginning to shake out its limbs and stomp at the earth.  Sethanon walked around and untied the rope from around the tree.  He gave the horse a stroke on its mane and offered it the apple core before throwing the rope back in his travelling bag.

Picking up the saddle he muttered to himself, “Another day.  Hopefully we make it there today.”  He draped it over the back of the horse, adjusting it slightly so that it sat in the proper position.  He picked up his pack and slung it over his shoulder.  He checked his sword in its scabbard to ensure that it was still secure before he took up Blitz’s reins yet again.

Sethanon led his horse towards the east, through the narrow gap in the trees that marked the continuation of the path.  As he passed onwards, Sethanon didn’t look back.

The path ahead was still dim as the sun, having barely risen, had not reached its zenith and was fighting a losing battle against the trees to light up the forest.  Small rays poked through at varying intervals, casting a rather mismatched pattern upon the ground.  As Sethanon and his horse moved onwards these patterns would change as they added their own shadows to the picture with a rippling effect like a pebble tossed into a calm pool.

After a few miles of walking, the ground began to become hilly.  The rolling hills north of Lumin stretched a finger even further north through the Great Forest, which mimicked its southern counterparts in attitude, but not in size.  They began with a gentle roll, but soon increased in frequency and magnitude, causing the forest path to wind slightly around them instead of surmounting them.

As Sethanon rounded the first large hill he heard a noise.  A soft crack followed by a rustle.  He looked behind him at Blitz, thinking that maybe it had simply cracked a fallen branch with a careless footfall.  There has nothing at his horse’s hooves except for a small patch of fallen snow.  Sethanon crouched down briefly to examine the snow, anticipating finding a branch underneath.  He stuck his hand into the patch under the last hoof print and moved it around.  Nothing.  He looked around warily.

As he was about to stand up, he took another look at the patch of snow.  There, about a foot and a half away from where his horse had struck the snow, was a footprint.  That looks very similar to the ones I found upon the side of the road, he thought.  So, there is at least one person who lives in these woods.

He stood up fully and looked around.  He cast his gaze all about him, but couldn’t see anything moving.  Again he grabbed Blitz’s reins and carried on, a little more wary than he was before.

Once around the bend in the path that took him past the hill, the path diverged into two separate tracks.  One followed the run of the hill, the other, to his right, veered off towards the northeast.  The intersection created a small clearing.  What do I do now?  No one told me anything about two paths.  They told me to find the path and follow it.

Sethanon stopped before entering the small clearing fully, noting the patch of snow that covered the ground in front of him.  He examined it closely.  The same footprints that he saw earlier dotted the white surface, retreating towards the left path.

Should I follow them?  I don’t have anything else to go by, he thought.  What if the person making those footprints is who I’m looking for?  He took a half step forward and then paused.  It could be a trap though.  I don’t know these woods.  He stood there and thought about what he should do.  Trap or no trap, if that’s the person I’m looking for I’ve got to go talk to them.  I have a duty and I can’t just abandon it because there might be a trap.

He nodded his head firmly and started to lead Blitz down the left hand path.  He listened carefully for other sounds, but the woods were quiet.  Despite the silence, Sethanon was still on edge.  His shoulders were tense and his movements rushed and jerky.

The path kept hugging the slope of the hill, bending further towards the west.  As Sethanon made his way forwards the path widened further, eventually culminating in a small clearing.  Directly opposite the direction Sethanon approached from was a small cabin.  It wasn’t anything noteworthy, just a few logs thrown together with haphazard skill.  It was made for shelter, not beauteous appeal.  A door that looked worse for wear was the only apparent opening, fitting awkwardly into an angled frame.

Sethanon approached the cabin cautiously.

He was halfway across the clearing when a voice called out to him: “Hey there.”  Sethanon looked around, unsure where the voice came from.

“Over here.”  Sethanon jerked his head to his left.  A small man was sitting on a fallen tree trunk.  His clothing was rather dishevelled, and his long, grey hair was unkempt and melded with his scraggly beard.  It was clear that he had lived in the woods for quite a time.

“What are you doing on my land?” he asked Sethanon.

Sethanon didn’t know how to respond.  This man didn’t look like who he was looking for.  His appearance did not match with what he was led to expect.  “I am looking for someone,” he replied.

“Well, you’ve certainly found someone, haven’t you?”

“The question is whether you’re the right person.”

“If you have to ask, I’m probably not.”

Sethanon nodded his head slightly.  The man was offering nothing.  Sethanon casually opened the front of his cloak, brushing it so that it hung over the pommel of his sword.

“I see what you’re doing there boy,” the man said as he stood up.  “You can’t intimidate me that easily.”  He began walking towards his cabin.  “I wasn’t born yesterday.”

Sethanon was taken aback by the ease with which the man had seen through his act.  He wasn’t expecting that at all.  He covered the sword back up and asked, “Are you the only one who lives in these woods?”

The man leaned up against the cabin and shielded his eyes against the sunlight, which had crept up over the trees to shine directly down into the clearing.  “Hah, certainly not.  But I’m the only one you’re like to meet.”  He spat.

“Do you know where I could find anyone else?”

“Listen boy, I don’t go any deeper into these woods than this,” he growled.  “I don’t want anything to do with anything else in these woods but myself.”

“So you can’t help me at all?”  Sethanon’s face was impassive.  Worst case I just head back to the intersection and follow the other path, he thought.

“Just go back the way you came and take the other path.  That’s all I can give you.”  He man spat again, opened the door to his cabin, entered, and slammed the door behind him.

Sethanon was puzzled by this.  The man obviously had nothing to fear from him.  He considered knocking on the man’s door in hopes that sheer persistence would elicit a better response.  He’s told me what I already know.  I reached the same conclusion on my own.  He’s got to have something else that he’s hiding.  “Stay,” he told Blitz.  He walked the rest of the way over to the cabin and rapped sharply on the door.

“Go away,” came a yell from inside.  “I have nothing more to tell you.”

“You haven’t told me anything,” Sethanon replied.  His face bore a slight frown.

“And I’m not going to tell you anything else.  Now leave me alone!”  Sethanon could hear the stomping of feet come and go as the man inside paced around.  He thought he’d give it one last shot.

“Do you know anything about the wizard?”

The footsteps stopped for a moment before hurriedly becoming louder.  The door was yanked open right in Sethanon’s face and the man’s head poked out.  His eyes bulged and showed a maniacal glint.  His lips trembled slightly as he asked, “How do you know about the wizard?”

“That’s not imp–,” Sethanon backed up a few steps as spittle flew from the man’s mouth.

“Is that who you’re looking for?  You’d best stay far, far away from him.  He’s not like us, he’s not natural.”  The man’s eyes took on a new level of crazy as he raved.  “He’s dangerous.  No one dares to go near him.  He has dangerous spells and all sorts of filthy rituals.”

Sethanon had heard enough.  The man wouldn’t tell him anything useful now.  He was too worked up.  “Thank you, I’ll be on my way now.”  Sethanon gave a slight bow of his head and collected his horse.

As he left the clearing, he heard the man screaming behind him, “Stay away from the wizard’s valley!  It will be your doom!”

Sethanon thought about the man’s mad ravings as he continued down the path.  He didn’t know what to think.  Certainly the King wouldn’t send me into this forest if the wizard was that dangerous.  But no one really knew much about the wizard.  Maybe this forest-dweller knew something that everyone outside of the forest didn’t.  Somehow Sethanon couldn’t give much credit to someone who lived their life completely separate from society though.  He’s probably lived here for most of his life, even though he cowers in fear of the wizard.  He doesn’t know anything outside of his little piece of forest.  He’s probably ignorant of even what’s over the next hill.

Sethanon reached the intersection and took the path that he hadn’t yet been down.  It twisted and wound between more hills, occasionally climbing over some of the smaller ones.  It was slow going for Sethanon, leading Blitz up the hills and down the other side.  He could feel the hours slipping by, moment by moment spent walking further.

Each step brought up new thoughts about what the wizard would be like.  Would he be a master of the dark arts, as the man Sethanon had left behind seemed to believe?  Would he be like the stories Sethanon heard in his childhood of the wizards who used their powers for selfish gain?  Or would he be someone honourable?  Long odds on that one, Sethanon thought.  No story I’ve ever heard mentioned an honourable wizard.  Devious and crafty ones, yes, but no honourable ones.

While the path mostly stuck to the low points between hills, Sethanon noted that with each hill they crossed over the hills were getting bigger.  Each one took a little more time to circumnavigate and Sethanon could see the sun beginning to set in between the trees.

At the bottom of a large hill, the path veered sharply to the south.  A large rock stood to the left of the path.  Strange markings were carved into its face.  Sethanon stopped briefly to try and see what information they could offer him.  He could not decipher them.  Well, I bet that they say something to the effect of ‘Wizard ahead,’ but, then again, even if they contained some warning I’m not turning back now.

After a few hundred yards, the path swung back towards the east and followed a long, narrow valley between two large hills.  The trees hung in on either side, the angle of the slopes making the trunks lean towards the middle, looking like they might topple over at any moment.  The effect was akin to a tunnel made up of branches and pine needles.  Sethanon walked through gingerly, taking care to lead Blitz down the middle of the path, lest a stray branch hit it and startle it unnecessarily.

Once out of the tunnel, the path took a gentle sweep to the north.  It led straight up a hill.  It was the biggest hill yet.  Sethanon wondered, why doesn’t it go around?  Every other hill anywhere near this size has had the path go around it.  Sethanon stopped at the bottom and looked up.

From the bottom of the hill, Sethanon could see the path open up to the dusk-tinged sky at a point where the trees suddenly receded.  A bird soared through the air across the opening, revealing itself ever so briefly.  Sethanon took a deep breath and gave a slight tug on Blitz’s reins as he began his ascent.  Step by step an ominous feeling began to burgeon in his chest, making each footfall seem weightier.  This is the first true clearing I’ve seen this entire time, he thought.  It must be something important.  The rest was all just trees and more trees.  His heart began to beat a little faster.  Is this it, what I’ve come all this way for?  He stopped walking and took another deep breath.  His horse snorted at the halt, impatient to be over the hill.

Sethanon resumed his stride.  One step after the other he moved forward, the opening in the trees becoming more pronounced with each passing second, the colours of the setting sun coming into greater focus.  His heart beat even more vigorously in his chest.  One hundred paces until the top.  Eighty.  Sixty.  Fifty.  Forty.  Thirty.  He was getting anxious now.  My next steps could decide my destiny.  Or I might be getting worked up for nothing.  Fifteen paces.  Ten.  Five.

Sethanon crested the hill as the trees ended abruptly.  For some reason they just stopped growing suddenly and gave way to a view of the clear sky.  He looked out over a valley.

Sethanon took a few strides forward to stand on the edge of the valley.  Before him the land gave way quickly in a series of rocky outcroppings before the tree line resumed.  On the other side of the valley he could see the same rocky slopes, another think band of trees, then the calm waters of Stargard Lake.  The red of the setting sun cast an aura about the scene, glinting off the waters, off the snow, and off the stone.  At the center of this glowing cauldron, a wisp of smoke rose, teasing this way and that on the soft breeze.  That was all that was discernable amongst the trees, that soft, sultry wisp of grey smoke that subtly caught the glow of the falling sun.  But where there is smoke there is fire, and where there is fire there is someone tending it.

Sethanon stood there on the brink of the valley and looked down.  Down there, at the heart of it all, was the object of his mission.

He started down the hill.

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