Authors: Angela B. Macala-Guajardo
Aerigo socked himself in the stomach with his own elbows, knocking the wind out of his lungs and rocking his weight onto his heels. He let go of Horgrim’s hands to clasp his stomach as he staggered onto the stone tile behind him.
Horgrim threw his massive body at him the moment Aerigo regained balance, slamming the Aigis onto his back on the flour line. Gasps and cheers erupted from both sides of the hall as two clouds of flour shot out from under both men.
Roxie couldn’t cheer. That thud sounded like it either broke the stone floor, or every one of Aerigo’s ribs. Either outcome wasn’t pleasant, but she more hoped it was only the floor that broke. The wrestling match cut her worrying short when Horgrim’s body surged upward, arms flailing, then fell like the strike of a hammer on an anvil over the center flour line.
More cheers from both sides.
Gasping for breath, Aerigo sprung after his opponent, grabbed him by the ankles and spun him around, smearing flour all over the seat of the Durian’s cargo pants. That got more cheers and applause. He pushed Horgrim to the other side of the arena, until the Durian grabbed both his arms and threw the Aigis onto his stomach in front of him. Horgrim grabbed his opponent by the upper arms, slid him closer the line of flour, then dug a giant knee into the small of Aerigo’s back. The Durian set his other knee on his opponents right arm and put his other hand on the back of the Aigis’ clean-shaven skull. He pushed Aerigo’s face into the flour line and held it there, getting laughter, applause and cheers all around.
Aerigo squirmed and spit out flour, then tensed his entire body and gave Horgrim one great heave. Horgrim flopped to his stomach right next to Aerigo, sending more flour in the air.
More cheers for Aerigo.
The Aigis surged to his feet as Horgrim rolled upright, who then swept Aerigo’s feet out from under him. Aerigo caught himself in an off-balance hand stand, only to have his arms swept out from under him as well. He landed with a thud, then received a shove on both shoulders from Horgrim’s boots, sending him sliding across the arena, over both flour lines and out of play.
The song concluded.
“And Horgrim barely defends his reigning title of Champion!” the bard yelled in a sonorous voice. The entire hall cheered and applauded the victory, but their champion held up a hand. He got to his feet and set himself in the center of the arena. Nothing but smear marks remained.
Aerigo slowly rose but remained outside the arena.
“You were holding back, boy,” Horgrim said, his face grim. “Do you mean me disrespect?”
“No, sir,” Aerigo said. “I wasn’t holding back.”
“You lie. I’m a seasoned wrestler. I can tell when an opponent isn’t giving it their all. Get back in the ring and show me.”
“No.” Aerigo strode to Roxie and his metal bands.
“You’ve been given hearty food, the best drink, a place to stay and a title of honor, yet you can’t give me a proper wrestling match?” Horgrim loomed closer, yet stayed inside the arena as men and women started whispering. “You’re the legendary Aerigo, who saved us Durians from the Balvadiers so long ago. I don’t buy that you can be beaten singlehandedly by me at wrestling. Show me how I truly match up to your strength!”
Disappointed, Aerigo turned and faced the giant Durian. “To what point and purpose?”
Horgrim’s face lit up. “See? You did hold back!”
“Aerigo,” Antares said, “I’m eager to see as well. Fight him again.”
Aerigo clenched his jaw, glanced once at Roxie, then strode into the arena opposite Horgrim again, his eyes glowing red. The same pair of chefs rushed toward the flour lines to fix them. “Don’t bother,” he said flatly. The chefs stopped in their tracks, clutching their broom and flour bucket. They gave him hopeful looks. Aerigo just shook his head and sent them away with the wave of his hand.
“Taking this serious at last, aren’t we?” Horgrim said, pleased.
Ignoring him, Aerigo closed his eyes and made circular motions with his arms. He whispered some foreign words and opened his eyes. Transparent vibrating fragments of what looked like his body surrounded him, like there was second larger version of himself in the same place, but only bits and pieces of it could be seen.
He stepped forward, the fragments moving with him.
“Men, clasp hands and wait for my countdown to begin.”
“Now that’s more like it,” Horgrim said, grinning broadly as they dropped into position.
“Three. Two. One... Begin!”
The giant Durian started straining and pushing with all his strength, but Aerigo just stood there, looking as if he were still waiting for the fight to begin. His arms and breathing were relaxed as he held Horgrim in place.
A puzzled look on his face, Horgrim stopped exerting himself. He pushed again, then glanced at his opponent’s still-relaxed arms. “Mighty Beloriah!”
In one swift motion, Aerigo thrust both their arms to one hip, lifting one of Horgrim’s feet off the ground. The Aigis then jerked their grip horizontally to his other hip, forcing the Durian into a midair cartwheel. He let go and his opponent hit the ground with a heavy thud. The spectators let out a wince-filled “oooh!” Roxie’s jaw dropped.
He didn’t even look like he tried!
Horgrim reached for Aerigo’s nearest boot and yanked it off the floor. The Aigis placed his seized foot back on the stone and narrowed his smoldering eyes. Horgrim twisted his body and tried sweeping Aerigo’s feet, but both legs bounced off Aerigo’s ankle.
This time Roxie felt concern for the giant Durian’s well being.
Aerigo grabbed the nearest arm and leg, then lifted his opponent and hefted him out of the arena. Horgrim sailed fifty feet through the air and landed next to the bard.
Silence. Even Roxie was stunned by how little effort Aerigo had used. It had looked like he’d used just enough oomph to chuck his backpack a few feet.
Horgrim laboriously rose to his feet as he took in how far he’d been thrown. “Beloriah’s whiskers!” The giant Durian smiled, brushed some flour from his massive arms, then approached the Aigis with open arms. “Welcome back, Hero of Drio. It’s a pleasure to have you here.” The courtiers began clapping and cheering for both men. Aerigo closed his eyes and made a forward arm circling motion, dismissing the fragments surrounding him, then opened his eyes again and the red glow was gone. The two men shook hands, then Horgrim pulled the Aigis into a rough hug. Once he let go he said, “You take care of yourself, you got that?”
Aerigo gave a brisk nod.
The giant Durian fondly slapped the Aigis on the shoulder, knocking him off-balance, and returned to his bench.
Aerigo headed for his own table.
“You are absolutely covered in flour,” Roxie observed casually, hoping to lighten the mood.
“I am,” he said with a frown. He began patting down the seat of his pants, creating a healthy cloud of flour, brushed down the front of his white shirt, along with his arms, and turned around. “How much is on my back?”
Roxie and the nearby courtiers laughed. “You’re a ghost.” She stood and patted it off, careful to take note how firm and well-shaped his back was. She also felt some of the bumps from his scars and that sobered her mood a little.
Once his back was mostly free of flour, Aerigo clamped on his metal bands. He took a seat, reached for the stein Roxie had given to him and took a few sips.
“Forgetting something?” Roxie asked.
Aerigo let out a frustrated grunt as he set down his stein. He wiped his face with one hand, looked at it, which was now just as white, wiped his face again with his other hand and spread the flour even more. He reached for his cloth napkin and vigorously rubbed his face. “Did I get it all?”
Roxie smiled softly at the thin layer of flour all over Aerigo’s face. She took his cloth napkin and dipped a portion in her water, then gently wiped his face clean. “There you go.”
“Thank you,” Aerigo replied in that deep voice of his, and took his napkin back.
A man came storming through the temple doors waving something over his head. Everyone looked up as his boot-steps clumped through the hall. He stopped at the head table and bowed low. “I apologize for the interruption, Antares, but it was necessary.”
The Druid gave him a knowing smile. “What is it, Diego?”
The guard faltered a second, then drew himself up. “Your grace.” He held up what looked like an orange-sized coconut. “I never saw who threw it. It has Aerigo’s name scratched into it, but he hasn’t been here in centuries.”
“Give the man his message.” He pointed in Aerigo’s direction, who held out a hand.
The guard went wide-eyed as he crossed to Aerigo and handed over the nut. “You’ve returned! Welcome back, Hero of Drio. It’s an honor to meet you.” Aerigo politely inclined his head. “Alas, I’m on duty at the moment. I hope you’re sticking around a while.” Tipping his helmet, he marched out the main entrance and the doors swung shut behind him.
“I give you permission to leave, Aerigo,” Antares said. “I imagine you have business elsewhere tonight.”
“Thank you, your grace,” Aerigo said. He twisted both halves of the nut apart to reveal a small piece of parchment rolled up inside. He plucked the paper out of its shell and uncurled his message.
Roxie looked over one arm to read the note, and frowned. The scratchy writing was in a language she couldn’t read. “What does it say?”
“Thank you for dinner, Antares,” Aerigo said politely to the Druid as he got to his feet. He headed for the door.
“Yes, thank you!” Roxie said and hurried after Aerigo.
The sun had sunk behind the Fire Mountains, yet the treetops clung to its golden light, leaving Drio in a shadowed twilight. It took their eyes a moment to adjust to the dimness as Aerigo led them towards the river.
“Who sent the message?” Roxie asked.
“The King of the Wildwood.”
“The Malkin? I thought the Durians said they were dangerous.”
“They aren’t if they trust you. The Malkin are cautious, and with good reason.” He followed the river and they crossed a narrow bridge next to a mill. As they reached the other side, Roxie’s eyes began to glow. The forest felt like it was alive and full of eyes, all focused on her. The growing darkness made the trees look like giant fingers sticking out of the ground, just waiting to curl around her once she entered. She almost voiced her reluctance to follow, but his brisk pace left no time for hesitation. Her hand twitched for his but she caught herself, put off by Aerigo’s distant behavior.
It wasn’t more than five minutes before Roxie lost Aerigo in the dense undergrowth. One moment she was trailing a few steps behind him. The next moment Aerigo rounded a giant trunk and disappeared. She jogged to catch up, but when she reached the other side of the trunk, he was nowhere in sight.
“Aerigo?” she called shakily. Her voice seemed to go nowhere, as if the leaves were absorbing all sound. There was no noise in this forest, no singing tree frogs or rustling of night creatures stalking in the bush; just a faint sound of wind rustling the leaves. Roxie pressed herself against the trunk, facing the darkness. Visions of beasts leaping for her face with teeth and claws bared raced across her mind as her imagination flew out of control. “Aerigo!”
Roxie’s heart almost stopped when she heard something move on a branch just above her head. Something large landed right in front of her and it brought its face down close to hers. She had no voice left to scream and her legs froze. All she could do was stare into a set of feral eyes inches from her own. The creature didn’t attack, yet she faced it as if it was the last thing she would ever see. She was staring into the face of a tiger. A tiger with a human body. A tail flicked behind its legs and it sniffed at her.
The cat’s eyes narrowed, whiskers twitching as his mouth curled into... what? A sneer? A sneer flashing a row of sharp teeth. Then the creature turned and disappeared into the darkness without making a noise.
What the heck was that?
She wanted to call to Aerigo again, but was afraid of drawing the attention of other night creatures. Instead, her mind was taken over by an impulse to walk forward.
She started off slowly, her footsteps silent as the cat-creature’s, not knowing where she was going or why. Her eyes faded back to normal as fear was overtaken by curiosity, and soon her pace quickened. That had to be people whispering ahead... The voices seemed to beckon her to come closer. Her feet obeyed while part of her mind wondered at the strangeness of her situation. Something drew forward. Ahead, a globe of light hovered above the ground among the trees.
Something grabbed her arm.
Roxie spun, raising a fist. When she recognized Aerigo, she no longer felt a need to head towards the voices.
“Rox, where are you going?”
“I was following you but then you disappeared. Didn’t you hear me calling for you?”
“You did? That’s not a good sign. Let’s go.”
“Wait!” She grabbed his arm and pointed into the trees. “What’s that light?”
Aerigo took in a sharp breath. “We don’t want to get anywhere near that.”
Roxie grabbed his arm. “But I heard voices. Surely there are people.”
Roxie shook her head free of the pull again. The sight of the light globe made her want to run, instead of get closer. If she let it touch her, it would probably kill her or suck out her soul, or something. “Okay, let’s go,” she said, holding tight to Aerigo’s hand. He led her away at a fast walk. “What was that evil light?”
“An aigon,” he said without looking back. “Something only powerful magic can fight.”
“Will it follow us?”
“I don’t think so. We’re heading to a safe place. I’m surprised one even got this close.”
Unsure whether or not to be comforted by this news, Roxie followed in silence and her mind vision spotted another presence moving alongside them, his feline features boldly outlined in white. Aerigo stopped. Roxie wheeled about, still clinging to his hand, to see the cat-creature standing before them. She was about to cower behind Aerigo when he greeted the Malkin.
“Hello, Vallian. I hope King Maharaja doesn’t mind that I brought someone along.”
“Quite the opposite,” Vallian said in a soft voice. He sounded a little shy, or maybe he was trying to keep their location secretive. “Come.”
Under the Malkin’s guidance they soon found their destination. They came upon circular clearings laid out like a honeycomb network, each separated by ancient trees. In the middle of the nearest clearing a bonfire roared, the first welcome light since leaving the temple. Other fires flickered in each neighboring clearing a hundred yards away to the south, east, and southeast. The clearing they were walking through had cooking gear and large sacks piled at the base of trees. A complex mass of hammocks, platforms, and canopies built for shelter against the rain loomed overhead.
“Welcome to the Dwelling,” Vallian said. He was colored and striped like a tiger, and had big feet like a Scondish person. He was as tall as Shaku, too, but heavily built, and wore what looked like an Egyptian skirt Roxie’d seen in hieroglyphs. Vallian somewhat reminded her of Antares’ physical appearance. “Maharaja is near. I will lead you closer, but then we must part. Tonight is a good night for hunting.” The Malkin padded around the bonfire and they followed.
If there were many such creatures nearby, they were very good at hiding. The feeling of being watched crept over Roxie’s skin again, but this time she understood why—or rather who—it was. She kept her mind-vision out of the canopy, feeling it rude and forbidden for strangers to know what was up there.
Vallian led them to the heart of the Dwelling, stopping near the bonfire. “Good night.” He bowed, then jumped onto the nearest tree and clawed his way up.
Once the Malkin disappeared, Roxie turned to Aerigo. “Don’t we get some sort of formal greeting or anything?”
“The Malkin just go about their business. As you can tell, they don’t waste words.”
“How can they stand living in a forest like this? It’s so creepy and dangerous.”
“The Wildwood isn’t creepy, and it’s dangerous only if you don’t know anything about it. The Malkin know this forest better than you know your own home, plus they have powers of their own.”
“Do they, like, know everything that goes on in this forest? I feel like I’m being watched.” Roxie shot a glance at the canopy and saw only leaves and branches, and some wood planks and vines in the firelight. Even the light seemed forbidden from wandering too far into the canopy. Darkness blanketed everything above the first level of branches.
“We both are. We’re in their domain.”
They heard a soft thud next to them. A Malkin with piercing green eyes stood tall and proud before them. Even taller than Vallian, he looked every inch a king of the forest. Maharaja had a bushy white mane about his face, and his cheek and eyebrow whiskers stuck out beyond his tufts of hair. Next to him, even Aerigo seemed small. The King wore a white cloth wrapped around his waist so that it crisscrossed above the knees in front and tied in a knot above the base of his tail, the rest falling free behind him. He wore another length of cloth looped around his strong shoulders. When he spoke, his voice was deep and smooth. “Welcome back, Aerigo. It has been a long time since we last met. You have much to tell.”
Aerigo looked away from the King’s gaze.
Maharaja studied Aerigo for a moment, then turned to Roxie. “You must be the girl Rox, and you’re an Aigis, are you not?”
“How did you know my name?”
“The Wildwood has many ears. One would be wise to not whisper secrets near my trees.” The King narrowed his green eyes at Aerigo. “Your heart is troubled, Aerigo. Come.” He placed one clawed hand on Roxie’s back (which was half as big as her back) and led them to a nearby tree. Maharaja leapt onto its trunk and clawed his way up with as much noise as a squirrel.
“Are we supposed to follow him up there?”
“Good. Because I had no idea how I was gonna get up there without a ladder.”
There was a scratching and a rustle above, and then a soft thud behind both Aigis. The King straightened his knees, holding rolled blankets in one arm. He tossed one to Roxie and unrolled the other with a flick of his feline wrists. The blanket snapped open and sank onto the grass without a wrinkle. “Make yourselves comfortable. There shall be much talk tonight.”
Roxie put down her own blanket without unrolling it and sat on a corner of the other. The ground felt soft and smooth beneath it. She pulled up her pant-legs and undid her boot buckles. Aerigo sat on the opposite corner.
“Why are you taking your boots off?”
“It’s a comfort thing,” she said, pulling one off, then the other. She set them down neatly by the tree trunk and stretched her toes. Her socks were stained, too.
Maharaja returned with two sacks full of food and three round goatskins. He sat between them with his back against a tree and handed them each a skin. The Malkin placed the bags at the blanket’s edge. “The drink will ease your discomfort and make talk easier. I will speak first. And if you have any questions, I will answer to the best of my ability.”
Roxie took a sip from her skin. The warm liquid felt like honey in her throat, but didn’t entirely taste to her liking. It was sweet, like grapes, yet had an aftertaste that reminded her of a beer her grandmother had let her taste once. Still, as she sipped every so often, she found that it tasted better and better.
Maharaja said, “Let me say first that I have been in this world through all of its ages. I’ve seen much in my lifetime, though I have not left the Wildwood often. There is no place in the world like this forest, and there have been times when I thought Azriel would claim it from me.”
“You mean the mountain?” Roxie asked.
“It’s a dormant volcano. Mountains have their own consciousness and do not like to be crowded by trees. My northern borders have been burned many times, yet defiantly grow back. Only a few millennia ago Azriel decided to rest for a while.”
“Only a few?” Roxie said uneasily.
“Don’t let the expanse of time daunt you. Only those whose lives are limited number the days. Time is but an abstract concept.
“About the same time Azriel went to sleep, humans began to colonize farther south, along the river on my western border. You’re staying with the humans due west of this camp, but many more live farther south, all the way to the tip of the Green Province. There they built oceangoing ships and discovered lands I’ve never been to.”
“You’ve never left this continent?”
“I have no need or desire to. There’s plenty to explore on this part of Druconica. Besides, I have my people to watch over, and my Malkin have been around far longer than humans. We let them live in peace outside the Wildwood, so long as they do not hack at my borders. These trees are precious to me. The only thing I don’t like about humans is that they make war. They cannot seem to live in peace with other colonies. For the past fifteen-hundred years they have been quieter, with one exception, but lately things are stirring up again.”
“They are?” Aerigo said, his voice tinted with anger.
“The Balvadiers are planning to attack again.”
“I’m going to have to go back to Balvar and—!”
“No!” Maharaja snapped. “That is not your task. You have more pressing matters to attend to. Don’t stray from your present task.”
“You know what’s happened?” Aerigo said, settling back onto the blanket.
“Not exactly,” the King said. “But this world will know before you leave, and so will I.”
Bad news precedes us everywhere we go
, Roxie thought gloomily, though she was feeling cozy with the warmth of the bonfire seeping just beyond her feet. The drink from the goatskin made her feel both relaxed and alert. Somehow a yawn escaped.
“Lie down and relax, Rox,” the King said.
Her eyes fixated on Maharaja’s as if she were being hypnotized. She heard his voice inside her head.
‘But do not fall asleep. Your friend has things to tell that you should hear, but he won’t speak until he thinks you aren’t awake.
Roxie let her limbs relax. Without looking impulsively at Aerigo, she lay down, using the extra blanket as a pillow.
“Very. You can continue your story, now.”
The King said, “The humans shed much blood amongst themselves, and they learned early on not to fight the Malkin. We are stronger, bigger, and faster, and they cannot navigate the trees like we can. But, when they’re not at war, humans show much promise in learning, for they are quick to invent useful things. With proper guidance, humans could rival the wisest of my kin. Fate has not given them such leadership, but there is still time and progress has been made. If you’ve met the current Druid, Antares, you might have noticed that he doesn’t perfectly resemble a human.