Authors: Shawn E. Crapo
“I agree with Azim, Brynn,” Wrothgaar said. “Men can change, especially those under the spell of one such as The Lifegiver. If this Khalid is attempting to redeem himself and is seeking the Dragon, then we must accept that. The fact that he knows where the Dragon lies tells me that he was called there. Called by the Dragon himself, perhaps.”
Eamon nodded. “He would have no idea where to go, otherwise,” he said. “And the fact that Erenoth is going there as well means that the Dragon sees Khalid as a man who needs guidance. He may want Erenoth to welcome him.”
“Khalid was a thief in his younger years,” Azim said. “He stole gold and jewels from rich, selfish merchants and pawned them for coin to give to the people who needed it. He risked his life and his freedom to fight against the Sultans who oppressed and stole from their people. I absolutely believe that kind man is still inside him.”
Angus looked up at Brynn. “Sir,” he said. “I know nothing of Khalid’s past. But what I saw that night was not the action of an evil man. He freed the children and helped me to kill the guards; his own people. If he was an enemy, then he has definitely had a change of heart.”
“I accept that,” Brynn stated. “If we meet him again, and I see a different man than what I saw at Taryn, then I will forgive him.”
Azim touched Brynn’s shoulder in friendship. “Then you, too, show your honor, my friend,” he said.
“We should get to Bray as soon as possible,” Angen interrupted. “We need their ships, and the scoundrels who sail them.”
“Right,” Eamon agreed. “Angus, once again, I thank you. You will be rewarded for your bravery.”
“The only reward I wish is to open my forge again,” Angus replied. “These people need weapons, but I am shorthanded.”
“There are seventeen strong men here to help you,” Eamon said, pointing to the captive Jindala. “They seem to have lost their will. Be sure to feed them.”
Angus nodded and watched Eamon ride to the captive group. “You will do exactly what Angus tells you,” the Prince said, firmly. “Do you understand?”
Those who understood nodded and translated for the others.
“I am not one to condemn those who are forced to fight against their will,” Eamon continued. “Do as you’re told, and cause no trouble, and you will be welcome in my Kingdom.”
The men said nothing, but seemed at a loss as to why they weren’t being marched to their deaths. It was beyond their understanding.
As the Knights prepared to ride to Bray, Angus spoke up once more.
“My Lord,” he said. “Though you are not the Prince of this Kingdom, I shall honor you as such. If you plan to lay claim to the throne, you have my sword.”
“I would be most honored to have your support, Angus,” Eamon said. “If you wish, speak to Ulrich, my Captain. He is King of the Northmen that reside on this island, and is in command in my absence.”
Angus nodded, and then turned to look over the captive Jindala. They were able bodied, to be sure, and Angus would use them to the best of their abilities. He had no doubt that they would comply with his wishes. The forge would be reopened in no time.
“Come, my friends,” Eamon said to his Knights. “Bray awaits!”
Khalid awoke on the Dragon’s throne with a start. He shot up immediately after opening his eyes, and patted down his body to extinguish the flames that had engulfed him. He realized his foolishness, however, seeing that he wasn’t actually on fire, and sighed with relief. He breathed deeply, letting his heart slow to a steady pace. He closed his eyes, covering his face with his hands, and stood in silence as he composed himself. Then, realizing he was not alone, Khalid spread his fingers and looked through them.
Before him was a man standing with his head cocked, staring at him curiously. The man was dressed in an ornate black tunic, with pieces of intricately decorated black plate armor over his shoulders, forearms, and knees. His boots were black, with bright silver buckles, and two beautifully crafted swords were strapped to his back. He had black hair, with bangs that were swept back and tied, and his eyes were pale blue.
Strangely, despite the man’s dangerous appearance, Khalid was not afraid. He returned the man’s curious stare, saying nothing, waiting for the stranger to make the first move. After several intense seconds, the man spoke.
“Hello, Khalid.” he said, his voice soft, yet commanding. “I am Erenoth, High Priest of Dol Drakkar.”
Khalid simply nodded, still unsure whether the man was real.
“I see that my appearance was unexpected,” Erenoth stated, relaxing his posture and stepping onto the riser. “But I am here to help you.”
“How did you know my name?” Khalid asked.
“I am the Dragon’s servant,” Erenoth replied. “He told me your name, and he called me here as he did you.”
Erenoth smiled. “To help you begin your journey,” he said.
Khalid backed up to sit back down on the throne, but thought better of it. He began to pace nervously, unsure of his purpose.
“I don’t even know why I am here,” he said. “Or why the Dragon chose me to walk his path.”
“The Dragon works in strange ways, my friend,” Erenoth said. “I was in the same state of confusion when I first heard his call.”
“Were you a thief and a murderer as well?” Khalid asked.
Erenoth narrowed his gaze, putting his hands behind his back and pacing. “I was an assassin,” he replied, “for a kingdom across the sea. I came here to seek adventure, and the sport of hunting the primitive people of this island. But when I stepped foot on shore, the Dragon called to me from Dol Drakkar. I went there, unsure of what lay in the ruins. When I arrived, I met the Dragon, much as you did.”
“You were an assassin and a hunter of men?” he repeated. “So you know my confusion?”
“I do. And I know what the Dragon did to you, though it was not necessary. You had already redeemed yourself through action, but he obliged your request because he knew you would never accept your worth until your sins were purged. I find that very honorable, Khalid.”
“I don’t feel any better about myself,” Khalid said. “I’m still the same Khalid I was before.”
“No, my friend,” Erenoth said. “Not in spirit, and not in body, either. Look into the mirror again. The Dragon has made you whole.”
Khalid stared at Erenoth curiously, seeing him nod in encouragement. Khalid turned, reluctantly going to the mirror once more. Though he was apprehensive, he looked into its glassy surface. He was shocked at what he saw.
Khalid looked twenty years younger. His hair, though still slightly gray, was no longer unkempt and in disarray. It was neatly brushed back and cascaded over his shoulders in clean, even curls. His eyes were no longer drooping and puffy, but were bright and filled with life. Even his nose, which had been broken by the warrior in Taryn, was straight again. He looked down at his body, though, and frowned.
“I’m still a little fat,” he joked, patting his ample belly. “Not as much as before, but…better.”
Erenoth chuckled. “That is something you will have to work on yourself,” he said.
Khalid shrugged. “So, what happens next?” he asked.
Erenoth reached to the left side of the mirror where a round depression was carved into the wall. In the center was a hand-shaped print, which Erenoth covered with his own hand and turned. The entire assembly turned with him, making an audible click. The mirror suddenly shifted down slightly, sank into the wall, and slid to the side.
The doorway that appeared opened in a large, sparsely decorated, yet comfortable chamber. Along one wall was a small bed, dressed in dark blue blankets and skirting. Beside it was a wooden writing desk, perfect and unblemished, with an oil lamp atop it. There were bookshelves along the other walls, another mirror, and several tapestries displaying arcane symbols. In the far corner, a large armoire stood open, filled with extravagant robes and several swords of Khalid’s liking. There were scimitars, kilijes, kukris, and all manner of swords that appealed to his fighting style.
Khalid’s attention, however, was focused on the bed. It had been days since he had gotten a good night’s sleep, and even longer since he had slept on a good bed.
“Before we begin,” Erenoth said. “It is important that you rest. The road ahead will not be an easy one, and your duties as high priest will be taxing on your body.”
Khalid nodded. “What will be my first step?” he asked.
“We will test your fighting skills,” Erenoth replied. “Priests of the Dragon are warriors as well as pilgrims, especially in times like these. We are the last line of defense against the enemy when the Knights are occupied. When I am satisfied that your skills are adequate, we will begin our crusade.”
“Crusade?” Khalid asked. “I never imagined that I would ever be a crusader, or a priest.”
“Keep in mind,” Erenoth said, “that your skills as a thief are valuable as well. Our battles ahead will require stealth, cunning, and subterfuge. All of these are necessary to perform our duties properly.”
Khalid said nothing, but turned his mind back to the comfortable looking bed that awaited him.
“Rest well, Khalid,” Erenoth said. “When you awaken, we will begin.”
“Thank you, my friend,” Khalid said. “I truly look forward to learning my new path.”
Erenoth nodded, urging him into the room. Khalid shuffled over to the bed and lowered himself onto the edge. The bed was soft yet firm, and he immediately felt relief as it cradled him. With a smile and a sigh, he spun onto his back, feeling the comforting bed encase him in its warmth.
He was asleep within seconds.
Farouk stood against a massive willow in the dying forest. The great tree was withered and dark, and its branches were cracked and bare. All around, the underbrush and the soil itself were desolate, brown, and lifeless. A Defiler had come this way, drawing the life from the forest with its dark magic, and now the Druid and his apprentice had come to heal the damage.
The apprentice’s hands were spread upon the bark, and his head was lowered in sorrow. He could feel the tree’s pain, and grieved its suffering. The tree had undergone great trauma, and it was losing its will to live. Jodocus looked on, sitting upon a fallen branch, stirring the dead soil with his staff.
“What do you feel, Farouk?” the Druid asked.
Farouk gasped, clenching his eyelids and gritting his teeth. “I feel…pain,” he answered, struggling to breathe as the willow’s agony flowed through his body. “Pain and suffering. Not only for itself, but for the plants around it. It grieves their pain as well, and laments its inability to protect them.”
“Yes,” Jodocus replied. “The willow feels all. As its name suggests, it weeps when the forest dies.”
“Its pain is great,” Farouk lamented. “I can feel it as if it were my own pain.”
“That’s called empathy, my friend,” Jodocus explained. “You feel its pain, and you grieve with it. This is how you heal it.”
“Tell me how to end its suffering.” Farouk begged.
“Show sympathy now,” Jodocus said. “Feel the life of the Earth and let it flow through you. Your sympathy will be the conduit. Tell the great willow that you are here to help, and it will allow you to do so.”
“The pain is very real; excruciating,” Farouk exclaimed. “And the sorrow the tree feels is too great. It wants to die.”
“It will change its mind,” Jodocus said, “once you take away the pain.”
Farouk focused on drawing energy from the Earth. He could feel a tingling in his feet, telling him that he was on the right track, but the power was too weak. He struggled to concentrate, putting all other thoughts out of his mind; all worries, all of his own pain, and all of his past guilt. As he dismissed these distractions, he felt the tingling grow stronger and move slowly up his legs. He sighed with the pleasant feeling, determined to impart it to the damaged tree.
“Very good, my friend,” Jodocus said. “Keep your focus. I can see the power flowing into your body. Take as much as you need and share it with the willow. End its pain.”
Farouk accepted the influx of life, letting it rise into him and flow through his arms down to his fingertips. He let his sympathy for the willow be his guide, directing the life force into the withered bark, feeling it tremble beneath his fingers. The tree began to crackle, leaking sap out of the open gashes in its trunk. The branches above him became strengthened, sprouting small buds of green. The willow’s trunk faded from dead gray to brown as the life returned to its withered mass.
Jodocus smiled, watching the tree slowly come to life once more. “You are doing it, Farouk,” he said, excitedly. “Don’t stop; give the willow what it needs to live.”
Farouk’s expression began to relax as the tree’s agony lessened. He could feel its relief, and the pain he felt began to subside. Above, the green was spreading, each sprout growing into long, supple branches. Leaves sprouted from the ends, slowly elongating into a willow’s typical, weeping canopy.
When the willow was fully healed, Farouk slowly took his hands off of the trunk, backing away to admire its beauty. He smiled as he saw his handiwork. He had saved the tree, successfully passing his first trial as a Druid. He had never felt more proud in his life. Nor had he ever thought his love for nature could be so strong.
“Excellent work, my apprentice!” Jodocus exclaimed. “The willow thrives again, and is no longer in pain. You have done well.”
The Druid stood, placing a hand on Farouk’s shoulder in encouragement. He, too, was proud of Farouk’s work, and was happy to see that his apprentice had succeeded without any help. The man was a natural. He was truly born to be a Druid.
“You have earned a new power, Farouk.” Jodocus said. “The Dragon is proud, and so is The Great Mother. You can now heal trees and smaller plants on your own. You are on your way to becoming a great Druid. I am very proud of you.”
“I owe it all to you, Jodocus,” Farouk said. “And the Dragon.”
“Don’t sell yourself short,” Jodocus warned. “This was your doing. Your ability to summon the powers of the Earth is extraordinary. Better than any man I’ve ever known.”
Farouk accepted the compliment, simply nodding his head and returning to admire the willow. As he watched, three small branches suddenly began to move together. They twisted themselves around each other, slowly growing together as they did. The braid continued for a full six feet, tightening and twisting to a strong, supple shaft.
“What is happening?” Farouk asked.
Jodocus smiled, knowing what was coming. “The willow is preparing a gift for you,” he said. “Wait and see.”
The twisting continued. As the two watched, the three branches were melding into one single, straight, sturdy staff, complete with a formidable-looking knot of branches and thorns at its end. When the willow had finished, the staff broke off and fell to the ground, its point sticking into the newly-revived soil at Farouk’s feet.
He reached out to take the staff, pulling it gently from the forest floor and admiring its craftsmanship.
“It’s beautiful,” he exclaimed.
“It is your staff,” Jodocus explained. “Given to you by the willow of its own free will. That is quite a gift.”
“What is its purpose?” Farouk asked.
“It is simply a conduit for your power,” Jodocus said. “It will aid in summoning the Earth’s energy and imparting it where it needs to go. You see, to another man, it is just a stick. But to a Druid, it is a tool that helps focus his power, much like a seer or wizard’s staff. You will find that it becomes a part of you, and you will never travel anywhere without it. And remember, my friend, the right staff is given, not taken. My staff was given to me by a great oak many, many thou...years ago. The willow was kind enough to give you your first staff, and it is beautiful, indeed. Honor that gift, always.”
Farouk smiled, proudly holding the staff at his side. “I will cherish it forever,” he said, “as a gift from my friend, the willow.”
“Good, good,” Jodocus replied. “Such a gift is a rarity. Never take it for granted. As your power grows, so, too, will the power of your staff. It may change over time, as mine has, and will reform itself according to its primary use.”
Farouk nodded. “I will test it on the surrounding plants,” he said. “Our work is not complete.”
“Very well,” Jodocus said. “Finish.”
Farouk walked to the center of the clearing, looking down at the brown and withered underbrush that lay around him. He placed his staff before him, anchoring it firmly in the ground, and closed his eyes. He called to the Earth, focusing on drawing its life up into his body. The energy built up slowly, charging and warming him as he concentrated. He could feel the power course through his body, swirling within him as it was directed through his arms and into his hands. He released it into the staff, allowing it to enter its length fully. When he felt he had charged the staff sufficiently, he opened his eyes and released the energy into the ground.