Chapter II - A New Life in Tharain
Hermod blocked the sword coming at him and countered with his own lunge, but either Gwenn was too fast or he was getting old. She dodged left, knocked his arm away, and slashed at his side. Her dulled blade scraped harmlessly against his sparring armor but wounded his pride. He’d never lost a match against her or anyone else since he completed his training as a young boy.
“What’s wrong with you today?” asked Gwenn. Her light brown hair had grown down to her shoulders, but she’d cut it short in the front so it wouldn’t get in the way of her vision. “Did eating so much food at the ceremony slow you down?”
“That was weeks ago,” said Hermod.
Gwenn backed away and held her sword in front of her body. She was tall and muscular, a former commander in the Tharain army before the Great War. Hermod had met few warriors as skilled with a sword as she was and none that could challenge him.
“You don’t have to go easy on me just because I’m your wife now.” She flicked the blade at him. “Let’s try it again, but this time, put some effort into it, old man.”
Hermod took a deep breath and ran his fingers through the grizzled hairs on the side of his head. Although he wasn’t as lean as he used to be, he was still stronger than most men half his age. He readied his sword and went on the offense. Gwenn seemed to be distracted by talking too much, a weakness he’d use to gain the advantage and teach her a quick lesson. He cared for her too much to lose her in some future battle because of avoidable disruptions. As soon as he disarmed her, he’d chastise her for talking when she should have been concentrating on her opponent. There was peace now, but war was only an ambitious and charismatic leader away.
After a heavy downward swipe followed by left and right jabs, he closed in for a finishing blow to her abdomen. Just before he was ready to claim victory, Gwenn dropped her weapon and held her stomach with both hands. She looked up at him, an expression of extreme discomfort clear on her face.
“I hadn’t even touched you yet,” he said.
Worried, he tossed his sword aside and placed his hands on her shoulders.
“Are you hurt? What happened?”
She pushed him away, spun around, and fell to her knees. Hermod hoped she hadn’t caught one of the fevers that seemed to be spreading around town. Many citizens died before they received appropriate treatment, and the fact that most of the homes were still in shambles from the most recent war didn’t help anyone’s recovery. Until the town could be properly rebuilt, the population was in danger, be it from disease, wild animals, or roving gangs of bandits.
“I’ll fetch the apothecary,” he said. “I’m sure he’ll have something to soothe your stomach.”
“No need.” Gwenn was hunched over the ground but put up a hand to stop him from coming any closer. “I’ll be fine in a minute. I just need a moment to catch my breath. Go in for breakfast, but don’t start eating without me. It wouldn’t be polite.”
She gave him a partial grin that warmed his entire body.
Hermod was torn. He wanted to help her, but she seemed adamant about handling this on her own. She’d always been independent and disobeying her request would only make her angry.
“I’ll bring the sparring blades in when I’m ready,” she said and waved him away.
Someone with a fever wouldn’t have offered to do chores. With one final glance at her, he headed into the kitchen. He wasn’t a skilled cook, but he knew enough to make a light meal, one that wouldn’t upset her digestion. There had been no chefs in the castle since the Ferfolk had slaughtered everyone. He could have asked one of the servants to prepare something tastier, but he never felt comfortable giving them orders. Although he’d commanded legions of soldiers in times of war and peace, this was a different situation. He didn’t know if it was appropriate for a chamber maid to handle dishes or if a groomsman was allowed to spend time away from the stables. Gwenn would understand. She wasn’t much different from him. Her family had wanted her to become the wife of a nobleman, but she’d chosen the path of a warrior instead.
He wandered into the pantry, passing his hands over sacks of barley, oats, and wheat flour. After he’d retired from the army, the late King Cyllin had granted him a large farm in recognition for his years of service. Learning about sowing seeds and tending crops interested him for a short time, but watching plants grow could never compete with the thrill of battle. As soon as he picked up a sword after his extended hiatus, he knew he’d never return to farming.
“I thought you were taking care of the food.” Gwenn’s voice echoed from down the corridor. “I’m hungry.”
With a smile, Hermod gathered an armful of day-old bread, hard cheeses, and cured meats. He was glad she felt better and looked forward to a quiet meal together before starting their short trip south to Kroflund. The small city had been devastated during the war, and he couldn’t allow the citizens to rebuild on their own while he relaxed in the castle. Whenever he had spare time, he traveled to the city and assisted with the reconstruction in any way he could.
Hermod and Gwenn remained in Kroflund longer than expected. They carried lumber to carpenters, laid bricks with masons, and brought food and drinks to their fellow workers. Hermod would have stayed another few weeks, but Gwenn reminded him more than once that they were on a schedule and that he could return after their guests had left. They made it back to Castle Tharain just in time to greet their visitor. Despite his advanced age, King Zairel had traveled from Zairn to visit his neighbors, and in addition to his contingent of guards and advisers, he’d brought an unexpected but welcome guest: Falgoran, the Arboreal commander of the war-cat legion.
The Arboreals were a green-skinned race from the dense forests to the south. Typically reclusive, they rarely ventured outside the jungle, but Falgoran had formed a close friendship with Zairel during the Great War. The two had traded many stories of their respective people and had decided to travel throughout the remains of the five kingdoms together. Hermod agreed with Zairel’s advisers that he shouldn’t have been exerting himself, but with Falgoran at his side, safety wouldn’t be an issue, especially if they kept to the wooded areas. Arboreals shared a special bond with trees and were undefeatable in their environment.
“Your Majesty,” said Hermod with a slight bow, “it’s good to see you again.”
Zairel broke free from his pack of guards and rushed forward. His white hair flew in all directions and his skin was almost as wrinkled as a Ferfolk’s.
“Great Hermod Dragonslayer,” he said, grabbing him by the arms. “It’s war! We’re all in danger. Every one of us.”
The king’s chief adviser stepped forward and put a firm hand on Zairel’s shoulder.
“Sire,” he said, “the Ferfolk have been defeated. I assure you the war is over, and our victory was mainly due to your leadership.”
He gently pried the king away from Hermod and ushered him into the castle, followed by the rest of his men. Falgoran, however, lagged behind to greet both Hermod and Gwenn. Tall and thin with long green hair and pale green skin, he returned their bow and formally announced his arrival in Arboreal tradition for the next several minutes.
“We’ve met before,” said Hermod when he was done, “more than once.”
“But this is my first time at your home,” said Falgoran, “and hopefully not my last.”
“Most certainly not,” said Gwenn. “Do come in.”
She stepped toward the entrance but Falgoran held her back with a tap on her arm.
“I’m worried about King Zairel,” he said.
“As are we. He shouldn’t have made such a long trip at his age.”
“No, not his physical condition. I’m concerned about his frequent mentions of war. His advisers are positive he believes the Great War hasn’t ended, but I disagree. I’ve asked him for more details, but his memory of recent events is spotty. He winds up acquiescing to his advisers and dropping the subject. Listen to him carefully while he’s here and tell me what you think.”
“We will,” said Hermod. “But first, come in and rest. I bet the boat ride wasn’t as comfortable as a good tree branch.”
“You’d win that bet. I’m glad to be off the water.”
Hermod knew Falgoran would have preferred to rest in the trees surrounding the castle, but the Arboreal followed him inside, graciously accepting his hospitality. The Arboreals were peaceful and polite, showing ferocity only when defending their home or their neighbors. Hermod hoped it wouldn’t be necessary for them to show that side of their personalities anymore.
They heard King Zairel’s shouts as soon as they stepped through the entryway. The king’s voice echoed from the antechamber to the great hall, where he stood on a chair by an open window, with his advisers attempting to coax him down.
“It’s terrible,” he said. “The desolation. I’ve never seen such destruction.”
When his advisers reached up to grab him, he leaped over their arms onto the floor, displaying too much spryness for his age, and dashed toward Hermod.
“Gather the heroes,” he said. “Before it’s too late. Nobody can defeat you, Dragonslayer. We might yet survive.”
Hermod glanced at Gwenn, who seemed about to placate the old king, and nodded toward the advisers. Without any words exchanged, she knew what he wanted and placed herself between Zairel and the oncoming charge of men.
“I’m here, Sire,” said Hermod. “The others are on their way. Aethelwyn and Kronwulf should arrive by nightfall.”
“And Oengus?” Zairel peered around the room. “I haven’t seen my nephew in days.”
Unfortunately, Oengus hadn’t survived the war. It had been difficult explaining his death to the king the first time, and Hermod dreaded having to repeat the story. Such bad news was sure to worsen Zairel’s frantic mood.
“I’ll send word for him,” said Hermod. “But he’s on an important mission. He might not be able to join us.”
He felt terrible about lying to his friend, but he knew the truth would have been worse. Gwenn had gathered the advisers into the corner of the room, and the distraught looks on their faces indicated they didn’t condone Hermod’s dishonesty. Falgoran, however, joined Gwenn’s efforts to calm the advisers, giving Hermod a few more moments alone with the king.
He took Zairel by the hand and led him back to the window. The sun shone brightly behind puffy white clouds, and the clear water of the river rushed past the front of the castle on its way to join the Sinewan east of Kroflund. Blackbirds sang in the trees, filling the air with chorus of trills and tweets. There couldn’t have been many days more idyllic than this.
“Tell me, Sire, who threatens this peace?” asked Hermod in his most calming voice. “Is it the Ferfolk again?”
After winning the war, the heroes had allowed the Ferfolk to remain in one of the destroyed towns rather than banishing them back to the wastelands. Perhaps that had been a mistake, but Hermod didn’t think so. The Ferfolk only attacked because they couldn’t survive in the desert. Sending them back would only have asked for another war in the future.
He leaned out the window and breathed in the sweet scent of honeysuckle climbing up the castle’s stone walls. For others to enjoy these flowers in the future, someone had to protect them in the present.
“If the Ferfolk have become aggressive again,” he said, “I swear to stop them before they endanger a single person in this land.”
Zairel put his hands on the sill next to Hermod, stared out for a moment, and recoiled in horror.
“The trees, the rocks, the water.” He hopped onto the chair and curled into a ball with his hands on his head. “There’s no escape for us. The world is our enemy.”
Hermod drew the curtains, allowing darkness to fill the room. Something other than the Ferfolk was bothering Zairel.
Sunrise came eventually, but Hermod had already been awake for hours, standing quietly at the window. The night’s blackness gave way to purples, pinks, and oranges. Although the sun was obscured by trees, the growing cloud cover amplified its brilliant colors, creating a surreal painting in the sky.
“How long have you been up?” asked Gwenn from bed.
“Too long,” said Hermod as he made his way to her side.
“You had the nightmare again?”
He sat on the edge of the bed. “Three nights in a row.”
“Stop worrying so much,” she said as she rubbed his back. “You’re just anxious about becoming a father. I’ve had similar dreams, but I don’t let them ruin a good night’s sleep. From what I’ve heard, we won’t be getting much rest at all once the baby’s here.”
“That doesn’t make me feel any better.” He gave her a quick kiss on the forehead. “But I’ll try to put it out of my mind while we have guests. Do you think they’re up yet?”
“Arboreals never sleep, so I’m sure Falgoran is wandering about somewhere. King Zairel’s probably still in bed or you would have heard him by now. For an old man, he has quite a loud voice.”
Hermod glanced at the doorway.
“Go ahead and look for Falgoran,” said Gwenn. “I’ll be up and about soon. Just let me know when breakfast is ready.”
“As you wish.”
Hermod left the room with a slight bow. He hadn’t had as much time to speak with Falgoran as he’d hoped. Either the Arboreal was off in the woods on his own, or he was surrounded by Zairel’s advisers. This might be the only time to talk about having a more open relationship between humans and Arboreals, perhaps even initiating an exchange of ambassadors. Although the two races had been allies in the past, they rarely intermingled despite sharing a border in the deep forest.
The castle was so quiet that Hermod could hear the waters of the river rushing past the front gate. On his way down the main staircase, he stopped at a window overlooking the western woods. The usually noisy morning birds were silent, as were the insects. Nothing made a sound outside until a low rumble echoed through the mountains behind the castle. Hermod thought it might have been thunder, a storm coming in from the north, but the floor and walls began to shake. Bits of mortar rained down from the ceiling and small cracks appeared between some of the stones in the wall.
“Gwenn,” shouted Hermod as he bounded upstairs. “Are you hurt?”
He made it to the top floor and dashed toward his bedroom when Zairel popped out of a guest room into his path.
“It started,” he wailed and grabbed Hermod’s shirt. “The end is near.”
The tremor had stopped, and the castle was once again still.
“It was only a small earthquake,” said Hermod. “Nothing to get upset about. The castle is still standing, and there appears to have been little or no damage.”
He was relieved when Gwenn came out of the bedroom to check on Zairel. The king’s advisers joined them in the hallway, along with Falgoran.
“It’s not over,” said Zairel. “It has just started.”
“What started, Sire?” asked Gwenn.
“War, war, it’s always war.”
“Then we must prepare you for battle,” said his chief advisory, taking him by the hand and leading him back into his room. “With Hermod by your side, we’ll all be safe.”
“Yes, we need the Dragonslayer,” said the king just before his advisers closed the door.
“He must have had a nightmare as well,” said Gwenn. “Perhaps it wasn’t the best night for sleeping.”
“What do you mean by ‘as well’?” asked Falgoran. “Who else had nightmares recently?”
“Both Hermod and I have had them,” said Gwenn. “Doesn’t everybody?”
Falgoran glared at her.
“I mean–don’t all humans?”
“They may or may not,” said Falgoran. “What have you been dreaming about that would disturb your sleep?”
“Where’s my armor,” Zairel shouted from his room.
“Come,” said Hermod as he headed toward the staircase. “Let’s give him some privacy and discuss this over breakfast.”
He hoped Falgoran would forget about prying into their private dreams, but as soon as they’d settled in a corner of the dining room, the Arboreal again asked about their nightmares.
“I’m digging a hole,” said Gwenn before their food arrived. “I don’t know why it has to be so deep, but I get stuck in it. Since I can’t climb out, I keep digging. Deeper and deeper until it’s so dark that I can’t see anything.”
“When did you start having this dream?” asked Falgoran.
“A few months ago.” Gwenn looked at Hermod for confirmation. “About the same time as yours.”
“We were both nervous about starting a family,” said Hermod. “I’m not sure why you’re so interested in our private matters.”
“Because that’s about the same time King Zairel’s nightmares began.”
A selection of dried meats, freshly baked breads, and a few ripe fruits were spread out on the table. Falgoran munched on a single apple, while Hermod and Gwenn filled their plates with a taste of everything.
“What’s so strange about that?” asked Hermod. “You already know we humans have dreams and nightmares.”
“Because the three of you have one more unusual experience in common,” said Falgoran. “All three of you have been to the netherworld.”
“You must be mistaken,” said Gwenn. “King Zairel wasn’t with us on the quest.”
“It’s true he didn’t go with you,” said Falgoran. “But how do you think Ogma knew his portals would work?”
“Because he sent his friend there first,” said Hermod, pushing his meal aside. “Why didn’t he tell us about that? We assumed we were the first to travel between worlds.”
Falgoran finished the entire apple, including the seeds and stem.
“What have you been dreaming about?” he asked.
“My nightmare is about bizarre creatures bursting out from inside even stranger creatures. There are so many of them that I’m buried in living flesh. I try to make it to the top of the heap, but it grows faster than I can climb. Thankfully, I wake before I suffocate.”
“He’s clearly worried about his first child,” said Gwenn. “Don’t you think? This is all just a coincidence.”
“That could be,” said Falgoran, “but Arboreals don’t believe in coincidences.”
Neither did Hermod.