|Quest of the Wizard|
The afternoon sun caressed the land with its golden rays. Beneath its watching eyes, a boy gathered red berries at the forest’s edge. His pail was almost half-full when he heard his mother’s call.
“Arii. Arii honey, it is time to come home. Your father is here and dinner is ready.”
Arii paused and looked in his bucket. The berries’ fragrance nibbled at his nose. His mother made some of the best red berry pie in the valley. He glanced back at the cottage that stood at the edge of the meadow where he was gathering berries. He saw his mother looking for him, her hand shading her eyes as she scanned the meadow. When she sighted him, she waved and then she went back inside.
It took a full bucket of red berries for a pie. He did not have enough. He looked back at the berry patch. Fresh red berries glistened in the sun, inviting him to pick more. Overhead, he could hear the chatter of birds as they awaited his departure so they could resume their feast on the delectable fruit. Just a bit further on he could see a large clump of berries. That clump would finish his bucket. It would take just a few minutes more and he would have enough.
He worked his way further into the patch, the thorns tearing his clothes and scratching his bare arms and legs. He regretted not listening to his mother’s warnings to wear thicker clothing. But the weather was warm and he did not want to get hot and sweaty.
He reached the clump and filled his bucket. Arii was happy. The bucket was full. He turned to walk back to his home. The sound of crashing trees in the forest behind his home swept across the meadow. Arii watched in terror as a huge oak fell, smashing the cottage. His feet froze to the ground as a huge red monster stepped from the forest. A single, hungry fiery red eye bored into his eyes as the creature stood towering over the meadow. He could see his mother, holding his baby sister, wriggle through a window, escaping the ruined cottage. His father followed. He looked up and saw the creature. He interposed himself between the monster and his family.
A huge red hand reached down and grabbed at the man, who turned to flee. He was too late, and the hand clasped him. Arii could hear the crunching of his father’s rib cage as death cut short his scream. Blood flowed from his mouth. The monster raised the man, and with a single gulp, swallowed him. His mother backed away. Her foot caught on a log. She tripped. The monster caught her by the foot, and picked her up.
With upturned maw, he dangled the screaming woman over his head, the baby dangling from the terrified woman’s hand.. The baby slipped from her grip and fell into the black, gaping mouth. The woman followed her child an instant later.
Terror froze Arii’s breath and chilled his heart. The monster belched. He then looked at Arii. A smile played across Gwaum’s face. One more small morsel would finish his meal. He began striding towards him.
Arii dropped his bucket of red berries. The bucket spilled, and the red berries stained the boy’s bare feet. He backed up, slowly at first. Then he turned and ran. He could hear the giant feet of the monster thumping hard on the ground behind him. He ran faster and faster. He reached the trees and fled deep into the forest. The thumping behind him stopped, but Arii ran harder, flung on by his fear.
On and on he ran, until exhausted, he fell at the edge of a small stream. A huge log lay in front of him, dead and hollow. He crept into the log. The rotting wood was dank in his nose as it flaked away. White grubs, exposed from the disturbance, wriggled and burrowed deeper into the wood.
The sun fell. Darkness descended and the night sounds began. Narls howled in the distance. Arii pulled himself deeper into the log, tears of grief and fear falling from his eyes. Exhaustion crept upon him and he finally fell asleep.
Morning dawned in the tiny hamlet of Jarna. Nerza awoke to the chirping of birds in the garden behind his stone cottage. A few people still clung to this village, so far from the Road of Terror. As the sleep left his eyes, Nerza sat up.
The dream had left him unsettled. He had seen a vision of terror drifting through the mists of his sleeping mind. His sister’s face had appeared, her eyes filled with horror. Then it had disappeared, followed by the image of the infant she held in her arms.
Worry ate at Nerza. His sister, her husband and two young children dwelt in a cottage in a protected valley near Jarna. The horror that he saw in his dream he knew well. Hoping it was a vision of the future, he dressed quickly. He would have to hasten if he were to save them.
He ate a sparse, hurried breakfast of hard cheese and bread to satisfy his hunger. He took his snow-white staff with the golden star on the tip of the hilt and walked off down the road. By noon, he reached the small stream that marked the valley. He followed the footpath upstream. His path soon reached the clearing and meadow that marked his sister’s cottage. He stopped horrorstruck, as he saw the crushed cottage. He walked towards it. A bloodstain marked the ground near the cottage. The monster had fed.
Hot tears of grief filled his eyes and sobs burst from his throat. He fell to the ground and beat it with his fists. Finally he stood. Something glinting in the sun at the edge of the meadow caught his eye. He walked towards it.
As he neared it, he could see that it was a metal pail lying on its side, its contents of red berries strewn across the path. He picked it up. He looked towards the forest. Broken branches and trampled wildflowers marked the path of someone fleeing into the forest.
He could see the larger footprints of the monster, which trailed towards the woods. They appeared to follow someone who had escaped into the forest.
Nerza strode towards the woods. He noted that the huge footsteps stopped, then turned back into the meadow. Who ever it was that escaped was too small a morsel for a monster who had just fed on two adults and a baby.
Perhaps Arii had escaped. The boy loved red berries. Maybe the boy had picked red berries in the meadow and escaped into the woods when the creature appeared. Nerza stepped into the wood. He could see that disturbed leaves on the forest floor, marking the passage of someone.
He noted the distance between the footprints. A child had fled this way. Hope arose in his breast.
Nerza paused and studied the terrain before him. It was summer, and the early spring flowers had faded. The leaf litter from the previous fall was rotting, turning to the mould that would nourish the soil. Tracking the boy would require more woodcraft than wizard craft. Nerza’s father had been a hunter and had imparted these skills, long unused, to Nerza when he was a boy.
He continued his trek through the wood, with an occasional pause to peruse the signs left by the fleeing boy. The trail ended near the brook downstream from his earlier path. Nerza again paused and looked upstream. Then he looked downstream. He crossed the brook and searched for the trail, with no success. It had vanished. He returned to the spot where the trail stopped. Again, he studied the stream. The boy had apparently followed the stream. Arii despaired. What if he had passed the boy earlier, and had not seen or heard him. Which way did he go?
“Arii,” Nerza called. “Arii, are you here?”
A pall of silence hung over the forest.
A huge log by the stream’s bank beckoned him to sit and rest. Nerza sat down to think. Silence surrounded him as he sat, deep in thought.
He became aware of a slight sound. He pricked up his ears. The sound seemed to flow around him. What was it and where was it coming from?
He stood up and glanced at the log. Was the log talking to him?
He walked to the end and saw that it was hollow. The log was big, as was the opening. It was big enough to hide a small child. He withdrew the wand from the handle of the staff. Calling the power of fire, the wizard used the wand to ignite the tip of a wooden limb that lay on the ground nearby. He picked up the flaming brand and held it near the opening, peering inside. At first, in the flickering light he could see nothing. But he heard what sounded like a whimper of fear. Peering closer, he could see a small face reflected back at him.
“Arii? It is your Uncle Nerza. Is that you? Come out, boy. Do not be afraid. You are safe, now.”
The whimpering stopped, and the boy crawled out, covered with the decaying wood of the tree and leaf fragments. A wriggling grub lay on his shoulder. Clothing torn and stained, he bore the dank smell of decaying wood. Nerza brushed the grub off.
“Uncle Nerza. Oh, Uncle Nerza.”
The boy grasped the wizard around the shoulders. His sobs filled the forest. His tears stained Nerza’s shoulders. He held the boy for a long time, trying to comfort him.
The boy, his voice thick with sorrow and fear, said, “Oh, Uncle Nerza, it was horrible. The monster broke our house. He killed momma and papa.”
“I know, Arii. I saw your house. I tracked you through the forest. I hoped against hope that you escaped and were safe.”
“We will never be safe, Uncle Nerza. Not as long as that horrible monster lives.”
His sobs returned.
Finally, Nerza pushed the boy away and studied his face.
“You will come to live with me now, Arii. You will come with me to Jarna.”
“Will the monster come there, too? Will he eat us there?”
Nerza shook his head. “I have protected my house with a magic spell. Gwaum cannot see my house. He will pass us by.”
“Why didn’t you protect my house, Uncle?”
“I wanted to, Arii. Your father did not like wizards. He would not let me place any kind of spell. He thought the valley was safe.”
“But it wasn’t, Uncle. The monster found us. He killed them and ate them.”
“Yes, the monster did horrible things, Arii.”
Nerza stood. He took Arii’s hand and said, “It is time to go, Arii. We will go to my home. You will be safe there.”
He and Arii strode through the forest. Nerza took a different path. He followed the stream to its junction with the larger stream, and this he followed to the road. Then, holding Arii’s hand, they walked to his stone cottage near Jarna. In less than a day, Nerza’s role as uncle had changed to parent of a young, growing boy. He hoped that he was equal to the task.
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