Chapter 1 

 

   The Druid suddenly opened his eyes, staring up into the bleak darkness.  The only sounds he could hear were that of his own breathing, and somehow, the resonance of his heartbeat in his ears.  But where was he?  There were no stars to be seen, breezes to be felt nor familiar night's stirrings to be heard.  Reaching out, his senses sought to lay hold of some kind of anchor and identify his situation, some strand that would permit him to understand his circumstances.  It took him a few spans of heartbeats to remember where he was, in the deep recesses, under guard, lock and key of the Druid's keep, in the past used as a prison.  The castle fortification was named seilstri, from the ancient Elven word meaning knowledge or learning.

   But what was it that had roused him from the Druid Sleep?  He waited.  At first, memories stirred slowly, after ten cycles of the sun of sleep.  Yet nothing seemed to beckon to him, nothing rang out in warning.  Perhaps it was merely time to awaken from restoration.  Light sprang to life from his black-polished-oak staff's orb, the magic readily responding to his intent as he rose.  His long, drab-brown robes and mantle flowed behind him.  He strode to the thick-planked door that hung on heavy iron hinges, moving and appearing like a man of forty cycles though he was over six hundred cycles.  Twice, he rapped at the impregnable door, as he always had done when he awoke from the Druid Sleep.  Morlah would undo the latches on his side of the door, and then the guard would undo the locks on his side.  

   When in the Druid Sleep, the Druids took no chances at being vulnerable.  They slept under guard in the keep's depths, just above the caverns that housed the archives.  The Sleep chamber's stone walls were solid granite, and the door thick Black Oak planks cased with iron on the exterior.  Enchantments were set for protection.  Ever since the malevolent Black Mage's, Daektoch's, attempted genocide on the Druids, they left nothing to chance but were cautious and vigilant in all things.

   Everything was as usual.  First, the Druid would awake, not sure as to where he was, but soon memory would stir and his thoughts would turn to the what or why of his awakening.  The Druid Sleep was a combination of herbal potions and Gray magic.  Its original use had been to stay deterioration and death in the mortally wounded, but later, it had been used to renew, revitalize and restore the Druids, thus extending their lives indefinitely.

   But now, however, something was different!  There was no response to his knock and no undoing of the locks.  Normally, by now, Morlah would have heard the bolts being pulled back by the guard; perhaps he was not quite alert enough yet.  Perhaps he had not knocked loudly enough.  He rapped at the door, using the metal orb formed of the Faerie element of magic, which sat on the staff's top to produce a loud thudding.  

   Still nothing stirred.  

   This was most peculiar.  Never in all his time of undergoing the Druid Sleep had there been a lapse in response.  Fear seemed to seep out of the suddenly close walls of the stone crypt-like room, attempting to take hold of him, as if to entomb him.  Stepping back from the door, his staff blazing with the power of its argentus orb, he hurled a bolt of power.  The door blasted off its hinges.  Argentus was the source of the most powerful magic known throughout the planet; it was the very life and source of the Faeries' magic and existence.

    Morlah the Druid shielded himself, to protect himself from physical or magical attack.  Slowly, he stepped out into the hallway, using his staff to light the darkness that had now turned ominous before him.  No one was in the hallway.  A thick layer of undisturbed dust coated the floor and cobwebs filled the passage.  With his back to the cold stone wall and his staff held out ready to strike, he made his way toward the exit; the Druid found evidence that the area had not been disturbed for a long time.  He passed through the doors that led to the main hall.  Debris and discarded objects lay strewn about.  Still, there were no signs of life beyond that of the small rodents and birds using the chambers as nesting sites.

   Finally, stepping out into the courtyard, relieved that there apparently was no imminent threat, Morlah observed that the formerly polished and meticulously clean structures were overgrown with weeds and vines.  The time-stained, stone walls and buildings were in disrepair.  It seemed but yestercourse when he had gone down to the Sleep chambers.  Overhangs and roofs were collapsed.  Wood was rotted, crumbling to the touch.  seilstri's gates were rusted so badly that the once-solid-ironclad-maple doors, still standing and closed, looked like the skeletal remains of some gigantic fowl.  Tall grass pushed though between pavement slabs of pink granite.

   But where was everyone?  What had happened to the thousands of people, Druids, who had once lived and prospered here?  The fortified castle must have been abandoned for at least two hundred cycles of the sun for this magnitude of decay to lay it to waste like this.  He released his hold on the magic and took off toward the entryway leading to the caverns where the libraries and archives had been contained.  If he were lucky, he would find his answer there.  Hunger began to gnaw at him.

   Four spans of the sun's course later, Morlah sat in the caverns while a globe of white light floated over his shoulder as he read; the orb was conjured by a spell shown him by Master Filinhoff in cycles past.  

   Filinhoff!  he thought.  He wouldst most likely be dead now.  Tears welled up in Morlah's eyes.  Many of his friends and family were likely dead also.  He breathed deeply, recomposing himself, attempting to accept circumstances as they were.  He continued his reading.  

   Morlah had been relieved to find the extensive libraries still intact but, then, shocked to the core to find volumes ranging two, three and four hundred cycles of the sun past the time he had last been awake. 

   Four hundred cycles!  How is it that he hadst not awakened in that time?  Normally, one would only sleep twelve to a score of cycles at the outermost before waking from the Druid Sleep, unless some specified spell roused one before; Daektoch's movements in the land had always been the key for Morlah's waking spell.  Four hundred cycles without Daektoch exerting himself!  Was it possible that the Elves had actually managed to kill the wicked mage in their last engagements or that the wizard had finally succumbed to death?

   Using the catalogs, Morlah located a book that might help him.  It was one of the last history books entered into the libraries.  He blew the dust from the cover and read the title on the well-preserved, but somewhat fragile, leather-bound volume: The Frontmire Histories - A Synopsis by Esther Miller, daughter of the Master of seilstri, Barnes Roget, in the cycle 6053.  The black leather was cracked, and the sepia parchment was brittle.

   6053!  That was over six hundred cycles past the beginning of his last Sleep!  His hand sought to tremble as he leafed through the history that was known to him.  Finally, he found the period that covered the time after he had last been in the land:         

   "...and legend hast it that the Kingdom hadst prospered long under King Jerhad the Great.  But in the cycle 5853 at the age of four hundred fifty-four cycles, he didst call his family to his chambers and spoke to them of taking the Final Journey, to follow his mate, Andreanna, who hadst done so one hundred cycles earlier.  The King, who wast in excellent health, having drawn up his affairs and set his house in order, didst retire to his bed attended by his closest living relatives and died.  Kendra, mate of Elfstar, son of Lehland the Captain of the King's Guard, in her four hundred and twenty second cycle, was named as his heir to the throne."

   The light orb over Morlah's head went dead.  He gasped, taking in deep breaths.  Jerhad and Andreanna were dead! 

...And how many others he had known?  The use of the Druid Sleep came up as a bitter bile in his mouth.  How many had he outlived in over fourteen hundred cycles' use of the Druid Sleep?  How many people had he loved and lost?  Anguish and sorrow crashed down on him as if the very cavern's roof were collapsing.  Pushing away from the table where he had read, sitting in the blinding darkness, bending his chest down to his knees, Morlah wailed in grief.

   Later, after the sunsetting, he rose from the floor, empty and numb.  He rekindled the light orb and sat at the table again, salvaging himself, shoring his defenses against gloom and despondency, hoping to find what had become of the Druids.  He read on, turning a page, which whispered with a crackle:

   "...even if it were true that the Elves didst posses great and powerful magic under King Jerhad the Great's reign, there is no evidence of it at this time.  The capitol, Mildra the Magnificent City, doest lie in abandonment, while the small population of Elves on the south coast art fishers and farmers, showing no evidence of what legend speaks of in relation to magic."   

   Morlah turned a few pages and found a reference to the Druids:

   "...and though the Druid libraries doest have extensive volumes on the Black, Gray and White Arts of magic, no one doest know what they mean or how to use them.  Even so, in the first cycle of Master Landancer's rule in seilstri, he didst add such volumes to the List of Forbidden Books and hadst them locked in the archives with other such works.  Now times, scholars doest scoff at the mention of magic and state that legend and mythology shouldst not be confused with fact and science." 

   Morlah skipped ahead, his anger beginning to rise.

   "...in the cycle 6001, with the Banantiand Party in control of the Parliament of seilstri, it wast passed as law that study, being an unproductive pastime, wast to be limited and that every individual's access to the libraries wouldst be restricted to one course of the sun out of every ten.  The remainder of time wast to be spent in labor at one's craft, for the finances of seilstri were to be regarded as a priority.  The Mandolt Party didst rebel at this and threatened to leave seilstri, which the Banantiand Party wast only too glad to facilitate.  With the use of seilstri's militia, every last member of the Mandolt Party wast ousted from the keep, barred from ever entering its walls again, and to their dismay, forever banned from the libraries and archives.

   On the fourth course of the sun after the spring equinox, the Mandolt Party didst     make a futile assault on seilstri in attempt to regain control.  After three courses of battle, the Banantiands, with the use of the militia, didst make a sortie, and the Mandolts were slain to the man.  Of those from seilstri, casualties were light, and a further description of these events art catalogued in Manlin's Account of the Battle of the Banantiands, Library No.  438AEK9600B1 0".

   Morlah was stunned. 

   seilstri had fallen victim to political and internal striving.  The Druids who had been the example of tolerance, benevolence, harmony and education had become everything they had been the antithesis of.  How could this have happened?  There had been no politics in his time!  There had been no parties.  And where had a parliament come from? 

   He turned to the last pages of the volume and read:

   "...and when Minus, Master of the Heralds, didst hear of it, he hadst all two thousand of them put to death.  With this new alleged treachery and subsequent executions, the Druid population is but four thousand thirty-six in contrast to the eighteen thousand three hundred thirty-nine of but ten cycles ago, diminished primarily by execution." 

   Morlah skipped a couple more pages, overwhelmed by what had become of his people:

     "...it wouldst appear that the end of the Druids is at hand, for Minus' Party numbers but a few score, most dead by starvation from the six cycle siege, while the Canharts have somehow bolstered their numbers to the hundreds.  We doest have water but no food.  Master Minus hast decreed that he willst personally execute any who even but use the word surrender...."

 

   Having walked two-quarters of the sun's course in a mind-numbing stupor, Morlah finally arrived at the docks at the natural harbor that had been used by the Druids in the past.  His heart leapt in anticipation and hope as he saw his first signs of Human life.  The organic scent of sea air seemed to revive him.  The small port had several decrepit fishing vessels moored to the docks, waves lapping against the wooden hulls.  Fishermen were mending their coarse, brown-hemp nets as others went about various activities; the bustle of goings-on seemed to attempt to silence Morlah’s turmoil.  Perhaps he could learn a bit more about the fate of the Druids. 

   Approaching an old woman dressed in dark brown robes, her face crevassed with age and her hands work-worn, Morlah asked,  "Couldst I take a heartbeat of your time, Gram?"

   She stopped and, abruptly turning him an evil eye, backed away from him. 

   "I wouldst like to inquire pertaining to thine knowledge of those formerly known as Druids who didst live in the abandoned...."

   Morlah did not get to finish his question, for she gathered herself up, spat on the ground at his feet and hissed a venomous sound, moving away as quickly as her arthritic legs would allow.  Morlah was puzzled: something he had said?  How he had said it?  Perhaps the ancient dialect of the Common Tongue had made her wary.  He could speak the modern version; he would try again.

   This time, Morlah approached a thin, middle-aged man that was mending nets; he would go slower.  "Greetings, friend," ventured the Druid.

   The man looked up with a glance, nodded an acknowledgement and returned to his labor, his hands skillfully working the coarse meshwork that provided his livelihood.

   "How's the fishing been?"

   The fisherman shrugged his slender shoulders noncommittally.  "Seen better."

   "What you catching?" continued Morlah.

   "White Throat an' herring mostly."

   "It's been a while since I've been here," the Druid continued, feeling his way with the fisher and keeping an eye out for the old lady, lest she cause trouble for him.  But she seemed to have moved on and was occupied with her work.  "I knew some who fished these waters many cycles past; used to catch Blue Gill if they weighted their nets and fished off of the deep side of the reef.  Ever try it?"

   The fisherman's interest lifted with a genuine look of curiosity.  "Say, how did you say?"

   "Weighed the nets and trolled the bottom just off the reef, on the deep side.  Had to watch close not to get hooked up on the coral though.  Sometimes they'd put a boy floating in the water to watch the net; would hold on to a rope and tow behind the boats.  If the waters were clear and the sun bright, he'd be able to watch the net and warn if they were too close to the reef.  They'd catch Blue Gill."       

   The fisherman's head pivoted like a Keese Owl's, peering about, hoping nobody else was hearing what he was.  "No, never did hear of it done.  Blue Gill?  That fetches quite a price.  When was this done?  I've fished here all my life an' never heard tell of it.  You sure 'bout that?"

   Morlah nodded.  "It was the only way to get a boatload of Blue Gill, I heard tell."

   "Boatload!" sneered the fisherman.  The man frowned and gave Morlah a good eyeing over, his interest turning to skepticism.

   "Lived here all your life?"  Morlah attempted to divert the man's thoughts.  The fisherman nodded and returned to his mending, his eyes at times glancing up to catch a look at the stranger, doubt clearly written in his weathered face.

   "Must know a lot about the history of it?"  Morlah set his bait. 

   The man nodded and seemed to relax a bit. 

   "What's that abandoned castle up in the hills back there?"

   The fisherman stopped abruptly, his eyes narrowing, and Morlah thought he was about to have a repeat of the old woman's behavior.

   "Not much to talk about."  He peered around to see if anyone was listening.  "Some folk called Druids lived there," he said in a hushed voice.  "Got to fighting among themselves.  Hired out mercenaries an' turned the whole island to warring.  Brought down all kinds of nasty plagues an' pestilences with their magic earlier on, on each other an' even on island folk who just tried to mind their own business.  Almost ended all existence here.  Gone now.  Long gone...a couple hundred cycles or so, but their name remains as a curse an' a festering hatred generations later. 

   "Not that we're still not without their curse.…  Some large parts of the lands won't grow crops.  Hardly any wildlife.  Fish is all we got."  He spat at the ground.  "Cursed wizards!"

   It took a bit of self-control for Morlah not to correct the man and tell him that the Druids were not wizards, but he found the strength to manage himself in light of the fisherman's emotion. 

   "Is there any ship traffic to the mainland?" asked Morlah.

   Again, the man eyed him suspiciously.  "How'd you come here if not by ship?"

   "Sailed a small vessel but tore her bottom out on the northeast coast.  She broke up on the reef and sank," Morlah lied.

   "What you come here for?"

   "I wanted to explore Parintia.  Had been here a long time past and wanted to see it again."

   "Where you from?"

   "Northern Canterhort."

   "Long way to come just to look.  Parintia.  Ain't no one call it that no more.  Don't give it a name since..."  He looked around to see that no one was within earshot.  "...since that Druid thing," he finished in a conspirator whisper.

   "I need to get back to Frontmire.  Any way of getting there?"

   "Nope," the fisherman mumbled, once again intent on his nets, as if he were finished with Morlah.

   "No ship traffic?"

   "Nope."  The fisher paused for several spans of heartbeats.  "Ain't nothing for them to get and no one with much coin to buy with.  No one comes, not since...you know."

   "Do you own your own boat?"

   "Yup."  He indicated a one-masted trawler, using his eyes to point.  "Built her myself."  Again, he looked around.

   Morlah sighed.  The laborious process of obtaining information was beginning to grate at him.

   In a low voice, leaning toward Morlah, he said, "Went up to the castle when I was a boy.  Big no-no!  Found a place with books...thousands.  Can't read, but I found one with diagrams on building boats.  So, I started with a few smaller rowboats.  Made them crude on purpose so no one would suspect.  Then, I kept getting better an' better, an' finally, I built Mandy over there.  She's the finest vessel on the island.  Jes' like in the book."

   "Think she'd sail across to Frontmire?'

   "Sure would!  Had her twenty leagues out in a gale once.  She's true as the night is dark."

   "Could I get you to take me across?"

   "Nope."

   "Why not?"

   "Need to fish.  Mouths to feed."  Rising, he began rolling his net.

   "I'd pay well."

   "With what?"

   "What would you prefer?"

   The man stopped and straightened himself, his well-worn, leather loincloth the only garment he wore.  "You come from the other side, do you?"

   Morlah nodded.

   "Got coppers?"

   Morlah shook his head causing the fisherman's eyebrows to rise up a bit. 

   "You got silver...gold?!"

   Morlah nodded.  "I'll pay you two large golds to take me across."

   "Naw.  You're mocking me.  Ain't nobody got gold.…  Come to think of it...couldn't use it here."

   Morlah jingled his oiled-leather purse, hid within his tunic.  "I have both golds and silvers."       

   The man frowned.  "No one has much coin anymore, but I'd take the same in silvers an' maybe you could let me jes' take a look at a gold."  His eyes turned dreamy, as if there would be no greater pleasure on earth, his face revealing a pleasant smile for the first time since Morlah had spoken to him. 

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