(Note: this is a prequel to the Epic poem I'd posted earlier called "The Saga of the Hero's Song")
The Quest Begins
The snow covered all the land around
Outside of that forest; dark its ground.
Dark the shadows that lay inside;
The horrors found those shadows hide.
With hardly a touch of freshened breeze;
‘Twas dark and dank within those trees.
With brambled branches set within
To catch the hair on head or chin.
Long and sharp as a warriors spear;
Those thorns; that rip and tear;
They block the trail that winds on through;
Of those that enter; their days are few.
But now one comes, a hero, met;
To enter in, his feet were set.
Upon that trail though dark the way;
Upon that trail he went that day.
The young man stood alone at the edge of those dark woods and wondered what it was that drove him to attempt such a journey. He didn’t have the appearance of a hero; or at least what most people thought of how hero would look. He wasn’t tall; nor was he handsome in any special way. Rather though he was somewhat short, but stout; not tall and muscular with narrow hips and broad shoulders; but then he hadn’t as yet attained his full growth that showed up in his still youngish looking face. He also had a belly that slightly protruded out past his belt that girded his waist though; but not near what he’d had before. He then gave that belly a slight pat as he smiled.
A sword was seen hanging at his side long and slender with a noticeably wicked looking point at the end of it, and a sharp looking end along both sides; but whether or not it could be used to hew wood with he didn’t know. Some said that there were evil creatures that haunted this Black Forest; and even though he looked more like a grocer than a warrior he still had a certain amount of ability with that sword to use it to defend himself if need be. He also figured that if he ran across any cutthroat, then they would take notice of the way he kept his hand near the hilt of that sharp looking saber. They might even noticed that he had several knives on him that were of the type that could be easily drawn out and thrown at a target; something he’d become proficient in over the last few months. But he didn’t really think that he’d be running into any such person in these sinister looking woods. It wasn’t that for which he would have to keep his eyes peeled for but rather other, unknown inhabitants within this foreboding looking place. Then teaching up, he placed his left hand on where he’d placed them, hidden in several cleverly hidden pockets in of a leather brown vest that he wore underneath his jersey and gave out a soft sigh of reassurance.
Once upon a time that jersey had been white, but it was a dirty gray color from having been worn for extended periods between washings; and that fact alone was enough to tell the passing stranger that he wasn’t someone who was a city dandy; but rather a seasoned traveler; the only thing that would really question his status in life was his shorter features, his sunny smile and his slightly bulging belly. No, he wasn’t going to be mistaken as a store-keep clerk who’d spend the better part of his life behind a counter serving any customers who might have entered in, that as for certain; but was he the warrior hero that he seemed to portray himself as. He got a determined look on his face knowing that he was about to find out the answer to that question as he prepared to walk into the dark domain of that forest keeps. Then taking a firm grip on the sword hilt, he smiled grimly and took that first step into that dark ominous looking forest.
His thoughts then drifted back to that fateful day when the strange old man had entered into his establishment. He was a peculiar looking older man who looked to be quite tall; well that is if he wasn’t so stooped over that is. Whether bent by age or by some invisible burden he bore, he couldn’t rightly tell; but bent over he was with a staff that he carried as if by habit as well as by need. His face was angular with a large prominent beak of a nose and heavy white eyebrows above dark smoldering gray eyes that seemed to be burning from some inner light. But that light had been growing dim it seemed. As if whatever had fueled that inner blaze dying down, now seen only as a faint flicker of its former self.
That old man was wearing a dark gray cloak with what looked like a white robe underneath it; and he now stood before him gazing over at him whispering to himself “Are you the one?”
The young boy wanted to ask him “one what” but before he could frame the words, the Old man smiled at him and said “Yes, I do believe you are. Your heart seems to be quite strong even though your looks belie the fact; yes I do believe you are the one.”
The boy then interrupted him and said “You say I’m the one; but I’d like to know what ‘one’ is it that you are speaking of?”
“Yes, stout of heart he is” he then muttered to himself; then followed with an answer to the question that the young counter boy had asked of him.
“Young man, what are you doing hiding behind an inn keep’s counter? You ought to be out following your dreams of adventure and bravery.”
“Me an adventurer...?” he asked the old man looking around to see if he was really speaking to him.
“Yes of course you; is there anyone else within this establishment that has that certain gleam in their eyes? Or that burning curiosity of what may lie out beyond these wall?” He then turned his face and stared directly into the boys eyes. It was then that something awoke inside him breast; and it was from that moment onward that he knew; yes, he knew that this was what he’d dreamed of all his life; to go out from behind the counter and remove the apron he’d worn for the last several years and go out to see to see what lay beyond these walls.
The old man then placed before him a book and said “open it and tell me what you see.” Mystified, he then opened it and looked upon the pages, turning them one by one until in frustration he looked at him and said “There’s nothing written here; nothing at all on any of these pages.”
“Shut your eyes and look deeper; read the words with your heart and not your eyes; for eyes can be deceiving” the Old Man then stated.
The boy, even more mystified, was starting to wonder about this strange old man and so looked at him baffled by what he’d just been told to do; for some sense of reality was starting to return to him; still there was something about that Old man that made him to do as he was asked; no, not asked; it was more like commanded. The young man looked at this strange old man and decided to follow his instructions; then shutting his eyes and taking a deep breath, he turned his face toward the pages of that book with its seemingly empty pages.
The boy could hear that old man smiling. Yes, definitely he heard him smiling. He had no idea how it was that he did, but he did. Then putting forth his whole attention into those empty pages... and read the words that were written within.
He couldn’t recall later what he’d read; only that he had felt his heart awakening to the ideas that were pouring into his soul; a yearning to go forth and seek that which he didn’t know. It was then that he went from behind the counter and handed his work apron to the proprietor of the Inn and said his goodbyes; then off he went out into the world to follow that strange old man. And now just a few years later, there he was standing in front of ancient dark forest and knew that finally, after those years of wandering he’d finally found what he’d had been seeking. It was then that the Hero stepped into the Dark Places found under those branches and went forth into his final journey of self-discovery.
The First Test: “The Forest of Despair”
The fetid odour that within prevailed;
The evil stench that throughout assailed.
Permeating all throughout this place;
That filled the air; this closed in space.
Harsh it was; a burden felt;
That foul smell that herein dwelt.
A baneful stink pervading all;
To hurt and maim; his soul, to maul.
Found within a foggy mist;
From whence it came, he did not wist.
Around, upon the ground it flowed;
And with an eerie light it glowed.
And all who walked that trail of peat;
It licked and stirred around their feet
The fetid stench and putrid slime;
That oozed and reeked of horrid grime.
His first steps upon the floor of that foul smelling forest almost caused him to retch; and but for the fact that he hadn’t eaten since the evening before, he might have lost the battle. It was fortuitous that as he had entered into the open field that lay before the Forest, he’d been met by the Lady. She’d warned him to take care and had even given him a kerchief from within her blouse and said “If you find that you feel faint for the odor, then use this to help alleviate the symptoms; but be warned fair Hero, that there will be worse ahead so if you can find that you are able to bare the stench, then refrain; for you might find that you need it more later on. Forbear to take any nourishment before you enter there in; for food will only aggravate the wretchedness that you will most likely feel.”
He then bowed low before this Lady, having learned the niceties of polite company in his years of travel in searching for this place; then took the proffered piece of scented cloth and placed in with the few other items that he’d collected throughout those past years. But then he stopped and instead of placing it within his bag, he tucked it deep within his jersey sleeve knowing that with the cloak covering him, it should be safe there. Upon seeing this, she smiled and nodded her head, knowing now that he indeed had gained in wisdom.
She then looked down at his saber hanging from his waist and said “You carry arms I see” noticing also the knives tucked into his vest and boot tops.
“Yes, I have found them of use throughout my travels; but not to worry, I have found that it is not always wise to rely on such but rather on one’s own wisdom.”
Again she smiled and nodded her head. “Yes, for to rely on such is to rely on a broken reed; for sooner or later, it will brake beneath your weight and pierce you through.”
He’d then nodded his own head and took up his staff for that was his most prized possession.
Going on into the forest he stopped as he was considering these things as he pulled from his waist his sword and started slashing his way through the growth of those branches, as well as those wicked looking thorns. He knew that he could not have made it down the trail without the use of such a tool. He also knew that the time might come where it would be useless and so was ready to discard it when the time came. He silently thanked the Lady for her advice; knowing that it would not be the last time that he would find himself thankful for it.
He walked for mile after mile as he slowly became accustomed to the foul smell the permeated the air, walking carefully as he placed each foot down so that it would release less of the noxious odor that each stop seemed to release from the forest floor. Many times he found himself though, caught within a web of thorns that looked to trap him within their hold; but each time he was able to free himself from their greedy grasp. And each time this would happen, he would stop to examine his cloak; and each time he would find it free from rips and tears. He would then feel the fabric wondering what it was that could resist such damage as those thorns could cause; for his cloak shouldn’t have withstood sharpness and the strength of those thorns. Finally after a while he quit thinking about it and just accepted it as an added blessing given to him by that strange old man.
Three times he stopped to rest after being able to find a sitting place on the roots of some older tree. He thought that he should be able to check the book that the stranger had given him but found that there was not enough light, even from the pernicious glow that sprang from the fog. And then each time he thought of that fog, he would wonder where it originated knowing that wherever or whatever it was, it would most likely be worse than this damp and dank Forest. He would then with growing reluctance, get up and start moving once more; until finally he could go no farther; and so started to keep his eyes opened for likely spot where he could to stop for the night wondering what that night would bring.
About an hour later, he stumbled upon a small incline in the lay of the land which seemed to offer a dryer place where he might be able to spend the night. At first, he thought about lighting a fire but then decided against it. The fire would be nice on a mental level but physically he knew that he would be just as warm wrapped up in his cloak. He then climbed up the small hill and found a tree suitable for him to climb up into and spend the night up off the ground away from any danger that might come upon him in the dark. Plus with the fact that the branches would be thorn free, he would not only be free from worry about any predators that might be lurking nearby waiting for a tasty morsel to feast upon., but also from the discomfort of being pricked by those nasty thorns.
It didn’t take long before he found a suitable tree to climb so that he wouldn’t have to worry. He then took from his small pack a rope with which he was able to secure himself to the tree truck so as not to fall off during the night of total darkness. He’d figured that he might be bothered by the incessant glow of that fog thinking that he’d never left in the total. But once he climbed high enough, he found that the fog, along with its stench didn’t reach that high so that he wouldn’t be bothered by it through the night and so was able to get his rest.
In total it took him three periods of walking and resting to get through before he was started to feel the need for food, for he was growing faint from hunger; for now he was growing used to the stench of rot that it didn’t affect him as much. It also helped him so that he just wasn’t’ as hungry as he would’ve been had he been in a field of clover. It was then upon his fourth day within the Black Forest that he came upon the source of that evil scent; that dark and stinking murky mist
The Second Test: “The Bog of Death and Decay”
Endless seemed that pool of slime;
Of waters filled filthy grime.
The way that he must take twould seem;
The way, a ceaseless Nightmares dream.
But still he knew that he must go,
Out into that putrid flow.
Filled with dead and dying grass;
Of pungent smells and dying grass.
Where midgets fly and bugs that bite;
That lived within that murky light.
O’er waters deep, this way to cross
Covered o’er with sphagnum moss;
A morass seen of sodden ground;
Deep and dark and deadly found.
With hidden depths and sucking sands;
That filled these boggy lands.
Without thinking, the Hero looked up at the shrouded sky and took a deep breath; and then instantly bent over at the overpowering scent of death and decay. He hadn’t been paying attention so caught up he was from finally being out from under those sinister trees that he hadn’t even noticed the wide evil smelling bog that now lay before him, stretching out in all directions with no end in sight. But upon that strong whiff of purification, he looked down and saw that heavy fog rolling over from atop that quagmire of waste and destruction. His hand immediately went toward the sleeve that held the Kerchief that the Lady had given him; but before he could remove it, a voice sounded within his head. “Beware the stench of deception Hero, for not all that you see is true. Know this also that there are even more, vile and stifling fumes awaiting you.”
He stopped and blinked a few times then looked around to see who it was that had spoken to him; but could there was none other there who might have spoken those words. The only conclusion left for him was that it had indeed been her speaking to him across the foul forest lands. He then sat down on the root of a tree at the edge of the bog line and thought of what he might have, or what he could find to help him to get past this odorous bog.
He thought back to those years of journeying that he’d traveled on and called to mind his first run in with bandits who had been harrying the people in that area. It had been a gang of five who, armed with clubs and short swords, would wait and waylay any and all who happened to go by. At first he’d thought that it was just a small group of rowdy boys playacting as they surrounded a young girl whom they had caught unaware in ‘their’ district; but it soon became apparent that, even though they were all teenagers, they serious in their intent. He quietly walked toward them trying not to call attention to him; and for the most part he was successful in this. That is until he stepped on a small twig. They immediately turned toward him at the sound of the cracking of that piece of sprig of wood.
The oldest; or at least the largest of the gang smiled and said “You got anything for us mister?”
He’d decided not to answer with words; instead he fingered the hilt of his saber and smiled in return. It wasn’t a smile of anger or loathing; but rather just an ordinary smile that he was used to wearing on his face while working in the Inn.
The boy looked him up and down while he just stood there. He then glanced over at the young girl and saw her studying him closely to see what he was going to do. Strange, she didn’t look frightened at all. In fact now that he was standing here before the bog, he realized that she looked somewhat like the Lady at the Gateway. His thoughts then returned back to that incident that had happened so long ago.
“Miss, are you ok?” he called out to her. To which she answered with a tentative nod of her head.
“Sure, she’s doing fine” the surly young man said. “We’re just having a bit of fun with her; And we were thinking that she might need an escort back to her home; or maybe back to our home; you know, for a bit of fun.” He then got this wicked smile on his face as did the other youngsters in his group of followers.
“I think not” the young hero said to him in return. “ I’m thinking that she might just wish to go on her way by herself.”
“What are you? So kind of hero?” the gang leader then asked in a derisive voice.”
“Yes he is” the young girl then spoke up; “And a very gallant one at that.” She then smiled at him.
The Hero just bowed low toward her and smiled that innocent smile of his. But the ruffians all just gave a hoot and a holler at that statement, jeering at him with rude noises and obnoxious calls aimed in his direction. “Lookee here boys, this chubby little store keep thinks he’s a hero of some sort. Hey you, it takes more than a fancy looking knife to make you a hero” the leader called out to him. He then started prancing around acting like he was afraid.
The young lady said in a timid voice “It take more than size to make one a hero”.
“SHUT UP!!” the bully shouted at her. “You’ll be getting yours soon enough.” And with those works the young man’s blood reached a boiling point. He drew his sword and charged. The young group scattered not having expected that; but the leader didn’t get the chance to. He threw his knife at the Hero and then turned around getting ready to join his gang in retreat when the Hero caught up to him. But instead of attacking with the point or blade of his weapon, he grabbed the youngster by the collar, and then turning him over, he swung the flat of his saber down on his skinny little rump. Once, twice, and then a third time; and by the time that third one fell, the young boy was crying out for his mother.
“Don’t worry boy, the flat o’ the blade don’t kill, it just teaches; now listen up and learn something. Never underestimate someone by the height of their stature, or the size of their belly, boy. And not even by the shape or length of their blade; but rather by their smile and the look in their eyes. Now git on home to your mama and tell her that you’ve been a bad boy but will do better.”
The boy had then got up and ran off while wiping the tears from his face.
The young lady looked at him and smiled saying in a whisper “Yes, a most wise choice”. She then placed into his hands a small token of appreciation; then turned and walked back toward the boarder of the road and was lost to sight.
Coming back to the present, he went into his small back and pulled out that item that she’d given to him. It was a box that he had placed in his bag without opening it; thinking that he’d look at it later; but had forgotten it; until now that is. He quickly opened it to find inside a small replica of his staff that he had in his hands. There was a small note included which read “To my hero, do not forget the use of the Staff; an instrument to not only bring support to you as you travel but to also guide you through the difficult places that you may come across in your journey”.
He carefully closed the box and replaced it into his small back after reading the note a second time; then picked up his staff and placed it down into several places on that trail of peat. He found that in a few spots that he placed it the ground was firm enough to step on without releasing the stench of decay that was bound within it. But then when he placed it onto a spot that looked somewhat moister, that it would sink in. He had to smile at this, not ever having any reason to use his staff in such a way to guide him through soggy wet ground before. He’d just assumed that anywhere he placed the staff it would react in the same way. He nodded then in understanding what the young lady had meant in her note. But then he looked at the bog where a layer of water covered each place he looked. Could it be that the trail wandered on through with places that would not be a deep as the rest of the watery course? “Well...” he thought. “There’s only one way to tell.
Carefully he approached the start of that wasted land where the trail stopped and bog began. Then carefully he placed the end of his staff into the waters before him, testing each place that was covered by that slime green mossy carpet. The first place he tried, the staff sank in without let up letting him know that he couldn’t go that way. Then pulling it up he tried the place next to it. Again it sank it. He stopped and thought of what to do for it seemed like there was no trail that went out into the morass of filth that lay before him. He then took one step, then two toward the right and once again placed his staff. Finally he found a place only a few inches deep; then with careful prodding and testing, he found that it went out at least a yard. He then went forward from that spot trusting in his Staff as he went.
On he went through the wetlands, through the misty fog that rose up before him. At times he found that the mist was so thick with noxious smells that he found it difficult to breathe. But still he refused the use of the Kerchief. Instead he pulled out an older thicker cloth that he’d used before to shield his face from the various dust storms that he’d run into throughout the years. He quickly tied it behind his neck and then pulled it over his face and nose. But then the bugs started their attack. Luckily he had leather gloves that he could pull on covering his hands and sealing off his forearms. He then pulled up the hood of his cloak and found instant relief from the bites and stings from those blood sucking critters. He smiled grimly and continued on with is struggle through the muck and mire of the half hidden trail.
Several times he found that the trail seemed to end; but he learned that he could quickly find it once more just a few feet away; sometimes on the left and others on the right. It wasn’t long then that he found himself on an incline as he trudged along until he came to a small dry hill stuck in the middle of nowhere. In relief he stepped onto the solid ground and sat down beneath the lone tree that grew out of the center of this tiny piece of heaven. And it wasn’t long before he fell asleep.
Several hours later he woke up and was surprised that the light above was a little lighter. Then when he looked around, he was astonished that he had survived without falling into the waters. He needed to remember to tie himself up to any tree or anchor that he might find when he sat. It had been a long time since he’d eaten anything and knowing that he would need his strength for the next stage of his journey, he pulled out some travel bread and a bottle of water and then took a swallow; then securing himself to the tree, he fell once again into a deep sleep; waking up finally after a few hours. He looked around saw off in the distance the end of his journey; or so what he hoped to be at least the end of this stagnant and odiferous air that was found in this bog.
He quickly gathered his things and set off once again on is journey. And then after another day of trudging through until at last after painstaking by painstaking step by step he found himself on the far side of bog, facing once again a trail that went on through the forest. But to his surprise, the trail did not lead him on through another section of dark and foggy forest land. A look of surprise and disbelief was seen on his face as he stood there and stared as a large lake of hot molten lava.