Rawar slept long and well; it was an hour after dawn when he left The Red Torch, having eaten the last of his food for breakfast. There was no sign of Manquarë, but he had no doubt at all that the doehrn would make an appearance before he left the city.
He procured some simple foodstuffs, re-filling his canteen at a well near the Hub. It took him nearly an hour to obtain these necessities, and now he went on his way along the Western Road; if he traveled quickly he could be through the Derglim by nightfall.
It will be good to leave Trillock behind, he thought. The Hub was a busy place during the day, and, as short as this stay had been, he was already tiring of people. He surpassed the Road’s brief stretch of cobblestone paving with a sigh of relief.
The incessant clip-clopping of the endless cavalcade of horses that trotted all around the Hub had quickly become annoying.
The weather was pleasant, at least. There was no cloud anywhere in the sky that he could see, and there was a steady breeze coming from the south that prevented the mid-Spring air from becoming too hot. The maze-like mess of buildings of Trillock blocked most of the wind, but he could feel the faintest zephyr like the hint of a whisper on his left cheek.
“Often times we will irrationally allow trivial aspects of our circumstances to influence us. Since you are a man, you must be especially careful of this, for I have found that your kind are more susceptible to this than my own. You know what I am speaking of: it can be things as simple as humble food or cruel weather. These things can make you unhappy if you are not careful, and you will begin to grouse about them, which is distracting; and you know what happens when you become distracted in the wild. But do not think that only unfortunate circumstances can affect you this way. Fine food and friendly weather can be even more distracting if you allow them to be. What you must do is find the balance between enjoying — or tolerating — the insignificant aspects of your situation, and allowing them to distract you from what is really important. There is always a balance, Rawar; it can seem unreachable or incredible at times, but it is always there. You just have to find it.”
“Rawar!” someone called his name from behind, but he recognized the voice, and kept walking. He heard the heavy thud of hooves on dirt approaching from behind, but still he did not turn or stop. “Rawar!” Manquarë said again. The doehrn’s sleek, brown steed came up on Rawar’s left, slowing to a walk beside him.
“You act as if you don’t want to see me,” Manquarë said. He waited a moment but got no reply. “No, you act as if I’m not even here. I don’t understand; I think I can help you, if you will only acknowledge me.” Rawar went on in silence, not feeling a need to respond; he began to jog. He still wanted to be out of the Derglim by nightfall.
“Your silence is troubling to me, Rawar. What sort of man are you? Is unfriendliness a custom in your land?”
“How did you know my mentor?” Rawar said abruptly.
“Vor–” Manquarë caught himself. “Your mentor was a wanderer, as you must well know, but his wanderings brought him oft to Aelyn in the southeast, which is my home. I– he, well, I think he took a sort of fancy to me; he always sought me out when he was there. He liked to talk and I like to listen, so we were congenial companions. We came to know each other quite well; I think I knew him better than most, except perhaps for you. You were not with him the last time he came; I think you were probably not even born yet.” He looked down at Rawar. “You have not answered my questions.”
“I am a man who wanders toward a specific goal, and I have no land. Do you know anything about how he died?” his voice was toneless.
Manquarë briefly glanced at the road, then looked back down at the man next to him. “How can you be so cold?” Rawar ignored him, keeping his gaze on the road. Manquarë looked back up with a muted sigh.
“I know he was killed north of the Jaraga,” he said quietly. “By a band of Daegs and– and a single karkla.”
Here Rawar stopped, looking up at him sharply. “How do you know this?”
“I am an elf!” Manquarë said, halting his horse. “What’s more, a tree elf, just as Vor– your mentor was.”
“You forget that I have knowledge of doehrns. And I know that the link you share with others of your kind is limited, and even if my mentor was sending you something, he could not have told you all of that from any great distance.”
Manquarë dismounted, landing on the ground lightly, his boots scraping slightly on the dirt. He had too look down a bit to meet Rawar’s eyes, standing about a hand taller. “You say you have knowledge of my kind, but one who is not of my kind can have but limited understanding. And you clearly do not understand how strong the telepathic link can be between two elves of the same kind. I could see everything that happened as clearly as if I were there myself.”
Rawar cowed, shrinking back from the doehrn and ducking his head from the unsettling eyes. “You saw?” he spoke in a hoarse whisper. You saw my betrayal? Why did you ask what kind of man I am when you already knew?
Manquarë looked at him sympathetically. “Yes,” he said. “I understand how painful this is for you–“
“No you don’t!” Rawar cried out. Have you ever betrayed someone who loves you like a son? Have you ever failed the only person you love when he needs you most?
What are you doing? this in his mind. Do you realize what you just almost did? You cannot bare your soul before an elf!
He has seen it! He saw when the cowardice at the depths of my being was revealed.
He does not identify it for what it is. You poor fool, why would he be here if he knew? Yes he saw, but he is too simple to realize what it is that he saw.
“You can never understand,” Rawar said aloud to Manquarë, who was looking at him rather oddly.
“Rawar, what is wrong?” Manquarë said, worry evident in his tone.
“I don’t believe that.”
“Who are you to speak to me this way?” Rawar could feel ire growing in him, replacing the shame and sorrow he had felt when it had been revealed that Manquarë had seen his betrayal. “You don’t know me, elf. You may have known my mentor, but you do not know me.” His voice was indurate, devoid of emotion. “Leave me. I did not ask for your company.”
“But despite the ill manner you have shown me, I offer it,” Manquarë said. “For if you travel west then you surely must pass through the Derglim. A wanderer such as yourself must certainly know of the danger within that dim wood.” his tone became challenging. “And you cannot stop a traveler from going his own way.”
“I think you will find that I can, but I will not stop you for now.” Rawar squinted at the rapidly rising morning sun, beginning to jog again. “And I lose time wasting words with you.” He heard Manquarë mount his horse again, and the doehrn quickly surpassed him, calling as he passed:
“Time lost would not be so great a matter if you rode a horse as I do!”
You will see differently, Rawar thought. Horses must rest, but I am steadfast.
Rawar came upon Manquarë giving his horse a break just after midday. He could just glimpse the dark, ominous line of the Derglim like a specter on the horizon. Rawar slowed to a stop next to the doehrn, who was seated amidst the long grasses of the flat plains they were on. It was easy travel, and they had already gone more than three leagues. Manquarë was eyeing the distant Derglim dubiously as he ate from his pack setting on the ground next to him.
Rawar sat near the horse, who stood peacefully by, not restrained or tethered in any way. This was out of necessity more than anything else; the only trees in sight were the distant ones of the Derglim, and rocks in this area were just as scarce. He wondered silently if Manquarë would have secured his horse if it had been possible; he doubted it.
They sat quietly eating for awhile, eyeing the danger that lay ahead of them.
“If you ever must pass through the Derglim, there are two things that you must beware. The first, and most easily handled, is the vorturs. But do not be deceived by the word “easily”; all it means is that they are not as difficult to deal with as the other hazard. Compared to other evils in the world, they can be quite perilous. There was a time when I was youthful that I allowed them to entangle me; because of my affinity with the trees I was able to persuade them to help me, but you will not have that advantage. You must be watchful; they will try to surround you, springing up when you do not expect it. They will entangle your legs and ankles with their thorny vines to hold you still long enough to infect you with their foul poisons. Cut the vines, and run; never be still in the Derglim, if nothing else then that will be your ruin.”
“What troubles you?” Manquarë interrupted Vorrodion.
Rawar sighed in annoyance, standing up. “I am not your concern. Especially not my feelings. Trouble with yourself, doehrn, and I will deal with my own affairs.” He began to jog westward again. “If you truly wish to help, then keep silent and allow me to concentrate.”
They reached the Derglim within the hour; Manquarë having slowed his pace so that it matched Rawar’s.
“That horse is going to slow you down,” Rawar said as Manquarë dismounted next to him. “This wood is dense with many low branches. I want to be through before dark; I will not wait for you.”
“It would be wiser to stay together,” the doehrn said. “I can protect you from the trees and–“
“I do not need your protection,” Rawar said not quite evenly. “Don’t insult me.” He went into the Derglim.
It was dark; as though he had passed from day instantly into night, and when he looked down he could only faintly see his boots. The sun could not penetrate into this forest, and he wondered how the trees could continue to flourish with such muted sunlight.
Manquarë came in after him, leading his horse by a rope he had tied around the neck; the horse had neither bridle nor saddle. Rawar wondered why he hadn’t noticed this before as he heard the doehrn breathe in sharply.
“This is an evil place,” Manquarë said. “No tree should grow where there is not light.”
“Quiet,” Rawar said. “The gloom is great enough without your dismal words.” And there was indeed a gloom like a heavy shroud permeating the woods, and their spirits were oppressed. Nevertheless, they went on, though Rawar quickly pulled ahead of Manquarë, who was often forced to use different paths than those that the man used. The Derglim was dense, and it was difficult for the doehrn to find a way through some areas with his horse.
As they went deeper into the wood, the trees began to become more sinister and twisted, as if an evil hand of Shadow had perverted their growth, bending them to its will. There were also many low, overhanging branches that seemed to always to find his skin; he had already suffered innumerable scratches and scrapes, and he could feel blood sticking in the hair on his head.
“You have always known that the trees are alive, but seldom is the fullness of this life manifested before non-doehrns.”
It is being manifested now, Rawar thought as he stumbled on a protruding root, falling heavily to the ground. He stopped for a moment, looking up at the vermicular roof of leafless tree branches, though he could only dimly see it in the deep darkness. That’s another thing, he thought. There are no leaves. It is the middle of Spring, healthy trees should be covered in leaves. Wait, he jumped up hurriedly as he felt a tug at his ankle, yanking his foot from a root that had wrapped around him. Already the Derglim gets to me. Do not stop, fool! He went forward again at a rather hasty pace, quickly slowing as he realized that he wasn’t absolutely positive which way was forwards.
“I must not stop,” he said aloud. He looked around him, but no path was discernible from another; he did not know which direction was west. He began to walk again, knowing he couldn’t safely stay still. I will mark the trees, he decided, drawing his sword. I wouldn’t do it to normal trees, but the Derglim is owed no kindness. This way I will at least know if I have regressed. He went on, marking a cross with his sword on the trees he passed, traveling in as straight a line as he could manage in the contorted confines of the wood. He neither saw nor heard any sign of Manquarë, and wondered how the tree elf was getting along in this hell of a forest. How many hours until night is it? I must get out of here! He began to go as quickly as he could, eschewing the tree-marking he had only just begun. A warm liquid trickled slowly down the back of his neck, and he knew it was blood; his head was throbbing. But still he went on, stumbling and almost falling as his foot struck an object he could not see. It’s too dark! he yelled in his mind, striking wildly with his sword at the offending tree as he passed it. It retaliated quickly, swinging a lower branch around like a whip to strike him soundly on the head, and the force of it knocked him off his feet. He was dazed, and lay immobile on the ground for a moment, trying to recover his senses. His gradually became aware that his hands were shaking, and sweat covered his face. The pain from the wound on his head had worsened; it hurt to move his head at all. Suddenly from the ground there sprang a large root, like a tentacle from a hideous, forgotten beast of legend. It snaked over his chest, burying the loose end on the other side of his body, entrapping him against the dirt.
Vorturs! his mind screamed at him. No, he thought. Vorturs are the enemy. Trees are my friends, and that is why I must not struggle against them. He thought this as the huge root began to tighten, squeezing his chest and pulling him inexorably into the ground. This is right. This is where I am meant to be. I will have peace. Already the pain is gone, and it was. He could no longer feel the pain in his head, or from the countless minor scratches and bruises he had received. Dirt now began to cover him as he was pulled completely underground, and black spots danced before his eyes. He closed them in peace, relaxing as he was dragged under.
But suddenly a violent sense of wrongness seized him, and through the mist that had obscured his mind from rationality the words of his mentor penetrated like the stab of a deep thorn:
“The second danger is the trees themselves, which will seem to be only an annoyance, but if you allow it, they will confuse you and trap you, and there will be no hope for escape. It is a hard thing to explain to a man, but trust me: you must beware the trees. I think that they scratch you and trip you only to distract you from their true attack, which is an assault on your mind. If you begin to lose your way or become distracted by trivial things, that is the trees. If you begin to feel terror and become frantic, that is the trees. But worst of all, if you begin to feel at peace and lose all sense of pain, that is the trees, and that is when they almost have you.”
Pain came back to him in full strength, and his body spasmed from the suddenness of it. Startled, the tree stopped pulling him for a moment, and its grip lessened. He squirmed frantically, clawing at the confining dirt as he struggled to free himself from the tree. It had recovered from its surprise, and once again tightened its hold on him, but he had managed to move slightly, and now the root tried to envelop his neck, and underestimated how tightly it would have to squeeze. He wriggled his way out from under the root and stood up, bulling his way through the heavy earth that had covered him. He spat some dirt from his mouth, wiping grime from his eyes as he continued to move, not wanting to stay still even for an instant. The tree was angry now, and moved with greater speed. Rawar stumbled away, still disoriented, nearly falling in his clumsiness. But more words were coming:
“Now listen to me, Rawar, this may sound foolish to you; to defend yourself against the trees, you must sing. It does not matter what you sing, only that you do it loudly and clearly. It will keep your mind occupied so that the trees cannot affect your thinking, and they do not like it.”
It sounded completely absurd, but he was willing; he began to sing the first song that sprang to his mind, which was oddly a senseless children’s ditty:
“The ocean is deep, the mountains so high,
I look up from here and reach for the sky
It’s so close and yet far, right here for me
My dreams, they can be reality.”
He began to run as quickly as he dared in the dimness of the Derglim as he continued to sing; his voice was hoarse and weak at first, but gradually it gained power. He was out of reach of the angry tree in a moment, and he slowed then, taking stock of his situation. He stopped singing briefly as he looked around, realizing in the back of his mind that he only knew the one verse.
I still do not know which direction to travel, he thought. But I know that the trees are more twisted and foul near the center of the forest. That can be my guide. I may not emerge on the western side, but I can do nothing else. He started moving and singing the same words over again, jogging towards the fouler-looking trees. He knew that he had not gone far enough west to have passed through the middle of the forest, so he would first travel inwards to insure that he would not go back the way he had come.
The effect his singing had on the trees was tangible; he could feel and at times see them shying away as he passed. He also heard whispers like little breaths of wind as he went, as though the trees were voicing their displeasure with him. There was still a great weight on him, an oppression on his spirits, but he was heartened. He seemed to gain new strength, moving with vigor that hadn’t been there before. Rawar shook his head, and his lips moved very slightly in the closest thing to a smile that he could contrive.
Once again I am humbled by your wisdom, he thought. Amazing. Ah! The trees had taken a noticeable turn for the better, and he had not deviated from his erratic course. I have surpassed the middle. I wonder if it is the true center as well as the… spiritual, I guess. He went on, ever singing.
The gloom had not diminished. The dark, oppressive trees were all around him, and he still had to concentrate to see where to put his feet as he walked. The spirit of the Derglim was as it had ever been, dark and cheerless. But he was cheered and he was comforted, and his spirits were as light as was possible for a man in the Derglim.
He traveled as rapidly as he could in the dimness, putting his feet down carefully and yet quickly. It was somewhat difficult to sing and move at his brisk pace at the same time, and he gasped in the midst of his verse several times. Every time he
did so, the trees seemed to draw in around him, looming their branches over him. It was plain to see that they were angry, and he knew that it was only his silly song that was keeping them off.
Once again I find my strength in that of my mentor, he thought. How pathetic I am. Is there nothing in me that is mine alone? As these thoughts came to him, he stumbled, nearly falling, and his singing faltered. But he had gone far indeed now, and he had come almost all the way through the forest. The trees were less evil here, and they did not immediately strike at him. He violently shook the disheartening thought from his head and increased his pace again.
But he did not sing. Whether it was a matter of pride or of simple forgetfulness cannot be known, but no thought of song now entered his mind. And the trees recovered, and immediately began to assault him again. They tripped him with their roots, scratched him with their low branches, and he despaired. What little heartened spirit he still had vanished like a wisp of smoke in a stiff wind. The madness of the Derglim was not as potent here near the fringes of the forest, but Rawar was suddenly in a bad state. His breath came raggedly, sobbing in his throat as he went, crawling as often as he was walking. The trees now attacked relentlessly, even trying to grab him occasionally. Rawar was like a frightened child, swatting wildly and ineffectually at the branches. He tried to rise up to walk, but was immediately swatted to the ground by a low-hanging branch. He lay on the ground, weeping brokenly as he gasped for breath, and he did not try to rise. The madness had fully seized him now, and he was only dimly aware of his surroundings. He felt vines begin to encircle his body, and hazily, at the edges of his being came the thought:
“Vorturs!” but it was too late; he couldn’t move. He was feeling sharp stings all over his body, and pain enveloped him. Blackness now began to overcome him, and he welcomed it. As the last vestiges of his consciousness — Life? he wondered — were fading away, he could hear obscurely, as if it were coming from afar through a vast haze, the faint strains of singing:
“Fish that fly and birds that swim,
Utter stillness in a steady wind
Why do you say it cannot be?
My dreams, they can be reality.”
And then he knew that he was dead.