Excerpt for Rienspel, Issue 1: The Forest by , available in its entirety at Smashwords








Rienspel

Issue I:

The Forest



© 2017 by Ryan P. Freeman


All rights reserved. Copyright under Berne Copyright Convention, Universal Copyright Convention, and Pan-American Copyright Convention. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior permission of the author.


Cover designed by Laura Faraci


To contact Ryan by email, send to: ryanpfreeman1@gmail.com

You can also follow Ryan via social media:

www.facebook.com/

RyanPatrickFreeman

Twitter: @Ryanpfreeman

www.rienspel.tumblr.com/

or just visit http:// www.ryanpfreeman.com



Praise for Rienspel:


Rienspel is a libation to the human soul. It is fantasy at its purest: a celebration of the myth, of the beauty of nature, of friends and family and forgotten goodness. The world and characters the author has created are simply unforgettable. Best of all, Rienspel is an unrivaled example

of how fiction can indeed be true.”

- R.E. Dean,

Author of Blood for Glory


“Freeman’s style combines a John-Grisham-suspense and a C.S. Lewis-high-fantasy flare, to keep his reader

hooked. Page-after-page, I found myself wondering,

‘what’s going to happen next’.

Readers will be asking for the sequel.”

- Donna Lowe,

Speaker and Author of Radical Love...Forever Changed

and Examine Your Heart


“High adventure meets high-fantasy in Rienspel. In a world of tall trees and elves reminiscent of Tolkien or Terry Brooks, Freeman brings the inquisitive Rien to life in a Celtic inspired world. With a few twists along the way Rien’s exciting adventure will carry you through to the very last page.”

- Brad R. Cook,

Author of The Iron Horsemen Chronicles















Chapter I

From Darkness to Light


Atall figure sped through dense woods at twilight. The sound of pursuit - monstrous footfalls – came crashing only a breath behind. Honed arrows whizzed by. Dull thuds indicated where they deeply embedded themselves in thick-grained forest trees. The fleeing boy’s heart pounded like a master smith’s forge - crash crash crash. He had wandered too far from firelight and now he was paying for it. His vision blurred with sweat… luckily, he knew the woods infinitely better than his persistent hunters did. Leaves whirled by in reds, browns, and yellows streaking wild pale light through curling, heady mist. The forest shadows grew, ushering an ominous night. The boy wished he were indoors, safe behind strong stone walls or around a bright bonfire… because he knew sinister things lurked in the woods after sunset. And now they were after him.

Because of what he was…

“There is no escape, Woodspirit! There is no more pretending among the true Sons of Poseidon!” The ringing voice was high and piercing, and somehow vaguely familiar to the fleeing figure. The heavy footfalls charged ceaselessly on with an unsteady, lurching pattern, crushing underbrush as it passed.

The boy dodged into a thick hollow of trees, hoping to hide in the gathering tendrils of mist. His lungs burned - tempting his mind to surrender to whatever grim fate the hunters intended. Vaguely, the boy began wishing for his familiar village and his mother… for the girl he would probably never see again… and for his brother.

The boy’s last thought forced him to shudder… remembering the cold, fell light kindled in his older brother’s eyes the last night they ever saw each other…

The boy peered around the massive oak trunk he had taken refuge behind. Just across the moonlit glade, one of his hunters, a man ten feet tall and clad all in dark green and leather cast his gaze here and there, relentlessly searching. The same fell, maniacal light seemed to glow out of the hulking figure's hazel eyes the boy's brother had, once upon a time.

The lean boy shivered again.

“Rien Sucat, you are summoned by her majesty the Emerald Queen to face your crimes against Rillium. Surrender.” The glimmering light glinted off a trident-shaped broach.

Using the brief halt to gulp the nippy air, Rien wheezed, trying to regain his breath. Glancing left, he thought he saw a long, stretching hollow between the intertwining bows of gargantuan trees and immediately bolted noiselessly away.

A cry rang out within the sylvan depths, “You cannot flee forever, Sucat! We know what you are!”

The moon, looming and perilously bright, peaked far above an eastern aspen speckled ridge. Glimmering through the shivering, pale, golden leaves, the shafts illuminated the long, northerly natural tunnel which Rien stumbled into. In the shadowy distance, the sounds of the hunters seemed to be slowly fading away to the south. Idly, the panting boy wondered what his friends, the other Rangers and General Fy’el, would think when he did not return.

Would they miss him?

Or merely continue their desperate errand to restore justice and peace to a kingdom who had banished them within the forest depths they had once protected. Already the boy desperately wished he had not decided to wander from the Rangers’ camp earlier that day.

The heavy footfalls were not close anymore, but they weren’t far either… Rien wrapped his tattered grey cloak around him to ward off the pooling mist and fall chill and began trotting northwards, following the hollow through the trees. Soon the forest’s night sounds began to sing softly again as the moon climbed higher in the late October sky. Coloured leaves crunched under the boy’s soft, supple boots as he nimbly advanced into the uncharted woodland depths. Soon his racing imagination began to wind down - and slowly the once frightening tree shadows resumed their old friendly, watchful repose.

With another step, Rien’s boots stumbled over a half-buried paving stone, almost entirely hidden by leaves and mossy dirt. He swiveled his head south down the long, narrow tree hollow and then back towards the looming north, to the darkling, snow-capped mountains dimly reflecting the moon and starlight. Judging it was now safe, or as safe as it ever was in the Great Forest these days, the boy threw himself onto a nearby hazel stump.

“I must be on some kind of road,” he thought as he scraped the loose soil and leaves away with his boots, revealing a worn road.

If he had not been dog-tired, sore and hunted, Rien would have been immensely curious. On either side of what he thought must once have been a spacious road there looked like round white stones lining the way. The trees grew close all around him, and something in the tall boy told him they were up to something. Whenever the wind blew through the branches the creaking sounded like whispering, but for good or for evil Rien could not tell.

“I mean you no harm, old Hazel and Ash,” he muttered softly.

But only a Borean wind breathed through the branches and broad, crackly leaves, which floated lazily down on the crumbling road. The boy picked up one of the round, white, lining stones lying forlornly near him and examined it. Its surface was smooth, yet pitted and scoured with ageless years of pedestrian service to who knew where. It reminded Rien of the Trivulet pillars near his home. An image of the three white pillars standing firmly where the three forest rivers met near his village, Nyrgen, flashed like lightning in his head. But he quickly pushed the painful thoughts from his fatigued mind and pulled out his water skin and swallowed a mouthful of shockingly cold water. Momentarily refreshed, he stood up, stretched, and resumed walking northwards. As he labored, his searching eyes would often spot dim trees blooming with crimson flowers occasionally dotting the woodland away to his distant left.

Rien trudged onwards, wondering out loud if he would ever find Firehall, the elusive sanctuary he had been desperately seeking ever since late summer. But now autumn was waning fast and the place was beginning to seem like only a fading dream - intangible like the thick, blanketing mist in the hollows swirling all around him now, nebulous and hidden, untouchable.

The trees were becoming larger, something barely conceivable in the Great Forest, where the average trunk was twice the length of a man’s reach. Rien’s breath was now visible in the cold air, and he was just beginning to think how nice a fire would be again when a flickering light abruptly appeared up ahead.

The boy was not stupid, though.

It could be anything… and with his luck it belonged to some sinister figure who only meant him harm. Or… or it was an old friend…

Rien weighed the odds, and finally decided to investigate. Hope of friends looking for him suddenly blazed up in his heart. As silent as a shadow, he slipped off the ancient path and into the innumerable trees. Stalking towards the light, Rien made sure to fix in his mind which way the path was - just in case he needed to quickly find it again. All living creatures in the wood were blissfully oblivious to the youth’s swift passing as he went along.

Soon, Rien could make out distinct flames surrounded by many figures dancing round and round, laughing and calling in a wild, jovial tongue. Encircling the grove was ring of trees like he had seen distantly away to the left earlier, all checkered with bright crimson flowers, now luminous in the flickering firelight. Sitting on what appeared to be a fantastic throne grown out of a massive, living hazel tree sat a beautiful young elfess - as fair as the moon and as lovely as summer’s sunset. She wore a long flowing robe and matching tunic which seemed to stream like iron-grey rain edged in cloudy white. Her mantle was sable and upon her head she wore a delicate crown of lithe silver and tiny twinkling emeralds. Her long strawberry-red hair tumbled down a little ways past her shoulders and her dark blue eyes blazed brightly. But Rien thought she looked rather bored, despite the rollicking dance which whirled all around her. The others, all elves of varying dress, seemed to be always keeping half an eye on the enthroned girl… waiting for something which the spellbound boy could not puzzle out.

Tearing his gaze away, Rien saw a handsome young elf sigh and gaze longingly at the elfess, and then retire near a large flagon, joining a throng of elves.

They started toasting his health and joking in their fluid, breathy voices and he smiled weakly… but always his eyes were on the girl… and Rien thought he heard him whisper “Aelhuin… Aelhuin… Balla Vair…”

Transfixed, Rien watched as the hundreds of dancers paused their singing and laughing and dancing and feasting in the blink of an eye: for the red-haired elfess had chosen a dancing partner at last.

Right on cue, the dazzling girl floated towards the elf. She said something in her graceful, playful tongue to the whispering elf. It seemed to Rien the elf suitor was transformed, he stood up straight and his whole face beamed a wide, soft smile. All the dazed elf could manage was an inaudible, muttered reply as she led him nearer to the fire and they began dancing together.

Rien at once understood their dance, for it was a simple one. Yet, he admitted, it was the most graceful flow of two bodies he had ever seen. They did not simply dance, they almost seemed to understand each other’s souls through how they moved - at times floating as one, at others, as two separate, yet complimentary melodies. They appeared almost seamless, as if they were one pulsing mind and one throbbing heart. It was half way through their dance before Rien even realized there was music being played or even the hundreds of other couples dancing alongside them as well.

And then one single shocking realization made Rien’s whole lithe frame numb.

He knew her.

Or, at least he had seen her before… many months ago before he left Nyrgen. The memory spilled back into his mind like warm sunshine. He could still see her pale, delicate hand reaching out of the shadows to pick a flower the shape of a king’s crown during last midsummer’s eve. His heart seemed to stop. The rest of the memory was a nightmare he never wished to recall again… a memory which still haunted him… full of death and slaughter and shame… a cold terror which Rien could neither conceal nor forget.

But there she was - radiant and glowing, breathtakingly beautiful - her red hair wreathed with silver flowers and colourful fall leaves. And for a moment, the stark memories left him for the first time, and the night terrors faded.

He exhaled, relieved, his eyes glittering out of the forest depths.

All the dancers froze.

Every eye was on him, including hers.

With one hand motion, she sent the many guards away - the elves who had suddenly conjured themselves, fully armed, out of thin air; and with a second motion she summoned the boy out of the deep shadows.

Rien’s heart beat even faster than when the hunters had chased him.

But step by shaky step he stumbled through the trees. The boy hesitated on the edge of the firelight, suddenly afraid. Afraid of what he was… and of who all the merry elves might assume he was. A Rillian. A Terros. One sworn to kill elves. A tyrant and a butcher and, and…

And then suddenly she was standing before him.

A trembling light shone out of her as she beheld this tall, gaunt Ranger. A long sword was by his side, and a bow and quiver were slung across his broad shoulders. His young, tender face held fear and wonder and shame all at once, but in his eyes and his heart, she sensed no shadow. She reached beyond the fire’s glow and grasped his rough hand within the darkness, and led him into the light. Many elves drew back, others gasped, but others smiled, amazed.

The elven youth who had just danced with the girl stepped aside, his face alight with astonishment.

And then before Rien even realized anything, his weapons and cloak were placed reverently near the tree woven fantastically into a throne and he was dancing. But all he saw was the girl with the strawberry hair and dark, bluish eyes.

As he breathed, she breathed. As he moved, she moved. And together they danced as one under the light of the silvery full moon.

And time itself seemed to slow, and he heard her whisper in his ear, asking for his name.

“Rien.”

And her eyes widened but she would not explain.

“Mine is Aelhuin… Rien.” She told him, savoring the sound of his name as they held each other close. She noticed through the loose laces of his leather cuirass a strange mark which he bore upon his upper chest - a flaming bird in mid-flight facing right. “The Firebrand!” she whispered, awestruck - and she marveled ever more.

Rien danced and it was as if he understood her… not her past or her likes and dislikes, but her. Aelhuin herself.

And now the boy realized why he no longer felt the shadowy memory’s hold upon his mind, for in love there is no need for fear. Their hearts beat as one and the music pulsed and swayed with the fire and the distant moon and the blue stars high in the wheeling heavens above.

And then they were only themselves again. A tall, sweaty stranger from the woods and a lovely young elf queen stared back at each other once more.

It was at this very moment two elves approached, seemingly hesitant to break the lingering spell between the two youth. It reminded the two older elves of some long ago spring, in some forgotten corner of a far quieter, greener world. It was a thought of a thought, a breath of a breath, a wonder of a wonder - focus too hard or delve too deep and it would vanish without the merest hint or trace.

“We are the Lords of Firehall. I am the Summertide Lord and my wife is the Wintertide Queen. Welcome to our Harvest Feast. I would invite you to our Dance of the Balla Vair, but it seems she has already chosen you, and so, of course, it has ended just as it should. With love and goodwill, even towards such a strangely clad wanderer as you, so passes our powers as seasons do to seasons. For now, let us formally introduce our daughter, The Balla Vair Autunmtide, Aelhuin.”

At this introduction from her father, Aelhuin blushed and then smiled and looked up at Rien. All around the fire-lit glade the canopy blazed in reds and oranges, and the delightful skin-tingling presence of fall filled all the guests with its glittering, smoking embers.

Sensing this was some kind of formal occasion, Rien scrambled to recall the decorum his sagely teacher back in Nyrgen, Father Astor, had bestowed him and replied with a low bow, “May wisdom guide you, and light by stars where else, my Lord and Lady.”

He gave a furtive glance at Aelhuin, who was listening with rapt attention along with all the elves present and then continued, “I am Rien Sucat of the Green Wood and well… and I’m lost.”

Rien began to resume his introduction, assuming the elves would want to hear his long story concerning how he had accidentally interrupted their dance. With thoughtless accuracy, he instantly made a mental note of how far away his bow and falchion long sword were, all while keeping his blue-green eyes on the Lord and Lady and especially their daughter. Meanwhile, his response had caused a small furor of whispers and eye furrowing amongst the guests.

“All will be settled in the days to follow, I trust,” waved the Elven King. “Out of ancient tradition, we respect all who seek refuge within the realm of Firehall during these violent times. I bid you join in our revelry in honour of memory past and reality present and hopes of the future yet to come” said the Summertide Lord with a warm, honest smile. “Please, stay and feast. You are not far from our Halls and you shall lodge with us tonight. Tomorrow shall be a day of many words and questions - but not tonight. Tonight is for the young, and the young at heart. Let it be known to all, this one Rien Sucat of Green Wood,” he paused here and then continued, “is welcome in Firehall and is to be treated with all the rights accorded to the one whom the Balla Vair chooses. Let none query what Rien wishes not to divulge, for his story will be told in time. Let us resume the feast!”

The bonfire mysteriously roared to a new height with all the joy of a young summer’s sun, the embers reaching out to the sentinel moon high above.

Aelhuin came to Rien and took his hand, and guided him to a high table illuminated with bluish light which emanated from no particular place, yet at once was everywhere. And there he was placed next to Aelhuin, which was the place of honour. Then piles of delicious food appeared chaperoned by frothing goblets of stout October ales of the darkest nature. Rien thought he had died and appeared at Elysium, Valhalla, and Heaven all at the same time, for living a hardy Ranger’s life left little room for comfort or seconds when it came to meals.

As the elves and Rien feasted they talked and smiled, but all the while, the boy noticed a black shrouded figure seated at a private table just within the glowing blush light of the high dais. She (Rien imagined) was older, older by far, but her story the boy could not even dream of guessing. Still, something about her seemed strikingly familiar… as if he had seen her before.

Aelhuin smiled at him whenever she thought he wasn’t looking, and the few times over the course of the meal Rien did catch her she busied herself in talking or feasting or even singing.

Presently, she asked him, “I have never seen a Terros eat like you do, but for our dance I would think you all but beaten by your looks.”

“I’ve had a rough night, Woodspirit.” The answer accidentally spilled out. Rien attempted to cover himself with a boyish smile between mouthfuls of succulent roast and gulps of steaming cinnamon vanilla chai. She began to protest being called “Woodspirit” when she realized the point.

“Ok, I don’t call you Terros and you don’t call me Woodspirit. Do we have a deal?” She inquired, brushing a stray red lock out of her dazzling, pale face.

Rien watched her grin and put a soft hand under her chin - and always he saw her lovely dark eyes staring back into his. He was about to reply when someone tapped him on the shoulder, it was the elf with whom Rien had first seen Aelhuin dancing.

“I am Aesire of Watch,” he glumly introduced himself, his eyes darting over to Aelhuin and then back to Rien, studying him intently. “I am not allowed to ask of your past this eve, but you are allowed to ask me of ours. Tell me, what would you wish to know so we may lessen the strangeness of the...wanderer.”

Rien was about to wade into Aesire of Watch’s mental slough of countless questions when Aelhuin interrupted him, “Poor Aesire, don’t feel bad. I know you understand. Don’t hold ill will towards Rien - he is new and all. Hold your head high, there are plenty of other girls here tonight, you know.”

“None as beautiful as you, Aelhuin,” Aesire half whispered, and sadness lingered in his voice. But before Aelhuin or Rien could respond an elf stepped forward into the full light of the bonfire ever blazing.

“It is custom tonight for many stories, though do not feel too badly if you cannot understand most of them, Rien of Nyrgen, for they are all in Paneran-Elvish, unless you know our high tongue,” Aesire quickly informed Rien as the story teller began to prepare and the quieting crowds found seats.

“Actually, Aesire of Watch,” Rien quietly replied, “I know small bits already - but I am a fast learner, I know a few languages myself and also a few stories as well, if you have story Waevers - master story tellers - as the Rillians do.”

Aesire seemed to be gradually warming up to Rien and his tone seemed to change, “Oh, you’ll have to teach m…” but Aelhuin cut him off, “Quiet, they are beginning.”

“It’s not like you haven’t heard it before.” mouthed Aesire. Rien was getting the idea about how perhaps the two were friends, but the chanting began and he lost his train of thought rather quickly.

“In the Great Forest

Near the Domain of the Sylvan Elves

Is the Glewn Nee-a-Nee.

Deep under the sunny eaves of the trees,

The Glewn resides

Where the ancient trees form a ring.

For long ago,

They were caught

While dancing a dance

Which at first

Began in the spring,

And being afterwards thoroughly embarrassed

Have ever since refused to move

And rooted themselves

In their last pose,

Choose to dwell only there.

The elves like to walk

And visit those trees

From the lowest to the highest,

And rest in the sigh of the breeze -

And lie in the mosses and grasses

Flowers and leaves

Which inhabit the shady ring,

Among the endless columns of greens

Among the ferns and the trees.

On High October’s Eve,

The elves go to dance

Under the moon rays

And faint star light,

For this night is called

“The Balla Vair.”

And all the elven folk come to watch

The un-wed she-elves dance

In the silvery night air.

For the trees,

During this night,

It is said,

Sometimes are stirred from their sleep -

Forgetting their momentary embarrassment,

Joyously clap their branches

In the cool of the calm night breeze.

For the trees love the elves,

And it is here they grow

Their roots and their boughs

Near their bases,

To form thrones

Or party chairs!

For Great Lords

Or young suitors

To recline in and watch

The Dance of the Balla Vair.

On this night,

Flutes and harps mingle

In commemoration

Of the very first time

An elf-maiden danced in the ring.

For every summer

One young woman

Is named The Aelynn -

The most fair and good-hearted,

In all the wide woods is she.

And all the young suitors,

After their choosing,

Desire to be married to her -

But as for this suiting,

Well…

It remains for the wife-to-be.

See, the Aelynn,

Whom the last dance

Is reserved for

Chooses her young groom-to-be

By dancing with him last and the longest

While the moon-ever-shining,

Is highest in the silky sky

At midnight during this eve.

They do this in honor

And in remembrance for

The beautiful she-elf

Who first sang and danced

So many years ago

This night for her love

In this very ring of trees.

For on the night long ago

The Ancient trees sang and danced

For young love

As silly trees are wont to do -

But they got embarrassed

When Aelynn first found and

First caught

Her true love who wandered

The leaf-strewn paths

Which meander under those eaves.

For she found him watching in wonder

Her and the trees

As they danced and they sang

Under dappled moon-rays

And starlight

Of a High October Eve.

With her light brown and blonde hair

Gently caressing her soft sylvan cheeks

Her radiance from him

All his breath took away,

As stunned, he gazed into her brown-doe eyes

Sparkling in the half-light

With such lovely innocence so great

This but for a moment his heart she had stayed.

By the ancient spell

He was compelled to cry out

As her body moved and swayed:

“My love, my love, my Aelynn!”

The trees ceased their wondrous dance

To watch what two hearts can make -

This awesome spell ever-great

Which all who live know,

This spell which is called “L’wyn.”

And in him she was his

He in she hers

For one never knows himself while alone,

But in The Love of your life

The sparks and fires ignite when,

Flames of life are kindled:

And so she danced again.

The moon was high in the star-swept sky

And she was in his embrace.

And hope

It was kindled

Against every night to come

Strength which ever flows from within.

And the Stars themselves were so taken by them,

They nestled their cool light in the two’s hair.

And with her in his arms

And him in hers

They danced the Balla Vair.

So in the Trees,

On High October’s Eve

Aelyn’s magic still lingers there,

And the Sylvan Elves

They know ever well,

This of all nights of the year

This one most of all

Is for the young

And the dear,

For the fair folk who dwell in the shades of the trees

Know of all nights of the year

This eve is for young love:

The young maidens

And their L’wyns

Who all meet by moon ray and star-light

Dancing their Balla Vair.”

Rien, who had understood most of the lay, looked over to Aelhuin who was positively beaming.

“Stand up now, Rien Sucat,” she whispered to him and Rien rose on weary knees. Before the silent host, she spoke to all, “I have chosen the newcomer, Rien Sucat. And yet I deem this case most strange, and so I grant tomorrow to hear his tale, though I doubt not his heart, nor his courage and hardiness. On the morrow I place my trust in Firehall to decide the fate of their L’wyn, and whether Rien and I are to be theirs and more time be granted to us, or if we deem, more shame and weary wandering for those forsaken of their people.”

“If the Forest has allowed him here, it must be taken as a sign Rien Sucat of the Green Wood was meant to come to us tonight. Greater powers are here at work than some might begrudge guessing.” Spoke the Elven King diplomatically, “for now, we honor you and you shall be honored among us... for The Tree's sake,” finished the king, scrutinizing Rien with old, deep eyes.

“Wait, was I just engaged… to the princess of Firehall?!” Rien thought. It was all Rien could do to keep his gaze from the curious, probing look of the princess he had just danced with.

After Aelhuin had finished responding with a great many more things which Rien could only half understand, they finally sat down again. But by now Rien had lost most of his ravaging appetite. How could he possibly be sent away just like that? He had finally found, thank his lucky stars, the kingdom of Firehall. He had nearly died on several occasions, and several of General Fy’el’s Rangers had sacrificed their lives, braving unspeakable dangers to bring him thus far. And what about Fy’el’s fallen Rangers? Rien then vowed he would try his best to bring them safe under Firehall’s protection as well if ever chance favored him.

Now, it is a funny thing to move with the dancing shadows. When one watches them, one can mark them flicker and sway - appear and disappear as the lights and objects glow and cast - but to be in the shadow seeing outward is to see the entire world in a sort of perilous wonder. And this is how the night was for Rien. It wasn’t until the first flickering of dawn the magic began to wane and the fatigue came, like a soft blanket, to the revelers.

And somewhere in this moment Rien happily recalled thinking, “I found Firehall, now what?”













Chapter II

Rien’s Tale


And so all of Firehall simmered with excitement about the Queen-in-waiting’s choice, and great wonder was flung far and wide about this newcomer, this stranger from the shadows. Some whispered how his name was one of power and fear, while others dismissed this new upstart and secretly wished the Terros good riddance. So, it was with little surprise when rosy dawn began spreading her red-tinged fingers through the autumnal forest, from tree to tree all throughout the Elven realm of Firehall, nearly all knew of the events from the preceding night. Firehall was bustling with all sorts of folk from near and far, eager to hear this Rien Sucat’s story, and to decide for themselves whether he was to be kept or banished.

Rien slept late, blissfully ignorant of the wild rumors whirling through Firehall, in a room where the elves had led him to once morning began slanting across the dancing lawn. A yellow sunbeam had been slowly moving across the room towards the sleeping Rillian, who was almost too long for the massive bed where he lay. The warm sunshine finally crept across the cozy blankets and onto the pampered Rangers’ young face. Rien awoke with a start, momentarily forgetting he was in Firehall.

“Murain...” he mumbled to his brother, “go to militia drills... you're going to be so late...” and then his eyes cleared and he realized he was not in his old familiar pallet back in his little, quiet village. Sadness and excitement flooded his mind as he looked around. The memory of his old room and his brother still haunted his groggy thoughts.

Swinging his long legs around, he stood up and starred out the tall bay windows outside. Looming amid the whimsical, wispy clouds stood the northern mountains, powdered with gleaming snow. From the timberline downwards cascaded a flowing velvet cloak of emerald forest flecked with crimson and orange leaves which streamed down to the forests' edge near Rien's window. Deciding he rather liked the view, Rien eyed the flickering hearth in his room’s corner. The dying embers were still glowing red like some lost treasure.

On a dresser were two sets of clothing laying out for him, one a brand new set of seamless flowing robes which seemed like a misty storm blowing through green leaves. It made his eyes dizzy. Next to these he eyed his familiar woodland clothes, plain leather and rough cotton and a pair of high, sturdy boots, except they had been mended and refit. His eyes raked the garments, drifting to places where he knew certain stains should have been. Blood by the collar when he was wounded by a stray shaft; a tear where his leather cuirass (lain next to the window) had broken in from a deft kick; sweat marks around the arms and head from hours of running and fighting during an intense Centaurian skirmish. His boots looked polished and re-shod as well, too perfect to have ever been his own. The mud stains had somehow been washed out, the laces were no longer frayed and the soles were no longer peeling. Finally, stout and clean, was a little glass vase, inside of which a single crown-shaped red flower raised its little head above the rim by mere inches. Rien thought it looked familiar somehow.

Without much thought, Rien donned his Ranger gear and was just strapping on his hardened chest armor on when he noticed a silver ring with two glittering emeralds lying next to the elven garments. Curious, he walked over and picked it up. The dying firelight glinted off of its smooth surface. In Rien's mind he recalled last night and the dream he had stumbled into, and the girl with eyes so dark they seemed blue. Smiling, he fitted the ring on his left hand (he already had a ring on his right hand). But a sudden knock at his door tore him away from the gift.

In a split second Rien realized his weapons and cloak had not yet been returned. In a single stride, he walked to the high, arching door and opened it. Standing on the other side was soft autumn incarnate. Aelhuin stood before him and her starry eyes glinted.

For a moment neither spoke.

“Aelhuin,” Rien managed finally.

“L'wyn,” she sighed, extending her right hand which Rien noticed also bore a similar ring as his left hand now had.

He took her tender hand, remembering the last time he had done so, she had ushered him into a place he never dared to believe could actually be real. Quietly shutting the door behind him, Rien and Aelhuin walked down wood-paneled halls, periodically illuminated by high arching windows, deeply set. Outside, Rien caught glimpses of many elves all moving gradually towards the same spot on the other side of a series of green hedges on the forest’s skirting edge.

“Thanks for the ring,” Rien said awkwardly, racking his mind for something to talk about.

She smiled and looked up at him, “You don't have to worry about saying anything,” she told him, reading his mind; “We have time.”

They turned a tiled corner and came to two large doors standing wide, revealing a large hall surrounded with colonnades of nimble pillars. The rich, resinous aroma of spiced wood and fresh, dewy ferns lingered all about them. Entering, the pair made their way across the spacious room towards the far end, where a fire was blazing on a wide hearth. On either wall were alternating windows and standards depicting trees, circles and crescent moons. Long benches filled most of the hall, illuminated by fire or from a small hole above where sunshine filtered through. The room was mostly empty now, but there were still a few tarrying elves and, much to Rien's surprise, a small contingent of stocky Dwarves staring at a small feast laid out on many platters before them. As they passed, the Dwarf seated at the head of the table nodded to them. He wore a long white cloak and wore a jewel like a winters’ star plucked right out of a frosty night sky around his neck. The Dwarf's companions also looked up from their food as Aelhuin and Rien passed, eyeing them curiously.

The pair passed through the giant carven oak doors, down wide, stone steps and out into a green courtyard. The wood’s edge could be seen some distance away, swaying gently in the fresh, late morning breeze. Stretching out before the couple led a well-trodden path going not quite straight towards tall, green hedgerows. Effortlessly, Aelhuin led Rien through the twists and turns of the garden maze. Abruptly, the bushes ceased, their tall arching branches fell back to reveal a long half circle wall no more than two feet high. Within, paving stones danced around a spacious flickering fire pit, its blue flames strong and high. The sparks reached up into the clear, almost matching, forget-me-not blue of the morning sky. The forest came right up to the far side of the circle, cut in two by what Rien could only assume was the end of the same old worn path he had stumbled across the night before.

“I guess it wouldn’t have mattered much anyway,” Rien said, wondering aloud.

“What do you mean?” asked Aelhuin, as other elves and a few Dwarves began filtering in, many finding seats along the half-wall.

Rien quickly recounted the events leading up to when he stumbled across her people's dance. For a moment Aelhuin was stunned, and then began to burst with all sorts of questions – all of which were cut short with the arrival of her parents, Lord Summertide and Wintertide, appearing out of the path across from the fire. An audible hush filled the circle, and the flames flickered brighter –a feeling of summer’s high, bright strength, matched with winter's snowy, still, thoughtful depth permeated the clearing. On either side of the fire, the monarchs approached and stood. All around the circle the trees bloomed into verdant, leafy green or lost their autumn leaves and a silvery mist began rising up from the earth. In another section, Rien thought he spied the new buds and virgin flowers of Spring. There, in the middle, straddling the path, the opposite seasons met and became one. But Rien noticed on either side of Aelhuin for some distance, autumn still reigned, nippy and colourful.

“Approach the fire, Rien of the Great Wood,” spoke Summertide.

Aelhuin reluctantly let his ringed hand go, quick to catch the ghost of an encouraging smile from her mother.

The boy walked forward, stopping at what he thought was a respectful distance from the monarchs and the flames, and gazed down at all the Woodspirits. It amazed Rien how only months before, he would have never believed such beautiful creatures even existed. Yet here they all were, standing (and sitting) before him. Like some legend, some magic incarnate. He couldn’t describe it, but he loved them. The mere idea of these elves thrilled him. He could hear his brother's mocking tone, reproving him in the back of his mind. But Rien didn’t care. In each of the elves’ faces, he saw sorrow, and long memories. In each set of brilliant eyes, he saw Aelhuin gazing right back at him. He felt a little braver, and then bowed low.

“Arise, Rien Sucat. Last night our daughter chose you. A Rillian. If you were an elf, you would be prince in-waiting already. We live long lives, and many remember how there was not always war between our peoples. Once, not so long ago, we shared this land. Much has happened since then, but Lord Summertide and I both know you are not your people. We await your account; to judge upon your own merits and self what awaits you here at Firehall,” Lady Wintertide said. She took a deep breath, and the air turned white and cold near her ruby lips.

Perhaps it was the rising mist between Summer and Winter, or even the flickering of the old, bright blue flames, but as Rien spoke, his words formed a story seen. It was not a tale seen with eyes, but with the inner ones. It is felt with the heart, seen in the minds’ eye as only the old tales do… and as it is perceived by the minds’ eye, so the Blue fire of the Hall works its own magic within. To each the story appears a bit differently – but the truth rings through nonetheless, for all Truth is God’s Truth…

This story begins as all good stories ought to begin; with hundreds of pages yet to be written and thousands of miles to go.

Once upon a time…

The Great Forest spread from the misty western shoals of Dardania to the eastern mountain range the Dwarves named Gezronite long ago; within these shadows of trees lived many things – full of forgotten magic, lurking evil, scattered elves, and ordinary Rillian villages. Ordinary, except Rillians were usually between nine and fourteen feet tall, making their defensive walls and the thatched homes and shops proportionally larger. These little settlements were the only indication of civilization the Green Lord, their official “ruler,” could deftly leaf into the mysterious sylvan depths of his self-proclaimed kingdom.

One village in particular, out of the way to all except those who travelled there for some specific purpose, was Nyrgen. Being exceptionally unimportant and dull, the younger villagers preferred disappearing into the surrounding trees – during the daytime, of course – to wasting away within the looming defensive walls which encircled the town. One boy, being plagued more than usual by mind numbing boredom, took to spending hours lazing about the woods.

Rien Sucat was his name and he was restless for adventure.

A cool pacific breeze rustled the thick, green foliage near the lounging boy.

The Rillian felt as if he were stifling in serene atmosphere all around him. It reminded Rien of patiently waiting expectantly through ages of time for something of soul-stirring grandeur. The endless waiting had formed a deep ache within his heart.

Rien had learned to cope, and day by day was somewhat forgetting how he was forgetting.

Forgetting what, though?

But today was the day he finally remembered (or was reminded of) his dull soul-ache…

He looked around and only saw the wind in the trees and the ripples on the pond near his sprawled feet, then stood up and stretched.

Rien addressed the pond, “Everyday it’s like I’m standing on a hill alone, just an insignificant specter going through the motions in a world which preaches security and praises peace, but promotes neither.”

But the pond only shimmered and sparkled in the early evening sun, reflecting the hazy image of the ruddy youth’s bright blue-green eyes and short, light brown hair.

“Always just beneath the clear, there’s the murky bottom,” he sighed, gazing into the sun-dappled pond.

Sunlight splashed aslant across his face. Rien relished the warmth on his cheeks. Here and there he could watch long, teasing shadows dance gracefully across the forest floor. The warm whispering wind was all around him, but he did not utter a word for a long while.

“It’s almost like this place is mine… or like I belong to it,” he finally decided, gathering up his pack from where he had left it behind the ancient elm he had been sitting against.

Rien took a hold of his prized walking stick which leaned against a nearby gnarled ash tree, and scanned between the mossy tree trunks for his hidden path which was more of a game trail than an actual route. Slinging his pack on his shoulder, Rien began drifting back home from his sylvan sanctuary, reveling in his peace of mind. Here and there he had begun noticing funny little saplings shooting up with surprising speed and grace through fern-strewn forest floor. Today they had begun blooming with sunny yellow flowers with a four pedaled leaf. Something about them dazzled and captivated him. Perhaps tomorrow he would be able to study their stubborn progress further…

A smile flickered across his lips as he approached the trail junction which would lead him back to familiar, worn dirt paths. Soon the rough road would recede to his village, coursing between the humble buildings and few shops.

“Home,” he mumbled.

A breath of wind caught the trees around him.

Sigh.

He was dreaming again, this time of a boy being crowned king one day.

He liked curious things like that.

Rien loved secrets.

The crossroads met within a beautiful grove of trees. It was an ancient circle of mossy birches and maples which had grown ponderously together into a sort of intermeshing tent of leafy green swaying gently with the breeze. The only sounds to be enjoyed were the hypnotic trickling of water nearby, a songbird high on a branch above, and the rustling of the leaves every so often. Remembering his mother’s admonition earlier that morning, he paused to collect various herbs off the side of the path here, where they abounded in plenty. Some were for cooking, others for cleaning or medicine, and others just because they smelled nice. Gathering and bundling the various wild assortments together, Rien stowed them away in his leather pack before continuing on.

As Rien walked home, the maples seemed to him to be a vast army standing at an ageless attention, with their green banners fluttering in the breeze. The path steadily climbed up a gentle forest knoll which, once Rien had reached the top, gave him a commanding view of a picturesque panorama: his village, Nyrgen. He could see thatched roofs through the haze of wood smoke wafting out of the various river-rock chimneys. A stone wall and outer wooden palisade ringed the little town, separating the people from a moat formed by a diverted stream from the river nearby. Finally, Nyrgen’s fortifications were completed by yet another stout palisade ringing the outer banks. The village’s almost crisp, green standards hung over hardened wooden ‘T’’s, which flanked the road directly in front of the archways.

As Rien approached, he could just make out the design emblazoned on the rippling fabric: a white and silver seagull in flight to the right with its head craned to the left. The same patron bird had also been painstakingly etched into the colossal outer twin doors of carven oak (which were at least a solid foot thick) in a surprisingly lifelike representation. The symbol was a private joke among the townspeople because no seagull had ever, to any one’s knowledge, been seen in all the wide realm of the Great Wood.

Although, the traders who journeyed often from the magnificent coastal city of Shione, the Blue Lord’s capital, were always quick to assure such a bird did, in fact, exist. They always described them as “wheeling and circling high above the shore, crying and cawing above the awesome roar of the sea and the crash of the breakers…” – younger, local folk dismissed this description as a gross exaggeration, though…

“Little more than far-flung story,” village youth said and dismissed the tales for the ocean of trees surrounding them instead. To them, the sea existed just as much as goblins and trolls did; like an old wives’ tale which simply refused to die with the passage of time.

Yet, for now, Rien took his eyes off the southern entrance on his left hand to savor the last few breaths of freedom wafting on by mid-summer’s breeze. The mingled aroma of woodland flowers (especially those funny new yellow ones), towering pines and the general exuberance filled his day, and left Rien wishing the moment would last indefinitely.

The dingy gateman on duty brought him hurtling back to earth like a flaming meteor: “OY! Boy! You there! Are you going to stand there until nightfall or are you going to enter while I still have to let you in?”

“Gateman S’ven,” Rien answered acknowledging the less than courteous address.

“That‘s ‘Chief Porter’ to you,” S’ven retorted coldly, half curling his upper lip like he did whenever he was reminded of reality as well…

With a heave and a clang, the heavy oaken double doors and steel portcullis were opened and raised. Past the doors, and through the stone and wooden archway, the quaint village road continued wandering onwards. Only the muttered echoes of threats reverberated from the disgruntled gateman as Rien crossed the shady threshold. Beyond the Nyrgen’s gate, he was simply relieved it was not twilight yet. It was said after dark the woods became host to a myriad of malevolent creatures, or so all his friends claimed. Unknown dread caused Rien to impulsively glance behind him, but only the looming shadows remained of the gargantuan guardsman and the fortified gate. Safely out of range from gauntleted fist, steel boot, or halberd, Rien expressed his relief with a few choice insults just loud enough for S’ven’s ears. The shaggy-haired man’s only reply was an equally loud snort.

The youth trudged along the main village road many considered to be only a glorified path. Out of the muddied straw and scant paving stones, rose a steady line of thatched houses with dark, richly carved wooden beams which lead to the town’s heart. In the distance towered the local Magistrate’s hall, flanked on either side by the settlement’s only inn and the Lycaenum, the local library. Servants were lighting torches, chatting back and forth as they illuminated the town against the oncoming evening.

“I wonder what Father Astor is up to,” Rien said to himself as he gazed at the cheery light pouring from the many windows of the multi-storied building serving as the Nyrgen’s Lycaenum.

“Someday, I’ll have Father Astor explain just what exactly it is they do in there besides help tomes gather dust,” Rien thought.

Through an arching upper window, the boy could just make out the figure of the Chief Keeper of the Books intently surveying an endless row of tattered vellums.

Rien looked around as he turned left at the Lycaenum. Smoke wafted up to greet the fading sky from kitchen fires here and there. He saw wives, daughters, and servants preparing evening meals through windows glowing with gentle yellow light. Outside, Rien continued his hungry march home to a symphony of crickets mingling with other familiar village sounds. The building stones around the boy lit up, reflecting a glorious sunset like rich, dying embers. The quiet atmosphere seemed to permeate the very air until it could hold no more. It was overwhelming in a sweet way, reminding Rien of the way his mother used to sing him to sleep as a child.

Everything seemed soft, like rain on wind-chimes in the spring.

“Except it’s almost high summer now,” Rien thought.

Turning a corner, new sounds came: Boys, many his friends, were chopping wood; men could be heard laughing in the Gull’s Inn; the butcher chopping meat with a dull thwack; and the hardworking blacksmith dutifully pounding away with a tink and a tank.

Ribbons and streamers cast friendly shadows here and there, all signs of recent preparation for the upcoming festival of Leunami. Rien smiled, for this festival was his favorite. The simple gold-coloured stars swaying above doors and rafters as he passed by swelled his chest with excited anticipation. The thought of eight merry days of food, games, dances and, best of all, the barding contest, filled his mind.

Rien spied the lengthy shadow of his friend, Addios, coming up the street towards him. In his arms was a tottering pile of firewood and kindling which jostled as he strode down the lane.

“Addios! Is it you, or are the trees alive and walking?” Rien cried.

“Ah, Rien, it is good to see you. I’m sorry I can’t steal away with you into the woods as you are oft to do, or so your brother Murain claims.”

Addios had a stubborn habit of always talking formally, no matter whom he was addressing.

“The town Militia has kept your brother and me drilling and… training… far into the night lately.” At this he gave Rien a knowing look and then continued, “Ah well, your talk of walking trees has reminded me of the Festival Leunami… and, if you keep this just between you and I,” he lowered his voice to a half whisper, glancing around the obviously empty street, “I am almost positive Veronjas is coming again this year, though of course, I am not at liberty to say how my ears have heard this, you understand.”

“Veronjas? Really? Oh, I can’t wait! She always tells the best tales. Remember the first time she sang ‘The Fall of the House of Brighton’?”

“Ah, much too dark a tale for my tastes,” Addios sighed, “I much prefer the horsewoman’s old fairytales about the talking lion… the beast’s name escapes me for the moment, though.”

Rien’s forehead furrowed as he tried to remember, too. “Ah, I can’t recall either… oh well. I’m guessing it’s your turn to bring the firewood in, huh?”

“Yeah, well, you know my mother and sister’s constant complaining about the cold of late, even during high summer! Which reminds me, the dances are also approaching with the festival’s arrival… have you asked Kaylyn yet?”

“Not yet, but I will when the moment is right.”

Addios grinned, “You mean when all the stars align and Old Rillium has been restored, then…?”

Rien only grinned and shook his head, waving his friend off and then resumed walking, “I gotta get home, I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

“Farewell then, may sun light your path by day and moon illumine your trail by night…” bade Addios in a purposely overly pompous voice.

“…And truth by stars where else.” Rien, who knew well the traditional Rillian farewell, responded with a tone and grin to match.

They both inclined their heads to each other and then burst out laughing.

“Besides, the firewood is getting a bit heavy,” called Addios as he faded into the velvety shadows.

The two youth parted ways, each longing for their own home, families and hot foods for their bellies. Soon the musty, woody smell of the village dimmed away with the sun.

Rien’s mind drifted back to Leunami as he passed the gay decorations and gold-coloured streamers hung here and there.

Storytellers from the entire span of the forest and beyond journeyed to all the Rillian villages across the six kingdoms to weave their tales to endearing crowds. Literacy was a dream not far out of reach, yet not quite within the grasp of those in outlying towns. The entertainment which these stories provided was often times valued more highly than gold. When the storytellers came for Leunami, it was as if a vast library magically appeared with their coming. Every tale-laden wanderer itched for the opportunity to impress wonder-filled listeners with ancient legends in hopes of achieving the title of Master Story Waever, which also included a hefty prize sum. The best tales were recorded by the Chief Keeper of the Books, and shelved with highest honors in each Rillian town’s Lycaenum.

The date for the revered festival was swiftly approaching now, and lasted a week and a day; and all lead up to Midsummer’s Eve where the greatest tales where performed last. This also meant one of Rien’s most favorite people, Veronjas, would arrive soon, sharing her seemingly inexhaustible wealth of stories. She was known for her siren-like ability to enrapture her listeners with soul-shivering tales of all sorts. Rien liked her for another reason, though, one most other villagers considered the storyteller’s one negative (or at least regrettable) aspect: she was a Centaur and not a Rillian.

Yet, Rien dismissed the racial difference, for in her stories he found he could enter the farthest realms or wander the wildest northern regions bordering on something so much more than he had ever experienced in his waking life. When listening to the Centauress, it seemed Rien could, for but a fleeting moment, enter other worlds, and in doing so, awaken an untamed flame inside him. Once kindled, his restlessness would rage like a forest fire, roaring with longing for the reality of just such a world…

The boy was nearing home now, the narrow streets opened up to a circular alcove between houses where a lopsided well stood. Rien glanced at the well as he passed, gazing at the crumbling runes on the lip of the hole. The well was so much older than the town not even Father Astor knew much about it. But the water was sweet and plentiful, so no one complained too much.

Crossing the middle of the well-yard, Rien finally saw home’s door. Near the northern village wall, spaced a little away from the other buildings stood a small sturdy house with a small porch Rien and his older brother, Murain, had built last summer. The cabin was crowned with the brothers’ thatch-work, embellished with a well-used stone chimney puffing smoke up and away into the evening sky. It was cozy enough for Rien’s small family, but it was considered to be little more than a hovel by Rillian standards.

“The chimney probably needs a good sweeping again,” thought Rien idly, sniffing the air.

In the home’s two little windows which flanked the front door, small gold-coloured stars had been hung with care. They were some of the few family heirlooms left to Rien’s mother. Firelight flickered inside, spilling out of the windows onto the dirt at Rien’s feet.

The boy turned the rough iron knob (given to the family by the village blacksmith, who was rather fond of gift-giving, during better times) and strode into the largest of the three rooms in his home. At a rough, worn table, built by a father Rien had never known, were four chairs of equally rough nature. Over a hearth bent a tall woman busily tending to what Rien hoped was the last of the venison stew.

“Rien? It’s about time you came home. You know how the Chief Porter is about tardiness. One of these nights he’ll lock you out and the Stars will decide wha…” His mother said while dolloping sizzling, meaty stew into soup bowls.

“It’s gateman S’ven…” muttered Rien half to himself with a wry smile and a gleam in his eyes. His nose hungrily sniffed the succulent air as he set his walking stick and pack aside next to the door.

“What have I told you about respecting people above you?” She continued with a smile and a warning lingering in her blue eyes.

“Is Murain back from duty yet?” asked Rien, ignoring the accusation, as he automatically finished setting their table for three.


Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Download this book for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-35 show above.)