True Fire Book 3 The Q'Herindam.
Not dark at all, merely dim under its spreading, interlocking canopy; the filtered sunlight suiting those it cared for, the M’Herindar, wielders of Earthmagic, descendents of the Hirondae. Once it was known as Holmwood but Man, forever barred from its shady depths, gave it the name Darkwood for fear of what lay within and Darkwood it became.
Ch’ron was the forest of Darkwood, originally derived from just one Tree which Durhain had lain his magic on. The Tree spread, suckering its way across vast tracts of country. At some time during the spread, Ch’ron became sentient. He copied the forms of other trees and plants to provide diversity for those who came to dwell in the dappled shade beneath his branches, both animal and M’Herindar. Ch’ron grew their food and their homes and learned to manipulate the Earthmagic beneath the surface to accomplish his only goal.
To serve the M’Herindar who lived within him.
Now Ch’ron was under attack on his western margin where the forest grew beside the Rift, an arm of the Northern Sea created by misuse of powerful magics during a nearly forgotten war between two opposing factions of the M’Herindar. One faction wanted to wipe Man from the face of the land while the other desired to protect the newcomers. A Pact was eventually made between the two factions before they destroyed the world and those on the western side of the Rift renamed themselves the Q’Herindam and turned to evil.
formation of the Rift resulted in the Darkwood being split into two but the
forest remaining on the Q’Herindam side grew into a twisted grotesquery of what
it once was. This new home of the Q’Herindam was deemed fatal for Man to
venture into and it subsequently became known to all as The Forbidden Land.
1. Mehgrin and Durhain
Arwhon stood with his hand resting on the silvery bark of the Tree. The centre of the Darkwood and its most ancient growth, it towered above all the other trees. It was here Arwhon came to converse with Ch’ron. Krissi, his gryffon, lay curled up beside Shiri who sat on the grass absently caressing Krissi’s feathered ears as she listened in to the conversation between Arwhon and Ch’ron. Shiri, grown up in the Darkwood had no need to touch any part of Ch’ron to hear him.
“I can’t describe what is happening Arwhon. Parts of me are slowly dying but I don’t know the cause. My senses vanish from the areas under attack and if I look through the eyes of birds or deer, I just see death there, as what was once a healthy me turns dry and brown. It’s a slow thing and it’s been spreading for three or four months of your time but I cannot stop it, Earthmagic doesn’t seem to work.”
Arwhon felt the despair in Ch’ron’s voice as the Tree spoke into his mind. How could something as mighty as Ch’ron not know what the problem was? Or how to fix it. On separate occasions, the Tree had taken both he and Sihron’del inside his trunk and healed them after they had been severely injured, yet he could not heal himself.
Arwhon made a decision.
“I’ll travel to the Rift and take a look. Shiri will want to come and of course Cringle too. I’ll talk to Vehrin’del and Jahron’dal this evening and ask their opinion. I’ve always wanted to set eyes on the Rift.”
Gratitude flowed through the link and Arwhon bade Ch’ron a silent farewell before he and Shiri returned to Al’hera, the pony sized Krissi cavorting around them as they went.
Inside a huge tree, in one of the hollow sections Ch’ron had made for the Queen’s abode, Arwhon, Sihron’del, her mother Vehrin’del and father Jahron’dal sat at table enjoying the evening meal. Cringle served everyone before sitting himself down to eat. No longer did he cringe in the presence of the M’Herindar Queen but carried himself with an air of his own worth. He’d come a long way in a short space of time thanks to Vehrin’del’s magic healing his mind and Arwhon gave silent thanks to Fate for putting Cringle in his path.
There was small talk around the table while the eating was in progress but after Cringle cleared the dishes and came back to sit down, Arwhon and Shiri told Vehrin’del and Jahron’dal of the attack on Ch’ron near the Rift and his inability to fight off the slow death of his system. Sihron’del’s parents were greatly concerned with the news the Darkwood was under threat and between them all it was decided they would leave the very next morning, accompanied by four Rangers, to examine the problem first hand.
As the light grew brighter under the trees of the Darkwood, preparations were well underway for their journey to the Rift. Arwhon spent a little time explaining to Duran, his Barsoomi horse, where they were going, for how long and why Duran couldn’t come. Shiri did the same with Rancid, her mule. The two animals weren’t happy at all about being left behind but the sweet grass around Al’hera was very palatable and partly made up for the ten days or so they would be on their own. Horse and mule ambled off to find a tasty patch of new grass and happily grazed it while keeping an eye on proceedings.
Cringle had been outfitted with clothing much more suited to the forest than the odd assortment of garments he’d arrived in. Now he looked like a skinny Ranger as he strutted around in his new garb, trying to help organise their packs for the journey, not realising Ch’ron provided for nearly everything they would need. In reality, Cringle had little knowledge of the M’Herindar homeland and had to be shown just how little it was necessary to take with them while travelling in the Darkwood. Jahron’dal and Vehrin’del were soon ready to leave, as was their escort of four Rangers. Within the hour the group was underway.
Krissi came too. Through Arwhon she had reached an understanding with Ch’ron who allowed her one deer a week. It was a generous offer and Krissi honoured it, leaving all other food sources completely alone. She didn’t follow the paths the rest of the group travelled on but ran silently through the forest on her own trails, appearing at times to the sides or ahead of them or not at all depending on her mood.
Cringle was initially hard pressed to keep up with the rest of the group who had spent their long lives afoot and were used to walking everywhere. Arwhon had become used to spending all day afoot and could happily keep up with the M’Herindar but they slowed their pace a little to accommodate Cringle and still managed to make good time. Of course, Cringle could not move silently through the trees like liquid shadow but he tried and as always he was a quick study, learning to step lightly, keeping off the twigs and watching how the others slipped silently through the forest. He was amazed at finding delicious and refreshing fruits growing from tree trunks within easy reach but soon learned it was why they had no need to carry food. Arwhon took the time to explain to his Servant that the Darkwood was all one being, every tree, shrub and plant. Although the vegetation looked different, it all came from one source. Ch’ron.
When the light started to fade that first evening, the Rangers kept an eye out for the resting place. Cringle was in the process of asking where they were going to sleep when Arwhon forestalled him by pointing to a small clearing. Cringle’s question died on his lips as he saw where the trees around the clearing had interwoven their branches to form natural hammocks for all their party.
Ch’ron knew where they would stop.
As they entered the clearing Cringle heard the babble of a small stream behind the trees on the far side and suddenly noticed the boles of the trees grew various fruits. After selecting a hammock of branches Cringle dropped his pack off and chose a few of his favourite fruits plus a couple of new ones he didn’t know for Arwhon and Shiri’s supper.
It felt good to be Servant.
All of the group, both Man and M’Herindar spent a comfortable night wrapped in their cloaks, cradled in the arms of Ch’ron. At first light they all rose quietly and after eating, washed in the cold stream before shouldering their packs and resuming their travels.
On each day of the journey the routine was similar to the previous one and the miles glided by underfoot. Soon they could smell the salt in the air but there was something underlying that fresh tang. It was faint but slightly cloying, a scent redolent of decomposition.
During the morning, as they closed on the Rift, gliding through the forest, Ch’ron’s foliage lost its healthy glow seeming dull and lifeless. Leaves littered the ground and branches were bare here and there. Vehrin’del called a halt and went among the trees and plants examining them closely by touch and other senses, some of them magical.
“They’re dying! Something is killing them but I can feel no magic causing it. Do any of you have any ideas?”
The whole party went looking among the foliage but there was nothing to see, no marks or sores, no patches of blight or discolouration, no visible damage. Nothing. There were no answers from anyone. Jahron’dal suggested they move to the Rift and look there to see if anything could be found. It was Arwhon’s first visit to the Rift, a place he’d wanted to see but the occasion was soured by Ch’ron’s distress.
They heard the sound of the waves on the rocky shore before they saw the surge of the sea climbing the rock and pebble beach. The water of the Rift looked flat, grey and dull, not reflecting the blue of the sky. Something was amiss. Vehrin’del gazed around her.
“This is where we found Kuiran, Arwhon, afloat in a chest with a boatload of strange creatures chasing it. They looked like wolf men. Jahron’dal and Shiri gave them an archery lesson and they took off. The sea before us now is somehow very different, wrong.”
There was a slight ache in Arwhon’s head and he opened his senses out. The Ring was tingling a little, something which always presaged an event of significance. He threw open his senses and caught the faintest whiff of something he didn’t want to smell.
“Q’Herindam magic is here. Faint but unmistakable. I’ll always remember it after dealing with the Dark Mage in Goristoum. The Q’Herindam have done some subtle evil to this place.”
Just then Cringle leapt into the air.
“A worm just tried to eat my boot!”
They looked toward him as he pointed at the offender. It quickly let go of his boot and burrowed speedily into the ground, vanishing in a trice. As they all paid closer attention to the ground, they realised there were many of the small, blue worms digging in to the earth. It was Shiri who spotted where they were coming from.
“Look. Down on the shore. The worms are crawling up from the sea!”
Sure enough, with every surge of the waves, the legless parasites were being delivered onto the strand, wriggling their way up to where they could burrow into the softer ground. One positioned itself to taste Krissi but shied away from her taloned foot. Arwhon saw it.
“There’s magic in them. Krissi is resistant to any form of magic and one just tried to bite her but was turned away. These must be the creatures which are killing Ch’ron.”
A curious Ranger picked one of the squirming blue worms up and was rewarded with a bite to his finger. He dropped the worm with an oath as his finger end bled freely and started to turn the same blue as the creature which bit him. Arwhon went over to the Ranger, worried. He knew from talking to Ch’ron that if this was the cause of Ch’ron’s problem, Earthmagic could not heal it.
Arwhon took the Ranger’s hand in his. The blue discoloration was slowly travelling down the M’Herindar’s finger. The Ranger was distraught as he watched its unrelenting progress. Arwhon thought hard for a moment then remembered he had once healed Shiri with a Firemagic spell shown to him by dancing Fire Sprites. All Arwhon could think to do was draw his Dagger and place the point on the site of the wound while he recited the same spell which had worked the healing on Shiri. There was a small red flash and the Ranger jumped, pulling his hand away but when he held it up, the finger was healed and back to its normal colour. All of the M’Herindar were a little awed, including the King and Queen. None of them had seen Arwhon use magic before and this was Firemagic, a rarity in all the lands.
Cringle was almost speechless, amazed at witnessing magic in use but he was dancing up and down on the spot.
“We can’t stay here. Those things are trying to eat me.”
Sure enough, when they looked down, they saw the blue worms gnawing away at their footwear. As one they left the beach and retreated back into the Darkwood until they were among healthy growth again. Sihron’del took Arwhon’s hand in hers and drew him to one side, gazing up into his eyes, a serious expression on her face.
“Arwhon, you healed me at Goristoum and you just healed the Ranger. Do you think you could heal Ch’ron?”
Arwhon thought for a moment as the Ring on his finger tingled slightly.
“I could try but it would take a lot of Power.”
He looked at the expectant faces of those around him.
“Better leave me here and move away. I have no idea how much Power I can absorb but I am going to need a large amount of it to make the spell strong enough to work on Ch’ron. I don’t know if the Power will jump to you if you are physically near me. Better safe than sorry.”
Arwhon drew his sword and stood silently for a moment, considering his course of action as the M’Herindar drifted off into the woods, putting distance between themselves and Arwhon, leaving only Cringle standing there.
“That means you too Cringle. I’m not safe to be around when I draw Power. I know you have no idea what I’m talking about but please go wait with the others.”
As Cringle scampered away Arwhon started to infuse himself with Power, soaking it up until he felt hot, uncomfortable and slightly bloated. He pointed his sword tip at the ground between his feet as he repeated the Firemagic healing spell. The last word of it had barely left his mouth when a gout of cold red fire poured from his blade into the ground beneath. The earth around him shuddered and the trees near him writhed for a moment before all was still again. A sigh seemed to whisper through the forest and as Arwhon leaned against a tree, feeling a little weakened, Ch’ron’s thoughts were in his head.
“Thank you Arwhon, I feel much better. I read from your mind it was worms coming from the Rift which are doing the damage. Now I know what they are I can feel them. Your healing spell didn’t kill them. They are still there, chewing away but you’ve healed what was already damaged.”
The others came back cautiously, congratulating Arwhon who had already sheathed his sword but he wasn’t happy.
“I didn’t kill the worms, only healed Ch’ron of the damage they had already caused. They will keep at him and yet more will come. I need to learn more about Firemagic before I can help him properly.”
Shiri stood with her arms around Arwhon.
“You did the best you could for now Arwhon. More than any of us could do. I’m sure you’ll learn how to defeat the worms. I have faith in you.”
Arwhon felt a little better and there being nothing further to be done, they all returned to Al’hera.
A day after arriving back in Al’hera, Ch’ron asked Arwhon and Shiri to come to the Tree and make themselves comfortable, as he had a story to tell them and it could take a while.
It was a story he had promised to remember.
Arwhon and Sihron’del relaxed on the spongy turf with their backs leaning against Ch’ron’s mighty silver trunk. Cringle was off somewhere, being entertained by some of the M’Herindar children who were showing him simple magic. Apart from the healing of the Ranger at the Rift, Cringle had never seen magic in use before and the children delighted in his amazement. Little breezes were called up all around him to blow his hair every which way while sticks danced in response to the waving hands of the children. Cringle was having a great time with them, enjoying himself immensely.
Ch’ron thought it well past time Arwhon and Shiri heard all he remembered of the tale of Mehgrin and Durhain, as told to him by an ancient Hirondae woman. The original telling of the story was so long ago it almost seemed like a dream to the Tree and he’d taken a while to gather the various parts of the story together.
He began his narrative.
“Mehgrin woke, although she didn’t need to sleep and thought her bedroom away. It vanished, along with the colonnaded walkway and gardens surrounding it. She floated naked in the cool air before turning over and summoning gentle, warm breezes to caress her with silken fingers while she decided what to wear. Eventually a wondrous, green silken dress, so sheer it felt like nothing, materialized around her, fitting every curve of the body she wore at the moment. The sun had risen higher in the sky so Mehgrin partook of some of its energy while she decided on her entertainment for the day. She tossed ideas back and forth, eventually deciding to fly over the Hirondae for some amusement.
The Hirondae were lately come to her lands, slowly migrating from the east in dribs and drabs. Mehgrin had complained to Durhain they were spoiling the pristine beauty of the countryside. Durhain replied as he always did.
“We are but two of the ten Caretakers, the oldest of all living things on the planet. It falls to you and I to care for all the land between the eastern and western seas but it’s not our land. We are but its Guardians until those who come later populate it. After the first ones, others will follow and all the lands will eventually fill with their presence. They’ll change the land and in turn be changed by it.
As all things must eventually change Mehgrin.”
Durhain was always thinking of ways to help those who came to live in their land, some even arriving from over the seas but that was his nature. Mehgrin was of a different vein. Some would say spoilt but by whom? Malicious wasn’t quite it, neither was spiteful but there was something in Mehgrin which delighted in causing mischief. As good and honourable as Durhain was, Mehgrin was nearly his opposite but not in an evil manner. There was no malice. In philosophical terms one could think of light and dark, good and bad and all the other balances which are universal in distribution.
Mehgrin flew over the land until she found a group of the Hirondae and gradually floated lower over their heads. When they saw her, they bowed low and offered praise to her. Mehgrin lapped it up. The Hirondae seemed so puny but recognised her Power when they saw it. Mehgrin was pleased and left them with only a heavy shower of rain rather than the violent thunderstorm she had originally intended.
Despite what Durhain had said to her about the lands being covered by those who would come later, Mehgrin wanted a place for herself. Well maybe for Durhain too, although he was becoming a little righteous lately.
No time like the present.
She rose high into the firmament and gazed down on all of her domain, eventually deciding she liked the strip of land to the west, next to the ocean and furthest from where the pesky Hirondae came from. Gathering the Will into herself she thought of a barrier, a high mountain range only eagles could cross, running from the far northern coast all the way into the sea of the south.
“It Will be.”
From her vantage point, floating high in the sky, Mehgrin watched as the land started to buckle and heave, malleable as dough and forming to her Will. It didn’t take long before there was a huge mountain range, steaming with the heat of the energy it took to create, blocking off a wide strip of wooded land beside the sea to the west.
There was a loud ‘pop’ in the air beside her as Durhain materialized.
“What have you done Mehgrin? It’s not up to us to remake the lands. As I have said so often, we are but its Guardians.”
“I just wanted a little of the land kept for me Durhain. A small piece without others in it.”
Durhain shook his head.
“That cannot be Mehgrin and you know it. If we do not carry out our work fairly and for the benefit of all, we should not be here.”
“I hate you,” Mehgrin snarled as she disappeared. “You make me sick,” floating out of the space she’d just occupied.
Durhain sighed; of the two of them, Mehgrin had more natural ability to utilise Power than he did. In a straight out contest, she could beat him every time. Durhain saw there would be problems in the future if Mehgrin could not grasp the simple concept of being a Guardian. Maybe their time in this place was coming to an end and they should pass on and leave the lands to those who followed. He would have to devise some means to protect the future of the world before he left it. In the meantime, while he did not possess the Power to undo Mehgrin’s work, Durhain did manage to create a deep fissure in her wall of dividing mountains which would serve as a Pass for those travellers who came to populate the lands to the west. They should still be able to access the coastal areas and reach the ocean.
Mehgrin was annoyed. What was the point of being all powerful if you couldn’t use that Power to do as you wished? She would show Durhain. Without him, she would be able to do as she pleased, when she pleased. If he was no longer here, she would possess the Power of Fire and Air as well as the Power of her own Earth and Water. Mehgrin schemed of ways to rid herself of Durhain.
Durhain was aware of Mehgrin’s thoughts and although he may not have been as strong as Mehgrin he was clever. So it came to pass over time that Durhain found a place to work in secret near the Fire he loved, well beneath the newly formed mountains. Here he created a Ring, magically imbued with the means to find a True being who could bring peace to the world in times of need. He also made a Dagger to aid the bearer of the Ring and on both he created a magical design to assist the Fire of his Power.
With both the Ring and the Dagger in his possession, Durhain travelled to the westernmost place he could find on the land, a domed rock beside the ocean. Using the Power of Fire he constructed a four sided obelisk of black stone, on which he left instructions, written in fire but hidden from mortal eyes. Durhain then sealed his flawless creation with warded magic which would last as long as time itself if need be.
He had just completed his task when Mehgrin materialized near him, an uncanny gleam in her eye.
“You seek to trick me Durhain. You’re acting behind my back. What is it you do?”
Durhain stood to face her.
“I am merely protecting the future of those who come after us.”
“After us? I will always be here Durhain. It is you who will not.”
The Power Mehgrin contemptuously threw at Durhain mortally wounded him and he knew her next attack would be the end of him. He instantly threw a small portion of his essence into the Ring he now wore on his finger and leapt forward to grab Mehgrin in a powerful embrace before instantly whisking them both under the mountains which would forever bear her name. In the small, dark cavern Durhain had been using as a place to work in secret, he called up the Power of Fire before Mehgrin could react and they were both instantly immolated and turned to ash in the white heat of Firemagic.
All that remained in that tiny airless space was a small pile of ash, a Ring and Dagger and walls covered in flaming script.”
Arwhon came to with a start and looked over at Sihron’del who appeared to be waking from a dream. Ch’ron spoke to them.
“It’s an interesting tale and one I wish I’d remembered earlier. Now you know young Arwhon, the Ring has chosen you to fix the wrongs in the world but like Durhain, powerful as he was, you are not invincible.”
“What an amazing tale Ch’ron but it leaves so much unanswered. How did the Ring come to be found? Did the Dwarves come upon it in their delving into the earth? More questions. And what of the pillar on Dome Rock? I’ll have to go there one day and seek answers.”
He turned to Shiri who appeared a little confused as she asked.
“How could the old Hirondae woman know about the cave under the mountain or how Mehgrin and Durhain met their end?”
Arwhon had no answer and noticing the light was fading took Shiri’s hand and helped her to her feet.
“It’s time to return to Al’hera and have our supper. We can discuss this with Vehrin’del and Jahron’dal while we eat, maybe they can shed some light on the story Ch’ron just related.
Sihron’del agreed and together, hand in hand, they walked back to the Queen’s quarters, shadowed by Krissi who drifted behind them silently. When they arrived, they found the evening meal was already waiting for them.
Arwhon and Shiri told the tale of Mehgrin and Durhain to Vehrin’del and Jahron’dal while Cringle sat wide eyed in wonderment, soaking up every word. He’d served them all before sitting and as they finished eating he jumped up to clear the table and pour the honey wine for all before sitting quietly again to listen.
Vehrin’del was to become one of the Wise Ones someday and her learning of lore and magic ran deep.
“I’ll try and answer some of your questions with what I know of this time. When Durhain and Mehgrin were no more, their magics ran free. The Hirondae were living in the lands and the magic passed to them; diluted of course because there were more of them to spread it among. The Hirondae knew Mehgrin had constructed her Wall of mountains because she’d spitefully told them it was necessary to keep everyone out of her chosen place. As to the pillar. Well only Durhain could have made that and when the Hirondae first beheld it, the writing in Fire was still shining but in a tongue they could not understand.”
Jahron’dal nodded in agreement before adding his own little snippet of information.
“The Dwarves came into the land after the Hirondae. No one knows where from but they liked the deep places under the mountains and the Hirondae traded with the dwarves for silver, which they used to make arrowheads, knives and jewellery. They heard from a dwarf one day that a sealed cave had been found deep in the mountain but their Mage had barred access to it and warded it against any intrusion.”
Arwhon’s ears pricked up.
“Mage. I didn’t know Dwarves had magic.”
Jahron’dal sat back and sighed, looking over to Vehrin’del for support. Uncharacteristically, she chuckled.
“You opened that box so I suppose you had better tell the story.”
Sihron’del leaned forward, she had never heard this tale before and the reactions of her parents indicated it might be quite an interesting one. Cringle was agog, as his gaze went from one speaker to another trying to follow what was happening. It was like the tall tales he’d overheard from time to time as he grew up, only this was for real. Jahron’dal coughed to clear his throat, took a sip of wine and with a glance in Arwhon’s direction, began the tale.
“I believe you and Shiri have seen a dwarf. They are not the most handsome of people but are well developed for the life they lead. Occasionally there are dwarves born who are not quite so hairy and a little taller than most. I suppose it’s a throwback to the people they once were. Well, this tale concerns one such who also liked to be above ground now and again in the sunlight. This was many, many years ago mind.
His name was Hammaron Goldenrod and he was the son of an important dwarf. Hammaron was gifted in his metalwork and created some beautiful jewellery. He came among the Hirondae to trade it for soft furs and woven clothing and somehow caught the eye of a Princess.”
Jahron’dal paused for a moment and raised an eyebrow in Arwhon’s direction. Arwhon couldn’t help blushing as Sihron’del giggled. Jahron’dal, point made, continued.
“She wasn’t next in line to be a Queen though, as the Hirondae had large families in those days but she was Royalty. Her name was Elbriona if my memory serves me right. The two of them found they enjoyed each other’s company, different as they were and Hammaron found many excuses to visit Elbriona, bringing gifts each time he came.
Elbriona used to wait to see Hammaron and if it was a while between visits, she used to pine for him and fade some. History doesn’t say what her parents thought but I believe they were against a match.
However, we all know what young love is like and Elbriona ran off with Hammaron under the mountains. There was a protest but what can you do in the face of love? Eventually they had children and some of them inherited the magic of the Hirondae. I believe there are families of Dwarves under the mountain who encourage their offspring to learn magic but it has developed into something all its own over time. Dwarf magic is mixed and something we know nothing about.”
Jahron’dal sat back as Arwhon and Sihron’del digested the information. It was Arwhon who asked.
“Is the Dwarf magic powerful?”
Jahron’dal shook his head.
“No one knows. After the Hirondae split into the various factions, the Dwarves kept to themselves. You were very lucky to meet one and I think it is only because you wear the Ring that you did. Although this Callandor we hear about is a bit of a mystery, especially being able to employ dwarves. They don’t usually have anything to do with Man.
So there you have it. The story of Mehgrin and Durhain.”
For Arwhon, it was a revelation and he knew he would have to visit the Dwarves soon. Maybe try to see the very cave which a Dwarf Mage had sealed off all those years ago. There must be someway for him to learn how to use the Firemagic wrapped around his core. Silverseam son of Copperlink had offered the help of the Dwarves to the bearer of the Ring and Callandor’s, where Silverseam worked underground in hidden cellars, would be the first place to look for assistance.
“I’m going to visit the Dwarves.” Arwhon announced.
Some around the table appeared surprised but Shiri wasn’t. She knew it would come to this and she knew, somehow, Arwhon would go alone.