He stood at the edge of the forest, a rough dividing line where the trees stood sentinel against the plains he had been walking across -- for how many days now? The walking had started when his horse stepped into a gopher hole and broke its leg. He had been forced then to kill it, a very sad affair on many levels. The Kromdek was strapped securely across his back, along wih a pair of saddle bags containing a few days more of food, and other supplies that should have enabled him to ride into the city on the cliff with ease. He looked up at the sun beating down and whispered the words, "Fare well to you my adversary, now I will have the forest to shade me." And who knows what else awaits within those leafy bowers? he thought to himself. A man on horse could go through the forest in a day running at a good clip. A man on foot? Well, it wasn't encouraged simply because it was said there were things in the forest. Things higher on the food chain than a man on foot.
It reminded him of his training to become a Sword Master, the many years he had endured to earn the Kromdek that was now strapped to his back. His heart raced just a bit as he remembered the great accomplishment that was, and the brotherhood of men it had vaulted him into. Each of them would willingly, easily, stand beside him, spill blood, and give their life if necessary to protect him, and he would do the same for them. So where were they now? He shook his head sadly as he began to take steps into the confines of the Black Forest. There were not here. This was a journey he would face alone, and who was he to question the will of the great one in this? He accepted his fate with the same simple faith that had allowed him to join the class when he was a youth.
The shade was welcome, and he was looking forward to finding water. With so many trees there would be water. True, the River of Despair was the dividing line, the halfway mark of the path through the forest. Men would stop there and water their horses, and take a drink themselves, but would generally not tarry over long. It was not a wise thing. Stories designed to frighten little children, in his opinion, were told of those who had been lost in the forest, and they all had the common theme of stopping at the River of Despair. He laughed, almost confidently. He had spent years of training, almost a decade, learning to defend himself in all the arts of war, starting and ending with the blade in all its forms, all of which he was carrying on himself. If anyone should be confident walking into the Black Forest it should be one such as he.
Still, he was one that took count of a situation. He was not one to rush in headlong without looking at all the likely outcomes, and in this situation it was not good, if only because of the tales that had been told. The confident part of him whispered to the rest of him, "We will be the first. A song will be sung of the Sword Master who walked through the Black Forest and stopped to spend the night at the edge of the River of Despair." There was, however, no laugh that escaped his lips. There was nothing overly humorous in the situation. Besides that, the further he walked into the forest the darker it was becoming. He had been told to expect this, but even so, it took him off guard. It soon became like dusk, even though it was still early in the day. He had decided, easily, to stay on the trail, the path that everyone rode through the forest. His thought all along had been that he would meet another rider, one who could lend him aid. It had therefore come as an unwelcome reality that he had seen no one in the three days since his horse had broken its leg and he had been forced to kill it. No one. He was more than a little incredulous, really.
So he continued walking into the forest, and after a while he had convinced himself that this was going to be okay. The dim light that filtered through the overhead canopy was enough to stay on the path, and for now that was all that mattered. That's when it started. It was hard to be sure what was happening in the dim light, but he thought he saw shadows moving in the distance. Not a lot to be sure, but enough to keep his attention. He laughed, still filled with confidence, and kept up a good pace through the forest. That was the key, he kept telling himself, real measured progress. True, it would take more than a day, but he planned on doing the whole thing in two. Be on the other side of the forest looking at the crimson cliffs by the end of tomorrow. Yes, that made him smile, and it gave him courage.
He had been walking for a good hour or two when he came to a fork in the path. What was this? He stopped and sloughed off his saddle bags onto the ground and sat down to open them. This made no sense. He pulled out the scroll of velum and opened it up, squinting to see the detail. The map showed no fork in the trail through the forest, and yet here he was looking at one. Had he taken a wrong turn? That seemed impossible, as he had stayed on the main trail for the entire journey thus far. Hadn't he? He retraced the journey backwards, remembering everything that had transpired. No. He had stayed on the trail and here was a fork. The map was wrong. It was as simple as that. Well, when he got back to civilization, he would have a conversation, that was for sure. He carefully began to roll up the map and put it back into its case. As he did so he studied the two trails ahead. They looked almost identical.
He surprised himself in sitting there for so long. He considered himself a man of action, not one to overly think much about what needed to be done, preferring rather to jump in, take action, and make sure it was headed in the right direction. Part of him felt, though, that this situation was different. That the decision he was here faced with was of a greater importance. Would one trail lead safely to the other side of the forest or the get him hopelessly lost? Would they both lead him safely through? Would neither? He stood up and snorted in disgust at his seeming indecision to choose one trail or the other. He grabbed the saddle bags, took a step, and halted. He tried to clear his mind, like he was preparing for a match. He continued looking down the two paths and felt nothing. Finally, in desperation more than anything else, he took a step confidently towards the right. "Follow your heart and go to the right," he whispered. Where that came from he had no idea but the phrase had indeed escaped his lips.
His spirits began to improve now that he had made the decision. Perhaps it didn't really matter after all, or perhaps he had made the right decision because the trail was running straight and true. The only thing he noticed was that the trees were getting larger, the trunks thicker, the light being let through less so, if that was possible. It really was unsettling, if you let it. The real thing, though, was that it made it hard to judge the time by. Not able to see the sun overhead he had to measure time by his stomach. He would eat when he felt hungry, which was fast approaching. He started to look for a place he could sit, just off the trail a bit and found nothing . After another half hour or so, he simply sat on the trail, the edge of it, set his bags down, and pulled out a bit of food that he could find.
He saw a woman, then, walking down the trail towards him. He knew he should be surprised, but he was too tired. Too much had happened in the last three days, he had expended too much energy. So he sat there and watched her draw closer. As she drew near he could tell she was beautiful. The gown she was wearing was a long flowing diaphanous affair that left little to the imagination. The curve of her breasts, her nipples, the triangular patch of hair at the delta where her legs met were all visible. It really was scandalous, something appropriate for a bedroom and certainly not the middle of a forest, the dark forest at that. She was smiling as she came to a stop in front of him. A slight breeze pressed her thin gown against her momentarily, giving him a bit clearer view of her body. She spoke and her voice was melodious, most pleasant to his ears.
"Come lay with me in yonder glen and let us enjoy each other for a while. I promise I will pleasure you greater than any woman you have yet lain with and will give you strength against the coming trials that await you."
Her offer was real. Her beauty was great and he felt his body begin to betray him. He steeled himself and spoke evenly, surprising himself just a bit, "Woman, I have taken a vow of chastity. I will lay with no woman other than my wife whom I have yet to meet."
She seemed dissuaded not the least bit. "Then good sir, let me be your wife for this little while. I will pleasure you as only a wife can who has known her husband for years and years." With that she unfastened her dress which was tied at the shoulder, and it fluttered lightly to the ground revealing her perfect nude form. She looked down and saw the massive bulge in his trousers and smiled. "That," she said nodding towards the bulge, "is all the invitation I need." She began to lean down and in slow motion he saw her two breasts sway in unison as she did so.
She found a knife pointed at her chest and stopped short. "Let me assure you, woman, that though my body may want you, my soul belongs to me, and I will not acquiesce to your request."
She stood up and with a snarl, "Then you will die!" she shouted. "You will find trials ahead on the trail, each one more grievous than the last. The only end you can hope for is death, but let me assure you it will not be quick nor will it be painless." With that she turned and without bothering to pick up her gown, began walking down the trail. Part of him longed to call her back, his body ached to do so. He looked down at her gown which was still on the ground in front of him and then back at her as she rounded a bend in the trail and disappeared from his sight. He looked back down at the gown and it was gone. This too did not surprise him. He would have doubted the entire thing took place in fact were it not for the aching in his loins. It alone was evidence that the woman had been here.
He sighed deeply and began packing away the meager rations that were his meal. There really was no answer other than to keep walking, keep moving forward. It was finally dawning on him that something had happened, he wasn't sure when or where, perhaps at the edge of the forest, and he was no longer simply walking through the dark forest. Part of him well understood though, he was in the midst of some trial, alone, and he may never escape from. He may never be heard of again. All the loose ends in his life began to flash before him and he began to feel sorrow. Slowly he began to walk down the trail and put distance from the place he had seen the beautiful woman that had offered herself to him.
Getting past the image of her form was harder than he had imagined. Part of him wanted to turn and run back down the trail and find her. He was sure she would be there, too. Lust. He had never had a problem, well not like this, with it before. He struggled to put one foot in front of the other and he knew his body was betraying him again. He stopped, frozen in place, balanced at the point of decision and losing his resolve. He felt if he turned she would be standing right behind him. He closed his eyes and took one of the most difficult steps of his life and felt the tension leave just a bit. Another step yielded the same result. He quickened his pace and began first a slow trot and then moved to a jog. He began to laugh as the tension and image of the unclothed woman left him. He was coming to a bend in the trail and rounded it and stopped short.
Standing in front of him, no more than ten yards or so was the most amazing creature he had ever seen. Describing it was difficult. Four spindly legs supported the creature. The legs reminded him of a spider even though they had a hard covering to them. No, it looked more like an insect's legs. The legs joined to a torso and upper body that was vaguely humanoid in nature, but only vaguely. Two long arms, if you could call them that, extended up and out from the upper body with appendages that ended in claws that looked for all the world like two swords. He had no doubt in his mind they were as sharp as swords, either. Two other arms came out of the body, just below the upper two. These were much shorter and ended in hands. The look on the creatures face was angry. Time had started to slow and he remembered thinking how it was interesting that he could tell the face was angry. He drew his twin blades, not the Kromdek which would be practically useless against this creature, and fell into the ready stance. The pack he was carrying was tossed well in back of him and to the side so as not to get in his way.
"I mean you no harm, whatever you are, but let me assure you I am well prepared to defend myself. If you wish to risk your life and find out, do so now or get out of my way so I can pass."
The challenge met with no reply, and he wondered if the creature was even capable of speech, or perhaps even understanding. Part of him laughed at the thought of this thing being able to think and reason. Looking at it reminded you of nothing more than an overgrown bug. They stood staring at each other for only a moment but in the heat of the pre-battle it seemed much longer. Then a shrill cry escaped from the mouth of the creature, almost ear piercing, and it leapt for him. Thought slid to the background as instinct born from years of training to become a Sword Master took over. The creature's onslaught was ruthless and it took all his skill to protect himself. The fight was dragging on, and with each minute he realized he was expending more and more energy to protect himself. The creature offered no opening. Indeed, its form, its skill was superb. He realized that if this didn't end soon he would be killed. The three days on foot had taken too much out of him. A claw slid through his defense, just, and drew first blood on his arm.
The first twinge of fear washed over him and he had no time to deal with it because the attack he was defending himself against was relentless. He knew the fear would get him killed, so he forced himself to relax, no mean feat when one's life was slowly being extracted from it by a giant bug. What he found though, was that his movements became even more fluid, his speed a bit faster. He felt as if he were watching himself, as if he were something greater than himself. The fear washed all around him. It seemed palpable, but it did not captivate him. He let it flow through unnoticed, even as he was being cut again and again. Truly his death would be one of a thousand cuts. As his speed had increased so had his opponent's. He could find no opening, no route for an attack. In the back of his mind he knew that he had only a very few minutes left and the adrenaline would be used up, his guard would drop and the death strike would enter. He faced his end resolutely. In this moment, he knew who he was. Before, all he could do was to speak with a bravado born of no experience. Today, now, he had been given a gift by this giant bug. In the moments leading up to his death, he had been measured in the balance and not found wanting. A smile played across his face even as a wicked cut was opened up on one of his arms. He willed himself not to notice, to keep on fighting. Then just as he felt his arms beginning to drop, it happened.
His opponent leapt backwards and landed ten feet further back up the trail. Both of his arms were raised and in a flourish that chilled him to the bone, because it was the exact repetition of the Sword Masters' salute, his head bowed slightly. Words escaped the lips of the creature, "Well fought, you are a worthy opponent. I look forward to our next meeting on the field of battle." With that the creature spun around and bounded up the trail and out of sight.
He watched it go, standing, swaying unsteadily on his feet. "What in the hell was that," he whispered, and then he fell to the ground landing in the middle of the trail. He didn't know how long he had lain there because he had passed out. When he woke he was stiff all over, and blood had flowed onto the trail, dried on his arms, and remarkably, the wounds had nearly closed up. He knew he had to make a fire, dress his wounds, get some medicine on them, get some warm food in him. Moving was hard, and slow. It took far more time than he would have liked, and he expended far more energy than he wanted. After the better part of two hours he was sitting in front of a fire, cleaning his wounds, applying medicine, and heating the last of his water for some broth into which he would put some more medicine.
This was when he started talking to himself, something he had never been wont to do before. "I'm not sure we're going to make it out alive." This wasn't any admission of defeat, just an observation that there were things in this forest that were far more capable than he. "I'm not sure we're meant to." Even as he said this, however, he felt something different was afoot. First the lady on the trail, something fantastical in and of itself, then a giant bug who could best a Sword Master and walk away with not so much as as scratch? No, this was the stuff of legends, of songs, but why him? He felt nothing remarkable in himself. He was no hero, there was no quest he was on, he had not chosen this path, so why? It was a question that hung in the air because he had no answer. Sipping the broth, bitter but good, he felt his muscles begin to relax. Part of him wished he could have found a better place than at the edge of the trail to camp for the night. Most of him didn't care. He didn't seem to have too good a record defending himself against the residents of this forest, so why worry? The broth finished, the cup was set beside him, and he leaned back to rest his head and was asleep before his eyes were closed. He wasn't completely sure if he would wake up.
The dreams were grotesque. He battled creatures singly and in groups, the kind that could only exist in a nightmare. They were slowly devouring him, first defeating him in battle and then feeding upon his soul, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. The night was one long scream of agony. He woke in the morning covered in sweat. He looked at the fire and saw the cold ashes of morning. It had died out in the night. Rising up on his elbows he looked up and down the trail. It was the same as the night before. In that weakness that exists when we first rise, the kind that can keep you from doing anything of import if you acquiesce, he wanted to do nothing more than to lay there, for a few minutes more, for the day, forever. It seemed palpable. He lowered himself and stared up at the trees, and lay there -- for how long? A whisper in his head, one that spoke oh so softly, told him it was useless to go on. Surely he would be devoured by something just around the bend, and if not there than just a bit further. This forest was surely cursed for him, and why not just lay here and wait for ... for what?
His mind snapped to attention, lifted out of the fog briefly. This was unnatural, unlike him. Giving into a feeling of hopelessness was not his nature! Then again he had never been in the midst of this kind of adversity before. He rose up again, this time with great effort. The ground itself seemed to be holding him. "If I die, I die in battle," he shouted out to the empty forest. "Or trying to walk out of this cursed forest," he finished in a much softer voice.
It took all his strength to rise to his feet, to gather up his few possessions. He tottered unevenly, wanting nothing more than to lay back down. He looked down the trail, and with as much determination as he could muster, took a step. His body ached and begged him to lie back down for just a bit more. He took another step, and this one was easier. He moved slowly down the trail to where it turned. Part of him expected to meet another foe and he had the Kromdek drawn and held out ahead of him in a ready stance. He got to the bend and saw nothing.
The further he moved from where he had met the creature that had bested him in battle, the more strength he gained. This place was cursed indeed, he thought to himself. He spent the day walking, the feeling of hopelessness, the sure knowledge that he would meet his end today never leaving him. He fought it, and the fact that he kept walking was his measure of victory. Some time in late afternoon he came to a bend in the trail and the river, the River of Despair came into view. There was no bridge, but though it was wide enough, it looked as if a man could easily walk across it. He was just contemplating spending the night there when he saw the underbrush move on the far side of the river.
The creature, the bug with the two arms that were swords came into view, and as it did his heart sank. "So this is where we meet our end," he whispered to himself. As he finished the sentence, the entire underbrush along the far side of the river as far as he could see in either direction began to move and creatures, the same as the one he had fought, came into view and stood silently. He knew he was at the end, his end, and part of him thought, Now we will know. This is life's last gift to us, now we will know nothing doubting what we are made of. We alone will know that we are no coward, but we will live and die true, our honor intact. The words did not sound hollow or overly dramatic to him. Slowly, with care, he sheathed his Kromdek, which would be of no use in a battle such as this. The crowd on the far side of the river began to chitter, communicating amongst themselves. When he drew the twin blades, the same ones he had used in battle the day before they fell silent. Standing in the battle-ready stance he swung the blades in the simple pattern of the "Rising Sun" salute and shouted out his call to battle. If they did not respond in the next second or two he would rush them, determined to do as much damage as he could before they cut him down.
He felt his heart beating, thumping in his chest. Adrenaline gave him the last of the energy his body possessed. Then, just as he was starting to take the step that would launch him into his last battle, his foe, starting with the leader he had fought the day before and spreading in a wave outward in both directions across the shore, knelt and planted their claws, the long sword like claws deep into the banks of the river, thereby rendering them useless should he launch his attack. It was clearly a move of supplication. He was nonplussed. He took a step, letting his swords fall to his side. They remained in this posture and he was now unsure of what happened next. Perceiving the opportunity for battle and a glorious death that no one would know about had passed, he sheathed the twin blades and walked slowly towards the creatures, crossing the shallow river.
He got to them and stopped. The one he was standing in front of, the one who had bested him in battle yesterday, looked up and with a flourish withdrew the claws from the sand, and spinning them in an intricate pattern his eyes could not follow it was so quick, ended with both blades held in the vertical. He watched it all, not flinching. He knew he was in their power, and nothing he could do would protect him from them should they choose to dispatch him.
"Hero, we honor your courage in facing the trials. You have been weighed in the balance and not found wanting. For this we salute you."
He was clearly confused, and started to say something, but stopped when he saw the creature was not done speaking.
"Lust, fear, and despair. You have shown great courage and resolve. I give you this token of our respect," and with that he took a shining, glimmering scale from his arm and handed it to the man, who gently accepted it.
Sensing it was the right thing to do, he touched it to his arm and it immediately adhered and sunk into his flesh.
"This marks you as our friend and ally. If you ever need our help you have but to touch the symbol and call out; if any are near, we will come. We hereby grant you safe passage through the dark forest." Then a bag was tossed at his feet. "Here are provisions to help you on the rest of your journey."
The speech was ended, and almost as if on some unseen signal, the claws of every one of the creatures were withdrawn from the sand and began to spin in the air. A low guttural shout emitted from them, and he knew this was their call to battle. He was thankful that they were honoring him and not inviting him to cross blades with them. With no announcement it ended and they turned and silently leapt into the dense underbrush of the forest and disappeared.
He stood there silently for long minutes. He almost doubted the entire thing had happened. All he had as proof was the bag in front of him. The workmanship on it was exceedingly fine. He studied it and then remembered the scale. He looked at his forearm where he had placed it. It was now under his skin and glowed softly. He picked up the bag and began to walk. Weighed in the balance, indeed. He now had a confidence born not of a false bravado but experience, the trial of the Black Forest.
At the end of the day, he stood at the edge of the forest and watched the setting sun shining on the crimson city set in the cliff. He turned, and looking back into the forest, touched the scale on his arm and shouted a farewell to the forest. As if in echo he heard the thunderous response rolling through the trees and he knew that he had been marked, the hero's journey had begun.