1. The Old Man and the Horse
A cold, merciless wind cut at the young wanderer’s face as he struggled through pale drifts of snow. His hands numb, he fumbled unfeeling at the crimson eagle clasp that held his tattered cloak in place. The remnants of a fading thought pursued him, thinning and disappearing like the footsteps he left in his wake. He struggled to cling to the faint vision that hung on the edge of his mind, but it slipped away and disappeared into the frigid expanse. Black clouds blanketed the sky in an unwavering mask that blotted out both sun and stars, leaving day and night indiscernible. Time and distance meant nothing on the icy plane. The wasteland ruled his past, his present, and any future he could hope to conceive.
He clutched the cloak tightly around his body and soldiered on into the swirling snow. A gust of wind flung a blast of flurries into his ashen, blue-gray eyes. He wiped away the blur with an unsteady hand and peered into the darkness before him. On the horizon, a light flickered and bounced in the wind and gave him a start. The traveler lurched to a stop and dropped to one knee. After countless hours and days of wandering in the darkness, a sudden rush of joy brought hot tears to his eyes. They dribbled down his numb face and froze in his coarse brown stubble. In half a second the light became everything. Fire erupted in his veins lending untapped strength to his weary limbs. He surged forward toward the tiny point of light, his last shred of will dragging him on through the darkness.
As the light grew, shadows formed around it. A tiny village rose out of the snow to welcome his approach. His pulse quickened at the sight of it and he doubled his efforts, breaking into a half sprint towards his new salvation. An eerie feeling caught him as he passed the first hut. Scattered lines of footprints led in and out of the village, but all the huts were cold and empty except for one on the far edge. There, yellow-orange flames cut a hole in the gray and lifeless waste. Dancing rays of light spilled out of the doorway onto the snowy ground. As he drew near, he heard the crackle of the fire, its warmth inviting in the midst of the cold, ghostly town. The traveler drifted inside on a cloud of anticipation and waning adrenaline.
A hollow-eyed old man sat hunched beneath a ragged blanket by the fire.
Tresses of tangled grey hair hung like long wisps of smoke from his head. Across from him stood a chestnut brown courser with a jet-black mane. The creature turned and considered him with dark eyes wreathed in flame. Its gaze entranced him and enveloped his mind. It drew him in until everything else fell away and he was taken to another time and place. Leaving the hut behind, he soared over vast open lands and men toiling upon them. He saw joy and pain, families driven from their lands and an entire people forced to flee their homes. Villages burned while man, woman, and child alike bled beneath the harsh yoke of war. Had this animal witnessed all this suffering? Such strange things to see in the eyes of a beast, he thought. He remained transfixed until the voice of the old man shook him from his trance.
“You must excuse my companion. His concerns, while heartfelt, are unfounded.” The grizzled old man ignored a whicker of protest from the horse and rose to his feet, extending his arms with a kind smile.
“Welcome to my home, traveler. You have come a long way.” The man’s voice was harsh, but it carried with it a certain comfort. It slipped through his ashy whiskers like a hot wind through a snow laden forest. “I have been watching your approach since you came over the horizon.” The old man eyed the crimson clasp on the traveler’s cloak.
“Good, it is really you. I was concerned by your appearance. You are younger than I expected.”
The traveler opened his mouth to speak, but hesitated. He had traveled far, pushing himself onward through the darkness in search of some respite. Now that he had found it, he was still as lost as ever. This stranger seemed to know him, which he found at once both comforting and disturbing. Somewhere in his heart, a thousand questions burned like live embers, but his mind lay blank. Standing in the narrow doorway with his mouth hanging open, he searched for the right words to express a feeling he did not understand.
“Do not fret, traveler,” said the old man. “The wasteland lies at your back. You need not fear it. Speak, you have walked a great distance to come here. Certainly there is something you seek.”
“I have come in search of something, that is true,” he said, unfamiliar with the sound of his own voice. “For all the hardship I have suffered along the way, I fear I know not what.” The old man nodded with a solemn smile.
“I know, traveler, and I know what it is you seek.” The traveler’s pulse quickened and blood rushed to his face.
“Will you tell me, sir?” The words tumbled out of his mouth. With a heavy sigh, the man lowered his head and spoke.
“I will tell you what I know, young man, but first I must ask you something. I need you to tell me what you know about how you arrived in this land. What do you remember about your journey to this place?” The traveler slouched back, deflated. This was the last question he wanted to answer.
“There is little to say,” he replied. “This land is strange to me and the path I walked to come here even stranger. I cannot tell you what I do not know myself.” He paused, expecting some expression of disapproval, but instead, the man seemed encouraged by these words. Struggling to one knee, he began rummaging around in the straw behind him.
“Good, good. It is just how I hoped then. There is little time to waste.” The traveler shook his head in confusion. He tapped the man cautiously on the shoulder and cleared his throat.
“You said you knew what I was searching for?”
“Of course!” the old man shouted with a broad smile. Then, as if catching himself for a moment, he continued. “Well, that is to say, I know where you can find it. North of here there is a vast forest, and in there you will find the Monastery of Sherushae. There are strange forces at work in that place and powers you could not imagine.”
The traveler’s heart sank as a word circulated in his mind. He could only just grasp at its meaning, but the thought of it made him feel uneasy. He could not help but chuckle at himself for even considering the idea of magic. At the same time, he had been searching for something he did not understand from the earliest shadows of his memory. Perhaps this was not so unbelievable.
“I do not think I believe in such things as magic,” he insisted, though still unsure. The old man paused for a moment with a quizzical look.
“Magic?” he scoffed. “Who said anything about magic? Such a ludicrous idea,” he said and returned to his shuffling. The traveler, however, was not satisfied and responded with growing impatience.
“You speak in mysteries, sir. If it is not magic, then what is it? What powers do you speak of?” he said, his voice beginning to shake.
“Not magic,” the old man said flatly. “Magic is a fool’s errand, boy, and I expect you to remember that. I apologize if you are unsatisfied with the guidance you are receiving, but as you haven’t any other direction, perhaps it would be best if you heed my words and head north.” The traveler was somewhat indignant, but the logic in the old man’s words was irrefutable. Perhaps he is right, he thought. I have no better options.
“Good,” the man said without waiting for him to speak, “I have not prepared in vain. I have packed you some food and brought this horse to accompany you. Your journey will not be a short one, but I assure you it will be well worth it. On the fourth day of your travels, you will arrive at the Woods. This is a dangerous land, so I have packed a sword for you; I trust you know how to use it.” The old man drew a long sword from the hay that surrounded him. It was the most brilliant thing the traveler had ever seen. Though there was very little light in the tiny shed, it caught every bit of it. A soft blue light radiated magnificently off the curious metal from which it was wrought. The hilt was simple; steel wrapped in leather, with a black stone set into the bottom. The handle was elongated, but thinner at the bottom to allow for both one handed and two-handed use.
“Nothing like it has ever been made in your world. The blade is a metal called Calaron, mined from the Great Mountains of the North. It gives a blue glow, unlike any other metal known to Man, and is nearly unbreakable. I have packed you provisions in the bags on the back of the horse. He is the best horse I have, traveler. Take good care of him.” The old man paused for a moment. His eyes grew dim and his voice prophetic. “There are hard days ahead of you, traveler. I do not envy you”
This statement took the traveler aback at first, but gazing into sleek steel, he saw his own face reflected in the blade. A curtain of auburn hair lay across his brow giving way to a pair of cold blue eyes. The rigid metal fashioned a guise of strength in his otherwise unremarkable features. He raised the sword in a battle stance and a wave of confidence overtook him. The road behind him was cold and dark and the way before him led into the unknown, but his fear of what might lie before him slipped away. In his hands he held a tangible symbol of his purpose; a powerful tool that would lend its strength to him and define his otherwise indefinite presence in this place. His excitement was immeasurable.
“Traveler,” the old man said in a soothing tone, “Calm your mind. It is only a sword. It holds no magical force, my son, no key to the meaning of life. It is not an answer to your questions. The sword is only a means to protect yourself from the danger that lies ahead of you. The sword will never give you an answer; answers will come to you when you are ready.”
A sharp wind blew in through the opened door and brought with it a chill that cut through the warmth of the shed. The old man turned to the wind with a start.
“It is time you moved on, my son,” he whispered. “You have a long journey ahead of you. Head northwest until you reach the woods. The horse knows where he is going, but there will be others to help you on your way. Do not deny yourself aid from unusual places. Beware, however, not all you will meet in the woods will be friends; you may have to use that sword. Now you must go.”
“Wait,” the traveler pleaded, the last traces of his strength draining from his body. “Can I not rest here for but an hour? My journey has left me quite weary.” The old man shook his head sternly.
“You’ll find no more comfort here, young traveler. The way north to the woods is barren and flat. Rest there…if you can.”
The old man led the traveler out the door with his horse and sword. They walked to the outskirts of the cold, dead town where they stopped at the edge of yet another windswept expanse where the old man turned to the traveler. “I must leave you now; you have taken the first step. My part is done.”
“The first step where?” he asked. The old man gave a little smile.
“The first step into Iden.” With that, the old man turned and walked away. The traveler sensed he should not press the question further. Instead, he turned to the vast wasteland. With no knowledge of what lay before him and no understanding of what lay behind, he forced his fears and uncertainties to the back of his mind and pressed onward into the unknown.