Gemming, a scholar banished from his home, trudges through a frozen forest. He is searching for answers, but are they the right ones?
The trees bow under the weight of snow, postulating themselves to the Gods above. Even the great oaks of the ancient Forest of Eftan are mastered by the spirits of the kings of old, forced to carry a frozen burden along their limbs.
My own weight lies inside my chest.
Avsdel walks beside me, shirtless and seemingly unaware of the biting cold. It is often the way with those of his kind. Tall and rangy, pale and broad nosed, even the female Semarthons are all but covered with dark hair. Not that you often see a female Semarthon, or would be able to tell if you did. Never has a race looked so alike, including to my scholar’s eye. They even cover their foreheads with elaborate patterned tattoos, just to tell each other apart. They are however, singularly adapted to the cold. This has led many, Avsdel included, to make their living guiding hearth-softened southerners like me through the cold places of the world.
Not that I particularly mind the chill. It makes a refreshing break from the pounding heat of the south. Of my onetime homeland. If only I could return this would all be an adventure. If only.
It could still change though. If the talk of the forest Elders is true, and Avsdel assures me it is, a return journey may still be possible. Even in the south, tales of the their magic have spread. Power over nature. Power over life. Power over death.
‘We are approaching.’ Avsdel’s words boom surprisingly deep for one so slight. They say that the Semarthons were the first people. Born of the ground and sires of all others. I can believe it. Avsdel’s voice seems connected to something much richer than anything I can lay claim to.
‘Thank you. Will you wait?’
‘I cannot. The Elders power can flow through only one. I may lead you to them, but you must do the rest.’
‘How will I return without you?’
‘If you are successful, you will have no need of me.’
‘And if I’m not?’
‘You will certainly have no need of me.’
His laughter is enough to shake the snow from the trees above. It lands on my head and passes down the back of my coat. The fur lining no protection against Avsdel’s mirth. The chill that grips me is internal however.
We come to a halt at the base of a large rock formation that I couldn’t see even I few steps back. The trees here seem to grow unnaturally close, as if huddling together for warmth. Or closing ranks for their own protection.
‘I will leave you here. May the fortune of Kings’ be with you.’
‘And you my friend.’
Within seconds, Avsdel’s form is swallowed up by the dense forest. In front of me, the granite wall seems impregnable. I reach forward and place my palm against its surface. It radiates heat, almost searingly so.
‘What do I do now?’
My words barely make it to my own ears, all noise seemingly consumed by the rock.
‘Come in of course.’
The voice jolts me. I could have sworn I was alone. I swivel, trying to find the source of the sound, but there is nothing and no one save countless trees and their snowy adornment.
‘Avsdel? Is that you? Don’t joke. I paid you well. If this is not the place you promised, you still owe me a service.’
Nothing. Silence. Even though I know there must be some other soul about, my heart rapidly calms down from the frantic beat it had started to play at the sound of the words. Intellectually I know someone must be there, I could not have imagined such a voice, but my body once again recognises its isolation. Safety. Perhaps.
After searching the surrounding forest, being careful not to stray too far from the rock for fear of getting lost amongst the endless trees, I decide that Avsdel must have tricked me. Pursuing him would be futile, even without the head start, I could not hope to catch him. His kind is made for places such as these, my flesh has been softened by too much sun and too much wine. Shelter. That is what I need now. A few branches propped against the rock will be enough for tonight, in the morning I must move on anyway.
My new little home does not take long to construct, for all the life that is lacking in this desolate place, wood is one thing Eftan can provide in abundance. Once finished, I crawl inside, forced to my hands and knees by the purposefully low roof, designed to keep in as much warmth as possible. To my surprise, I find I needn’t have bothered constrain myself in such a way. The heat from the rock that nearly burnt me earlier, has filled the space so as to make it almost uncomfortable. I take off my coat and hang it over the small entrance hole I just came through, the forest feels like something to keep out in the dark.
I lie down, back against the rock. It only now occurs to me that I have not eaten since this morning, when Avsdel handed me some cured meat from his pack. My own, left outside due to the limited space, contains only parchment and a few keepsakes from home.
‘What a fool. I should have known better than to trust my luck to a stranger and a few rolls of parchment.’
‘You are a fool Gemming, but not for trusting another. Many of us were once of the Semarthons and a more honest people you will not find.’
It’s the same voice, except, I realise, it is not one voice speaking to me alone from out of the darkness but a collection of voices, speaking in unison – from out of the rock.
‘Are…’ My stutter unmans me, but I would challenge anyone not to do so in the same circumstance. ‘Are you the Elders?’
‘And can you help me?’
‘Whether we can or not depends solely on you. One thing is for certain though, you are in need of help.’
‘I know. My home has been stolen from me. Will you help me reclaim it?’
‘We cannot and would not if we could. That is not why you have come here.’
I’ve always despised riddles. Why not say something straight if you have something to say? Of course I have come to regain my home. What else does an exile seek?
‘I’m sorry, but I think you misunderstand me.’
‘I have come because my King wrongly judged me to have committed a crime and banished me for it.’
‘We know this.’
‘So why won’t you help me?’
‘Because you are guilty.’
‘Tales of the Elders must have been greatly exaggerated. You are clearly no more than jesters if you can say this.’ And I the fool among them to have been lured in so.
‘We are no jesters. We are truth-sayers, truth-seers. If you cannot recognise this, it is only because you fail to recognise yourself.’
Jesters may have been too kind. At least jesters embrace their art. Whoever these Elders are, they seem consumed by their own delusions.
‘We are not deluded.’
I did not speak aloud. I am sure of it. How can they possibly be inside my head. I scurry away from the rock, bringing my shelter down on top of me in the process. As soon as contact with the stone is broken, I feel like my mind has been unwrapped. I don’t remember it ever being tied in the first place.
‘You can’t possibly know about me.’ My cries seem beyond insignificant when directed towards the endless forest and the night that now consumes it. My situation is hopeless, that is clear, but I cannot give up just yet. I know the rough direction we came from and the skies are clear. If no snow falls tonight, I should be able to follow the tracks laid down by Avsdel and myself come the morning.
Within minutes I have my shelter re-made, this time leaning against one of the great oaks, chosen for the small hole formed at its base amongst its millennia-old roots. It is a far colder location, but has the benefit of a lack of ethereal voices, intent on damning me.
I must have slept long, for the sun’s light is breaking blindingly through the branches of my shelter. I quickly scramble my things together, determined to get as far away from this place as possible. On leaving the embrace of the hole, I can see the sky is still black. The light shines from the rock itself.
I approach, unwilling. I want to be away from here but my legs don’t respond to my mental pleading. Neither does my hand, once close enough, it places itself upon the granite and sticks there fast.
‘You will listen to us Gemming. You will listen and then you will either heed what we have to say, or you will wander this forest for all eternity, never finding the answer to your question.’
‘Question? What question? Will you not release me? I vow to speak of this to no one. I will never return.’
‘You will do neither of these things regardless. You are in our territory now. You come and go at our request.’
‘Tell me then, just tell me. Tell me and I will be on my way.’
I strain against my own hand, certain that I have no power to overcome it but nevertheless unable to fight my instinct to run.
‘Gemming. It is true, of the crime your King accused you, you are innocent.’
‘Then why proclaim me guilty? Why imprison me?’ My voice shakes uncontrollably.
‘Because you are guilty. Guilty of ignorance and fear. You say you want to return to your land, but your heart speaks otherwise. What you want is a home. Truth.’
‘We agree then. I want to return home.’
‘You have never been home. You don’t know truth.’
The riddles, which angered me before, are now terrifying. How can I escape if I cannot understand?
‘Listen to us and then understanding may come.’ Their power to read my thoughts no longer feels alien, fixed to the rock as I am, how could I expect to keep myself from them?
‘What you seek is purpose. That can never come for you in that other land.’
‘What can there possibly be for me here?’
‘Understanding. Truth. For you, knowledge is home, it is the scholar’s way. Join with us and we can teach you all you ever need to know.’
Their offer makes no sense. I am a scholar true, but not one of great repute. Banished for my unconventional thoughts, my peers never considered me their equal.
‘If that were true, they would not have sent you away. They feared you.’
‘But what could I possibly give to you who already seem to know so much?’
‘And what would you do with my life?’
‘Absorb it. None of us were great individually. We lived like pinpricks of light, insignificant in the blackness. But together, we shine like a star. We are energy creators. World makers. Life givers. Join us.’
I know it to be true. Joined with them in this way, I can see there is no lie in their words. Truth is all they know. My hand, now grey and hard, is one with the rock. It has accepted for me. I press my full self inwards. The darkness that I never knew I lived in, blasted away by the searing light of knowledge.
I am an Elder.
We are the Elders.