© May 1986
Deep in the sombre, quiet darkness, something silvery stirred. Intruding on the stillness, the tinkling of a new-born stream echoed faintly through the heavy air of the old forest. The sun shone fiercely in the sky, but here under the verdant canopy of leaves, only fleeting glimpses could be seen, appearing like stars in a lush green sky. These few spots of sunlight lanced through the green darkness like spears of luminescence thrusting through the void. Down in the depth of the forest, little was felt of the breeze which disturbed the very topmost branches, the sound of which was lost in the heavy muffling atmosphere below the canopy, long before it reached the ground.
In this part of the forest, few animals lived. A few insects crawled and writhed their lives away, but nothing larger came near. Beside the tiny trickle of water sprouting from between the rocks, three large, pale, bloated toadstools thrust their phallic heads from the decaying mush on the forest floor, nourished by the decaying corpses of the plants. The stones at the head of the stream were stained green-grey with age, their surfaces mottled with moss and dead lichen. Peering hard enough, faint marks could just be discerned on the stones and an experienced eye could have guessed that the angles of these stones were not natural.
The silvery shadow passed between the trunks of the ancient trees, hardly disturbing the air as it passed, all but silent, all but invisible. The tinkling of the stream ceased. All was achingly silent.
`Come on boy, and be quick about it!' Charron said, scowling at the little boy relieving himself against a tree. She sat high on her dark horse, Azgh, constantly glancing around. The boy, having finished, nervously approached her. His blue eyes looked up at her appealingly from below a fringe of sandy hair.
`Can't we stop for a little while? I'm tired and my legs hurt.' his clear voice wavered as he stood beside her foot, looking up at her high above him on the horse.
`Don't be stupid child. We have a long way to go before nightfall. Come here.' she glared at him, holding out her gloved hand to lift him back up onto the horse.
`Please?' the boy sniffled. She arched her eyebrows threateningly and the boy trembled and reached out for her hand. With an unnecessarily abrupt jerk, she roughly grabbed his arms and hoisted him up in front of her on the horse. The boy cried out in pain and thrashed his legs, accidentally kicking the horse's shoulder. Charron dumped him down in front of her and slapped him hard across the face.
`You stupid brat!' she yelled angrily, her face inches from his. The boy's sobs turned into wails and he clung to her torso, burying his face in her bosom, trembling in terror at what this frightening woman might do to him next. Charron smiled to herself in satisfaction and patted the little boy's head roughly, then urged Azgh onward along the overgrown and disused road. The little boy had as far as she cared, no name - she had not bothered to ask when she bought him. Only his age, roughly five years, and appearance were important.
She had found him in the slave market at Pharrag, a hell-hole of a mining village two weeks behind her, in the foothills of the Algox mountain range, the foothills of which she was paralleling on her way northward. He had not actually been for sale at the time, but was the son of the slave master's mistress. Charron made the slaver a generous offer and when the boy's mother was not looking, he disappeared in amongst the slaves and was delivered to Charron that evening just as she was about to leave town. The slave master though, had felt the lash of her riding crop when he made some lewd comments about what she was going to do with the child. Her purpose was beyond the vile imagination of the slaver.
The boy had cried pitifully for his mother for several days and only ceased his wailing after she had vented her frustration on him with the whip. From then on, she had kept up the confusing intimidation, sometimes seeming loving and attentive and at other times being cruel and vicious. The boy's confusion had grown until he was in a state of constant terror whilst with her, but even more afraid to be away from her.
The boy's sobs had quietened as they continued on, his head still resting on her bosom, his tears drying on Charron's tanned cleavage, his eyes closed now as he dozed, lulled asleep by the regular motion of the horse and the familiar warmth and smell of the woman who now looked after him. His tiny fingers were tightly entwined with the ties of the buckskin bodice Charron wore in the warm weather, to match the short skirt which displayed most of her legs to the warm sun. The boots she wore came halfway up her calves and were rimmed with animal fur. Her left hand, her sword hand, was gloved to hide the scars of an incident in her youth when it had been deliberately and cruelly burnt. Her revenge had been sweet, but that was long in the past. What concerned her now lay ahead.
`Mother...' the little boy whimpered in his dreams, rubbing his cheek against her skin.
`No!' she shook him roughly awake. `No Mother, never! Do you hear me, never!' she glared at him. The boy's lower lip trembled as he stared transfixed at her frighteningly beautiful face looming over him. Her campaign of intimidation continued.
The road they followed had long ago changed from a track kept clear by the regular passing of travellers to its present state of desolation and neglect. The old road wound it's way steadily northwards, keeping to within a couple of leagues of the east coast. Ahead lay roughly two days travel to reach the long deserted ruin of the city of Ragnara. This, though, was not Charron's destination - not even she would consider risking the horrors said to inhabit the ruined city, she who had witnessed other terrors in the wastes far to the south.
The grey, overcast sky grew perceptibly duller as Charron rode on with her small passenger struggling to keep awake while the movements of the horse and woman lulled him back into a disturbed, nervous sleep. Ahead, Charron could see a grove of trees at the top of a rise overlooking the more exposed downlands between what remained of the road and the sea off in the distance. She edged Azgh off the road, looking at the slope ahead to see if there were an easier route up to the grove where she planned to camp for the night. The slope was steep, but the footing was sound, even though every now and then rocks pushed through the coarse grasses and gorse.
By the time she reached the trees at the crest of the hillock the sky was much darker, the sun disappearing rapidly at this, the nether end of the autumn. The climate, though, was still warm and at times uncomfortably humid. Tonight, though, promised to be cold, a harbinger of the winter nights to come. Charron pulled her thick cloak around her, shivering and cursing at the scantiness of the clothing she wore. This would be the last time she wore it for a while, she thought, at least until she returned south again.
Once in the confines of the grove of trees, the cool breeze was rebuffed and the warmth of the day-time returned, protected and cosseted by the trees as if in defiance of the turning of the seasons. Reaching a small clearing, Charron halted Azgh and dismounted, roughly dumping the sleepy boy on the ground while she groped about in the saddlebags for her tinderbox, hampered by the now thick darkness enveloping them. The boy, lost in the blackness began to sniffle.
`Stop that noise this instant' Charron demanded tartly. The snuffles broke off suddenly, leaving a heavy silence in the gloom. `Damn, I meant to stop long before it got this dark.' she muttered to herself to keep the silent darkness at bay. `This is all your fault, stupid brat. If you didn't drink so much water we wouldn't have to keep stopping for you to piss!' she snapped into the gloom where she had dumped him. A trembling gasp of fear made her smile with pleasure at the power she had over the boy.
Finally, after retrieving the errant tinderbox and scrabbling about for some dry tinder, a spark of light appeared and grew into a small wavering flame, which she carefully nourished until it strengthened. This gave her enough light to search for suitable fuel which she arranged carefully in order to avoid setting the whole grove alight. Through all this, the little boy sat hunched up, hugging his legs to himself for warmth, staring transfixed at her. As the fire grew and gave off heat, he shuffled closer to it, his eyes not leaving her, as if he were afraid to lose sight of her in case she would desert him here.
`What are you staring at?' she snarled at him, irritated. The little boy shuddered but remained motionless. Charron shook her head and continued to prepare their supper. `I don't know why I feed you, you're of no use, you just take and hinder. I suppose I ought to just dump you somewhere and leave you. What do you think of that?' she baited him mercilessly. The boy's eyes grew wide in terror and his lower lip trembled. She smiled to herself again. `Here, eat while I still have patience with you.' she held out to him a wooden bowl with a hunk of cheese, some bread and a strip of dried meat along with a few berries and fruit she had gathered as they travelled. He accepted it silently, his eyes still fixed on her as he mechanically put the food into his mouth.
Charron sat opposite him, slowly chewing on her food, returning his stare. She cocked her head to one side, the braids of her long auburn hair dangling over her shoulders.
`What's the matter little baby? Frightened I might leave you here?' she said in a sympathetic tone as if to soothe his fears. `Come here and tell me all about it.' she patted her lap, reaching out to him. Without hesitation, the little boy scuttled around the fire and settled himself comfortably on her thighs, putting his arms around her neck and hugging her tightly. Charron found herself surprised by his affectionate trust, even after all she had subjected him to, and then even more shocked by the realisation that she too was enjoying it! Pulling her cloak around them both, she hugged him, rocking gently back and forth and humming quietly. In a few minutes, the boy was sound asleep, fingers tightly interlocked so she would not be able to leave him easily.
The flickering firelight danced around the clearing, casting wavering shadows all about. Charron, herself, still nervous of the dark, even after all the years of travelling, found comfort in the little boy's embrace. Her back, though, was aching from the long day's ride so after a little time, she had to disturb the boy's sleep. He woke with a start and clung to her, terrified.
`Its alright little one,' she stroked his sandy hair comfortingly,'I'm only getting some things from Azgh.' she explained and then for the first time since she had bought him, she kissed his forehead. She scowled after she had done this, pushing the boy away, angry at herself. Briskly standing up, she went to where Azgh grazed on the fringes of the light from the fire and retrieved her sleeping roll. So far the boy had used one of her blankets to wrap up in, but on this cool night, she begrudged him even that.
Moving back to the fire, she spread the blankets out and banked up the fire. The boy continued to stare at her. As she prepared to settle down to sleep, she looked at him hunched up by the fire and for the first time felt pity for the poor child she had taken away from his mother.
`Alright then come on.' she sighed, opening the blanket for him. Without a word he was there again, clinging to her for security, his head resting on her chest. Smiling wryly to herself, she wrapped them both up and held his slight body against her's. The comfort and satisfaction this gave her made her mind wander back to the last time she had shared a man's bed, what seemed like an age before, in Pharrag where she had earned a few coins doing what comes naturally. Sleep stole over her soon after, the thought in her mind that her ultimate goal would soon be in sight.
The little boy's movements woke her just after sunrise the next day. The first thing she saw as she woke was his blue eyes framed by his sandy hair gazing into her face. A flickering smile crossed his lips but was followed by a tremor of fear at what she might do to him today. Without thinking, still half asleep, Charron hugged him close and kissed him lovingly. The boy's expression turned into one of sheer delight, his smile almost as wide as his face and he returned her affection with vigour. Suddenly, as if realising what she was doing, she froze, digging her fingers into the boy's shoulders making him squeal in fright. Gritting her teeth, she gripped the boy fiercely and threw him bodily away from her.
He landed with a thump and cried out, cowering away from her as she went after him and grabbed his arm, pulling him toward her, where she could hit him. Her vicious assault on the boy was brought to a shuddering halt as her eyes took in her surroundings in full daylight for the first time. The clearing was only a dozen or so paces wide but all around it at regular intervals stood dark grey stones jutting up out of the earth like fingers of rock. Charron gasped as she realized where they had spent the night - inside a stone circle!
`Hurry!' she cried, picking up the bedding and other belongings and stuffing them into the saddlebags. The boy sat to one side, baffled by Charron's sudden change. `Come on!' she urged him, backing away from the centre of the clearing. He still sat where he had landed, nursing the bruises she had inflicted upon him. `Come on boy!' Charron repeated more urgently, her voice tinged with panic. This was something he had never seen in her before. Suddenly she broke forward and grabbed him up in her arms, holding him tightly as she raced away from the stone circle as fast as she could, Azgh following, infected by his mistress' urgency to leave the mystic grove of trees.
A short distance from them, Charron stopped, squatting down on the side of the hill to catch her breath, her body trembling as she continued to cuddle the boy. The boy's blue eyes regarded her curiously from a distance of inches, and she found it impossible to resist kissing him again and again almost in tears from the terror that had suddenly taken over her.
`Oh you silly boy, don't you realise what could have happened in there?' she chided the boy, but her voice was affectionate and not vindictive. `The Lord Mages long ago set them up all over Mardona, Bragor and Laar to focus their powers. People say the stones can turn men into dust or ants or anything... How we escaped without something happening to us...' she breathed, clutching the boy thankfully to her bosom.
Eventually, they continued their journey, starting off by walking Azgh down the steep slope. As they travelled along, it just seemed natural for the little boy's hand to slip into Charron's. Once more on Azgh's back, they regained the road, the boy nestling in the warmth of Charron's cloak and embrace as she spoke to him quietly, telling him stories of the past that she had picked up on her travels. The boy's voice, less fearful now, spoke more as the day wore on, asking her questions about the stories and laughing with her at the funny parts. She even sang to him, her voice untrained but melodic.
By early afternoon, they had left the road and headed further inland, aiming for a range of hills in the distance from where Charron knew the River Fall, which passed through Ragnara, had it's source. Their rate of progress was good as the land was clear for most of the way. It did not take long then before they reached the fringes of a thick forest.
`Why are we stopping?' the boy asked, resting his head in the crook of her arm.
`This is our destination. We've arrived.' Charron sighed, relieved.
`Where are we?'
`I don't think it has a name. It's just "The old forest upstream of Ragnara, where several tributaries meet the Fall." Or if it had a name it was lost along with that.' she pointed downstream towards where the ruined city stood lost in the distance.
`What are we here for?' the boy's confidence had grown during the day. Charron smiled down at him.
`You're full of questions today aren't you?' she hugged him warmly. Something in the back of her mind told her that this was wrong, but she ignored it and slipped off Azgh's back, holding her arms out to help the boy off. `We have to go the rest of the way by foot.' Taking his hand and drawing the curved blade from the sheath in the saddle, she patted Azgh and lead the way into the thicker undergrowth.
The air in the forest was dense with the sound of buzzing insects and creaking boughs, the continuous noise of birdsong covering everything. As they fought their way deeper into the forest, the heat and humidity grew, trapped by the canopy of foliage.
`Where are we going?' the boy trailed after Charron, his fear at being left behind resurfacing.
`It's not far, just up ahead.' Charron panted, though she did not know what made her so sure of direction or distance. The sounds of the forest continued with them, a constant background. Then suddenly all grew still. Charron paused, looking up and around. The little boy caught up with her and pressed himself against her for reassurance and protection. Nervously running her fingers through his hair, Charron waited for something to happen.
The tinkling sound of running water floated towards her and she knew that she had to follow the sound. Pushing and cutting her way through the undergrowth, holding the boy's hand in her gloved one, she finally broke through to find a moss covered heap of stones with three large toadstools growing nearby.
`This is it.' she breathed in awe, looking around. In her mind, she still was not sure of what "it" was. All she had discovered were a few rumours and some talk about things happening and living in the forest.
`So you have come.' a deep melodic voice came from nowhere. Charron lifted her knife, sinking down in a fighting stance with the boy behind her, safe.
`Who are you? Show yourself!' she demanded.
`Do not be alarmed, I will not hurt you.' the voice came again, except it was not a voice in the normal sense - it seemed to be within her head. It sounded like a deep baritone, but the pitch and timbre were so complex as to be indescribable. It could even have been female. `Why have you come to find me?' it continued. Charron swallowed and sought for the little boy's hand. From the expression on his face, she could tell he was hearing the voice as well.
`Please, show yourself.' Charron asked, still looking around.
`Very well, if that is what you wish.' the voice replied, with a sigh of resignation. Out of the corner of her eye, Charron saw a silvery shape flicker amongst the undergrowth. Slowly the owner of the strange voice appeared from out of the gloom. The silvery gleam enveloped it, as if it was surrounded by thousands of stars twinkling faintly. The highest concentration centring around the creatures brow from which grew the long pale golden horn, spiralling upward to a sharp point. The Unicorn's eyes fixed Charron with a long measured stare.
The little boy gasped at the beautiful creature before them and held Charron's hand tighter. The Unicorn's eyes fell upon him and a flash of recognition passed between them, an unspoken bond which had suddenly come into existence.
`Hello little one.' the Unicorn's voice appeared in their minds again. `Is this why you are here? You bring me innocence in the hope that I might fall under its spell?' the Unicorn's attention returned to Charron. She gulped and nodded numbly, unable now to conceal the idea that had brought her all this way north. `It was a worthy cause, but alas it was doomed to failure. You're fate does not lie with mine Charron, nor does the boy's. What needed has been done, the strands of fate's web have worked together to bring you to me. I was not really your goal, but simply the bait to get you to the right place at the right time.' Charron frowned. The Unicorn's gaze went from Charron to the boy and back to her again. Realisation grew in her.
`The stone circle...' she breathed. The Unicorn's silvery mane tossed as the creature nodded it's head in confirmation. The little boy's hand was warm in her's and she became aware of the discontinuity in their relationship since the night before. Never in the preceding two weeks had she felt any affection towards the snivelling brat she had brought from Pharrag. Last night though...
`I am pleased you have come to me. I see few people nowadays. I suppose I ought to be grateful - they were forever hunting me and trying to capture me, but my fate still has not reached its end. I hope this trip has shown you something about yourself young Charron and you will use the knowledge properly. Now go, it is getting late - the forest can be treacherous in the dark, even for me! I need not mention to you the necessity of absolute secrecy about my existence. Take care, both of you.' and with that the silver-coated Unicorn turned back toward the gloomy interior, leaving the woman and boy breathless and heartbroken at the vanishing beauty of the creature.
`Come on, let's get back before it gets dark' Charron shivered finally. The boy smiled at her, squeezing her hand. `I've never asked you this before,' she said, `I've always called you "boy" or "brat", but since it looks like we'll be spending a lot of time together in the future, I ought to know your name, if you have one.'
`Yes, I have one.' he replied looking up at her warily. Charron frowned and then smiled, kneeling down beside him to be at his level.
`What is it then my love?'
`Deldus, it's Deldus... Mother.' he looked at her nervously. A lump appeared from nowhere in her throat and her eyes stung with tears of joy she struggled to fight back. Suddenly and without warning she swept him into her arms, hugging him lovingly as tears of joy trickled down her cheeks, her cold heart warmed for the very first time.
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