Chapter 6: Toward Rockmoor

Chapter 6: Toward Rockmoor

“But I don’t see why you have to go at all,” Helga persisted.

The smart, strong girl stood defiantly, eyes glistening.

“I’ll come back and visit, Helga,” Boudreaux replied in a voice so uncharacteristically gentle he surprised even himself. “Our path is taking us to Rockmoor, at least for now. And you and Rowena have a big job to do while we’re gone. You must rebuild Westover. Your people need you to lead.”

After much discussion, Ohlen had convinced the party of their need to strengthen and study in the wake of their mortal struggle beneath the mountain. They all agreed that Rockmoor would provide the tools each of them would need to learn.

So this final morning in Bridgeton, they gathered together in the Dancing Deer’s taproom. It was bittersweet, as goodbyes tend to be.

“Hey,” interjected Arden during a lull in the conversation, “I heard there is a mystical healer around here. Someone who might be able to help me with this?” He gestured at the part of his face, under his right eye, that had been melted by the mucousy tentacular worm they had faced in the goblin lair.

The villagers conferred briefly. Most had heard stories of a mysterious being who inhabited the deep woods to the east. The consensus described an ancient woman. None in the room had ever actually seen her, but they had all heard of a mythical pair of enormous oak trees that would present themselves as markers to travelers in need.

“We have something to say before we leave,” Boudreaux announced. He and Arden exchanged a glance and stood up together. The chatter continued.

“Quiet!” Boudreaux shouted. He drew his dwarfish long sword and slammed the hilt, hard, on the heavy table in front of him. The humor had drained from his voice, and the talking ceased abruptly. Into this tense silence, Arden declared, “Westover must be rebuilt. It will be rebuilt with the treasure you uncover beneath the mountain.” He eyed everyone standing around him, lingering especially on each of the young men, and continued, “We expect at least half of everything you find to be given freely to Helga and Rowena, here, for this noble purpose.” Seated nearby, Helga straightened just a little taller.

Boudreaux concluded sternly, “Arden and I are gonna come back someday, and if on that day Westover doesn’t stand, we’ll find the misers responsible and make sure they pay in more than coin.”

They were off.

The six friends had trekked several hours away from Bridgeton when Gnome recognized a pair of oak trees matching the village elder’s description. As they came closer, Arden excitedly detected traces of foot traffic between them. Amazed they had actually come upon something resembling the tales of the mystical healer’s dwelling, they left the road for the path between the two towering, vine-covered oaks.

The day was beautiful and bright, the breeze warm and gentle, but the thick canopy they were soon passing beneath made the space around them cool and dim. The path ahead looked even darker.

They walked a few minutes in silence, the way becoming gloomier with each step. “Who did you say this lady was, Arden?” asked Boudreaux, too loudly. Gnome, engrossed in the quiet assessment of the path before them, nearly jumped out of his skin. But in spite of the shushing, Boudreaux drove on skeptically, “What kind of creepy weirdo lives in a place like this?”

“Boudreaux, please keep these thoughts to yourself,” Ohlen said in a careful low voice. “She is not far now.”

They ventured on. As the path dropped steeply, so too did the temperature. Brambles, rotten logs, and leaves obscured the damp forest floor, and they were all grateful for Arden’s intuition guiding them forward.

Myriad noises emanated from the ground around them and the trees above. Chirps and calls and shuffling and rustling sounded and echoed in the shadows. X’andria instinctively reached inside her robes for one of her darts, but stopped when she felt Ohlen’s gentle and reassuring touch on her elbow.

“We have arrived,” he announced softly.

They could hear a small stream trickling nearby. The forest noises had grown in intensity around them to a chorus of animal sounds blending seamlessly together.

Gnome’s huge eyes drank in darkness as easily as light, and he was first to notice the low mound of mud and bracken that was the healer’s dwelling.

“I see it,” Gnome whispered.

“Will you come with me, Ohlen?” breathed Arden.

“Yeah, you’re good at this kind of thing.” Boudreaux, it seemed, was incapable of saying anything discreetly.

“We all go,” Ohlen replied decisively. “Lead us, Gnome.”

With their first step toward the mound, the forest went silent save for the trickling stream—as though all the plants and animals were holding their collective breath to see what would happen next.

Constructed as it was of mud, branches, and leaves, all manner of volunteer mosses and mushrooms had also taken root upon the mound. No obvious door greeted the friends; no light shone from within. Skirting the mound, Gnome noticed a slight depression in the hut’s wall. The entrance, it turned out, was no more than a hole covered with a thick curtain of dark leafy vines.

As their party gaped, the thick vines rustled from within and a dim red glow spilled meekly out into the gloom. A wrinkled and hunched old woman held back the twisting leafy ropes with a gnarled hand and fixed them with a piercing gaze. She did not say anything. She did not beckon them forward. She did not smile. But she held the curtain open long enough that they felt obliged to enter. Gnome walked slowly into the candle-lit interior, followed by Ohlen, who smiled, stooped low, and disappeared inside.

“You two better go first,” Boudreaux said to Ruprecht and X’andria, urging them forward. “We might take a while.” Even leaving their bags outside, it proved awkward to get Arden, Boudreaux, and the heavy gear they wore, into the healer’s home. Ultimately, they both crawled and slithered through the opening. To Gnome’s consternation, Boudreaux took a fair amount of the old crone’s hanging vines with him as he squeezed himself inside.

Eventually they found themselves sitting in a circle around the perimeter of the small round space. Three red candles flickered in the center of the room. They burned atop a tattered and dirty woven mat, and cast just enough shimmering light for X’andria to perceive runic script and mysterious images in faded earth tones.

The woman sat cross-legged. Slumped and covered in a grey shawl, with matted grey hair that obscured her face, she looked almost like a small mound of earth herself. Clay jars stood amongst small piles of powder, leaves, needles, and unknown substances arranged haphazardly around her, and a small striped chipmunk shivered by a wide and shallow bowl placed directly in front of her.

“Why have you come to visit Magda?” The raspy voice emanated from all around them at once as though initiating in the thick walls themselves. The mound that was Magda stayed motionless.

They all looked at Arden. Arden looked imploringly at Ohlen. Ohlen finally said, “One of our number has been injured, Magda. Word of your miraculous healing power has spread far and wide, and we have journeyed to see you this day to ask humbly that you might bestow your gifts upon him.”

“Magda has no power,” the walls wheezed, “Magda has no gifts.”

Arden got a strained look on his scarred face as both Gnome and Boudreaux turned sharply toward him with narrowed eyes. X’andria was alternately fixated on the piles of components surrounding Magda, and the wide basin before her. Ruprecht stared off into space.

“But Magda can ask the forest,” she continued. At these words the chipmunk began bobbing rapidly up and down, and a shriveled hand emerged slowly from beneath the grey shawl. “The forest knows life and death, growth and decay. The trees and the earth may give a gift this day. Magda can only ask. Let the injured come forward.”

Magda clawed messily in the piles around her. X’andria’s eyes were huge. Without looking, or moving anything more than her one visible arm, the crone casually threw pinches of various ingredients into the basin before her.

Arden slid forward uncomfortably. Unable to stand upright in the shallow room, and not sure where to go, he just scooted toward Magda with his chin jutting out at an odd angle as though trying to come at the healer with the melted part of his face first. Boudreaux thought this looked hilarious, and even started to chuckle, until a threatening glare from Gnome helped him regain his composure.

A thin tendril of deep red smoke curled upward from Magda’s basin. She was stirring her mixture now with the long nails of two stubby fingers. Fast as lightning, her left hand shot out from beneath her shawl and grasped the shivering chipmunk. She lifted it and painted its face with the muddy mixture. The lines she painted glowed a dull red.

The small creature raced to Gnome, who was closest, climbed quickly onto his shoulders, and briefly pressed the top of its head into the exposed flesh of Gnome’s neck. This it repeated with each member of the party except for Arden who now sat before the basin, and before Magda. Magda, too, now had streaks glowing dully on her wrinkled face and forehead.

Gnome was the only one to feel rushing underneath them.

He had never felt anything like it, yet he knew with certainty what it was: roots. Roots slithered beneath them, probing forward through the earth like eels in a river. Magda, eyes closed, reached swiftly beyond her basin and clutched Arden’s face at the precise moment that thin web-like roots burst through the earth all around him and snaked over his crossed legs.

All became silent and still. Curling reddish smoke began to fill the cramped space. It came from all of them now, and it glowed with a light of its own. Smoke seeped from the spots on their necks where the chipmunk had touched them. Smoke poured freely from the junction of Magda’s hand and Arden’s face. It all began swirling together like a dizzying blood red whirlpool.

Boudreaux snuck a glance around. X’andria was hungrily devouring every detail of Magda’s rite. Gnome looked like he was going to be ill. Ohlen, eyes closed, was serene. Ruprecht wore an uncomfortable grimace, like he desperately wanted to be anywhere else.

“DESPAIR!” it was no longer just Magda’s rasp, now a shrill chorus of accusatory screams filled the space as though borne on a gust of wind through a keyhole. The candles blew out. “You cannot win alone. You cannot run away. A dark storm comes for you. It comes for ALL!” Madness swirled around them. “Gather the light. Waste no time. Already the gaze burns us. The hatred scorches us. The darkness falls. Leave now! Run and take this evil terror with you. Magda will come to you when the fire rains and the battle rages.”

An instant later, they sat blinking in the bright afternoon sunlight, sitting absurdly in a circle on the road, their provisions nearby.

“What the hell was that?” griped Gnome as he rose and dusted himself off.

“That was amazing,” X’andria exclaimed in wonderment.

“Sounds like nonsense to me,” Boudreaux pouted. “Gather the light,” he wheezed, mocking Magda’s voice and waving his arms around to mimic swirling air. “Why don’t we bottle our farts while we’re at it? I’ve got a few stored up that I bet would be more useful in battle than a bunch of light.”

“Hey, how’s my face?” asked Arden hopefully.

They all looked.

“Still nasty and melted, man, sorry,” Boudreaux returned sympathetically. Then, turning, he yelled indignantly at the forest, “Come on, lady, you didn’t even fix Arden’s face!”

They gathered their things and walked on for some time before Ohlen spoke.

“We are not strong enough,” he stated simply.

“Speak for yourself, Ohlen,” joked Boudreaux, flexing an enormous bicep and flashing his toothy smile.

“Quiet, meathead,” said Gnome. “What do we do, Ohlen?”

“I am even more convinced that we must train, and learn, and improve. We must purify.  And yes, Boudreaux, when the time is right, we must gather forces of light.”

They had left the forest behind them now, and their trail dropped in elevation toward the sea. Around them waved the tall grasses of rolling hills. Dotting the landscape, huge rocky fingers thrust skyward.

“What did Magda mean by dark storm, Ohlen?” X’andria asked.

“I do not know for certain, X’andria. But this much seems clear. Some demonic shroud settled over the Westoveran mountains and brought destruction to dwarves and humans alike. It marshaled goblin forces, possessed men, and passed slaves through a mysterious gateway to another world. We came to Magda to ask for help to restore Arden’s wounded face, and instead the powers of nature have given us a grave warning. A warning we must heed with the utmost care.”

About three hours from Rockmoor, they stopped for a late lunch. Mathilde had sent them on their way with bread, meat, and cheese from the Dancing Deer, a jar of spicy pickled beets, and over Gnome’s protestations, as much ale as Boudreaux could carry.

After lunch, Ohlen stood and made a most unwelcome announcement.

“Well, my friends. Here I must say goodbye.” He was met with blank stares and shocked silence. The color drained from Ruprecht’s face.

“Don’t worry, I will catch up with you soon in Rockmoor!” Ohlen chuckled. “We all must become stronger in our own way. And my path forward is one of solitude.”

They protested greatly, but Ohlen’s mind was made up. The last they saw of him was his gleaming white-robed form striding purposefully over the crest of a sloping green hill to the south.With the heaviness of determination, they turned eastward and set out on the final leg of their journey to Rockmoor.

READ CHAPTER 7

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