Chapter 3: Winter
Almonihah awoke that morning feeling better than he had for a long time. It seemed that whatever peaceful influence reigned here had sunk into him over the night, leaving him relaxed and calm, yet still awake and alert.
He also awoke to find that there was a wolf staring him in the face.
Normally, this would have caused Almonihah quite a bit of alarm, but today, it just brought a laugh as the wolf licked him friendlily. His laugh brought a pair of laughs from in front of the tent.
“I guess you’re awake now, Almonihah,” he heard Zrathanzon call out.
The wolf stopped licking Almonihah, and he caught his breath long enough to yell back, “Yeah.”
There was a whistle from outside of the tent. The wolf looked up abruptly, then bounded outside, leaving Almonihah room to get up.
“Once you’re ready, I’ll introduce you to Llinos,” his mentor called out, his voice sounding a little farther away.
Almonihah prepared quickly, putting on his warm clothing, gathering his dagger, pack, and the little bow and quiver of arrows Zrathanzon had made for him, then exited the tent. It had snowed again overnight, leaving a fresh blanket of white over the valley. Zrathanzon was engaged in restarting their fire while conversing with a man sitting on a log near the fire ring, who Almonihah supposed was probably Llinos.
As Almonihah approached, the man stood up, and Almonihah could get a good look at him. He was of moderate height, shorter than Zrathanzon, and of slighter build. He wore a simple brown robe and held a staff that looked much like a large tree limb that had simply been picked up from off of the ground. As Almonihah got closer, he could see that Llinos had a carving of a tree, much like the symbol on the tree they had passed on their way into this valley, tied to a leather strip around his neck like some kind of necklace. He also noticed that Llinos had somewhat pointed ears.
“Almonihah, this is Llinos, my friend I’ve been telling you about. And Llinos, this is Almonihah,” Zrathanzon said once his pupil neared the fire.
Llinos, nodded, his blue eyes meeting Almonihah’s green ones. “Welcome to my valley, little one. Did you rest well?”
Almonihah nodded. “Yeah. It’s… nice here.”
Llinos smiled. “Thank you, young one. I try to make this valley a place of peace and respite.”
Just then, a familiar lupine head stuck up over the log that Llinos had been sitting on. The rest of a wolf soon followed it, as he trotted over to Llinos’s side.
“And I believe you have already meet my friend,” Llinos continued, his smile growing perhaps a bit wider.
Zrathanzon laughed as Almonihah nodded. “It sounded like he likes you,” the Ranger chuckled.
“I think so,” Almonihah responded with a shy grin.
“He is a pretty friendly fellow,” Llinos said, as he scratched behind the wolf’s ears.
Almonihah asked, “What’s his name?”
Llinos shrugged. “He does not have one. What need have wolves of names?”
Almonihah thought for a second, then shrugged as well. “I dunno…” he said uncertainly, “Just… kinda seems like he should have one.” He paused for a moment more before hesitantly asking, “Could I come up with a name for him?”
Llinos looked down at the wolf. “What do you think about that?”
The wolf looked back at the druid, his tail wagging. After a moment, Llinos turned back to Almonihah and inquired, “Have you a name in mind?”
“Oh… uh… how about… um… Garekh?”
Zrathanzon laughed. “Naming him after his fur color?” Llinos cast an inquiring gaze at the Ranger, so he explained, “Garekh means “gray” in Draconic.”
“Ah. An appropriate name, I suppose. Is it acceptable to you?” Llinos turned back to the wolf, who simply kept wagging his tail as he looked back. “Very well,” Llinos said, “He shall be named Garekh.”
“Now that that’s settled,” Zrathanzon said, standing up, “I think it’s time Almonihah helped me with cooking breakfast.”
Over breakfast, Llinos asked about Almonihah’s story. Slowly, haltingly, with a few helpful additions from Zrathanzon, he told his tale. He found that somehow, here, in this tranquil place, the pain of memory seemed like something he could vanquish, rather than some invincible monster that would surely devour him if once let out of its cage. Llinos himself seemed sympathetic and kind as Almonihah told of his past, and it seemed almost as if he understood the young child’s pain.
Soon enough, breakfast was over, and the three cleaned up the campsite, packed up, and set off further into the sheltered canyon. Almonihah saw hints of movement all around them as they walked, as if there were animals watching from just out of sight in the trees around them. After a while, however, he actually spotted an animal—a deer that looked up at them as they passed. The funny thing about it was that it had one of its legs bandaged.
“Did you do that, Llinos?” Almonihah asked, pointing at the bandaged leg.
“Yes, child,” Llinos responded. “Animals come here when they are in distress, and I do what I can to aid them.”
“Oh,” Almonihah responded, his little face thoughtful. After a bit, he thought of another question. “Is that why it’s so peaceful here?”
Llinos was silent for a moment before he responded. “That is… part of the reason.”
Almonihah wondered what the rest of the reason was, but decided that Llinos probably would have told him if he had wanted to let him know.
They walked on for much of the day, with Zrathanzon and Llinos doing most of the talking, while Almonihah listened avidly. They talked a lot of the state of the forest and the settlements near it, but sometimes their talk strayed to other things—animals that had been here last time that the Ranger had visited, the few other acquaintances the two shared, and so on. Almonihah saw many more animals on their way, as well, some healthy, some obviously recovering from either injury or ailment, but all watching them with a sense of… watchfulness, perhaps? Certainly, they didn’t seem to be behaving like the animals they normally met in the woods.
“So… where are we going?” Almonihah asked when there was a lull in the conversation.
“To my home, little one,” Llinos replied, smiling gently.
“Oh,” Almonihah seemed a little surprised by the simple answer, but then, perhaps feeling that he would sound a bit rude if he just left it at that, said, “That sounds nice.”
“Thank you, child.”
They reached a point where the a smaller stream fed into the stream they had been following. Llinos turned and followed the tributary stream, and Almonihah and Zrathanzon followed. The stream meandered down from a small canyon in between the low mountains of the edge of the Stormpeaks. Before long, they reached a small clearing right where the stream exited the smaller canyon. There was a small hut, apparently made from fallen wood and other such materials, and another small fire ring in the clearing, but the oddest thing was that most of the clearing was clear of snow. Indeed, as they entered the clearing, Almonihah could feel the air getting warmer, until he was slightly uncomfortable in his warm clothing.
“Welcome to my humble home,” Llinos said, gesturing at the clearing and hut. “While I fear that there is not really room in my house for more than myself, at least Naishia has seen fit to ward off the winter’s chill here.”
“So that’s why it’s warm here?” Almonihah asked innocently as he started to strip off the outer layer of his heavy clothing. Llinos simply nodded in response.
Garekh, who had run ahead of the group, ran out of the little canyon, his tail wagging happily. He came to a halt in front of Llinos, who smiled and scratched him a bit behind one ear. After a moment, he trotted over to Almonihah, then sat back on his haunches, looking expectantly at the child. Hesitantly, he reached out his hand.
Observing this, Zrathanzon cautioned, “Make sure you mind your claws.”
Almonihah nodded, then cautiously rubbed the wolf behind the ears with his fingertips, careful to keep his claws from scratching Garekh. Said wolf showed his approval of the treatment by wagging his tail more vigorously, which brought a shy smile to Almonihah’s face.
After luxuriating under the attention being given him for a bit, Garekh stood back up on all fours and raced back off into the woods. Almonihah watched him go for a moment before following the adults, who had already fully entered the clearing.
Once he reached them, Llinos turned to Almonihah and said, “It is my understanding that Zrathanzon has been teaching you something of the ways of the Ranger.” He paused for a moment, and Almonihah nodded in confirmation. Seeing this, Llinos continued, “As Zrathanzon has told you, I am a Druid, a priest of Naishia. As such, I know much of the wilds and the plants and animals living therein. I understand that Zrathanzon intends to spend much of the winter here. If you wish, I could share something of my knowledge with you during your stay.”
Zrathanzon looked expectantly at Almonihah, who suddenly wondered what the two adults had been talking about earlier that morning. He rather suspected he now knew the answer to that question, but that didn’t change his answer to the unstated question posed to him.
“Yeah, that sounds good.”
The three spent much of the next several weeks together, either near the clearing or somewhere else in what Almonihah was already mentally calling “Llinos’s valley”. He continued his lessons in weapons and Ranger skills with Zrathanzon, but with the added pleasure of Llinos’s instructions about the ways of animals, the lives of plants, and the uses of herbs. He also asked Llinos about Naishia, thinking back to his earlier conversation with Zrathanzon. Often, while Almonihah and Llinos spoke of Naishia, Zrathanzon would add comments about Bahamut. Of course, the time wasn’t spent solely on lessons, for Almonihah found that Garekh was playful as well as friendly, and the pair spent many happy hours making up games and sometimes just running around the valley.
One morning, when the snows had let up for a while and the sun shone brightly on the white world, Zrathanzon made an unexpected announcement.
“I think it’s time I went out and checked on a couple of the settlements around here.”
Almonihah looked at him with surprise, but after a moment asked, “When are we leaving?”
Zrathanzon looked back at Almonihah. “I don’t think you should come this time. Some of the places I’m going… you’re not ready for quite yet. Llinos, are you fine with keeping an eye on him for a couple of weeks?”
The druid seemed less surprised than Almonihah had been. “So long as the child is content to stay with me, I am,” was his quiet reply.
“So do you think you could stay here with Llinos this time, Almonihah?”
After a long moment, Almonihah nodded his head. “Yeah… I guess so,” he said uncertainly.
“In that case,” Zrathanzon said briskly, “I’d better start packing.”
He left later that morning, saying that he wished to take advantage of the good weather while it lasted. Almonihah stood for a long while watching him go, and he seemed rather subdued the rest of the day while he went through his sword and bow drills alone and listened to Llinos’s teachings. Even Garekh could only cheer him up so much.
He didn’t seem any better the next morning, either. After watching him go through his drills, Llinos asked the young half-dragon, “He is like a father to you, is he not?”
What use are fathers if they can’t keep mothers alive? Almonihah thought, bitterly. Out loud he responded, some of the bitterness obvious in his voice, “Better.”
“Better?” Llinos repeated, surprised. “How do you mean?”
Almonihah seemed a bit embarrassed about his response. “Nothing…” he muttered.
Llinos seemed mildly amused, but he did not press the child further.
While Almonihah’s serious mood persisted for the rest of the day, he did seem to smile a little more readily than he had the day before. Llinos took him back up the canyon from which the oddly warm stream issued to a small, sheltered grove nestled in between the mountains. The source of the stream was there, bubbling up from somewhere below, steam rising from the waters. A number of animals, all obviously under the druid’s care for one reason or another, were in the grove resting and recuperating.
As they entered the grove, Almonihah noticed that a couple of the trees had that funny picture of a tree etched into their bark, just like the one on the tree on the way into the valley. When he commented on them, Llinos explained, “I have dedicated this grove specifically to Naishia, though truly, it was hers to begin with. Still, she likes it when we acknowledge that fact and set aside a few places for her. The animals appreciate it, too,” he gestured at the animals in the grove.
Almonihah was thoughtful for a moment, then asked, “What do you mean, it was Naishia’s to begin with?”
The druid responded with another question. “What do you know of the creation of Sephan’Illithain?”
Almonihah’s brow furrowed in confusion, his small scales pointing in odd directions trying to follow the contours thereby created. “What’s Sephan’Illithain?”
Llinos laughed a little. “I apologize. It is the name my people have for this world. What do you call it? Earth? That is the human name for it, yes?”
“We call it Draezoln. I think that’s what dragons call it,” Almonihah responded. Then he realized that something sounded funny about what Llinos had said. “Your people? You’re not human?”
Llinos laughed again. “I am an elf.”
“Oh…” Almonihah replied, his expression still perplexed. “So… how’s that different from human?”
“One of the most obvious differences is our ears,” Llinos explained, indicating the pointed ends of his ears. “Also, we tend to be somewhat slenderer than humans, and much longer-lived.”
“Ok…” Almonihah hardly seemed convinced that those differences were significant enough to count.
There was silence for a moment until Llinos gently prompted the young half-dragon by saying, “You have not answered my original question, Almonihah.”
“Oh! Uh… not much, really.”
“Would you like to hear the tale?”
Llinos motioned towards a fallen tree near the spring. Once they were seated, Llinos launched into his tale.
“Long ago, before Draezoln, as you call it, was created, there was only great emptiness. Into this emptiness came Naishia. She looked about herself and saw how empty the universe was, and decided to fill it. First, she started with stars. For a while, she was content with their beauty, and filled the universe with them, but in time, she started to tire of nothing but endless points of light.
“So next, she created her greatest light, the Sun. However, while she took pleasure in the greatness of her work, she soon realized that the true problem was having no one to share it with. And so she decided to create Draezoln. First she created the ground, creating rocks, mountains, hills, and valleys. Then she created water to flow over the ground. Then she began to create life.
“First were plants—grasses, bushes, trees, vines, and all of the other myriad types of plants Draezoln is so rich in. Once the face of the earth was covered in plants, she started creating animals—first the small insects, then larger animals, fishes, birds, and so forth. Once she was done, she looked on her creation and rejoiced in the life she had made, for now there were others to appreciate her work—not nearly so great of understanding as herself, of course, but she who created them knew their appreciation nonetheless.
“However, she had never truly been alone. There was another great power in the great emptiness she had filled. While at first he had been uninterested in Naishia’s activities, when she started to create life, he began to grow jealous. Unknown to Naishia, this other power came to Draezoln to observe her creation. And when he saw what she had created, he grew even more envious.
“And so he decided to make her creation his own. At first he interfered only unobtrusively, slightly changing the minds and forms of some of the animals. As time passed and he was unopposed, however, he grew more brazen, twisting the bodies of some creatures and even plants more blatantly. It was not long before Naishia noticed him and his interference.
“She confronted him about what he was doing. He refused to come to an agreement with her, and eventually the conflict became a war. It was a great, terrible war, in which incredible energies unimaginable to us in our age were released. Naishia did all she could to deflect these energies, but the worst of them still got through, further corrupting and twisting some of the life she had created. It is from the tampering and the war that many creatures we now call monsters came.
“However, these energies did not only affect Draezoln. From some of the clashing energies, other beings came to be, those other eight whom we now term gods—for the one other who fought with Naishia was the one we now call Jivenesh. These others joined in the conflict, four with Naishia, and four with Jivenesh.
“In time, it became clear that their war would destroy everything, even themselves. Recognizing this, all involved reluctantly agreed to make peace. All, that is, except Jivenesh.
“Maddened by the long conflict and further maddened by what he perceived as his allies turning against him, Jivenesh struck out at all of the other nine. While his attack was, indeed, mighty, his power had been weakened by the long war, and it failed to destroy as he had intended it.
“Seeing the insanity of the Mad God, the other nine agreed to bind him, chaining him in the depths of Draezoln for all time, lest he should destroy everything. And so he was cast down and bound. The place where he was cast down we now call the Madlands, for his madness has seeped into the very ground about him. There, deep beneath the ground, he lies chained, always seeking a way out and never finding it.
“Meanwhile, the nine agreed to stop their direct war, and instead agreed to fight only through mortal agents, with only limited interference from the gods. So it was that the intelligent races of the world were created to continue the long war of the gods. Naishia, meanwhile, both so as to even the sides and to protect her creations, agreed to withdraw herself from the conflict and focus on keeping Jivenesh bound, protecting all of nature and creation from his madness.”
Llinos stopped, his tale told out. For a while, silence stretched out, as the young half-dragon thought over what he had just heard.
After a few moments, Llinos spoke again. “I apologize, child. You asked only for the tale of the creation, and I gave you much more than that.”
Almonihah shook his head. “It’s fine. I liked it.”
He was thoughtfully silent for a little while longer, then asked, “So what are the Madlands, again?”
Llinos took a moment to gather his thoughts before responding. “As I said, they are where Jivenesh was cast down to Draezoln and bound. They reflect his madness, for all things there—animals, plants, even the land itself is twisted, warped, insane. Many Rangers like Zrathanzon labor to make sure the horrors of the Madlands do not escape to ravage the civilized lands.”
“Oh.” Almonihah seemed like he didn’t quite like that answer, but said no more.
They sat in silence for a little while longer, simply taking in the quiet murmuring of the water and the occasional movements of the animals. After a while, Almonihah started asking some more questions about Naishia. Llinos’s explanation only brought more questions from the inquisitive young half-dragon, and they spent the rest of the evening talking.
The next two weeks passed quickly, as Almonihah learned from Llinos’s wisdom. The young Ranger-in-training hadn’t realized quite how much there really was to know about all of the plants and animals of Draezoln, nor had he realized that there was so much to know about Naishia and the other gods of Draezoln. The more he learned, the more he realized he didn’t know, and the more he knew he didn’t know, the more he wanted to know more.
Almost exactly two weeks after he had left, Zrathanzon walked back into Llinos’s valley, looking much as he had when he had left. His leather clothing was, perhaps, a little more worn than it had already been, but that seemed to be the only difference.
“Hello, Zrathanzon,” Almonihah greeted his mentor, cheerfully.
“Hey, Almonihah. Everything go well with Llinos?” The golden-scaled Ranger replied.
Almonihah just nodded. Llinos greeted Zrathanzon as well, and then invited his two guests to sit down on one of the logs around the edge of the clearing where the druid lived. Zrathanzon and Llinos sat together, with Almonihah at the Ranger’s left. As they were getting settled, Zrathanzon leaned over to the elf and murmured something, to which Llinos responded equally quietly.
Almonihah edged a bit closer and realized they were speaking in a language unfamiliar to him. “What’s that you’re speaking?” he asked, his curiosity piqued.
Zrathanzon looked at his pupil with a bit of surprise. “Good ears, Almonihah. Didn’t think you could hear well enough to know it wasn’t the Common Tongue. We were speaking Elvish.”
“Oh,” Almonihah responded, thinking. Then he thought of another question. “Zrathanzon, why do you know Elvish?”
Zrathanzon chuckled a bit. “Because I’m half-elf, Almonihah.”
“Oh.” Almonihah’s response was becoming quite familiar to the two adults.
While the young half-dragon processed that thought, Llinos made a little motion that Almonihah only caught out of the corner of his eye. Just as he was about to ask another question, Garekh leaped out of the underbrush and ran up enthusiastically to his friend.
“Looks like someone wants to play,” Zrathanzon said, grinning, with a bit of a sideways glance at Llinos.
Almonihah looked a bit rebellious until Garekh started licking him, bringing his laughter, after which he bounded off again, looking back to see if the little half-dragon was following. He was, and they charged off on one of their frequent games, leaving the two adults alone to their conversation.
The rest of the winter passed quickly, as Almonihah eagerly learned everything he could from his two teachers and his lupine friend. All too soon, the snows started melting, and Zrathanzon started to seem restless.
One fine, clear morning, Zrathanzon woke Almonihah a bit early. “I’m headed back out now,” he said, and then paused, as if uncertain how to continue. After a moment of indecision, he characteristically got straight to the point. “You can keep coming with me, of course, but if you want, Llinos said he’d be willing to let you stay with him.”
There was silence for a while. Almonihah thought back over the winter, how peaceful it was here, the things he had learned from the druid. Then he thought of Zrathanzon, and of traveling through the North Forest, and he realized that he had been getting restless, too. Eventually, Almonihah asked, “Would we still come back and visit Llinos every winter?”
Zrathanzon nodded. Almonihah said, “Then I’ll stick with you.”
While they finished packing, Llinos and Garekh walked over. “I see you made your choice, child,” Llinos said quietly.
“I’ll be back next winter!” Almonihah responded quickly.
Llinos smiled. “Of course. We will be expecting you.”
Almonihah walked up to Garekh. “You be good until next winter, and we can play again, okay?” he said. Garekh looked solemnly at the child, and Almonihah could almost swear that he nodded a little.
“Well, time to go, Almonihah,” said Zrathanzon. Then he said a little something in Elvish to Llinos, who responded in kind, and they parted.
“What did you say, Zrathanzon?” Almonihah asked as they walked out of the valley.
“Just goodbye in Elvish,” responded the Ranger.
“Could you teach me Elvish?”
Zrathanzon chuckled. “There’s only so many hours in a day, Almonihah. I can’t teach you everything all at once.”
“But there’s a lot of days, right?”
Zrathanzon outright laughed at his young companion’s innocent reply. “I guess you’re right, kid.”