Heart of the Forest
A Tale by Michael DeAngelo
The floorboards above his head creaked, though he heard no footsteps reporting across the deck. He remained in his hammock, the crude netting beginning to fray in several spots. As the ship rocked back and forth upon the sea, that gentle undulation always had him drifting back to his memories. And those memories always had him subconsciously drawing his gaze back to his bow, which lay against the hull of the ship, just within reach.
The ranger hadn’t often been on a vessel that size before. His family had owned a fleet, but it was atypical for him to venture aboard any of them. He was being groomed for different things, although not everything that had been planned for him had worked out for the best.
Those thoughts reminded him that he was leaving behind everything that he knew. The island country of Ippius was well behind him, along with another island that served as a proxy for his travels. No one could know who he was, for his mere identity could put anyone at risk, most of all himself. Instead, everyone thought him dead, only the latest member of the Dactyls family to perish due to unforeseen—though unfortunate—accidents.
Kevin knew the truth of the matter, however. His mother and father were not killed without malcontent. There was no unfortunate series of events that led to their poisoning. And there certainly was no misfire in the hunt that would have led Kevin to take the throne of Argos. No, his brother—his twin—Helios made certain that he was to rule the island nation, and he was willing to sever ties with his family to do so.
The ranger, huddled in darkness in the hold of the vessel, told himself that he wasn’t fleeing. He had been believed dead for so long that if he rose up to challenge his brother’s rule, he would be seen as nothing but a usurper. No, there was a better way to take back his kingdom, but the road ahead had many turns and detours. And if there was one person that he believed in, it was Icarus, an elf who had been a part of Tellest for longer than the kingdom of Argos. If he told Kevin that his skills would be best utilized to the north, who was he to argue?
A choppy wave sent the hammock swaying, and Kevin grasped his makeshift bed, lamenting the comfortable one he had left behind. He threw his legs over the side, and caught his balance on the wobbling ground beneath him. Lantern light from topside shimmered down, and he followed it out of the hold.
Shades of navy and cobalt blue were upon the sea at that morning hour, an eerie light that he was not familiar with. The ocean and the sky appeared as one, and that glow cast over the ship as well.
“Couldn’t sleep, eh boy?”
Kevin narrowed his eyes as one of the crew stomped down the steps and out of the mist. Sure enough, it was the captain of the vessel, who wore a content grin.
“Not for lack of trying,” the prince-turned-ranger spoke. “Though I can’t blame that on the sea. My mind was caught elsewhere. That last wave merely convinced me to rise from the hammock down below.”
“There’s something about the sea that always does that,” the captain said. “It always leads the mind elsewhere. I’ve made my life upon these waters, but I always look to home. Of course, when I get there, it’s only a matter of time before I yearn to be back aboard the ship, cruising upon the waves. You’re never more alive than when you’re out here with this endless blue enchantress, as fickle a witch as she be.”
“It’s not the water that I worry about, but the storms.”
“Still a wee bit apprehensive after that squall we had a few days back? I thought I told ye I’d have us through it without any problems. We’ve seen typhoons that would make yer head spin. What we went through was a god’s sneeze and nothing more. But the way you were holding that railing. I never did see knuckles that white.”
“Just combating the motion sickness, I assure you.”
“And I thought that getting you through it in one piece would earn me yer name, lad. But it seems as though I’m still stuck calling you boy.”
“I was told by my associates to make sure that my identity was my own, and that the amount of coin I was handing over to you assured that my anonymity would be secured.”
“Aye, and it is… boy. But that only works for so long, ye see. I’m a man of the sea. I don’t rightly care what you’re called. But on land, ye’ll be needing to call yerself something. And with land so close, it might be good to think of something quick.” The captain pointed with his chin past the bow of the ship.
Sure enough, past that blue horizon, a sliver of green peeked out. Kevin narrowed his eyes, but he could barely see past the morning mist.
“Come on, lad,” the captain said, already on his way toward the bow. “Ye’ll get a much better look up this way.”
The ranger followed in the man’s footsteps, leaping up the steps in anticipation. Whether it was because the ship was cutting through the water at an impressive pace or if the bow just felt that much closer, he could see the huge landmass beginning to take shape. Emerald hills seemed to cover the ends of the world, and he wondered if there was no more ocean beyond that continent.
“Welcome to Draconis, boy.”
Chapter One: A Visitor to the Forest
Sparkling white parapets were dwarfed by the emerald sentinels that stood within the forest. Marble bridges connected those ivory towers, wrapping and winding this way and that like a beautiful spider web. The traveler kept his hood up, making those others upon the bridge aware that he did not have time to dawdle. His eyes were drawn to the towering bastion ahead of him, the unofficial capital of Cefen’adiel.
High above the ground, the council of elves was safe from many of the dangers of the forest, but that did not mean that they would be unprepared for surprises. A score of elven sentries guarded that ivory citadel, and still a score more patrolled the rest of the city. None moved to stop the return of the scout, one of the favored sons of the forest.
He continued along the meandering path until he was before the crystal doors of the place. They opened before him, the marble interior a swirl of white and grey. Topiaries thrived in the sunlight that cast down through the transparent ceiling, and beds of flowers lined paths and staircases. The scout kept his eyes locked upon the door at the far end of the fortress, a gateway that led to another bough that looked out over the forest.
“Good morning, Chernoe,” a singsong voice carried to him.
The scout looked about for a moment before spotting the owner of that voice. The elven maiden tiptoed down a winding flight of steps, bearing a wide smile that seemed to make the ivory and the marble pale in comparison. An azure robe draped down over her body, each ruffle bouncing with every step.
“Good day to you, Enidine,” the scout said. “I did not expect to see you here.”
“You’ve been busy with the forest,” she cooed. “We haven’t seen much of each other lately at all, it seems.”
“Well, we each have our duties.”
“And you take yours very seriously.”
“Until the odd happenings in Cefen’adiel can be explained, yes.”
“Then you’re on your way to have an audience with Tarenda?”
“I am. Is she upon her dais?”
“Last I heard, she was. What news do you bring?” Chernoe arched an eyebrow at that question, causing Enidine’s smile to diminish, if only slightly. “Of course, I should have known. You may retain your secrecy, Chernoe. After all, the queen shall inform me soon enough.”
“Then you shall here it from her lips. Until then, my findings remain in the shadows.”
“Go, before your shadows begin to bore me,” the maiden teased.
The scout bowed his head slightly before returning to his course. As he passed Enidine, she continued out the way he ventured in. Moments later, Chernoe stood before the gateway, gazing up the large synoak branch that led to the crystal dais. Another elf was with the queen—one that Chernoe had not seen in some time. He knew that his findings were likely just as important, however, and he strode forward.
As the second scout reached the crystal platform, Tarenda turned her attention to him. “Child, I hope you bring better news than Keldeyas has.”
“It’s true then?” Chernoe asked. “The western side of Cefen’adiel is in peril?”
“I have not come from the west,” the other scout said. “I was pulled away from here before that task could take root, unfortunately. It seems that our forest is not the only place in Daltain that suffers from odd happenings. Forsynthia and the Knights of Gardone were recently the target of some peculiar clandestine attacks, and I was sent to investigate—also in secret.”
“Why does this affect us?” Chernoe asked.
“My child, when you’ve lived as long as I have, you see that many events intertwine,” Tarenda spoke. “I fear that this may have something to do with the tears that Cefen’adiel cries.”
“My lady, if I may,” Keldeyas said.
The queen nodded to her scout, dismissing him. As he passed, he clapped the younger elf on his shoulder.
“As I said, I hope that you bear greater news than what Keldeyas brought me,” Tarenda said. “But I can see in your eyes that the word you bring is not one to be celebrated. And I should know better than to expect good tidings in these dark days.”
“It’s certainly not as bad as an attack,” Chernoe insisted. “Still, I thought it was worthy of discussion. A new arrival has happened upon our home. My other scouts have sent word to me that this lone man, a hunter by the looks of him, was delivered by ship in the early light of morning.
“One man is not a threat, I would say,” he continued. “But given recent circumstances, I would say it’s worthy of investigation, if nothing else. I’d like to be given permission to bring him in, if I may.”
“It is too soon to assume him an enemy,” Tarenda assured. “But you may keep an eye on him, of course. Judge him from afar, and if his actions prove him to be a dark force among this place, bring him to me.”
“Of course, my lady,” Chernoe said, bowing to his queen. With confidence in his gait, he returned back to the fortress.
* * * * *
A forest wasn’t something to be in awe of—Ippius had its fair share of them, of course—but there was something incredible about the sight of Cefen’adiel. Icarus had spoke to Kevin about the immensity of the place, but the elf was always known to tell tall tales about the world that was, when floating islands filled the sky, and only three races walked the planet. Kevin was never sure whether Icarus was telling truths or spinning yarns just to get the better of him.
In sight of those massive trees, though, Kevin questioned all the tales that Icarus had told. Perhaps there was a time when elves had taken to flight on islands; perhaps there was a time before lagano and kaja and trolls and gnomes lived on the surface; and perhaps there was a time before the gods.
Kevin would not be intimidated by the sheer size of the forest, nor its majesty. He was given a specific set of instructions, and he intended to carry them out. With no road before him, however, he was forced to make his way through Cefen’adiel by carving his own path. With his bow hooked over his shoulder, he strode forward.
Despite the size of those trees, they were far and few between. Kevin nodded in appreciation of the fact, aware of how dark the forest would have been if they were left to block out the sun. Between them, though, were trees of a size that he was more familiar, more comfortable with. Those ones persevered despite the chill of autumn that was coming to Draconis in the north.
Cefen’adiel seemed as lively as any place that Kevin had ever seen. He heard fauna rustling through the few fallen leaves, and heard the howls of wolves in the distances. With his hand resting upon his bow, the ranger traipsed forward, never meandering too far from his path. He knew he had to travel north, though he unsure how far or to where in particular. Icarus hadn’t steered him wrong yet, though, and he had no cause to question the elf’s wisdom. Confident, he continued forward.
For one more step.
Kevin felt the tightening of a rope around his ankle, and he looked down to see it cinched tightly. He heard the snap of the trap, and that unshakable certainty was suddenly drained from him.
“Not again,” he whispered.
In a split second, he was ripped off his feet and flung into the air. Dangling upside down, he was disoriented, but not so much that he didn’t feel his bow slip from his shoulder. He reached out in an attempt to catch it, but it slipped from his fingers, falling to the ground below.
While he teetered in the air, he heard the approach of someone below. Though he was caught within the snare, he drew on the training that Icarus had instilled on him. The footsteps were deliberate, carving a path through the fallen leaves so that he could hear the approach. In only a few moments, Kevin could see the inverted image of the elven scout, who wore a mischievous grin.
“You look like you’re in trouble up there, stranger,” Chernoe spoke. “Might you need some help?”
Furling his brow, the ranger crossed his arms over his chest. “Nonsense. This was a brilliant tactical maneuver. I can see the whole forest from up here.”
“Very well then. I shall leave you to it.”
As Chernoe started away, the ranger blew out a sigh. “I was sent here by Icarus to speak with Queen Tarenda.”
“This Icarus chooses his champions wisely, I see. And who might you be?”
Kevin hesitated, remembering the words that the ship’s captain said. He needed a name, but he could not give the one he was known for. Instead, he reached back to a name he had used recently and thought himself rid of.
“I am called Steel Tip.”