Lear, a halfling of M’Rod, rushed to the alcove at the heart of Fiddlehead Forest. Kithri, the fae who cared for the woodland creatures, poured mushroom stew into wooden bowls under the tall oak tree. The animals waited in anticipation as she passed out meals to each of them.
“I’m here! I’m here!” Lear cried. “Save some stew for me!”
“Oh, Lear. You’re always late as if you spent the day traveling around all of M’Rod.”
“Don’t be silly. I would be much later if I traveled that far.”
“I might need to,” announced Ilia, who nestled on a stone in a grassy patch. She was as normal a halfling as any, but she occasionally awoke from dreams that gave her clues as to what the future would hold. “The prophecies are becoming more and more ominous; I’m beginning to fear that even the sanctuary of Fiddlehead Forest will no longer be safe.”
“What did your most recent dream say?” Lear asked.
“From the ashes a fire shall be woken, and the phoenix will rise again.”
Lear considered the eerie wording. “How ominous.”
“I’ve considered traveling to Temir to visit the soothsayer Poetry Glorificus.”
Kithri slammed a bowl on the log. “No, we absolute do not speak of her in Fiddlehead. Now eat your soup and be on your way.”
Lear wondered what upset Kithri so much by the mere mention of a soothsayer. He shrugged it off, slurping the remnants of his dinner. “Thank you for the soup, Kithri.”
“You’re welcome, Lear. Now go home and get some sleep.”
He hobbled off on his way to the tree where he dwelt. It was a peaceful walk; he lingered and enjoyed the foliage of the midsummer evening.
“Wait! Lear! Wait for me!”
“Ilia? Don’t you live in the opposite direction?”
“I need to speak with you. But not here.”
“Would you like to come in for a cup of tea?”
“That would be lovely.”
He led her into his house in the tree.
“I’ll never understand how a halfling could be content living above ground. I’ll take my burrow to this tree-house any day.”
“Trees are fine. Honey or milk in your tea?”
He poured her a cup. “What did you wish to discuss?”
“Come to Temir with me.”
“Temir? That’s miles away! A dangerous journey!”
“I must speak to Poetry. I hear these prophecies and I don’t understand what they mean.”
“Do you not trust Kithri?”
“Even Kithri can’t interpret the voices that speak to me.”
“Alright. But we mustn’t go into this lightly. Shall we leave tomorrow morning, after a good night’s rest?”
“No. We must leave now, before anyone suspects anything.”
“Certainly we must pack food first. Why, imagine a journey without Kithri’s baked bread!”
“There isn’t time,” Ilia insisted.
It was too late. Lear was already stuffing loaves of bread and pastries into his knapsack. “And apples. Can’t journey far without apples, can we?”
“Lear, we must go.” She dragged him down from the tree. “Follow me to the forest exit.”
They ran like foxes from hunters until they could see the tunnel, the only exit in all the forest. They paused for breath when they reached the exit.
He asked, “What if Kithri is-”
“Here to stop you.” Kithri emerged from the bracken, guarded the opening.
“I only want to understand this gift of prophecy I’ve been given,” declared Ilia.
“It’s not a gift, it’s a curse. There’s a reason I protect you from the outside world. It’s a cruel place. If you truly desire to leave, you must prove your strength, otherwise you shall not survive. Fight me and prove your worth.”
Lear unsheathed his pocket knife. “Kithri, I am no warrior. But I am determined to fight for my freedom and for Ilia’s destiny. I do not want to hurt you, for you have been kind to me. Now stand aside or I will fight.”
Kithri looked crestfallen. “I never imagined my own halfling children would leave me. Go, if you must. But know this: if you take one step outside of that tunnel, you may not return. I, nor any of your brothers or sisters, will welcome you back.”
Disregarding her warning, they emerged from the barrier that enclosed Fiddlehead Forest from the rest of M’Rod. In Fiddlehead, they knew nothing but friendly faces and the familiar dust path. Outside, they were alone with no path, surrounded by trees. They were not out of the woods yet.
And so they went: two naive halflings into a strange neck of the woods with a long journey ahead of them.
They walked in silence for a while until Ilia asked. “We shouldn’t go straight to Temir. That’s a long walk.”
“Do you have any other suggestions?”
“Well, we could stop in Sh’ren. Just for a night’s rest and some food.”
“Food grows on trees. We can sleep in trees. Trees are fine.”
“They’ll suffice for the time being, but at some point, but at some point I wouldn’t mind a hot meal and a real bed.”
“Alright, alright. We’ll stop when we reach Sh’ren.”
An unfamiliar voice sounded from the distance. “If you’re headed for Sh’ren, you’d best head in the other direction.”
“Who was that?” Lear shouted into the darkness.
“Don’t shout to it!” Ilia hushed him. “It could be dangerous.”
They heard fallen leaves crunch as someone approached them. He looked nothing like any creature of Fiddlehead Forest. His figure resembled that of a halfling, but he was tall and thin with a white beard. He was clothed in gray robes and a most peculiar hat.
“I believe he’s a man,” Ilia claimed. “Sir, who are you?”
He said, “I’m known by many names, but you can call me the Winter Knight.”
Lear gasped. “You are the most renowned of Warrior Poets.”
Ilia asked, “Why are you here?”
“I’m the one who knows every step of your journey. You must follow the path. If you do not stray, you shall find your way to Temir with no trouble. Sh’ren is on the way.”
“Will we see you again?”
“Not unless time calls for it.”
“You must tell us who you are.”
“I am the Artist. That’s all you need to know.” With a tip of his hat, he disappeared.”
Lear said, “Oh, I do hope we’ll see him again. The moment I saw him, I knew that we would be safe.”
“I don’t think we’ll see him again, Lear. We’re on our own now.”
“He just reminded me of someone.”
“I’m not sure.”
“How could he remind you of someone if you don’t know who he reminds you of?”
“It’s as if I heard a fairy tale about him when I was little, and I can’t remember the fairy tale but I know he was the source of a happy ending.”
“Let’s hope our ending is happy.”
“I’d prefer for no ending at all,” Lear uttered under his breath as they trekked deeper into the darkness.
The man in the peculiar hat was right. They reached Sh’ren before sundown.
“Shall we find the inn?” Ilia suggested.
“I’m much more hungry than I am tired.”
“There’s a pub on the left.”
They sat down to a meal of roast mutton and spiced chai. They scarfed down their delicious food and enjoyed every bite, yet both longed for Kithri’s homemade cooking.
Ilia glared at her food. “Do you think Kithri really meant it? That we won’t be welcome back in Fiddlehead?”
Lear swallowed a large bite. “I’m not sure, but after our encounter, I’m not even sure I want to return.”
“Wouldn’t you miss home?”
“Of course. But if we find new adventures in places like Temir, we’d be too busy to even think of home. Who knows, I could even become a Warrior Poet of Temir.”
“What exactly are the Warrior Poets? I’ve only heard of them in stories, and to be honest I didn’t pay much attention to them. I was more infatuated with tales of larger beasts, like dragons.”
“In the Old Age of M’Rod, battles were fought by the Clan Warriors, knights who fought with swords on the backs of griffins to defend their territory. They were vile, treating even those of no power with cruelty. That’s why the small creatures, like the fae folk and halflings, fled to Fiddlehead, because they couldn’t defend themselves against the Warriors in the outer territories. Legend says that their malevolence is why the Old Age perished, but others say that the destruction was inevitable and that all ages must come to an end at one time or another.”
“What does that have to do with Warrior Poets?”
“At the dawn of the New Age, a group of scholars dedicated their lives to solving problems with intellect and creativity rather than violence. They became known as Warrior Poets. That’s why the New Age is of moral superiority, and why many say that it is eternal. I don’t believe that anything, not even an army of griffins, can end this age.”
“There’s so much about the world I don’t know,” noted Ilia. “I suppose we’ll learn so much in Temir, we won’t even think of missing our forest!”
With that in mind, they settled down for a night’s rest with dreams of the future occupying their sleep.
To be continued