Home ➨ In the Works | The Forest of Nede: First Two Chapters
© 2012 Richard Platt
I have a journey, Sir, shortly to go;
My Master calls me, I must not say no.
- Shakespeare, King Lear, V, iii
… if you think I am telling you a very old tale, I shall not be sorry.
My business is not with new things.
- F. D. Maurice, The Friendship of Books, 1893
A Note to the Reader
His name was Paul Anthony Roberts. He was the dearest friend I have ever known. On our last night together, as the fire in his modest cottage burned low and I rose to go, he removed from around his neck and gave me the key which he had worn for all the years I had known him, and which I have worn every day since. “This will open the trunk you will find in the attic”, he said. “The contents are yours to do with as you see fit.” I had known him too long to question his mercurial ways. He led me to the cottage door, bidding me walk safely down the pitch-dark wooded path I had walked innumerable nights before. I hesitated as I stepped into the night and turned back to him, somehow knowing I was not to see him again. He smiled, his eyes silently confirming my fears, and simply said, “Do not be sad, Richard. As a very wise man once told me, we will, perhaps, meet again, but if we do not, something better will greet you in my place, and you will laugh at the smallness of your desires.”
The next day he was dead.
The trunk in the attic, thick with dust, opened with a creak from long disuse. Therein I found the manuscripts, the first of which I now present to the public.
Atop the manuscripts was a small envelope, with the following note:
These are things which happened to me when I was a much younger man. I have spent my latter years in happy remembrance, and have chosen to leave you these accounts of my journeys. Dispose of them as you see fit.
By the time you read this I will have made my final return to Nede. Do not be sad in this. It is a time for rejoicing. You shall join me there, someday. Perhaps I'll even be permitted to greet you. Just don't be in too much of a hurry. There's work yet for you on this side.
I suggest, should you decide to make these stories public, that you present them to the world as works of fiction. If you present them in their true light, no one will believe you. It matters little through what instrument we view reality. What matters is the reality itself.
Fare you well, my friend,
Paul Anthony Roberts
The note was dated ten years before we had met.
It began with light: golden, penetrating, relentless, buoyant, life-giving light. In our world it would have been searing, blinding, consuming, deadly, but I knew as I opened my eyes, with a shudder of fear, and yet of yearning, almost of release, that this was not our world.
I sat beneath a tree, looking out through a leafy glade of dappled sunlight that opened onto a clearing. The leaves above me moved in a soft breeze which seemed to be the breath of life itself, a dance and swirl of green so vivid that it demanded a new word to describe “green”; it was the very form or essence of green, the First Green, the green from which all green had been made. The sunlight moved among the leaves, through the leaves, touching my face with a radiance that penetrated my skin, warming as it passed through me and in turn passed into the earth, a renewing and healing light, a light which would pass to the centre of the world.
I took a deep breath, the air as fresh and as sweet as a renewal of life and breath would be to a dying man, and closed my eyes again, intending never to stir from this place, willing the moment to remain. But even in the act of willing I knew that willing would not avail; that the attempt to retain that moment would be as futile as the attempt to hold forever the breath I had just taken. The breeze rose against my back, gently moving me like the current of a stream under a floating leaf, without violence or effort, but inexorably forward, onward, a passenger to a destiny which the stream alone determined.
Through the glade I saw two figures, far off in a clearing. Sensations came to me so heavily laden with content and meaning that it was difficult, in those first days, to distinguish thought from sight, and sight from sound. All senses converged into simply knowing. When I say I saw the two figures, what I mean is that I did not see them in what I would now call an earthly sense. The two figures blended so into their surroundings that I should not have seen them at all, yet I knew somehow that there ought to be two figures there, and in this knowing I saw them, and though I should have been hidden from their view among the trees, I knew they had seen me, or rather, I knew that they had sensed me. I felt their sense of knowing reaching into me, and realized that my ability to see them came from this connectedness, that in reaching into me I was enabled to see them, as a child grasps its mother's hand and suddenly walks.
The connection, when I understood it as such, created a feeling of vulnerability. I was not simply being seen but being seen through, known, and with a clarity compared to which my own self-awareness was murky, like looking into a dirty mirror; a clarity without delusion or wishful thinking, vanity or aspiration. And though the reaching in was not invasive, but strangely natural, even benevolent, the sense of power that accompanied it, of being revealed so nakedly, was unsettling.
I then heard, again not in an earthly way, but with a knowing that was half sound and half thought, like a recent conversation, or an old, familiar melody vividly recalled, the words, “The Worldling has come.” To remain where I was, a mere observer, was impossible. The reaching in was both a welcoming and a beckoning. I stepped into the clearing. The full force of the sun now struck my face, and with its life-giving warmth I felt a swelling in my chest like freedom, the freedom of a man released from prison, who sees everything that had been hidden by the walls of his cell as a revelation. I stood for several moments, immobilized, but again felt the reaching in, and continued across the clearing.
The earth was soft and cool, yielding under my feet like thick moss, and I found to my delight that my feet were bare. I walked on, increasing my speed, and with each step felt stronger, lighter, wanting to walk endlessly and feeling as if I could, as if I had just enough weight to remain grounded, but not enough ever to bring on fatigue. I was before the two figures much sooner than I expected to be, and though I had reached them, I regretted having to stop.
They were almost human, but their physical, masculine beauty was of an ethereal quality that reached beyond the human, almost beyond the mortal, the image and likeness of what humanity had been intended to be but had failed to become. Each was dressed in a long, flowing robe, the material soft but thick, its many folds making it difficult to discern where sleeves ended and pockets began. Its colour, almost luminescent, suggested beige or cream, yet it also took on some of the colour of its surroundings, now more green, now a soft brown, changing with the movement of the wearer. Each wore a thick, heavy belt of similar colour, more like leather than it was like anything else, and though their robes otherwise hung loosely, they could not conceal the immensely muscular quality of the two.
The older one, his long, flowing hair and heavy beard gray with age, his face lined, bronze, was even more physically imposing than his younger, beardless companion, the strength of his broad back stretching out the folds of fabric in the material between his shoulders. It would have seemed a deformity on another, but he was so obviously healthy and well that it gave the impression of pure, vital, animal strength, a strength beyond what a human form of the same size could hold. His large, pale gray eyes were the colour of steel. It was the face of a ruler, a king, someone who was accustomed to being obeyed, not out of fear but out of respect; the face of a man beyond corruption or base dealing, and who would give it no quarter in others.
The other appeared young, but only by comparison. While the first seemed immensely old, the second looked not so much younger as timeless, as if he had never been and would never be other than what he was at this moment. His hair was also long, dark and glossy, his eyes the colour of the living green of the forest. While the older had the authority and dignity that comes to one who has looked evil in the face and conquered it, who knows the power of temptation and the corrupting quality of power, the central quality that emanated from the second, while no less dignified or kingly, was more like innocence. As I examined him further I realized that there was something rather more kingly about him. There was strength and dignity, gentleness and serenity, but the baser qualities that his older companion had had to push through or overcome were simply absent. One sensed his knowledge was as broad and deep as the other's, perhaps even greater, but that he had had nothing to overcome because all that was impure or base was simply without allure, as illness is without allure to a man in perfect health.
Each Woodlander – for so I came to know them – was armed with a quiver of arrows, and a bow to suit Odysseus. The older man also carried a thick, heavy wooden staff, as tall as himself, which seemed weightless in his hand, and which he held as a ruler holds a sceptre. His face assumed a gentle, fatherly smile as he greeted me.
“Welcome to Nede, my friend.”
His voice was disarmingly soft, gentler than I expected, yet more resonant with music than any voice I had ever heard. Simply, I sensed, for my comfort, he had chosen to speak in a quieter tone than that to which he was accustomed.
“I am Anthor, son of Andor, Guardian of the Forest. This is Damar,” he gestured to his companion, “my ward.” Anthor spoke to me as if my presence in the forest was as natural as the earth beneath my feet. I did not introduce myself, as it was obvious that he knew me disconcertingly well, and with his welcome I sensed that I was fulfilling a command, or a preordained obligation; that I had been expected. Feeling like an ill-mannered schoolboy who had not been instructed which fork to use for each course at a formal dinner and who did not know where to place his hands, I simply bowed. Anthor and Damar returned my bow. Their movement made mine look like a grotesque caricature of nobility. Anthor resumed.
“The garment of Nede becomes you,” he said, and I saw that, indeed, I now wore the traditional garb of the Forest of Nede, though how or when the transformation had been effected I could not say. It fitted well, soft against my skin, and I moved freely in it, though what rested with dignity on Anthor and Damar hung on me, despite the easy comfort, like a man's suit on a small boy, or the uniform of a soldier promoted to a rank beyond his merit.
“You have come a long way,” Anthor continued, “and you have a long way yet to travel. Your journey has barely begun. You are the harbinger of change in Nede, the stranger whose arrival was foretold. Come with us. We will eat, drink, and rest, and then speak of what is to come.” He turned to lead us away, then stopped abruptly.
Anthor was completely still, his senses alert, his mind, and now Damar's, passing through everything around us, reaching deep into the forest.
“Horses,” said Damar. “They are not Nedean horses. They pound the earth too mercilessly. They carry riders.”
“And so it begins,” said Anthor. “It is an ill omen. I had thought to have more time. Cast your mind into the riders. What do you feel?”
“I feel something … unwell. It's unclear.”
“What you feel is fear. They're afraid.”
“But there is nothing to fear here. There is no fear in Nede.”
“Yet fear has come.” Anthor's face clouded. “They have brought it with them. They fear the forest. It is alien to them. They do not understand it, but they are driven on. There is a greater fear behind them.”
“I can't see it,” said Damar. “It is not of the Forest.” Anthor nodded.
“You cannot see it because it comes from far across the barren plains, from the city, from Mundia. How many horsemen do you hear?”
“Yes. That is what I hear. Twenty-five. Twelve groups of two, with a single rider at their head. How far?”
“Two and a half miles north, just south of the White River.”
“Good. Their direction?”
“And their route?”
“They're travelling on the path which will take them through the Valley of the Great Lake.”
“A full gallop.”
“They cannot maintain it for long. The horses will be tired.”
“Well done. It also means their mission is urgent, yet there has been no herald to announce them, nor have they sought permission to cross the frontier of the forest. Their business is not with us. We must move swiftly. Come, Damar!” Anthor turned to me.
“You will travel with us. Take my hand.” And as I did so I saw the forest through Anthor's eyes, every colour more vibrant, alive not with mere light and shadow but with the essence of life itself, every tree, every bush, every blade of grass and patch of moss alive as if their roots drew life directly from the very centre of creation. We moved through the forest effortlessly, silently, I moving, unaccountably, as easily and with the speed of the Woodlanders, a path opening before us as we ran, the entire forest cooperating with our movements, obeying the orders of the king whose hand I held.
We emerged from the woods onto a larger, wider path than any I had yet seen. Anthor stopped to listen, looking down the path and into the forest as if life itself depended on the act of seeing.
Anthor turned to me. “Conceal yourself. No matter what you see or hear, do not emerge until I say you may do so.”
A Woodlander wanting to conceal himself is almost impossible for an outsider to see. Though I was never to achieve their level of skill in this, my Nedean robe served me well, and I crept into the bushes beside the road. Soon, even I could hear the drumming of the horse's hooves, far off, growing louder, nearer, sending a tremble, almost a shudder, through the soft earth of the forest.
Anthor placed himself in the centre of the road, his staff resting on the ground. Damar stood silently at his side. Neither Woodlander moved as the first horseman came into view.
The rider’s face was concealed under the hood of dark riding cloak, soiled and worn from hard use, clearly not of Nedean cut or fabric.
“This is not one of the riders I sensed,” said Anthor.
“Nor I,” said Damar.
“It is a woman. She is not like the others. The forest welcomes her. There is fear, but she fears only what pursues her. It runs off her like rainwater in a storm.” The rider stopped before Anthor. She leaned forward in the saddle, obviously exhausted. Anthor spoke not to the rider but to the horse.
“You will come to a small stream beyond the next ridge, where the path breaks off to the left. Wait there. Drink, and rest until we come for you. Make haste.” The horse bolted forward before the rider could utter a word.
The main body of horsemen appeared just as Anthor spoke. Though the Woodlanders were clearly visible in the road, the horsemen did not slacken their pace. The lead rider shouted, “In the name of his Imperial Majesty, make way or be run down!”
With the horsemen just yards away, Anthor made a slight, almost imperceptible motion towards the horsemen with his staff. Instantly, every horse in the column skidded to a halt, each colliding with the horse before or behind it. Several riders were thrown to the ground. Attempting to maintain both his dignity and his composure, the lead rider, still astride his mount, shouted, “Stand aside, in the name of His Imperial Majesty, Lord Sator!” There was a slight tremor in the man’s voice.
“I do not answer to Sator,” said Anthor, still motionless. “My allegiance, my staff, and my soul belong to Thondor.”
A nervous laughter passed among the horsemen as they began to remount, their leader still attempting to compose himself, not wanting to display the uneasiness that was welling up inside him.
“Thondor! There is no Thondor. Thondor is a myth, you fool. A fantasy.”
“Thondor is a fantasy that has endured for millennia. The Forest of Nede was a fantasy to each of you only days ago, yet you are here. The inhabitants of Nede, known in your mythology as Woodlanders, were also a fantasy. Two such fantasies stand before you now.”
The horsemen’s laughter died into an uneasy stillness.
Anthor continued, still motionless. “It is many centuries since this place has seen armed horsemen. You have entered Nede unbidden. You will explain your presence.”
“Explain our presence!” said the leader, resorting to the sarcasm which is the shield of little men. “And to whom, my good lord, shall we explain our presence?”
“I am Anthor, son of Andor, Guardian of Nede.”
“Anthor son of Andor! Anthor is dead! He died a traitor.”
“He died protecting the rightful heir to the throne of Mundia. Yet he stands before you.”
The leader spoke again, this time to a younger rider, just behind him and to his right, a junior officer. “Draw back your bow, Lieutenant Praetor.” He gestured to a small songbird in the tree that overhung the road, just above Anthor’s head. The arrow found its mark, piercing the songbird’s breast and bringing it to the ground. Damar, who had thus far been silent and still, flinched, the expression of physical pain evident on his face. The lead horseman smiled.
“The boy seems a little squeamish for his duties.”
“It is said in the old legends,” he continued with a sneer, “that Woodlanders are particularly gifted in the art of war. Perhaps you’ll give us a demonstration. He glanced again to his Lieutenant, gesturing towards Anthor as he had gestured towards the songbird. The bow snapped, launching the arrow. Anthor moved only his arm, placing his staff before his chest as the arrow flew. It struck the wood, then fell harmlessly to the ground. Anthor spoke to the archer.
“With so many duties to perform, your shoulder must cause you some pain now and again, Lieutenant.” There was a yelp of pain as the lieutenant dropped the fresh arrow already in his hand, his arm curling against his chest in an involuntary spasm. “I suggest you rest awhile,” continued Anthor. “If you attempt to use that arm in the forest once more you will never use it again.”
The lead horseman, sensing the growing uneasiness in the soldiers at his back, shouted, “Step aside or you will taste my horse’s hooves!”
Anthor remained motionless. “Come forward and you will taste death,” he said.
I remained hidden, as motionless as Anthor. I knew that Anthor would be as good as his word; that he would make his promise good or die in the attempt. The contrast between the two could not have been more striking: the Woodlander, the picture of nobility and kingship, the soldier, despite his bluster and his magnificent mount, small, pathetic by comparison, like a spoiled child, utterly outmatched. The rider urged his horse forward with curses, digging his spurs into the tender, bloody flanks of the poor animal. The horse, though obviously in great pain, would not move.
“You must come alone,” said Anthor. Then, speaking to the horse, said, “Your horse will carry you no further.” At these words the horse reared up on its hind legs, throwing his astonished rider to the ground. Before he could recover his wits, for the fall had momentarily dazed him, Anthor spoke again. “Good horse, I am Anthor, son of Andor, Guardian of Nede. Welcome. You are free. Carry neither man nor Woodlander again, unless you so choose.” The horse stared at Anthor for a moment, almost smiling, then, bolting from the road and over a patch of bracken and nettles as if he had rested all day, he raced through the small clearing at the side of the road and was gone. The horseman rose from the ground, drawing his sword. Anthor spoke now to him.
“You will kill to advance into Nede, but will you die? I have pledged my sacred honour to Thondor to defend this place, and I shall. You will not pass.”
The soldier hesitated. Anthor’s words had reached him, but only for a moment.
“Will you pay for your folly with your life?” asked Anthor. “I see in your eyes that you will not. You are committed to nothing greater than yourself. Your courage is born of the fear of him who has sent you, and ignorance of what is before you. Go, friend. It is not only temporal death that waits you, but eternal death. If you turn back, you may yet save your soul. Go now while you can.”
This seemed to enrage the horseman still more. He rushed forward with his sword clenched in both hands, raising it over his head with a yell as he charged.
It was over in an instant. The horseman saw only a whirl of motion before the searing pain of Anthor’s staff striking his arms caused him to release his sword. With a second swing of his staff Anthor swept the horseman’s feet from under him. As his back hit the ground he opened his eyes, just as the tip of his own sword, now firmly grasped in Anthor’s hand, pressed against the underside of his chin. He grimaced in pain, still defiant.
“Kill me, then, if that’s what you want.”
“It is not what I want,” said Anthor calmly. “It would bring me no pleasure whatever. I have sworn an Oath of Allegiance as a Knight of Aseitas. We do not kill wantonly, or for pleasure, as you do, but only in extremity, when we must. I am perfectly willing to kill you. Your life is in your own hands. Tell your men to throw down their weapons. Rise and go, if you will, and do not return.”
The horseman, still on his back, chose life.
“Throw down your weapons!”
As the sound of metal clattering to the ground further disrupted the quiet of the forest, Anthor gave his final instructions. “You will return to your master in Mundia at once. You will tell him that his time is short; that his kingdom will fall; that the rightful heir to the throne of Mundia has come, that the Forest of Nede is the domain of Thondor alone. Now go.”
The horseman rose with difficulty and spoke to the nearest soldier. “Give me your horse!”
The soldier remained motionless. The rider looked to Anthor for direction.
“You take your orders from me you fool, not from him!”
“You will walk from the Forest,” said Anthor. “Your horses will not carry you again.”
As he spoke, every horse in the column reared up, throwing its rider, and disappeared into the forest. As the horsemen regained their feet, they heard a soft rumbling coming from both sides of the road. One by one, wolves stepped into the path. They were enormous, each almost the size of a man, their coats not dissimilar to Nedean robes in colour, their eyes a golden yellow, revealing an unnerving intelligence. There was no malevolence in their faces, but they carried with them that sense of command that they had derived from their master. There would be no deviation from their instructions.
“I have provided you with an escort,” said Anthor. “Stay to the path on which you entered. Do not venture into the woods. I advise haste.” With Anthor’s final words each man turned and walked swiftly back the way he had come. The wolves trotted effortlessly at their sides and behind them, silent, watchful.
I emerged from the bush slowly, my legs stiff from crouching, feeling I should say something. I had not yet learned to embrace the silence of Nede. I mumbled something about the ease with which Anthor had turned the horsemen away, then realized that I, an interloper, and almost a beggar, had just complimented a king.
“The Mundian is a coward, Paul. (Here he used my name for the first time, though I had not introduced myself.) They are all cowards when confronted and opposed, because they draw their strength only from themselves, from within, not from the source of all strength. The Mundian knows only the strength that is buttressed by fear. Fear is his ally, as it is his Master’s ally. The power of all evil is rooted in fear. Today he has been confronted by an opponent who fears neither him nor his master; he has seen another, greater strength, a strength fed by the source of all power and life. He is accustomed to threatening the weak. He thought that, as we are only two, he, with his horsemen, was the stronger. He has encountered today something he has never seen, and it has caused him to doubt himself for the first time. He will continue to grow uneasy, and in his doubt, there may yet be hope.” He continued looking down the road after the soldiers had gone, and I knew he still watched them.
“It is an ill omen that they could find Nede at all. It has ever been so that only those who believe may come to Nede. They do not believe, yet they come. There is only one power that could direct them to Nede, yet will them not to believe.”
As he spoke, Damar appeared at our side, gently cradling the dead songbird in his palms, the look on his face expressing the all-encompassing sadness of a child. He closed his hands around the lifeless creature. A small flash of light came from between his fingers, and as he opened his hands the bird emerged, more beautiful than it had been before, and fluttered into the trees.
Anthor watched and smiled, nodding to himself, but said nothing. Then, after a brief pause, said, “Come, Damar, we must attend to our other guest.”