Episode 2 - The last Seleucarian

Date: 5 Lupar, 315 years after the fall of the Seleucarian Empire.

It was a beautiful, late-summer day in the Black Forest. Most creatures were going about the normal activities of life, some were engaged in the activities of ending life, but only one was busy with the business of death.

Athelas shovelled the dirt of the forest floor with his bare hands. Even through tear soaked eyes, he was surprised to find the earth soft and forgiving, as if it wished to welcome the body of the old hermit. "And why would it not?", he thought to himself. That old man made this forest his home, fought for it, bled for it, even saved it a few times. If the forest had any sense, it would cradle the hermit's body, and return it to dust in the most gentle, caring way possible.

He knew and understood the cycle of life, as no other ever did, or so Athelas thought. He never spoke, not a single word in all this time, not even a shout or curse when dealing with the bumps and bruises of a life out in the open. Now, in death, the hermit was only slightly more silent, than in life.

Tears sliding down his face reminded Athelas just how much he was going to miss the hermit. Deep in the private places of his hart, he knew he would carry the hurt of this loss for a long time. Continuing his work on the grave, he recounted his many memories with this departed friend.

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Date: 25 Scarlaten, 303 years after the fall of the Seleucarian Empire.

The body of a human boy lay where it fell more than a day ago, amidst dense trees. Small forest creatures have become accustomed to it, some have even stepped over it a few times. Insects have begun burrowing beneath it, relishing the warmth and anticipating the bounty it would provide, once dead. Even a boar passed by a few hours earlier, sniffing curiously at the body. Satisfied it did not hide any tasty truffles, the boar moved on. Several treekin ambled by, but as is the case with most treekin, they hardly took note of a human, especially a dying one. The deep cut on the boy's right arm was plainly visible, though a combination of blood-loss and caked on debris, meant the wound was no longer bleeding.

Late that afternoon, a man wearing mismatched rags for clothes, happened upon the scene. With steady, considered motion he removed some herbs from a leather pouch, before crushing the various leaves and rolling them between the palms of his hands. There was urgency in his action, as if this would not solve the problem but would buy enough time to do so. With no particular amount of gentleness he shoved the herbs into the boy's mouth, taking just enough time to make sure the mouth is closed and none of the precious herb would be lost.

Minutes passed in a blur of activity as the man got a fire started and set water to boil. While the water took it's time, he used a stick to inscribe intricate designs on the soft earth around the boy. Deathly silence descended on the immediate surroundings, while he rummaged in a bag and brought forth a selection of inks. Less than a minute later, the child sported the intricate design of a boar on his forehead. The boy's breathing became deeper and a look of relief flushed over the old man’s face. When the water boiled, he set about cleaning the wound on the child's right arm.

It was a deep cut, from a thin blade. No city guard's sword made this wound. Rather a dagger or dirk, something small, intended for killing without being seen to do so. A weapon meant for close, intimate contact with one's victim. Whoever this boy escaped from, wanted to witness the moment of his death. All these observations flitted through the old man's mind, he paid them no heed though, they were trained reactions from a previous life, a life he bade farewell centuries past.

He ripped off a portion of the boy's soiled shirt and dropped it into the pot of boiling water. After a minute or so, he reached into the pot with a stick and retrieved the steaming cloth. Ignoring the initial burn from the heat of the cloth, he used it to start cleaning the wound. The cloth made several trips between the boiling water and the wound, before it was clean and slowly started bleeding again. Once more, with urgent movements, the old man retrieved some inks from his pack. A frightening flurry of motion later, an image resembling a growth of moss appeared on the boy's arm just below the cut, which stopped bleeding the moment the mark was completed.

Athelas woke dramatically, taking the desperate breath of a drowning man before screaming a sound of more than pain at the afternoon sky. When there simply was no more air left to continue the sound, the boy slumped to the forest floor and descended into the tearful wale of an innocent child.

The hermit stood back in shock; he could explain the boy waking through his work and attention. Even the manner of his waking might be explained by his state and events leading to it. But nothing could explain those black eyes. There were creatures in Achaea that had black eyes, most notably the Horkval, their insect heritage meant few of them had coloured eyes. But this boy was obviously human and, although he was no priest, the man was rather certain demons don't cry, so the boy couldn't be one of those either.

Still pondering those eyes, the man was slowly pulled from his shock by the sight and sound of the crying boy. He would obviously live, but now that life was seemingly unbearable.

For the first time in centuries, the old man cursed his vow of silence. He wanted to tell the boy everything would be well, that the world was not as mean as he thought, and that somewhere there was someone waiting for him to go home. He knew better though, centuries of wandering showed him life can be sweet for the lucky few and tends to be rather bland for most. For those born under the wrong stars though, it could be harsh, bloody, painful and agonisingly long. He had no idea what kind of luck this boy had, but thinking there was still someone waiting for him to go home, would be foolishly optimistic. One simply does not run this far into a strange forest, when you have a safe haven somewhere else.

Instinctively he moved over to the child, made himself comfortable and gently placed his hand on the boy's head. No words, just a simple gesture to show he would not leave the boy to fend for himself. Slowly, the sobbing subsided to be replaced by the calm, even breathing of a sleeping child.

With the sun rapidly descending as day surrendered to night, the old man rose to stoke the fire again, this time with a mind towards supper.

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Athelas woke to the scent of warm stew, it took him a while to realize where he was and for a moment he could feel the emotions in his chest building up, but after three days without sustenance his stomach was not going to suffer dismissal again, especially not when food seemed to be so close at hand.

Heeding the demands of his belly, Athelas slowly picked himself up, brushing leaves and earth off his body. Ignorant of the hundreds of insects dismayed at the fact that he would live, he rose to his full height with his back against a tree. There was no outward reason to fear the old man stoking the fire, but he had no reason to trust him either. Not even his belly could make him ignore the recent brush with death.

The old man saw Athelas rise; he did not want to startle the boy, so he kept his movements calm and concise. Without looking at the child, he reached for his bowl and dished a man's portion of stew into it. Then he picked up his cup, dipped it into the stew and took a sip from it, before rising and placing the bowl on the opposite side of the fire. Any adult would understand he sipped from the stew to show that it was not poisoned, the placing of the bowl on the opposite side of the fire, would indicate freedom to leave after eating. But he did not know if the boy would have the presence of mind to grasp this, so he took the time to beckon to the boy, indicating the bowl was for him.

Being beyond hunger, Athelas did not have to be invited twice. He managed not to run to the bowl though, so at least his dignity remained intact. The content of the bowl however, did not. Without even looking for a spoon or other utensils to attack the stew with, he simply tipped the bowl towards his mouth and started drinking from it. When there was no liquid left, he attacked the solid bits of meat and vegetable with his bare hands. At the time, he did not realize that he has never before had such a nutritious meal; neither did he realize he has never seen so much cooked meat in one place, at one time. The freshness of the herbs and wild vegetables also escaped him; he knew beyond doubt though, that he has never eaten this well in his entire life. Peaking over the brim of the bowl, he saw the old man smiling, he must have known what Athelas was thinking because he simply gestured towards the pot and nodded, showing that its content was freely available. Athelas helped himself to a second and a third bowl, the old man also helped himself from the pot, dipping and emptying his cup several times. For a while, Athelas thought the pot must be magical, containing a never ending feast of stew. Only when the man took the empty bowl to spoon the last of the stew into it before handing it back, did Athelas realize the pot was as ordinary as any he has ever seen before. He did not forget his manners though and uttered a subdued "Thank you.” before accepting the bowl and cleaning it out once more.

"Atonishing!" thought the old man. He could hardly believe the child was knocking at death's door two hours ago. Other than the cut and bruises, he seemed in good health. Offering thanks for the food, was good indication of a parental figure in the recent past as well.

Now that the pot was empty, he poured a few cups of water into it and set it back on the fire. The water would boil and make cleaning much easier. He turned to check if the boy had finished with the last bit of stew, only to find the child slumped forward with the empty bowl clutched in his hands, lightly snoring.

If he did not know how close the boy was to never eating again, he would have found the scene quite comical. He did stifle a laugh though, electing to rather grin from ear to ear. With almost fatherly care, he picked the boy up and moved him over to some soft forest bedding, spreading his only blanket over the child before moving his attention to cleaning the pot, bowl and cup. Once the cleaning was done, he used the boiled water to douse the camp fire, and insured there was no possibility of the fire re-igniting, by scooping hands full of sand over the embers. Then he set himself against a tree, whispered a plea for protection to the forest and calmly allowed himself to drift off to sleep.

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Date: 5 Lupar, 315 years after the fall of the Seleucarian Empire.

Taking a moment from digging, Athelas whispered to the earth: "Yes Hermit, I remember that stew, and every stew after."

He was silent for a movement and then spoke like someone who needed to get something off his chest:

"I remember the day after that first stew. I tried talking to you, but you just kept smiling and nodding. Always smiling, always nodding. Those first few days were difficult. I wanted to help; I wanted to do things to prove that I'm worth having around. Yes, I know you would never have chased me away, but back then, I was young and afraid, and you were the closest thing to safety I had. For a time, I thought you were deaf, but then you'd respond when I called. So tell me Hermit, why did you never talk?" Athelas paused his rant, glancing up at the corpse, as if hoping for an answer. Tears welling up in his eyes, moments before he bellowed: "Yes! Why did you never talk!"

Several birds took flight at that shout, smaller animals ducked for cover and a general silence spread through the forest for a moment. Athelas swallowed hard, with wisdom beyond his 17 years, he realized he was angry at a man for leaving when that man had no choice in having left. Understanding did not mean it hurt any less though, so he mustered a whispered apology to the dead before speaking again:

"I supposed that's why you took me to see Tyrandiel, you really did want me to read and write."

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Date: 1 Valnuary, 303 years after the fall of the Seleucarian Empire.

Athelas was woken by the early morning sun brushing heat against his cheek. He stretched and looked around for the old man. A moment of panic later Athelas located him behind a bush, doing his morning constitution. This was the one thing Athelas found predictable about the old man. Every morning, around the same time, he'd be able to find the old man squatting down somewhere. He actually took the time to show Athelas, that digging a hole and covering what was left behind, was the expected thing to do. Athelas did not know why, it was a forest after all, but he did not wish to anger the old man so he followed suit.

Cleanliness was also a priority, they would make regular trips to a nearby river where they would bathe. The old man would gather the ashes from the fires they made to do the cooking, then they would use that to wash their bodies. He also showed Athelas how to fray a sapling branch, dip it in the ash and brush his teeth. This and many other small lessons were learned in that month. But there was a growing seriousness about the old man. Athelas had that feeling of insecurity, prevalent when one's parents were struggling with a decision, but did not want you to know about it.

Then one morning, Athelas woke to find the old man walking towards the camp. It was obvious that the man was tired, but he still smiled as he approached. As he got closer, he started gathering the meagre earthly possessions they had and gestured to Athelas that he should follow.

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His feet were pattering behind the hermit. He could keep up but only barely. Over the last month he has learned how to move as quietly as the old man, but he could not manage this pace without breaking twigs and slipping on the undergrowth. Being led like this was normally easy, but there seemed to be some urgency in today's trek. With this thought in his head, Athelas neglected to note the forest thinning out and a path opening up. If he had the presence of mind, he would have realized this was the exact path he ran into the forest, little over a month ago. Struggling to keep up, he stumbled into the old man before realizing they have stopped.

Looking up, he saw they were walking into a town and instinctively reached for the old man's hand. A reassuring ease passed over him as it was accepted with a firm squeeze, before they continued into the bustling streets. For the first time, Athelas realized how noisy a town really is. He felt quite a bit of panic at not being able to hear the birds sing or the tell-tale scurry of squirrels. Squeezing the hermit's hand, as hard as he could, he managed to keep his feelings in check though.

Ever so slowly, a building with pink granite foundations became more prominent in his vision. Before long, it was all he could see without straining his neck to look up. When he did, he could see white washed walls and stained glass windows, but for his five year old height, those foundations almost framed everything he could capture in a single gaze. They continued to pass colourful gardens of red and white, a fountain with stone benches and a particularly impressive oak tree, before entering a quiet study hall.

The silence struck Athelas, he was almost thankful for it before he realized it wasn't the natural silence of the forest, but his thoughts on it was interrupted by a Tsol'aa woman walking towards them. She had a tall, willowy figure, and wore long robes of crimson and cream damask. Athelas wanted to run, but realized his hand was now firmly griped by the old man, who turned and looked him in the eye before bowing to the woman as she arrived, she returned the bow before turning her attention to Athelas. "Is this the boy then?” she said, at which the old man responded with his familiar nod and smile.

She proceeded to kneel in front of Athelas, her animated green eyes locking with his. Athelas courageously stared back at her, noting her dark hair and fair complexion. "What is your name child?” he heard her say in a voice that was somehow authoritative and caring at the same time. "Athelas." he responded without thinking. Then she smiled that smile women the world over know will melt the heart of a boy, and get him to do almost anything. Athelas was defenceless when she asked: "Will you be a good student Athelas?” He didn't know what she meant by being a student, but he knew he would move the earth for those green eyes, and if being a student meant he'd have to carry her basket at the market or that he'd have to wash her floors and do dishes all day, he'd be fine with that too. So he responded with the confidence of an innocent: "Yes lady, I sure will!”

She smiled at him, giving him a curt little nod before rising towards the old man. "And the payment?” she asked.

With a thud the old man's backpack landed on the floor, he knelt and slowly produced a heavy, cloth wrapped tomb from it. There was a slight tremble to his hands as he unwrapped the book. It was obviously old, and as the corners became visible the woman's eyes grew bigger. When it was fully unwrapped, she took it from the old man as if handling a new born babe. She switched glances between the tomb and its presenter several times, her eyes showing the disbelief she felt. After an uncomfortable silence, she finally uttered: "The Lucretian Athenaeum thanks you for your donation." in a very formal tone. Then, in a softer more caring voice she said: "I'll make sure the boy gets an education.” Athelas noted the exchange between the adults; he also noted a weight lifting from the old man's shoulders and his own insecurity from earlier vanished.

Thus, began a new routine for Athelas. He'd make his way to the town of Thera in the mornings, present himself at the Lucretian Athenaeum and get lessons from Tyrandiel, the lovely Tsol'aa lady. In the afternoon, he'd make his way back into the Black forest, checking traps and gathering food as he went, to add to the stew pot for supper that night.

Tyrandiel on her part was wise enough to know that Athelas would suffer greatly at the hands of others his age. Those black eyes would not go without teasing, so she kept him in company adult enough not to care much about peculiar eyes. When asked about Athelas, she'd note that he was not a particularly bright student, but he applied himself and kept to his word of being a good one.

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Date: 5 Lupar, 315 years after the fall of the Seleucarian Empire.

He slid the cloth covered body over and gently laid it in its final resting place. Taking a deep breath, he swallowed down the frog in his throat before vaulting himself out of the grave. Once out, he got up and simply stood looking at the afternoon sky. After all this, he could not turn around to start covering the grave. He carefully examined the forest around him, unwilling to say that final goodbye to a friend and mentor; a person most were shocked to find was not his father. "You never told me your name Hermit,” he said accusingly "But if it's fine with you, I'll just call you Father from now on.", he continued as he turned to the grave. "Because that's what you are to me.", he finished.

With quivering hands Athelas knelt down and began to cover the body. It took him little more than an hour to close the cavity he created in the earth. He marked the spot in the forest, with nothing but his memory and heart. Knowing the hermit would want to pass as unnoticed in death, as he did in life. By the time he was done, the night was full.

He lit a fire, more for the company than warmth or cooking. After eating a cold supper, he uttered the plea for protection to the forest, as the old man taught him. Then closed his eyes and drifted to sleep while listening to the silence of the trees.

The next morning, he went for a bath and then made his way to Thera. He has not been for lessons in three days and he knew Tyrandiel would want to know why. He made it all the way to the entrance of the Lucretian Athenaeum, once there though, he found he did not have the hart to enter. Someone must have noticed him standing in the entrance, because Tyrandiel arrived a minute later.

She approached him like someone about to scold a child, but when she arrived her expression changed to one of curios confusion. "What happened?” she enquired with the voice of a mother. Athelas found himself looking at her feet when he responded: "He is dead, I buried him yesterday afternoon.”

As he uttered those words he could feel her grabbing him in a hug, holding him tight. "I'm so sorry,” she said through controlled tears "He was a good man.". Athelas stood almost limp: "You really don't know his name, do you?" he looked at her, hoping the answer would be different this time. She released the embrace to stand back and hold him at the shoulders; locking eyes with him she slowly shook her head from side to side. Then she took his hand and started walking down towards Summer Street, stopping only once they were in the shadow of the great Oak. She looked around making sure none but themselves were within earshot, before speaking again: "Athelas, I need you to carry something with me, a secret you may never tell another, do you understand?” Athelas did the only thing he could, and nodded his agreement. Satisfied with his trust, she continued: "The tomb he gave me was payment for your tuition. Others will not recognise it for what it is. But you should know it is old, very old. At one time, only a member of the Seleucarian Royal Guard would have had access to it. One day, it might become public that the tomb is here. Until then, know that the hermit died with this secret, as we should." She hugged him again and then said: "I hope you keep coming for lessons. I'd miss you if you didn't.” He responded with a sad smile and nodded his acceptance. Then turned around and started walking the path home. As he did so, he recalled a day when he was about ten. Like now, he was making his way back into the forest.

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Athelas was barely into the forest proper, when he heard the clash of metal on metal, a rhythmic sound that travelled to and fro. Curious at the source of such noise, he followed the sound until he arrived at a scene of death and desolation.

He approached the clearing where the sounds were coming from, and peered into the area from a safe hiding place. The plants seemed to have had life sucked from them; even from the safety of his hiding he noted the scotched earth. He knew there were people that entered the forest and took the life of the plants in some magical way. They were always followed by other people who looked sad and angry, but who returned life to the forest after having chased the first group away. This was different though, the people in the clearing were likely the first kind. Dressed in black, they were very obviously not part of the forest and its creatures. What's more though, was that two of them seemed to be sprawled on the ground, bleeding, while three others surrounded the old man. Athelas considered looking for something he could use as a weapon to help his friend, but his eyes were locked on the scene, the hermit seemed to be smiling from ear to ear, as if he relished this encounter.

Metal flashed towards the hermit's throat, but struck only air. A blade sung past his shoulder only to expose the wielder's armpit. Such an opening meant death and the hermit used it shamelessly. Quietly observing the registered pain and defeat in the Mhaldorian's eyes, as his long sword sliced into the bare armpit and through the neck, before being withdrawn as swiftly as it was inserted. With the death of the third member in their party, one of the two remaining soldiers turned to run. The old man swung a short sword after the coward with such ferocity; it impaled the fleeing man through his back and into a young tree, keeping him there to be cut in half by his own weight. The remaining soldier was obviously more experienced and looked at the back of his dying comrade in disgust, before once more swinging at the old man. The song of sword on sword reverberated once more, each man stepping in a dance that formed deadly beauty.

Athelas watched the events silently, in complete awe that a man so old could move with such speed and grace. There were four dead and dying black garbed men around the old man, yet he looked as fresh as if he just stepped from a bath. What's more, was that he seemed to be enjoying himself, toying with his opponent, daring him to try land a blow. It was almost painful to watch as the old man did nothing other than block his opponent's thrusts. The smile on his face was sickeningly comical, as if he knew exactly how this would end, but wanted the game to continue as long as possible, like a cat toying with a mouse before killing it in boredom.

The man in black was breathing heavily, becoming more desperate and obviously tired out. Taking his sword in both hands, he raised it above his head and charged at the old man, screaming his defiance. Athelas felt his blood go cold as he watched the old man get down on one knee and swing his sword one handed, in a horizontal arch, that separated his opponent's torso from his lower body. Gore and intestine followed the sword, exploding out of the body to land on the earth with a sloppy splotching sound. But that wasn't why the boy's blood was turned to ice, as shocking as the exploded entrails were, it was nothing compared to the calm, almost serene look on the old man's face, a look that said: "Did you really expect it to end differently?"

In shocked silence Athelas remained hidden, watching the old man walk to each of the dead in turn, checking their pockets and taking whatever he found useful. After the collection, the hermit proceeded to the edge of the lifeless patch of earth, gathered wood and starting a fire. Once the fire was big enough, he added wet leaves and sapling branches to it, causing black smoke to bellow skywards. This at least, Athelas understood; the sad, angry people would come to the site of the smoke and return life to the land, but there was one more puzzling action on the part of the old man, who walked over to the impaled soldier to pull the short sword from both the man and the tree. With a frown on his forehead, Athelas watched as the hermit cleaned both the long and short sword, before carefully rolling them in oiled skins. With a last glance around, the hermit took his parcel and vanished into the forest.

Athelas deliberately stayed behind. He knew the old man was careful to make sure no fire he made would spread, but he felt the hermit was a little too occupied when he made this one. So he hid, waiting for the people he knew would arrive.

The first on the scene was a young lady. She seemed lithe, and sported a head of dazzling red hair. Her arrival heralded a sudden stream of people who puzzled over the corpses, before removing them and dousing the fire. They proceeded to returned life to the barren patch of land after making sure there were no other fires. Athelas watched them do it before, but it always left him feeling happy when he got to see them in action. They seemed to care for the forest as much as the hermit did.

That night was a quiet one around the camp. When Athelas arrived, the old man was full of smiles and nods, happily going about the business of preparing supper. Athelas took what he gathered on his way home and presented it to the old man, who accepted the offering with an even broader smile, before adding it to the meal for that night. If he suspected anything of the boy's presence earlier that day, he never revealed it.

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"Home." Athelas thought to himself, as his feet left Thera and started on the path into the forest. With every step he took, his heart lifted. By the time he was back among dense trees, he was whistling a dainty little tune, fooling birds into following him around. Then, rather absent mindedly, he said: "So where did you hide your swords old man?", the fact that there would never be an answer, didn't bother him at all. To the world the old man might be dead, to Athelas though he didn't seem quite done with living, just yet.