Two

The ancient forest covered all Atilta, an island some distance off the coast of France. Atilta was several hundred miles across, and the forest hung heavily upon it, to the extent that the entire country was simply referred to as “The Forest.” There were but a few castles and fiefs within its borders, the lands of the more independent nobles. Some fifteen years before this time there had been a coup. The man who ascended the throne punished his enemies by sending them away from the center of power, and thereby away from hopes of riches and glory. As for the interior of the forest, it was ruled only by its own laws. There were a few inns along the principal roads, and several rangers, or forest dwellers. But these men kept to the canopy of the forest, rather than the ground. Our man, however, was not among them.

“Who was this man?” you ask, “Dwelling away from humanity in his own little kingdom?” And I could easily answer that question, yet I will not. For it is my duty to relate to you only such information as was known at the time. This is a history which until now has been unknown. Its presence was purposefully concealed by the royal families of Europe, until — just as those families themselves — it faded away and is forgotten. With it is missing a great link between the modern and the ancient times, the light which fills what we call the Dark Ages. It is this history that I tell.

The man’s name was Willard, and he knew it, though he didn’t know where it came from or why it was so. It was simply Willard — no reason, no explanation. Willard was twenty years old, which generally means he was no man at all, but liked to think himself a particularly great one. Yet, seeing as he knew no other men, this illusion — though unhampered — was meaningless. Willard was neither tall nor short, but somewhere in the middle. His appearance was not at a loss for this though, for his face was strikingly beautiful. His nose was long and angular, his eyes reflective. His hair was as black and as long as night, hanging down to his shoulders. There was a thick beard upon his face that masked most of his features and made him seem secretive. He looked like a beast, but also like he could have been a prince.

The sword he wore at his waist was also beautiful: carefully crafted, with a golden handle and blade, each wrought with pictures that told the story of some ancient family. By all appearances, it would have cost the lives of as many men under human law as honey did under forest law. As to how a wild man came to be in possession of such a costly weapon, that will be seen later.

The black bear, whose name was Horatio, was gigantic: six feet tall when he stood erect on his feet, which he could do with surprising ease. His fur was black and his eyes brown, though strangely gentle. While he could not talk, he could grunt in such a manner that people could be persuaded he was speaking some foreign language. He was bright, as well, and could communicate through gestures. There was something strange in the forests of Atilta, which gave the animals a greater intelligence than mere brutes, and there was also something strange between the man Willard and the bear Horatio. They could understand one another and communicate through signs which others could not decipher.

These things happened right at the time of year when spring gives way to summer. The region of the forest in which Willard and Horatio lived was in the center of Atilta. Its trees were grand and spaced far apart, and the underbrush sparse and mostly of a short, soft grass. There was a perpetual twilight below the roof of the woods, and all was slow and meditative, smelling deeply of life. The air was dense and damp, a drought of water at every breath.

A few roads pierced the forest, and the main one stretched from the center of the western coast to the far eastern side of the southern coast. The forest rangers lived apart from the main population and had a system of roads that ran along the branches of the canopy in which they lived, but we will speak of these roads later. For now, it is the road between Thunder Bay and the capital city, Eden, which concerns us. Willard and Horatio were hunting near it one day, making their way silently along its edge and tracking the animals that lingered there.

Their usual method of hunting was this: Horatio crept up to an animal and frightened it away in a certain direction, where Willard sat in ambush. It worked well. They were doing this, with Willard hidden by the roadside and Horatio some way off into the forest, when the sound of a carriage came from around a bend in the road. The bear gave Willard a questioning look, which was answered by a gesture to hide. They both knelt behind a tree, Willard alongside the road and Horatio some way back from it.

The carriage that came up was a stately conveyance, made of wood and designed to be both comfortable and defensive. This marital attitude was on account of the bandits which had risen after the coup, sanctioned by usurper’s Elite Guards. Inside the carriage was a man in his late forties, dressed nicely and having the look of a feudal lord. Around him were three guards, generally intimidating with their sharp countenances and sharper swords. The lord in the carriage was conversing with one of the guards when, from the trees on the side of the road directly opposite Willard, a group of bandits leapt out and struck at the guards. The latter put up a fierce resistance to the outlaws, but eventually the guards were overcome without slaying any of the six thieves, who were each armed with a sword and covered with a tough leather jerkin.

When he saw they were defeated, and the lord in the carriage harassed and mistreated, something arose in Willard — from he knew not where — that made him indignant to see authority treated in such a manner. His blood quickly came to a boil, and without thinking he jumped up and onto the road.

“Hold yourselves, bandits,” he cried, “And do not mistreat the innocent traveler — or I shall hold you myself, and I trust you will not like my grip!”

The bandits were somewhat taken aback at the sight of a wild man brandishing a gloriously crafted sword and commanding them to relent with an intelligent and forceful voice. For a moment, they stared at him in confusion. But their leader, a tall man with a noble countenance — looking more like an officer or an educated man than a bandit — spurred his men forward, their swords drawn and extended before them. The leader reached Willard before his men, and the two engaged in a brief melee before the others arrived.

Many years of forest life had given Willard great strength and dexterity, and he seemed to have some innate knowledge of swordplay, as if he had been trained in it sometime in his distant youth. The swords of the two men met between them, each pushing with his strong wrists and eying his antagonist with raw determination. Willard made the first offensive by pivoting on his left foot and withdrawing his sword from the grapple it had been engaged in. But he did not leave it disengaged for long, for he thrust it at the bandit’s stomach. The latter whipped his wrist to the side and diverted Willard’s blade from its intended course. Then, pressing down upon his lips, he drove forward with an overhand swing at Willard’s head. But the forest man was too quick for him, and was already to the bandit’s left, behind the swing of his blade. Thus, he had the man’s undefended side turned to him.

Willard’s forest nature allowed him to show no mercy, and he ran the man through the stomach with his blade. The other five bandits reached him just at this moment, however, and Willard — unable to parry five blows at once — fell back into the forest. Seeing his protector thus forced back, the lord in the carriage hung his head, so as not to see his demise.

What he kept himself from seeing, however, was Willard draw them into the forest a few yards, and a black bear suddenly leap from the bushes and bring down two from behind with his giant claws. The others soon followed them, surprised, and outmaneuvered by the partners of the forest. All this took up only an instant of time, and when the lord again looked up, he was amazed to see the dead bodies of his antagonists deposited half in the forest and half on the road. He could see only Willard, for Horatio had again vanished behind the bushes, and he was astounded at the wild man and his marvelous sword. Willard advanced and asked the man if he was well.

“Am I well?” the lord answered, his arms flaying about in agitation, “What a question from a god to mere man! If I were rude, I should ask you how a wild man could wield such an exquisite sword and do so with such surpassing skill. But I am not, so I shall not ask, nor what type of being you are, a king or a prince?”

Willard smiled at the man’s indiscreet questioning and opened his mouth to reply.

“My lord, I am indeed a prince,” was the first thing to enter his mind, and so he said it. “Prince Willard of Bombay, and heir to the throne of the same.” He was, of course, entirely making this up, but he was so invigorated with the power of battle that he said it with power and authority. The feudal lord, in his excitement, believed him.

“Tell me, Prince Willard,” he said, “How is it that you came to be here, to all appearances a barbarian of the forest? If it is by treachery that you find yourself exiled to the wilderness, know that I share your fate, and that what is mine is yours as well,” and his arms moved back and forth in wild gestures. “Bombay is a great kingdom, but have they fallen to the depth of regicide, even as our great Atilta?” The lord had never heard of Bombay, but at that moment, Willard’s word was canonical.

“Your kindness disarms me,” Willard said, and he bowed lowly and sheathed his sword. He saw the length to which his words of whim had taken the feudal lord, and so decided to diffuse the situation with a greater falsehood. “Your kindness disarms me,” he said, “But I cannot accept your gifts, for I am on a voluntary exile, which every crown prince of Bombay has taken. We must learn to live as the poorest of the peasants, to face the gravest of dangers, and to feel the grandest of loves, before we can take the throne.”

The mind of the lord turned over within his head. He looked at Willard’s tattered clothing and said, “There is none poorer than yourself, and just now you have faced the gravest of dangers. Is not your exile fulfilled, and the throne yours?” He knew there was a missing requirement, but that was his reason for asking.

“No, good man. I must also find love.”

“But can something be found if it is not sought? Come to my castle with me — my daughter is very lovely to the eyes.”

“It is not for the eyes that one seeks a woman,” Willard said, growing anxious, “But for the heart.”

“True, yet my daughter is also one of great heart. Come with me, then, and fulfill the last requirement of your exile.”

Willard grew worried, and only a single way of escape presented itself to him. “Very well, but not until my other duties have been fulfilled. Only then can I seek out love. When it is time, I will come.”

The lord smiled, “I am Lord Milada of Erlich,” he said, “And I will await your coming with great anticipation.” He bowed his head respectfully.

Willard did the same and, bidding the lord’s farewell, turned toward the forest to depart. But Lord Milada beckoned him back, “Surely, you will not go your way dressed in old rags. Let me clothe you as best I can, for I have some monk’s robes with me that will suit you well and keep you warmer than those when the night grows chill. Besides, who is poorer than a monk? Fetch them, Hismoni.”

He said this latter part to one of the guards, all three of whom had recovered their senses; for the bandits had — for some mysterious reason — left them alive with little more than scratches. The guard went to the back and grabbed two frocks from the trunk that sat there, bringing them humbly to what he seemed to view as a mighty warrior.

“Two I give you, my lord, for you are surely twice a man.” The guard said this to show his respect, and it was well received by the so-called Prince Willard, who bowed and gave him a friendly nod before he again turned and disappeared into the forest, anxious to be gone. Lord Milada and his guards then continued their way, making haste to avoid any other criminals that might be lurking there, though there were none.

When they had gone, Willard came back and looted the bodies of the slain bandits. The laws of the forest held no dishonor for those who took that which they had proved their right to by strength of arms. Willard felt no shame, for while he displayed at times an embedded sense of man’s law, he was also at times entirely devoid of such concepts as an honorable burial. In his world, the dead were eaten — and why not, for it provided life for those scavengers that partook of them.

Without a thought, therefore, he took the leather armor from the leader and the gold pieces which filled his purse. Then he set off into the forest with his blood brother walking beside him, both feeling exalted after their great victory, proof of their might. Willard, especially, was excited, for he had gone from being a mere wild man, to a noble prince who was fated for marriage and the throne — if those things were even blessings. It was then that thoughts of power and pleasure outside of his beloved forest began to fill his mind. He thought of living in a castle, with servants and luxuries and honor among men. When a person has no desires, he is content; but when he is given a little, he must have more. This is what happened to Willard at that moment, when all the possibilities of life opened to him, and he became eager to try himself outside the forest, among men such as himself.

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