Chapter 3: A Call of the Forest
If you haven't read the previous chapters, start from the Prologue. To read the previous chapter, go here.
The globe looked like a mirror but it didn't reflect anything. Even after using it for years, Gulshang found this fact extremely disconcerting.
Where had this globe come from? How was it made? What was it made up of? There were so many questions she had about this globe. But alas! Not one answer.
"Things that confound the scrutiny of time and place are dangerous. They defy explanation and are out of our control even if we possess them."
Damn Dionyseis — the philosopher's words kept echoing in her mind whenever she pondered.
This globe once belonged to her mother. It was a part of her dowry.
When King Baltar's armies, her grandfather, started conquering the northern territories, they had, at last, arrived at the impregnable fortress of the Khaloshi — the last stronghold of the mountain Tengs located deep in the Tehaar mountains.
The siege had begun and would have lasted forever, but the Anunjans accidentally found out the main water supply and closed it. The Khaloshi Petras reached out for a truce. Terms were negotiated, and the Khaloshi retained their autonomy.
But, it was at a hefty price.
The Khaloshi king gave his daughter's hand to the prince of Aanunja along with the most coveted treasure in all of the Eight Kingdoms — a Contempla.
Contemplas were rare devices of unimaginable power. You could see events occurring at faraway distances using them. You could communicate instantly with another person if he possessed a Contempla. They had many other uses — several. Perhaps, even more. But alack! The incantations and scrolls were lost in the echoes of time.
Contemplas had played a significant role in shaping the history of the Eight Kingdoms. When the mighty Khush Army of King Bareon laid siege to the city of Hoshaba, the wizard Noorali used a Contempla to destroy the Khush. Accounts told of a writhing snake of fire ejecting from the city's tallest tower where the wizard stood.
The Khush, one of the greatest armies the Eight Kingdoms had ever seen, were wiped from existence. Only their legends remained and the accounts of their ultimate doom.
A thousand years before them, almost in a mythical age, Aladar used Contemplas in strange ways to defeat his enemies and forge an empire encompassing all the Eight Kingdoms. History narrated about enchantments that confounded enemies, ripped earth asunder. It bespoke of Ahnans — who could ever forget the Ahnans?! Even now, centuries away, mothers silenced their children using the names of those terrifying creatures — those manlike giant steel things that came alive with fire in their eyes.
Gulshang had seen the remains of one such creature. It was impossible to fight them. And yet, here she was possessing a Contempla and unable to do anything that mattered. She felt a mild rage rising within her as she thought about her situation.
"Anger never leads to anything. It fires the heart, puzzles the mind, and leaves us with nothing but regrets."
Dionyseis again. She controlled her temper and latched it back inside her. She had work to do.
She concentrated and recited the basic incantation that she knew and waited patiently.
The globe cleared up like transparent glass. There were trees in its reflection and some people running — a few men, women and lots of children. They appeared to be miners. The scene changed, and there stood a figure, her father — King Bazigar. He seemed to be somewhere windy and was looking far away in the distance. He was smiling.
That was unusual.
"Why are you smiling, father? You never smile without reason." She thought loudly.
The globe seemed to hear what she had said, and the scene changed again. The same miners, but their pace was now slower. The scene faded, and the globe became mirror-like once again.
She sighed loudly and leaned back in her seat. Contemplas could be used for a short while and only once every day. She had tried many different things to use it twice, but so far, she had failed. She thought about what she had seen.
"What are you up to, father?" She mused.
She stood up and walked to a nearby balcony. The sky was crimson red, verging on the dark. One could see the last rays of the sun dying in the darkness of the Zarfshan Forest.
She had often thought about the forest. What mysteries lay in its depths? What secrets and knowledge did it conceal?
Her mind was wandering today. She tried once more to think about those poor miners and the smile of her father. That smile was strange— very strange indeed. But the forest absorbed all her thoughts. —giant trees that ever remained vibrant green, trees that elsewhere fell leaves.
Seasons didn't affect the forest. It seemed like the forest had its own unique laws of nature. Some said the forest was a living sentient being. Gulshang found that course of thinking preposterous.
There were strange tales about the forest. She had heard them since she had been a child — of monsters coming from the forest and eating children alive, of strange beings living in there, of people who went into the woods and never came back. Her nannies often told her such stories when she was a little girl.
As she grew older, she forgot about the forest and its mysteries until one day she heard its name again in the halls of her father's place.
"My Lord! We should be cautious when our armies are so close to Zarfshan. Else — else something dreadful is bound to happen. We must not forget the Alluvian Tragedy." It was Jafrul, the wizard.
"Enough!" Her father sounded angry.
When she sat down the next day with Master Artimis, she asked, "Master Artimis, can you tell me about the Alluvian Tragedy?"
Master Artimis had been writing. On hearing her words, he stopped mid-sentence. He appeared confused and, in fact, slightly frightened.
"Where did you hear that word, My Lady?"
"Oh! It was some kitchen maid. I overheard her." She lied.
Master Artimis laughed, or at least, Gulshang thought so.
The very next moment, he clasped her hand firmly. He had seen through her.
"Tell me, Gulshang. Who told you about the Alluvian Tragedy? It would be best if you did not lie to me. This is a serious matter."
His vice-like grip was unyielding. Her hand hurt —it hurt enough for her to spill the beans immediately.
"Are you sure?" Mater Artimis was relentless.
"I swear. I am telling the truth."
What had she gotten herself into?
Artimis let go of her hand.
"You must not talk to anyone about the Alluvian Tragedy — ever. Do you understand?"
"What was the Alluvian Tragedy, Master Artimis?"
"It was an event that happened long before your birth. Hundred and fifty years ago. Have you heard the name King Alluvar?"
"He was my great-great-grandfather." Gulshang had heard that name in her history lessons.
"You remember how he died?"
"He fell from a horse during a deer hunt."
"Yes?" Master Artimis laughed again. "He didn't fall off his horse. He was one of the greatest riders of his age. And he was in his prime."
"Then how did he die?"
"He was on a dear hunt in a grove near the forest. He caught sight of a beautiful doe with her child. The doe strangely left the grove and began running towards the forest. The King pursued it with his retainers behind him. The doe was fast — too fast. The King was excited. The doe ran into the forest and the King behind her." Master Artimis then turned silent.
A few moments passed in eerie silence. Gulshang became impatient and asked, "What happened then?"
"The King was never seen again."
"Seriously? So are the tales true? The ones that claim that once you go into the forest, you go forever."
Master Artimis laughed mirthlessly.
"Oh, my Lady. They are so very true. An army of five thousand of the bravest warriors went in search of King Alluvar. No one came back — not even one soldier. So that was the Alluvian Tragedy, my Lady."
Master Artimis's voice carried immense sorrow.
Gulshang sat down on a nearby chair. The moon had risen in the sky. She thought again about those miners and the King's smile.
At that instant, something clutched around her foot.
She quickly stood up and lifted her skirt. A rope-like thing was griping her lower leg. Her eyes darted to where the rope seemed to emerge — the balcony's railing. The rope was steadily tugging at her ankle. She threw herself toward the table, hoping to find something that'd cut the cord. For a second, she thought she caught something. But it was round — not of any use right now. But all was in vain.
Suddenly the rope pulled her with full force. She was yanked back. She put the round thing in her side pocket. Her head slammed into something, and everything went black.
Edited by Darshini Poola