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|22nd Dec 2017, 2:23 AM||Out of the Grey Lands #1|
Join Date: May 2012
This story comes from a collection of tales I called "Traveller's Wood", which revolved around a mysterious and ancient forest, guarded by a group of Elves whose task it was to guide travellers along its many twisting pathways, which could lead to many strange places. Sadly only fragments of the original manuscript have survived. A recurring character in these tales was the sorceress Dorazella.
Out of the Grey lands.
Dora sat with her back resting against a large boulder and, pushing her dilapidated straw hat farther back on her head, mopped her brow with a handkerchief. Back where she had come from, the other side of the portal, the woods had lain still and silent in the depths of winter. Here it was high summer, and the sun was already climbing towards noon. Nearby the heat haze shimmered over the hard-packed dirt road, and the distant horizon faded into a thin, smoking mist. Other than the twittering of a skylark somewhere overhead and the faint stirring of the breeze in the heather, a profound hush hung over the bleak moorlands. For the first time in her life she felt truly alone.
The Elves of the Wood had been kindly and hospitable, they had been expecting her. They had even greeted her by her true name, Dorazella, which had been given her in infancy, but which she hardly ever used. They had given her provisions and set her upon the right road, but they would not follow her upon it: it was not their part to be guides outside their own domains. Besides her own clothes and a black travelling cloak that they had given her, her staff and light hunting knife were all she possessed in the world. This world.
That other world was far behind now and already fading like a half-remembered dream. There were faint early childhood memories of life with her grandmother. There had been golden summers, green fields and woods, sparkling streams and the promise of distant mist-blue hills. Then had come the first stirrings of magic, and the wise teachings of her gran, when it had all seemed to be a game, not dark or dangerous. An all too brief time.
Then there had been the great grey noisy city and school work, life in that big gloomy house with her grim, mysterious uncle. She had grown into a quiet, serious girl; tall for her age and rather skinny. Her pale thin face was by no means pretty, but there was a certain beauty in her eyes, which were large and dark – almost black, with depths of mystery that were difficult to fathom. Her lank, raven black hair looked as if it hardly ever saw a brush or a comb. She seldom smiled. She had begun to forget the sunlight.
At first Dora had been frightened, even terrified, of her uncle Edmund: a tall, severe looking man with iron grey hair and fierce aquiline features. He was strange and reclusive with little time for children: they were alien creatures to him, little girls especially. He resented her intrusion upon his quiet, well ordered life, or so Dora thought. The servants saw to her wants and needs. She had the run of most of the house, although some parts were forbidden her. If she ever encountered her uncle about the place his words to her were brief and usually to do with her school work. To be scolded for being naughty would have been something!
Gradually that had changed. Dora was never sure exactly when it had begun, but perhaps the first time he had shown any genuine interest in her was the day he had come upon her browsing amongst the books in his large gloomy library. It was not exactly off limits, perhaps because it was thought there was little to interest small girls in there. But Dora had felt irresistibly drawn to those ancient and venerable looking volumes.
“You are fond of reading Dora?” He had asked. It was a silly question really, but uncle Edmund had always seemed awkward and ill at ease with her, as if unsure of what to say.
“Y... yes sir,” she had stammered, nervously, “I hope you don't mind”.
“Of course not, you may come here whenever you please, so long as you are quiet – I cannot abide much noise, you know. You appear to be doing well with your school work, and I'm glad to find you have some sort of brain in your head, in spite of my first impressions”.
After than they had talked often. He had questioned her about her studies, and what her granmother had taught her, becoming more and more interested, and consequently more at ease. He appeared to be knowledgeable about many things, but especially about magic. That was no surprise to Dora, it ran in the family after all, and she had heard many rumours about her Uncle.
Later he had taken her to see his workroom, which previously had been strictly forbidden her. And it was everything Dora had expected a wizards inner sanctum to be. The bare stone walls were adorned with strange charts and diagrams, the shelves were jumbled with jars and glassware of all kinds: flasks, retorts, beakers and alembics, and other curious instruments Dora couldn't put a name to or guess the purpose of. Over in one corner was a massively built stone athanor with a ponderous iron door. Books overflowed from shelves and were stacked in corners and every available space, some of them huge, ancient looking volumes bound with iron. Amongst all this was bric-a-brac of all kinds: stuffed mammals and birds and reptiles, figures in wood and metal depicting strange demons or gods. The smells of incense and drying herbs filled the chamber, and an atmosphere of magic seemed to permeate the very air. Dora gazed about her in wide eyed wonder, but uncle Edmund smiled.
“Most of what you seen here Dora is the stock-in-trade of the dabbler,” he said. “Mere curiosities and collector's pieces, for the most part. There was a time when I tinkered with Alchemy – more of a hobby than anything else. Later I was led more and more into the magic of words and signs, or sorcery as some call it.
“But the real magic, Dora, is here” he said, placing a lean finger against her temple. “And also in the heart. It has taken me most of my lifetime to learn what I know, but you Dora have been born with the power. That is very rare, and a heavy burden to carry: very often such people fall into evil ways, for without proper training they lack the discipline and strength of will to control and master their power and to keep them from the dark path. Your grandmother recognised this, but although she was wise she lacked knowledge of the Higher Magic. I can give you such training, if you desire it”.
And so it had begun.
And now she stood on the edge of womanhood, and upon the marches of a strange new country. She even had a new name – Dorazella. With the uttering of that half remembered name she had felt the power within her begin to stir and grow. She would still be Dora to her friends, but ever after she would bear a name of power. And a tall oaken staff.
After her rest, Dora continued, following the well marked road for two or three miles until the ways divided. To the left, the road continued broad and straight, but on the right a second path led away northwards. It was barely more than a game trail, easy to overlook were it not marked by a long line of standing stones. Near at hand they were low, scarcely visible amongst the heather. But gradually the grew larger, until in the distance they stood tall and forbidding like silent sentinels. They seemed to lead towards the mouth of a valley which lay under the deep shadow of pine-covered slopes. There was something about the view that made Dora uneasy, but she knew that she must go that way, to face whatever peril awaited. A final testing.
The distance was deceptive. It took a good half an hour to reach the farthest stone, a massive monolith more than twice her height. And as she went she could feel the power drawn and amplified through the stones to the place ahead: a place of old and dark magic. By then the sun was directly overhead and the stone cast no shadow. All the same, she passed it upon the western side. Before her lay an opening in their trees, flanked by two lesser stones, beyond which the path quickly disappeared into the gloom under the dark forest canopy.
Dora knew that any doubts of hesitation would weaken her. She therefore passed in, muttering a spell that summoned a faint were-light at the tip of her staff. She soon found herself following a kind of tunnel, flanked on either hand by the closely grown trunks of pine trees. Beneath them the ground lay thickly carpeted with brown needles. Nothing could grow in that twilight.
Fear grew upon her as the darkness deepened, it lay before and followed behind. Coldness stole slowly and imperceptibly through her, and a weariness that made her limbs feel leaden. Presently the path dipped downwards, and now the darkness was total, almost a physical barrier. She moved in a sphere of light that was her own magic and life force.
Slowly she became aware that on the edge of that light shadows were moving, dread shapes searching, lusting, grasping, seeking to drag her from the path into their dark. Their fell voices stole in upon her mind, speaking no words of Men, but their meaning plain: “Come! Come! Turn aside! What you seek is here, there is naught else!”
She did not reply. There was no spell, no charm, no force that could destroy or banish these shadows, for they were a part of her. This darkness was her own. All she could do was to hold steady and follow her chosen path. She lost all track of time: it might have been an hour, it might have been more before she spied a faint glimmer of daylight ahead and made eagerly towards it. Another great monolith guarded the tunnel exit.
The moors and the darkness were behind her now. Below her spread out rolling meadows and lush green woodlands. A river wound through the midst and dimly, far away, could be seen more hills. She could not imagine where or when she had looked upon that view before, but something about it struck her as familiar. Cold and weariness fell from her and she breathed deep refreshing drafts of fragrant summer air.
A winding path led down from the hills and on towards the river, and as she followed it the air grew pleasantly warm. There was birdsong in the trees about her and insects buzzed and chirruped in the tall grasses. Flowers were everywhere. She didn't want to hurry now, her ordeal was over and she wanted to idle and enjoy the reward these summer lands offered. But something drew her on, something about this strange yet familiar country.
Presently she crossed over a babbling brook by a tiny bridge, neatly built of dressed stone, and beyond it a track branched away leading uphill, shaded by tall beach trees. Somehow she had expected it to be there, and without hesitation she followed it. The path crested a hill, and then ran downward again into a wooded hollow. Below, amongst the trees, she glimpsed a tiny cottage with whitewashed walls and a slate roof, thickly grown with lichen. A thin wisp of smoke rose from its chimney. At the sight of it she caught her breath, a sudden wild hope filling her breast, and unable to restrain her desire she broke into a run.
She passed under the trees and out again to where the afternoon sun bathed the little dell where the cottage stood, exactly where he had known it would be. The gate was before her now and a figure coming to meet her. Tears of joy streamed from her eyes as she recognised her grandmother, and she ran to her welcoming arms.
Her schooling was done. She had passed through the shadows, and come home.