Everything was coated in oranges and reds now; the sun had almost finished it’s descent and the heat was finally starting to break. He mopped beads of sweat from his brow with his now damp sleeve, a sigh of relief that they’d reach their destination before nightfall.
The dry breeze did little to offer relief on the well-worn road; but at least this road was smooth compared to the winding path from their village; days in the wagon with his family was starting to wear on him.
“Are we there yet?” Came a familiar call from the covered wagon behind him.
“When the wheels stop, we’ll be there.” Grenyl replied with unmasked sarcasm. “And if your little brother asks next he’ll be the first one unloading.”
“Boys, leave your father be and wrap your things, we’ll be there soon.”
“Yes, mother…” both boys responded in unison as Alea came to join her husband at the reins. Adjusting herself comfortably on the creaking bench of the wagon, she leaned in close and wrapped her arm around Grenyl’s sighing contentedly, admiring the scene as they rounded another hill.
“Beautiful here even during the drought, isn’t it?” She mused.
“These fields used to be brimming with crop; trees bursting with fruit and these last few months have hurt…” Grenyl replied, his usual pessimistic inclination showing.
I think I can almost see it, Alea straightened a little and pointed into the distance, the path still winding into the distance with a few hills in between.
“Yep, that’s it… Hildebrand. We’ll let you and Samea off at the inn first then the boys and I will unload at the mill, ok?”
The rattle of the wheels and the trudging and breathing of the horses mixed with the dry breeze whistling through the trees along the road, when without warning, a startling clap shattered the quiet afternoon and echoed over the landscape.
Wincing at the sudden sound, and trying to keep his grip on the reins of the startled horses, Grenyl exclaimed “What in the name of Omir!” and Alea was sitting up now, looking all around to find the source of such a noise.
“What was that!?” both boys stuck their heads out, wide-eyed and looking around them as well.
“There!” Alea exclaimed, pointing into the distance ahead of them. “What could…” but she was cut off in bewilderment when she realized what she was seeing… in a cloudless sky of blue, a dense, dark cloud formation seemed to whirl and spin just over the next hill… storm-like clouds in place of the road.
Another ear-splitting clap of thunder sounded and Grenyl snapped the reins to quicken the horses’ pace…
The peaceful wood echoed with the second clap of thunder, but instead of lightning, an explosion of light; a whirlwind of arcane force seemed to tear at the air itself; flashing and screeching at reality as it tore at the trees and ground around it.
The cacophony then stopped as abruptly as it began; though the echoes surely travelled far into the forest. The underbrush burned away and nearby trees scorched as witness to the violent cyclone that now vanished, leaving the forest around still in shock.
But in the centre of this burned and charred scar on the forest floor lay a figure, cloaked and hooded, sprawled awkwardly, unmoving amidst the still smoking forest floor.
“There, Pa!” one of the boys pointed into the treeline from the road, his eyes wide and already leaping out of the wagon.
“Boys, you come with me. Girls you stay here at the wagon.” The smoke was still rising just past the treeline and the boys rushed with their father to get a better look.
“Hold on”, Grenyl said, his arm outstretched to caution his sons. “Let’s just see here…”
Walking cautiously into the threes, Grenyl could now make out the scene, a figure, lying in the centre of a circle clear of any vegetation, the ground gray, black, and smoking. The trees bordering the small clearing were singed, smoking and black, but looked on at the unmoving figure below.
“Hello?” One of the boys called out anxiously. With a quick look from his father, the boy snapped shut but moved still closer with his brother through the brush towards the clearing.
Daring to step into the circle formed, Grenyl crept closer to the figure, watching for any sign of movement, but there was none. Reaching out, he touched the shoulder of the figure, his robes charred and burned and pulled his hand back; perhaps thinking to provoke a reaction, but there was none. Certain now the man needed help, Grenyl gently turned the stranger’s shoulder to roll him over and caught his breath… this man’s skin was grey as ash.
“Whoa!” one of the boys exclaimed.
“Now, now… ” Grenyl regained his composure, trying to set an example for his sons. “I don’t think he’s breathing… this man needs help… ok help me with him, get his legs…”. The boys looked at each other and the older did as he was told, helping to hoist the unconscious man up and towards the wagon.
“Get those things, boy.” Grenyl called to his youngest.
“…these!? …” he called back looking at a smouldering walking staff, and little more than a charred bag, its contents blackened and destroyed.
“Yes, boy, now do it!” Grenyl’s voice now strained under the weight of this strange being.
“What’s wrong with him, Pa?” the older asked as they made their way back to the wagon.
“I don’t know boy, but it’s not right to leave him, ya hear?”
Making their way back through the grass and shrubbery to the road, Alea jumped down, clearing space on the back of the wagon for this strange figure.
“Are we bringing him to Hildebrand, Pa?” the youngest asked as he caught up to his brother and father.
“That’s where we’re going, and there are people there who can help him.”
Omir knows, we can’t…