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Chapter Eleven

The Enchantress and the Test

I awoke to harsh sounds surrounding the tent. Father had scooped Madeline from her slumber and Mother was gathering Father’s satchel. I crawled over, peeked beneath the edge of the tent and saw that a mass of people had encircled us; being held abreast forcibly by Sajon’s men.

“What is it, Father?” I asked.

“The people are calling for you,” he said. “The rumor of your name has spread through the Painocts. I would surmise that Sajon has been awake all night speaking of your accomplishments.”

“What do they want from me?”

“Difficult to tell,” he said. “Perhaps they desire a demonstration before we leave for Rathland.”

“A demonstration of what?”

“Why, of who you are, of course!” Father exclaimed. “Prepare your courage. We don’t know what will be asked of you and I do fear we will not leave this place until the people are satisfied.”

“Is Sajon out there?” I asked.

“He is with the guards,” Father said, “And he will not let the people through to our quarters. It would seem that he found it necessary to dispatch a perimeter last night.”

“Can we escape unnoticed?”

“See for yourself, lad,” Father concluded and motioned toward the door. “There are many eager souls awaiting your grace. Do not hesitate, as we were expected in the Borough today and we must depart soon.”

I arose, took the sword and shield in hand and ventured out to the crowd. Father held the flap of the tent open and as I walked through the door, I heard the people crying out, “There he is!” and “Look, here he comes!” I could see that the surrounding soldiers were desperately working to keep the crowd at bay. Some pressed heavily against the crowd while others waved their swords at hovering dryads. I noticed my new friend, Philip, just beyond the encircled mass standing on a hay wagon. He gave me a salute followed by a smile and then folded his arms as if to say, “Well, go ahead and show us.”

“Ah, good morning, young Joshua,” Sajon said. He was standing not far from the tent door; just behind the soldiers. “As you can see, the Painocts are eager to greet you this fine morning.” His tone was sarcastic and he seemed a bit annoyed. He continued,

“The enchantress in Painoct is here and has the people in an uproar. She demands that you prove your claim.”

“But I haven’t a claim, sir,” I answered hesitantly. “I merely desire passage with my family through Painoct to Rathland to go before the Assembly.”

“For what purpose is your visit to the Assembly than for them to dub you as the Sower’s heir,” he responded. “I’ve seen your magic with my own eyes and have proclaimed it so among the Painocts. Do not craft me as a fool, lad.” Sajon’s tone grew insistent. It seemed for a moment that his spirit of treachery toward me and my family had returned, even if only slightly.

“What shall I do?”

“A test has been set by the hag,” Sajon said. “You are to prove your merit to her as you did for me on the road. A cunning trial has been prepared.” With these words, the soldiers pushed an opening in the crowd and Sajon led me and my family through. He took us across the grassy gathering dense with tents and wooden shacks (away from the river and the Vasior tree) and up a small incline that overlooked an enormous pit of sand. The mob divided before us and became thickened on each side as more and more people rushed forward to see the spectacle. On the far side of the pit I saw Duraa, Sajon’s wife, seated in a throne-like chair, dressed in a flowing robe of many colors and wearing a wooden crown. It would appear that she desired to be taken as royalty, seeking to be reverenced as a princess or queen among the Painocts. It was clear from her posture and rough demeanor that she was neither, but rather she was the Enchantress to which Sajon referred.

“Come forward and be tested, child of the Nefton Woods,” she called. I looked over to Father (who was still holding Madeline in his arms) with the hope that he would be able to deliver me from the test. He motioned for me to proceed. I glanced at Mother with the same hope, but she did the same and then reached over to take Father’s hand. It seemed that I was indeed about to be tested and that I should have no hope otherwise. I removed the strap from the sword and shield and ventured down into the pit.

“Stand before me!” the Enchantress squalled angrily. “I will have the proper respect amidst my countrymen!” At the shrillness of her voice, the crowd took silent. I carried myself heavily through the sand until I stood looking up at Duraa.

“The claim has been made that you are heir to the Sower,” she said. “Is this true?”

“I’ve not…”

“Speak up, you pathetic boy!” she said harshly. “Speak so that the people can hear you!”

“I’ve not made any claims, good Madam,” I said as I cleared my throat and attempted to speak louder. “I merely seek to venture on to Rathland.”

“What is your intention in Rathland?”

“I am to go before the Assembly.”

“Is it because of these weapons you now wield?”

“I believe that it must be, Madam.”

“It has been written that only the heir of the Sower will bear these weapons, if indeed they are genuine.” She leaned forward in her chair and seemed to examine and then asked, “Are you the heir of the Sower.”

“I suppose,” I said and paused for a moment. “It would seem that I am.”

“What weakness in a hero!” the witch cried out in laughter. Many of the spectators did the same. “For being the heir of the Sower, you haven’t much spirit, boy!” A bit embarrassed by her comments, I pulled the shield closer to my body and gripped tightly to the sword. Ashamed at the lack of confidence in my response, I lowered my head.

“If I were you,” she continued, “I’d leave the weapons here and return home. You have no place among the valiant, and it would seem that you believe the same.”

Her words bombarded my soul and pierced my spirit through. I stood at the center of ridicule and said nothing in my defense. Mother looked on in anguish as my interrogator persisted.

“My poor, Joshua,” Mother spoke in agony, “Christof, will you not act to spare the boy?”

“I cannot,” Father responded, “but be of good cheer, for Joshua must suffer many things before the seed of faith may take root. Look to him now and pray that his courage is kindled.”

“How will you fight for Ganchimi?” the witch continued. “Do you intend to convince the terrible Otem to spare our fair land with kind words and an innocent stare?” She took to flight from her chair and whisked to the sand below. “He will chew you to bits and spit you across the landscape,” she said gritting her teeth and lowering her face to mine, “and you will surely die.” Turning to the crowd, she lifted her arms and proclaimed, “For he is the mighty Otem, terrible and fierce and worthy of our fear.” With this the crowd cheered. Duraa turned in all directions with her arms raised and received the adoration with pride. Turning back to me, she whispered, “It seems they desire Otem to rule in Ganchimi rather than the pitiful little Sower.”

With her dark words and taunting, I suffered the sting of rage that caused my courage to spark and I found the will to speak without hesitation welling up from within. Lifting my head and drawing a slight scowl, I said, “When you have finished your silly parade, fair lady, I will be ready for my test.” It was as it had been on the road with Sajon, the words were spoken before I could restrain them. I felt a spate of warmth within my blood as I stood straight and flashed my sword across the shield.

“Let it be so for now, little one,” she said in a soft and alluring voice. “You’ll soon learn to fear me as a daughter of Cael. Guards!” she yelled. “Bring my servant to me! Bring me Norlad the Warrior!”

No sooner than she spoke did the ground begin to rumble as the weighty creature lumbered forward through the mass that had gathered around the edge of the pit. Norlad was a troll warrior, clad in leaden armor and chain mail and standing well above those around him. Arms and legs as hefty tree trunks, he stomped ungainly forward. A fearful monster, Norlad lifted people that stood in his path and tossed them screaming aside. Once he reached the edge of the pit, I could see that he was armed only with a cedar club, unpolished and scarred from previous combat. He dragged his club behind him down the sloping edge and into the sand pit. He moved clumsily toward Duraa as if under her spell, kicking sand all the way with his cumbersome steps. Snorting groans of affection, he leaned over and placed his coarse cheek into her hands.  She gently stroked the tuft of hair atop his head and moved her hand to caress his chin. The gentleness he showed caused me grief. I did not want to fight such a creature capable of devotion, even as misguided as it was. Tapping the gold ring that dangled from Norlad’s nostrils, she drew his attention toward me,

“Teach him to respect me, my love,” she said softly. “Teach him to love me.”

“Yes, my lady,” Norlad growled and rose up to full stature.

Just above Norlad’s shoulder I could see the Vasior of Painoct. For a moment I considered my Vasior back home in the Nefton Woods. Reaching into my pocket, I found the leaf I had taken from its branches. The leaf was crumpled and torn, but still very green. For a moment, I missed my home and I even considered Duraa’s temptation to betrayal and return home in peace. But as I looked down at my leaf, I glanced beyond it to the engraved image of the Sower defined in the shield. The Sower’s victorious hand was before me in clarity. At once, the fear departed and I found faith and courage swelling within me. I raised the sword toward Norlad’s advance. Though I had stirred the move, I found the weapons, as with the Pickers, bearing their own weight. It felt as though I only needed to guide them.

Duraa flashed back to her throne and watched. Norlad ferociously advanced. Lifting his club high above his head, he brought down the first of his attacks in a violent collision of club to shield. The tremor echoed out a splash of sand and brought a gasp from the crowd. I pitched back a step but found it difficult to get a footing in the loose sand. Norlad turned and raised his club again. I dropped back below the shield and waited for the coming impact. The troll’s strength was incredible, but the shield seemed unaffected. Neither dent nor scratch could be seen on its surface. In the midst of the onslaught, I had many opportunities to strike at the clumsy beast but did not.

Norlad continued to hammer away at my position, each time attempting to maneuver to the side for a better post, but I was ever quick to spin with him. Once more he brought his club up and crashed it down, and he managed to slam the shield’s pointed base into the sand, lodging it into the clay below. I struggled to free it but found that it would not come loose. I coiled my body and spun away from his next assault.

Madeline squirmed in Father’s arms and begged him to let her go.

“Madeline,” Father said, “we cannot help your brother. He must prove his valor.”

“I must go to him!” she cried. “I must help him!”

“Teach him, warrior troll!” Duraa yelled. “Finish his lesson!” I lifted the sword before me and crouched low to the ground. The troll moved toward me swinging his weapon. At his advance, I jammed the blade between his clumsy legs causing him to stumble and fall onto his face into the sand. Exhaling a blast of air that caused a dusty puff, Norlad lifted himself to his knees and threw himself forward to grab my legs.

“What is it that you feel you must do?” Father asked Madeline.

“I must hold the shield for him!” she exclaimed. “I must protect him. I must be his wall of defense.” At these words, Father became wise to what is written in the Annals and understood why Madeline was able to hold the shield against the Pickers. He recalled the words: ‘The One to be is of the Sower, of early age and noble birth. The One will hold with great strength the salvation of Ganchimi and strike, and the One will wield its wall of defense, and the One will lift up His voice and by His word strike down the darkness of Ganchimi, and the One will revive the lost from dreadful sleep and restore the Kingdom.’ Perhaps there is more than one. Father had heard such a proposal before.

Madeline ran down the slope and into the pit. Crossing behind Norlad, she went directly to the shield and loosed it with ease. I saw her coming toward us and was stunned momentarily with disbelief. Once again lifting the sword toward my foe, I leapt high above him and landed near my sister. I threw my arm around her waist and pulled her close as she lifted the shield above both of us stopping the club as it dashed against the steel.

“Why will you not strike, Joshua?” Madeline shrieked. Norlad continued to pummel the shield and yet Madeline held it firmly in place.

“He is a poor creature,” I said as the warrior continued to beat against us with his club. “He is under her spell and has no mind of his own. He is innocent of ill will.” Once again, I pulled Madeline close. Breaking free of Norlad’s assault, we leapt out of the pit to the foot of Duraa’s chair. Catching her by surprise, I put my sword to her neck and called to Norlad as he struggled to climb up and out of the pit after us.

“For her life, you must cease!” I called out. Norlad paused and I saw a great wave of despair come upon him. Sajon unsheathed his sword and began to make his way through the crowd and around the pit.

“Do not hurt my lady!” Norlad cried in an infantile tone. “I love my lady.”

“He will not hurt me, troll,” the Enchantress said with her head cocked back away from the edge of the blade. “He hasn’t the heart for such deeds.” Pointing to me, she bellowed, “Finish his lesson, slave!” Norlad remained stationary.

“Finish him!”

“Please do not hurt my lady!”

“Finish the test, slave!” Norlad would not move. The fear of losing Duraa overwhelmed him greatly. Whatever spell she had placed upon him was at this moment my tool for concluding the conflict. Norlad dropped his club in the sand and fell to his knees. He pleaded with me to let her live. I, of course, had no intention of harming anyone that day, whether they be troll or witch.

“Give me your word that you will not continue this combat, for I mean you no harm.”

“Whatever you ask I will give. Please release my lady.” Norlad had gone from a fierce and daunting foe to a simple and childish creature, seeking only the loving arms of his mistress and lady. Turning to Duraa, I demanded,

“Release him from your spell, witch.”

“Never!” she wisped. “He’s my troll.” Drawing close to her face, I threatened,

“You will always remember this day I gave you mercy. But I tell you the truth, you will indeed despise the day that I withhold it from you…Both you and your master, Cael.”

Madeline was ready with the shield as Sajon drew close with sword in hand.

“Lower your weapon from my wife’s throat,” he said.

“You gave us your word that you would lead us into Rathland without incident,” I said as I lowered the sword and turned to Sajon. Duraa screamed violently and flew away into the trees. I continued, “And yet as we stand here, your enchantress has caused such an ordeal, hoping that I would be discouraged from a hearing with the Assembly. Will you keep this vow and deliver us safely or will you continue with such games?”

“I have made a vow and I will keep it, but be sure that once my vow is fulfilled, our debts will be settled.”

“She has bewitched you, as well, friend,” I returned. “Your honor is shadowed beneath her spells.”

“You are a foolish one to think that as I live you can speak thus.”

“Keep your promise and deliver us to Rathland.”

“Very well. The test is done. Sower’s heir or not, I will take you to Rathland.” He called to his men to gather horses for the journey. “Rathland is not far. A half-day’s ride by a healthy steed.”

“Very good. And so it is that you will be rid of us soon.” I took Madeline by the hand and led her back to Mother and Father. Mother knelt down and took both of us into her embrace.

“Well done, young ones,” she said with a sigh of relief and a slight sniffle from tears. Father came close and placed his hands upon our shoulders.

“Wisdom and mercy were your weapons today,” he said. “Otem will not find victory as easily as the witch proclaims. Well done valiant Joshua. Good show fearless Madeline! Now, let us depart, for the Assembly awaits.”